Activist capitals in network societies: Towards a typology for studying networking power within contemporary activist demands
First Monday

Activist capitals in network societies: Towards a typology for studying networking power within contemporary activist demands by Jakob Svensson

Network societies are characterized by social media — media that are supposed to level out power hierarchies — making political participation more inclusive and equal. By developing a typology for studying networking power within activist demands in network societies, such techno–optimistic/deterministic assumptions are questioned. This typology is based on Bourdieu’s conceptual framework of social fields, habitus and capitals. It revolves around participating, mobilising, connecting and engaging capital and how these intersect, overlap and are used for negotiating recognition which I argue is of pivotal importance for upholding core positions among activists. Such core positions are related to networking power, i.e., knowing how and being in a position to network in order to decide about courses of events in the organisation of the demand/social field and its actions. This largely theoretical account is exemplified from an ethno– and nethnographic study of a group of middle–class activists in southern Stockholm using online platforms in tandem with more traditional off–line activist activities to organise and mobilise participation.


The bathhouse demand
Positions and habitus within activist demands
Activist capital in network societies




One day I received a message via Facebook suggesting I sign an online petition against the plans to demolish the old community–run (but city–owned) bathhouse two blocks away from where I lived in southern Stockholm. Since I had enjoyed the bathhouse and different activities at that location, I signed the petition, joined the Facebook group, started to follow their Twitter feeds, and added many of the participants as Facebook friends. I soon came to realise that online visibility through practices of updating on social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, would allow me to become closer to some of the activists. By echoing popular arguments through practices of retweeting and posting, I was not primarily showing my sympathy for participatory values of activist groups displaying their opinions on social media platforms (see Jenkins, 2006; Bruns, 2008; Shirky, 2009). I instead reinforced core positions of certain activists. It became apparent to me that activists using social media platforms are not necessarily equal as techno–optimist/determinist discourse around social media participation suggests, that social media platforms are supposed to level out power hierarchies through lowering a threshold of participation and mobilising political action (as Shirky, 2009, and Castells, 2012, have argued). In this paper I challenge such assumptions by suggesting a typology for analysing power asymmetries within activist demands in network societies and discussing what role social media platforms play for upholding these.

Activism is approached as a form political participation. Acknowledging the widening understanding of political participation [1], activism could be defined as participation from outside representative democratic institutions, but with an outspoken aim to influence them (Svensson, 2011). It is argued that activism is important for broadening political participation beyond established power elites (Bennett and Toft, 2009). Indeed, participatory democratic theory has its roots in a broad understanding of politics as encompassing areas beyond the Parliament. Contemporary representative democracies cannot include all political demands, since majority decision–making always favours one over another (Mouffe, 2005). Hence, it becomes apparent that power cannot be left out of the equation since activist participation is understood as revolving around excluded demands.

Laclau’s [3] splitting of groups into smaller units of demands — as presenting claims to a certain order — further contributes to this understanding of activism. Demands include both social movement types of participation and short–time commitment to single issues, the two types of political action that has come to dominate a discussion of activist participation. A demand may be formed into a more long–term social movement, or a single–issue campaign that disperses once the demand has been met (or considered lost). For example, people in southern Stockholm started to rally around a rather temporary commitment to a single issue, saving a bathhouse. Some of the participants continued their engagement though by forming a local lobby group SÖFÖ (Södra Förstaden, the Southern Suburb).

In this article the focus is on participation by activists of network societies. But how are we to understand network societies? In Castells (2000), the network is an intersectional concept for overcoming boundaries between society and technology. He describes a tendency to organise processes and functions as networks, the network thus becoming the social morphology of society, influencing everything from processes of production to individual experiences, power and culture [4]. Network society therefore has been defined as a social formation with an infrastructure of social and media networks, enabling organisation at all levels — individual, organisational, societal and global [5]. According to van Dijk [6], networks are becoming the nervous system of our society and we can expect them to influence our entire life. It is important to remember when discussing network societies that complex social networks have always existed. Recent developments in communication technology have however made the social network a more dominant form of social organisation (Wellman, 2001).

