This is going to be one of those annoying posts which strays between research stuff and more practical things. I’m writing it to tease out an inconsistency in my thinking around both the thesis and also our design work for Citizenscape. It really is thinking in public so please feel free to look away and leave me quietly muttering to myself……

I am just neurotically tweaking (with heroic help from the amazing @GeorgeJulian and others) my thesis which does two main things:

  • Describes and describes a method for reliably finding informal civic activity online
  • Suggests some design criteria for creating Digital Civic Spaces which would enable this participation

I hasten to add that at 90000 words I sincerely hope it does a few other things as well but we shall see…anyway

I define informal civic activity online as being content which is created with an intended primary audience of the wider community as opposed to informal social activity which has an intended primary audience of friends and/or family. I use the term ‘primary audience’ as the publicness of the online world means that this content will also have unintended secondary or further audiences as well. Community might refer to community of place or of interest but my work focuses on community of place. In more practical terms I am talking about community websites, hyperlocal sites, Facebook groups or active individuals who are using the Internet either to talk about or organise in their local area. One of the points I make is that we can’t just frame this content as being citizen journalism – while some content creators fit this description there are more who are using these tools without any intent that they are creating an authoritative record or commentary on events and are better described simply as community activists or active citizens.

This ambiguity about audience for informal civic activity creates a dilemma for policy makers and politicians. While this content is in the public domain it is not necessarily intended as part of any political or democratic process. We can argue that because we should all be aware of the publicness of the social and the possible existence of secondary audiences that this information is in the public domain but without the active intent to participate its role in public debate is – well – debatable.  This debate is around the nature of Social Media with respect to the concept of the public sphere and its role in political communication – will pick this up separately.

Its fairly standard practice for communications teams to monitor sentiment and significant influencers online and this is part of the advertising tax we all pay in different ways to keep social media free in the main part. I am amazed that more politicians don’t do the same thing. However this kind of monitoring, while useful, does not seem to me to be a solid foundation for a different and more co-productive relationship with the Public – something I would argue strongly that we need. (There are some interesting parallels with academic research ethics around social media here which I might pick up at a later date).
The existence of informal civic activity online speaks of the potential for a more meaningful role for this in the democratic process as it opens up a connection to community groups and networks which are often outside of the ‘usual suspects’ of community engagement and political campaigning. However on the other end of things we don’t as yet include social media content which has not been created in response to a specific question in consolation or engagement processes and this means we are closing down the potential for agenda setting and proactive engagement in the policy making process other than by traditional routes.

So, we have meaningful activity online and no clear route for how we actively rather than passively include it in the democratic process.

This is where the design criteria for digital civic space come in (sorry folks – this is repeat from other postings):

  • Design Criteria 1: The purpose of a digital civic space to is to provide an environment in which any citizen who chooses to can observe, audit and participate in democratic debate and decision making – it is a Public and open space that is available to any interested Citizen.
  • Design Criteria 2: The space should facilitate a co-productive relationship between Citizen and Government. This should extend to the content curation and management of the space
  • Design Criteria 3: The geographical reach of the space should be self-defined by users with administrative boundaries being subordinate to ‘natural place’ described by the Civic Creators.
  • Design Criteria 4: The space should support the principles of open government with respect to data, process and transparency
  • Design Criteria 5: The space should be able to authenticate the identity of participants to a standard which makes their contribution available to consultation and policy making processes.

The thesis will (I hope!) tell the story of where these all came from but we (at Public-i) have been working on creating Citizenscape on this basis (this is where the action comes into the action research!!). We are about to be ready to beta the next version of the platform and this post was triggered by a need to really think about the point of connection between the informal civic spaces created by citizens (as described above) and the more formal but still open space which is described by the criteria above. We will be testing this thinking as well as the UX in the beta tests so I will report back at some point.

We can (and do with Citizenscape) take a step forward from the surveillance scenario described above by making sure that anyone whose content is being used is informed and by ensuring that the platform ensures that platform shares the same metrics and measurement with both the audience and the administrators. However in terms of creating a democratic space the key is I think in active participation – which is linked to criteria 5 – identity. While a Digital Civic Space might draw on ambient or passive activity which has the wider world as a secondary audience some act of active participation is needed in order for this to be included in democratic debate. This might be a response to a specific questions (as is the case with online consultation) or it could be the sharing of identity with the Space in recognition that you want your content to be ‘counted’. I don’t see any issue at all with making it clear that democratic debate needs to understand how representative the participants are and also have a degree of accountability which is not possible without a sense of who is participating (note: this doesn’t mean your identity needs to be public – it just needs to be known).

So – I am proposing that the that missing connection between informal and formal digital civic activity must be a conscious act of participation. We cannot consider media monitoring to be a substitute for democratic participation – even though that is the more straightforward approach. In practical terms this means inviting people before including their content and being completely transparent about how its being used – I don’t think either of these points are either difficult or unreasonable.

Government can learn a lot from monitoring activity online – but it can gain a lot more by collaborating with the content creators.

One other thought – if therefore we are going to ask people to identify themselves to the Digital Civic Space in order to participate in the democratic process then we are going to have to ensure that there is some kind of democratic promise in place. If we want people to be actively participating then we need to be actively listening. The nature of that listening is another post – perhaps a discussion about Networked Councillors as well as a discussion about new forms of Policy Making.

