The ability to reach the other side of the world without leaving your sofa brings changes beyond saving the cost of a stamp. The ability to share data and content without doing so in person or setting it in the aspic of print gives it a life of its own which starts to interweave with the relationships that the internet allows us to build. As I have discussed previously the internet changes the dynamics of place and community and as we move to a post-industrial society to a network society we clearly need to consider this in terms of social impacts as we well as political and cultural change. One of the interesting changes in mainstream discussion of the online world, at least for someone like myself who has been a huge cheerleader for the opportunities that the internet brings, is the fact that it is now seen as being ‘real’. Its no longer left to the technology pages of the newspaper and its no longer just the preserve of the ‘geeks and nerds’.

As the use of the internet started to grow beyond its military and then academic antecedents (Naughton 2000) writers started to talk about the information society – focusing the the fact that the greatest effect on society had been around the creation and sharing of information. However I choose to use the nomenclature of the network society which better reflects the fact that the big change here is in how people connect to one and other.

Frank Webster (2006) describes this difference perfectly:

“The point is that quantitative measures – simply more information – cannot of themselves identify a break with previous systems, while it is at least theoretically possible to regard small but decisive qualitative changes as marking a systemic break. After all, just because there are many more automobiles today that in 1970 does not qualify us to speak of a ‘car society’. But it is systemic change, which those who write about an information society wish to spotlight, whether it be in the form of Daniel Bell’s ‘post-industrialism’ or in Manuel Castells ‘information model of develop’ or in Mark Posters ‘mode of information’.”

But describing it as an Information society doesn’t look beyond the nature of this systemic change to the impact – that of vastly increased and diverse networks in society.  Castells’ strength and weakness is the holistic way in which he views the world –

“his approach is one which emphasises the connectedness of parts, though often these are in contradictory relationships, and their very frictional character is an important contributor to change” (Webster 2006).

This grand scope gives an excellent and compelling narrative but by drawing his vision this widely he perhaps does not then give sufficient emphasis to the offline world. I have talked in more detail about Castells in previous posts and you can read more here .

One thing to enormous heart of Castells’ does do is to balance off, for example, the more age of enlightenment views of Jurgen Habermas and start to move us away from the technological determinism of early information society writes such as Negroponte. Habermas’s ‘Public Sphere’ focuses on rational debate and in many ways ignores the social pressures on conversation and political discussion. The concept of the Public Sphere is a compelling one – he argues that the rise of capitalism and the departure from feudal / tribal living brought about the development of arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues. In terms of the network society we are talking about the ‘publicity’ of information and government.

However Habermas’s idea of ‘publicity’ is one which should be challenged when you consider the shifting boundaries between public and private which the social web can bring both in terms of identity and in terms of content. Where Habermas relies on the idea of people choosing to participate in the Public Sphere he does not take into account the impact of a life led mainly in public and the fact that this brings with it some necessary blurring between social and political thinking. Habermas’s Public sphere has a degree of formality, and rationality, which results from the idea of participants choosing to interact with it. His emphasis on public service broadcasters and the formal media also reflects this. I would argue that any Public Sphere today is less mediated and less formal than this. It is made up of the informal civic participation that I have described earlier with the blurred boundaries between formal/informal and civic/social that I have discussed in earlier posts .

I am not attempting a in-depth critique of Habermas within this thesis (though whether or not I need to will be a subject of debate next time I see my supervisor!!) but this concept of ‘Public Sphere’ is fairly central to the concept of a civic space – a place which provides a locus of local civic conversation.

If we accept Massey’s definition of place as space which has been given meaning and the distinction between place and local place is in the narrative of the people who consider themselves to be local to that place (more about this in a previous post) then a local civic space could be defined as being a space collecting together local narrative and opinion about local civic issues or as Webster describes it an “arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues”. What is notable about seeing this this debate happen online is the fact that it is visible and auditable, and that we can start to construct spaces around the debate.

This grounding of the network society in the idea of place is possible once we accept the reality of the interactions which we see online in terms of their ability to build community (Wellman, Rheinegold, Turkle) and provides a very different perspective to the Internet Galaxy that Castells writes about. His comment that “Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing” is just as true if we consider it from the hyperlocal perspective and allows us to start considering what the implications of the network are at the local level.

The Virtual Town Hall pilot is an attempt to examine these implications and to consider what it means to be both local and part of the network society – specifically with respect of the way in which this hyperlocal activity might influence or connect to local democracy and as we start to gather data I will be examining whether we are successful in creating this local civic space as well as seeing whether participants value it, as well as going on to try and describe some of the characteristics of this space.

