[iDC] Collective Action

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Sat Jun 17 18:57:01 EDT 2006

Thanks for your eloquent and inspiring posts and generous use of your
(World Cup) time-  Miguel, Nick, and Tom. Welcome back, Dara.


Current debates focus too much on what sociable web media can do and not
enough on the people who use them. The difficulties and dynamics of
eliciting contributions in an online environment are often
underestimated. The motivations of the people who add content to online
environments matter a great deal for those who seek to populate these
online environments. Interaction is not the topic here; I'm not focusing
on the realtime interplay of networked actors (i.e. a networked Keyworx
performance). With the term participation I'm referring to content
contribution in the context of sociable web media. 

In his book "Collective Action" Russell Hardin writes: 

"That we are social creatures is not only a philosophical thesis; it is
also a commonsense realization. We become more than we are by reading
Shakespeare and the Greeks, by listening to Bach, Beethoven, and
Bartok-- and by participating in certain events and movements, for
example, by going to war or refusing to go to war. Whether it is called
moral or self-interested, the urge to participate is a fundamental

The social bookmarking site del.icio.us is a suitable example for the
debate over individual versus network value. On del.icio.us,
contributors, myself included, save bookmarks not solely because they
support an imagined "del.icio.us collective;" they don't primarily want
to support the Yahoo-owned project: they contribute out of

Adam Smith talked about individual action that benefits the collective
as the "invisible hand;" every individual contribution to the general
productiveness of society intends to foster individual gain and is "led
by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his
intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of
society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it." 

While Smith is controversial, his notion of the invisible hand is useful
here. A closer look at the invisible hand reveals that it does not
exclude a simultaneous conscious support of a collective. The number of
frequent contributors to Wikipedia, for example, is relatively small and
their motivations for participation are not completely non-agonistic
(pure sharing; higher goals; help humanity). Hanah Arendt argued that
people have a keen interest in contributing to something larger than
themselves but most contributors to this free encyclopedia are, however,
driven by authorship pride -- and -- an urge to contribute to the public
An additional variant of motivation for participation is ³agonistic
giving,² which Benkler sums up with the sentence "I give therefore I'm
great." Benkler adds other types of motivations: ³individualist and
solidaristic² (teams; assertion of my individuality) and ³reciprocity²
(p2p networks). In the context of sites like CiteUlike, del.icio.us, and
others, I suggest that contributors are driven by a hybrid mix of
motivations. They are not exclusively in it for themselves but they are
also not completely driven by the idea of the greater good. 

 People contribute to sociable web media to find emotional support, a
sense of belonging, relaxation, and encouragement, in addition to
instrumental aid (finding a job, making money). Social capital is an
additional motivating aspect, as Nick pointed out. But don't forget fun.
Russel Hardin talks about participation in demonstrations, driven by the
desire to be part of history; it is propelled by the desire "to share
the experiences of [one's] time and place." Harding focuses on the civil
rights movement, a time when people took to the streets to participate
in a social movement that they believed in. They participated, in
addition to moral reasons, because the civil rights movement was a
hugely formative series of events that they wanted to be a part of.
Demonstrating can be a pleasurable experience. Edward Banfield's text
"Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit" reflects on the American race riots
of 1965-70 and describes a certain excitement of young males to confront
police as an undeniable (however partial) motivation for protest. Can
such arguments be successfully applied to participatory behavior in
sociable web media? Perhaps the general blogging hype of 2004 motivated
some people to give blogging a try, simply driven by the desire to share
the experience of this huge phenomenon.       

Time is another often discussed precondition for participation that
pervades this discussion. Nick: "For they could use this time to write a
poem, cut up zucchini for dinner, or work for their local political
party; but they would rather work for free for some broader public."
What motivates people to prioritize participation in sociable web media
over other important tasks? Who has the temporal freedom to participate?
The blueprints for participation in sociable web media and their
multi-faceted hierarchies of gift exchanges have not been researched
enough. Brian Holmes and Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato, among
many others, are critical about the liberating potential of digital
social communication. For Lazzarato network technologies are even more
totalitarian than Henry Ford¹s assembly line. Just take control and
commercialization of participation. Businesses become free riders of the
browsing net publics; their attention often leads to unpaid content
production. Amazon.com, for example, is in the process of adding wiki
and blogging power to their site. The Washington Post and The New York
Times just launched commenting features on their websites.