My thesis is (currently but persistently) titled “Civic Architecture in Cyberspace” and this post is an attempt to explain what I mean by this. Be warned that this also a draft for a section in the final document so may be a little slow….

When William Mitchell described his ‘City of Bits‘ in 1996 he recreated the physical city with retail, educational civic and commercial elements. He was in many ways talking against the zeitgeist at the time as the focus was on the potential of new technologies to break down barrier of time and place and create virtual communities as described by Howard Rheingold (Homesteading the Virtual Frontier, 1994). However now, as we see internet use near pervasive and mobile devices offering the potential for an augmented reality with real time, real place information it may be time to reconsider how we want to build our City of Bits. If market forces are taking care of retail and commerce and the education system is taking care of itself – who is building civic space online?

In a 2003 paper Benkler suggested the need for a common infrastructure to complement the proprietary one created by the market – he in fact refers to the commons as a place which is free of the market and in common with Lessig talks of these shared spaces as being a place of open innovation unfettered by market forces. These ‘commons’, an echo of the mediaeval idea of common land, require a number of conditions according to Benkler who I paraphrase below:

  • An open physical layer should be built through the introduction of open wireless networks, or a spectrum commons.
  • An open logical layer should be facilitated through a systematic policy preference for open over close protocols and standards, and support for free software platforms that no person or firm can unilaterally control.
  • An open content layer. Not all content must be open, but intellectual property rights have gone wildly out of control in the past decade, expanding in scope and force like never before. There is a pressing need to roll back some of the rules that are intended to support the twentieth century business models.
  • Reforming organisational and institutional structures that
  • resist widely distributed production systems.

To create such a commons we would need to align legal, technical and governmental structures as well as market forces and corporations who are currently very happy to be have the freedom to create walled gardens in the way many of us criticised AOL and others for doing when people first started going online domestically.

There is in my view another layer that needs to be considered – perhaps best described as social and cultural. Boyd’s description of networked publics and the way in which people use web 2.0 spaces makes clear the importance of the audience in forming the nature and behaviour of the space and Donath’s work on social signalling online further extends this. Online the participants have a far more active role to play in the creation of the space than is possible offline.

The networked publics that Boyd describes, places like Facebook and Myspace, suffer from the structural flaws which Lessig and Benkler explore and as such I would challenge their ability to be truly and persistently civic.

Stephen Coleman and Jay Bluhmer have suggested the need for a civic commons online – a mediated democratic space – and this has been echoed by Sunstein in his book Republic 2.0. In this conception of civic space online their is an agreed space for democratic debate which has been created for this purpose and is linked to the formal decision making process.

So – what do I mean by civic architecture online?
Our built environment now produces a vast amount of data and as individuals the content we created is increasingly geo-located as we create more of it from smartphones and similar devices. I would like to see more that being open and available as feedback to the people. My work examining hyperlocal social media sites shows huge numbers of people using these technologies with the purpose ‘I want to talk to my community’ but in many ways these individuals are talking blindly as the civic infrastructure which could knit these contributions together is not there – this absence is what I refer to as the ‘civic communicative layer’.

There is not obvious gathering place of place online. Where the town hall, village hall, pub, churches or the commons all serve as focal points in the physical world there are as yet no online equivalent and also no infrastructure to bring these together. Coleman’s civic commons is one element of this but that is formal – we also need the informal spaces where communities meet.

I agree with Benkler who proposed an open legal and structural layer and I also agree with the need for process and organisational reform to achieve this. I would like to see open standards around the transfer of civic data and I would like to encourage the creation of focal points for civic discourse which are not mediated by the state.

This could be simple – imagine that on connecting to the internet in a new area you were asked if you wanted to know what was happening in the community. Imagine that as you walk down the street you are able to see examples of civic projects and active citizens rather than the advertising that would currently be the only thing to flood an open phone. How about a civic weighted search engine which prioritised content which is relevant to the social fabric and not to commercial interests?

Evangelists are tedious and I would be the first to admit that I am an evangelist for the potential of the social web. But much of this is rooted in my experiences 15 years ago when I first discovered these technologies and where the balance between commercial and civic content was I believe very different and when the hacker/academic antecedents of the social web were stronger. We have diluted this culture and though I think change and adoption is good now is the time to temper this by returning to those more civic roots and demanding that if we are building a City of Bits we should make sure that it includes civic space as well as a really big shopping mall.

In common again with Benkler and others I freely admit that this is a moral as much as a researched position for me. However I don’t think its uncommon. What needs to be considered is the depth of this issue – practitioners in many different disciplines feel the absence of civic space as is discussed above but without often without the technological and legal perspective and writers like Benkler and Lessig bring. To be concerned about democracy online also means to be concerned about the fabric of the internet – the technical and legal standards which protect the openness which is so essential I believe to democracy.

There is of course an alternative position which is the optimism of a benign market which talks about collaborative consumption and crowdsourcing of solutions. If true then this is an exciting thought but I currently fear that this is a closed wolf in open sheeps clothing and that commercial organisations need to be compelled to behave with more open practice. Its possible that local market forces might achieve this but not I believe without some strucutural intervention.

