On the Functions and Consequences of the Internet for Social Movements and Voluntary Associations

Hans Geser

Release 2.0, March 2001

Part I  | Part II

"To the '60s radical, 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' was a mantra. In these Web-happy days it could be, "Boot up, log on, download." 1

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Citation:
Geser Hans:
On the Functions and Consequences of the Internet for Socal Movements and Voluntary Associations. In: Sociology in Switzerland: Social Movements, Pressure Groups and Political Parties.. Online Publications. Zuerich, March 2001 (Release 2.0) http://socio.ch/movpar/t_hgeser3.htm


Table of Contents

1.    Introduction

2.    The Internet as a Facilitative Tool for Founding, Integrating and Managing Voluntary Associations

3.    The Internet as a Tool for Facilitating, Supporting and Enhancing F2F Interactions

4.    Better conditions for combining associational participation with any environmental conditions, social roles and personal activities

5.    Increased capacities to organize widely dispersed and irregularly moving members

6.    Increased interaction and mutual learning between collateral territorial subunits

7.    More heterogeneous publics, diversified support bases and broadened definitions of issues

8.    Expanding the sphere of "latent relationships" and "weak social ties"

9.    The shift from territorial segmentation to functional specialization

10.  The increasing impact of subjective individual motivations on organizational goals, activities and structures

11.   New Tools for Bottom-Up Communication and Grassroots Campaigning

12.  The Rising Significance of "Interactional" Systemic Integration

13.   The new focus on multiple target campaigning

14.   The diffuseness of online channels as an opportunity for exploiting wider ranges of individual motivations and behavior

15.   On the Declining Functionality of (Large) Bureaucratic Organization

15.1  The declining return for high investments in technology, professional staff and organizational structures

15.2  The growing "communicative marginality" of associational leaders

15.3  The declining formal control over the spread of information

15.4  The emancipation of members and subsystems from encompassing organizational controls

15.5  The decentralization and informalization of extra- and trans-associational interactions

15.6  The reduced significance of formal representation and delegation

16.  On the Organizational Prerequisites for Successful Web Communication

17.  The New Unlimited Options of Combining Public, Semipublic and "Private" Social Communications

18.  Conclusions and Outlooks

References


1. Introduction

For securing their internal cohesion as well as their capacities for collective action, all voluntary associations need to maintain highly sophisticated and regularized processes of vertical and horizontal communication. Thus, leaders and officials of the central bureaucracy rely on top-down communication for informing, mobilizing and indoctrinating active members, passive sympathizers and the general public population; members have to rely on bottom-up channels to articulate their demands and expectations or propose candidates as well as for expressing criticism and support; and on all levels, horizontal multilateral interactions are needed for the exchange of information and opinions, for discussions and deliberation. Typically, all of these three basic modes are multi-layered in the sense that there is (1) a most inclusive sphere of public communication, (2) a more restricted communicative realm reserved to members or participants of special subgroups, and (3) a highly exclusive sphere only accessible to core participants (e. g. full-time functionaries or members of ruling boards).

Reviewing the long-term history of communication media, it becomes evident that the technologies available for top-down, bottom-up and horizontal communication have evolved in highly divergent ways. Since the inception of the printing press in the 16th century, only the "one-to-many" media have made significant technological progress: culminating in the highly centralized modern mass media systems (press, radio, TV and cinema) which are largely dominating the public sphere (Habermas 1962). In the realm of decentralized horizontal communication, only the telephone has brought major innovative potentials. But as it can be used (almost) only for bilateral talks, it has contributed little to any processes of social collectivization. On the contrary, the telephone may have contributed to a growing "depolitization" of society by isolating dyadic microsocial communications from wider social settings. On the other hand, almost no technological innovations have been made to facilitate "many-to-one" communications needed for bottom-up processes of collective articulation, or to promote "many-to-many" exchanges apt to increase the cohesion of multilateral networks and groups. As in the distant past, 10 000 letters have still to be produced and distributed when each participant of a 100-member group intends to send a message to each other member; when the lecturer has finished, "applause" is still the dominant audience reaction despite the fact that as a mere variety of noise, it cannot be specified to carry more sophisticated information; and whenever Yes-No - plebiscites are enacted, the bottom-up information delivered by each voter is on the lowest possible level: exactly one bit. In addition, the integration of the different communication modes is severely hampered by the fact that they are based on completely different technological devices so that constant human efforts (taking minutes, making transcriptions, tape-recording, photocopying, scanning, vote counting etc.) are needed to transpose given information from one medium to another.

Evidently, these asynchronies in the evolution of communication technologies have had major impacts on the evolution of modern society in all institutional spheres. While they have certainly favored the emergence and perpetuation of highly centralized collectivities (like bureaucratic organizations and authoritarian political regimes), they have equally hampered the establishment and functioning of collectivities based on more decentralized social structures and processes: e. g. grassroots movements and all kinds of (formally democratic) voluntary associations. In other words: the deficient technological support for bottom-up and multilateral communication may explain why all major societal developments of the last five centuries have predominantly been shaped by rather authoritarian types of organizations (bureaucracies, business corporations etc.), while associational organizations (co-operatives, parties, unions etc.) have played a more modest role.2 Thus, almost all influential conventional media are either dominated by political power centers or by economic corporations, while the "Civil society" (as it was invoked by John Locke) has not gained a strong independent voice (Frederick 1992).3 In addition, the predominance of unilateral top down media has been a factor in making social movements and associations more elitist and centralized: thus giving rise to the famous "iron law of oligarchy" expounded by Robert Michels (1911) and Max Weber; and of justifying "resource mobilization" theories which assert that social movements are typically emerging as products of centralized "social entrepreneurship", not as the result of decentralized "collective behavior" (McCarthy/Zald 1994).

In a more general way, indirect forms of representative democracies have been established almost everywhere because of the high costs and technological difficulties connected with all forms of grassroots participation and plebiscitarian procedures. Seen in this wider perspective, the Internet is a tool particularly useful for associations because it fully supports unilateral and bi-directional information flows and bilateral as well as multilateral communications. Thus, it offers a highly generalized technological environment in which all possible communications can be processed and linked to each other almost without costs, spatial limits and temporal delays. Paradoxically then, the most revolutionary impact of the new computer media on voluntary associations may result from their ability to bring factual communication flows (or even influence patterns) more in line with those idealistic conceptions they always have propagated in their formal charters: with their standards of internal democracy as well as their goals related to inter-associational solidarity and concerted external action:

"Ironically, this technology was almost designed for the labour movement. It fits us perfectly. That is not what its inventors and developers had in mind, of course. But the fact is that computer communications technology is very cheap, easy to learn and use. And promotes decentralization." (Lee 1993) 4

For example, the Internet is finally fulfilling the utopian ideas of Charles Levinson (president of the ICF) who suggested already in 1972 that the International Labour Union Movement should make extensive use of new "telematic technologies" in order to strengthen its global reach:

"Data banks could be linked by telex to ICF headquarters and information rapidly transmitted to affiliates upon request."5

Given these prevoyant plans and proposals, it is not astonishing that labor unions began to implement extensive computer-net projects in the beginning 80ies already (when stand-alone computers were still dominating in most businesses); and that since 1990 they organized several significant congresses where the use and impact of these new media were discussed.6 After a bold first experiment in British Columbia in 1981, the new technologies were for the first time systematically implemented by the British "Popular Telematics Project" (poptel) in 1985 as well as by the International Labour Union secretariats which introduced e-mail applications shortly after that date.7

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2. The Internet as a Facilitative Tool for Founding, Integrating and Managing Voluntary Associations

Within all modern democratic societies, there are formalized devices apt to facilitate the generation and survival of voluntary associations. For instance, the civil law offers highly routinized procedures for founding such groups and formats for shaping their internal organization. Thus, there is a positive interplay between centralized-formalized bureaucratic structures of society and its flora of voluntary associations (of which Germany provides a good example). Such devices are useful because founding members and administrators stem from very widespread (also rather uneducated) segments of population, and because the opportunities for horizontal interaction are usually so limited that there is no great potential for complex deliberations and decisions.

In this perspective, the World Wide Web can be seen as an additional potent source for such routinized devices and procedures: by offering software for processing communications, formats for presenting, storing, and transmitting information, programs to facilitate discussions and the exercise of leadership functions, forms for subscribing to membership and paying contributions, etc etc.

"Yahoo! UK & Ireland today launched Yahoo! Clubs (http://uk.clubs.yahoo.com), a new community building service that enables people to create their own personal Web communities and interact on a regular basis with friends, relatives, colleagues and anyone who shares a similar interest. Yahoo! Clubs gives users a unique communications centre on the Web, combining some of Yahoo!'s most popular community tools - message boards, chat, profiles and personalisation services. Yahoo! Clubs is an ideal community platform for groups of all types, including workgroups, families, investment clubs, associations, fan clubs and school and student organisations."8

Most features relevant to virtual community building are provided on this Yahoo site: photo albums, member profiles, club calendar, chatrooms, club statistics, and Web links.

Web links are particularly salient for inserting any newly founded group from the beginning into a rich network of existing groups - thus making it more extraverted and cooperative than conventional voluntary associations. Of course, these routinized tools may be particularly important for connecting geographically widely dispersed participants (or local chapters) , because they facilitate the formation of groupings with very low or zero F2F interaction. Compared to most conventional supports for association building (like legal statutes or founding activities of mother organizations), such WWW provisions are outstanding by the fact that they support processes of collectivization without enforcing at the same time any kind of restrictions, prohibitions or measures of social control. For appreciating these purely facilitative functions, it is helpful to consider that voluntary associations diverge dramatically in the way the relationship between the membership base and the central organization is regulated. Taking the power relationship between the two system components as the defining characteristic, three basic models can be identified:

Centralized:
Master-Slave model

The organization (and its leadership) exercises authoritarian control. The members have no say when binding collective decisions are made; and their strict conformity to centralized orders and rule is enforced.

Equilibrated:
Citizen-Government model

Organization and membership are equal partners. Collective decisions are deliberated and decided democratically: in bodies where both are represented. Leadership is responsive to the members, and all members can claim precisely defined rights vis-a-vis the organization.

Decentralized:
Client -Server model

The central organization is fully subordinated to the needs of the members. It is reduced to a pure "subsidiary" status by providing services which can be used by the members whenever they choose, and by catalyzing communication and group processes among the members.

In historical evolution of computer networks, the master-slave model has dominated in the era of large expensive mainframe computers which were embedded in highly centralized structures of formal control. Whoever controlled the big machine was able to set the terms for the peripheral users which had to adapt to the restrictions set by the hardware, the software as well as by the specific operating rules.

