Do Computer Networks Facilitate Collective Action? A Transaction Cost Approach
Mark S. Bonchek, Harvard University
Presented at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association
Panel 14-2: Why Do People Join Interest Groups?
Thursday, April 6, 3:30-5:15
Chicago, IL - April 6-8, 1995
The Political Participation Project * 545 Tech Square #757 * Cambridge, MA
firstname.lastname@example.org * (617)253-6312
Computer networks are becoming an important medium for political communication. Transaction cost theory is used to explain the adoption of computer-mediated communication (CMC) by citizens engaged in political action. CMC facilitates collective action by reducing transaction costs related to group organization. Reducing communication, coordination, and information costs increases group formation, group efficiency, member recruitment, and member retention. Case studies of seven groups and social movements support the hypothesis and demonstrate a bias in citizens' access to and use of computer networks. Unless steps are taken to ensure equal access, representation in the political process will be biased towards the interests of white, male, educated, affluent, and technically skilled citizens.
Computer networks are becoming an important medium for political communication. An estimated 28 million people can exchange electronic mail, and 13.5 million people can use interactive services such as the World Wide Web (WWW) (MIDS 1995). The Internet has been doubling in size every year for the last decade (SRI 1995) and rapid growth is expected to continue. Online services and corporations are improving their Internet access and Microsoft has built Internet access directly into its new operating system.
Public interest in political information is apparent in survey results and use of Internet sites. The public ranks "involvement in civic affairs" as one of their most desired applications for interactive media (Piller, 1994). The White House's World Wide Web site (http://www.whitehouse.gov) has been accessed 1.3 million times. Thomas, an official Web site containing the full text of the Congressional Record, has been accessed almost 400,000 times since January 1, 1995.
Political organizations are finding their way onto the "information superhighway." Hundreds of non-profit organizations have electronic bulletin boards or "sites" on the Internet where users can exchange information and ideas electronically. Through electronic mail, newsgroups, bulletin boards, and online publications, citizens and organizations are using computer networks to debate political issues, obtain political information, and organize political activity.
What effect do computer networks have on grassroots political activity? Does computer-mediated communication (CMC) facilitate collective action? Why have so many organizations and individuals taken to computer networks as a medium for political communication? Do computer networks help some groups more than others? Will the political landscape be changed as a result of these new technologies?
This paper explores these questions using the transaction cost approach to political economy. The argument presented is that CMC facilitates collective action by reducing transaction costs related to group organization. Communication, coordination, and information costs are found to be barriers to collective action. CMC reduces these costs because of its speed, low cost, asynchronicity, many-to-many communication , and capacity for intelligent applications. The effect of this reduction in transaction costs is an improvement in group formation, group efficiency, member recruitment, and member retention.
The paper is organized into five section. The first section provides an overview of transaction costs and argues that exchange-based conceptions of transaction costs are sub-optimal for the study of collective action. Communication, coordination, and information costs are more relevant than bargaining, monitoring, and enforcement costs. The second section demonstrates that transaction costs hinder collective action, while the third section demonstrates that CMC lowers transaction costs. Together, these two section provide a theoretical grounding for the hypothesis that CMC facilitates collective action by lowering transaction costs. The fourth section presents seven case studies of groups and social movements using CMC for organizational communication. The case studies support the hypothesis and reveal additional insights into the relationship between communication media and collective action. The paper concludes by examining the implications of these findings on issues of representation and equal access to computer networks and the political process.
Transaction costs have typically been associated with the exchange of goods and
services in economic transactions. The types of transaction costs that have
received the most attention in the economic literature are bargaining,
monitoring, and enforcement costs. When the transaction costs approach has
been applied to political phenomena, scholars have maintained an emphasis on
these categories. Although successful for the study of institutions,
vote-trading, and common-pool resource problems, this approach is ill-suited to
the study of collective action. Because there is no state involved and
participation is voluntary, communication and organization are more important
than bargaining, monitoring and enforcement. This section therefore proposes
that the most important types of transaction costs for the study of collective
action are communication, organization, and information costs.
In the world of neo-classical economics, agents incur no ancillary expenses in
the physical exchange of goods and services. Monitoring and enforcement
mechanisms are perfect and costless. Bargaining requires no time, expense, or
effort. Accurate and complete information is always free and immediately
available. In sum, there are no transaction costs.
Coase's seminal essay in 1960 demonstrated that economic theory is highly
dependent upon the assumption of zero transaction costs. Resource allocations
differ in the presence of transaction costs. Exchanges that would otherwise
take place do not take place. For example, an individual may not buy a product
from a merchant if he cannot ensure that the product will perform as promised.
Since 1960, scholars of the new economics of organization (Moe 1984, Alchian
and Demsetz 1972, Williamson 1985) have demonstrated both the pervasiveness of
transaction costs in economic exchange and their impact on economic and social
outcomes. Transaction costs have been shown to affect exchange by preventing
oversight and monitoring, altering bargaining relationships, limiting
information search, and inhibiting enforcement.
