In this essay on the notion of the online swarm I suggest that the euphoric appreciation of the democratic potential of the Internet still disregards the complex entanglements of affects and infrastructures within processes of constitution in biopolitical societies of control. In order to approach these entanglements, I investigate the online swarm with a neo-materialist perspective and consider a specific Internet infrastructure, 4chan, the board on which Anonymous first emerged, as an agent within the swarm formation. After discussing the methodological challenges implied by this perspective, I will approach the infrastructural mediators by analyzing their affective dimension. I conclude by posing a question: If we look at the phenomenon from this theoretical perspective, can we then still speak of emancipation and solidarity?
From Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs1 in 2003 to Felix Stalder’s concept of Digital Solidarity2 in 2013, the Internet has inspired and still inspires the dream of new sorts of collectivity, of a potentially free and open space of information and communication that would emancipate and unite the people. These discourses often employ the swarm metaphor, the “ephemeral and apparently ‘grass-roots democratic’ conception of collectivity”3 that suggests emergent cooperation or solidarity and is therefore also used to point to new emancipatory politics.
The notion of a solidary swarm is especially interesting with regard to present forms of governmentality: On the one hand, it stands for subversive moments within societies of control or biopolitical capitalism, as it can point to new forms of sociality that overcome logics of neoliberal competition.4 On the other, inspiring swarm behavior is one way of governing in neoliberal capitalism. As the notion of the online swarm and, more generally, of constituting collectivity on the Internet has these political dimensions, it is worth approaching it again from the neighborhood technologies point of view. This project aims, among other things, to develop a more differentiated and technologically informed notion of neighborhood concepts, including swarm intelligence, a notion that takes into account the role of media technologies. The material turn partly has a similar focus: Against a cultural studies or sociological focus on semantics and meaning and the concomitant disinterest in technology as well as affects, new materialist theories ask for transdisciplinary approaches that consider agency as distributed across all things – human and nonhuman.5 Referring to this perspective, I begin by taking into account the role of affect circulation that constitutes the online swarm. In order to illustrate these constitutive forces, I will focus on one prominent phenomenon, Anonymous. I will outline a special case of swarm behavior, the creation of the LOLcats, and then, still employing a new materialist perspective I will focus on the infrastructure of the site 4chan, where these swarms are still emerging. I do not want to reduce the various (inter-)disciplinary connections and diverse undertakings that are subsumed under the label of the material turn to a set of shared qualities. I will briefly discuss the methodological challenges that they imply and highlight some of the differences in the approaches in order...