Finishing with a Benkler quote the potential of a strong common infrastructure is there:

Building a core common infrastructure is a necessary precondition to allow us to transition away from a society of passive consumers buying what a small number of commercial producers are selling. It will allows us to develop into society in which all can speak to all, and in which anyone can become an active participant in political, social, and cultural discourse. (2003)

We can and should continue to focus content and civic activists and I believe we will continue to see citizens creating civic spaces online with their hyperlocal activity. I hope we will see politicians interacting with them there. However, without addressing the structural restrictions described above this activity is limited as is our freedom online.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As regular readers will be aware….I have a bee in my bonnet about the need for someone to start building civic spaces online – spaces which are designed to support civic and political discourse rather than designed to sell us stuff. However it’s all very well having the idea – you then have to figure out how to build it.

This post provides an overview of the social media audit – a piece of research that is carried out before you set up a civic space in order to gain an objective view of who you should be including in the conversation. I use ‘we’ a lot in this post as though I had the bright idea of doing the audit and put some structure in place its my team at Public-i who have done most of the detailed development of the process.  We’ll be blogging more about this over at the Public-i blog but here is the first draft of the overview that will end up in the thesis.

In essence what we are trying to do is to find the conversations which are already taking place in the local online space.  More importantly we are trying to find the active individuals in order to create a network response to civic interactions – civic spaces are going to be defined by the networks that share them as much as by the content.

A bit of background

When I started looking at this I thought about this idea in terms of government building these spaces. I was influenced by Stephen Coleman’s thinking around ‘A Civic Commons in Cyberspace’ and also Castells’ work that shows the insidious power of media conglomerates and negative impact that gas on objectivity in the press that this brings to the fourth estate (Castells, “Communication Power”). This, combined with the fact that I have been immersed in working with Local Government for almost the last 10 years led me design the “Virtual Town Hall” pilot which you can read about here. The name really gives it away – I was imagining a civic space built by government – echoing real world civic architecture – and then used by the public.

I persisted with this idea for a while and blamed the fact that we were being slow to implement the technology for the fact that the pilot sites were not taking flight. There is no doubt that we were being slow with the technology implementation but I now believe that the reasons for the pilot sites not getting off the ground were more complex than just that and that there were a number of issues with the way I had originally designed the virtual town hall solution, the main one being that the original project design didn’t have the right role for the community. We envisaged using unmoderated community content and then using community moderators or champions to widen involvement but this was really a compromise en route to what has become the inclusion of the affordance of co-production in the final pilot sites. We have to accept that we can only work effectively with the public online if we don’t try and control the conversation that the community moderators were in some way an attempt to manage risk from the point of view of the Council without truly considering their wishes in this.

However once it became clear that these spaces, even if facilitated by government, needed to be equally owned by all stakeholders another issue arose; who do we include in the conversation? The community that you contact to create the civic space is going to integral to how it behaves and even though we would expect participation to shift throughout the life of a civic space that initial group is significant in terms of how likely you are to get an independent conversation started and also in terms of what tone is set for the space from the outset.

Its turns out that picking this group was causing project paralysis – no-one could get started until they knew who to include in the process. I’m going to do some follow up interviews on this point but I think that the issue here was a mix of risk and representativeness. The first was a concern about making the ‘wrong’ choice because we weren’t aware of the full picture. The second is more complex – but I think highlights the real democratic tension here which is the fact that the people who are active online are not representative of the general population and this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that they are more likely to be civic and active offline as well (OXIS, Coleman) but bad in that they are not well…representative. The solution here is fiendishly simple and fiendishly difficult – involve the elected representatives – but that’s for another post.

Social Media Audits – a solution to the problem

The starting point as the fact that a civic space can’t be initiated until you have some idea as to who might be participating.  The social media audit is a response to this problem – its a systematic piece of research that provides a representative snapshot of the local informal civic conversation so that you can make am informed decision about who to include in the initial iteration of the civic space. Not only that – practically speaking – it gives you the list of people to contact , the conversational lures they are interested and a view of the interactions which are already going on.

We wanted to create an objective view of what was happening so that we provided a starting point for engagement with the local civic content creators. We can’t expect to find everything – and the content will change from week to week – but we were looking for a way to provide a starting point that would then be built on rather than freezing the results in time. Its important that the output of the audit also provides the means to extend and continue to search so that the civic space is created in a state of always being open to new voices.

Objective is a difficult thing to achieve as ultimately this process comes down to making value judgements about which sites should be included in the civic space. What we have therefore done is to create as robust and re-creatable process around the creation of the data set and then been as transparent as possible in terms of qualification of that data set down to something which is manageable for analysis and then for engagement with individuals.

This has deliberately been designed in this way rather than a piece of more quantitative analysis around the number of sites located in a specific area for example as we are trying to uncover individuals with specific intents rather than just to content that they are creating online – we are trying to connect to people as well as places.

What are we looking for?

The audit is designed to find not only an overview of the informal civic participation in the area but specifically to focus in on the significant content creators who will be the most vocal contributors to the civic space. The choice of the word ‘significant’ is deliberate here – we’re not trying to judge influence – just activity.

