I’m excited to say that Sociological Science, the new general audience open-access sociology journal, has published its first batch of articles. These include a great set of pieces, including one from my collaborator Chaeyoon Lim on network effects and emotional well-being. But the article “The Structure of Online Activism” by Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich caught my eye, for obvious reasons.
I’ve got some thoughts on this article, and following the philosophy of Sociological Science of encouraging “ex post corrections/comments over ex ante R&R demands,” here’s my response, which I’m also posting as a formal response on the Sociological Science site.
In this piece, Lewis et al. attempt to understand the “nature and scale of the typical activist’s invovlement with social media” in the Save Darfur Cause on Facebook. They look into the distribution of Facebook activism, its overtime trends, and the effects of networks on mobilization.
Some of the very interesting elements of this article — longitudinal network data of recruitment for a social movement is a bit of a dream. Having this kind of granuality of data in different contexts would be incredible. Also interesting (although similar findings have been shown in the literature) are the findings that most people were recruited by others, and that the amount donated depended highly on whether one was recruited or joined independent. I particularly find fascinating the odds that a group member was 610% more likely to donate if their recruiter also donated.
There are some questions and negatives of the piece. Stylistically, the article’s setup is needlessly self-important — “empirical studies of online activism are surprisingly scarce”, which is patently false with a cursory look at literatures in communications, political science, and the growing field within sociology; “rivaling the US civil rights movement” in size, which is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison since there are varying definitions of participation in each.
Beyond that, the finding that there is a power law distribution in contribution isn’t particularly new, and the citation to Oliver’s work on “hyperactivists” and differential contributions is indicative here. This sort of phenomenon persisted before the internet and may even be exacerbated by it.
Two other outstanding questions — in figure 2, what caused random spikes in donations? Wondering what kind of exogenous elements may have caused an uptick. Secondly, what may be the causal mechanism in the finding that people were much more likely to donate if their recruiter donated? Is it possibly the case that there’s some homophilic effect — there is a class of people who have the capital to donate and since their network is full of donors they also donate? Or is this an influence effect? Can the recruited see that their recruiter donated?
A meta-comment on what I’ve written above: it’s possible that since there’s no long expectation of a lit review in Sociological Science some of what I call the “self-important” language goes unchecked in favor of interesting results. But the article really would have been better if it did engage some of the prior literature in online activism. Disciplinary blinders shouldn’t be a limitation — Jennifer Earl and her students have written oodles on online activism from a social movement perspective.
Overall, though, really great that Sociological Science exists. I wish it success for years to come.