Communities, Crowds and Focal Sites: Fine-Tuning the Theoretical Grounding of Collaboration Online

Azi Lev-On


In recent years, Internet usage has been moving in an increasingly participatory and collaborative direction, with plenty of venues for users to create and share content, generate information repositories, manage social networks, and organize collective action. Online communities enable their members to communicate over time about themes of common concern. Members also develop relationships and repositories of information and advice.

From a classical rational-actor perspective, the success of endevours that rely on such collaborations by many participants seems puzzling. Analyzed through the lens of the "logic of collective action" (Olson, 1965), collaborations based on contributions by many individuals without proper incentives are doomed to fail. According to this logic, individual actions dominated by narrow self-interest generally lead people to abstain from contributing to such collaborations, and free-riding behaviors would in turn impede their success . Indeed, online collaborations often cannot effectively address the problem of free-ridership, which is at the core of every collective action, and are typically characterized by high percentages of lurkers and a highly unequal division of labor (see Lev-On and Hardin, 2007; Hunt and Johnson, 2002). Such collaborations typically lack features that may prevent collective action failures, such as continuing relations among contributors, expectations of future relationships which cast a "shadow of the future", or embeddedness of contributors in a densely-knit network or community (see Axelrod, 1984; Taylor, 1987; Hardin, 1995).

From this perspective, communities seem well situated to support collective actions. in that they enable ongoing communication between members and introduce exit costs as well as embeddedness in a social network. But can the unique benefits of communities for collective action be reproduced in online environments? If so, where and why? How might online associations facilitate collective action? And, to what extent can such associations reproduce the strategic capabilities of some offline communities in circumventing the "logic of collective action"?

After portraying leading theories of communities and collective action, I argue that they are inadequate to explain collaboration in online communities. I offer two routes as substitutes to explain the role of online communities in grounding collective action. The first route involves communities that either generate institutions that support collective actions, or are embedded in larger networks that make exit options expensive. Such communities are able to overcome their inherent limitations to ground collective actions. The second route emphasizes the abilities of online communities to attract a large number of self-selected people with shared concerns into a focal location, from which members can be recruited by entrepreneurs organizing collective action.

Communities: offline and online

In a classic survey article, Hillery (1955) collected 94 definitions of the term "community" from the sociological literature. He found that the two prevalent features attributed to "communities" were interactional and geographical; i.e., inter-member communication and geographic co-location (see Wellman, 2001, p. 228).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, in parallel with economic, social and technological transformations of daily experiences, the use of the concept "community" in English expanded to include "the idea of a group of people who hold something in common... or who share a common sense of identity even if they do not live in a single locale" (Cole, 2002, p. xxiii). Gradually, the existence of common physical meeting-places has diminished as a necessary condition for a group to be denoted as a "community"; nowadays communities are "based on what we do with others, rather than where we live with others" (Haythornthwaite, 2002, p. 159).

The application of the label "community" to Internet-based associations has been popularized by Rheingold's (2000) influential book about the WELL community in the San Francisco bay area (cf. Smith, 1992; Hafner, 1997). Such an application explicitly undermines one of the deep-rooted dimensions of "communities", i.e. geographical proximity among members. Such associations complete the separation of communities from "physical" spaces, and enable a "fundamental liberation from place" (Wellman, 2001, p. 238). Online communities can develop around a variety of platforms, such as social networks, blogs, forums, and wikis. Interactions among community members need not be limited to the Internet; they can interact through a variety of offline means, using "whatever means of communication is convenient and appropriate at the moment" (Wellman, 2001, p. 248).

Online communities differ from one another in various respects, notably the kinds and levels of attachment between members (Sassenberg, 2002). In some associations the attachment is interpersonal, while in others it is an instrumental identification with the group. But affection and strong ties are not defining or even essential features of such communities. Online communities also vary according to other parameters, such as size and cohesiveness. They range from large-scale, well-functioning forms on one end of the spectrum, to small, loose and disorganized forms on the other. Some resemble "street corner settings or park squares," while others "exhibit some properties of long-lived social groups or communities" (Butler et al., 2002).

