A different way to look at the Internet's power

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Photo credit: forbes.com
By Mina Itabashi

When I think of power, I immediately think of top-down, oppressive, manipulative, hierarchical power. Like the exploitative multinational corporations and the rich lobbying groups in DC.

Hierarchical power of course also exist in less exploitative forms, and when managed well, can be used to organize against these evils. For example, many big non-profit organizations have hierarchical systems unless they are collectives.

And then I think of the bottom-up grassroots power that community organizers use in order to confront these evils. The beauty of community organizing, for me, is that we get to connect with people in our communities and form strong networks of relationships - whether they be face-to-face networks in our neighborhood or virtual networks through the internet.

But Deanna Zandt points out in her article, Don't Mess with Our Boobs: Ad-Hoc Networks and Online Power, that hierarchical power and networked power are not the only forms of political power. She explains that we're forgetting another form: Ad-hoc power. She uses the example of the Susan G Komen Foundation's announcement in February to stop funding Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screenings:
We’re stuck in a very linear progression when it comes to Internet power: OK, let’s bring people together quickly and easily, and then we’ll consider them part of our network, and then we’ll get them to help us kick out the current people “in power.”

Let’s look at how these 3 systems of power were activated in the days following Komen’s announcement.
Hierarchical. This is where Planned Parenthood activates the resources within their control or domain. Sending out emails, getting local chapters/clinics the word. We go down one hierarchy and up another.
Networked. The people that already have relationships with Planned Parenthood were activated and motivated to Do Something. The level of participation varied as to where they were in their relationship– many spread the word and pointed people to PP’s comments; others donated, and encouraged others to do so. There were the creators who did things like what I did. I have an emotional connection to the work that they do and the services they provide, and they’ve successfully navigated that relationship with me to the point that when something bad happens to them, it feels very personal.
Ad-hoc. These were, in this case, many women who were new to activism, and for whom this attack on Planned Parenthood was their point of entry into the War on Women.™ A few of them could likely be converted into networked power, but it was their ad-hoc power that did the most service here. They were the women who contributed stories to my Tumblr, who spread the news of the defunding into their own networks. It’s likely these networks were previously unreached by traditional activism. You saw this in the language that they used: “I don’t normally post political stuff,” or “I don’t usually forward these kinds of things.” And that’s OK. The effect was to activate their own untapped networks, and make this particular message heard widely.
There are mistakes that other groups make when it comes to how we view these systems of power interacting. One is the problematic notion that all ad-hoc power *has* to be transformed into network power. We want to take every one of those dotted line connections and make it solid. That’s just not realistic. Sure, some of those folks are going to have their emotional connection turned into the network, but spending an inordinate amount of time on that transformation can waste precious resources for groups and organizations that just don’t have that capactiy. *And,* it misses and erases the power of ad-hoc to reach the previously unreachable.

The other mistake that’s made is thinking that networked power is bottom layer of hierarchical power. Many think that what technology has done for us is brought all those people in the bottom layers together, so that we can fight the people in the top layers. We have to shift our thinking around this. Networked power is just starting to *replace* hierarchical power. It’s beginning to wrap around those pyramids, infiltrating it and breaking it apart, and maybe even dismantling hierarchies altogether. YAY.
I definitely found it helpful to think about this additional form of power that Zandt describes, because it points to the political power of those who don't necessarily consider themselves 'politically engaged' - people who just happen to be on twitter or tumblr, who can resonate to the issues being raised. But this ad-hoc power also only really works for one-time issues that already have substantial support on a large scale, like in the example of breast cancer funding. For other issues that are more localized or that affect a smaller marginalized group, ad-hoc power can be a great entry-point, but it actually does need to be transformed into network power to be able to make the changes that are really needed.

Mina is a summer intern at Forward Together, a Japanese American raised all over east & southeast Asia. She embraces her identity as a womyn of color and doesn't believe in borders.