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‘Doing good and useful things’: Web 2.

0, self-organized workers
and Cyberspace

By James Richards

Email: J.Richards@hw.ac.uk


The paper assesses how new Internet communication technologies (associated with the term
‘Web 2.0’), and the (Cyber) spaces associated with Web 2.0, can augment the powers of self-
organized labour. In the first instance, evidence of workers’ organizing activities in
Cyberspace are explored and compared to the activities associated with a conventional
framework for self-organization (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999). In a wider sense, the paper
engages with debates that surround the tightening of management control over the labour
process, and the long-term decline of professionally organized labour, by discussing the
possibilities for action, and identity formation, to occur in Cyberspace. The findings indicate
self-organized workers are currently exploring a wide range of employment interests, through
an array of joined-up activities, in Cyberspace. The findings also suggest employers are
increasingly concerned with the threat such activities pose for an industrial relations climate
broadly based on sophisticated organizational control initiatives designed to reduce physical
spaces for counter or apposite identities to take root. However, only a partial assessment was
possible with the methods applied, and it is not appropriate at this moment to judge whether
or not such activities are becoming more common or effective. The paper ends with a call for
all existing debates that surround the labour process and organized labour to be revised to
include opportunities for labour in Cyberspace. A range of suggestions on this matter is
included in the conclusion.

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The main topic of the paper relates to new developments in Internet communication
technologies and its increased use by workers as a tool for information sharing and self-
organized activities, independent to and in parallel with formal professional organizing
activities. It is important to recognise broader developments in the Internet because new
technologies allow networks of people to come together and survive, and perhaps prosper, in
a fast-changing environment (Castells, 2001). It is also important to note that the Internet
increasingly represents a tool of choice for workers to mount campaigns against employers
(Collinson and Ackroyd, 2005) and therefore it is reasonable to assume that the Internet
represents a beacon of hope for workers in an era noted by the collapse of organized labour
(Cully et al, 1999; Millward et al, 2000; Kersley et al, 2006).

In terms of trade union activity, a range of studies suggests the Internet can, indeed, be
a tool of choice to campaign against employers. For instance, the Internet is believed to
present trade unions with a number advantages, and includes the ability to service members
(Bjorkman and Huzzard, 2005), as a method of renewal (Diamond and Freeman, 2002;
Freeman, 2005), as a way in which members of trade unions can communicate with each
other (Martinez-Lucio, 2003), and, as a way of promoting solidarity during a dispute (Pliskin
et al 1997; Carter et al, 2003; Saundry et al, 2007). However, most people in the UK, and
many other Western nations, continue to be denied collective representation, and many more
remain ambivalent or unconvinced of what trade unions can do to promote their employment
interests (Carter, 2000). That said, why workers spurn trade unions is outwith the parameters
of the current research.

The study of organized labour and the Internet age may be rapidly developing, yet can
the same be said for non-organized labour, or organized labour that may not have absolute
faith in trade unions? Can, in effect, the Internet present similar, or perhaps, unique
opportunities to those who do not benefit from professional collectivised association? More
crucially, can the Internet present opportunities for an alternative form of organization that
stretches far beyond the confines of the shopfloor? If so, it is important to start such a venture
by recognising less conventional forms of organization, such as Ackroyd and Thompson’s
(1999: 54) ideas that surround ‘self-organization’, or ‘the tendency of groups to form interests
and establish identities, and to develop autonomy based on these activities’. Ackroyd and
Thompson’s ideas are reflected in studies that emphasise non-professional forms of
organization emerging, typically, in the tightly controlled non-union workplace (e.g. see

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Graham, 1995; McKinlay and Taylor, 1996a and 1996b; Bain and Taylor, 2000; Taylor and
Bain, 2003; Mulholland, 2004; Townsend, 2005, Barnes, 2007). However, small group
organization is one thing, and clearly professionally organized labour is another, and there are
possibilities for both to co-exist, but can developments in Internet communication
technologies allow an expansion of possibilities for non-professionally organized workers?
Indeed, it is only in the most recent research that possibilities for external non-professional
organization are discussed (e.g. Collinson and Ackroyd, 2005; Spicer and Bohm, 2007). This
paper, therefore, focuses on two major contemporary developments: new Internet technology
that has the broad capacity to bring together unlimited numbers of unrelated people and
people who have restricted opportunity to engage with contemporaries; and in the
employment domain, revisiting the notion that without effective professional organization,
workers are typically left to resist management, and pursue separate interests to management,
as individuals or in small informal groups (Delbridge, 1995; Sewell, 1998; Storey and
Harrison, 1999; Knights and McCabe, 2000).

Currently very little literature is available on the subject of self-organization and new
forms of Internet communication technology. Where it does exist it follows the formation of
worker networks that flourish due to the relatively new phenomenon of Web-blogs (blogs) –
an easy to design and usually free-to-use kind of on-line diary (e.g. Richards, 2007;
Schoneboom, 2007). These studies will be discussed in more detail later on in the paper, but a
quick overview demonstrates what many would view as being a very new and creative
examples of self-organized activities, based around the Internet and shared employment-
related concerns. Such studies contemplate the recent emergence of workers keeping blogs
and how this new type of Web-page allows workers a new means to discuss employment
concerns and connect workers from similar occupational backgrounds in an unprecedented
fashion. In brief, one study makes a broad attempt to explore the phenomenon of work blogs
and remarks on how such forums facilitate frank and open discussions between workers about
the labour process where they work (Richards, 2007). A further study approaches work blogs
as a forum for individual resistance and the sowing of ideas for similar resistance across other
workplaces (Schoneboom, 2007). In effect, keeping a diary that is accessible via the whole of
the World Wide Web, based on personal experiences of work, is said to increase individual
resilience to corporate culture, and, make others more conscious of their own employment
experiences, who may then go on to share such views on work time, or even ‘blog’ about their
own experiences of work. However, despite both studies taking a critical angle, neither found
evidence to suggest activities by work bloggers are at stage where they could be compared to
the strategies available to groups who self-organize on work time, such as being able to
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manipulate work routines (Webb and Palmer, 1998), sabotage work processes (Zabala, 1989),
subvert co-workers (Levin, 2001), misuse company IT systems (Lara et al, 2006), pursue
political and cultural identity on work time (Wallace and Leicht, 2004), directly ridicule
management (Taylor and Bain, 2003), work on fiddles (Ditton, 1977), perform ‘homers’
(Anteby, 2003), or, perform informal induction rituals (Ackroyd and Cowdry, 1992). Nor is
there evidence in the studies to suggest work bloggers can take tangible forms of action, as
noted in a recent crop of industrial relations research (e.g. Pliskin et al, 1997; Carter et al,
2003; Saunders et al, 2007).

Despite finding little or no evidence for this important part of organization, both sets
of findings point towards blogs providing distinct advantages over informal organization on
work time – for example, space where workers can meet, and discuss employment concerns,
and interact outwith the overbearing presence of management. That said, both studies were
not designed to look at such activities and it would be unwise to rule out more disruptive or
subversive forms of action, especially without a wider consideration of what Web 2.0
communication technology has to offer (see later in the paper for an overview of Web 2.0
communication technology). More importantly, however, is to note that the process of
interacting via blogs also allows new group identities to be formed, sustained and shared, and
such identities are characterised to a large extent by values that conflict, in varying degrees,
with management agendas. Such values and identities may also have the potential to conflict
with those of relevant trade unions and therefore work against recent renewal strategies
pursued by organized labour.

The direction of this paper, therefore, is dictated by three assumptions related to the
organizing practices of non-union workers and the social interaction that Web 2.0
communication technology may be able to facilitate. First, critical scholarly interest and
debate has yet to penetrate and account for how and why workers, independent of trade
unions and other professional methods of organization, are using new Internet communication
technologies as a method of defending and advancing their employment interests. As such,
current frameworks for understanding the activities of self-organized workers needs to be up-
dated to take into account new opportunities for workers who abstain from or are denied
professional collective representation. In broader terms, debates that surround the labour
process and industrial relations are incomplete without an acknowledgement of Web 2.0
activities pursued by self-organized workers. Second, there is an absence, in scholarly texts,
of a clear and appropriate research agenda that covers these emergent and topical matters.
Third, compared to more conventional forms of organization, which is usually overt,

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observable and measurable in someway; and, the nature of such Internet activity, in that those
who interact using these mediums of communication, are typically dispersed far and wide,
and may not even interact and communicate in real time or physically meet each other; use a
range of methods to communicate that are not particularly easy to locate when using generic
Web search engines, involve a degree of private interaction that is neither easy to get involved
with as outsider, and in itself, leaves us with a dilemma as to how we should go about making
varied and deep empirical in-roads into such activity. This paper, however, is primarily
organized around the first two problems, as researching the sociology of Internet activity is
the focus of a relatively advanced and growing body of literature (e.g. see Hine, 2000;
Cavanagh, 2007). Consequently, the nature of the current study is dictated by the lack of
wider scholarly investigations. What this points towards is the necessity of framing such
activities and proposing a research agenda to explore the possibilities of Web 2.0 much
further than at present.

