online organizations

I’ve been asked to write an article on how young political activists use the Internet. After an introduction about the political potential of the “commons,” I turn to various types of online youth activity. One short section concerns online political organizations. Comments would be welcome. I’m planning to say:

Political, ideological, and civic organizations have formed largely or entirely online, representing virtually all ideologies, identities, and agendas. Their organizational structures also vary greatly, but compared to offline groups, they are more likely to have anonymous or pseudonymous members. Anonymity has the advantage of allowing candor, which is especially beneficial for members of stigmatized groups (such as the only gay adolescent in a small community). It also allows people to experiment with novel identities. However, anonymity may have the disadvantage of making relationships relatively superficial and may permit behavior that is disruptive to the group itself. If members can adopt fictitious identities, then they can change their identities as soon as anyone threatens to expel or socially ostracize them.

Compared to offline groups, online ones tend to be easier to “exit” but harder to change by exercising “voice” (Hirschman), because there is no method of democratic decision-making that one can influence. Because exit is easy, groups tend not to discipline their own members by demanding contributions or particular forms of behavior in return for membership. Again compared to offline groups, online ones tend to be “thin” rather than “thick” (Bimber, p. 148). In a classic “thick” group, such as a family and ethnic group, members are committed to the survival and flourishing of the collectivity; but its purposes are changeable and subject to debate. In a “thin” group, members enter having some purpose, and view membership as instrumental to that goal. Although many online groups are “thin,” unstructured, and easy to exit, this is not true of massive, multiplayer games, whose participants invest considerable time in developing fictional characters. Often, they become highly committed to the flourishing of the game community as an end in itself.

However, most games are not political. Political or civic groups more typically allow members to visit a website, contribute money, and/or elect to receive email messages. A prominent example is MoveOn.org, a liberal organization in the United States that claims 2.3 million members as of January 2004. MoveOn was formed to oppose the impeachment of President Clinton, but now tackles issues that its members choose by voting. It has raised and spent millions of dollars to influence US policy. No information is available about the median age of MoveOn members or staff, but it has been described as an “an inter-generational grouping heavily peopled by young voters, something that most political constituencies lack” (Schechter, 2004).

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1 Response to online organizations

  1. To the first part, I’d say that pseudo-anonymity is quite different than true anonymity because individuals invest time to get credibility in their pseudonyms that has a similar impact as full accountability. From experience, I’d say that there is a lot less true anonymity than you’d think on the net. Through various forms of automatic tracking of IP addresses, etc, we are able to track down fraud and other violations of our user agreement, even among “anonymous” visitors. (Helen Nissenbaum at NYU, one of our advisors, has written some interesting pieces about the value of online anonymity.)

    More broadly though, I’d be interested in understanding a bit more about the particular sites that were examined to draw these generalizations. For example, there is a large difference between yahoo!groups, e-thePeople, meetup, blogs, and online chats, and I suspect it is difficult to make generalizations that work well for all these organizations/communities.

    Overall, it’s an interesting characterization of online organizations. It is provoking me to think about how e-thePeople could be more successful at generating donations by “thickening” our relationships. (Here’s an interesting example of members trying to bring back members who leave on etp.)

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