Fragmentation and the Network: Cure or Curse?

Our Optimistic Future: The Networked Nonprofit

In a presentation with Beth Kanter at last year’s Personal Democracy Forum, author and scholar Allison Fine made the following statement:

We’ve all seen the size of the [nonprofit] sector explode. However… on any measure of social change, the needle hasn’t moved…. Take public education, take public health… even donations, as a percentage of the GNP, has not increased in the past twenty years. So something isn’t working, and that something is that complex social problems… outstrip the capacity of any single organization…. So then what’s the solution? The solution is moving from a focus on growing individual nonprofit organization…to growing networks.

This was the opening remarks for a talk about the book Beth and Allison wrote together, The Networked Nonprofit, which explains in detail how established nonprofits and passionate individuals can use social media to achieve ambitious social change goals. Here the network is the savior, an infrastructure for pushing back against fragmentation by connecting us to one another.

Our Pessimistic Future: Anonymous’ Campaign Dilemma

Yet there is a more pessimistic possibility as well. For what Clay Shirky has dubbed “ridiculously easy group-forming” is a double-edged sword. It can bring individuals together into large groups that have real collective power, or it can bring individuals together into a dozen smaller groups that do not. Shirky acknowledged this increase in his ground-breaking 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody:

Now that group-forming has gone from hard to ridiculously easy, we are seeing an explosion of experiments with new groups and new kinds of groups.

Instead of being in the world of the networked nonprofit, we could find ourselves in the world of Anonymous, a loose online organization in which initiating a hacking campaign is so ridiculously easy that too many campaigns are being proposed, dividing the time resources of members such that campaigns are not able to collect enough commitments to succeed. Even if you have 1,000 volunteers, that group can only be sub-divided so many times before the resulting groups are too small to be effectual.

Ridiculously easy group formation can indeed lead to some ridiculous outcomes: a classic collective action dilemma in which it is good if all members have the ability to initiative groups, but it is bad if all members actually do initiate groups.

The Explosion in Affiliative Choice

This is a new problem. Imagine you care about education. In the pre-digital past there was a limited range of brick-and-mortar institutions you could get involved with: the local school board, a national education nonprofit, a group of volunteer tutors at your church. Now you can join a Facebook group, or several. You can start your own education blog. You can start your own parents’ listserv as an alternative to the school board. Or, through the magic of the Internet, you can learn about, become a member of, and donate to, a small non-local educational NGO you would not have heard of otherwise. Most of the old choices are still around, but now there are new ones as well dividing a finite amount of attention, time, and financial resources.

Ridiculously Easy Group-Forming and its Discontents

The explosion in affiliative choice that the Internet makes possible is both wondrous and problematic. It can combat fragmentation by connecting us in ways never before possible and it can increase fragmentation by making it less likely that we will come together in big groups because it is now much easier to come together in smaller ones. Why compromise with 100 people, when you can create a group of 15 people that are just like you?

This possibility – that the network will increase fragmentation rather than decreasing it – has been mooted before: by Nicholas Negroponte‘s theory of the Daily Me and Cass Sunstein‘s theory of echo chambers, by the “divided they blog” thesis of Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance in their 2005 paper on US political bloggers, and by the long tail of media content, in which a big media outlets like TV networks are losing viewers to a thousand small competitors, even as none of those competitors gains enough viewers to have real influence.

These trends are continuing out of the nascent blog-centered social media environment of the mid-00’s and into the richer social media environment of the teens. For those who hope that the network will connect us rather than divide us, an awareness of the fragmented future we wish to avoid is necessary.



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