Political potential and capabilities of online communities.

Author:In der Smitten, Susanne

1 Introduction

What are the political potentials of online communities? To what extent do they want to exert a political influence? And in which ways are they able to promote their objectives? To answer these questions a profound definition of the term "online community" is necessary. Howard Rheingold was one of the earliest authors to write about virtual communities. In 1993, he coined the idea of such communities as "social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (Rheingold 2000). If one regards this as a definition, it poses serious problems on online community research. How many people are "enough"? How much time will be "long enough"? What does a "sufficient human feeling" mean? Therefore the following article will leave out the quality dimension of the relationships and pragmatically define online communities as social relations between two people or more who interact via the Internet for a period of time and more than once.

The relation between offline and online interactions among the participants may be of relevance for the strength of the community, but it should not be part of the definition because it usually cannot be conclusively assessed by online research. Hence, online communities as defined above are not necessarily limited to the Internet; actually they will mostly have hybrid structures. People may be in contact offline first and then form an additional online community, or they may get to know each other online and meet in the physical world afterwards. The first type of online communities can be characterized as virtualized, the second as devirtualised. And it is also possible that the lot of people interacting offline and online are not identical, so that the hybrid structures indeed cover two communities with one of them being a subset of the other or the two of them having an intersection.

Apart from the online/offline-proportions, there are several other distinctions that can be used to further categorize online communities, i.e.:

* the way in which the community is built (evolving communities versus formal act of foundation);

* the way how to become a member (evolving versus formalized membership);

* the main Internet communication means the community applies (e.g. chat, forum, wiki, weblog, microblog);

* the central topics the community deals with;

* the social system the community belongs to (e.g. education, science, economics ...)

Accordingly, political online communities can be structured and organized in very different manners. What they have in common is that they are influencing or willing to influence the functions of the political system, and that is the process of legislation and the definition of norms for society as a whole. The articulation and aggregation of interests, political support, but also political socialization and recruiting of political personnel are usually regarded as central input functions of the political system (Fuhse 2005). So these are exactly the dimensions that should be considered in analyzing political potentials and actions of online communities.

2 Ways of Action

Online communities can make use of the Internet both for their inner organization and for interactions with the outside world, and the multiple ways of action may be used in a politically relevant manner. The members may discuss and specify central objectives of the community in chats or forums. They may also vote on their leaders in evotings. Passive members and new supporters can be mobilized via mailinglists and newsletters describing current events and future aims and asking for financial or active support. In order to address unknown people as personally as possible, e-mail-chain-letters can be used, because they are usually forwarded between mates and friends (Hauser 2001). The public can be informed by an interesting website which summarizes relevant information. This can be done in a fancy way when a fake-site parodies a well-known official website by imitating its design but filling it with completely different contents (Becker et al. 2002: 96-97). Online polling can be integrated to find out about opinions and use the results as arguments in campaigns. Important additional background information can be arranged in a wiki, whereas a weblog or a microblog is well-suited to go along with a campaign and report about current events, actions and success stories in a chronological order.

Table 1: Ways of action for online communities Presentation Discussion Influence website newsletter e-mail mailinglist e-mail to political webring (partly) weblog newsgroup forum deciders (partly) chat (partly) e-mail-chain-letter micro-blog(partly) wiki weblog (partly) e-mail-flooding online micro-blog (partly) fundraising online wiki polling online petition netstrike/denial-of- service-attack Source: author's own illustration. If the community wants to demonstrate support for other people's campaign, it can publish texts about this on their homepage, link to the others' websites, join a webring with these sites or share a common logo with them. Campaigning actions can then take place online or offline and often the two spheres are combined. The community can also decide to initiate or sign an online petition, but this means is usually only promising if online petitions are officially admitted in a political system, as they are in Germany (Deutscher Bundestag 2008). The members can also agree that each of them will send an e-mail to a certain politician. This way the protest becomes more impressive and is more difficult to ignore. If e-mail-flooding is successful, the receiving office sometimes needs a serious amount of time to filter the e-mails and find those that are not part of the campaign and need to be answered (Becker et al. 2002: 97). Another way of action is asking one's supporters to visit an opponent's disliked homepage at a well-defined point in time or writing a computer program to simulate this. This is called a netstrike or a denial-of-service-attack, because it can make the server crash so that the site will not be available for some time. But the participants may become criminally liable that way, and that is why many communities object to these methods (Medosch 2003: 261-262, Kuhn 2006: 83).

In addition to all that, it is possible to mobilize supporters via the Internet for offline actions such as information stands, collections of signatures, demonstrations or flash mobs. Flash mobs are very short meetings of participants who need not necessarily know each other but who come together in the public sphere for a few minutes to do something that has been announced online. Additional offline coordination can be done via mobile phones. At the beginning, flash mobs were only used for funny and absurd actions, but by now they have also been used in political contexts (Hartmann 2003: 122, Rheingold 2003, Sixtus 2003, Heise Online 2009).

3 International Experiences

Literature on political online communities presents several examples of successful online actions. For instance, when nuclear bombs were being tested on the Mururoa Atoll in 1995, a group called StranoNet from Florence used mailing lists and newsgroups to call people up on a netstrike against a website of the French government that was responsible for the testing. It is not certain how many people finally participated in that strike, but StranoNet celebrated it as a success (Siedschlag/Rogg/Welzel 2002: 91, Medosch 2003: 262-263). A few weeks later, the community organized a second net-strike against the suppression of Chiapas Indians (Zapatistas) in Mexico. This time, it added an online instruction how to organize a netstrike, because it wanted to encourage imitators. In addition to that, it combined the online protests with traditional offline demonstrations (Medosch 2003: 266-268).

One association that is often mentioned in contexts of political online action is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit organization that has been defending legal rights in the digital world since 1990. In 1996, it protested against the US Communication Decency Act, by publishing the text of the law and additional information about censorship and freedom of speech on its homepage and asking its supporters to link to the page and put the sign of a blue ribbon on their websites. Soon, hundreds of thousands of websites all over the world showed the blue ribbon. As a consequence, the American Supreme Court finally repealed the questioned law as unconstitutional (Bieber 1999: 167-169, Becker et al. 2002: 94-96, Kamps 2007: 240). The EFF and its blue ribbon campaign are still working today for the legal rights of bloggers and citizen journalists (EFF 2008).

Further famous protests were accomplished by hybrid community networks of globalization critics during the meetings of the WTO in Seattle in 1999, of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington in 2000 and during the meeting of the G8 Heads of State and Government in Genua in 2001. By establishing indymedia portals as information platforms on the Internet, the participants created a counter public sphere (Geiger 2006: 38, Wimmer 2008: 218-219).

Online protests reached a climax with the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. In March, a call for action on the Spanish website noalaguerra.com led to an e-mail-flooding and to a consecutive breakdown of servers of the governing party in Spain which supported the war (n-tv 2003). At the same time e-mail-chain-letters began collecting virtual signatures as a sign of protest that should be handed on to the United Nations. And on February 15th 2003, the Internet platform MoveOn.org organized a virtual march on the American Congress which blocked telephone wires and fax machines of deputies for hours. In addition, the community did on-line-fundraising to collect...

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