Significance is a fairly subjective term and so we try and define this with the site hosts to make sure we have a clear idea of what we are looking for. Once a site has been found via the relevant search terms then broadly we are after:

  • Persistence – we are looking for sites and individuals that are active over a reasonable period of time – or are linked to a specific campaign – not 2 post blogs that have been set up with the best intention
  • Audience – we can’t easily judge audience but we are looking for indications that the creator is aware of an audience and wants to interact with it
  • Constructive – we are looking for voices that want to improve their community not just complain

This last one is the most difficult – judging intent from content is extremely tenuous. Another way of looking at this is to say that we looking for content and creators who would satisfy a simple code of conduct test for any community website. Codes of conduct exist to ensure that interactions are respectful and do not insult some basic principles. The point of this filter is to try and rule some of these people out from the start. I see this as largely a pragmatic decision – no council is going to put together a civic space which includes inappropriate content from the start – but its one that needs to be kept under consideration to make sure that the space remains inclusive and open.

Its also worth noting that we usually issue a health warning with respect to language – the language online can be robust but this needs to be included. This issue of language is a cultural one where you need to understand that the social web can use a different tone to that which the more formal world is used to.

What’s the process?

To state the obvious – the internet is huge – and if you try and do this on a rolling basis then you just keep searching forever.  Instead we create a snapshot which we know will not include all the content but will be representative of the local civic space to an acceptable degree.  Here is how we go about creating that snapshot:

  • Define a matrix of search terms: This point about language is relevant from the onset of the audit. The process starts with a definition of search terms based on place and topic. We are trying to identify the language that the local residents are using to talk about where they live and about current affairs. We are seeking the stories that are currently active as these are the ones which illuminate activity.
  • Create a data set: we then use a combination of advanced use of google and link analysis to create an initial data set. This can be done largely automatically and then gets deduped and cleaned up. This second step may create a data set of over 1000 sites.
  • Qualify the data set: Once we have the data set narrowed down to around 3-400 then there is a manual qualification task which is the really time-consuming bit as we check each site against the significance criteria and also categorise it for place, topic, type of site and a few other metrics. We also highlight interesting examples – and also the downright odd stuff that you find online.

At this point we would hope to have a well qualified data set of around 200 sites that give us a good overview of the local informal civic activity. We do not know if these numbers of going to provide a useful benchmark – we’ve run the process a number of times now and they seem consistent but we expect them to keep increasing. However – at the moment – we believe that the 200 sites for a County or urban area is a reasonable benchmark to work against.

And the analysis

This is my favourite bit…

Once we have a coded up spreadsheet then we can do some straightforward statistical analysis and look at the spread of sites and content creators in terms of location and topic. We can see what proportion of activity is on Facebook for example (yes – we even search there), examine interactions on local media sites and see if there are pockets of activity around a specific place. We then use this to identity clusters of sites for a short case study analysis – which is really focused on looking at what is causing the cluster and how it might be used to introduce the group into the civic space.

The other piece of analysis is to use twitter as the starting point of a social network analysis of the space. This is really just a starting point for this and can be considered to be a snowball approach to an open network (Wasserman) rather than a real piece of SNA but what is does show is the potential reach of the civic creators. For my own research purposes I then ask the civic creators we have found to complete a more through social network analysis questionnaire which looks more deeply not just at their online but also their offline networks.

What don’t we do?

In developing the audit process we considered using semantic analysis tools bit in the end concluded that they didn’t offer the sophistication of search combinations that we were after and, more importantly, are designed to find content rather than individuals.

I think we could probably use more of the mainstream analysis tools but to date have not found anything that delivers what we are after – we’ll keep researching this however I will post findings on that when I have time.

It may be possible to have the same result through word of mouth as opposed to this fairly labour intensive research – ie by asking community participants to self report activity. My concern with this approach is that many of the sites that we find are not really describing themselves as civic – they are just people who are doing something that they think is interesting and they don’t feel the need to define it.

And the impact?

Its too early to say what the overall impact will be on the civic space but we have definitely succeeded in overcoming the project paralysis issue and have also been able to shape appropriate approaches and messages in order to involve these content creators in the initial proposition of the shared civic space and I wouldn’t want to try and instigate a site without doing this kind of research as we have not yet failed to turn up content and individuals that the host was not aware of before.

Even without knowing what impact it will have on the civic space its clearly a really effective way of getting a feel for the local activity in order to shape any kind of intervention online.

Its also an excellent way to deal with the people who are still saying that they don’t need to engage online – this is as robust a process as we can make it and is carried out based on search terms that the host defines – excellent and relevant local facts to put in front of anyone who thinks digital engagement is still optional at this point.

We are going to continue to work on the process and also on the automation of the process where possible. We are also trying to build in the idea of ‘discovery’ where we start to set the civic space in listening mode in order to uncover new civic voices but this is still early days – I’ll keep you posted.

As ever comments on this are very welcome.

I have been trying to separate and then reconcile ideas of identity and place online – this post is an attempt to explain where I have got to.

I sometimes describe the social web as digital wrapper around our physical world. I imagine it in my head as something like a spun-sugar cage of chaotic networked strands made up of people and content that connect and divide around the location. Its alive and pulsing with energy at the same time as being timeless and static as it contains older strands of content and conversation. We are connected to the past through those older strands – to previous versions of ourselves – in a way that we never had to contend with when our ephemera was left behind and we could edit our legacy in the world more effectively. Both places and people need to come to terms with the transparency of having the past on show.

