Social Media and „The Logic of Collective action“

After I read how social networks can sometimes undermine themselves (see below), the idea came to my mind that social software like Wikipedia or social networks like Facebook or StudiVZ, can be seen as facilitators of the production of public goods, as the design of the underlying software provides second-order public goods. A second-order public good is a system that solves social dilemmas, e.g. by rewarding people who contribute to the production of public goods or by punishing free-riders. By providing such a second-order public good, social software increases peoples willingness to cooperate in providing public goods.

How social networks undermine themselves

Sociologist Jan Schmidt describes in one of his recent contributions how networking platforms sometimes happen to undermine themselves. He watched that users of StudiVZ (a German version of Facebook) use this network to formulate their oppositions towards the introduction of new ‚terms and conditions‘ for the StudiVZ network. The protests arose some months after StudiVZ had been bought by one of the bigger German publishing houses, the Holtzbrink-Gruppe for 85 million Euros and, in order to get some of the money back, decided to make the StudiVZ users sign new ‚terms and conditions‘ that should allow the company to sell user profiles to third parties. Since there seem to be enough companies and institutions some users wouldn’t want to let know too much about their addresses, former employers or political attitudes there were some negative remarks by users about the new terms and conditions. What Jan Schmidt finds so remarkable in here is, that the unwillingness to turn transparent in StudiVZ was expressed within the StudiVZ network. Groups like „New StudiVZ terms and conditions – I am out!!“ or „Stop the data stealing! Acting against new terms and conditions!“ were created by the means of the network and used to express and publish dissense with the new „privacy sell out“ terms and conditions. And indeed: the new terms and conditions that should have been imposed on the users had to be modified and the operators of the service had to clarify that users private data were never meant to be sold. Schmidt watched similar phenomenons on other social networking sites like „Facebook“ or „Xing“ after their owners tried to impose changes in the privacy policy of the networks. There is nothing new about people expressing their likes or dislikes via Internet, so what is the excitement all about?

Wait and read what Schmidt observed:

„Users utilize the tools of the actual platforms for expressing their attitude and for mobilizing like-minded persons. This applies at most to opponents of the changes but also to their advocates and to the ‚indifferent’… The owners of social network sites give networking and communication tools, which actually can be used against themselves, into the hands of their users. In opposition to protests via e-mail or feedback-forms such groups and forums are (platform-) public and can thus gain a stronger impact. … The use of platform utilities in order to protest against decisions of the owner is an expression of a certain creative potential, it represents a form of unintended use. (emphasis in italics by me – T.P.)

So what is said here is, that social networking sites provide people with tools they can use to create certain things even if these tools were not made for the creation of those things in the first place (what Schmidt calls unintended use). In the case of StudiVZ the tools that were made available to the users were not used only for intended use like „to make real friends online and furthermore to find out who the friends of their friends are and what interests they have“ (citation from StudiVZ) but for empowerment, emancipation and for self- and peer-provision with certain resources, like information or inspiration, that are important for these processes. Consequently the users grew above the heads of the people who gave them exactly the tools they needed for that.

What interests me most here is the potential of a social networking site to facilitate the creation of things it actually should not facilitate a) because it has never been intended to facilitate the production of those things (so let’s call them side-products) and because b) the owners and producers of the social networking side have to suffer a direct loss due to the production of those side-products (so let’s call them unwanted side products then).
I think the pressure that was put on the company to take back their new ‚terms and conditions‘ is such an unwanted side product and I am curious how it could have been produced under such unfavourable circumstances. As I will try to show, those circumstances will get even more unfavourable, cause according to the „Logic of Collective Action“ it is close to impossible that a group as big as the StudiVZ-users can produce anything than frustration. So what is „The Logic of Collective Action“ about?

The Logic of Collective Action

In 1965 Mancur Olson’s first edition of his evergreen theory in economy has been published: „The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups“. In this book Olson describes how certain groups use to fail to produce so called public goods while others manage to produce such things.

So Olson has found out that a big group of pacifists can for some strange reason not produce the public good of a lobby that has similar strength and influence like the lobby of the few casual warmongers. Another example for failing production of a public good is, how consumers won’t manage to oppose or fight tendencies of some companies towards monopolisation or forcing up of prices.

In sociology and economy the results of a groups work, like influence on political decisions or prevention of excessive prices, can be called public goods, if those products 1.) they cannot be kept back from others (e.g.: in case the pacifists should manage to talk politicians into destroying all weapons of mass destruction, all people and not only pacifists would live without the big bombs,) and 2.) the consumption of the product won’t make it smaller (e.g.: how much ever I enjoy the fearlessness due to luck of atomic bombs doesn’t decrease other peoples chances to feel the same fearlessness.). Now what is the problem behind that inability to create public goods for certain groups? According to Olson it is the size and the structure of the groups. In small groups where everybody knows everybody you can be made responsible for your actions, whereas in big groups you can’t.

