Collective Action and our Digital Utopia

The readings from Shirky and Rheingold collectively emphasize a number of human tendencies. However, the most prominent is that people are generally inclined to form groups and bond with others in order to form social capital — and as a result of this, the Internet has developed into a gateway for increased interaction and communication.

So, one may ask, how exactly does improved communication affect the political sphere? And that is what Shirky and Rheingold attempt to explain.

According to Shirky, “whenever you improve a group’s ability to communication internally, you change the things it is capable of” (171). New social tools allow groups of like-minded individuals to find one another and collectively pool their resources. Rheingold explains this as the creation of public goods — or resources from which all may benefit.

The increased connectivity of citizens through the Internet and, more specifically, mobile phones has given groups the collective ability to improve shared awareness, group coordination and real-time communication. This, as we have witnessed on several accounts in recent years, opens up a number of doors for protests, activism, and political participation.

The Internet has facilitated the creation of social aggregates by providing a common platform through which individuals can connect at an extremely low cost. In fact, the inexpensiveness is near impossible for traditional forms of communication to replicate.

However, with all great inventions comes a Catch-22. Rheingold explains this as the collective action dilemma — or the perpetual balancing of self-interest and public goods. Both Shirky and Rheingold try to explain this phenomenon with the well-known Prisoner’s Game Theory. In other words, if each individual acts in their own self-interest, the result will not benefit the group.

As Shirky points out, small groups are more effective at creating and sustaining both agreement and shared awareness. But, large groups tend to develop more social capital — specifically in terms of bridging capital, or the increase in connections amongst heterogenous groups. This gives people greater potential to develop and share valuable ideas.

So, one of the greatest challenges to social media is not the physical creation of a group, but rather the collaboration between its individual members.

Based on this theory, do you think that online social connections will eventually digress back to smaller aggregates of homogeneous individuals in order to avoid conflict and support functionality? Or will heterogeneous groups continue to flourish in popularity?

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About caitlinesmith

Student at the University of Michigan.
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