Posts Tagged ‘network theory

This video features Yochai Benkler discussing his incredibly important work on ‘the memetic economy.’ Key points:

The ‘memetic economy’ is an emerging technological-economic condition – a new stage of  ‘the information economy’ whose two defining characteristics are:

  • An increased role for non-market production
  • Radically decentralised production of information

A meme in this sense is a unit of cultural transmission: covering all information, knowledge, culture. The memetic economy indicates the production of cultural units shifting to individuals – replicating more closely the diverse mechanisms in society more generally – reversing the control focus of the industrial information economy.

In the industrial information economy people have been constrained to consuming products from managerially determined, heavily advertised finished goods – but it is highly valuble to democracy, autonomy and social justice for individuals acting outside markets to determine information relevance and drive cultural content and wider production.

The emerging techno-economic situation where substantial components of information production is owned by end-users means productivity can be sustained with non-proprietary and non-market production – leading to radical decentralised information production, and intelligence at the edges of a network whose core is relatively quite stupid.

Efficiency of non-market production does vary from industry to industry, but in addition to non-market production, market-based indirect appropriation of revenue not reliant on information as property is also possible (e.g. the Spotify Freemium model).

It is of great social value for individuals to participate in direct discourse instead of relying on proxies for political conversation, and centralised and commercialised control structures determining what information they see. The ‘memetic economy’ means the opportunity for a radical shift in the extent to which people can participate in forming the cultural meaning of their society through talking to eachother.

There is / will be a battle over the institutional ecology of information (the giants of the industrial age will not go quietly) but it would be disastorous to allow the winners of yesterday’s economy to dictate the terms of tomorrow’s.



GreenPeace UK is now one of several non-profits using JustCoz to enable online activists to donate a tweet a day for them to use in their campaigns. The app, launched in mid 2010, enables charities to speak through their supporters on Twitter

It was recently reported that 50 cent had added $millions to the value of a company in which he has a stake with just a few tweets. In that example one highly followed individual convinced several others to take an action that was financially lucrative to him. 

This might be thought of as the converse of this – a not-for-profit distributed equivalent: JustCoz’s model is for many supporters to agree a ‘just cause’ can send one tweet a day on their behalf – effectively turning twitter into a ‘relay network‘ for their messages, which over time will raise awareness and potentially lead to financial donations as well.

Interestingly, the service quickly felt the need to adapt tweets sent out via their service to include the #DT hashtag – making it clearer which tweets are donated i.e. have been hence sent out by an organisation through one of its supporters, rather than the individual themselves.

Hat tip… Curious Catherine

Information non-rivalry is the principle reason the web is a game-changer for media.

Here I break down and illustrate the concept – summarising and re-working chapter 2 from Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks (entitled Some Basic Economics of Information Production and Innovation).

What is non-rivalry?

  • A good is non-rivalrous when your consumption of it does not prevent someone else from consuming it
    • In contrast, if you eat an apple, I cannot then eat it. An apple is therefore a rivalrous good
    • When the guy above is wearing the binary scarf I cannot wear it, therefore it is a rivalrous good
  • Non-rivalry means I do not need to compete with you, in order to consume something
  • When a non-rivalrous good is produced, no more social resources need be invested to create more of it to satisfy the next consumer; this means producing one more of a non-rivalrous good has a marginal cost of zero

Why is information non-rivalrous?

  • Once a scientist has established a fact, or once Tolstoy has written War and Peace, neither the scientist nor Tolstoy need spend a single second more producing additional War and Peace manuscripts or studies of what they wrote for the one-hundredth, one-thousandth, or one-millionth user
  • Economists call such goods “public” because a market will not produce them if priced at their marginal cost—zero

What about the paper it is printed on?

  • The physical paper for a book or journal costs something, but the information itself need only be created once  

So how does the established information economy work?

  • People make money over and above the price of paper, because of copyright
  • In order to provide Tolstoy or the scientist with income, we regulate publishing: We pass laws that enable their publishers to prevent competitors from entering the market
  • Because no competitors are permitted into the market for copies of War and Peace, the publishers can price the contents of the book or journal at above their actual marginal cost of zero. They can then turn some of that excess revenue over to Tolstoy

Sounds fair, why don’t we just carry on doing that online?

  • Because copyright, or ‘intellectual property’ is bad for the further development of human knowledge
  • And the web provides us with other options

Why is intellectual property bad for knowledge development?

  • Preventing people from sharing information freely slows down the development of human knowledge: it restricts us from ‘standing on the shoulders’ of the intellectual giants that went before us
  • Even if copyright laws are necessary to create incentives for information production, the market that develops based on them is systematically inefficient
  • As Kenneth Arrow put it in 1962, “precisely to the extent that [property] is effective, there is underutilization of the information”1
  • Using copyright, then, means we are not utilising the full potential of the information that exists

So is there an alternative?

