Online Publications

Social Movements,

Pressure Groups and Political Parties


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

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

Since the 70ies, the dominant paradigm in social movement theory was the "resource mobilization approach" which stressed the role of mesosocial organizational actors, large scale societal mobilization processes initiated by centralized actors ("social entrepreneurship", macrosocial interorganizational networks ("social movement industries") and above all: the very tight interdependencies between informal movements and formalized institutional structures (e. g, Zald/McCarthy 1987; Jenkins 1983; Myers 1998).

As several researchers began to notice at the end of the 80ies, such "Weberian" views emphasizing the primacy of institutional levels and the inevitability of centralization implied the neglect of equally salient factors like subjective deprivations, microsocial interaction networks and more horizontal modes of "collective behavior" (e. g. Myers 1998). As a consequence, older paradigms focusing on the level of grassroots interactions and horizontal group processes have been revitalized (see Melucci 1989; Taylor/Whittier 1992).

The Internet promotes the emergence of large-scale collectivities from the "grassroots level" because it enriches the arsenal of mobilization mechanisms by some extremely decentralized and informal procedures which can start and expand easily outside any framework of formal organization:

"The most informal method involves the personal use of electronic mail. Activists will send items of relevance to friends, colleagues, and fellow activists, who in turn may be spurred into action by the message. Each person who receives the message has the option to forward it to her or his acquaintances. The result is an effective information network powered by electronic mail forwarding. Using this method, activists can relay messages to thousands of like-minded computer users in a very short time." (Myers 1998)

In the past, a major incentive for centralization stemmed from the communicative deficiencies of decentralized interaction networks. Typically, every transmission from one person to the next involved a significant risk of distortion and/or misunderstanding, so that after many transmission steps, information becomes mere "rumors" only distantly similar to the original messages (Turner and Killian 1972). Thus, whenever an individual A wanted to transmit a message precisely to many other people, it had no alternative than to submit it to a sender S, which then broadcasted it by technical means (letters, Faxes, printed journals, radio or TV etc.) to a large number of receivers. Of course, this intermediation implied that the broadcasting agency gained a certain control over what shall be broadcasted to whom in which form at what point of time. With the Internet, this incentive to centralize communicative processes has vanished, because most complex messages can be transmitted within complex horizontal networks without any loss of information.

"One important asset the computer network has is the accurate replication of information to the thousands of nodes it touches. Because of forwarding capabilities, original messages can travel through many network nodes without the slightest distortion. The result is widespread dissemination without the misinformation that typically results from pass-along methods of information distribution. Given social movements' tendencies to rely on informal networks to distribute information about the grievances and activities of the movement, the computer network marks a substantial advance in communication procedures." (Myers 1998)

As a consequence, centralized organizational services are less needed for securing widespread accurate communication (e. g. distributing addresses of phone numbers of participants or communicating the precise time and place of collective actions).

Consequently, less money has to be spent for professional communicators (employed in the central offices), because diffusion processes can easily be distributed to a multitude of members acting as unpaid volunteers (each forwarding received messages to his/her own friends).

In the Balkan wars, for example, such networks had the function of providing new solutions by "bottom-up" communication when conventional top-down communication failed:

"Perhaps more importantly, zamir became the most visible part of an experimental social movement, articulating a kind of 'globalization from below' (Deacon et al, 1994; Turmir, 1998), seeking grassroots civil solutions to a conflict in which, patently, top down political solutions were thin on the ground and likely to prove disappointing." (Stubbs 1998)

Even at that early time of the Internet, when hardware facilities were still relatively expensive, the whole technical infrastructure was easily provided by non-governmental Western sources (e. g. Western Peace movements and the George Soros's Open society Fund), so that the "movement" never became dependent on any governmental support (Stubbs 1998). Similarly, the Internet is a ready tool for already well established "New Social Movements", which since their inception (in the 60ies and 70ies) have stressed decentralized networking instead of centralized leadership guidance and ideological indoctrination. This is particularly true for ecologist movements because they operate under conditions which make it necessary to rely on very decentralized organizational structures. First of all, they typically address environmental problems occurring in very different geographical locations; secondly, they have to focus on a manifold of decision makers, institutions and agencies (on global and regional as well as on national and local levels); and thirdly, they have to collect and distribute a wide variety of information stemming from many different sources (e. g. research institutions or local administrative agencies).

As articulated in the following hypothetical example, using the Internet is indispensable for combining decentralized fact-gathering and mobilization with speedy diffusion and knowledge, consensus building and effective transnational action:

"In this office at Web World in Seattle, Roger Adams is working on the United Nation Environment Program's online action guide for community organizations. He e-mails drafts to the working groups, and is told that the guide needs more material on sustainable agriculture. Adams writes a quick query on his Macintosh and "uplinks" it into a "listserve," which automatically sends it on to 2,000 environmentalists around the world. He goes back to working on his document, with the e-mail program working in the background. Within an hour, a listserve subscriber in South Africa has sent him the material he needs. Adams copies the material into his document, attributes it, and completes a new draft, which he immediately e-mails back to the working group." (Motavalli 1996)

Similar advantages accrue to the latest antiglobalist and anticorporatist movements which are even more decentralized and informal than any "New Social Movements" which have appeared since the late sixties. This is vividly illustrated by the recent antiglobalization protests (e.g. at the WTO Conference in Seattle 1999 and the Worldbank meeting in Prag 2000) were processes of "spontaneous clustering" have been enacted for building up huge demonstrations within very short time:

"One of the more impressive innovations has been the method of organizing, arranging, and directing the operational and administrative activities associated with the demonstrations-accomplished effectively without the obvious influence of central authority, command, or control. In many ways, the system is very similar to that advocated by anarchists of the libertarian socialist philosophy. Activities begin with like-minded individuals who gather in affinity groups across the country, plan their roles, and travel to the site of the demonstration. Once at the site, they join with other like-minded affinity groups to form clusters and to select a spokesperson who attends the daily spokescouncil. At the latter, discussions are held and information passed concerning operational and administrative activities-arrangements for accommodation, feeding, legal advice, types of actions to be implemented." (CSIS 2000)

In addition, the mobile phones have amplified the capacities to revise action strategies so quickly that police agencies are not able to plan their own actions because they cannot predict what is happening where and when.

"Cellphones constitute a basic means of communication and control, allowing protest organizers to employ the concepts of mobility and reserves and to move groups from place to place as needed. The mobility of demonstrators makes it difficult for law enforcement and security personnel to attempt to offset their opponents through the presence of overwhelming numbers. It is now necessary for security to be equally mobile, capable of readily deploying reserves, monitoring the communications of protesters, and,whenever possible, anticipating the intentions of the demonstrators. In some cases, the extremist elements, e.g., Black Bloc anarchists, have used the ranks of moderate protesters as shields to prevent law enforcement personnel from viewing violent activities and from getting into position to stop the damage" (CSIS 2000).

Lacking clear leadership as well as clearly defined stock of followers, they consist of a multitude of divergent groupings which coordinate they actions spontaneously for specific time periods, without losing their structural autonomy and without converging in their ideological views and specific strategic goals. Evidently, their offline organization is somewhat isomorphic to their lose online linkages on the Web:

".....these campaigns have not coalesced into a single movement. Rather, they are intricately and tightly linked to one another, much as 'hotlinks' connect their websites on the Internet. This analogy is more than coincidental and is in fact key to understanding the changing nature of political organizing. Although many have observed that the recent mass protests would have been impossible without the Internet, what has been overlooked is how the communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image. What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet--the Internet come to life." (Klein 2000)

While stable oligarchic elites are inexistent, guidance is merely exerted by "geek adhocracies": self-recruited computer-savvy specialists skilled in networking the different groups (Klein 2000).

Obviously, Email is highly functional for initiating "flash campaigns" where salient information is spread horizontally: with each receiver forwarding it to his own friends and acquaintances: so that no need for centralized diffusion agencies is created. Most of these diffusion processes are "redundant" in the sense that many individuals will receive identical messages from two ore more different sources. Thus, millions of people can be alerted and mobilized reliably within very short time In fact, each individual member (or subgroup) can temporarily assume the role of a centralized leadership role by initiating such a campaign: without being able to exert outstanding influence roles in to subsequent operational stages. This is in sharp contradiction to conventional bureaucratic centers which have a far more generalized and stable influence role: from initiating campaigns to supervising their operational proceedings until sealing the final negotiations.

Given their extremely decentralized structure, computer networks facilitate highly decentralized forms of campaigning based on parallel activities of many independent individuals or groups. For instance, thousands of net users may be induced to sign petitions, to send identical protest letters to specific decision makers, to organize simultaneous demonstrations in many different cities, or to order packages of flyers or bumper stickers for distributing them in their respective neighborhood. Such decentralized mass actions can profit from the fact that protest actions supported by a broad variety of independent participants may generate more legitimacy than an action supported by a few organizations - even if these latter represent a much larger number of individuals.

