Literature review


Howard Rheingold was one of the first people who articulated the promise of the social web. With “Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier” he literally wrote the book on online community. Rheingold is an unapologetic enthusiast for the potential of digital community and the network society but he is also thoughtful and balanced in his examination of how we are now using social media. In the same way as ‘Homesteading’ connected with my inital bedazzlement with the potential of virtual community his 2012 book Net Smart connects with my growing sense of the fragility of many of the cultural aspects of the social web which showed so much potential for social change. Net Smart is for me an eloqent discussion of how we all could take responsibilty for making sure that the social web adds to social value. This post is a note for my literature review and I hope an introduction to the concepts he is discussing in the book – but you if you are a regular read here then I suggest you read the book yourself as its both excellent and approachable.

Rheingold’s emphasis is on how to be ‘mindful’ in the way we use social media – ‘net smarts’ is his shorthand for the skills needed to make the best out of these tools. While still positive in tone this book lays out very clearly the fact that the participatory culture which Rhiengold identified in his earlier work is still evolving and that if we wish to ensure that it delivers the social value that many early adopters were energised by we will need to consciously enact these outcomes. He is not unaware that corporate influence and old elites and behaviours are now working actively or passively to reduce the transformative potential of participatory culture and states for example that “The time to control dataveillance through policy means has passed” (p.239). He concludes with this request:

“We are only beginning to see what networked publics can do for good and evil. I have chosen to try and provide resources to increase the amount of good that networked publics can do. I don’t claim that this is sufficient solution to the problem of proliferating literacies and publics. I have been accused of being an optimist, which I am not. I am aware that the deck is always stacked by those who have the most stake if they can manage a way to do it. Nevertheless, I choose to be hopeful. We are all decended rom predecessors who, while their companions might become realistically resigned to the hopelessness of their situation, couldn’t help thinking, “there must be a way out of this”. The future is not guaranteed. There is no influence without knowledge and effort. I’ve tried to provide tools for you to gain that knowledge. Its up to you to make the effort.” (p.253)

Attention
The first chapter talks about attention and the need to relearn the ability to concentrate and control your interaction with an information overloaded environment. Mindfulness, the ability to be ‘in’ the moment of totally focused on what you are doing, is just the first way in which Rhiengold proposes a more visceral analysis of our online experience than is suggested by an information consumption model. As I sit here with 3 devices and 2 open books I am trying to relearn mindfulness.

Crap detection
The next section deals with information management and provides an analysis of the skills which many experienced social media users develop instinctively (though these can always be challenged as was seen by Greenpeace’s brilliant anti-Shell Campaign Arctic Ready). Descriptions of source triagulation for news stories (p.80) demonstrate the active curation skills you need to make use of a tool like twitter and his later analysis of the search engine business points out the balancing of public good with commercial or politcal interest (p.85). He also touches on the social nature of authority and gatekeeping which many yet challenge the preeminance of the search engine as a way of finding news. Rheingold wants to see us developing skills of crap detection and infotention – managing multiple and parallel dynamic information flows – as an underpinning to the act of mindful participation.

Participation
Chapter 3 discusses participation because “In the world of networked publics, online participation – if you know how to do it – can translate into real power” (P.112). The critical element that Rheingold emphasises is the need to have participants who read, comment and share the content that is created. On the one hand this states the obvious on the other it points out one of the obvious shortcomings that most people have in terms of generosity and reciprocity of participation. He uses the term participatory culture as described by Henry Jenkins as compromising of:

1. relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others
3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think of what they have created) (P.113)

Rheingold expands on this by connecting it with his work on online community and mindfulness; “you exercise mindfulness when you ask yourself whether you are enriching someone or stealing part of their attention when you share a video of a revolution or a cute kitten” (P.126). This chapter discusses the role of the curator and describes it thus: “The curator role used to be reserved for the people who ran museums, but the term has been revived and expanded to describe the way populations of web participatns acn act as information finders and evaluators for each other, cresting through their choices collections of links that others can use” (P.127). He goes on to describe curation as “a form of participation that is open to anyone who might not want to blog, tweet, or update a Facebook profile but instead are happy to bookmark, tag, or like other people’s digital creations” (P.127). Where the old model of limited means of production put huge emphasis on the content creators the new model of unlimited content production creates new roles and prominance for the content curators as well as the creators.

There is also a whole section on my personal favourite curation tool – tagging – “Tagging isn’t just a way to participate. It’s the fundamental building block of a whole new way of aggregatng and organzing knowledge” (P.133). He emphasising the power shift inherent in participant organised content when compared by content organised into the ontologies of often narrowly focused elites.

There is also a apposite quote from Danah Boyd on the issue of personal curation of identity; “My way of coping with persistence is to create a living presence, frame my own story in an ongoing way, and creating a digital self that is constantly evolving not to escape but to mature” (P.138)

Collaboration
The latter chapters discuss collaboration and the potential for action that is within the participatory culture described. He focuses on examples of online collaboration such as Beth Novecks design for the crowdsourcing of patent processing and if I were to critcise the book it is in not making the next step to connect online behaviors to offline outcomes.

That being said, the intellectual architecture for this is explored in the form of a discussion of social dilemnas – where the needs of the individual are in conflict with the needs of the many – can be resolved through collaboration. Rheingold references Elinor Ostrom’s work which examines how “institutues of collective action” come together to overcome the ‘tradgey of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968). Ostrom was one of the architects of the concept of co-production in community development and so this is an important link between the two literatures.

Rheingold describes collaboration as being the most purposeful form of collective action (p.154) but also describes how networking, coordination and co-operation all support and ‘lubricate’ the process of collaboration. From this he goes on to discuss Jane McGonigal’s work on gaming and her belief that gamers are becoming ‘supercollaborators’. This is the point of connection between Ostroms work on co-production and the idea that ‘gamification’ of collective action can start to provide pro-social action. Collective intelligence, as introduced by Levy in 1999, indicates the potential of networks to consciously solve problems which will defeat individuals or hierarchies and in a more deliberate way than the ‘wisdom of crowds’ model which is largely undirected.

There is a huge amount of wisdom in this book for anyone interested in the practical skills needed to be effective on the social web. For example the section (P.213-215) outlining Rainie and Wellman’s description of the characteristics of the successful participatory actor includes this;

Those who can function effectively in different contexts and ‘collapsed contexts’: The act of joining and belonging to multiple groups requires a development group understanding or knowledge as each has different histories, norms and folklore. People must learn the ropes in these different milieus. The more gracefully thet can do this, the quicker they can assume greater roles within multiple communities and networks”

Rheingold later talks about the emotional connection between actors as being the differntiator and refers back to his 1998 essay on “The art of Hosting Good Conversations online” which is still spot on with respect to techniques for community building. “Knowing the difference between a community and a nework is as critical socially as crap detecion is essenital informationally” (p.163). He explores a social capital analysis of online community and makes connections with social network analysis and the emphasis on weak ties / bridging capital (p.215) which is a useful link for community managers and starts to make the connection to offline behaviours. This section also returns us to the need for reciprocity in this environment and provides the practical advice to anyone looking to increase their influence to “be a bridge” (p.222).

