Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Using Twitter effectively

To maximise the number of people that visit our site as a result of Twitter, we need to make sure we do a couple of things when using the "retweet" feature.

First, edit the standard text that you are provided with. More people will visit the site if it doesn't look like you've just retweeted an electronic form. I would suggest removing the "@Counterfire", and perhaps putting in your own description of the article's contents, rather than just the title.

Second - and critically, I really can't stress this enough for Twitter - make use of hashtags. These are a feature on Twitter that allow tweets (the posts you write) to be grouped by topic. They are very easy to use: you just write "#hashtag" at the end of your post, replacing 'hashtag' with a single-word topic. So, for example, people writing about the UK election have been adding '#ukelection' to the end of their post. '#dontdoitnick' was very popular for a while, as was '#iloveimmigrants' the other week. You can use more than one hashtag in a tweet, too, if you think something is relevant to more than one topic.

A complete tweet generated from the site, but using hashtags and with my own edits, might then look something like:

Lindsey German on Lib Dems sacrificing policies for government posts | Counterfire #ukelection #libdemfail #libtory

I've changed the description, and added three hashtags: #ukelection, #libdemfail, #libtory.

Twitter displays, at any given point in time, the most popular topics being tweeted about. If you log in, you'll find the list on the right-hand side of the screen - select 'UK' from the country option to just seen those that are popular in the UK. If you want huge numbers of people to see your tweet, it's as well to pick something from this list - #ukelection has been a good bet of lat, but there's usually something politics related on there.

Also, keep an eye on what hashtags the people you follow are using - if you see something coming up repeatedly, try and tag along with that.

It really is the use of hashtags that will make Twitter work for us. If we don't use them, we won't crack out of the circle of our existing followers - and I think there's an awful lot of crossover amongst us on that one.

One other thing about Twitter: academic research, and before that just casual observation, suggests that Twitter use is very different to other social networking sites, like Facebook. People tend to have more complete strangers in their network, and the number of conncetions people have with others follows a different kind of distribtution: instead of a few wildly popular people having thousands of friends, while the average is just c.50, the connections are more evenly distributed.

What this tells you, I think, is that Twitter has a different function to other sites - it acts like the glue between different social networking sites, and people take things off Twitter and use them elsewhere, rather than remaining within Twitter to use them. So people will find something on Twitter, and then email it to their friends outside of Twitter - I've do this myself - whereas on Facebook, people most share links between their friends on Facebook, posting stuff onto their profile.

That means, in turn, that the number of direct hits from Twitter may not be very high, but that it can act to amplify the effects of social networking elsewhere, with successful tweets driving more hits from Facebook, blogs, and from emails. If we can get its use right, we can start to drive up visits to Counterfire rapidly, with minimum effort.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Christian Fuchs and a Marxist analysis of the internet

