Some 21 years ago, just after the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ended in a spray of violence and live fire from government tanks that killed untold thousands, a Chinese journalist colleague of mine advised his fellow writers to “be like water.” He was quoting a proverb that urged persistence in the face of towering obstacles. Water, he explained, can seep through and around even the most imposing walls to get to the other side. 

I thought of him this week while attending the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in New York, a national gathering of some of the country’s leading Internet experts, activists, and policy wonks who annually contemplate the links between technology and the ways we are able to govern ourselves in today’s world. PDF Cofounder Micah Sifry, citing the past year of unprecedented online activism worldwide, declared the emergence of a “new Internet public” that has begun to use the power of social networks to bring new voices to the table and force political change in ways previously impossible.  

“In the past year—especially in the United States and around the world,” Sifry told conferees, “we are seeing the emergence of the Internet as an interest group.” Millions of people, he said, “who either make a living from working on the Internet, who are helping to build the Internet, or who simply identify with it came out in defense of the Internet this year, and this is something new. After talking all these years about the Internet as an enabler of movements, the Internet has, itself, become a movement.” Added Dave Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas: “The Internet has begun to change the way we connect with each other and change our view of what it means to be a public.” 

Among the takeaways from this year’s conference:

Ad hoc groups of online activists are forming in rising numbers across the Net. They represent a new kind of Internet power because they can form quickly around a single goal, and then dissipate when that goal is reached. “These citizen-driven networks are beating the middlemen,” Senator Ron Wyden told conferees in opening remarks, “regardless of whether these middlemen exist in the form of politicians, governments, lobbyists, or members of the press.” He said February’s Stop SOPA swarm was so powerful that it was able to get the controversial legislation tabled, at least for a while. Fellow speaker Deanna Zandt, an Internet researcher, said ad hoc swarms have the most clout because they are able to reach beyond existing groups of activists to engage people who consider themselves apolitical. And they don’t need to ask for permission. To illustrate the point, Internet activist, computer programmer, and media hacker Peter Fein cited his work with Telecomix, a hacker collective that The New York Times called “the tech support for the Arab Spring.” Fein told conferees: “When the Internet went down in Egypt, we didn’t call Senator Wyden to call Hillary Clinton to call President Obama to call Mubarak to say, ‘Please turn it back on,’ Instead, we took direct action, and took our modems and faxes and did it ourselves.” Fein said that in the past year of citizen uprisings, revolutions, Tahrir Square protests, Wikileaks actions, Anonymous hits, and Occupy Wall Street, it’s clear that “this isn’t your father’s Internet anymore.” Said Fein: “This isn’t about simply adding Twitter to what exists and watching democracy grow. This is something different.” 

Ad hoc groups are starting to take on and defeat traditional hierarchies. The Komen controversy prompted adhocracies to rise up and force Komen officials to reverse their decision to defund breast cancer exams at Planned Parenthood. More recently, SumOfUs, a six-month-old network of global consumers co-founded by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, now boasts 650,000 members and was recently able to push Trader Joe’s into signing an agreement promising consumers it would not do business with vendors who support slave labor practices. “Many of our members are Trader Joe’s consumers,” she said, “ and many of them don’t want to buy tomatoes picked by slaves. …We are using the power of ad hoc networks to aggregate consumer power, a new way to use the Internet to harness our economic citizenship.” 

The Internet also is creating new forms of “soft power” that can influence cross-border ties. Example: OMG Meiyu, a video blog that began 10 months ago as a way for Voice of America producer Jessica Beinecke to teach Chinese youth American slang, has grown into a cross cultural, interactive communications platform that uses Mandarin to explain American culture to millions of Chinese. The youth-driven segments are produced from Beinecke’s one-bedroom apartment in Washington D.C. and are watched by over 13 million Chinese fans. Beinecke says the show has participants now, not just followers. OMG Meiyu fans can now shoot their own videos and send them in to ask Beinecke their questions. Says Beinecke: “What is significant is that we are not selling culture, and we are not buying it. We are simply sharing it, and the authenticity of that is the power of this network” to build connections that otherwise would not be available. 

Mesh networks are enabling the voiceless to connect. Thanks to the spread of wireless mesh networks, people can now access the Internet “outside the reach of government surveillance technologies and phone bills,” says Sascha Meinrath of the Open Technology Institute (OTI), a part of the New America Foundation in Washington. In Detroit, Meinrath’s OTI team is working with the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition to build a mesh network that enables many of the people living in the Cass Corridor neighborhood to be connected for the first time. This allows them to barter their skills online, share sparse resources, and speak up on local issues that concern them. In Europe, wireless mesh networks extend even further. in Spain, for example, is the largest wireless network community in the world, self-organized and operated by the users using unlicensed wireless links to get more people wired. “ has 17,000 nodes covering thousands of square kilometers and interconnects hundreds of different communities,” Meinrath says. “This is part of a global movement of people who are radically transforming the thinking around what’s possible using technologies available today.” 

So what’s next?  

Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who resigned at the start of the Iraq War, says there are big challenges ahead—chiefly around the need to invent new forms of networked governance to replace today’s creaking, top-down government structures. “The world today is comprised of billions of actors reacting and counter-reacting constantly to what happens around them,” said Ross. “This is not order, nor is this chaos. It is something in-between. It is a complex system—not a chessboard, but a Jackson Pollock painting. We need to rethink our systems of government completely.  

“Traditional authority cannot govern complex systems,” Ross added, “yet this is where we’re at now. I’m excited, frightened, and compelled to say that the revolution is now us.”