Emerging Online Democracy: The Dynamics of Formal and Informal Control in Digitally Mediated Social Structures

Emerging Online Democracy: The Dynamics of Formal and Informal Control in Digitally Mediated Social Structures

Todd Kelshaw (Montclair State University, USA) and Christine A. Lemesianou (Montclair State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch036
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Abstract

The emergence and development of Web 2.0 has enabled new modes of social interaction that are potentially democratic, both within and across digitally mediated venues. Web-based interaction offers unlimited opportunities for organizing across geographic, demographic, and contextual boundaries, with ramifications in professional networking, political action, friendships, romances, learning, recreation, and entertainment. The wrangling between formal and informal modes of discursive control ensures perpetual dynamism and innovation; the wrangling also offers the promise that diverse voices are not only welcome but also potentially responsive and responsible. The conclusion advocated is the importance of paying attention to these tendencies since they demonstrate that the web’s proclivities for decentralization and pluralism do not necessarily lead to relativistic and nihilistic hypertextuality but to potentially novel forms of shared social control.
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Background

The introduction of a new generation of social interaction technologies opens a possibility of the transformation of structural and social reality (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967; Ong, 1982). Since its emergence, the Internet1 has been approached, theoretically and empirically, as a momentous and consequential social, cultural, economic, and political force (DiMaggio, Hargittai, Neuman, & Robinson, 2001; Wilson & Peterson, 2002). Some have theorized that the Internet might drastically transform the self, interaction, and social order and serve as a catalyst for social justice, empowering individuals to find spaces within which their voices may count (Negroponte, 1995). Others have cautioned that the Internet constrains and disempowers individuals within structured routines and cultural norms. They have argued that in the new virtual world some would emerge as winners (e.g., transnational corporations and interests) and others as losers (Beniger, 1996). Castells (1996), for instance, proposed that the Internet would follow the commercial path of its media predecessors and predicted a web “populated by two essentially distinct populations, the interacting and the interacted” (p. 371): the first group exemplifying the web’s fragmentation potential and, the second, its reproduction of traditional media’s massification patterns; and both groups reflecting the divide between the information rich and poor.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Informal Discursive Control: Communicative currents within a social structure that disrupt institutional authority and enable the negotiation of emergent norms in a “bottom-up” manner that is often implicit and subtle. Informal control is manifested in what Bakhtin (1981) terms “centrifugal” forces, which are insurgent, destabilizing, equivocally open-ended, and change-minded.

Social Structure: A relational system that is both constrained and enabled by norms (beliefs, values, rules, and roles) that are made and remade in participants’ interaction. Social structure is partly stable and partly dynamic; at once a thing and a process.

Online Democracy: The quasi-counterbalance of normalizing and destabilizing discursive forces; a subtle and messy negotiation of control in which centripetal and centrifugal pushes and pulls more-or-less even out.

Formal Discursive Control: Communicative currents within a social structure that are institutionally centralizing, and which impose and enforce regulations in a “top-down” manner that is typically explicit (e.g., codes of conduct). Formal control is manifested in what Bakhtin (1981) terms “centripetal” forces, which are authoritative, stabilizing, decisive, and preserving of traditions.

Carnival: A concept developed by Bakhtin (1984) that illustrates how people come together as a collective of equals and interact in a way that defies exogenous sociologic divisions. In the experience of carnival, there is an air of playfulness and multi-voicedness that invigorates participants’ understandings of self and community.

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