Anyone interested in learning platforms or knowledge mabagement should read the section on Personal Learning Networks (P.225) which describes self-directed learning in an online context. He also discusses learning and the skills we should be teaching children in the context of “net smart’. The whole section made me ask how we can teach being net smart to politicans – something to ponder on I think.

Conclusion
This book codifies many of the instinctive conclusions of the experienced social web participant. It describes the need for ongoing curation and information management and the way in which your sense of self is actively created. Rheingold describes the new roles developing for curation and the essential act of appreciation and sharing within the participatory environment – he moves the discussion past the content creators to look at the whole ecosystem. He also highlights the fact that ‘social good’ or democratic outcomes are not inherent in a participatory culture – it is exactly what we make of it.

It’s both exhausting and exilerating to contemplate the world of persistant participation that Rheingold describes and this is perhaps why he emphasises the need for mindfulness and also the need for human connections throughout the book. Where Sherry Turkles later work, Alone Together, seems to talk of being overwhelmed by technology Rheingold is trying to describe the tools we need to ensure we retain a directed experience of the social web. Tremendous energy is needed to exert that directional control but there there are huge potential social benefits from doing so. This is perhaps the final thought I took away from reading this book – if we are to get the best out of networked technologies in terms of social impacts that we cannot think that to do so is the easy option. We have perhaps been seduced by the ease of production into thinking that outcomes are as easy to create – as with any other medium making a difference is hard and we have to decide whether we choose to make the effort.

Rheingold provides the answer to why we should bother to do so:

“Pay attention to opportunities you might have to improve the public sphere. It’s not up to anyone else. Apply crap detection when you encounter political assertions, including those you agree with, especially online. Learn to participate in political discussions online and strive to raise the level of debate in the social media public sphere. Contest positions, don’t attack people; cite evidence and be willing to change your mind. Collaborate with others to advocate, persuade, and organize; join informed collective action. If you aren’t an actor in a democracy then you are acted on. Know how networks of power and counterpower work, and seek to understand your place in them. The public sphere is a theory about what is, at its base, a simple question: Am I going to act as if citizens acting in concert can wield any power to influence policy? Or am I going to leave my liberty to others?” (P.242)

Speaking personally – I do not intend to leave my liberty to others – but I think that before we can envisage this kind of participatory networked public sphere we perhaps need to make sure that the old elites that are currently in power are listening.

Net smart is a brilliant exploration of the social web – but it highlights the vulnerabilities of the participatory culture as it grows and develops. Perhaps the final point to take away is that that those of us who value the culture of the social web as it is now need to ensure that new participants learn this net smart skills in order to avoid overwhelming the environment with entrenched offline behaviours.

This weekend you’ll be pleased to know I have been reading the recently released update of the OXIS survey (which you can get hold of here – but large thanks to Tim Davies for posting me a copy!).  I have also been updating my Facts Glorious Facts page if you like that kind of thing so this post is really just a few highlights and observations from the report.

For those of you who haven’t come across it the Oxford Internet Survey is the UK answer to the Pew report and consists of a questionnaire sent to a weighted sample of 2057 people on the UK (response rate is just less that 50% which isn’t bad).  Its not huge but its an excellent summary of where we are as a country with respect to internet usage and as this is now the 5th year (its been running avery other year since 2003) it is now a good source of longitudinal data about internet habits.

The headline number of people that are online according to OXIS is around 73% of the population with household and individual access being almost the same.  Reasons for not going online are interesting however:

And reasons to stop using the internet are also revealing:

Next Generation – how star trek

One of the main findings of the report is the emergence of what the authors (William Dutton and Grant Blank) call next generation internet users.  They define these as

someone who accesses the internet from multiple locations and devices.  Specifically, we operationally define the next generation user as someone who uses at least two internet applications (out of four applications queried) on their mobile or who fits two or more of the following criteria:  they own a tablet, own a reader, own three or more computers.  By this definition 44.4% of internet users in Britain were next generation users

The interesting thing is that these are not just “The Young People” (have started capitalising this since turning 40) – there is a stronger correlation with income and employment – though students are a large part of this new group.  Given the fact that reasons for not using the internet are closely linked to the costs as well as the access to technology that is driving this next generation use then I for one will be watching very carefully to see whether or not increased market penetration of smart phones and cheaper tablets starts to change this picture.

Yet more content….

According to the report content creation online is a generally increasing activity with around 25% of internet users creating something (higher that the OFCOM estimates).  The graph below shows these increases:

But the next generation users are more likely to be doing this:

Overall the use of social networking sites has moved from a minority position in 2009 to a majority activity (60%) in 2011.  Importantly schooling is not important to the use of these sites – but as we saw earlier income is.

Government – meh

Overall the levels of participation with government and democracy indicated by the report are small – and though the next generation of users are more active this is as likely to correlate with the fact that they tend towards a higher income than specifically being linked to their next generation use – if indeed you can separate this at all.

Political efficacy is shown to be positively associated with internet use but there has been no significant increase in online political participation evidenced by the research desipte the 2010 election having been held since the last survey in 2009.

Civic participation is also not huge (NB they use a difference definition of civic to the one I use and are talking about participation in non-political associations rather than the wider desire to connect to your community with or without formal organisations).

Given the levels of disatisfaction with the political process and the results from for example the Hansard Audit these findings should not suprise us – though they should be of some concern.  It would be interesting to see what the results would be if the questions explored membership of online campaigning movements such as Avaaz or other online campaigns such as ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight” – are we really these low levels of participation or are we seeing them specifically with respect to the formal political process?

Internet use is settling down to be very very important

The report is detailed and I recommend having a read.  The entry point of the nature of your access as a way of codifying your relationship with the internet is a useful one and the next generation internet category is a good way of exploring the differences in internet use that we see.  I would like to see more exploration of which came first – the behaviours or the devices but we probably have to accept that they drive each other.

The nature of the digital divide is clearly changing and with respect to my work I think we need to be even more conscious than ever that the people we see creating content and demonstrating their political efficacy are a fairly specific group.

The good news is that if you can give people access then indications are that there are few barriers to them participating – but the question is whether or not enough people will get smart phones for Christmas in order to start changing this picture.

Overall the picture from the research is of internet use becoming more and more embedded – there is a lot of detail on this but I was struck particularly by this graph showing the effect on other media:

I am reading the brilliant “Amusing ourselves to death” at the moment and I must say that we have to ask whether or not the passive entertainment that the television has provided us is going to be a bit of a blip with respect to how we chose to spend our leisure time – ask me again in 2050.

Within this section there is some important stuff about levels of trust in different media and organizations (sorry government – last again here with trust levels being between 2.5-2.3 out of 5).

And one of the other interesting details was the fact that the desire to regulate the internet has reduced since 2009:

And that has to be good news as far as I concerned and probably a good place to close…

Addendum 24th October

This is a more in the way of a note to self hence the late addition.  Throughout this report the authors have spoken about respondents ‘using social networking sites’ – but the fact is that according to the OFCOM data this really means using Facebook for the vast majority of people.  It may not be the case for the content creators who make wider use of social media services (we have found it around 50:50 with the social media audits) but we need to be careful I think about whether or not we are seeing one successful service – Facebook – as opposed to a general trend.  My personal view is that we are seeing a general trend and that the next generation users are embedding the social web in their lives in lots of different ways but the overall growth may be less that these stats show as Facebook take up is masking other kinds of behaviours.

