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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post is partially a write up of the identity session I curated at #UKGovCamp and partially a framing piece to help take forwards our discussions about how we handle the question of identity within the We Live Here Project and Citizenscape development more generally.

Huge thanks to everyone who participated in the session. The UKGovCamp covered a lot of ground and was fascinating for me – not the least because it challenged one of my working assumptions which had been that the closer we get to actual decision making the more likely it is that we need to know – authoritatively – who is participating. The discussion focused on a discussion of identity in the context of deliberative processes rather than more transactional processes such as voting or ePetitions and really looked at the importance of quality as a measure over quantity. I must note however that I am not making an attempt to define what ‘quality’ means in this context – that is for another day!

Before we talk about democratic debate there are some practical considerations with respect to online debate or community of any kind that we need to surface. The first point is that identity nearly always improves the quality of the debate – you get more considered views when there is some kind of social capital or standing involved in how these views will be received and people undoubtedly behave differently when they are anonymous. At the same time this has to be balanced with the fact that registration / identity creation is a barrier to participation and so you may get fewer people involved. Put crudely it’s a quality vs quantity question.

These are not ‘democratic’ findings but represent the experience of online community designers and practitioners over time – imagine how much harder this stuff might be when the content focus is democratic.

Identity clearly matters however, given that most people who work around engagement and democracy are concerned about how little people do participate, we have to ask if we are we making things unnecessarily hard for ourselves by saying we need to know who people are.

The immediate anxiety about not wanting to create barriers aside, when we consider democratic values rather than the practical problem of how to make it most likely that people will participate there is a need to distinguish between bystanders, stakeholders and citizens at some point because some decisions are made at the ballot box where authenticated identity is an intrinsic element of the experience. The question under debate is what that point is. The UKGC12 discussion explored whether or not we should be interested in the validity of the individual or the quality of the debate – which is more significant? These are not mutually exclusive objectives but as we are designing the user experience there is a need to understand their relative merits and importance.

One of the points that emerged was the importance of making a distinction between a discussion and a deliberative discussion – the latter have greater requirement for understanding of identity that the former. I think it’s interesting to ponder as to how often people know which of these they are participating in.

Identity as social
We discussed whether or not you could examine social and informational signals from content in order to create a level of confidence around the fact that you have the ‘right’ people in the discussion. The general consensus was that this was possible – if you participate in these kinds of discussions in physical meeting then you do develop a sense as to whether or not people are genuinely stakeholders and citizens.

This becomes a very different set of skills online and this fact, combined with the fact that it easier to collect identity information online that in a physical meeting (who brings their gas bill to the village hall??) and the fact that the practical barriers to participation are lower (you don’t need a babysitter and can ‘attend’ from a great distance) means that we perhaps put higher priority and focus on digital identity management compared to the way in which we consider this in offline processes.

One question that designers of these online spaces need to consider is the level of online social sophistication that we assume of our users. Appropriate behaviour for one group may be outlandish to others.  Commercial platforms have the luxury of focusing on the early adopters which is not always open to civic platforms.

In some ways deliberation works better offline than online – the sense of coming together to focus on a debate is easier to achieve in a physical space. Offline debates – formal and informal – are happening all the time even if they are not accessible to a wider audience. However, many people find the meeting setting intimidating and it’s a format which favours experience and confidence. Offline debates break down more barriers that just those of time and place.

I think there is an additional consideration with respect to local democratic participation which is the fact that it is far more difficult to keep your online and offline personas separate when compared to participation at a national level – and this means that most people will be ‘known’ within the debate. The result of this might be that in the medium we term we do need to be more stringent about identity because not doing so would create a lot more distrust in the system with absence of identity being the exception and in no way a norm.

I the many
Identity is more complex online, particularly when it collides with your offline existence. We deliberatively manage multiple, sometimes contradictory, personas and the social norms are shifting with respect to separation between our public and private selves. However with respect to debate this is not a question isolated to the individual. Where we are asking people to participate we also need to understand what the individual needs to know about other participants in order to be comfortable and able to participate.

