Posts Tagged ‘ARIN6901’

by César Albarrán Torres

The mid-term elections in November 2, 2010, will be the trial by fire of the political innovations propagated by the Democratic Party and its satellite grassroots organisation, Organizing for America (OFA; http://www.barackobama.com), during the 2008 presidential elections and its aftermath (particularly over the Health Care Reform debate in early 2010). These innovations fall into two categories. In terms of practicality, they comprise the encouragement of militant organisation through the Internet and the activation of nodes(voters) through face-to-face interaction; in terms of ideology, they swarm around the idea of a grassroots organisation attaining power through electoral means.

The mid-term elections will also serve as a barometer as to whether the critical mass of support garnered by the movement lead by President Barack Obama is sustainable, or has been diminished by the perception of his performance in the Oval Office[1] and by the recent adoption of grassroots methods by the conservative establishment, represented by the Tea Party Patriots (TPP; http://www.teapartypatriots.org).[2] Moreover, the elections will shine some light on the unprecedented marriage of a self-proclaimed grassroots movement and the State, as well as the sustainability of this union.

Framed by network theory, this essay identifies some of the online social media strategies employed by the grassroots organization Organizing for America in the VOTE 2010 campaign, as well as the innovations it strives to propagate. It also frames these in historical perspective, and ventures into how and why the Tea Party Patriots might fill a possible void of innovation in the American electoral landscape. In particular, Duncan J. Watts’ conceptualization of networks and the way in which ideas percolate through them is a helpful tool to understanding the Obama phenomenon in 2008 and the standing of OFA as a political force in 2010, as well as the differences between the two campaigns in regards to OFA’s position in the American political arena.

Barack Obama as innovator and innovation
Watts identified the process through which an innovation (in this case a political project articulated in a campaign or collection of campaigns) permeates into a social network. He argues that the spread (percolation) of ideas “requires a trade-off between cohesion within groups and connectivity across them.” (2003: 230-231) In the case of OFA and TPP as grassroots organisations in the United States, that trade-off translates in the incorporation into the bigger scheme of the major parties (this may compromise internal bonds and establish expectations regarding the agenda), which in turn have the structural capacity to coordinate online and off-line efforts among their county and state offices. Watts also identified the presence of percolating vulnerable clusters (PVCs): that is, collections of individuals who have a low threshold and therefore are more susceptible to adopt an innovation and trigger a cascade, the fast, exponential spread of any given innovation. (Ibidem: 235)

The term innovator is also useful for the purpose of this analysis. For Watts, it “refers to a node that is activated randomly at the beginning of an innovation cycle.” (2003: 233) With his unusual ethnic background, his academic past and leftist political ideals (leftist by American standards), Obama was an innovator, but also the embodiment of an innovation in American politics. Thisinnovation was characterised by a collective, grassroots approach to electoral politics and the exercise of power. As a former community organizer that reached the highest political post in the Western world,[3] Barack Obama became an icon for a new form of grassroots politics that does not disdain electoral processes.[4]

Moreover, as Mitchell states “his hyper-visibility is also a result of his unprecedented mastery of new media. Obama is not just the first Black president; he is the first wired president. And he is wired, not only into the internet, but also into what might be thought of as its exact opposite, namely the face to face encounter.” (2009: 125) Perhaps unknowingly –and despite employing the nebulous term “new media”– Mitchell addressed a fundamental element in OFA’s strategy: the coexistence of online and face-to-face encounters as a key to a successful political strategy in the 21st century milieu. In practical terms, the innovation consists in resorting to traditional campaign methods through the organization of diverse cliques using the Internet as a communication infrastructure, rather than investing the majority of resources on mass broadcasting.

Barack Obama’s historic electoral win in 2008 is considered by many (e.g. Anstead & Chadwick, 2008; Cohen, 2009) to be a landmark in recent electoral politics and its methods, not only in the United States, but also in other Western democracies.[5] For a score of pundits and academics, it represented, moreover, a turning point in the use of Web 2.0 tools in the formation and consolidation of communities around a political movement. In network theory terms, through technology multidirectional communication bridges could be established among individuals (nodes) and groups (cliques) that shared a common goal (the election of a Democrat) but were otherwise isolated. These digital tools also helped to visualize the fragmented nature of the vote (i.e. electoral colleges, as the Federation is, after all, a network itself in which power, information and resources continuously flow), identify vulnerable clusters and assign human and informational resources to their activation. This also helped prioritize campaign efforts (i.e. insistent campaigning in the so-called “battleground states”) and revolutionize fund-raising methods. This visualisation is a salient factor in the strategies currently being employed by OFA and TPP.

In 2008 a transformation of sorts was evident and even Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser in George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, stated: “I think we’ll be analyzing this election for years as a seminal, transformative race. The year campaigns leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined. The year we went to warp speed. The year the paradigm got turned upside down and truly became bottom up instead of top down.” (Nagourney, 2008) In other words: 2008 was the year in which the innovation of political uses of the Internet (through Twitter, Facebook and primarily the remediated campaign office in the OFA blog) and grassroots activism in the institutionalized electoral landscape achieved a critical mass.