Political economists have extended the transaction cost approach to political
institutions and outcomes. North (1984) emphasizes the political implications
of transaction costs in economic exchange. He argues that the government plays
a role in defining property rights, which set the costs of exchange and affect
the distribution of economic resources. North (1990) and Weingast and Marshall
(1988) shift the emphasis from economic exchange to political exchange. They
note that in a representative legislature, legislators must engage in
vote-trading, a form of political exchange. Bargaining, monitoring, and
enforcement costs are found to set the terms of exchange and affect political
outcomes. Ostrom (1990) and Taylor and Singleton (1993) examine common-pool
resource problems such as overfishing and environmental protection. They
demonstrate the importance of bargaining, monitoring and enforcement, and
search costs to the solution of these problems.
The impact of transaction costs on collective action by unorganized interests
has not received much attention. Taylor and Singleton (1993:195) write, "For
the most part, the existence of the (often very large) transaction costs of
solving collective action problems has not been taken on board." Sandler
(1992:48) writes, "To date, there has been almost no attempt to integrate
transaction costs and their relationship to group size into the analysis."
It is important to distinguish between the type of collective action that
involves common-pool resource problems and the type discussed here.
Common-pool resource problems are fundamentally economic, involving the
exchange of goods and services and the distribution of economic resources. The
focus of our attention is on political action and attempts to influence
political outcomes. As Taylor and Singleton (1993:213) note, "collective
action in rebellions, strikes, protests, and social movements" is "one of a
different sort" from common-pool resource problems because "participants cannot
have recourse to the state, which is usually the object of their collective
action." Since participation in a political movement is voluntary, the role
of bargaining, monitoring and enforcement is significantly reduced.
For interests engaged in collective political action, organizational costs
dominate bargaining, monitoring, and enforcement costs. Organizational costs
can be divided into three categories: communication, coordination, and
Communication costs include the time, money, and effort required to send and receive a message. Time and money are spent preparing, sending, receiving, and interpreting the message. Effort is required to compose, transmit, and comprehend a message.
Coordination costs include the time, money, and effort required for a group to reach an agreement. Groups incur a variety of coordination costs. Collaboration involves proposing, debating, revising, and reaching agreements. Decision-making involves creating rules, distributing proposals, and aggregating preferences. Planning involves the transformation of ideas into action. Coordination costs are ubiquitous, occurring every time a meeting is scheduled or a candidate is elected.
Information costs include the time, money, and effort required to gather the information necessary to make a decision or communicate a message. Search costs include determining information requirements, evaluating potential sources of information, and locating the desired information. Retrieval costs include discerning relevant information, storing the information, and manipulating it into a useful format. Interpretation expenses include verification , analysis, and management of the retrieved information.
What effect do organizational costs have on collective action? This section
advances the hypothesis that a reduction in communication, organization, and
information costs will increase collective action. In particular, group
formation, group efficiency, member recruitment, and member retention will all
Mancur Olson first applied the theory of transaction costs to collective action
in The Logic of Collective Action . Olson (1971:48) cites "three
separate but cumulative factors that keep larger groups from furthering their
own interests." The first two factors are the most well known and together
describe the "free-rider problem."
First, the larger the group, the smaller the fraction of the total group benefit any person acting in the group interest receives. ... Second ... the less the likelihood that any ... single individual will gain enough from getting the collective good to bear the burden of providing even a small amount of it. (p. 48)
Olson's third factor, which addresses transaction costs, has received far less attention than the first two. Olson describes transaction costs as "the costs of communication among group members, the costs of any bargaining among them, and the costs of creating, staffing, and maintaining any formal group organization" (p. 47).
Olson argues that transaction costs prevent group formation. Unorganized interests will not form into groups unless they can meet the minimum level of transaction costs necessary to obtain the desired collective good.
Third, the larger the number of members in the group the greater the organization costs, and thus the higher the hurdle that must be jumped before any of the collective good at all can be obtained. (p. 48)
Reducing transaction costs "lowers the hurdle" and allows smaller groups to
form than would otherwise be able to overcome organization costs.
Although Olson considers transaction costs only in the context of group
formation, they also impact group efficiency and the ability to overcome the
free-rider problem. Lower communication costs free up resources to be used in
more productive areas. Lower coordination costs improve the quality of the
group's decisions, enabling them to use their resources more effectively.
Lower information costs improves the quality and quantity of information,
improving decision-making and reducing uncertainty.
To understand the effect of transaction costs on member recruitment, we must
first look at why people join interest groups. The dominant view in the
literature is that citizens evaluate the costs and benefits of membership and
join the group with the best ratio of benefits to costs. Following Clark and
Wilson's typology (1961), benefits are divided into material, solidary, and
purposive. Material benefits are selective, tangible, and have a monetary value
to the group member. Solidary benefits are interpersonal and accrue from
group-related interactions. Purposive benefits derive from the satisfaction of
contributing to groups' stated goals.
Studies indicate that citizens base their membership decisions on all three types of benefits (Marsh 1976, Hansen 1985, Sabatier 1992, Rothenberg 1992). Knoke (1988) finds that "in real associations, members display highly heterogeneous motives that respond to a variety of organizational incentives with different kinds and amounts of involvement" (p. 327). Walker (1991) and King and Walker (1992) find that the importance of benefit categories differs according to group characteristics. Professional benefits dominate for occupational groups while purposive benefits rank highest for citizen groups. Moe (1980) find that material benefits are more important for economic groups than non-economic groups.