Discussion is a social experience not a transactional one and that means we need a degree of reciprocity and social sharing to support it. Online we perhaps need to think more actively about the architecture and experience we build in order to support ‘quality’ discussions. With respect to identity, we may not need to know who the person is but we probably do need to know that they really are a persona and also that they have a legitimate voice in the discussion.

To a great extent this debate is happening around government – Google and Facebook are facing off with respect to becoming your primary online identity and so at present we are drifting towards using the dominant model by default rather than actually thinking about the specific needs of democratic discussion and connection.

Who needs to know?
It’s the changing nature of participation and the potential for mass participation which means we need to be more robust about identity that we are in the offline world. In unpicking this subject it is clear that different actors have different needs with respect to identity. As an individual I need to have control over my identity, as a participant I need to feel confident that the other participants are authentic, as an officer I need to be confident that I am seeing an accurate evidence base, but as a politician actually all I need is to feel that my opinion is being usefully informed.

Tom Steinburg nicely described identity with respect to three tiers of authentication; totally invalidated, slightly validated with claims, completely validated. At present we manage no more that the second tier within government (though interestingly there are South American projects which got 3rd tier authentication active in a democratic context).

Officers have the concern about creating an evidence base and for some the debate about identity is actually about asking whether or not it is possible to create a robust set of observations that cannot be rejected by politicians. Officers who are more familiar with the social web might be more comfortable with the second tier of authentication however with respect to deliberation Government perhaps has a greater need for identity management than politicians do.

Conclusion and on-going questions
The final analysis focused on the priority actually being the creation of the opportunity for good quality debate – not just a numbers focus of getting ‘more participation’. In doing this it was actually felt that information makes a bigger impact than identity – both in terms of legitimising an individual’s contribution but also with respect to the overall quality.

My research centres around civic space online and I am still of the view that a digital civic space needs some particular qualities:

  • 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 – 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

The session at UKGC12 added some nuance to this in terms of the exact nature of identity and has made me reflect more seriously about the information we glean from social signalling online in these shared spaces.

With respect to Citizenscape and the We Live Here sites however we are left with some choices still to make. As we start to establish these civic spaces they are not intended to be destinations for the community conversation – instead they are intended to network the networks and provide a window onto the whole community conversation which means that participants better connected. The distinction between discussion and deliberation is important as we would expect some kind of deliberation to take place in the shared space where supporting discussion would perhaps take place in the supporting network spaces. This leaves us with some dilemmas:

  • We are not trying to create social networks in the sense of Facebook – but we do want to create a social experience.
  • We want to capture identity for deliberative debate but we don’t want this to be a barrier to participation
  • Do we want to facilitate people contributing anonymously at any stage or do we always want to design for tier two with some level of confidence that we know who people are?

We will take these questions forward and start to discuss them with participants over the next few weeks – no doubt I will have more to say about it then!

Thanks again to the #ukgc12 folks

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not going to try and comment on what has been happening in London and beyond over the last few nights – I don’t feel qualified apart from to express the outrage and sympathy that so many people thankfully share – I do want to add my view though as I think the wider the debate about the causes and solutions the better.  The first step to a good solution is a good analysis of the problem – and the idea that social media is part of the problem that seems to be the implication from the debate in the Commons yesterday is very flawed – I want to explore that here.

There is no single answer to a situation like this and one of the things that strikes me about the news coverage is the way in which commentators are grasping at ideas in order to try and create some kind of understandable narrative – each expert being convinced that its their field that has the answer but not being able to fit their story neatly on the situation.  I think what is being revealed is a narrative of two completely distinct cultures within the same society.  The point is the fundamental lack of understanding between the two groups – and if you listen to the youth and community  workers who are being interviewed this is the most important point they are trying to get across – we can’t possibly solve anything without a more real understanding of the other group’s position.

If we are going to use the frankly insulting metaphor of a sick society then lets at least use it properly.  These riots have been a symptom and not a cause and medicine moved on from just treating symptoms a 100 years ago – you would hope that politics could reflect a similar modernity.  People need to be punished, symptoms need to be treated, but we also need to change the context and remove the causes.

