|Title||The European Social Forum and the Internet: a case of communications networks and collective action|
Distinguished by its transnational scale, non-hierarchical organizing, and diverse composition, the 'movement for alternative globalization' is thought to partly derive this combination of characteristics from its use of the internet. My research is an attempt to explore this relationship by investigating the use of email lists for the preparation of the European Social Forum (ESF) in London in October 2004, one of the largest gatherings of the movement in Europe. Focusing on the processes of organizing, decision-making and collective identity formation, my study employed a combination of methods, including a preliminary survey, in-depth interviews, as. well as content analysis of the main ESF email lists.
In terms of organizing, my thesis revealed that email lists are instrumental in
constructing a flexible and polycentric organizing structure. They were also used extensively to widen up participation to the face-to-face organizing meetings, but also to legitimate the decision-making system and conceal its asymmetries of power.
Furthermore, every list constituted a different 'site of identization' whose affordances for identity construction depended on its size, scale, and composition. In that respect, email lists constituted an infrastructure for the development of multiple identities within the movement. However, the lack of physical proximity and the limited capacity for conveying emotive content constrained the potential of email lists to foster relationships of trust and shared opinions which were instead facilitated by face-to-face communication.
Overall, my thesis has identified a series of mechanisms and dynamics whose point of equilibrium determines the state of the movement at any point in time. In that respect, email and email lists tend to foster opening, divergence, multiplicity, and individuality, while face-to-face communication tends to generate closing, convergence, unity, and collectiveness. It is therefore the combination of these two forms of communication that helps the movement to have seemingly contrasting characteristics: to be united in difference or to be a collective that affirms individual subjectivity. However, my study has further shown that the capacity of the internet to foster such dynamics also depends on the specific cultures of organizing, political priorities, and ideological backgrounds of the people using it.