Social media stand out as a defining feature of network societies around which practices are organised, demands are communicated and individuality is negotiated. But how are we to understand social media? I have approached social media as communication platforms where the user herself is able to contribute to a specific platform’s content. Here I rely more on O’Reilly (2005) general definition of Web 2.0 than boyd and Ellison’s (2007) popular, but more specific, delineation of social network sites (SNS). In my research it has been important to include both interactive and networking functions of social media [7]. In this way my approach resembles Jenkins, et al.’s (2013) recent account of social media as “spreadable”. Spreading I believe is a more accurate description of what is happening on social media than the often–used verb sharing. But in contrast to Jenkins, et al. I am more critical towards empowering potentials of spreading [8]. To avoid a deterministic or an overtly uncritical understanding of social media platforms, I lean towards Kaplan and Haenlein’s [9] definition of social media as Internet–based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0. Indeed, media platforms have a dynamic relationship between the social and the technical (Feenberg, 2010).

In network societies our communities become increasingly technologically mediated [10]. In activist demands using Internet–based social media platforms, communication practices entangle with organisational structure and identity to the point that they are hard to separate (Breindl, 2012). Since network societies have emerged largely because of media, a study of activist demands will inevitably put emphasis on practices of social media use, even though these are becoming increasingly hard to separate from off–line activities (see Baym, 2010; Chadwick, 2013). In the case examined in this paper, activists relied heavily on social media platforms for communication, organisation and mobilisation, in tandem with more traditional off–line methods (such as rallies and demonstrations).

Numerous studies have focused on how activists use the Internet to mobilise support and organise themselves and their demands (see Breindl, 2012, for an overview). Some argue that Internet–based organisation facilitates more horizontal and equal distribution of power. Politics and participation become more accessible because the Internet is supposed to lower the threshold, even for groups previously excluded from the political arena (Jenkins, 2006; Bruns, 2008; Shirky, 2009). While acknowledging that the landscape of power is changing in network societies, there is no reason to believe that increasing organisation in (media) networks will cause a society devoid of power relations. Elias made this argument as early as 1939. When people become increasingly dependent on each other, a need to attune conduct arises [11]. Thus, the interdependence of people in network societies corresponds with the increasing importance of managing behaviour (see also van Dijk, 2006; Breindl and Gustafsson, 2011). Power relates to an ability to influence others and eventually alter the course of events [12].

Hence, power concerns the interdependence between people that today has come to revolve around networking because of increased network organisation and social media use in network societies. What I propose to label networking power revolves around being in a position, or being positioned in a network to exert influence by setting the agenda and defining the reality as well as getting the attention for the information you spread. The underlying argument here being that a democratisation of opportunities for displaying information, information that may or may not spread, does not imply the levelling out of differences between users. As I hope will become apparent towards the end of this paper, everyone does not have the same skills, or are in the equal position to spread information, set the agenda or define a situation and, in this way, influence the course of events in an activist demand.

Of pivotal importance for my argument is recognition. Who is allowed to exert influence and who is heard in the increasing information buzz in network societies depend to a large extent on recognition. Social media may be conceived of as sites of power struggles since they have specific mechanisms (algorithms) for the generation of reputation [13] which in turn determines whose information will secure attention. Hence, networking power intersects with status, recognition, legitimation and asymmetries between users in terms of visibility and attention [14]. In this paper, I will focus on relations of power between people with activist demands in network societies. To do this I will start by examining a group of activists in southern Stockholm, before addressing the typology of networking power.



The bathhouse demand

I will illustrate this largely theoretical account with examples from an ethno– and nethnographic study of a contemporary middle–class activist demand, saving a local bathhouse from destruction. This effort engaged some inhabitants in the southern Stockholm suburbs of Aspudden and Midsommarkransen. They are among the oldest suburbs, situated close to the waterfront, with buildings dating back to the end of the nineteenth century, and located just two subway stops away from the inner city. These suburbs are populated by an educated and politically aware middle–class. The University College of Arts, Crafts and Design (Konstfack) is near Midsommarkransen. In Midsommarkransen you also find a community run cinema — Tellus — where members organise activities, show movies, documentaries as well as films for children. Hence, the suburbs are popular both with urban middle–aged couples looking for larger apartments not at a great distance from the inner city, as well as with youngsters studying at, or attracted to, the creative atmosphere around Konstfack. The suburbs are a political stronghold of the Green Party with up to 23 percent voting for them in the 2010 national elections (compared to seven percent nationally).