It gets interesting from about page 10. Email me at revolution @ and i will send you the PDF documentit is much easier to read...
European Journal of
DOI: 10.1177/0267323108098947
2009; 24; 69
European Journal of Communication
Christian Fuchs
Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of the Internet
Information and Communication Technologies and Society: A
The online version of this article can be found at:
Published by:
can be found at:
European Journal of Communication
Additional services and information for
Email Alerts:
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Information and Communication
Technologies and Society
A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy
of the Internet
Christian Fuchs
This article argues for the need of Critical Internet Theory. It outlines
how such a theory operates by the example of the role of gifts and com-
modities in the Internet economy. It is argued that after the crisis of the
‘New Economy’, the emergence of what is termed ‘Web 2.0’ signifies the
increasing importance of the Internet gift commodity strategy. This strat-
egy commodifies the users who produce content and communications
online on free access platforms so that advertisement rates are driven up,
and functions as a legitimizing ideology. In this context, the notion of the
Internet prosumer commodity is introduced.
Key Words capital accumulation, Critical Internet Theory, critique of
the political economy of the Internet, social software, Web 2.0
In summer 2007, The Economist asked on its cover: ‘Who’s afraid of Google?’
and pointed out that Google is an example for an Internet-based business
model that helps ‘people to find information (at no charge) and [lets] adver-
tisers promote their wares to those people in a finely targeted way’ (The
Christian Fuchs is Associate Professor at the ICT&S Centre for Advanced Studies
and Research in Information and Communication Technologies and Society,
University of Salzburg, Sigmund Haffner Gasse 18, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
European Journal of Communication Copyright © 2009 SAGE Publications
(Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore),
Vol 24(1): 69–87. [10.1177/0267323108098947]
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Economist, 1–7 September 2007: 9). Thus far this strategy has been successful,
as Google has, with a five-year sales growth rate of 222 percent in 2006, been
the second-fastest growing technology company worldwide.
This article introduces the concept of Critical Internet Theory and
gives an analysis of the accumulation strategies employed by corporations
like Google in the capitalist Internet economy. It discusses some theoreti-
cal aspects of the political economy of the Internet and deals with the fol-
lowing questions. What theoretical foundation is needed for studying the
Internet and society? What is Critical Internet Theory? How relevant is
the antagonism between productive forces and relations of production in
the Internet age? What is the role and relationships of gifts and com-
modities in the Internet economy?
Critical Theory
The critique advanced by Critical Internet Theory is a Marxian one in the
sense laid out in the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
that it grasps ‘the root of the matter’ and is based on the ‘categoric impera-
tive to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, aban-
doned, despicable essence’ (Marx, 1844: 385).
Taking Marx’s writings as totality, one can identify three central aspects of
Marxian critique that are ordered according to three philosophical dimensions.
• Ontology – dynamic materialism: Critical theory is materialistic in
the sense that it addresses phenomena and problems not in terms
of absolute ideas and predetermined societal development, but in
terms of resource distribution and social struggles. Reality is seen
in terms that address ownership, private property, resource distri-
bution, social struggles, power, resource control, exploitation and
To make a materialistic analysis also means to conceive society
as negativity; to identify antagonisms means to look at contradic-
tory tendencies that relate to one and the same phenomenon, cre-
ate societal problems and require a fundamental systemic change
in order to be dissolved. To analyse society as contradictory also
means to consider it as dynamic system because contradictions
cause development and movement of matter.
In order to address the negativity of contemporary society and
its potential, research also needs to be oriented on the totality. That
dialectics is a philosophy about totality in this context means that
society is analysed on a macro scale in order to grasp its problems
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and that reasons for the necessity of positive transformations are to
be given.
• Epistemology – dialectical realism: The material world is seen as pri-
mary and is grasped, described, analysed and partly transformed
by humans in academic work. Analyses are conducted that are
looking for the essence of societal existence by identifying contra-
dictions that lie at the heart of development. Critical theory
analyses social phenomena not based on instrumental reason and
one-dimensional logic, i.e. it operates (1) under the assumption
that phenomena do not have linear causes and effects, but are con-
tradictory, open, dynamic, and carry certain development poten-
tials in them and hence should be conceived in complex forms;
and (2) is based on the insight that reality should be conceived so
that there are neither only opportunities nor only risks inherent in
social phenomena, but contradictory tendencies that pose both
positive and negative potentials at the same time that they are
realized or suppressed by human social practice.
Dialectic analysis in this context means complex dynamic
thinking; realism an analysis of real possibilities and a dialectic of
pessimism and optimism. In a dialectical analysis, phenomena are
analysed in terms of the dialectics of agency and structures, dis-
continuity and continuity, the one and the many, potentiality and
actuality, global and local, virtual and real, optimism and pes-
simism, essence and existence, immanence and transcendence, etc.
• Axiology – negating the negative: All critical approaches in one or the
other respect take the standpoint of oppressed or exploited classes
and make the judgement that structures of oppression and
exploitation benefit certain classes at the expense of others and
hence should be radically transformed by social struggles. This
view constitutes a form of objectivity.
Critical theory does not accept existing social structures as they
are, it is not interested in society as it is, but in what it society
could be and could become. It deconstructs ideologies that claim
that something cannot be changed and shows potential counter-
tendencies and alternative modes of development. That the nega-
tive antagonisms are sublated into positive results is not an
automatism, but depends on the realization of practical forces of
change that have a potential to rise from the inside of the systems
in question in order to produce a transcendental outside that
becomes a new whole. The axiological dimension of critique is an
interface between theory and political praxis.
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Critical theory is interested in why there is a difference between
actuality and potentiality, existence and essence, and aims at find-
ing ways of bridging this difference. It aims at the establishment
of a cooperative, participatory society and asks ‘basic moral ques-
tions of justice, equity and the public good’ (Murdock and
Golding, 2005: 61).
The ethical dimension is not unfounded, but grounded in the essence of
society as such; its transcendence is constituted by the immanence of soci-
ety, cooperative human potentials.
Critical theories are dialectical and realistic and axiological. That
critical thinking is still very important and influential today can, for
example, be seen in the prominence that Roy Bhaskar’s Dialectical Critical
Realism has gained in recent years (e.g. Bhaskar, 1993).
In 20th-century Marxism, the critical analysis of media, communica-
tion and culture has emerged as a novel quality due to the transformations
that capitalism has been undergoing (Sandoval, 2008). First, there have
been subjective approaches that primarily stress how humans produce,
reproduce, consume or transform media and culture. Early 20th-century
approaches include the theory of Antonio Gramsci, on the one hand, and
the theories of Bert Brecht or Walter Benjamin, on the other hand. The first
line of thought has since been continued, e.g. by some cultural studies
scholars like Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart or Stuart Hall, the sec-
ond by scholars like Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Marchart, 2006). Second,
there have been objective, more structure-oriented, approaches that prima-
rily stress repressive aspects of media structures (Sandoval, 2008). Many of
these works are grounded either in Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Frankfurt
School critique or Louis Althusser’s theory of ideological state apparatuses.
The focus on ideology has been challenged by critical political economy
scholars like Dallas Smythe or Nicholas Garnham, who stress the economic
functions of the media, whereas others like Vilém Flusser, Noam Chomsky,
Edward S. Herman or Herbert Schiller have continued to stress the role of
media as producers and diffusion channels of ideologies. Third, there have
been broader approaches that stress that media have different (intercon-
nected) roles in capitalism. These approaches can be understood as trying to
bridge some of the gaps between the other approaches, they focus on at least
some of the following dimensions (and in some cases on the interconnec-
tions): media products as realms of capital accumulation; media as means of
advertising and circulating products; media as ideological legitimatory sys-
tems; media as systems that reproduce human labour power, media pro-
duction, products, circulation and reception as contradictory forces that
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reflect domination and class struggles; alternative media. Such broader
approaches include, for example, those of Oscar Gandy (1997), Robert
McChesney (1998, 2000), Horst Holzer (1994), Graham Murdock and
Peter Golding (1997, 2005), Douglas Kellner (1997, 2002), Manfred
Knoche (2002) and Herbert Marcuse (1969, 1972) (see Sandoval, 2008).
Broader critical approaches can be considered as superior to narrow ones
because they allow the explanation of aspects of reality that are ignored by
the latter. However, although there are differences between certain strands
of Marxist media and cultural theory, they are united by the focus on cri-
tique, i.e. the negation of capitalism and domination.
My own approach addresses media like the Internet not as primary
objects of interest, but as a concretization of the analysis of the develop-
ment dynamics of capitalist society, for which a social theory is needed
(Fuchs, 2008). The focus on media, communication and technology needs
to be embedded into the broader societal context; communication is
‘embedded within the wider structures and processes of a given social for-
mation’ (Garnham, 2000: 4). Hence, first of all, critical social theories are
needed that allow concretizations. I use the term ‘Critical Internet Theory’
in order to stress that a Marxian analysis of the Internet and society is
needed. Critique is an element that bridges approaches like the Critique of
the Political Economy of the Media and Frankfurt School Critique. The
figures and writings that have most influenced my thinking have been