Mmmm….not sure….one to think about…

How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

This is brief write up of the Robin Dunbar book “How many friends does one person need?”.  I read the book as a balance to the way in which its very easy to start thinking of networks mathematically and systemically even though its incredibly important to remember the fact that social networks are made up of people and as a result will behave in messy, emotional and human ways.  Its also an important contrast for me with the enormous rationalist thinking of the age of enlightenment approach of Habermas’ Public Sphere for example.

Its very easy to ignore the ‘social’ bit of ‘social networks’ – when you are working online there is a pull towards a technological / engineering mindset which is difficult to resist as you build your environment.  Online space is created both by code and by the narratives and content that use that code – but the fact is that the code comes first and that often results in an environment that ultimately wants to resolve to a whole series of zeros and ones.  One of the exciting things for me in terms of technology development over the last few years is the way in which User Experience and user centred design has grown as a field – acknowledging the fact that we don’t all need to earn our ‘right’ to be online by hand coding at the command line.

Dunbar’s work looks at how groups work, not as networks or learning sets but as biological and social imperatives.  His research discusses the evidence base that shows our social behaviour is innate and our forming of a groups a necessary part of our humanity.  He is a longstanding science journalist as well as a researcher and he is best know for coining the term the ‘Dunbar number’ which he defines as:

“….as the set of people who, if you saw them in the transit lounge during a 3 a.m. stopover at Hong Kong airport, you wouldn’t feel embarrassed about going up to them and saying: `Hi! How are you? Haven’t seen you in ages!’ In fact, they would probably be a bit miffed if you didn’t. You wouldn’t need to introduce yourself because they would know where you stood in their social world, and you would know where they stood in yours. And, if push really came to shove, they would be more likely than not to agree to lend you a fiver if you asked.”

He’s describing the number of people you can trust and have an emotional affinity to – and the number got considerable press as at the time it was very close to the average number of ‘friends’ each person had on Facebook.

I just want to pause at this point and be clear that we are really talking about two different definitions of ‘friend’ here.  Dunbar is using the term to refer to people who we have an emotional attachment to which meets certain criteria.  In the context of Facebook ‘friend’ is used far more loosely – would you lend £5 to everyone who you are friends with on Facebook?

Dunbar talks about the ‘Dunbar number’ as being an evolutionary limit – basically our brains can’t handle more connections than this.  There are also similarities with clan group sizes in tribal cultures – groups of this size as being discernible within overall clan sizes of between 500 and 1500 people.

This is not to say that he thinking all social grouping larger than that are doomed – but at that point we need different social structures in order to provide the sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity that communities need in order to function – it can’t just be done on the basis of that emotional bond.

Dunbar also describes patterns in these larger social grouping which work on broadly a factor of three.  This builds up from what social psychologists call a ‘sympathy group’ of 12-15 people whose death would leave you distraught , to groupings of 50 which are found in aboriginal society, through to a group size of 1500.  Interestingly Plato went one further than that when he suggested 5300 as the ideal size for a democracy.

He also talks about the need for physical contact – the chimps grooming each of other – and the fact that language provides another kind of social grooming with gossip having a role in providing the glue that keeps communities together – passing information about each other indicates you are part of the same group.

One of his overarching points is the fact that our brains evolve a lot more slowly than the pace of technological and social development – the aphorism of ‘stone age brains in a space age universe’ – and that we need to remember this when we consider our reactions to change around us and take into account the fact that our first reaction may be an emotional rather than a rational one.

This is a challenge to the thinking of sociologists like Habermas who approach the question of society and democracy with an age of enlightenment rationality which often fails to take into account that human reactions are often irrational and based on our feelings of belonging rather than an idealised view of how we want the world to me.  Successful orators tap into this emotional response and any effective communicator is appealing to you emotionally as well as rationally.  What’s more Dunbar explains that judgements about morality and practical utilitarian decisions are not located in the same part of the brain and are not necessarily called on at the same time – Hume was right when he talked about the idea that morality is born of our emotional response and not our rationality – we are not always thinking when we act.

So what is it that forms that social glue that turns friendship groups of 150 into communities of 5000?  Dunbar talks about gossip and conversational grooming.  He also points out the role of religion in creating this common framework.   Laughter and music also generate the endorphins that we need to ‘bond’ with other people.  What is clear is that he is suggesting shared activities and opportunities to connect to people beyond your immediate circle of friends.

Relating this back to civic space and hyperlocal communities – it would be interesting to look at the numbers of participants to see how they relate to Dunbar’s groupings and it would also be interesting to look at how these numbers relate to the types of tools and interactions that work well with different numbers in the groups.  There is also little work as yet as to whether or not the Dunbar number and the tribal based group behaviour patterns translate in any way to online interactions.

Dunbar (and evolutionary biologists) provides a useful balance to the far more rational approach taken by many of the authors looking at the network society and provide an important reminder that the our emotional needs are as important – or more important – than our intellectual needs.  As we contemplate our to re-connect people to their local communities – either online or offline – its important that we remember this perspective and design for hearts as well as heads.

This post is a bit of a hodgepodge of follow up from stuff I was working on last week – we’ll see if it weaves itself into one piece by the end.

First up is a follow up on the social network analysis. Ethnobot was good enough to point me at the work of Damon Centola  and his content on weak ties. Centola talks about weak ties in more detail and looks at how they work in order to pass ideas and information. As with the Granovetter work the conclusion continues to be that weak ties are the most effective for passing information but Centola goes further to talk about the ways in which weak ties can effect what he calls complex contagion. Simple and complex contagion is a metaphor taken from epidemiology and refers to the source of infection. In social network terms do you need to hear an idea once or do you need to hear it multiple times in order to act upon it? If its the latter then its a complex contagion and this is much more common if you are talking about behaviour change but still, according to Centola, track and traceable.

There are a number of different terms being used for the connection points between networks and sub-networks. Castells, for example, talks about ‘Switches’ but Centola calls them ‘Bridges’ which I think its nicely illustrative. Complex contagion requires either wide or multiple bridges so that people are presented with an idea or behaviour in different ways or from different people. Contrast with the simple contagion model of Malcolm Gladwell who’s Connectors apparently fulfil this role entirely on their own – something which is challenged by Centola’s work.

[as a complete aside you may want to read Bellweather by Connie Willis – its fiction – and takes a rather more amusing view as to how trends are set – with a solid bit of theory lurking within it.]

