Experiments for Web Science: Examining the Effect of the Internet on Collective Action
Margetts, Helen and John, Peter (2009) Experiments for Web Science: Examining the Effect of the Internet on Collective Action. In: Proceedings of the WebSci'09: Society On-Line, 18-20 March 2009, Athens, Greece.
The shift of much of political life on to the Internet and Web has implications for ‘what we know’ about political behaviour, requiring a re-evaluation of some of the micro-foundations of political science. Web-based experiments are an under-explored methodology to identify and investigate these Internet effects. This paper reports on one such experiment, which was used to explore how one particular characteristic of the Internet – the ability to feed real-time information about the preferences and behaviour of others back to an individual user – can affect people’s incentives to act collectively and to organise around public goods. Collective action has been a key puzzle of political science since the 1960s. In The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson (1965) put forward a thesis of when individuals can be incentivized to act collectively. He argued that, when organising around collective goods, ‘small groups are more efficient and viable than large ones’ and that if they are not, they need to be able to coerce their members or provide selective incentives to contributors. Generations of social scientists have worried over the implications of Olson’s argument, which skews the influence of interest groups, limiting the ability of large groups to represent their interests. More recently, studies have suggested that larger groups may actually find it easier to form, as their size makes it more likely they will be able to attain a ‘critical mass’ of activists who organise around public goods (Marwell and Oliver, Critical Mass in Collective Action 1993), and that the costs of collective action around many public goods vary little with group size, due to ‘jointness of supply’. In these cases free-riding is unlikely to be problematic, larger groups are just as likely to exhibit collective action as smaller ones, and indeed under some conditions more likely, as they are more likely to be able to assemble a ‘critical mass’ of activists. This paper reports a large-scale quasi-field experiment to test empirically how certain aspects of internet-based communication affect collective action decisions. Specifically, it examines the effect of providing internet users with real-time information about other people’s participatory actions and preferences. Our hypothesis is that information about how many other people have undertaken a participatory activity (such as donating money to a cause or signing a petition) will affect people’s decisions about whether to incur costs themselves in the pursuit of collective action. We also hypothesise that information about different levels of other signatories will have differential effects, building on the work of both Olson and Marwell and Oliver. That is, where very low numbers of people have signed a petition, the information could have a negative impact on one individual’s propensity to sign, as they will consider it a hopeless cause – or it could have a positive effect, as any one individual will feel that their action will make a significant difference. Where very high numbers of people have signed, the information could have a positive impact, generating excitement, social pressure and a feeling that they can be part of change – or it could act negatively, making people feel that so many other people are acting that their contribution would be insignificant. An initial pilot experiment conducted at OxLab, the University of Oxford’s experimental facility, identified one issue (out of six) where subjects were more likely to sign a petition or donate money to a cause if they received information that many other people had signed than if they received no information, providing some evidence that ‘critical mass’ where the information makes a difference is 1 million. Across the six petitions there was a positive correlation with the number of other people signing (when numbers were high) and the likelihood of an individual signing. But subject numbers were too small to come to firm conclusions about the distribution of effects on people’s likelihood to participate. In this larger study, we test more fully the hypotheses, using a larger subject pool of 700 participants who participated remotely. They were presented with a screen which asked them to examine a number of issues and then asked to (a) express their willingness to sign a petition supporting the issue and (b) donate a small amount of their participation fee to supporting the issue. They were divided into four groups which, for each petition, differed according to the information they received: a control group, who received no information about other people signing; a group who were told that very large numbers of people (> 1 million) had signed the petitions; a group who were told that medium numbers of people (>100, < 1 million) had signed; and a group who were told that very low numbers of people (< 100) had signed. Initial analysis of the data suggests that large numbers have statistically significant effects. The findings of this experiment provide a methodological pointer for future studies in Web Science. While Internet research abounds with claims that the Internet enhances political participation, empirical evidence is scarce. Experiments of this kind could be a fruitful way to establish specific Internet effects in political science, as they have in public policy to show how the changed information environment provided by the internet affects citizen-government interactions (see Escher and Margetts, 2007; Dunleavy et al, 2007). The WWW itself provides fertile ground for natural versions of these experiments (see Salganik and Dodds, 2006, for an experimental analysis of cultural markets) to further examine the phenomena discussed here, as well as other aspects of political behaviour on-line. References Dunleavy, P. Margetts, H. Bastow, S. Pearce, O. and Tinkler, J. (2007) Government on the internet: progress in delivering information and services online, Value for Money Study by the UK National Audit Office (London: The Stationary Office) HC 529 13 July. Escher, T. And Margetts, H. (2007), ‘Understanding Governments and Citizens On-Line: Learning from E-Commerce’, Paper presented to the Annual Conference of the American Political Science Association, Chicago, 31st August 2007 Marwell, G. and Oliver, P. (1993), The Critical Mass in Collective Action Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Olson, M. (1965), The Logic of Collective Action Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Salganik, M. J., P. S. Dodds, et al. (2006). "Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market." Science 311(5762): 854-856.
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