Are There Problems with Free Collective Action?

“Your corn is ripe today, mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I shou’d labour with you to-day and that you should aid me tomorrow.” (David Hume/Reingold 29)

In the increasingly interconnected and global Internet age, we have found that it is easier to form collectively in a “tit for tat” mindset where cooperation is the most mutually beneficial option. The groupings that Hume were able to envision, small, limited partnerships between farmers to achieve mutual profit have blossomed exponentially.  Marc A. Smith, now-research sociologist at Microsoft, told Rheingold that whenever a communication medium lowers the cost of solving collective action dilemma, it becomes possible for more people to pull resources” (Rheingold 31).

So we have established that the Internet age has increased the possibility for collective action. Clay Shirky is of this mindset as well, elucidating that the prisoner’s dilemma, where two actors could choose to cooperate or not, is highly relevant here. With the internet’s lowered transaction cost (the cost of an Internet connection, essentially), it is easier for groups to collectively form and act (Shirky 211).

However, the big question becomes, what are the ramifications of this almost completely free collective action? When Barlow from the Grateful Dead wrote his Declaration of Independence in cyberspace, he envisioned an unregulated space to act, think, and develop, and would almost certainly argue for fully free collective action. Shirky, however, believes there are problems inherent in unrestricted collective action, including mass amateurization of content,  damaging social bargains, and the resilience of networked organizations like terrorist groups. Personally, I fall somewhere in between. While it is the job of the Department of Homeland Security and other government organizations to track down and stop illegal activity that would be a serious threat to our security, this power should be used sparingly. Freedom of thought is a powerful thing, and I believe in the importance of allowing like-minded people to combine resources and form groups, a feat made much easier by the Internet.

And so, I pose the question to you:

Would you agree with Barlow, that an unrestricted free space for collective action is important, or Shirky, that problems can occur and society will have to actively decide which groups to oppose? Or are you in the middle? Why?

This entry was posted in Week 3, Winter 2012 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Are There Problems with Free Collective Action?

  1. Ariel Oz says:

    I too fall somewhere in the middle between Barlow and Shirky on the issue of collective action. By analyzing the structure of the community based online platform, Wikipedia, one may realize the many benefits of collective action, as well as the vast responsibilities individuals taken upon themselves, such as monitoring and editing, to ensure its success. Wikipedia has become a crucial platform in the collection and dissemination of information and knowledge through its 30 million articles in 287 languages (Wikipedia.org). Wikipedia is an entirely free resource that depends on the contributions, sharing, and editing of its content by the public. A hierarchy of users has been created to ensure its function. Members of the community can be elected as administrators who are given special privileges and tools like the ability to ban disruptive users, edit “wikis,” and delete pages. Additionally, the administrators can protect pages that are prone to vandalism or are considered sensitive topics. As the sites founder, Jimmy Wales also plays an influential role and can mediate in any further conflicts. I believe that the site’s organizational structure is absolutely necessary to achieve its collective goal. Hence, Wikipedia is an excellent example of how rules and organizational structures can be implemented effectively when people are coordinating on the Internet to create a sense of online community and successful collective action.

  2. kcwassman says:

    I as well fall in the middle between these two arguments. I think, like Barlow that it is a good thing to have this forum where people can express themselves freely, but I agree with Shirkey that it does cause mass amateurization. For example, YouTube as well as other personal video blogs (vlogs) have created a new performance space. Bankers, chefs, teachers, etc. can post videos of themselves singing, dancing, or doing something else creative for others to see. This creates a forum for these part-time artists without feeling the pressure to be amazing. That being said content on the internet like song covers, dances, blog posts, etc are taken with a grain of salt. If they’re not with a reputable organization they’re just amateurs adding to the noise. This can especially be seen with journalism. People who have never reported in their lives post nonsensical posts with no real facts and try to call themselves ‘journalists,’ when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. While the internet does create outlets for individual expression it also takes away the glory of having a profession like journalism because everyone now claims to be involved.

    Also when talking about collective action online one should consider the idea of trust between the involved parties. Many times these groups have never seen each other or met offline. This leaves a lot to chance if the group plans activities like a protest etc. offline. While they all might say they’re going, there’s still the inherent distrust of people you only meet on the internet and they might not go for that reason. They also might not participate because it’s one thing to talk about a protest on the internet, and another to actually do it offline. While you think you’re able to judge someone’s passion in a group forum, they could be a troll or just someone who talks big. I like Barlow’s ideas about the internet, but in the end I think Shirkey’s points are more applicable to the online world today.

  3. arieloz says:

    I too fall somewhere in the middle between Barlow and Shirky on the issue of collective action. By analyzing the structure of the community based online platform, Wikipedia, one may realize the many benefits of collective action, as well as the vast responsibilities individuals taken upon themselves, such as monitoring and editing, to ensure its success. Wikipedia has become a crucial platform in the collection and dissemination of information and knowledge through its 30 million articles in 287 languages (Wikipedia.org). Wikipedia is an entirely free resource that depends on the contributions, sharing, and editing of its content by the public. A hierarchy of users has been created to ensure its function. Members of the community can be elected as administrators who are given special privileges and tools like the ability to ban disruptive users, edit “wikis,” and delete pages. Additionally, the administrators can protect pages that are prone to vandalism or are considered sensitive topics. As the sites founder, Jimmy Wales also plays an influential role and can mediate in any further conflicts. I believe that the site’s organizational structure is absolutely necessary to achieve its collective goal. Hence, Wikipedia is an excellent example of how rules and organizational structures can be implemented effectively when people are coordinating on the Internet to create a sense of online community and successful collective action.

    (Reposted while logged in so under the Comments I’ve made section)

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