This research, following Khagram, Riker and Sikkink (2002), defines NGOs as “private, voluntary, nonprofit groups whose primary aim is to influence publicly some form of social change” (p. 6). The growth and increasing influence of NGOs makes them prime subjects for study (Anheier & Themudo, 2005). The number, size, professionalism, speed, density and complexity of transnational advocacy networks, a type of NGO network, have grown dramatically over the past four decades (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). Because of the growth of this sector, and because of their increasing influence both domestically and internationally (Boli & Thomas, 1997; Khagram, Riker, & Sikkink, 2002), these organizations and their relationships are important areas of study for organizational communication scholars.
The use of ICTs has dramatically influenced the NGO sector. These changes include the nature of membership (Bimber, Flanagin, & Stohl, 2005), protest (Scott & Street, 2000), media coverage (Downing, 2001), and the dispersion of membership across space and time (Shumate & Pike, 2006). Increasingly, ICTs are providing new ways for organizations to cooperate with one another1.
This research examines a network of HIV/AIDS NGO websites. HIV/AIDS NGOs include activist, research, service, and membership organizations (Altman, 1999; Jönsson & Söderholm, 1995). Despite their differences in approaches, a common issue unites these organizations into an issue industry (see Shumate, Fulk & Monge, 2005). While these NGOs are unique in the short history of their issue and industry (i.e. 1983 to present), the international interest and legislative bodies surrounding that industry, and the extent of private/public funding for this issue, this sector is similar to other NGO sectors in their use of technology and motivations for a NGO network (Patton, 2002).
In June 2006, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania held the “Hyperlink Society” conference. The rationale for the conference stated that hyperlinks are not only the means for connecting creative works together, but they establish which people and ideas have the right to be heard and their ranking in matter of importance. They assert that links have intrinsic value and serve to privilege some ideas, people, and organizations over others (The Hyperlinked Society, 2006). This deeper meaning for hyperlinks provides a justification for assessing this connective form of communication. Websites can be viewed as unique entities and hyperlinks as symbolic of the relationships between the entities (Ding, Zha, He, Husbands, & Simon, 2004; Park, 2003). Hyperlinks are evidence of the interrelated nature of a community of organizations (Ackland & Gibson, 2004; Wellman, 2001) and these hyperlink networks are of increasing interest and importance (Thelwall, 2005).
Hyperlink networks have been characterized as the “heart” of the Internet, a strategic marketing tool, and a reflection of human culture (Dysart, 2002; Giuffo, 2002; Pennock, Flake, Lawrence, Glover, & Giles, 2002). Hyperlink networks have meaning and are fundamental elements of community creation. Foundational to the understanding that hyperlinks represent communities is their intentionality. These links do not happen automatically or at random. The decision to link one organization with another is a strategic communicative choice (Bach & Stark, 2004; Dysart, 2002; Garrido & Halavais, 2003; Jackson, 1997; Kleinberg, Lawrence, Lawrence, Pennock, Lawrence, Giles et al., 2001; Tremayne, 2004).
Many earlier scholars have identified communicative acts as those which hold meaning for the receiver (Burke, 1965; Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967). Numerous hyperlinks into a site can establish trust (Palmer, Bailey, & Faraj, 2000) and authority (Charkrabarti et al., 1999; Kleinberg, 1999). To link to another website is to validate them, giving the linked organization legitimacy or endorsement (Biermann, Golladay, Greenfield, & Baker, 1999; O’Neil & Ackland, 2006; Vreeland, 2000). Refusing or neglecting to link to another organization carries its own significant message. Rogers and Marres (2000) explain that the linking of one organization to another and the degree to which linking is reciprocal is the way in which organizations acknowledge each other.2
Previous hyperlink research has investigated academic networks, inter-governmental networks, and networks formed within specific countries. Thelwall (2002, 2003) has used qualitative methods to investigate academic networks in order to differentiate specific intentions motivating hyperlinking and to evaluate the quality of the linked sites. Park, Barnett, and Nam (2002a, 2002b) studied hyperlink networks in Korea to determine which types of organizations have websites in the most central positions and what factors influence user assessment of website credibility. Barnett and Sung (2005) examined the role that culture plays in the positioning of websites in international networks. A vast number of other applications have been reviewed by Park and Thelwall (2003) and include e-commerce, social movements, interpersonal communication as well as interorganizational and international communication contexts. These studies have established the value of academic inquiry into the formation, structure and meaning of hyperlink networks.
Hyperlinks play an important role in political and collective action communication. Ackland, O’Neil, Bimber, Gibson, and Ward (2006) stress those hyperlinks “help to establish the structure and boundaries of political communication on the web” (p. 4). A hyperlink network serves to connect both members of the NGO issue network and non-members to other members of the network through informal organizing strategies. Members of this interorganizational collective are those NGOs engaged in activities related to an issue (e.g., AIDS, human rights). Hyperlinks provide a powerful way for both members and non-members (e.g., NGOs engaged in another issue, publics) to locate and make sense of the number of NGOs working on an issue. Once an interorganizational hyperlink network is created, non-members interested in an issue as well as members can navigate among organizational members easily. Additionally, search results for hyperlinked organizations are enhanced. For example, Google’s search algorithm uses number of links to establish the rank order, relative importance and validity of websites (Brin & Page, 1998; Henzinger, 2001; Vreeland, 2000).
