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Digitally Enabled Social ChangeActivism in the Internet Age$

Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780262015103

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: August 2013

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262015103.001.0001

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Making Action on the Cheap: Costs and Organizing

Making Action on the Cheap: Costs and Organizing

(p.99) 5 Making Action on the Cheap: Costs and Organizing
Digitally Enabled Social Change

Jennifer Earl

Katrina Kimport

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

Social movement organizations (SMOs) have always played an important role in mobilizing people for protests and making them successful, and they serve as effective spokespersons for movements. SMOs also help organize other organizations and their members to make events with great participation. These SMOs also create and organize protest opportunities and provide training to protest organizers. This chapter discusses how the changing role of resources in Web activism reduces the cost of organizing protests and limits the role of SMOs.

Keywords:   social movement organizations, Web activism, costs, protests, organizers

To the extent that resources have been important to understanding individual participation in social movements, they have been even more critical to understanding the empirical rise in—and attendant academic interest in the rise in—sMOs. Interest in SMOs began in the 1960s (think Olson, although he wasn’t focused on social movements in particular) and 1970s. For instance, Oberschall (1973) contended that movement participation would depend on the calculation of costs versus benefits accrued through participation. He further claimed that while grievances could affect the pace of insurgency, they could not account for the form of insurgency. Similarly, Tilly’s mobilization and polity models (1978) included resources, and were based on a rational actor approach. Tilly (1978) asserted that mobilization could be measured by the amount of resources controlled by or dedicated to a movement and its organizations. Jenkins and Perrow (1977) argued for a rational actor approach and the role of external support in movement emergence in their study of the farmworkers’ movement.

Still, McCarthy and Zald’s work (1973, 1977) is widely recognized as the watershed that created resource mobilization and its attendant focus on SMOs. Their clear articulation of resource mobilization as a coherent approach gave a common voice to nascent trends and laid out a research agenda that would help to drive social movement scholarship for the next several decades (and still does today).

As the last chapter noted, resource mobilization represented a substantial break from prior social movement theorizing. While grievances might have been necessary conditions for social movement formation or protest, they alone could not explain protest. Instead, resource mobilization pointed to the individual participation problem identified through the free-rider dilemma, and maintained that this problem must be addressed in order for social movements to form and thrive. Resource mobilization, (p.100) following Olson ([1965] 1998), argued that the solution to this problem was the provision of selective incentives. The resources required to provide these selective incentives would need to be gathered, consolidated, and strategically deployed, which could be done effectively by SMOs.

Specifically, resource mobilization researchers held that large influxes of resources make for stronger movements, more movement organizations in any given movement, more product differentiation between SMOs (that is, a wider variety of goals and tactics across SMOs in a movement), and improved odds of overall movement success (McCarthy and Zald 1973, 1977). These claims were exciting to many scholars and represented a clear research agenda guided by a focus on SMOs as part of the solution to the free-rider problem. Scholastic interest in organizations bloomed.

Although not all social movement scholars subscribe to resource mobilization, even major theoretical competitors have tended to stipulate the growing importance of SMOs while honing in on other sources of disagreement. For instance, political process scholars contended that resource mobilization improperly focused on the flow of external resources, such as from foundations, to social movements instead of on indigenous resources (McAdam 1982). Aldon Morris (1981, 1984) makes a similar critique of external resources (for an evaluation of these arguments, see Jenkins and Eckhart 1986) and extends this further to talk about the role of indigenous organizations in movement formation.

Similarly, scholars who concentrate on the framing processes of social movements are more interested in subjective meaning making and motivations than many classic resource mobilization theorists, but framing scholars still turn to SMOs as social entities capable of creating and promoting frames that could motivate as well as guide participation (Snow 2004). Scholars interested in collective identity, whose theoretical traditions seem most at odds with the rational choice beginnings of resource mobilization, have also noted the ways in which SMOs could play important roles in creating and maintaining collective identities.

Perhaps the only major approach that does not consider SMOs to be central is the new social movements approach, which worries that certain formations for organizing—particularly more informal, open, and network-based styles—are improperly underplayed through the focus on SMOs. In fact, aside from debates about whether resources flow from outside into movements or from within aggrieved communities, as discussed above, critiques of resource mobilization have largely been concerned with whether professional SMOs are the modal and/or most effective type of organization (Jenkins 1983).

(p.101) That debate has looked at alternatives to professional SMOs, like Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine’s decentralized, segmented, and acephalous networks (1970). These were cell-based networks that lacked central leadership, and were thought to be highly adaptive and able to mobilize wide nets of people quickly. Jenkins (1983) asserts that in reality, most social movements feature both professional SMOs and decentralized networks, and even federated local groups; Jenkins and Eckhert’s empirical examination (1986) shows that for the civil rights movements, professional SMOs were not the modal organizational form.

Nonetheless, as Elisabeth Clemens and Debra Minkoff (2004, 155–156) summarize in their review of social movement research on organizations: “For the past two decades, resource mobilization theory has been a workhorse of social movement research, fueling an impressive literature in which organization plays a central role.” Indeed, research on SMOs gained speed quickly after resource mobilization’s introduction, and became a dominate means for identifying social movement actors, measuring social movement health and viability, and as a prism through which scholars viewed the dynamics of organizing and social movements generally. Whether in case studies of particular organizations (e.g., Zald 1970; McAdam 1988), more qualitative examinations of major organizations within a movement (e.g., Staggenborg 1988, 1991), or quantitative examinations of organizational “birth,” “death,” and transformation (e.g., Minkoff 1999; Minkoff, Aisenbrey, and Agnone 2008), studying organizations became a vehicle for studying movements themselves (Minkoff 2002). In a synecdoche between SMOs and social movements, social movement scholars began to identify, track, and study SMOs as if these organizing forms represented the most important components of social movements.