For many Internet users, such associations are important sources of goods, information, support, and sense of belonging (Wellman, 2001). Other users deem online communities as motors of reciprocity, collaboration, and civic renewal (Connolly, 2001). Online communities have become a key factor in the experiences of Internet users. Back in 2001, a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that 84% of users indicated that they had contacted an online community, and 79% identified at least one community with which they maintained regular contact (Horrigan and Rainie, 2001).

People join online associations for a variety of reasons, including, notably, the opportunity to discuss issues of common concern and obtain information (Horrigan and Rainie, 2001; Ridings and Gefen, 2004). By choosing to join a community, people practically select who to communicate with about a specific topic they commonly find worth pursuing.

Online communities are often categorized according to their prime reasons for interaction (see Porter, 2004). For example: Communities of practice are composed of professionals such as academics or software programmers, united by common pursuit of knowledge and solutions to problems (Wenger, 1998). Communities of interest bring together individuals who share an interest in a specific topic, idea, or hobby. Communities of support provide information and assistance about problems such as addictions, grief counselling, or health issues (Brainard, 2003). Place-based communities (i.e., rural/urban online communities) bring together individuals who live in or visit the same locality (Cohill and Kavanaugh, 1999).

A tension exists between the "horizontal" dimension of communities, often characterized by peer-production and user-generated content, and their "vertical" management dimension, which can be highly centralized. Online communities have managers, organizers, moderators, and designers who enable the community, and carry out functions that are essential for "the framework around which community may develop" (Kim, 2000; Preece, 2000). Their roles include managing membership (for example, recruiting new members and managing member profiles); managing content (agenda setting, facilitating and encouraging discussions, moderating discussions, preventing "flaming" and removing inappropriate posts, archiving old threads of discussion, producing special events); framing and enforcing policies regarding accepted behaviors and sanctions, as well as technical and financial management.

But whereas a small number of people may administrate the platform used by many, still the orientation of the "horizontal" dimension of online communities can be quite egalitarian. Unlike firms or governmental bureaucracies, typically no elaborate and formal chain of command and control exists among users, nor any authoritative division of labor; instead, the emphasis is on peers as originators of content, and of peer-based production, monitoring, and sanctioning.

The peer-based and often voluntary nature of contributions makes such communities vulnerable to myriad collective action and coordination failures. As Kollock (1999, p. 220) argues, "for a student of social order, what needs to be explained is not the amount of conflict but the great amount of sharing and cooperation that does occur in online communities." Such sharing and cooperation are manifest not just by the preservation of order, but also by collective efforts to gather funds, create databases of information and advice, and even produce complex public goods (the notable example is the peer-production of computer software). Why, then, do such associations succeed in mobilizing collective action, when they do?

Communities and collective action

To explain community-based collaboration online, some authors borrow established frameworks used to explain cooperation in offline communities, notably Ostrom's institution-based account (see Kollock and Smith, 1996; Kollock, 1998; Chesney, 2004; Van Wendel de Joode, 2004; Viégas, Wattenberg and McKeon, 2007). I focus on two contemporary and complementary avenues of research: Hardin (1995) emphasizes conventions and "coordination power" as keys for explaining community-grounded collective action, and Ostrom (1990) pays attention to institutional structures that support cooperation in such communities.

According to Hardin (1995), the key to understanding the success of associations to mobilize collective action is their ability to generate conventions, supported by meaningful and effective sanctions and gains. Once such conventions evolve and are recognized by a critical mass of community members, they create mutual expectations for compliance, and practically regulate the interactions of community members. (The origins of conventions are not important for our discussion, nor do we have to assume that community members internalize conventions and attribute moral value to them).

Two key factors support the convergence on communal conventions: the absence of inexpensive exit options, and the multiplexity of the communal experience. The expectations of meaningful exit losses (for example monetary losses, loss of social ties, and loss of sources of information or support) can motivate members to stay when they consider leaving (Hardin, 1995). Viable exit options, on the other hand, dramatically narrow the "shadow of the future" and may disable meaningful sanctions. Instead of voicing concerns or organizing protest, members can just leave, or in the case of online associations, "unsubscribe."

