This post is an outline of one of the policy question that we are discussing that the Master of Networks event (in Venice!!) next week. While not a proper paper as its an academic audience you may find this slightly more referenced than usual…its really lazy referencing with just signposts to literature rather than a proper review.

Master of Networks is “…. is a workshop that brings together cutting-edge policy makers and network scientists. We aim to come up with a specification in terms of networks of some public policy problems, and a viable strategy to address them in new ways.” The Policy question I’ve raised and will be putting to the group along with Ade Adewunmi  and Demsoc is:

WT3: Tracking a democratic conversation across different online media. How would you go about mapping democratic participation in a diverse media landscape?

What’s the problem?

My interest in this question is tracked here on the blog and is closely related to by PhD work (we’ll be using a subset of my research data) and is fueled by the question: “How can we connect the informal civic participation that we see online to the formal decision making process?”.

The contrast in behaviours in the Formal and Informal arenas is stark; Beyond the consistent growth in digital take up we see great growth in the use of digital technologies for civic purposes (Bruns, Wilson, & Saunders, 2008; Radcliffe, 2012; Wellman, 2001) in the context of a more Participatory Culture (Jenkins, 2008; Rheingold & Weeks, 2012). At the same time we are also seeing a concerning drop in participation in democratic participation (Brodie, Cowling, Nissen, Paine, & Warburton, 2009). In the UK this was illustrated with disastrously low levels of voter turnout in the recent policy and crime commissioner elections.

What’s the solution?

One possible route for addressing this dilemma is for the political decision making process to take on more of the cultural qualities and design affordances of the Social Web. I have suggested elsewhere that these should be; Openness, Agility, Co-production and Networked. If we are moving towards a “networked society” (Boyd, 2010; Castells, 2001, 2007; Hampton & Wellman, 2001) then what should our decision making processes look like?

With respect to the Policy Making process I am arguing that one vital way to bring the affordances of the Social Web into the design process is to provide greater levels of openness to the public both contributing to the policy agenda setting process but also making more timely contributions throughout the process (these contributions on the Open Policy Making blog make these points very well; the doctor is out , go where your audience is ) If we accept a description of Social Media as being a ‘Networked Public’ (Boyd, 2010) then understanding the networks that make up the informal civic conversation around either a topic or a geography is vital to ensure this more open contribution.  I also suggest we will also need to understand what are the limitations (if any) of commercial platforms which are currently available to us – do we need to consciously create digital civic space ((Blumler & Coleman, 2001; Cornwall, 2004; Howe, 2009; Parkinson, 2012)?

And the Policy Making question?

However – in order to make this manageable for a two day workshop I am posing only one other question: Simply tracking the conversation is important and informative but it is probably not enough – What is the standard of evidence that we need to meet in order to include content from the social web as part of the policy making process? And what standard is possible from the tools available?

And the data

The data set I have put forward to work on contains over 1000 informal civic websites (from 5 difference location). These represent a good (though not definitive) sample of the kind of informal conversations and networks that we might want to include in an open policy making process. The task is how might we turn these sites into networked data and how we might then understand who is participating. This is clearly a question that I have been working on for a while (civic spaces) but it is also something we have been working on in R&D commercially (Citizenscape Public beta). What we have not done is to consider what the Policy making needs are from these networked publics – we have focused more on finding and presenting them in a shared civic space.

What next

Is anyone has any questions about this then please shout – if not then I will post again with some outcomes from the event.

Bibliograph for those who like that kind of thing

Blumler, J., & Coleman, S. (2001). Realising Democracy Online : A Civic Commons in Cyberspace.

Boyd, D. (2010). Social Network Sites as Networked Publics : Affordances , Dynamics , and Implications. In Z. Papacharissi (Ed.), Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites (pp. 1–18).

Brodie, E., Cowling, E., Nissen, N., Paine, A. E., & Warburton, D. (2009). Understanding participation : A literature review, (December).

Bruns, A., Wilson, J., & Saunders, B. (2008). Building Spaces for Hyperlocal Citizen Journalism. AoIR 2008 conference.

Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies) (p. 304). OUP Oxford. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Internet-Galaxy-Reflections-Clarendon-Management/dp/0199241538

Castells, M. (2007). Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society. International Journal of Communication, 1(238-266).

Cornwall, A. (2004). Introduction: New Democratic Spaces? The Politics and Dynamics of Institutionalised Participation. IDS Bulletin, 35(2), 1–10. doi:10.1111/j.1759-5436.2004.tb00115.x

Hampton, K., & Wellman, B. (2001). Behavioral Scientist Long Distance Community in the Network Society : Contact and Support Beyond Netville. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(476), 476–495. doi:10.1177/00027640121957303

Howe, C. (2009). Building the Virtual Town Hall: Civic Architecture for Cyberspace. 3rd Conference on Electronic Democracy EDEM.

Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Convergence-Culture-Where-Collide-ebook/dp/B002GEKJ5E

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Democracy-Public-Space-Performance-ebook/dp/B007JRS72A

Radcliffe, D. (2012). Here and Now.

Rheingold, H., & Weeks, A. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (p. 272). MIT Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Net-Smart-How-Thrive-Online/dp/0262017458

Wellman, B. (2001). Physical Place and Cyberplace: The Rise of Personalized Networking. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25(2), 227–252. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00309

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have been dithering about this post and this issue for a while now but thanks to a brilliantly interesting meeting with the team at the South Yorkshire Joint Secretariat (thank you folks) and also a couple of conversations with other Police Authority clients its time to get something out in the world I think.

In November 2012 we will be electing 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) who will be the custodian of strategic direction and scrutiny for our Police Forces. These individuals will, with a reasonable voter turnout, have a larger direct mandate than any other elected individual in the UK with the exception of the Mayor of London. This is an incredible democratic opportunity and I think we need to consider what kind of democratic process we want in place to support them.

I am very uncomfortable with the idea of Elected PCCs but I think at this point we need to look at the possibilities that this opportunity offers to shape the kind of democratic relationship that will work in the 21st Century in a networked society. It’s a chance to design something new which is not shaped by the 19th Century infrastructure which holds back other parts of government.

A new democratic relationship?

Before we describe what it could be a good starting point would be to examine what it shouldn’t be. What stops people participating in democracy at the moment? The evidence suggests 3 things:

  • Time / Convenience / laziness (depending on your point of view)

The process of participation does not fit easily into most of our lives. 14% of us (at best) for example are willing localists who would participate if we had the opportunity (Hansard) and this means designing processes that fit in with contemporary lifestyles if we want to increase participation. These are practical not philosophical issues and can be addressed with better use of technology to make remote participation easy, more agile agenda setting so that you meet to discuss items that genuinely need debate and better facilitation.

  • Lack of interest or even dislike of politics.

The public don’t like politicians and they don’t like politics. They are interested in their local community but as soon as the think the conversation has become political they are turned off. The evidence on this point has been growing and hopefully the Political Parties are ready to listen. It we want elected PCCs to work as part of local politics then they may need to distance themselves from party politics. This means we cannot see these posts as a training ground for future prime ministers and party leaders – we need people who are committed to the local area and want to serve. This is going to be difficult – the party political system is deeply embedded in the way in which we do politics despite the fact that the public and increasingly unlikely to participate.

  • Lack of Self-Efficacy

Many people have little confidence in the system and a lack of belief in their ability to change it. Lack of participation can just mean that you are very happy with the status quo – or it might mean that you are unconvinced you could have an effect. Either way we need to help people understand the purpose and effect of their participation. We know the things that make a difference – transparency, openness and accountability – we have to make sure that they are systematically embedded in this new system which should be open by default and be design.

Taking this into account what would a fit for purpose democratic office look like today?

We know that the public will lose interest as soon as they feel that the posts are being wrestled out between the Political Parties – the public don’t want to be involved in the kind of politics that they associate with Westminster and to a lesser extent Local Government. Let’s not take the problems we have with the current democratic institutions forward to this new office. There is not a lot we can do about this at this point – campaign funding being what it is we are likely to get either party candidates or rich independents – but we can and should be making sure that the public are aware of the opportunity that this new election brings to create a different kind of democratic institution.

Of course we can also take a more positive view and look at what people do like – openness, transparency and a sense of connection with the person who is representing them. There is no evidence that people want direct democracy – there is evidence that they want more direct representation. Stephen Coleman suggests that direct representation would assume a constant dialogue between the public and their representative – not just the binary voting opportunity of the full term election.

So – whats the proposal here?

I have 4 broad principles that I suggest need to be considered here:

  1. The Office of the PCC needs to ‘own’ the democratic process
  2. The PCC should be “open by default and by design”
  3. We should create effective places to curate and listen to the debate
  4. We should ensure access to fast but robust opinion sampling tools which support decisions being information based
More explanation on this below:

The office owns the democracy

At present the nature of the Office supporting the PCC is not clear – different models seem to be emerging in different areas. I would like to suggest one principal for this and that is that the office owns the democracy – not the politician. We want to ensure that the Office of the PCC has a clear and non-political responsibility to ensuring that the Public have the best democratic experience possible when dealing with the PCC. We want to make sure that this new form of democracy is strongly managed and scrutinised. This means the Office needs to have independence in this matter from the Commissioner and have a clear mandate to run the decision-making process.

