While research and theorizing about communal public goods often examines the causal and predictive relationships among independent variables (for example see Yuan et al., 2005) in motivating individuals to participate in group-generalized exchange (see Sohn & Leckenby, 2007), contributions to a connective public good like a hyperlink network are not made to a central pool of resources. Instead, when organizations link to others in a hyperlink network, they make decisions about whether to participate and to which other websites to link. Specifically, organizations contribute by placing a reference that contains a destination anchor, in the appropriate language (i.e. HTML, XML). In this study, we only examine hyperlinks with a destination anchor in a separate domain. Sohn and Leckenby (2007) describe contributions online that are marked with destination anchors as operating in a network-generalized exchange architecture. Instead of contributions expanding the resources of a commonly available repository or database (i.e., group-generalized exchange), in a network-generalized exchange architecture contributions create a network.
Theorizing about connective goods with network-generalized exchange architectures must examine both the level of contributions and their structural signatures (Contractor, 2006; Shumate & Dewitt, 2008). A structural signature refers to the pattern, or signature, of contributions organizations make when they choose to list a hyperlink on their website. Thus, information provision in this architecture is composed of two choices: (a) whether and how many hyperlinks to list (i.e., level of contribution), and (b) to which other organizations’ websites to hyperlink (i.e., the structural signature of the contribution). As noted by Shumate and Dewitt, a structural signature is considered prevalent when it occurs beyond what might occur by chance alone. In Figure 1, all three networks consist of six nodes and six links. In the first network (left), while the links occur at random, there are some structural signatures (e.g., reciprocal ties). However, no structural signature occurs more or less frequently than might be expected by chance alone. In the second network (middle), there are a greater number of reciprocal ties than would be expected by chance alone2. Finally, in the third network (right), shaded nodes are more likely to receive ties than by chance alone and nonshaded nodes are less likely to receive ties than would be expected by chance alone. In other words, the structural signatures of contributions from six nodes have implications for the resulting network, even while network density (i.e., total level of contribution) remains constant.
Extensions to Collective Action Theory
In this section, we extend collective action theory to examine the structure of the network resulting from contributions to the connective public good. Structural signatures not only suggest that NGOs make rational and nonrandom contributions to a connective public good, but highlight that different actors within the network may construe the connective public good differently. In particular, structural signatures may be influenced by whether the NGOs are generalists or specialists organizations.
In population ecology theory, generalist organizations “depend on a wide range of environmental resources for survival” and “compete in a variety of domains simultaneously” (Carroll, 1985, p. 1266). In contrast, specialist organizations “survive in a specific environmental condition, or within a narrow range of environmental resources” and “focus on only one of a limited few” domains or niches (p. 1266). When examining NGOs, niches are defined by the generality of the organizations’ goals. Following McPherson (1983, 1990), NGOs with more heterogeneous goals are generalist organizations and NGOs with narrowly defined goals are specialist organizations. For example in the environmentalist NGO network, the Sierra Club would be considered a generalist NGO, since it holds many environmental concerns including wildlife preservation and global warming as important. In contrast, the Ocean Conservancy focuses on marine wildlife and habitat issues and would be considered a specialist NGO.
The NGO choice to link to a particular other organizational member is influenced by the diversity of goals of both organizations. We defined a connective good as a set of interorganizational links that enable members and nonmembers to reach like-minded organizations in order to enhance the visibility of the network’s goals. NGOs vary in the specificity of their goals (Knoke, 1990). The choice of the Sierra Club and Ocean Conservancy to hyperlink to one another would depend upon their view of the issue (i.e., environmental protection in general or awareness about ocean conservation in particular). Thus, different organizations may have different view of both like-minded organizations and the network’s goals.
In many ways akin to social dilemmas (Axelrod, 1985), generalist and specialist organizations face a decision about whether to adopt an individual verses a collective rationality. The individual rationality, in this extension, is a niche rationality, in which specialist organizations seek to benefit those other organizations within their niche only. In short, this paper suggests specialist organizations are more likely to engage in niche rationality, while generalist organizations are more likely to engage in collective rationality.
Thus, generalist organizations may play a broader role in interorganizational collective action (Barnett, Mischke, & Ocasio, 2000). Generalist organizations, because they are seeking to raise the visibility of a variety of aspects of a particular issue, have greater incentives to hyperlink to other generalist organizations that are like-minded. Generalist NGOs will be more likely to align themselves with other organizations that are viewed as legitimate to enhance the persuasiveness of their position (see Stewart et al., 1989). Generalist organizations are viewed as the more ideologically cooperative to outside populations (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996), and are therefore more likely to be the target of hyperlinking behavior, because it will enhance the goals of the network in general.
In contrast, specialist organizations will be less likely to hyperlink to other NGOs that do not support their same narrow set of goals. Instead, the network’s goals for these NGOs would be to enhance the visibility of a network of specialist organizations with similarly narrow goals. Specialist organizations that have divergent goals will be less likely to hyperlink to one another or to generalist organizations, since such connections would not enhance the narrow goals of these organizations.