On the cost side of the equation, Salisbury (1969) argues that group leaders set the membership costs to achieve their organizational goals. Rothenberg (1992:113) finds empirical support that members are cost-sensitive and that "dues are kept at a sufficiently minimal level that membership is not income sensitive."
How might organizational costs affect individuals' membership decisions?
First, improved group efficiency should help the provision of all types of
benefits. Second, information is often a selective benefit to members. A
decline in information costs enables the group to provide more value at the
same cost, increasing the benefit to prospective members. Third, lower
communication costs improve members' ability to be in communication, increasing
the supply of solidary benefits. Purposive benefits also increase. Members
can be more informed about and can participate more easily in group activities.
Reduced organization costs should improve groups' ability to retain members
once they have joined. Moe (1980) has argued that people do not have complete
information about the groups they are considering joining. Instead, they form
expectations about the benefits they will receive and the costs they will incur
as group members. Rothenberg (1992) finds that people "sample" organization s
they expect will fit their interests. Over time, they acquire more information
and learn about the organization. Members who discover a good fit between
their own interests and the organization's interests stay, those who do not
A reduction in information costs will improve the quality and quantity of
information about groups available to prospective members. People will be more
likely to find a group that fits their interests and less likely to join a
group that does not fit their interests. The result is a better fit from the
start of their membership and a reduced likelihood that they will drop out.
Lower organization costs may also draw members into the organization more
fully. By participating more actively in the organization, members may be less
likely to leave.
To summarize, a reduction in organizational transaction costs involving
communication, coordination, and information should facilitate collective
action by improving group formation, group efficiency, member recruitment, and
member retention. The question to which we now turn is whether
computer-mediated communication (CMC) reduces these transaction costs. If it
does, then we would expect CMC to facilitate collective action among
Computer-mediated communication offers a significant reduction in transaction
costs compared to other communication media. The source of this reduction can
be traced to five properties. CMC is cheaper and faster; it allows for both
synchronous and asynchronous communication; it is a many-to-many medium; and
it enables the computer to perform intelligent tasks.
Computer-mediated communication refers to the exchange of information through
computers attached to a network. Unlike the largely analog media of radio,
print, telephone, and television , computer-mediated communication is a digital
medium. Information is stored as 1's and 0's, known as binary bits (see
Negroponte 1995). The difference between analog and digital media is apparent
in comparing vinyl records and compact disks. Compared to CDs, vinyl records
are less convenient, are subject to degradation and damage, are more limited in
their storage capacity, and are more difficult to access for specific
The versatility of digital information is not the only advantage of
computer-mediated communication. By networking computers together, it becomes
possible to share and exchange information in ways not otherwise possible. The
advantages of digital information and computer networking originate in four
properties of CMC.
Speed and Cost
A primary advantage of digital information is its capacity for representing
large amounts of information efficiently. Entire encyclopedias can be stored
on a cassette the size of a matchbook. Digital information can also be
transmitted very efficiently using electronic signals carried by phone lines or
cables. The entire Library of Congress can be transmitted from one coast to
the other in a matter of minutes.
Digital information and computer networking make CMC fast and cheap. Measured
by the cost of transmitting a single character, CMC is cheaper than the
telephone, telegraph, written letter, and facsimile (Pool, et. al. 1984).
Overall, "transaction costs fall with the advent of telecommunications "
(Norton 1992:178), and "modern telecommunications sharply reduces the costs of
transmitting information over space and time" (Leff 1984:257).
The digital representation of information and the ability to store it on a
computer affects the "synchronicity" of CMC. Synchronous media like the
telephone (sans voice-mail) require the sender and receiver to communicate at
the same time. Asynchronous media like a newspaper or compact disc allow the
receiver to receive the message at some point after it was sent. CMC has the
advantage of carrying both synchronous and asynchronous media. Synchronous
media in CMC include chat groups and teleconferencing ; asynchronous media
include electronic mail and file transfers.
The efficiency and utility of a medium is enhanced by its ability to deliver complete communications asynchronously. Think about the telephone. An answering machine enables asynchronous communication, allowing the sender to leave a message if the intended receiver is not there. There is a gain in efficiency from not having to call back.
Electronic mail has the advantages of asynchronous communication and digital
information. Messages can be stored for future retrieval and can contain large
amounts of information transmitted with no loss of accuracy. File transfer
protocols allow users to place files on their own computer for future retrieval
by other users. The sender does not need to be present to complete the
transfer of information.
Communication media can also be distinguished by the ways in which they connect
people. Some media are "one-to-one," also known as "point-to-point."
Personal media such as the telephone (except for conference calls) and
face-to-face meetings only connect one sender with one receiver at a time.
Other media are "one-to-many." Broadcast media such as radio, television,
and newspapers connect one sender with many receivers at a time. CMC is a
"many-to-many" medium connecting multiple senders with multiple receivers
Electronic mailing lists demonstrate the benefits of many-to-many media. An electronic mailing list has an e-mail address and a list of other e-mail addresses. When a message is sent to the mailing list's address, the computer automatically rebroadcasts the message to everybody on the list. Since anyone on the list can send a message to everyone else on the list, the mailing list connects many people with each other. As an asynchronous medium, the mailing list has the added benefit that senders and receivers need not participate simultaneously.