Thus, when a political representative receives 1000 letters from as many voters, he may become quite responsive because he has reasons to believe that these 1000 constitute a rather representative sample of his whole constituency - so that he has to fear heavy losses in the next elections when he fails to react. On the other hand, when he gets a similar request from a large association pretending to speak for its 100 000 members, he may take this as the articulation of a rather limited segment of the voting population (e. g. only unionized workers) - or even as an elitist articulation representing only the opinion of the association's leadership, not as the attitude of their average silent members.

Whenever the members of a specific association engage in such grassroots actions, the leadership of the association may find its authority undermined, because its claim "to know best what the members really want" can be challenged by the outcome of such non-mediated campaigns. In fact, highly institutionalized systems of corporatist political decision making may become weakened because politicians become more immersed in non-institutional communications (e.g. direct Emails from citizens), while the capacity of formal associational elites to the represent their membership declines. Consequently, it has to be expected that the Internet is most positively evaluated by various "secondary elites" hitherto not represented in established formal deliberation and decision making bodies, while the formal elites are more reserved because their traditional capacity to monopolize communication processes is undermined.27

Given its decentralized anarchic structure, the Internet has a special affinity to very archaic groups not affected by any principles of bureaucratic organization. For instance, various collectivities dedicated to paganism have profited from the new media, because these groups found a new way of highly informal, erratic, leaderless communication. As the adherents are not only highly dispersed geographically, but very much isolated because they cannot communicate with kin, friends and neighbors about their strange beliefs, they find the Internet particularly useful in order to reinforce their own creeds as well as to foster the collective identity of their group.28 In addition, pagan net users find MUDs and other word-based virtual settings very congenial, because their own creeds are built on the premise that words have a strong constitutive impact on the Real World:

"Computer spaces [like the created worlds in MUDs and chat] lend themselves to the same feeling of being 'here' and `not here. " It's almost a return to the earliest iterations of religion itself, where the Word took on extraordinary power."29

In the future, we may have to live with the contingency that the groups profiting most from the new media are those which are defiant against formal organizations and centralized societal institutions. The new technology offers them the opportunity to creating and solidify informal networks, and to maintain encompassing and regularized internal communication without any need to establish administrative structure, full-time roles or organizational leadership, and without becoming dependent on subsidies from governmental or other institutional actors. In the US, for example, online communication is extensively used by the highly dispersed and informal militia groups on the far right, which preserve old American ideals of individual self-reliance and fight against the increasing power of governmental agencies and international organizations. In the past, such groups had to remain very marginal because by defying established forms of social organization, they were doomed to cling to highly atavistic forms of communication, so that their degree of internal coordination and their capacities for collective action remained rather weak.

Today, they can use computer Nets for communicating on a daily (or even hourly) basis: so that collective activities can be easily coordinated and technical/tactical information can be readily exchanged.

"In the four mailing lists that I looked at there were some common members but hundreds of different people participated in just these few groups. Included in many of the messages were practical, real life, actions that could be done to further the cause. This part of the Internet proved most useful when communicating directly with other members. People contacted each other on a daily basis with newspaper articles, news stories and in some cases, just plain rumor. The point however is that this was a quick way of getting an article published in Seattle out to everyone in the community nation wide. After looking at all of the data collected by email, I saw that this was the tip of the iceberg of information out there for militia members and any other concerned citizen. Without such email technology it would be extremely difficult to produce the same volume of instant nation wide communication." (Ward 1998)

On a most general level, it may be said that the Internet gives rise to new forms of social organization which are better able to combine the following conflictive functional capacities:

  1. high levels of individual autonomy and individual participation

  2. widespread and volatile membership

  3. effective coordination and precisely focused collective actions

  4. high structural flexibility: due to lack of rigid of bureaucratic organization:

  5. low external controllability: because there are no co-optable (and corruptible) leaders.

By means of decentralized horizontal online communications, networks may rival "hierarchies" and "markets" as a third major structural form constituting modern human societies. Because of their intransparent informal organization, their capacities for collective actions have hitherto been mainly seen in negative terms: e. g. by their potentials to unleash "transnational social Netwars" (Powell 1990). As decentralized actors, networks are typically not disposed to "seize power" (like parties having bureaucratic structures and authoritarian leadership akin to governments), but to mobilize widespread pressure in order to have an impact on existing governmental (or international) authorities:

"These analyses ...have also recognized how the content of these rhizomatic or networking forms of social mobilization has differed from traditional Leninist notions of revolution. Instead of a dedication to the seizure of power, the Zapatista rebellion, including its international dimensions, has involved a mobilization with the essentially political objectives of 1) pulling together grassroots movements against the current political and economic order in Mexico and the world and of 2) facilitating the elaboration and circulation of alternative approaches to social organization." (Cleaver 1999)

Such grassroots movements are not even capable (and willing) to participate in those formal cooperative structures with which the World Bank, the WTO or the OECD try to "co-opt" significant outside actors into their bureaucratic structures. In fact, all these big organizations show a tendency to cooperate only with established NGOs which are isomorphic to them in their degree of formalization, stability and internal centralization; and the try to maintain and propagate a narrow concept of "civil society" including only such institutionalized collective actors (Cleaver 1999). As a consequence, established institutional actors may be more ready to react rather repressively (or in a helplessly defensive manner), because they cannot play their usual game within a pluralist system of "countervailing powers". Even when these informal opponents follow no radical goals, they may still appear frightening because of their fluid decentralized structure. These shortcomings in internal cohesion and external action capacities have to weighted against the advantages accruing to the individual members who get a feeling of personal empowerment and rich opportunitities for experiences and self-expression. For the striking Liverpool dockers in 1997, Internet activities have not turned out decisive for their struggle with employers and the government, but highly crucial in an other, more "expressive" dimension: by offering them the new opportunities for experiencing solidarity, for building up new qualifications and for articulating their own values and views:

"This computer-aided and internationalist effort, moreover, seems to have had a dramatic emancipatory effect on the dockers themselves. Instead of using the considerable individual redundancy payments many (not all) received themselves individually, they were trying, in collaboration with friends at Liverpool's technical university, to set up a worker self-managed enterprise to 1) train themselves and others in the new technology! 2) themselves produce cultural goods! The first of these implies a positive labour response to the conditions of a globalised networked capitalism. The second means `capitalising' on 1) Liverpool's rich local popular cultural tradition, 2) following up on their own experiment in producing a music CD-Rom, with the help of their many friends in the rock business!" (Waterman 1999)

On the level of scientific methodology, all concepts relating to fixed physical objects are no longer adequate to describe such volatile collectivities: neither the concept of "system" nor the concept of "organization" (both originating from neatly circumscribed structures like biological organisms).

Instead, metaphors have to be sought in the realm of fluids like water:

"As a metaphor for thinking about the ceaseless movement that forms the political life and historical trajectory of those resisting and sometimes escaping the institutions of capitalism, I have come to prefer that of water, of the hydrosphere, especially of oceans with their ever restless currents and eddies, now moving faster, now slower, now warmer, now colder, now deeper, now on the surface. At some points water does freeze, crystallizing into rigidity, but mostly it melts again, undoing one molecular form to return to a process of dynamic self-organizing that refuses crystallization yet whose directions and power can be observed and tracked. Thus too with "civil society." It is fluid, changing constantly and only momentarily forming those solidified moments we call "organizations." Such moments are constantly eroded by the shifting currents surrounding them so that they are repeatedly melted back into the flow itself." (Cleaver 1999)

To deal with such entities is a source of frustration not only to politicians, managers and other representatives of the world of established formal organizations, but also for social scientists looking for neatly differentiated "systems" with rather stable, precisely defined structures, rules and activity patterns.

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12. The Rising Significance of "Interactional" Systemic Integration

As all formally organized social systems, voluntary associations are integrated on three complementary (and partially substitutive) levels:

Identificational level

Subjective commitments of individual members to the collectivity: to its values, goals, norms or activities.

Feelings of loyalty, identification and belongingness to the group as a community;

Motivational dispositions for doing work, fulfilling duties, taking orders, assume responsibilities etc.

Interactional level

Horizontal processes of interaction and communication between members;

Vertical communications between members and leadership;

Exchange networks and cooperative group structures

Participation in group gatherings, assemblies, festivals, congresses, workshops etc.

Organizational level

Bureaucratic and professional roles

Formal statutes and rules

Formal procedures of entrance and dismissal

Official media of communication

Official symbols and emblems constituting the "corporate identity" (e. g. buildings, uniforms, letter heads).

