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Meshworking: A New Theoretical Approach to
Online Communication by Non-Governmental Organizations
AEJMC 2004 National Convention
Communication Theory and Methodology Division
August 4-7, 2004
James Frank Carstens
Department of Communications
University of South Alabama
6650 Cottage Hill Rd. # 914
1000 University Commons
Mobile, Alabama 36695
Mobile, Alabama 36688
E-mail:[log in to unmask]
E-mail:[log in to unmask]
The sociological theory of meshworking is discussed conceptually as a
communication theory applicable to online cybernetworks that are enabling
advocacy groups and new social movements to achieve changes in social,
cultural, economic and political practices. The main characteristics of
meshworking - self-organizing, articulation of heterogeneous elements,
hybridity with other meshworks and hierarchies, and high connectivity - are
reflected in the communication structures, processes and strategies of the
online communications of non-governmental organizations.
Meshworking: A New Theoretical Approach To
Online Communication By Non-Governmental Organizations
The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web has created possibilities
for communication at a scale and speed unprecedented in history, with
millions of web sites acting as sources for information on countless
topics. It has become the central medium of the new Information Age. The
rise of a new communications medium, especially one that combines salient
features of current communication technologies and improves on them –
instant email, instant access, printing, visual and audio, an unlimited
content base, and self-publishing, all on a global scale – has lead
proponents of the age of cyberspace to proclaim its potential to change
Some of this potential has already been seen and experienced individually
through the ubiquitous use of email and instant messaging, and the seeming
ability to access an unlimited number of web sites about any given topic.
The growth of electronic commerce and the dot.com boom (and bust) have
permeated all levels of local and
global commerce and business. Media presence on the web has blossomed as
newspapers, magazines and television interests have added web sites to
their publishing domains. Almost all regional and national government
agencies and affiliates have web sites as mandated by law or policies,
giving citizens access to amounts of government-related information almost
unobtainable before the growth of the Internet. Indeed, the Internet does
seem to be the perfect medium for the Information Age, allowing an
unlimited number of people unlimited access to an unlimited amount of
This paper is an attempt to understand how people who are interested in
social and political change and who are part of groups that have become
known as "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) are using the Internet to
achieve certain goals such as the formation of identity, opportunities for
agency and the creation and dissemination of knowledge. How does the
Internet and computer-mediated-communication (CMC) help these groups to
achieve their goals? What characteristics of the Internet and the World
Wide Web (www) do the online communications of these groups share and how
are they connected? This paper proposes that the theory of "meshworking"
(DeLanda, 1997, 2001) as applied to the new social movements (NSMs) by
Escobar (2000) is applicable and useful in analyzing and understanding the
elements and characteristics of the online communication networks developed
by NGOs. Individual NGOs, such as the Sierra Club, are not considered new
social movements unto themselves, but when grouped under the umbrella of
the "environmental movement" then become part of what is considered a NSM.
As such, the number of NGOs focused on a particular topic may have an
additional impact on the scope of cultural and political changes caused by
other non-NGO venues such as voting, boycotts, and shifts in value-based
Studies about the Internet and its use have grown exponentially, much like
the medium itself. A brief listing of topics could include e-commerce,
cyberculture, cyberlaw, cybercommunities, cyberdemocracy, and
cyberpolitics. However, one of the most original and enduring "concepts"
about the Internet is its potential to allow the creation and sharing of
topical information, to create cybernetworks of people interested in
similar ideas, values, goals, lifestyles, cultures, games and more.
In the social and political arenas, cybernetworks have received attention
for their use by a multitude of groups and organizations, many of which
fall under the umbrella of the term "cyberactivism." Perhaps the best known
examples of cyberactivism were the highly publicized use the of the
Internet by the Zapatista movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas in 1994
and the protests organized in Seattle against the World Trade Organization
(WTO) in 1999. These two events garnered global attention and support
through the use of the Internet, and are but two examples of cyberactivism
that is present on the Internet and involves a myriad of issues and topics,
including politics and public policy, trade rules and regulations, human
rights, women's rights and health, indigenous rights, and the environment.
The use of cybernetworks usually complements the real life networking and
organization of these groups, many of which may also be classified as forms
of "social movements," which have four basic characteristics:
• an informal and interactive network,
• shared common beliefs and values,
• activity centered on an area of conflict, and
• the use of protest (Porta & Diani, 1999, p. 14).