Yochai Benkler asserts that participants in NASA's ClickWorkers
initiative have spare time on their hand. But others go so far to argue
that participation in sociable web media is a luxury of a privileged
few, neatly divided by income and class, leaving the poor and
traditionally disenfranchised in the non-participatory dark. Is this a
fair portray of what is happening?  

Mark Warschauer in his book ³Technologies and Social Inclusion² points
to preconditions for participation such as access to technology,
Internet access, ability to read, write, and author in a digital
environment (i.e. knowing how to use a wiki), remembering the URL of a
website, bandwidth, cost of equipment, the ease of use of the
technological infrastructure, time management, and vast issues of age,
race, and gender. These preconditions need to be met indeed but perhaps
the digital divide is not what it used to be.

I am not immediately convinced that participation in sociable web media
is really divided along lines of traditional disenfranchisement. Just
consider that in March 2006 the Web comprised a total of 694 million
unique visitors (i.e. 152.1 million in the USA and 74.7 million in
China) and The Washington Post reports that in March 2006 alone 15.6
million people used Blogger.com, YouTube had 12.5 million unique users,
and that MySpace.com had 37 million contributing visitors that month

Social networking sites in general attracted 45% of active Internet
users in the US in April 2006. Recent studies by the Pew Internet and
American Life Project have shown that 73% of all Americans identify
themselves as Internet users, of which 51 million (57% of all American
teenagers) are involved in online content production. 

Such surveys are not irrefutable but I would conclude that a division of
participation in sociable web media along lines of traditional
disenfranchisement at least not be merely assumed.  


What is the nature of groups contributing to read/write systems like
del.icio.us? Are they collectives or even Etienne Wenger's "communities
of practice"? Is del.icio.us a collaborative project? I propose that is
not. In his book "Culture and Society" Raymond Williams argues that
while one can address individuals as a mass, there are no masses. The
collective can also be understood in these terms. Individual goals of
participants are not always shared by the "group," which gives the
del.icio.us project a decisively non-collaborative character. What does
collaboration mean? Collaboration is generally a risky, intensive form
of working together with a common goal. The gain or loss is shared among
all. Cooperation, on the other hand, is a less intensive form of working
together in which participants account for gain or loss individually.
Contributors have individual goals. Howard Rheingold's term
³cooperation-enhancing technologies² sensibly describes systems such as

Some radical activists using del.icio.us save all bookmarks without
tagging them; they get therefore saved under the category "unfiled."
Through this practice activists consciously avoid the control aspect of
the participatory panopticon. Their bookmarks are just meant as
reference for themselves. No sensible tag search would lead to their
del.icio.us site. If the majority of contributors had used del.icio.us
in that way, the project would have been a failure, as the popular
interconnections between different users would not have occurred because
they are based on tagged bookmarks. Without tagging no link between user
sites can be established. The "social" in "social bookmarking" would be
lost at least in part. (How would you find these users, short of them
providing you with their del.icio.us username/URL?) However, the
described saving practice is still helpful for the individual activist
in this case. This example demonstrates the nature of cooperation, not
collaboration, at work. Dana Boyd writes: "People have different needs,
different goals. People manipulate given structures to meet their needs.
[...] Folksonomy is emerging as a dance between the individual and the


>Did Contributions by Intellectuals Loose Their Power?  

Jürgen Habermas' ideas about the public sphere made him a prominent
social theorist. In March 2006 Habermas expanded his comments to include
the networked public sphere: "Use of the Internet has both broadened and
fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can
have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes.
But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of
communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media.
This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on
select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the
same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given
time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the
Internet is the decentralized access to unedited stories. In this
medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a

 -Jürgen Habermas (March 9, 2006: acceptance speech for Bruno Kreisky

Is Habermas correct when he argues that "the contributions by
intellectuals loose their power" due to the broadened contexts of
communication that the Internet provides? Some of the influence of
traditional mass media is diminished by the blogosphere and in Europe
that may indeed mean that intellectuals have become a bit less visible.
(In the U.S. that problem does not come up as cultural theorists play
hardly any role in the national debate anyway.) 

