2009/08/23 Andreas Jungherr

Digital channels, the change in community structures and its consequences for social participation

Andreas Jungherr (2009) “Digital channels, the change in community structures and its consequences for social participation”. Paper presented at the ISEA 2009: International Symposium for the Electronic Arts, University of Ulster, Belfast, UK on 23 August – 1 September 2009.

For a short glance at the argument have a look at the presentation. The full paper can be found below.

Digital channels change the structure of communities and thus indirectly influence the political participation of citizens in a society. This paper addresses challenges and opportunities that arise for political participation of citizens through these developments.

The structure of social communities is subject to change. Traditional communities formed around tribal structures. The major integrating factors were shared space and family structures. In the 19th century a new form of community structure developed, this time centred on the concept of a nation. The major integrating factors were a hereditary line belonging to the nation in question and a shared tradition, culture and educational canon (for a more detailed discussion see Gellner 1964, and Gellner 1983). During the last decades increased geographical mobility of individuals, increased specialization in education, a growing income gap and the possibility of pervasive digital communication have disrupted these factors. This led in developed countries yet again to a change in community structures. A decrease in participatory activities in local communities has been substituted by a significant increase of activities in online communities. Communities of tribe, nation or location are increasingly substituted by communities of interest or practice. This has consequences for participation by citizens in social institutions.

The field of social network analysis distinguishes between two types of links between people. Let’s take a hypothetical person and call him Marcus. Links between Marcus and people who are acquaintances of him but who are not likely to socially interact with each other are called weak ties. The other type of link is called strong tie. This applies to links from Marcus to people who in turn are highly likely to interact with each other (Ganovetter 1983: 221ff.). As Mark Granovetter has argued in his classical article, information travels very fast through a social system in which many individuals are interconnected trough are large amount of weak ties (Granovetter 1973). This phenomenon leads to the so-called small world effect. The average distance between social actors in a social system appears surprisingly low, since although people tend to cluster in highly interconnected groups, these groups are connected through individuals with weak ties (for a short overview Granovetter 2003). The small world effect has received considerable attention by sociologists, epidemiologists and marketing practitioners. These studies focus on how information travels through social systems via social ties.

Although it has been shown that weak ties are instrumental in distributing information, they seem to have little effect on collective action. A reason for this might lie in the relatively high opportunity cost collective action brings to participants while the mere forwarding of information rarely carries any meaningful opportunity costs. It seems for collective action to spread communities connected through strong ties are the most fertile ground. Mobilisation and political persuasion still appear to be most effective when groups of highly interconnected people are confronted with issues that appear relevant to all of them. This common truth from Marketing (Earls 2007) and Community Organizing (Alinsky 1971) still holds true in the digital realm. For collective action to occur it is necessary to have a large group of highly interconnected people who share common issues, trust each other and are willing to shoulder the relatively high opportunity costs of collective action. It does not suffice to have a Facebook-Group with 6000 supporters. These supporters may be willing to carry a cause like a fashionable pop-culture-badge. They might even be ready to distribute information about the cause to their social network but this lifestyle-politics alone does not automatically lead to collective action. Why is that?

In classic location based communities the members are connected mainly through strong ties. People tended to live and work in relatively close proximity. There was little mobility. Commitment to a location tended to be long-term. This lead to a lot of shared interests. For example, if I expect to live with my family in a specific neighbourhood for the foreseeable future, I share with my neighbours an interest in the development of said community. For this I might accept the opportunity costs of participating in communal activities, local politics, and if need be even collective action for a relevant issue. The literature shows a marked decline of social participation of that kind (Putnam 2000). This corresponds with a change in society.

Higher job-mobility of people leads to an ever-increasing number of different locations a person is likely to live in. Just because I moved into a house in a neighbourhood does not mean I intend on living there for long. My next move might already be scheduled. So why engage in the local location-based community? Why shoulder the high opportunity costs end engage in local issues, when I know, that I and my family will be gone in five years? Throw ever decreasing costs of communication and travel into the mix and I can finally throw off the dictate of geography.