Many-to-many media in CMC can also be synchronous. Chat groups, computer
conferences, and electronic town halls allow participants be "logged on" at the
same time. America Online, for example, held an electronic town hall on
election night hosted by news anchor Peter Jennings. Over 300 users from
around the world were in a virtual auditorium. Participants could "go to the
mike" and ask questions of the host, listen to his replies, and talk to other
participants "seated" in their "row." Many-to-many communication, combined
with the anonymity of electronic communication, enables CMC to "reduce the
impediments to communication across both physical and social distance" (Sproull
and Kiesler 1991a: 122).
By using computers as a communication medium, CMC can bring intelligent
applications to communication. Voice mail systems, for example, run on
computers and are a form of CMC. By processing information , making decisions,
and taking actions on that information, voice mail systems replace activities
that would otherwise require intelligent behavior by people.
This capacity for adding intelligence to communication makes CMC a powerful
medium. Mail filters sort incoming messages according to sender, subject
matter, and original communication. Mailbots automatically respond to email
requests and notify senders that users are away on vacation. Collaboration
tools facilitate structured dialogue among participants (Johansen 1988).
Autonomous software agents gather, interpret, and report on useful information
(Foner, 1993). Survey systems sends forms to recipients, process their
responses, and format the results in real-time without the need for human
oversight or intervention (Hurwitz and Mallery 1994).
Impact on Transaction Costs
The properties of CMC give it a capacity to reduce organizational transaction
costs. Speed, cost, asynchronicity, many-to-many communication, and intelligent
applications each function to reduce communication, coordination, and
Communication costs fall using CMC because the lower cost and higher speed saves time and money. Asynchronous communication saves time scheduling activities and coordinating communication. Many-to-many communication gives individuals and groups economies of scale and broadcast capabilities typically reserved for large organizations.
Coordination costs fall using CMC if users supplement, rather than replace, existing media. Face-to-face meetings and computer conferences each have their own advantages (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991b). Face-to-face meetings are superior for making decisions that require "complex and delicate multiparty negotiations" and for "generating commitment to a course of action." For complex decisions requiring a face-to-face meeting, CMC is useful for gathering and distributing preliminary information and opinions. Once a commitment is generated, CMC is useful for coordinating actions among committed parties.
"Computer mediated communication technology has the most leverage when people are separated across time and space" (Sproull and Kiesler 1991:71). Terry Grunwald (1994) of the North Carolina Client and Community Development Center and Philippa Gamse of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse have said:
Electronic networking should be a perfect medium for nonprofits. It offers broad and timely access to information; efficient tools for communication and dissemination; and increased opportunities for collaboration.
When people and resources are dispersed in different times and different places, CMC can reduce the organizational costs involved in bringing them together to reach a decision and carry out a plan.
CMC lowers the cost of searching for, retrieving, and analyzing information. "Individuals are able to get more and better information, and are able to process the information more easily. Electronic mailing lists facilitate "Does anybody know?" questions that tap into the collective, informal wisdom of a community (see Sproull and Kiesler 1991b, Chapter 7). The World Wide Web enables document authors to embed hypertext links to other documents on the Web. By lowering information costs, "telecommunications expansion makes it rational for economic agents to acquire additional intelligence that is pertinent to their decisions" (Leff 1984: 258). The result is a reduction in uncertainty and an improvement in the quality of decisions, with coincident benefits to organizational effectiveness.
Our theoretical investigation predicts that CMC can facilitate collective
political action by reducing organizational transaction costs. In this
section, we examine seven case studies of how interests have used CMC to
organize and engage in collective political action. The case studies support
the hypothesis and reveal additional insights into the relationship of
communication media to collective action.
Chinese Students: IFSCSS
Tiger Li (1990) has studied how Chinese students in the United States have used
CMC to communicate and engage in political action. Chinese students are
organized into 160 local campus organizations . Each local organization is a
member of the Independent Federation of the Chinese Students and Scholars
(IFSCSS), established in July 1989 and headquartered in Washington.
At the time of Li's study, 43,000 students from the P.R.C. used two forms of CMC to communicate. The first, a newsgroup called Social Culture China (SCC), was started in November 1987 on Usenet, a part of the Internet. Most Chinese students with a computer mainframe account at a university had access to the newsgroup. Approximately 40 articles were posted to the newsgroup per day, with an estimated 20,000 readers, making it one of the 20 most active of the 1500 groups on USENET at the time. The second form of CMC was electronic mail, also available through university accounts.
In July 1989, the Chinese students began lobbying Congress to pass legislation protecting them from reprisals by China. They first established a lobbying committee to coordinate activities by Chinese students at over 160 colleges and universities. E-mail and the newsgroup were instrumental in coordinating the lobbying effort. In the early stages, drafts of the proposed bills and detailed analyses of the bills' merits were posted and debated on the newsgroup.
After the students reached a consensus in support of HR2712, they used CMC to orchestrate their lobbying effort. On July 20 the lobbying committee was given four days to conduct a survey of student opinions. Using email, they were able to distribute and collect the surveys in time for the hearing. Electronic mail was also used to report on the progress of the bill and coordinate lobbying efforts. The newsgroup regularly featured a list of representatives who were "good prospects" for lobbying along with their phone numbers and addresses. The newsgroup was used to direct a media campaign around the time of the final vote, which led to published editorials and stories in all of the major newspapers and network news broadcasts.
