Viral Spiral

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Book: David Bollier. Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. New Press, 2009.


Video presentation at


From the publisher’s announcement:

“If you look closely, you can see the new “sharing economy” emerging. Ordinary people are using digital technologies to invent diverse sorts of commons, a new paradigm for generating individual and community wealth. This bottom-up revolution can be seen in free and open source software, Creative Commons licenses, Wikipedia, remix music, amateur videos and fascinating innovations in open science, open education and “open business.” Reporting from the heart of this “free culture” movement, journalist and activist David Bollier provides the first comprehensive history of the commoners’ struggle to invent a new digital republic — a realm that honors freedom, participation, social equity and innovation.”


From the concluding chapter:

David Bollier:

"As the preceding chapters make clear, the commoners are now a respected force in culture, politics and economics. Their influence can be felt in varying degrees in the worlds of music, video, photography and books; in software, Web design and Internet policies; in social networks and peer-to-peer communities; in business, science and education; and in scores of countries that have ported the Creative Commons licenses and developed their own commons-based projects.

Thanks to the Internet, the commons is now a distinct sector of economic production and social experience. It is a source of “value creation” that both complements and competes with markets. It is an arena of social association, self-governance and collective provisioning that is responsive and trustworthy in ways that government often is not. In a sense, the commons sector is a recapitulation of civil society, as described by Alexis de Tocqueville, but with different capacities.

Yet even with the great advances that the commoners have made in building their own shared platforms, tools and content, the digital republic is not secure. In most countries, the commoners have less conventional political power than corporations, which means that the interests of citizens, consumers and users are scanted in the policies that govern market competition, intellectual property and life on the Internet. Faced with the Great Value Shift, mass media and entertainment corporations are not eager to surrender their historic market franchises without a fight; they are resisting competition from open business models and the commons.

In the United States, cable broadcast operators and telephone carriers are threatening the very future of the Internet as a commons infrastructure. They wish to assert greater control over Web access and traffic, and so are staunchly resisting “net neutrality” rules that would require them to act as non-discriminatory common carriers. They would like to leverage their roles as oligopolistic gatekeepers to the Internet, and boost their revenues, by choosing whose Web sites will receive superior transmission and whose communications may be censored or put in the “slow lane.”

At a further extreme, authoritarian countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Singapore have shown that national governments still retain great powers to censor and control Internet communications. Even the United States Government is reportedly engaged in extensive surveillance of Internet traffic, ostensibly for anti-terrorism purposes. Meanwhile, many poor nations, especially in Africa and Asia, are struggling simply to get online and create their own digital commons.

These battles are all part of a larger struggle over “the institutional ecology of the digital environment,” in Benkler’s words – a struggle that is likely to continue for many years. What powers and capabilities will the commoners and their institutions have relative to business and government, and how will they be able to protect and enhance the value created within the commons?

Perhaps the most enduring contribution of the free software, free culture and other “open movements” has been their invention of a new species of citizenship. Despite significant differences of philosophy and implementation, these commons share some basic values about access, use and re-use of creative works and information. No matter their special passions, the commoners tend to be improvisational, resourceful, self-directed, collaborative and committed to democratic ideals. They celebrate a diversity of aesthetics, viewpoints and cultures. They are egalitarian in spirit yet respectful of talent and achievement. There is a strong predilection to share because the accrual of digital contributions (code, content, metatags) will lead to a greater good for all and perhaps even democratic change. But there is no hostility to commercial activity – indeed, there is a lively admiration for entrepreneurialism – so long as it does not violate basic creative and civic freedoms or core principles of the Internet (openness, interoperability, sharing). The disagreements that do exist center on how best to achieve those goals.

As this book has shown, the Internet is enabling a new species of citizenship in modern life. It is not just a “nice thing.” It is a powerful force for change. The new technologies have been instrumental in helping the commoners imagine and build a digital republic of their own. Over the long term, this citizenship and the culture that it is fostering, are likely to be a politically transformative force. They just might help real-world democracies restore a measure of their waning legitimacy and competence.

