The Foundations of Motivation for Citizen Engagement

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Discussions about incentives to participate are increasingly common, but they are as shallow as most conversations nowadays about the subject of “feedback loops”. And very little reflection is actually dedicated to questions such as why, when and how people participate.

This is why this talk by Judd Antin, User Experience Researcher at Facebook, is one of the best I’ve heard lately. He goes a step further than making commonsensical assumptions, and examines the issue of motivations to participate in a more critical and systematic manner. When it comes to technology mediated processes, Judd is actually one of the few people looking seriously at the issue of incentives/motivations to participate.

In the talk Judd begins by arguing that “(…) the foundations of motivation in the age of social media, they are kind of the same as the foundations of motivation before the age of social media.” I cannot help but agree and sympathize with the statement. It is particularly annoying to  hear on a daily basis claims suggesting that individual and social processes are fundamentally altered by technologies, and “how new” this field is. “I don’t fool myself into thinking that this is a brand new world”, remarks Judd. Too bad so many are fooling themselves these days.

Judd’s take on incentives to participate is particularly sobering for some cheerleaders of gamification,  highlighting the limits of instrumental rewards and the need to focus on issues such as group identification, efficacy and – importantly – simplicity.

Finally, and on a more anecdotal note, it is interesting to see how some issues are similar across different spaces. At some point Judd points out that the “dislike” button is one of the features most requested by Facebook users. In a similar vein, one of the most requested features for e-Petitions platforms is the possibility to sign “against” a petition.

In both cases, these requests have been largely ignored. My feeling is that the implications for these choices of design for collective action are far from neutral, and these are issues that we should be looking at more closely.

In any case, Judd’s talk is great, and so are his articles: you can find a list of his most recent ones below.

Title / Author Year
J Antin, EF Churchill, DA Shamma, M De Sa
US Patent 20,130,086,484
Social desirability bias and self-reports of motivation: a study of amazon mechanical turk in the US and India
J Antin, A Shaw
Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing …
Profanity use in online communities
S Sood, J Antin, E Churchill
Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference on Human Factors in Computing …
Using Crowdsourcing to Improve Profanity Detection
SO Sood, J Antin, E Churchill
AAAI Spring Symposium Series, 69-74
Local experts and online review sites
J Antin, M de Sa, EF Churchill
Proceedings of the acm 2012 conference on computer supported cooperative …
Some of all human knowledge: gender and participation in peer production
A Forte, J Antin, S Bardzell, L Honeywell, J Riedl, S Stierch
Proceedings of the ACM 2012 conference on Computer Supported Cooperative …
Apples to Oranges?: Comparing across studies of open collaboration/peer production
J Antin, EH Chi, J Howison, S Paul, A Shaw, J Yew
Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Wikis and Open …
Gender differences in Wikipedia editing
J Antin, R Yee, C Cheshire, O Nov
Proceedings of the 7th International Symposium on Wikis and Open …
Mobile augmented reality: video prototyping
M de Sá, J Antin, D Shamma, EF Churchill
Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference extended abstracts on Human …
My kind of people?: perceptions about wikipedia contributors and their motivations
J Antin
Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing …
Workshop on online reputation: context, privacy, and reputation management
J Antin, EF Churchill, BC Chen
Proceedings of the 20th international conference companion on World wide web …
Technology-Mediated Contributions: Editing Behaviors Among New Wikipedians
J Antin, C Cheshire, O Nov
Automatic identification of personal insults on social news sites
SO Sood, EF Churchill, J Antin
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology
Badges in social media: A social psychological perspective
J Antin, E Churchill
Human Factors, 1-4
Toy Psychology-Using gaming tactics to shape our online behavior may not be as effective as some have hoped.
J Antin
Technology Review-Massachussets Institute ofTechnology-English Edition, 11
General and Familiar Trust in Websites
C Cheshire, J Antin, KS Cook, E Churchill
Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 1-21
Everyday favors: A case study of a local online gift exchange system
E Suhonen, A Lampinen, C Cheshire, J Antin
Proceedings of the 16th ACM international conference on Supporting group …
Behaviors, adverse events, and dispositions: An empirical study of online discretion and information control
C Cheshire, J Antin, E Churchill
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61 (7 …
C Cheshire, J Antin
Information, Communication & Society 13 (4), 537-555
With a little help from my friends: Self‐interested and prosocial behavior on MySpace Music
J Antin, M Earp
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61 (5 …

Are ‘Good’ Citizens ‘Good’ Participants?

Article by Catherine Bolzendahl and Hilde Coffé recently published at Political Studies (2013):

Are ‘Good’ Citizens ‘Good’ Participants? Testing Citizenship Norms and Political Participation across 25 Nations. 