Melucci (1989) further described the characteristics of "new social
movements" (NSMs) that include:
• the importance of the role of communication technologies and media in how
people receive and recognize cultural codes in the Information Age,
• how the movements include a global perspective embracing diversity, and
• how members build and live in communities that support the values of the
Many of the NSMs have been formed as a response to the current concept of
globalization, which may be considered to be one of the most powerful
forces in the formation of economic, cultural and social norms and
practices. Globalization is used to describe such a wide variety of ideas,
processes, concepts and practices of economic, social and political
ideologies that it resists simple definition. Basically, however,
globalization means "intensification of global compression,
interdependence, and integration" (Hargittai & Centeno, 2001, p. 2).
As typified by the concept of the "Golden Straitjacket" as espoused by
Friedman, proponents of neo-liberalism and globalization argue that the
only way for countries to survive is to embrace the economic practices of
free market, privatization, eliminate tariffs, open up trade and downsize
government (Friedman, 2000, p. 105). Opponents of globalization protest
that it favors the rich nations over the poor, that international banking
organizations strip capital (social as well as monetary) from poor nations,
and does not provide for human rights, labor rights or environmental
protection (Klein, 1999).
Globalization can be viewed as a never-ending series of transactions,
interactions and reactions that have the potential to affect almost every
aspect of human life in the not-too-distant future. As nations and their
peoples become even more interpellated and integrated economically and
politically, does this threaten to cause the massification of social and
Where does the Internet fit in this complex picture showing continuous
change at the global scale in almost every area of economic, political and
social practices and concepts? The Internet, in its own technological
structure, reflects the complexity of the actual practices of
globalization, which can be visualized as multi-faceted networks.
Accordingly, network theory and analysis may be the best means to track the
innumerable transactions and effects of globalization (Hargittai & Centeno,
2001, p. 13).
Thus the concept of "networking" accurately captures the ubiquitous nature
of communication on the Internet and the economic practices of
globalization. However, more importantly, because of the scope and
complexity of the issues of globalization, the Internet may be the medium
of communication that is best capable of helping to develop, organize and
disseminate information that has the potential for impact on political,
cultural and social agency.
One particular grouping that is related to and may belong under the
umbrella of NSMs is that of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These
non-government groups are also usually non-corporate and have a special
interest in an issue-based topic within the social, cultural, political or
economic arenas. Non-government organizations are characterized by:
• the lack of a real, commonly shared ideological framework,
• are usually not centralized,
• are not based on power or profit goals, and
• have limited access to and from the media.
Yet NGOs, or similar "advocacy networks," are having a growing influence on
public policy and social and cultural norms on regional, national and
international levels. At the international level they are increasing their
work as providers of services formerly provided by national governments,
have greater access to decision-makers and policy formation through such
vehicles as the United Nations, are being well-funded through both private
and public funds, and have greatly expanded their communications networks
(Pollack, 2001, p.189). The Global Policy Forum (2002) estimated that there
were 37,000 international NGOs in 2000, and there are currently an
estimated 30,000 NGOs in the United States and 100,000 NGOs globally that
include regional and national organizations.
It is important to try to understand how the Internet is being developed
and used as a "networked" communication system, and how users and user
groups are using the medium to meet their needs and interests. One of the
most prominent correlated concepts is how the Internet is contributing to
the emergence of new types of "communities," whether they are "virtual"
communities that exist in cyberspace, or "real" communities, including NSMs
and NGOs, that are using the new information communication technologies
(ICTs) to pursue goals such as the creation and sharing of language and
discourse, establishing an identity and intelligence, achieving legitimacy
of its values, obtain opportunities for social and political agency, and to
establish collective knowledge.
The networking characteristics of the Internet, such as high connectivity,
interactivity, access, and numerous communication channels, have also lead
scholars to propose it functions as an "electronic" public sphere (DeLuca,
K.M. & Peeples, J., 2002; DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W. R., &
Robinson, J. P. 2001; Poster, 1995; Rheingold, 1991). Characteristics of
the modern public sphere include a space where citizens can talk and
exchange ideas and opinions, a space that is separate from the state and
thus a space that allows criticism of the state (Fraser, 1992). Fraser also
raises the issues of "subaltern" groups, or subordinated groups that create
a dialectic space that is in essence the site of a "counter-public" sphere
where the major, dominant discourse can be discussed and criticized. The
Internet has become the medium for providing this "counter-public" space as
evidenced by its wide-spread use by NSMs and NGOs, which can be considered
as "subaltern" groups due to their non-hegemonic agenda.