Typically, interactional relationships are highly salient at the early stages of system formation where frequent meetings are necessary in order to negotiate interests and reach consensus about basic values, goals, norms and procedures (Marcus 1966). When time goes on, however, these social relationships usually give rise to more internalized cohesive forces (e. g. subjective identifications) on the one hand and more externalized devices of integration (formalized charters, statutes and membership duties) on the other.

In the past, most established associations had to rely primarily on identificational and/or organizational levels because interaction was difficult (or highly expensive) for physical and technical reasons. In particular, associations with widely dispersed membership had no alternative than to stabilize their identity on the basis of elaborated formal structures on the one hand and intensive subjective motivations on the other (e.g. religious collectivities). Only on the local level, frequent face-to-face meetings provided a means to realize a predominantly interactional form of integration.

With the advent of new computer media, all social collectivities gain additional capacities to rely on social interaction as a major medium of system integration, because electronic media provide ample opportunities for cheap , widespread and continuous interaction not subjected to any restrictions of time and space. The new antiglobalist movements illustrate the increased capacity of modern collectivities to base their identity and cohesion almost completely on current processes of interactional communication: so that they have less need for formalized rules, physical buildings, collective traditions or other non-interactional anchors of systemic stabilization.

"....rather than build elaborate national or international bureaucracies, temporary structures were thrown up instead: Empty buildings were turned into 'convergence centers', and independent media producers assembled impromptu activist news centers. The ad hoc coalitions behind these demonstrations frequently named themselves after the date of the planned event: J18, N30, A16 and now, for the IMF meeting in Prague on September 26, S26. When these events are over, they leave virtually no trace behind, save for an archived website." (Klein 2000)

As a consequence, the already existing universe of about 30 000 formally constituted nongovernmental organizations has now been complemented by an incalculable number of informal "affinity groups" which have immensely broadened the range of articulated perspectives, issues and problems as well as the spectrum tactical procedures and the manifold of proposed alternative solutions (Klein 2000). In the past, traditional labor organizations had certain role in facilitating and catalyzing online communications, because they were the first to possess the necessary resources and to exchange the knowledge on formal conferences. Thus, the famous "laboutTel" conferences were organized within the framework of the British Trade Union System - and they were accordingly criticized of neglecting more peripheral and informal parts of newly emerging international movement (Waterman 1999). But in the longer run, these established organizations are typically unable to steer online communications according to their preferences and to shape them in accordance with overall policy considerations.

Within the labor union sector, this new trend is currently most clearly seen on the transnational level where organizational development has been traditionally quite weak. In fact,: the Internet makes seems to make it even more unlikely that labor reacts to the growing multinationalism of enterprises and employer's associations with an isomorphic establishment of highly unified bureaucratized international union organizations. To the contrary, the focus of labor campaigns shifts to a galaxy of highly informal network activities: like the latest campaigns against the World Bank and the WTO. Instead of building up countervailing power in order to meet the corporations on the same level of organization, they prefer the "flea "strategy" : harassing the big enterprises like spiders spinning a web around a big prey of like insects which are irritating elephants or lions. (Klein 2000). By choosing such decentralized tactics, they gain much defensive resilience because they cannot be incapacitated or destroyed, but on the other hand, they lose offensive potentials because they lack the ability to build far-reaching consensus, to produce binding decisions, to secure long-term commitments and to focus their resources on single highly salient targets.

"One of the great strengths of this model of laissez-faire organizing is that it has proven extraordinarily difficult to control, largely because it is so different from the organizing principles of the institutions and corporations it targets. It responds to corporate concentration with a maze of fragmentation, to globalization with its own kind of localization, to power consolidation with radical power dispersal. There is no question that the communication culture that reigns on the Net is better at speed and volume than at synthesis. It is capable of getting tens of thousands of people to meet on the same street corner, placards in hand, but is far less adept at helping those same people to agree on what they are really asking for before they get to the barricades--or after they leave." (Klein 2000).

This shift from structural to interactional means of collective integration has many far-reaching consequences for associational structures and activities:

First of all, it means that Email functions as a new basic medium for voluntary associations by allowing to establish among members extremely extensive networks of weak ties (Haythornthwaite 1999). Thus, interactional integration can be realized in more extensive social groupings: in collectivities unable to assemble all their members on congresses or other F2F occasions. In addition, the traditional gap between horizontally interacting delegates (or board members) and non-interacting "normal members" could diminish (or vanish altogether), because all members now have access to horizontal social interaction

Secondly, it is to be expected that interactive processes are no longer restricted to specific occasions and periods of time (e. g. meetings, congresses etc.); but go on continuously day and night, weekdays and Sundays, during the whole year. Consequently, even members of larger collectivities may for the first time have the experience of being participants in a never-ending field of interaction, where they have access to all other members and to various sub-collectivities all the time.

Third, open communication can easily expand to any topic or discussion, disregarding conventional norms of excluding the public by preserving specific questions to representative bodies, specialized commissions or executive boards. Thus, it may no longer be possible to keep clear distinctions between "legislative" and "executive" levels of collective action, because even subordinate tactical decisions may easily be influenced by any informal groups.

Fourth, we may expect that the crucial question "who belongs to us" is no longer answered primarily in terms of formal criteria of membership, but increasingly in terms of actual communicative participation. Thus, all associations may become more ready to include any "outsiders" not formally signed up as members, whenever such individuals assume an active role in associational discussion forums etc. On the other hand, members connected exclusively by formal means may feel more marginalized than ever because more interactive events and developments are taking place from which they are excluded.

Fifth, it may be hypothesized that widespread an intensive online communication has the effect of bringing the whole collectivity into more "fluid" state: by reducing the degree to which formal rules and past traditions are observed, because all norms and behavioral expectations can easily be discussed and modified in ongoing processes of communication. In other words: a basic change from "mechanic management" to "organic management" can be enacted.30 In particular, this implies that the distribution of power and influence may follow less the lines of formal authority, but varies more in accordance with "functional authority" as it is emerging in constantly ongoing processes of communication.

Finally, it may be expected that collectivities get more fragmented because interactional integration cannot produce so much unity and homogeneity as integration on the level of formal organization. This problem will rise exponentially with increasing size of membership, because the larger the system, the smaller become the percentage of all logically possible social relationships that can be realized, and because interaction will tend to concentrate in subgroups characterized by a specially high level of consensus or homogeneity among its members. Consequently, we may see many hitherto "monolithic" collectivities falling apart into a number of subgroupings, because the encompassing non-interactive means of integration (e. g. collective symbols, common frames of formal rulings etc.) become weakened.

Methodologically, this all means that it becomes more viable to view voluntary associations as "social networks" which have to be analyzed in terms of the transactions going on among its participants and the volatile types of ties and relationships emerging among them (Monge 1987; Haythornthwaite 1999). On the other hand, it may become less fruitful to see voluntary associations (a) as formal organizations (by focusing on legal statues, structured role and status systems, formalized rules and procedures etc. etc.) and (b) as "communities" (by focusing on subjective motivations and identifications).

To the degree that these new "Global solidarity groups" cling to purely informal principles of internal organization, they remain highly invisible to external observers - to monitoring police agencies and sociological researchers alike. Even worse: they remain opaque to themselves, so that participants typically lack the knowledge about who else is participating, to what extent values or goals are shared consensually. or even: and what kind of strategic activities will follow next. Consequently, continuous efforts of empirical research are necessary to provide information about their size, composition, values, goals and activities, and to assess their "real" impact within the whole network of (e. g. governmental,. economic and associational) transnational actors.

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13. The new focus on multiple target campaigning

Net-supported worldwide movement activities are particularly successful when they are addressing events, developments or problems which have identical characteristics all over the globe. This has been vividly exemplified by the "International Protest Day against Police Violence" (initiated by a Canadian action group at the 14./25. of March 1996), which was orchestrated by demonstrations, seminars, concerts, lectures and other events in many different countries (stretching from Spain and Sweden over Croatia and Serbia to South Africa, Brasilia and Bangladesh.):

"By using e-mail on a global scale, the Montreal group was able to involve people in a dozen nations and gather follow-up reports on events, without the high cost of using telephones or faxes. Even more remarkable: The activist who did most of the group's outreach, Dee Lecomte, had first gone online just two weeks before the effort began, and she didn't use anything beyond basic e-mail. Nor did she need to." (Krause 1997).

