Does going online actually reduce participation?

A new study published in the Political Research Quarterly (may be gated for some readers) by Elizabeth Bennion and David Nickerson is one of many recent articles that suggest that moving some part of voter mobilization activities online may actually reduce participation by raising transactional cost for some citizens. Completing some forms online, it turns out, it not actually easier for many segments of the population and for some activities.  As the authors note:

Unfortunately, the savings in communication introduced by Web sites and e-mail do not necessarily make such technologies effective campaign tools. Powerful anecdotal evidence suggests that e-mail can be an effective tool for activities that involve coordinating activists, such as campaign donations or rally attendance, but online communication tools exhibit two chief drawbacks for mass mobilization. First, social norms against sending unsolicited e-mail and the passive nature of Web sites (i.e., viewers need to seek out the Web site) limit the online campaign exposure to politically interested persons and supporters. While a campaign can engage and organize supporters very efficiently online, the vast majority of people casting a ballot will have no exposure to the online arm of a candidate’s campaign. The second drawback is that e-mail outreach is easy to ignore and has not been effective at increasing voter turnout.

The article in question draws on a large experimental study of registration activities on 26 college campuses, conducted in a partnership with Rock the Vote. The authors show that, while an email encouraging a citizen by itself may have no effect (or possibly a negative effect) on the likelihood of registration, a simple followup email that reminds the recipient to turn in the online form can offset much of the negative impact. In short, the authors write:

Rather than a nice bell or whistle if budget permits, follow-up is required to make online mobilization techniques effective. To the extent that organizations can mimic the hand-holding that occurs in government assistance offices and from volunteers in registration drives, the more effective such tactics will be.