A democratic view of social media behaviours

More work on the theoretical framework which will be dull for anyone who is not interested in trying to come up with a way of analysing behaviours with the hope of influencing them – this is very much an action research post for my purposes.

Lovely Easter (and actually I mean it) reading various articles on social capital over Easter – as well as reading Robert Putnam’s excellent book of articles “Democracies in Flux”. I am trying to define my framework for analysis as I am about to start data collection from the Virtual Town Hall Pilot sites and I want to be sure that the questionnaire is going to give me the right data (rather than loads of interesting data I can’t then use). In doing this I am looking to reconcile the following issues:

  • How do I define the different context that people operate in – with social media it is possible to have an informal chat interlinked with a formal debate – how do we create measurement tools that accommodate this
  • How do I separate tools from behaviours (its not about what you use – its how you use it)
  • The ladder of participation model (or indeed more frameworks) seem to me to inherently value contributions at the top more than those lower down – I want to appreciate the lurkers and the listeners who may just vote – but do so in an informed way.
  • How do I measure it all so that I can then see if I have had an effect

The categorisation of informal social / informal civic / formal consultation / formal democratic works well for me. It illustrates a growth in commitment towards democratic engagement and when used against a context which shows growing distrust in political without devaluing the participation that happens before that point. Here is a slightly expanded description of the different catagories:

  • Informal Social:  Interactions with your friends and family
  • Informal Civic: Interactions a community about issues which concern the local civic space or a wider single issue in some way
  • Formal consultation or civic: I am questioning whether I really mean formal consultation – I am actually trying to define formal civil society where interactions happen within some kind of formal context where they can be taken into account by decision makers. Formal consultation is one of the these contexts but others might be housing associations or PCT boards etc, justice of the peace and other formal but not necessarily representative roles.
  • Formal democratic: Defined by the involvement of the representative – and flows from any decision that needs to be made by them.

This categorisation can be supported by social capital literature which describes the difference in informal and formal social capital (this is referenced in the Putnam book as well as other articles I have been reading this weekend). However social capital is a measurement or outcome – and it, like this categorisation, does not actually provide me with the framework I need to look at whether the social web provides us with the opportunity to create online civic spaces which connect these interactions so that the measurable levels of interactions at the less formal end of this analysis have a positive effect on the volume of interactions at the more formal end.

However if I can describe interactions / actions which are typical of each of these catagories I will be able to see if the space we have created has had an effect on the volume (assuming baseline / re-sample during the project period). The problem here then is that a specific action cannot necessarily be considered to fall into one of these categories as most actions (for example commenting on a blog can happen within different contexts.

Here is my recent long list but I have now organised the list against the Forrester Groundswell framework as well as adding in some more proactive actions marked in italics (thanks to Phil Green for the suggestion):

· Formal

· Informal


· Start a petition


· Instigate / Run a campaign

· Social reporting (blogging / tweeting re: local issues)

· Managing a hyperlocal website

· Organise a community meeting


· Interact with a member

· Share something from the Virtual Town Hall with someone else

· Tweet VTH topics


· Rate a comment on a discussion board (within VTH)

· Rate a comment on a blog (within VTH)

· Comment on the discussion board (within VTH)

· Rate a webcast (or a meeting)

· Comment on a blog (within VTH)

· Comment on webcast

· Comment on a blog (outside VTH)

· Comment on the discussion board (outside VTH)

· Rate a comment on a discussion board (outside VTH)

· Rate a comment on a blog (outside VTH)

· Rate a YouTube clip

· Comment on YouTube clip



· Save something to your user profile

· Sign up for alerts

· Subscribe to an RSS feed etc from a social reporter


· Sign up to attend an event

· Sign a petition

· Create a user profile

· Join a discussion forum (outside VTH)


Watch a webcast event

· Attend a formal meeting



Not voting…..or anything else….

I have not split informal / formal down into my narrower catagories – but mainly as it will not fit on the page for now! Interestingly I am not sure where to place ‘Stand for election’ as part of this list – its probably more naturally something for creators but could also be considered conversationalist. Perhaps the point here is that this is something beyond the usual social web behaviour as it is considerably more structured / formal that this framework is supposed to analyse – more thinking to be done here.