It is easy to be misled, however, by the notion that the Obama experience is the vanguard in the use of online tools for the purpose of political organization or that it translated into a change in the whole of the American population. As Sey and Castells sentence, one must escape technological determinism: “The actual influence of the Internet in politics, and on the quality of democracy, has to be established by observation, not proclaimed as fate.” (2004: 364) Similarly, when analysing the enthusiasts who invested their time and energy in Howard Dean’s[6] primary campaign in 2004, a precursor to Obama’s in method and form, Hindman notes: “[…] survey suggests that liberals visit political Web sites much more than do moderates or conservatives.” And he adds: “Among self-identified Democrats, frequent visitors to political Web sites are dramatically more liberal than the party as a whole.”[7]

This gives us an idea of who forms the cliques that surround the Obama project, and the challenges it has faced since its establishment.

The innovation, the oxymoron
The idea of a mass, transformative grassroots movement that had the potential to take over government –even if it sprouted from a political institution as monolithic as the Democratic Party–, added to the capabilities of a Web 2.0 environment[8] and the deteriorated image of President George W. Bush, formed the “perfect storm” for the Obama innovation to percolate through the network of voters. The question is if whether OFA is still the beacon of those innovations or if, in its core, it rather forms part of the networks of power epitomized by the State.

Commanded by David Axelrod (top political advisor) and David Plouffe (campaign manager),[9] the Obama 2008 campaign not only secured the support of committed Democrats, but, as mentioned above, it also made use of informational technologies to identify, make visible, coordinate and expand various networks of political allegiance that had been neglected by the two major political parties. Everett argues that “the 2008 presidential election outcome became the real politik manifestation of the insistent ‘power to the people’ imperative advanced by 1960s era Civil Rights Movement activists.” (2009: 195) For lack of a better term,[10] pundits and academics agreed with OFA’s self-depiction as a “grassroots” political organisation.[11] Of the various options that the organisation provides citizens to get involved, we can single out “joining grassroots OFA campaigns to support the President’s agenda” and “spreading the word to friends and neighbours about the President’s approach on the big issues facing our nation, like health care, energy and education”.[12] (To those, we can now add the support of the Democrats in various elections, which is now part of “the President’s agenda”.)[13]

This sort of political stance (which has the community at its core) is commonly associated to 1960s activism and speaks of a bottom-up model in which everyday citizens organize to change their immediate environment through specific and coordinated actions foreign to electoral politics. However, the innovation that the Obama campaign introduced consisted in the incorporation of the grassroots reactionary mentality to the democratic establishment of US electoral politics. Accordingly, Schultz is critical of the Obama project, and suggests that “the ruthless appropriation… of the grass roots mobilizing of the community organizing tradition, but without the opposition to or disdain for electoral politics, are suggestive of the creative reconstruction that Obama represents” (2009: 160) This “creative reconstruction” revolved around the innovation of CHANGE, the leit motif of the Obama presidency and, currently, of the Democratic Party’s campaign to maintain majority in Congress.

For Castells, the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, from which the Obama project draws, “were the affirmation of a culture of personal freedom and social autonomy, both vis-à-vis capitalism and statism, challenging the conservative establishment as well as the traditional left.” (2004: 18) Under these terms, thus, the “creative reconstruction” alluded by Schultz is, in fact, oxymoronic. However, OFA continues to propagate the pairing of Democratic presidencies and grassroots movements and the diffusion ofinnovation through citizen networks: “Each and every time we’ve made epic change –from this country’s founding to emancipation, from women’s suffrage to workers’ rights– it has not come from a man. It has come from a grassroots movement rallying around a cause. That’s what we need again.” (From OFA’s Facebook feed, September 22, 2010.)
In addition, during a political rally in support of VOTE 2010, organized at the University of Wisconsin on September 29, 2010, Obama said: “Let’s show Washington one more time that change doesn’t come from the top. It doesn’t come from millions of dollars of special interest-funded attack ads. Change happens from the bottom up.”[14]

But now he is Washington. Regardless of the oxymoronic nature of this relationship, OFA maintains President Obama as the main opinion leader, as the central node of its vast network (see Figures 1 and 7). Would the percolation of OFA’s ideas be more effective if it disassociated from the President, if the movement became larger that its first adopter? OFA’s relationship to Obama, however, might be related to a trend identified by Rogers: “One role of the opinion leader in a social system is to help reduce the uncertainty about an innovation for his or her followers.” (2003: 143)

But as President his followers are now, theoretically, the whole of the population. And 60.5% of them are uncertain.

