Scarily enough I am now starting to write up my thesis – the aim is a chapter a month – and I have been blogging a bit less as a result (though have a few posts queued up – its addictive you know.  Below is some of the ideas from the theoretical framework I have been building and I wanted to put them out in the world to see how people reacted…..

Part of the reason for wanting wider comment is the fact that I am increasingly inclined to think that the emphasis on civic space building is very obviously on the creation and sustainability of hyperlocal communities – with the role of the democratic body being to connect to and interact with these more social groupings.  This links into my interest in the nature of online civic spaces and whether or not it is possible to connect some of the informal behaviours that you see online with formal decision making processes.  This necessitates me actually defining what I mean by informal behaviours – this is my attempt at doing this as within the work I categorise participant’s behaviour into four types:

  • Informal Social
  • Informal Civic
  • Formal Civic
  • Formal Democratic

I’ve written about these before but the table describes my definitions of these four categories with respect to the intention of the participants as they participate online:

Stage Intent
Informal social I use social media in order to socialise with my friends and family – I just want to keep in touch with people
Informal Civic I use social media in order to connect to my local community and talk about issues which I think are important to us
Formal Civic I use social media to make sure that the views of my community are considered by decision makers and are part of the final decision. I want to influence things
Formal Democratic I want to be part of setting the agenda for my community – I want to change things

The distinction between informal and formal

Informal interactions do not require you to ‘join’ anything the connections between individuals are social in terms of being based on trust and compatibility. Further to this there is no requirement to identify yourself or become accountable for your opinions or ideas when you are operating informally though there is a strong correlation between trust and identity. However I am talking specifically with respect to democratic participation and I add an additional layer of meaning to informal in that these interactions are not necessarily part of the decision making process. These comments might be out there on the social web and they might be ‘public’ in the sense that Habermas talks of publicity but there is no mechanism for the elected representatives to take note of these thoughts and opinions. They do not have the legitimacy of the media though increasingly they are treated in a similar way as online campaigns and actions are being both reported on in the mainstream media and also responded to by politicians.

Formal interactions, on the other hand, do require that the individual has either joined an organisations or made their identity known. They are auditable in some way and the participants can be held to account legally as a result. 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 decision making processes exist in order to manage situation where consensus may not exist and where competing interests need to be managed. Participation in a formal way shows an acceptance of the need to influence and interact with someone/thing outside of your direct sphere of influence – which is not necessary as part of the informal stage. In a representative democratic context formality also refers to the fact that you are not able to take a decision yourself and that you are rather trying to influence the actual decision makers.

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

I consider 3 different types of behaviours that can be seen and measured online. I make these distinctions in order to be able to examine the transitions between these types of activities in order to describe how it might be possible to make a connection between virtual and non-virtual actions with respect to democratic participation.

Social interactions take place with anyone who we consider to be a friend or family member and only effect other people within the same social group – there is no external implication of these interactions. Dunbar describes these people who might fall within “anyone who you might want to say hello to if you bumped into them at 3am at Hong Kong airport”. This is a wide definition but can also be expressed as social interactions being those contacts with people who you are happy to see in many contexts – people who you transcend shared interests or purposes and connect to you as an individual.

Civic activities can be defined as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with. The transition from social to civic includes the realisation that you will need to deal with a different set of people and that you will need to behave differently as a result. Civic actions are defined in terms of intent – you have a shared intention to improve your community. One major area for examination within this research is within this civic category where it is important to define and measure specific actions within this so that we can look at the the further transition from civic to democratic behaviour. There are many parallels between civic activities and the Public Sphere described by Habermas.

Democratic interactions are defined by the presence of a legal body and perhaps framework within which the interaction must take place. Society has applied rules to the process and the participants need to comply in order to contribute to the final outcome. Democratic interactions are distinct from civic ones in that there is no legal obligation for elected representatives to take opinions from the civic space into account (though there will be other pressures) where within democratic processes that legal redress is in place.

Four categories of behaviours

By using these categories above I am able to describe the four categories that I am using in order to describe the online interactions that I am examining during the course of this work and to describe them in more detail:

Stage Description
Informal social These actions are carried out in connection with your immediate social relationships and do not seek to engage with the community outside of your social circle
Informal Civic These actions can be described as those which take you outside of your immediate circle to connect with others in your community – for the purpose of discussing or even changing your community. For the purposes of this research the community I am referring to is the part of local government which you are resident in.
Formal Civic For these actions the actor is not only discussing local issues but doing so within either a formal association or perhaps as part of a formally run consultation process
Formal Democratic The actions are part of a legally described decision making process whereby the democratic body is in some way legally obliged to respond to any views or suggestions which have been raised.

Once you move out of the social realm into the civic and democratic one of the other necessary conditions is that you are seeking to involve and engage with people beyond your immediate social circle – you have decided to act as a member of a wider community. It is this decision to act more than anything which illustrates the civic and then democratic nature of the actions.

The formal representative (for example a local councillor) can be involved at any stage of the process beyond the informal social – however the degree to which there is a requirement for them to be involved increases as we move towards formal democratic decision making.