The problem of collective action

One of the things that we pride ourselves on at Magnify is our science-based approach towards the development of our platform  — we are social and data scientists, who use theory, data, and advanced analytics to study civic engagement and social mobilization.

We’ve built Magnify to help people solve a classic problem that has perplexed social scientists for decades — the problem of collective action.  Back in 1965, Mancur Olson wrote one of the most influential books in social science, The Logic of Collective Action.  In this relatively slim book, Olson leveled a devastating critique of decades of social science research, and the lessons from his book are taught in college and universities throughout the world.

Olson’s critique was simple — a great deal of social science research on mobilization had argued that if there was some sort of group interest in a “public good”, that the group would coalesce, mobilize, and provide the “public good”.  In economics, public goods are things that are produced for the general good (everyone can take advantage of them, meaning they are “non-excludable”) and that if one person uses them they that generally does not change whether or not someone else can use them (they are “non-rivalrous”).

So for example, before Olson’s critique, many social scientists thought that if a public good was desirable, that it would be provided — groups would form to support the provision of the public good.

But Olson argued that is not necessarily true — and that in many cases public goods may not be provided.  Why?  Olson noted that in many situations, people will have a pretty strong incentives to assume that others people in the group will provide the public good; thus people will “free ride” on the assumption that others will provide the public good, and this will usually mean that no one will act, and the public good won’t be provided.

After the publication of Olson’s work, there’s been a lot of research providing “solutions” to the collective action problem:  group leaders and entrepreneurs need to find ways to overcome the incentive to free ride, to get people to act towards the provision of the public good.  And many of these attempts to incentivize public good provision are now common to organizers:  for example, many organizations seeking the provision of public goods will give “selective incentives” to participants (say food, t-shirts, and other small and low-cost items that only participants receive).

We have designed Magnify based on decades of research on overcoming  collective action problems.   Participation in a Magnify project is identifiable:  we ask that Magnify members set up an account before they can work on projects, and when they sign up to help on a project the are listed as being part of the team.  Projects have defined tasks, which are designed to help meet the project goal — and when a project team member acts on the task, they get recognition on Magnify for acting.  We’ve recently rewarded some Magnify members for their strong participation across a number of projects, and we’ll be doing more to recognize members who help a great deal in the near future.  We also make Magnify fun to use, trying to make it as effortless as we can to join and to propose projects to the Magnify community.  And we have been working to help our Magnify community develop and present their projects so that they are successful.

If you haven’t joined the Magnify community, take a few minutes and to do it now.  Then join a couple of projects, and help people like you solve issues in their communities!