The use of the Internet by NSMs and NGOs has also caused it to become a
place for the creation and distribution of new forms of social networking
and social capital (Lin, 2001). One of the most effective ways for groups
to change social values is through social networking, which is focused on
the social relationships among individuals, groups or organizations, and
how interactivity and persuasion are used to change the value of resources.
Lin proposes that social capital is increasing on a global scale as
cybernetworks allow the formation of multiple social networks based on many
social issues and concerns.
The concepts of counterpubics and social capital are important in
understanding how the Internet functions in helping activist groups achieve
their goals, and are integrated when viewed as parts of the overall
"community" network of social movements and activist groups. Although
"network" has become a term ubiquitous to the Internet, there is no clear
"networking" theory that explains how the Internet is being used by
individuals, groups or organizations.
The theory of meshworking was developed and introduced by Manuel De Landa
in his book, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1998). To very briefly
summarize the book, it describes in three sections the geological,
biological and linguistic histories of mostly Western European urban
centers. The geological section looks at relationships between people and
institutions, the biological section looks at the complex relationships
among people and animals in urban settings, and the linguistic section
examines how language changes and evolves to become part of the dominant
Meshworking is the term De Landa uses to describe these complex
relationships, which can be thought of as horizontal and non-linear as
compared to more traditional linear, hierarchical relationships. De Landa
proposes that history is composed of both animate and inanimate history,
that most "forms" generate their own characteristics and patterns, and that
all form and life are constantly going through change and flux.
A very brief description of meshworking shows that social groups interact
with each other to create, share and disseminate information that leads to
agency, and that meshworks contain the following major characteristics:
• they are self-organizing with unplanned growth,
• they allow articulation of heterogeneous elements without imposing
• they are hybridized with other meshworks and hierarchies, and
• they have a high degree of connectivity that leads to self-sustainment.
This paper is attempting to define parameters and characteristics of
"meshworks" that can then be used to further examine and study the concept
of meshworking. It proposes a refinement to aspects of the social network
and social capital theory by applying meshworking to the communications of
NSMs on the Internet and suggests that these online communication systems
reflect the actual organizational, structural, and behavioral
characteristics of the user groups themselves. Analysis of specific
characteristics of online communication – access to information, creation
and dissemination of information, levels and depths of connectivity,
opportunities for online interactivity, including interpersonal and/or
group communication, and other elements of web sites – may show how these
characteristics contribute toward the achievement of the goals of identity,
legitimacy and knowledge by NGO user groups.
This discussion involves the relationships that exist between two very new
players on the world stage – the Internet and new social movements, in this
case, characterized as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). As a
communication medium, the Internet has already caused many changes in
communication practices, knowledge access and storage, entertainment,
culture, business and politics. Likewise, the NGOs are emerging as a "new"
way to participate in cultural and political activities, to effect change
in policies and values through different avenues than the traditional "one
man, one vote" process.
Developing a new theoretical framework of meshworking can help us
understand how this new communication medium is enhancing the sociological
goals of these activist groups. By describing and defining elements and
characteristics of the actual web sites, and analyzing meaning,
interactivity and connectivity, the specific characteristics of a
"meshwork" can be further refined and examined, thus enabling more detailed
future studies of what constitutes meshworking and how and where it exists.
The Internet has and is changing the way the world communicates, concerns
about the digital divide notwithstanding. This work is introducing and
exploring the theory of meshworking as a communication theory that may be
very valuable in helping us to understand how online communications are
being implemented and used. As noted previously, this paper will focus on
meshworking as it is applicable to the use of the World Wide Web by
environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as these and other
advocacy groups are being recognized as groups that are making the most
innovative and efficient use of the Internet, leading to the introduction
of the term "cyberactivism" to describe this phenomena (Castells, 1996; De
Angelis, 2001; Mater, 2001; McCaughey & Ayers, 2003; Taylor, Kent, & White,
2001; Tsaliki, 2003).
In his book, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), and essay,
Networks, Hierarchies and Interfaces (2000), De Landa differentiates
between controlling hierarchies and "open" markets in an evolving
description. Hierarchies are controlled centrally, and markets are
decentralized. The decentralized small town markets are what really
establish a "market" price, and the supply and demand curve is based on
this. Deleuze and Guattari (1988) redefine hierarchies as "strata," which
are composed of homogenous elements, and markets are redefined as
"self-consistent aggregates," and articulate heterogeneous elements. De
Landa (2000) cites the example of a biological species being the
homogenization of a gene pool, while an ecosystem is composed of a wide
variety of species, and he replaces the "market" with "meshwork,"
apparently in reference to computer hardware becoming "an abstract mesh of
its logical gates" when it became controlled by software.
