As Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading in the Electronic Frontier (Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, USA) demonstrates, the United States in the 1980s saw the discreet upheaval caused by virtual communities, thanks to the spread of Internet in universities and research centres and the popular use of BBSs. For the first time, people could experiment with bi-directional virtual spaces: they could simultaneously experience the dissemination of a particular form of self-organisation and of management of abundance, and produce, and manage information and knowledge. No such forms of organisation existed in the material world: the asynchronous relationship, the simple fact of being connected without being present (a kind of popular automatic answer-phone), the capacity to become a player in the process and not merely a simple passive spectator inevitably invited them to see reality in another way.

A global evolution in the relationship to information

But what was really happening in those years? Just how far could the social evolution remain indifferent, or could it signal what was happening on the ground, beyond the “electronic frontier”? “Information is Power”, hallmark of the political model supported by both superpowers, suddenly became unsustainable and during the Reagan era had reached a crisis point. All the power based on the strategic use of information in managing military force, GDP, the industrial activity of the ¬population, control of energy and natural resources had not foreseen the collapse of the USSR (or even the emergence of a power like Japan). In the interstices of this crisis which turned the world on its head, new elements were infiltrating under the surface and were encouraging a protagonist at last capable of overturning the rigid framework of relationships imposed by the Cold War.

Information technologies in general, and Internet in particular, difficulties in the education system, flexible organization of companies with the arrival of new models of knowledge management (often more feasible on paper than in reality), the handling of information which exceeded the level usually manageable for individuals and groups: all this was sewn together with the fine thread of interaction, shaping what we can call “the factory” of a new power.

This new situation introduced significant changes, compared with the earlier period. On the one hand, the nature of information changed. It was no longer so dependent on the capacity of specialists to gather and handle information in order to produce strategic information based on a hierarchical (and bipolar) project, as had been necessary in the past by public and private agencies and by the media. After the Second World War, a new relationship was created between the owner of information and the rest of society: on the one hand, the transmitter, who played an active and determining role in the process of selection and distribution, and on the other, the receiver who was given the passive role of consumer without the ability of making a meaningful response. This relationship began to break down, when information technologies introduced two new and subversive elements: anyone could publish anything they liked on the network, and whatever was published could instantaneously be subjected to an interactive debate.

For too long, knowledge had basically been imprisoned behind the walls of organizations which protected it on the grounds that it was a “strategic good’. We are talking about certain individuals (scientists, experts, etc.), enterprises, corporations, public authorities, police or military forces, research centres, universities, political parties, the traditional education system, etc. Since the public eruption of the network, and especially since what we can call the process of resocialization of the World Wide Web, a substantial part of this knowledge has passed into the hands of individuals, groups, enterprises, organizations, administrations and institutions, and they can express themselves on open, turbulent, and expanding networks.

These three terms are not literary metaphors but categories which allow us, as new users, to understand the structure of the network:

- An open network: because no one controls who comes online. There is no Cerberus, no manager charged with applying selective criteria for access;

- A turbulent network: no one person can control the activities of others (governments have tried, but until now without much success);

- An expanding network: if there are no controls on entry, the network’s content grows constantly, chaotically, superfluously and exponentially.

The frontier between the holders of information power and what we can call “the audience”, in the broadest sense of the word, became often diffuse, ambiguous, complex. The virtual world, peopled by networked computers, telephones, televisions, multimedia, and satellite systems, took traditional corporative, military, social, economic, and political powers by surprise: in some cases, by substantially reducing their strength and the logic of their pre-eminence, in others, by reinforcing and multiplying it.

Second, the power of information was previously based on the criterion of exclusion (the fewer the number of people owning information, the greater the power, the “purity” of those owners). However, in a world shaped by virtual communities (created thanks to information technologies), value gravitates towards the cooperative capacity of social players. Digitalization converts information and knowledge into crucial goods in the new international relationships of a rapidly changing world where the global and the local have acquired a new meaning. Exclusive ownership of information increasingly becomes a more arduous, costly, untenable and, finally, sterile task. The Information Society’s calls for participation explode such desires for exclusivity, even if blocking moves take time to disappear: after all, these ponderous structures are vestiges of the Cold War period.

