Brace yourelf – its a long one…..

I am working on the theoretical framework for my thesis at the moment and so trying to establish its firm roots in the idea of a ‘network society’. The idea that we have moved into a post-industrial information age is well entrenched in current thinking (Webster 2006) with the ‘informationisation’ of the world advanced and increasing in pace and I am clearly positioning my work well within this sphere. The choice of technological, spatial, cultural economic approaches to this space are all appealing in different ways but I feel that the physical metaphor of the virtual town hall is leading me towards a spatial approach where I look at the network effect and its relationships in spatial terms rather than in economic ideas of exchange or a purely technological reading of the world. I think this allows me to more easily connect the ideas associated with localisam which I think are essential to the reinvigoration of democratic participation. This is not to say that I ignore cultural or indeed economic interpretations (though I may well trash the idea of a technological filter for the world) but the main thrust of the way that I view the network society is via the lens of connections between people and the changes in barriers of time and place. Cultural changes such as the malleability of identity can, I believe, be viewed mainly through that lens as a consequence of the spatial changes rather than a first principle effect. People use identity in a more malleable way online primarily because they can’t be as easily observed – i.e. a spatial effect – rather than any economic benefit for example.

But I also think that we need to look at more than a spatial analysis and consider the impact of changes in the way that timings of events can be changed. I have referred before to the idea of internet dog years – the point being that ideas move faster online in the same way as a dog year is the same as 7 human years – because I think that this speed effects outcomes. I talk about the ‘wildfire’ effect which is the way that the viral nature of the online world means that when ideas do take hold they move faster from person to person and as a result rapidly bombard us from multiple locations – and perhaps get greater credence as a result of this. And to move back to a spatial analysis objectives moving quickly startle us because of their speed and not necessarily their size or shape.

But what does this mean in terms of how I would go about building the virtual town hall?

  • Firstly I think it means that we need to consider time as well as place when we describe the virtual architecture. In trying to create the ‘lift off’ effect needed in the sense off enlivening an online community it is not only the number of posts that needs considering but also the temporal proximity.
  • We also need to build for the terribly short length of current attention spans online – at the same time as drawing people towards longer and richer interactions.
  • One of the other consequences may be that I need to pay careful attention to within the metrics is the time spent on specific activities and that things taking longer are valued more highly enroute to engendering the more active citizen – interesting when you think that one of the benefits of petitioning is the speed with which you can do it and that one of the drawbacks is the dangers of mob rule over measured debate.

All of this may boil down to the fact that I think very visually and tend to imagine ideas in terms of shapes and relationships – and that I prefer the idea of evolution of society in the same way as I choose to live in a really old house with really good broadband to a new build with the same technology. Either way I think that a spatial / temporal analysis of the world will help to visualise and connect the ideas of the virtual town hall to actual communities as I start to develop the framework of engagement.