Just when you thought it was enough trouble to try and get your community to create a hyperlocal website then you realise that you also need to create a process of renewal and regeneration.  This post has followed on from a social media audit we have been doing up in Cumbria which has given me a new aspect of civic space to consider for the thesis.

Cybermoor in  Alston Moor was created as a government-funded initiative to look at the effects of technology within rural communities.  The area was selected as 1 of 7 communities 10 years ago and they received £1.2 million for the pilot project.  Every household within the parish (1200 households, 2,200 population) was offered a free computer and dial-up connection, plus much support/training and extra help for special needs or more isolated individuals, plus upgraded IT equipment in schools.  From the project (called ‘Wired Up Communities’) they formed a community-owned social enterprise co-operative and manage their own Wi-Fi broadband now for the area – currently digging to lay fibre optic.  The website is one of the best examples of online community engagement around with over 500 registered users in a parish approximately 25% of the population (the statistics are available on the website).  The site is now funded through income generated from consultancy projects and is maintained by a part-time web editor and volunteer community web reporters  working to keep the site going.

In many ways this project has been a resounding success and is certainly one of the best examples I have seen of an eParticipation project where a space is funded and built for people to come and use.  However the funding is now drying up and the site owners recognise that they have lost a great deal of contribution since people have moved towards more ‘generic’ social networking tools.  The fact is that if you wanted to create a community website today you probably wouldn’t take this approach in terms of technology or the levels of funding that are available.  That’s not to say that the site isn’t still used and it was again demonstrated as a valuable community hub during the heavy winter of 2010/11 when the Police and others posted messages about road closures and gritting but the organisers know that there is a drift away from the platform and they need to think about how they will retain this valuable community asset.  A very brief conversation with the Council also indicated a shared understanding of the need to move on from this previously successful project.

The site is a cultural artefact of an approach that needs to evolve if the community is going to continue to use the site.  This is a new kind of problem for online engagement practitioners – we’re not used to online archeology.  At the time that this site was created Facebook didn’t exist and the growth of social media and online engagement was really only starting.  This project took the idea that real live communities would benefit from being connected online and created a vibrant community space.  However the technology and behaviours have moved on considerably and the approach that was groundbreaking at the time needs to move on for two reasons;  1) because the funding won’t be there to support this kind of intervention in the future and 2) because as people spend more time online they are less likely to use services and spaces which don’t connect to one of their preexisting online identities.

The question of funding is perhaps the easier of the two issues – if we assume that funding will not be available in the medium to long term then the only real option is to move to the kind of model that is working in other hyperlocal communities and to hand the site and network over to the kind of civic creators who are already creating content and civic webspaces.  In doing this there will probably be less reliability and structure around the service but it will benefit from being part of the wider community of hyperlocal site owners and will then be a native part of the culture of the social web; open, co-productive, playful and participative.  If we are seeing a growth of these behaviours with other civic websites then it is not unreasonable to assume that the team and Cybermoor will be able to ‘mainstream’ their organisations and place it back with the community.  There may be some resistance in the community when compared to projects like this that have never been funded – a sense of something being taken away and it will be interesting to see how the public sector participants within the site adjust to change in the power dynamic that will come with this change in the funding but it is still a viable approach and a reasonable next step.

The question of how you manage technological change within the context of creating persistent online civic space is a difficult one.  While it is clear that online spaces create real networks and connections beyond the technology it is also clear that any shift in the platform will affect behaviours and potentially lose audience and participants.  Anyone who has hosted any kind of interactive and participative environment will know the difficulty in making interface or functional changes without working closely with the users and a major platform shift is difficult to achieve without some degree of member attrition.

The team at Cybermoor are seeing their membership stay the same but the interactions drifting towards the more open social web and they need to find a way to address this – they want to retain the network and participation and reduce their costs at the same time.