  • Because welfare economics defines a market as producing a good efficiently only when it is pricing the good at its marginal cost, a good like information which can never be sold both at a positive (greater than zero) price and at its marginal cost, is fundamentally a candidate for substantial nonmarket production

And what is nonmarket production?

  • Production that does not result in a straight swap: access to information in exchange for money
  • This doesn’t mean no money can exchange hands in relation to information production
  • What it means is we do not demand money in return for information, data, the fact, the story

If ‘nonmarket’ production is best, how can writers make money?

  • Information production can be funded by a mixture of:
  • Obviously Rupert Murdoch has other ideas on how to make money from information online, but for society to optimise information production and usage, pay walls are clearly not the answer


For more read the whole chapter online or buy the book

Picture of binary scarf guy by jarrodlombardo


I have loved the controversial Actor Network Theory (ANT) since my introduction to it at LSE last year. I feel it helps provides a view of, and a superior means with which, to interrogate power in all its forms. Affording us a mechanism to view our political structures and information systems as vast multi-dimensional webs within webs. I find it endlessly fascinating and practically useful as a web strategist, social marketer, media theorist and whatever odd pointy hats might be worn in between.

Thus it was with glee I referred to ANT theory in my recent post on Trafigura.

And I was of course delighted to get feedback on twitter from a former classmate in response – challenging the relevance of ANT in that case, and calling me out on specific elements.


Intellectual Scaffolding

First of all I might respond by offering the opinion that theory should be used as ‘intellectual scaffolding’ (Dahlgren, 2009) to explore, frame and drive research and argument, not to stifle and limit as part of tick-box excercises.

Actor Network: Not a Unity, Not an Orthodoxy: like any other approach to social analysis, the texts influenced by actor-network theory represent and develop a range of concerns and tools. This means that though it is possible to identify certain preoccupations and concerns common to these texts, there is no orthodoxy, no one ‘right way’ of developing the approach. It also means that actor-network is not a single orthodoxy, a fully consistent body of writing with its holy scriptures. Indeed, the most creative texts are often those that change and rework its preoccupations and its tools – or which combine them in one way or another with those of other approaches with which it is in dialogue.

The Actor Network Resource

However, this is not to say that one can drop any theory onto any situation, and scream (artistic) academic license in its application. It therefore seems warranted to indulge the criticism by exploring some of the main building blocks of ANT how I believe they might be considered in relation to the twitter / Trafigura story.

Actor Network Theory

What is it?

Latour (2005) has described ANT as the ‘sociology of associations’, as opposed to the ‘sociology of the social’. Instead of accepting the existence of a vast ‘social’ world that influences the non-human world, ANT says that we need to be able to look at all components of the ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’ world. When these components are rendered visible as actors (or actants) we can then see how all elements affect one another.

In constructing an ANT account we are thus able to see that science (and indeed politics) is never stable and fixed or ‘true’, but is instead transitory and uncertain, determined during trials of strength leading to continuous re-interpretations.

Latour has critiqued the vast swathe of social science as a ‘sociology of naked people‘ – in other words, a practice of analysing ‘society’ without consideration of the clothes people are wearing (and all other non-human agents around them).

You can read more about ANT here.

Actor / actant

What is it?

“Common examples of actors include humans, collectivities of humans, texts, graphical representations, and technical artifacts. Actors, all of which have interests, try to convince other actors so as to create an alignment of the other actors’ interests with their own interests. When this persuasive process becomes effective, it results in the creation of an actor-network.” The word ‘actant’ has often been used in place of ‘actor’ as some have been uncomfortable to describe an object that is not alive as an ‘actor’.

How does it relate to the twitter / Trafigura story?

In the story actors include Paul Farrelly MP, twitter, networks of people on twitter as collectives (or clusters), Stephen Fry and other individual tweeters, the UK parliament, The Ivory Coast, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck (Tafigura’s lawyers), Leigh Day and Company (the Ivorians’ lawyers) The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, etc. etc.


What is it?

In very simple terms, it is when what is wanted by one actor is understood by another, or the process through which actors interact with each other to build networks or change them. It has been described as “A multifaceted interaction in which actors (1) construct common definitions and meanings, (2) define representativities, and (3) co-opt each other in the pursuit of individual and collective objectives.”

How does it relate to the twitter / Trafigura story?

There were moments of translation where the courts, the company (Trafigura), Carter-Ruck (their libel lawyers), The Guardian, Stephen Fry and other tweeters pursued their individual and collective objectives, resulting in a new reality with tweeters now a core part of the ‘press freedom’ debate. For example:

Obligatory Passage Point

What is it?

