OK, so this is an argument I have been working on for a while. I have just send a revised version to the Journal of Information Technology & Politics. Andrew Chadwick is editing a special issue on the basis of a conference in London, where I presented an earlier version of the argument.
The one-liner version of it is banal to some and unheard of for others: “organizing matters even more in collaborative projects when communication is almost free for senders, precisely because the decreasing up-front costs help generate so much communication and thus increase the costs of dealing with it all”. I wish I had read this before, because the challenges that Michel and others at Off the Bus confronted are in some sense similar to what the activists I studied struggled with.
The more academic abstract goes like this:
This article analyzes the use of Internet elements in political activism through a close ethnographic case study of a volunteer group involved in the 2008 U.S. presidential primary. Whereas the literature on political activism has generally argued that the Internet provides low-cost communication that facilitates collective action, this case highlights the labors that accompany Internet-assisted activism. The analysis, based upon participant-observation, identifies related problems of overcommunication, miscommunication, and communicative overload with which the activists struggled. Drawing on concepts taken from science and technology studies, the article argues that these problems have socio-technical roots and arise from the specific affordances of an increasing number of Internet elements integral to activism. Even as such elements reduced the up-front costs associated with communication for the sender, they help generate new transaction costs when they are integrated into heterogeneous assemblages with no shared communication protocol, single infrastructure or clear exostructure, or any other means of tempering the tendency for participating Internet-assisted activists and groups to always communicate more.
The thing itself is available here. I post it because I will be presenting versions of it for different audiences at the Politics Online 2009 conference at George Washington and hopefully also at Personal Democracy Forum 2009, and the journal version has not been finally accepted yet. Also, it feeds into other projects that I am still working on.
So, as always, feedback is welcome. The argument is qualitative and I hope I have moderated my claims enough to make it palatable even to people who remain skeptical of such work. I stand by it till I stand corrected.