GaWC Research Bulletin 439

GaWC logo
  Gateways into GaWC


Global Civil Society from Hyperlink Perspective: Exploring the Online Networks of International NGOs

H. Meier*


A hyperlink analysis is a simple method to reveal basic network structures of a group of actors. In a quantitative study, hyperlink connections were extracted from the websites of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and analyzed with methods of social network analysis. This text shows the various possibilities of evaluation and presents the most important results of the study.

Key words: hyperlink analysis, network analysis, linkscape, city networks, global civil society, NGO

Research Question

The original research question at the beginning of this study was concerned with the usability of hyperlink analyses in general: In how far is it possible to derive valuable network structures from a homogenous group of websites? First test analyses revealed interesting results; therefore a series of analyses was conducted on the online networks of international NGOs.

Central to any hyperlink analysis there is a main research question: Which websites are important nodes of the network at hand? At the same time the spatial configuration of these network structures was of special importance to this study to answer the following question: How global is global civil society?

Global Civil Society Networks

The discourse on global civil society has experienced great attention in the past two decades. It is closely connected to other discourses on globalization and the network society. The term itself is controversial and a universal definition is missing.

In a modern understanding it can be described as a social space that contains a variety of networks of non-state and non-economic actors at the global level. International NGOs and global social movements play a vital role in this concept. In some notions, international NGOs are considered as beacons of hope with the potential to create a fair and just world order.

The websites of these organizations are suitable for a hyperlink analysis for several reasons: First, many of them use this medium as information platforms to present their concerns and projects to a global audience. Secondly, they use their websites and connected social media sites as channels to communicate with members and those who are interested in their mission. Moreover, international NGOs are usually integrated into various kinds of networks like e.g. global office networks, expert networks, grassroots networks and strategic alliances with other organizations. The activities in these networks are reflected in part in the hyperlink structures. The particular context in which a hyperlink is embedded can vary greatly in content. However, a number of linking patterns can be observed when looking at a high number of hyperlink profiles.


Each hyperlink analysis begins with a list of websites that are examined by a web crawler to extract hyperlinks. The selection of NGOs was carried out in 2010 by database queries at the Union of International Associations, the world's most extensive directory of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. The first criterion for selection was the reference to a global social movement and the visibility of a global agenda. Organizations with close links to the private sector and state, government or supranational organizations were excluded from the selection. The second condition involves the geographical distribution of members on at least three continents. And as a third obvious condition, the organization must have an official website. In this way, a total of 367 NGOs were identified that meet the criteria. According to their thematic priorities they were categorized into the global social movement groups "Human Rights", "Women", "Peace", "Labor", "Environment" and "other" to allow further group-specific calculations.

In the years 2010, 2012 and 2014 hyperlink profiles were created for every website. During the first data collection a simple, self-programmed web crawler was used. The other two data collections were conducted with the service of Uberlink Corporation, which has evolved from a research project on hyperlinks at the Australian National University. More than 150.000 hyperlinks were collected of which almost 18.000 refer to external domains and thus are available for social network analysis. The statistical calculations were performed with the open-source Excel plugin NodeXL.

Internal Network

The internal network layer includes only network connections that exist between the 367 NGOs (see Fig. 1). In the illustration, the size of the nodes corresponds to the network indegree of the respective organization. This ranking is led by the global players in the non-profit sector with Amnesty International in the top position (37), followed by Human Rights Watch (35) and World Wide Fund for Nature (25).

The network density as the ratio of existing to possible connections in the network can provide insight into the question of how much the organizations are networked together. Values ??of 0.010 (2010), 0.009 (2012) and 0.009 (2014) are considered very low estimate. When considering the network density within the social movements, these values ??are higher, between 0.02 in the human rights movement and 0.09 in the labor movement. The time series shows no tendencies for increasing networking of actors within their movements. When considering the networking between the movements, the relationship between women or peace movement and human rights movement is strongest. On the other hand the relationship between the human rights and the environmental movement is lowest. These data suggest that the network of international NGOs is only very weakly crosslinked overall, yet there are measurable networking activities within the different social movements.

Further information about the network can be retrieved when looking at the geographical distribution of organizations and their connections on the continental level (Fig. 2). When selecting the NGOs it was already clear that the spatial focus of their headquarters can be found in Europe and North America. This finding is supported by the data where a connecting axis between the two continents can be observed. However, 50% of all connections from North America are directed to Europe, in the opposite direction it is only 17%. Nearly 75% of the connections from Europe are intra-continental. The proportion of intercontinental connections throughout the internal network has decreased from 52% (2010) to 47% (2014). An increasing internationalization is therefore not visible.

Figure 1: Internal Network by movement 2010

Figure 2: Internal Network by continent 2010


The external network layer consists of all other websites referred to by the NGOs. The names and locations of the responsible actors of these websites were determined and also a categorization into central groups (linkscapes) was performed. Given the large amounts of data found in this study, only websites with a network indegree of more than 3 were considered.

The creation of a classification system for such a broad spectrum of contents was initially a challenge. To keep it simple four basic categories were formed which are based on the organizational form of the responsible actors: Society, Economy, State and other. The boundaries of the categories are blurry, but all web pages fit into this scheme. For many actors a further categorization level was added for more detailed analyses. Figure 3 shows the linkscapes with the key actors in relation to their network indegree.

Figure 3: Linkscapes 2014

The linkscape “society" unites all contents that are related to the so-called third sector or non-profit sector such as organizations, projects, campaigns, universities, institutions, etc. Based on the number of actors this is the largest linkscape. Yet the websites show a rather low degree of crosslinking. The highest network degree is held by Wikipedia (40), prior to the International Labour Organization (25) and the Creative Commons Corporation (21). In the other two linkscapes these values ??are considerably higher.