As scholars dug into SMOs and their dynamics in this research, it became clear that in addition to the resource collection and management functions described by resource mobilization and the “middle-management” functions explored by Shirky (2008), SMOs helped to accomplish a wide variety of other tasks and goals for movements (although we do not undertake an exhaustive review of this literature here). Most relevant to this book, SMOs are cast as critical to creating and organizing opportunities for participants to engage; that is, SMOs are responsible for the “supply side” of protest by organizing protests and other ways to be involved in activism (Klandermans 2004). Research has empirically assumed that SMOs are the central creators of protest opportunities (although few tests exist of this assumption, save Jenkins and Eckhert 1986). For instance, McCarthy and Clark McPhail (1998) (p.102) , among others, discuss the increasing reliance on professionalized SMOs for organizing events, even when those SMOs are radical (e.g., Queer Nation or ACT UP). Thus, not only do organizations help to motivate people to participate through selective incentives (i.e., help to create “demand” for protest) they also create the moments in which people can collectively participate (i.e., create a supply of protest opportunities; Klandermans 2004).

Further, SMOs can help to organize other organizations and their members, thereby increasing turnout to events to an even greater degree, in a process known as “mesomobilization” (Gerhards and Rucht 1992; see also Morris 1984). In this process, umbrella organizations or key brokering organizations enlist the support and activity of other SMOs, all of which work to turn out their members to a specific action. The size of the actions that can be organized is increased, as is participation in those actions.

SMOs have been seen as providing a critical training ground and respite for protest organizers across time, too. The future leaders of tomorrow’s SMOs are expected to be involved in activism today as they work their way up the ranks, learning how to organize and operate within as well as control the reins of an SMO. Having been duly trained and dedicated themselves to activism, activists find that SMOs provide a place of work and community during low times so that the most dedicated activists can stay connected and committed to the movement while they wait for interest and activity to rise again. Social movement researchers refer to this as an abeyance function of SMOs (Rupp and Taylor 1987; Taylor 1989).

Moreover, the organizational forms of SMOs help to structure how these activist leaders engage their organizations and make decisions. Schussman and Earl (2004, 443) argue that the literature on organizational forms and decision making is clear in finding that “the actions of leaders, and their capacity (or lack thereof) for independent decision making depends on the organizational structures in which they are embedded” (for a similar point, see Klandermans 1989). For instance, hierarchical organizational structures helped to empower relatively structured and closed leadership (Eichler 1977), whereas collectivist organizations tended to adopt more consensus-based decision making, and have less centralized leadership and/or decision making (Brown 1989; Stoecker 1990; Mushaben 1989).

SMOs also serve as effective spokespersons for movements. Todd Gitlin (1980) has shown how destructive competition between individual spokespersons can be to a social movement. Professional SMOs simplify this process, and help connect a social movement to the press on a more regular (p.103) basis and in more effective ways (for instance, by being in tune with the news cycle as well as the daily routines and deadlines of reporters). As David Snow, Soule, and Kriesi have pointed out in a range of work, SMOs can work to frame a movement to bystanders, potential supporters, and opponents (for the most pointed discussion of this, see Snow, Soule, and Kriesi 2004, 387–390).

Supersizing versus Theory 2.0

From trade books (e.g., Benkler 2006; Shirky 2008) to scholarly articles (Earl and Schussman 2003; Bimber, Flanagin, and Stohl 2005), work by Web observers has generally agreed that costs can be dramatically reduced online whether one is talking about organizing a business or a social movement. That there is a cost-reducing affordance of Internet-enabled technologies is not the new element to our story. What is new is tracing out the consequences of this theoretically and empirically by determining which effects are essentially business as usual with a marginal twist (super-sizing), pie-in-the-sky optimism that is supported in only a few cases (notice, there is still only one Wikipedia), or seemingly robust effects across a range of Web sites (theory 2.0 changes).

A supersized approach to SMOs would suggest that SMOs are able to effectively (perhaps with some variation) adopt new technologies, including ICTs, and use them to further existing goals. In effect, the Web would become another resource for SMOs that could be mobilized (Peckham 1998). Below we review research taking this position. Meanwhile, a theory 2.0 approach argues that if the cost-based affordance of the Web is leveraged, the need for, and therefore reliance on, SMOs may decline. It follows that if SMOs exist to handle costs but costs can be suddenly made much lower, then the value of SMOs to movements or the return on the resources that they absorb may be diminished. Alternatively, investments in SMOs may become more tailored to contexts in which the value they deliver is clear.

Because of the variability in leveraging the cost-reducing affordance for organizers, we expect some supersized effects and some theory 2.0 effects, underscoring the significance of considering degrees of leveraging as the leveraged affordances approach calls for. For instance, while some SMOs may survive and thrive (through supersize effects), the variability of forms that organizers produce to facilitate their organizing may vary more widely, from single-person operations to increasingly diverse organizational forms, reflecting the declining hegemony of SMOs as an organizing form for (p.104) Web-based protest and requiring theory 2.0. We discuss these possibilities in more detail in the next section.

Supersizing SMOs

Supersize theories would expect the fundamental place of SMOs as the primary facilitator of protest to be unchanged when activism takes place online, and that SMOs would incorporate ICTs that reduce their marginal costs into their everyday workflows. This is generally consistent with how existing organizations are expected to adopt and use new technologies, including the Web (on both points, see DiMaggio et al. 2001).

A range of scholars has found this to be true where Web-related activism is concerned. Fisher and her colleagues (2005) studied street protest participation and assert that the Web presences of organizations provided additional ways to market protest events, but other than adding a new and decidedly inexpensive media outreach channel, were business as usual. Ayres (1999), Joanne Lebert (2003), Daniel Myers (1994), and Markus Schulz (1998), among many others, second this view: the Web can cheaply expand the reach and speed of communication, but it doesn’t change the necessity of SMOs, what SMOs do, or substantively how they do it. Tetyana Pudrovska and Myra Marx Ferree (2004) go so far as to treat SMOs’ Web presences as virtual organizational brochures that are meant to inexpensively convey the groups’ framing of events, but are only educational and representational. Halfway around the globe, Guobin Yang’s study of Chinese civil associations’ use of the Internet (2007) seconds Fisher and her colleagues’ business-as-usual finding, although he does find that younger organizations see possibilities in Internet use that older, more established organizations do not.