Obama ’08-VOTE 2010-Let’s Recycle Government: redefining innovations
OFA’s success in helping put Barack Obama in the White House could be attributed to its innovation of CHANGE reaching a critical mass by identifying percolating vulnerable clusters composed not necessarily by Obama partisans, but buy citizens disenchanted with government in general. This would explain why an important element of the Obama discourse during that campaign –this has changed dramatically during the presidency– was the bipartisan nature of his political agenda. He wanted to appeal (like Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s; see Bjerre-Poulsen, 2008) to Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, to keep early adopters on his ship and activate seemingly unreachable cliques.

As mentioned above, the mid-term elections will not only serve as a measure of the public approval for the first two years of the Obama presidency, but also of the prevalence of the online social media tools and strategies employed by OFA during that period, and the permanence of the innovation of CHANGE introduced in the 2008 campaign in light of the current oxymoronic nature of the Obama-OFA dyad. Perhaps some of the percolating vulnerable clusters that made OFA’s rise possible were formed by citizens who are dissatisfied with governmental institutions in general, regardless of the incumbents that run them and their party affiliation. The electoral process will also shine some light on how the Republican Party –mainly through the Let’s Recycle Government campaign commanded by the TPP– has adapted to the changing electoral milieu configured by the Democrats through the vast and interconnected digital and physical networks of local and national political allegiance in the United States. It is possible that the TPP will target and activate some of these vulnerable clusters previously aligned to the Democratic Party.

However, it all starts with an individual node. Watts states that an early adopter is “a node that will switch from an inactive to an active state under the influence of a single active neighbor.” (2003: 233) OFA’s success lies on taking this concept literarily: the Internet only serves to open citizen dialogue but does not necessarily translate into votes. The activation of nodes through face-to-face contact is the key (see Figure 1). And the TPP has also understood this. Table 1 summarizes the innovations and strategies (in both practical and ideological terms) in this trio of campaigns (OFA’S 2008 and 2010 efforts; TPP’s current campaign):

Precursor: Obama ‘08 campaign VOTE 2010 campaign Let’s Recycle Government campaign
Ideological innovation (main political platform) CHANGE in all levels of government. Maintain political power in the US government. Ensure that “Republicans don’t take control of Congress” so CHANGE can be fulfilled. Change in the current political status quo. Stop what they deem to be increasing government intervention by the Obama administration.
Relationship with the State Opposition to George W. Bush and the conservative establishment. Leader of grassroots organization is the head of State. Confrontational. Opposition to the Obama presidency and the Democratic majority in Congress.
Percolating vulnerable clusters to which messages were/are aimed The whole of the American population. Obama stressed a bipartisan approach to politics. Organizing for America members and loyal Democrats. Voters of a conservative political inclination, but also citizens in general dissatisfied with the Obama presidency.
Strategy towards the percolation of the ideological innovation Innovative use of Web 2.0 tools that allowed the coordination of online/off-line activities. OFA intended to expand its network of political allegiance and “reach across the aisle”. Does not strive to expand the network or “reach across the aisle”, but rather to nourish and maintain the strong ties among the majority that put the Obama project in power, focusing on locality and face-to-face activism triggered by online communications. Locate vulnerable clusters of individuals who disagree with current government policies and/or are aligned with conservative ideas. Formation of local Tea Parties through the identification of potentialearly adopters, both through online and off-line channels.

Table 1. Comparison between the Obama ’08, Let’s Recycle Government and VOTE 2010 campaigns.

The sterile off-line/online dichotomy

Even in 1990, ignorant of his future stature as world and national leader, Obama recognized the importance of using channels that enable direct communication with constituents:  “Our thinking about media and public relations is equally stunted when compared to the highpowered direct mail and video approaches successfully used by conservative organizations like the Moral Majority.” (Obama, 1990) The importance of media is taken into consideration by OFA and TPP in the 2010 mid-term elections, as they have made an ample use of online organisational tools that can be related to the five resources identified by Hara and Estrada as the ones from which the Internet “especially capitalizes” when it comes to the diffusion of grassroots politics: “knowledge, interpersonal interactions, identity support, and the building of credibility and legitimacy.” (2005: 5004) The Obama ’08 campaign had these five resources, the last two at the expense of sitting President George W. Bush. However, in the 2010 mid-term elections the equation is inverted, and in the eyes of some OFA lacks the “credibility” and “legitimacy” that the TPP are starting to garner and the Republican Party is getting back.

Figure 1. Call for door-to-door and telephone campaigning. From OFA’s Facebook feed (accessed September 24, 2010)

The practical innovations introduced by OFA in VOTE 2010, however, represent the aforementioned resources of knowledge, interpersonal interactions and identity support. The iPhone application distributed by the organisation, for example, does not call for the formation of online networks, but for activation of new nodes and the clear-cut identification of existing ones in the physical realm. OFA describes this app as “a groundbreaking tool that now provides volunteers everything they need to talk face to face with voters in their neighborhoods…” (OFA, 2010) This application allows early adopters to map the networks that exist among his/her neighbours and report on the activation of a node. This way, both OFA volunteers and the organisation at large can access a visual representation of their networks of political allegiance (see Figures 2 and 3). Another strategy promoted by OFA are the “Commit to Vote House Parties”, in which members of the organisation invite neighbours and, through face-to-face interaction in a thoroughly planned mini campaign-event, induce others to commit for the voting process (it is safe to assume that the vast majority of said activated notes will vote Democrat). The TPP are vying for something similar through their “One Million Yard Signs” campaign (www.onemillionyardsigns.com), through which they will make visible the expansion of the cascade they have triggered.