Inhabitants in these suburbs started to rally in 2007, first to renew the bathhouse in Aspudden, and later to save it from destruction. Together with traditional off–line activist campaigns (heavy protests, campaigns and even an occupation), online social media platforms were organized to call for engagement, spread information and gather support for retaining the bathhouse. In spite of these efforts, the bathhouse was demolished. Most activities took place over several months leading up to the demolition of the bathhouse late in November 2009. Some of the bathhouse activists continued their participation in SÖFÖ (Södra Förstaden, the Southern Suburb), a group that has continued to act against development plans, encouraging the preservation of green areas and construction of playgrounds.

The activists used a blog during the battle for the bathhouse through which they disseminated information, mobilised participation and mocked municipal politicians. During October and November 2009, activists also used a Twitter feed, mostly to spread information on activities as well as a means to mobilise participation. For quick mobilisation, activists worked with a text messaging list. For more lengthy comments, activists posted both on a blog as well as on a Facebook group, Rädda Aspuddsbadet (Save the Aspudden bathhouse). SÖFÖ used both a Facebook group and a Ning ( community platform. Ning allows participants to construct their own profiles, connect and message each other as well as start discussions, specialised groups and blogs.

This study was conducted within a larger project examining rationales of political participation in network societies. In previous research I have noted the importance of the values of reflexive connectivity and responsiveness and how these values encouraged a social negotiation of activists’ selves (something that was done through practices of updating, see Svensson, 2012). Since these values are largely connected to using online social media platforms, it seemed social media platforms disciplined, or pushed, activists to participate. Revisiting my interview material and field notes I also discovered that the location itself, the southern suburbs, was important as a value that bound activists together. Activists talked about a unique southern suburb character, consisting of old buildings among green leafy areas as well as neighbours knowing each other and doing things together. The bathhouse was frequently described as a non–commercial meeting place, operated by inhabitants for inhabitants, a symbol of a cherished value of a location bound community of neighbours. Accompanying this was a value to be active, involved, to express concerns and show support for the demand. But rather than to be reactive, participants were encouraged to be proactive, to encourage and engage others. Indeed, individuals that were held in high regard were the engaged ones, the so–called “fire starters” and activists who succeeded in engaging many others.



Positions and habitus within activist demands

According to Bourdieu [15] agents are defined and act according to their positions in social space. I depart from an assumption that how participants establish their position within a demand influences the values of the demand and vice versa. Hence, shared values — such as those briefly discussed earlier — should be analysed in terms of how activists position themselves and others in relation to these. Bourdieu’s conceptual framework of social fields, habitus and capital is useful for this sort of analysis.

Starting with social fields, Bourdieu is somewhat unclear about the differences between social space, world, field and sub–field. In one instance he describes a political field as consisting of sub–fields of parties and unions, which could lead one to argue that activism is a sub–field within a larger political field [16]. Unfortunately Bourdieu does not provide an exact delineation between fields and sub–fields. However his definition of a social field can be connected to Laclau’s understanding of demands. Bourdieu [17] defines a social field as a collection of people that gather around a common belief worth fighting for. Agents within the same field can be of different opinions; it is the belief that the fight is worth the effort that binds them together [18]. In southern Stockholm, the fight for the bathhouse was the common demand that bound activists to each other in the first place.

Of prime importance is Bourdieu’s [19] description of a social field as a multidimensional space of positions and positionings. In this paper I focus on two positions, belonging to the core and to the periphery. Core positions provide greater opportunities for setting an agenda and defining a given situation, exerting influence over activists positioned more to the periphery of the field, that is, networking power. Core/periphery positions are also underlined by Castells [20]. He argues that practices of positioning within a community are primarily used to determine core/periphery positions. These positions have further been conceptualised by Breindl and Gustafsson (2011) as concentric circles of participation. Core activists are leaders, setting up e–mail lists, creating applications, being in charge of following the political process, analysing as well as orchestrating a given campaign. Fuchs [21] refers to such core activists as soft leaders, choreographing protests by being in charge of most of the communication flow. Towards the periphery we have occasional contributors who follow core activists (soft leaders) and participate from time to time, and mere followers who are inscribed on discussion lists and possibly spread information, but do not actively contribute to the organisation of the campaign itself (Breindl and Gustafsson, 2011).

In southern Stockholm, it was possible to identify core or periphery based on who was updated or engaged with other activists. Being updated indicated a more peripheral position, while being in charge of providing updates indicated a more central position. This was clearly illustrated by one core activist when asked about her Facebook practices. She stated that she received no information online but that she provided information on Facebook. It is important to underline that core positions tend to be less stable today in network societies where participants rather unite around temporary demands, or so–called issue engagement (Svensson, 2014). By taking control of information spreading and negotiating recognition and visibility, social media platforms offer spaces for some to negotiate core positions and thus having priority in setting agendas and defining a kind of reality.

Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is helpful in understanding why certain activists acquire, hold and maintain core positions. Habitus refers to socially learned dispositions, a sense of place. It is the luggage a given agent carries with her, which in turn positions her relative to language, culture, class and the future [22]. Andersson and Jansson [23] describe habitus eloquently as acquired knowledge that give the bearer a sense of an embodied navigation skill on the field in which she is acting. Habitus provides a bearing on the field, in terms of organising, structuring and determining how field practices are conceived [24]. It affects agent herself, by being connected to her position in a field, providing meaning to practices and perceptions [25].

If we apply the concept of habitus to the bathhouse protests, core activists referred to experiences from solidarity and animal rights movements. Engagement in the cinema Tellus also seemed to have built both a sense of a southern suburb community feeling, as well as skills and knowledge for organising and mobilising participation (i.e., being proactive). Interviewed activists also referred to experiences from student councils, student nations and the scout movement and similar organisations. Talking to activists and asking about important skills and knowledge for their participation and how these had been acquired, many referred to previous experiences in such organisations, organisations that indicate that they have had a middle–class upbringing. Similarly, Breindl and Gustafsson (2011) argue that activists closer to the core often possess educational knowledge, social, technical and organisational skills.

Habitus is thus also connected to class. Several studies have underlined that users from lower socio–economic groups tend to be less skilled in using digital platforms, hence pre–existing inequalities are both reflected and perhaps increased online (DiMaggio, et al., 2004; Hargittai, 2008; Gui and Argentin, 2011). A report by the Organisation for Economic Co–operation and Development (OECD) (2010) concluded that the digital divide in education is along lines of skills of use rather than access, i.e., between those with competencies and skills to benefit from computer use and those without such competencies. Such skills and competencies are influenced by socio–economic factors (DiMaggio, et al., 2004). Hargittai and Hinnant (2008) found that among American young adults (18–26 years old), those with higher levels of education and wealthier parents (i.e., habitus) used the Web for more capital–enhancing activities (see aslo Gui and Argentin’s 2011 study among high school students in Italy). Hence, those coming from wealthier socio–economic backgrounds and with better education seems to be better equipped to manage and controlling their online activities, and in turn are ready to negotiate and reinforce core positions.

Habitus thus influences networking power. It is also important to underline timeliness in circulating information [26], i.e., knowing when to inform, to delay and to spread. Hence, to successfully navigate the social fields of contemporary network societies depends on networking skills, skills that are intertwined with our socially learned dispositions (i.e., habitus). These skills have a bearing based on how practices are organised, structured and conceived. Concepts such as online social networking skills, networking skills and digital literacy have been elaborated in order to map differences among users and groups of users in their ability to process meanings of digital content, and why some are more successful than others in negotiating core positions online (Breindl and Gustafsson, 2011; Hsieh, 2012). I have myself underlined that online social networking requires a new form of competence in order to manage visibility online at the same time avoiding being subject for surveillance (Svensson, 2012). Breindl and Briatte [27] examined digital protest skills as a combination of social and technical skills aimed at online collective action. Charisma and social competencies could be conceived of as resources for networking. In activist core positions in southern Stockholm, it became apparent that their actual and perceived networking abilities, intertwined with their habitus, in turn were intertwined with previous achievements, active participation and successful mobilisation of others. All this leads to Bourdieu’s concept of capital. An agent’s habitus and composition of capital cannot be understood as apart, since the manner in which an agent uses capital reveals how a given agent acquired it and therefore also how the agent is disposed to use capital [28].



Activist capital in network societies

Bourdieu [29] defines capital as a social relationship, an energy that exists and produces its effects within the field it is used. Capital represents a power over the field “like aces in a game of cards that define the chances of profit in a given field at a given moment” [30]. Profit here is to be understood as positions more to the core of a demand (or field to use Bourdieu’s terminology). The notion of capital is related to practices of positioning because capital use cannot be understood without reference to an agent’s habitus, position within the field, and in turn, the field position is dependent on the specific capital that a given agent can accumulate [31].