This is not to suggest that cheap and fast communication is unimportant; practically, it can make a huge difference. The numerous studies of Web use by the Zapatistas to publicize their cause as well as gain international support shows the practical muscle of a fast and cheap media like the Web (for a particularly good study of the Zapatista movement, see Garrido and Halavais 2003). But making a large practical difference is not the same as changing the fundamental causal processes underlying activism.

When organizational or activist behavior is thought to change from these lowered costs, it is largely in the service of preexisting goals and issues (again, supersizing at work). Horton (2004), for example, finds that email helps activists stay connected to multiple groups, and allows groups easily and cheaply to educate and update their members; he doesn’t find substantial (p.105) changes in activist behaviors, though, or changes in the presence or behavior of organizations.

Bennett (2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004b) argues that ICT usage can allow SMOs to connect with one another more easily (much as Horton [2004] claims is true for activists). These connections do not cause fundamental ideological reorientations and convergences but rather allow SMOs to form ephemeral coalitions or temporary umbrella organizations that help drive mobilization for specific, large, planned protests. This works through a process often referred to as mesomobilization (mentioned briefly above), in which SMOs work to mobilize each other, and in doing so, mobilize the base membership of several SMOs at once. The goal of this is to produce larger events through the coalition or umbrella group than any single SMO could produce. Mesomobilization is not a new process, and Bennett’s point is primarily that Web-facilitated contacts can help spur more mesomobilized events even though ideological convergence is not occurring.

We could go on with other studies that discuss SMO behavior online, but most play the same tune: the Web helps SMOs reach further, do that faster and cheaper, and sometimes even work better. But the fundamental processes and dynamics are not changed. There are a few writers and researchers who march to a different drummer, and they have been thinking about more fundamental shifts, as the next section describes.

Theory 2.0

As we explored in chapter 2, early writing on ICTs and social life, and Web protest in particular, was bifurcated between darkly pessimistic concerns about anomic and addictive technologies and widely optimistic forecasts about technological panaceas and Guttenberg-style shifts. As Paul DiMaggio and his colleagues (2001) pointed out, neither camp was right; reality tended to be somewhere in between and had important variation.

As “search” has matured, and Web 2.0 “social software” has been developed and refined, a new round of strong-selling, optimistic books have been written (recall that early optimists and pessimists alike were writing about things that now seem technologically anachronistic like dial-up bulletin boards and text-based multiplayer games). The approachable Here Comes Everybody by Shirky and the lengthy yet still well-selling The Wealth of Networks by Benkler are two such works. In both cases, the authors give wide-ranging examples of the revolutionary possibilities of Web 2.0 and search technologies, which they show can be thrilling for the winners and harrowing for the losers. For instance, it is a gross understatement to say that “old media” has been shaken up by online tools; Benkler focuses more (p.106) on the music industry and other intellectual property powerhouses, and Shirky concentrates more on the decline of the newspaper industry because of blogging, craigslist, and other amateur onslaughts.

Importantly, both books touch on a theme that has been developing among researchers on Web activism for several years: with innovative uses of the Web, organizing doesn’t necessarily require organizations anymore (for an early treatment of this in reference to street protest and the first use of the phrase “organizing without organizations” that we can find, see Tarrow 1994; for an early application of this distinction for Web-based activism, see Earl and Schussman 2003). We will discuss this more in a moment, but the central idea for Shirky is that organizations developed largely to play the role of managers so that coordination costs that had been inherent in collective social action could be consolidated and paid.

Shirky argues that whenever those costs were worth the benefit of bearing them, you would see organizations grow and satisfy that demand; where the benefits did not outweigh the organizing costs, no social action was organized or taken. He contends that we see far more social collaboration and social production (read: collective action) today because technologies have driven the costs of organizing to all-time lows. Essentially, far more ends are now worth more than the costs, leading to organizing around far more things.

As Shirky (2008, 22) notes: “The current change, in one sentence, is this: most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.” Shirky (2008, 48) sees Internet-enabled technologies as clearly revolutionary, and maintains that seemingly disconnected changes in social and economic life are actually all driven by common technological effects on costs: “The collapse of transaction costs makes it easier for people to get together’so much easier, in fact, that it is changing the world. … [L]ike a chain of volcanoes all fed by the same pool of magma, the surface manifestations of group efforts seem quite separate, but the driving force of those eruptions is the same: the new ease of assembly.” If we translate this to protest as a particular kind of collective action, SMOs developed and thrived in part to consolidate resources, as resource mobilization tells us, but also to coordinate the management of movements. If the costs to organize and coordinate can be brought to rock-bottom lows with innovative uses of the Web, then we would expect to see relatively fewer organizations running the show yet more organizing.1

While there are many things to admire about Benkler’s and Shirky’s books (and other works like them), and many points on which we agree—like (p.107) the rise of organizing without organizations’ there are a few things that should give social scientists pause. Perhaps most crucially, both books tend to cream the top off reality by choosing to discuss exemplary cases that best demonstrate the potential of innovative technological uses. But reality is more of a mixed bag: there are few truly revolutionary sites and/or uses of Web technology, a small number of pretty darn innovate sites and uses, a large number of sites that go with the technological flow and follow a peer pressure model of adoption and use, and a not-insignificant number of mundane users and uses.