Earlier in my PHD I got very seduced by social capital and Robert Putnam’s work in ‘Bowling Alone’. One of the interesting aspects of working within a multidisciplinary research centre (I’m studying at SPRU at the University of Sussex) is that you are able to roam between fields to some extent. Social capital looks at the same effect as the social network analysis from the point of view of an economist as opposed to a sociologist. I’m not sure where those urban geographers (Wellman, Massey and others) come into it but this is crossover territory for people who accept that there is no point at looking at the built environment without considering the people who live within it – and I think perhaps we need to find a new category for researchers who are looking at the online world through the filter of the lives that people live within it. Ultimately I decided that, for me, the social capital analysis is too passive and looks at measuring an asset which is to a great extent unmeasurable until its tested – and if its unmeasurable then you can’t really organise around it. Social networks are measurable to a far greater degree and we are not putting any value on that measurement – we are just noting and describing the connections rather that the inherent value they may have. It does however make it important that we are able to describe these relationships in some detail.

This is not so say that a social network has a flat topography – links between nodes have different directions and strength. This question of strong and weak ties and the effects of them on information and behaviour change is about power manifests through networks – and who can wield it.

And this brings me to the other bit of follow up I was doing last week in reading a few articles from the International Journal of Communication’s recent supplement on multidimensional networks – which is worth a read. Yochai Benkler – who is someone I should have added to my piece on network society thinkers – one of his research interests is the “Effects of the networked public sphere on democracy” and his recent article”Networks of Power, Degrees of Freedom” explores manifestations of power, counter power and freedom. He looks at the way that networks and individuals exert power and uses the example of wikileaks to show how the network society has subverted traditional power structures. This is a fairly standard observation from a network society thinker but as a lawyer Benkler has an in-depth analysis of the wikileaks narrative which is worth reading.

Counter power is in fact a Castells concept that refers to the activity of resisting the imposition of power onto and indivudal – as distinct from freedom that allows you to exert your own power. Castells contribution to the IJoC supplement is a discussion of the four types of power of the network society:

  1. Networking Power: the power of the actors and organizations included in the networks that constitute the core of the global network society over human collectives and individuals who are not included in these global networks.
  2. Network Power: the power resulting from the standards required to coordinate social interaction in the networks. In this case, power is exercised not by exclusion from the networks but by the imposition of the rules of inclusion.
  3. Networked Power: the power of social actors over other social actors in the network. The forms and processes of networked power are specific to each network.
  4. Network-making Power: the power to program specific networks according to the interests and values of the programmers, and the power to switch different networks following the strategic alliances between the dominant actors of various networks.

Within the article he develops the idea of programmers – who are able to form and direct networks – and switchers who are able to connect different networks together.

Now, this is the point where the network society theorists start to trip over the social network analysis folks.

Centola’ multiple sources of complex contagion and his strong bridges are not compatible with Castells construct of the switcher (or indeed Gladwell’s connectors) – the data seems to indicate that more than one person needs to be involved if we are talking about behaviour change. Castells (and I think Benkler though more reading needed on this) do address this issue but instead of talking about multiple people refer to multidimensional relationships – power needs a variety of relationships to manifest.

There is an issue here with data vs theory and another reason why you need to be cautious with social network analysis. Though it might appear that we can connect the Centola result that indicates the need for multiple relationships to create complex contagion and that we can say that the manifestation of power is an active instance of complex contagion we are not going to be able to create the data set that would prove or disprove this theory. The multidimensional nature of the networks that Castells and Benkler are talking about are not measurable except by heroic data collection efforts as they rely on actors being able to categorise this connections where Centola just needs us to admit to a connection. We are therefore left with the slightly unsatisfactory feeling that Centola (and others) have given is a measurable theory that speaks to the complexity of behaviour change while Castells (and others) has given is a compelling explanation as to how power works through networks.

The question I ask myself then is whether or not it would be possible to look at this question at the local or hyperlocal level? Can we document the nature of the relationships of the core civic creators in an area in such detail that we are then able to track behaviour change through that network, and its connected networks? And can we then examine how this civic network connects to the democratic one in order to see whether it is the elected representatives that form the necessary bridges or are those bridges formed (or not formed) elsewhere?

I think so. Detailed SNA of this core group before and after an intervention with a specific call to action should show us how ideas have passed and who has been influential. This is however an experiment that needs some designing. We need to have a network in the first place and then we need to have some kind of traceable ‘infection’ in terms of behaviour that we can track through the network. We would also need to measure the network in terms of influenced / influencer. Alternatively we could, more simply, look at the network before and after our intervention to see whether there had been a change in the number of connections to the formal actors – and then examine those new connections in order to trace a source of the new tie.

I’ve been struggling a lot with my data collection over the last couple of months (not time) but have also been unusually dithering about getting going with it properly. In retrospect this may be a reflection on the way my thinking about this has been moving – I have been thinking about Civic Spaces (which I still am) but I should have focused on the people that write those spaces into being. Unless you go down a track of techno-determinism online space is about a manifestation of people and relationships. The technology design can help shape those behaviours in the same way as physical architecture influences offline behaviour but the dynamic force in all of this is brought by the people, the actors, within the space. If I am interested in creating co-produced civic space online then I need to think about the people who will co-create that space in at least as much detail as I consider the technological affordances of those spaces.

I can very easily be accused of over using a few key quotes in my presentations – the main one being this from Manuel Castells:

” Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing”

This means that when I was recently asked – “who else talks about the network society?” at a session I was doing recently I thought fair cop – I really need to widen out the context a little and quote some other people. In my defence it really is a lovely quote.

The term ‘Network Society’ was coined by Dutch sociologist Jan van Dijk and was adopted by Castells in his trilogy “The Information Age”. The other principal thinker in this space is Barry Wellman who has been writing about networks and communities ever since writing “The Network City” in 1973.

This gives the concept two different pedigree’s – one from urban geography (Wellman) and one from sociology (Castells). In both cases however the primary motivation for the label is the pre-eminance of the effect of the network within a given situation.
Concentrating on the Castells work, this arises out of the wider thinking around the concept of ‘The information age’. Now – its extremely tricky to make assumptions around this kinds of epochal statements but Castells is a big bold thinker who believes that it the rise of networks rather than then the information that we share about them which is the most significant effect of our post-industrial world. This is of course subject to debate and this is a criticism which is leveled at Castells (Webster 1995) however my personal view is that the recent ascendency of the social network online and the effects of networks on political and civic activities makes this a defensible belief.

There are also a group of writers such as Tapscott and Shirkey who explore the network effect without necessarily situating their work within the definition of the network society – i.e. their narrative is network led but they don’t build on the work of Castells – partly I imagine because they are not sociologists and academics do like to stick within their own field (I’m a little free range myself but this perhaps reflects the fact that I am a practitioner / academic hybrid!!!).

Within my literature review I will be describing the Webster critique in a little more detail and also describing some of the other thinkers who work with the idea of the information society – however for day to day use and final conclusion I am sticking with the Network Society as being the best current description of the what we see happening in the world. I may however try and find another quote.

Its very tempting to think there is a perfect match between social networks and social network analysis – and its true – there is a lot we can do with this to examine online social networks. However in doing this its important to understand what the limits of what we can achieve with it without bringing in other research methods.