Contrasting to most conventional movements which attempt to influence (or overturn) a single center of concentrated power, online campaigns are most adequate when it is crucial to have an impact on many different decision making agencies (e.g. parliamentary representatives or the government of different communities, provinces or nations). A case in point was the worldwide campaign aiming at the prohibition of landmines (in 1995), which has contributed to the result that 123 government have signed the respective international agreement:

"Perhaps the most successful harnessing of the Internet to push political change has been the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The campaign used e-mail to help coordinate the activities of hundreds of non-profit groups in dozens of countries." 31

Likewise, virtual labor union campaigns are more promising in rather decentralized economic environments where the main problem is to exercise influence on many independent smaller firms, regional associations or local political agencies - not in the classic sphere of macrocoporatist structures, where conventional lobbying techniques may remain as indispensable as in the past. Even in cases where a single powerful decision maker is addressed, online campaigns often tend to create an impact by a summation of many different smaller-scale activities. This was illustrated by the famous "Bridgestone campaign" (initiated by the ICEM32 in 1996) which succeeded in pressuring this big employer by a multitude of concerted smaller actions aiming at its shareholders, clients and suppliers.

Similar conditions hold in the protest against the delayed wages of Russian workers - again initiated by ICEM in 1997 - which was based on the premise that apart from the Russian Government, many other actors (e. g. international banks) shared the responsibility for the lack of liquid resources:

"With this second "Cyber-Campaign" wherever you are in the world you can not only express your solidarity with Russian workers and their trade unions but actively support them by sending protests to the World Bank, IMF and other international institutions, to the Russian government, to employers and regional administrations and to multinational companies and banks. All of these bear some responsibility for the hardship and suffering that Russian workers are now experiencing. You can add your voice to their formal complaint to the International Labour Organisation. This is an international issue and the Russian trade unions need international support to be able to resolve it." 33

While the legitimacy (and impact) of online protest actions may be enhanced by the large number and heterogeneity of participants, it may well be reduced by the fact that participation is so accessible and effortless that it is not a valid indicator of high individual involvement. Thus, even very hesitant union member who have never been part of street actions or strikes may well be ready to sign online petitions or to send a pre-standardized e-mail message to the CEO of a specific firm. Evidently, such activities may easily become so inflated that neither the particular receivers nor the general public is significantly impressed. More than that, such actions may be counterproductive because receivers tax such messages as "spamming" like all other unexpected and unsolicited mail. Consequently, it might be concluded that campaign sites on the WWW are only effective when they induce visitors to express their protests by more conventional means: by using snail letters or telephone, or by assembling at specific times on specific places. As an illustration, we may again mention the Bridgetown "Days of Outrage Action" in July 1996 which was successful because so many protesters contacted firm managers by fax or phone - using the list of phone numbers published on the ICEM site.34

Unquestionably, such "action alerts" using the Net as a mobilization and coordination tool for conventional protest activities have proven to be highly successful in many different cases. Thus, about 30 ecological activists in Utah have succeeded in preventing a Congress bill (aiming at the abolishment of protection zones) in 1995 by sending e-mails to about 30 000 other activists all over the nation: requesting them to contact their local representatives in this matter.35

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

By increasing their responsiveness toward individual customers, clients and members, groups and organizations are increasingly confronted with the problem that the maintenance of highly specified goals and behaviors becomes more difficult because human beings are highly polyvalent entities engaged in diverse roles and endowed with heterogeneous and volatile values, identities and psychological motivations.

In contrast to conventional media which aggregate individual contributions into few highly specified channels, online communication is extremely responsive to these divergent needs and orientations, because the same technical infrastructure opens a gateway to all possible modes of communicative behavior. Thus, to surf the Internet typically means to be in a highly polyvalent and extremely volatile social role. Within seconds, users may change from commercial to non-commercial sites, or from work-related to leisure-time activities, or from passive viewing to active communication. And given the functional universality of the PC as a device covering work environments and leisure activities alike, it is highly probable that communication partners exchange very different communicative items (text, pictures, videos, software programs etc.) and engage in highly variable (e. g. work-related and play-related, personal and impersonal) modes of communication, Consequently, there are many examples of studies that find rich, multiplex relations to flourish online, and include information exchange, social support, work and play (see Jones, 1998; Smith & Kollock, 1998; Sudweeks, McLaughlin & Rafaeli, 1997; Haythornthwaite, & Wellman, 1998).

From the point of view of Web publishers, this unspecificity and volatility imply high risks and high chances at the same time. The risks include the insecurity to which extent users will go on reading to a specific document rather than switch to other pages or non-reading activities.

For any voluntary organization, the basic dilemma of going online is: providing a gateway into a world of infinite alternative information sources (all equally accessible within extremely short time): so that the union site has to compete for "user eyeballs" with sites of completely different nature (e. g. sex sites, political sites, media sites etc.). Thus, unions are exposing themselves to a highly critical test: whether the information they convey is competitive with all the other information available on the Net. And even more paradoxical: the more an association tries to motivate a heterogeneous (and/or weakly motivated) membership to visit its Webpage frequently (e. g. by offering a portal site loaded automatically whenever the user starts his/her browser), the more it has to provide opportunities for "personal customization" and gateways to many other sites: thus reducing the degree to which any focusing on common collective issues can be achieved. On the other hand, the opportunities include the challenge of influencing effectively what users will do next: e. g. by inducing people who look at advertisements to order the product at the same session, or by inducing visitors of a campaign site to participate in votings or sign petitions.

Given this intrinsic unspecificity in the use of online media, users are in a constant state of openness for influences of all kinds. For instance, while individuals visiting a concert are specifically focusing on music and customers in shopping mall are just interested in buying nourishment or clothes, hooking up to the Internet does not imply any such restrictions. Of course, users may go online for rather specific purposes, but there are no physical structures (like shopping malls or concert halls) to channel their attention to very specific activities or goals. On the contrary, they may have to exert constant self-discipline in order not to be distracted by any attractive links drawing their attention away to different, unexpected topics or non-anticipated activities.

For Web publishers, this diffuseness is a resource which opens them many opportunities not available in the real world. In particular, new symbiotic relationships can be exploited when actors with very different goals and affiliations enter into mutual profitable cooperations. Thus, media publishers of all kinds (including the Encyclopaedia Britannica) offer their whole content freely by affiliating with commercial advertisers who see good opportunities to use their visitors as a market for profitable transactions; and whenever an association succeeds in attracting many users to its information sites or discussion fora, it can easily exploit this audience for increasing its membership or for winning support for collective actions.

Whenever a publisher succeeds in gathering visitors for any specific purpose, he can exploit this pool of "eyeball contacts" for a variety of other purposes - or he can ally with another publisher who pays for being allowed to engage in such exploitations. For instance, the premise may hold that whenever a customer is buying a product online, he is present in the Net not exclusively as a commercially minded consumer, but as an entire human being also susceptible to quite different (e. g. aesthetic or philanthropic) values at the same point of time. If this is admitted, many far-reaching implications concerning goal orientation and behavioral rationality of online actors have to be faced. While we certainly don't want to dismiss the notion that Internet surfers too tend to optimize utility (by minimizing costs and maximizing return), we have to accept that this concept assumes more ambiguity than in most offline settings.

To take an example: When I maximize utility as a conventional buyer of books, I may do this by visiting the store with the cheapest prices - or in the case prices are equal: the store next to my apartment, or the one where I'm certain to get the most friendly service. When I want to order books online, my situation is different in many ways: First of all, many utility and cost factors are irrelevant, because all outlets are in equal "proximity" and "friendly service" is offered nowhere. Consequently, I'm in search for alternative selection criteria in order to decide where to buy my books. Secondly, I'm likely to focus my mind not so exclusively on book buying than when I leave my house with the explicit intention of going to the store, because the Internet provides me a highly unspecified environment where I can easily satisfy very different interests almost at the same time. Consequently, maximizing utility may mean: maximizing the variety of different need-fulfillments within a given span of time.

Thus, online book buyers may well prefer e-vendors who connect book sales with quite different additional gratifications: e. g. by providing access to lively discussion groups and online communities, or by convincing the buyer that his money will be instrumental for additional causes (e.g. for alimenting reputable non-profit organizations). This logic is exemplified by a site which opens a gateway for voluntary associations to raise funds by sharing the profits of online retailers:

"The company helps not-for-profits build online shopping villages - annexes to their Web sites that allow supporters to browse through the offerings of more than 50 well-known online merchants like,, JCPenney and 1-800-FLOWERS. The exact configuration of the shopping village is up to the not-for-profit, which can select from among the available online vendors or reject those that seem out of place with their mission. Of every purchase made, the not-forprofit receives a percentage of the price. Over the course of a year, the not-for-profits receive at least 5 percent of the sales made in its shopping village. designs, markets and manages the online shopping villages, all at no cost to the non-profit organization. Nor do the consumers pay anything extra; they pay the same price for goods they are buying to help their favourite cause as they would had they gone directly to the retailer's site. The only difference is, at least 5 percent goes back to the cause. The retailers foot the bill for in order to gain access to the growing number of concerned consumers. Retailers pay what is called an affiliate fee, which ranges from 6 to 25 percent on each purchase. shares these fees 50/50 with the not-forprofit on a quarterly basis, and guarantees that the organization will receive at least 5 percent of the total receipts, and in many cases, more." (Hair 1999)

Evidently, this intermediary service provider is successfully empowering individual online surfers to maximize utility: by enabling them to satisfy economic and philanthropic goals uno actu with a single (polyvalent) transaction.

