I always feel like a special kind of social media arse when I talk about online spaces rather than websites but I nonetheless believe it is a meaningful distinction (or I really am that social media arse – you judge). I wrote this piece on the website / webspace terminology dilemma and I would still stand by it. In particular I believe the evolution to the language of space rather than talking about websites reflects the fact that we are creating online environments that are more than just the HTML furniture and that a lot of the reason for this is the fact that the participants write them into being – this social, human elements means these are spaces and not sites. And once again my favourite Massey quote:

Multiplicity is fundamental….Space is more than distance. It is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities. Given that, the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by ‘the communications revolution’ and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations.” (For Space, P.91).

As soon as you talk about space then you talk about the design of that space – because design matters. The attributes of any environment contribute to the way that people treat it and the way that they interact with it and with each other.

My concern therefore is about online civic spaces – and how we build the spaces where we will ‘do democracy’ in a networked society. This links into an earlier post on hyperlocal sites and I don’t intend to repeat myself (if I can avoid it). However – just for context – I am building on the ideas that were expressed there around a definition of ‘hyperlocal’ – by which I am talking about user defined spaces which are focused on a narrow geographical area. The post is (as ever) fairly long but my conclusion is:

In deepening our understanding of this phenomena it is therefore important to note that the term hyperlocal then has a richer meaning that the practitioner use might initially give it. It refers to Massey’s multiplicity with the narrative of place and the intrinsic involvement of the community relationships which it holds. However its unbounded nature, in common with any space, brings with it conflicts of competing interests and competing definitions of local that will at some point need to be reconciled if we are to be able to managed to co-existence of many hyperlocal communities living alongside each other.

What I am trying to do here is to move this forward to talk about the Civic Space that allows us to join multiple communities together into a decision making unit and interact accordingly. But before I do that I need to point out that one of the issues I have just not addressed so far is the existence of other types of communities within decision making units. So this is really a marker for a future piece that starts to describe the eco-system of communities that can be found within any larger organisation. My brief breakdown of these includes:

I have not expanded the list to look at other bits of government in an area because I am trying to keep the scope tight – but arguably I should be adding in the Police, Health and sundry other decision making bodies at this point. However – lets imagine I have already gone to the trouble of describing the last of these as I want to look at how we bring them together.

And now back to the matter in hand…civic space….and how we build it.

The publicity of the social web

Firstly – any civic space is going to be public and not private. Publicity is something which sociologists spend quite a lot of time thinking about – because it is by the existance of public interaction that much of our society becomes auditable. I am not attempting a full discussion of this idea here but I do lean heavily on Habermas’ thinking on this because as I originally wrote here:

The concept of the Public Sphere is a compelling one – he argues that the rise of capitalism and the departure from feudal / tribal living brought about the development of arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues. In terms of the network society we are talking about the ‘publicity’ of information and government .  There are many ways to criticise this idea of the public sphere but the idea that we require a sphere of interaction where we talk about the public issues of the day is a compelling one.

However when we think of this idea of publicity in the context of the network society we need to also acknowledge the difference that the interconnectedness of our world brings. Danah Boyd has done a lot of work describing something she calls ‘networked publics’. In doing so she is extending the idea of ‘publicity’ and examining it in the context of the network society. In her paper Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications she talks about networked publics as follows:

Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics serve many of the same functions as other types of publics – they allow people to gather for social, cultural, and civic purposes and they help people connect with a world beyond their close friends and family. While networked publics share much in common with other types of publics, the ways in which technology structures them introduces distinct affordances that shape how people engage with these environments. The properties of bits – as distinct from atoms – introduce new possibilities for interaction. As a result, new dynamics emerge that shape participation.

In many ways I could leave it there – its an excellent definition of this shared space especially as she goes on to talk about the importance of design and provenance in the creation of these spaces:

Both William Mitchell (1995, p. 111) and Lawrence Lessig (2006, pp. 1-8) have argued that “code is law” because code regulates the structures that emerge. James Grimmelmann argues that Lessig’s use of this phrase is “shorthand for the subtler idea that code does the work of law, but does it in an architectural way” (Grimmelmann, 2004, p. 1721). In looking at how code configures digital environments, both Mitchell and Lessig highlight the ways in which digital architectures are structural forces

or put more simply:

Networked publics’ affordances do not dictate participants’ behavior, but they do configure the environment in a way that shapes participants’ engagement. In essence, the architecture of a particular environment matters and the architecture of networked publics is shaped by their affordances

(BTW – an affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action)

So – architecture matters even if it is bits and not atoms

And if we accept this idea that the design and purpose of a place effects it function and behaviours of participants then it is not unreasonable to start considering what the affordances of a civic space might be. Once again Doreen Massey has something helpful to say:

“For instituting democratic public spaces (and indeed the spaces of places more generally) necessitates operating with a concept of spatiality which keeps always under scrutiny the play of the social relations which constructs them” (For Space, Massey; P.153)

So we therefore have to consider is that makes the space democratic are the relationships that are contained within it as well the design assumptions that have been built into the architecture.  Its not enough for this to be a networked public – it needs to be a democratic networked public – an online civic space.