Our approach is therefore more akin to other researchers who have tried to think through (e.g., Bimber, Flanagin, and Stohl 2005) and empirically study (e.g., Earl and Schussman 2003) wider fields of (mixed) action. Embracing the idea that variation is the lifeblood (methodologically and theoretically) of social science, this brand of scholarship steps back from the edge of social software-induced revolution to note both the potential and the real variation. In other words, while we will point to evidence of theory 2.0 claims and consequences, which are consistent with some of Shirky’s and Benkler’s assertions, we are not arguing that the shifts we find will be ubiquitous. This is the case because the leveraging of the cost affordance we discuss varies widely. Further, we don’t disregard the supersizing effects examined earlier in the chapter (we suspect they are right on target for less leveraged uses) but rather also expect to observe some theory 2.0 effects.

Organizing without Organizations

The most significant theory 2.0 effect that we expect to find, foreshadowed in our brief discussion of Shirky’s work above, is that when costs become variable, the things that depend on cost for their social import will also become variably important as a consequence. Here, this means that while the necessity of organizations has always been a constant in social movement theory and research, we think it can be rendered variable by ingenious uses of technology that leverage the low organizing cost affordance of the Web. Existing research already shows early signs that this is true. For example, Earl and Schussman’s study of the strategic voting e-movement (2003) found that it was organized around a core group of less than two dozen Web sites. They interviewed the owners and operators of the majority of those sites and discovered that “of the 13 sites from which we were able to interview representatives, 6 were built by and run by solo designers, 3 were built and run by two designers, 2 were built and run by three designers, and 2 were built and run by a group of seven and (p.108) a group of ten respectively. This yielded an average of 2.7 organizers per site and a mode of 1 organizer per site” (Earl and Schussman 2003, 160). Now that is organizing without organizations! Similarly, Gurak (1997) and Gurak and Logie (2003) studied online movements that were coordinated by a small group of people, sometimes through a single blog or a one-off Web site on the issue. Bennett and Fielding (1999) remind us that the now-venerable MoveOn started out as two people trying to make a difference who ran a company that sold flying-toasters screen savers—and it was viable and successful as a two-person organization, although it has since grown to include paid staff.

Bimber, Flanagin, and Stohl (2005) as well as Bimber, Stohl, and Flanagin (2008) offer a theory that is compatible with our approach for why organizing without organizations might be possible. Specifically, they argue that communication technologies reduce the division between public and private life. With fewer barriers between public and private, the risk of free riding and the need for physical organizations are also reduced. Looking back to Olson’s ([1965] 1998) assertion that the major barrier to social action was free riding, or people taking advantage of the public goods produced through the action of others, these three scholars contend that his free-rider dilemma was really a special case of collective action, not universal. In this special case, the costs to cross from private to public action were particularly large, and therefore required selective incentives to overcome. But the ease with which communication technologies publish information has, if anything, flipped the problem on its head: with Google trolling the Web and making many, many things on the public Web available through searches, and Facebook pushing your every digital move to your friends, it is harder than ever to keep the private from becoming public. They claim that in such cases, the classic free-rider dilemma doesn’t apply and the importance of formal organization is diminished.

Like Benkler, they discuss cases in which people even become unwitting contributors to public goods. Referring to this as “second-order communality,” they argue that people contribute to repositories with little or no knowledge of other participants and their contributions, including posting to Web sites, participating in an electronic bulletin board, participating in credentialing services (e.g., rating services), forwarding useful emails, and forwarding useful email addresses. More generally, innovative technologies can be used to reduce the costs of contribution to an extent where decisions over participation become relatively minor or even entirely unnoticed.

(p.109) And when people want to collaborate, the cost reductions in going from private to public are still helpful. Pointing to open-source projects, online social movements, and “smart mobs,” they maintain that “micro-” and “middle” media diminish the need for organization because communication tasks that organizations historically have been responsible for can be done simply and inexpensively using newly available technological aids.

Much as we argue that reality is a mixed bag, Bimber, Stohl, and Flanagin similarly do not argue that organizations are on their way out entirely. Rather, they propose increasing “organizational fecundity” in which a wide variety of organizing forms are used to forward collective action:

The contemporary media environment provides many opportunities for emergent forms that combine the characteristics of traditional organization forms with non-hierarchical networks resulting in new forms of relations among members, leaders, and other stakeholders. A theory of collective action organizing must simultaneously account for the efficacy of bureaucratic as well as network forms of organizing and the possibility that organizations exhibit several types of structures across time and constituencies. Indeed, in the case of the internet and politics, there is mounting evidence for coexistence of a myriad of organizational structures. (Bimber, Stohl, and Flanagin 2008, 76)

They go on to outline different dimensions of organizing forms that they regard as important to understanding how those organizing vehicles behave.

We consider this a promising line of work, but would split one hair: organizational fecundity points to a wide variety of organizations—including informal networks—but nonetheless positions the organizing of collective action as happening through collective efforts. We think it might be more appropriate to say organizing fecundity because it is the process of organizing that is becoming more varied to include even “parties of one” organizing collective actions (as we discuss in more detail in chapter 7). Sure, organizational fecundity is a consequence of that, but we suggest the more expansive claim that the process itself is being opened up, not just the variety of units that participate in it.

In examining these theoretical claims, we have an ace in the hole in that our data collection strategy allows us a unique forest-level view. As we have noted, a number of researchers have approached the study of Web protest by studying particular organizations. But since this strategy rests on SMOs, it necessarily precludes the opportunity to observe protest that is not organized by SMOs. By asking a broad question—How are people using online petitions, boycotts, and letter-writing and email campaigns?—and (p.110) then tracking a random sample of those e-tactics, we are able to get a unique bird’s-eye view of these phenomena.