As Granovetter points out in one of his seminal papers, “studies of diffusion and mass communication have shown that people rarelyact on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955; Rogers 1962).” (1973: 1374) Obama knew this as a community organizer, and his campaign and White House teams are aware of the capabilities of the Internet to promote those “personal ties” in the physical realm, and create them in the digital milieu.


Figure 2. Banner in http://www.barackobama.com that promotes the download of OFA’s new iPhone application.


Figure 3.  OFA’s iPhone application, which maps out neighbourhoods for door-to-door campaigning and lets volunteers report on their efforts of activating nodes and promoting the creation of cliques.

Contrary to the despairing technological realities that the young Obama encountered, today what the Internet and mobile devices offer is “a way of overcoming barriers to local tie formation.” (Hampton, 2004: 225). OFA tries to either replicate political off-line practices (www.barackobama.com is a remediated campaign office) or to organise these off-line practices through the immediacy of informational networks. This reinforces the notion that in order to successfully trigger a cascade, any political campaign in the United States should be founded upon the potential of local ties to form a dense clique that will, in turn, construct bridges with other cliques (local and state OFA groups).

As Figure 5 shows, the Tea Party Patriots also rely on the identification of early adopters. They hold the advantage, nonetheless, of not only replicating a proven practical innovation, but of being the ideological innovators, the ones that hold the torch of the grassroots ideal of opposing the seemingly oppressive mechanisms of the State.

Ironically, the success of the Let’s Recycle Government! campaign might lay on OFA’s recycling of its innovations!

Figure 5. The conservative organization Tea Party Patriots has adapted and co-opted the term grassroots and replicated some of the online strategies pioneered by the Democratic Party and Organizing for America, such as the identification of early adopters (accessed October 4, 2010)


Figure 6. Through the campaign One Million Yard Signs, the Tea Party Patriots make visible the nodes that have been activated by their political innovation (accessed October 4, 2010)

Conclusions: the method is the discourse
Perhaps the fundamental question is not which tools are being used in political communication strategies to build social capital around a given movement or candidate, but which ones are being ignored and/or neglected.

In both OFA and TPP strategies a hierarchical practice of politics is still evident, as not all members of the network are able to introduce or propose innovations. They can be early adopters, but very rarely innovators. The diffusion mechanisms leading to the mid-term elections are designed for a mere reproduction and propagation of the ideas defined in the highest rungs of the party ladders. The design of both networks evidences a marked hierarchization of its nodes. Hindman detects “powerful hierarchies shaping a medium” in his evaluation of democratic practices in the Internet. (2009:16), and his is manifest in both the VOTE 2010 and Get Out The Vote campaigns.

Citizens fulfil the role of political soldiers rather than participants in an open discussion of ideas. In this sense, the computer-mediated element of grassroots organising does not add an element of horizontality to the configuration of policies and strategies.

What would be truly revolutionary in terms of political practices, would be for the grand parties, via organisations like OFA and TPP, to engage in pre-emptive collaborative processes with the citizenry through Web 3.0 platforms (there have been some fertile exercises in deliberative democracy).

The promise of a digital agora is yet to be fulfilled.

Figure 7. President Barack Obama continues to be the main node and principal opinion leader in Organizing for America. In this video, he takes a partisan stand and asks his supporters to help OFA stop Republicans from taking over Congress.


References

Anstead, Nick and Chadwick, Andrew (2008) “Lessons of the US Digital Campaign” in Renewal: a Journal of Labour Politics. 16; 121.

Bjerre-Poulsen (2008) “The Road to Mount Rushmore: The Conservative Commemoration Crusade for Ronald Reagan” in Hudson, Cheryl and Davies, Gareth (eds.). Ronald Reagan and the 1980s: Perceptions, Policies, Legacies. New York: Palgrave

Macmillan.

Cohen, Jeffrey E (2009) Going Local: Presidential Leadership in the Post-Broadcast Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Everett, Anna (2008) “The Afro-Geek in Chief: Obama and our New Media Ecology” in Journal of Visual Culture. 8; 193.

Hara, Noriko and Zilia Estrada (2005) “Analyzing the movilization of grassroots activities via the internet: a case study” in Journal of Information Science. 31; 503.

Hampton, Keith N. (2004) “Networked sociability online, off-line” in Castells, Manuel, The Network Society: a Cross-cultural Perspective. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 217-232.