With the rise of personal computers, this authoritarian regime has given way to the client-server model where the central computer is reduced to a generalized service station which empowers the individual users instead of dominating them: e. g. by offering them storage space and downloadable software, by mediating their access to more encompassing computer networks (e. g. the Internet) or by making available large quantities of pooled information. Such decentralized technological structures can provide the basis for an isomorphic kind of social organization where the center is reduced to a subordinated instrumental role. For example, they can give rise to voluntary associations where the center is functioning as a "clearing house": helping members to reach their specific goals: by facilitating the flow of information and communication, by mediating interaction partners and by catalyzing the emergence of online communities and other social groups.

The major function of clearing houses is to provide software tools of collaboration and to generate contacts among individuals and groups with similar values and goals, but unacquainted with each other and/or unable to coordinate their activities by direct horizontal interaction. Activists send information relevant to their movement to the clearinghouse address. Interested users "subscribe" to the clearinghouse service, which upon receipt of a contribution automatically sends an electronic mail message to all its subscribers containing the contents of the contribution.

"This method is an extremely efficient means for activists to send information to hundreds or even thousands of activists whom they have never met. After the message is sent through the clearinghouse service, the personal message forwarding process takes over as activists forward to their acquaintances all or part of the information they have received. The clearinghouse method requires considerably more organization and sustained commitment because activists must take responsibility for starting the clearinghouse, maintaining subscription lists, monitoring the content of contributions, and ensuring the proper functioning of the service." (Myers 1998)

Of course, such mediating services can be improved when a clearing house moves on to a formalized organization based on regularized professional work. This is exemplified by the Institute for Global Communication (IGC)9 which functions as an umbrella gateway for Peacenet, Econet, Womensnet and Antiracistnet: four more specific clearing houses focusing on "social movement industries" - each of which composed of an immense and constantly changing galaxy of different committees, groupings and associations. While mere clearing houses can only be used by individuals and groups equipped with all the necessary technologies and skills, such formal organizations can be active to make the Internet accessible to additional users (e. g. in poor southern countries), or by empowering existing users so that they can make better use of the new media (Myers 1998).

As they are reduced to a purely instrumental (even technical) function, such clearing organizations can host groups with a much wider spectrum of divergent values, ideologies and goals than any conventional movement organizations, and their survival is not threatened by even very profound changes in the social movement sector (Myers 1998). As such, they are ideally suited for fragmented modern movements not united by strong leadership or explicit ideological beliefs. Given the fact that the same people are disposed for very different movements (McAdam 1986; Ryman 1992), such polyvalent virtual agencies are generalized meeting places for "movement-prone" individuals: informing them about new causes and mobilizing them for new collective actions and for the establishment of new groups:

"Both direct involvement in conversations with other activists and simply reading announcements and information about protest activity can convince activists to take on new causes, develop new identities, and be socialized into new roles. This type of computer networking allows an individual access to information about new issues and movements while investing only small amounts of time and energy." (Myers 1998)

Far from controlling the web publication strategies of their member organizations, highest-level national (or international) associations have a more modest function in proposing common publication formats, and in promoting coherent and equilibrated web presentations (e. g. by offering incentives for still passive suborganizations or hesitant individual members. Thus, the AFL-CIO has initiated its ambitious "working-families" project by offering cheap computers and low-price provider services to all its 13 Mio. Members. (Wagner 2000:7).

The manifest aims of this huge initiative are

1) to increase the share of internet users among unionized workers;

2) to focus the attention of users on its own organization, issues and activities (e. g. by presetting the browser in a way that the AFL-CIO-homepage is the start page which is loaded automatically whenever a user logs in).

3) to offer individual member unions good preconditions for opening their own portal sites comparable in style, but customized according to their specific topics and needs.

On the one hand, this strategy may well increase the linkage of individual members to the (hitherto very remote) national level of union organization. But on the other hand, this highly centralized initiative is likely to give birth to a highly decentralized system of communication which will diminish the actual importance of the AFC-CIO: by emphasizing the autonomous identity of its different member organizations, which will again guide their users to even more decentralized levels (e. g. offering email accounts or attractive marketing opportunities; by providing links to local chapters, specialized workgroups or discussion forums, and particularly: by allowing everybody to "personalize" its page).

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3. The Internet as a Tool for Facilitating, Supporting and Enhancing F2F Interactions

The sociological relevance of technical communication media would soon be exhausted if they would simply add new kinds of social interactions and relationships to a stable universe of already established non-technical communications. Instead, their functional significance and causal impact is much enhanced by the fact that many (if not most) traditional relationships are at least indirectly affected by their presence. Thus, informal group conversations in modern society are much shaped by the fact that participants possess common information because they have read the same newspapers or watched the same prime-time television broadcasts; and any kind of Rendez-vous will be affected by the partner's previous exchanges by mailed letters or on the phone. Contrary to letters or phones which affect mainly bilateral relationships, online communications are disposed to condition wider multilateral communication processes as they take place in group meetings or at larger gatherings (workshops, congresses, festivals) of any kind.

1) Facilitation and catalyzation of physical gatherings

While the exchange of email messages may certainly be a substitute for many cumbersome meetings at a fixed place on a fixed time, the same technology may also be functional for organizing such gatherings: e. g. by reaching many possible participants at very different places, exchanging opinions about optimal times and places, or by facilitating the diffusion of technical information about the modalities of the planned meeting (travel, accommodation, agenda, plenar and workshop sessions etc etc.). These capacities of the new media to facilitate and support physical gatherings has been impressively illustrated by the Mexican Zapatista Movement (EZLN) which succeeded in assembling its widespread supporters in two large intercontinental meetings (in Chiapas 1996 and in Spain 1997).

"Through extensive E-mails and a small number of intermittent, face-to-face meetings, possible approaches to the organization of discussion were debated, agendas were hammered out and logistical arrangements were made. The results were stunning. Thousands came to the continental meetings--3,000 to the intercontinental meeting in Chiapas and 4,000 to the intercontinental reunion in Spain. Grassroots activists from over 40 countries and five continents attended both intercontinental meetings." (Cleaver 1998).

2) Embedment of F2F interactions in larger, richer and more extended communicative settings

Whenever stable groups engage in continuous multilateral online communications, their face-to-face meetings will usually not be substituted, but reduced to more specialized functions. Typically, the online communication provides an encompassing frame of interaction within which physical meetings are inserted like islands in a sea:

1) Temporal extension

While physical meetings are restricted to specific times and places, online discussion can go on without interruption: before, during and after the face-to-face gatherings. Given this temporal continuity, online communication is highly useful
(a) for preparing meetings: by communicating "hot" topics of discussion, provide information useful to read before plenary discussions; making the structures and events of a planned meeting transparent so that participants can chose the lectures, discussion groups, workshops or poster sessions they plan to attend etc etc.
(b) in the aftermath the meetings: by summarizing results, harvesting and evaluating the progress made during the transactions, providing opportunities for critical comments, making available important statements or lectures many participants didn't attend because of conflicting time schedules or too early leaving. (Rosencrance 2000).

2) Expansion of social reach

While physical meetings include only a section of all members (those able and willing to be at the given place on the prescribed hours or days), an online forum can include all the others as well. Thus, absentees can compensate for their ignorance by consulting the Web information, contacting people who have participated etc. In addition, any meeting can be given a more public visibility: so that non-members (e.g. sympathizers considering future membership) can gain insight into the associational proceedings.

3) Expansion to other topics

While time on physical meetings is usually so scarce that only some selected priority topics can be sufficiently discussed, anything else can be deliberated online without limits of session time. Thus, any group or organization can increase the total load of topics it discusses during a specific span of time, as well as the number of topics discussed simultaneously (e. g. in different listservs or newsgroup "threads"). On all three dimensions, physical meetings may become more relaxed because their work loads (as well as the expectations of the members what should be accomplished) become significantly reduced. Thus, sessions can be shorter because additional discussion can be transferred to later online communication; and people not able to make themselves heard need have still a significant voice in the online channels. More than that, virtually embedded physical meetings may have less difficulty to start and proceed swiftly because they can build on many consensual premises and secure grounds of common understanding already established in advance. For instance, decision-oriented deliberation processes may be pre-structured in a way that the session itself can focus exclusively on choosing among already highly specified options. Of course, meetings may also be less attended because many members think that they can inform and articulate themselves sufficiently on the Net. More and more, physical meetings will have to specialize on functions which cannot be easily fulfilled by online communication: e.g. in the case of non-standardized tasks where success highly depends on the transmission and evaluation of highly complex nonverbal cues. Thus, gatherings in real space may always be indispensable when new candidates for leadership positions have to be evaluated and elected, or in the case of difficult negotiation processes where the outcome depends on highly informal exchanges and subtle interpersonal understandings.

4) Facilitating open discussion by anonymizing contributions

While all online communications tend to reduce the impact of personal characteristics (because cues like voice tone, bodily gestures, face expressions, gazings etc. cannot be transmitted), this effect of depersonalization can easily be enhanced by anonymizing incoming contributions (a feature offered by many groupware tools). Anonymity may have at least two positive effects. First, it obliges all members to focus exclusively on the intrinsic content of messages, because their author is not known; and secondly, it encourages many more marginal members to express themselves freely: members who otherwise would remain mute because they anticipate that their suggestions will not be heard or turned down (Daly, 1996).

5) Enhancing group effectiveness by facilitating the articulation and aggregation of opinions and preferences

In face-to-face meetings, collective decisions are often made on the basis of rather insufficient knowledge of each individuals preferences and positions. Most often, many participants "agree" implicitly because they have no opportunities to voice their opinion, or because they don't find it worthwhile to express overt dissent. These low capacities of feeding individual opinions into the social system are particularly felt in the cases where the problem is not to decide about "yes or "no", but to select among a variety of alternatives, to create priority lists among different goals or activities, or to allocate scarce resources (time, money etc.) to different items. In such cases where majority votings do not help, F2F groups are particularly undemocratic because discussions would go on indefinitely if members would not agree to accept a proposal stemming from a single individual (or a very small preparatory group) (Rauch 1983). One of the most useful functions of multilateral online interaction (and one of the most helpful feature of most groupware tools) is to facilitate the explicit articulation and collective aggregation of individual preferences and priorities within a
social group. This allows to catalyze collective decisions without curbing too much equal individual participation. Thus, each individual can express fully its whole structure of preferences by ranking or scoring all alternatives, and by summarizing all these evaluations, a highly unbiased, equilibrated picture of the whole preference structure can be produced (Daly 1996).