Moreover, in tightly-knit communities members interact with one another on a regular and continuous basis, and conventions can cover many spheres of daily lives (Cook and Hardin, 2001). When individuals are embedded in a community in these ways, deviating from conventions may have grave consequences. Failures to comply with conventions lead not only to local coordination failures, but also to losses (for self and possibly for significant others) in a variety of spheres in which community members are interconnected. In tightly knit associations, members who fail to participate in a collective action can be sanctioned not only in the context of the specific action, but in multiple contexts. Peer-sanctioning is possible and probable-not just by a specific member who bears the direct weight of defection and not only in a specific context-but by all members and in multiple contexts. The probability of sanctions motivates members to abide by local conventions. The common knowledge that anti-normative behaviors would be sanctioned is a signal for potential "defectors."

Outside the communal context, and without the communal conventions as regulating principles, community members might have followed their short-term self-interest and failed to coordinate on solutions to their shared dilemmas. The salience of communal conventions thus assists members in avoiding coordination failures. In this sense, communal conventions function as coordination equilibria, and the adherence of enough community members to communal conventions establishes a "coordination power" of the community. The existence of a well-coordinated community increases the costs of challenging deeply entrenched conventions, and "makes certain behaviors on the part of relevant others less rewarding than they would be against an uncoordinated group" (Hardin, 1995, p. 30). Collective actions that are inconsistent with communal conventions are almost certain to fail.

In addition to their strategic advantages, communities also support collective action by solving information problems. The thick relationships among members, and their repeated and frequent interactions, facilitate highly efficient circulation of information (for example, about the identities of cooperators and non-cooperators). In this sense communities function as information intermediaries.

Whereas Hardin's work focuses on the emergence of local conventions and the returns from "coordination power," Ostrom (1990) focuses on the institutions that ground cooperation. In her seminal work Governing the Commons, based on extensive fieldwork, Ostrom identifies several key variables that affect behaviors, decisions, and outcomes in communal mixed-motive scenarios. Several "design principles" are key for achieving long-enduring cooperative outcomes in such scenarios: the ability of association members to create and modify institutions and rules to address local needs; correspondence between the rules and norms governing the use of common resources, and between local conditions; and the ability of most people affected by institutions to participate in customizing and transforming them. These principles are not especially problematic in online communities, and will not be further discussed below..

Three additional factors deserve our additional attention; namely, the ability to fashion arenas for low-cost conflict resolution, to establish boundaries to the association, and to monitor cooperation and sanction noncooperators. Ostrom (1990) argues that boundaries must be clearly defined to prevent individuals from entering the community, using its resources, and exiting without contributing. In this sense, establishing boundaries is a structural solution to the non-excludability property of public goods. Structural boundary rules can involve membership in organizations, personal characteristics, relationship to the resources, or a combination of these properties (Ostrom, 1999).

Creating boundaries requires the ability to identify association members. Identification distinguishes members from non-members, establishes whether they have been participating in collective action, and determines whether they are entitled to benefit from the communal resources and under what conditions.

Regarding the importance of monitoring and sanctioning, social control rests in large part on the ability to identify individuals and hold them accountable for their actions. As a result of monitoring failures, trust in specific association members may fail to develop, and distrust can be generalized to the entire association.

A precondition for monitoring is public visibility, such that those who monitor participation are able to identify contributors and free riders. Visibility also benefits the community because it discourages defection, due to fear of sanctions and shame from humiliation. Visibility can also encourage cooperation. The possibility of being observed makes one act publicly in ways that association members find praiseworthy, and makes possible the provision of associational awards for acting in normatively supported ways. Sanctions can include gossip, hostile rumors, loss of relationships with specific community members, damaged reputations, or shunning by all members. The severity and effectiveness of sanctioning can make formal, costly sanctioning unnecessary.

Ostrom's framework, which is based on research done in offline associations, has been used by several authors to analyze the possibilities of collaboration in online communities. But can such frameworks be unequivocally applied to study collaboration in online communities? In the next section I argue that explanatory frameworks emphasizing expensive exit and emergent conventions and institutions are, as a general rule, ill-suited to explain collaboration in such online associations.

Explaining collaboration in online communities using theories developed for offline communities

Online communities, as explored thus far, are similar in some respects to offline communities, but are distinct in significant respects. Offline "traditional" communities are commonly characterized as having thick and multi-layered relations among members, and costly exit options. In such environments, communal conventions can become highly efficient means for social control. In comparison with such "traditional" associations, online communities can attract many people. Membership is not "by chance" but "by choice" (Galston, 1999). But online communities typically lack the thick relations that characterize offline communities, and have viable exit options. The abilities to form conventions, monitor the performance of community members, and sanction defectors can be called into question in such environments. Hence, arguably, frameworks used to explain the success of offline community-based collective action are inappropriate to explain much collective actions that occur through associations online.

