Communication Currents

Building Resistance One Byte at a Time

June 1, 2011
Digital Communication & Gaming

Dissentworks is a way to understand how ICTs can be used to develop relatively independent communication networks and media and understand the impacts this has on the way people engage in collective action. The use of Twitter and Facebook to impact the North African and Middle Eastern revolts is one current example of this phenomenon. 

Beginning in the late 1980s and accelerating during the 1990s, the Micro Radio Movement was an effort to seize a space for community media in the form of small FM radio stations. The Micro Radio Movement battled the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and even National Public Radio (NPR) for the right to put low power community FM radio stations on the air. Anarchist-run stations led the charge by putting stations on the air in acts of “electronic civil-disobedience” in hopes of overwhelming the FCC. Emboldened by a favorable (if short-lived) Federal Court Ruling, they were soon joined in coalition by a diverse and nationally distributed collection of community and church groups, social entrepreneurs, and libertarians who all wanted access to the media on their own terms. 

Despite being vastly outspent, with few resources, little political support, and under threat of their stations being seized by armed Federal Marshalls, the Micro Radio Movement gained a measure of victory in 2000 with the creation of a Low Power FM Service. As a researcher and an organizer within the movement I, along with many participants, wondered how we could have possibly overcome such long odds. Was it the difficulties in shutting these small stations down? Perhaps community support at the local level? These were definitely factors. But there was something else going on in the 1990s that served as a structure to diversify and mobilize a national movement – the Internet.

Communication technologies do not make social movements, but they can provide an integral part of an infrastructure that facilitates dissent, maximizes shared resources, and fosters interaction across diverse social networks, thus allowing smaller and more distributed insurgent movements to “punch above their weight.” The infrastructure provided by a combinations of analog media and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can also provide opportunities for the emergence of dense networks of electronically linked interpersonal relationships and group affiliations that can take the place of formal organizational structures and allow for apparently “leaderless” or, more accurately, polycentric, dynamic, and tactically led movements.

Movements are the result of many factors and in the case of Micro Radio that was the perceived decline in the quality and diversity of US media, a lay understanding of free speech, and activists desire to use the best, least expensive, most efficient organizing technology they had access to – radio. What was interesting about Micro Radio was how old and new communication technology was cobbled together to create an organizational infrastructure to directly challenge government and private sector power.

Collective action is largely built on relationships and ICTs can expand and fix these social networks. The communication imperative drives us to maximize our communication satisfaction and interaction. We seem to intuitively navigate around any obstacles that interfere with our relational fulfillment. Certainly under-resourced media activists were adept at cobbling together any technologies to further their goals. Most Micro Radio stations were put on the air for a few hundred dollars with scavenged equipment and transmitter kits and operated on a shoestring with their own money and community donations. What I began to notice was that this Do it Yourself (DIY) attitude that chose to build a new system rather than demand reform of the old, egalitarian organizational philosophy, and emerging ICTs and networks seemed to be forming a coherent and novel strategy for action. This is something that I described as a dissent-network.

Based on research on the Micro Radio Movement and the related global Independent Media Center network (aka the IMC or Indymedia) I identified an infrastructural movement, that is, a movement whose primary goal was a structural dissent from existing systems of control – in this case media systems. The act of dissent in the dissent network is dissent through the removal of consent to the existing system - the creation/adoption of an alternative system through the abandonment of the existing regime. Participants no longer consent to the confines of the existing system’s control. These movements are action-oriented, rely on relational networks, and emerge from interactions between relatively uniform networks that in turn form a larger diverse network. These emerge via an unofficial consensus on the failure of existing systems and are created to fill unmet community needs.

Dissentwork Theory is based on four primary elements:

1.  A consensus on the failure of the old system and the adoption or creation of an alternative system to meet community needs.

2.  The development of dense relational networks that allow for interactions that foster communication horizontally and vertically across the movement.

3.  Process and resource sharing whereas the product or purpose of a system (mobilization) cannot be separated from theprocess of how the system is organized (latency).

4. Finally, digital networks prove central in building and maintaining relationships necessary for communicating a consensus on the system’s failure, cultivating relationships through ease of interaction, and merging latency (best practices) and mobilization (doing) into one process.

A dissent network is perpetual mobilization, involving the action of constructing and maintaining an alternative structure. During this process, the act of member participation facilitates building identity, socializes participants, and develops best practices through direct action, resource sharing /pooling and detail to organizational process.

Two particularly intriguing discoveries emerged from this research. The first of these was the relational density that developed via ICTs such as email, listservs, and hyperlinking. Aside from the obvious communication advantages, these “killer apps” allowed participants to bridge and broker relationships across multiple social networks creating dense multi-level networks of  relationships. The ability to communicate through multiple channels reduced bottlenecks and blunted the development of a central authority. Information cascades through the network taking multiple paths. Relationship paths became digitally “fixed” and easier to maintain and expand in an established network of links, discussion boards, lists, and email. In this case, the structure of the network was a substitute for a more formal and traditional organization and served to hold the movement together as long as solidarity and a common goal were maintained.

The second discovery was that a movement based on the development of an alternative infrastructure could confound the normal development of social movements by collapsing mobilization (doing) with the negotiation of collective identity, the socialization of participants, and the development of best practices (latency). Social movements frame collective identity through action and interaction within the movement and how the movement views itself and, through its actions such as building and operating radio station, how it defines itself. Since the main focus was to create an infrastructure for supporting and operating an alternative media system, collective identity, socialization, and the development of best practices found their form in the act of mobilizing through building these radio stations and their support network. ICTs provide a space where it is much easier to build new parallel infrastructure to provide alternative choices and fill unmet community needs.

About the author (s)

Ted M. Coopman

San José State University