While it is still possible to give leaders more influence (e. g. by giving their evaluations double or triple weight), such inequalities are no longer introduced as uncontrollable exogenous factors (e. g. by the exercise of individual charisma of "persuasive power"), but in a fully intentional way: by means of explicit rules which can be generated and modified within the social system itself. By applying such procedures, the participants themselves may be induced to behave in a more rational way:
First of all
, each member is likely to engage in more intensive and extensive processes of subjective thought, in order to make up his mind on all alternatives and to sharpen his opinion and preferences to the point they can be made explicit.
Secondly
, each member gets detailed information about the preferences of all other participants, so that they gain more mutual knowledge about each other. This may again facilitate future decision making because the group members see more clearly where they deviate and where they agree. In short, online communication enables a group to combine high capacity for collective decisions (and action) with a high level of democratic (egalitarian) participation thus creating optimum conditions for high member motivation.
Third, the groups become more transparent for outsiders, because whenever priority and preference orders are established, they can be easily communicated to the environment. For voluntary associations, this means that ordinary members are better able to control the board or other decision making bodies, because the values, goals and priorities maintained by these bodies are more visible (so that they can better be contested)
And forth, collectivities may easily gain more consciousness and control about their own development during time, because these explicated evaluations are stored in documents which can later easily be retrieved. Thus, groups become better able to relate to their own history: either by continuing or by discontinuing explicitly traditional practices or rules and preferences they have fixed in the past.

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4. Better conditions for combining associational participation with any environmental conditions, social roles and personal activities

Online communication channels improve he capacity of individuals to participate in any collective endeavors without leaving their actual physical environment and without discontinuing their habituated activities and roles. Thus, they allow involvements in public actions which do not presuppose any appearance in public places and which give not rise to any kind of new physical groups or formal organization.

"This privatization of public participation, as it were, as one usually uses a computer alone, even if not in the 'privacy of one's own home', makes the use of eMail politically different from many other forms of political action, suggesting that cyberspace may be conceived as both public and private space." (Stubbs 1998; Fernback 1997:p.39)

In particular, the Internet allows a new way of public participation which is absolutely compatible with a completely privatized way of life: sitting in front of the computer at home.

In a very general way, this smooth embedment of online communication in any offline settings increases the capacity of individuals to participate in voluntary associations, because such volunteering activities become more compatible with any given environmental circumstances and simultaneous full participation in other (e. g. professional) settings. Thus, anybody using a computer in his job is easily capable to maintain email contacts with a distant association without leaving his work place, without even interrupting the normal flow of work. Consequently, more intensive and more rapid intra-associational communication processes can be enacted even during daytime office hours, while in the past, any volunteering activity was restricted to hours after work. For instance, medical doctors acting as board members of their professional association are able to interact with other board members without disrupting their ability to see patients (Shuping 1998). And for union members, websites can be highly accessible gateways for getting into contact with "their organization"just on their place of work. Office employees in particular may use their netted PC to contact their Union during work hours - insofar as employers are prone (or legally forced) to allow such kinds of uses.10

In contrast to most traditional forms of political protest, which most often were restricted to people living in cities and assembling for public manifestations, online communication opens up a wide various forms of "electronic civil disobedience" highly accessible to every Net User anytime and anywhere in the world. In the form of spamming, hacking, denial of service operations or other illicit procedures, these activities can be done in secrecy, without going at specific places and without assuming unconventional social roles. Thus, they can be executed by hundred thousands of individuals wholly conformist in all other respects: like the millions loading down illegal MP3-files from Napster or Gnutella without the slightest pricks of conscience.

This increased interpenetration between associations and other social settings may result in four consequences:

1) The handicaps of pure volunteer associations (not employing any full-time staff) may become less pronounced, because their functionaries gain the capacity of being active for their organization at any time during the day.

2) The interaction between volunteers and full-time staff within associations may increase. In particular, boards and other bodies composed of non-paid members can increase their reach and influence dramatically, because even distant members absorbed by their professional work are able to maintain continuous intensive contact with each other as well with professional personnel at the headquarters (Shuping 1998). Consequently, the autonomy and power of staff may decline, while the influence of rank-and-file membership (articulating themselves either directly or through their representative bodies) increases.

3) Interactions between pure voluntary associations and professional organizations (like firms, schools, hospitals, insurance companies, law firms etc.) may increase, because normal office hours can be used for interaction.

4) Online communications can neutralize the oligarchic effects resulting from the decline of meetings (and meeting attendance).

Today's associations make the experience that it becomes more and more difficult to assemble their members in physical meetings, because people today have so many other role duties and so many alternative ways to spend their leisure time. As a consequence, even democratically-minded collectivities end up to be quite oligarchic because all the work has to be done by very few active (formally responsible) members:

"The hardest problem facing any organization is securing attendance at its meetings, especially now when both parents in families are likely to work and need their evenings to spend time with their children. It's rare for a group to get together more than once a month, and even these occasions involve only a small portion of the membership. The result is that boards and committees end up doing most of the work, which is then conveyed to the membership via a newsletter." (Schwartz 1995)

Given this declining frequency and attendance of meeting, less active rank-and-file members lose their only channels for exerting any kind of influence on their association. Under these conditions, online communication can be a remedy because all members gain the opportunity of getting informed and making their voice heard - independently of any participation in physical gatherings.

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5. Increased capacities to organize widely dispersed and irregularly moving members

By freeing system accessibility from spatial and temporal constraints, computer-supported interaction facilities widen the reach of associational integration to highly "precarious" population segments hard to organize because of their dispersed (or irregularly changing) geographical location. This may explain why net communication has gained a particular significance for labor unions in the traffic and transport sector (e. g. the International Transport Workers Federation ITF), and why the "United Food and Commercial workers" is getting about 150-200 email messages each day from (mainly rural) workers who utter complaints and ask for information or help.11

Online interactions are particularly useful for occupational unions which are usually highly centralized because the widely dispersed membership has rather low capacities for horizontal interaction (Raphael 1965). In comparison, unions organizing employees of the same industry (or firms) are better able to base their integration on conventional assemblies and informal group interaction (e. g. within specific enterprises).12 Net interaction can become especially crucial when union members (or functionaries) cannot be reached regularly by telephone, FAX or posted mail letters at a specific place, because they are working on different locations and at irregular times. Under such conditions, e-mail (or SMS messages delivered to cellular phones) are highly functional because they can be retrieved anytime and anywhere by their receivers.

"Kathy Becker, The Bullitt Foundation's program officer, says that the Web isn't just for big organizations. "The most grassroots, lowest-funded, rural groups are the ones embracing this technology the fastest," she says. "They're the groups that have had the biggest communications problems: everyone works, so there's nobody available from 9 to 5, and everything gets done by letter or FAX. "". (Motavalli 1996)

Thus, one of the major uses of the Canadian "Solinet" is to make educational programs accessible to employees working during night hours or at changing locations. 13 It is no surprise to find that associations in countries with widely dispersed populations (like Canada or Russia) are particularly prone to use the new media for purposes of organizational integration. Thus, one of the most significant Netsites in the realm of labor unions (Solinet) has been established by the Canadian Union of Public Employees as early as 1986. Its explicit goal was to bring the 2200 local groups separated by immense distances (and six time zones) into regular contact with each other (as well as with the organizational center in Ottawa). Similarly, the Russian "Labour information Center" (KASKOR) - established at Moscow in 1990 - has the function of bridging the spatial distances between the diverse local subunits on the one hand and of diminishing the isolation of Russian unions vis-à-vis Western countries on the other. 14

For similar technical reasons, the Internet can catalyze additional processes of collectivization by filtering out exactly those few (mutually unacquainted) individuals most prone to associate because they share the same specialized interests or are hit by an identical problems: regardless of their distribution in time and space. This is seen in the case of consumers who find new ways to aggregate their grievances and file collective complaints. Typically customers experiencing similar problems with the same brand of car, bicycle, restaurant, medical drug, hairdresser or refrigerator find themselves alone with their complaints, because they don't know other buyers of the same product or services. Thus, even highly generalized product deficiencies may not give rise to collective protest activities to which the firm has to be responsive: so that firms lack not only the motivation, but even the basic information needed in order to correct mistakes and improve their productions.

The Internet instead facilitates the mutual perception and collective organization of any individuals hit by the same dissatisfactions, disregarding their dispersion in space as well as their lack of common attributes in all other respects. Thus, when the owner of a Ford Winstar who had experienced an engine problem opened a Website, a large number of others hit by the same problem added their grievances, so that a successful class action suit against Ford Motor Corporation could be enacted (Truby and Dina ElBoghdady 2000).

Generally the Internet helps to sort out problems which are idiosyncratic and occur accidentally (e. g. by unskilled handling of a bough tool or machinery) and which of them have a more systematic cause (e. g. located in intrinsic deficiencies of a specific product). Thus, it facilitates the emergence of "class suit actions" readily taken up by consumer advocates and lawyers ( Truby and Dina ElBoghdady 2000). In fact, "Class suit actions" are highly symbiotic with the Internet, because they can be enacted by mere aggregates of individuals, not organized formally into any type of association. Consequently, corporations are well advised to watch regularly the discussions led in specialized newsgroups in order to follow developments in their public reputation and to become alerted early enough when potentially dangerous issues are in the rise. While including meanwhile more than 400 Mio direct users, the indirect impacts of the Net on collective organization extend even further to more marginal segments of the population: : e.g. on wives of e-mailing husbands or on the grannies of computer-savvy kids.

In a worldwide perspective, the Internet community maintains a very broad interface to the "non-internetted" environment: e.g. rural or southern populations not yet equipped with PC's, Modems and telephone lines. While no TV reporter or press journalist will ever appear in these surroundings in order to listen to the people and transport their views to the "big media", it is far more probable that these people find some active Internet Users capable and motivated to help them to feed their hand- or typewritten hardcopy messages into the worldwide digital system.

Thus, some of the most successful examples of political Internet use concern populations at the very margin of civilization:

1) Opposition groups in Burma are communicating their messages orally to people in Thailand border villages which then feed it into the net (Fink 1997).

2) The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas (Southern Mexico) who gained its fascinating worldwide reputation (as the spearhead of a new anti-neoliberalist movement) exclusively by the help of a large number of volunteering intermediaries from various Western countries:

"It is important to note that the EZLN has played no direct role in the proliferation of the use of the Internet. Rather, these efforts were initiated by others to weave a network of support for the Zapatista movement. Although there is a myth that Zapatista spokesman Subcommandante Marcos sits in the jungle uploading EZLN communiqués from his laptop, the reality is that the EZLN and its communities have had a mediated relationship to the Internet. The Zapatista communities are indigenous, poor and often cut-off not only from computer communications but also from the necessary electricity and telephone systems. Under these conditions, EZLN materials were initially prepared as written communiqués for the mass media and were handed to reporters or to friends to give to reporters. Such material then had to be typed or scanned into electronic format for distribution on the Internet." (Cleaver 1998)

But there is a price to pay for such exogenous advocacy services: the movement itself is incapable of controlling the flows of information, of determining how it will present itself to the World Public. In fact, a rich variety of EZLN sites has developed which produce so much noise in the system that the "authentic" voices of the genuine protagonists can hardly be heard. Nevertheless, the conclusion has to be drawn that the Internet may well have an extensive impact on the whole mankind, because even highly marginal population segments profit at least indirectly from it: by having relationships to sympathetic users.