Recall that Hardin's account of the contribution of communities to collective action relies on their ability to generate conventions that regulate the interactions of community members. Much of their success can be attributed to the multiplexity of connections among community members. But when applied to explaining collaborations in online communities, such explanatory frameworks run into a number of obstacles. First, the lives of members of online communities are typically not intertwined in a variety of spheres. When members are densely embedded in their communities, leaving the community entails losing the many benefits it provides in all spheres of members' lives. Arguably, the multiplexity of relations in tightly-bound communities is nowadays replaced by limited involvement in multiple narrow communities (Wellman, 2001). When online communities focus on relatively narrow spheres, the interactions between members tend to focus, naturally, on these relevant spheres. People belong to various communities, each with its specific function, and the associational experience need not expand beyond this function. In this sense, such online associations fall short of generating a multiplex experience of such "ideal-type" or "traditional" community life.

A second obstacle to the creation of "coordination power" in online communities is the ease of exit. "Traditional" communities seem to spontaneously evolve over time, and their members may be bound to the community by social, economic, and cultural forces. Leaving the community may be costly and sometimes impossible (Komito, 1998). By contrast, online associations exist in a competitive environment, where numerous associations vie for users' attention. Online communities are quite often the result of "artificial" construction by people or groups with a specific agenda. Unprofitable associations can be dismantled and disappear overnight, when someone literally pulls the plug on them. Notably, in communities that evolve around peer-production of open-source projects, viable exit options and the ability to "fork" the project are often of utmost ideological importance, and furthermore "open source licenses are designed explicitly to empower exit rather than loyalty as the alternative when voice fails" (Weber, 2004, p. 159; see also Van Wendel de Joode, 2004).

Therefore, unlike some "ideal-type" communities, that are sometimes characterized as despotic due to the punishments that can be inflicted on non-conformists, online communities tend to have the opposite problem - of retaining members. Since agents usually join for a specific purpose, they may not experience multi-dimensional losses when they exit. Members can leave "when there are disagreements or even if things just get boring" (Komito, 1998, p. 102). Online communities, in this regard, are associations of potential exiters, who can simply leave the association when asked to contribute to collective action. As Galston (1999, pp. 59-60) nicely puts it,

If we are linked to others by choice rather than accident, if our interaction with them is shaped by mutual adjustment rather than hierarchical authority, and if we can set aside these bonds whenever they clash with our individual interests, then the lamb of connection can lie down with the lion of autonomy.... Because they emphasize exit as a response to discontent and dissatisfaction, they do not promote the development of voice.

As far as collaboration is involved, the problem with online communities is that their "coordination power" may not be strong enough when needed. In social dilemma situations, weak associational bonds can simply be overlooked in favor of short-term self-interest. When there are viable exit options, and when the embeddedness of members in the association is highly imperfect, community members may fail to participate in the creation of public goods, with no significant adverse consequences. In such cases, conventions fail to perfectly regulate the interactions among association members, and the benefits of "coordination power" are disabled.

Third, the institutional variables identified by Ostrom (1990) as instrumental for driving collaboration in associations are also problematic in the context of online communities. Three factors in particular are worth closer examination: monitoring, sanctioning, and boundaries. Despite their structural significance, boundaries are rarely established and maintained by online communities. Membership is often fluid, and members can join and drop out at will. Often there is no meaningful distinction between members and guests, and no clearly stated and enforced membership application procedures or requirements.

As regards monitoring and sanctioning, there is a continuum in the degree of institutionalization of online communities. Yet often these communities do not authenticate members' identities. Hence, monitoring members' actions, holding them accountable, and inflicting sanctions may be impossible. Online communities often focus on a single issue, and members join due to their interest in this issue. Sanctions, then, are relevant to a single aspect of members' lives-an aspect that was important enough for a member to explore further by joining the community, but still a single aspect. So the possibilities of sanctioning seem quite limited, even when visibility is possible.

