We have heard a lot about the impact of digital technologies on social relations. For instance, that they are making us more connected, more  isolated, more distracted, more body conscious, more paranoid. But I have been wondering if digital technologies can enable solidarity.

dictionary definition of solidarity is:

“unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.”

Unity of feeling  certainly seems to be possible online as has been demonstrated in numerous popular campaigns such as those orchestrated through sites such as SumOfUs, 38 degrees and Change,org. But can the signing of petitions demonstrate solidarity any more than the liking of Facebook pages? Is this solidarity or merely swarm politics; a more politicised version of jumping on the bandwagon? Support for these issues can often be temporary or specific to one particular case and does not necessarily demonstrate a deeper sense of belonging on a local, national or global level.

A certain kind of unity of action does seem to have been enabled by the internet. Social networks have helped to organise political protests and sometimes circumvent oppressive political regimes which have tried to close them down such as in Iran and Turkey. But in these cases the digital was an enabler of the collective action which occurred in the physical space usually of a square or a park some of the oldest enablers of collective action. Long before people could virtually congregate online they were doing so in parks and squares in much the same way as they do today.

At a workshop I recently attended Tamar Sharon suggested that website communities such as “patients like me” could represent a form of solidarity. On such sites people contribute their health data which are collated together to enable research on a particular condition. In some cases this has proven to be quicker and more effective than traditional randomised controlled trials which have to go through lengthy ethical and peer review processes.

At another event I attended, however, Deborah Lupton highlighted that on such sites the ownership of these data lies with the owners of the site and it is seemingly being used for the purposes of data mining. While this does not in itself undermine this as a potential form of solidarity this kind of commercialisation does perhaps problematise it. Moreover, while a sense of community of sorts is built through mutual experience of a particular condition and a shared desire to find an effective treatment this does not necessarily suggest a broader based solidarity or concern for those who do not share that experience.

Maybe a genuinely digital solidarity would need to be online from start to finish and represent a broader base of interconnection and interdependence.

Perhaps the classic sociological approach to solidarity comes from Émille Durkheim. For Durkheim different kinds of society have different forms of solidarity. Most notably pre-industrial  societies have mechanical solidarity in which most members perform similar roles so there is a low level of differentiation in the division of labour. Conversely industrial societies have a highly heterogeneous, complex division of labour and consequently organic solidarity in which individuals perform different tasks and their togetherness is based on their interdependence. The key issue for Durkheim is the division of labour. This led me to consider whether there are comparable instance of the digital division of labour.

There is a well-established literature on digital labour most prominently conceptualised by Tiziana Terranova in her  paper “Free Labor” in which she proposes that most of the value of online companies is generated by unpaid users who provide the content around which advertising is sold. This argument has only become more pertinent in the age of Facebook and Twitter which could not exist with the “labour” of their users.

While this could well be framed as broad based extraction of value from “free labour” I am not sure whether any sense of solidarity has been derived from it. One area where this may have happened is in “hacktivist” groups such as anonymous who have used a form of division of labour to achieve collective goals. They have, for instance, used a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), the  forced closing of a website due to being overloaded with information requests, to bring down the main Scientology website, amongst others.

This is achieved by many individual users instructing their computers to repeatedly ping a website. While there is a unity of purpose, again at least around particular issues, but arguably this is in the service of an anti-solidaristic agenda, often related to freedom of expression. A kind of individualistic, libertarianism.

Felix Stadler is optimistic that digital solidarity is possible and has suggested that the reactivation of the notion of “the commons” on-line provides the most potential. While many of these types of interconnection may provide the structural potential for solidarity there may be something else missing. A crucial enabler of solidarity, for Durkheim, is “collective effervescence” or the excitement we feel as part of a group which takes us out of our individuality. Can this be achieved digitally?