The Rise of Warehouse Sites and the Decline in SMO Dominance

All of the foregoing discussion is well and good, but what do we see in the proverbial meeting of the rubber and the road? Empirically, do SMOs play as dominant a role on the Web as they have in traditional street protest? Supersize advocates would answer “Yes,” and describe the Web-based tools that SMOs are using to do their job better. But we argue that in clear and important ways, e-tactics are not always organized the same way as their offline progenitors. Changing these underlying processes is like changing how an engine actually works, and leads to shifts that are both practically and theoretically critical. In our leveraged affordances approach, we are interested not only in supersizing protest but also in these underlying shifts in process—places where the engine of collective action operates differently than it has in the past—especially because understanding such shifts is integral to continuing to understand protest as it evolves in a technology-rich environment.

The most obvious and substantial evidence that the low-cost affordance of the Web has heralded changes in the way that protest is organized comes in the presence of warehouse sites. Warehouse sites are clearinghouses for protest where the production of protest is completed by users themselves, rather than by the Web site operators. In contrast to offline protest, where organizers tend to be regular and established players in protest, warehouse sites open the door of protest organizing so that individual users can easily become organizers. And these users can easily organize a single protest action or a whole series of actions, reducing the significance of having previous experience for current and potential organizers.

While warehouse sites made up only a small fraction of the sites in our study (15 of 184), they hosted or linked to a volume of e-tactics that dwarfed the protest opportunities on nonwarehouse sites, illustrating that warehouse sites indeed drive a substantial quantity of protest. We estimate that warehouse sites offered over twenty-five times as many e-tactics as the nonwarehouse sites in our sample. That means that the distribution of e-tactics on the Web is heavily weighted toward warehouse sites. This, in turn, means that a large amount of protest is being organized by anyone who wants to go on a warehouse site and create an e-tactic. We look at some implications of this as we proceed through this chapter by, for instance, trying to identify differences between what SMO and non-SMO (p.111) sites are able to organize online. And we also extend our thinking on the topic in chapter 7 when we consider the additional effects of “anyone” being able to organize e-tactics (e.g., effects on the causes they choose to organize around, on who organizers consider their peers, etc.).

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we first ask: Are there other indications that SMOs are not the only organizing game in town? Definitely. Among nonwarehouse sites, seventy-five were affiliated with SMOs, but ninety-four were not.2 This means that over half of the sites were not SMO affiliated. SMOs are not only not the only game in town: in our data they are not even the dominant game in town.

Non-SMOs as Competitors

While thus far we have focused on how necessary SMOs are to protest organizing—whether via classic resource mobilization theorizing or in the day-to-day practice of offline organizing—there is a latent claim hidden in this discussion that SMOs are better able to organize than other individuals and groups. As we investigate online protest, we must ask the important question of whether this is empirically true where e-tactics are concerned. Our data suggest that it is not, at least not in most of the ways that we can measure the claim. That is, the return on being an SMO versus not being one is not clear from our data, with only one major exception—when organizing costs are higher—which we consider later in this chapter.

Comparing Patterns in Hosting and Linking to E-tactics

First, as table 5.1 shows, Web sites run by SMOs were no more likely to host or link to e-tactics than were other sites. SMOs hosted e-tactics on their Web sites 84 percent of the time, while non-SMO sites hosted e-tactics just as frequently, at 83 percent of the time (table 5.1). For instance, the Web site for the Center for Reclaiming America, an SMO devoted to prolife and antigay causes, hosted petitions furthering issues it cared about,

Table 5.1 Hosting and Linking Patterns for Nonwarehouse Sites

Hosted e-tactics

Linked to e-tactics

Hosted offline protest

SMO sites

84% (N = 63)

47% (N = 35)

60% (N = 45)

Non-SMO sites

83% (N = 78)

46% (N = 43)

44% (N = 41)

(p.112) including one protesting federal funding for human embryo stem cell research and another calling for the prohibition of late-term abortions.3 Non-SMO sites hosted e-tactics, too, such as the site of a man who calls himself The Simpleton.4 The Simpleton’s Web site hosted one letter-writing and one email campaign, both calling for change at his local newspaper.

The same is true for linking to e-tactics, with 47 percent of SMO sites linking to e-tactics and 46 percent of non-SMO sites doing so (table 5.1). Among the non-SMO sites that linked to online protest opportunities was a blogger who encouraged visitors to follow a link to an online petition protesting George W. Bush’s and Tony Blair’s nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize because of their involvement in waging war on Iraq.5 SMO-affiliated sites also linked to e-tactic opportunities—indeed sometimes about the same causes as their non-SMO counterparts. For instance, Corp Watch, an SMO, featured a call for an end to the war in Iraq and provided a link to an email campaign on its Web site.6

These values examine the overall hosting and linking trends, though, and so we might ask, What happens if you look at specific e-tactics? The story is largely the same: non-SMO organizers are able to produce similar numbers of protest opportunities, and protest opportunities that have similar features, when compared with protest opportunities produced by SMOs. This is especially true for email campaigns and boycotts. When looking at the percentages reported in table 5.2, it appears that SMOs hosted email campaigns more frequently than non-SMO sites, but the difference is not actually statistically significant (using a chi-square test with a p -value level of 0.05). The same goes for boycotts, with non-SMOs and SMOs hosting boycotts at essentially the same rate (table 5.2). Non-SMO and SMO Web sites hosted boycotts of everything from the city of Cincinnati to specific businesses, for reasons ranging from support of free speech to gay rights.