The paper is organized as follows. The first section details and discusses Web 2.0
communication technology and the explanatory framework that guides the current research.
The second section outlines the methods used to gather data and information on workers who
use Web 2.0 communication technology. In the third section evidence from a range of sources
is presented along two themes: an overview of trends and possibilities for self-organization in
Cyberspace, and evidence of Web 2.0 activity that relates to, and perhaps go beyond, Ackroyd
and Thompson’s (1999) framework based on self-organization. Section four discusses the
findings and concludes with a research agenda.

The rise of Web 2.0 and self-organization

The Internet: From information retrieval to self-organization

During the rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s the Internet represented a tool of choice
for elites, but today’s picture is quite different in that its technologies have now penetrated
just about every part of everyday life (Haythornthwaite and Wellman, 2002). Despite large
amounts of primary Internet information continuing to be produced by and craved from elites,
in more recent years, it is ordinary people, communicating through easy-to-use and typically
free-to-use Web 2.0 applications, such as blogs, wikis and other social media Web-sites, who
have stepped up to become one of the primary dynamics of the Internet (Coté and Pybus,
2007). In brief, what is probably most distinct to note about the arrival of Web 2.0

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communication technology is that it heralded an abrupt end to a short-lived global corporate
monopoly of electronic information and communication (Hewitt, 2005).

The rapidly changing nature of the Internet, from a medium dominated by a monopoly
of information providers to one in which every user could make some sort of contribution, has
been dubbed in media circles as ‘Web 2.0’. The term is meant to represent the resurrection of
the Internet after the dot-com collapse at the end of the twentieth century. Currently there is
no scholarly definition of Web 2.0, but ‘Web gurus’, such as Tim O’Reilly (2006), believe
Web 2.0 to be a ‘business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the
Internet as a platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new
platform’. Web 2.0, therefore, is representative, and a product of, attempts to make the
Internet more commercially viable and one way in which to do that has been to make it more
inclusive and useful to non-technical users. However, as is typical of all new things, and
technology and commerce are no exceptions to this rule; human nature dictates that
alternatives uses are quickly found for even the most rigid type of commodity.

Standard web pages Web 2.0 – increase of Cyberspace Email

Bulletin boards, chat rooms, blogs, wikis,

social networking platforms, virtual
worlds, social media Web-sites

Rarely updated Frequently updated Constantly updated

Asymmetrical broadcast Asymmetrical exchange Symmetrical exchange

Multimedia Limited multimedia Text based

Figure one: Web 2.0 on a continuum between static Web-sites and email (adapted from
Herring et al: 2004: 14).

In a technological sense, Web 2.0 is associated with the bridging of a gap between
polar opposite communication technologies – that is, the filling of a rather wide gap between
the asymmetrical broadcast of information through static Web-pages and symmetrical
exchange of information via email (Herring et al, 2004) (see figure one). The result being a
range of Internet communication technologies, best represented by the blog, that allows an
asymmetrical exchange of information, and the rapid expansion of ‘Cyberspace’. More recent
advances in this form of Internet technology paved the way for the very recent trend of on-
line social networking and how such Web-sites allow the user to build a personal profile that
friends or peers can link to and have some sort of influence over. Web 2.0, moreover, is
closely associated with a range of other Internet communication technologies, that includes

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message and bulletin boards, chat rooms, really simple syndication (RSS) feeds, voice over
Internet protocol, instant messaging, podcasting, and, virtual worlds, such as Second Life
(Kolbitsch and Maurer, 2006).

Further technical details of Web 2.0 communication technology are complex and bear
little significance to its social application. In social terms, Web 2.0 is about individuals and
groups, initially confined to consumers of information from Web-pages of already established
organizations, increasingly using the Web as a platform to generate Web-content that has
proven to be the basis of a new medium for social networking and information sharing, and in
some cases, allowing Web users a new opportunity to become politically active. Some
popular examples of generic Web 2.0 activity includes making a contribution to the on-line
and free-to-edit encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, up-loading short video clips to YouTube, making
personally created podcasts available through iTunes, and sharing personal photographs
through Flickr. Internet users can also start a blog by registering with popular providers such
as Blogger, TypePad or WordPress, or become part of a social networking group based on
friends and peers by creating a profile with one of the dominant players in this field, for
example, MySpace, Facebook and Bebo. In essence, in a few short years, the Internet has been
transformed from a rather inflexible mode of information retrieval to a major hub for
organized activities.

However, rapid developments in Internet technology appear to have been largely

overlooked by scholarly and governmental surveys. For example, National Statistics Online’s
(2007) latest research concerning domestic Internet use does not list social networking or
blogging in their list of Internet activities by adults. This is despite there being a reputed four
million active bloggers (see Johnson, 2007) and 14 million registered users of social
networking Web-sites (see Brockett, 2007), in the UK alone. Where studies do make
significant reference to Web 2.0 communication technology, and puts the trends in an
employment-related context, the level of scholarly neglect in this emergent field becomes
most apparent. For instance, the latest Oxford Internet Institute Survey (OxIS) 2007 (Dutton
and Helpser, 2007) estimates around 12 per cent of all Internet users keep a blog and as many
as 15 per cent of all Internet users who are employed have created some sort of on-line
profile. A further employment-related dimension of OxIS 2007 outlines how 17 per cent of
workers who use social networking sites believe interaction of this kind has greatly increased
or somewhat increased contact they have with people of the same profession. Suff’s (2004)
research, moreover, reveals how 60 per cent of HR professionals use ‘online chat’ to manage
their ongoing career and knowledge management. Further, qualitative studies found Web 2.0

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communication technology to offer workers a range of positive benefits, including fulfilling
communication needs of knowledge workers (Matzat, 2004), the ability to create and sustain
job seeking networks (Bryen, 2006) and a tool that can reduce the increased isolation and
inter-dispersion of the contemporary worker (Gely and Bierman, 2006).

It is quite clear to see that there is emerging evidence that workers have been using
Web 2.0 communication technologies in a manner that reflects the practical needs of
employees, such as being visible to prospective employers, exchanging and seeking career
advice, networking with fellow workers, and socialising on-line when opportunities are not
presented on work time. While we should not read radical intentions into the many millions of
workers who have adopted Web 2.0 communication technologies as an extra career or social
tool, anecdotal evidence emerging from the most recent press coverage and trade journals
suggests it is happening, even if scholars have done little fieldwork since to verify or build on
these claims. Broadly, a leading trade union activist and keen Facebook user, Derek
Blackadder, had this to say about creative and radical applications for Web 2.0
communication technology:

Workers who share a common employer, occupation, union or issues like health and safety
concerns, are interacting on Facebook, creating networks, sharing insights and technical
tips, venting, co-ordinating actions, and just generally doing good and useful things
(Blackadder, 2007a).

An example of workers ‘doing good and useful things’ with Web 2.0 communication
technology includes reports of Facebook being the focal point for mobilising support for what
turned out to be a failed unionisation campaign at Kettle Foods (a manufacturer of crisps) (see
Hencke, 2007). A further use, reported by BBC News (2007), involves police officers
circumventing official protocol and sending messages of support and advice to a suspended
colleague, through his on-line social networking profile. In the wider domain, social
networking platforms have been used for a range of ‘civic movements’ (Spicer and Bohm,
2007) that includes students forcing a major high street bank to back down on new current
account charges (The Independent, 2007), protests about fuel increases (see Blakely, 2007),
and Facebook users mounting a successful campaign against Facebook, who were accused of
passing on personal information to third parties without prior consent (see Beaumont, 2007).
Accounts of this kind are by no means the equivalent of scholarly research, yet the reports add
something to the emergent picture painted by critical literature (e.g. Richards, 2007;
Schoneboom, 2007). At the very least, it points to a growing case for more attention to be

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given to assessing the merits of Web 2.0 communication technology, as a tool for self-
organization activity and identity formation, surrounding employment-related interests.

