If you walk down the corridors of most development organisations you will see the words ‘civil society’ on many of the name-plates screwed to the office doors. Comforting words engraved on nice solid plaques. But what does it mean?

This is not an academic debate. I used to think that civil society meant all the non-commercial, non-governmental organisations that live in buildings with offices, often with name-plates. There were people inside them who ran trades unions, NGOs, churches or perhaps arts groups. They were flesh and blood.

But perhaps they are now bits of binary code. Instead of people they are software programmes. Rather than concrete institutions we now have networks.

These thoughts were sparked by a recent seminar I gave at the heart of a government aid department. My presentation was about how the uprisings in the Middle East show us how people can use social media and mobile telephony as tools to inform and organise. I suggested that the ‘weak ties’ of online communication built effective networks for solidarity, debate and action. No buildings, no meetings. A kind of virtual civil society, if you like.

This article was written originally for the Communication Initiative Network – read the rest of it at their blog