I’ve had a really interesting week meeting all kinds of people – and as a result have had to talk a lot about what we are doing with the virtual town hall and the citizenscape product launch (I say had to – its very difficult to get me to stop talking as anyone who has met me will tell you).  Anyway – this has really distilled my description rather and I wanted to capture this – and it’s a nice change of pace from last week’s rather epic post….

My starting point is the huge need that I see to create virtual civic spaces that will outlast the next online fad.  We see all kinds of spaces being built online and we see great government services (at times) but we don’t see any civic space – somewhere that will support Habermas’ public sphere of debate.  Space matters – in the real world the nature of the public realm effects behavior and expectations and it is the same online – if we are talking the social web seriously then we need to think about what a civic web space will look like.  If we don’t then we are relying on the hope that the teenagers bedroom or coffee shop of Facebook and the like will turn into some kind of Agora.  I am not filled with hope of this.

The next thought is the one big difference between the social web and democratic decision making – identity.  Online identity is fluid and transitory – which is one of the reasons that people go there.  People want to explore other aspects of themselves or to be freed from the preconceptions that people have about them.  They may want to talk to complete strangers or perhaps not really think about it at all.  However accountability is at the heart of democracy – it really is the act of standing up and being counted – and we will have to find an acceptable and practical way of bringing this accountability into social web conversations – or find some other more statistical way of providing a decision making mandate.

And the final point that this all distills down is the need to create a practical space that actually delivers some efficiencies.  The promise of the social web will not be realized is this economic climate if we cannot link it to a conversation about how we deliver public services more efficiently.  This is not just a question of making tools efficient and cost effective so that we can deliver more and better engagement for a reducing budget but is part of the bigger question of how we renegotiate the relationship between citizen and government so that we ultimately make better decisions that we can afford to implement.

So – it turns out that my real interest is in trying to build these civic spaces and explore what a social web space built on democratic requirements might look like – who knew??