The more connections between that digital wrapper and physical world the more complete the fit between the two environments. Sherry Turkle in her latest book (Alone Together) talks about us being ‘tethered’ to this virtual world with it pulling you between the place where you are the location of the people you are connected to. She talks of the difference in travel now that you can connect seamlessly to the location and people that you have left behind and what the loss of unconnected time for thinking might mean for us in the future. She mourns the loss of private space where we reflect rather than connect.

Your identity online becomes less malleable as you make more connections to your physical self, your musings about your village become more real when you actually name where it is. Its not just online / offline connections that reduce the malleability of self – the more you connect instances of yourself online the more your online identity solidifies.

You start to realise that you are connected to more than one place – both online and offline – and that you need to make sense of who you are in a networked and connected way because if you write yourself into being online then you need to reconcile this across the connected content that reflects this identity. Your bits of self that have been scattered across the social web start to connect themselves together and you start to realise that where you live online reflects who you are and that your presence in that online location changes it.

Turning this around is to consider the fact that where you put content online effects that place as well as your identity – you are writing them both into being. A digital location is like a concert hall without music if it doesn’t have content – empty and a bit pointless. An empty social website is as forlorn as a restaurant with no diners.

In the physical world we make location choices based on many different factors – proximity being a major one – online we use different criteria. I’m not sure that we yet understand what those criteria are but to do so we need to think more carefully about who we are and where we are online.

This all comes sharply into focus for me when I make decisions about where to place blog content – usually its a choice between here, CuriousCatherine, and the blog over at Public-i. I am more conscious than most of the act of identity creation online but I do find it difficult to create content anywhere other than here – because this is the place which I think as the centre of my online identity (BTW I am very aware of how pretentious this sounds – I am just hoping that if you have read this far then you are genuinely interested and perhaps have similar dilemmas!!). Despite it being important to me both personally and professionally that we get traffic over at the Public-i blog and that people realise that we are doing some really interesting stuff – in many ways the more practical companion stuff to what I write about here – I still prefer to post here.

I am not the only person that feels like this – I have spoken to a few other bloggers who write in multiple places who have a similar tug to post in the place they consider to be ‘home’ online. Its one of the ways, I think, that bloggers differ from journalists who start writing with the assumption that their output will be placed on someone else’s site as a matter of course.

It shouldn’t be a surprise – one of our criteria in choosing where to place content online is the effect that the location has on your reputation. In the same way that hotmail addresses are now rather retro and there is something slightly gauche about not having switched from googlemail to gmail accounts we consider the context before we place content. It is intriguing to consider how conscious and thought through this decision is. Both Turkle and Boyd talk about the painstaking process of social networking profile creation for teens and they have an awareness of what it means to ‘be’ in different spaces that we can relate to. We all know that you behave differently within LinkedIn to within Facebook – and people seem to adapt to this idea of different cultures online very quickly.

Winston Churchill said “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” – this happens in more literal way online as we create the sense and nature of an online place with the words and pictures that also form part of our digital identity. We cannot separate ideas of place and identity from each other because they are so interdependent.

Few people who are active online would claim that it is an easy thing to keep your online persona separate from your offline one. It is also hard work to create a persona artefact that does not in some way reflect who you are – even though the cost of this fact is an inability to control the levels of intimacy in your life (Turkle again. All you can really do is to take personal responsibility for your privacy.

With this knowledge however comes the realisation that the location of this content – its context – becomes even more important. You cannot control your audience through separation of identities online and so you have to manage their interpretation of your content by placing it appropriately.

Coming back to the blog post dilemma – carefully crafted posts are part of your ‘identity capital’ and it feels hard to post that in places which do not feel core to your sense of self. Its also hard to post somewhere where you feel the reader is less likely to make the correct assessment of your intent and what the content means to you. Its about context and you need to place content in the place where you feel the context explains best what that content means to who you are.

If we look at this with respect to my core theme of civic spaces this connection between identity and place speaks to a need to enable people to create that sense of democratic identity that I have spoken about before so that the context of posting within these spaces is understood by the audience. Identity is intrinsic to any civic discourse that will resolve into decision making and the difficulties of creating separation between your different instances of self online and the need for civic spaces to be able to identify whether or not you are a citizen means that need to consider this issue of identity carefully.

We need to create spaces that encourage people to act like citizens, and we also need to allow these spaces to be shaped by the citizens who populate them. Its another reason why its important not to think of civic spaces as government platforms – and a further reason why we don’t want to think of civic conversations going on within primarily commercial spaces such as Facebook.

We hope to create real world communities which are supportive and cooperative. If we go back to my initial picture of that digital wrapper I am talking about consciously creating a civic element to it and so ensuring that there is a civic space online to surround the physical space we live in.

This post is a good example of where my work and research start to come together.  Over at Public-i we have been working on a number of social media audits for clients and I have been working on a more formal framework to deliver this (white paper on this soon) and so I have been thinking more detail about the content that we are interested in when we talk about the local civic conversation.

Much of my interest in the social web stemmed from the fact that useful content started to emerge.  Now – useful is an extremely subjective term but in my context I am talking about content that is both pro-social and constructive.  The fact that people would set up websites to talk to and with their community is useful, the fact that I can read blogs of people who are thinking about the big political issues is useful and the fact that I am more likely to find a solution to the rather off-colour state of my wisteria on a gardening club website rather than a reference book is useful.  I did say that useful is a subjective description.

