Apr 28, 2020 in Exploratory

Collective Intelligence and Plural Voices


Modern trends in the society such as the spread of digital technology and globalization lead to the emergence of new forms of social existence and cooperation. One of these forms is self-organization of various individuals on the Internet with the aim of creating or influencing social policies and other public issues. Despite the processes of communication and collaboration that occur in the virtual space, they have real and sustainable outcomes. Such tendencies may be characterized as collective intelligence or netizenship, which transfers ordinary citizenship into the virtual space. This paper characterizes the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which strives to reform marijuana laws by means of digital network communication and collaboration. The performed analysis suggests that NORML is an example of how people serve society and influence the authorities by constructing collective intelligence and interacting in the virtual space on the basis of democratic principles. In case similar communities of network citizens would aspire to pursue their aims, netizenship would become the future of a democratic community that uses digital resources for discussing and establishing social benefits.


Collective Intelligence and Netizenship

The formation of collective intelligence and netizenship started at the end of the 20th century when the Internet has become massively available to the public. Such new forms of communication as public chats, forums, discussion boards, and many others gave an opportunity for people to share their knowledge and experience. Owing to the fact that cyberspace was not controlled, people got the chance to do whatever they want, which some scholars compare with a “verkeersbordvrij” experiment in the city of Drachten. In this Dutch city, the authorities removed all traffic signs, parking meters, and parking spaces enabling the community to drive relying on its rational sense, which dramatically improved vehicular safety. This example demonstrates that the society should use its intelligence to self-organize because such form of cooperation is more productive than traditional collaboration. Comparing this phenomenon with the cyberspace, it is possible to refer to Wikipedia, which has also become a product of collective intelligence. This online resource relies purely on voluntary participants who want to create a global pool of knowledge instantly accessed from any part of the world. However, collective intelligence is more than knowledge or information shared by different groups of people. It is better defined as the amount of knowledge collectively produced by the thinking community to support its existence and fulfill its goals which is impossible to put in a single creature. The sources similar to Wikipedia demonstrate the principles that allowed creating such type of knowledge by means of participating in the discussions of the created articles. For instance, Zittrain argues that discussion pages in Wikipedia “allowed people to explain and justify their changes, and anyone disagreeing and changing something back could explain as well”. In contrast to other encyclopedias, the editors and authorities of Wikipedia allow the community discussing the articles that it creates. Such discussions improve relevance of the articles. The first years of its existence showed that some aspects required improvement to ease the process of communication and protect the source from violations. As a consequence, the administration of Wikipedia created separate pages identifying its users, put locks on the article edition for newly registered users, and even blocked persistent vandals who ignored the warnings. In addition to this, some of the users, who obtained a reputation of positive contributors and valuable editors of Wikipedia material, got an opportunity to be promoted to administrator status. Therefore, gradually, this resource developed the principles of network citizenship by means of creating unique user pages that represent their digital “passport.” Such page records the history of the user’s editions and other network activity on the site. Furthermore, the “citizens” or the contributors of this virtual space identified themselves as “Wikipedians”, which can be characterized as a specific form of network citizenship. 

The example of Wikipedia as a form of net citizenship or “netizenship” and collective intelligence is not the only one, since such public platforms as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Pinterest, and Instagram allow the users to unite around various interests. One of them may be busy searching for fun, for example, pictures of kittens or tracking the success of their famous musical bands or sports clubs; whereas others involve in public discussions directly affecting real life. The example of a useful site is NORML, which is a unity of individuals that strive for changing the legal policies of the US that regulate marijuana consumption (“NORML – Working to Reform Marijuana Laws”). This website enables its users practicing the granted democratic right of public discussion and action on defending their ideas about the legal ban that restricts marijuana consumption. Its members involve in a massive discussion in the society representing the side that opposes the ban and claims that its application is unjustified. To approve its point, the group collects and produces diverse data related to the topic. The platform allows to unite the efforts of numerous individuals in the approval of their ideas and their spread to other citizens making them become the “netizens” of this social project. Therefore, its existence enables diverse individuals and communities not only to spread the ideas about the legalization of marijuana but practicing their citizenship through netizenship producing collective intelligence.

NORML as an Example of Collective Intelligence

Using NORML, people enter a wide network community that lobbies their interest in the legalization of marijuana in the US. The mission of the resource is “to move public opinion … to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults, and … to assure they have access to high-quality marijuana that is safe, convenient and affordable. Therefore, its key interest is not only in legalization of the product of a public interest but assurance of its quality, safety, and affordability. To achieve these goals, NORML has ensured its presence in a wide area of social networks and public projects in the US and worldwide. For example, the project created accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, and other social networks including its own blog and network. 

Because of the usage of the social media, people of various races, ethnicity, age and gender know more about NORML group, its aims and methods of action. The analysis of its Instagram account demonstrates that it uses social networks for advertising its expositions, conferences, and other public discussions.

