Book of the Week (2): The power of networks and “cyberthrongs”

Book: The Power of Networks. David de Ugarte.

Last Monday this week we presented David’s book on Phyles, describing the key economic institution of the network age. His view is rooted in a general understanding of networks, which he presents in this book, which is also a strongly recommended read.


“The main idea underlying this book is that the key to understanding most of the new social and political phenomena lies in grasping the difference between a world in which information spreads through a decentralised network and a world in which information spreads through a distributed network.”

The fiive theses proposed in this book:

“1. The world, impelled by technological change, is changing the structure of the network through whcich information is transmitted.
2. The structure of information – and therefore of power – took until recently a “decentralised” form, with “hierarchical” powers and institutions and individuals with “filtering powers”. But technologies like the internet are impelling it to take an increasingly “distributed” form in which anyone can potentially find, recognise, and communicate with anyone else.

3. This distributed world is creating a means of communication in its own image: the blogosphere, the set of online tools for personal publishing and communication.

4. As a whole, this mode of communication can, in increasingly larger parts of the world and not precisely in the most spectacular manner in developed countries, change the public agenda and turn questions which traditional media filter or do not take up at all into topics for social debate. A blog is not a medium, but the set of all blogs is.

5. Cyberactivism is a strategy for the creation of temporary alliances of individuals who, using tools from that network, generate a critical mass of information and debate which will make that debate transcend the boundaries of the blogosphere and move into the “real world”; or which will perceptibly modify the behaviour of a large number of people.

6. In such a world, everyone – businesses, social activists, and, in general, anyone who wishes to spread an idea as widely as possible – are driven to cyberactivism. That is, they are driven to communicate, bearing in mind the way in which people will relay their ideas to others who in turn will will do the same in a chain as long as possible.”

Excerpted from the Introduction:

David de Ugarte:

“That we are living in changing times and that those changes have something to do with “social networks” has become a commonplace, almost a cliché, by now. And yet nobody seems to be very clear about what those networks are, and, above all, what is new about them. After all, if the networks we are talking about are the networks established by people when they interact, society has always been a network. And if we are talking about activist movements, they have also been there forever, interacting with each other in a sort of hyperactive parallel universe. There are however two new elements concerning this issue that everyone intuitively understands. On the one hand, there is the Internet and its most direct consequence: the emergence of a new sphere of social interaction which every day brings millions of people together. On the other hand, there is the recent appearance of a wide literature on networks applied to every field, from physics and biology to economics, as well as the inevitable spate of popular science, marketing ploys, and advertising gimmicks.

Then there is a whole series of movements ranging from revolution to civic protest, through a new kind of sophisticated hoopla which nobody knows very well how to class, and which frequently fills newspaper pages. They first event of this kind became well-known when in 2000 the crowds took to the streets of Manila to demand President Estrada’s resignation. The media then remarked on the lack of leaders, and on how political entities and trade unions were forced to follow the people instead of heading them. But that was too far away from Old Europe and we paid little attention to it, just enough for many of the thousands of participants in the demonstrations which took place in Spain on 13th March 2004 to be aware of the role they could play in bringing about a crucial change.

That was Mobile Phone Night, and even though the degree to which it influenced the results of the presidential election the following day is still a matter of debate, nobody can deny that it was a radically new moment in Spanish history. In a short book published online just a few months before, the Spanish economist Juan Urrutia had predicted such rallies, and provided the methodological tools with which to understand them. He termed them “cyberthrongs”. A year and a half after that, in November 2005, the French Police acknowledged their helplessness in the face of the Paris suburb revolts, arguing that the speed with which the revolters acquired veritable “urban guerrilla” techniques and experience made it impossible for them to act effectively. Some claim that a mysterious new collective subject has emerged. Howard Rheingold has spoken of “wise crowds”. In this book I won’t treat them as if they were all part of the same movement, but rather as symptoms of a new form of social organisation and communication which is growing ever stronger, and through which very different, even mutually contradictory, ideas can be upheld. Information rallies such as those that led to the Madrid Big BoozeUp in the Spring of 2006 and to Dan Brown’s popular discrediting in Spain have also entered this cyberthrong hit parade that shows that something is changing.

This book aims to define that something, and how we common citizens can gain greater independence and power of communication through it. It has three parts. The first part is a very brief history of how social networks, the map of relationships through which ideas and information move, have changed through time, driven by changes in communication technologies. The second part focuses on the new political movements, from the Colour Revolutions in Eastern Europe to cyberthrongs all over the world. It also sketches out the two basic models of cyberactivism that lead to the massive spread of new messages from the web. Finally, the third part tries to provide all kinds of individuals, companies, and collectives with some useful conclusions concerning how to communicate socially in a distributed network world, a world in which we are all potential cyberactivists.”

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