Seen from the other side, idealistic activists all over the world find much better opportunities for advocating the interests of any groups they especially like. Given that access to the Net gets easier and cheaper every day, it may be expected that such mediated "advocacy articulations" are typical for a short transitory phase in the worldwide expansion of the Net. In fact, they may be functional of making even poorest people at least basically acquainted with the Net, and of diffusing knowledge and skills to future users.

Finally, the Internet may help to level differences between urban and rural regions which have often been a source of inequalities, cleavages and factionalism in conventional voluntary associations. In the past, large-scale collective action was often restricted to very big cities: because only in such urban settings there was a necessary number of people sharing the same grievances and the same ideological views. Whenever such populations where geographically dispersed, collective gatherings were either impossible or had to be restricted to rare special occasions (e. g. by organizing a "march to Washington"). By contrast, the online communication can bring such dispersed people into closer contact without physical proximity: so that future social movements may be less restricted to densely populated areas or to such very special periods of time (Myers 1998). Traditional labor unions for example have conserved an "urban bias" to the extent that many specialized functions (counseling, educational courses etc.) could only be provided in densely populated areas where experts are available and where a sufficient number of participants can be expected. Through online interaction, such services can now be extended to all members alike. Thus, Canadian Unions use "Solinet" to make educational programs accessible to workers living in distant Northern and Western provinces: with the effect that academic teachers in the Toronto headquarters can be more efficiently employed.15 "Solinet" also illustrates that such professionals can be recruited from (and be located in) broader geographical regions because they can cooperate intensively even if they live in very different places.16

On a more general level, it might be concluded that the Internet makes voluntary associations freer to allocate their resources and choose their organizational structures at their will - irrespective of environmental societal conditions. In particular, they become able to maintain high levels of functional differentiation even when they operate in very large and highly fragmented territorial settings.

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6. Increased interaction and mutual learning between collateral territorial subunits

Online connections open the way for fruitful communication processes between associational members and/or subunits which have hitherto been isolated from each other by physical or socio-cultural barriers. This is particularly relevant in the case of highly segmented associations composed of physically segregated subunits with identical functions and tasks. One of the most common form of social life is that several individuals, groupings or organizational units do almost identical things: each in relationship to its own clientele or within its own spatial or temporal jurisdiction. Thus, schools are segmented into classes, parties into election districts, hospitals into wards, churches into parishes, and nations into provinces and communities, medical professions into galaxies of finely distributed individual practitioners etc. Typically, such segmented systems are characterized by rather low levels of horizontal interaction, because each unit is basically equipped with all skills and resources for solving its own problems, and most of these can be dealt with without engaging into higher-level co-operative action. For the same reasons, vertical relationships between subunits and higher hierarchical levels (e. g. between parish and diocese) are rather scanty, because subunits are basically self-sufficient and easy to be supervised (so that span of control can be rather high). As a consequence, direct as well as indirect communication channels connecting the parallel action units are either lacking completely or used only in rare cases, and assemblies often take place for predominantly expressive and ritualistic reasons, not for solving instrumental tasks.

Therefore, such parallel units are not likely to learn from each other, despite the fact that they are permanently confronted with similar tasks and problems which necessitate the same knowledge and skills. Thus, they are disposed to be left alone with their particular problems: always repeating the same errors, drawing the same inductive conclusions and inventing the same helpful procedures without their more experienced distant partners, and without accumulating a collective stock of knowledge which could be made available to others. In these cases, computer aided information systems can be extremely helpful, because they allow all parallel subunits to be permanently accessible for mutual communication while they remain fully active in their role and completely integrated in their own rayon of jurisdiction. For the first time in their history, organizations with divisional segmentations and distributed environments thus get tools for systematic organizational learning: enabling them to make full use of any experiences, suggestions and innovations originating from anywhere "at the front". As the occurring problems (and their solutions) are often quite repetitive, excellent conditions exist for storing all incoming information in a structured, constantly growing "organizational memory" which embodies the collectivized experiences of the past in highly explicit and accessible form (e. g. as an expert system) (Goodman/Darr 1998).

"Computer-aided systems for organizational learning share some features with traditional e-mail systems such as the capability of bridging space and time. However, they differ from e-mail systems in the following respects: There is a memory device with indexing systems and search aids accessible and known to all members. There is a mechanism where all organizational members can dynamically share and update solutions. These systems also differ from "news groups" or "bulletin boards" because the process for selecting items for the organizational memory, updating these items, or broadcasting the availability of these items is more formalized, structured, and may use various forms of intelligent aids." (Goodman/Darr 1998)

Of course, only rather standardized and formalized knowledge can reach this highly externalized form, while more informal, tacit knowledge either remains connected to the subunit where it has been generated or can be transmitted only through rather elaborate und cumbersome processes of horizontal communication:

"Some problem statements and their environmental conditions may be difficult to articulate. Similarly, rules for implementing a solution may be understood, but it may be difficult to articulate why certain rules fit some solutions and not others. In both of these cases, the process of contribution among geographically distributed units will be difficult. The contributor cannot articulate the key elements of the exchange. Since the contributor and adopter are geographically separated, learning via observation or apprenticeship are less feasible options. In this situation, it will be difficult to create an organizational memory of shared interpretative schemes." (Goodman/Darr 1998)

Of course, the mere availability of cross-unit communication is no guarantee that it effectively does occur, because such intraorganizational exchanges are usually not supported by habit, norms or positive incentives. In order to exploit these new technological capacities, new norms and motivation systems have to be created, so that contributors to the organizational memories are sufficiently rewarded (e. g. by special bonus payments and/or a higher overall status within the organization) (Goodman/Darr 1998).

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7. More heterogeneous publics, diversified support bases and broadened definitions of issues

All public net communications of organizations and associations are "Ianus-faced" in the sense that the communications can be received (and answered) by internal members and any outsiders alike. In the past, this public visibility was restricted by the fact that many associations (e. g. unions) have used particularistic proprietary software and net protocols: so that communication was automatically kept within system boundaries. Today instead, the ubiquitous switch to universal Internet protocols has created a situation of "over-publicness" as all information is open for everybody insofar as they are not protected by sophisticated - and never fully hacker-proof - technological measures (like compulsory registration, passwords, firewalls or encryption).

An important function of Net publicity is to keep associational matters constantly visible to the world public - irrespective of the ebb and flow of mass media reporting  Whenever social movements, unions or other associations engage in public actions, the impact of such undertakings is highly dependent on their coverage in the major mass media: the daily press, radio and television. But most frequently, media attention focuses on rather narrow time spans (e. g. the initial phases of a strike), and many actions highly salient in the eyes of their originators get no coverage at all.

Online publication channels help to transport all news an association considers relevant into the public sphere, so that ongoing activities and events are evenly covered even at times they evoke no attention in a wider public. Apart from the participants themselves who may be most motivated to expose themselves to such sites, such news reporting may also be followed by journalists - who then may become more prone to give them a place in the major mass media. In fact, associations may design their Web communications with a strong eye on journalists and other "multipliers" as potential receivers. As a consequence, most Websites are created with a complex mix of considerations: how does the conveyed information meet the expectations and needs of core members, activists, peripheral members, external sympathizers, adherents of competitive or oppositional organizations - and how is it received the general ever growing Web Public all over the world? As the messages and information originally designed for members can be addressed to any outsiders without additional costs, voluntary associations have an easy task of making their goals and activities known to a wider audience and to widen their societal legitimacy and reputation,

"...activists also have an opportunity to send their message to "third party audiences", that is, people not directly involved in their own organization. Gaining at least silent support for a movement's goals and actions is essential for movement success. Although Amnesty International's overt attempt seems to be to find letter writers, the latent effect of their solicitations is to spread information about the appalling conditions, torture, and human rights violations endured by political prisoners throughout the world. The result is strong pro-Amnesty International feelings that lend strength to the Amnesty International agenda." (Myers 1998)

Apart from contributing to the societal legitimacy of the movement (by involving a tacit public which provides at least passive support by not challenging its existence or policies), such increases in external visibility also have the function of drawing more sympathizers and members to the movement. In fact, the size of formal membership may not increase so much as the number of sympathetic outsiders which - while remaining at the fringe - provide at least temporary support (for single purposes or at special occasions). Such heterogeneous, polymorphic audiences can be functional for creating new solutions, and for exploiting new kinds of solidarities not present in conventional social structures.

In the case of Ex Yugoslavia, for instance, it was highly important to draw on women's groups which always had maintained all - Yugoslav channels of communication in times their male counterparts were absorbed by divisive nationalist interactions (Stubbs 1998).

"A wide range of anti-war groups, particularly associated with the Anti-war Campaign in Croatia (ark@zamir.net), based in Zagreb, and the Centre for Anti-War Action in Serbia, based in Belgrade, but also women's groups, ecology groups, humanitarian agencies, and countless individuals, used zamir during the war years." (Stubbs 1998)

In contrast to classical wars which were "international" or domestic (in the case of civil wars) modern wars are mostly "intermestic" in the sense that they involve many nongovernmental actors of various countries (Pugh 1998). The Internet supports such transnational networking on subgovernmental levels, as has been shown in its role in the recent Yugoslav wars:

"The involvement of a wide range of international agencies, of activists and volunteers and, indeed, of various Diaspora communities, are key features of the wars of the Yugoslav succession." (Stubbs 1998)

Compared with conventional mass media, online communication also makes it easier for associations to serve different language groups, because no separate publications and distribution networks have to be established: When conventional technologies are used, to produce a printed publication in a second or third language today requires not only that the material be translated, but also typeset, printed and mailed. Once publications go online, all those other costs drop to zero, so that the available money can fully be used for translation costs. An international organization that wants to stop its post-mailed hardcopy newsletter on paper might find that with the same money formerly spent for paper, printing and distribution, , it can now afford to publish online editions in various languages simultaneously. Insofar as automated translation software will make progress, (what is unsure at the moment), even these translation costs may considerably decrease. Consequently, many more associations than today may try to grow by diversifying their audiences far beyond the Anglo-Saxon regions by appealing to populations in all parts of the worlds. Given the interactive nature of the Internet, it is to be expected that such associations are likely to become multicultural (or "multidomestic") in the genuine sense: by engaging in communications with different audiences and by being influenced and shaped by various cultural settings. For certain, these global multicultural associations will enter into competition with endogenous organizations within different localities, nations and regions, thus setting them under pressure to do more than before for keeping (or even enlarging) their spatially defined audience.

