The recent success of digitally-coordinated protest movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo has sparked a wave of interest in the potential for technology to transform the ways in which we organise. In particular, it has placed an emphasis on the idea of pursuing change through informal, non-hierarchical or decentralized networks rather than through formal, centralized and hierarchical institutions.

The idea of network models of organisation is not new. From mediaeval guilds to the anarchist movements of the early twentieth century, many have been drawn by the allure of working together without the need for centralization or hierarchies. However, these models have historically displayed key weaknesses – particularly when it comes to decision-making and coordination – which mean that hierarchies and centralized institutions have tended to win out. Yet some now believe that advances in technology may have fundamentally tipped this balance by overcoming many of the traditional weaknesses of non-hierarchical models; and that as a result a new era of networks is upon us.

Internet technology scholar Clay Shirky was one of the first to proclaim, in his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, that we now have “the tools to make group action truly a reality” and that we are thus on the verge of a “new future of involvement”. More recently, books ... have argued that people’s ability to coordinate and act effectively as loose networks or crowds is one of technology’s most fundamental social or political impacts in recent times.

Read the full article about networked social movements by Rhodri Davies at HistPhil.