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Posted 26 June, 2011 by Alix Dunn

From Phone Books to Phone Trees: The Building Blocks of a Network

In a book chapter we here at the engine room will have out in September, there are a few neologisms used to explain a complex network structure mobilized by Egyptian activists in 2010.

In this post, I elaborate a bit and reflect upon one of those neologisms — communicative paths or pathways — that may be lost within the larger argument. While defining the term network, we try and discern between a group of people that interact with one another and an autopoietic network structure (more on autopoiesis later).

The concept of network is a recurrent throughout this chapter, and is understood as a web of communicative paths that are ordered as the result of collective awareness. Networks are thus understood as autopoietic systems, which “exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network” (Maturana and Varela, 1980, p. 89). (Dunn and Wilson, Contingency and Hybridity in the Study of Digital Advocacy Networks: The Implications of the Egyptian Protest Movement, forthcoming in, Human Rights and Information Communication Technologies: Trends and Consequences of Use)

Communicative pathways are open, implicit lines of communication between actors. Just because the line of communication is “open” does not mean that it is used frequently, but that it has been used and can be reestablished with little effort. They can exist in a many-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many structure.  A large set of communicative pathways – essentially a large set of actors that can communicate and pass on information with little friction – are the raw materials of a network. (A university campus or a small town is likely built of a large set of communicative pathways, but doesn’t necessarily constitute a network.) But without seeing the network in a set of communicative pathways, it is difficult to use the set as a network.

For example, a neighborhood is full of communicative pathways, but just because the lines of communication are open does not mean that the neighborhood can easily organize for a common aim. When a set of communicative pathways exist, but have not been activated to accomplish something, there is no network. When a set of neighbors organize a collective garage sale, the next event will be easier to organize because the network exists. The hard work of establishing communicative pathways between people (think making friends and building a contact network that you can look up in a phone book when you want to get in touch) and shaping a group of the pathways into a network (think have your friends’ names saved in your phone and developing a phone tree for groups with specific motivations) makes the process of activating the network for increasingly effective and fine-tuned action possible.

When not activated as a network, communicative pathways do not function at their most efficient (in the sense of adding value to “just” a group of people) but that is not to say that they do not function. Information can travel in a productive fashion, but if actors are not aware of who is in their network, how far the network reaches, and its potential for producing a given output, it cannot be as effective. Collective action reveals (and develops) the parameters.

In the Egyptian context, existing communicative pathways were combined with those developed specifically for the evolving contexts, enabling Egyptian activists to create and use novel network structures. A great example of this is the response to protester detention. When an activist or demonstrator gets arrested, a chain of network activations  quickly mount intense pressure for his/her release. These Egyptian networks have become increasingly adept and speedy at securing the release of those detained.

What does this esoteric parsing mean for the near future of Egypt and its political development? There is no network that connects government and citizens. There are not even communicative pathways “between” government officials, civil society, and citizens. Citizens and civil society have been almost entirely locked out of the political process. Communicative pathways are the first (and most difficult) step to build a responsive, fully functioning governance network. In the coming months, communication between public officials and the public will be a positive sign that the first step to developing a functioning network — developing a web of communication — is in the works. But it will also be necessary for citizens to use the communicative pathways that they developed in the occupation of Tahrir square to act. By shaping up the pathways through action, citizen networks can be used to leverage and ultimately force the development of new communicative pathways between the public and the politicians to have a better chance to secure democratic gains and build responsive new government — not just one with new faces.

2 thoughts on “From Phone Books to Phone Trees: The Building Blocks of a Network”

Mary says:

I actually used a communications pathway methodology in a training I did a couple of weeks ago (http://zapboom.com/?p=573). I did not categorize according to the number of communicator (one-to-many, many-to-many, etc.) since each connection can only be bi-directional or uni-directional. However, I did identify types of communication (directive, informative, etc.) each of which are optimized for different numbers of communicators. The methodology also allow for pathways that should exist but were weak or nonexistent. I like your point about the lack of pathways between citizens and govt. and I’d also like to add a tag to your post – mobilizing structures.

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