Overall, CMC was used as an "organizational communication tool," a "public campaign tool", a "public forum", and a "news distribution channel." Electronic mail and newsgroups were used to coordinate leadership activities, organize demonstrations and symposium, report on activities of Chinese consulate officers on college campuses, and provide a "comprehensive, timely, and economical source of information about China" (135). Li concludes that
the CMC system has played a key role in the communication among the Chinese student organizations in the U.S. Without such a network, the Chinese students who are widely dispersed geographically could not have organized as a whole to engage successfully in the highly coordinated democratic activities since June 1989 (p. 129).
Without CMC, communication and coordination costs would have been too expensive for the students who had limited time and small budgets.
Li's analysis suggests that the reduction in transaction costs had a direct impact on group formation , group efficiency, group recruitment, and group retention by the IFCSS. Without CMC, the group would not have formed, would not have been as effective, would not have grown, and would not have maintained its size and group cohesiveness. Regarding group formation, Li writes that "the major impact the CMC system had on the Chinese students in the U.S. is their transformation from a grouping to a nationally functional group" (133). Regarding group efficiency, Li concludes that "the CMC system has provided the most efficient means for the Chinese students to make group decisions" (133). Regarding group recruitment, Li notes that CMC was instrumental in the decision by the individual campus organizations to join together as a national IFCSS:
If it had not been for CMC, the Chinese students would never have been able to make such decisions ... They could afford neither the money nor the time that would have been required for making phone contacts with more than 100 organizations at one time (p. 128).
Finally, group retention was enhanced by the greater participation on the part
of the Chinese students resulting from the use of CMC.
Community Networking: PEN
The Public Electronic Network (PEN) was established in Santa Monica, California
in 1989 as the first interactive, public computer network in a U.S. city. PEN
provides free CMC services for Santa Monica residents, allowing them to send
and receive electronic mail and participate in public conferences on a variety
of topics. Santa Monica created PEN to promote communication among citizens
and between citizens and their government.
Soon after the establishment of PEN on February 12, 1989, a group of citizens began talking online about the problem of homelessness, the leading concern among Santa Monica residents according to surveys at the time (Varley 1991:15). The discussions were notable for their inclusion of some homeless people, who participated through public terminals at locations such as city libraries. In July 1989, a group of 20 PEN users formed the PEN Action Group to work on community projects and they chose homelessness as their first project.
In August 1989, Santa Monica artist Bruria Finkel made a proposal in the online discussion to close a gap in the homeless services provided by the city. After much online discussion, the group adopted the SHWASHLOCK proposal (for SHowers, WASHers, and LOCKers) and used further online discussions and monthly meetings to coordinate a grassroots political campaign. They eventually overcame neighborhood and City Council resistance, obtaining a $150,000 line item in the budget and approval for converting an old bath house to a facility for the homeless. Since SHWASHLOCK, the PEN Action Group has worked on a cooperative job bank for the homeless and participation by Santa Monica schools in KIDS-91, an international effort to teach schoolchildren about electronic communication (Wittig 1991).
A survey of the 62 PEN Action Group members found that CMC on the PEN system improved communication, organization, and information. On average, respondants reported that PEN had a "moderately positive " effect on "(1) information regarding local events, (2) ability to comment and organize around local issues, (3) contact with and understanding of diverse others" (Wittig and Schmitz, forthcoming). These responses suggest that CMC reduced communication, organizational, and information costs.
The history of the PEN action group indicates that CMC facilitated group
formation and group recruitment, since the group did not exist before the
online system and members were recruited from members of the online community.
Wittig and Schmitz (forthcoming) report that hundreds of online users offered
suggestions to the group members. The survey responses indicate that
organizational effectiveness and group efficiency were enhanced by CMC.
Finally, group retention appears to have been helped since the group remained
active for most of the period from 1989-1994. Members were able to find out
about the group's activities at a low cost by observing discussions, or
"lurking," on the computer network before committing to being a member.
Smoking Policy: SCARCNet
SCARCNet is a computer network run by the Smoking Control Access Research
Center (SCARC) at the Advocacy Institute in Washington D.C. As an "ongoing
brainstorming session," SCARCNet has been used to link over 200 anti-smoking
activists around the country. SCARCNet includes electronic mail facilities, a
news database with summaries of newspaper, magazine, and trade journal
articles, and a computer conference to facilitate discussion, brainstorming,
strategizing, and coordination (Osborn 1992). Use of the network is restricted
to anti-smoking activists approved by the Advocacy Institute. The privacy of
the network promotes focused discussion and hinders the tobacco industry from
gaining hold of confidential plans and information. Despite these efforts, the
tobacco industry has attempted to break into the network and has filed a
lawsuit to force the Institute to reveal information the network.
A major achievement of SCARCNet was the fight against Philip Morris's Bill of Rights Tour launched in the Summer of 1990. Philip Morris had planned a nationwide media campaign in which representatives toured the country opposing attempts to restrict smokers' rights. The Advocacy Institute developed a strategy to counter Phillip Morris's tour and used SCARCNet to organize the media counter-campaign . They posted information about the tour schedule and detailed plans for local activists to download and use in their local communities. As the tour made its way around the country, activists used the network to coordinate their activities and posted the lessons they learned from their efforts, enabling activists in other cities to made their campaigns more effective. The counter-campaign was effective and Philip Morris canceled the tour early (Osborn 1992).