Self-organization: Interest definition and autonomy

The broad framework by which developments in worker use of Web 2.0 communication is
analysed in this paper follows a core labour process approach (Thompson, 1989). In more
detail, it is a general organizational framework based on Edward’s (1986) notion of a
‘structured antagonism’, or a recognition that the work organization’s main objective is to
adapt to the market rather than adapt to the demands of its employees. As such, arrangements
to serve the market, rather than its workforce, leads to conflicts between employees and
employers, and one outcome of prioritised activity, particularly when trade unions are not
recognised by the work organization, is the proliferation of what Ackroyd and Thompson
(1999) term as organizational misbehaviour. The term organizational misbehaviour is perhaps
a bit of a misnomer, as it misrepresents many genuine efforts of workers to assert a degree of
autonomy, or respite on work time. More recently the term ‘infra-politics’ has been proposed
as a more accurate and objective description of action, based around the limited input of the
workers themselves and any other indirect help they can be called upon from friends or family
connections, which in itself, represents a theoretical extension to conventional worker
responses to management hegemony (Spicer and Bohm, 2007).

The current research is more specifically orientated towards a micro-explanatory

framework that is located in the core labour process tradition – Ackroyd and Thompson’s
(1999: 53-73) ‘irresponsible autonomy’. The framework is based on the earlier work of
Collinson (1992) who was one of the first critical theorists to note that workers who
misbehave are not necessarily acting in a manner that is reflective of management control. In
other words, other than to organize against pressure from dominant organizational groups, as
is the case with trade unions, workers also have a natural propensity to self-organize around
any number of interests, which may or may not directly conflict, with the interests of
management. The notion of irresponsible autonomy, as is the case with misbehaviour, does
not really convey what this kind of activity involves, yet casting aside for one moment the
term, reveals a useful framework for conceptualising self-organization. Broadly, irresponsible
autonomy represents two forms of worker action: direct challenges to the power base of
management, or, representative of any manner of activities that detracts workers from formal
duties, yet far less likely to pose a head-on threat to management prerogatives (Watson,
2003). However, aside from the phraseology of the term, irresponsible autonomy is an
explanatory framework with many unique and useful characteristics.

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The main features of Ackroyd and Thompson’s (1999) explanatory framework are as
follows. First, the main aims of self-organization are said to be self-protection, an extension of
sectional interests, and the pursuit of autonomy from management, or other dominant
organizational groups. Women and male sympathisers, for example, may self-organize against
male antagonism towards women, if the work organization is characterised by women who
have a salient and shared sense of being undermined or objectified by men (Gutek, 1989;
Salzinger, 2000). Groups of workers, moreover, may self-organize against the recognised
trade union, or any other professional body they are associated with, if there is a shared belief
that the representative body is not working in their interests (Carter, 2000). However, if the
dominant group can eventually accommodate sectional interests, or if the members sense that
the group is failing in its main objectives, there is a distinct possibility that the compulsion to
self-organize will diminish.

A further important feature of self-organization is determined by the nature of the

group’s interaction with management. For instance, if the group is recognised by management
in some way then management will probably want to regulate some or all of its activities. Yet,
self-organized groups, by their very description, are far more likely to operate without or with
minimal external regulation. Examples of this phenomenon are probably best understood in
the context of studies that look at output restriction under piecework systems (e.g. Roy, 1952;
Burawoy, 1979). The notion of regulation leads to a second important feature: whether the
group is directed inwards or outwards. A group characterised by an inward approach is likely
to have developed a sophisticated method of self-regulation, but even then, may pose little or
no threat to management. There is also the distinct possibility that actions of this kind may
benefit the organization (Vardi and Weitz, 2004; Kidwell and Martin, 2005). In contrast, the
main feature of an outward-facing group is that its main purpose is to resist another group and
in most cases this will involve management, co-workers or customers. Realistically, self-
organized groups are likely to be characterised by outward and inward interaction, yet only
group insiders are likely to witness and fully comprehend activities that surround self-
regulation, or what Edwards and Scullion (1982) refers to as non-directed conflict. Managers,
therefore, are likely to be, at the very least, suspicious of such activity. Further features of the
explanatory framework details how self-organization typically involves workers occupying
spaces independent of management and others in the workplace, and such behaviour is, on the
whole, opportunistic. Compared to professional organization, self-organized groups are likely
to have a much shorter life span, involve far less workers, arise out of short-lived favourable
conditions, and lack the resources to sustain any long-term campaigning ambitions.

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Research methodology

As noted in the introduction, there are many problems associated with researching the new
and rapid developments in the broader Internet domain (Hine, 2000; Cavanagh, 2007). The
problems are further compounded by the fact that there is only a limited body of scholarly
research dedicated towards this emergent field, and where it does exist, researchers comment
on the difficulties of conducting research with subjects who are typically fearful of having
their identities exposed (Richards, 2007; Schoneboom, 2007). There are also ethical issues
associated with researching the Internet, in that technical access to personal contributions,
should not automatically viewed by researchers as consent to reproduce or comment on what
the individual or group has posted to the Internet (Berry, 2004). To overcome these problems
at such a preliminary stage of affairs requires an air of pragmatism.

Accordingly, the main findings presented in the paper come from a rather mixed and
eclectic methodology. First, the broad phenomenon under investigation, as noted in the
previous section, is a regular feature of very recent newspaper, television and trade journal
coverage, and therefore at this stage of inquiry secondary qualitative resources represent an
indispensable way to explore Web 2.0 and worker activity. The second method of data
gathering comes via open Web observations and interactions conducted by the research
author. Briefly, this involves the researcher being the main instrument of investigation
(Burgess, 1991) and observing events in their natural settings (McNeill, 1990). In this
instance, it involved keeping a blog based on work themes and becoming a trusted member of
random and ad hoc networks of Internet users and contributors. Since April 2005 (and
ongoing) the author committed extensive time and effort in developing an on-line research
profile; a commitment that led to a range of media coverage. As such, this method represents
the implicit side to the research approach. The strategy proved to be valuable in that the
researcher monitored the popular media for information about Web 2.0 and work via a media
data base (LexisNexis), email alerts (from trade journals and a range of user-generated Web-
sites and blogs), RSS feeds, and general surfing. The researcher also received similar
information through exchanging emails and blog ‘comments’ with fellow Internet users and
contributors. Being open and ‘available’ meant that the researcher attained ongoing consent
from research subjects. The third method involves the use of primary data from semi-
structured interviews, conducted by telephone, instant messenger and an exchange of emails.
Primary data was also obtained from self-reporting questionnaires. Primary data methods
relate to a parallel and ongoing project specifically directed at studying the hidden meanings
and motives behind work blogging. Data gathered from interviews and questionnaires proved

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to be a particularly valuable resource because work bloggers are perhaps the most well-
known, experienced and dedicated users of a wide-range of Web 2.0 communication
technology (some have been blogging for several years on the subject of work and most
contribute to bulletin boards based around their occupation). Work bloggers may be difficult
to contact and it is hard gain their trust, yet compared to other personal contributors to the
Internet, and are reliable and highly informed Internet users.

Towards a framework of Web 2.0 self-organization

In this section evidence from a range of sources is presented in relation to Ackroyd and
Thompson’s (1999) irresponsible autonomy framework, where the focus of attention is given
to self-organized activities that are, or are not, against management control (Collinson, 1992).
However, the first sub-section represents an introduction to and overview of the possibilities
of both activities emerging and developing in an era where Internet technologies allow
networks of people to come together (Castells, 2001). The emphasis, therefore, is on the
nature of the Internet in that it is no longer a preserve of elites, nor is it widely associated as
being the key to earning a fortune (Haythornthwaite and Wellman, 2002). In employment
terms, this new reality mainly concerns workers self-organizing around Web 2.0
communication technologies to distribute insider knowledge of employers and the labour
process, to a very wide, eclectic and growing peer-based audience. The second sub-section
addresses the main theme of the current research: the possibilities for self-organization in
Cyberspace. Here characteristics of irresponsible autonomy (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999
are explored in relation to the Web 2.0 activities of workers. Overall, the purpose of the
section is to develop a framework for self-organization that can surround Web 2.0
communication technologies, as well as conventional activities.

Work and Web 2.0 communication technologies

How workers use Web 2.0 communication technologies as a tool for sustaining or acquiring
autonomy or identity involves a wide range of possibilities (see figure two for an ongoing
overview of these communication technologies). This hypothetical assumption begins with
possibilities for counter or apposite identities to emerge through the use of professionally
designed and organized Web-forums provided by professional bodies, or organizations
closely associated with professional bodies. Examples of professional body Web-forums
include Professional Communities run by the CIPD, and Staffrooms by TES. However, the
possibilities for self-organized activities are more likely to occur where the threat of clamping

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down on many self-organized activities is far less. Indeed, what can happen is that certain
individuals may band together to create parallel or alternative Web-forums, where workers
can interact in less restrictive surroundings. High-profile examples of counter-Web-forums
include The Big White Taxi for health professionals and UKPoliceOnline for police officers
and potential new recruits. A flavour for how the forums may vary can be detected in the
manner by which the respective Web-forums are described by their founders. For example, in
the case of personnel professionals, the CIPD encourages users to ‘share knowledge/develop
skills’, yet a parallel Web-forum for health care professionals is promoted as being the
‘…Inane ramblings of people that get vomited on, pissed on, slapped by drunks, starving
hungry, off late everyday’.