It is interesting to note some possible parallels between hierarchies and
meshworks and mass media and the Internet. Media corporations are
invariably hierarchal, with the wants of the owner, stockholders,
publishers and editors dictating the content and framing of the information
being disseminated, resulting in a homogeneous product, similar to De
Landa's example of a military sorting people into homogenous ranks before
linking them through a chain of command. Conversely, the Internet seems to
mirror the example of the ecosystem, where the Internet is a "system" that
is decentralized (a major requirement of its initial design requirements)
and contains an articulated set of heterogeneous elements (the network of
web pages, emails, chat rooms, bulletin boards, etc.).
Although meshworks are articulations of heterogeneous elements, the
process of meshworking results in the production of a stable structure.
This process is characterized by three elements:
• heterogeneous elements that function together as a whole,
• the intermediary or interposed elements facilitate inter-element
• a stable process or product results from the intra-element heterogenesis,
such as the ecosystem or open market. (Escobar, 2000).
One of the most important features of the meshworking concept is that it
is a dynamic, non-linear system that produces its own overall structure and
organization, similar to the processes noted above in ecosystems and small
scale social systems such as traditional markets. If the ecosystem concept
is extrapolated to the Internet, it would mean that the technical elements
of the Internet – the servers, the CPUs, the fiber optic and wireless
transmissions, web pages, etc. – are similar to the actual building blocks
– cells, bones, and tissue – of the living organisms that exist in the
ecosystem. But just as individual organisms are part of an intricate and
complex web, that is usually called "nature," the individual parts of the
Web are merely parts of a greater whole that remains to yet be identified,
but would seem to be the complex and intricate communication process that
is labeled "information," and that the Internet may prove to be a system
that allows "information" to obtain an overall structure and organization
as never before.
Meshworking and New Social Movements
Escobar (2000) has identified the following sociological characteristics of
meshworks as they are relevant to anti-globalization social movements (AGSMs):
a) They are self-organizing and grow in unplanned directions.
b) They are composed of diverse elements, including human elements, natural
organisms, and technology or machines, representations and the real (e.g.,
meshworks of germs and humans in medieval cities, or of computers and
c) They usually exist hybridized with other meshworks and hierarchies
(e.g., dominant, hierarchical economic structures); there are meshworks of
hierarchies (e.g., the European Union) and hierarchies of meshworks. .
d) They accomplish the articulation of heterogeneous elements without
e) They are determined by the degree of connectivity that enables them to
become self-sustaining (p. 8).
Each characteristic can also be examined in relation to the Internet to
show how the theory of meshworking can be applied to the use and
functioning of online communications by members of NSMs and NGOs.
Another major characteristic of a meshwork that has been revealed by
related studies by the author is that meshworks exponentially enhance the
use-value of any discrete element or node within the cybermeshwork. For
example, the traditional "activism" of sending letters or signing petitions
may be considered to be "forms" of political "input" or agency. However,
the embedded presence of an targeted email link (a discrete element) on an
NGO website greatly multiplies the use-value of this form.
The first characteristics, those of self-organization and unplanned growth,
are reflected by the technologies of the Web and search engines and
hyperlinks. The unlimited content capacity of a Web site allows the
building and organization of information in whatever fashion the web master
(and the NGO) desire, so that site will reflect the content, goals and
strategies of that individual organization. The Web also allows unlimited
publication, i.e., self-publication, which enables any NGO (or anyone) to
build and publish a Web site reflecting their interests and content.
Meshworks are characterized by unplanned growth, or grow by "drift," and
while the technology of hyperlinks allows the web master to control the
connection of hyperlinks "leaving" the site, an unlimited number of other
sites can contain hyperlinks "into" the site, creating links and
connectivity that are random and unplanned. The use of search engines by
users will also bring about a somewhat random result, showing web sites
that are relevant to the key word search but will vary according to the use
of key words and various search engines that use different search strategies.