Harrison, T and Barthel, B. (2009) “Wielding new media in Web 2.0: exploring the history of engagement with the collaborative construction of media products” in New Media Society. 11; 155.
Hindman, Matthew (2009). The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Lin, Yajou and Marsh, David (2008) “New Forms of Political Participation: Searching for Expert Citizens and Everyday Makers” in B.J. Pol.S, 38, Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T (2009) “Obama as icon” in Journal of Visual Culture; 8; 125.

Nagourney, Adam. “The ’08 Campaign: Sea Change for Politics as We Know It”, The New York Times. November 3, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/04/us/politics/04memo.html (accessed September 26, 2010).

Obama, Barack (1990) “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City” in After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. Springfield: Peg Knoepfle.

Schultz, Bart (2009) “Obama’s Political Philosophy: Pragmatism, Politics, and The University of Chicago” in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 39; 127.

Sey, Araba and Castells, Manuel (2004) “From media politics to networked politics: the Internet and the political process” in Castells, Manuel, The Network Society: a Cross-cultural Perspective. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 217-232.

Watts, Duncan J (2002) “A simple model of global cascades on random networks” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol: 99 Issue: 9, pp. 5766-5771.

Watts, Duncan J (2003) “Thresholds, cascades and predictability” in Six Degrees: the Science of a Connected Age. New York and London: W.W. Norton, pp. 220-252.

Wolverton II, Joe (2010) “Tea Party: a Brewing Movement” in The New American. 6; 10. (Accessed online via ProQuest on October 2, 2010).

Online references

Organizing for America homepage. http://www.barackobama.com/ (accessed September 21, 2010)

Tea Party Patriots homepage. http://www.teapartypatriots.org/ (accessed September 21, 2010)

Real Clear Politics. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/ (accessed September 18, 2010)


[1] As of September 28, 2010, his approval rating was at a mere 44.5% and 60.5% of the population considered that the country was on the “Wrong Track”, according to RealClearPolitics.com

[2] This conservative movement is not overtly aligned with the Republican Party but supports its candidates, follows its political inclinations and is supported, among others, by the Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2008, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Wolverton recalls the genesis of the Tea Party movement: “… there has emerged a vociferous band within the electorate who, like their tea tossing forebears, feel they have been precluded from participating in the direction the ship of state will sail, and they have decided to protest the insupportable behaviour of a government that habitually oversteps its constitutional boundaries. Fed up and fired up, they have chosen to exercise their constitutional prerogative of peaceful assembly, hence the Tea Party Movement.” (2010).

[3] It would be important to enquire, however, about the real extent of the President’s power vis à vis the magnitude of the private sector’s influence in policy-making, and the fragmented nature of the exercise of power in the United States.

[4] There are some other international examples, however, like those of Lech Walesa in Poland, Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia, who got to power after leading grassroots movements from the trenches of trade unions, in the case of the first two, and indigenous minorities, in the case of the later.

[5] In Australia, the political activism of Get Up! (www.getup.org.au) has adopted some of the viral techniques employed by the Obama campaign, from which they got training leading to the 2010 federal elections in August 2010.

[6] Chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Obama campaign.

[7] Reports of the 2000 and 2002 General Social Survey (GSS), as reported in Hindman, Matthew (2009) The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, p.16

[8] Harrison & Barthel outline this canvas, in which OFA operates: “The popularity of Web 2.0 applications demonstrates that, regardless of their levels of technical expertise, users can wield technologies in more active ways than had been apparent previously to traditional media producers and technology innovators. Users build and maintain social networks, they tag and rank information in ‘folksonomies’ and become deeply involved in immersive virtual web experiences. They do all these things in collaboration, pooling knowledge and constructing content that they share with each other, which is subsequently remixed, redistributed and reconsumed.” (2009: 157)

[9] His account of the 2008 campaign, where he lays out the blueprints of its digital strategy and the formation of networks, can be explored at: Plouffe, David (2009) The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory. New York: Viking Adult,.

[10] We could resort, alternatively, to Bang’s categories of contemporary types of political participation, especially to his Everyday Makers, which in network theory terms can be seen as early adopters and/or innovators. As Lin and Marsh (2008) explain, these “do not feel defined by the state; they are neither apathetic about, nor opposed to, it. They do not want to waste time getting involved with the state; they prefer to be involved at the lowest possible, local, level. Everyday Makers typically think globally, but act locally. They have no interest in producing a new form of interest representation and have minimal interest in party politics… They aim to encourage what Bang terms ‘small local narratives’.” (251)

[11] OFA describes itself as “the successor organization to Obama for America, [which] is building on the movement that elected President Obama by empowering communities across the country to bring about our agenda of change.” (From http://www.barackobama.com, accessed October 3, 2010).

[12] From http://www.barackobama.com, accessed September 24, 2010.

[13] In January 2010, for example, OFA campaigned enthusiastically for the election of Martha Coakley as the replacement of Ted Kennedy in the Senate. This was seen as a key to the approval of the Health Care Reform in March. The Democratic Party notoriously lost the seat to Republican Scott Brown.