There have been many attempts to outline Internet–specific capital, also by references to Putnam’s (2000) often cited elaborations of Bourdieu’s social capital. For example, Ellison, et al. (2011) discuss online social capital, or socio–technical capital, as based on technological affordances. One of the most detailed accounts is Urry’s (2007) outline of network capital. He argues that contemporary societies are more organised around a value of circulation — mobilities. By investigating how social relations change from such mobilities, Urry discerns an ability to form and sustain networks, which he labels as network capital [32]. Hence it is about the potential of being mobile and connected at the same time. It is about the capacity to engender and sustain social relationships with those people who are not necessarily geographically proximate but do generate emotional, financial and practical benefits. According to Urry [33] network capital is a product of increasing possibilities of relations between individuals afforded by travel and communication technologies. The importance of connectivity and responsiveness thus resonate in Urry’s reasoning. According to Urry, network capital is about being connected, making yourself connectable for capital enhancing purposes [34]. At the same time notions of networking skills and digital literacy underline that not everyone is equally skilled and socially equipped to use social media platforms for accumulating network capital.

Bourdieu’s conceptual framework could inform a typology of capital that could be used for studying networking power of activists in network societies, how certain activists come to occupy core positions and others not. I will therefore suggest a typology of four different, but overlapping forms of capital: participating, mobilising, connecting and engaging capital.

Starting with participating capital, in southern Stockholm, the value of being active and engaged made it possible for certain activists to accumulate and use a type of participating capital when positioning themselves in the field. For example, many postings on Facebook revolved around having attended rallies and campaigns. Similarly, in Breindl and Gustafsson (2011), individuals holding power in activist networks were generally the more active ones. The number of postings and actions of a user and their level of participation in a shared project became a currency in many online environments [35]. But being active was not enough to accumulate this capital; you had to be recognised for your participation. This explains the importance to update others on your participation and make it visible online. Such practices can thus be understood as acts of positioning within an activist field. This resonates with Biggar’s (2010) study of crowdsourcing activities. He claims that taking part in such activities is about building an online portfolio and leveraging one’s cultural and social capital within a community [36]. In southern Stockholm, to write to politicians, observing their activities and notifying others of their action or inaction was also a way to collect participating capital. For these activities, activists needed to possess knowledge on how society and politics work (cultural capital) in order to appeal a decision as well as knowing were and how to find information (cultural capital) and a sense of knowing how to navigate the field (habitus). Here we can clearly see that there is an exchange between habitus, cultural and participating capital.

While participation was considered important, there was another thing that was perhaps even more recognised in southern Stockholm, mobilising others. As discussed previously, there is a difference between peripheral activists and core activists along lines of who updated others and who were updated. Or in other words, there is a difference between those who are expected to be mobilised and reactive and those who are proactive and mobilising others. In southern Stockholm for example, one core activist was mentioned several times for what was labelled as an “infectious” engagement. Hence, what can be discerned here is a type of mobilising capital. Similarly, Breindl and Gustafsson (2011) refer to temporal elites whose power comes from the possibility of mobilising others. Indeed, the creation of online content is of small matter without a large enthusiastic audience to use technology to its full potential [37]. Thus, recognition is also about having a wider supporting group who can spread information through social networks and rapidly mobilise.

I would like to differentiate here between mobilising within a demand and connecting outsiders to a demand. According to Castells [38], power in network societies is based on the ability to connect networks to each other. Online communication has enabled individuals to act as social switchboards, centre points for multiple changing and overlapping networks of interaction. Activists act as switches between networks and demands, becoming fundamental sources of networking power. This relates to discussions of bridging social capital. In contrast to bonding social capital, bridging social capital refers to connections with weak ties (Granovetter, 1973; Putnam, 2000). The importance of bridges can be traced back to Heidegger and Simmel [39]. They pointed to the possibility of bridges bringing streams, banks and land into different neighbourhoods, reorganising the ways in which individuals moved in a given area. In network theory, researchers have underlined bridging capital as most important for networking power because it gives people access to new and different resources, not the least through connections with weak ties [40]. Weak ties are conceived of as resources. Through these ties new information and opportunities reach users. It is through weak ties that a community can reach out to others (Granovetter, 1973; Wellman, 2001; Ellison, et al., 2011). Activists in southern Stockholm were all active in other demands at the same time as their involvement over the bathhouse. Some activists explicitly tried to create connections between bathhouse activists and other groups. I call this connecting capital. This capital can be accumulated if the information that a user posts goes viral. Bennett and Segerberg (2012) have discussed such easy–to–personalize action themes (memes) that travel through personal appropriation and spreading as connective action. This is clearly intertwined with creating visibility for a demand and being in a position to spread information online, of pivotal importance for activists today. Connecting capital also implies that users need to gather connections in order for information to go viral. But connecting capital also has to do with stratified attention structures already existing within a network. Highly recognised users in an attention economy determine what information is spread or not [41]. Their networking power makes them gatekeepers of information.