The next characteristic of meshworks is that they are composed of diverse
elements, including human, organisms and machines. As a communication
medium, it may be argued that the Internet is composed of and contains the
most complicated array of technologies yet experienced. While television
and radio are limited to user-oriented, one-way, send-and-receive
transmissions, and telephones (usually) are one-to-one communication, the
Internet and the Web allow for a plethora of communication actions and
interactions. Text, audio, pictures and video are incorporated into Web
pages, and email, chat rooms and bulletin boards allow for an almost
instantaneous feedback loop for users.
The Internet is also a global medium, with a user-based technology that
enables users or publishers the ability to access and produce content and
information in any place and in any language, and translation programs are
increasingly enabling access to a larger global audience. The growth of the
power and range of wireless technologies and transmissions, as evidenced by
cell phones, has the potential to allow even greater ease and access to the
Meshworks also contain the "real" and representations. The "real" meshwork
is the organization itself, the people who are members or supportive of a
particular NSM or NGO and the people belonging to other related
organizations, which are usually place- or issue-based. These groups exist
in "real-life," and their use of the Internet is a complementary strategy
and process that helps them achieve such goals as collective identity,
legitimacy and creation of knowledge. Thus the cyber-meshwork of Web sites,
emails and bulletin boards becomes another node (or nodes) of the real life
meshwork of people and organizations. These combined (or meshed) meshworks
are the basis for social networks and the creation and growth of social
The third characteristic of meshworks is that they are hybridized or
commingled with other meshworks or and hierarchies. There are numerous
examples of how meshworks are composed of individual groups, or nodes,
which are intertwined with other groups. This work, for example, uses
environmental NGOs as a basis for examination, and if the environmental
"movement" is considered as one large meshwork, then the individual
organizations, such as the Sierra Club, each with its own agenda, can be
recognized as nodes of the meshwork. Smaller, local chapters of these
organizations, and local, independent organizations, such as those
characterized by the Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) groups, are also part of
the overall meshwork, as are the larger, transnational efforts and
campaigns orchestrated by such groups as Friends of the Earth.
It is important to consider the technological side of the Internet as part
of the meshwork, for this means recognizing that the online communication
networks also include the companies and organizations that make such
networks possible, such as Microsoft, Intel and IBM, through the hardware
and software that is produced by these and other companies. These companies
are hierarchal in nature and driven by profit and market forces, yet their
technologies are being used by many NSMs and NGOs to protest these very
characteristics. A correlated form of information hierarchies is seen by
what may be considered the "controlling" or "incorporating" of the Internet
by companies that own and control Internet Service Provider (ISP)
technologies, and try to "regulate" access and content available, such as
AOL-TimeWarner. Yet these types of organizations, which could include
corporate, media and government Web sites, are another example of
meshworks, meshworks of hierarchies of information.
Another characteristic of a meshwork is that it allows connections among
independent and heterogeneous elements without imposing uniformity. This
means that individual groups, or nodes, are allowed to pursue their own
interests and agendas while taking from, sharing and contributing to the
overall collectiveness of the meshwork. To use the environmental movement
again as an example, NGOs that are based on distinct issues, such as
environmental justice, global warming or nuclear power, are free to plan,
coordinate, create and instigate strategies, policies and procedures for
achieving their own goals, such as causing changes in legislative policy or
causing increased public awareness. Because of the meshwork among these
groups, each group is also able to share successful strategies, seek and
receive support from other groups, and contribute to the overall knowledge
base concerning environmental issues in the social and political arenas.
Because, by definition, many NGOs and NSMs are outside the dominant
hegemony, it is extremely important and critical to these groups to have
open communication channels to their members and other groups. Because
access to and from the mainstream media is limited, and also brings with it
the problems of how the groups and issues are framed, the Internet has
become an integral part of the communication strategies and techniques of
these groups (Greenpeace, 2003; McCaughey & Ayers, 2003; Price, 2000).
The fifth characteristic of meshworking is that the meshwork becomes
self-sustaining due to a high degree of connectivity within its own
network. As a meshwork grows and incorporates more nodes it expands in a
non-linear horizontal progression, unlike hierarchies, which are dominated
by a power-down, vertical organization. Even though the nodes within the
network are highly connected and facilitate connections among nodes, the
independent nature of each node means that its individual function is not
critical to the overall existence of the meshwork. If an actor or node
drops out of the meshwork (due perhaps to successful completion of its own
agenda, or lack of resources and interest), the meshwork will still
continue to function and grow as new actors or nodes are added.