Ultimately my criticism of Habermas is that he is all head and little heart – not taking into account the importance of the social relationships that support the conversations within his Public Sphere. This is largely because he seems to see the public sphere as being an evolution from the family / feudal spheres that I mentioned earlier rather than being able to coexist in parallel. This parallel existence is perhaps of less importance prior to the existence of a network society but as our ideas of ‘publicity’ change the boundaries between these different spheres becomes blurred. But what Habermas doesn’t seem to accept is the idea that this blurring can be a positive outcome and that the social interactions sustain and support the more formal interactions (Putnam).

When Castell’s shows us a picture of the Internet Galaxy (ref) he is mapping it in terms of the number of transactions – not in terms of their impact on the people and communities involved. I would argue that if we are going to consider the network society then we need to get away from its initial enthralment with the global opportunities that it holds and focus instead of what these opportunities are at a local level.

Barry Wellman, in his studies of ‘Netville’ starts to explore this connection:

“Affordances are the perceived capabilities of an object, environment, or technology (Gaver, 1991; Gibson, 1979; Norman, 1988). Arguably, the dominant perceived affordance of the Internet, as a means of communication, is one that involves exchange over distance. The earliest observers of the Internet noted this affordance to participate in the inexpensive, instantaneous exchange of resource with geographically dispersed others, expressing it through such concepts as the “space of flows” (Castells, 1996) and the “death of distance” (Cairncross, 1997). Whereas distance is perceived as the dominant affordance of Internet communication, it may not be the only communication affordance. Researchers have argued that when a critical mass of people within a shared local environment adopt the Internet, such as a neighborhood or workplace, they cultivate an increased awareness that the Internet affords communication within local space as much as it does across distant space—a concept referred to as glocalization (Hampton, 2001; Hampton & Wellman, 2003; Hampton, 2007).” (Wellman, Internet Use and the Concentration of Disadvantage: Glocalization and the Urban Underclass, 2010).

He goes on to say:

“Adoption of the Internet for local communication within a local setting may vary on the basis of the ecological constraints of the environment. However, there is virtually no existing research on the the relationship between ecological context and media use. Whereas an extensive sociological literature exists on neighborhood or contextual effects, from a communication perspective the role of ecological context remains relatively unexplored. In fact, within the literature on contextual effects, there is an implicit assumption that social contact operates through only one channel; that is, meaningful social interaction takes place only through in-person contact. This is problematic for both the study of space and the study of media: Studies of the Internet often ignore the role of physical place and context in everyday life, and studies of ecological context often ignore that a variety of media (old and new) can be used to form and maintain social ties. The result has been a failure to explore the possibility that some media likely afford social contact at different rates within different ecological contexts, which may influence inequalities derived from social interaction.”

The main findings of his research point to the idea that access to technology has a positive impact on civic participation but goes on to highlight the dangers of this additional connectedness being focused on the articulate middle class and draws attention to an additional concern around the impacts of the digital divide – though he does point out that disadvantaged communities are in fact going online at a faster rate than other communities – though I do not know what the situation is in the UK (Wellman is working in Canada). The paper is fascinating and I would recommend giving it a read – but one other item struck me when reading about the i-neighbours digital communities:

“The only outside group or institution to appear among the most frequent concepts was police, which appeared in over 7% of e-mails from disadvantaged areas but in only 3% of e-mails within other areas.”

Where on earth were the politicians in all this civic activity???

But Wellman’s overall conclusion is very hopeful:

“The Internet affords social cohesion and collective action in neighbourhood settings that are otherwise unlikely contexts for collective efficacy.”

Though he also goes on to point out that this conclusion should be tempered with the knowledge that it is a limited study and that the i-Neighbours effect may not be generalizable this study clearly supports the idea that hyperlocal activism can have a positive effect on local communities and that this effect is also there for less advantaged community members.

One final view of the network society is the work of Anthony Giddens. Webster says

“Giddens does not write much, at least directly, about the ‘information society’. It is not a concern of his to discuss this concept, not the least because he is sceptical of the proposition/ It is his view that we live today in an epoch of ‘radicalised modernity’, one marked by the the accelerated development of features long characteristic of modernity itself.”

Ideas of networks and globalisation are central however to Giddens work and he is concerned with the changing divisions between public and private and there impact on democracy and governance. To my mind this makes he work very relevant to any discussion about the Network Society as it becomes more truly part of mainstream sociological thinking. However, without an clearer tie to the sense of place which is so important to the individual there is the continuing risk that ideas of globalisation overwhelm what is potentially the greatest impact of the internet – its ability to reconnect local communities.

I started this piece by talking about the ability to reach the other side of the world without leaving your sofa – by connecting ideas of place with the network society we perhaps replace the desire to do this with a more meaningful connection to the communities right beside you.