Web 2.0 communication technologies, however, extend well beyond Web-forums and
allow for a myriad of further opportunities for self-organization, autonomy seeking and
identity formation. One particularly new development in this field is the current social and
technological phenomenon of social networking. This type of Web-site appears to work on
three distinct levels, but are also characterised by a great deal of common ground. Briefly,
there are social networking sites dedicated to a particular profession, as is the case with Sermo
(see figure two) and physicians, LinkedIn for workers with non-specific career objectives,
and, generic social networking sites, typically inhabited by people of working and non-
working age, such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace, which can be used and adapted for any
manner of networking purposes. Social networking sites, however, have one key advantage
over Web-forums: the often pre-given option of allowing groups to shelter or hide their
dialogue and exchanges from third parties. Consequently, official descriptions, such as
‘Where physicians around the nation exchange the latest medical insights with each other and
improve patient outcomes - 24/7’ (Sermo), ‘Re-connect, power your career, get answers’
(LinkedIn), and ‘An international site that offers email, a forum, communities, videos and
weblog space’ (MySpace), merely present the official view on how they can be used.

A third medium for self-organization involves blogs (see figure two) and how blogs
are typically organized into a range of networks by bloggers. Current estimates suggest there
are many thousands of work blogs in operation and some command readerships running into
tens of thousands. Blogs, moreover, appear to demonstrate how highly creative workers can
be when it comes to exploring employment issues outwith conventional forms of organization
or communication. As previously noted, there is mounting evidence of workers organizing
around blogs and in doing so create knowledge banks that surround the labour process
(Richards, 2007) and networks of work bloggers and blog readers around popular work blogs

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Figure two: Web 2.0 and opportunities for self-organization (some examples)
Type of technology Examples Official description
Professional body bulletin board CIPD Professional Communities (HRM professionals) – Share knowledge/develop skills
TES Staffrooms (teachers) – http://www.tes.co.uk/section/staffroom/ Let off steam, swap ideas and get advice

Informal professional body Big White Taxi Service (healthcare professionals) – Inane ramblings of people that get vomited on, pissed on, slapped by drunks, starving
bulletin board http://www.bwts.org/ hungry, off late everyday
UKPoliceOnline - http://www.ukpoliceonline.co.uk/ For topics relating to UK crime and policing and recruitment

Social networking platform Nature Network (scientists) - http://network.nature.com/ Online meeting place for you and fellow scientists to gather, talk and find out about the
(exclusive to profession) latest scientific news and events
Sermo (physicians) - http://www.sermo.com/ Where physicians around the nation exchange the latest medical insights with each other
and improve patient outcomes - 24/7

Social networking platform Academici (knowledge workers) – http://www.academici.com/ A web-based environment in which knowledge workers interact, collaborate and transfer
(career orientated) knowledge and conduct commerce
LinkedIn (job and business opportunities) – http://www.linkedin.com/ Re-connect, power your career, get answers

Social networking platform Bebo - http://www.bebo.com/ Where friends share their lives and explore great entertainment
(generic) Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/ A social utility that connects you with the people around you
MySpace - http://www.myspace.com/ An international site that offers email, a forum, communities, videos and weblog space

Blogs Police Inspector Blog - http://inspectorgadget.wordpress.com/ It’s mainly about how bad we are, and who we blame for the mess we are in. It’s about how
we changed from people who save lives to people who chase meaningless targets
Purple Plus (paramedic) – http://kingmagic.wordpress.com/
The ramblings of a paramedic stretcher monkey

Wikis and other collaborative AcademicBlogs - A portal that is intended to provide resources for (a) academic bloggers, and (b) people who
Web-sites http://www.academicblogs.org/wiki/index.php/Main_Page want to read academic blogs
JobVent - http://www.jobvent.com/ Inside information about the jobs and employers we love and hate

Virtual worlds Second Life - http://secondlife.com/ A 3D virtual world where users can socialise, connect and create using voice and text chat
An online getaway where you can hang out with your friends and meet new ones
There - http://www.there.com/
Other social media Yahoo! Video - http://video.yahoo.com/ Upload, share, rate and watch videos, including vlogs, popular videos, autos, animation,
food, news, sports, people, and funny videos
YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/ Hosts user-generated videos. Includes network and professional content

Page 14 of 41
(Schoneboom, 2007). Work blogging, as such, deserves the tag of ‘creative’ because they
exist in a climate where blogs are widely ridiculed (e.g. see Keen, 2007). Unlike, social
networking sites, blogs, moreover, have to be carefully adapted and crafted to facilitate a level
of interaction capable of sustaining complex social communications, and may be one of the
reasons why many work blogs are quickly abandoned by their keepers. However, despite the
association with a ‘cut and paste culture’ of amateur and unconstrained debate (Keen, 2007),
the first blogs are believed to born out of radical intent (Ratliff, 2004) and only those with a
creative or opportunistic attributes may have quickly assumed this possibility. Further, early
work bloggers, whether or planned or not, facilitated the rapid expansion of interest in work
blogs by gaining a wide range of both negative and positive exposure through television
programmes, newspapers and trade journals. For instance, work blogs have been portrayed in
the popular media in all manner of ways, and descriptions include, ‘illegal activity’ (Spencer,
2005), ‘spilling the beans’ (McClellan, 2004), ‘a peek behind the corporate façade’
(Chynoweth, 2005), and in a more career-specific sense – ‘the truth about school life’
(Wallace, 2007), or ‘exposing the everyday reality of modern-day policing’ (BBC One, 2007).
What is more, many work bloggers have lost their jobs because of the blogs that they keep
(e.g. see Barkham, 2005; Rose, 2006). However, compared to previously discussed
technologies, work blogging is more of a minority pursuit and previous work portrays
blogging networks as rather loose and far from static coalitions of workers (Richards, 2007).
That said, there is scholarly evidence to suggest blogging can facilitate self-organization, and
therefore represents a unique and new form of achieving autonomy and identity.

More examples of Web 2.0 communication technologies that can provide facilities for
self-organized activities extend to uniquely collaborative technologies, which includes, for
instance, wikis and similarly natured Web-sites. What is more, a range of social media sites,
such as YouTube and Yahoo! Videos, can help facilitate self-organization through group
bonding activities based on sharing video clips and mp3 files (see figure two). Specific
examples of workers using Web 2.0 communication technologies to develop interests,
identities and autonomy include a wiki created by academics, and for academics, called
AcademicBlogs. What is unique about the portal is that contributors can edit content as well as
provide resources for other academic bloggers, and people who want to read academic blogs.
JobVent, moreover, is representative of a particular type of Web-site that allows workers to
post personal insights on current and past employers. JobVent, for example, is promoted as
being a place for ‘Inside information about the jobs we love and hate’. Correspondence with
the JobVent’s creator Craig Spitzkoff indicates the popularity and value workers appear to

Page 15 of 41
have in trading such information. Spitzkoff remarked on how JobVent currently hosts more
than 12,000 reviews of over 3,200 different companies. JobVent also has nearly 1,100
registered users and everyday gets tens of thousands of hits. Currently, it is virtual worlds,
such as Second Life and There, that represents the most up-to-date and novel version of Web
2.0 communication technology, and many millions have already signed up to such initiatives.
It seems only a matter of time before virtual worlds become a focus of employer-employee

Web 2.0 and self-organization activities

This section compares and contrasts two forms of self-organization – Ackroyd and
Thompson’s (1999) physical and direct irresponsible autonomy framework and the
hypothetical virtual and indirect framework based around Web 2.0 communication
technologies. Both are summarised in figure three. The sub-section is organized around a
compare and contrast exercise, in that the emergent framework is assessed against the
conventional framework.

Creating space and autonomy

At the centre of Ackroyd and Thompson’s (1999) framework is the main rationale for self-
organized activity; that is, collective action, in its many forms (Hodson, 1995), is the most
efficient way to create space and autonomy under domineering conditions. Previous studies of
conventional self-organization suggest such activities vary in terms of what the group intends
to achieve. Objectives of self-organized activities include organizing to moderate the labour
process (e.g. Brown, 1977; Taylor and Walton, 1979, Edwards and Scullion, 1982; Beynon,
1984) and organizing to survive the pressures of contemporary forms of work organization
(e.g. Delbridge 1995 and 1998; Storey and Harrison, 1999; Knights and McCabe). The
conventional framework also allows for self-organizing activities involving, for example,
groups of women organizing against male oppressors (Pollert, 1981; Cavendish, 1982;
Westwood, 1984; Cockburn, 1991; Levin, 2001). Further, the most contemporary studies,
almost exclusively conducted by management scholars, suggest workers can also find external
space through the widespread misappropriation of the work organization’s Internet or email
capabilities (e.g. Block, 2001; Lim, 2002; Griffiths, 2003; Lara et al, 2006).