David R. Johnson, a lawyer and scholar, describes the citizen of the Internet – the “netizen” – as a significant historical development because he or she can potentially compete with government as a source of binding rule sets. In a brilliant essay, “The Life of the Law Online,” Johnson writes that “we haven’t had a real competition for survival among rule sets. The competition is only between the rule of (our one) law and, presumably, anarchy. So the tendency of all rule sets to become more complicated over time, especially when written by people considering only parts of the system in analytical isolation, has not been checked by evolutionary forces.” Government has an unchecked monopoly on law-making even though its relationship to the governed, whose consent is vital, is now greatly attenuated.

One evolutionary “competitor” to government-made law and to markets is the netizen – or in my terms, the commoner. For the most part, members of a commons generate and maintain the rules that govern their collective. By Johnson’s reckoning, the commons must be considered a new social metabolism for creating law; it is a new type of “legal organism.” It is, in Johnson’s words, “a self-causing legal order composed of systems that adopt goals that serve the values of those they regulate, without excessively imposing those goals on others.”

A commons is a kind of biological entity operating in a complex cultural ecosystem. It has its own internal systems for managing its affairs, interacting with its environment, repairing itself and defining its own persistent identity. It is a force by which ordinary people can express their deepest interests and passions, directly and without institutional mediation, on a global stage. This is an unprecedented capacity in communications, culture and, indeed, human history.

To understand why the commoner represents a great leap forward in citizenship, it helps to consider the history of citizenship in the oldest democracy in the world, the United States.

Three Types of Citizenship

In his book, The Good Citizen, sociologist Michael Schudson describes the evolution of three distinct types of citizenship over the past three centuries:

- When the nation was founded, being a citizen meant little more than for property-owning white males to delegate authority to a local gentleman – and accept his complimentary glass of rum on election day. This “politics of assent” gave way early in the nineteenth century to a “politics of parties.” Parties conducted elaborate campaigns of torchlight processions and monster meetings; voting day was filled with banter, banners, fighting and drinking…. The third model of citizenship, ushered in by Progressive reformers, was a “politics of information.” Campaigning became less emotional and more educational. Voting was by secret ballot.

We are heirs to the “politics of information,” a model of citizenship that presumes, like economics, that we are rational actors who, if armed with sufficient quantities of high-quality information, will make educated decisions and optimize civic outcomes. But as Walter Lippmann noted and Schudson echoes, “if democracy requires omnicompetence and omniscience from its citizens, it is a lost cause.” Life is too busy, fast and complex. A new type of citizenship is needed. Schudson offers a fairly weak prescription – the “monitorial citizen,” a watchdog who vigilantly monitors the behavior of power.

The Fourth Type of Citizenship

But it is precisely here that the Internet is offering up a new, more muscular model of citizenship. I call it history-making citizenship. The rise of the blogosphere over the past ten years is emblematic of this new paradigm of citizenship. So is citizen-journalism, free software, Wikipedia, the open educational resources movement, open-business models like Jamendo and Flickr, and the Creative Commons and iCommons communities. In one sense, the citizenship that these groups practice is “monitorial” in that their members spend a great deal of time watching and discussing. But “monitoring” barely begins to describe their activities. The commoners have the ability – rare in pre-Internet civic life – to publish and incite others to action, and then organize and follow through, using a growing variety of Web tools. With the advent of blogs, Meetups, social networking, text-messaging and many other digital systems, citizens are able to communicate, coordinate, organize and take timely action on a wide range of matters, including matters of public and political concern.

I call the new sorts of citizen behaviors “history-making” because ordinary people are able to assert moral agency and participate in making change. This capacity is not reserved chiefly to large, impersonal institutions such as corporations, government agencies and other bureaucracies. It is not a mere “participatory citizenship” in which people can volunteer their energies to larger, more influential leader, political party or institution in order to help out. It is a citizenship in which the commoners themselves choose projects that suit their talents and passions. Dispersed, unorganized groups of strangers can build their own platforms and social norms for pursuing their goals; instigate public action that would not otherwise occur (and that may clash with the practices of existing institutions); and push forward their own distinctive agenda.