As all other Web publishers, associations operate under the basic condition that Net communications are received by a widely dispersed public whose size and composition cannot be known in advance and will be highly variable over time. As this implies the chance of finding unexpected sympathizers and supporters never located by any offline media, it carries also the risk of hurting various sensitivities, evoking misunderstandings or of conveying a public image not consistent with official corporate identities and associational goals. No group engaging in public online discussion can shield itself against (unwanted) external participants, so that they too often become highly heterogeneous and ideologically blurred. In the case of the Yugoslav "zamir" network, this permeability resulted in a high participation of emigrants not committed to the political goals of the domestic groupings, but only motivated to keep up personal contacts with home.

"One of the side effects of the economic crisis and sanctions in Serbia was that, ironically, zamir was one of the few avenues available through which messages could be sent to friends around the world, so that zamir had a much larger number of users who were not committed to its broader social goals and used it, simply, as a vehicle to maintain their social networks." (Stubbs 1998)

On the other hand, domestic antinationalist movements can easily be discredited by nationalist groups when they can show that they enjoy high external support (even from populations of enemy countries).

"It is certainly the case that, within any of the post-Yugoslav countries in conflict, outside support for particular kinds of 'anti-nationalist' discourses have, at best, had little wider effect and, at worst, have been used by dominant forces to spread mistrust of any such movement." (Stubbs 1998)

In their famous strike action conducted in 1997, the Liverpool dockers have used the Internet successfully for mobilizing support from various unforseen sources, and for catalyzing solidary relationships with many environmental actors hithertoo completely unrelated to unions:

"Like the indigenous peasants of South Western Mexico, they are realising the power of the latest means of communication to create a new global solidarity. The email list created for the dockers has permitted not only exchange of information and appeals for solidarity; it has also provided an open space in which international debate on the conflict could take place between workers, national and international union officers...and even left academics!" (Waterman 1999).

But exactly such interferences make is increasingly unlikely that any conflict originating within a union will be kept within its neatly the defined limits: as a quarrel between specific workers and specific employers on a specific issue at a specific point of time. Instead, there will be a tendency to enlarge and generalize it in terms of time, space scope and topical reach: e .g. by asserting that the issue exemplifies the harsh consequences generally associated with neoliberal globalization. When this happens, it is highly probable that the main influence accrues to rather elitist intellectual movement activists who integrate the union issue into their more universalistic and strategic interpretative frames. As a consequence, labor conflicts become parts of a

"multi-levelled, multi-faceted, multi-directional internationalism, recognising a multiplicity of problems, subjects and movements, aware of globalisation, oriented to the development of an alternative sense of global community/culture, institutionalised in some kind of global civil society or alternative world order (many international ecological, peace, women's movements, international non-governmental organisations)." (Waterman 1999).

There are only very few, highly generalized common values holding all these divergent initiatives together: mainly their consensual opposition against multinational corporate power.

"Alleged abuse of corporate power by multinationals is the basic focus of protest activity. Large corporations with international undertakings stand accused of social injustice, unfair labour practices- including slave labour wages, living and working conditions-as well as a lack of concern for the environment, mismanagement of natural resources, and ecological damage. Anti-globalization demonstrations have achieved worldwide support partly because the target, per se, its representatives, and its effects are global in nature. Major brand names, among them Nike, Starbucks, McDonalds, and Shell Oil, are principal targets, ironically because their massive advertising campaigns designed to engender public prominence have been successful-and that status is being used to highlight the charges brought against them." (CSIS 2000).

As a consequence, the Net seems to encourage "wholistic campaigns" against large corporations: confronting them with all their faulty actions and negative impacts not only on their employees, but as well on their customers, their host communities and the general public. This vividly illustrated by "MacSpotlight.com" which focuses on McDonalds as a company which violates moral and legal standards in many different societal and cultural realms.

"When McDonalds sued a pair of humble environmental activists in England, little did they realize the creative forces that would be unleashed in opposition to the mega junk food chain. The McSpotlight web site has been visited by tens of millions of persons. (2 million per month for almost a year). Like the original brochure which was the target of the libel suit, this handy site has concrete facts on the environmental impact of the burger industry, the debased labor involved in their sales, the seduction of children with unhealthy food habits and many other greasy sins." (Halleck 1999).

Such Sites have become an almost institutional quality as a "vigilant opposition" which may well motivate the targeted firm to behave in a more disciplined (certainly: low-profiled) manner. Due to the heterogeneity and variability of participant groupings, the new anti-globalization movement is seen as a fear-inspiring source of unpredictable eruptions. This is certainly justified insofar as the movement is not able to insulate itself from highly dangerous radical groupings prone to engage in violent actions:

"The global parameters have encouraged disparate groups and individuals to participate in the demonstrations. In Seattle and Washington, for example, the wide variety of parading malcontents evoked the eclectic ambience of a "protest county fair." Circumstances also have promoted the involvement of fringe extremists who espouse violence, largely represented by Black Bloc anarchists and factions of militant animal-rights and environmental activists. The melding of various elements and establishing of strange-bedfellow ties at individual demonstrations have contributed both to the impact and the unique character of the events." (CSIS 2000).

While the melding of many different groups inflates the size of the movement and thus creates an impression of power, it diminishes the chances of success because it is extremely difficult to come to terms on common values, goals and strategies of collective action. More than that, the anarchistic emphasis on spontaneity and "direct action" hampers all efforts of potential "social entrepreneurs" to create structure and organization which would be necessary for creating concentrated pressure on neatly defined opponents for reaching specific goals, and for enabling the movement to enter into formal talks or negotiations:

"While diversity has contributed to modernizing and strengthening protests and demonstrations, new tactics and technology, collectively and individually, have radically changed the face of protest activity and generated renewed life in the reality of demonstrations. Gone are old-style gatherings confined to waving placards and banners, declaiming speakers, and moderate, controlled marches in specific locations. Not unlike the massive and often vigourous Out of Vietnam and Ban the Bomb protests of the '60s and '70s decades, today's demonstrations, resurrecting the anarchist theme of "direct action," employ a host of novel methodologies that have given a whole new complexion to the nature of the protests." (CSIS 2000)

On the other hand, the pluralistic structure of the new movements is a good precondition for their longer-term survival and constant growth, because each participating group is likely to find additional sympathizers supporters for their specific issues in surrounding society, and because countervailing forces find it hard to organize when no precisely identifiable targets for their fight (e. g. a specific "subversive goal" or "false ideology") can be assessed. From the point of view of a labour union, for instance, the rise of such "polyvalent campaigns" means that their own issues become part of much more encompassing movement activities co-determined by a plethora of widely diverging (and constantly changing) groups. Contrary to formal organizations which tend to stabilize rules and policies rather independently from the ebb and flow of subjective member motivations, these new movements remain highly responsive to any changes on these volatile psychological levels. As a consequence, they may be less able than in the past to articulate pure "labor" interests disregarding the interest of other stakeholders (e. g. consumers, tax payers or people suffering from ecological damages). Instead, they will have to synthesize their demands with the (partially harmonizing and partially conflicting) goals of other groupings, and participate in the formation of highly integrated strategic action platforms on which all these groupings can agree and join their efforts in solidaric action.

"It appears that, in the new media, labour is being not so much represented, by unions or socialist parties, it is being re-presented by radical, democratic and maybe even small-s socialist activists: like the CCC above, which works with open-minded unions but on consumers, not in workplaces or union offices, but outside the stores and in the shopping malls. Then there is Deedee Halleck, veteran of Paper Tiger TV in the US, on on-line resistance to the prison-industrial (labour) complex - now spreading worldwide. And those working with video with immigrants (working, work-seeking), under the slogan `No Human is Illegal'. And Rachel Baker from the UK, with her attempt to computer-subvert the major British supermarket chains (where workers work and buy), by interfering with their `loyalty cards' (and getting threatened by their lawyers for her pains). Not to speak of the now world famous campaign of two British working-class activists against MacDonalds, which rapidly got on to the internet and video, and led this goliath to spend millions to indict them(workers work in MacD, workers eat in MacD). Not to speak of the anarcho-ecological Reclaim the Streets campaign, a now worldwide direct-action movement, only four years old, which believes streets should be public-human-space and not private-auto-space, and who lent their disrespect for authority, and their capacity for making a joyful noise, to the striking Liverpool dockworkers, at a time when their trade unions - from the local to the global level - were finding 101 good reasons to ignore, condemn or control it." (Waterman 1999).

A special case of "movement polymorphism" is manifested in the growing intermingling between local, regional and global levels of protest activities and organization. While in the past, the slogan "think globally, act locally", denoted a rather clear separation between these two spheres, we now see the emergence of polymorphic movements which act locally and globally at the same time.

The Zapatista Movement for instance was "Ianus-faced" from the beginning: combining its limited goals within domestic Mexican Politics with a more global identity: seeing itself as the "spearhead" of a new anti-neoliberalist movement. As to be expected, this second face was highly stressed by the many international groupings which gave the Chiapas fighters its support:

"In Mexico, a mix of subnational and transnational actors have mounted a social netwar against a state lagging at democratisation. The netwar appears in the decentralized collaboration among the numerous, diverse Mexican and transnational (mostly U.S. and Canadian) activists who side with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), and who aim to affect government policies, on human rights, democracy and other major reform issues. Mexico . . . is now the scene of a prototype for social netwar in the 21st century." (Arquilla/Ronfeld 1996:p.73)

Of course, this trend toward globalization is facilitated by preexisting factors unrelated to the Internet: the increasing global homogenization of political and economic action strategies on the one hand and the resulting homogeneity of collective (class) interests on the other:

"These new global conflicts have involved cross-fertilization and the combination of energies generated by local roots. In general we can say that local conflicts between citizen groups and governments have expanded into global efforts in response to two things: first, to a spreading uniformity of policies and international agreements among governments to implement world-wide sets of rules and second, to the resultant perception of common interests in challenging not only those rules but any set of uniform mandates unrelated to local situations. The spreading uniformity of economic and social policies has been re-crafted over the last twenty years from the top down in ways more and more in line with "neoliberalism". The increasingly homogeneous character of policy across the face of the earth has created a situation where more and more people, over wider and wider areas, despite geographic, linguistic and cultural differences, have come to formulate a common opposition to these policies and to take more and more widely linked action against them." (Cleaver 1999)

While it is to be agreed that net communication can eventually polarize opinions and radicalize users (e. g. in emotionalized "flamings"), it is also true that it can encourage movements and organizations to de-emphasize uncompromising positions and sharp ideological edges: thus contributing to a moderated climate of opinions which can be the breeding ground for consensual understanding among even highly opposed social actors. Reacting to their unusual degree of exposure, most groupings and associations thus try to avoid too autocentric, one-sided or even extremist articulations, and to maximize public legitimacy by focusing on more moderated and universalistic values and norms (like those expounded in documents of the UN, the ILO and other highly reputable international organizations). Thus, whenever local or regional movements try to make use of this potential, they may be eager to emphasize their more universalistic goals: e. g. by defining their local problems as a part (or symptomatic manifestation) of much larger global problem, and by linking their tactical actions to more encompassing strategic considerations.