Another critical feature of NORML is the presence of legal and news releases sections that give users all recent information about the marijuana consumption as well as its scientific research. On the one hand, it gives the netizens of this project valuable information and encourages some of them (represented by scholars and political activists) to contribute to this collective intelligence. On the other hand, the project allows any post to be retweeted or published on the user’s Facebook page with comments, which serves as the means of information spreading. The reason for this is that such networks as Twitter encourage users “to connect, and to initiate and follow conversations worldwide”. By encouraging discussions and studies, NORML makes a sample of collective intelligence where people create a massive pool of data related to a specific subject. Because of this digital communication people create a new form of public opinion and protect their interests in the Internet and real life. Before, the Interned had no such and was mainly used for transmission of knowledge and enterntainmen. Individuals involved in discussions, similar to the one proposed by NORML, typically have different backgrounds, habits, ideas, cultures, but have to agree upon the principles of interaction of their community. Reaching agreement on the framework of communication and the principles of interaction is one of the first steps to a cooperation of netizens. At the same time, a discussion of a subject connected to real life makes people use cyberspace as a toolkit that serves not only for communication purposes. Constant virtual presence as a citizen and its relevant true outcomes in a form of lobbying is an example of how netizenship collaboration allows using collective intelligence to change real life. Additionally, NORML encourages any form of a social act for its participants, and it may be donation, volunteering, buying their products, or participation in legislative procedures. 

As a result, NORML has organized a complex system of social interaction on the web, which can be characterized as collective intelligence. The reason for this assumption is that this system becomes better at solving the problems that confront it, because it learns what to do when it is faced with a perturbation. The present-day activity of NORML indicates its awareness of legal penalties for violation of marijuana laws in the US and in the world. It seeks creative and advanced solutions by creating discussions in the web and selecting the one with best outcomes. As a result, this organization produces decisions that effectively function despite legal limitations.

The Limits of Empowerment

Although the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has created a powerful network that protects the legal and social interests of its stakeholders, it acts within a specific framework of limitations. The web representation of this organization demonstrates that it uses human mind as a social “organ”, which transforms communication into a tool for achieving its goals. Similarly, it is impossible for the organization to meet the needs of any community and any individual in particular, because its goals set specific limits of citizens who are interested in the issue. Among them, one can name those who smoke cigarettes and cannabis, the individuals who are allowed to perform this action by the law, or the ones that smoke marijuana against the law of their states. Another specific category of stakeholders are non-smokers who are interested only in consumption of marijuana as one of the means of medical therapy. For instance, one of the latest reports posted on NORML’s website is “Study: Cannabis Inhalation Improves Parkinson’s Symptoms” attracts public attention public to the fact that medical cannabis deserves legalization. Nevertheless, the fact that this organization still excludes the majority of people resulted in a situation that its page on Facebook has 894630 subscribers and 1954 reported visitors of its main office. Therefore, this quantity of followers on the Internet means that the organization aims at achieving its goals by turning to diverse populations. In this respect, scholars claim that despite the Internet that seems to bypass such aspects as racial identity, age or gender, people’s preferences differ, which is demonstrated through the consequences of their decisions. Nevertheless, this fact does not mean that the supporters and activists of this organization lack power. On the contrary, it demonstrates that do their best to changes the Constitution in the way they want.

The analysis of the website of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws demonstrates that its members are aware of the legal aspects of their integration. For instance, they accumulated the laws and news reports about marijuana including state laws, arrest data, a list of the citizen’s rights, lawyers, and legal brief bank. This information is the important knowledge that assists the participants of NORML in achieving their aims. Similarly, it protects their interests and may be used as evidence for turning to state Representatives for support. The Internet is not the only form of activity of NORML because it was established in 1970 and its first case was a debate of marijuana prohibition. The members of the organization claim that their first initiatives in decriminalizing marijuana offenses during the 1970s were a success in 11 states and made it possible to lower marijuana penalties. The presence of the organization online has increased its societal influence. The reason for this is that different people may find it on the web and obtain information about its activity. This fact increases the public awareness of the movement for legalization of marijuana as well as the number of its supporters. The use of such social media platforms as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram allows NORML to increase the number of informed people. Such individuals may share this information by “retweeting” and “sharing”, which generate a lot of digital traffic. Therefore, NORML empowered numerous individuals to form a group according to their social interest that automatically generates and discusses relevant content, spreads it, and lobbies it representing the work of netizenship or cognitive intelligence in action. Its existence is the evidence that human knowledge keeps developing and forms new ways of interaction. Its contemporary change is the result of creation of a massive pool of knowledge available for any person and used for the benefit of people. Engaging in netizenship, people create diverse projects and start critical social discussions, producing shared knowledge and reaching collective benefits. The social systems like this function mostly in a virtual space and use the principles of collective interest and collaboration. Such rules and conditions give them the power to influence on different aspects of real lives of the citizens.


Summarizing the information presented in the paper, one may conclude that NORML allows diverse people participating in the process of formation of cognitive intelligence with its further activation aiming at lobbying its interests. The work of this organization is an example of how individuals use digital technologies for obtaining netizenship. Because of this, they create a huge amount of collective knowledge that characterizes collective intelligence. Moreover, people use this collective intelligence for committing different forms of social action. The work of NORML has been efficient sine 1970s, but it has been intensified after the emergence of the Internet because of the increased social access. Therefore, social intelligence is the new form of social interaction through the cyberspace that allows achieving real-life benefits for its participants. Despite the fact that netizenship is a form of virtual presence of individuals, it proves to be one of the best means to validate their democratic rights and freedoms in real life. 


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