SCARCNet appears to have promoted group formation at the local level because
local activists could communicate directly with each other instead of having
messages routed through Washington. The effect on group recruitment and group
retention is unknown. Group efficiency was significantly improved as a result
of activists being able to coordinate their activities more effectively. Their
efforts increased the supply of the group's collective good -- lobbying
Online Government Access: Jim Warren
AB1624, signed into law on October 11, 1993, requires the California government
to provide "comprehensive online public access via the public nets to
information about legislation-in-process and to already-enacted state statutes,
without charge by the state" (Warren 1993). Prior to AB1624, private firms
sold government information to the public at rates that excluded most citizens.
Government information was also sold back to agencies in the government, adding
to taxpayer expense.
The passage of AB1624 has been credited to the efforts of Jim Warren, a self-proclaimed "citizen-volunteer-advocate of AB1624" with "no business interest therein." Warren used electronic mail and an Internet mailing list to organize lobbying efforts by a committed group of fellow activists. Using the mailing list, Warren sent out frequent reports with critical political information: current status of the bill; legislative and political obstacles; names, addresses, phone numbers, and fax numbers of important legislators; sample letters and phone scripts; and lessons on grassroots lobbying techniques. CMC was used to mobilize and coordinate a network of online activists, who then used traditional techniques of political action to mobilize and organize a larger activist community. An aide to the author of AB1624 has stated that Warren's online organization and mobilization of constituent contacting before key votes was crucial to the passage of the bill (Detweiler 1993).
Jim Warren's accomplishment with AB1624 supports the theory that CMC can facilitate collective action by reducing transaction costs. Group formation, group efficiency, and member recruitment were all facilitated by the reduction in communication, coordination, and information costs. The time and expense involved in personally contacting each of the members on the mailing list would have been prohibitive. Furthermore, the speed with which Warren was able to get news bulletins out to the group and get feedback from theme was critical to the group's success. Regular feedback also helped to keep the group together, improving group retention.
Jim Warren's experience with CMC points to the role of CMC in facilitating the activities of political entrepreneurs. A number of scholars have cited the role of political entrepreneurs in solving the collective action problem (Salisbury 1969, Frolich, et. al. 1971, Walker 1991.) As the initiator and leader of the movement to pass AB1624, Jim Warren fits the criteria of a political entrepreneur .
Moe (1980) describes the role of communication costs in the activities of the political entrepreneur:
Communication becomes a cost. As with any other cost, [the political entrepreneur] has an incentive to communicate as cheaply as possible and, hence, to use the most efficient means available for obtaining and exchanging information with clients. ... Because he needs to know certain things about members, then, as well as to transmit information to them, it is important that the flow of information be two-way (pp. 39-40).
Moe distinguishes between direct contact and indirect contact between the entrepreneur and group members. Direct contact, including mass media, direct mail, and personal contact, is useful to
(a) acquaint [members] with the full array of [the entrepreneur's] services and to influence member evaluations of the costs and benefits of both selective incentives and collective goods; (b) to serve as a selective incentive, with information content taking on its own value for members; and (c) to raise revenue from sources outside (and perhaps inside) the association (p. 43).
Indirect contact involves communication with middlemen who then retransmit the communication to members and potential members. The advantage of indirect contact is that "middlemen are in a better position to make personal appeals and to shape their arguments to the specialized needs and perceptions of customers" (p. 44). Moe proposes that "a communications network can be established in which communication flows are regularized between the entrepreneur and each middleman and between each middleman and particular sets of members and potential members" (p. 44).
Moe proposes that direct contact is superior for group maintenance, whereas indirect contact is superior for group recruitment. Jim Warren's experience with AB1624 supports this theory. Warren used an electronic network to keep a group of online activists engaged in the lobbying effort by providing information as a selective incentive and influencing the evaluation of the costs and benefits of participation. This direct contact was supplemented by indirect contact with other activists. Members of the electronic network served as middlemen, mobilizing phone calls, letters, faxes, and publicity campaigns from their own personal networks.
The importance of CMC can be seen in Warren's ability to maintain direct contact with the group of online activists at a low cost and use them as middlemen for group recruitment. Moe writes,
It would be very difficult and highly costly, after all, were [a political entrepreneur] to try to make direct personal contact with hundreds or even thousands of potential members, and his problems increase if the clientele happens to be geographically dispersed or difficult to identify (p. 40).
With CMC, a political entrepreneur has much lower communication costs, and geographic dispersion is no longer a determining factor. Since passage of AB1624, Warren has continued to write an electronic newsletter that is distributed to thousands of individuals with an interest in making government information available electronically at no cost to the public.
Moe's theory of communication and political entrepreneurship adds an important
perspective to Jim Warren's entrepreneurial role in obtaining passage of
AB1624. By reducing organization costs, CMC can greatly expand the ability of
an entrepreneur to maintain direct contact with members and middlemen, lowering
the hurdle for group formation, directly improving group retention and group
efficiency, and indirectly improving group recruitment.
Institute for Global Communications
The Institute for Global Communications (IGC) is a division of the non-profit
Tides Foundation, and a member of the Association for Progressive
Communications (APC). Formed in 1987, the APC is a coalition of computer
networks around the world, linking over 25,000 activists in 130 countries. As
an indicator of how rapidly the APC is growing, the number of members grew from
16,000 to 25,000 between 1994 and 1995, and the number of countries represented
grew from 94 to 130. Approximately 15% of the members are organizations.
