Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Online Collective Action


Humanity has millennia of experience solving collective action problems when individuals meet face-to-face. We also have decades of research on these scenarios. The same cannot be said for collective action problems when individuals meet online. The Internet is too new.

What difference does it make whether individuals meet face-to-face or online? Consider this story from the on-campus version of Geography 030:

Consider This: The Collective Action Game From Geography 030 On Campus

By Seth Baum (former instructor of Geography 030-Web)

Before working on Geography 030-Web, I taught the in-person, on-campus version of Geography 030 twice. Once was a small summer course with 9 students. The other was a fall semester course with 174 students who were, for this activity, divided into groups of about 10 students.

To help experience collective action, I had the students play a little game. Before coming to class (summer) or discussion section (fall), students individually and anonymously selected one of the following options on Canvas:

Option 1: You get 5 bonus points towards your final grade. No one else in your group gets any bonus points.

Option 2: You get 0 bonus points towards your final grade. Everyone else in your group gets 2 bonus points.

This is a collective action problem. It is in each student’s individual interest to choose Option 1 regardless of what the other students choose, but it is in the group’s interest for all students to choose Option 2. Note that there were actual extra credit points at stake here.

About 45% of the students chose Option 2, cooperate.

Then, in the next class period, we discussed collective action, covering content similar to the content in this module of Geography 030-Web. Students were then told what the percentage of cooperation was and given the opportunity to try again, using the procedure of their choice. At first, this led to some heated discussion. One common comment was “I bet it was you who chose Option 1 on Canvas. How dare you!!” Another was “If you don’t choose Option 2 this time, I will make your life miserable for the rest of the semester!”

In the end, students decided on a procedure in which they chose between Options 1 and 2 right there in the classroom with their eyes open so that there would be no anonymity. That way they would know who chose Option 1 so that they could punish them with their scorn for the rest of the semester.

100% of the students chose Option 2, cooperate.

Honestly, I would not want to be a student choosing Option 1 that second time! The conversation was so fierce that anyone who did that would face a punishment from the other students much worse than losing a few extra credit points. And that is a big part of the lesson: through informal community interactions, we can make it so that people want to cooperate.

Unfortunately, in Geography 030-Web, there isn’t a good way of recreating the collective action game. It’s one of the drawbacks of having an online course. Furthermore, online collective action is so new that we actually don’t know much about how it does or doesn’t succeed. You have undoubtedly read about (or experienced first-hand) the type of devastating verbal abuse and coercion that can be leveled at individuals on the internet. It can make the type of coercion and enforcement in the example above seem tame by comparison. But the internet can also be a powerful tool for community building because it lets individuals find like-minded people and lend their voices to movements without the fear of being ostracized from their 'real-world' communities. We are all spending more and more of our lives online, and collective action problems will certainly remain important. We must learn how to act collectively online and leverage the power of these global cyber networks to address large-scale environmental challenges.