Hegel, Marx’s philosophical works and Herbert Marcuse.
Although my
own approach stresses this line of thinking, Critical Internet Theory could
be used as an umbrella term that covers a broader range of Marxian-
inspired approaches in studying the Internet and society. Critical Internet
Theory is not an autonomous theory. It is part of the larger canon of
Marxist theories of society and communication, to which it is linked.
Towards a critical theory of informational capitalism and
the Internet
In this section, first the notion of Critical Internet Theory is introduced,
then the antagonism between the public and private character of informa-
tion is discussed as an expression of the antagonism between forces and
relations of production.
Critical social theory of the Internet
The study of the Internet and society in particular and ICTs and society in
general has during the last years been labelled under categories like
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Internet research, ICTs and society, social informatics, informatics and
society, new media research, information society theory, information soci-
ety research/studies, Internet studies, Web research, etc. My contention is
that to study the relationship of Internet and society, not just any sort of
Internet research is needed, but a Critical Internet Theory. Critical
Internet Theory (see also Hofkirchner, 2007) is not a separate endeavour or
an independent theory. It is a concretization of a Contemporary Critical
Social Theory (see Fuchs, 2008) that is anchored in Marxian critique.
Applying critical social theory and critique of the political economy
of capitalism to the Internet can be characterized along the three dimen-
sions of critical theory that were identified in the first section.
• Ontology – dynamic materialism: The Internet does not exist in a
vacuum – it is embedded in the antagonisms of capitalist society.
It reflects societal problems in complex ways and social actions
carried out with the help of the Internet have complex effects on
the antagonistic structure of society. Online action shapes and is
shaped by the antagonisms of contemporary society. In order to
find out how the lives of humans are affected and transformed by
the Internet, the Internet needs to be analytically related to the
broader societal context.
Critical Internet research grounds the necessity of a cooperative
and participatory societal totality and the contribution that the
Internet can make in this context. A critical theory of Internet and
society is negative insofar as it relates the Internet to social prob-
lems and what society has failed to become and to tendencies that
question and contradict the dominant and dominative mode of
operation and hence have the potential to become positive forces
of social change for the better. It looks for ways of how the
Internet can support practical forces that aim at transcending cap-
italism as a whole.
Based on the insight that the basic resources are highly
unequally divided in contemporary society, to construct a critical
theory of Internet and society means showing how the Internet is
related to questions concerning ownership, private property,
resource distribution, social struggles, power, resource control,
exploitation and domination. In such an endeavour, a reactualized
notion of class is of central importance (see Fuchs, 2008: Ch. 7.3).
• Epistemology – dialectical realism: A theory of Internet and society
that is dialectical and realistic identifies antagonistic tendencies of
the relationship of Internet and society and their opportunities
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and risks in order to help people and social groups to position
themselves and find practical guidelines for action in the com-
plexity of the contemporary world.
• Axiology – negating the negative: A standpoint theory of Internet and
society shows how the two competing forces of competition and
cooperation result in class formation and produce potentials for the
dissolution of exploitation and oppression. It is based on the judge-
ment that cooperation is more desirable than competition, which
is just another way of saying that structures of exploitation and
oppression need to be questioned, criticized and sublated.
Based on the notion of Marxist critique (see Horkheimer, 1937;
Marcuse, 1937), Critical Internet Theory can be conceived as identifying and
analysing antagonisms in the relationship of Internet and society; it shows
how the Internet is shaped and shapes the colliding forces of competition and
cooperation; it is oriented towards showing how domination and exploitation
are structured and structuring the Internet and on how class formation and
potential class struggles are technologically mediated; it identifies Internet-
supported, not yet realized potentials of societal development and radically
questions structures that restrain human and societal potentials for coopera-
tion, self-determination, participation, happiness and self-management.
Why is a Critical Internet Theory needed, and not just Critical
Internet Research? If a theory is understood as a logically interconnected
set of systematic hypotheses that describe worldly phenomena and the lat-
ter’s foundation, structure, causes, effects and dynamics, and empiricism as
the observation and collection of data for constructing systematic and
reflected knowledge, then one arrives at two levels of science. There is no
theory that is not grounded in empirical observations and no empirical
research that does not make some theoretical assumptions. However, there
can be a different stress of the two factors, and hence one can distinguish
between theoretical research (primarily theoretically informed) and empir-
ical research (primarily empirically informed). Why is social theory so
important for Internet research? The emergence of the Internet has
resulted in a plurality of concepts such as Internet economy, digital
democracy, cyberculture, virtual community, cyberlove, eParticipation,
eGovernment, eGovernance, online journalism, social software, Web 2.0
and so forth. There is no clear meaning of these terms; some of them
remain very vague or contradictory. The task of Critical Internet Theory is
to discuss how the fundamental concepts that characterize modern society
and its negation can be applied to the relationship of Internet and society
so that they function as critical categories.
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My book Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age (Fuchs,
2008) addresses these questions in more depth; it is a critical neo-Marxist
theory of what I have termed transnational informational capitalism. New
media as such do not have clear-cut effects; they are antagonistically struc-
tured and embedded into the antagonisms of capitalist society. The antag-
onism between cooperation and competition that shapes modern society,
limits self-determination and participation, also shapes the technosocial
Internet system. Under current societal conditions, which are characterized
by the colonization of society by the instrumental logic of accumulation,
risks and competitive forces dominate over realized opportunities, coopera-
tion and participation on the Internet. The rest of this article discusses one
specific realm of Critical Internet Theory in order to give an example of
how such an analysis operates. It deals with the antagonistic relationship of
gifts and commodities in the capitalist Internet economy. This antagonism
is based on what Marx termed the antagonism between forces and relations
of production.
The antagonism between productive forces and relations of production
in informational capitalism: information as gift and commodity
Information-based productive forces The dialectical antagonistic character of
social and technical networks as the motor of competition and cooperation
in informational capitalism reflects Marx’s idea that the productive forces of
capitalism are at the same time means of exploitation and domination and
produce potentials that go beyond actuality, point towards a radically trans-
formed society and anticipate a fully cooperative design of the means of pro-
duction. The productive forces of contemporary capitalism are organized
around informational networks (Fuchs, 2008). It is due to three specific
characteristics of such structures that they come in contradiction with the
capitalist relations of production and are a germ form (Keimform) of a soci-
ety that is based on fully cooperative and socialized means of production:
• Information as a strategic economic resource is globally produced
and diffused by networks. It is a good that is hard to control in
single places or by single owners.
• Information is intangible. It can easily be copied, which results in
multiple ownerships and hence undermines individual private
• The essence of networks is that they strive for establishing con-
nections. Networks are in essence a negation of individual owner-
ship and the atomism of capitalism.
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Informational networks both extend and undermine capital accumula-
tion. Informational networks aggravate the capitalist contradiction between
the collective production and the individual appropriation of goods:
The contradiction between the general social power into which capital
develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capital-
ists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever
more irreconcilable, and yet contains the solution of the problem, because
it implies at the same time the transformation of the conditions of produc-
tion into general, common, social, conditions. (Marx, 1894: 274)
Networks are a material condition of a free association, but the coop-
erative networking of the relations of production is not an automatic result
of networked productive forces; a true network society in the sense of an
association of free and equal producers (Marx, 1869: 62) is something that
people must struggle for and that they can achieve under the given condi-
tions but that could very well also never emerge if the dominant regime is
successful in continuing its reign. Networks are forms of development as
well as fetters of capitalism; paraphrasing Marx one can say that informa-
tional capitalism is a point where the means of production have become
‘incompatible with their capitalist integument’ (Marx, 1867: 791).
The antagonistic economic character of network capitalism has two
opposing sides, the cooperative one of the informational gift economy and
the competitive one of the informational commodity economy.
Knowledge is in global network capitalism a strategic economic
resource; property struggles in the information society take on the form of
conflicts over the public or proprietary character of knowledge. Its pro-
duction is inherently social, cooperative and historical. Knowledge is in
many cases produced by individuals in a joint effort. New knowledge
incorporates earlier forms of knowledge; it is coined by the whole history
of knowledge. Hence, it is in essence a public good and it is difficult to
argue that there is an individual authorship that grounds individual prop-
erty rights and copyrights. Global economic networks and cyberspace
today function as channels of production and diffusion of knowledge com-
modities; the accumulation of profit by selling knowledge is legally guar-
anteed by intellectual property rights.
In society, information can only be produced jointly in cooperative
processes, not individually. Hence, Marx argued that knowledge ‘depends
partly on the cooperation of the living, and partly on the utilisation of the
labours of those who have gone before’ (Marx, 1894: 114). Whenever new
information emerges, it incorporates the whole societal history of infor-