These behaviors exist in some measure in offline realms, of course, but they are a growing norm in the digital republic. A few examples will suffice to make the point. The Web helped create and propel a handful of cause-oriented candidacies – Howard Dean, Ron Paul, Ned Lamont* – who rapidly raised enormous sums of money, galvanized large numbers of passionate supporters, and altered mainstream political discourse. Although none prevailed in their races, Barack Obama made a quantum leap in online organizing in 2008, raising $50 million in a single month from supporters via the Internet. Obama’s candidacy was buoyed by the rise of the “netroots” -- Web activists with a progressive political agenda – whose size and credibility enable them to sway votes in Congress, raise significant amounts of campaign funds and influence local activism. The stories are now legion about blogs affecting political life – from the resignation of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott after he praised the racist past of Senator Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party, to the electoral defeat of Senate candidate George Allen after his uttering of an ethnic slur, “macaca,” was posted on YouTube.

Citizens are now able to initiate their own policy initiatives without first persuading the mainstream media or political parties to validate them as worthy. For example, a handful of citizens troubled by evidence of “hackable” electronic voting machines exposed the defects of the Diebold machines and the company’s efforts to thwart public scrutiny and reforms. (The effort has led to a nationwide citizen effort,, to expose security problems with voting machines and vote counting.) An ad hoc group of activists, lawyers, academics and journalists spontaneously formed around a public wiki dealing with the lethal side effects of a best-selling antipsychotic drug Zyprexa, and the manufacturer’s allegedly illegal conduct in suppressing evidence of the drug’s risks. (Prosecutors later sought a $1 billion fine against Pfizer.)

The Web is giving individuals extra-institutional public platforms for articulating their own facts and interpretations of culture. It is enabling them to go far beyond voting and citizen vigilance, to mount citizen-led interventions in politics and governance. History-making citizens can compete with the mass media as an arbiter of cultural and political reality. They can expose the factual errors and lack of independence of New York Times reporters; reveal the editorial biases of the “MSM” – mainstream media – by offering their own videotape snippets on YouTube; they can even be pacesetters for the MSM, as the blog Firedoglake did in its relentless reporting of the “Scooter” Libby trial (Libby, one of Vice President Cheney’s top aides, was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in connection with press leaks about CIA agent Valerie Plame.) Citizen-journalists, amateur videographers, genuine experts who have created their own Web platforms, parodists, dirty tricksters and countless others are challenging elite control of the news agenda. It is no wonder that commercial journalism is suffering an identity crisis. Institutional authority is being trumped by the “social warranting” of online communities, many of which are themselves a kind of participatory meritocracy.

History-making citizenship is not without its deficiencies. Rumors, misinformation and polarized debate are common in this more open, unmediated environment. Its crowning virtue is its potential ability to mobilize the energies and creativity of huge numbers of people. GNU Linux improbably drew upon the talents of tens of thousands of programmers; certainly our contemporary world with its countless problems could use some of this elixir – platforms that can elicit distributed creativity, specialized talent, passionate commitment and social legitimacy. In 2005, Joichi Ito, then Chairman of the board of the Creative Commons, wrote: “Traditional forms of representative democracy can barely manage the scale, complexity and speed of the issues in the world today. Representatives of sovereign nations negotiating with each other in global dialog are limited in their ability to solve global issues. The monolithic media and its increasingly simplistic representation of the world cannot provide the competition of ideas necessary to reach informed, viable consensus.” Ito concluded that a new, not-yet-understood model of “emergent democracy” is likely to materialize as the digital revolution proceeds. A civic order consisting of “intentional blog communities, ad hoc advocacy coalitions and activist networks” could begin to tackle many urgent problems.

Clearly, the first imperative in developing a new framework to host representative democracy is to ensure that the electronic commons be allowed to exist in the first place. Without net neutrality, citizens could very well be stifled in their ability to participate on their own terms, in their own voices. If proprietary policies or technologies are allowed to override citizen interests (Verizon Wireless in 2007 prevented the transmission of abortion rights messages on its text-messaging system, for example ), then any hope for history-making citizenship will be stillborn.