The development of a communication meshwork of Web sites exhibits these
same characteristics. As content and information is developed and
disseminated through the Web, a meshwork of independent yet highly
connected Web sites develops, for example, the environmental issue of
global warming will bring literally thousands of hits when searched for.
Even though all these sites may not be directly hyperlinked to each other,
the search engine is in essence showing results that reflect the meshwork
of Internet-based information about global warming. As some of these Web
sites are discontinued or shut down, the meshwork of information still
remains and new sites will be added. Similarly, the actual technical
network of the Internet, the horizontal structure of multiple users,
servers, and service providers, originally designed to ensure that the
system survived in a nuclear war, reflects this characteristic of
meshworking. Some areas or parts of the Internet be "closed" due to
technical problems, state or government intervention, and tracking and
surveillance may inhibit use for some purposes, but it is difficult to
imagine a circumstance that would shut down the whole Internet.
Dynamics of Meshworks
In addition to describing the form and characteristics of meshworks, it is
also important to examine how meshworks function, and especially explore
how the actual social dynamics of the meshwork are complemented by the
meshworking of the online communication systems. Five characteristics of
the dynamics of social meshworking as proposed by Escobar (2000) are given,
each followed by a discussion of its applicability to online Internet
• There are two basic properties to the flow of a meshwork: as diversity
increases it results in more interaction among the heterogeneous elements.
This activity can lead to two resultant reactions: one, as the complexity
and connectedness increases among different localities, the differences
within each locality (the interior of a node or site) decreases
(localization strategy); and two, the difference within each locality
increases as differences decrease among all localities (interweaving strategy).
If applied to the global scale of information exchange, it could be argued
that these effects are already being seen. As the Cold War ended, the
differences between different localities (former communist states and
democratic nations) decreased, and two, the differences within each former
communist state increased as they faced the challenges of creating a new
localized or nationalized system of government.
These dynamics could also be applied theoretically to the actual
functioning of the Internet – if the Global Justice NGO Web sites in
different countries become more and more connected and share more and more
information, then each Web site becomes a little more homogeneous. Even as
some sort of global plateau of Global Justice information and connection is
established, each country's web sites would still concentrate on specific
issues within their own locality and become more heterogeneous.
• Meshworks add new nodes as long as the new nodes contribute to the
consistency, functioning and self-organizing processes of the meshwork, in
many cases the nodes rely on each other as catalysts for innovation and
In terms of sociological and social organizations, new "nodes" that create
and contribute to the meshwork may reflect many of the characteristics of
social resources that have a value in social relationships, or forms of
social capital. These may include the addition of persons or groups whose
resources enhance the reputation of the group, increase the diversity or
equality of the membership, bring access to a higher level of actors or
decision-makers, reinforce the groups values and beliefs, or are leading
actors in creating new strategies and innovations that help the group
achieve its goals.
At this point in what could still be considered the birth of the Internet,
it could be the archetypical model of an autocatalytic process, or a
process that creates or reinforces other processes of innovation. The
commodification of the computer chip has arguably produced more changes in
worlds of information and communication than any other invention. Although
all the resulting technologies are too numerous to list here, computer
technologies relevant to communication meshworks include instant and global
access (the compression of time and space), email, bulletin boards and chat
rooms (interpersonal and interactive communication on a global scale),
unlimited space for content and publication life (an area for collective
knowledge), the ability for self-publishing (space for critical discursive
content free from obvious control or censorship), high connectivity (access
to multiple and diverse publics and users), the creation of new forms of
communication (multimedia challenges traditional interpretations of
information), the creation of new forms of social and cultural norms
(cyberspace "communities" and members) and arguably the ability to organize
and access information previously difficult (or impossible) to obtain
(government and corporate documentation). These technologies are still
evolving rapidly, as evidenced by the recent explosion in wireless
technology, and are causing changes across a wide spectrum of social,
cultural, business and political norms and practices.
• Because meshworks are composed of diverse elements, they grow by the
addition of other diverse elements or nodes that are consistent with the
overall characteristics of that meshwork. Exterior factors may cause
changes by influencing nodes or actors within the meshwork, but because of
the non-linear, flexible, horizontal structure, it is very difficult for
exterior forces or factors to change the meshwork itself.
The establishment of a meshwork means an articulation of multiple and
heterogeneous elements that are able, according to the logic of
equivalence, to accept the differences of each element and allow it to
express its own values and principles and retain its own autonomy, while at
the same time join the alliance of other elements in the meshwork and
recognize the shared beliefs, goals and values of the network. Because
autonomy is retained to some degree by each group, even if certain
individual nodes are exposed to change through exterior forces or
environment, the rest of the meshwork will be able to continue to function,
much like Lin's study of the suppression of the Falun Gong movement in
China (Lin, 2001).