Whereas research on political participation typically investigates a variety of socio-economic and attitudinal characteristics, this cross-national study focuses on the relevance of norms when explaining political participation. We examine respondents’ normative beliefs about the importance of various measures of ‘good citizenship’, and their relationship to three modes of political engagement (activism, party membership and voting). We find assigning higher importance to paying taxes/obeying the law is negatively linked to all forms of participation, whereas the opposite is true for norms about the importance of voting and being active in associations. Greater emphasis on norms about understanding others and shopping politically is positively associated with political activism but not with more institutional forms of participation. The relationship between norms and participation differs somewhat across nations, with the most differences between Eastern European respondents and those from Western European and Western non-European respondents. In line with theories on democratic learning, we find that the relationship between citizenship norms and participation is often weakest among Eastern Europeans. Conclusions about the subjective and variable nature of democratic citizenship are discussed.

An interesting finding is the weak link between the duty to “keep a watch on the actions of government” and most types of participation (i.e. political activism and electoral participation). I cannot help but speculate about the extent to which these findings may help to explain why generally it is relatively easier to engage citizens in participatory processes (e.g. participatory budgeting) than have them monitor the outcomes of these same processes (e.g. oversight of budget execution).

Another possible reading is that the citizen who participates is different from the citizen who monitors. One of the practical implications of this would be that we should consider segmenting audiences (and outreach efforts) according to specific stages of the policy cycle.

Read the full article here.

A Dynamic Model of Protest

A nice animation based on a paper by Adam Meirowitz (Princeton) and Joshua Tucker (New York University). The video explains why citizens who take action to overthrow bad governments might eventually lose hope  and decide to stay home.


The paper was published this year in the American Journal of Political Science. Here is the abstract:

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, a crucial question is whether popular protest is now likely to be a permanent part of Middle Eastern politics or if the protests that have taken place over the past two years are more likely to be a “one-shot deal.” We consider this question from a theoretical perspective, focusing on the relationship between the consequences of protests in one period and the incentives to protest in the future. The model provides numerous predictions for why we might observe a phenomenon that we call the “one-shot deal”: when protest occurs at one time but not in the future despite an intervening period of bad governance. The analysis focuses on the learning process of citizens. We suggest that citizens may not only be discovering the type or quality of their new government—as most previous models of adverse selection assume—but rather citizens may also be learning about the universe of potential governments in their country. In this way, bad performance by one government induces some pessimism about possible replacements. This modeling approach expands the formal literature on adverse selection in elections in two ways: it takes seriously the fact that removing governments can be costly, and it explores the relevance of allowing the citizen/principal to face uncertainty about the underlying distribution from which possible government/agent types are drawn.

The authors’ highlighting of the need to “get it right” in the first transitional elections comes as a reminder of how frail electoral democracy may be in recently transitioned countries. A snapshot from the conclusion (ungated version):

In the aftermath of events like the Arab Spring and the Colored Revolutions, we are once again confronted with the question of what the long-range effects are likely to be of regime change ushered in by citizens taking to the streets. Such moments are often filled with optimism about the potential for people to seize control of their own destiny and finally demand accountability from their governments. The model we present in this article does not deny that this optimistic chain of events can come to fruition, but it does lead to important insights as to when such a scenario is more or less likely.

First, there is likely to be a fundamental difference between what happens following a protest that leads to regime change as opposed to one that leads merely to a change of government without changing the regime. So a protest in France that leads to a change in the government—for example, the 1968 protests and subsequent resignation of de Gaulle (Cerny 1970)—is not likely to change citizens’ minds about the overall distribution of the quality of governments available through French democracy. Citizens may feel that they have received a “bad” draw from this distribution, and thus it is worth trying to throw the current government out of power and replace it with a new draw from the same distribution. In these circumstances—provided the cost of protesting remains constant—there is no reason not to expect French citizens to take to the streets to protest against their government in similar numbers in thefuture.

In a new democracy, however, we suggest that citizens may be simultaneously updating about the quality of the current government and the potential quality of all governments available under a democratic regime. This learning may be rather dramatic during the first governments of the new regime. If these initial governments after a democratic transition should prove to be little better than previous nondemocratic governments, citizens might be unlikely to take costly actions in order to curtail new abuses or even deter a blatant disregard for the new rules calling for periodic elections. Thus, we are probably most likely to see a one-shot-deal scenario when the initial governments following a democratic transition are perceived as no better than the ones that preceded the transition. Conversely, repeated protest might be more likely if there are afew “good” governments—thus leading respondents to think that the average quality of government is indeed better under democracy—before a government that might threaten democracy appears again. The bottom line is that if the type of learning that underlines our model is indeed occurring in newly democratic regimes, then the stakes for these regimes during the initial post-transition governments are likely to be high indeed.

Taken together, these points suggest the potential for the following patterns to emerge. The size and strength of protests may increase over time in a nondemocratic regime, but once the initial goal of removing the old regime from office is accomplished, the ability of prodemocracy forces to bring their supporters to the street may diminish significantly. The intuitive explanation for such a pattern would normally be that “the goal has been met,” but our model suggests a different story: it may not be so much that the goal has been met as the goal no longer seems to be quite so valuable. Again, this points to the importance of “getting it right” in the first transitional elections.

You can read the full paper (ungated version) here [PDF].

