The Psychology of Collective Action, Social Media, and Clay Shirky

I FOUND IT! After years of pondering in the back of my mind, I found an article by Clay Shirky that summarizes what I’ve been seeking for years:
From: Larson, Eric M.
Sent: Thursday, June 03, 2010 10:00 AM
Subject: Collective Action and "opting out"?
Hi, Clay!  At last week's AllVoices webinar you mentioned a really interesting concept in passing:  That the studies/experiences in the "psychology of collective action" show that that people tend to "opt out" when the participation rates are unknown.
In other words, "Gee, I don't know how big a deal this is, so I guess I won't go" -- which would be the flip side of, "Wow!  It sounds like that thing is going to be popular; I'd better be there!"  (Or maybe, "Gosh, it's going to be a tiny group; I'd better go to help them out"?)
Here’s the closest thing I’ve found so far, from later that year…
Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or governments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. The anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines used the ease of sending and forwarding text messages to organize a massive group with no need (and no time) for standard managerial control. As a result, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations. For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls "shared awareness," the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks. The anti-Aznar protests in Spain gained momentum so quickly precisely because the millions of people spreading the message were not part of a hierarchical organization.
With the loss of Posterous, I’ve lost some of my comments.  My original blog post is still up at:
The response I got from Peter Fleck (buried in my email now) gives fodder for later research:
I dug around a bit, Eric, but I think Shirky is summarizing some of his work indirectly. I found places he speaks to collective action like Chapter 7 of "Here Comes Everybody" (about street protests in Leipzig) and I can sort of understand the "opt out" statement in the light of the "everybody knows that everybody knows..." framework.
This Wired interview might also be useful:
And this podcast maybe although I haven't listened.
Ultimately, I think you have to get through to Mr. Shirky himself.


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