Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Affordances for Activism

The question posed by this study is as follows: How can online social movement organizations use online affordances to effectively mobilize activists?

The Benefits of Online Mobilization:

According to Postmes and Bruinsting (2002), online environments are “fit for our native desires and talent for group effort” and facilitate a convenient “collapse of transaction costs.” Despite their inherent challenges, they have the potential to unite geographically widespread but ideologically similar in a common space for democratic discussion and event campaign coordination.

Complications of Online Mobilization:

High levels of social uncertainty render it difficult for organizations to develop cohesive communities online. Additionally, there is a high risk of sabotage due to difficulties in regulation, as well as the potential for “massification,” or the obscuration of individual voices due to the volume of input (DiMaggio et al 2001).

Sites analyzed:

Change for America (, Amnesty USA (, Democracy for America (, MoveOn (

Data and theory

This study is based on analysis of literature following two primary thematic strains: collective action and identity development. Within the former, it emphasizes organizational framing and issues related to cooperation and coordination. Within the latter, it differentiates between individual and networked identity development and the adoption of social roles. All of these elements are strongly interrelated and either facilitated or strengthened by user-to-user interaction, which reduces social ambiguity and increases interpersonal trust. By placing this analysis alongside observation of existing social networks, this study offers a picture of what tools and affordances organizations must use in order to mobilize latent readers into networks of mobilized activists (Preece and Schniederman 2009).

Data collected for this project is largely observational. In terms of quantifying data, site efficacy is divided into five categories: organizational framing, individual identity development, networked identity development, promoting communication, and developing community. Within each, affordances that help fulfill this requirement are listed and numeric values are assigned to indicate whether the site does or does not features these tools. This provides a numeric analysis the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Organizational Framing
Organizational framing refers to the way in which an organization presents itself to its constituents. Frame alignment for SMOs may tap into participants’ identity or emphasize salience in current events and overall importance. Placing strong emphasis on framing is generally characteristic of top-down organizational structures.

As evidenced by the chart, all sites analyzed exhibit excellent framing strategies. The main difference lies in the fact that some sites place more emphasis on top-down control over users’ perception of the organization rather than encouraging user contributions. All sites provide live news feeds, information about previous and current campaigns, and a history of the organization. MoveOn in particular carries this one step further by providing a section titled “success stories,” which promotes the image that if users will likely enjoy some form of payoff for costs incurred through participation. Measuring rhetoric involved searching for the prevalence of key words and phrases that emphasize the importance of the individual (“you,” “action,” “together,” or “can”) and strong language that emphasizes importance and/or immediacy (“lies,” “extremism,” “urgent”). Though its ratings are equivalent to that of the other sites, Change also distinguishes itself in regards to how it emphasized the importance of the individual to the organization.

Cooperation Coordination and Resource Management

The social remoteness associated with online environments renders promoting coordination and cooperation among participants a challenging task. This problem stems from two areas. Firstly, how do online spaces foster trust and interpersonal commitment in light of social ambiguity? Secondly, when a cohesive community has been effectively developed, how does the site facilitate communication and enhance coordination among participants? The first step toward satisfying these tasks involves allowing users to develop a strong, identity-based personal commitment to the organization and it’s objectives, both on an individual and networked level.

Individual Identity Development
Hogg et al. (1995) refers to individual identity “self-conceptions, self-referent cognitions, or self-definitions,” that are developed through the internalization of an individual’s “reciprocal relations between self and society.” Though identity is refined and reinforced by reactions from others, this section exclusively analyses the tools that allow users to independently label themselves as “activists” within the organization.

Change – a site that emphasizes self-presentation and interaction - shows itself to be a leader in terms of identity development. As evidenced by the chart, this site provides a number of ways for users to label themselves as activists, thus solidifying self-perceptions of such. Sites that involved little to no user interaction (Amnesty, MoveOn) offer some concessions in this area, although they offer few opportunities to help users strengthen and refine self-imposed identities through reciprocal interaction. The lack of online interaction facilitated by these sites suggests that they rely on activists to transfer their online interest into real life action, though the lack of user-to-user communication weakens identity development, stunts commitment and inhibits coordination.

Networked Identity Development
This section introduces an element of interaction into the concept of identity development. As emphasized by Burke and Reitz (1981) identities are social products, formed and maintained through social process. To fully understand their identity, individuals must view others’ actions, categorize these actions, and locate themselves within these categories. This section delineates affordances for identity development that prompt reactions from others and allow users to view the behavior of their fellow participants and notes their presence within each site.

Sites with embedded social networks distinguish themselves as leaders within this category. Change and DFA clearly provide the most opportunities for individuals to mirror their perceptions of self against those of their fellow users, thus strengthening their identities as “activists” within the organization. They provide pathways of self presentation such as user profiles that allow users to undergo internalized comparisons.

Identity and Role development
Social roles arise when individuals integrate into their existing identities additional expectations and obligations. Because individuals have a tendency toward personal “dissonance reduction,” individuals will likely align their actions with this role (Hogg et al 1995). Additionally, if these roles are then are salient to the individual’s strong social ties or incur a large cost if vacated, the individual is increasingly likely to fulfill the duties associated with them. Based on this, we can conclude that sites which facilitate interactive identity development - such as Change – will help users develop roles - which will in turn transform them from latent readers to motivated activists.

Community Development and Coordination

In addition to assisting with identity development, communication is also vital for developing interpersonal trust between otherwise remote users and, in the case of collective action, allowing them to collaborate and work toward a common goal.

Promoting Communication
This section delineates affordances that allow users to communicate with one another in an effort to reduce social ambiguity, promote trust, reinforce identity/role development and facilitate coordination. Again, those sites that integrate social networking systems into their basic site design (Change, DFA) excel in this category as well. By increasing the number of pathways and ease of communication between participants, these sites help ensure that users will transform their latent readership into activist engagement.

Community Development
This section analyses the coordination efforts of the organizations, both on and offline. It enumerates evidence of group formation and collective action within online environments and in real life. As shown by the chart, both interactive and non-interactive sites provided evidence of past events and used online spaces to advertise future events. This helps legitimize the organization and serves to bolster organizational framing efforts. They also verbally encouraged users to engage in offline recruitment efforts, though non-interactive sites decrease the likelihood that users will carry out this task by failing to fully develop users’ activist identities/roles and not allowing them create strong interpersonal ties on which these identities and roles depend.

1 comment:

  1. Nina, I found your presentation to be really interesting! I wonder if, in the future, sites will realize that people are trying to organize (like commenting on the Amnesty blog, as you mentioned), and sites will embrace that? I think sites, like you've shown, are already more successful if they incorporate some form of social interaction, and I wonder if this will become an increasingly important factor for what sites people get involved with in the future.

    Thanks so much for sharing! =)