My PHD research is about trying to narrow down and describe one element of this content which I am calling civic creation.  This is content that is informal and user generated but is aimed at talking to your community – not just to friends, family or your peer group – it has an assumption of and desire for public-ness from the author.  Even more specifically this is content which has the intent of talking about how your locality works and should work – its content which is rooted in place even if that is secondary to a particular interest or issue.

The first step therefore in finding civic is defining the geographic scope for your definition of local and this needs to be done using the language and definitions of the citizens – not of the state (more than that here).  Once you have this scope then you need to look at what people are doing – you can read more about this here but I categorise participant’s behaviour into four types:

Category 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

All of these behaviours exist in the local digital space and individuals and groups will move between these behaviours – its another aspect to the malleability of the social web where people participate as people usually in the full range of their interests.  However I am focusing on the informal civic behaviours and the question for this post is how you go about finding evidence of the informal civic content which I am proposing should be the starting point for local democratic debate and decision making.

Intent may be descriptive but its very difficult to ascribe to someone else’s content reliably – which means it is not useful in terms of how we might find this informal civic content – its only useful in retrospect.  This question of finding informal civic content is key if you are thinking about how to create a shared civic space – somewhere where you gather together the different civic voices in a community and connect them to the formal decision making process – and you can’t find content unless you have defined what it is and you know what to look for.

Its important to remember however that we are not really looking for the content – we’re looking for the people and communities who are creating the content.  If we’re looking for evidence of Civic Content creation then we are looking for Civic Creators.  One of the challenges in identifying any kind of informal content is the fact that identity of not public which makes it difficult to be sure that you are connecting to the right people.

Our definition of civic creation so far involves intent and is based on location but it also needs a third element – topic – and this is the way in which we find the people who form the local civic conversation.

The exception to this is of course hyperlocal communities – which I have talked about here – these are place based communities which have a public stated intent of ‘ I want to talk to my community’ and where they exist they are potentially the backbone of the local digital civic space.  The issue is that they don’t exist universally and even where they do exist you cannot assume that they are representative or that there are no other forms of civic creation in the area.  You need to look further than the hyperlocal in order to find a lot of your local civic conversation.

The question therefore is how to illuminate the civic activity that is going on so that you can connect to the civic creators who will form your civic space.  We can’t find them just from their location (hyperlocal sites excepted) as this gives no sense of intent and we can’t search based on someone’s intention.  The entry point for finding our civic creators is therefore issue based.

Topic is vary across time and doesn’t define a community – though it may dominate for a while.  Topic is useful in that it helps to highlight intent and can also generate synchronous activity from participants who do not usually come together.  This makes them easier to find and more likely to connect to each other when you do find them.  This is not going to be an infallible method of finding civic creators – not everyone is interested in everything – but its a useful way of getting started and can provide something to build on.  As places get deeper and richer digital footprints then this process will become easier – but as specific topics act as a catalyst for informal civic participation they can also be a way of finding the networks who are talking about them and drawing them into the wider civic space.

How does this differ from social media monitoring?

The main difference is the fact that we are looking for people and networks rather than content – the content (like the topic) is a means to an end.  Social media monitoring focuses on finding content – how many times is you brand is mentioned and whether the mentions are positive or negative in tone.  To help explain – below are the benefits listed by a well known Social Media Monitoring tool:

  • Scan and sort viral posts related to your brand(s) and immediately know which online content is making an impact.
  • Look out for online conversations that could be damaging to your brand(s).
  • Track volume of buzz tied to a specific campaign and identify sites with the most influence in order to tailor your outreach.
  • Uncover potential customers or partners at their “point of need”.
  • Keep an eye on competitors and use a comparative graph to track share of voice.

These are all useful things to know and when applied to topic rather than brand then they can help us to find our civic creators – but if just limited to brand then you are not uncovering your local civic conversation – you are just finding the usual suspects.  We want to use these tools to find the people, capture the individuals and then track their activities on an ongoing basis and use them to discover new community generated topics.

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

Coming back to the point however is the issue that we cannot search for content merely on the basis of intent – we need to look at actions.  I have previously defined Civic activities as:

“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.”

And here is updated version of the long list I put together of civic behaviours online.

Formal Informal
Creators Start a petitionTake part in a Participatory Budgeting process (not just play with a slider!!!) Instigate / Run a campaignSocial reporting (blogging / tweeting re: local issues)Managing a hyperlocal website 

Organise a community meeting

Conversationalists Interact with an elected representative Share something from the civic space with someone elseTweet civic space topics
Critics Rate a comment on a discussion boardRate a comment on a blogComment on the discussion board 

Rate a webcast (or a meeting)

Comment on a blog

Comment on webcast

Comment on a blogComment on a relevant discussion boardRate a comment on a discussion board 

Rate a comment on a blog

Rate a video clip

Comment on video clip

Collectors Save something to your user profile 

Sign up for alerts

Subscribe to an RSS feed etc from a social reporter 

Social tagging of content

Joiners Sign up to attend an event 

Sign a petition

Create a user profile

Contacted a political party

Donated money to a civic organisation or group

Joined another civic organisation or association

Donated money to a political organisation or group

Join a discussion forum 

Taken part in a lawful public demonstration

Spectators Watch a webcast eventAttend a formal meeting ·
Inactives Not voting…..or anything else….

