Tracking a democratic conversation across different online media


This post is an outline of one of the policy question that we are discussing that the Master of Networks event (in Venice!!) next week. While not a proper paper as its an academic audience you may find this slightly more referenced than usual…its really lazy referencing with just signposts to literature rather than a proper review.

Master of Networks is “…. is a workshop that brings together cutting-edge policy makers and network scientists. We aim to come up with a specification in terms of networks of some public policy problems, and a viable strategy to address them in new ways.” The Policy question I’ve raised and will be putting to the group along with Ade Adewunmi  and Demsoc is:

WT3: Tracking a democratic conversation across different online media. How would you go about mapping democratic participation in a diverse media landscape?

What’s the problem?

My interest in this question is tracked here on the blog and is closely related to by PhD work (we’ll be using a subset of my research data) and is fueled by the question: “How can we connect the informal civic participation that we see online to the formal decision making process?”.

The contrast in behaviours in the Formal and Informal arenas is stark; Beyond the consistent growth in digital take up we see great growth in the use of digital technologies for civic purposes (Bruns, Wilson, & Saunders, 2008; Radcliffe, 2012; Wellman, 2001) in the context of a more Participatory Culture (Jenkins, 2008; Rheingold & Weeks, 2012). At the same time we are also seeing a concerning drop in participation in democratic participation (Brodie, Cowling, Nissen, Paine, & Warburton, 2009). In the UK this was illustrated with disastrously low levels of voter turnout in the recent policy and crime commissioner elections.

What’s the solution?

One possible route for addressing this dilemma is for the political decision making process to take on more of the cultural qualities and design affordances of the Social Web. I have suggested elsewhere that these should be; Openness, Agility, Co-production and Networked. If we are moving towards a “networked society” (Boyd, 2010; Castells, 2001, 2007; Hampton & Wellman, 2001) then what should our decision making processes look like?

With respect to the Policy Making process I am arguing that one vital way to bring the affordances of the Social Web into the design process is to provide greater levels of openness to the public both contributing to the policy agenda setting process but also making more timely contributions throughout the process (these contributions on the Open Policy Making blog make these points very well; the doctor is out , go where your audience is ) If we accept a description of Social Media as being a ‘Networked Public’ (Boyd, 2010) then understanding the networks that make up the informal civic conversation around either a topic or a geography is vital to ensure this more open contribution.  I also suggest we will also need to understand what are the limitations (if any) of commercial platforms which are currently available to us – do we need to consciously create digital civic space ((Blumler & Coleman, 2001; Cornwall, 2004; Howe, 2009; Parkinson, 2012)?

And the Policy Making question?

However – in order to make this manageable for a two day workshop I am posing only one other question: Simply tracking the conversation is important and informative but it is probably not enough – What is the standard of evidence that we need to meet in order to include content from the social web as part of the policy making process? And what standard is possible from the tools available?

And the data

The data set I have put forward to work on contains over 1000 informal civic websites (from 5 difference location). These represent a good (though not definitive) sample of the kind of informal conversations and networks that we might want to include in an open policy making process. The task is how might we turn these sites into networked data and how we might then understand who is participating. This is clearly a question that I have been working on for a while (civic spaces) but it is also something we have been working on in R&D commercially (Citizenscape Public beta). What we have not done is to consider what the Policy making needs are from these networked publics – we have focused more on finding and presenting them in a shared civic space.

What next

Is anyone has any questions about this then please shout – if not then I will post again with some outcomes from the event.

Bibliograph for those who like that kind of thing

Blumler, J., & Coleman, S. (2001). Realising Democracy Online : A Civic Commons in Cyberspace.

Boyd, D. (2010). Social Network Sites as Networked Publics : Affordances , Dynamics , and Implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 1–18).

Brodie, E., Cowling, E., Nissen, N., Paine, A. E., & Warburton, D. (2009). Understanding participation : A literature review, (December).

Bruns, A., Wilson, J., & Saunders, B. (2008). Building Spaces for Hyperlocal Citizen Journalism. AoIR 2008 conference.

Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies) (p. 304). OUP Oxford. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Internet-Galaxy-Reflections-Clarendon-Management/dp/0199241538

Castells, M. (2007). Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society. International Journal of Communication, 1(238-266).

Cornwall, A. (2004). Introduction: New Democratic Spaces? The Politics and Dynamics of Institutionalised Participation. IDS Bulletin, 35(2), 1–10. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2004.tb00115.x

Hampton, K., & Wellman, B. (2001). Behavioral Scientist Long Distance Community in the Network Society : Contact and Support Beyond Netville. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(476), 476–495. doi:10.1177/00027640121957303

Howe, C. (2009). Building the Virtual Town Hall: Civic Architecture for Cyberspace. 3rd Conference on Electronic Democracy EDEM.

Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Convergence-Culture-Where-Collide-ebook/dp/B002GEKJ5E

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Democracy-Public-Space-Performance-ebook/dp/B007JRS72A

Radcliffe, D. (2012). Here and Now.

Rheingold, H., & Weeks, A. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (p. 272). MIT Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Net-Smart-How-Thrive-Online/dp/0262017458

Wellman, B. (2001). Physical Place and Cyberplace: The Rise of Personalized Networking. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25(2), 227–252. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00309

2 comments
  1. adeadewunmi

    January 20, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks for blogging about this Catherine. It has helped me to clarify my own thoughts a bit more.

    On first reading the WT3 question seems to demand a technical solution. And this is how I originally thought about tackling it. However, reading your description of the problem you’re looking to solve, has made me rethink that approach. I started thinking instead about *why* policymakers might want to track conversations across diverse social networks.

    One reason I could think this would be useful to know is that it would help with assessing how representative a set of views on a policy area is. It would also be interesting to see how policy-related discussions evolve as they travel across social networks. I imagine these changes in the nature and focus of the discussion will reflect the priorities of the participants of these networks. I’d be interested in whether the later versions of the discussions re-enter the networks they’ve been in previously. I’d also be interested in how these networks interact with them. I wonder if this would help policymakers gauge consensus levels. Finally, it would be interesting to see if, when, how and the frequency with which these conversations enter into networks with a significant number of policymakers.

    Is this helpful at all?

    Reply
    • curiouscatherine

      January 21, 2013 at 8:34 am

      Thanks Ade – yes – seeing how ‘porous’ the policy process is to the external network and also tracking influence as well as representativeness – very interesting…..

      Reply

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