The Internet as an Organization

I have been thinking lately a lot about what would happen if you tried to define the Internet as an organization.

There are some common sense assumptions we make when we think about organizations.  One is that they are hierarchical in structure.  Another is that they are formed to serve some overriding mission or purpose or goal.

Organizations have cultures, comprised of certain languages and activities, rituals and symbols.  They might have laws and policies, and firm or loose boundaries. There are other kinds of groups we can define;  there are governments, institutions, corporations, industries, religions, theaters, charities, grassroots movements, families…but I’m of the mind to call two or more people doing something together an organization.  Although, it certainly gets a lot more complicated the more people that are involved.

Because the Internet has no central authority structure, but is comprised of a series of networks and information exchange protocols, it might seem difficult to commit to the idea that the Internet itself is an organization.  Hacker culture and free speech activists and even Wikipedians value a kind of radical openness that seems to belie any sense of inside and outside (although critics do speak of digital divides, and the haves and have-nots in terms of access, cost, limited and segregated bandwidth, and the like).  Still, there are times that people are engaged in the internet, and times that they are not.   Some people never engage with it.  Some engage with it perhaps too much. Like church. Or certain kinds of work. Or voting. Or family holidays.

But if you start to consider that the Internet itself is an organization, then, you can start to try to apply some of the knowledge we have about how organizations function, about what they do well and what they struggle with, in an attempt to better understand and describe the experiences that people have within these organizations. What kind of relationships work best? What are peoples expectations of each other, and of the technology? Are identities and actions substantially different when mediated by the internet, or are they not? Is there any kind of universal Internet experience? Are there leaders and heroes, villains and victims? Gods and devils and angels and monsters? Teachers and parents and friends and neighbors?

I still find the Internet to be like a Wild West Brave New World of ideas, actions, connections, discoveries, and challenges. I continue to be interested in reading what other people are saying about what the Internet is (particularly, but not exclusively, on the internet) and how it is affecting who we are, and how we live.

I still tend to look at the world as a dramatist, for characters and plots and themes and actions, and I expect if I continue this line of inquiry, I will end up doing a dramaturgy of the Internet, as if it were a play…or an organization.

So, I’ll continue to develop this idea as I embark on my fourth semester in grad school.  I’m still not sure what course I’m taking.  I should probably go search the Internet course catalog to make a decision.

Or, maybe I’ll just run into someone and take their face-to-face advice: offline. Is that a form of hearsay or treason or insubordination in a digital world?