Social network analysis is simply a way of visually and statistically mapping the relationships and patterns of behaviours between the actors in an specific social grouping – it could be familial, social, professional or geographical. Its not a new technique – its been around since the 1930s and has been used to map historical populations such as the Medici’s (Padgett and Ansell 1993), social protest movements such as the the Freedom Summer movement in 1964 (MacAdam 1986, 1988) and to map more contemporary university environments (I have a brilliant reference for this and now can’t find it – damn – will be back to this). Its been used to track the progress of epidemics and its been used by Barry Wellman to look at how communities interact (Hampton, K. N., & Wellman, B., 1999). If you want a quick intro to the ideas here then have a look at this Journal of Computer Mediated Communication Journal article that has the key ideas in it.

In many ways social network analysis is about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts with the interactions and patterns formed from these interactions being as significant as the individuals who are interacting. With it sociologists moved beyond looking at individuals and who they are and started considering what they are actually doing.

Given the fact that social networking is the definitive activity of the social web it is not surprising that social network analysis is a primary tool for their exploration and understanding. However to make this analysis useful we really need to understand the social implications of the links that are created when you friend or follow someone. ‘Follow’ can mean a lot of different things in the twitterverse. Initially it was a politeness – she’s followed me, I should follow her back. Once the spammers turned up then we all got more careful about this and so ‘follow’ becomes more active rather than cultural – who you follow says something about you and you may be consciously aware of this.

That’s not to say that its not useful to map a local twitter network for example – I’ve been working on this this week for a client and once you have an idea of who the principal civic actors are then analysis of their online relationships via twitter can give you a sense of how/if they are connected. Its possible to be more sophisticated about this purely data led exploration – for example you can look at @mentions which can give a good sense of proximity if they are reciprocal and also retweets which can be a measure of reach. But in terms of analysis of relationships its not accurate to say that you can map a social network by this method – we just don’t know enough about the motivations and meaning of any of the measurable actions.

Its also worth noting the difficulty of sampling real time networks such as twitter – its a moving target and if you are looking at interactions such as @mentions rather than just follow/followed relationships then you need to make some sensible decisions as to when not just what you will be sampling.

Its also worth noting that you are strictly limited to ego-centric network analysis rather than looking at whole networks as lack of consistency about association between online and offline identities and also the unbounded nature of our online relationships means that we do not fit out interactions within neat and complete networks such a single organisations or associations. You have to take into account the ability of online social networks to connect you beyond your usual social sphere – to access expertise or interest, support or scrutiny from further away – both socially and perhaps geographically – and it seems that to use social network analysis with online networks you need to understand the underlying social structures first. This spread of connection has been one of the principal criticisms of online networks:

“…some analysts have feared that email, the Internet, and other reduced-cues CMCs are unable to sustain broadly-based, multiplex relations (see the review in [Wellman et al., 1996]; [Garton & Wellman, 1995]). These fears are extended by the boutique approach to online offerings which fosters a specialization of ties within any one of thousands of topic-oriented news groups ([Kling, 1995]; [Kollock & Smith, 1996]). However, this tendency toward specialization is counter-balanced by the ease of forwarding online communication to multiple others. Through personal distribution lists Internet participants can sustain broad, multiplex, supportive relationships ([Wellman & Gulia, 1997]; [Wellman, 1997]). As yet, there has been little research into the extent to which specialized, online, single relations grow into multiplex ties over time.” (Wellman, 1997)

However – the fact that our networks online are in most cases diffuse and unbounded means we need can’t define a network and then analyse the relationships within it in a meaningful way unless we are given access to the complete data set from a site like Facebook (I can really see that request going down well) and then find a really really big computer to deal with it. Instead we rely on an ego-centric approach which unravels relationships based on a single individual or core of individuals – this is in fact called the snowball method – which seems rather apt.

So, we can use twitter (which is more open to interrogation than Facebook and so an easier starting point) in order to do some initial analysis and to start that snowball rolling but to put more detail on this we would need to use other research techniques.

This is more consistent with the literature – more detailed Social Network Analysis data is usually collected via questionnaire and interview techniques rather than analysis of online networks – or rather I have not found any case study examples based on analysis of purely online environments that have not been supplemented by these methods even where they have carried out details log and traffic analysis. There are multiple case studies which have looked at email traffic for example but these will be cross referenced with demographic databases (not surprisingly you can find a number of studies that look at the social networks within academic institutions).

Surveys or interviews usually take the form of either name generators – which ask you who you know or name interpretors which ask you to define your relationships with the people in a described group. Where we start with someone’s twitter followers/followed it makes sense to follow this up with a name interpretation questionnaire which also has the option to add in offline contacts with the same type of relationships. If I want to use this technique in order to explore the relationships that we find between civic creators – something that would be extremely useful in terms of understanding the local civic online space then I will need to find some way of describing the relationships that we might find. Given that I will have chance to do this with a couple of research sites I will be exploring this in preliminary interviews with some of the principal actors that we have found through the research and then asking them to define some of these relationships for themselves. I prefer to do this rather than try to impose relationship descriptions because relationships – as we all know – are complicated:

“Relations (sometimes called strands) are characterized by content, direction and strength” (Wellman et al 1997)

We are trying to understand firstly how people relate to each other and then the degree to which they do so – their centrality. Centrality is a measure of how many connections an individual has but is also an important measure with respect to the whole network. Its an obvious fact that denser networks are more resilient to have an individual member removed but may also be more resistant to new people or ideas. Centrality can also help us to understand where individuals are critical to holding networks together and where their removal might form a cut-point in the network.

Ties are, in this context, either strong or weak. Of course the cut-point for a network may also be considered to be a bridge – or tie – between two different networks. Either way they are useful people to identify. The seminal paper on this “The Strength of Weak Ties” (Granovetter, 1973) explores the idea that weak ties are in fact more effective for passing information and learning new things. He describes the strength as ties like this:

“Most intuitive notions of the “strength” of an interpersonal tie should be satisfied by the following definition: the strength of a tie is a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie.” (Granovetter, 1973)

So though it is important to understand the strength of ties within a network I am really not sure what we will find when we explore this within a group of civic creators in a locality – another good reason to do the research.

Unless you are going to take a structural deterministic view of things and say that the networks are causing the behaviours of individuals rather than just describing them (which I’m not) then social network analysis is primarily a tool for exploration and discovery – a way of seeing groups of people in new ways in terms of the way in which they interact and potenitally influence each other.

This brings me my final point on the limitations of social network analysis with respect to civic communities – privacy and identity. We already know that many people prefer to keep their identity anonymous when talking about political issues (have a read of Michelle Ide Smith’s findings which are relevant at the hyperlocal level) which means that we may only be able to reach these people online and they may not be willing to share more information about who they are connected to because to of the inferences that you can make from this knowledge at a local level.

I think one other consideration also has to be to what extent your survey sample understands the publicity of their actions or whether they will find an analysis of their twitter interactions to be intrusive. This is another issue which I will be approaching with caution with some initial interviews as we are planning on gathering a group of civic creators whom we have isolated through an online research process and will see whether they feel surveilled or appreciated.

Social network analysis is a visual and accessible technique that can provide you with a quick snapshot of activity and connections for a network. It can expose connections you were not aware of and make clear the importance of individuals who you may not have been aware of. However, its unlikely that its going to do this if you rely just on the output data sets from online social networks themselves as we do not have enough clarity and agreement about what the relationships captured with the follow/followed actions actually are. Twitter (and other sites) are an excellent starting point for a snowball approach to data collection but to get robust data you need to ensure that you carry out follow up surveys and where possible interviews.