In the past the group of people I interacted with depended mainly on geography. It was reasonable to work out differences and come to a common understanding since one was likely to be in each other’s company for a while. This is the dictate of geography. This expectation of a shared future led individuals to shoulder opportunity costs and work out differences and maybe even engage in collective action towards a common goal.

Today interaction does not depend on a shared location anymore. I can freely communicate with people all around the world. Our connection can be based on a shared past, a common vocation or interests. These contacts, which are only based on commonalities, do not carry the same opportunity costs of interaction, like the kind where the only common element was a shared location. While this might play towards an individual’s need for homophily and thus increase personal wellbeing, it also has consequences for a social system.

The connections people form via digital channels tend to be weak ties. The gang of dwarfs and knights with whom I roam through the plains of Azeroth is not likely to share all that many interests with my Eastern Standard Tribe (Doctorow 2004) of co-workers who in turn are not very likely to share the passions of my international geocaching community. So while my personal interests are ever more closely matched with that of individuals in my social network, the issues and interests shared by the whole of my social network tend to decrease drastically. Thus this social network loses the ability and interest in common collective action.

This change in the type of connections between community members affects the participatory power of the community in question. People who are connected through strong ties tend to influence each other stronger, share more common interests and are thus more ready for participatory action. People who are connected through weak ties are more likely to distribute information further and faster but are less likely to convince other members of their community of something they do not already believe in.

Still, recent events seem to tell a different story: a candidate for the US presidency manages to successfully enlist cohorts of digital natives and progressives in his bid for office; Moldovans take the streets while twittering; Iran changes after a contested election in a nation of twittering protesters who inspire the support of Twitterers worldwide. These are only three high profile examples of digitally enabled collective action. How do these examples fit in the argument above? Do weak ties enable collective action after all? Let’s have a closer look at one of these examples to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the success of these movements and to identify what makes them tick.

One of the highly publicised successes of the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama was his use of online campaign communication. Here, two elements of this online campaign shall be discussed further.

First the candidate inspired through his charisma and his message of hope supporters to contribute personal campaign material. They designed images, cut videos and contributed slogans. These in turn were put on the net and distributed to a large community of interest. This is the power of weak ties at work. Information, in this case the links to community relevant material on the web, gets distributed very fast. This distribution is also an evaluation process. Members of the community decide about the quality of an image, spot or slogan before they click the forward button. The aggregate number of clicks or forwards becomes thus an indicator of the collective wisdom of the community. This phenomenon alone does not yet contradict the argument above: Information travels very fast through weak ties. Still, this is not yet collective action in the traditional sense. Just hitting the forward button, does not make me a political activist. This is lifestyle-politics not political activism.

The second aspect of the Obama online-campaign cuts closer to the bone. Through the online-portal my.barackobama.com local supporters were enabled to find likeminded individuals in their vicinity to coordinate and then in turn to collectively organize campaign events. This is exactly what should not happen if the argument above holds true: online communities are connected through weak ties, which do not lend themselves for collective action. Ergo, online communities do not tend to participate in collective action all that much. But if one looks closer, one finds the reason for the success. This element of my.barackobama.com allowed users with a specific portfolio of interests – here political interest and support of Barack Obama – to find likeminded individuals. But instead of connecting a user from Atlanta to an Obama supporter in Greece the site offered the contact information of other Obama supporters in the greater Atlanta region. Thus, the online community allowed users to form location based communities of interest and with it strong ties to other Obama supporters. The community activities online facilitated collective action through the distribution of relevant information and how-to know how, but the collective action itself still depended on the organisers on the ground. This is the prototype for the combination of community structures on- and offline.

This example clearly shows the blueprint for the successful community organizing of the future: the combination of digital communication channels and geographic location. This is already shown in the success of location based services, the beginnings of alternate reality games which mix online profiles with location based cues, and the ever increasing uses of mobile devices. This connection between information distribution via weak ties through digital communication channels and the re-enabling of location-based strong ties is the future for collective action.

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Putnam, Robert D.: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York. 2000.

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