Many of the early Web technologies which we use today began life as fringe technologies, escaping the attention of governments and wider society. But they quickly became important vehicles for social change, presenting an alternative media that used the network effect of the Web to great effect.
Homophily, the idea that “similarity begets friendship”, is the principle which binds social networks together, and is central to understanding how citizens began to transcend the hierarchical power of their states. According to Kleinberg and Easley, homophily “can divide a social network into densely connected, homogenous parts that are weakly connected to each other” (Easley & Klienberg, 2010) and this is how online communities form. These communities are shaped by the characteristics of the technology they are operating on. Early blogs and forums allowed small, informed and engaged networks of citizens to develop around particular political issues, and often promoted debate and discussion around political issues long after the ‘regular’ media had moved on to fresher topics. Similarly, social media creates distinctive groups centred on particular topics and who often reinforce their political ideologies with one another.
The main point to consider is that these online communities do not respect international geographical borders and governments. Individuals from all over the world who share an ideology can network with one another and this “cyber-balkanisation” makes citizens more open to new ideologies from other parts of the world and means they can challenge their states. But likewise, states and societal structures who want to maintain the status quo are likely to perceive these groups as a threat to their stability, presenting a radical and subversive political ideology, and seek to curb or control the methods by which these communities form. The 21st century has seen not only protests and uprisings in many nations around the world (themselves nothing new) but also a slow change in political engagement by citizens who are growing up virtually entrenched in the world around them. Domestic and international politics will be shaped extensively in the coming years by these citizens as they develop an understanding of their position in the real and virtual world.
D. Easley, J. Kleinberg. 2010. Networks in their Surrounding Contexts. In: Networks, Crowds and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 78.