As a conclusion, it might be hypothesized that the fusion of different values and interest on the level of individual roles gives rise to isomorphic cross-alliances on the level of organizations or societal institutions, thus generating tactical relationships among extremely divergent collective actors which never had to do anything with each other in the past. For voluntary associations, this implies that they face a more complex environment where survival and growth depends on the capacity to discover and exploit such surprising new symbiotic relationships. This new symbiosis between profit and non-profit organizations is vividly exemplified by charity malls like "iGive-com": a profit site living from sales commissions it gets for all transactions it stimulates in the name of any "worthy causes" (Kirby 1999):

Excerpt from

Why Join?
Our members enjoy tremendous savings on purchases at our mall while supporting their favorite worthy causes at the same time.

First-time Shopper´s Bonus
We´ll donate $10.00 to your cause if you make your first purchase within 45 days of joining.

Excellent Prices
Over 236 top merchants at the Mall offer spectacular prices and exclusive member deals on almost anything for home or office!

buy: books, cds, videos, electronics, clothing, toys, software & more! at:, Outpost,, Barnes & Noble, Gap & more!

Six Degrees of Donation
We´ll give you a $1 for each referral you make who shops, plus $1 for each shopper your friends refer--out through 6 degrees of referrals.

Virtuous Shopping
Your everyday online shopping earns between .5% and 20.0% for  your favorite cause.

Virtual Karma
You can list and support your favorite cause, and even track your earnings, all at the site!

Another illustration is offered by union sites which use their site to market products manufactured by union-friendly firms. By doing this, they provide their members with the opportunity to broaden the scope of union-related solidary action to their roles as consumers. To the degree that e-commerce is expanding, we may see unions as new actors exploiting their member adherence for initiating B2C relationships which can be highly effective to the degree that widespread and stable member solidarity exists. As a consequence, unions may increase their effectiveness because they have a new kind of positive sanction available for firms which are ready to fulfill their demands. (Darlington 2001). Or stated otherwise: the Internet enables unions to transform member solidarity more efficiently into economic power.

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

Many previous arguments can be synthesized by the proposition that one of the most profound societal impacts of online communications results from their functional capacities to reduce the advantages of large-scale corporate structures and to undermine the classic (Weberian) principles of bureaucratic organization.

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

The Internet opens vast opportunities to organize encompassing collective activities without the prior hiring of professional staff and the antecendent establishment of large-scale bureaucratic organizations. Thus, the known disfunctions of bureaucracies (red-tape, ritualism, inflexibility) can also be avoided: so that social movements can remain in a highly informal and decentralized states which allows all participants to express their spontaneous values and motivations.

"Creating the foundation for dramatic change, the Internet has had a profound impact-in part by enabling organizers to quickly and easily arrange demonstrations and protests, worldwide if necessary. Individuals and groups now are able to establish dates, share experiences, accept responsibilities, arrange logistics, and initiate a myriad of other taskings that would have been impossible to manage readily and rapidly in the past. International protests and demonstrations can be organized for the same date and time, so that a series of protests take place in concert. The Internet has breathed new life into the anarchist philosophy, permitting communication and coordination without the need for a central source of command, and facilitating coordinated actions with minimal resources and bureaucracy." (CSIS 2000)

In the realm of online communication, therefore, highly professional organizations are not likely to have much better functional capacities than rather unprofessionalized volunteer associations. In fact, large, bureaucratized organizations may even experience bigger problems because

  • they traditionally rely very much on top down communication, which is incompatible with the new network structures;

  • they have to implement more formal rules and technical safeguards (e.g. firewalls), so that they cannot fully exploit the potentialities of a unregulated net (Clark 1995).

On the other hand, all their financial, technical and organizational capacities as well as their superior professional knowledge and personal skills are of little value insofar as successful online communication can be realized on a very low level of efforts and qualifications. For instance, it has been found that technical communicators in firms typically have received very little formal training. Most skills necessary for net communication and Net publishing are acquired informally within the work process, or most often even during leisure hours at home (Silker/Gurak 1996). In other words: employing professionalized and highly paid communicators does not help much to improve the organization's Webpages and Web communication - as little as it helps to outsource online communication to specialized professional firms (like conventional advertising campaigns).

Thus, the Internet is apt to reduce the functional advantages associated with higher organizational size and professional skills. In the case of labor unions for example, it is interesting to note that in the initial phases, online technologies were mainly applied by the union levels with rather low organizational resources: by smaller local and regional union chapters on the one hand and by the thinly-staffed international unions of the other. The - far more potent and powerful - national unions have followed only after 1990. This may be explained by the fact that national organizations felt less need for new communication channels because they were in control of highly sophisticated and widely established conventional print media - while infra- as well as supranational levels saw online media as a tool for compensating their deficiencies in these respects.36


15.2. The growing "communicative marginality" of associational leaders

In a second way, online communication challenges principles of bureaucratic organization because it doesn't lend itself easily to centralized formal control. Conventional associational leaders and headquarters are accustomed to exercise tight control over the multilateral communication among members. Of course this is much facilitated by the fact that multilateral communications take place almost exclusively at official meetings which usually are prepared, organized and monitored by the associational staff and leadership.

Online channels allow multilateral interaction completely dissociated from organizationally embedded physical meetings - and thus outside the reach of formal associational control. Members well maintain intensive networks of group communication without the knowledge and support of organizational staff - or they may use self-selected monitoring persons not appointed by the formal organization. Nevertheless, the leaders may make use of the new situation by assuming an active role in online communication networks themselves: by providing disciplined monitoring and by guiding discussions in a way that they contribute to fact-finding, consensus building and to the legitimization of collective decisions. Doing this, they always remain in a precarious position because they can anytime be "dethroned" by informal moderators - or they may become irrelevant because new discussion forums emerge which rely on non-moderated horizontal exchange.

On the other hand, the role of leaders is considerably enhanced by the fact that "meetings" (e. g. board assemblies) are no longer restricted to hours of physical sessions, but become more extended by the use of computer-supported communication. Thus, a need for "group facilitators" arises who are skilled to act in the preparatory stages of meetings:

"Part of the facilitator's role is to conduct premeeting planning. This is the "make or break" preview time for your meeting. The facilitator needs to meet with the chief staff executive and chief executive officer to define meeting goals, identify premeeting tasks and materials, bring nuances among participants and politics and history to light, and discuss the expected flow of the meeting agenda." (Daly 1996)

Similarly, the role of chairmanship no longer finishes when assemblies are dissolved, because participants may wish to see summaries and results of their meeting on the WWW, to receive additional interesting materials - or just to continue their deliberations by electronic mail.


15.3. The declining formal control over the spread of information

Thirdly, digitalization lowers the degree to which information can be kept secret or at least under exclusive control within any defined system boundaries. Whenever classified or secret information is leaking to an unauthorized recipient, it is highly probable it will copied, sent to other recipients, or finally even made public in newsgroups or the WWW. Thus, governments and organizations have to increase security measures so that nothing of this sort happens: because potential damage is far higher than in the past when stolen paper documents often remained at one single place (because nobody had the means for copying and distribution).

A wiser strategy may be to take possible publication into account from the beginning: so that even secret negotiations are enacted in a way that publicized minutes would not be too embarrassing for the participating organizations. These new risks have been exemplified in the drafting of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) initially promoted by the OECD.

"The temporary defeat of this initiative has been credited, in part, to the utilization of e-mail and Web sites to circulate information about the MAI, including critiques of both the content of the agreement and the undemocratic process of drafting it.(24) As a result of the outrage that this information generated, the Internet also became a vehicle for circulating and organizing a mobilization campaign against the MAI in dozens of countries. Such mobilization put pressure both on the negotiators at the OECD and on member country governments." (Cleaver 1999)

From this case, Stephan Kobrin has rightly drawn the conclusion that because the Internet makes it difficult to maintain the secrecy of such elite negotiations it will be necessary for the institutional actors to increase their investments in generating widespread public support (Kobrin 1998).


