The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Lance Bennett, Shawn Walker, Courtney Johnson, Sheetal Agarwal: Methods for Understanding Technology Enabled Networks as Political Organizations

Lance Bennett, University of Washington, Seattle
Shawn Walker, University of Washington, Seattle
Courtney Johnson, University of Washington, Seattle
Sheetal Agarwal, University of Washington, Seattle


This paper examines methods for tracking how resources normally deployed by traditional organizations are deployed across social networks. We examine this by identifying different kinds of resources inserted in links in tweets and targeted messages, and then tracking those resource flows through and across large Twitter streams used by participants and peripheral players in Occupy Wall Street protests in the U.S. We find these dense communication networks operating as organizations in themselves, with often surprising levels of structure, resilience and political efficacy. The key issue is to understand how crowds organize various kinds of work (Starbird & Palen 2011), such as focusing and coordinating action, offering help and solidarity, sharing organizational resources, and policing against unwanted elements.

Our data set is currently around 38 million tweets, and growing. We propose methods for using the link content of such data sets to reveal the larger ecology of action within which Twitter is embedded. A sampling methodology that we have developed enables us to extract links for reliable coding in various information and organization categories, and then drop the links back into the Twitter streams and follow them as they travel back and forth in time and across streams. This enables us to detect patterns of resource flows under different conditions, and we can track these flows as events impact the protest networks.

We also propose developing a mix of micro and macro analyses, enabling focus on how specific sites, groups, events, memes and even individuals may shape the work of political crowds. For example, on October 24th, 2011, Iraq veteran Scott Olsen was peacefully protesting with fellow Oakland Occupiers when he was hit in the head by a tear gas canister thrown by a police officer, seriously injuring him. The Occupy movement used this incident as a rallying cry to mobilize sympathizers around the world via social media. This social media activity and the subsequent outpouring of support for the protesters drew increased media attention to Occupy Oakland and the larger Occupy movement. This was an example of how digital technologies can quickly activate large, dispersed networks to mobilize resources. Human agents can use various technologies to create and distribute online information and point to offline sites. Beyond the exchange of information, the networks often become patterned through the roles of different resource providers and the coordination of action through social media activities such as tweeting, linking, blogging, and posting photos and videos.

In this paper, we define “network” as the architecture and affordances of social technology that may supplement or even replace the resource role that more conventional hierarchical brick-and-mortar organizations have taken in the past. Organizations that traditionally facilitated the coordination of protest activity, resource distribution, or media messaging, are being augmented and, in some cases, replaced by network-based mobilization. In the networked environment the definition of participation has become more fluid and informal, and is not defined by a top-down, hierarchical organization. Affiliation with formal organizations is moving away from traditional membership relations (e.g., belonging to an organization, being a card-carrying member, or paying annual dues), creating pressures on such organizations to redefine their relations to individuals and other organizations (Bimber, Flanagin & Stohl).

Resources have been traditionally defined as material, moral, social organizational, human and cultural, and include things such as members, finances, professional staff, leaders, modes of communication access to media, and contact networks. (Edwards & McCarthy, 2004). While these resources are still critical to the formation of many movements, such organization is not always required to mobilize large-scale, sustainable collective action. Many cases of socially networked “connective action ” (Bennett & Segerberg 2011) may seek more formal organization, making the transition from initial self organizing structures to more conventional political forms a particularly interesting inflection point to explore. In making these arguments, it is essential to develop methods that enable identification and tracking of repeated patterns and trends of networked relationships, information flows, and responses to external events.


Bennett, W. L. and Segerberg, A. (2011) The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics. Paper presented at Oxford Internet Symposium “A Decade in Internet Time” Oxford University (September 21-24).

Bimber, B., Flanagin, A. J., & Stohl, C. (2005). Reconceptualizing collective action in the contemporary media environment. Communication Theory, 15, 365–388.

Edwards, B & McCarthy, J. (2004). ""Resources and Social Movement Mobilization"". In Snow, Soule, and Kriesi. The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 116–52.

Segerberg, A., & Bennett, W. L. (2011). Social Media and the Organization of Collective Action: Using Twitter to Explore the Ecologies of Two Climate Change Protests. Communication Review, 14(3), 197-215.

Starbird, C. & Palen, L. 2011. “Voluntweeters: Self Organizing By Volunteers During Times of Crisis.” CHI Proceedings, Vancouver Canada (May 7-12).

Sheetal D Agarwal, W. Lance Bennett, Courtney N Johnson, Shawn Walker