HT The Monkey Cage. 

Eurobarometer: Citizens Engaged in Participatory Democracy

A new report by Eurobarometer on citizen engagement in participatory democracy has been recently published. Here are some of the findings:

A third (34%) of respondents say that they have signed a petition in the last two years. However, the proportion of people who have done this ranges considerably, from 53% in the UK to 7% in Cyprus. Other relatively popular forms of engagement are expressing one’s views online (28%), expressing one’s views with an elected local representative (24%), and taking part in a public debate at local or regional level (18%).

Men are more likely than women to have attempted to express their view using most of the means under discussion; they are also more likely to be members of an NGO or similar association.

A fifth of respondents (20%) are members of an organisation with a specific economic, social, environmental, cultural or sporting interest, while 17% are in another organisation with a special interest, and 16% are Trade Union members. 

The Nordic countries demonstrate a very high level of participation in NGOs and associations, especially Trade Unions. However, in 18 Member States, more than half of the respondents say that they have not had any involvement with this type of organisation. 

Respondents who have expressed their views or joined an NGO are more likely to believe that ways of influencing political decision-making, such as voting, are effective, and also that NGOs can influence political decisions.

And a bit more on socio-demographic traits and participation (highlights are mine):

According to the socio-demographic data, men are more likely than women to have used various means of expressing their views, including taking part in a public debate at local/regional level (22% vs. 15% for women), expressing their views to a local elected representative (27% vs. 20%), and expressing their views via the Internet or social media (32% vs. 25%). However, equal numbers of men and women (both 34%) say that they signed a petition. Overall, 45% of women say that they did none of these things in order to express their views, as opposed to 38% of men.

People in different age groups demonstrate preferences for using different means of expressing their views on public issues. Younger respondents are more likely to use the Internet or social media: 42% of 15-24 year-olds did this during the past two years, but this falls to 17% among people aged 55 or over. Respondents aged 40 and over (26-27%) are more likely to express their views with their local or regional elected representatives than 15-24 year-olds (16%), while people in the 25-39 age bracket (40%) are the most likely to have signed a petition (only 28% of respondents aged 55 and over did this). Respondents aged 55 or over are the most inclined to say that they did not do any of these things: 48% say this, compared with 37-39% of people in the other three age groups. 

Respondents with a higher level of education are more likely to try to express their views via all the means under discussion than people who finished their education at a younger age. For example, 42% of people who finished their education aged 20 or over have  signed a petition in the last two years, compared with just 16% of those who left school aged 15 or below. While 62% of people in the latter group did none of these things in order to express their view, only 34% of people who finished their education aged 20 or over say this. 

In terms of occupation, employees and self-employed people are more likely to seek to express their views using the various available means than manual workers or people who are not working. Nearly half of manual workers (49%) and people who are not working (47%) did not do any of these things, compared with 35% of employees and 34% of self-employed people.

The full report is available here [PDF]. 

A Bottom-up Account of Occupy Wall Street

New report on Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

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Some of the findings:

  • Highly educated young adults were overrepresented
    among OWS activists and supporters, a group with
    limited ethnic/racial or class diversity
  • Most OWS activists and supporters were deeply
    skeptical of the mainstream political system as an
    effective vehicle for social change. For some, this
    skepticism intensified after the election of Barack
    Obama in 2008 failed to produce the changes they
    had been led to expect.
  • Despite being disillusioned with mainstream
    politics, many OWS activists and supporters
    remain politically active and civically engaged.
  • OWS was able to attract supporters with a wide
    variety of specific concerns, many of whom had
    not worked together before, This was in large part
    because it made no formal “demands,” and united
    around the “We Are the 99%” slogan.

Read the full report here.

(HT Archon Fung)

The Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution Makers: Predictors of Participation

By Mansoor Moaddel

This paper juxtaposes two clusters of theories; political conflict, resource mobilization, organizational, and political opportunity theories, on the one hand, and mass society, structural-functional, and relative deprivation theories, on the other. It assesses their explanatory power in predicting participation in revolutionary movements. It uses survey data from a nationally representative sample of 3,143 Egyptian adults who rated their participation in the revolutionary movement against President Mubarak from 1, no participation, to 10, utmost participation. The analysis of the data identified three sets of variables that are linked to participation: attitudes against the government and attitudes in favor of alternative sociopolitical orders, individual efficacy, dysphoric emotions, and immorality; such mediums of communicative power as the Internet, mobiles, and opposition newspapers; and demographics, including being male, residing in the urban area, and living impressionable years under President Mubarak. The socioeconomic status having an inverted-U relationship with participation suggests that the revolution was led by members of the middle class. The data, however, provides support for contradictory hypotheses drawn from both clusters of theories. The analysis thus suggests rethinking about predictors of participation. This entails departing from the conception that presumes the participants as monolithic individuals rather than manifold and heterogeneous, a new look at the relationship between immorality and participation, and a refocus on the monolithic state as  the unifying element in the revolutionary process.

Download the paper here [PDF]