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Abstract

Electronic networks of practice are self-organizing, open activity systems focused on a shared practice that exist primarily through computer-mediated communication. These networks create a public good of knowledge that is available to anyone in the network, making it easy for individuals to free-ride on the efforts of others. Theories of collective action are reviewed to explain why individuals choose to actively participate in collective activities when the rational individual decision would be to free-ride on the efforts of others. These theories are applied to examine participation in electronic networks of practice, suggesting that participation in these networks is dependent upon 1) the attributes of the individuals in the collective, 2) the relational structure of social ties between individuals in the collective, 3) the norms of behavior of the collective, 4) the affective factors of the collective, and 5) the development of sanctions for noncompliance with network norms. This paper discusses how the ability of a network to leverage these factors to promote collective action is dependent upon the openness of the network, the extent to which the relationships in the collective are based on computer-mediated communication, and the extent to which the critical resources in the network are characterized by public or private goods.

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