What was the question anyway?

Still at it with the actual research question so am trying to come at it from a different angle.  This post is as I was at the dentist earlier in the week and trying to explain what I was doing to Charlie (the dentist) as an avoidance technique – which is of course foolish as I am a grown woman and should be well over this dentist fear – but I digress. We had a good but brief discussion about it (until she came at me with the local anaesthetic and I could only drool) and it got me thinking about how I move from the narrative which I draw for people when I talk informally into an actual research question that I can measure and evaluate results from. I am perhaps ambitious but I am determined that my PHD will be something with a narrative pull for the reader as well as being academically vigorous. I don’t think the world should make space for a badly written thesis.

When I speak to people about my PHD research I tend to tell them that I am trying to find a way to get people doing something useful online. I explain that I feel that far too much internet is pointless noise and that my definition of useful is getting people to be more involved in local democracy. In turning this into a research question then – can I use “Is it possible to get people to take part in Local Democracy online”. Well no – ‘get’ is not precise enough and I will need to define what I mean by take part – i.e. what is participation.

I then return to the informal narrative. I tend to further explain to people that I want to recruit people who are already active online and move them from informal participation in informal spaces (for example facebook) into informal participation in more formal spaces (for example taking part in a discussion on a community website). But for a really successful outcome I then want to get them to carry out a piece of formal democracy – which could be signing a petition, contributing to a consultation or even becoming an elected representative. Because this unlocks the underlying aspects of my thesis:

  1. There is a real need to reinvigorate our formal democracy which is, by most measures, withering on the vine. Part of the problem is that people are choosing to post opinions in places where the decision makers are not able to hear them. This leaves citizens and elected representatives frustrated and unsatisfied with the process.

  2. I believe that the best chance of success in terms of getting people to participate in democracy is to go and find them in the places where they are already making a contribution and point out to them that they could do the same things in a more formal place and explaining the benefits of doing so

  3. Serious conversations needs serious places to have them.

  4. We can learn a lot from commercial websites

Though my literature review I can evidence the decline of democratic participation and also the fact that people are participating in informal online spaces. I then need to draw some parallels with these two kinds of participation so that I can justify my belief that it is possible to draw people from one kind of participation into another – this is the first place where I need to hunt harder to check whether or not this has been explored before. Once I have this parallel established then the work becomes very very detailed as we have to focus on the trigger points that take people between these different stages (and justified why these are reasonable stages in a ‘ladder of participation’ (yes – Arnstein!)). What stimuli work to effect people’s behaviour firstly to get them into the formal space and then to get them carrying out a democratic action? At this point I want to step back and look at online marketing research and user behaviour studies to see what the people who do this already think. Commercial sites are very skilled at moving their web traffic through different states and engineering activity and we should learn from these with the caveat that we also need to ensure that well established rules of debating behaviour are supported so that we create spaces where ideas are given respect and attention.

All of these leaves me with my narrative and also with a more focused research question: “ Is it possible to motivate people who are already active online to take part in informal and formal democratic participation in a pre-designated webspace?”. Returning to my informal narrative – can I find interested people and get them to a Local Democracy website so that they can connect with the formal process? Can I get them to the right place and the right time to get the most out of the democratic process? We shall see….

End of ramble – I shall sleep on the question and see if I still like it in the morning.

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