virtual town hall


I couldn’t seem to find a quick description of what I mean by online civic space and thought I’d better pop up a definition.  The purpose which I prescribe for a civic space is: 

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

However we also need to look at the affordances of that space to define it – what does it do.  Affordance is fancy way of saying ‘ the effects that you expect something to have’.  Rather than a quality which is largely descriptive an affordance is something that you expect your design to have.  Below are the affordances which I expect an online civic space to have:

  • Publicity– you can’t do democracy in private
  • Identity – you need some certainty that you are dealing with actual citizens and acknowledges the fact that democracy is a social activity
  • Agility – this builds on earlier posts but there needs to be some kind of decision making process embedded and it needs to be fit for purpose in a networked world.
  • Curation – there is a need for some kind of management which will ensure that decisions are taken
  • Information – looking forward these civic spaces need to feed off the data of government as a decision support tool – and should also provide context for the outputs of previous decisions.
  • Co-production – this needs to be a shared space though different people can and will have different roles within it – some as representatives
I think I may be being a bit slack with my use of the word affordance here and may need to tidy up this language – comments on this very welcome.I am also considering whether or not I need to add in the idea of representativeness into this list – or whether the fact that identity is here means that the representativeness is something that needs to be considered in the context of the decisions being made rather than an affordance of the space.  More on that when I finish mulling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The publicity of the social web

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

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

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

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

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

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

or put more simply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is an online civic space?

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

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

What are its attributes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why bother?

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

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

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

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

Where can I get one??

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

This post is focused on exploring the differences between civic and democratic behaviours and was drawn into focus by some really interesting conversations I have had this week while doing a short but perfectly formed trip to Yorkshire for various projects.

One of the major elements of the model which I am trying to develop is the drawing of a distinction between formal and informal modes of behaviour. This is something that I am drawing from Social Capital nomenclature (Wallace, 2007, “Patterns of Formal and Informal Social Capital in Europe”). However I am then making the further distinction to say that informal behaviours can be characterised as social or civic and that formal behaviours can be civic or democratic. I have defined civic as follows:

“Civic activities can be defined as interactions which concern your community and take place outside of your social circle as you connect to other members of that community that you may not have a social connection with.”

However this is old news and you can read the proper post on this here.

But my conversations this week have really made me think about the distinction that I have been making between civic and democratic behaviours really fails to take into account politics – the idea that you might have an overarching ideology which informs some of your choices and your context – and that this means it fails to really deal with the role of the elected representatives. The role of the representative is often the elephant in the room when you talk of changing the way we interact with the public and I realised that I have been dodging the issue as well.

When I first started to develop my model I used the term “Formal Consultation” rather than “Formal Civic” because I wanted to draw a distinction between what I saw as two separate interactions between Councils and Citizens – information gathering in the form of consultations and the decisions in the form of democratic process. However I moved away from this for two reasons:

  • I am describing the ‘bottom’ up activity of the public acting upon the decision making process – one way of looking at this is describing it as the pressure that informal civic behaviour puts on current formal processes. Formal consultation is initiated and driven from the formal body running the process not from the citizens and I wanted to reflect this ‘citizen pressure’ in the model
  • Consultation is not the only formal way for the public to get a hearing from the council outside of the formal democratic decision making process so my description was limited

This latter observation means that I need to spend some time looking at those formal routes into councils and I will write this up here when I have it.

When I talk about consultation I’m not talking about some of the ‘place-shaping’ market research type data that we need to get back from our communities in order to understand them on a macro level (though I think we could probably do this an awful lot better than we do right now this is a different post of even research project!). I’m talking of the wider scale consultations on particular policy areas or particular plans which often amount to showing the public a range of bounded choices rather than offering them – or even a thinly veiled communication exercise that attempts to herd public opinion is a specific direction.

I use this analogy a lot – so apologies – but consultation is so often about asking people if they want apples or oranges and never gives voice to the people who really fancy a banana (or – as someone pointed out last time I used this an egg sandwich – showing that I was already limiting people to fruit choices in my own thinking!!!)

Part of the reason for me evolving my thinking about this is the reading and learning I am doing around data collection and social research methods – its making me focus more academically and as a result look far more vigorously at some these processes when I come across them. Good research will do its very best to make sure that the context of the researcher has no place in the data collection – and this I think is the issue here.