15.4. The emancipation of members and subsystems from encompassing organizational controls

Fourthly, the Internet makes it more difficult for any organized systems to keep the system level neatly separated from the level of subsystems or individual members. For instance, whenever the leadership of such an organization tries to present an "official" face to its environment, it is likely to be counteracted by any internal subgroups or individuals publishing on their own. As a consequence, there is a tendency for system levels to collapse, because it is no longer possible to know which communications have to be attributed to the encompassing system or to subsystemic entities of any kind. This trend toward de-differentiation is vividly seen in cases of war where official governmental communications are superseded (and invalidated) by "internal witnesses" communicating their own experiences and views:

"Postings on zamir from Tuzla in Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the occasion of the massacre of young people in the centre of town on what, in the previous system, would have been the Day of Youth, in May 1995, perhaps showed the network at its best. Three young people linked to zamir, Damir Kapidzic, Emir Prcic, and Adnan Demirovic, posted a number of simple messages portraying the horror of war, listing the names and ages of those who died." (Stubbs 1998)

The Zapatista movement shows that by using new Net technologies, modern social movements are able to spread information and to reach global public visibility within a very short time, without needing any support by conventional mass media. As a consequence, governmentally controlled media systems are no longer able to suppress any intranational information:

"Modern computer communications, through the Internet and the Association for Progressive Communications networks, made it possible for the Zapatistas to get their message out despite governmental spin control and censorship. Mailing lists and conferences also facilitated discussions and debate among concerned observers that led to the organization of protest and support activities in over forty countries around the world. The Zapatista rebellion was weaving, the analysis concluded, a global "electronic fabric of struggle." (Cleaver 1994)

Generally, online publication channels are disposed to convey rather direct, "authentic" communications not distorted or by intermediary editing or filtering agencies and not delayed by any organizational or technical restraints. A first reason for this stems from the fact that in contrast to classical advertisement campaigns or demanding paper publication, Web publishing tasks are less likely to be outsourced to specialized external firms, but are most often organized as "in-house activities" accomplished by employees (or volunteers) within the association. On the one hand, such "amateurism" certainly hampers the achievement of professional quality levels as well as the influx of complicated tactical considerations. But on the other hand, it makes it easier to convey "genuine" information expressing exactly what the communicating association members think, feel and intend - and nothing else. Secondly, the Internet allows to propagate very quick "just-in-time information" because (in contrast to weakly, monthly or even yearly paper publications) there are no deadlines which collide with current events and developments and no operational delays by printing firms, distribution agencies or other intermediary actors. Of course, this lack of decelerating mechanisms is negatively felt when too spontaneous uploadings have to be corrected because in the meantime, heated emotions have cooled down or more rational, less short term argumentations have gained ground.

Given the low need for resources, skills and social cooperation, the Net facilitates the unpredictable emergence of single activists who act not only as initiators, but as effective organizers of far-reaching campaigns. Thus, it provides a new environment for the rise of charismatic "heroes" as the very antipodes of conventional bureaucratic officials and managerial leaders. Similarly to the epic literature regularly associated with the primary discovery and conquest of new territories in the past, the first endeavors to colonize Cyberspace have produced a wealth of stories telling about the adventurous activities of single individuals who succeeded in the their "mission impossible" against adverse circumstances and mighty countervailing powers:

"Irene Weiser, who describes herself as "an average citizen from upstate New York," wanted to do something to save the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA provides a major source of funding for domestic violence programs -- and was set to expire in 2000. Newspapers editorialized that the renewing legislation was doomed in Congress. The program Irene worked in was set to lose twostaffers. She thought that was an outrage. A complete Internet notice, she decided the only way to save the program was through the Internet. Working with a firm of Internet professionals,, she mortgaged her house to embark on a one-person campaign over the Internet to save VAWA. Weiser created the Web site and wrote heartfelt personal letters to everyone she knew and urged them to do the same. In just 12 weeks, her e-mail and web campaign generated more than 160,000 e-mails to Congress. Some 36,000 people signed up for her e-mail alerts, and vowed to keep up the fight until the legislation passed. In October, 2000, the Senate re-authorized VAWA unanimously, five days after the House of Representatives did so by a vote of 371-1. President Clinton quickly signed the bill into law." (Buie 2000)

While it may never be ascertained to what extent Irene's web campaign were in any way decisive for the Congressional decision, there is no doubt that such anecdotal stories are widely hold true: providing new nourishment o the old American myth that any individual can successfully stand up against "biggest powers" whenever he/she chooses to be fully committed to a specific cause. Another famous case is the Nobel Prize Winner of 1997; Jody Williams from Vermont, who used the Internet successfully to create pressure for an International agreement on the banishment of land mines:

"As an actor on the international diplomatic stage, Williams' campaign has no precedent, it is an organization in name only, with no staff or office of its own.... Williams said her computer allowed her to keep supporters up to date on the latest news and to feel the momentum of their movement. 'From day one we recognized that instant communication was critical,' she said. 'It made people feel they were a part of it.' The campaign was successful in pressuring more than 89 countries to sign an international treaty banning land mines. 'This victory is in large part due to the Internet... For the first time, a coalition of NGOs has had an influence on the security of the entire world without being a superpower,' Williams said."37

Despite these empowerments of lower organizational strata, many inequalities in the usage of the new media persist which are more related to personal characteristics than to the formal status within the association. Thus, it is not surprising to find union discussion groups dominated by males of younger age and higher education: individuals not quite apt to represent the average union members. 38 In addition, international union communication is badly hampered by the dominance of the English language which is usually not mastered by workers of non-Anglo-Saxon countries. This handicap was quite manifest in the case of striking Brazilian docker workers in Santos who were able to establish worldwide contacts only because the British Labournet was helpful to translate their core documents into English.39

As this volatile new "communicative Internationalism" is not structured by frameworks of formal low, contracts and organizations, it is shaped primarily by informal factors on the level of psychology and culture.

As a consequence, all these new movements are directly vulnerable to fragmentations stemming from differences of language, values or behavioral styles. (Waterman 1999).

"Some of this was demonstrated at the LabourMedia97 event, when prominent Western labournetters shocked the Korean majority by either public displays of temper, or by brusquely telling their hosts how they ought to be sucking their electronic eggs. Neither the Western, nor the Southern (a South African woman), nor the energetic and innovative Koreans themselves, moreover, showed sensitivity toward women, awareness of feminism....." (Waterman 1999).

More than that: the lack of formal organizational mechanisms (e .g. equal voting rights for all members) opens that gate for highly informal inequalities of influence of power based much more on "cultural capital" than on material resources.


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

The bureaucratic character of traditional labor unions and most other established associations is particularly manifested in their tendency to keep external relationships in the monopolistic control of their leadership and a restricted group of peak functionaries. Evidently, this centralization facilitates speedy decisions and effective collective action, the maintenance and public display of a specified and consistent "corporate identity", the cultivation of reliable relationships to other centralized collective actors (employer, parties, other unions etc.) and the regular participation in corporatist political structures. On the other hand, bottlenecks may result from the fact that the few authorized elite members are easily overloaded when many and intensive external relationships to different actors and on different levels have to be managed at the same time, and many member categories may find their own demands ignored because they have no representative who articulates their views vis-à-vis the employers or governmental agencies.

Undoubtedly, such centralized structures are supported by conventional mass media which make it impossible for non-elite members to "go public" on their own or to cultivate intensive informal communication without the knowledge and consent of associational leaders. This is particularly seen in the case of international unions in which only peak members have the resources for maintaining regular relationships to national member associations (e. g. by visiting worldwide conferences or by centrally produced and distributed written publications). By contrast, online technologies empower all members and subgroups to engage in autonomous external interactions, so that many more actors than in past will contribute to the public appearance of the association, and apart from the "official" relationships maintained by the leaders, many transorganizational contacts and alliances on much lower levels (e. g. between parallel specialized work groups in different associations) may come into existence.

Given these developments, cyber-unionists seem well advised to complement their tactical knowledge by studying the activities of new alternative movements (e. g. ecological or feminist groupings) (Waterman 1999). In a rather moderate version, these new tactics have been exemplified by the famous dockers of Liverpool who occupied Montreal gantry crane in June 1996 in order to gain the support of their Canadian colleagues in their fight against the CAST shipping line. As this action did not get any attention by the British newspapers, the dockers at home could only be informed by publishing Canadian press articles (which have appeared in the Montreal Gazette) on the union's Website. This same Web publication was unexpectedly successful because it helped to mobilize the support of the "Maritime Union of Australia" as well as a Japanese docker union.40

"These 500 or so men have been locked out by their employers for two years or more. For most of this time they have been actively engaged in international communication activities to obtain solidarity for their cause. They have used solidarity conferences, docker visits abroad, production of tee-shirts, posters, videos, and the internet. They have not - yet - defeated their employers and government. But they have on more than one occasion dramatically forced their will on both the national and international union organisations that claim to represent them. Because of their combination of old and new methods of struggle, of the local and the global, of international solidarity and communication, I call these the Zapatistas of Western Europe." (Waterman 1999)

Interestingly enough, this pioneering campaign has not been initiated by new kinds of "knowledge workers", but by a "very old kind of working class: male, manual or clerical, proudly local, identified with their work community." (Waterman 1999). Such examples illustrate how the Internet can help to actualize international union solidarity on a very tactical, operative level, because cooperative relationships can be established and extended "on the spot" within very short time.