Barabási (2011) has criticised the notion of week ties in favour of intermediate ties. I find this notion helpful for further delineating connecting capital to something that I suggest labelling engaging capital. It is one thing to connect activists, groups, demands together, spread information and create visibility in connective information flows online, and another thing to engage these other activists in action. According to Barabási, engaging others (to an activist demand, for example) do not come from weak ties but from intermediate ties since users rarely pay attention to weak ties in their networks, overflowing with updates and information from ever growing social networks. There is a difference between spreading information from others in your networks (connecting capital) and to act on calls for arms. And for this intermediary ties (and not weak ones) are important to understand who possesses the ability to engage other groups and activists to a demand. In southern Stockholm, for example, an artist managed to engage her colleagues in an art barricade. Other examples are activists who also were active politicians in the Green Party and thus functioning as important intermediaries between activists and the political system. This reasoning further resonates in Breindl and Gustafsson’s (2011) claim of the existence of intermediary elites in contemporary societies.

All of this capital ultimately play a part in negotiating recognition for an activist, recognition that could be exchanged into a core position, depending on her habitus. For example, participation has to be displayed to, and recognised by, connections in order for accumulation of participating capital to take place. Mobilising capital can be accumulated if one is recognised as successful in mobilising network connections, i.e., leading others to act. Connecting capital can be accumulated if an activists is successful in connecting others, especially those not part of the demand, and being recognised for this. Finally engaging capital can be accumulated if a connection is of that sort that others will be engaged in action in ways that peers within the demand appreciate. Recognition thus concerns the evaluation of participation and actions by others/peers. For this exchange of capital into recognition, social media platforms are important.


Social field of an activist demand


The focus on recognition underlines the interdependence of individuals (here activists) in network societies. This recognition is also related to an activist’s skills and position in a network. In other words, an activist’s habitus is of importance if she is able to turn participation, mobilisation, connections and engagement into a core position. Habitus also matters if she is able to use experiences and actions from other activist demands to accumulate capital within a given demand (see Figure 1). Connecting and engaging capital clearly concerns putting connections from other demands to use. Participating capital can also be accumulated, with the help of habitus, from action in other demands. Analysing recognition we thus have to consider previous experiences in order to understand why certain activists come to occupy core positions. Or as Bourdieu [42] frames it, agents enter a social field with previously acquired capital. Bourdieu see agents arriving with a kind of legitimacy as agents from previous fields [43]. In other words, it is important to consider all kinds of capital, both accumulated within a demand as well as outside. But, even though some of the capitals were dependent on involving outsiders, the negotiation for recognition it seems could only take place within the demand. Recognition in turn translates all of this capital into a given position within the demand. In southern Stockholm it was apparent that activists’ previous experiences were used to negotiate core positions. Activists with a proven track record were often referred to in interviews as important for the bathhouse protests. Reputation in southern Stockholm ranged from being recognised as efficient runners of the local cinema Tellus to various political actions to organisational efforts in other campaigns. The boundaries are thus very permeable.

Bourdieu [44] himself mostly talks about economic capital (the accumulation of money), cultural capital (the accumulation of qualification, education and knowledge), cultural capital (accumulation of qualification, education and knowledge), social capital (accumulation of social relations) and symbolic capital (accumulation of reputation). It is apparent by focusing on recognition that I am exploring the terrain of symbolic capital in Bourdieu’s taxonomy. In information overloaded network societies, recognition is everything. Networking power recognizes that this unequal distribution of attention and visibility influences others. Social media can thus be thought of as sites for power struggles as they have specific mechanisms for the generation of recognition and visibility. Van Dijck [45] talks in this context about a popularity principle, important for recognition, but also underpinning an attention economy for social media. This attention economy is stratified as media conglomerates are in a better position to attract attention [46]. For the Swedish activists examined in this study attention is unequally distributed. On social media platforms, recognition is relatively easy to negotiate because relationships are counted, measured and displayed with like–minded individuals [47].