Beyond such near-term concerns, however, the emerging digital republic is embroiled in a much larger structural tension with terrestrial “real world” governments. The commoner is likely to regard the rules forged in online commons as more legitimate and appropriate than those mandated by government.

Again, David R. Johnson:

- The goals of a successful legal organism must be agreed upon by those who live within it, because a legal system is nothing more than a collective conversation about shared values. When it ceases to be that kind of internally entailed organism, the law becomes mere power, social “order” becomes tyranny, and the only option, over the long term at least, is war. Organisms can’t be repaired from the outside. But, with reference to interactions that take place primarily online, among willing participants who seek primarily to regulate their own affairs, that’s exactly where existing governments are situated – outside the vibrant, self-regulating online spaces they seek to regulate. Their efforts to engineer the Internet as if it were a mechanism are not only fundamentally illegitimate but doomed by the very nature of the thing they seek to regulate. They are trying to create social order, of course. But they have not recognized…that order in complex systems creates itself.

The commoner is likely to regard the rules forged in online commons as more legitimate and appropriate than those mandated by government. After all, he or she is likely to have had a more meaningful personal role in crafting those rules. Now, of course, people live their lives in both online and terrestrial environments; there is no strict division between the two. That said, as people’s lives become more implicated in Internet spaces, citizens are likely to prefer the freedoms and affordances of the open networked environment to the stunted correlates of offline politics, governance and law.

Indeed, this may be why so many activists and idealists are attracted to online venues. There is a richer sense of possibility. Contemporary politics and government have been captured by big money, professionals and concentrated power. Professor Lessig cited such facts in announcing his plans, in 2007, to address the systemic corruptions of U.S. democracy and policymaking. In the digital republic, the ethic of transparency deals harshly with institutional manipulations, deceptions and bad faith. They literally become part of your “permanent record,” forever available via a Google search. More fundamentally, however, the digital republic has a fundamental respect for everyone’s ability to contribute. It respects the principle of open access for all. The “consent of the governed” really matters."

A new kind of power

The viral spiral, after years of building its infrastructure and social networks, may be approaching a Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary leap.

History suggests that any new style of politics and polity will arrive through models developed from within the edifice of existing law, markets and culture. A revolutionary coup or showdown with existing institutions will not be necessary. Superior working models – running code and a healthy commons – will trump polemics and exhortation.

Ideological activists and political professionals are likely to scoff at this scenario. After all, they are suspicious of distributed political power, if not hostile to it. They prefer the levers of consolidated power (laws, court rulings, police powers) that are within their sphere of influence to the dispersed, sovereign powers of an online multitude. The latter is highly resistant to capture and control, and in that sense, profoundly threatening to the traditional configurations of political power. We have already seen how the mandarins of journalism, politics and business are quick to lash out at the non-credentialed masses who dare to put forward this own interpretations of the world.

However necessary it is to engage in the official governance of a nation, however corrupted, the commoners have shown that their functioning commons can be powerful levers of change in their own ways. A commons of technical standards for the Web – how mundane! – can achieve more than most antitrust lawsuits. A common pool of information can prevent a company from reaping easy monopoly rents from the control of a public good. Instead, the company must “move upstream” to provide more specialized forms of value (e.g., sophisticated graphing of the information or data analysis). A commons may also be affirmatively helpful to businesses, as Eric von Hippel has shown, by aggregating a body of aficionados into a social community that aggregates customer needs and preferences in highly efficient ways: the commons as a cheap form of R&D and marketing.

In either case, the rise of a commons can be disruptive not just because it changes how market power is exercised, but because it may disperse power to a broader community of participants. Recall Johnson’s observation that a commons is a “self-causing legal order” that competes with other legal orders. Individuals who affiliate with an online community may acquire the ability to manage their own social relationships and group identity.