Thus, in the face of Cold War “hard power”, protected by nuclear arms and their capacity for destruction and by the value of information in order to maintain the strength of superpower policies, there is now “soft power”, nurtured by information technologies. We have moved away from the transfer of information in a unilateral relationship between an active transmitter of information (State, enterprise, media, etc.) and a passive receiver and are now seeing a multilateral, transversal and interactive dialogue, with the emergence of what we can call the basic unit of production of socially useful information and knowledge: the virtual community (VC). In other words, we are constructing a much more complex, more ambiguous and less schematic world, where interaction is power. This is indeed a new state of affairs, characterized by a multitude of archipelagos of virtual communities in which the laws of operation contravene the rigid rules of hard power that we have known until now.

Characteristics of virtual communities

It is now time to review progress in activities developing beyond the electronic frontier and what we can do with them. The response will no longer come from the established powers, but basically from the growing capacity for promotion and action within the VCs, where individuals are given the possibility of organizing their desires, their aspirations or even their own daily lives within a virtual - and in principle, neutral - context which will acquire a shape similar to that of those connected to it.

This change has been transformed into a multiplying force, which builds non-repressive exchanges and which, in addition, does not necessarily reinforce - as in the past - a centralized power, even if logically speaking it does not exclude such a centralized power. Thus it is the individuals and organizations which decide on the physiognomy and the functions of VCs that they have created and manage.

VCs do not exist and function alone, since they are the fruit of the activities by citizens, whether they be individuals, formal or informal groups, enterprises, organizations, etc. Thus new artificial (virtual) spaces have been created with a set of characteristics that are not always comprehensible according to “real world” parameters.

1. Information belongs to users, that is to say, the network is in principle “empty” and it is the users who decide on the type of information that they will store, display or exchange. Thus, each user will decide where he or she will access the network, for what purpose and with whom.

2. Access to the network is

- universal: with a network computer, anyone can have access to the entire network or “see” the whole network (given that once on the network, there are sites which require payment prior to accessing information they contain);

- simultaneous: we are all on the network at the same time, since we exist as pieces of information (zeros and ones). In reality, the network is, since its creation, the first automatic answer phone. No one knows whether we are connected or not, but we all are linked together as if we were, by our digital presence, by the information we move around, and by the interactions we trigger;

- independent in time (24 hours/365 days) and in space. It is the first permanently open space for human activities, no matter where we are located. To have access to everything that is available on the network, all we need is a network computer.

3. Finally, two other aspects close this compressed genetic code and stem from the fact that the network grows in a decentralised and non-hierarchical way. Keep adding computers (servers) and the web will spread physically and virtually, yet no computer can run control and command tasks on the other computers in the network.

If information on the network is placed there and published by its users, we are in an eminently PARTICIPATIVE environment. In fact, the network is constantly receiving feedback from signals transmitted by its users. Participation leads inexorably to INTERACTION, that is to reactions to what other people are doing (we are not talking here specifically about the intensity or levels of that interaction, but we can suggest that participating means “moving” one’s own information in relation with that of others and moving other people’s information in relation to one’s own).

The inevitable result of these two last points is constant GROWTH in information and knowledge being circulated through the system. This evolution, however, is a factor incorporated into the very structure of the Internet. Growth does not just mean adding information, it means everything that goes with it: systems for search, classification, synthesis, participation and interaction, systematic and ephemeral groupings, transactions and trade, organization of information and its visibility, etc.

