Social Software – an emancipation?

On the manifold ways of making ideas and individuals present and visible

A certain amount of weariness, maybe even a certain degree of bitterness, can already be felt. Some may even be on the verge of despair. While the old dichtotomy of the state and the individual is increasingly posited into the limelight, the notion and concept of the state itself begins to falter. That, what remains at the end of the day in other places – aside from those named prior – is hope in the advent of new technologies that will restore the political process on part of the citizen, or even make way for such a development for the very first time in history.

Such – utopian thinking finds its origin in what is called Californian Ideology, steeped in the optimism of dot-com-era Silicon Valley, in California, USA. Even though such optimist movements date back to the 1960s under the term of New Left (Worldwide), its major impact has only begun with the advent and rise of the Internet. The Californian Ideology has generated an integration of market economy and communitarism in response to the economic liberalism of the American New Right. By means of the Internet, the technological determinism that is inherent to this movement has progressed enormously. Since the early 1990s a new virtual class has appeared on the scene, attempting to reshape the world with a combination of digital individualism and virtual-community building. Though the terms may seem contradictory, their combined effect over the past 14 years has become quite relevant not only in economic terms but also in the realm of politics and economics. Some of the buzzwords include: Open Source Software, Open Spectrum, and Open Access. The increased accessibility to abundant technological resources has become a sort of central eco-political metaphor. The objective is now to bridge the (second) Digital Divide, and only subsequently a new world may unfold. This world will be characterized on one hand by individualism, and by a social core community on the other – all this will be enabled through the implementation and development of new technologies.

This preamble is particularly useful, in my opinion, for investigating the relevance of Social Software and the discourses that follow. Social Software is a relatively new term, in common use for maybe two year. First usage is observed in 1990 – although its concepts date back to Vannevar Bush’s Memex in 1945. (It was made popular later-on by IT commentator, Wired Magazine role model and NYU professor Clay Shirky. Wired Magazine, it must be said, functions as a virtual breviary of Silicon Valley optimism.) Social Software comprises all of the information and communication technologies that enable the digital networking of individuals and groups. In retrospect, Social Software may be thought of as a further evolutionary step in personal computing, beginning with the era of large mainframe-computers, and followed by the PC (personal computer) that mainly helped to promote the increase of individual productivity. In the same way that the PC has helped to enhance the productivity of individual users through word processors, graphic design software, accounting software and so forth, Social Software enables the development of ad-hoc, (non-)centralized networks between users. This kind of network is ostensibly, to borrow a phrase from emergence theory, more intelligent than the sum of the individual parts.
Mass media outlets have been reporting on these trends for some time. Now German-speaking people also are beginning to recognize the significance of Social Software, their interest buoyed no doubt by the current (pre-)election campaign for the American presidency. This includes in particular the phenomenon of Weblogs. The campaign for the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate Howard Dean’s provided him with unprecedented exposure to the public through the use of weblogs and other internet-based social networking schemes. While Dean failed to take the nomination, his campaign’s methods marked a historic cornerstone of how-at least in the USA-the world of politics could utilize the virtual world of the Word Wide Web. The implementation of this type of media was so successful in the context of this pre election, that henceforth no politician wanted to abandon this medium.

One is inclined to ask at this point, where the connection can be found to emancipation. Indeed, it shall be noted here that this only sets the stage for a new form of technology in the context of political communication. If only there were no weblogs, whose importance for the discourse of emancipation and counterculture dates back to earlier.
What, indeed, is a weblog? Briefly stated, it presupposes a form of technology, but in a broader sense it could be thought of as representing a political attitude. An explanation regarding the latter will follow further below. First, I will briefly describe this phenomenon. A weblog is – in technical terms – a content-management-system, enabling the user to focus his/her entire creativity on the generation of content. The software is responsible for directing all processes pertaining to publishing, archiving and syndication of content, with minimal intervention from the content creator. In this sense, IT and graphics/design related skills become irrelevant. This guarantees the availability of very efficient and professional resources that enable the publishing of multimedia content. It is particularly intriguing that such resources do not require any or very limited investments on part of the producers – see in this context also the topic of Open Source Software.