By the time we get to the point of running a consultation the context is already set and we are not explaining this to the public – they don’t understand the policy cycle and as a result grow frustrated when they can’t affect the context. The issue is that the context is partly political and because we have tried to sanitise the consultation process from all political opinions we are not able to be honest with the public.

There are many good or at least understandable reasons as to why we have ended up here but I do think it would be an awful lot healthier – and a lot more open – if we were to put the issue of politics front and centre in the discussion and stop thinking that deliberations around decision making can be ideology free.

Of course the other issue is just the policy making cycle – at the moment we put deliberation in the mix before we carry out consultation – ie we consult of a fixed set of plans – but I think this needs to be turned around. For me decision making has four stages:

  1. Set the agenda – what’s the decision about?
  2. Set the context – What do we need to take into account when making the decision?
  3. Deliberate the options – How do we weigh off our options within this context
  4. Make the decision – How do we make a decision that takes into account the context, the options and the opinions of the people who will be effected.

I also believe that you need to view this as an iterative loop or spiral which allows you to check the agenda and context have not shifted during the deliberative process. This owes a lot to Rapid Application Development (RAD) or Rapid Prototyping methodologies which I think suit out network society. I was also very fond on the Boehm Spiral but that’s another post altogether.

So my formal civic behaviour is defined as the point at which civic society tells the state something by using an agreed channel. In terms of my decision making process this is really points 1 and 2. This means that Formal Civic behaviour relates to agenda and context setting and that Formal democratic behaviour is about deliberation and actual decision making processes.

This idea of “civic society telling the state” is an important point for me as there is a lot of discussion at the moment about how we could use semantic analysis or even sentiment analysis tools to feed into the decision making process and I think this is flawed. The public sphere needs to be healthy and vibrant – but there also needs to be a point at which it is fed into government in order to instigate action and this should be a conscious decision from the community – otherwise we are just imposing process on them again and the public are not taking responsibility for their inputs. The other flaw in the idea of passively harvesting public opinion is the fact that once again we are keeping the public out of the actual decision making process.

Deliberation is going to be political – its carried out in the main part by the politicians and they all have (or should have!) an ideological position on the issue at hand. We have created many barriers between the political and representative roles of the politicians in order to stop abuses of power – but which are being eroded by a more informationally demanding public and the authenticity and accountability that an online life affords people. These barriers inhibit local politicians embracing new channels such as social media. We have to accept the fact that our representatives have political views and that we either have to trust them to represent the people who do not share their views or we need to make the whole process more participatory and more open. We haven’t managed the first approach – we don’t trust them – so lets try and the second and create new standards that will allow us to deal with abuse.

The issue for me with consultation is that the deliberation will have already started and so the context is largely fixed in place but not necessarily communicated as consultation processes are not currently allowed to be political. To some extent this is inevitable – there is no such thing as a clean slate – but if we are looking to reform the relationship with the public and respond to the pressure that the informal civic space is putting on the formal sphere then we need to explore ways to include the ideological facts in the context setting process so that these can be understood by the public – after all they did cast the votes that put those ideologies there.

But the big question for me, for two reasons, is how we can involve the public in the deliberative process:

  • We already have representative who are there to represent the public in that process and involving the public risks undermining this
  • Most deliberation is, by my observation, largely informal or carried out in closed (for public participation) meetings such as cabinet

On the first point – I think there is strong evidence in terms of demonstrable democratic deficit that says that in many ways our politicians, especially at a local level, have a technical mandate through the voting process but no ‘real’ mandate because of low levels of voter turnout – Part of the thesis writing will be to evidence and back this belief up in more detail but it tends to get a big nod when you discuss it with practitioners. I believe that this disconnection means that we need to find a new ways to mediate this relationship. And yes – I believe that a lot of this new mediation will need to be online for many reasons.

Now for the PHD I’m not even going to start looking at how to change this – I’m going to stay focused on building civic spaces and looking at processes which could involve representatives – its someone else’s problem to see what we can do to ensure that representatives have the skills to participate.

However its an urgent problem because – lets face it – on many levels isn’t consultation as we use it now really about officers wanting or needing to bypass the representative in order to find out what people actually want? Or about members wanting the right questions asked to give them the answers they want (how often are survey questions vetted by members who know nothing about formal data collection and introduce inherent bias?) And is that not the reason that it is so often so limited?