Clearly, the opportunities presented by Web 2.0 communication technology cannot

lead to the creation of physical space and autonomy in the work organization. Unless,
however, workers evade surveillance and escape into Cyberspace, on work time, through the
employer’s IT equipment and networks. Instead the case it put forward for a new concept of

Page 16 of 41
Professional body
Figure three: Conventional and Web 2.0 frameworks of self-organization bulletin board

Informal professional Blogs

Friends body bulletin board Friends

advice and Limited Broader
indirect information advice and
support and advice indirect
Social networking Wikis and other
Management control platform (career collaborative Web-
Management control sites

Workplace CYBERSPACE - Workplace

Largely outwith
group management control
and influence

Physical space Physical space

Social networking Virtual worlds
platform (generic)
advice and
indirect Broader and advice
support advice and

Family ties Family ties Other social media

Social networking
platform (exclusive
to profession)

Conventional framework
of self-organization
Web 2.0 framework of
Page 17 of 41
virtual space and autonomy, where workers are relatively free to indulge in identity projects (a
matter discussed later on the current research). Of course, such activity is most likely to occur
off work time, and typically pursued by workers sat on swivel chairs and transfixed by
Internet-capable home computers, or perhaps via a laptop computer or any other portable
wireless communication device, anywhere there is an Internet signal. However, the proposal
is that the purpose of such activity is a process of confirming a distinct identity from that of
the oppressor, and helps condition the worker to go on confronting the oppressor, on work
time. Take the following quotations from work bloggers, as examples of how the concept of
virtual space and autonomy can work:

It's a vent space. Sometimes you can vent about things to colleagues, but sometimes not
even to colleagues. I quite like the idea of having a readership for my thoughts and
entertaining people, but I'm comfortable with shouting my words out into the blackness of
Internet space and having almost nobody hear them. It's mostly for me. It's a chance to
practise writing; it's a chance to document some of the unbelievably stupid things that
happen in academia, things you forget over time if you didn't write them down (Email
correspondence with university lecturer and work blogger).

Further comments from a self-reporting questionnaire exercise suggest venting in Cyberspace

is far from being a one-off phenomenon. Brief examples include a school teacher who blogs
about work ‘to vent frustration and steam; I can't yell at work, so I gotta yell somewhere’, or a
nurse who blogs as ‘an outlet for some of the frustrations related to my profession’. Broadly,
unlike in the conventional setting, where ‘resistance by distance’ strategies can be used by
workers to create space and autonomy from oppressors (Collinson, 1994), in this instance,
new opportunities in Cyberspace allows a further way to put space between the workers and
oppressors. Rather than a physical creation of space and autonomy, Web 2.0 self-organization
primarily concerns itself with a Cyber-psychology of space, distance and autonomy.

Organizing and protecting against management control

Self-organization is not just about surviving and negotiating difference in the work setting. As
such, a further core feature of Ackroyd and Thompson’s (1999) framework of irresponsible
autonomy involve workers involved in head on disputes with management control. In terms of
conventional self-organization, these characteristics have been noted in the most recent crop
of critical industrial sociological literature (e.g. Graham, 1995; McKinlay and Taylor, 1996a
and 1996b; Bain and Taylor, 2000; Taylor and Bain, 2003; Mulholland, 2004; Townsend,
2005, Barnes, 2007). It has also been noted that trade unions appear more and more willing to

Page 18 of 41
use the Internet as tool to mobilise workers against employers (e.g. Pliskin et al, 1997; Carter
et al, 2003; Saunders, 2007 et al).

As figure three suggests, the new framework of self-organization follows a very

similar path to that taken by conventional forms of organization. However, there is one crucial
difference between conventional self-organization and Web 2.0 self-organization. Web 2.0
self-organization can of course contribute to direct physical action against employers, but the
main addition to the self-organized framework is action that can be co-ordinated in
Cyberspace. Actions of this kind appear to be rare at the moment in time, but as more and
more working people and organizations turn to the Internet for their respective ends, the
prospects for clashes in Cyberspace can only become more common. Take the case of a recent
‘virtual protest’ by IBM workers in Second Life (see Blackadder, 2007b). The dispute
involved Italian employees of IBM. Due to a dispute over IBM management imposing new
terms and conditions on its workforce, the trade union (Rappresentanza Sindacale Unitaria
IBM Vimercate) arranged a plan to use ‘virtual pickets’ (see figure four) to disrupt IBM’s
‘virtual corporate presence’ in Second Life. Here virtual pickets were said to have converged
outside IBM’s headquarters and ‘stormed’ a business conference being conducted inside.
More importantly, however, as Blackadder (2007b) notes: the action involved more than
9,000 avatars (a computer user's representation of himself or herself), most of whom did not
come from Italy, nor were many actually in a trade union.

Figure four: Virtual picketing in Cyberspace

Page 19 of 41
Further novel examples of virtual organizing includes ‘flash mobbing’, or, when large
numbers of people suddenly appear in a public place for a brief period of time before quickly
dispersing. A recent example saw 100 unofficial supporters of a formal industrial dispute, co-
ordinated by Web 2.0 communication technologies, converge on the employer’s main
premises (a retail outlet in Stuttgart, Germany) with the intention of sabotaging the regular
customer experience (see LabourNet.de, 2008). Many more opportunities for disruption are
available through Web 2.0 forms of self-organization. Instances of virtual organizing include
the GM Workers Blog, described as a place where all employees ‘can inform all interested
people in the world what happens in your plant, on the shop floor, in the office and how GM
treats its employees’. More examples include the Bullying of Academics in Higher Education
blog, organized by three British academics campaigning against hidden employer tactics to
increase workloads, and, an independently set up bulletin board or forum where disgruntled
employees of Wm. Morrison can oppose management control (see Fletcher, 2005). An
alternative opportunity to confront management control involves the potential for self-
organized whistleblowing activities (Miethe, 1999). Wikileaks, for example, is wiki-styled
portal for ‘truth tellers’ and the accumulation of more than one million ‘untraceable’ corporate
and governmental documents. Taken together as examples, rather than broad evidence for
such activity; unlike in the case of the conventional framework, the emergent framework
facilitates the drawing of far wider support for campaigns against employers. Moreover,
although employers may not presently be able to draw on labour laws to suppress such
activities, employers can still subvert protests by complaining to the keepers of Web 2.0
platforms, or set up Web 2.0 platforms for their own exclusive use.

Organizing and protecting against third parties to the employment relationship

The framework of irresponsible autonomy also contains reference to acts by self-organized

groups that may be shaped in some way by the nature of the work organization, yet are
targeted at third parties (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999). As is the case with actions aimed at
management, such actions are also aimed at protecting the group and defending any number
of sectional interests. Previous studies of conventional forms of self-organization almost
entirely contain reference to the action of workers against customers (e.g. Hawkins, 1984;
Analoui and Kakabadse, 1989; Harris and Ogbonna, 2002).

There is no escaping the fact that any form of Web 2.0 self-organization against a third
party to the employment relationship, typically the customer, is likely to involve indirect
action. Moreover, anything that is short of being both creative and persuasive is unlikely to
have the desired effect. While we may be some way off demonstrating that activities

Page 20 of 41
organized through Web 2.0 can have a measurable effect on the customer, or have even wider
effect, a raft of activity conducted through Web 2.0 communication technologies suggests this
goal may be achievable one day. In this domain there is growing belief that work bloggers,
particularly those who work day-to-day at the ‘coalface’ of public services, are organizing to
effectively shape outside perceptions of the organization they toil under:

Web technology has changed the relationship between authority, employee and citizen. In
the past, it was relatively easy for public authorities to control the “authorised” version of
events. Conversations about practice and policy were moderated by official spokespersons,
speaking to the public through the approved traditional media of newspapers, radio and
TV. Every now and then, a fly-on-the-wall documentary would open a window on how
public services really operated. The odd whistleblower would bravely expose malpractice.
But, on the whole, the views of public services – often restricted by “gagging” clauses in
the employment contract – where relatively easily policed. Service user views were largely
irrelevant (Butler, 2007).