One could conclude that the emancipated character is based on the easy availability of such resources.
In the following I would like to briefly outline the format and the context of usage. From the point of view of the reader, a weblog is nothing different than a conventional website that is arranged in a chronologically reversed order, consisting of dated, individual content entries (posts) with a title, a text body, occasional links, with keywords or categories. These are the central elements. The addition of features that encourage readers’ interaction (such as space for supplying comments, permanent links for each entry and automatic, internet-wide tracking of topics) transforms something of a monolithic collection of content items into something social. The latter forms of interaction are of importance for the networking of individual weblogs. What makes the weblog format particularly unique is the ability to reference content found on other websites. Generally, the weblog-author will comment, criticize or affirm contents of other sites by indicating direct sources (by means of hyperlinks or, in the best scenario, of permalinks). This enables the generation of a network of contents. This networking may additionally increase the dissemination speed of contents, but this will be discussed further below. Earlier, I alluded to the political position inherent in the weblog medium. This becomes indeed the crucial point in the context of our problem. There are just as many political positions as there are bloggers (individuals who author weblogs) out there.
However – dare I say it – they are all unified in one attitude, that of the emancipation of opinions. Emancipation (based on Latin roots), in the original sense stood for releasing slaves by law into freedom. The relative (particularly in First-World-Countries) abundance of resources coupled with the networking of individuals by means of technical infrastructure have apparently generated a perception that is frequently equated with freedom. If I refer to emancipation here, does it not seem relevant to ask, emancipation from what? In other words, from whose custody or ownership are we being released if at all?

We have arrived at the core of the discourse. Weblogs are operating in the meantime as a metaphor for a new form of democracy. An Emergent Democracy – a discourse around the Japanese Internet-entrepreneur and venture capitalist Joichi Ito – is considered the result of the implementation of this technology and the format of weblogs in a quasi supra-social context. In this sense, society seizes itself by its own collar by means of available technical prostheses and leaves behind the immaturities of representative democracy following a path of technologically induced fundamental democracy. This shall not be understood in a cynical way but rather in connection with the Californian ideology that is a political and an economic concept at the same time.

At another place, closer to the core of society, weblogs are feared or optimistically identified as an alternative to (supposedly) an outdated form of journalism. In this sense, weblogs are regarded as the authentic, subjective revenge of the citizen who is enslaved to mass media (see above). Weblogs, or respectively their authors, in some cases (but not in all of them), write in opposition to conventional reporting based on certain interests of the media corporations that are in turn directed by political and economic pressures. The blogger is (ideally) free of such pressures and is able to position himself/herself as an individual. Some mass media have posed, in light of the upcoming US-American presidential elections, the question, whether the results will be affected by bloggers or respectively by reading weblogs. I do not believe this will be the case yet. However, the creation of alternative publics by means of new technologies will remain a less deceiving fact. This is neither utopia nor dystopia but rather reality. Digital-or even virtual-communities do exist, and they operate very successfully. Nonetheless, they do not yet represent emancipation per se, unless emancipation is defined as the creation of new opportunities for community building. However, in this sense the widespread use of the automobile could also be regarded as the emancipation of space and time.

In conclusion, I would like to note that new social and societal formats based on the application of Social Software are of immeasurable value. Here I would like to recall the application of Social Software in the context of business transactions. Technology has impacted – from the perspective of resources and format – the character of the increase of productivity and communication aggregation. In this sense, more people are able to generate content, to consume it or to interact with each other. According to the principles of Emergence or complexity theory, this should inevitably result in an increase of intelligence within society as a whole. This alone makes changes in society foreseeable. In other words, the participatory character is transferred onto another level. I would, however, not regard this in emancipating terms – to answer the opening question. Admittedly, the idea of leaving á la Münchhausen, by means of technical prostheses, the state of self-inflicted slavery via one’s own past, may seem rather romantic, but at the same time it could also be merely another form of escapism.

Social Software provides new sources and concepts of global networking and local agency, which leave up to the individual to decide whether and how society in general, and one’s personal and work life in particular, may be altered. One thing is certain, Social Software enables us to approach each other more easily and often and communicate with one another to an increasing extent.

Please consult this volume with that in mind and enjoy the richness and diversity of topics focusing on weblogs as the communicative avantgarde of Social Software that were presented at BlogTalk 2.0 ( and compiled here in a traditional format.

Thomas N. Burg, Head of the Center for New Media at the Danube University Krems is an explorer and an expert for Social Software. He is particularly interested in analyzing and applying innovative technologies that generate new social processes. In this context, he has been consulting corporations, the public authorities, political parties, associations, NGOs, NPOs, individuals, clubs etc. His personal weblog:

Krems, October 2004

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