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8. Expanding the sphere of "latent relationships" and "weak social ties"

Written online messages (e-mail, newsgroup or chat contributions) are ideally suited to initiate contacts between hitherto completely unrelated partners, or to maintain very weak relationships by occasional and irregular communications. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The investments in money, time, skills and work efforts are so low that they can easily be directed at any number of distant or unknown receivers, even if their probability of responding is very low.

  2. In sharp contrast to telephoning, online messages are extremely non-intrusive because receivers can retrieve, read, store (or delete) and answer them at any chosen time.

Thus, a major significance of email lies in its capacity expanding the most peripheral sphere of very weak and irregularly activated social relations:: by establishing a broad reservoir of "latent ties" which then can be selectively exploited according to changing situations and needs: e.g. for exploring whether anybody exists who is ready to help or cooperate or who possesses a highly specific kind of information. As a consequence, individuals as well as organizations (a) have a larger number of potential interaction partners at their disposal: so that they can better optimize their interactions according to their current needs; and (b) will be contacted by a larger number of (quite unpredictable) partners, so that he/she has to accept a more complex, volatile and unpredictable social environment.

In daily organizational operations, email may be particularly fruitful when it is important to tap additional pools of knowledge, to enlarge the spectrum of alternatives for solving certain problems, to explore new unknown ways to do things, or to deal with idiosyncratic problems which have never been coped with in the past (Haythornthwaite 1999) In all these cases, online channels offer a ready way to mobilize optimal information and knowledge sources from outside the organization (while the use of second-order experts which happen to be in the system may decline). Consequently, knowledge diffusion between organizations is increased, and each organization may be able to reduce some of its specialized staff, because any specific information can easily be received from external sources whenever the need arises. Similarly, the Net encourages associations to become extremely inclusive and "exoteric" by appealing to expand its public visibility and support bases to additional, hitherto ignored population segments (or organizations). Thus, international labour unions like the ICEM use the Internet mainly for enlarging the geographical reach of interorganizational relationships than for intensifying existing bonds:

"Since the ICEM pages on the worldwide Web were launched at the ICEM Executive Committee at its first meeting June 6-8, 1996 at Izmir, Turkey we have seen the organizing and campaigning potential of the Internet as the most exciting and powerful uses of the technology. Interest in our site has been global with users from 73 identifiable countries having accessed our pages since their launch. We believe that the Internet has allowed us to reach a wider audience and readership than that of our printed publications and traditional press releases. This audience is increasing all of the time. Beginning with just over 100 hits a day in June 1996 the site in October 1997 was accessed an average of over 1,000 times a day." 17

Given the easy methods for counting page impressions, there is a seducing tendency to identify the success of a Webpage with the number of "hits" or the variety of visitors it attracts - and much less with its real impacts which may be more difficult to verify. But apart from these quantifiable aspects, success may arrive in the form of unforeseen expressions of sympathy and support from surprising sources, or in the form of unexpected new suggestions and proposals which may widen the realm of strategic goals or operative actions. Exactly this has happened to the ICEM when it campaigned in order to sensitize world public opinion for the precarious situation of Russian workers who didn't get their pay for many consecutive months:

"Feedback has been considerable as well. Messages have been overwhelmingly supportive with well over 200 received at the time of writing. They have come from the US and Canada, from Latin America and Europe as well as from the Russian Federation itself. They have varied enormously and included offers of financial support, holidays and even export contracts for coal - with guaranteed wage funds for miners, as well as general expressions of outrage and disgust at the scandalous situation. We have discovered that a theatre group in Stockholm, hearing of the campaign via an e-mail distributed Swedish newsletter on Russia, has raised money to donate to the unpaid miners. "18

Interorganizational alliances and cooperations typically take the shape of rather loose, decentralized networks based on the principle of mutual respect between strong autonomous actors who insist on their own goals and who cultivate their own environmental relations. This condition makes them very prone to use computer-mediated communication because it allows intensive communicative exchange without the restrictions and obliging involvement typically associated with face to face meetings or more formal kinds of written communication Thus, online interaction is ideally suited to initiate and maintain large scale interorganizational relationships of an informal, non-contractual kind: loose connections constantly respecified according to current developments and needs. This is illustrated again by the Canadian "Solinet" which functions as a communicative link between labor unions, political parties, educational institutions and public administration - actors which may never have initiated contact on other, more conventional levels of communication (Lee 1993). 19 As such weak links provide a pool of latent supportive relationships which can be actualized quickly wherever the need arrives, they open the way for more extensive solidarity networks (and may thus well decrease the organization's need for endogenous resources):

"The system has been used many times to inform affiliates instantly of major industrial disputes and call on them to give assistance. During a recent strike at Cathay Pacific airlines, cabin crew were stranded in airports all over the world. The ITF was able to contact affiliates in those countries and get immediate help. It has also used this system in Europe to inform European truckers about border blockades." (Flint 1993).20

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9. The shift from territorial segmentation to functional specialization

For two reasons, most larger (e.g. nationwide or international) voluntary associations are formally segmented into territorial subunits with a regional or local jurisdiction: First of all, many of them have been constituted historically by a merger of pre-existing lower-scale associations, which often insist on preserving their formal status and some kind of autonomy after unification. And secondly, such segmental subunits become reinforced (and new artificial subunits of the same divisional kind may be constituted) because for various reasons, they promote and reinforce organizational integration. In particular, they facilitate all kinds of multilateral communication because members or representatives have to travel lesser distances for holding meetings, and because the organization may profit from spontaneous interpersonal relations and the motivations stemming from expressive, informal social interactions (particularly on the local level) (Clark/Wilson 1961).

Contrasting with other kinds of structural differentiations (based function, member status or ideological orientation), territorial segmentation has two significant consequences for the functioning of voluntary associations:
1) They remain highly dependent on their contexts, because cleavages permeating their societal environment (e. g. between urban and rural regions or between regional and ethnic cultures) tend to be mirrored within the association. For the same reason, the encompassing organization is unlikely to experience highly-profiled divisions and polarizations, because each subunit has to work out compromise positions for pure internal reasons.
2) The subunits themselves are hardly able to create specialized subunits and professionalize many functions, because each of them has to deal with the whole gamut of demands, problems and activities characteristic for the association as a whole.

Until the early 60ies, the sphere of voluntary associations was dominated by well established membership associations organized on local, state and national levels which were tightly integrated into the Web of societal institutions:

"Classic American association-builders took it for granted that the best way to gain national influence, moral or political, was to knit together national, state, and local groups that met regularly and engaged in a degree of representative governance. Leaders who desired to speak on behalf of masses of Americans found it natural to proceed by recruiting self-renewing mass memberships and spreading a network of interactive groups. After the start-up phase, associational budgets usually depended heavily on membership dues and on sales of newsletters or supplies to members and local groups. Supporters had to be continuously recruited through social networks and person-to-person contacts. And if leverage over government was desired, an association had to be able to influence legislators, citizens, and newspapers across many districts. For all of these reasons, classic civic entrepreneurs with national ambitions moved quickly to recruit activists and members in every state and across as many towns and cities as possible within each state." (Skocpol 1999)

Thus, most national organizations originated as unions of local associations and maintained their spatial segmentation afterwards as the predominating principle of representation. These multilayer structures made it possible that rank and file members were at least participating on basic levels and could make their influence felt at least indirectly (through mechanisms of representation). Most importantly, cross-class recruitment meant that such inclusive associations had an integrative impact on society: partially neutralizing (instead of reinforcing) divisions between social strata. By contrast, the movements originating since the later 60ies were more informal and dominated by specific strata predisposed for protest behavior: particularly college students and university graduates (Skocpol 1999). In the following decades, there was a growing volatility of associations, most of which were no longer constituted by building up such complex multilayer structures from the local and regional level. Instead, many of them were immediately founded as national associations: recruiting their membership by top-down mechanisms (like direct mailings), or having no formal members at all (but only informal adherents and sympathizers, like political parties). On the other hand, established conventional associations lost ground: they were increasingly bypassed in the political process, and their membership began to dwindle (e. g. the labor unions, the General Federation of Women's Clubs etc.).

"No longer do civic entrepreneurs think of constructing vast federations and recruiting interactive citizen-members. When a new cause (or tactic) arises, activists envisage opening a national office and managing association-building as well as national projects from the center. Even a group aiming to speak for large numbers of Americans does not absolutely need members. And if mass adherents are recruited through the mail, why hold meetings? From a managerial point of view, interactions with groups of members may be downright inefficient. In the old-time membership federations, annual elections of leaders and a modicum of representative governance went hand in hand with membership dues and interactive meetings. But for the professional executives of today's advocacy organizations, direct mail members can be more appealing because, as Kenneth Godwin and Robert Cameron Mitchell explain, "they contribute without `meddling"' and "do not take part in leadership selection or policy discussions." (Skocpol 1999)

As a consequence, associational endeavors and articulations become more and more dominated by the educated middle classes, while lower strata are excluded more dramatically than in all other historical eras of the United States.

"Despite the multiplicity of voices raised within it, America's new civic universe is remarkably oligarchical. Because today's advocacy groups are staff-heavy and focused on lobbying, research, and media projects, they are managed from the top with few opportunities for member leverage from below. Even when they have hundreds of thousands of adherents, contemporary associations are heavily tilted toward upper-middle-class constituencies. Whether we are talking about memberless advocacy groups, advocacy groups with some chapters, mailing-list associations, or non-profit institutions, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the wealthiest and best-educated Americans are much more privileged in the new civic world than their (less numerous) counterparts were in the pre-1960s civic world of cross-class membership federations." (Skocpol 1999)

The Internet is more likely to reinforce than to overturn this general trend, because online campaigning has the effect that influence is even more exclusively monopolized by self-recruited activists, while formalized influence by lesser active rank-and file members (exercised by voting or by mechanisms of formal representation) declines.

Certainly, the new computer media are unlikely to make such territorially-based subunits obsolete, because many of their functions cannot be substituted by online communications. In fact, they may sometimes even be reinforced, insofar as members connected by strong social ties may be more likely to use email contacts in addition to all their offline interactions. But the new media are likely to facilitate the emergence of additional, cross-cutting solidarities and groupings based on homogeneity of personal status characteristics (age, gender, educational etc.), on consensual goals or ideological outlooks or on a convergence in functional specialization and operational activities. In fact, certain intrinsic characteristics make online communication particularly effective for the internal communication within highly homogeneous groups. Because only explicit verbal cues can be transmitted, online communication is only effective when it can build on a highly specific and highly stabilized background of common knowledge and social norms. For instance, even very short email exchanges among chemists or physicists can carry extremely complex information, because senders and receivers completely agree on the definitions of scientific problems, the connotations of scientific terms, and the methods of scientific procedures.