mation: that is, information has a historical character. Hence, information
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in essence is a public good, freely available to all. But in global informa-
tional capitalism, information has become an important productive force
that favours new forms of capital accumulation. Information is today not
treated as a public good, rather as a commodity. There is an antagonism
between information as a public good and as a commodity.
If the grounding feature of information is that it is a social, histori-
cal, dynamic good, then its essence is its public character. According to
Hegel, truth means the correspondence of essence and existence of a thing.
So based on Hegel’s logic of essence, one can argue that an information
society, in which information is a commodity (informational capitalism) is
a false information society because it restricts access and transforms infor-
mation artificially into a private good. A true information society in con-
trast then is an information society in which knowledge is available to all
for free and is coproduced in cooperation processes.
The antagonistic character of information That informational capitalism is
dominated by corporate interests can be visualized by figures like the fol-
lowing: the total GDP of all 53 African states was US$1,000,913 billion
in 2007.
The total assets of the top six knowledge corporations (AT&T,
Vodafone, Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, Nippon, Telefonica)
US$1,132,41 billion in 2007 and hence larger than the total African GDP.
This shows the huge economic power of knowledge corporations.
Knowledge that is produced, transmitted and communicated with the
help of technologies influences human thinking and decisions. Hence, the
existing agglomeration of economic capital by knowledge corporations
gives them a tremendous power for influencing human thinking and deci-
sions. They control definitions of reality and are able to create one-dimen-
sional views of reality that neglect negation and critique of dominant
views that represent dominant interests. Corporate power allows the con-
trol of worldviews, labour and quality standards, markets, political power,
prices, technological standards and consumer behaviour. Proprietary mod-
els that aim at accumulating capital with the help of media like the
Internet form the dominant reality of informational capitalism.
However, an alternative production model has been developed that to
a certain extent challenges capitalism and sees economic goods not as
property that should be individually possessed but as common goods to
which all people should have access and from which all should benefit.
This model stresses open knowledge, open access and cooperative produc-
tion forms; it can, for example, be found in virtual communities like the
open-source community that produces the Linux operating system, which
is freely accessible and to which, due to the free access to the source code
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of its software applications, people can easily contribute. The open access
principle has resulted in global open-source production models where peo-
ple cooperatively and voluntarily produce digital knowledge that under-
mines the proprietary character of knowledge (if knowledge is free and of
good quality, why should one choose other knowledge that is expensive?)
The open-source principle has also been applied to other areas, such as
online encyclopaedias (Wikipedia) and online journalism (Indymedia).
Eric Raymond (1998) has characterized the free software community
as challenging the ‘cathedral-like’ software development methods of cor-
porations by cooperation and self-organization. Rishab Ayer Ghosh (1998)
sees the open-source Internet economy as a ‘digital cooking-pot’ that takes
in whatever is produced, clones its whole contents, and gives them to who-
ever wants it. Open-source principles are not automatically anti-capitalist.
One can distinguish various approaches: first, a neoliberal position of rep-
resentatives who want to subsume and commodify open access and open
content (e.g. Tapscott and Williams, 2006). Second, a social democratic
view aiming at a dual economy that besides informational commodities
also guarantees the existence of information commons (e.g. Benkler, 2006;
Lessig, 2006; Vaidhyanathan, 2004).
Third, a critical position that views
information as essentially common good and argues for a cooperative infor-
mation society that transcends capitalism and the commodity form of
information, and in which information is a commons (e.g. Atton, 2004;
Barbrook, 1998, 1999, 2007; Söderberg, 2002).
Open-source software has been realized mainly within projects such as
the Linux operating system. Special licences (termed copy-left) such as the
GNU public licence have been developed for ensuring that free software has
an open access to its source code. Free software hardly yields economic
profit; it is freely available on the Internet and constitutes an alternative
model of production that questions proprietary production models.
Digitization allows the easy copying of knowledge such as texts,
music, images, software and videos. The Internet enables the fast and
free global distribution of knowledge with the help of technologies such
as peer-to-peer networks (Napster, Audiogalaxy, KaZaA, KaZaA Lite,
LimeWire, Morpheus, Edonkey, WinMX, iMesh, Bearshare, Blubster,
SoulSeek, BitTorrent, Overnet, Toadnode, Grokster, etc.). The informa-
tional content can be stored on different physical carriers; the possession
of digital information by one person does not imply the non-possession
of it by others. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
has sued operators of such network applications, but whenever one oper-
ator has been forced to quit its services, others have emerged. This shows
that information and informational networks like the Internet are hard
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to control and are embedded in social struggles over the public or pri-
vate character of information.
The two poles of a dialectic are not only separated and different, they
are also entangled and meshed. In the case of gifts and commodities, this
means that the gift form is subsumed under the commodity form and can
even be used directly for achieving profit.
The gift commodity Internet economy: social
networking platforms
There is a commodified Internet economy and a non-commodified Internet
economy. Only those aspects of the Internet economy that are non-profit
gifts, that just have use value and no exchange value and are hence provided
without costs for the users and without selling advertisement space, can be
considered as decommodified or non-commodified. Examples are file-shar-
ing platforms, Wikipedia, Linux and Indymedia. Commodified Internet
spaces are always profit oriented, but the goods they provide are not neces-
sarily exchange values and market oriented; in some cases (such as Google,
Yahoo, MySpace, YouTube, Netscape), free goods or platforms are provided
as gifts in order to drive up the number of users so that high advertisement
rates can be charged in order to achieve profit. In other cases, digital or non-
digital goods are sold with the help of the Internet (e.g. Amazon), or
exchange of goods is mediated and charged for (online marketplaces such as
eBay or the Amazon Marketplace). In any of these cases, the primary orien-
tation of such spaces is instrumental reason: that is, the material interest of
achieving money profit, a surplus to the invested capital.
In the early phase of the World Wide Web, platforms that provided
content were important business models. Many new stock companies in
the areas of Internet content and Internet services had emerged up to the
mid-1990s. By the years 2005 and 2006, accumulation strategies related
to the Internet had shifted from a primary focus on information to a focus
on communication and cooperation (Fuchs, 2008). Some scholars like to
designate this transformation as the emergence of ‘Internet 2.0’ and ‘Web
2.0’, although the main purpose behind using these terms seem to be a
marketing strategy for boosting investment. The most characteristic
example of Web 2.0 are the social networking platforms like MySpace or
Facebook, which allow the online maintenance and establishment of social
relationships by an integrated use of technologies like email, websites,
guest books, forums, digital videos, or digital images. So, for example,
MySpace is a Web platform that allows users to generate personal profiles,
on which they can upload pictures, text, videos, music, and keep their
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personal blogs. It networks users with a friendship system (users can add
others to their friend list and post comments to their friends’ guest books),
discussion forums, interest groups, chat rooms and a mail function. Such
platforms have both a commodity form and ideological character.
The commodity form of social networking platforms
Commercial Web 2.0 applications are typically free to users; they generate
profit by achieving as many users as possible by offering free services and
selling advertisement space to third parties and additional services to
users. The more users, the more profit, that is, the more services are offered
for free, the more profit can be generated. Although the principle of the
gift points towards a postcapitalist society, gifts are today subsumed under
capitalism and used for generating profit in the Internet economy. The
Internet gift economy has a double character: it supports and at the same
time undermines informational capitalism. Applications such as file-shar-
ing software question the logic of commodities, whereas platforms such as
Google and MySpace are characteristic of the capitalist gift economy.
Internet 2.0 is characterized by this antagonism between information
commodities and information gifts.
The Internet gift commodity economy can be read as a specific form
of what Dallas Smythe has termed the audience commodity (Smythe,
2006). He suggests that in the case of media advertisement models the
audience is sold as a commodity. ‘Because audience power is produced, sold,
purchased and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity. . . . You
audience members contribute your unpaid work time and in exchange you
receive the program material and the explicit advertisements’ (Smythe,
2006: 233, 238). Audiences would work, although unpaid; the consump-
tion of the mass media would be work because it would result in a com-
modity, hence it would produce that commodity. Also the audience’s work
would include ‘learning to buy goods and to spend their income accord-
ingly’, the demand for the consumption of goods and the reproduction of
their own labour power (Smythe, 2006: 243ff.).
With the rise of user-generated content and free access social networking
platforms like MySpace or Facebook and other free access platforms that yield
profit by online advertisement, the Web seems to come close to the accumu-
lation strategies employed by capital on traditional mass media like television
or radio. The users who ‘google’ data, upload or watch videos on YouTube,
upload or browse personal images on Flickr, or accumulate friends with whom
they exchange content or communicate online on social networking platforms
like MySpace or Facebook, constitute an audience commodity that is sold to
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advertisers. The difference between the audience commodity on traditional
mass media and on the Internet is that in the latter the users are also content
producers: there is user-generated content, the users engage in permanent cre-
ative activity, communication, community building and content production.