[14] The video can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28XM4fb93Zo (accessed September 30, 2010).

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

How “fresh” or “rotten” is your movie? Let the people decide.

Last week I wrote about how film critics are both important nodes and early adopters in the diffusion network through which a film gets introduced to potential audiences. I discussed how their opinion is still important when triggering a cascade that will lead towards profit margins and the popularity of the film. However, what we may call “the film critic model” is soon going loose (if it hasn’t happened already) its “throne”, as sites like Rotten Tomatoes call for  collaborative reviews in which critics are only a factor in the equation. Through percentages acquired by a collection of reviews and from the “like” or “dislake” of audiences, Rotten Tomatoes certifies the “freshness” of the innovation (see image below). However, it still establishes hierarchies, and isolates the “top critics” (Ebert and co.), preserving their status as opinion leaders. Therefore, Rotten Tomatoes is a bridge between traditional and new forms of film critique, as it empowers users to collaborate in the grading of a film (networked, collective knowledge) but is clear in defining that the opinion of critics is still more important in the process of reaching that critical mass that defines the financial failure or success of a film. Or is it? I believe that through the popularization of Web 3.0 applications that interpret the semantic web, the cloud, to define tendencies such as moviegoing preferences, the status of film critics will be diminished (their number of occasional and frequent readers -weak and strong ties- will subside), and the industry will be wholly ruled by the ever-present buzz surrounding pop culture artifacts and events.

In my view, what is good about this model is that it adds a communal element to film critique that is a reflection of the communal act of moviegoing itself. So, do you think film critics will survive? The video shown below -from Rotten Tomatoes’ YouTube channel- is an exemplar of the new power relations in this arena. There is no one opinion to rule them all, but a collaborative, divergent and thesis/antithesis approach to the validation of an innovation.

References

Basuroy, Suman, Subimal Chatterjee and  S. Abraham Ravid (2003) ‘How Critical Are Critical Reviews? The Box Office Effects of Film Critics, Star Power, and Budgets’ in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 103-117

Rogers, Everett (2003) ‘Diffusion networks’ in Cross, Rob, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003) Networks in the knowledge economy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 130-179.

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W. W. Norton, pp.220-252

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

How does an independent movie with a limited marketing budget become a sensation as viewed by millions? Why do some big budget Hollywood extravaganzas end up being an utter flop? At the end, the answer to these questions leads to a third inquiry  : “Who do people turn to when seeking advice on what film to watch?”. In some instances it is friends or family, with whom they might share a similar taste in movies. But most of the times, they base their decision on the rating given to the film by the almighty critics and, more recently, by online concord in sites like the Internet Movie Database or Rotten Tomatoes (Part 2, to be published next week).

The way in which a film (an “innovation”) is diffused through the networks of moviegoers makes for a fascinating case study in the area of network theories. We could approach the issue through Watts’ notion of “cascades”, in that through festival buzz, good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, a film lie Little Miss Sunshine or Paranormal Activity, for instance,  can reach a threshold that takes it from the arthouse theater to the multiplex, and, most importantly, from red numbers to profirt. For years, film critics have enjoyed a powerful position in Hollywood, as they are the early adopters of any given innovation and through their position as opinion leaders are able to promote or discard (diffuse it or stop its difussion) an innovation through traditional (newspapers, television, radio) and newer media like the online portals or mobile phone applications. Critics like Roger Ebert and his “Thumbs Up” rating system are part of the American and world film pop culture and their opinion holds a strong influence in the highly heterophilious network (as identified by Rogers) of world audiences. Rogers states that there is  “a general tendency for followers to seek information and advice from opinion leaders who are perceived as more technically competent than themselves.” (2003: 137) Film critics are regarded as professional cinephiles, individuals who might not hold a degree in Film Studies, but who have an educated, monolithic opinion based on years of movie-watching.

Basuroy, Chatterjee and Ravid (2003) analyzed the effect that reviews and critics have in the box-office performance of a film,  concluding that “negative reviews hurt revenue more than positive reviews help revenue in the early weeks of a film’s release. This suggests that whereas studios favor positive reviews and dislike negative reviews, the impact is not symmetric.” (2003: 116) They offer advice to film studios In the context of a limited budget, studios should spend more to control damage than to promote positive reviews. In other words, there may be more cost effective options than spending money on advertisements that tout the positive reviews.” (Ibidem). Identifying and dissecting the main opinion leaders in each market could, moreover, help the studios design intelligent, efficient marketing and PR mechanisms to have their film reach a critical mass that benefits the return of the capital invested in the production of any given film.

Part 2 of this post will deal with how web pages like Rotten Tomatoes bring together the evaluation of different opinion leaders and, by doing so, become opinion leaders in turn.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

References

Basuroy, Suman, Subimal Chatterjee and  S. Abraham Ravid (2003) ‘How Critical Are Critical Reviews? The Box Office Effects of Film Critics, Star Power, and Budgets’ in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 103-117

Rogers, Everett (2003) ‘Diffusion networks’ in Cross, Rob, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003) Networks in the knowledge economy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 130-179.