The remaining factors identified by Ostrom (1990), including the ability to construct institutions, rules, and low-cost conflict-resolution arenas, are not particularly challenging or demanding online. Local rules and institutions are generally sensitive to the needs and interests of members, and in many communities institutions are peer-produced. The community portal is instrumental for notifying members about rules and policies, for framing the normative environment, and for indoctrinating and socializing newcomers. Many communities also include "constitutive documents" such as mission statements, general policies, and lists of frequently-asked questions and answers. Local norms are often inferred from typical behaviors or from key attributes of members, and are reinforced over time. Conflict-resolution and problem-solving mechanisms vary, and are by and large experimental in nature. They can include a variety of tools for voting, discussion, consensus-creation, iterated peer-production of solutions to communal problems, and more (see Van Wendel de Joode, 2004).

Note that the obstacles that jeopardize collective action in online communities are not the unavailability of norms, rules, and conflict-resolution mechanisms, but rather their ineffectiveness. Due to the viable exit options, local rules may be little more than "parchment barriers" that cannot be effectively enforced when interests are significantly non-aligned.

The analysis thus far suggests that online communities may face major obstacles to establishing "coordination power" and motivating members to contribute to non-trivial collective actions. Online communities seem to be more vulnerable to cooperation and coordination failures than their offline counterparts. In particular, the single-dimensionality of the community experience, easy exit options, and the absence of clear boundaries, effective monitoring and sanctioning, render the traditional explanatory frameworks of Hardin (1995) and notably Ostrom (1990) impractical for explaining why online communities induce collaboration, when they do.

Routes for explaining community action online

So far I have argued that collaboration in online communities cannot be analyzed by "traditional" explanations, focusing on social control and its determinants. In the next two sections, I propose two alternative routes for explaining online community-grounded collective actions. The first emphasizes that some online communities are "privileged" over others in that their institutional structure or network embeddedness place them in a better position to mobilize their members to participate in collective actions. The second route emphasizes the functioning of some online communities as a hub for recruiting potential contributors to emerging collaborations.

As was noted above, online communities manifest an interesting duality between the inegalitarianism and decentralization of their "horizontal" dimension of peer-production and user-generated content, and the highly centralized control that can be exercised by managers. Thus, even when exit is inexpensive and multi-dimensionality is absent, community managers can still "compensate" for some of the shortages surveyed above, by designing a more "pro-social" infrastructure for the community (Donath, 1996; Kim, 2000; Preece, 2000). For example, designers can build into online communities:

  • Boundaries to differentiate members from guests; for example, requiring member registration, charging member fees, or allowing premium access to certain areas of the community.
  • Visibility and authentication of identities; for example, requiring unique and persistent identities. The success of the WELL, the first large-scale online community, to suppress "flaming" and other anti-social behaviors, has been attributed in part to a policy of YOYOW (You Own Your Own Words) (Rheingold, 2000; Hafner, 1997; Smith, 1992).
  • Visual representation of collective actions; for example, software applications can emulate social practices like queues, or provide indicators about members' contribution levels during the production of continuous public goods.
  • Online sanctioning; for example, hostile rumors and "flaming," shaming and humiliation in public rituals, "ignoring" or "gagging" objectionable behaviors, filtering out the input of specific users, temporarily or permanently restricting members' rights, and banishing users from particular areas of the community, or from the community altogether (Kollock and Smith, 1996).

Thus, the institutional variables emphasized by Ostrom (1990) as essential for community-based collective action can be introduced into online communities by their managers, to a certain degree. However, the variables emphasized in Hardin (1995) as essential for cooperation-multiplexity and expensive exit-may be lacking. From this perspective, the communities that are best able to control their members' behaviors are those where the community experience is enmeshed in a variety of other spheres of their members' lives, online and particularly offline. When online communities are partially embedded in offline ties, failures to comply may have consequences in a variety of domains, online as well as offline. In such cases, sanctions for undesired behaviors may be feasible, and expansive exit options may increase compliance.

For example, members of some communities of practice are mutually embedded in a professional environment, are familiar with each others' opinions and work, and may meet face-to-face occasionally (see Koku, Nazer and Wellman, 2001, and Matzat, 2009 on online academic associations, and Haythornthwaite, 2008 on online learning communities). Such online communities of practice enlarge the scale of the corresponding offline associations, improve information flows, and make the associations more cohesive. Feedback and sanctions can be vital to members' careers, especially when carried out in public before the entire association, and when all disputes are recorded and stored in community archives. In such associations, acting in ways that are inconsistent with conventions may have adverse consequences for members.