This new "pragmatic internationalism" contrasts with the traditional labor movements where international solidarity was mainly an ideological construct and a rhetorical mantra - regularly evoked in solemn World Congresses but rather inconsequential on the level of concrete collective action. The main reason for this was the fact that on the level of formal organization, labor was focusing extremely on the national level: with its opportunities to influence governmental decision making by lobbying or by participation in oligarchic neocorporatist circles of power. (Waterman 1999)

By contrast, the Internet seems to give rise to a new "operative Internationalism" of labor which is based neither on common ideology and values nor on far-reaching formal contracts and organizational structures, but on current ad hoc-issues and on fluid, constantly changing processes of communication (Waterman 1999). This implies that the scope and intensity of transnational worker solidarity and the success of coordinated transnational actions is less dependent on formal union policies, inter-union relationships or intergovernmental agreements than anytime in the past:

"...the IFBWW41 Website specializes in building global solidarity. It's "Latest News" page is filled with stories of injustice -- and the struggle against injustice. Stories often include practical ways unions and individuals can express their support for such struggles. For example, the most recent account is about woodworkers in the Solomon Islands, fired from their jobs, and the strike in seven camps against the company. In a down-to-earth example of practical international labour solidarity, the story recounts how an Australian union flew in a labour lawyer to help defend the workers against a corporate legal attack. An appeal is made for financial support for the workers, who need such basic items as salt and rice. Fax numbers are provided for those who wish to join the mounting protest."42

At a time where employment conditions and industrial relations become more and more homogenized due to global market liberalization, multinational corporations and the internationalization of law, the Internet is very functional for the unions in order to keep pace with these developments and to transfer experiences made at one place to many others. Thus Australian Unions have found it necessary to learn from American Unions the practices of "enterprise bargaining", because they increasingly have to engage in such negotiations themselves:

"Industrial legislation worldwide is becoming more similar with every change in government and legislative amendment. The US system of 'collective bargaining' is very similar to the 'enterprise bargaining' system that is now challenging Australian unions. Contact with overseas organizations has become almost essential particularly if we are all to avoid reinventing the wheel." 43

While broader member strata then ever will become involved in extraorganizational communication, many inequalities in the usage of the new media nevertheless persist: differences which are more related to personal characteristics than to the formal status within the association. Thus, it is not surprising to find transnational discussion groups between unions dominated by males of younger age and higher education: individuals not quite apt to represent the average union members. In fact, international union communication is badly hampered by the dominance of the English language which is usually not mastered by workers of non-Anglo-Saxon countries. This handicap was quite manifest in the case of striking Brazilian docker workers in Santos who were able to establish worldwide contacts only because the British Labournet was helpful to translate their core documents into English.


15.6. The reduced significance of formal representation and delegation

Finally, institutionalized structures of deliberation and decision making become eroded because there is less need for formal delegation and representation. The functional necessity for representation - even in associations tightly committed to grassroots democracy - stems mainly from the fact that it is technically impossible to ascertain the opinion of all rank-and file members on any significant issues - particularly when much information is needed and little time is available for decision. In addition, representation allows the formation of smaller bodies able to engage in deliberations and negotiations, while larger aggregates of members cannot do anything else than deliver their votes.

When online communication becomes ubiquitous, mechanisms of representation are weakened like many other intermediary structures. First of all, there is less need for representative roles or bodies, because opinions of very large membership bases can be empirically assessed by surveys or straw votes within rather short times. And secondly, the position of such representative agents is weakened because they can no longer just pretend to speak in the name of a consensual "silent majority". Instead, they may be confronted with the expectation to ascertain the attitudes of their clientele before they take position - or they may be "falsified" ex post by dissident members using e-mail (or protest Websites) to articulate their dissatisfaction.

In particular, representatives find it ever more difficult to assume the role of "trustees" who rely on their own inner judgment when deciding what is best for their clientele. Instead, they are more driven toward the role of responsive "delegates" who see themselves just as authentic transmitters of member opinions, without assuming a personal responsibility of their own. But it is even more probable that they will adopt a new role as "facilitators" or "consensus catalysts" by engaging in an extensive virtual discourse with their clientele: trying to synthesize divergent opinions and to hammer out new integrative concepts in order to maximize support and legitimization.

On a very general theoretical level, it might be hypothesized that by increasing system complexity and system volatility, online communication reduces the degree to which organizational activities and performances can be deliberately controlled and predicted. Typically, organizations install Websites and Intranets with the aim of facilitating the distribution of information, and of increasing the efficiency in storing, retrieving and transmitting data relevant to their activities. This rather narrow view regularly ignores all the unintended second-level effects associated with the new means of communication: effects which can easily erase the intended goals or induce completely unpredicted new developments (Gundry/Metes 1997). While explicit intentions by management focus on centralized top-down communication, the members typically tend to shift the use to more informal horizontal and diagonal communication (as well as to extraorganizational interaction). As a result, organizations experience a major change in their entire system of (internal and external) communication: a change management can neither predict nor control. External interaction is less and less monopolized by formal managerial channels; intended gains of efficiency goals may easily be neutralized by information overflows which absorb precious working time of all collaborators; and high priority information does not get the needed attention because members and officials are to much absorbed by less urgent news (Gundry/Metes 1997).

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16. On the Organizational Prerequisites for Successful Web Communication

While traditional bureaucratic structures seem to be rather irrelevant (or in some ways even detrimental), associations nevertheless need some organizational capacities in order to make extensive and effective use of the new Net technologies for internal and external communication. This is particularly true for Web activities because Websites have to fulfill increasingly demanding requirements in order to attract the "eyeballs" of many users.

1) Webpages have to be updated frequently, because their attractiveness depends heavily on the actuality and variability of their content. Given the rather easy tasks of daily updating on the one hand and the perpetual flow of site visitors on the other, Web publication endeavors are prone to become highly continuous activities which are best taken care of by regular employees within an association. Consequently, considerable work discipline is particularly needed for being very quick in updating pages (e. g. to announce unexpected events like the death of members etc.). In particular, the leadership has to engage more regularly than in conventional publication endeavors (e. g. when two issues of a journal or newsletter are edited every year).

2) Websites have to convey a consistent public image and identity of an association. As all subsystems always have the opportunity of "going public" themselves, this unity of appearance has to be based on a voluntary commitment of all members and subsystems to a single coherent publication strategy (usually implemented by the headquarter). In order to generate this coherence, associations may have to install more powerful mechanisms of internal consensus-building and legitimization.

3) Ideally, associational Websites have to mirror all major aspects of organizational activities. Consequently, the members or functionaries charged with Web publication have to be placed in the very center of intraorganizational communication. In particular, they have to be universally acknowledged as "clearing agencies" who are disposed to receive, filter and forward anything of interest going on anywhere within the system. In addition, extensive cooperative relationships have to be built up in order to secure that various work groups or local subunits regularly report their activities and announcements.

Overall, there is certainly an edge for associations which can either rely on at least at least a small paid professional staff or on highly motivated and regularly active volunteer members. Given the low and sporadic work 44commitments of most (even rather activated) association members, it seems evident that Webmaster responsibility has to be shared by different individuals (Pells 1998). As a consequence, we may hypothesize particularly within unprofessional associations, that Web publishing often causes a shift toward centralization: because only very few highly active members supply the needed continuous commitment, Even more staff expansion may be necessary when the site results in high bottom up communication: so that officials at the headquarters are busy to answer emails from members or the general public. In the not-for-profit world, the introduction of new technology, specifically introducing the use of electronic mail and establishing a presence on the World Wide Web, seems to have demanded new staff resources rather than less.

The American Cancer Society, with relatively little promotion of its site, receives over 100 email messages per day and an assistant spends ninety percent of her time answering the emails that While some organisations use autoresponders to alleviate the workload generated by electronic mail alone, the mission and substance of their work often cannot be satisfied by one or several standardised messages. At a recent workshop entitled "The Virtual Activist," one representative from a national organization with a small staff said that the biggest reason that it had not even procured an electronic mail address is that there was no spare staff to deal with the traffic. The Internet requires quick, immediate responses and many not-for-profits do not have the resources to deal with this burden.need to be addressed individually" (Kotamraju 1998).