That the users are more active on the Internet than in the reception of televi-
sion or radio content is due to the decentralized structure of the Internet that
allows many-to-many communication. Due to the permanent activity of the
recipients and their status as prosumers, I would in the case of the Internet
argue that the audience commodity is a prosumer commodity or produser
commodity. The category of the prosumer commodity/produser commodity
does not signify a democratization of the media towards participatory systems,
but the total commodification of human creativity. Much of the time spent
online produces profit for large corporations like Google, NewsCorp (which
owns MySpace) or Yahoo (which owns Flickr). Advertisements on the Internet
are frequently personalized. This is possible by surveilling, storing and assess-
ing user activities with the help of computers and databases. This is another
difference to television and radio, which due to their centralized structure pro-
vide less individualized content and advertisements. But in the area of the tra-
ditional mass media also, one can observe a certain shift as, for instance, in the
case of pay-per-view, televotings, talkshows and call-in TV and radio shows. In
the case of the Internet, the commodification of audience participation is eas-
ier to achieve than on other mass media. The rise of the Internet prosumer
commodity also shows that the visions of critical theorists like Benjamin,
Brecht or Enzensberger of an emancipatory media structure has today been
subsumed under capital. New media do carry a certain potential for advancing
grassroots socialism, but this potential is antagonistically entangled in the
dominant structures and it is unclear if the capitalist integument can be
stripped away. Personalized advertisement on the Internet is an expression of
the tendency towards what Deleuze has termed the ‘society of control’ as an
aspect of contemporary marketing and capitalism, in the sense that individu-
als are activated to continuously participate in and integrate themselves into
the structures of exploitation (see Fuchs 2008: 149ff.), during as well as out-
side wage labour time.
The more users make use of advertisement-based free online plat-
forms and the more time they spend online producing, consuming and
exchanging content, communicating with others, the higher the value of
the prosumer commodity they produce will become, the higher the adver-
tisement prices will rise and the higher the profits of the specific Internet
corporations will be. ‘The price that corporations pay for advertising spots
on particular programmes is determined by the size and social composition
of the audience it attracts’ (Murdock and Golding, 2005: 65).
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In Web 2.0, social relationships are commodified. An alternative are
non-commercial, non-profit open-source platforms that focus on social and
political networking. Social networking poses possibilities for group forma-
tion and cooperation, but the dominant forms are shaped by individualized
communication and corporate interests. However, the social potential that
emerges from these sites could be channelled into collective political projects.
The ideological character of social networking platforms
Contemporary new media discourse frequently argues that Web 2.0 – the
domination of the World Wide Web by applications that support com-
munity building, communication and user-generated content and that is
characterized by technologies such as blogs, social networking platforms
and wikis – means a democratization of society because information con-
sumers could become prosumers and participate in knowledge production
and discourse. So, for example, Tapscott and Williams (2006: 145) argue
that Web 2.0 democratizes the media: ‘If mainstream outlets were to
engage and cocreate with their audiences in a more profound way, surely
this could only accentuate positive attributes such as balance, fairness, and
accuracy, while making the media experience more dynamic.’ This
renewed deterministic techno-optimism argues that the availability of
more tools with which more people can now publish and communicate
information in easier ways on the Internet implies a democratization of the
media. But the degree of participation in the media not only concerns the
availability of production and circulation technologies, but also how visi-
ble information is, how much attention it gains, how much difference it
makes, how much control of actual decision processes is enabled and the
degree to which the structures of ownership, power and discourse are
shaped in participatory and cooperative ways.
If democracy is understood as the production of information by all that
has no significant political effects and leaves dominant power structures
untouched, then an ideological way of legitimating existing modes of domi-
nation is present. Everybody can then voice her or his opinion on the Web,
but nobody will care about it because the real decisions are still taken by the
elite groups. The information produced then constitutes an endless flood of
data, but not significant political voices. Web 2.0 can be and is appropriated
by politicians, parties, corporations and the representative political system to
give voice to the people without listening and to give people a say in politi-
cal decisions. Citizens can communicate political ideas, but in their everyday
life they hardly have transformative institutionalized power. Web 2.0 can
result in the illusionary impression that citizens today can make a difference,
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whereas in reality they cannot influence policies and live in a world that is
dominated by corporate interests and corporate control. Web 2.0 under such
conditions is an ideology and an expression of repressive tolerance (Marcuse,
1969). The repressive tolerance of Web 2.0 is a contemporary expression of
what Marcuse almost 40 years ago termed ‘totalitarian democracy’.
Web 2.0 not only functions as repressive tolerance, but also as mar-
keting ideology for advancing capital accumulation by selling audiences as
commodities. Web 2.0 applications like social networking platforms keep
individuals busy generating personal information that they display online
in social networking profiles, blogs, etc. Most of these applications are built
in such a way that each participant has his or her own space that he or she
creates and maintains. Others are welcome as friends who are accumulated
in friends lists and who comment in guest books or on blog entries, but
inherently social platforms where users co-create are largely missing. Social
networking platforms in their current form further advance individualiza-
tion. (1) They are ideological expressions of individual creativity that cre-
ate the illusion that individual expressions count in capitalism because they
can be publicly displayed on the Internet (the problem is that this individ-
ualized information hardly influences political decisions and power struc-
tures). (2) They are based on instrumental reason because on platforms like
MySpace networking becomes a performance-driven and competitive effort
oriented around accumulating as many friends as possible (Fuchs, 2008).
Another problematic aspect of social networking platforms is that they are
huge collections of personal information that if accessed by corporations or
state apparatuses give a new dimension to surveillance.
Social networking has an ideological character: its networking advances
capitalist individualization, accumulation and legitimization. An alternative
would be platforms that allow group profiles, joint profile creation, group
blogging, and that are explicitly oriented towards collective political and
social goals. I suggest that what are needed primarily today are fundamen-
tal transformations of the political and economic system towards participa-
tory systems that are supported by new media. This today is not the case;
what happens right now is the commodification and colonization of society
and with it, of the media and Web 2.0 by dominant interests.
Social networking platforms are an example of the simultaneity of the
ideological and commodity character of media. The ideology of individu-
alization drives user demand, which allows the commodification of audi-
ences that yields profit. The commodification of audiences allows the
further extension and sophistication of social networking platforms, which
in turn attracts more users and so further advances individualization.
There is a dialectic of commodification and individualization.
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The approach advanced in this article is one that argues for the need of a
critical social theory that is applied to contemporary media like the
Internet. The notion of critique has been understood as a Marxian form of
critique and it has been argued that such an understanding is needed in
order to address the societal problems of transnational information capi-
talism. Critical theory should have as one of its tasks today the analysis of
the antagonisms of contemporary capitalism and how they are related to
the Internet (and other media and technologies); it is dialectical, realistic,
materialistic and a standpoint theory that opposes all forms of domination
and exploitation and argues for the advancement of a cooperative society.
It aims at showing how the relationship of Internet and society is shaped
by and shapes societal antagonisms, and which suppressed development
potentials of society have not yet been realized.
1. Source: Forbes online lists,
2. My focus on Marcuse is based on the insight that he is the most dialectical crit-
ical theorist (see Fuchs, 2005a, 2005b) because he conceived media and cul-
ture simultaneously as ideological and as potentially liberating. Like Adorno,
he stressed the critical role of art, but in contrast to Adorno, he also saw the
possibility for a critique of capitalism by alternative media. Marcuse’s analysis
of Hegel is a reading that stresses a subject–object dialectic that transcends
deterministic interpretations of Hegel and Marx. He was one of the first
authors who (in his book ‘Reason & Revolution’) stressed the importance of the
Hegelian logic of essence and the role of the Marxian philosophical writings
for grounding a humanist Marxism. Such an approach seems to be especially
important today in a situation where a post-Soviet Marxism is needed and
Marxism is struggling to throw off its Stalinist dogmatization. One aspect of
the media that Marcuse (just like Horkheimer and Adorno) did not see is their
direct economic role in the form of media products that are sold as commodi-
ties. In this respect, Marcuse’s theory needs to be enhanced by Critical Political
Economy approaches.
3. Source: World Economic Outlook Online Database, April 2007 (accessed 25
June 2007).
4. Calculation based on capital assets, Forbes 2000, 2007 Listing of Largest
Corporations, 29 March 2007).
5. The social democratic position can, for example, be found in the works of Siva
Vaidhyanathan (2004). He argues that there is a conflict between anarchy and oli-
garchy that has been amplified by the rise of digital network technologies.
Characteristics would be free access values and freedom on the one hand and prop-
erty values and control on the other. As a solution, he suggests a middle-ground,
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a civic republicanism that transcends ‘thick communicationism’ and ‘individual-
istic liberalism’ (Vaidhyanathan, 2004: 191) and that offers easy and cheap access
to culture via public institutions as well as incentives for cultural production.
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Thursday, 10 December 2009

