The by William Lovett and Francis Place, two

 

 

The concept of the Social Network has been the subject of
much attention from scholars in recent years, this is primarily due to the
immense power behind them and the hugely beneficial, as well as detrimental
prospects that they hold. In this essay I will show the reason for the emergence
of the formal voluntary association based on common-interest, and why it plays
such an important role within society. I will do this through the looking-glass
of Chartism, the Freemasons, Virtual Communities, the Public Sphere, and how
the pace of change experienced by these case studies go hand-in-hand with the
development of technology, as well as addressing some problems and concerns
that arise through modern social networks.

 

In Robert T. Anderson’s study “Voluntary Associations in
History”, he describes how formal common interest associations appear prominent
in the Neolithic era, circa 4,000 to circa 2,500 BCE. In prehistoric Denmark,
the Ertebolle people were able to settle because they could exploit “bountiful
resources of fish and crustaceans”, and must have communicated with each other
to do so, with food being the ‘common interest’ in this case. Anderson’s study is
extremely important due to the certainty that, from the dawn of somewhat-organized
society, humans have always communicated with each other for the improvement of
lives; it is no coincidence that community, and communicate have the same
prefix. However, the concept of the voluntary association becomes vastly more
complex as civil society develops, and becomes a key vehicle in contributing to
social change.

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The Chartist movement is extremely useful in understanding
the impact of the Social Network before the years of the internet. Originally,
the Chartists were called radicals, and after the movement, reformers. Chartism
was a predominantly working class movement, led by William Lovett and Francis
Place, two self-educated radicals aimed at achieving universal suffrage, the
secret ballot, annual parliaments, equal representation, no property
qualification for members, and payment for members, which was later published
in The People’s Charter in 1838. The fact of the Chartist movement is this; it
would not have thrived without the use of networks for the dissemination of
their ideology. In David Goodway’s book “London Chartism”, he shows us how the
Chartist campaign “brought together working-class and middle-class radicals”.

The movement flourished due to the formation of an unstamped press, started by
William Carpenter and Henry Hetherington. The papers gave justifications for
the demands of the People’s Charter, accounts for local meetings, commentaries
on education, as well as advertising for future meetings. The Northern Star paper was the best-selling provincial newspaper
in Britain in 1839, with a circulation of 50,000 copies. Along with this, the The Poor Man’s Guardian was declared
illega by Government order in 1834. Here we can see the power behind the formal
voluntary association, the very fact that the Poor Man’s Guardian was made illegal shows the capability of the
social network, the Government could see how this distribution of knowledge was
gaining mass support, and was a threat to their values. Furthermore, the
Working Men’s Association was formed on the 16th of June 1836, with a membership
costing 1s. a month, restricted to ‘persons of good moral
character among the industrious classes’. Although some middle class radicals
were still allowed, this clearly shows us how the Working Men’s Association
was, quite obviously, another means of distributing Chartist teaching to the
people it mattered to the most, the workers. The formation of these papers and
clubs was vital to the success of the Chartists, and in itself created a
network and a community with ties linking persons. Without these formations,
they would not have had success.

 

Another case study that
shows the inexplicable power of the social network is the study of the
Freemasons in Dublin. In late 18th century Ireland, the loyalty to
the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was prevalent, yet the Dublin Society of
United Irishmen was formed, inspired by the French and American revolutions, in
order to achieve parliamentary reform and emancipation from British rule. In
Patrick Fagan’s study “Dublin Infiltration of the Freemasons”, he shows us that
the Dublin Society of United Irishmen (UIM) was dispersed by Government order
in May 1794, and its assets were seized. Fagan also shows us that, from as
early as 1792, secret committees were formed from the United Irishmen, called
“Committee of the Constitution”, as well as evidence of proliferation of
radical/republican clubs in which UIM members regrouped under the names of the
States Club, the Originals, the Illuminati and the Spread Club, to name a few.

These voluntary associations used lodges as their face-to-face meeting point,
and Fagan expresses the view that the “secretive nature of the lodges made them
prime targets for illegal and subversive organizations”. Historically speaking,
Fagan exclaims how “freemasonry had been a vehicle for advanced ideas of the
Enlightenment”. Jessica Harland-Jacobs shows us in her study “Builders of
Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism” that, in 1752, the “Grand lodges of
England, Ireland,
Scotland had warranted lodges in Bengal, Gibraltar, Pennsylvania,
Massachusetts, Georgia, South Carolina, New Hampshire, the Caribbean, Nova
Scotia, New York, New Found land, Turkey, Rhode Island, Connecticut”, clearly
showing the vast, global network that the freemasons had been carefully
cultivating for some half a century or so. There is irrefutable evidence that
the French philosophers Voltaire, Rousseau and Helvetius were freemasons, and that
their writings helped fuel the French revolution, plainly exposing the power
the lodges had in circulating the French revolutionary ideology amongst Voltaire,
Rousseau and Helvetius. The group mentality of these lodges was no doubt
instrument to the subsequent revolutionary works of Voltaire, Rousseau and
Helvetius. As well as the fact that in 1797, there were said to be 22
‘regiments’ of UIM in Dublin, and it was these lodges that allowed the
formation of ideas amongst the UIM that eventually led to the Irish Rebellion
in 1798, something that would not have been possible without vast organisation
amongst peoples in a time of no Wi-Fi.