Similarly, the Internet itself is a non-linear, flexible meshwork of
technologies that incorporates specific technologies that work within its
shared standards and parameters, such as the World Wide Web, email, instant
messaging and Usenet, among others. The proliferation of the Web was due in
part to its ability to support text, pictures, audio and multimedia, all
nodes of the Web meshwork, which is part of the larger Internet meshwork.
And as noted previously, short of government intervention, it is hard to
conceive of a circumstance that would severely change the nature of the
Internet or slow the spread on online communication technologies.
• The structure and nature of meshworks lead to the breaking down of
hierarchical structures and thus the creation of a more horizontal
organization connecting new or already established nodes. The meshwork
connectivity also leads to a "compression" of space and time, which
conversely, can lead to a place-oriented meshwork, which can then
potentially destratify territorial power or authority.
One of the strengths of the Internet is its capability to be used on a
local and community level to provide a medium for the interactive exchange
of information, for the creation of local issue- or place-based meshworks,
such as local Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) and Environmental Justice groups.
These meshworks allow the creation and dissemination of information
independent of local media coverage, whether the framing of the information
is contradictory, conciliatory or radically different from the media
framing of the issue. The Internet allows all stakeholders and parties of
interest to organize and publish content, and dominant groups are rapidly
taking advantage of the Internet's capability to reach a targeted audience
with a specific message or image.
Regardless of whether the Internet is being used by a dominant or
subordinated group, it is serving to function as a public sphere that
allows the open exchange of ideas, information and opinion. That users and
citizens have access to and interaction with this array of information
allows for a connectivity and formation of "community" previously unknown
through a communication medium, and may provide for opportunities of
legitimacy and agency that lead to changes in a variety of local social,
economic and political policies.
• Meshworks become self-sustaining even though they are initially "built"
by the work of actors and individuals.
The essential structure of a meshwork is the existence of individual nodes
that are highly connected, resulting in a complex and interlaced network.
While a meshwork may begin with only two connected nodes or actors, these
nodes are "acting" as catalysts in a complementary system that results in
the attraction and addition of more nodes, and as catalysts for creation
and innovation that also build or attract new nodes. If the "original"
group of nodes are considered as the builders, at some point the growth of
the meshwork takes on the characteristics of evolution by
self-organization, and expands beyond the complete control of the original
builders, even though the builders may still be pursuing and following a
detailed strategic plan for the meshwork.
This is due in a large part to the logic of equivalences, by which the
meshwork must accept that individual nodes have different and perhaps
unique properties and characteristics. By this logic, it would extremely
difficult for the meshwork to "refuse" the addition of a node that by its
very attraction to the meshwork would seemingly add support and contribute
to the system, whether through new knowledge, experience, legitimacy and
These characteristics are reflected in the communication structure of the
Internet, which allows for multiple public spaces and multiple users to
publish and connect with other, and at some point the collection of
information "exists" on its own in cyberspace. If two people include
information about cybermeshworks, it is highly likely that within a short
period of time the sites will at least be hyperlinked to each other, that
the webmasters will receive emails or start a bulletin board for other
users who are interested in cybermeshworks, who will then post more
information on their own or other sites, and eventually there will exist on
the Web the world of "cybermeshworking," which will not only exist but
probably expand into its own cybermeshwork.
There are three main concepts that have been presented here:
1. That the Internet is a communication medium that is capable of matching
the complexity of information gathering and dissemination on a global
scale, and is being used by new social movements (NSMs) and
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as a complement to "real life"
communication processes and through its use by advocacy groups, is being
developed into a process known as "cyberactivism."
2. That the concept of meshworking as a sociological theory for the actions
of the NSMs and NGOs includes the concepts of self-organization,
articulation of heterogeneous elements, self-sustainment and high connectivity.
3. That the combination of social activist "meshworks" and online
communication "meshworks" result in a new concept of meshworking that
integrates the use, design, dynamics and characteristics of each individual
There is a growing body of evidence that cybernetworks are enabling
advocacy groups and new social movements to achieve an increasing degree of
agency in changing social, cultural, economic and political practices.