Good use of video on the UpTake

Hello, hello, UpTakers!  The team is settled in Copenhagen, and I wanted to pass along the many ways you can follow our coverage of the UN Climate Change Conference, our first international news coverage. The conference lasts until December 18th, and we'll be there, cameras in hand, for the entire thing. 
From about 2 AM CST - 12:30 PM CST, we're live-streaming the sessions inside the Bella Center on our front page.  We'll alert you on our Twitter account when a session is live, or you can check the badges below our video on the front page. 
Many sessions run simultaneously, so you can switch channels on our video player by clicking Copenhagen 1, 2, 3 or 4 on the right-hand side of the player.  After the sessions are over for the day, we'll replay the entire day on the front page.

Fancy, produced video

We're also publishing edited pieces throughout the day.  Examples: we talk with Naomi Klein of The Nation about the concept of hope, and what it means for this conference. Watch a musical demonstration outside of The Bella Center before Day One.  And should Africa be represented by Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenaw at the conference?

Read our tweets

Our team is twittering furiously throughout the day.  Check our live blog for all the tweets in one place, or add them individually: Chuck, Jason, Mike, Jacob.  (Oh, say hi to Jacob Wheeler, journalist from Chicago who's helping us out in Copenhagen.)

A gaggle of videos and links (kind of like a pride of lions)

We're also collecting video on the conference from all over the web here, and you can read daily link round-ups from our interns, Alicia and Kelly, here.  (Say hi to Alicia and Kelly, everyone.)

Embed us!  Steal our RSS!

If you'd like to embed our livestream player, go to our front page and click on the Embed button at the bottom of the video player.  That'll bring up the code.  Click on the channels on the right to bring up that channel's embed code.

If you'd like an RSS feed of our videos, take our Blip RSS here.

We left our heart in Minnesota

We don't miss the snow, but we're not ignoring you, Minnesota.  Check our Minnesota Twitter account for our local live-streaming schedule, and for local videos.  Our citizen journalist supreme, Craig Stellmacher, shot this great video of Sarah Palin and her fans at the Mall America.

As always, if you have questions, or want to say hi to the team, you can write us at

Tak!  (And thanks for watching.)

The UpTake

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Monday, 16 November 2009

Clare, Kevin & Elly's flying bday party circus

What can we say? Anyone up for a spot of Pythonesque flibbertygibbits?

Since we have this wonderful space we want to bring together the best of a bad bunch and celebrate our madness with you.

Fancy dress absolutely essential: Monty python your little socks off. Prizes for the crackerest costumes and free drinks for the most drunk person!

Date: November 26th
Time: from 7pm - 12am
Venue: Resistance Gallery, Poyser St, London, E2

With Dj's:

Clare Solomon
Kevin Deane
Elly Badcock

and many more...

Film showings of Life of Brian top of the bill, Flying Circus playing on the mezzanine from 7pm

This is a strictly No Politics Party: what other sort would we want?!

"Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let's not bicker and argue over who killed who."

On the night we want to have art, visuals and plenty of interactiveness so feel free to contribute anything to the evening.

For those of you who havent been to this venue before (dubbed the avante gard space of our time by the Metro!) you are in for a treat. Normally the space for, as it says on the tin, all sorts of resistance stuff our birthday party will definitely be in spirit of the venues aims.

Anyway, hope you can come.

Unfortunately due to space constraints we may have to do a sort of door policy so please indicate if you are or maybe coming and then change as and when you know that you are more definite (make sense?)

Ciao 4 now and, in the good words of our mate Monty,

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Fire-fighting in Cyber space: An exploration of Internet Use for mobilisation and democratic accountability

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Fire-fighting in Cyber space: An exploration of Internet Use for mobilisation and democratic accountability

John Hogan, Reader in Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire, UK (

Andreja Zivkovic, Lecturer in HRM, University of Hertfordshire, UK (


This paper examines the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) by Firefighters in the UK to generate solidarity and maintain collectivism. This is pursued through the examination of how ICTs were utilised in the conduct of the national industrial dispute that raged within Britain’s fire service between 2002 and 2003. It seeks to conceptualise this rich experience of cyber-organisation through the use of the analytical template of distributed discourse. From this perspective ICT has profound implications for collective deliberation and organisation, in that it facilitates communication to occur rapidly, at low and distributed cost; attenuating the time-space poverty of participants by allowing for asynchronous communicative exchanges and by bringing together those separated by distance. Flows of information may now escape institutional boundaries as never before. The communicative possibilities are for more extensive interaction, greater density of communication, sharper visibility and higher levels of transparency.

Through the examination of official and unofficial firefighters web sites, combined with virtual and real time in-depth interviews with key actors, this paper examines the specific domain of union governance, and suggests that tendencies towards oligarchy (sustained by control over the flow of information, access to superior knowledge, skill in the art of politics and a membership diverted by the pulls of work, family and leisure) are challenged by the distributed discourse that lies at the heart of organizing in the information age. In particular, we draw out the possibilities for greater equality of knowledge, distributed control over the means of communication, the enhanced communicative skills of more ordinary union members and a reconfiguration of the time-space dimension of communicative practice. Finally, the paper explores the role that distributed forms of communication and organisation can play in trade union renewal, particularly in promoting participatory democracy and overcoming tendencies to bureaucratic inertia in trade unions.

Paper presented at Trade Unions in the Information Age workshop, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Lancaster, June 28th-29th, 2006


Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language….In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.
Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”

There is little doubt that we are living through a period of profound transformation, not least when confronted with the new possibilities unleashed by the seemingly permanent revolution in the world of information communication technology. The revolution in communicative possibilities is highly significant for trade union organisation and mobilisation. It is our contention that the space created for “the spirit of the new language”, distributed discourse, might well be opportune for a movement seemingly locked in the embrace of failure. However, there are compelling reasons to conclude that adaptation to the language and logics of the “Information Age” is labouring under the unbearable weight of tradition, most notably the obsession of centres of power to remain within the paradigm of the “native tongue” of control. In fact, it is rather telling that when a major conference was hosted by the TUC to discuss the implications of the internet in May 2001, one of the central calls was for the establishment of an “Internet Czar” to codify legitimacy and oversee union activity and presence on the internet.

Between the autumn of 2002 and the summer of 2003, a bitter national industrial dispute raged within Britain’s fire service. Fire fighters under the leadership of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) mounted an ambitious campaign for a substantial increase in wages. Events over the period included widespread demonstrations, a large number of meetings between the FBU and National Employers, high profile government-sponsored reports, moves to change the law governing the service, deep divisions between the labour and trade union leaderships, and most dramatically, a series of national strikes, all of which received wide spread media coverage. The dispute ended on June 12th 2003, when a delegate conference ratified the recommendation of the FBU leadership to accept a highly controversial, and for a substantial minority unsatisfactory, settlement, one that may yet unravel and ignite further conflict. It is perhaps ironic that people at times accused of embodying the spirit of “old” labour should pursue their struggles into cyber-space. But that is precisely what they did and continue to do.