A brief consultation of a blog written by a police officer, a school teacher, a nurse, a doctor,
or an ambulance technician would certainly indicate a joined up will to shape public
perceptions of ‘what really goes on’ in the public services. Interviews with work bloggers
confirm this is, indeed, the case:

A large problem that we have with the ambulance service is that a lot of people don’t
understand what we’re for and what we do. So I think an educational angle is important,
but also, because, well, I can only write about drunks so many times and I have to keep
finding angles in which to keep things interesting and teaching people is one way in which
to keep that going (telephone interview with a ambulance technician).

A NHS teaching consultant goes further and outlines an inner compulsion to reveal certain
uncomfortable truths about modern day public services:

It’s about dealing with the things that are going badly wrong with the NHS. It’s about
saving the NHS. It’s about stopping appalling waste of public money on ludicrous projects
dreamed up in chats on a sofa in number 10. It’s about exposing misleading spin. It’s about
trying to stop the government from blaming staff for what is going wrong when the fault
lies elsewhere. You know, blaming doctors for not washing their hands when the real
problems are government policies leading to overcrowding, inadequate single rooms,
privatised cleaners and 100% bed occupancy. That’s the sort of thing – though I am not
sure whether I’ve done that particular one yet but it’s at the forefront of my mind because

Page 21 of 41
one of the other bloggers has pointed out recently that some of the infection problems have
not happened in Wales (which is pretty good evidence that it’s not to do with the staff but
everything to do with the government) (telephone interview with NHS teaching

Unlike in the case of conventional self-organization, where actions against customers are
pragmatic and perhaps impulsive, the picture emerging from Web 2.0 self-organization
suggests something quite different. Broadly, instead of reacting in a confrontational manner to
customers who may have had their expectations of front line employees raised by employers;
in this situation, the group attempts to fend off demanding customers by launching a rather
sophisticated public relations exercise.

Resources, support and advice networks

As noted by previously, Ackroyd and Thompson (1999) and more recently by Spicer and
Bohm (2007), self-organized groups lack many of the resources provided by professional
organization. Typically, self-organized groups are self-reliant; however, it is possible that
support and advice can be drawn from a small pool of co-workers from the broader work
organization, and any number of family and friendship ties that extend outside the
organization. Consequently, self-organized groups are likely to lack the support and expertise
of professionally organized labour and only emerge under short-term favourable
circumstances. Specific research in this domain is sparse, as many studies focus on the
activities of the self-organized group and neglect external influences. Where research does
consider worker networks, it often extend no further than workers discussing tactics in public
houses (e.g. Beynon, 1984; Thompson and Bannon, 1985), or in the vicinity of any manner of
self-organized social activities that spill out from the closely monitored workplace (Bain and
Taylor, 2000; Taylor and Bain, 2003).

Advice and support from any manner of Web 2.0 users should not be seen as being
naturally superior to what can be provided by broader co-workers, or family and friendship
ties that extend beyond the work organization. Instead, it is proposed that the more contacts
workers have beyond the workplace, and the more varied the contacts are in terms of
expertise on employment-matters, the more it raises the profile and the abilities of the self-
organized group. Indeed, research has already explored this possibility in terms of career
development (e.g. Suff, 2004; Matzat, 2004; Gely and Bierman, 2006); even if such findings
are mostly quantitative or hypothetical. However, such findings do not indicate whether or not
Web 2.0 self-organization can be called upon in more frictional circumstances. The following

Page 22 of 41
quote, from a police officer blogger, explains how Web 2.0 has become an emergent place for
self-organized activities, and how self-organized activities can lead to networks of variously
talented and influential people coming together:

When I went to the Internet to look for information about policing, you could find loads of
information about police cars, or loads of information about serial killers, but you couldn't
find anything on the Internet about what it's like to be an ordinary policeman. That's just
what I was - an ordinary policeman; I wasn't a detective in some sort of special unit dealing
with fire arms, or anything like that. I was just an ordinary policeman. And, er, nobody else
was writing about what their job was like...I think one of the reasons [The Policeman's
Blog] has become so popular is because the stories I tell about my life as a policeman are
not unique. Initially I thought they were. I thought nobody else could be doing things that
are so insane, but it transpires that thousands and thousands of other police officers are out
there doing exactly the same sort of things, which is completely insane (Stuart Davidson as
quoted on Panorama, BBC One, 17 September 2007).

Interviews with work bloggers build on the rationale for setting up work blogging networks,
typically organized around cross-occupational concerns. For instance, an ambulance
technician outlines the possibilities for extended contact with workers who have similar
employment concerns:

We work with the police and we both comment on each other’s blogs. With the police and
ambulance services there are a lot of ex-armed services; there are also a lot of the general
public who like to know what’s going on in the inside. By doing this others get an idea of
what’s going on in the ambulance services and tell it what it’s really like, to a certain point
(telephone interview with ambulance technician).

A second ambulance technician who keeps perhaps the most popular British work blog
recounts specific and broader benefits of being part of a network of Internet users:

Without blogging I would go to work, come home, eat, and sleep. My friends would be, oh
I don’t know, within 5 miles of where I live; they’d be old school friends, or my work
mates. Now, I’ve got friends all over the globe and I’ve flown to America and stayed with
them. It’s opened the world up completely and it’s just because it rules out the distance
factor (telephone interview with ambulance technician).

The evidence suggests Web 2.0 communication technologies can, indeed, facilitate the
connection of previously non-connected workers. Further, is the distinct possibility of

Page 23 of 41
networks emerging around workers who have a multitude of talents, opinions and broader
influence, on any range of matters. What makes these possibilities all the more noteworthy is
that there also appears to be altruistic tones to such activity: a wanting to collectively fill an
information gap. What is clearly different about such activities is there are self-organized
groups out there in Cyberspace who are willing and eager to help working people they do not
know, will probably never meet, and expect no or little return from.

Regulating group members

Whenever conventional self-organization occurs on work time, it typically occurs outwith the
immediate influence of management. What is more, internal group regulation is necessary for
output restriction (e.g. Roy, 1952, Burawoy, 1979, Graham, 1995; McKinlay and Taylor,
1996b; Graham, 1995), organized fiddles and pilferage (Ditton, 1977; Mars, 1994; Webb and
Palmer, 1998), the attempted initiation of newcomers (e.g. Ackroyd and Cowdry, 1992),
sanctions taken against strike breakers (Beaud and Pialoux, 2001), or attempts to resist female
encroachment of jobs that are conventionally associated with masculine identities (e.g.
Nichols and Armstrong, 1976; Pollert, 1981; Cavendish, 1982; Westwood, 1984; Cockburn,
1991; Levin, 2001). In this domain, self-regulation of the group can vary from understandings
negotiated in a tacit manner via levels of personal output (Roy, 1952) to actions verging on, or
even surpassing, what could be termed as inter-personal abuse (e.g. Ackroyd and Cowdry,
1992; Beaud and Pialoux, 2000).

For the researcher who has the time and inclination to ‘don’ a ‘diving suit’ and see
what it is like ‘on the bottom’ (Roy, 1954: 255), there are likely to be rich pickings for those
who wish to understand Cyberspace subcultures. The nature of the Internet, however, on the
one hand, increases our chances of knowing how and where such activities go on, yet on the
other hand, researchers are unlikely to be any wiser as to what such transactions mean and
transpire into for those directly involved. Hence, at the moment in time, an over reliance on
non-participant observations of such activities and insights drawn from key users of Web 2.0
communication technologies. Research findings from this part of Web 2.0 self-organization,
however, point to a similar wide-range of possibilities, in terms of how the group is self-
regulated by its members. Demonstrating how a group self-regulates through an asymmetrical
Web-based medium is a tall order in any situation. The following extract from the 'comments'
function of a work blog, written by a retail manager, demonstrates how the wider peer group
can influence individual behaviour, as well as the wider group:

C said...

Page 24 of 41
Good on yer,
Although, If I was one of your many plebs (different department mind). I'll work myself to
the bone and graft like a Trojan. But you'd better return the favour!

As for the usual suspects who take the piss.... Reality Check time for them!
Cookie monster said...
Feel better for having that little rant eh?
Al said...
Firm but fair? Can you come and work at my store? We could use someone like that right
AggressiveAdmin said...

I work my ass off in there and will go out of my way to help anybody. I've always expected
nothing less from my staff too - but I haven't always been brave enough to stand up to
some of them over issues like the one with Marge and Easter Monday.

Even when it comes to people I don't like, I'm normally able to distance myself from how I
feel about them and treat them the same as everyone else. People like Sandra really test my
patience though.

Spider said...

Good for you it took me years to work that one out, if you don't do it you will kill yourself
through work. I’m currently trying to teach it to my supervisor who is wonderful but too
nice for his own good, but he is getting there. Good luck with your continued re-launch and
if you need any advice let me know (“I’m re-launching myself”, Working at Food Place,
March 29 2007, http://foodplacefun.blogspot.com/2007/03/im-re-launching-myself.html).