The purpose of the IGC Networks -- PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet, and LaborNet -- and APC partner networks are to create a global computer communications system promoting environmental preservation, peace, and human rights. Membership on the IGC network costs $12.50 per month plus $3-$10 per hour online depending upon one's method of connecting to the IGC. Anyone with a computer, modem, and basic communications software can connect and become a member.
Through the IGC, members are able to send and receive electronic mail, participate in online conferences, access online information services, distribute organizational information, and access the Internet. The IGC networks include both individual and organizational members ranging from large organizations such as Amnesty International and ABC News to small organizations such as Zephyr High School and Z Magazine.
Amnesty International uses the public conferences on the IGC's PeaceNet network to announce their Urgent Action Alerts. AI activists around the world are able to learn which political prisoners are being detained, the facts of the situation, where to send their letter/telex/fax, and what approach to take in their communication. PeaceNet users also have access to the Internet newsgroup "soc.rights.human," a public computer conference on the topic of human rights and activism for the Internet community.
In its promotional literature, the IGC places great emphasis on the ability of CMC to reduce communication costs, enhance organizational coordination, and improve information search and retrieval. An email pamphlet, available automatically from an IGC mailbot (email@example.com), declares that
New technologies are helping [enviroonmental preservation, peace, and human rights] worldwide communities cooperate more effectively and efficiently. ... Electronic mail is quick, inexpensive, reliable, and easy to use. ... IGC's conferencing services offer easy-to-use tools in group communication and event coordination. ... IGC's several hundred public conferences also include events calendars, newsletters, legislative alerts, funding sources, press releases, action updates, breaking stories, calls for support, as well as ongoing discussions on issues of global importance. ... [With ] Internet publishing, [you can] disseminate information to the vast Internet community and create visibility for your organization by posting information on our publicly available gopher, or making use of IGC auto-reply emailers, mailing lists, [World Wide Web] and newsgroup services."
The success of the IGC network and the way in which the IGC markets itself indicates that the reduction in organizational costs arising from CMC is improving the ability of groups to achieve their goals. Further research is required to determine more accurately the impact of IGC on group formation, group efficiency, group recruitment, and group retention. Electronic mail and conferencing services seem to benefit group efficiency and group retention, while Internet publishing seems to benefit group recruitment.
Like Jim Warren and political entrepreneurship, the IGC networks point to another theory as to how organizations overcome the collective action problem -- piggybacking. Russell Hardin (1982) writes that "many formerly latent groups have been very resourceful at overcoming organization costs by `piggybacking' their causes onto extant organizations." The IGC networks, and computer networks as a whole, may be serving as "extant organizations" enabling latent groups to overcome organization costs. In the case of the IGC, they are intentionally establishing themselves as an organization on which group can piggyback themselves.
HandsNet is a similar `carrier' organization. HandsNet is a national,
nonprofit computer network supporting organizations working on human service
and economic justice issues. Their 4000 members include research centers,
direct service providers, legal service programs, public policy advocates,
local, state and federal government agencies, and grassroots organizations.
White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi Movements
Resistance, Inc. is a media company based in Detroit, Michigan that produces
records and video documentaries, promotes bands and publications on its own
Internet site, and publishes its own magazine with a reported circulation of
13,000. What makes Resistance, Inc. distinctive is that Resistance, Inc. is a
white supremacist and anti-Semitic organization. Founded by George Burdi a
year ago, Resistance, Inc. has deployed "an array of modern communications
technology outside the mainstream media ... [and] awakened a once-moribund
neo-Nazi skinhead movement in the United States" (Schneider 1995).
The activities of Resistance, Inc. and other hate groups adds further evidence that the low transaction costs of CMC have facilitated communication, coordination, and information distribution among organized interests. Through the Internet and seven national computer bulletin boards, white supremacists exchange news, information, messages, and broadcast schedules, order racist books and magazines, and obtain addresses of other white supremacist groups.
According to Don Black , a former Ku Klux Klan leader and operator of a white supremacy computer bulletin board called Stormfront, electronic communication
has had a pretty profound effect on a movement whose resources are limited. ... Tens of millions of people have access to our message if they wish. The access is anonymous and there is unlimited ability to communicate with others of a like mind (Schneider 1995).
The Simon Wiesenthal Center estimates that at least 50 of the 250 hate groups in the U.S. are online (Sandberg 1995), helping to push the number of "hard-core supporters" of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement to 4,000 from 1,000 eight years ago (Schneider 1995).
CMC appears to have benefited group efficiency and group recruitment in the
white supremacist movement. Lower communication and information costs have
helped because of the groups' limited resources, and lower organization costs
have helped because of the geographic dispersion of supremacist supporters.
Group retention appears to have benefited from greater participation and better
information. The effect on group formation is unknown, as we would need to
know if new groups have formed from online activity.