Table 5.2 Rates of Hosting the Five E-tactical Forms by SMO Affiliation for Nonwarehouse Sites


Letter-writing campaigns

Email campaigns


Fax campaigns

SMO sites






(N = 22)

(N = 42)

(N = 31)

(N = 17)

(N = 28)

Non-SMO sites






(N = 17)

(N = 40)

(N = 29)

(N = 21)

(N = 17)

(p.113) Similarly, whether a site was run by an SMO or not did not affect the likelihood that it would host a petition or letter-writing campaign. As table 5.2 shows, petitions were hosted on 29 percent of SMO sites and 18 percent of non-SMO ones. This looks like a big difference, but it is actually not statistically significant (using a chi-square test with a p -value level of 0.05).7 The Web sites of SMOs like the National Association of African Americans for Positive Imagery, the Christian Family Coalition, and the Citizens Commission on Human Rights all hosted individual petitions, just as did sites run by individuals.8 One non-SMO site, for instance, called for an investigation of the practices of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and hosted an online petition requesting a congressional investigation.9

The rate of hosting letter-writing campaigns was also similar on SMO (56 percent) and non-SMO (43 percent) sites. Again, although this seems like a notable difference, it isn’t statistically significant (using a chi-square test with a p-value level of 0.05). While SMO sites like Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists hosted letter-writing campaigns on their Web sites, non-SMO sites did as well.10 For instance, one site pushed for the historic preservation of planes used in World War II and was run by a single individual.11 The hosting rates of petitions and letter-writing campaigns for SMO sites, in other words, do not dramatically differ from those of non-SMO sites.

The story is the same when we look at the SMO and non-SMO patterns of linking to e-tactics (table 5.3). Across all five e-tactical forms, the rates of linking to each differed by fewer than 7 percent between SMO and non-SMO sites, and these differences were never statistically significant. SMOs linked to email campaigns 12 percent of the time and letter-writing campaigns 13 percent of the time. The Tucson chapter of the National Organization for Women, for instance, linked to a letter-writing campaign

Table 5.3 Rates of Linking to the Five E-tactical Forms by SMO Affiliation for Nonwarehouse Sites


Letter-writing campaigns

Email campaigns


Fax campaigns

SMO sites






(N = 23)

(N = 10)

(N = 9)

(N = 1)

(N = 8)

Non-SMO sites






(N = 34)

(N = 9)

(N = 5)

(N = 1)

(N = 4)

(p.114) in support of national health insurance.12 Meanwhile, non-SMO sites linked to email campaigns 5 percent of the time and letter-writing campaigns 10 percent of the time. Examples include a non-SMO group against the intellectual property rules of the Recording Industry of America Association that linked to a letter-writing campaign forwarding its cause.13

Non-SMO sites linked to petitions 36 percent of the time (table 5.3), like the Web site of a group of students at a Washington State public school that linked to a petition protesting Columbus Day being a national holiday.14 SMOs linked to petitions 31 percent of the time, as in the case of the Global Response Web site that linked to a petition to save the Sae-mangeum Wetlands in South Korea.15 Like the linking patterns for the other e-tactical forms, SMO and non-SMO sites linked to petitions at essentially equivalent rates.

It is interesting to note that unlike the other four e-tactical forms, petitions from nonwarehouse sites that were not run by an SMO had a higher rate of being linked to than hosted (tables 5.2 and 5.3); while 18 percent of non-SMO sites hosted a petition, twice that percentage linked to a petition. Given that several of the warehouse sites that we studied specialized in petitions and indeed hosted a large number of petitions, it makes sense that a non-SMO, nonwarehouse site might more frequently link to a petition than host one. In fact, over one-third of the e-tactics that non-warehouse sites linked to were found on warehouse sites, and all of these were petitions. Due to the presence of warehouse sites specializing in petitions, the cost to a nonwarehouse site of linking to an online petition is particularly low. Table 5.3 shows that non-SMO sites especially take advantage of this reality.

We found few linked boycotts on nonwarehouse sites. Those few we did find were often associated with an additional e-tactic. For example, the Web site of the SMO Rock Out Censorship called for the protection of the First Amendment, and linked to a series of pages on other domains that contained simultaneous calls for boycotts and petitions.16

Both SMO and non-SMOs sites linked to fax campaigns at low rates, with SMOs (11 percent) linking to fax campaigns slightly more frequently than non-SMOs (4 percent), although this difference is not statistically significant. The Campaign for Labor Rights SMO, for instance, linked to a fax campaign against Starbucks calling for fair wages and working conditions for coffee plantation workers.17 Examples from non-SMO sites include one woman’s personal Web site that linked to a page with information, a letter-writing campaign, an email campaign, and a fax campaign targeting the German consulate because of alleged animal cruelty in Germany.18

(p.115) Both SMO and non-SMO sites demonstrate that they are capable of producing a diverse array of protest opportunities. We found no significant difference in their patterns of hosting or linking to petitions, letter-writing campaigns, email campaigns, or boycotts. For producing these kinds of protest, it doesn’t appear that SMOs are at an advantage.

Variety of Protest Opportunities

We did find a few ways in which SMO and non-SMO sites differed in producing online protest opportunities, although we discuss these as differences in the extent to which sites deployed their organizing ability, not their demonstrated capacity to organize. First, SMOs tended to host larger numbers of different e-tactical forms while non-SMO sites more frequently hosted only a single e-tactical form (48 percent of non-SMO sites hosted a single e-tactical form versus 24 percent of SMO sites; see figure 5.1). SMOs averaged 1.9 different hosted e-tactical forms and non-SMO sites averaged 1.3 different hosted e-tactical forms (and this difference is statistically significant). It may be that SMO sites’ commitment to particular causes encourages them to offer several different e-tactical forms in support, making their claim through as many different means as feasible. For example, SMOs most frequently hosted three different e-tactical forms (39 percent of the time), like the Web site of the SMO Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which hosted letter-writing, email, and fax campaigns.19 Meanwhile, most non-SMO sites were like the site that provided resources

Making Action on the Cheap: Costs and Organizing

Figure 5.1 Comparison of diversity of hosted e-tactical forms for nonwarehouse sites, by percent.