Self-regulation in Cyberspace is by no means a straightforward affair and an incident of this

kind merely demonstrates self-regulation via Web 2.0 is possible, and when it does happen, it
is usually a civilised affair. However, self-organization via Web 2.0 communication
technologies comes with its own unique problems. The following tale recalled by a healthcare
professional demonstrates how much larger groups, the impersonal and often uncensored
nature of Web 2.0 communication technologies (in this case an informal bulletin board) can
lead to negative outcomes for the self-organized group:

They have a go at management, big style. They have a go at the patients, big style. They
have a good go at each other, big style. They have a go at everything. Some of the things
that they go on about I agree with, but there’s really too much, it’s over the top, and we all
Page 25 of 41
swear, but they take the biscuit, really. It’s really unfortunate as there a lot of intelligent
people subscribe to that site, but I think there’s this sort of culture where you have to be
seen, y’know, to be one of the lads – you must be chauvinistic, you must be racist and that
stuff, you know what I mean? (telephone interview with an ambulance technician).

It is clear that tensions between workers on the shopfloor can also appear amongst groups that
extend to or are exclusive to Cyberspace. What is more, factions between workers may arise
in Cyberspace that would not have occurred without the arrival of the new communication
technologies. Web observations and interview discussions with work bloggers indicate that
incidences of this kind are probably rare, yet when disagreement occurs within or between
groups, the potential for matters to get out of hand seem to increase more than they would in a
conventional setting.

Management regulation of group

Ackroyd and Thompson (1999) suggest self-organized groups that are directed at
management are likely to be resisted by management. Where management resistance fails
management may be content to moderate the self-organized group’s activities. However,
unlike the case of having to deal with professional organization, where formal committees
may have to be set up to negotiate with trade union officials, it is likely that management will
call upon any manner of strategies to modify or nullify the threat of the unrecognised self-
organized group. A broad range of studies explore how management contain self-organized
labour, and includes, indulging labour (Gouldner, 1965), divide and rule tactics (Nichols and
Armstrong, 1976), attempts to quell sectional interests by discriminating in favour of higher
skilled employees (Thompson and Bannon, 1985), adding electronic surveillance to
teamworking initiatives (Sewell, 1998), suppressing objections to management initiatives
using humour (Collinson, 2000), and, building the work environment with control and
suppression of labour in mind (Barnes, 2007).

How management responds to Web 2.0 self-organization varies somewhat, and where
it does occur, it tends to reflect the nature of where such activity takes place. Common
strategies include attempts to suppress such practices with the threat of discipline. Aside from
a small number of high-profile dismissals (see previous sub-section), how employers respond
to the threats posed by Web 2.0 self-organization is currently confined to press reports. For
instance, during 2007 and 2008 HR media outlets, such as Personnel Today and People
Management, commonly ran features on how employers ‘should’ deal with employees who
keep work blogs, who contribute to bulletin boards, and who use social networking sites to

Page 26 of 41
discuss employment issues. Strategies include putting off workers via indirect threats
communicated via the media – leading to headlines on how such activities can have a
‘negative impact on your career progression’ (see Vorster, 2008), or encourage
‘cybercriminals to commit corporate fraud’ (Vorster, 2007). Such stories are often re-reported
through national newspapers and the BBC News Web-site. A further crop of press reports
point towards employers curbing the Web 2.0 activities of employees by integrating new
forms of Internet use into existing IT policies (Taylor, 2008), or even opening Cyber cafés on-
site to curb excessive and what is deemed to be inappropriate use of the Internet on work time
(Phillips, 2007).

However, employer resistance to Web 2.0 technologies appears to have taken a further
predictable pattern, that of employers finding ways in which to appropriate what is essentially
an exchange of tacit knowledge between workers (Thompson and McHugh, 2002). For
example, an emergent body of literature discusses the benefits of employees blogging about
their jobs, using wikis to build a database of implicit knowledge, and encouraging use of
social networking Web-sites as a further means to profile employee capabilities (e.g. Ras et al,
2005; Hoel and Hollins, 2006; Wood et al, 2006; Brown et al, 2007; Efimova and Grudin,
2007). Appropriation of tacit knowledge is likely to take many paths, yet an example of how
this can work is demonstrated in the words of a transport manager, who keeps a private work

A lot of managers read my blog. My actual senior manager reads my blog. However, I
believe upper management also sometimes read my blog. One of group station managers,
who is the boss for my area, actually uses my blog to get feedback on how his managers
are performing. If he knows his staff are upset, he knows it’s managers who are doing a
bad job, or there’s something else going on (telephone interview with public sector
transport manager).

Managers can also tacitly support work blogging as a well-written work blog can be good and
free public relations for the work organization:

I always wrote as if everyone knew who I was. I wouldn’t be happy writing something I
wouldn’t be proud to my name on it. At work, management quite like it because I can say
things they are not allowed to say, or would like to say. Like referring to ‘drunks’. My
work mates are a bit on the fence. Basically, I think they quite like it. I think that’s because
I like to tell the truth – I don’t make it all exciting and like ‘Causality’. And so I can get on
with saying exactly what we get up to and all the crap we have to put up with. And they all

Page 27 of 41
quite like me as that sort of mouthpiece. Overall, it’s been really good response to be
honest (telephone interview with an ambulance technician).

How employers respond to a very new threat of workers self-organizing through Web 2.0
communication technologies is clearly an area that is under-researched. However, details
emergent in the popular press and interviews with work bloggers indicate a fairly predictable
pattern of events. What is clear, though, is the new nature of the Internet – where anyone can
carve out space and autonomy – has the potential to become a very new dimension to the
contested terrain between employer and employee (Edwards, 1979).

Discussion and conclusions

The current research began by making the case that critical scholarly interest and debate is yet
to penetrate and take into account how and why workers, independent of trade unions and
other professional methods of organization, are using new Internet communication
technologies as a method of defending and advancing their employment interests. More
specifically, current frameworks for understanding the activities of self-organized workers
need to be up-dated to take into account new opportunities for workers who abstain from or
are denied professional collective representation. The outcome of this oversight, however, is
by no means trivial, as it is proposed that wider debates that surround the labour process and
industrial relations are incomplete without an acknowledgement of Web 2.0 activities pursued
by self-organized workers. Having said that, debates about labour cannot be advanced without
initial steps being taking by researchers, such as provision of clear, justifiable and appropriate
research agendas that cover emergent and topical matters, and in turn, conducting fieldwork to
answer these unknowns. The following and final section sets out what can be learnt from the
discussion so far, it outlines what the current research contributes to our understandings of
self-organization, and it outlines what further work needs to be directed towards the Web 2.0
activities of self-organized groups.

The potential of Web 2.0 communication technologies

In figure two the tools currently available for Web 2.0 forms of self-organization were
outlined and briefly discussed. It was inferred that the shift of the Internet from a static to an
interactive medium of communication provides the ingredients necessary for new forms of
self-organization to occur (Castells, 2001). In turn, it was inferred that the normality and
pervasive nature of Internet use throughout society would lead to such technologies being

Page 28 of 41
used for everyday applications (Haythornthwaite and Wellman, 2002). However, it was also
implied that current understandings of micro-organization (e.g. Spicer and Bohm, 2007),
which focuses on self-organized groups and their immediate friend and family connections,
neglects a meso-form of organization based on peer networks that emerge from working
people taking to the Internet to explore their employment-related identities. As such, the
introduction to what Web 2.0 could offer to workers, who are not unionised or ambivalent to
professional organization, proved to be an efficient starting point for more in-depth and
complex analysis.

At this stage of affairs the approach was mainly hypothetical and concerned an initial
assessment of the potential for self-organization via Web 2.0 communication technologies.
Broadly, the findings from this sub-section pointed to a whole range of possibilities opening
up for workers. The possibilities for workers in Cyberspace are many, and include massively
increased opportunities to, sustain and nurture separate identities to management, share frank
and honest views and opinions of the labour process, and, connect and impress upon third
parties to the employment relationship. An overview of how this could work is summarised in
figure three. Here it can be seen how Web 2.0 communication technologies adds several new
dimensions to conventional forms of self-organization (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999) – the
extension of local organization into any number of networks, involving any number of people,
and, a space in which management, currently, struggles to have any major influence over.
Hypothetically, at least, the favourable opportunities presented by the availability of new,
simple-to-use, and continually evolving tools of organization, combined with further
favourable variables, such as broad employer ignorance of such technologies and employment
laws that have little influence in this global setting, are likely to result in far less opportunistic
forms of self-organization. Furthermore, from another perspective, there is the hypothetical
chance that workers, particularly the young who are mostly likely to use such technologies
(National Statistics Online, 2007) and least likely to be members of a trade union (Grainger
and Crowther, 2006), may be put off by professional organization if there is an option of
‘going it alone’. In other words, conventional forms of self-organization, and perhaps
professional organization, can only benefit from the arrival of new Web 2.0 communication
technologies. However, many new workers could be lost indefinitely to professional
organizers of labour if organized labour does not learn to master such technologies.
Consequently, Web 2.0 communication technologies per se need to figure far more
prominently in the fields of industrial sociology and industrial relations, than at present.