 

The power of Wi-Fi should not be misrepresented, technology
has drastically reorganized how we live, communicate and learn. It is the key
factor in modern social change, not just in the spread of ideas, but in the pace
at which ideology is dispersed, and how change develops. Throughout
history, Governments and corporations have exploited channels of communication
as the foundation of their power, in Pieter Boeder’s study “Habermas’ Heritage:
The Future of the Public Sphere” he argues that the “mass media has mutated
into monopoly capitalist organizations”. However, in the modern world, the
internet allows people to communicate globally at the touch of a button,
without the use of mass media. In Manuel Castells “Networks of Outrage and
Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age”, he shows us the power of internet
social networks, as they are “spaces of autonomy, beyond government control”.

Granted, in both the Chartist movement and the Freemasons, their ideas were
spread and did lead to eventual change, yet the time taken to avoid the notice
of the Government and the money spent to print the papers which diffused their
principles was much less economic than it would have been through the use of
new technology. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a prime example of this, the
movement started on September 17, 2011 in New York under the notion of the 99%,
who’s well being was being controlled in the interest of the 1%, who had 23% of
the countries wealth. Due to the formation of networks in cyberspace, based
upon a shared sorrow (the ‘common-interest’), this movement was allowed to
flourish and on October 15, 2011, a global network of occupying movements under
the banner of “United for Global Change” mobilized hundreds of thousands in 951
cities in 82 countries. How is it possible that, in under a month, people in 82
different countries and in 951 cities were able to unite without ever previously
meeting face-to-face? It is due to the divine power of the internet. Castell
shows us how in all cases of modern change, movements “ignored political
parties, distrusted the media, and didn’t recognize any leadership, relying
solely on the internet”. It is easy in the modern world to become accustomed to
modern technology and its way of being, yet there is a definite link between
the growth of computer-mediated-communication (CMC) networks and the rapidity
of social justice. The Chartist movement took over twenty years to achieve its
goals, and the freemasons were active for at least 45 years before the Irish
Rebellion, bearing in mind that each of these movements were only active in one
country, the Occupy Wall Street movement managed to reach 82 different
countries in under a month of activating, all thanks to the technological
revolution.

 

However, with the growth of new technologies comes new
anxieties and problems. In the 21st century we find ourselves
operating everyday through the use of technology, this is not to say that it is
the preferred mode, but rather, we rely on it. However, there are many aspects
of modern technology networks that can lead to serious health risks for humans.

In Sherry Turkle’s study “Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other”, she
exclaims the notion of “Second Life”, in the “virtual world”, through the
creation of online identities. Turkle exclaims how “technology is seductive
when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities” and the notion of the
“blurring of intimacy and solitude”. This concurs with Boeder’s view again that
“CMC has taken the place of coffee house discourse”. This is evidently correct,
when one is instant-messaging online or taking part in an online video game, it
does not feel like you are by yourself, CMC allows us to feel connected when we
are on our own and enables us to spend hours on end creating online identities
for ourselves, often which allow us to create a new and improved, better
version of ourselves online. Turkle’s notion that “as we distribute ourselves,
we may abandon ourselves” is extremely important. We do romance the machine,
and as we are “increasingly connected, we are oddly more alone”. The ease at which
one can create an online-identity is almost second nature now, more than one
billion people are active on Facebook in a part of cyber-space where most
people are trying to display the best aspects of their lives to others online,
and this can lead to mass depression for others. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, he shows us how “if you were eighteen
in a small village 5,000 years ago you’d probably think you were good-looking
because there were only fifty other people, but today, you measure yourself
against movie stars, athletes and supermodels you see on television and
Facebook”, which means people today are much more likely to feel inadequate,
due only to the propagation of the ‘perfect-person’ idea from these networks.