Lin's (2001) treatment of social capital and Escobar's (2000) discussion of
social movements and meshworking are very useful in framing the
sociological concepts of meshworking by social activist and advocacy
groups, and are particularly applicable to cybernetworks in analyzing and
understanding how the new information technologies (ICT) are being used.
Several characteristics of the Falun Gong movement correlate to these
characteristics. In spite of founder Li's efforts to control the number and
content of web sites, emails, postings, etc., the amount of communication
and interaction grew to where it achieved a level of self-organization and
self-sustainment (Lin, 2001). Li was trying to impose uniformity, but
heterogeneous elements (if we consider geographical and "unauthorized"
sources as heterogeneous) joined the meshwork. And Lin notes how the
Chinese government was very concerned about the number of government
officials who were members, showing that not only was the net hybridized
with a hierarchy, but also enforcing Lin's claim that a value resource
within the net is not only the position of the node and the type of
information available, but also that the "occupant" of the node and their
social / human capital is valuable.
There is another aspect of cybernetworking that is not specifically
addressed by Lin, except in his catch-all term of "interaction." The
Internet and related technologies have caused the proliferation of numerous
products and processes for interpersonal communication – email, chat rooms,
bulletin boards, cell phones, PDAs, wireless, and web pages. In a very real
sense, these technologies allow for "interpersonal" communication on a
scale never before possible, however, it is necessary to allow for the
redefinition of interpersonal communication, which traditionally has meant
face-to-face communication with the opportunity for feedback. Obviously all
these technologies allow for one-on-one communication with feedback, most
allow for one-to-few, one-to-many, and vice versa, so they necessarily
expand the concept of interpersonal communication. In effect, they create a
mass public communication, that is, communication among the public on a
It is this characteristic that give the cybernetworks so much potential for
change, because not only do they allow for the very important process of
communication and persuasion, they allow it to happen off the mainstream
hegemonic and media public sphere for discourse. This is an important
characteristic for the creation of social capital and new social movements
that are trying to change the values of resources. This is one of the
strategies that the environmental movement is accomplishing, by turning its
own social capital into investments in "institutions" that are educating
actors embedded with alternative values, and convincing other institutions
that these actors have value. This eventually creates a market where the
actors have real "capital" in marketplace and can lead to the revaluation
According to Gramsci's notion of points of antagonism, the only places
where changes can be affected are points of antagonism located along the
exterior of the dominant discourse, or on the discursive frontier (Forgacs,
2000). In this sense, the Internet and networks are the Wild Wild Web, in
that they allow the creation and dissemination of information not found in
the mainstream discourse, coupled with interactive and interpersonal
communication that allows for discussion and persuasion. Meshworking is an
attempt to analyze how these processes of interaction, articulation and
agency are happening.
Going back to Marx's theory of base and superstructure, it is interesting
to examine the theory of technological determinism that posits that
technology may shape social, cultural and economic practices. In a sense,
the Internet and other ICTs are very real changes in the base of technology
and economy, and now these changes are working their through the
superstructure, causing changes in personal, social, cultural and political
practices on a global scale. In the case of the environmental movement, it
is a group that is using the new ICTs to help mount a challenge to the use
of other technologies and the social and cultural values that are
associated with them (Feenberg, 1999).
Related research by the author, in which the web site home pages of
environmental non-governmental organizations were analyzed through content
analysis and hyperlink mapping, along with a analysis of a bulletin board
case study, suggest that the Internet is functioning as a new form of a
counterpublic discursive space, allowing for the creation and dissemination
of creative language, information and opinion, and, as evidenced by the
extensive use of NGOs, that it functions as an independent space that
allows criticism of the state and dominant powers and institutions.
The development and extensive use of online meshworks of web sites by NGOs
strongly suggests that the web sites and computer-mediated communication
are providing a communication medium with the capabilities and the
flexibility to be shaped and customized by the organization to not only
meet and enhance its communication needs but to actually complement and
reflect the sociological characteristics and dynamics of the organization.
Initial studies by the author as applied to the sociological and dynamic
characteristics of meshworking indicate that meshworking is a new and
useful theoretical framework for studying online communication systems used
by NGOs and other online organizations. In addition to the meshworking
concepts of self-organization, articulation of heterogeneous elements and
connectivity, this work suggests that another major characteristic is that
meshworks exponentially enhance the use-value of any discrete element or
node within the cybermeshwork. Meshworking theory is highly adaptable and
applicable for communication research focused on analyzing and
understanding the actual use of the Internet, the World Wide Web and
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