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Civil Society and Online Political Forums: Network Analysis of 6 Years of Political and Philosophical Discussions in Newsgroups
Unformatted Document Text:  Civil Society and Online Political Forums 1 Civil Society and Online Political Forums Network Analysis of Six Years of Political and Philosophical Discussions in Newsgroups Over the past decade, the very idea of the Internet as a provider of a free and open space for civil society to flourish has brought much debate. The tension between the technology -- free in most of the world -- and the restrictions placed upon it by societies, politics and markets, is at the heart of the discourse regarding Internet and civil society (Papacharissi, 2002, 2004). This study calls for taking a network approach to evaluate the relationship between Internet and civil society. The idea of civil society stemmed from a desire to be free from tyranny, and has grown and developed throughout history, from the French and American Revolutions to the fall of the Soviet Union -- which put a strong emphasis on the freedom to associate (Seligman, 1992; Kumar, 1993; Kaviraj and Khilnan, 2001). When examining literature on Internet and society, it becomes apparent that freedom remains a central condition for fruitful civil and democratic processes (Habermas, 1989; Arato and Cohen, 1992; Dalhbeg, 2001). Much has been discussed, for example, regarding forces that restrain this freedom as the digital divide (Compaine, 2001) and the commercialization of the Internet (Bagdikian, 2004; McManus, 1994). Remaining underdeveloped is the idea that unrestricted social interactions on the Internet may work against civil society, regardless of both the freedom provided by technology and the restrictions placed upon societies. This study argues that patterns of online social interactions are pivotal to understanding the relationship between the Internet and civil society. It examines – theoretically and empirically – the limitations of free, unrestricted, computer-mediated social interactions on civil society. Specifically, network structures of online discussion spaces are examined. Political forums are central to civil society (de Tocqueville, 1839). Activity of more than 250,000 individuals in 35 political newsgroups over six years was retrieved and analyzed. Patterns of message posting and replying and the network structures they create are used to examine whether the conditions for civil society are satisfied. Furthermore, the size of the discussions is used to predict change in these network structures. In the following section, the historical and contemporary origins of civil society are briefly reviewed and a working definition is composed. The six criteria within the definition are examined twice. First, existing literature on the Internet and society is reviewed to evaluate

Authors: Himelboim, Itai.
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Civil Society and Online Political Forums 
1
Civil Society and Online Political Forums
Network Analysis of Six Years of Political and Philosophical Discussions in Newsgroups
Over the past decade, the very idea of the Internet as a provider of a free and open space for civil 
society to flourish has brought much debate. The tension between the technology -- free in most 
of the world -- and the restrictions placed upon it by societies, politics and markets, is at the heart 
of the discourse regarding Internet and civil society (Papacharissi, 2002, 2004).  This study calls 
for taking a network approach to evaluate the relationship between Internet and civil society.
The idea of civil society stemmed from a desire to be free from tyranny, and has grown 
and developed throughout history, from the French and American Revolutions to the fall of the 
Soviet Union -- which put a strong emphasis on the freedom to associate (Seligman, 1992; 
Kumar, 1993; Kaviraj and Khilnan, 2001).  When examining literature on Internet and society, it 
becomes apparent that freedom remains a central condition for fruitful civil and democratic 
processes (Habermas, 1989; Arato and Cohen, 1992; Dalhbeg, 2001).  Much has been discussed, 
for example, regarding forces that restrain this freedom as the digital divide (Compaine, 2001) 
and the commercialization of the Internet (Bagdikian, 2004; McManus, 1994).  Remaining
underdeveloped is the idea that unrestricted social interactions on the Internet may work against 
civil society, regardless of both the freedom provided by technology and the restrictions placed 
upon societies.
This study argues that patterns of online social interactions are pivotal to understanding 
the relationship between the Internet and civil society.  It examines – theoretically and 
empirically – the limitations of free, unrestricted, computer-mediated social interactions on civil 
society.  Specifically, network structures of online discussion spaces are examined.
Political forums are central to civil society (de Tocqueville, 1839).  Activity of more than 
250,000 individuals in 35 political newsgroups over six years was retrieved and analyzed.  
Patterns of message posting and replying and the network structures they create are used to 
examine whether the conditions for civil society are satisfied.  Furthermore, the size of the 
discussions is used to predict change in these network structures.  
In the following section, the historical and contemporary origins of civil society are 
briefly reviewed and a working definition is composed.  The six criteria within the definition are 
examined twice.  First, existing literature on the Internet and society is reviewed to evaluate 


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