We talk about lack of trust in the representatives from the public – surely its understandable that the officers often share that lack of trust? After all they are the public as well! There are some brilliant councillors out there – both online and offline – but there are few that are able to form an effective working relationship with officers and too few officers who have the skills to help them do this. But until we acknowledge the elephant in the room and start to innovate with members rather than in parallel with them then we are not going to be able to effect radical change to the way in which we work. But we cannot make any changes without treating elected representatives as politicians and accepting this as part of their decision making context and stop being afraid of it.

Because the hard fact is that decisions are taken by members and that consultation processes should exist in order to inform those decisions – and yet they don’t.

We can use and will use technology to improve the consultation process and to build in more transparency and openness but unless we also find ways to let the public set the agenda and the context, and unless we embrace the fact that decision making in a democratic process is political then we are really talking about sticking plasters and triage rather than the more radical surgery that will be needed in order to really change the relationship between the citizen and state and to create new ways of making decisions.

New governance models do not have to mean a plebiscite democracy – there is no evidence that the public want to be involved in every decision and no process that could make this an informed process. But if we are going to reinvent our representative process to take into account social change, characterised by the network society, then we need find a way to be more honest about the role of representatives and let politicians be politicians.

You have all been too polite to ask but some of you may have been wondering what has been happening with the Virtual Town Hall project that kicked all of this off. This post is intended to explain where are with the project and why things have been rather quiet.

We have been making some progress behind the scenes but things have been delayed for two main reasons:

  • My new job has taken a lot of my focus and I have just not been paying enough attention to the project. As a result things have been drifting for the last 6 months to a great extent. Clearly project management is not just about checklists – its also to a large extent about energy and direction and I have just not had any to spare while we made some fairly big changes in the business. I am always one for biting off slightly more than I can chew and I feel very fortunate that the pilot sites have been understanding of this and still have the interest and energy themselves to take this forward.  Needless to say part of my update process has been to apologise to some people for these delays…they have so far been very gracious
  • We put the technology in the field a bit too early. The initial sites were ok but no-one felt happy enough with them to make a big fuss about the launch. This was really down to UI issues as well as some functionality changes that were obvious once we saw things on the real world

So where does this leave us? Happily – in a much better place. The technology is now in really good shape and we have made a lot of progress – from that point of view the delay has been beneficial. In terms of the pilot sites themselves – I am in the process of visiting them in order to get the project refocused and ready to really go live this time. This week I have spent time with North Lincolnshire, Kirklees and Chorley and in all of those sites I think we have a plan to go forward which I think in all cases is stronger than the original proposition because it is more focused. I will blog separately about what the focus of each site will be but key differences from the initial plans are:

  • A decision to focus on a specific topic or area (be it topical of geographic). We were casting the net very wide in most cases and that lack of focus only added to our indecision in terms of actually getting things working
  • A reduced reliance on the idea of community ambassadors. We still feel that they have an important role to play but we are intending to get the sites up and running without relying on the recruitment and participation of these individuals – instead we will look for them as part of the ongoing sustainability of the process
  • The context of the work has changed hugely since we started in terms of the financial climate and as a result we will be putting a much greater emphasis on two areas:
  • Identifying the costs involved in the process that we are running
  • Identifying areas where our new activities can substitute for more expensive offline activities

In talking to the pilots sites I am very aware of how difficult a time it is to work in local government and I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who prepared to try something new rather than sitting back and waiting to see what happens. I think however that we all agree that someone needs to actually explore and measure what Carl (@gr8governance) calls “Decision making 2.0” and to really evaluate some of the stuff that a lot of people are speculating about with respect to the opportunities that social media and the online world provides to change the way we work with citizens.

So – things are getting back on track with the Virtual Town Hall and I should be able to outline more information on the specific foci for each of the sites in the very near future.

On a slightly different topic – I was at a meeting the other day when I was accused of looking down on some of the ideas that were being suggested as if they came straight out of The Sun newspaper. After I’d re-schooled my face into something a little more meeting friendly I could see what they meant – it seems I don’t have the right expression for ‘I’m thinking about something else’ and had accidentally used my ‘you are talking rubbish’ expression – needless to say I did apologise. However the reason I had mentally moved on to think about something else because in my view it may be interesting but I don’t think that Council’s should be trying to start projects which are best led by the community. However much we want these projects to happen to try and create them for the community is the same attitude of the paternalism which has got us to the point where we have more consumers of services rather than active citizens.