As a final point – its interesting to speculate what a network like Path might mean in this context. Path limits your network to 50 people and is specifically targeted at sharing things with friends and family rather than creating a wider network (good Wired article on this here). If they manage to create critical mass then it will be interesting to compare the data from Path with more conventionally gathered survey data – and to see if your what your network looks like if take physical world limitations of scale and apply them online – but this falls clearly into the category of things to think about post PHD.

PS this finally gets to the bottom of exactly why I find Twinfluence and its friends a little like social media snake oil…..very satisfying

Much of the thinking within my thesis is highly influenced by the behaviours and effects of communities – specifically geographically defined communities. However to limit my research to just this kind of civic activity is to ignore much of the online participation that is reaching beyond the purely social. Digital activism covers a range of activities, usually focused around single or at least tightly focused sets of issues. In this post I am really looking at four areas:

  • Large scale campaigning specialist campaigning organisations
  • More general digital activism, perhaps from traditional groups like Amnesty
  • Political bloggers
  • Social reporters

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This is a brief post giving a quick overview of online or virtual community as I realised I need a few paragraphs as I was putting my thesis together – might add to it at some point.  Online community is such an established idea for anyone who works with the social web but as ever with the academic stuff its not enough to take it at face value.

Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”(Howard Rhiengold, The Virtual Community; Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier)

 

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Right – may have gone a little mad today but have assembled a LOT of facts into a new page (its was too big even for me to post as a blog entry). So I present with fear and trepidation Facts Glorious  Facts for you to enjoy… I am not yet happythat this has got any kind of narrative and if there is any statisticians out there who would enjoycorrecting me then please feel free! I will be updating the page as I find new stuff (@DemSoc has been tantalising me with the possibility of a political party / Tolkein society comparison which is even better than the fact the the Swedish Pirate Party now has the largest grassroots  membership of any political party in Sweden)

One other disclaimer – there are a lot of graphs as images in here – I know this is not ideal but I don’t have time to turn them into real data right now… Otherwise I hope you find this helpful….always good to  have your facts straight

This post I one I promised a while ago in order to do proper justice to the excellent Networked Neighbourhoods report on hyperlocal websites. You can read about the launch event here and access the research directly here. I’m not going to try and replicate the excellent summary and background document and even you don’t have time to read all the detail it is worth taking 15 mins to read this (you can find it here).

Just to recap – the research looked at 3 hyperlocal websites in London, Harringay online , East Dulwich Forum and Brockley Central. Over 400 participants were surveyed, as were officers and Members, and then a mix of focus groups and interviews with all these groups provides more detailed qualitative information. The team also carried out a national survey with 210 responses from officers and 117 from members in order to create a wider picture and more detailed content analysis was carried out over3 6 hour periods on each of the 3 sites, 2 times in order to get an in-depth picture of what people are doing there. The study was supported by desk research in advance of the field work. The reason I note all this is the point out that this is a proper piece of research – not just opinion – and as such provides us with a great building block to show real effects from online interactions between citizens, communities and local government. I think the research team would be happy to acknowledge that this is not a definitive study – its just too wide a topic for the time/resources they had – but the findings are robust and substantiated as far as they go which is great.

As I said you really should read the summary findings but the digested read of these breaks down as follows:

  • Social capital and cohesion: Neighbourly relations: The case study sites stimulate positive connections between residents, both in terms of encounters and exchange. Forty-two per cent of respondents say they have met someone in their neighbourhood as a direct consequence of using the website; and a quarter say they are more likely to see someone they recognise as a result of participating on their site.
  • Collective efficacy: The results show considerable conviction among respondents that collective efficacy is supported by the sites. Three quarters of respondents felt that the local site had had a positive effect on whether or not people pull together to make improvements. There is a sense that social capital is being pooled, visibly, and can be drawn on for individual or collective need.
  • Cohesion and diversity: The sites are not representative of their areas – and due to anonymity being the norm in some cases are not aware of the degree of representativeness. A number of respondents suggested that the sites could make more effort to be inclusive. Given their potential to have influence and to mobilise people, this perceived lack of representativeness could become an issue.
  • Belonging and attachment: Participants in these sites mainly started from a position of feeling that they ‘belonged’ in the area. Nonetheless, 69 per cent felt that participation on the local site had strengthened their sense of belonging. The sites appear to be playing a consolidating role, building stronger attachment on already-sound foundations.
  • Communication and information-sharing: There is clear evidence that the sites are an excellent information sharing resource about all kinds of local issues if you are involved – 92 per cent agree that useful information gets shared efficiently. Council officers and elected members confirmed that they regard neighbourhood websites as important for sharing council news and information on council services and events (62 per cent ʻvery important, 33 per cent ʻsomewhat importantʼ). Information sharing is a vital social glue for any community so this is a useful finding in terms of defining these as communities.
  • Supportive and negative behaviour in local online spaces: The niceties of both negative and supportive online behaviour emerged strongly as themes in this study. It is not clear if someone of these perceptions are as a result of people not being familiar with online interactions generally.
  • Empowerment, civic involvement and co-production: There is evidence in the study that hyperlocal sites offer the promise of increased co-productive relationships with Councils as they provide a channel and encouragement for people to get involved in civic and community issues. There is also the potential for them to as a space for the renewal of resident/council relationships – Neighbourhood websites appear to promote improved relations with local agencies and hence offer a stable platform for coproduction.
  • Co-production: attitudes towards official roles: Twenty one per cent of respondents said that participation on their site had changed their attitude towards council officers for the better. Almost twice as many (42 per cent) said their attitude towards local councillors had changed for the better.
  • Empowerment: influencing local decisions: As with the sense of belonging participants started with high levels of belief in their ability to influence decisions. More than half (59 per cent) of respondents already feel able to influence decision-making processes in their area. Our survey question for this measure was based on the Citizenship Survey which reports a national average of 37 per cent for 2009-2010.
  • Civic activism and civic participation: I’ll pick this up later in the post but the overall conclusion was that there was no strong link between participation in the sites and formal decision-making – only 13% of respondents had formal involvement over the last year and this is again in line with the citizenship survey.
  • Barriers to participating in neighbourhood sites: Council officers spoke of a range of barriers, including not being allowed access to local sites from their offices; council reluctance to relinquish control of messages; and lack of internal guidance on how to participate. Some felt that as officers they were not trusted to toe the line; and if they saw a need to contribute online, there were too many barriers to getting approval. The key indicator for a councilʼs decision to engage is a high number of hits on a site.
  • Content mix: The content mix is huge – a broad variety of information gets shared and issues get aired. Some of this is democratic and some is civic – the quotidian of daily existence. There is also more social content and opportunities for offline meet-ups – the main point is that these are vibrant and interesting spaces rather than filled with dull do-gooders.
  • Local identity: The report found that each of the sites contributing to strengthening local identity – will pick this up later as well.
  • Responsible site administration: Good quality moderation / facilitation is hugely valued and is make or break for the success of the sites. This is a tricky one for Council’s as without it it is very difficult for officers / members to participate but it is not something that ‘government’ can provide as the independence of the sites is extremely important to participants.