This list is based on the Forrester Groundswell categorization of user behavior and incorporates the civic actions used by the OII Internet report 2009.  (PS  Sorry the table is horrible – will work out how to format it properly at some point).

Further to this we (at Public-i) have been working on creating the following catagorisation of local civic sites:

Site type Description
Active individuals broken down by: 

Local / General

Local / Topic

Twitter

These are blogs, websites and twitter feeds which are created by one person and reflect their voice and opinions.
Political blogs These are sites which are party affiliated and are either created by the party, a candidate or an elected politician.
Hyperlocal community websites Hyperlocal websites are set-up and run by members of the community in order to connect with and discuss local issues.  They use social media tools and are probably the clearest expression of the “I want to talk to my community” intent.
Traditional websites These are similar in intent to hyperlocal sites but don’t use social media tools
Communities of interest sites These sites are connected to the place concerned by either the people or by the content but will be focused on a specific issue or topic.  These sites are run by clubs (local sports clubs for example) or perhaps by third sector organisations (such as AgeConcern) and are included here where they meet the critieria of either place or topic.
Facebook We look at Facebook groups, pages and individuals are a type in its own right because the different approach recommended to deal with interactions on Facebook
Local news coverage in newspapers and radio These are sites that are created by mainstream media outlets and may or may not include social media elements
Formal Civic or democratic sites These are the sites of government and related organisations that touch on either the place or the topic.

So – civic creation is that list of activities applied to this list of sites as bounded by location and topic.

At present finding this content is a largely manual process – or rather a series of manually managed automated steps.  What I want to develop are more sophisticated semantic analysis tools that will enable us to find this content more directly – but this is a bigger project.  Would welcome comments on any tools people believe already carry out this task well in the meantime please.

What’s Significant?

But let’s not forget it’s actually all about people – as stated before we are really interested in finding the people and communities who are creating the content.  These are individuals who may fulfil a number of different roles which are not mutually exclusive:

  • Local blogger – writing about either the location or a specific topic.  This group includes citizen journalists
  • Twitter user – because of the highly networked and real time information sharing qualities of twitter it is useful to look at local twitter usage when examining the local conversation
  • Community or Website manager – anyone who is involved in creating/curating/convening a local or hyperlocal site constitutes a local civic creator
  • Active Contributor – someone who does not necessarily act on their own but it a frequent contributor to sites and forums in the area

We know that a small percentage of people create the majority of content on the social web (Forrester, OFCOM) but these figures are all based on the vast majority of content which falls into my informal social category of content.  My working assumption at present is that this percentage will be similar with respect to informal civic content as well but this is an assumption that needs testing through my data collection and analysis.

Its important to find these people as if you are going to start shaping a local civic space more actively then this are the people that you want to be working with co-productively to do this.  As the idea matures they may be providing curation for the wider civic space and also could be part of the process of deciding who is included in the space in the future.

When I was shaping my data collection and trials I talked about this people as community ambassadors and you can read a fairly long post here about why I changed my mind about this role.  I think its extremely important to remember that these are people who are doing something by choice and that any benefit to the democratic or civic process is at the moment a side effect rather than something that is necessarily planned for until such a time as we have connected this informal activity effectively to the decision making process.

When I started this post I was framing these individuals in terms of influence and talking about them as influential civic creators.  However influence is a tricky thing to measure and I don’t want to use the term inaccurately.  As part of the social media audit process we are carrying out basic Social Network Analysis on the networks that are returned from research into a localities informal civic content but without interviewing the civic creators and also looking at who they reach it is difficult to come up with an accurate measure of influence.  This is slightly out of scope for my work at the moment so I am parking the thought that it would be interesting to look properly into exactly how influential these people are and instead look at how we decide who is significant in terms of forming the local civic conversation.  Anyone who is highlighted here will have met the criteria for civic creation listed above but in terms of identifying who is significant I have a number of specific criteria that I am looking at here:

  • Reach – do they have an audience?
  • Representativeness – do they represent a larger group either as a site moderator or as a connector to offline networks?
  • Responsiveness – do they listen as well as talk?
  • Constructiveness – are they coming up with solutions or listing problems?

This last one is highly subjective – but I wanted to include some measure of intent beyond the “I want to talk to my community” and to extend this into “I want to change my community for the better”.  This is perhaps the point on which my definition of significance hinges – for the purposes of creating an online civic space the desire to improve your local area rather than just talk about it is clearly significant.  I’m not expecting a shared vision of what ‘better’ and I am in two minds as to whether its correct to use such a value laden term in here as it is important that we people maintaining as well as improving civil society.  However, my final conclusion on this point is that if we are trying to create something new and knit together a local civic conversation from civic creators then significance is lent to people who want to actively change the status quo.

I don’t see this as grading to a curve – there is no limit on the number of voices that are involved locally but as I gather more data about these people I am hoping to be able to start to draw some wider conclusions about them so that its possible to start forming a view about how the behaviours compare to informal social activities online.

So – what does it all mean then?

