Web 2.0 has had a profound impact on the way most of us live our lives. It has enabled us to communicate, create and consume on a scale that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Perhaps most profoundly, it has arguably established a level playing field upon which anybody with an internet connection and rudimentary IT skills can express their opinion and make an impact in the world. Twitter, Facebook, blogs – all of these are said to be the new drivers of democratisation, giving a voice to the once voiceless.
Nowhere has this disruptive shift been more documented than in the social movements that sprung up in 2011 and which have continued into 2012. Even before the dust had begun to settle on the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, commentators from all sides were quick to celebrate the internet and its new communication platforms as central – in fact necessary – to their proliferation. As the Spanish social theorist Manuel Castells wrote in his latest book, Networks of Outrage and Hope:
… The digital social networks based on the internet and on wireless platforms are decisive tools for mobilising, for organising, for deliberating, for coordinating and for deciding. Yet the role of the internet goes beyond instrumentality: it creates the conditions for a form of shared practice that allows a leaderless movement to survive, deliberate, coordinate and expand. It protects the movement against the repression of their liberated physical spaces by maintaining communication among the people within the movement and with society at large in the long march of social change that is required to overcome institutionalised domination.
So far so good. Yet as attractive as this argument is, and as a compelling and readable as Castells’s new work is, it is also true that the internet, particularly Web 2.0 platforms, are as much a force for division as they are for collaboration and unity.
We shouldn’t forget that an enhanced ability to communicate works both ways. Yes, it can help people to form new connections with likeminded individuals and to express their opinions to a wider audience. But as these individuals form closer bonds with one another, they may also lose their connections to others – this is the ultimate in vs. out critique of social bonding capital.
According to the ‘networked individualism’ theory of Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman, a new social phenomenon has emerged whereby people increasingly seek out communities that can affirm their chosen identities, rather than allow their native communities to naturally mould their identity. No doubt the internet and Web 2.0 tools are playing a central role in driving this further forward. Castells himself intimates as much within his new book:
The key success of an SNS (social networking site) is not anonymity, but on the contrary, self-presentation of a real person connecting to real persons. People build networks to be with others, and to be with others they want to be with, on the basis of criteria that include those people who they already know or those they would like to know.
What this suggests is that the emergence of Web 2.0 platforms may be part of the reason for the polarisation gripping modern day politics. If I self-define as a liberal, websites like Twitter and Facebook have made it easy for me to connect with liberal crowds and solidify and further ingrain my identity. Likewise, if I see myself as a conservative, I can similarly be absorbed by corresponding online communities on the right of the political spectrum.
There is also another cause of division to contend with here. As well as enabling people to connect more easily with partisan communities, Web 2.0 also creates a space for people to create and store opinionated content themselves. This sounds harmless in itself, but what happens if hearing the echo of our own output – tweets, blogs, or Facebook comments – spurs us on to write more partisan content?
In his latest book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt describes an interesting experiment undertaken by Drew Westen that looked at what drives partisan behaviour. During the 2004 presidential election, Westen asked a group of partisan democrats and republicans to watch a series of slides that showed their chosen candidate, Bush or Kerry, making hypocritical judgements. Using fMRI brain scanners, they found that participants experienced negative emotions when shown information about their candidate’s hypocrisy (e.g. Bush praising then denigrating Enron’s CEO) and felt positive emotions (i.e. a measure of dopamine) when they were ‘released’ from this negative information. In effect, they gained pleasure from surviving their political challenge.
Haidt goes on to say that since partisans engage in this type of attack-and-defence activity on a regular basis, they become literally ‘addicted’ to extreme prejudice. To return to the rise of Web 2.0, if these new online communication tools make it easier for people to share and hear the political opinions of others, it may also mean they speed up and amplify the cycle of negative-positive emotions and in turn get people ‘hooked’ on spouting off. More importantly, by allowing anybody, not just the partisan, an easy way of throwing their two pennies worth into the mix, it arguably provides a stepping stone for once placid people to enter the arena of extreme partisanship.