The image of civil society as non government entities with concrete institutions, with office space, meeting halls and formal titles, is gradually shifting in this virtual age of online activism and social media. Instead, these formal institutions are diffusing into loose networks, where, in place of human resources, software programs are doing much of the work. In the words of journalist Charlie Beckett, these emerging entities are the “Virtual Civil Societies.”
Virtual civil societies can emerge out of an individual effort, ideology, debate, action or event, which, through the use of simple internet-based or mobile technology, can rally hundreds and thousands within a matter of hours. In most cases, these movements are spontaneous and organic with no dependence on external sources or influence. Furthermore, instead of staff assigned to organize meetings and action-plans, these are loose networks, consisting of versatile, volunteer members that create, leave and join the virtual platforms on their own will or whim. With such a structure, how do we then evaluate the impact of the shifting nature of civil society, and how do these emerging virtual groups differ from traditional civil society groups, specifically in promoting democratic citizenry?
A method typically applied in assessing the popularity of virtual platforms has been the number of members attracted over a given time period, the number of hits a posted item receives, and the amount of feedback it generates. However, there is a question as to whether evaluating the effectiveness of these entities solely on numbers is sufficient to ensure quality in content-flow and interactions. What about the follow-up actions and results and the sustainability of momentum? Can external actors or donors intervene or replicate the movement, and if so, will it aid or hinder the voluntary, self organizing principle upon which these virtual platforms are currently thriving?
Off the top of my head, I see a number of positive attributes resulting from these virtual platforms that encourage democratic culture. The process tends to progress in stages, beginning with an individual stepping up to connect with a broader mass to become aware of, and own up to his/her thoughts and feelings about a certain cause or an issue. For Facebook- friendly audiences (over 500 million active users by now) this stage can be compared to “liking” a wall post. The second stage involves breaking the silence and speaking up. This is roughly analogous to ‘posting a comment’ on the wall post. The third stage involves standing up and collaborating with like-minded virtual friends by what, in keeping with our Facebook example, is similar to “joining” discussion forums or an event-page.
The fourth stage, and perhaps the ultimate transformation of the individual, comes through the translation of this crusade into street actions, leading to meaningful outcomes or results. Even if the results are not palpable, the journey imparts into the individual a sense of awareness and the moral responsibility of citizenship. This ’awakening’ has the potential to become contagious, as more citizens become emboldened by the actions of those before them.
Other advantages of these virtual forums are the dissolution of social hierarchies and inhibition of elite-capture , problems that commonly bedevil traditional participatory approaches. Any individual, regardless of social stratum can own the space and the platform to freely express his thoughts, arguments and biases. In this sense, virtual civil society does the job of bridging, in cultivating social capital as opposed to the relatively homogenous membership of traditional civil society or NGO groups that can remain introverted and insular.
There is also an opportunity for bonding with like-minded virtual friends who share similar interest and ideology. However, the bonding experience can sometimes come at the cost of intolerance of differing ideas and opinions, thereby narrowing the vast potential of the virtual space. Additionally, these virtual platforms can become exclusionary to those that do not have adequate skills (education) or access to communication media to make proper use of the opportunity it provides (although mobile technological innovations are trying to counter this particular gap).
The challenge, or the opportunity for that matter, is bringing together the traditional or the ‘old school’ structures and processes of civil society with the new, virtual counterparts in a complementary fashion to promote democratic processes.
Photo Courtesy: Intersection Consultancy (Flickr)