In writing this I was aiming to put some more meat on the bones of the idea that there is an emergent type of activity that goes beyond individual content creators that can be described as ‘informal civic content’.  We have seen this in studies like the network neighbourhoods community website study and we can see it in increase in citizen journalism and hyperlocal websites.  There are two reasons for doing this, firstly to capture a snapshot of conversation about a specific topic and secondly to start to understand local participation in a very different way to the top down approach do traditional consultation tools and methods.

Once we have a clear view of this content and its creators then we are better able to look at how we connect this into formal decision making processes and start to connect informal and formal conversations together – and that’s where the civic spaces come into it.

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)

 

(more…)

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.

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.

Yesterday was spent at the excellent Networked Neighbourhoods launch event. The day was spent outlining and discussing the study they ran looking at behaviours, outcomes and community impacts of hyperlocal communities in London.  The study is hugely interesting and extremely useful in putting some actual facts forward rather than the often speculative enthusiasm we see around social media and I will comment on it in proper length in another post as it will be featuring in my literature review  at some point.  This post is more about some general observations about the day.

If you don’t know what I mean when I say hyperlocal then it might be useful to read this first.

I was lucky enough to be asked to join the advisory group for the research which has been hugely informative and as a result I chaired a workshop  run by Dr Alison Powell of LSE which looked at Future, Local and Democratic themes in new media.  I will try and add her slides in here at a later date as she made a number of excellent observations.  Her field is around the study of community networks and the effects of new media and this more grassroots approach provides a good counter balance to the often top down viewpoint provided by work with Local Authorities.  It echoes what Tony Bouvaird said about co-production being already very embedded – just not around the stuff that the state perhaps wants us to co-produce.  I am used to thinking about technology with intent and Alison’s example of the effects of community wifi projects reminded me on the importance of leaving space for serendipity when we are dealing with such a quickly evolving environment.  Alison talks about Filter / Feed / Funnel as the new effects of networked technologies – all ways of responding to a constant flow of information rather than something that you can turn on or off.  You can read more about Alison’s work here.

As is often the case with these events the number of experts in the audience mean that the Q&A is excellent and we covered a lot of ground – see below for thoughts on digital exclusion.  One of the strands was around ‘the next big thing’ with respect to social media, participation and democracy – rather a big questions but Alison and I speculated:

  • Smartphones – at the moment people in lower income groups and not only less likely to have access to the internet they are also, where they do have it, less likely to use social media.  OII describe them as persistent non-participants.  The question is whether this will change when we see smartphones with cheap internet access achieve market dominance in these groups – something that is predicated for next year.  This could make a big difference to participation of this group
  • The Youth – there is a cohort of people growing up who have grown up in a networked society.  They will be in significant numbers at the next general election and they will have an effect – either in their participation or lack of participation.  Who knows which it will be?

I wrote most of this post stuck on a train trying to get to Sussex.   Usually at this point I would be tweeting away or catching up on email but the volume of people in the same position has meant that I could get no connectivity and all comms are the old fashioned voice and text kind.  This is a slightly clumsy segue into one of the main concerns of the day which highlighted issues around digital inclusion and whether or not these hyperlocal forums are just another way for the already empowered to get themselves heard even more effectively – are we just filling the middle class pens with green ink?

The issue of access is clearly hugely important and I don’t want to dismiss it but in the longer term view I tend to assume that this is a problem that people are actively addressing and that whatever happens it will reduce overtime.   This is perhaps over optimistic – but I have faith that other people are worrying about this and draw my personal battle lines around trying to make sure that there are democratic and civic spaces there waiting for people rather than just one big online shopping mall.

However I do think this conversation about inclusivity becomes confused as we use the term representiveness and representation interchangeably when we actually mean different things.  A lot of the reason for this is where people become worried about the representativeness of these hyperlocal communities and then describe a follow on concern about the impact of representatives interacting with them.  I have a few thoughts on this:

  • 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
  • It is the job of representatives to work out how representative the inputs are – and the answer to a great deal of additional input from one group is to try and get more from others – not tell the active folks to be quiet.  More democratic engagement does take more time – but we are all working under the assumption that this is a good thing as involving more people at at least the initial and end stages of the decision making process is a good thing (would like to reflect on that more at some point)
  • If you accept this last point then you have to ask what is the problem with getting more people participating?  Indy talked about energising the middle classes in the civic economy and asked why we see this as such a problem.  I agree – it can hardly be a bad thing to get more interested and articulate people more involved in decision making as long as we support the lack of representativeness with good representation?

I think my final thought is as a researcher and also as a practitioner the event reminded me of the importance of letting the story unfold.  Being too prescriptive or interventionist, for whatever reason, is very risky and the relatively new eco-system of hyperlocal activity is in many ways too fragile to have well meaning democracy or even community engagement folks trampling all over it and telling it what to do.  The coming together of social technology and communities is something outside of the experience of all of us and though there are precedents we need to be cautious that we don’t over theorise.  The excellent research here shows real value for communities who connect and engage online and it would be foolish to ignore this.  But in speaking to local authorities my advice is to concentrate on giving people technology agnostic skills and opportunities and letting them decide for themselves what they want to do.  If we really want to have a more mature relationship between citizens and government then we need to start trusting the public to do something constructive – especially when the evidence shows that they usually do.