The more a collectivity has anchored its identity in highly objectified and depersonalized cultural patterns (text documents, emblems etc.), the better it can make use of the Internet for presenting its creeds and mission adequately to a highly heterogeneous global public, and for bringing other people to the point where they can easily decide whether they want to join the group or not.  This may explain why extremist groups like Neonazis or "White Suprematists" have been particularly successful in recruiting new members from their Websites (Buie 2000), because their group culture essentially consists of a mixture of conventional logos, shorthand slogans and highly simplified and excessively sharpened collective opinions and creeds.

For communication processes within and between organizations, this regularity has the following implications:

  1. Online communication is difficult within small organizations, because roles are rather unspecialized and each member tends to have its own combination of tasks, knowledge and skills. The larger a firm, the more functions there are where several members do almost exactly the same thing and share a common class-specific or professional culture - so that online communication becomes viable.

  2. Highly specialized organization members are more likely to find their most similar counterparts in other organizations. Thus, online communication may expand more in the interorganizational sphere, while in-house communication is still focusing on F2F interactions. As a result, online interaction may contribute to the fragmentation of (highly differentiated) organizations, because specialists of all kinds have more opportunities to cultivate their transorganizational professional relationships and solidarities, while their "local" orientation may decline.

  3. Online communication is not well suited for integrating divisional (e. g, territorially segmented) organizations: because the heads of the different divisions or segments occupy highly polyvalent roles. Thus, mayors of cities, heads of local parishes or directors of regional insurance agencies may never maintain highly profitable networks of computer-supported interaction, because their range of functions and current problems is so broad that they are not able to establish highly efficient and sophisticated threads of communication (Goodman/Darr 1998).

  4. In the union sector, there is an edge for occupational unions recruiting members which share a common vocational education and occupy similar jobs. By contrast, online communications in industrial unions may be more cumbersome various strata and job categories within branches maintain highly divergent knowledge bases, priorities and views.

By combining their membership in territorial subunits with a participation in such translocal groupings, individual members may gain a more complex set of intraorganizational roles, and associations may become more permeated with "cross cutting cleavages" which are known to moderate collective conflicts (Lipset 1960; Lipset/Rokkan 1967). In general, such new affiliations are not likely to affect territorial subunits negatively, because online communications are so non-intrusive that they can easily be combined with any other social roles. Thus receiving and answering e-mail or SMS-messages is not preventing anybody from attending meetings or continuing contacts by Fax or phone. Given the widening number and range of intra-associational subunits, groupings and factions, it might be expected that the total volume of member involvement and participation will increase: because any member is more likely to find somewhere co-members coinciding with his own preferences and needs. In particular, members not consenting to mainstream ideas or policies will be more likely to find congenial partners - or even to collect enough adherents for forming a stable group or establishing a formal suborganizational unit. In addition, this trend toward multidimensional affiliations and cleavages may give rise to more volatile or intraorganizational structures and policies which may be called "chaordic" (to use a term initiated by the founder of VISA- International: Dee Hock). 21 More specifically, associations may become shaped by fluidly changing alliances based alternatingly on territorial, ideological, ethnical or status-related affiliations.

The leaders of the territorial subunits may well be most affected by such developments, because they have to share their influence on associational policies with new elites emerging from various online groupings and "virtual communities." Given the territorial segmentation of political power, many Cybercampaigns operate under the basic incongruency that while the channels used for mobilization and communication have a global reach, while the decision making centers which are addressed are usually power centers of nations (or other territorially systems like member states, provinces or cities). In other words: while input maximization (in terms of money, petition signatures, solidarity actions etc.) calls for extensive transnational strategies, output optimization implies: focusing all the resources on territorially restricted activities and actors. This incongruence is vividly illustrated by the tendency of Congressmen to treat all emails as "spams" when they don't originate from voters of their own district, because from a rational point of view, it doesn't pay out to be responsive to anonymous global publics which have no impact on the coming elections.

Consequently, there is a need for intermediary organizations which provide the information necessary to direct cybercampaign activities into the congruent territorial channels.

"One way to do that is through the Juno Advocacy Network (JAN), which targets advocacy ads to its 6.1 million subscribers by geography, demographic profile and interest. The system automatically signs each e-mail generated with a subscriber's name and home address, and routes it to the correct member of Congress. Membership organizations, major corporations, labor unions, advocacy groups and grassroots consultants are now tapping this system for its built-in targeting capability. Furthermore, the response rate of JAN e-mail generating ads has run between 6.5 percent and 12.5 percent - light-years ahead of the old Web-based results." (Stone 1999).

Considering that still many political representatives belong to older age cohorts which have never become habitualized to regularized e-mail use, it is often highly advisable top send the message by fax or even by conventional mail.

Table of Contents


 

10. The increasing impact of subjective individual motivations on organizational goals, activities and structures

On a very general theoretical level, it might be hypothesized that the Internet increases the degree of correspondence (and covariation) between the individual and the social level: by lowering the transaction costs so heavily that individuals are much better able to find (or constitute) social collectivities exactly according to their current needs, values and goals, and by forcing collectivities to be highly responsive toward the heterogeneous (and constantly changing) individual motives, values and expectations (Bonchek 1995). This is exemplified by the "Civic Involvement Center" of American Online which allows all philanthropically minded users to sponsor exactly their most preferred cause:

"The Civic Involvement System on America Online offers an extensive Donation Center, where well over three million prospective donors may research and identify organizations by type or location (for example, a user could search for non-profits involved with "children" in "California"). Once identified, the user may access a profile of each organization that meets his or her criteria. Each profile includes not only a "wish list" of things other than money that an organization needs, but also instructions on how to make a dollar donation. Most individuals send a pledge of a donation by e-mail, including their credit-card information and the amount pledged." (Clark 1995)

This of course implies that the flow of donations an organization receives is no longer determined by its public reputation, trust or other highly generalized (and therefore: stabilizing) factors. Instead, the success of its fundraising actions will depend more on volatile influences: e. g. whether it can show convincing successes or whether follows a "fashionable" cause. By reducing the weight of mediating (e. g. organizational or ideological) factors, the Internet is highly functional for any group, movement or association to exploit subjective individual motivations without frictions and distortions for their own needs. Consequently, any groups may make use directly from the fact that many Net users are willing to spend money because they coincide with their goals; others may find that widespread feelings of belongingness may be exploited for increasing group cohesion and enacting intensive internal communication; others are able to transform widespread needs for direct participation into very high turnouts of votes; and finally, highly reputable and trusted leaders find better ways to use their leadership capacities for widespread contacts and effective persuasion. By providing a very low threshold access to social interaction and organizational participation, the Internet facilitates the direct, non-mediated transformation of individual attitudes into social actions, so that collective behavior can be better kept in pace and in accordance with the demands of individuals and the goals of very small-scale (and widely dispersed) microsocial groups.

Thus, whenever a movement association succeeds in raising funds, gaining additional members or mobilizing any kind of support by its online activities, it can be certain that this support is a very authentic expression of current individual attitudes, feelings and thoughts. In comparison to conventional methods of mobilization, far less physical or technical obstacles are present to prevent sympathizers from expressing actively their views and from transforming their subjective disposition into social participation; and as online users are typically alone in their apartment, they are very likely to be motivated predominantly by their private views - not by any "bandwagon-effects" typical for physically assembled groups. In addition, the Internet allows a much better exploitation of microsocial group motivations, because the same medium which connects participants to worldwide movements is also functional for communicating with near partners and friends (Myers 1992).

Generally then, we may expect that with the rise of the Internet, associational activities and developments of all kinds become more tightly determined by variables on the individual and the microsocial levels, while the impact of mesosocial structures (organizations and institutions) declines.

For voluntary associations, this has the consequence that internal communication increasingly influenced by self-recruited individual activists and by highly cohesive and ambitious informal groups.

Whenever individuals are participating in assemblies (like meetings, congresses or demonstrations), they are subjected to various social pressures which have an independent impact on their thinking and behavior. Thus, they become unwillingly exposed to verbal communications which can change their attitudes, and bandwagon or "social facilitation" effects may motivate them to participate in collective mob actions rather inconsistent with their subjective values and beliefs. By contrast, Internet users are typically sitting alone in front of their computer, so that their behavior is more exclusively guided by subjective (psychological) factors. For example, the decision to spend money for a given campaign is likely to be a rather direct outflow of an affirmative attitude toward this specific movement, its concrete aims and operative actions, because no "models" for imitation are around and no physically present solicitor will look dissatisfied when I'm not meeting his expectations. In other words: online activities are primarily determined by determinants exogenous to the online situation itself: e. g. by characteristics of the user and by all (offline and online) factors which have an impact on his or her current subjective preferences, moods, feelings and thoughts. Thus, whenever individuals are emotionally highly motivated to participate in a collectivity, they will visit its Webpage and participate in its discussion forums even if the page is of low technical quality and the group has not spent any advertisement money for attracting visitors.