The linkscape "economy" includes all private-sector companies, where an emphasis on IT and media companies can be seen. With Youtube (182) Facebook (173) and Twitter (144) the giants of the Internet industry are as expected at the upper end of this ranking. Their network degrees have risen steadily since 2010 and demonstrate the growing importance of social networks in the networking strategies of the studied NGOs. Another striking crosslinking pattern concerns the inclusion of news media sites. Again, the big names in the media industry can be found such as The Guardian (49), The Huffington Post (30) or The New York Times (29), as well as a large number of further corporate information portals.

The linkscape "state" includes all institutions and organizations that are directly related to the state sphere, from the regional to national and global level. This linkscape reflects the paramount importance of the United Nations with its numerous departments and projects. In this ranking the UN is as expected in the first place (109) right in front of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (48), the UN Environment Programme (33), UNESCO (33) and the UN Development Group (32). Other important points of reference in this category are the World Bank (29) and the European Commission (28). These facilities were expected to play an important role in this ranking. The low importance of global institutions International Monetary Fund (6) and World Trade Organization (4), however, is rather surprising.

City Networks

By collecting the locational data of all websites, a large number of city rankings can be created which provide further information on the geographical nature of the network.

In this study, the network degree of a city is calculated as the sum of the network indegrees of all actors that are located in one city. In the intercity rankings in Table 1, only hyperlinks whose reach goes beyond urban boundaries are taken into consideration. Therefore the values are derived from the external relations of a city.

Table 1: Intercity Ranking Total 2014

Table 2: Intercity Ranking Linkscape Economy 2014

Table 3: Intercity Ranking Linkscape Society 2014

Table 4: Intercity Ranking Linkscape State 2014

The intercity rankings confirm the initially observed spatial focus of the network in North America and Europe. It becomes clear that the locations of the relevant actors are spread across a very small number of cities. While the total ranking is not very meaningful, the results of the individual linkscapes show a differentiated spatial structure. The distribution of cities in the linkscape “Economy” is not surprising and expression of the global dominance of the internet industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. The ranking of the linkscape “Society” has a much flatter hierarchy. Nevertheless, the top ten of the 106 cities in the ranking combine a network share of 67%. In the linkscape “State”, this proportion is 83% (38 cities). In both of the latter rankings there is a spatial overlap – supporting the assumption that civil society organizations have a strong tendency to settle close to sites of global and national centers of power. London, New York, Geneva and Washington DC can be regarded as the most important cities of global civil society. In addition, the European capitals play a special role in this system. The example of San Francisco Bay Area also shows that creative milieus in the economy are closely linked to civil society activities without physical proximity to the centers of power.

The rankings must be considered in the context of networked cities. Figure 4 illustrates the links between the eight major cities in the linkscape “Society”. In particular, relations between New York, London, Geneva, Washington DC and the San Francisco Bay Area are pronounced. The strongest connection axis is from Geneva to New York (28), the two major cities in the UN system. However, this bond strength is not reproduced, since in the opposite direction only seven links exist. The axis of New York – London, however, is balanced in both directions (18, 17). The total external relations of New York in linkscape “Society” can be seen in Figures 5 and 6.

It is interesting to see that there are hardly any measurable connections between the North American cities New York, Washington and San Francisco and the European cities Brussels and Amsterdam. A closer examination of the data can thus recognize a block formation of the continents.

Figure 4: Top Eight Cities Linkscape Society 2014

Figure 5: New York Outlinks 2014

Figure 6: New York Inlinks 2014

A further evaluation level is obtained by considering the spatial distribution of the individual linkscapes within cities. It can be noted that the already strong spatial concentration is distributed over relatively small urban areas. The examples of New York and Washington DC (Maps 1 and 2) show spatial clustering of government institutions and civil society organizations. The majority of the actors from the linkscape “Society” in New York are located in Manhattan south of Central Park near to the facilities of the United Nations. In Washington DC it is similar where most of the actors are located northeast of the government district.

Map 1: New York Linkscapes

Map 2: Washington DC Linkscapes


The here presented hyperlink analysis of international NGOs has proved a fruitful and promising method for the detection of network structures of global civil society especially when considering the underlying spatial configurations.

The results show a low level of interconnectedness between the NGOs and at the same time a strong spatial concentration of all network actors. Thus, global civil society does not seem like a coherent and comprehensive social movement one can ascribe a powerful force for global change. There is probably more competition than cooperation as the organizations have to compete for donations and memberships.

The online networks of global civil society are by far not as global as the term suggests. However, their activities are focused primarily on the power centers of geopolitics which have substantial impact on the world order. The great potential of civil society organizations lies in their mutual proximity which can be the foundation of strong synergies.

The strongest political opponents are most likely lobby organizations and think tanks of the economy which work with much higher budgets and operate at the same sites as the civil society organizations. Therefore, it is reasonable to conduct a study that focuses on those business-related organizations and relate it to the findings of this study. Furthermore, it seems sensible to create further studies on the different social movements to deepen the results presented here.

Digital Space Lab

The Internet reveals an enormous research potential for hyperlink analyses. The diverse application possibilities could be touched only briefly here. Social scientists can benefit from studies like this as well as geographers, marketing strategists and many others.

In 2011 the Digital Space Lab was founded as a non-profit organization with the aim to professionalize this methodology and foster research on the network society in a globalized world. The main project at this point is the development of a software that can provide the full range of the above evaluation levels with a few mouse clicks.

Interested parties may feel free to contact with proposals for studies, questions and discussions. Financial supporters are also very welcome.



* Harald Meier, Founder of the Digital Space Lab, email:


Edited and posted on the web on 26th November 2014