The focal actor comes in here: “The first moment of translation during which a focal actor defines identities and interests of other actors that are consistent with its own interests, and establishes itself as an obligatory passage point (OPP), thus “rendering itself indispensable” (Callon, 1986).

The obligatory passage point broadly refers to a situation that has to occur in order for all the actors to satisfy the interests that have been attributed to them by the focal actor. The focal actor defines the OPP through which the other actors must pass through and by which the focal actor becomes indespensable.

How does it relate to the twitter / Trafigura story?

In the moments leading up to the Trafigura story exploding, those who were connected to twitter found it indespensable, in the sense that they could not found the forbidden information or have reached so many and had such a strong effect via any other media at that time.

However, I feel ANT works without ‘Obligatory Passage Points’ as it may not be the case that other actors must follow a certain course. My point is that an actor can accumulate power from others and their choices without defining the only viable option as a ‘focal actor’. That actions and motivations by actors associated with one another are complex, multi-faceted and not necessarily due to being forced, dictated, or explicitly suggested by others. For example, a choice might be made according to someone on twitter having an unconscious desire for ‘cascading benefits‘ from their connections.

I would argue against the necessity of a focal actor also on the grounds that it implies there must be one actor more important than all others within a given network, as actually that is not necessarily the case. This is similar to the way Todd Gitlin has criticised Habermas’s public sphere concept, arguing for the need to consider public sphericules.

I would further argue that concepts such as the Habermassian sphere may indeed add to an ANT analysis of the Trafigura case, but could not possibly replace what ANT offers in terms of revealing a network of associations and how power is translated, diluted and indeed shifts as it approaches and passes through different mediators.


Why do we make the choices we do? Levi and Kurzban have proposed that the common tendency for people to cluster in social networks can be explained by their theory of cascading benefits (PDF). Their argument is that human beings have developed an inherent, unconscious logic which can explain why we link to the people we do in social networks. I’m on a mission to explore network theory right now on the basis I will most probably write my dissertation using it in some way. I hope posts that spew from me in the process will not seem too abstract to practitioners and I’ll try and keep them as practically applicable as I can.

Essentially ‘cascading benefits’ works like this:

  • If I behave in a way beneficial to someone else, this will in turn benefit their connections
  • I unconsciously know this, which means I am more inclined to make friends with people who are friends with my friends
  • These ‘tertiary benefits’ I receive by benefiting my connections come to me more consistently if I am part of a dense network
  • The two factors above lead to clustering in social networks

In more detail:

“The logic of network externalities can be applied to the choices associated with partner selection. In particular, if actors derive benefits when particular others benefit, then a benefit to an actor benefits those that are tied to the focal actor.

For instance, imagine a cluster where each actor has an interest in the others’ well-being. When ego benefits alter, this delivers a secondary benefit – as an externality – to all of alter’s exchange partners. Because alter’s partners – A, B, and C – all have a stake in alter’s well-being, benefiting alter also benefits A, B, and C indirectly.

This means, in turn, that to the extent that A, B, and C believe that ego is likely to benefit alter, they have a stake in the continued well-being of ego. Thus, the benefit is likely to return to ego through the shared ties, as a tertiary benefit. As social networks increase in the number of connections, the possibility for benefit cascades increases.”

But what do I do on twitter?

In lieu of scientific research to interrogate this hypothesis myself, I might reflexively consider it in relation to my own experience as I have attempted to build up a twitter following (and select suitable tweeters) around a social object (e.g. social media, female entrepreneurs, environment). Are my choices driven by this ‘logic of network externalities’ or by deliberate, unrelated qualititative assessments? This is my rough list of what I scan for when I determine whether to follow someone / follow someone back:

Good Bad
Relevant tweets Any mention of making money online / on twitter
Lots of followers Many more ‘following’ than ‘followers’
Have they retweeted a tweeter I recognise and respect recently No bio and / or picture
Have they retweeted at all recently Lots of tweeted links with no explanation as to why they are posting them
Relevant bio Sexually provocative picture (don’t usually bother to click into a profile with one of these)
Can spot people I know in their following box on the right Lots of irrelevant tweets

Whilst this is a long list and I can sometimes spend less than five seconds deciding whether to hit the ‘follow’ button, I have indeed included an element which fits the cascading benefits theory. That is, checking whether my prospective follow has a history of benefiting an existing connection of mine. I had not consciously considered  this but it makes sense to me and fits the ‘cascading benefits’ theory, that if my connection is benefiting from their retweet I will benefit by association.

twitter network picture by Nimages DR

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