The rapid emergence and multiple forms of VCs

From this perspective, change has been phenomenal and very rapid. The first VCs were conceived by engineers, programmers and hackers, followed by Usenet and spaces for collaboration in the R&D sector. Activities in these new virtual spaces were rapidly extended to include larger thematic areas. Soon after this, VCs were created, inspired by BBSs such as those run by Compuserve or AOL, amongst others, together with the emergence of broad social organizations. Among these organizations, we can cite, because of its wide membership, APC (Alliance for Progressive Communications), an umbrella site for many networks on the five continents grouped together in clearly defined interest areas. The activities that have developed under this umbrella site provide an indication of the complexity of the world of virtual communities and of an emerging form of political action with very different characteristics than those we have seen in the past.

APC played a very important role during the World Conference for the Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. On the World Forum campus (an alternative conference held alongside the official conference), rooms were filled with computers and hundreds of NGO representatives from all over the world were taught to use the Internet. In the years that followed, thousands of people on the five continents, working together in more or less structured VCs, set up ways for exchanging information, launching projects, obtaining funding and organizing events, all using the network. While the media remained shamefully silent on the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies, these VCs were perfectly aware of their importance and future consequences, of the complementary role played by the IMF, and of the impact that these two bodies were having on India and Latin America. The pressure accumulated, and finally exploded in Seattle, five years later, with the official launch of WTO, the offspring of the no less mysterious GATT and Uruguay Round. Few people living on the surface of the “real” society understood where this movement came from or what it was about, except that it called itself, in error, “anti-globalization”.

A new form of political live

Were we discovering a new form of political involvement? Perhaps. But not political involvement as we had known it until then, with its characteristics of continuity in action, based on facts (tradition), nurtured by explicit ideas of conquest over social or administrative spaces and of development of action plans after each action. What we did not understand - and I think we still do not understand clearly - is that some of the specific characteristics that define VCs are introducing a different political scenario:

- the possibility of multiple VCs - similarly to multiple ecosystems, to the extent that they co-exist in “niches” in the same space, a concept which is sometimes difficult to understand in a systemic conception of the world - does not permit a clear definition of the location of power which is inspired by adoption by self-managed communities;

- The constant, sustained, uncontrolled process of extension through the connected population, which continuously moves the frontier between “mature” VC actors having greater experience and conscious of what it means to work and interact with others in contexts that are more or less organized, and the group of “recent arrivals”. As a result, activities on the network are being constantly reinvented, a situation which works against the installation of less organized forms (more ephemeral) of relationships on the network, no matter how important they may be.

- Mutual respect for the objectives and methodologies on which members are in agreement. This is the new ethic or the network ethic. In practice, there is no comparable space in the physical world, where the occupants have the possibility of checking what happens, of examining the nature of exchanges and of analyzing whether they respect collectively approved standards. This process of feedback from the activity itself implies a strong ethical responsibility, because respect cannot be shared solely on the basis of a mere declaration of intentions, but on that of the form that the rules take within the VC’s common archives, for members and non-members alike.

- The existence of archives in which the VC’s activities are stored. This is a crucial factor but does not always receive enough attention. When we speak of the forms of political relationship, or of a new ethic for these relationships, etc., we are not just referring to a static photograph of a VC which can share a part of its existence. The archives represent an essential pedagogical factor for those who join the VC, one by one, for which there is no equivalent in the real world. Thus this factor is a constituent part of the organization, its history, its transparency, its degree of comprehension and its capacity to disseminate its content to other VCs or to other pockets of connected populations (or not). From this point of view, the technological element of archive management is just as important as is, for example, the organization of our personal library so that a neighbour can understand its structure, not only from the point of view of the formal organization of books, but also of what the books express of our personal interests.

