This week’s post is more of a top-of-the-head ramble than a reasoned thought, but that’s what blogs are for, right?  I’ve been thinking further about socio-political dissent.  By categorizing this particular sort of dissent as socio-political, I mean opposition to a popular or state-sponsored opinion or action in which that opposition carries both social and political costs that are inextricably tied.  For example, I might include protesting the Patriot Act when it was first introduced, because to do so carried significant social stigma (as a side-note, I don’t mean to argue whether social pressure against distension is necessarily a bad thing).  Opposition to a parking ordinance, on the far opposite extreme, probably would not carry any social cost. 

“Hold up bro,” you say as the shrewd intellectual you are, “don’t you have a sizable definitional problem with issues like the national health-care mandates or federal stimulus grants, where some populations quickly and vehemently dissent while others enthusiastically embrace these policies?”  Yes, astute reader, the social costs associated with dissent against these policies varies widely depending on one’s community of reference.  In some communities, such dissent would be socially reinforced while it would be derided in others.  Indeed, my argument depends on the idea that the cost component of dissension operates on a sliding-scale as a function of local (interpersonal) opinion.

My point in identifying this sort of dissent is to make the simple observation that it carries a higher transaction cost than other forms of communication.  Dissension in a hostile community is a particularly expensive communication to transact; these messages must compete in a public sphere particularly saturated with contradicting messages, and therefore must be particularly well composed and carefully disseminated to earn legitimacy.  I suppose composition isn’t really a transaction cost, more of a manufacturing cost.  But disseminating the message is definitely costly.  By way of important caveats – this cost may decline with the passage of time from an event.

Right, so let’s get to my point about social media, phrased as a question since I don’t really know:

Does access to Web 2.0, particularly via social media, reduce the transaction costs of socio-political dissent by enabling the more rapid identification and formation of communities of like-minded individuals, affording dissenting speech reinforcement by volume, and allowing such speech to operate in a neutral space.

Let’s break that down a little with an example:

Say it is October of 2001, and in the wake of September 11, the USA Patriot Act is proposed with little opposition from a public that fears further terror attacks.  A common (non-celebrity) person in a community strongly favoring the Patriot Act wishes to dissent, arguing civil liberties or rushed decision or what have you.  Traditional dissent requires that person to physically stand on a street and speak, or distribute pamphlets, or write an editorial, or call in to a talk show.  Any of these options requires the person to operate within their locale, and consequently to incur large social costs in order to disseminate their message.  However, the same person operating on the internet could post their idea to… well, mechanically it doesn’t matter, but let’s say they post their dissent to a blog, their facebook, and twitter.  Referring back to my three proposed cost reductions, how does this help our dissenting friend?  First, like-minded people can readily identify his message, or he could readily identify them in turn.  Second, these like-minded people could place their messages in proximity – as a “string” as they say in the web world.  Finally, they are not attempting to operate through an inherently hostile environment because the web allows for the infinite creation of unique discourse space (some of which are more effective than others of course, but the option is still there).  All three make the dissenting speech act easier and more effective.  Further, referring back to the idea that the social cost of dissent fades as time passes, online communities of dissent can form more rapidly because of the enormous pool of potential dissenters and the availability of anonymous posting.

Yes?  No?  I’m sure plenty of people have done a study of this effect.  If not, observing and characterizing at least a few dimensions of online dissent could be a great thesis… and I bet some organization out there would be interested in funding it.

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