Catalyst: Triggering Collective Action with Thresholds

Justin Cheng, Michael Bernstein
CSCW: ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, 2014
The web is a catalyst for drawing people together around shared goals, but many groups never reach critical mass. It can thus be risky to commit time or effort to a goal: participants show up only to discover that nobody else did, and organizers devote significant effort to causes that never get off the ground. Crowdfunding has lessened some of this risk by only calling in donations when an effort reaches a collective monetary goal. However, it leaves unsolved the harder problem of mobilizing effort, time and participation. We generalize the concept into activation thresholds, commitments that are conditioned on others' participation. With activation thresholds, supporters only need to show up for an event if enough other people commit as well. Catalyst is a platform that introduces activation thresholds for on-demand events. For more complex coordination needs, Catalyst also provides thresholds based on time or role (e.g., a bake sale requiring commitments for bakers, decorators, and sellers). In a multi-month field deployment, Catalyst helped users organize events including food bank volunteering, on-demand study groups, and mass participation events like a human chess game. Our results suggest that activation thresholds can indeed catalyze a large class of new collective efforts.