 

On the
other hand, contrary to Boeder’s view that “although CMC offers advantages over
face-to-face communication, we find the disadvantages outweigh the advantages”,
I do genuinely believe that the advantages of technological networks outweigh
the disadvantages. In Howard Rheingold’s study “Virtual Communities: Exchanging
Ideas Through Computer Bulletin Boards” he explains how, as a writer, he often
“spent days alone with his typewriter, words and his thoughts”, physically
isolated in his room. However, in the recent years he “participated in
wide-ranging, intellectually stimulating, professionally rewarding and often
intensely emotional exchange with dozens of new friends and hundreds of
colleagues”, yet he was still physically
isolated in his room? The gigantic power of the virtual community network
allowed him to do this. The virtual community consists of a group of people who
share a common interest, they may never actually meet face to face, but they
can exchange ideas through CMC. Rheingold himself finds that the “help he
receives far outweighs the energy he expends helping others, a perfect fit of
altruism and self-interest”. The reason that the modern virtual community is so
beneficial is due to the fact that the ‘common-interest’ today can be such a
miniature and specific field, which is undeniably advantageous, especially for
persons who do not live in an area surrounded by like-minded people. This
harmonizes with Peter Stillman’s view in “Hegel’s Civil Society” that “unlike
animals, man multiplies and particularises his needs, thus he satisfies them
with worked, not raw, nature”. I would like to briefly draw on my own
experience to exercise this point. I am part of several online music groups
within Facebook as I am passionate about electronic music production, the “Group
for Electronic Music Production” (GEMP), and the “In this Thread” (ITT) Group.

I originally joined these because I grew up in Cambridge, a small city with a
lack of Electronic Music and like-minded people on the subject. Within these
groups, not only did I meet several friends who share the same passion for the
music as me, but I also met the head of a record label who wanted to release my
music in response to my posts in the group. My point is this; I would not be in
the position I am today without these groups, they were crucial to my success,
and allowed me to find recognition when I originally felt isolated in my
home-town. This is just one example in a huge network of cyber-space that
contains millions of groups on millions of different subjects, whether it be a
specific form of music, sport, or any other field of interest that the
individual wants to pursue, there will most likely be a virtual-community on
it, and if there isn’t, you can create one at the touch of a button. The
coincides with James Eoff Officer’s view in “Sodalities and Systemic Linkage”
that the reason for the formal voluntary association is due to humans in search
of “status and security”. These online groups will remain a fundamental cog in
the 21st century machine for millions of people in the years to
come, there is no denying that. Another extreme advantage of virtual
communities which Rheingold illustrates is that we are “unable to form
prejudices about others before we read what they have to say” (due to not being
able to see each other), the concept of race, gender, age or national origin is
not evident. There is a tremendous amount of people in the world who’s
“physical handicaps may make it difficult to make new friendships”, but they
can do so in virtual communities. This is something that has never been
experienced throughout history, the immensity of opportunity that arises
through the use of virtual community networks is astounding, and will only
perpetuate.

 

Overall, to
begin to understand the Social Network is to understand one of the rudimentary
characteristics of human organisation. Since 4,000 BC, we can see evidence of
humans co-operating based on basic primal instics; the Ertebolle people
settling in certain regions for food. As we move through time to the modern
period, we can see how Homo Sapiens have come to dominate this world, the
notion of the Social Network becomes intricately detailed and remains an important
part of how this has happened. Without communication and the spread of ideas,
surely nothing would ever change? Even if one cannot actually see the physical elements of a Social Network,
it is still operating everwhere in a multiplicity of different ways. Stillman
shows us that “merely by entering the world of work in modern society, the
individual becomes part of a universal group”. In the Chartist movement, they
were able to construct a network of an unstamped press and started the Working
Men’s Association to disseminate their ideas for united change. The Freemason’s
used the lodges for their secret face-to-face meetings, which were the basic
elements of what eventually led to the Irish Rebellion in 1798. As well as the  “United for Global Change” movement, which
would not have flourished in over 90 countries in under a month if it wasn’t
for the use of the Social Network. Although there is some extreme disadvantages
and problems that ensue through the development of new technology networks,
such as depression and the lack of face-to-face communication, surely the fact
that, in Manuel Castell’s view, “in a world darkened by economic distress,
political cynicism and cultural emptiness, people can actually unite and
dictatorships can be overthrown by the people” means that technological
advantages far outweigh the disadvantages? I honestly believe that my life
would not be as fulfilling today without new technolgies, and I am sure
millions or even billions of people would agree with that statement. The Virtual
Community allows us to connect across populations and time zones, on the
broadest of subjects, or the most minute of disciplines. It not only provides
intellectual stimulation and inspiration for the masses, but is actually the
place of birth for a lot of careers in the 21st century, and the
ease at which one can find out a mass of information at the touch of a button
is something that has never been experienced before. We certainly do still need
to educate on the detrimental aspects of technology and online-networks, but it
is overwhelming obvious that, although these bad aspects do exist, people will
still carry on using online-networks because the advantages do outweigh the disadvantages, and it is
these online-networks that will be the utility of social change to come.