This is a useful exercise in that it starts to give us some kind of way of judging democratic behaviours against the social web norms that are described by Forrester. I now need to research the Forrester model a bit more and consider it against something like the OFCOM equivalent as well as looking for more academic models (which I haven’t found as yet). I include the OFCOM overview below:

OFCOM Social networking profiles
The qualitative research suggests five distinct groups of people who use social networking sites :

  • Alpha Socialisers – mostly male, under 25s, who use sites in intense short bursts to flirt, meet new people and be entertained.
  • Attention Seekers – mostly female, who crave attention and comments from others, often by posting photos and customising their profiles.
  • Followers – males and females of all ages who join sites to keep up with what their peers are doing.
  • Faithfuls – older males and females generally aged over 20, who typically use social networking sites to rekindle old friendships, often from school or university.
  • Functionals – mostly older males who tend to be single-minded in using sites for a particular purpose.

So – where does this get me? What I have done is to take my democratic categorisation and apply it to a social web typology rather than attempting to fit social web behaviour onto a participation framework – which is what I was doing with the ladder of participation. Mmmmm……this feels like a stronger direction to me as the main thrust of what I am looking at is whether it is possible to use the proven participation in social media at a social level in order to increase levels of measurable democratic engagement. To do that perhaps the most important thing it to work out how to measure informal civic as opposed to informal social interactions. To do this we need to look at:

  • Geography – civic engagement requires a democratic unit – which is described by location
  • Intent – participants need to be trying to have an effect or influence on their community – or rather they need to be constructive in their comments and observations
  • Accountability – one of the key elements of civic rather than social participation online must be the management of identity and the fact that you need to be traceable as a citizen in order to have influence on the democratic unit (lots more to say on this at some point)

So the table above will help in describing the behaviours – which is useful in itself – but does not actually get at the heart of the difference between the categories – which is what I am after in order to judge whether the creating of a civic webspace makes informal civic behaviour more or less likely to turn into formal behaviours.

I think that what this implies is that the baseline questionnaire is even more important than before – but what I need to do is to expand the section on intent and to ask questions about people’s likelihood of moving on to participate formally. When I do the next round of data collection then I will be able to see if this intent has increased in the group which went onto to participate within the new webspace – and if we can see increases in the measurable behaviours which are described above. As the baseline questionnaire will only be administered to people who are already participating in an informal/civic way then this should be a good indicator. This does mean though that I will need to document the social web audit which we conduct in order to form these civic webspaces in the first place as this looks at the conditions which I describe above – which is no bad thing apart from the ‘more work’ element of it.

So – conclusions:

  • I am going to stick with the catagories as described above but then use a social media rather than a participation typology to describe behaviours within them
  • I am going to focus some reading on these models to finally decide which one to use
  • I’m going to review the baseline questionnaire to reflect this
  • I am going to use the initial social social web audit to look at the conditions needed for each of the catagories

Now – if only I was doing this full time then it would be no problem at all…..

  1. Michele Ide-Smith

    April 7, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Hi Catherine,

    Another very interesting post! I haven’t had a chance to digest this yet, but wondered if you had seen a similar take on this that I posted a while back (which was somewhat inspired by your long list)? http://www.ide-smith.co.uk/?p=474. I also mapped using the Groundswell framework.

    • curiouscatherine

      April 7, 2010 at 9:12 pm

      Hi Michelle – I’m so sorry – I did mean to reference the fact that I had read your post – and then gone in a slightly different direction. The thing I have been wrestling with is this fact that the ladder of engagement approach – in fact any participation model – seems to inherently value people at the top more than people at the bottom. This seems to me to ignore the fact that this is all actually a fairly sophisticated eco-system with people moving through different states and different categorises (as I am describing above). Does that make sense? I think this all may come from the fact that I am rather obsessed with measurement at the moment. Also – I did mean to say that I prefer your list of activities – you have done a lot more thinking re: the proactive behaviours – will remember to reference this time!!! C

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  3. Michele Ide-Smith

    April 13, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Catherine, no problem – I wasn’t looking for a name check, just wanted to share info! If it’s any help you might want to look at the Technology Acceptance Model (Davis, 1989). May have some relevance to your research. It’s a major focus in my research.

    I’m not sure what discipline you are studying within, but with my HCI hat on it might be worth doing a diary study to inform the development of your framework. Good luck with it!

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