The Problem of Collective Action

In Technologies of Cooperation, Rheingold summarizes the Collective Action dilemma as a situation where everyone in a group will benefit from participating in a certain action, but no one individually wants to take any action to achieve the results. Therefore, if everyone acted in his/her’s own self-interest, then no one will be able to enjoy the public good because it does not exist. Thus, when trying to organize a group to achieve a certain outcome that is beneficial for everyone, many groups face common problems like “coping with free riding, solving commitment problems, arranging for the supply of new institutions, and monitoring individual compliance with a set of rules” (Rheingold, 36).

Rheingold then continues to argue that social networks and the internet have significantly decreased the costs associated with collective action. Now, the internet and social networking have emerged “as a dominant form of social organization” (Rheingold, 57). Similarly, Shirky argues in “Faster and Faster” of Here Comes Everybody, that it is easier to organize groups due to the internet. With social tools, the costs of sharing information and coordinating action have decreased significantly. With technology, groups no longer need to engage in long term planning to organize a single event. Meetings, events, or even protests can be done on a more ad hoc basis and it can also be planned quicker than before. These social tools allow more efficient and faster communication between members, but more importantly, they can “create a context more easily in which the barely motivated people can be effective without having to become activists themselves” (Shirky, 182). Therefore, this helps minimize the number of free riders or commitment problems in a group because costs associated with taking action have decreased tremendously. Also, with new social tools, there is no need to create new institutions. We now have the “ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations” (Shirky, 21).

Because technology has made the problem of collective action easier to manage, is the ease of creating new groups necessarily beneficial? Aside from questionable groups forming (Pro-Ana), what other issues or consequences arise from the ease of creating new groups? An example of some of the implications is already being played out in the real world, like the role of social media in the Arab Spring.

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1 Response to The Problem of Collective Action

  1. nverduin says:

    I believe that overall the ease of creating new groups is beneficial. Groups, which were previously not accepted by mass society, are able to connect and form collective action. The idea should improve democracy and freedom. This new form of communication counters the filters of the mass media. Now certain groups are not barred from the public eye and we can get the news and information we want rather than what the mass media thinks we need. Mass amateurization allows all of us to have a voice.

    However, the problem is that “inclusion implies exclusion” (Shirky, 202). This means that as we personalize information, we are filtering out other groups and opposing opinions that might create group polarization, which in turn lessens the positive impact of social capital.

    Another issue is how we govern or manage this commons so not to reflect the Tragedy of the Commons. Omidyar, the co-founder of Ebay, stated, “people are basically good”, but this is only true when there are “circumstances that reward goodness while restraining impulses to defect” (Shirky, 284). How can we, or do we at all, intervene with these social systems in order for them to become more beneficial to the commons?

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