Information Infrastructure: TPR and CPSR
The Telecommunications Policy Roundtable - Northeast (TPR-NE) is a group of
communications professionals and representatives of nonprofit and public
interest organizations in the northeastern United States. The goals of TPR-NE
are to involve the public in the formulation of policies affecting the national
information infrastructure through public education, public debate, a "bill of
electronic rights," and equal access to communication technologies for
TPR-NE uses an electronic mailing list to organize and advertise their activities. Their primary activity up to 1995 has been the production of public forums about telecommunications issues. The leadership of TRP-NE uses an electronic mailing list of approximately four hundred people to advertise their forums. Most of the attendees at the forums come from this mailing list.
Coralee Whitcomb, one of the organizers of TRP-NE, has said that electronic mail has been critical for group. They do not have the money to advertise the forums using traditional means. In her opinion, the mailing list has given the group visibility, has helped it to define its role, has established a regular constituency, and has enabled the group to distribute information more effectively. Email helped the leadership create the group. Whitcomb has said that "the idea for this group wouldn't have been thought through as well" without electronic communication. Whitcomb also found that their electronic constituency is giving them legitimacy and clout as they begin expanding into traditional avenues of fund-raising and membership recruitment (see Walker 1992).
Whitcomb, who sits on the board of the nonprofit group Computer Professionals
for Social Responsibility (CPSR), used an example from CPSR to demonstrate the
capacity of CMC to facilitate collective decision-making. In June of 1993,
CPSR decided to create a vision statement with input from its members. First,
the four leaders of CPSR drafted a proposal. They then sent the proposal to
the thirteen directors by electronic mail. After the directors reached a
consensus, the proposal was sent to the twenty local chapters who solicited
input by electronic mail or a chapter meeting. The proposals were emailed back
to the president who pulled the suggestions together into a final form. The
statement was then ratified at the annual meeting in October. Whitcomb
believes that electronic communication was instrumental in completing the
process in only five months while still allowing members to contribute their
ideas and opinions.
Analysis of Case Studies
Taken collectively, the case studies suggest that CMC facilitates collective
action for unorganized interests by reducing organizational costs involving
communication, coordination, and information. Political entrepreneurs and
organized interests can improve group formation, group efficiency, member
recruitment, and member retention by using CMC.
These case studies also suggest that some groups will benefit more from CMC use than others. As implied by the theory, CMC should benefit groups with the greatest sensitivity to communication, coordination, and information costs. Group characteristics include (1) broad geographic distribution of members, (2) large volume of intra-organizational communication, (3) high value placed on information as a selective benefit, and (4) poor access to mainstream media. Each of the groups represented in the case studies show evidence of these characteristics. This theory also explains why the largest concentration of CMC use for political activity has been in the environmental movement (see Rittner 1992).
Although CMC reduces transaction costs for organizations, there are also transaction costs involved in using CMC in the first place. Individuals and organizations must have computers, know how to use them, and pay the network connection charges. Groups in the best position to take advantage of CMC will be those with the lowest CMC access costs. Advantaged groups and individuals are those who (1) have access to computers, (2) have computer skills, and (3) are already on a computer network.
Who are these advantaged groups and individuals? In general, Internet users are younger, more educated, and more likely to be men than the national population. Electronic mail surveys indicate that Internet users are approximately 80% male, 80% white, with a median age of 31 years (Margolis, et. al. 1994; see also Hurwitz and Mallery 1995). World Wide Web users, who require a more sophisticated and expensive network connection, have a stronger gender, education, and income bias (GVU User Survey 1995). Surveys also indicate that network users are more likely to be students.
This brief analysis of network demographics indicates that there are contradictory forces at work in the relationship of CMC to collective action. On the one hand, CMC lowers transaction costs, helping unorganized, latent interests organize and grow. This is a positive step to those who have a commitment to equal representation and are concerned about the existing bias in the political system towards organized interests (see Schlozman and Tierney 1986, Chapter 4). On the other hand, high transaction costs surrounding access to computer networks suggest new sources of bias.
Groups with a natural affinity for technology and computers have an advantage over those that do not. Computer programmers and hackers formed some of the first groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. The use of computer networks by neo-Nazis fits the young, white, male demographics of computer networking.
Groups with low-cost access to computer networks have an advantage over those that do not. This bias is evident in the sample of case studies presented here. Chinese students have access to computers through their universities. AB1624 affected those with an interest in online government information. Jim Warren, a computer programmer by training, was as much an informational entrepreneur as a political entrepreneur. The environmental and peace movements have strong representation on college campuses. And TPR is organized by and targets individuals and organizations involved in telecommunications policy.
Inequalities in political participation among Latinos, African-American s and Anglo-Whites "can be attributed almost entirely to the unequal political resources at their disposal rather than to rational abstention" (Verba, et. al., 1993). Given the benefits available to groups who use computer-mediated communication, we should begin to include access to computer networks as a political resource. Unless steps are taken to ensure equal access to networks, representation in the political process will be biased towards the interests of white, male, educated, affluent, and technically skilled citizens. The community networking movement is working to ensure that individuals have equal access to computer resources as a medium for political participation (Schuler 1994). To ensure that the existing bias in political participation (see Verba and Nie 1972) is not exacerbated further, those who believe in equality of participation should support community networking.
The PEN system and its mobilized network of professionals, artists, homeless people, and homemakers is an inspiration as to what can occur when equal access is ensured. The telecommunications revolution has the potential to reshape the political landscape and distribute political power more equitably throughout society -- but only if access to the technology is distributed more equitably first.
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