Suppose for example you are in a group of let’s say 25 students that aims at forcing all cafeterias on your campus to sell fair traded coffee additional to the regular coffee.
Now in that group of 25 people your fellows could hardly oversee if you were actively dedicated in the coffee campaign or if you were a rather passive potato who hardly showed some interest in the whole project. So the knowledge that the others know if you were busy or lazy, creates moral pressure on you to rather become active than staying passive. And exactly that „knowledge that the others know what you have (or haven’t) done“ is one of the advantages smaller groups have over bigger ones and the secret of their success in actually achieving what they aim for.

Suppose, on the other hand, you belong to a group of 300 students of medicine. To make their exams easier, that group wants to collect all information that are relevant for their and their fellow students exams in a big folder. In order for that folder to become reality, every student has to deliver questions he has been asked about the human skeleton, muscles and so on by examiners into a letterbox. Now this group of 300 students would be – according to Olson – that big that nobody knows no one and so nobody can be identified and judged by her/his contributions. Not to speak of getting the respecting looks or other rewards one would deserve for giving his share of knowledge or disappointed looks if one doesn’t. Another obstacle the big group faces in gaining the desired product: compared to the big aim of the whole group, individual contributions are so small that giving them or not has no noticeable effect on the big aim. Putting your questions and answers in the letterbox – it’s just like a drop into an ocean, so don’t you worry too much about it!

One could object that students usually are no ego-maniacs but easy going idealists. Well, Olson developed his theory on the assumption that everybody is a more or less (but in Olson’s case rather more) rationalistic homo economicus. The idea of the human as rational maximizer of self-interest and minimizer of self-cost is an axiom Olson’s theory bases on. This axiom is called „Rational choice“ and basically it says, that people wouldn’t move a hand if they hadn’t their egoistic reasons for doing so. So, in the end most of the students have their reasons to think and act according to that rationalistic scheme and all you’ll find in the letterbox are two bats (one of them half deaf) and an old handkerchief, taken the case that the box has not been stolen yet ;)

One could think at first sight, that people in that big group would show more dedication in order to overcome the obstacles and prove those lazy „we always said, you can’t make it“ rationalists wrong. But as mentioned before: in a big group no person has the reason for doing so, as the contributions of one person stay unnoticed by everybody else PLUS these contributions won’t be a significant step towards the public good.

As if that wouldn’t be a proposition bad enough for a big group to work, additional to the unlikeliness to mobilize it’s members, Olson has found out, that big groups have to do more administration work than small groups to get at least a bit organized. E.g. longer and more frustrating meetings must be held to coordinate actions, whereas smaller groups can do their organisational business more spontaneously.

One small shaft of light is there for big groups anyway: a big group can manage to overcome it’s lethargic defects by giving rewards to members who contribute to the wanted public good and by applying punishment to members who don’t. The problem is that finding, identifying and rewarding/punishing such members doesn’t happen by itself. In fact this process is a so called public good of the second order which must be produced before it can be used. And how „easy“ public goods are produced in big groups has already been mentioned.

Social software as tool for producing public goods

Now what is the point? I think social software can make the production of certain collective goods easier for big groups as it would be without social software. Firstly because the software does certain group-specific administrative tasks that formerly some members of big groups had to do. In order to become a member of StudiVZ (or any other social network) you don’t have to have people sitting in offices all day long, welcoming new members and fill out admission forms with them. Instead everybody can just log in by himself and start to contribute to the product ’social network‘. Secondly because the software helps it’s users to find a public, that values their contributions, that would be totally anonymous otherwise. In the case of StudiVZ the sheer membership in a group (which is a question of two mouse clicks) can be used to shine with being informed, interest in politics and social awareness in front of your friends. While this might not be the intended use of StudiVZ it gets people motivated to form and join groups. In a way, the software turns „getting involved“ into a hip part of your lifestyle. Or as Schmidt wrote:

„According to my observations a large number of that groups is not used for discussing but serves as a possibility to complete ones own profile with further information that are important for that person. Identity management instead of relationship management.“

And although those groups didn’t even become very active, they gained some attention in the German blogosphere and mass media. So the sheer existence of groups with names as „Revolution in StudiVZ – against the new ‚terms and conditions'“ with thousands of members, produced attention and public pressure on the owners of the network to take the most unacceptable conditions back. Both attention and pressure can be seen as public goods. This can be achieved when dedication in big groups becomes more attractive as it usually is. As social software can provide collective goods of the second order, that are so important in big groups to get people motivated, higher dedication is exactly what social software can accomplish.

Mancur Olson: Die Logik des kollektiven Handelns: Kollektivgüter und die Theorie der Gruppen. 5. Aufl. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2004. (Originalausgabe: The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups 1965) ISBN 3-16-148504-1.

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