Yesterday was spent at the excellent Networked Neighbourhoods launch event. The day was spent outlining and discussing the study they ran looking at behaviours, outcomes and community impacts of hyperlocal communities in London. The study is hugely interesting and extremely useful in putting some actual facts forward rather than the often speculative enthusiasm we see around social media and I will comment on it in proper length in another post as it will be featuring in my literature review at some point. This post is more about some general observations about the day.
If you don’t know what I mean when I say hyperlocal then it might be useful to read this first.
I was lucky enough to be asked to join the advisory group for the research which has been hugely informative and as a result I chaired a workshop run by Dr Alison Powell of LSE which looked at Future, Local and Democratic themes in new media. I will try and add her slides in here at a later date as she made a number of excellent observations. Her field is around the study of community networks and the effects of new media and this more grassroots approach provides a good counter balance to the often top down viewpoint provided by work with Local Authorities. It echoes what Tony Bouvaird said about co-production being already very embedded – just not around the stuff that the state perhaps wants us to co-produce. I am used to thinking about technology with intent and Alison’s example of the effects of community wifi projects reminded me on the importance of leaving space for serendipity when we are dealing with such a quickly evolving environment. Alison talks about Filter / Feed / Funnel as the new effects of networked technologies – all ways of responding to a constant flow of information rather than something that you can turn on or off. You can read more about Alison’s work here.
As is often the case with these events the number of experts in the audience mean that the Q&A is excellent and we covered a lot of ground – see below for thoughts on digital exclusion. One of the strands was around ‘the next big thing’ with respect to social media, participation and democracy – rather a big questions but Alison and I speculated:
- Smartphones – at the moment people in lower income groups and not only less likely to have access to the internet they are also, where they do have it, less likely to use social media. OII describe them as persistent non-participants. The question is whether this will change when we see smartphones with cheap internet access achieve market dominance in these groups – something that is predicated for next year. This could make a big difference to participation of this group
- The Youth – there is a cohort of people growing up who have grown up in a networked society. They will be in significant numbers at the next general election and they will have an effect – either in their participation or lack of participation. Who knows which it will be?
I wrote most of this post stuck on a train trying to get to Sussex. Usually at this point I would be tweeting away or catching up on email but the volume of people in the same position has meant that I could get no connectivity and all comms are the old fashioned voice and text kind. This is a slightly clumsy segue into one of the main concerns of the day which highlighted issues around digital inclusion and whether or not these hyperlocal forums are just another way for the already empowered to get themselves heard even more effectively – are we just filling the middle class pens with green ink?
The issue of access is clearly hugely important and I don’t want to dismiss it but in the longer term view I tend to assume that this is a problem that people are actively addressing and that whatever happens it will reduce overtime. This is perhaps over optimistic – but I have faith that other people are worrying about this and draw my personal battle lines around trying to make sure that there are democratic and civic spaces there waiting for people rather than just one big online shopping mall.
However I do think this conversation about inclusivity becomes confused as we use the term representiveness and representation interchangeably when we actually mean different things. A lot of the reason for this is where people become worried about the representativeness of these hyperlocal communities and then describe a follow on concern about the impact of representatives interacting with them. I have a few thoughts on this:
- I don’t think we should be burdening community led hyperlocal projects with the idea that they have to be representative unless they decide themselves that they want to take this step towards formality – in which case there are models that they can use. It would be too easy to stifle the vital social element with too much structure and where you rely on volunteers you need to either resource them up to the hilt (not a current option) or let them organise as they wish to a great extent. There is no need for these civic spaces to be democratic if they don’t want to be – though they probably do need to have some route into the democratic process
- It is the job of representatives to work out how representative the inputs are – and the answer to a great deal of additional input from one group is to try and get more from others – not tell the active folks to be quiet. More democratic engagement does take more time – but we are all working under the assumption that this is a good thing as involving more people at at least the initial and end stages of the decision making process is a good thing (would like to reflect on that more at some point)
- If you accept this last point then you have to ask what is the problem with getting more people participating? Indy talked about energising the middle classes in the civic economy and asked why we see this as such a problem. I agree – it can hardly be a bad thing to get more interested and articulate people more involved in decision making as long as we support the lack of representativeness with good representation?
I think my final thought is as a researcher and also as a practitioner the event reminded me of the importance of letting the story unfold. Being too prescriptive or interventionist, for whatever reason, is very risky and the relatively new eco-system of hyperlocal activity is in many ways too fragile to have well meaning democracy or even community engagement folks trampling all over it and telling it what to do. The coming together of social technology and communities is something outside of the experience of all of us and though there are precedents we need to be cautious that we don’t over theorise. The excellent research here shows real value for communities who connect and engage online and it would be foolish to ignore this. But in speaking to local authorities my advice is to concentrate on giving people technology agnostic skills and opportunities and letting them decide for themselves what they want to do. If we really want to have a more mature relationship between citizens and government then we need to start trusting the public to do something constructive – especially when the evidence shows that they usually do.