Making Action on the Cheap: Costs and Organizing

Figure 5.2 Comparison of diversity of linked e-tactical forms for nonwarehouse sites, by percent.

for adopting families, which hosted only one e-tactical form—in this case, a letter-writing campaign.20

Patterns in linking, on the other hand, were essentially indistinguishable between SMO and non-SMO sites. The average number of different forms that SMOs linked to was 0.7, while non-SMO sites that linked to e-tactics averaged 0.6 forms. As figure 5.2 depicts, non-SMO sites more often restricted themselves to linking to only a single e-tactical form (38 percent for non-SMO sites versus 32 percent for SMOs), while more SMOs linked to two e-tactical forms than non-SMOs. Eight SMO sites (11 percent), such as the Mexican Solidarity Network’s site, linked to two different e-tactical forms, while only five non-SMO sites (5 percent) linked to two different e-tactical forms.21

Volume of E-tactics

Moving beyond the e-tactical forms—that is, the classes of e-tactics—to the individual e-tactics themselves—the actual petitions, letter-writing campaigns, etc.—we find that SMO and non-SMO sites show some differences in the sheer volume of e-tactics that they host or link to. As we argue above, this is not because SMOs have a leg up in organizing certain kinds of online protest opportunities, but it does appear that they are deploying their e-tactic organizing ability more frequently than non-SMO sites.

Non-SMO sites hosted an average of 2.4 e-tactics, and SMOs hosted an average of 6.6.22 As can be extrapolated from the first columns of figure (p.117) 5.1, a portion of both SMO and non-SMO sites did not host any e-tactics (i.e., they only linked to e-tactics). Of those that did host e-tactics, many more non-SMO sites stopped at just a single e-tactic (54 percent) than did SMOs (19 percent). SMO sites tended to host a larger volume of e-tactics overall, peaking with the American Muslims for Jerusalem site, which hosted 65 individual e-tactics: 18 letter-writing campaigns, 22 email campaigns, and 15 fax campaigns.23 Meanwhile, only two non-SMO sites offered more than 8 different e-tactics.

SMO sites also, on average, linked to a higher number of actual petitions, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, email campaigns, and fax campaigns than did non-SMO ones. Linking SMO sites linked to an average of 5 individual e-tactics (although 60 percent of the linking SMO sites linked to only one e-tactic). The highest number of linked e-tactics on an SMO was on the Rock Out Censorship Web site, which linked to 11 petitions and 22 boycotts.24

Non-SMO sites linked to a smaller average of 2 e-tactics. Again, most (70 percent) linked to just a single e-tactic like a petition or email campaign, for instance. The high for e-tactics linked to by a non-SMO site was 25, lower than that for an SMO site, on a site devoted to patriotism that linked to 25 petitions.25

To summarize, SMO and non-SMO sites are equivalent in their ability to produce online protest opportunities, as shown by the rate at which they host or link to any e-tactics. Yet SMO sites were more likely to scale up this ability, offering more different kinds of e-tactical forms and simply more individual e-tactics than did non-SMO sites. We regard these differences, though, as relatively minor, particularly compared to the differences between SMO and non-SMO sites in their relationship to offline protest, which we examine in the next section.

The SMO Difference

It is important for us to be clear here that we are not arguing that SMOs never matter in the Internet age. We are claiming that they matter most when costs are higher and they matter least when costs are lower (or at a minimum, that SMOs must return other rewards aside from cost management to be useful in low-cost environments). Therefore, we expect that SMO sites would only “outperform” non-SMO sites when the costs of organizing are higher.

That is precisely what we found. Offline protest is the most expensive form of protest, so one might suspect that SMOs would have an advantage (p.118) there, and that any SMO with a Web presence would be well advised to advertise its offline protests on its Web site, to make them e-mobilizations. That is empirically correct: SMO Web sites noticeably differ from non-SMO sites in their discussion and endorsement of offline protest; this difference is statistically significant at the 0.05 level. As table 5.1 shows, 60 percent of SMO sites contained information about offline protest actions such as rallies, marches, and vigils. Examples include the Coalition for Peace Action’s Web site, which featured information about a rally, the Campaign for Labor Rights site, which encouraged participation in a strike, and the National Grassroots Peace Network, which endorsed a vigil and a strike, among other offline actions.26

In contrast, the nonwarehouse sites in our sample that were not run by an SMO were far less likely to host or link to e-mobilizations. Only 44 percent of non-SMO sites hosted information about street protest. That is nearly a third fewer non-SMO sites than SMO sites with information on offline actions. Non-SMO sites that endorsed offline protest included a site that opposed the expansion of public land closures to motorized vehicles.27 The site called for a protest rally at senate offices. Similarly, a blog by an Irish expatriate housing a letter-writing campaign also encouraged participation in a march against the Iraq War, along with other posts containing computer advice and musings on news articles in the Irish press.28 Again, this difference is neither surprising to us nor problematic to our theoretical account. As we observed above, organizing offline protest is expensive, even when some coordination takes place online as in an e-mobilization, and so it makes sense that SMO sites would be better able to produce opportunities for street protest.

Likewise, there were other places where costs appeared more important and thus SMOs also appear more important. For instance, of the e-tactical forms we discussed, most showed no real, or at least no substantial, differences between SMO-run and non-SMO sites. But fax campaigns displayed a larger difference between hosting rates for SMO (37 percent) and non-SMO sites (18 percent), and this difference was statistically significant. Web sites run by SMOs hosted fax campaigns such as the Physicians for Human Rights campaign to release six arrested doctors in Cuba.29 Non-SMO sites also hosted fax campaigns, such as one to oppose charging fees at U.S. national parks.30 Although present in our data, fax campaigns such as this one, hosted by a non-SMO Web site, were less common than similar campaigns on SMO sites.

Faxing is more costly to organize than petitions, boycotts, and letter-writing and email campaigns, with the requirement that the message be sent over a phone line to a terminal fax machine, and it follows that SMOs, (p.119) with their access to financial and labor resources, would be better able to launch fax campaigns. A campaign that hoped to generate a high volume of faxes would need multiple fax machines and operators, or a Web-based service provider that could process outbound faxes for a fee. SMOs are more likely to have the resources to absorb these costs. Still, we remind readers that because we did not independently draw a sample of faxes, these data are more speculative.