Page 29 of 41
Assessing prospects for new and advanced forms of self-organization

The next stage of the discussion took matters that bit further. In many ways this part of the
discussion was a pragmatic attempt, by the researcher, to scour the Internet, extant media
accounts and scholarly studies, for evidence of workers using Web 2.0 communication
technologies for self-organized purposes, and assemble such findings in relation to the
principles of a conventional framework of self-organization (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999).
It also involved the use of primary data based on insights from the most established and well
known users of Web 2.0 communication technologies, that is, work bloggers. The pragmatic
attempts to convey an accurate portrait of such activities probably represents by far most
important contribution of the current study and will now be briefly revisited.

The rationale for the comparative exercise was to examine the possibilities for Web
2.0 communication technologies as a means to augment conventional forms of self-
organization. The Web 2.0 framework of self-organization was presented as an advance on
the version of the conventional framework, rather than something separate and distinct. As
expected, the new framework came with many unique advantages and disadvantages, yet
when old and new are combined, we see a framework for self-organization that has the
potential to surpass any of its predecessors. The details of this exercise are summarised in
figure five where characteristics of the respective frameworks can be easily observed. Figure
five summarises activities that form the rationale for both forms of self-organization, as well
as outlining characteristics of each respective framework. In the case of the new framework, it
can be seen how self-organized activities differ somewhat from the conventional framework,
and is mainly reflective of where such activities occur, that is, in Cyberspace. For instance,
the conventional framework is mainly based around the possibilities for actions on work time,
yet the new framework extends these possibilities to organization and activities off work time.
However, it is difficult to know at present whether what is currently under investigation is a
very new response to ongoing attempts by management to eliminate physical and
conventional spaces for dissent and other worker interests, on work time (Sewell and
Wilkinson, 1992a and 1992b; Delbridge, 1998; Knights and McCabe, 2000), or something
entirely separate to such trends.

The reality of new spaces for the nurturing of counter and apposite identities, however,
needs further investigations, as the current research has many methodological weaknesses.
Yet, a range of reasonable assumptions can be made from this expose of Web 2.0 self-
organization. For certain, there are many problems with the new form of self-organization.

Page 30 of 41
For instance, self-organizing in this manner is time consuming; is mainly conducted off work
time and at the expense of the worker and such efforts could displace any number of
conventional organizing or domestic activities in the process; many workers may have tried to
connect with similar minded workers in this manner, but failed in the process or were quickly
disillusioned by the reckless activities of the minority; workers may have pre-assumed that no
distinct opportunities can come from interacting with peers in Cyberspace and such action
may have little or no affect at the local level; and, many workers may abstain from such
activities because employers appear increasingly interested in monitoring Cyberspace
activities, as well as institutionalising or appropriating Web 2.0 communication technologies
for business objectives. Therefore, there is a chance that much of the momentum and potential
for new forms of self-organization has already been lost.

Due in large part to the fact that it is often impossible to know what is going on in
even a very small part of Cyberspace; there is of course a reasonable chance that the
momentum and interest in Web 2.0 communication technologies, by workers, has been under-
assessed in the current research, or is, currently, yet to take off. As such, the current findings
may only offer limited insights, or be indicative of what is yet to come, whether this is
measured in terms of amateur or professional organization taking advantage of Web 2.0
communication technologies, or as new spaces where workers can interact without
encroachment from employers. Further, there is no good reason to believe that employers,
especially small and medium sized employers that are forever stretched by de-regulated and
monopolistic forces, and the least likely to recognise trade unions, have come anywhere near
to controlling an environment that does not stand still for long. Neither, moreover, have large
corporations or governments shown any overt inclination to broadly regulate a means of
communication that epitomises the neo-conservative agenda of a global and liberalised market
economy. Consequently, the paper serves as a pivotal starting point for exploring the
possibilities for worker organization via Web 2.0 communication technologies, and the
assessment of Cyberspace as a new and evolving arena for nurturing counter and apposite
identities, rather than providing a definitive account of how successful such practices
currently are, or may turn out to be.

Conclusions and a research agenda

The paper reviewed the possibilities for advanced forms of self-organization emerging out of
highly controlled workplaces, and the emergence of new communication technologies and
new spaces for action and identity formation. In doing so reasonable evidence was found to
suggest more advanced forms of self-organization were indeed possible through the very

Page 31 of 41
recent arrival of new forms of communication and new spaces for action. The process was
further augmented by developing these ideas in relation to an established framework of self-
organization (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999). An assessment of the findings suggests it is too
soon to know whether the new framework of self-organization will rise to prominence.
However, the findings seem to support the view that Web 2.0 communication technologies
and the spaces that come with these new technologies can augment conventional forms of

However, at this moment in time, we just do not know how common or uncommon
such activity is. Where new and advanced forms of self-organization do exist, however, the
most we know for sure is that employers acknowledge that worker activity in Cyberspace
represents a very new threat to the recent order created by new management control initiatives
and the enforced retreat of organized labour. Furthermore, we do not know how varied such
activities are, or what variables lead to certain workers pursuing such methods and strategies.
More importantly, we know very little if nothing about the leaders of such activities, except to
note that some have radical intentions and some have moderate intentions. However, in the
broadest sense, there is a strong case emerging for incorporation of such activities into debates
on the labour process and decline of organized labour. More specifically, we do not know
how such activities fit in with professional models of organization, or whether professional
organization can learn from new self-organizing frameworks. For instance, there is scope to
apply mobilisation theory (Kelly, 1998) to the Web 2.0 activities of non-union workers, and
opportunities to introduce insightful new theoretical paradigms that are particularly useful for
conceptualising worker identities in the organizational setting (e.g. Haslam, 2004).

Further pointers on new areas of research include surveying the Web 2.0 activities of
workers. Second, researchers need to refine Web observation techniques so as to monitor the
complex networked Web 2.0 activities of workers. However, required most of all is the
incorporation of Web 2.0 activities into future workplace ethnographies or case studies. In
effect, extend conventional research parameters to include activities that occur in non-
organizational spaces. It is hoped that there are other scholars out there who wish to assume
the challenge of taking a much closer look at self-organized workers ‘doing good and useful
things’, or have identified other challenges associated with new communication technologies
and news space for action, in developing our understandings of contemporary amateur and
professional organization.

Page 32 of 41
Figure five: Comparative features for self-organized frameworks

Framework of organization Rationale for self-organization Characteristics of self-organization

Workplace self-organization  Manipulate work routines  Responses to management hegemony – management control
 Sabotage work processes  Responses to management hegemony - reflect a wide variety of interests unrelated to management control
 Subvert or suppress co-workers  Provide self-protection
 Misuse company IT systems  Pursue physical autonomy
 Pursue political and cultural  Opportunistic and often short-lived
identities on work time
 Direct inward and outwards
 Work on fiddles
 Occupies spaces that may be continually contended by management
 Perform ‘homers’
 Internally and externally regulated
 Perform informal induction rituals
 Involves few workers, typically friends and co-workers, plus limited external support
 Lack resources for broader action

Web 2.0 self-organization  Virtual protests  Responses to management hegemony – management control
 Ridicule management initiatives  Responses to management hegemony - reflect a wide variety of interests unrelated to management control
 Share information about labour  Provide self-protection
 Pursue virtual autonomy
 Educate audience
 Less opportunistic, i.e. activities more sustainable in Cyberspace
 Make connections across
workplace, occupations, and  Directed inwards and outwards
countries  Occupies spaces management currently has limited control over (indirect)
 Vent and share frustrations  Internally and externally regulated, but external regulation may include broader labour or the general public
 Pre-organize activities to occur on  Involves few workers, with external support that varies from family, friends and to an almost unlimited peer
work time network
 Group bonding  Lacks resources, but in some instances can draw on media support, varying expertise of peer group, for broader
 Coping behaviour, e.g. share action

Page 33 of 41
Note: An earlier version of this paper – “Workers are doing it for themselves: Examining
creative employee application of Web 2.0 communication technology” – was presented to the
Work, Employment and Society Conference (WES) 2007, 12-14 September, University of
Aberdeen, Scotland.


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