On the other hand, one could argue that some voices of well-known
scholars make it onto high traffic meta-weblogs; references to Douglas
Rushkoff's books or Benkler's "The Wealth of Networks" repeatedly
appeared on Boingboing.net. Thus the visibility of an intellectual
within the networked public sphere is related to the scholar's
reputation within a closely-knit web of affiliations. The traffic that a
site attracts matters less than the relevance of the reader to the text.
Recent blog studies have shown that daily posting is not the indicator
of a more successful blog anymore. Traffic does not necessarily
determine influence within a certain field. Instead it matters greatly
who visits a particular site. Thus, I argue that it is quite different
if Jürgen Habermas speaks up online or if a teenager in Australia writes
about his world pain. Communication channels are in fact not completely
horizontal. Increasingly super high-traffic sites distinguish themselves
from other websites that remain unvisited. The reputation economy will
amplify the voice of intellectuals like Habermas.  


>Many-to-Many Control & Vulnerability

Openness and control are a baffling couple. People watching on social
networking sites is the new sport of the Pentagon, the Police, and some
employers. Internet firms were asked by the US Justice Department to
keep search records. Jamais Cascio describes what happens to sociable
web media as participatory panopticon. But the surveillance that Miguel
and Dara point to is not a situation in which one guard watches an
entire group of prisoners. What they refer to is better called
"many-to-many surveillance." Rather than an one-pointed panopticon it is
better compared to a large public sauna or a Brazilian beach, crawling
with sexual predators (just like on MySpace): everybody watching
everybody else; a kaleidoscope of control with an endless number of
mirrors. Or, a bit less benevolent, think of a house with thin walls;
the backyards of pre-war buildings in Berlin create a similar
surveillance scenario where no marital feud remains private. 

During my repeated travels to Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s,
I saw posters showing collapsed men, pinned on trees in neighborhood
parks. The police took the photographs on location. The posters stated
something like ³This is comrade XYZ, worker in the butter factory. He
was found collapsed of drunkenness in this park last Tuesday at 3am.²
Given today¹s social networking sites such reprimanding public displays
are not necessary anymore. Youngsters voluntarily post documentation of
such escapades on their Facebook or MySpace site, freely accessible for
their potential employers.   


>Folk Content: Grab the Keyboard, Buddy, Rupert Murdoch Needs You!

In a vague and overly generalized manner Jaron Lanier¹s text ³Digital
Maoism² recently criticized the idea of the collective that will correct
itself (described also in Eric Raymond¹s book "The Cathedral and the
Bazaar:" ²Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow²). Lanier
questioned what he calls the ³collectivity fad² and the ³epidemic of
inappropriate uses of the collective.² He rails against the
³wikiization² of everything, asking if the collective is really always
that smart. Paralleling the centrality of ³American Idol² (argh) to that
of Wikipedia he asserts that the entries into this free online
encyclopedia are ³anonymous, faux-authoritative, and anti-contextual.²
For Lanier, Wikipedia is an online fetish site for "foolish
collectivism" that crosses the line into delusion while at the same time
lacking meritocracy. He asserts that the ³hive mind² that unfolds on
websites like diggit.com is for the most part boring and stupid. What is
popular is not always the ³best,² most innovative, or thought through
but Lanier misses out on an analysis of the cumulative quality of

In a sharp response to Lanier¹s text Clay Shirky writes: ³To have a
discussion about the plusses and minuses of various forms of group
action, though, is going to require discussing the current tools and
services as they exist, rather than discussing their caricatures or
simply wishing that they would disappear.² I agree with Shirky with this
point: A critique of sociable web media needs to be anchored in specific
examples. A lack of specificity is emblematic for narratives that fear
or dislike technologies. Here, insight into rapidly changing
technological developments is absent, which makes it hard to really
consider the core of social developments truthfully.
The question of quality of uploaded content comes up frequently. Ir is
true that many sites that solicit contributions trigger rather folksy
amateur entries. According to Lanier, participatory wiki culture waters
down content. He is, for instance, critical of the writing on many blogs
and lists: ³Real writing ... involves articulating a perspective that is
not just reactive to yesterday's moves in a conversation.² 

But why call it ³Digital Maoism?² Today's headlines like ³Folksonomies
Tap People Power² sound more closely aligned with the 60s slogans of the
"Bitterfelder Path" (Bitterfeld Path). This East German artistic
worker's movement offers a better metaphor for the massification of
sociable web media. 