The web campaigns associated with the Fire Fighters’ Dispute stand as a clear example of the way in which trade unionist in Britain, from every level, have been making increasing use of new ICTs (information communication technologies), especially the internet, within their union-related activities. This is a significant change. In 1999 we argued (Hogan and Grieco, 1999) that the level of activity had been low and reflection slow to develop. Much has changed. There has been a notable development of interest within academic circles and within official trade unionism, along with increased union activity in cyberspace. Within this paper we provide a brief summary of these developments. Here we indicate that while there consideration of the ways in which internet use might complement and change the conduct of existing trade union activities (servicing, organising and mobilising), there is little understanding of the ways in which democratic structures and processes of trade unionism might be challenged. To develop our understanding, it is important to move outside of the realm of national official union presence on the internet, to incorporate an appreciation of the contributions of local, unofficial and individual activists. Our contention is that it is the lay member web sites which illustrate the impact of the internet on processes of union democracy, voicing of lay members, and the ways in which the who, the what and the where of trade union activism are changed by the capabilities of new ICTs. Hence, we return to the Fire Fighters’ Dispute to indicate how its associated web activity illustrates some of these key themes.

Surveying the Terrain

Debates about the place of new ICTs and their use by unions have formed part of the most recent segments of the ‘union renewal debate’ concerned with how unions might reinvigorate membership numbers, collective bargaining coverage and gain a renewed organisational, political and societal role after twenty five years of derision. Views that trade unions must engage with new technology or die are common: “what does seem certain is that unions that do not get to grips with the digital world will atrophy” (IRS, 2001; Lee, 1997; Diamond and Freeman, 2002). Space constraints only permit a very brief overview here. The main features of the internet, which are seen as having the potential to affect conventional modes of trade union activity involve: the ability to access information on a 24 hour basis, the ability to transcend the need for physical presence, the speed of communication, the extended reach of communication (particularly across dispersed populations), and relatively low cost..

Optimism has been derived from the observation of the ways in which the increased information provision and dissemination potential of the internet can improve the services that are provided to members, including contact with representatives, advice and guidance, and education provision (Diamond and Freeman, 2002; Greene et al, 2000; Greene et al, 2003; Kirton and Greene, 2002; Greene and Kirton, 2003). Furthermore, the internet is seen as an alternative tool of organising new segments of potential membership, particularly younger workers (Greene, 2001). In addition, web sites can provide mechanisms to aid activists and encourage participation of more of the membership, particularly those currently under-represented (Greene and Kirton, 2003). This fits in with the general diffusion of an ‘organising culture’ within the British trade union movement, moving away from the servicing of existing members (Heery et al, 2000; Gall, 2003). The medium of the internet has also been identified as a means to strengthen international labour co-operation and solidarity (Bailey, 2000; Lee 1997; Carter et al, 2003), while, in labour disputes specifically the internet is seen as providing a vital networking and campaigning tool, leading to the enhanced maintenance of solidarity across dispersed membership bases and facilitating the co-ordination of conventional physical pickets and demonstrations (Pliskin et al , 1997; Carter et al, 2003; Greene and Kirton, 2003)

The issue of union democracy has also been the subject of debate, and one of our own areas of particular interest. We have argued in particular that internet and email communication hold with them the potential to facilitate processes of ‘distributed discourse’. In a trade union context, this involves greater equalities of knowledge to a larger number of people across a wider area, offering enhanced spaces for voicing of interest and dissent. Processes of distributed discourse through internet communication mean that knowledge need no longer to be subject to centralist iron laws of oligarchic formation, where the line is dictated from a hierarchical centre. Part of this is the way in which the internet provides mechanisms whereby voices which may be silenced or marginalised within official channels can be heard, and whereby ordinary members are able to impose transparency on their elected officials and representatives, contributing to increased accountability (Hogan and Grieco, 1999; Hogan and Greene, 2002; Greene et al, 2003; Carter et al, 2003).
Unions Online?
Moving on from optimism of potential, scepticism makes an appearance when the conservative nature of internet use by trade unions in Britain is observed. Admittedly, initial research indicates that use of ICTs is widespread. (Fiorito, 2001; Diamond and Freeman, 2002). In addition, most of the larger TUC affiliated unions now have a significant web presence, (Ward and Lusoli, 2002). However, it is clear that unions have not been as innovative as they could have been. Indeed, Ward and Lusoli see them as ‘dinosaurs in cyber-space’. Unions appear mostly concerned with basic information provision rather than with mechanisms to facilitate interactive discussion. Some (primarily very small ones) still without a web presence, while visibility for local branches is very limited (Ward and Lusoli, 2002) A survey by Poptel also supports views that unions are fairly conservative in their aims; for example, while respondents ranked most potential uses of the internet highly, they were much more equivocal about innovations such as on-line voting. Overall, there is still a strong preference for trade union participation of the face-to-face, physical form, confirmed by other evidence in the education sphere (Kirton and Greene, 2002). In addition, it is clear that there is some resistance to the notion of distributed discourse. In fact, when the LSE staged a conference on Unions and the Internet in 2001, hosted and co-organised by the TUC, at the centre of discussion was the proposal that Britain’s unions need an ‘Internet Czar’, to oversee the web presence and web activities of the UK trade union movement.

In the end, it should be noted that the most persuasive commentaries on unions and the internet recognise that ICTs are not a panacea for the ills of the trade union movement (Greene and Kirton, 2003; Greene et al, 2001; IRS, 2001). Nevertheless, it is also clear, that much of the research and commentary, as well as TUC and union policy suffer from an almost exclusive focus on official and nationally-based union websites, where arguably the most resistance to distributed discourse may be found. We have argued elsewhere (Hogan and Greene, 2002; Greene and Hogan, 2001) that the examples of the most innovative use of the internet, which offer the greatest challenges to conventional trade union activities are to be found outside of official structures, within lay or ordinary member locations. This is where we turn to next in looking at the Fire Fighters’ Dispute.

Fire Fighting in Cyber Space

As the fire fighters’ pay campaign unfolded, one FBU union activist, Simon Hickman, established an unofficial web site in the June of 2002, the 30k site ( Given space limitations, it is impossible to convey its full extent and depth. However, there are a number of features that are particularly noteworthy. The site is a very rich information resource, containing electronic archive and news materials, links to notices of rallies and meetings, news of strike schedules, and directed links to the facility to lobby MPs electronically and to view the official strike bulletins on the official/national FBU site. There is a search engine, invitations to contact the site and facilities to directly communicate the address of the web site to friends. The links to external sites is limited to those dealing specifically with the dispute. Following an attack on the site in November 2002, Mr Hickman was compelled to move to a dedicated server, a cost that viewers are invited to contribute to, made possible by amongst other things an online electronic debit payment facility. Perhaps most interesting of all is the space made to interact and discuss the campaign and other matters of concern in chat rooms and forums. The registration process to enter discussion is quick and straightforward, interactions are moderated and the product of debate is openly available for view in separate interest groups.

There is no doubt that the 30k site has been seen as important. By the end of 2002, the site came third in an international poll of the best labour movement websites (official or unofficial) for the year ( and has generated a staggering volume of visits and participation. While space constraints prevent a comprehensive assessment, there are a number of key observations that can be made.

