Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment

Summary of: Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment

The changing nature of technologies of information and communication has presented a case for reconceptualizing collective action, using the principle of boundary-crossing between private and public domains.


Publication Reference

Published in/by
Communication Theory, Vol 15, No. 4, pp 365-388
November 2005


  • Collective action theory, traditionally conceptualised by Olson (1965), has illustrated a range of perspectives on collective action. By presenting the changing nature of technologies of information and communication, this paper argues for the need to reconceptualize collective action theory to accommodate the modern scenarios of collective action. It is important to note that by this rationale the authors do not intend to present a view that traditional accounts of collective action theory are wrong or inadequate. There are scenarios (even in the media environment of today) by which the traditional collective action theory accounts stand – and it is not within the scope of the paper to examine those accounts. Instead, this paper aims to argue that new forms of collective action have emerged, and collective action theory must be reconceptualized to accommodate them.

Recent years have seen a series of questions asking the applicability and usefulness of traditional collective action theory to certain contemporary phenomena. To name an example, Olson's (1965) proposition that small groups are more successful than larger ones in his account of collective action theory can now be widely contested with evidence from contemporary networks such as the highly successful Indymedia (a large network of journalists, writers, and everyday people organised around participatory media principles).

The paper first examines traditional collective action theory in relation to two central elements: the problem of free-riding and the importance of formal organisation as one important way to overcome it. The challenges presented by new uses of information and communication technologies address specifically to these fundamental elements.

A number of examples are presented, to drive the point that collective action theory has evolved or departed from its traditional concept especially with respect to free-riding (do I contribute or free-ride) and the role of, and dependence on organisation. Some examples are:

  1. “Battle in Seattle”, in which a far-flung network of groups «used e-mail, the Web, and chat rooms to engage in a largely self-organising protest against the policies of the World Trade Organisation» (pp 370).
  2. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBLM): «a core strength of the campaign, which still seems to be ill understood by many, has always been its loose structure» (pp. 370).
  3. «participating in various groups and public forums in which people's useful contributions emerge from an interactive process rather than the explicit pursuit of a goal» (pp 371).
  4. «posting information on a web page or weblog, contributing to discussion on an electronic bulletin board» (pp 372).
  5. Open source projects (pp 375).
  6. Spontaneously organised smart mobs (Rheingold, 2002) aimed at public goods (pp 376).

These examples effectively illustrate how the nature of free-riding, organisations, and organising have changed in the contemporary media environment. In the case of the problem of free-riding, the binary decision of whether one contributes or free-ride is no longer apparent. Instead, the individual frequently go back and forth through a process of interaction and negotiation for collective action. In many of these scenarios, decisions to free-ride or contribute can also no longer be easily discerned.

The rise of new technological and participatory media have also made communication methods that used to be exclusive to formal organisations, now available for individuals. Changing structures of organisation that are made possible by communication technologies have also resulted in the ability of social movements and groups to take on certain functions of formal organisations — even surpassing the possibilities of formal organisations. Again, the boundaries are blurred, «between traditional hierarchical forms and flexible network structures».

By studying these phenomena, collective action theory is now reframed using the principle of boundary-crossing between private and public. In this context, when an individual cross a boundary between private and public realms, and when this boundary is crossed by two or more people in conjunction with a public good, collective action is said to have occurred. This is a rich frame by which several scenarios in the current contemporary media environment can be accommodated:

  • the ease of transforming private discourse to public discourse, without any specific dependence on central organisation (e.g. private responses to an e-mail discussion which eventually becomes public)
  • The absence of a central organisation prompting people to share their email lists (transforming private domains into a public domain of collective action)
  • The Web as a vehicle for crossing boundaries (information that are privately created may one day become useful publicly)

The facilitation of private-public boundaries results in exchanges that could arguably advance collective action. Technologies that help to identify, for example, private interests, experiences, and acquaintance once identified as shared between people can prompt collective action. Other than permitting the constitution of pubic spheres around commons interests, this focus would also accommodate the continuum by which individuals and groups can easily move back and forth between private and public realms.

Further thoughts:

The notion of using the private-public boundary crossing as the principle to explain contemporary types of collective action is a very interesting one, especially in relation to the commons paradigm in the media environment. Such reconceptualization of collective action is also necessary, in light of the various types of convergence that the world is witnessing today. The convergence of technologies and growing interdependence between people and their uses of technologies, converging communities and organisations, and convergence in media as they continuously evolve over time.

Having said this, there is also a number of theories and constructs which I think would be very useful to study along with the work raised by this paper. For example, borrowing the lens of structuration theory (Giddens, 1986) to look at how the nature of technologies in use reflect the structural and agency properties of the private and public realms would enhance understandings around the social processes of these technologies (how technologies influence and are influenced by people). The theoretical constructs of the commons, such as the Prisoner's dilemma and the tragedy as conceived by Hardin (1968) would also be relevant to study with respect to the free-riding problem and the role of organisations raised by traditional collective action theory. And along with this paper, it may also be worthwhile to reframe the commons concept in light of the contemporary scenarios of the commons.


Bimber, B., Flanagin, A. J. and Stohl, C. (2005) Reconceptualizing Collective Action in the Contemporary Media Environment. Communication Theory, 15 (4), 365-388.

Giddens, A. (1986) The constitution of society: outline of the theory of structuration, University of California Press, Berkeley.

Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 62, 1243-1248

Rheingold, H. (2002) Smart mobs: the next social revolution, Perseus Books Group, Cambridge.