You always view these events through the lens of your own preoccupations and experience and so hopefully its not surprising that I am looking at this with respect to the networks and the network behaviours that it reflects.  This analysis is one contribution as to how we address the issues that the last few days have revealed.  That’s right – revealed and not created – these issues were there already but have been made unavoidable with the speed and violence with which they erupted.

I think what is needed at this point is not for all of use to speak from our individual perspectives but that different experts and people with real knowledge of real communities can come together and create some solutions that don’t just work well when we say them in the media but work well on the messy, difficult human ground within communities.

Network one of two:  Technology

Its been much quoted in the media that the rioters and looters have been using the Blackberry instant message network – BBM – to communicate and organise.  This is significant because the BBM is a technologically closed space.  The security on the network is excellent and has been built with an assumption of security and privacy which is a marked contrast social media tools like twitter which have a diametrically opposite set of design assumptions.  It was built with enterprise business use in mind – bankers with secrets – and so its designed to keep messages within the audience you send them to.  This has been of major concern to governments in the middle east and you may recall the reports about Saudi Arabia and India wanting some assurances that they could extract messages and intercept messages before Blackberry’s owner RIM got permission to trade there.

Blackberrys have been the dominant handset in the 16-24 demographic for a while now with 96% of 16-24 year olds having a mobile, half of them having a smartphone and 37% of those smartphones users having a Blackberry (Source:  Ofcom 2011 Marketing report).  Overall take up of mobiles is similar in the 25-34 and 35-54 groups but with a lower percentage of smartphones.

There are a number of reasons for this and the main one is probably the fact that the Blackberry was one of the first smartphones to offer a pay as you go option – but its difficult to imagine that  RIM expected this to be the outcome – its an odd brand situation to say the least with the devices being used at the top and the bottom of the market (in terms of spend).  The thing to note however is that its unlikely that, given phone replacement cycles, this will change over the next few years without intervention.  And the implication of those same phone replacement cycles will be that parents and grandparents will then get these handsets handed on.

The fact that these message exchanges are free at point of use means that they are obviously going to be a channel of choice for a young and low income group.  We know this is also a demographic that is less likely to have access to the internet in other ways and so we have to accept that this closed communication circuit may be in place for some time.

Network two of two:  Social

Why does this matter?  Apart from the obvious implications of an anti-social crowd being able to mobilise quickly and secretly which is probably enough of a concern to anyone trying to police increasingly agile crowds of course….lets not forget there is a practical problem here as well and acknowledge this difficulty.

All of the work by practitioners around the use of social media for community engagement- and much of the optimism that many of us feel – is really predicated on the open and collaborative culture of the social web.  Where we talk about the use of mobiles it around the use of mobiles for internet access and SMS.  We know that young people engage with Facebook and other tools from their phones and we see this as a route to engage with them in turn.

The use of BBM explodes this paradigm – the culture is not the same and the network is closed and not open – the optimism that many of us feel with respect to the possibilities of the social web to engage people in constructive and deliberative debate is less founded with this technology.

The strength of weak ties

Cultures will always form sub-cultures and groups need and should have some degree of privacy.  I think the issue here is more that there is no connection with the BBM using younger demographic and a great portion of society.  We really have no idea of how this sub-culture functions online and we have few points of connection to it – to the extent that it was notable that a Guardian journalist actually made any connections at all.

Contrast this with way in which twitter was being used to organise the cleanup and to dispel rumours.  Even when you step out of the cosy intellectual, middle class bubble that many of us live in online there was outrage and anger about the rioting.  We can’t forget about the idiots who posted their loot on their Facebook pages – but we can note that this is also perhaps a cultural stupidity with them being more used to the closed systems of the BBM and text messages.

The problem here is so obviously not the technology – to say so is to take a technological determinist view of the world that ignores the fact that we have been on a path to a more networked society every since the telegraph enabled us to reach across the planet.  You can no more remove the networked behaviour at this point than you can stop people talking on street corners (or are we planning that?).  Yes – shutting down technologies will slow the spread of information – but that means good and bad information.  It would of course make us new friends in the form of all kinds of oppressive regimes who we have been criticising for just these reasons.  The revolution in the middle east has not been tweeted but it has surely been helped (read Gladwell and Shirky on this).

