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


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)