To be clear – this is not to say that community projects are not hugely important and should be supported whenever feasible – more that I don’t think that Council can or should be trying to create them because Council’s don’t do this kind of thing as well as the community can do it themselves. We need to be supporting and empowering local communities and then leaving them to get on with stuff themselves. Harsh but fair.

In the meantime I believe that Local Authorities need to address some of the bigger problems in terms of how we manage decision making across the whole unit – not just at the community level because we apportion resources and make decisions on this basis. I am relieved to think that there are people looking at the really important hyperlocal level around limited and discrete issues because it needs doing and the community needs to step up to the challenge – but my attention is focused on how we bring these small communities together and help them negotiate with each other for limited resources – because this wider negotiation is the issue that local government is really wrestling with.  This is the point of the Virtual Town Hall project and I am looking forward to getting on and making some more progress.

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

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

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

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

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

The distinction between informal and formal

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

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

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

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

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

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

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

Four categories of behaviours

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

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

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

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

Last week I spent a day at a social media legal masterclass (details are here if you want them ) with an excellent presenter in Kathryn Corrick. I attended as I wanted to make sure I have a proper overview of what the legal issues are and to get a bit more detail where possible. I was fairly relieved to find that I do have a grasp of the essentials and that actually anyone with a fair amount of common sense and an idea of the basic principles is going to be fine but there were a few interesting points I wanted to note properly. However as it was a legal masterclass I need to point out that I am not a lawyer – and neither was the person running the course – so this is not actual advice!

But first a more general observation. there is a huge difference in the legal and moral positions on various issues and the law is not yet ready for social media.  Social media throws up issues of privacy and identity which are far more complex when you have a complete record of someone’s time online and also a need to balance the personal with the professional roles of an individual. This is particularly true for democratic content where it might be the legal case that copyright is broken for example but where the moral case is very clearly with anyone who is trying to constructively engage in democratic debate. The law is a tool which is there to help is all get along and in the case of social media we don’t really know how we want to get along and how we need the law to help is yet as we are still writing the rulebook.

But more specifically – here are the specific things I noted from the day – they are not all new thoughts – but useful reminders if nothing else:

  • Copyright really is very simple – if someone else created a piece of content then don’t use it without crediting them. If you want to use big chunks of someone else’s content then ask them – and if you want to try and profit it from it then don’t – they made it and they should profit. Democratic content is slightly different in that you want people to take it to some extent – but the problem of people taking selected pieces and quoting out of context can be addressed through copyright legislation. We are about to do some work around making council webcasts far more viral – and I will be looking at the creative commons licence model to see if this offers the right level of protection. Making the webcast player embeddable is a good route to deal with the copyright problem as if people embed content then they are far less likely to abscond with it – its about making the right thing to do the easiest route.
  • You really cannot represent yourself as someone else – this is not news but I did not know that this is all down to the Consumer Protection from Unfair Training  Regulations of 2008 (I say this in homage to Kathryn who ran the course – she claims this as her favourite bit of legislation. The regulation covers things like fake blogs but also using fake accounts to leave comments. This highlights the problem of identity / anonymity for officers in my view as you really do need to use your own identity. And did you know that the act of creating fake blogs is actually known as flogging??
  • Purdah – we had an interesting discussion of social media and purdah over lunch and Kathryn’s view – which I agree with – is that the substantive point which you need to focus on is whether or not you have gained benefit from your role as am elected representative and if you have then you need to disassociate from this during the election process. In a social media context this means that you cannot, for example, use the same twitter account that you use as an elected representative in order to campaign – even if you have set this up outside of the council infrastructure – because you are communicating with followers who you may have picked up as a member. This inevitably means having more than one account on social media sites and making sure that you communicate where you are going to be at any time as it were. Though this makes clear sense in terms of the ‘letter of the law’ it seems to me to ultimately be a very clumsy way of handling identity – but this is what we are stuck with until we have a more sophisticated view of online identity management.
  • Moderating content is actually higher risk than not moderating as once you moderate something you take responsibility for it. This is worth remembering in the context of the virtual town hall pilot.
  • We did talk about aggregation and Kathryn said she would follow this up as its clear that aggregation is something new which means there is nothing in the existing body of law to help us with liabilities and responsibilities. Also a point to note for Virtual Town Hall!
  • Privacy is largely ignored by most social media sites and it really is a shocker when you read the terms and conditions ( I know we all know that but really – how often do you actually stop and think about it!!). One thing to note is that most sites insist that it is actually a person who creates an account – which actually creates some problems where an individual is signing up on behalf of an organisation. Again – this is probably one of those lawyer problems which will never be an actual issue but needs to be noted.
  • While talking about privacy – I was surprised as to how easy it actually is to breech someone’s privacy (for example talking about a friends health in a public place). I think the thing to note here is that you need to be aware of what the other person would be happy with you revealing – not to judge other people’s level of disclosure by your own.