We need a culture of openness and we need to make connections across all of the networks in our society if we are going to build communities to live in that we can trust and feel safe in.  Networks are not the only analysis here but one small way forward could be to consider how we become part, or at least known to, the networks and groups that have been organising violence and looting over the last few nights.

This isn’t an online issue – the technology is not the problem – but the underlying lack of connection between two segments of society which is illuminated by the technology is I think a root cause and could give us an entry point to try and make things better.

I sometimes use the description of the internet as being very like a teenager, messy, difficult, and creative and with a tremendous energy and excitement that is not always focused constructively.  The shifting cultural norms online feel as if they are driven by that generation and it’s not surprising – anyone born after 1993 has only know a networked world.  The issue for all of us is how we integrate these new behaviours into our organisations and how do we influence them towards more traditional ways of doing things – how do we respond the cultural challenges of a networked society?

You can’t find an answer before you have a really good question and I think we need to ask ourselves what are the unique pressures that we are seeing right now that mean we need to respond with culture and behaviour change rather than process re-engineering and re-structuring?  Personally I think there are three main effects we need to consider:

  • Real time information
  • Transparency
  • Collaboration

Not surprisingly I see all of these as a product of a more networked society and I see the answer as bringing greater agility into our work practices.  ‘Agile’ is a software development approach that has core principles which can be applied to other business processes, it reflects the speed and pragmatism of the web without forgetting the need for control and quality management.

Responding to a changing world

Real time information is something that we increasingly take for granted – I use twitter for this but mainstream news is also moving to real time reporting with eye witness accounts and user generated content.  The question for me is how your organisation becomes part of this information flow without compromising on process and accuracy – fast shouldn’t mean sloppy.  The example that springs to mind was from some officers who are taking part in our Virtual Policing study who had to stand next to journalists who were tweeting inaccurate information because those officers had not had the story officially confirmed to them.  Clearly you can’t have officers making up the official line on a story on the spot – but they do need some real time responses they can use and they do need a closer to real time response from the communications team than having to wait for the Press release.  I am sure that this is a process issue that is echoed in many other organisations – the question is how do you make it more agile?

Our process thinking has been massively influenced by Just In Time production management approaches – we have industrialised production of content and services in the same way as manufacturing modularised and productised its processes of production.

I am suggesting that this is no longer the most efficient way of working and that in a networked and conversational world its no longer the most efficient response to write one really thorough response that may take a while to prepare – you need to communicate a little and often and make it clear what you do and don’t know.

Transparency leads a necessity to be much more clear about knowledge bounds – you can’t claim expertise and authority without being able to back these claims up as people expect to be able to be able to ‘click here to find out more’.  We write ourselves into being online and we do this by transparently showing our views, ideas and feelings.  The consequence of this is that we are pushed towards thinking institutionally in public – which means that we won’t always have the final answer.

Transparency sits very closely with collaboration.  With reducing budgets there is a clear need to consider how to collaborate with partners and with the public more effectively.  You can’t collaborate effectively without trust and transparency is one way of fast tracking establishing that trust – not to mention making working together more effective as you can clearly see what the other people are up to.

I was speaking at conference recently and was asked ‘who is losing power if the people are gaining it?’ – The answer is the state.  More co-productive ways of working mean that the people at the top of a top down structure are losing power and this needs to be faced.  I think this shift is best articulated as the fact that more transparent and collaborative ways of working mean that ‘the people’ collectively gave a greater sense of their own power – you get the confidence to act because you know that other people feel the same way.  The point is that this can be true internally as much as externally – don’t we want our staff to have a sense of what they can achieve and the ability to get on and do it?

This is what brings me back to thinking about culture and behaviour change.  These pressures are opportunities to effect change internally as we respond to externally circumstances – indeed if we don’t transform ourselves then we reduce our ability to deal effectively with that external world.  If the world is changing then we need to change as well.

Organisationally I think agility really comes down to two things – having a shared set of values and a clearly understood vision of what you are trying to achieve – a well-articulated objective.  Is anyone else flashing back to about a dozen leadership books and motivational speakers?

