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How the internet can overcome the collective action problem: conditional commitment designs on Pledgebank, Kickstarter, and The Point/Groupon websites

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)362-379
Number of pages18
JournalInformation Communication & Society
Issue number3
Early online date22 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - 3 Mar 2016

King's Authors


This paper details research on online designs to overcome the collective action problem in the political, economic, and cultural spheres. This problem is created by pluralistic ignorance (Chwe, M. S. (1999). Structure and strategy in collective action. American Journal of Sociology, 105(1), 128–156) – people do not know what each other thinks. They are unaware how many other people would want to do what they want to do, and not knowing this, they are unwilling to act alone. However, if this information was known, they could all pre-agree to act together to make their collective aim a reality. The internet's capacity to enable cheap and rapid communication overcomes the structural barrier to this problem. It allows latent groups (Olson, M. (1965). The logic of collective action. Public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) to be made visible and act collectively and so to ‘no longer suffer in silence’ (p. 165). The paper analyses the spectacular growth of Groupon and Kickstarter in the economic and cultural spheres. Based upon my data analysis of Pledgebank, it argues that there is no structural barrier to a similar explosion in the use of this mechanism in the political field. Pledgebank users showed no less reluctance to use the site's ‘I will if you will’ process for political challenges than for charitable or social projects. Once a proposal reached around 30% of its target of required support to go ahead, a tipping point was reached and commitment levels quickly reached the target. The data collected show a power law curve distribution in the size of collective actions undertaken, suggesting that linear analyses are likely to dramatically underestimate the potential impact of this new mobilisation mechanism.

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