Multi-Voicing and Visibility

Between August 19th 2002, when the site began to monitor and record site visits, and July 8th 2003, the site was visited 487,418 times, with the viewing of 2,959,367 pages, while there were nearly 5,000 visitors registered as members of the chat rooms and forums, who combined to contribute to the posting of over 126,000 messages. Both the 30k site and the FBU official site deploy the same software for generating statistics about visits, which allows easy comparisons to be made. On the available evidence, we can see that the unofficial site1 clearly outperforms the official site2. The average number of visits per day at the time of inspection, July 8th 2003, stood at 1,168 for the official site and 1,875 for the unofficial site, average visit length was 1 minute 37 seconds for the former and 9 minutes 20 seconds for the latter, in terms of the average number of pages viewed per day, the official site scored 1,538 while the unofficial site registered 9,744. Thus, while mindful of the perils of relying upon polls as well as raw statistical data, such evidence suggests that the 30k site did achieve a significant level of visibility for the cause, while providing a communicative space for the multiplication of voices in a manner that could not be achieved in real time and space. Furthermore, the evidence suggests support for our contention that the relatively low cost and distributed character of the technology provides ready means for actors outside of official structures and with far fewer resources to access the means of developing and transmitting information, to such good effect that they can even out perform established institutions.

Skill Development
The power provided to the non-expert is illustrated when one profiles the web master of the 30k site. Hickman is not a computer professional. He is a fire fighter and an FBU station representative. As he explains,

“The initial set-up took a couple of days if that. I run a few personal sites so I had the hang of it really. was the first one I set up and that site has changed allot since that was started in '98 but has given me the tools to run this site. Day to day running of the site….Normally a couple of hours updating it daily, that's searching for news and any other ideas that have been passed to me.

The time consuming part is the forum. I have 5 people helping me moderate it...” (correspondence with authors)

A number of key issues are suggested here. The task and cost of managing the site are distributed, from the many who supply information to the few others who share in the task of moderating remotely. That said, cyberspace does not exist as a ‘virtual’ paradise, free from the burdens, ties and demands of everyday life, for as Hickman has also pointed out, his activities have placed upon his domestic space and time considerable pressures, indicating that internet communication still takes considerable time to do properly. However, there is no doubt that the costs of matching the product of his efforts through conventional communicative means would have been prohibitive.

While it is evident that Hickman developed his skills over time through practice on the web, it is also the case that his site is a space in which skills are developed. Beyond the development of understandings that might come from debate, the site also allows individuals to share ideas about how to systematically analyse documents and to draft responses and to then share the products of their efforts with other visitors. For instance, in one stream of discussion a contributor posted their thoughts on the White paper put forward by the government to modernise the fire service, asking for critical comments so that the quality of response might be improved. Another stream included the posting of a letter that one activist had published in his local newspaper, outlining the arguments in support of the pay claim, an intervention that was greeted favourably by others, many of whom committed themselves to use it as a template for their own letter writing efforts. These examples illustrate our argument that virtual asynchronous meeting has the advantage of allowing for communicative skills to be developed and confidence to be built through rehearsal in safe spaces (Greene et al, 2003).

Transparency, Performance Auditing and Accountability

The 30k site also illustrates our arguments about the implications of internet communication for the enforcement of transparency, performance auditing and accountability. Many contributors to the site commented on what they perceived to be inadequacies in the democratic credentials of the FBU and its leadership:
“…the only truly democratic point of this dispute was the initial strike ballot. Since then democracy has been placed back on the shelf where this union has kept it for many years. This site ….is the only democratic outlet left to us. Meetings are re arranged or called at short notice, motions are ruled out of order by archaic rules intended to stifle debate, huge branches are cancelled out by groups of 5 or 6 who's branches carry equal weight.

Democracy also works on the majority making an informed descision based on all the facts and they haven't exactly been forthcoming have they? (posted at 21:39 on 5/6/03).
When the FBU leadership attempted to persuade the union membership that they should settle, the site became a forum in which the offers were discussed Amid accusations that the centre was attempting to restrict the flow of information between branches to prevent a momentum of opposition developing, some of the contributors to the 30k site used the space to organise opposition, part of which involved exchanging information about how the campaign to reject the proposals was developing in different locations. The site also became a forum for complaint about the voting methods used to conclude the dispute Since the conclusion of the pay campaign, the site has carried a number of messages calling for the resignation of the General Secretary and other leaders. Here readers are reminded of the transformation of the positions adopted over time, allowing the easy comparison of statements of defiant confidence early in the dispute with the “resignation to realism” at the close. Furthermore, amid allegations that the union leadership was so wary of criticism that it was attempting to postpone the 2003 annual conference, the 30k site became a place where activists from different branches and regions could post the result of the resolutions passed in their localities calling for the conference to take place, while it was noted that such information would be useful to collate for the purpose of exposing the extent to which the leadership of the union were prepared or not to accommodate the wishes of the membership (see:

Union Democracy, Disintegration and Distributed Discourse?

In noting the critical voices released on the 30k site, one might be left with the impression that the FBU nationally was completely unwilling to entertain the possibility of constructing such an open forum. However, interviews with an FBU official reveal that such an experiment did take place at the beginning of the dispute. An open forum for the posting of messages was made available and the site was inundated with communications, but the decision was made within two days to close the space, for while a very high proportion of the postings were supportive of the pay claim, there were a significant minority of emotive and critical remarks from “army wives”, as well as abusive and vulgar interventions. From then on, messages were solicited, but before being posted they would be checked to see if they were “appropriate”. The rationale provided was that the union was involved in a high profile dispute, there was intense and hostile media attention and that to make the web site a host for the defamatory and critical could only damage the reputation of the fire fighters and their organisation. Commenting on the 30k site, the observation was made that the site had been “loyal” at the beginning of the dispute, but that it had lost its value as it degenerated with postings abusive and insulting to the leadership, while revealing an unwillingness to accept the majority democratic decision to accept the final settlement.

There are plenty of notices on the 30k site that give credence to the above position. However, while it is practically impossible to know how far the practice of censorship extends, an inspection of content does reveal a remarkably open dialogue, with postings from opponents of the strike, advocates of the final settlement (see for example:, as well as the critical of leadership performance. It is clear that sharp divisions can surface when debate reigns relatively unconstrained, but should this be regarded as necessarily damaging to a union and if so, more than the hidden resentment that may lie undetected and therefore all the more difficult to redress when silence prevails? While the FBU site concentrated mainly on image management, the unofficial site provided this space. What is more, every branch and region of the FBU that has a web site maintains a link to the 30k site, emphasising the point that cognitive policing on the internet can be readily subverted as centres of control are by-passed. In any case, there are different and at times more effective ways of maintaining unity. Processing individual dilemmas and doubts through collective communicative spaces, where participants have the time to consider their responses and suggestions may take the raw emotion out of debate. This is shown on the 30k site in the discussions around whether or not it is worth retaining union membership following the bitter disappointment at the perceived failings of the FBU’s leadership ( What is more, although it would be naïve to suggest that endless debate is a worthwhile end in itself, we would suggest that to make a virtue out of repression, whether in the name of collective discipline or for the sake of effective marketing, necessarily closes off openness to the expansive imagination and creativity that are seen as so lacking, yet necessary for renewal (Hyman, 1999)
While there is no doubt that the 30k site is regarded as important by many of those who have and continue to participate within its realm, success or otherwise is difficult to measure with precision, while the contours of future development and impact are yet to be seen. However, as a lived and living experience it provides a number of significant lessons: the internet is an increasingly important space for the conduct of union-related activities; its low and distributed cost of operation makes it a more accessible space within which visibility can be gained and for communication skills to be nurtured and developed; and, by providing space outside of institutional restraints, it can be exploited in more innovative and interactive ways, to highlight and perhaps attenuate the deficiencies of official union web presence and communicative practices. Yet, Unions are caught in a dilemma; on the one hand, between engaging with a communicative form that is popular and in many ways expansive and on the other, with the traditions of “collective responsibility”, combined with maintaining unity in the face of adversity. How this is to be resolved, is an open question. We suggest that it is fruitful to begin with reflection upon the emerging reality that is distributed discourse and the proposition that,

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