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The Death of Networks

The Death of Networks

Occupy and the Arab Spring are often glowingly compared to the decentralized, democratic internet. But that very similarity may have doomed these movements from the beginning.

Illustration by Yarek Waszul.

The first wall appeared a few months ago, stretching across busy Mohammed Mahmoud Street. Others soon followed, cleaving downtown Cairo in two. On one side: the protesters who continue to occupy the blocks surrounding Tahrir Square, where, in early 2011, many of them helped bring an end to Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule. On the other: the military that then stood with them, now seen as yet another obstacle to the realization of a more free and democratic Egypt. For activists still in the streets, the walls—stone or concrete barriers intended to protect the infamous Ministry of the Interior and other government buildings—symbolize a stalled revolution. For other Egyptians, the ongoing clashes that necessitated their construction point to an impatient, intransigent fringe, one that gives the army more excuses to delay the full transition to civilian rule. 

Egypt’s path from universal discontent to unruly discord mirrored the direction of so many world events over the past year. The Arab Spring unseated dictators and unsettled entrenched monarchies. India, Russia and even China erupted in uncommonly brazen anti-corruption demonstrations. Elsewhere, dissidents railed against fiscal policy and high finance. Occupy Wall Street and the riots in Athens were the most high-profile efforts, but Spain’s indignados, or “indignants,” bore the name that best expressed this global anger. 

Today, whatever promise these movements first held no longer seems clear. Egyptian unease echoes in the still-bloody streets of Damascus, Tripoli and Sana’a. After Occupy camps were evicted across North America, the movement faded from the headlines. The indignados’ revolt against austerity measures appeared irrelevant after deficit hawks swept the Spanish polls. The rapid, nearly simultaneous rise and fall of these movements suggests that they were linked by more than just timing. Unlike the systems they opposed, each appeared to simulate the decentralized, nonhierarchical networks that characterize life on the internet. And yet it’s this same likeness to the web that may have squandered the protests’ potential from the start. 

Commentators had considered the internet a stimulus for this unrest since the Arab Spring began. But as attention shifted from the Middle East to rallies spreading across the more web-connected West, the discussion of technology’s impact on global movements also changed. Pundits began to argue that, beyond simply linking people and enabling demonstrations to expand, the web had also altered the very ways people behaved—changing, in turn, the nature of political discontent.  

For media theorist Douglass Rushkoff, 2011’s protests were a “true internet-era movement.” Criticizing those who denounced the movements’ lack of goals or leaders, he wrote that Occupy, “the product of the decentralized networked-era culture…is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the internet.” Looking at the year’s other uprisings in a similar light, Rushkoff compared traditional media outlets that didn’t understand internet-style agitation to “spokesmen for Arab dictators feigning bewilderment over protesters’ demands.”

Others ran with the idea. “What does it mean for a protest movement to be like the internet?” asked the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, who noted that the protests’ fluid messages reflected the viral nature of online memes. Journalism professor Andrew Lih offered another analogy. “Occupy Wall Street,” he blogged, brought to mind “the folks who edit Wikipedia.” Each group was “a leaderless grassroots gathering of passionate individuals with similar concerns, trying to find consensus.” Some protesters affirmed what might have otherwise seemed like abstract theory. One indignado told sociologists that “conversation in social networks” inspired the demonstrations’ emphasis on collective decision-making. 

Other observers may not have made the internet analogy explicit, but still saw the protests’ wiki-style, open-source activism—more process- than goal-oriented—as their defining feature. From Tahrir to the occupiers’ Zuccotti Park to the indignados’ Puerta del Sol, city squares were said to function as autonomous zones that offered templates for a liberated society—laboratories in which people might prove their capacity to govern themselves more directly. As a model for this form of activism, the internet could be seen as the uprisings’ cause: to those living in unequal or autocratic societies, the apparently participatory nature of the web suggested that, to echo the protest refrain, “another world is possible.”

We’ve long liked to believe in the potential of people power, and for many years internet culture seemed to offer the best hope yet for a society based on collaborative, nonhierarchical values. Law professor Yochai Benkler’s 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks, argued emphatically that participatory online environments like Wikipedia “offer defined improvements in autonomy, democratic discourse, cultural creation and justice.” Lih’s panegyric, The Wikipedia Revolution, was even more irrationally exuberant about online voluntarism. 

But examine Wikipedia closely and it becomes clear that the online encyclopedia has become successful largely by surrendering much of the individual freedom and open discourse that net utopians celebrate. The project has sacrificed equality for efficiency. Endless edit wars have gradually coaxed users into handing control to a small group of powerful moderators; to successfully appeal to their authority, editors must wade through labyrinths of bureaucratic code. It’s unsurprising that Wikipedia’s order and organization have come at the price of a steadily decreasing contributor base.

At the same time, all the power aggregated by Wikipedia’s elite still fails to prevent individual contributors from unleashing bursts of spam or vandalism. Open, unlimited participation risks more than the site’s reputation; last year, Italian Wikipedia temporarily shut down to protest a planned law that would have held it responsible for libel posted by any individual contributor. This January, English Wikipedia followed suit, reacting to a proposed US law, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have made the site answerable for any user’s misuse of intellectual property. Opponents stressed that the bill could effectively end participatory culture online—underscoring that culture’s vulnerability to organized outside forces. 

To the extent that the past year’s protests were really akin to collaborative networks online, they also shared those networks’ weaknesses. Occupy and the Arab Spring drew support because neither movement offered a clear vision of the future beyond the status quo; participants could picture the utopia of their choice. But the question of how to harness the spirit of protest into concrete action forced demonstrators to define their goals more clearly—and presented a threat to the movements’ unity. Total equality proved too unwieldy for the thousands editing Wikipedia, let alone the millions making up a nation-state. And openness carries the same risks that endangered the online encyclopedia: anyone acting in the protest’s name can claim its mantle. 

Occupy supporters justifiably say the protests succeeded in spreading their message; Egypt’s activists say that they created the possibility of change. But they were able to do so only by surrendering the galvanizing force of their rhetoric—and opportunities for systemic reform—to more established, cynical players. Occupy’s themes were openly co-opted by for-profit forces: supporters of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline promised “Jobs for the 99%,” ridiculing the environmentalism of “Hollywood’s elite.” In Egypt, an appetite for early elections left liberal groups too disorganized to defeat the mighty Muslim Brotherhood, which now has few incentives to challenge the army. For protesting dissidents, the irony is painful: Cairo’s walls were built with the tacit support of the Brotherhood, a democratically popular group their chants helped bring closer to power. 

Similar walls are now extending across networks online. The explosive growth of smartphone and tablet use spawned the app, a medium that’s grown popular through the same crowd-sourced creativity that built Wikipedia. But apps limit interconnectivity by segregating users from the wider web, and their prevalence makes one wonder whether most netizens ever preferred open interaction to begin with. Silent majorities keep their distance from demonstrations; passive consumerism is still the way most people spend their time online. 

If the internet ideal inspired the protest movements of the past year, it’s little wonder they’re struggling: collaborative online culture is fighting for its life. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales even compared the SOPA fight to the Arab Spring. Yet, as many editors have complained, Wikipedia actually dispensed with consensus in holding a vote on the site’s protest blackout. Internet culture hasn’t sufficed as the answer to its own challenges—let alone those facing analog activists. However much the perceived openness of online existence is an end worth fighting for, it may not be the most effective means.