So what is an online civic space?

Getting back to the point then – my online civic space is in some ways a networked public in that it brings together public content from a variety of locations into a single space. The shared narrative of that space is the story of the physical space that it corresponds to the problems and challenges that it faces. Because those social relationships are crucial to its functioning its a space where identity matters and where people interact as citizens or that space and not as unconnected or anonymous individuals.  Building on other posts again it is a co-productive space where all participant’s are able to speak on equal terms though there is an acknowledgement of different roles and responsibilities.

In more practical terms the civic space is aggregating the civic content from the decision making unit not in terms of data but in terms of establishing and reflecting the social networks which facilitate the creation of content. But in order to meet the fundamental condition of democracy that identity does matter the space also asks for participant’s demonstrate that they are citizens with the rights and responsibilities that flow from this.  There is no moderation in the civic space but there is a process of curation in order to find and refresh the contributing networks and individuals – the process and governance of this is something I will pick up in another post.

What are its attributes?

So – the attributes – or affordances if we want to get a bit more picky – are going to be:

  • Publicity- you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives

But perhaps the most important thing has to be the agreed purpose of the space – which I am suggesting is as follows:

to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making

This participation could range from just having access and contact with your representative to actively participating in the true co-production of outcomes – the space needs to support the full range of democratic engagement.  This is all very close to Stephen Coleman’s Civic Commons in Cyberspace (Coleman, Blumler 2001)

Our proposal for a civic commons in cyberspace aims to create an enduring structure which could realise more fully the democratic potential of the new interactive media. This would involve the establishment of an entirely new kind of public agency, designed to forge fresh links between communication and politics and to connect the voice of the people more meaningfully to the daily activities of democratic institutions. The organisation would be publicly funded but be independent from government. It would be responsible for eliciting, gathering, and coordinating citizens’ deliberations upon and reactions to problems faced and proposals issued by public bodies (ranging from local councils to parliaments and government departments), which would then be expected to react formally to whatever emerges from the public discussion. This should encourage politicians and officials to view the stimulation of increased participation not as mere `citizens’ playgrounds’ but as forums in which they must play a serious part.

But the key difference is around how the space might be managed. Coleman describes the process as follows:

The proposed organisation would be charged with promoting, publicising, regulating, moderating, summarising, and evaluating the broadest and most inclusive range of online deliberation via various new media platforms, including the web, e-mail, newsgroups, and digital TV.

However my proposal an online civic space does not include agency moderation and I believe that the co-productive nature and the fact that I suggest it needs to be curated by participants rather than governed makes it a more fluid and more communal space than he was suggesting. The idea of building it from the ground up with the participation of unmoderated hyperlocal communities is another key difference. This last point is critical – these should not be spaces that are owned by government because this ownership indicates power and in the network society this power is shared and distributed rather than being vested solely in the state.

Why bother?

William Mitchell (City of Bits, 1996) puts it like this:

“The classical view of the territorial state finds architectiral expression in the govemnet assemly buildings (usually augmented by bureaucratic support strucutures) that tradditionally have been ereted at the hearts of governed territories……..clearly the technological means are now emerging to repalce these spatial and architecutiral arrangements with electrornins and software, and it isn’t hard to construct plausible aruguments in favour of such a substitution”

Is this an over-engineered solution to a problem that people will solve for themselves? Can people just carry out democratic debate in any corner of the social web? To some extent yes – the network society provides many opportunities for public debate but my point here is that design matters, architecture matters and the spaces we choose to operate in have an effect on the actions we carry out there. If we want to conduct democratic debate we will do a better job of it if we do so in a space which is designed to support this. Facebook wants to sell advertising (see viagra of the first sentence) – its not really interested in whether or not we have local citizens debating local issues except as a by-product of that core function. Newspapers sites want to drive traffic and thrive on conflict not consensus. For an online civic space supporting constructive debate would be the core function.

People are already debating democratic and civic matters online – particularly at the hyperlocal level – but at some point I believe we will need to join the smaller communities which form online into something that reflects the rather unwieldy shape of the decision making units that we apportion resources to. If we don’t consider joining them up then we are consigning government – and in particular local government – to an ongoing role of mediator and negotiator carrying out shuttle diplomacy between the different conversations and this is not all that democratic if we have not found a way to embed the elected individual in the process in a meaningful way.  Aggregation of data and clever technology does not solve this – democracy is social – we need to build spaces where people not data come together.

Where can I get one??

Mmmm……nowhere as yet….but democratic activity online is growing and as the government moves ahead with open data plans it becomes even more important I think that this newly released information is examined and debated in a civic rather than commercial space. The crowdsourcing post from this morning shows another direction of travel and as you see all parts of the state starting to join the conversation online we will either start to understand the limits of commercial spaces for democratic debate or limit it by viewing it only through commercial design assumptions.  Our future democracy will almost certainly conduct itself largely online – all I am arguing for is for us to start building the right spaces to support us ‘doing democracy’ in that future.

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