Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Resources Matter: Interest Group Activism on the Web...

For over a decade, prognosticators have argued that the Internet will create a more level playing field in politics. The thinking goes that large, well-established interest groups will see their power reduced as issue movements become democratized on the Web. The need for large formal institutions will whither away as online advocacy campaigns, with minimal barriers to entry, supplant many of the traditional organizing roles of entrenched actors.

But is this truly the case? Has the Internet allowed small or poorly funded groups to compete equally with well-resourced organizations?

This is the primary question raised by Melissa K. Merry in a recent JITP article titled, "Interest Group Activism on the Web: The Case of Environmental Organizations".

And, apparently, the answer is no.

Merry's data illustrates that well-established and well-resourced interest group institutions, like the Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund, have wider reach and, ostensibly, a greater impact than smaller organizations. They have more comprehensive websites that make use of a greater number of Web technologies, and they take better advantage of the cost efficiencies made possible by the Internet. Furthermore, they receive far greater amounts of Web traffic as well as inbound links. Finally, membership organizations are more likely than non-membership organizations to successfully fundraise and issue action alerts.

These are significant findings, to be sure. However, I feel obligated to raise the usual constructive criticisms, namely, that the data presented only examines large- versus small-sized organizations, and doesn't shed much light onto what some see as the greater phenomenon when it comes to online political mobilization... the use of social networks in creating ad-hoc, on-the-fly campaigns that coalesce around single issues for very brief periods of time.

Still, Merry's research is immensely valuable in the extent to which it debunks some of the conventional wisdom regarding interest group politics in the Digital Age. Indeed, hers is a point that continues to resonate time and again across the political spectrum... simply having a website isn't enough.

Resources still matter.


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