Benefits and Risks of Organizing without Organizations

We close the chapter by focusing on the major implication that we have been exploring thus far: a change in the dominance of SMOs both practically and theoretically. For folks not from a social movement tradition, the heresy of this claim may not be evident, while for students of social movements, this probably looks like we are betraying our research traditions.

We are not scholastic Benedict Arnolds, however. Instead of throwing out SMOs and theories that put organizations at the center of the theoretical map like resource mobilization, we are actually arguing for a more nuanced approach to organizations and their role. We are suggesting that something we have never really seen vary in any meaningful way—the costs of organizing—can now vary substantially under some circumstances. And when that constant is transformed into a variable, we are able to better understand when and why organizations matter, and when and why they matter less.

In addition to contextualizing the role of organizations in a theoretical and practical way that has been difficult to do before now, this shift offers a chance to study whether organizations return other benefits that don’t have to do with costs, or at least with the costs of producing collective action. For instance, it may be that the collective identity work that SMOs regularly engage in or the framing work they do are critical, and are tasks not well picked up by uncoordinated organizers of specific protest opportunities.

On a broader level, it could also be that a healthy social movement requires that some well-heeled SMOs exist in order to create an environment in which other organizers can be successful. We don’t have many empirical cases of movements where there are no SMOs, but if the trends we look at in this book continue, we might well have the chance to watch movements grow without the aid of formal organizations. If SMOs are exclusively important because of their cost management and selective incentives functions, then those movements without SMOs will do well. Yet if they decay because SMOs did more than manage costs, selective (p.120) incentives, and people, we will get a new window into the role of SMOs in the larger ecology of social movements.

There might also be other reasons that SMOs maintain some level of heightened importance, at least within a broader social movement ecology. We discuss two extensions of cost-based arguments here. First, there is some reason to believe that organizers who are pulled in by lower costs can be pushed out if repression by the state or private actors increases the price of organizing. For instance, Earl and Schussman (2004) found that when the potential costs to organizers (none of which were SMOs) for their actions were increased by threats from state-level authorities, many organizers stopped organizing. Easy in, easy out was the story for some (although others took advantage of the ability of Internet users to “route around” censorship and continued their campaigns). More generally, this at least suggests a potential vulnerability to a movement ecology that is devoid of SMOs: it may be easier to squash.

Second, our foregoing discussion has focused on costs that are accrued in order to create an event. But what if those costs go away while the costs of cleaning up from an event remain? A frivolous day of partying in Santa Barbara illustrates this concern. In 2009, over twelve thousand mostly college-aged people met up at the beach for a day dubbed “Floatopia.” Organized entirely online and allegedly largely through Facebook, the day drew unexpectedly large crowds. With no organization sponsoring the event or in charge, some key details were overlooked. There were no extra bathrooms for twelve thousand people, nor was there emergency water. No special law enforcement, paramedic, or life guard details were arranged in advance (although all showed up once people started swimming while drunk and falling from the bluffs abutting the ocean). There was no cleanup crew for all of the trash that was created and not taken away. Summed up, there were many costs during and after the event that public entities had to assume liability for because there were no organizers to hold responsible. Applied to protest, it will be critical to examine not just the up-front costs of organizing but also the follow-up costs, and how those are spread across different actors.

Keeping in mind the impact of the low-cost affordance of the Web on both participating in and organizing protest, we now turn to our second leverageable affordance: protest without copresence. In part III of this book, we analyze the way that the asynchronous structure of action on the Web affects participation in and the organization of protest online. We begin by thinking through what happens when people no longer need to be in the same place at the same time to engage in collective action.


(1.) As we discuss below, Earl and Schussman (2003, 165) make a similar argument about e-movements: “Tarrow’s advocacy for a distinction between the concepts of organizing and organizations suggests the possibility that formal, or even (p.227) informal, organizations may not be absolutely necessary building blocks for e-movements.”

(2.) Our data distinguish SMOs from other types of organizations, such as businesses, social groups, and professional associations. SMOs have a cause-oriented mission while other organizations do not. This means that actions we describe as non-SMO ones are not solely generated by lone individuals, although most are. We discuss the constitution of organizing teams more fully in chapter 7.

(3.) Cases 1106738, 1106738_871, and 1106738_870, respectively.

(4.) Case 3105173.

(5.) Case 1107538.

(6.) Case 3102644.

(7.) We are using a standard p 〈.05 level for significance. If we were to loosen our requirements, however, the values for petitions and letter-writing campaigns would be significantly different for SMO and non-SMO sites at the 0.10 level.

(8.) Cases 2104910, 3100996, and 1103001, respectively.

(9.) Case 1104936_352.

(10.) Cases 2101752 and 2102801, respectively.

(11.) Case 4102470.

(12.) Case 1107834.

(13.) Case 4101864.

(14.) Case 1108599.

(15.) Case 2103726.

(16.) Case 1107686.

(17.) Case 2100198_947.

(18.) Case 1102419_817.

(19.) Case 2103339.

(20.) Case 2104702.

(21.) Case 4103719.

(22.) The non-SMO average was calculated after dropping one outlier case with an e-tactic volume that was nearly twenty times greater than any other non-SMO site in the sample. The difference between SMO and non-SMO sites was not significant when this outlier was included; once the outlier was dropped, this difference was significant at the 0.01 level.

(p.228) (23.) Case 2101738.

(24.) Case 1107686.

(25.) Case 1102479.

(26.) Cases 1106194, 2100198, and 3102913, respectively.

(27.) Case 1103553.

(28.) Case 2100527.

(29.) Case 2105437_700.

(30.) Case 2105216_673.