Be open by default

We want our politicians to be open and transparent – what does this mean practically? Firstly we need to know what they do and who they see, we want to know what they are working on and we want to see the discussions they are having to as great an extent that is possible. We want to be able to connect promises to actions and we want to be able to see the effect that they have. This means that we need to assume that meetings are public meetings unless there is an explicit reason why not. This kind of openness is relatively simple online and there us no reason why it can’t be delivered as part of this role.

Collect the conversation and visibly listen
Effective democracies are supported by active public debate. politicians need to be able to sample and connect to public opinion in order to understand how the public feel about issues. We cannot rely on old media – newspapers – to do this as they are severely depleted at the local level and as know that regional TV coverage is patchy at best. New media can help however – we know that the public are active online and that they are talking about local issues via social media or hyperlocal websites. I am suggesting we need to support the PCC by providing access to this public conversation in a civic space which is both open and transparent in terms of what is being said.

This civic space would enable the representative to listening to priorities and concerns from the public and where necessary ask questions and gain clarification. The public would know where the conversation was happening and would be confident that views aired there would be noted.

The civic space also gives the opportunity for the PCC to interact directly with the public in a coherent way which also doesn’t mean that they need to leave the places they are already using – this is a ‘network of networks’ that connects the relevant sites and content together without having to force people to participate in places they are not using anyway.

Sample opinion quickly and accurately
You can’t make decisions based on this kind of conversational space especially since we can be certain that at least in the short term the participants won’t be representative of whole electorate. Consultation tools can be used to get a representative sample of the views of the public using online and offline methods. This needs to not be cumbersome – this is more like the sampling methods of YouGov and Ipsos Mori than the full blown Place Survey with associated wrangling about questions.

Wrapping up

One of the things that shows the divergence between democratic practice and the network society is the way in which the public react to issues that reach a flashpoint of concern. Any new democratic system needs to be ready for the wildfire effect of online campaigning and be ready to respond swiftly and meaningfully to public concerns. These should surface within the civic space described above but should have an active and positive response from the office of the PCC.

I feel very uneasy with the idea of policing being controlled by a political process. I think an independent police force and judiciary are key elements of a liberal democracy. However, we are where we are as they say and that means that on 15th November 2012 we will be going to the polls to elect 41 Police and Crime Commissioners and on 16th November 2012 they will have control of the strategic direction of 41 Police Forces.

I imagine that in practical terms it will take a little bit longer than that to sort out.

We know how the public behave when they are concerned about something. We know how people campaign today and it is not with leaflets and posters. There is no excuse for creating an Office of the PCC which doesn’t meet the needs of contemporary society and which shapes a new form of democratic relationship.

What this relationship might be is still very open to debate. I have made some suggestions here but as no plan survives contact with the enemy there is a lot of practical thinking and exploration needed to refine how this will work.

We have had some initial conversations with Police Authorities and where some are thinking about this with excitement others are still too immersed in the details of asset transfers and staff structures to consider the democratic implications about this change. We will be spending the new few months trying to encourage Police Authorities to start to consider what kind of relationship and infrastructure will be in place on November 16th 2012. If you want to be involved in this conversation then let me know.

I spent a couple of days last week with the We Live Here Team at the Creative Councils Camp in Birmingham so this post is an attempt to capture some thoughts from the experience.  My first thought is that I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the team – thank you all….

The point of the camp was to help the 17 ideas that have been chosen for development time to explore their projects and to start to…well…develop.

Two immediate things struck me from the experience, the first was the fact that the NESTA team seem to be running a genuinely open process and that they want the best ideas to do well – with no real agenda as to what ‘best’ means in this context – I hope that they are able to keep this up.  The second thing was the quality of the 17 groups (yes – I modestly include us in that statement).  I met some fantastic people and heard some really brilliant ideas from the other groups.  There is some but not excessive crossover between ideas and there are some obvious collaborations if we can all figure out how to collaborate in what is ultimately a competitive process but if we can manage it then there is an opportunity to connect together transformational change in Local Government.  Before you get too excited I did say opportunity – lets see if we can avoid cocking it up.

And just to reflect on the point about competition / collaboration – clearly the ‘journey’ from this point is intended to reduce the 17 down to 5 projects – and this would normally mean that people did feel a sense of competition.  However it is I think a testament both to the nature of the participants and the quality of the event that we all felt the event was far more collaborative than participative which was great.

The event was a mix of plenary and breakout groups were we got chance to run through our ideas with other participants and the NESTA team – the format made sure the idea was challenged and explored by others and this allowed us to build on it and fill in a lot of gaps.