That’s it for the general round up – this next section picks out the findings that I found particularly interesting and which I will be referencing in my own stuff. I break my comments down as follows:

  • Informal Civic Participation
  • Local Civic Spaces
  • Who’s in charge? Representativeness
  • Moderation in all things
  • Identity matters
  • A little something for the Police
  • Conclusions

Informal Civic Participation

As anyone who has been here before my interest is in defining informal civic participation and looking at how it can connect to formal democratic processes. Good news is – these hyperlocal sites were filthy with it – well the informal stuff at least. The study looked at showed a fairly standard level of connection with formal democratic processes:

“Again following the Citizenship Survey we distinguished civic activism and civic participation. The former covers involvement either in direct decision-making about local issues or in the actual provision of these services by taking on a role such as a school governor. The latter was narrowed in our survey to cover contact with people working in an official capacity (such as a council officer): our question asked about contact as a direct consequence of participation on the local website. Overall, 13 per cent of respondents said they have been involved in formal groups or organisations locally in the past year. This is consistent with recent Citizenship Survey results.”

However a review of the content showed a “strong commitment to local involvement”. The nomenclature is different but the basic premise of a discernible different between informal and formal civic engagement is demonstrated by the research. The report echoes this saying “It seems likely that local websites can both stimulate and reflect a latent demand for informal opportunities for collective involvement, very much on a dip-in dip-out basis.”

This is also reflected in the way in which the Local Council’s use the sites to get early notice of issues of concern to the residents – ie the issues that have not yet made it into the formal realm.  The study concludes on this point that “Those who have sought the revival of democracy in mechanical processes like voting, petitions and scrutiny might do well to examine the way this fertile mix of content nurtures an agitated, involved democracy of everyday life.”

However the use of the term democracy here may be misleading – or at least needs to be clarified as the participants are not showing an interest in politics at all. An good example of this is the exchange quoted below from one of the time slices of content:

ʻI’d rather this thread didn’t turn into a bun-fight between Labour and the LibDems. James, Vikki…..I’m looking in your direction. Please conduct yourselves with some decorum and debate the issue at hand rather than trying to score cheap political points. As PeckhamRose says, this is exactly the sort of stuff that turns people away from politics, even at a local level. This thread poses some interesting points about shared services and efficiencies of scale – why not start there?”

Personally I am not sure what is happening with these hyperlocal sites should necessarily be referred to as local democracy. It has the potential to be democratic and certainly provides the agar jelly (or Public Sphere if you’d like to be less fanciful) that you need to breed democratic debate but so much of the interaction is about the life of the community rather than the decisions that it needs to make. My working definitions of Civic and Democratic boil down to:

  • Civic activities are 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.
  • 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.

By this definition much of what we see within this study is civic rather than democratic though there are examples where the Council has taken a formal process into the hyperlocal site. The exception to this is as East Dulwich where Councillor James Barber provides a constituency surgery service on the site. However I would argue that as this is not in and of itself a decision-making process it stays within the civic realm – albeit provided by a democratically elected representative.

This is not a criticism – we can’t possibly have a vibrant democracy without having vibrant communities to support it – my point is that civic and democratic activities overlap but are separate and as such we need to make sure we are not ascribing shared qualities where they don’t exist.

Local Civic Spaces

Community or hyperlocal websites form new kinds of civic spaces online and the report starts to look at what the ‘public-ness’ of these sites means. The report use terminology from socialogist Lyn Lofland who talks about a distinction between the public and parochial realm. She defines the parochial realm as

ʻcharacterized by a sense of commonality among acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks that are located within “communitiesʼ.

She adds to this a definition of the public realm as being those spaces:

ʻwhich tend to be inhabited by persons who are strangers to one another or who “know” one another only in terms of occupational or other nonpersonal identity categories (for example, bus driver/customer)ʼ.(Lofland 1998, p9)

She makes an important distinction here between the places where you know people as people and the places where you know people as ‘actors’ rather than individuals. One of the findings from the research is the ability of these hyperlocal sites to create more personal relationships – something that is very important in social capital terms.

But there is still a need to be clear on whether these are places for the community in the sense of a geographically defined group of people or places for pre-existing networks. This also links to the point about representativeness but is really about defining how public the sites are. The report describes one of the sites as follows:

“The forum has the appearance of a public space but has been set up and is run privately by a local resident; it cannot be described as a profit-making initiative, but is socially-motivated without any known connection to existing community groups or movements and without any democratic credentials apart from the transparency provided by its technology; it generates feelings of passionate association among some its members; attracts and comes to be occupied by key civic figures; and they find themselves ticked off publicly by an anonymous voice assumed to be a local resident. This is not how we are accustomed to conducting local democracy.” and goes on to say “Neighbourhood websites remind us constantly and forcefully that they are the online manifestation of a fluid and varied offline world – not the other way round.”

I would challenge this last point – there is every indication from the research that these sites are not manifestations of the offline world with any degree of accuracy and in fact provide a fairly specialised slice of well resources and well intentioned individuals. That’s not to say this is a bad thing – we need interested, articulate people to be active in their community, but it does not make these sites manifestations of the offline world.

But it is useful to reflect on the interplay between the online and offline public realms and the osmosis between them. Throughout the study there are references to online interactions creating offline events and actions from clearing snow, to checking on neighbours, to social meet-up and regular events. I suppose the question I would ask is whether or not these sites represent the most active, most ‘belonging’ of the residents or whether there are other groups out there with similar levels of participation – just not online. I would have to guess the answer is yes to this and so the issues become do you need to integrate them into these hyperlocal spaces in order to move democratically or do you instead need to find them their own separate and more sympatico space? We tend to think of the community in an offline sense as being loosely defined by where you live. You may not feel part of it and you may not like it but that is where you are. Once you can join with people online its possible to have multiple narratives and communities overlaying the same geographical area – all separate fiefdoms with distinct characteristics. This is not necessarily a bad thing – different people flourish in different environments and we cannot expect volunteers to work to a template. However it should make us more cautious with the use of the term democracy and it should make us consider whether these hyperlocal sites are parochial or public.

Sunstein talks about the risk of ‘group polarisation’ within online communities (https://curiouscatherine.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/republic-2-0-reading-and-appreciating/ ) and many of the comments that you see in this study show the tendency towards this

ʻSeems to be for white middle aged people, basically.ʼ ʼI would imagine the website doesnt attract a contribution from a full range of social demographic backgrounds to reflect the actual community as a whole.ʼ ʻdoesn’t seem to represent the diversity of the local community, particularly ethnically and in terms of social class.ʼ

These sites are organic and spontaneous – which is why they flourish – the issue as to whether they are democratic and whether they truly reflect on online civic space is a separate matter. However I suggest that we need to build spaces that help these sites to interact with each other in order to create a democratic space.