- The creation of a virtual space for an informal apprenticeship, an environment which we cannot find in the real world. This is not a question of a speculative or intellectual apprenticeship. What is important is collective action, through which information, knowledge, and experience are shared in a more or less formal, more or less consensual manner. The sharing of ¬questions and the methods for working in a common virtual space bring out elements of dispersed knowledge, which come together, are exchanged, are combined in order to generate operational knowledge. Mature or complex VCs are also called Intelligent Networks, for the following reasons:

- Their content is linked to concrete objectives (project intelligence);

- Their content does not rely only on the knowledge of certain members, but in the generation and collective management of knowledge which interests the VC (collaborative intelligence);

- Their content depends on the network being open to other networks, for the exchange of information and knowledge, whether these networks are or are not in the same organization (intelligence of networked interactions).

- The objective difficulty in building a VC religion in the strict sense of the term, that is to say “relaying” the activity carried out in the virtual space (taking into account the full diversity of actions, organizations, methodologies, objectives, organization of trajectories, relations between VCs, etc.) with what is happening in the real world, including even those times when social movements organized in networks emerge into the real world.

The last point is crucial since it is linked to the transfer of activities developed by individuals in a VC from different characteristics and propositions to an off-network activity which introduce a form of social organization based on the principles of self-management and self-organization. Sometimes, in wanting to apply the same scale of values to one and the other activity, to the virtual and the real, we lose sight of how far what we could call the “VC philosophy” from the organizational perspective (self-organization, self-management, transparency of behaviour, historic register open to consultation and distribution of its content, etc.) actually allows unending relationships, at all levels in the real world: individual, professional, entrepreneurial, governmental or non-governmental (NGOs), institutional, communal, etc. This does not mean, of course, that there is necessarily an automatic transfer of the VCs’ typical forms of organization to the real world in the same way that the real world’s forms of organization immediately create tension and conflict when one tries to impose them on the virtual world as a way of meeting targets through interaction and collective work.

There are no limits to the types of VCs, due to the simplicity of their construction and development: an explicit objective, a group of people who agree to develop this objective by exchanging ideas, a working method (which includes the possibility of moderation), an organized virtual space (which can be just a simple mailing list or a highly organized virtual environment, with help lines for the community: consultants, additional materials obtained from the web, bibliographical references, links to other networks or VCs, researchers of materials generated by the VCs, etc.), transparent files with different levels of organization.

In addition, there are no limits to the territory which can be colonized by a VC: from spontaneous groups, with varying levels of organization, within open frameworks to groups organized within companies or institutions; relationships between citizens or between citizens and public administrations; professional or leisure activities; groups with social, economic, cultural or scientific objectives; all of which maintain an immense diversity of criteria about the provenance or the characteristics of their members. In reality, as we said earlier, we are talking about a basic production cell of information and knowledge in the Knowledge Society, and this is why we insist on the political features of this type of production as it occurs in VCs.

To the unlimited range of the VC formats, we must add another factor: their government. Based on the rules emanating from the first BBSs containing VCs dedicated to discuss specific themes - in the early days, they were basically interested in the technology and computer programmes which allowed VCs to be created and operated in the network’s virtual space, from the operation of the VC itself, no matter how elementary they might be - evolved VCs of greater complexity with regard to their internal organization which prefigure advanced forms of self-government, of democratic consensus and of a new approach to politics through an implicit deliberative context which emerged forcefully during critical moments of the operation of a VC.

The moderator has played a historic and essential role in the government of the VC, becoming progressively a new figure in models of asynchronous cooperation and of self-organization in what might otherwise have resulted in chaos by accumulation. The moderator, if he or she has the benefit of clear working methods, is one of the rare people in a VC who can influence the quality, operational rhythm and tonality of exchanges.
In conclusion, the Knowledge Society is built on the capacity to create, to handle and to transmit information and knowledge. This capacity implies a new perception - or combination - of words such as productivity, efficiency, and profitability of knowledge. The VC tends to optimize the creation, management, and distribution of collective knowledge, considered as the result of members’ activities, which supposes an increase in the freedom of action for each of them.

24 April 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

Knowledge should be shared in free access... But authors and editors need an economy to keep on creating and working. If you can afford it, please buy the book on line (39 €)