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W. W. Norton, pp.220-252

Almost two years ago, when I was an editor at Cine PREMIERE magazine, I went to the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City to, out of curiosity, record a round table of a guy named Robert Pattinson, who had been welcomed by thousands of fans at the airport. He was the protagonist of a new vampire movie called Twilight, which apparently was based on a very popular teenage-lit series. I had no clue who Robert Pattinson was, and had only heard distant comments about the book series. But even if the movie hadn’t been released yet, thousands of teenage girls wanted to meet Pattinson. I recorded the interview, uploaded it to our website and…. what a surprise! The numbers for both the website and our YouTube channel suddenly went off the chart, and our online forums started to get new users with names such as “twilightchick”, “amoacrepúsculo”, “edwardloveme” and such. Literally thousands of new users flooded our website. I had no idea that the Twilight saga had such a following and that it would translate so successfully from the literary to the cinematographic milieus. After the trend continued for some more weeks. After everything we published about Twilight in our website got record numbers, we had to sit down and discuss how we were going to profit from this unexpected phenomenon in the printed version of the magazine. It was a loooong meeting. Some said that the magazine couldn’t fall for it and that it was too respectable to put Twilight on the cover. Others like me said that if all those fans that had invaded the website were to buy the physical version of the magazine, we would get record numbers. We did it and…. we got record numbers. We identified a trend that we didn’t know existed. I watched the movie and the crappy dialogue, bad FX and terrible acting made the phenomenon all the more intriguing. Why would a story as crappy as this get thousands of fans? Why would all these teenage girls camp on the airport just to get a glimpse of this Pattinson dude?

When discussing “Thresholds, Cascades and Predictability”, Duncan Watts (2003), offers some insight into that enigmatic question. Although he accepts that mass cultural contagions have an element of randomness (“But once in a while, for reasons that are never obvious beforehand, one such shock gets blown out of all proportion in the form of a cascade”. p.97), he is clear in establishing a model in which phenomena can be understood. In the case of Twilight and under Watt’s terms, the “early adopters” of the innovation were the avid readers of Stephenie Meyer’s fiction… and they truly became “apostles” of the teenage-vampire universe. These early adopters propagated their creed through a vast network of online discussion forums, which elevated the saga to a cult status that was, in turn, brought to the surface by the more publicized release of the theatrical film and the thousands of words and images it has gotten via tabloid coverage of the romantic whereabouts of the protagonists. But the question remains. Why is Twilight so popular? Why is the love for it as intense as the hatred  it inspires? Once again, Watts’ notions can be of help: because as a random innovation, Twilight struck on a “vulnerable cluster”. That of the emo culture (listen to the saga’s soundtrack), the teenage attraction to “bad boys” and the popular love for vampire stories that hadn’t been served on a mass level since Anne Rice reigned as the vampire queen in the 90s. The cascade triggered by Twilight has benefited other vampire movies, TV series and products. The most prominent among them is HBO’s series True Blood, which relates to a more mature audience. Watts also says that in order to understand these success stories, these sudden almighty cascades, “the trick is to focus not on the stimulus itself [Twilight] but on the structure of the network that the stimulus hits [a vast informational web brought to life by savvy, young Internet users]” (112).

I still don’t get a vampire with glowing skin, though.

Reference

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W.W. Norton, pp.220-252.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

Developed by Mozilla (the folks who brought you Firefox), Popcorn is a web video application that integrates diverse Web 2.0 tools and applications and makes visible the semantic network of the subjects and objects that appear in a video. It is YouTube revamped, remediated. Through Google’s geolocation tools, it tells you where the video was filmed. Wikipedia offers an entry on the authors and/or subjects depicted on the video. There is also the Twitter feed of the author and of the people that appear onscreen, as well as their Flickr galleries and a Google newsfeed related to the subject matter. A nice add-on is the copyright information of the images, which could indicate if it can be used by a remix artist, for example. Subtitles are also offered in diverse languages.

This application is a visualization of the semantic networks that already exist on the Internet (and, to a larger extent, in our increasingly mediated reality). Furthermore, it fulfills the potential of the Web 2.0 as identified by Harrison & Barthel: “Users build and maintain social networks, they tag and rank information in ‘folksonomies’ and become deeply involved in immersive virtual web experiences. They do all these things in collaboration, pooling knowledge and constructing content that they share with each other, which is subsequently remixed, redistributed and reconsumed.” (2009: 157) However, by providing all this information at once, the application could, at the same time, limit and inhibit the participation of the users, as the information is already ranked and tagged by the program. How much of this “collaboration” will be lost if applications like Popcorn take over the role now held by involved cybernauts?