The convention-based account of collective action may also still be effective in some place-based communities whose members are not spread geographically. Such groups have opportunities to "meetup" and organize collective action. Information about residents or local figures whose actions are inconsistent with the interests or values of the local community is easily circulated among local residents, for whom such actions have direct implications. In this case as well, failures to cooperate in a specific action may have adverse offline consequences.

The successful mobilizing capacities of such place-based associations are demonstrated in a study by Hampton (2003, pp. 425-426), who reports on the outstanding success of the residents of "Netville" in protesting against the developer's decision to revise local development plans. Similarly, and perhaps more impressively, Mele (1999) reports on the collective efforts of the residents of Jervay Place (in Wilmington, North Carolina), the first public-housing development in the US with a resident-managed website. The residents organized through the web to oppose the housing authority's decision to exclude them from participating in future planning. To appreciate these novel online-based organizational capabilities, keep in mind Granovetter's (1973) classic work that demonstrated that the inability of local residents to effectively organize against urban renewal was a consequence of the absence of "weak ties" that may have otherwise been used to mobilize resources and support (see also Ishii and Ogasahara, 2007 for offline embeddedness of online networks, and Dannecker and Lechner, 2007 for embeddedness of a social support community).

Online communities as focal sites for attracting contributors to collective actions

So far I have explored one route for explaining community-based collective action-"compensating" for the inherent limitations of online community to support collaboration. Such compensation could involve maintaining a pro-social institutional design or embedding the community in larger networks, which increases the multiplexity of the community experience, and enhances sanctioning possibilities and increases exit costs.

This section focuses on a second route for explaining the success of collective action in online communities-their functioning as meeting-places for large numbers of individuals with shared concerns, making them hubs from which entrepreneurs can recruit potential contributors.

Note that different social media projects demand varying skills and investments from contributors (Lev-On and Hardin, 2007; See also Brabham, 2008):

  1. Some projects thrive on the cooperation of "non-experts" with minimal skills. In such cases, a large number of "amateurs" is necessary to generate a sufficient amount of contributions. For example, grid-computing projects, such as SETI@home (Holohan and Garg, 2005), slice tasks into small pieces that are sent to volunteers.
  2. Other projects involve contributions by agents with private information; for example, collaborative journalism or product recommendation sites. In such cases, the larger the contributor pool, the greater the possibility of recruiting the people with local expertise.
  3. Lastly, complex projects require a division of labor, where different agents specialize in different aspects of the project; for example, the peer-production of open source software or encyclopedias. Here, the more volunteers, the higher the probability of finding experts across several aspects of the project.

Note that many such collaborative projects do not rely on managerial hierarchies or markets to organize production, nor even on community conventions to encourage contributions. The last point deserves special emphasis, as peer-production is sometimes contrasted with government- and firm-based production, but conflated with community-based production (see Haythornthwaite, 2009). Still, many such projects are based on contributions by individuals without prior acquaintance, and with no expectations of future interactions. Such massive-scale projects succeed in spite of the near-absence of interaction amongst contributors; inter-member communication is not a key generator of such collective actions (see Lev-On and Hardin, 2007).

Paradoxically, then, online communities cannot generate the "coordination power" that induces members' cooperation. At the same time, collaboration between large groups of strangers can succeed without such associations. Even in such cases, online communities can be of use to collective action, in that they function as hubs for recruiting potential contributors.

Online associations have no practical limit on their scale. As a result, they can enjoy input and feedback by many contributors (although, in all likelihood, as the scale goes up the cohesiveness of the association declines). When a member posts a query to the association's online space, a large audience-including some local "experts" or members with private information-is available to provide an answer, comments, or references. If the comments are made public but are deficient or incomplete, other members can provide corrections and feedback.

Online associations are also self-selecting. As stated above, people choose to become members of associations they find appealing, and can leave when they lose interest. Self-selection goes with self-screening: those who stay are not forced to do so, but rather choose to stay; those who leave choose to do so-they typically are not ostracized. In addition, those who stay and become members are likely to be knowledgeable about the central theme of the association, and motivated to acquire further knowledge or even become involved in relevant collective actions if so asked.