Who’s in charge? Representativeness

These sites are public – they are open to anyone who wants to join and they are clearly a valuable community resources for anyone who participants – but its also a truism to say that this publicity in and of itself does not make them representative of their areas (though they may be representative of the participating community). This is clearly stated in the report:

“In our interviews with site founders we learned that each had set their site up with a broad sense of social purpose but no explicit intention to promote community cohesion or social inclusion. The sites do not set out to be, nor claim to be, democratically representative, culturally representative or accountable.”

This is echoed in the survey where 80 per cent of respondents felt that the local site had made no difference to their participation in formal decision-making groups.

These sites function extremely well in the informal civic realm and I don’t think we should be burdening community led hyperlocal projects with the idea that they have to be representative unless they decide themselves that they want to take this step towards formality – in which case there are models that they can use. It would be too easy to stifle the vital social element with too much structure and where you rely on volunteers you need to either resource them up to the hilt (not a current option) or let them organise as they wish to a great extent. There is no need for these civic spaces to be democratic if they don’t want to be – though they probably do need to have some route into the democratic process

The research does show however that some kind of relationship with the representative is both productive and perceived positively from all sides. As quoted above Twenty one per cent of (citizen)respondents said that participation on their site had changed their attitude towards council officers for the better. Almost twice as many (42 per cent) said that their attitude towards local councillors had changed for the better. This is reflected with officers and members; Among elected members, 42 per cent find neighbourhood sites to be ʻmostly constructive and usefulʼ while a further 41 per cent were ready to describe them as ʻsomewhat constructive and usefulʼ. For officers the figures were 41 per cent and 47 per cent respectively.

Identity matters

There were some interesting comments around identity in the report which I think are well represented by this quote from the founder of Brockley Central:

When you post a comment, please give yourself a name, out of courtesy to the Brockley Central team and your fellow readers. It takes a couple of seconds to do, but makes conversations much easier to follow. There are people who’ve been posting here daily for years under pseudonyms, but we still don’t know anything about their identity – so choosing a name doesn’t compromise your privacy, it just a demonstration of good manners, which makes conversations easier to follow.ʼ (Nick Barron)

It suggests that while your civic identity needs to be consistent and trackable in some way it doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to your offline identity. Pseudonyms are a useful compromise between privacy and accountability – though for actual decision-making we probably need to manage these a bit more formally.

The report also picks on an important point for officers:

“A final question concerns the potential for people in official positions to contribute pseudonymously. There are complex issues here that are largely beyond the scope of our work but to which we should draw attention. The research reported here followed a workshop run with council officers, elected members and others in September 2009, in which participants were emphatic that officers should not be anonymous or pseudonymous, because it could catalyse the erosion of trust in all sorts of ways. In our study we were told of officers having contributed to sites pseudonymously. One site founder told us with certainty that he is aware of officers who use the site pseudonymously. There seems no reason why officers should not lurk, although it was felt that if required to register they should do so under their official identity.”

When we think about online engagement officers, who will often live in the areas in which they work, are incredible disenfranschised. Some kind of agreement around pseudonyms and civic identity could help unlock participation from a group of people who are already interested and active in what happens locally.

Moderation in all things

Moderation, facilitation, curation – who knows what to call it? The NN study went for the more neutral term of administration and I just wanted to highlight this comment from the report:

“We have seen that council officers and members are often reluctant to engage in local sites because of concerns about getting involved in protracted or discordant conversations. This highlights the importance of the administratorʼs role. This role varies significantly across our three study sites, and can involve a small team, or just an individual. Our focus groups and survey revealed great respect for the way administrators act to contain negative posts and comments, insist on fairness, and remove combustible material. Interviews with administrators have revealed the complexity involved and the stress experienced in the role. There could be a lot at stake. Sites that have allowed a culture of persistent negativity will hold back the ability of this movement to fulfil its social potential. Successful sites which establish balanced argument and avoid the downward spiral of aggressive negativity, and which therefore offer an environment in which councils will wish to engage, depend heavily on the culture established and maintained by founders and administrators. The skills and temperament involved need to be more clearly understood and recognised.”

Some kind of facilitation is obviously both needed and valued – its an important civic role. Give the number of hyperlocal sites which are currently up and running it might be a helpful thought to try and start to do some knowledge sharing directly between them around how they make this particular facet of the sites work. In social capital terms these people are the glue that are holding these communities together and it would be helpful to understand more about what they are doing. Good facilitation is as much art as science but there are techniques and approaches that could be captured as there are in other fields that use this.

A little something for the Police

Much of this report is focused on the democratic impacts and the relationship with councils – but I thought it would also be useful to point out that the findings are equally valid for other agencies and there were measureable benefits from Police involvement. Below are a couple of examples of this:

In Harringay the police, unusually for London, are regular contributors as well as readers. Officers use Harringay Online to monitor local concerns informally as well as using the site to help set local policing priorities. The local police sergeantʼs recent post on 5th November, updating members on an incident, received over two pages of comments. An example of the regular police monitoring of the site to spot local problems arose when a resident posted about a burglary attempt the previous night. The next morning the police had posted the following: “ʻQueenie, Have you reported this to police? I can’t find any trace of it on our crime system. If you haven’t reported it please call 0300 123 1212 and they will arrange for officers to attend and report it.ʼ

And the experience of one user in Herne Hill:

ʻI just had interesting meeting with new officer in charge of one of the local safer neighbourhood teams. In order to get up to speed on what the crime and anti-social behaviour issues are he said that he simply read through the entire correspondence on our local web site. He now knows where the hot spots are, speeding traffic issues, mugging etc etc. ʻHe uses the postings and info on the site as part of his evidence gathering for getting resource to be allocated to an issue or area. ʻHis previous area he was posted to he said, had no local community web site and he was so glad that there was one in his new location as it made their job so much easier.ʼ

And these anecdotes are backed up by the survey results: A quarter of respondents said that their attitude towards the police or Police Community Support Officers had changed for the better.

Conclusions

At the risk of being repetitive….its great to see a piece of research that lifts us from the techno-evangelist level to some actual facts…and the fact that we can now start to debate these facts is great. No small credit due to Steve Johnson of Capital Ambition for commissioning and funding the work. Its clearly just the tip the iceberg though and I hope that this study drives energy and enthusiasm to pick up some of the specific points. For me I think the next questions to look at are around the role of the administrator with these sites as well as more work as to what works for elected members. I also think that it would be very interesting to pick up this point of representativeness and representation.

However – reading back on the post I think the final point I want to make is that these sites are not enough to create the democratic ecosystem for the network society and I think some caution needs to be exercised in showcasing this work to Local Government as I have some concern that many councils would see the establishment of these sites as a manageable short cut to online civic participation. I would highlight this note from the report:

“There is widespread understanding that the independence of these sites is essential but it is acknowledged that as the benefits become apparent, councils themselves could have a role to play in facilitating the development of new sites across their areas. Itʼs likely that a mixed model of relationships will emerge: some sites will flourish with a connection to a single officer or member, others will benefit from a connection to an area forum or other accountable body, others may thrive with occasional input from a range of officers.”

We need to let these sites emerge and develop themselves and if there is any role for government its in skill sharing and enablement – not in moderation or definitely not in technical commission. The trick will be in encouraging Councils to support and collaborate with these sites without exerting the control that makes them (the councils) feel more secure.

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