As well as the aforementioned visualization of some of the semantic relationships a cultural object like a video has in the Internet, Popcorn (still in development) makes evident the increasingly centralized nature of information in the Internet. Google, Twitter, Flickr and Wikipedia (Facebook has not been thrown in the mix) hold, so to speak, the control of knowledge in the digital environment. And not only that: they tend to gain more and more validation. Web 2.0 environments might look like a democratic agora, like the pinnacle of shared knowledge, but they are still governed by oligopolies that rank and distribute information, and whose role in the shaping of this virtual social graph is more important as software develops and consumer practices lean towards multi-platform activities. He who owns the platform will hold the power.

Also, will this be the start of a truly socialized online television practice?

Visit the demo page:

http://webmademovies.etherworks.ca/popcorndemo/

REFERENCES
Harrison, T and Barthel, B (2009) “Wielding new media in Web 2.0: exploring the history of engagement with the collaborative construction of media products”, New Media Society,11; 155

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

Upon reflecting about the concept of globalization as one of the driving forces that Darin Barney (2004) identifies as one of the main social, political and financial drives that led to the network society, I realized that recent historical revisions of this network society rarely touch on an institution that, in my opinion, is one of the first and foremost forms of networked organizations: the Catholic Church.

Even a short and critical recount of this instutution’s history, like the one rendered by Hans Kung in The Catholic Church, reveals the vast network of political influence and information sharing that this truly globalised institution created, commanded and managed. For instance, the only constant link between the Americas and Europe, even at the times of the independentist movements in the 19th century, was the sharing of ideological, material and jurisdictional assets among the Vatican, regional representations and local churches. Whereas in the political and philosophical arenas the new and the old regimes severed most ties, communication flows between Church authorities remained constant and efficient. The in vogue adage, “Think global, act local” has been applied, for better or for worse, for centuries by the Catholic Church. Even today, when people marvel at the global scale of some corporation’s worldwide coordination efforts, the Catholic Church (from the Middle Ages onward) can be seen as an exemplar of a mechanism that permits a flow of money, ideology and human resources (not without acts of physically and psychologically violent cohersion, of course).

It is not my intention to exalt this institution, but only to set it as an example of a centuries-old intitution that functions as a network and to stress the fact that networks have existed for many, many years and globalization and thr network society are not concepts that belong only in sci-fi, technology-driven settings. As to why most network society theorists seem to ignore the complexity, both material and ideological, of this global web composed of millions of material (churches, cathedrals), human (believers and priests) and ideological nodes and goods, it is beyond my understanding.

References

Barney, Darin (2004) The Network Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kung, Hans (2001) The Catholic Church: a Short History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

When I was in high-school (1994-1997), the “in” word in that new, enigmatic medium called the Internet was “virtual”. That “computer program” (that is what most of the people I knew considered it to be; some even asked, politely: “Can I borrow your Internet?” or “How many Internets do you have?”) served not only to download images of Pamela Anderson covered by a miniscule red one-piece swimsuit, but also to engage in “virtual” worlds, in chat messages where you could “be yourself” and where, hopefully, you would get a girlfriend. Albeit, a “virtual” girlfriend who would only be represented by a series of flashing dots on a computer screen. I became obsessed with this new medium, and the beeepppp-crrrr-beeeep sound of the modem would be music to my ears. My piece of equipment, a now archaic Compaq Presario, was a gate to access what promised to be a “virtual” reality where you could escape from the tribulations of the “real” world, the carnage of high-school, the same stories from your friends. But the promise was not fulfilled. This virtual “world” was but a wasteland of binary code that lacked any real human connection. Sure, I had a couple of online “girlfriends”, but it was surely nothing like having a real one (which I got as soon as my affaire with this unfulfilled virtuality was over). In “Virtual Communities or Network Society?” Manuel Castells argues that those post-apocalyptic views of the Internet causing social isolation and producing individuals that are immersed in a virtual reality are far-fetched and ill informed, and that Internet interaction is actually based in real-life relationships. This opinion was constructed by “building its statements on the observation of a few experiences among early users of the Internet.” (Castells, 2001: 117). This opinion also lead, I think, to the implosion of the dotcom era, as many companies disregarded physical, real-life ties and thought that users would immerse in new, “virtual” words and develop strong ties with new brands or news channels. 15 years after my first encounters with the Internet, most of the sites I visit on a daily basis (LeMonde, NY Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Reforma) are the online arm of media I previously had a tie with. Moreover,  the friends I keep in touch with through Messenger or Gmail chat are people I met in the “real world”. Thus, Castells’ words resonate: “The Internet does not seem to have a direct effect on the patterning of everyday life, generally speaking, except for adding on-line interactions to existing social relationships.” (2001: 119) The sci-fi scenario envisioned by 1990s technological determinists is far from being fulfilled.

In your case, how “virtual” is your life?

This meat grinder is NOT the Internet.

Reference

Castells, Manuel (2001) “Virtual Communities or Network Society?” in The Internet galaxy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 116-136.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).