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Towards a Theory of Online Field/Forces

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Document pages: 39 pages

Abstract: We address the emergence of innovations among online activists: why do some actors choose to connect to new issues, whilst others do not? To answer this question, we operationalise ‘field theory’ using social network analysis (SNA). SNA measures the properties of nodes, ties, and clusters statistically whilst field theory suggests that people act in certain ways because of shared values. We draw some elements from Actor-Network Theory (ANT), such as the incorporation of non-human actors into fields, but contrary to ANT, answering our question about actor choices requires us to establish distinctions between the agency of different categories of actors. We contend that ANT’s objections about researchers arbitrarily imposing boundaries onto reality are, in this case, at least partly voided: actors in online activist fields have a common purpose that is both expressed and physically circumscribed by socio-technical affordances (such as hashtags) which do not extend forever. Our new framework for studying online activism involves three main aspects. First, we use field theory in an attempt to account for the goals of actors in choosing to connect (or not) to issues. Second, we define ‘capital’ as the number of connections accrued by actors in the course of their trajectories across online activist subnetworks or ‘fields’. Third, we introduce the concept of ‘field force’, the capacity of human or organisational actors to attract capital in social space or the capacity of issue actors to attract capital in semantic space, through people and organisations promoting them via their websites or tweets. We argue that field force, capital and goals are mutually constitutive. We illustrate this conceptual exploration by drawing on studies of Web 1.0 and 2.0 activist fields, finding that field effects are stronger in Web 2.0, and offer explanations as to why this may be the case.

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