We argue that the creation of a hyperlink network is best explained by collective action theory (Bimber, Flanigan & Stohl, 2005; Fulk, Flanagin, Kalman, Monge & Ryan, 1996; Olson, 1965). Collective action theory poses that individuals and organizations rationally contribute to public goods which they could not create alone and which are accessible to publics. Examples of traditional public goods include public radio, parks, and union membership (see Hardin, 1982; Knoke, 1990; Olson, 1965). Fulk et al. (1996) and Bimber et al. (2005) extend public goods definitions to include information and computer-mediated public goods respectively. There are two key factors that define public goods, jointness of supply and impossibility of exclusion (Olson, 1965). Hyperlink network meet both of these criteria. A hyperlink network is characterized by jointness of supply, since once the hyperlink network is utilized by one individual to search the issue network, the public good is not diminished for others. The hyperlink network is also characterized by the impossibility of exclusion, since as long as individuals have a computer and internet connection, the hyperlink network is accessible to them. The purpose of this study is not to empirical verify that hyperlink networks are a public good, as one would not empirically verify that public radio or a park is a public good. Instead, we examine the rational nature of contributions to this public good and how such contributions are influenced by spatial relationships among NGOs.
Contributions to a hyperlink network involve not only the choice of whether to contribute and the level of that contribution, but also to which other members to link. In other words, a NGO’s choice to hyperlink to other NGOs involves the choice of which other NGOs to link. Additionally, when a NGO chooses to contribute to a hyperlink network, they contribute both the webspace they use to hyperlink to others and the connections that they have to others.
A structural signature3 is a term used to identify the unique pattern of contributions that is predominant in a network (Contractor, 2006). As such, this study examines the network of relationships among HIV/AIDS NGOs by comparing the observed structural signatures in a hyperlinked network to a distribution of random networks. The purpose of this examination is to determine if the hyperlink network incorporates NGOs within that network in an identifiable pattern. In order to understand these hypotheses, consider the null hypothesis that the NGO hyperlinks occur at random. In this case, some connections between actors with various attributes are likely to occur by chance alone. By chance some NGOs will have more ties to other NGOs and by chance some reciprocal ties among NGOs are likely. However, this research investigates the propensity of structural signatures in the network that occurs beyond what would occur in a network by chance alone. In each of the hypotheses described below, a particular structural signature is hypothesized based upon existing theory and research. While a random network would certainly have some of these structural signatures, in each case the hypothesized relationship is tested against a distribution of random networks to determine if the propensity of this structural signature occurs more frequently or less frequently than would be expected by chance alone.
In Figure 1, three networks with six nodes and six links are visualized. In the first network on the left, the links occur at random. There are some reciprocated links. Some actors receive more ties than others and some actors receive no ties at all. However, all of these links are simply random chance. In contrast, the middle pane demonstrates a network that is characterized by the reciprocity structural signature. There are more reciprocal ties in this idealized network than would occur through chance alone. The final network, displayed in the right pane, demonstrates what a network that is characterized by an actor attribute-based structural signature might look like. In this network, shaded nodes are more likely to receive ties than would occur by chance alone and non-shaded nodes are less likely to receive ties than would occur by chance alone. While each of these networks represent idealized networks, they demonstrate that various networks may result through the same number of contributions (e.g., 6 links) and the same number of actors contributing (e.g., 6 actors) to the hyperlink network. In other words, each actor’s contributions are characterized by to whom they link.
Figure 1. Illustration of 3 networks with six nodes. The first network is random. The second network demonstrates the reciprocity structural signature. The third network demonstrates a structural signature which favors choice of the gray nodes.
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Actor reciprocity denotes a structural signature in which two NGO mutually link to one another. Networks with actor reciprocity have a larger number of reciprocated ties than would be expected by chance alone. Monge and Contractor (2003) argue that reciprocating network relations is best explained by social exchange (Aldrich, 1982) and resource dependency (Pfeffer & Salanick, 1978) theories. In essence, reciprocal ties are evidence that two actors seek mutual benefits by engaging in a relation. In the case of hyperlinks, reciprocal links enhance the recognition of each member of the dyad in search results. Reciprocal links lead publics from one NGO’s website back to a website which recognized the NGO. While reciprocal linking causes the NGO to bear some cost, since many non-reciprocated links can be a measure of relative website authority in some search algorithms4 (Kleinberg, 1999; Rogers & Marres, 2000), such a relationship must be viewed by the NGOs involved as beneficial if the reciprocity structural signature is more prevalent than by chance alone. Therefore, we hypothesize:
H1: There will be a greater amount of reciprocity among NGOs in the hyperlink network than what would occur by chance alone.