This is not just a form of marketplace power. It is a form of political power. In effect, a group may be able to neutralize the power of corporations to use brands to organize their identities. By developing its own discourse and identity, an online community can reject their treatment as a demographic cohort of consumers. They can assert their broader, non-market concerns. As a group of commoners, they are less susceptible to propaganda, ideology and commercial journalism as tools for organizing their political allegiances. They have greater civic sovereignty.

“Free cooperation aims at distributing power,” argues Geert Lovink, a Dutch media theorist:

- I am not saying that power as such disappears, but there is certainly a shift, away from the formal into the informal, from accountable structures towards a voluntary and temporal connection. We have to reconcile with the fact that these structures undermine the establishment, but not through recognizable forms of resistance. The ‘anti’ element often misses. This is what makes traditional, unreconstructed lefties so suspicious, as these networks just do their thing and do not fit into this or that ideology, be it neoliberal or autonomous Marxist. Their vagueness escapes any attempt to deconstruct their intention either as proto-capitalist or subversive.

This can be disorienting. Energies are not focused on resisting an oppressor, but rather on building innovative, positive alternatives. In Buckminster Fuller’s terms, free culture is mostly about building new models that make the existing models obsolete. Instead of forging an identity in relation to an adversary, the movement has built an identity around an affirmative vision and the challenge of becoming. People feel fairly comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity because the whole environment is so protean, diverse, evolving and dynamic.

The beauty of this “ideological straddle” is that it enables a diverse array of players into the same tent without inciting sectarian acrimony. (There is some, of course, but mostly at the margins.) Ecumenical tolerance is the norm because orthodoxies cannot take root at the periphery where innovation is constantly being incubated. In any case, there is a widespread realization in the networked world that shared goals are likely to require variable implementations, depending on specific needs and contexts.

It may appear that the free software hacker, blogger, tech entrepreneur, celebrity-musician, college professor and biological researcher have nothing in common. In truth, each is participating in social practices that are incrementally and collectively bringing into being a new sort of democratic polity. French sociologist Bruno Latour calls it the “pixellation of politics,” which conjures up a pointillist painting slowly materializing. The new polity is more open, participatory, dynamically responsive and morally respected by “the governed” than the nominal democracies of nation-states. The bureaucratic state tends to be too large and remote to be responsive to local circumstances and complex issues; it is ridiculed and endured. But who dares to aspire to transcend it?

Sooner or later, history-making citizenship is likely to take up such a challenge. It already has. What is the digital republic, after all, but a federation of self-organized communities, each seeking to fulfill their members’ dreams by developing their own indigenous set of tools, rules and ethics? The power of the commons stems from its role as an organizing template, and not an ideology. Because it is able to host a diverse and robust ecosystem of talent without squeezing it into an ideological strait-jacket, the commons is flexible and resilient. It is based on people’s sincerest passions, not on remote institutional imperatives, and so it has a foundational support and energy that can out-perform “mainstream” institutions.

This, truly, is the animating force of the viral spiral: the capacity to build one’s own world and participate on a public stage. (Cicero: “Freedom is participation in power.”) When such energies are let loose in an open, networked environment, all sorts of new and interesting innovations emerge. Since an online commons does not have the burden of turning a profit or supporting huge overhead, it can wait for serendipity, passion and idiosyncratic brilliance to surface, and then rely on the Internet to virally propagate the fruits.

at the level of social practice, the commoners are gradually building a very different moral economy that converges, from different paths, on a new type of civic order. In Code, Lessig called it “freedom without anarchy, control without government, consensus without power.”

It is not entirely clear how the special capacities of bottom-up networks – a “non-totalizing system of structure that nonetheless acts as a whole,” in Mark Taylor’s words – can be integrated with conventional government and institutions of power. It is easy to imagine a future confrontation in the political culture, however, as the citizens of the digital republic confront the stodgy bureaucratic state (corporate and governmental). The latter will have the advantages of constitutional authority and state and economic power, but the former are likely to have the advantages of social legitimacy, superior on-the-ground information and creative energy. How the digital republic will confront the old regime, or supplant it gradually as archaic institutions collapse over time, is the stuff of future history."

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