An agile process is slightly more than that – it releases on that vision and values but it then responds to the changing environment.  Agile processes work in short iterative cycles that allow you to act immediately in a controlled way – going back to that Police example the press office could be asked to tweet a holding message – and then short updates that make it clear what is and isn’t know at that point.  The immediate objective here is to reassure the public and to make it clear you have the situation in hand – not actually to pass information so this doesn’t need a lot of thought or a full press release.  Communicate a little and often with a clear view on who is able to do this in real time in a crisis situation.

How do you influence behaviour? 

I am coming from a point of view that says that the developing network society is one of the main pressures here and so my suggestion is the adoption of the tools of the network society is a useful first step to do this.  Use yammer internally, blog your management minutes rather than sticking them in a word document and use tools like basecamp to create collaborative workspaces.  Technology does not change people – but it can change behaviours and it can expose the attitudes and assumptions of the people who are creating it.  The network society is a more conversational, collaborative, transparent and real-time space – use its tools to explore what that means.  It’s also not a change that can happen without some kind of experiential element – you need to find the usefulness within these tools so that they become relevant – otherwise you’ll be asking your staff to join the LOL cat movement.

Build relationships

Its also worth thinking about how you build networks within your organisation – you already have people who are using these tools to talk about their hobbies, manage their photos or keep in touch with family and you want them to transfer these skills internally.  More than that you want to open up the possibilities and creativity that a more networked way of working can facilitate.  This is going to need a different kind of mentoring and support than more traditional structures – you want to break down barriers of hierarchy and also of organisation. Run internal social media surgeries, encourage staff to attend unconferences and city camps in order to connect to the people who are already working in new ways and let these networks grow organically – you can start to think about structure and order when there is actually something there to organise – in the first place you need to find and support the people who can already work in new ways as it can be a lonely business trying to bring about cultural change on your own.

Ultimately its all about making better decisions.

I believe is that you aim here is to be able to pass the decision the place closest to the issue so that you have faster and more effective organisational reactions.  However to do that you need to also get the information and the strategic there so that those decisions are backed up by the right organisational knowledge.  You also need to make sure that staff have an understanding of your organisation that goes beyond being able to recite the strategy – they need to understand your values and your purpose as well.  You need to wrestle brand off the design people and give it some heart.

But we’re not out of control yet

This does not have to mean a loss of control by the organisation it just means that the control moves – an agile process is not undisciplined.  Testing and evaluation is an inherent part of the mind set and you are trying to create new processes that are fast but measured in the way that they work.  In software terms you use unit testing to check each element is working – in policy terms you need to check each deliverable against the actual objective – does it move you forward?  If you bring this unit testing idea to policy making and implementation that you have to push the understanding of the objective out to the whole delivery team so that they can effectively make this judgement as they encounter variations and impacts from the environment.

Where do we go from here?

If you have got this far and appreciate the sense of urgency then you need to think about some tangible actions – you can’t change your organisation without changing your own behaviour

  • Get started – use the tools of the network society, communicate the objective as well as the plan and work both transparently and collaboratively so that it’s easier to learn from your experiences.  The social web tolerates and expects experimentation and you can’t learn from this environment unless you use it – get in the game.  If you are already online then think about how you mainstream your involvement – don’t let it be a side line that you fit in around your day job.
  • Accept complexity and plan for it – Agile assumes that we are not working in a closed system and that the environment effects our outcomes.  We know this is true so it makes sense to have an approach that accommodates changes and complexity rather than futile attempts to manage it out of existence.
  • Establish your relevance and communicate it – in a transparent world you need to understand where you fit and make sure everyone else does as well.  If you are pushing decision making out to the edges of your organisation then you need to give them the framework to work within

We are coming up fast to the point where the majority of people will be online and engaged digitally.  There will always be pockets of people that will be hard to reach but the people working within your organisations will be living networked and digital lives.  It becomes impossible to keep this fact out of your organisational culture – the question is how you change to get the best out of the new skills and opportunities without losing the essence of who you are.