And vice versa: when an individual is not interested in the group, it will not pay attention to its site even if the group has made huge efforts for mobilizing attention. 22

Empirical studies show that whenever individuals have already established rather strong ties, they will readily assimilate the new electronic media, giving them a complementary (not substitutive) function to all the other (already established) media of communication. Consequently, their ties may even become more intensive, and they may deviate ever more from weak-ties members who are more likely to cling to one single medium, or even: to discontinue their ties altogether as soon as their single medium (e. g. regular face-to-face gathers) is no longer available. Whenever work or friendship ties are strong, however, communicators exhibit a greater frequency of communication, maintain more and different kinds of relations, and more different media tend to be used in combination:

"It is theorized that where weak ties depend on only one medium, they are likely to be highly susceptible to dissolution following changes in that medium. On the other hand, strong ties will be more robust under conditions of change since their connection rests on multiple relations maintained via multiple media. Thus, the linear notion of tie strength gives rise to non-linear impacts: weak tie networks will dissolve and reform when the medium they use to sustain communication is changed; strong tie networks will persist, sustained through other media until the new medium is incorporated into their repertoire." (Haythornthwaite 1999)

This hypothesis has applications on three levels:

First, it implies that electronic media engender higher divergences between different voluntary associations: by increasing the cohesion of groupings already highly integrated; while the integration of low-tie collectivities stagnates or even declines. Given the outspoken "pull" character of computer media, it is evident that large advantages accrue to collectivities with already highly mobilized members. They gain most by the fact that unlimited flows of communications can be maintained almost without costs when the necessary technical equipment (Web servers, modems, etc.) has been installed. This is exemplified by many religious groups and denominations which can rely on tightly knit group relationships and intensive feelings of belongingness among their members:

"The Internet has.. proved to be an extremely effective tool for advocacy organizations that already have a strong grassroots following. The Christian Coalition, a conservative religious organization in Chesapeake, Va., is one such operation. The organization has used e-mail and other online-communications tools to improve the way it distributes information to its network of activists spread throughout thousands of churches across the country."23

Thus, the new Net technologies increase the degree to which the communicative potential of groups is conditioned by the spontaneous motivations and involvements of its individuals members, while the significance of money and organizational resources (which are a prerequisite for successful mass media communication) declines. This explains why some of the first labor unions using net communication have been local associations with a membership very well integrated on the level of face to face interactions. Thus the "American Federation of Musicians in new York" was the first union in the United States to establish a Bulletin News Service (in 1986).24 Similarly, there is an edge for associations with highly reputable or charismatic leaders because their membership is highly disposed to exploit the net's capacity for non-mediated leader-follower interactions. While the Internet may not have the potential for creating or intensifying leadership authority or personal charisma, it is highly functional for leaders already in possession of high personal authority and public appeal, because it allows them to contact an indefinite number of sympathizers without costs, delays and personal efforts. In the past, charismatic leaders could realize only part of their influence because the number of people they could contact directly was limited for technical and economic reasons. For reaching wider masses, they had to rely therefore on middleman who were not able and willing to transport leadership authority undistorted to all the followers. While radio and TV increased the reach of personal authority, Email and WWW open even more extended opportunities for leaders to maintain direct contact to very many followers even in an interactive way (Bonchek 1995). Wherever there is a "true follower" eager to hear, what his leader has to say on any topic, current developments or recent events, he can consult the respective Webpages or newsletter to receive authentic communication, not selected, edited and distorted by any intermediary agencies or functionaries.

Secondly, the "pull" character of online relationship implies that its use and impact can be extremely variable over time: being extremely high in phases of acute mobilization and sinking back to very low levels during "normal", uneventful times. This explains why unions have been very successful in propagating "Daily Online News" during strike periods, while such publications have almost never survived the end of the strike.25

Third, it follows that within most associations, wider gaps between highly committed "activists" and more passive member categories will arise: because the activists will make ready use of the new technologies to increase their cohesion as well as to intensify their influence on central decision making procedures. We may even see the enhancement (not the decline, as suggested in (7) of local subgroups within associations, because members of local sections are most likely to maintain those intimate ties which profit most from additional online media. While the Internet theoretically frees community building from all obstacles of geographical distance, most online communities are still based on proximity in space. Thus, national or regional groupings are still among the best examples of functioning multilateral online interaction (like Zamir in ex-Yugoslavia) (Stubbs 1998).

For the same reasons, online media can strengthen the position of highly involved and strongly participating members within associations. In fact, the gap between core activist groups and passive fringe members may increase because the former use the Net for intensifying their already well established communications, while the latter may not change their behavior at all. Thus, whenever online discussion forums are established, they are likely to become monopolized by rather few activists: like in the case of the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stager Employees) in 1994, where 50% of the 350 monthly BBS messages were originating from only 12 members.26 Likewise, the more an association loads up salient information materials, the wider will be the knowledge gap between the more active members who re motivated and skilled to inform themselves about it, and the more passive members who ignore it all. Thus, when unions publish the full text of the contracts they have negotiated with employees, some activists will make use these new chances to read these hitherto rather inaccessible documents in order to increase their capacity to stand up for their own rights - even in cases and aspects where official union leadership doesn't provide support. By doing this, they will increase their "informational distance" to the other rank-and-file members who continue to be uninformed (or to be satisfied with indirect, highly digested information officially provided by union PR-officials). They resemble somewhat the early protestants who got independent from institutional religion because they decided to read the bible on their own (while their less active co-members are still clinging to the "official church"

More and more, such cliques may usurp leadership by determine the agenda setting and by deliberating on decisions before they are discussed in formal broader assemblies. Thus, general rank-and-file members participating in general assemblies may more often find that such meetings are strongly dominated by activist groups who have used online communication for hammering out consensual opinions, strategies and procedures long before the meeting has started. More and more, the leaders of associations are likely to become highly involved in such "semi-elitist" communications. In fact, they may easily be convinced that the Email they get from activists is expressing "general member opinion" - disregarding the basic fact that these messages stem from very tiny activist groups (typically younger males with higher education) , while the "average members" may still not be hooked up (or not be motivated to make use of the new medium for upward communication). Thus, a general effect of the Internet may be that factual influence within organized collectivities covaries more tightly with the degree of personal activity and participation, while the significance of "positional power" (based on official roles) and of "reputational power" (stemming from popularity or prestige) declines. Consequently, the question how online communication is related to intra-associational democracy has to find a two-edged answer. On the one hand, democracy is enhanced insofar as any self-selected activists can use the Net to make themselves heard: activists who are not part of central informal elite networks and not incumbents of any formal roles. On the other hand, these self-recruited "online oligarchies" may well increase their influence at the cost of more peripheral members (e.g. by maintaining continuous Email contact with associational leaders). On the one hand, this implies a decentralization of power: because beside elite members, and self-recruited activists can take part and make a difference, when they are sufficiently active and skilled. Participation in this intermediary sphere is highly accessible because (1) each group remains very open for any participants and (2) new groups can form any time without much cost or organizational efforts (Liff 1998). On the other hand, this same development can have effects of centralization: because these intermediary groupings function like filters who shield decision making elites against the influence of even lower population segments (e. g. normal citizens or rank-and-file union members who have hitherto based their participation on their formal participation in votes and elections). Oligarchy is fostered particularly because even tiny groups can become very effective when they are highly organized and highly qualified in influencing the right people and mobilizing the right adherents at the right time. (Liff 1998).

On the individual level, the highest gain of influence may accrue to members with unusually high verbal skills which are not likely to be available to people with low education. This effect is stemming from the fact that communication is more focused on the verbal level, because no nonverbal cues can be transmitted:

"Certainly, Email use demands relatively high levels of linguistic, textual and word processing competencies, even though its standards of typographical exactitude are, certainly, less than those of much print published communication. In the absence of face-to-face cues for stereotyping, participants in some email discussion groups may, indeed, overcompensate in their disapproval of misspellings, clumsy formatting, or messages which go wrong in some way because the user has not (yet) grasped the fine detail of the software program. Educational capital converted into what might be termed 'computer cultural capital' is, therefore, no less exclusionary than other forms of cultural capital." (Stubbs 1998)

In short: the Internet enlarges the opportunities for cultural elites to exercise leadership functions based on supreme capacities for verbal articulation, persuasive argumentations, for building extensive interactional networks or for aggregating different view-point to widely appealing synthesized positions.

To summarize, it may be concluded that the Internet is boosting the influence of upper-middle status levels by causing a major surge of collective (or political) participation on middle levels of organizations, associations and society as a whole:

  • below the exclusive circles of formal and informal elites, professional politicians and functionaries .

  • above the level of lowly involved general populations (citizens who participate only in voting or through formal membership in associations).

This rather large intermediate sphere is now filled with many rather specific and small activist groups which use the Net for better communication, coordination and for highly efficient campaigning. Thus, the Internet seems to give rise to "polyarchic" collectivities influenced by a rather broad range of elitist and semi-elitist circles.

Table of Contents

Part I  | Part II


Footnotes

1 Edward Harris in The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 1999

2 For example, it is highly evident that by controlling the mass media, governments and business elite have contributed much to the weakening of labor movements (and their respective organizations) (Lee 1994; 1995).

3 Among the "third sectors" equidistant to economic and political influences, religious organizations have been most successful in establishing their own media. But during the last decades, their audience and impact have significantly declined.

4 Eric Lee (1993): Computer Communications and the Labour Movement. In: Bulletin of the International Federation of Worker's Education Associations, 3, December 1993, http://www.poptel.org.uk/ifwea/ifwwe03.html

5 Cited in: Eric Lee (1995): Labour and the Internet. In: Internet Business Journal, http://www.solinet.org/LEE/ibj.html

6 The conference held in Manchester on April 1992 was of particular importance.

7 Following these pioneering innovations, various "labor nets" have been established in a variety of countries (USA, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Russia, South Korea etc.).

8 M2 Communications, March 10, 2000.

9 http://www.igc.org/igc/gateway/

10 At this time (Febr. 2001). A legal battle is pendent between the Washington Post and the union of media workers about the right of unions to contact their members at their place of work.

11 "Labor Unions Turn to Cyberspace" (Associated Press 3. Sept. 2000; 13.07).

12 This may explain why American Unions - which are mainly firm-oriented organizations - don't make much use of online communication up to the present.

13 Bulletin of the International Federation of Workers' Education Associations, 3, December 1993. "Computer Communications and the Labour Movement", http://www.poptel.org.uk/ifwea/ifwwe03.html

14 Bulletin of the International Federation of Workers' Education Associations, 3, December 1993. "Computer Communications and the Labour Movement", http://www.poptel.org.uk/ifwea/ifwwe03.html

15 dito

16 dito

17  http://www.icem.org/campaigns/no_pay_cc/internet.html

18 http://www.icem.org/campaigns/no_pay_cc/progress_report01.html

19 Bulletin of the International Federation of Workers' Education Associations, 3, Dec. 1993. "Computer Communications and the Labour Movement", http://www.poptel.org.uk/ifwea/ifwwe03.html

20 Richard Flint (1993): Von der International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF). In: Bulletin of the International Federation of Workers' Education Associations, 3, Dec. 1993.

21 David Bollier: Reinventing Democratic Culture in an Age of Electronic Networks. http://www.netaction.org/bollier/index.html

22 See for instance. Niels Werber: Ungeahnte Einigkeit. Die Rolle des Internet in der Parteipolitik. http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/inhalt/te/1446/1.html

23 Paul Demko: Acting up On Line. In: The Chronicle of Philanthropy. http://philanthropy.com/articles/dir/v10.dir/il2.dir/12advocacy.htm

24 Eric Lee (1995): Labour and the Internet. In: Internet Business Journal, http://www.solinet.org/LEE/ibj.html

25 see Eric Lee: The Labour Movement and the Internet. Chapter 4 (selection), http://www.solinet.org/LEE/labour34.html

26 Allen Schaaf (1996): Unions, the Rank and File, and the Internet. In: CMC Magazine, Nov. 1996, http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1996/nov/schaaf.html

Last update: 02 Feb 15

 

Editor

  Prof. Hans Geser
Soziologisches Institut
der Universität Zürich

hg@socio.ch