On April 24, 1959 the conference of authors of the Mitteldeutscher
Verlag publishing company, met (naturally) in a Chemistry factory in the
highly polluted city of Bitterfeld to finally put an end to the gap
between art and life. Factory workers were supposed to be supported in
their artistic work. The motto was ³Grab the pen, buddy, Socialist
German National Culture needs you!² ("Greif zur Feder, Kumpel, die
sozialistische deutsche Nationalkultur braucht dich!"). The results of
this movement ranged from heartbreaking artistic disaster to (very few)
good works. My point with ³Grab the Keyboard, Buddy, Rupert Murdoch
Needs You!² relates more to the question of commercialization of content
provision to sites like MySpace than the actual quality of what is

 However, a sociable media movement of Walmart or McDonald¹s workers
(2.0) would excite me. There are positive examples of such Barbara
Ehrenreich-esque initiatives. (Ehrenreich, of course, was not actually a
worker at Walmart for too long).

In addition, the populism of high-traffic blogs and the Itunes store
music ratings plays into this discussion. One cannot interpret mass
popularity (i.e. iTunes ratings) as an objective sign of quality. 


>Plural Monocultures

What else is there on the dark side of sociable web media? Tiziana
Terranova points out that the openness of virtual space reinforces
narrow group identities. According to Tiziana, this openness creates
archipelagos of disconnected islands. Super-special interest groups form
online. Here, nobody is off-topic and everybody is an expert at whatever
bonding glue holds the group together. Racial tensions and economic
disparities are not an issue and conflict can be kept at a minimum. In
cozy isolation issues can be discussed in a focused, yet exclusive way.
The Korea Times reports that people live in digital cocoons: ³in one of
the world's most advanced digital hotbeds - more and more folks are
retreating to their homes instead of socializing with others.²

These archipelagos of the Internet form what Harvard Professor of
Economy Amartya Sen, in another context, calls "plural monocultures."
The Internet becomes a fabulous host for this type of multiculturalism.
Often, no two opinions have to confront each other. In their own inner
chamber people can forget about racial, ethnic or economical differences
and just talk about the very narrow interest set that connects them.
Such focus is appealing in the face of hours of daily web drifting.
There is too little time to deal with all the information that is thrown
at those inhabiting the web. These super-special interest groups are
monocultures. Conversations take place next to each other, crossovers
are expelled as being "off-topic" (Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam
describes this in detail in his book ³Bowling Alone²) and in this expert
culture other voices are assumed to be non-experts.

Consequently, having looked at the dynamics of participation and a few
points of critique of sociable media, I urge those who are invested in
such media to consider the dynamics of participation and control
inherent in social web media. 

To reject autonomous uses of online sociality would be wrong; it'd
suggest that there cannot be any use of technology that fosters civil
society while the future of the Internet may be in fact determined by
social networking. 

Boyd: "Technology needs to support social and cultural practices rather
than determining culture. Technology is architecture and, thus, the
design of it is critical because the decisions made will have dramatic
effects. Digital architecture is unburdened by atoms but it is not
unburdened by human tendencies of control. ... Let the technology Š
follow the desires and needs of people." 

Where are the unorthodox sociable spaces of ³positive politics?²

Trebor Scholz

Sites of hope: (I would like to hear more examples from you.)
Center for Citizen Media 
Student protests organized on MySpace. 

Constructive Activism, Part IV: When Googlebombing Doesn't Work

Activist Blogs: Blogging For Societal Change


Radical Reference


Counterproductive Industries

Tor: An anonymous Internet communication system

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