This paper focuses on the role that generalists play within the hyperlink network. We chose to focus on generalists because generalists are hypothesized to play a broader role in interorganizational collective action. We argue that there are four important roles that generalist NGOs may play: reciprocator, broker, authority, and initiator. Each of these roles is illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Illustration of four network roles in connective goods. The starred node represents the actor’s contribution of focus in each illustration.
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Reciprocators link back to those NGOs that link to them. Reciprocal network relations are often explained by social exchange (Aldrich, 1982; Monge & Contractor, 2003) and resource dependency (Monge & Contractor, 2003; Pfeffer & Salanick, 1978) theories. Reciprocal ties are evidence of an awareness of others hyperlinking behavior and seeking mutual benefits. In hyperlink networks, reciprocal hyperlinks benefit each organization in the dyad in search engine results. Further, reciprocal hyperlinking has the potential to enhance webflow traffic between the two NGOs’ websites. As in contributions to all public goods, reciprocal linking is not without cost to the NGOs. The presence of many nonreciprocated links can enhance rank order in some search algorithms (Kleinberg, 1999; Rogers & Marres, 2000). Generalist NGOs are more likely to see one another as participating in the same common goal than specialist organizations that have more specific goals. As such, we hypothesize that generalist organizations would be more likely to enter into social exchange relationships with one another. Specifically, we hypothesize:
| ||H1: Generalist NGOs will be more likely to reciprocate links to other generalist NGOs than would occur by chance alone.|
A broker in the interorganizational network links to one or more unconnected NGOs. These organizations fill structural holes within the network (Burt, 1982; Stohl & Stohl, 2005). Brokers, by the act of linking to other unlinked organizations, further the connective good by linking members and nonmembers to several others within the greater hyperlink network. Generalist NGOs are likely to act as brokers for other NGOs. Like the organizations that make foundational collective action contributions (Taylor & Doerfel, 2003), we argue that these generalist NGOs will be central within the collective action. As such, we argue that generalist NGOs will act as brokers to the larger NGO network, thereby enhancing the visibility of their heterogeneous issue.
| ||H2: Generalist NGOs are more likely to act as brokers to other NGOs in the hyperlink network than would occur by chance alone.|
| ||H2a: Generalist NGOs are more likely to acts as brokers to specialist NGOs in the hyperlink network than would occur by chance alone.|
| ||H2b: Generalist NGOs are more likely to act as brokers to generalist NGOs in the hyperlink network than would occur by chance alone.|
Authorities also play an important role within the hyperlink network. Authorities are NGOs that receive links from unlinked NGOs. Authorities are chosen in the network by social influence among sites and recognition of the legitimacy of the NGO. Social influence should not be viewed in this context as an alternative explanation for collective action, but instead an important element in collective action theory. In fact, Olson (1965) contended that social influence could be a selective incentive for participation in a public good. Knoke (1990) goes further, arguing that affective bonds and normative conformity, or conformity to a standard of conduct based upon social values, can be important motivational factors in the decision to participate in a collective action. We further this argument, noting that normative hyperlinking patterns in connective goods can further the values and goals of the network. Authorities represent the most prominent face of a movement. NGOs that link to authorities promote web traffic to these websites through both hyperlinks and search engines, thereby enhancing the connective good. Because of their legitimacy, the heterogeneity of their goals, and their relationship with publics, we hypothesize that generalist NGOs are likely to be authorities in the hyperlink network.
| ||H3: Generalist NGOs are more likely to be authorities among other NGOs in the hyperlink network than would occur by chance alone.|
| ||H3a: Generalist NGOs are more likely to be authorities among specialist NGOs than would occur by chance alone.|
| ||H3b: Generalist NGOs are more likely to be authorities among generalist NGOs than would occur by chance alone.|
Initiators are the fourth role that NGOs may play within the connective good. Initiators promote links between other organizations by linking to both organizations. Such a relationship is referred to as a transitive network structure (Monge & Contractor, 2003). Initiators encourage other organizations to acknowledge one another, enhancing the connectivity, and reducing the distance between unlinked groups within the connective good. Generalist NGOs may promote hyperlinks between NGOs within the larger network by hyperlinking to both organizations, since they would tend to see the various aspects of the issue as a single set of issues. Therefore we hypothesize:
| ||H4: Generalist NGOs are more likely to be initiators among other NGOs in the hyperlink network than would occur by chance alone.|
| ||H4a: Generalist NGOs are more likely to be initiators among specialist NGOs than would occur by chance alone.|
| ||H4b: Generalist NGOs are more likely to be initiators among generalist NGOs than would occur by chance alone.|
In combination, we argue that structural signatures of contributions that generalist and specialist organizations make the hyperlink network are influenced by both the heterogeneity of the NGO’s goals and the roles that generalist NGOs play within the network. These two mechanisms are interdependent. We argue that generalist organizations are more likely to play each role. We note that both the level and structural signatures of contributions are important in understanding connective public goods. The heterogeneity of organizational goals within the network may explain the structural signatures of contributions to the connective good.