The knee jerk response this this issue is to move the whole set of interactions to a free service or space such as Facebook or WordPress – and I give these two radically different options to illustrate that there are a lot of choices to be made before a decision is made.  However any technology driven response will result in the same problem in the future – technology obsolesce – unless you pick a service that you think will be able to evolve as technology changes.  But assuming we want the site to last at least as long as its first iteration could any of use pick a service that will still exist in 10 years time?  I’m not sure I could.  There will be huge changes with respect identity, privacy and persistence over that period that I for one am not ready to bet on.  If nothing else the immediate battle as to which online identity is your gateway to the wider social web is very much open at this point and a good decision about whether to base your identity around twitter, Facebook or even Google+ will save you platform migrations in the future.

Here then are the issues:  without a guaranteed income that allows you to secure hosting you are forced down the free services route but free services almost inevitably charge or go bust at some point – or start to use your data in ways that make it untenable for you to continue to use them (yes – I am talking about Facebook).  The constant evolution of the technology is outside of your control and you will need to constantly adapt to make it work.  I say constantly – you will more likely make small continual compromises until an update comes that tips you over the edge and you get the momentum to move.

Its not reasonable to expect these free services to maintain legacy architecture and so if you want to have control over your web space then you will need to look at a paid for model.  This is difficult when we are talking about civic websites as its not clear who will pay – or indeed who values the service enough to want to pay.

We could look at these civic sites being funded as part of larger community asset programmes – for example where village halls are being run by communities we make the civic webspace part of the business – but this is putting ifs on top of maybes as we don’t yet know how widespread these will be.  We could also look at Parish councils’ or the like being given a small grant to cover this – but thats actually too close to what happens now and doesn’t work – the public want to be free of any kind of council control/interference however well meant.

Alternatively we could just not worry about it – after all nothing lasts forever and perhaps this will be part of the cycle of online renewal that keeps the civic conversation contemporary and lively.  A platform shift is a chance for community renewal and to give different people the opportunity to lead.

The question of renewal, whatever form it takes, is an important one and it grows more acute the more valuable these spaces are to the wider community.  Its an issue that is faced in many volunteering environments and also with respect to political representation.  Many of the people I have interviewed in the course of my research are ready to hand over control at least to some extent but are not sure who will take this up.  The issue is compounded in a digital environment where pressure on skills may force the need for renewal as well.

Within my research I suggest the affordances of a civic webspace should be Publicity,Identity,Agility, Curation, Information and Co-production.  Separately I talk about the qualities of a civic content creator to be Persistence, Identity, responsiveness and constructiveness.  However Alston Moor makes me consider whether or not persistence needs to be attached to the individual or to the website.  What is the best way of supporting the persistence of the civic space in a way that transcends technology and individual participation?

On reflection I believe the answer is a focus on persistence of narrative as something that is distinct from both identity and technology though realised by both.  If the essence of the civic webspace is the ability to find and connect to your community online then its this persistence of narrative which converts the technology and individual contributions in a place online.  I surprise myself by not assuming that persistence is provided by the network itself but this reflects the fact that community is made up of multiple networks and this refresh and replenish themselves constantly – this is a philosophers axe kind of persistence and not adequate for our needs in terms of that constant ability to connect to your community which I have set as a requirement for our civic spaces.

How do you create a persistent narrative?  My conclusion around this is that a persistent civic webspace needs to be created by aggregating all of the voices in an area and then making the network open and transparent – you throw the emphasis onto the actual people and the shared narratives of the place rather than assuming that the civic conversation will be captured on one platform or from one voice.  This serves a democratic requirement for openness and also a practical technology requirement to avoid dependence on one technology.  I think this approach brings the idea of constant renewal with it and hopefully supports the idea that there are multiple voices within the same community – an essential element of democratic decision making.

The pioneers of Cybermoor are going to make choices and capture learning that will be hugely helpful to the current state of the art hyperlocal websites.  They will be addressing the question as to how you change the technology but retain the network and how you create the persistent narrative that means that the civic webspace survives these changes.  I am sure there are other more mature projects that are considering this kind of transition so I’ll now be looking out for other older social spaces to see how they are dealing with this need to refresh the technology and I will also follow up with the folks at Cybermoor to see what their thinking is on this.

This need to renew infrastructure will be familiar to anyone who is responsible for real world infrastructure – libraries, schools or council chambers – but in an environment that we create with words and stories that renewal is more abstract and intangible.  Its probably only by making this fact known and part of the civic conversation that we will over time find ways to address this.

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