As a new ubiquitous in-house-activity based on identical principles of hardware, software and design procedures, Web Publishing increases the degree to which all voluntary associations are similar to each other. As a consequence, they all have more reasons to look at each other and to learn from each other even if they are active in completely different spheres. Thus, Web activities add the field of overarching associational problems and tasks which are articulated by respective meta-associational associations (like the ASAE: the "American Society of Association Executives").

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

The immense functional unspecificity of computer networks implies that they are equally fitted for processing public, intraorganizational and completely private (or highly classified) communications. In fact, while the WWW allows to give information the utmost degree of publicity (because they can be retrieved anytime anywhere on the globe), Email messages encrypted by PGP may well represent the most secret form of technologically supported communication, because in contrast to phone talks of radio transmissions, they cannot even be deciphered by governmental police or secret service agencies.

In his book "fundraising in the Internet", Michael Stein gives labor unions the advice to establish Web sites with two layers: a public zone accessible to everybody and a more exclusive zone for formally registered and paying members. 45 This recommendation is based on the realistic premise that even in the online age, Mancur Olsons argument is still true that in order to prevent "free riding", associations have still to motivate members by distributing selective incentives not accessible to outsiders: e.g. by giving them insight into more confidential documents, by providing opportunities to participate in high-level discussions or to ask experts for professional advice, or by opening channels for initiating into personal contact with leaders and high-ranking officials.46

Apart from offering selective incentive, providing nonpublic zones accessible only to formal members has other useful functions. First, they offer a channel for propagating sensible information which should not be available to employers (e. g. information relating to future strike or boycott activities) And secondly, they offer better possibilities to encourage free talk and solicit honest opinions because workers have not to fear that their articulations will be set against them by any outside actors..

Behind this "semi-public" sphere, there may even more secretive communicative exchanges based (e. g. by mailing lists including only leading elite members and/or incumbents) on formal roles. In fact, the most important intraorganizational online communications may be those least visible for outsiders (and therefore: least amenable for social research): bilateral or multilateral contacts among board members who use e-mail for circulating classified materials, preparing sessions or deliberating on important decisions.

The establishment and refinement of such multilayered communication systems represents a new major organizational task involving all parts of an association on a continuous basis. Designing such "communication policies" is a complex and highly demanding endeavor because decisions "what shall be communicated on what channels" have not only to be guided by considerations of functional efficiency, but also by reflecting the expressive, symbolic aspects inseparably connected with all strategies and acts of communication. Thus, the establishment of an "inner circle" reserved to registered members has the effect of headlighting the salience of the formal membership in an new way. And to know about the existence secretive "mail-lists" used by leaders can cause non-leaders to feel more marginal than ever, because there are now more centralized communication processes from which they are systematically excluded.

The larger the spectrum of different communication technologies and transmission channels, the more norms have to be created and the more careful reflections have to be made in order to decide which modes should be used in which situation. Thus, making phone calls or writing snail mail letters has different symbolic connotations since sending Email is a ready alternative options; and still selling paper documents on order can appear more "nasty" in times when they could as well be published for free on the WWW.

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18. Conclusions and Outlooks

We have started this text with the premise that voluntary associations are particularly prone to embrace the new Net technologies, because on the basis of these new tools, they are better able to be what they always aspired to be: democratically constituted collectivities relying on a complex interplay between internal and external, vertical and horizontal, upward and downward, informal and formal, bilateral and multilateral communications.

Considering the immense polyvalence of online communication technologies, it seems rather safe to predict that they will be used in ever more extensive ways; but paradoxically, this same versatility (which is increasing with the spread of every new hardware appliance and software application) makes it very hard to forecast which uses will predominate in the near and more distant future. On a very general level, Kubicek seems to be right in stating that the Internet - as the most flexible, adaptive of all media - has very different functions and consequences under different environmental conditions, so that it can be fitted into almost existing socio-cultural settings and is more likely to consolidate and strengthen them than to act as a causal agent of change.47 Likewise, the conclusion is warranted that primary face to face interactions as well as conventional mass media communications will not become obsolete with expanding computer-supported interactions. On the contrary, they may have to be expanded and intensified before the full potentials of online communication can be exploited.48 More than that: online interactions provide the background in front of which the manifold functions and merits of conventional communication modes appear in a new light: For example, they make more visible to what extent physical meetings of all kinds are not instrumental for facilitating multilateral verbal communication but fulfill many additional. expressive functions as well: e. g. by ritually reinforcing common values and norms, or by providing opportunities for socio-emotional gratifications.

Looking at the years immediately ahead, the following developments are very likely to encourage the application of net technologies in associations, and to reinforce at least some of the trends identified in the sections above:

1) As the number of Internet users will increase, more and more associations will reach the point where they can expect the large majority of their members to be hooked up. Arriving at this threshold, they can realize disproportionate cost savings and functional empowerments by switching from conventional to online communication strategies in a fundamental, encompassing way: e. g. by giving up their paper editions of journals and newsletters or by forcing members to use online channels for various transactions (e. g. renewing membership, notifying address changes, subscribing to special services, paying yearly contributions or for articulate demands, grievances or proposals). Especially for larger associations, the advantages connected with such fundamental changes will be so considerable that they will readily help poorer members to become hooked up (e. g. by offering them cheap computers or by subsidizing their ISP).49

2) The very rapid diffusion of mobile Internet appliances (palmtops, organizers, cellular phones) will have the consequences that almost everybody can be online almost everywhere and under all environmental conditions. Consequently, it will be even more true that volunteers will be able to relate to their associations at any time, within any social setting and without interrupting any other (e. g. private or occupational) activities. Thus, the volatility and unpredictability of participation and influence pattern will increase even more, and effective collective activities will even become more independent from any organizational frames or environmental conditions.

3) The introduction of legally valid signatures will destroy the last refugium where traditional snail mail letters have still remained indispensable up to the present. At least theoretically, associations will become able to practice all their formal activities and procedures over the Net: admissions and withdrawal of members; payments of compulsory fees and voluntary contributions, legally binding elections and votings - and even the holding of statuary meetings or the signings of contracts with other organizations.

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Part I  | Part II


27 The possibility of "direct democracy", enabled by the new media, is feared as a challenge to "representative democracy" especially by the CDU/CSU and the FDP, whereas the Greens and the PDS (as well as parts of the SPD) tend to recognize additional channels of influence for their own ends in the new media (T. Armstroff, S. Peisker, S.K.Schmudlach: Nutzung der Neuen Medien zur Öffentlichkeitsarbeit von Parteien in der BRD).

28 Conjuring communities. In: The Village Voice. Vol. 43, Npo. 34; pp. 31ff.

29 dito.

30 For definition of these terms, see Burns/Stalker 1961).

31 Paul Demko: Acting up On Line. In: The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

32 International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Worker's Union


34 See Amelia DeLoach (1996): Being Online. In: CMC Magazine, Nov. 1996,

35 Paul Demko: Acting up On Line. In: The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

36 Another paradox is that until today, the unions displaying the most intensive online activities are not those with computer-savvy members (e. g. unions organizing office workers or public servants), but organizations particularly busy in the field of internal education. Allen Schaaf (1996): Unions, the Rank and File, and the Internet. In: CMC Magazine, Nov. 1996,

37 Washington Post Oct. 11th, 1997

38 See for example Eric Lee: Workers Unite. Labor Unions are moving to the Net to forge worldwide solidarity.

39 Intersindical Portuária de Santos (Brazil)

40 Greg Dropkin (1996): Sending a Strike Message in a Bottle. In: CMC Magazine, Nov. 1996,

41 International Federation of Building and Wood Workers

42 Labour Web Site of the Week: The First Year.

43 See Andrew J. Dunn (1996): Shaping a Web for inclusion. In: CMC Magazine, Nov. 1996,

44 Thus, it is not astonishing to find that the Journal edited by the ASAE ("Association Management") is increasingly filled with articles related to associational Web publishing (and other Net related activities)..

45 Michael Stein: Tools you can use online.

46 Olson, Mancur, 1971: passim.

47 Herbert Kubicek: Demokratie im Netz - Vernetzte Demokratie?

48 For example, Website addresses have to be made public by press publications when the number of visitors is to be increased.

49 This is well exemplified by the "".- Initiative of AFL-CIO which aims at hooking up almost all of its 16 Mio members by selling them low-price PC's and offering them cheap providing services (see:

Last update: 06 Mrz 17



  Prof. Hans Geser
Soziologisches Institut
der Universität Zürich