As a result of such dynamics, online associations can in time develop into "havens for anyone who relishes the opportunity to interact with others who are similar" (Shapiro, 1999, p. 49). Such associations often include "high proportions of people who enjoy each other and low proportions of people who are forced to interact with each other because they are juxtaposed in the same neighborhood, kinship group, organization, or workplace" (Wellman 2001, p. 235).

The emergence of large-scale "informal" associations of self-selected members online is a distinct phenomenon. Online communities can be composed of a large talent pool, where members choose to participate in exploring and discussing themes they share an interest in. Due to their scale and the self-selection of members, online communities can turn into focal sites that attract many potential contributors, who can then be mobilized to participate in collective action.

Typically such collective efforts are of interest to large numbers of people, but at the absence of organizational infrastructure, such causes may not attract and mobilize enough support (i.e. Olson, 1965). For example, citizen-based campaigns to re-evaluate and reconsider public policies (Brabham, 2008), orchestrated demonstrations and rallies, or efforts to revise local development plans all require that activists.and. sympathizers are able to learn about the particular projects or events and receive relevant information. Successful collective efforts depend on the existence of easily accessed focal sites at which organizers, activists, and sympathizers can converge to coordinate their efforts. Online communities can support collective efforts in this sense by providing a channel for people with similar interests to coordinate their efforts.

For example, entrepreneurs who focus on gay issues know that online associations of gays assemble a niche audience that can be effectively reached and mobilized, and hence may choose to focus their efforts in such associations. Online associations of immigrants allow mobilization efforts in immigration-related themes. Even fans of sports, music, or television (Baym, 1997) can be routed into impressive collective efforts. For example, if members of a soap opera online association do not like a certain twist in the plot, they can (and do) organize a protest and send messages to the producers or the network. The organized efforts of members of such communities make a difference. Producers care about ratings, and when the online association of fans is large and prolific enough, the dissatisfaction of members can have consequences for the careers and earnings of producers, writers, and actors.

There are other ways to direct people to emergent collective actions. Search engines also assist in routing people to collaborative projects (Lev-On, 2008), as do online ads in general-interest sites. But online associations are uniquely situated to route potential contributors to relevant collaborative projects, because unlike search engines they include large pools of agents who select to join the association and have some interest or expertise relevant to the focal theme of the community. Hence, online communities can function as effective hubs for routing their members to relevant collective efforts.


In addressing the mutual interactions between users, communities, and technologies, I have analyzed how technologies enable users to organize and collaborate, and how and why they make communication and communities functional and useful for promoting their goals.

Like their offline counterparts, online communities are rooted in inter-member communication and member-generated content. But factors that traditionally support cooperation in offline communities, such as boundaries, monitoring opportunities, and meaningful sanctions, do not exist in many online communities. Furthermore, obstacles for exit are low, and the community experience is often one-dimensional.

Hence, to understand collaboration in online communities we cannot use the conceptual lenses of traditional frameworks. Factors such as easy exit, narrow focus, fluid boundaries, and difficult monitoring and sanctioning, limit the applicability of frameworks such as Ostrom's (1990) and Hardin's (1995) to explain collaboration in online communities.

The key to conceptualizing collective action in online communities lies, instead, in two routes: either in their abilities to compensate for their inherent limitations for supporting collective action by, for example, developing institutions that support and even incentivize pro-social behaviors; or by embedding the community in larger networks. The second route emphasizes the functioning of online communities as meeting-places for many self-selected, like-minded people - "organizational hubs" from which potential contributors to relevant collective actions can be recruited.

Scholars highlight a few consequences of the emergence of large-scale and narrowly focused communities online. Hagel and Armstrong (1997) argue that online communities constitute a high-quality environment for vendors to target potential consumers, and comprise focus groups for market research. Sunstein (2001) argues that due to the convergence of a large number of like-minded people conversing primarily amongst themselves and hearing echoes of their own voices, such communities are breeding grounds for political radicalization.

Arguably, the very same features that make online communities prime targets for vendors and advertisers, and breeding ground for extremism, also make them hotbeds for collective actions. Such actions results when organizers and entrepreneurs tap into the enormous promise of many potential collaborators. Such communities can not only serve a jump-start to direct members to relevant collective efforts, but also establish institutions that support the local production of complicated and even "impossible public goods" (Kollock, 1999, p. 230).


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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441