This argument is perhaps better illustrated if related to the notion of fitness in network theory (Barabási, 2011). If we take notions of nodes and links in network theory and replace nodes for activists and links for connections between activists, fitness would refer to an activist’s ability to attract other activists and connect with them. Being recognised as an activist would make a given activist more fit, in the sense of being more likely to attract the attention of other activists and form relationships with them. In information overloaded network societies, knowing who to trust and who to connect to is increasingly based on a given agent’s track record [48]. Recognised activists will become more visible since others are more likely to discover them online, contributing to their on–going accumulation of recognition. For example, rather soon after joining the bathhouse campaign I realised which activists were more esteemed simply by observing who was retweeted and whose Facebook postings received links and likes. Recognition could also be understood as a measure of habitus, who possesses a sense of knowing how to navigate among a group of activists, circulating information.

To sum up, being online allows individuals to use recognition to negotiate core positions, not the least through van Dijck’s notion of a popularity principle [49]. In my examination of Swedish activists, it was also apparent that online activities were interlinked to off–line events and not easy to separate. In the bathhouse protests, activists participating in off–line actions displayed this participation on their social media profiles. Information about off–line actions were most often posted online. Hence, social media did not replace off–line collective action. Bourdieu [50] claims that each field sets it highest price on outcomes created within it. For activists it is clearly the actions themselves that are the most desired outcome. Off–line actions thus mattered. It is one thing to be able to connect individuals online in order to spread information and increase visibility for a given demand. But it is another to engage individuals in off–line collective actions. In southern Stockholm, mobilising capital was accumulated mostly by engaging sympathisers in off–line action. Indeed, activists’ actions may take place online (as in the case of hacktivism and Anonymous), but in my case study most actions still occurred place off–line. There is a difference between spreading information through networks connections online and acting off–line. For some activists, off–line actions are more valuable in accumulating participating, mobilising and engaging capital. What is happening in network societies is that this capital is mostly negotiated for recognition (displayed) online on social media platforms. It thus becomes increasingly difficult to separate the online from the off–line [51]. Indeed as Chadwick (2013) notes, activist actions often combine online and real–space behaviours and impacts [52]. Activists often operate in hybrid media ecologies [53] in which both online and off–line media play a role.




To understand networking power within activists demands I have outlined a typology of activist capitals based on the importance of recognition for understanding relations of power in network societies, societies characterised by social media platforms that in turn are characterised by an attention economy and popularity principle. This typology could be used for studying networking power in terms of who come to occupy core positions within a specific activist demand. Acquiring a core position is connected to understanding how to network, gaining recognition through participating, mobilising, connecting and engaging activists. This is dependent on the habitus of the activists, their luggage of previously learned skills and their sense of knowing how network in order to navigate the fields of activism in a network societies.

While far from a detailed account, the aim here was to contribute to the understanding of contemporary activist participation in network societies and how relations of power are still at play in the form of networking power. By outlining a typology of capital, exemplified with the activist demand in southern Stockholm, the purpose has been to suggest a way to study why certain activists come to occupy core positions and others more peripheral positions. This typology has provided some insight into the complexity of positions and positionings in a community of activists, even in an affluent Swedish neighbourhood amongst a relatively homogenous group of individuals. This typology would have to be modified in a more heterogeneous setting. Hence, the aim at this stage is not generalize but to suggest and to inspire further exploration into the complexities when negotiating power in todays network societies.

What are the implications of the findings in this paper? First, this typology has implications for a study of power in network societies. By conceiving power as relational and networked, evolving from exchanges between interdependent individuals and their technologies, it allows to focus on the diversity of mechanisms and interactions that enable power to be exercised. Indeed, as Chadwick [54] argued, power is shaped by hybrid networks in which both social and technological nodes are interdependent and interactive. Social media platforms are neither neutral nor a determinant of change.

Second, networking power is temporal, depending on participation of users. Hence, constant participation, in the form of continuous updating, is mandatory in order to earn recognition in turn to justify a core position. Activists in southern Stockholm, that had not participated over time, lost recognition and thus their core positions. One activist for example complained that he had to start from scratch after having been off–line for a long time. He was left behind in plans, discussions and had not participated in several events. As I have argued elsewhere (Klinger and Svensson, 2014) the logic of social media requires users to be present and consistently active. And as I have argued here, time dedicated to social media platforms generates recognition through participating, mobilising, connecting and engaging capital.