There are some common sense things you can do to navigate all of this – the two main ones being:

  • Have a strong take down policy and remove content quickly if there is an issue – but make sure that the policy tells people what you have done so you can’t be accused of censorship
  • Make it easy for people to complain – encourage people to take responsibility

So – no amazing revelations here as the law is really about clarity of thought and if you have that then you are fine.  Where this gets interesting is in what is best for the individual is no longer the best thing for democracy in general and where the technology starts to expand beyond what we can find a real world simulacrum and hence precedent for.  Will update this if we get info back on the aggregation point.

Or how to avoid sounding like a social media guru ……

I realise that I have drifted into the habit of talking about webspace rather than websites and I wanted to work through why this is – mainly to make sure it’s not just an abuse of the English language. I’m a big supporter of the idea that language evolves in order to reflect social changes – but also concerned that that is very easy to start using meaningless words and phrases just to make things sounds more interesting. But sometimes terminology does need to change to help move thinking along – and I think this is perhaps part of a wider debate that I have talked to a few people about recently about the need to find some shared terminology to talk about these ideas around using social web tools to do civic an democratic things.

But right now the real point for me is that that fact that I feel there is a distinction between these two words – but is it a meaningful difference?

Probably the biggest difference in my internal definitions of these words is that fact that a website is self-contained – it might have elements of external content but it is clearly the editorial property of the domain owners – which means they also control the purpose. Webspaces on the other hand are formed by the aggregation of content from the users and are therefore not editorially controlled.

Secondly I see webspaces as being primarily social – they are defined by the interactions between people – where websites are more likely to focus on non-user generated content. This makes the potential for co-production in a webspace greater than the potential within a website.

But finally I think the move into more architectural metaphors – the use of the word space rather than a more technical description – starts to bring in the thought that what is being created is more than the technology – and that it has more of an identity of its own. In the real world the difference between a site and a space is one which we all recognize but actually the definitions are not actually that different:

  • site noun (PLACE): a place where something is, was, or will be built, or where something happened, is happening, or will happen
  • space noun (EMPTY PLACE): [C or U] an empty area which is available to be used

Perhaps the difference is that a site is there for something to be built but the word space offers us potential for greater opportunities – perhaps this is why the word suits social web activity better than the more practical word ‘site’ – we want to talk about the potential and impact rather than just the building blocks. The sense of potential comes from the, in one sense, infinite nature of space, and in another sense, from the sense of emptiness. It is a more grandisose and open term than site as a result seems to better suit the grandiose ambitions that can be talked about with respect to social web.

But does this make it the right term? I don’t know – it feels more suitable to me but perhaps we will have to wait while the terminology evolves to see if it continues to make sense.

One way to explore it though is to use it. When I talk about civic webspaces I am trying to describe something with the following attributes:

  • You know when you are there
  • It can give visual and social clues as to how you should behave their
  • It sets expectations as to the type of conversations you are going to have – and these interactions will be about your local community
  • It will evolve and change as its community changes – but it will always be identifiable
  • There is an expectation of shared action and purpose – rather than just talking this is a space to get things done

This final point – this sense of shared action – is where the biggest departure from what I would call a website occurs.

I often go on from there to ask people if they acknowledge the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn – they all do. When you think about it like that it becomes clear that we are missing a public sphere (back to Habermas again!) and that we need to think about how to build it. But the question as to what we are building is not yet clear. The Virtual Town Hall is one possible building – one possible definition of the space – but its fairly specific – if we want to talk about a wider set of possibilities we are still in the position of talking about a space and how we can define it.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.