However, this expenditure of time contributes to the economic value of social media [55]. There is another layer of power at play here, economic power and an exploitation of visibility and recognition. Economic capital is accumulated for social media owners when users use these media, even if used to negotiate core–positions within a for example counter–capitalist political demand. Hence, it is apparent that social media practices are driven to some degree by the capitalist logic of social media corporations. Finally, by being online and updating social media profiles, users are allowing corporations to exploit their details for their own purposes. The logic of updating thus feeds neatly into a logic of capital accumulation and specific business models. In this way participation and political expression, organisation and mobilisation becomes subsumed to economic capital (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005). End of article


About the author

Dr. Jakob Svensson is holding a position of associate professor in Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University. Dr. Svensson directs the M.A. program in digital media and society. His research focus on two main areas, political participation on digital media platforms and mobile communication in developing regions.
E–mail: jakob [dot] svensson [at] im [dot] uu [dot] se



1. See Bengtsson, 2008, p. 116; Esaiasson and Westerholm, 2006, p. 15.

2. See also Carpentier, 2011; Fuchs, 2014, p. 55.

3. Laclau, 2005, pp. 73–74.

4. Castells, 2001, p. 519.

5. van Dijk, 2006 pp. 19–20, 27.

6. van Dijk, 2006, pp. 2, 23.

7. I.e., possibilities for user–centric multipath communication and collaboration, what is often implied as the “social” in social media, which is a very narrow understanding of the social, see Fuchs, 2014, pp. 7, chapter 2.

8. See Fuchs, 2014, 53–54, for an in–depth criticism of their account.

9. Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010, p. 60.

10. Andersson and Jansson, 2012, p. 106.

11. Elias, 1998, pp. 51–52.

12. Fuchs, 2014, pp. 70, 218.

13. See van Dijck, 2013, pp. 13, 62.

14. Here my account differs from Castells’ (2009) idea of networking power as inclusion in important global networks.

15. Bourdieu, 1985, p. 724 and 1987, p. 2.

16. Bourdieu, 1985, p. 737.

17. Bourdieu, 1993, p. 16.

18. Bourdieu, 1993, p. 17.

19. Bourdieu, 1985, p. 724.

20. Castells, 2009, pp. 26, 34.

21. Fuchs, 2014, p. 86, with reference to Gerbaudo, 2012.

22. Bourdieu, 1987, p. 5 and 1993, pp. 12–14.

23. Andersson and Jansson, 2012, p. 38.

24. Bourdieu, 1993, p. 300.

25. Bourdieu, 2010, p. 166.

26. Chadwick, 2013, pp. 87, 190.

27. Breindl and Briatte, 2013, p. 34.

28. Bourdieu, 2010, pp. 58, 61.

29. Bourdieu, 1993, p. 269.

30. Bourdieu, 1985, p. 724.

31. Bourdieu, 1993, p. 269.

32. Urry, 2007, pp. 196–197.

33. Urry, 2007, p. 198.

34. Urry, 2007, p. 203.

35. Bruns, 2008, p. 55.

36. Biggar, 2010, p. 10.

37. Kaye, 2011, p. 208.

38. Castells, 2009, pp. 45, 430.

39. As discussed in Urry, 2007, pp. 31–32.

40. Baym, 2010, p. 136.

41. As Nahon and Hemsley, 2013, convincingly have argued.

42. Bourdieu, 2010, p. 105.

43. Bourdieu, 1993, p. 100.

44. Bourdieu, 1987, p. 4.

45. van Dijck, 2013, pp. 13, 62.

46. Fuchs, 2014, p. 82.

47. van Dijck, 2013, p. 62.

48. Urry, 2007, p. 221.

49. van Dijck, 2013, pp. 62.

50. Bourdieu, 2010, p. 81.

51. As also others have argued; see Baym, 2010; Chadwick, 2013.

52. Chadwick, 2013, p. 189.

53. Chadwick, 2013, p. 193.

54. Chadwick, 2013, p. 207.

55. van Dijck, 2013; Fuchs, 2014, p. 114.



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Editorial history

Received 25 January 2014; revised 19 July 2014; accepted 27 July 2014.

Creative Commons-licens
“Activist capitals in network societies” is licensed under a Creative Commons Erkännande–IckeKommersiell–DelaLika 4.0 Internationell License.

Activist capitals in network societies: Towards a typology for studying networking power within contemporary activist demands
by Jakob Svensson.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 8 - 4 August 2014

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