I’m fascinated by some of the event design stuff and so will reflect in that in another post – but this is what I felt from the POV of We Live Here – in no particular order:

Practical stuff:

  • We have to be able to communicate this to people who are not embedded in the process and thinking – its still highly abstract and if we don’t put this on the top of our list we will fail
  • There is no getting away from the fact that we need to be able to cost out what we are doing and also the potential savings from the approach – at very least we need to show that We Live Here is sustainable and does not add to the bottom line.  We believe that better democracy means better decisions and better decisions cost less in the long term but this is a little pollyanna for a finance director and so we will be expanding on the work that Anthony started in his Democracy Pays white paper and drilling down a little deeper into this.  It will also help with the budgeting process.
  • We really need to decide on how we are going to structure and track the project management  – and also how we are going to do it.  Innovation projects are not going to sit well with  PRINCE 2 approach and so this needs thinking about.  I have an interest in amending the AGILE approach for this kind of thing but I also want us to speak to NESTA as to whether or not they have some suggestions for project management tools for this kind of project.
  • Though we think that the principles behind We Live Here – the need for a civic space – are very portable its also true that the idea is very much in the right place and the right time.  Emma is going to capture the conditions and try and delink this from the method as we think this will help other people implement any learning from the project
  • We also pulled out the nuance that we need to draw a distinction between the fact that we want to change the way in which we make decisions through greater citizen participation from the fact that we also need new structures for democratic engagement – practical structures of time and place.  Breaking the problem down in this way will help us to plan I think
  • As we identified when we last met we really need to be clear on which processes / programmes / projects already happening within the council we want to connect to with this project.  This might be a matter of working out short, medium and long term goals but the two obvious areas at the moment are the scrutiny process and the neighborhood councils programme.  Given that these are at different stages of development this is one for Council colleagues to work through but whatever we decide on will form the ‘democratic contract’ I mentioned before.
  • We are still keen that one of the first things we do is to map the current civic participation in the city but we think that we need to try and provide a self reporting process for this as well to make this easier.  Podnosh also made the excellent suggestion that we use this as opportunity to demonstrate some of the stuff that people are doing and gather examples as we map.
  • One thing that we did surface was the fact that in the first iteration of this project we don’t expect to reach everyone – we are going to be focused on the Hansard “Willing Localists” and try to connect to the people who are interested in participating but currently don’t see the point or don’t find it convenient.  Once we have some momentum with this group and have demonstrated greater demand for greater participation) then we will look at the next layer of people who are further from participation – that is perhaps where this will get really interesting.
  • Also – I think I have persuaded people to carry out the scenarios of doom planning session – excellent – nothing like a little doom….
  • The idea of civic space is very abstract and lot of our motivations for the project are aspirational and transformative.  One of the things that came through for all of us from the feedback we got from people at the Camp was the need to try and root this vision with a practical delivery path that is much more tangible.  Alongside this we need to think about our communications approach as its essential that we start testing some of these concepts on the people we want to work with to check that they are clear and appealing.
  • We still want to the do the values / principles capture that I wrote about in the last post – I see this linking to an Agile project management approach

Reflections on the concept

  • One of the things that the way in which we were asked to articulate our idea was the fact that we have really been able to nail the problem that we are addressing.  Put simply:  Not enough people are participating in decision making.  There is wider argumentation about why we think this is a Bad Thing.
  • There is a tension here though which connects to the tension between co-production and democratic decision making and that is the challenge of connecting open processes with specific services.  This is in fact easier for us than for other projects as we have tremendous support from politicians and we are starting from a listening position and then seeing where people want to go – it will be far harder for projects that want to focus on a specific service area to both run open processes and keep the conversation in that area.  Some of this can be done be selecting people based in interest (That;s how we have been managing it in the CRIF project) but as we know this is not always enough and the other projects may want to consider how they will handle new demand that is out of scope.
  • One of the things that struck me about a lot of the conversations that we had over the course of the two days were the number of assumptions that we all make about what “the community” know and what they are interested in.  We do it as well.  Our representatives just don’t have the tools they need in order to access this knowledge and where previously it felt acceptable for them to have an attempt and fail the fact that the tools and technologies and in fact expectations and context have changed and developed creates one of the pressures that mean we have to reconsider the connection between citizen and state.  Its trite to say it but the fact that big brands and monitoring social media and responding personally sets a new level of expectation that spills over beyond the digital channel into everyday life – this is the expectation that we are trying to meet

Conclusion

So – where does this leave us?  I think our next step really needs to start to do some more detailed planning and out some structure on all this – it will help us move forward and also help us to take our rather abstract vision into a more practical realm.  In structure terms we are starting to see a vision/concept arc and a practical/exploratory one and I think that will work for us.

The CityForum event we are running on the 5th October (this is a followup event from CityCamp Brighton) gives us a focus for getting on with this as though its not a We Live Here event specifically its clearly an opportunity to widen the discussion around the idea.

On a more theoretical level I continue to think one of the central questions of this project is how we reconcile that tension between representative democracy and greater levels of participation and coproduction.  I think we need to be doing some fairly detailed thinking about firstly the pre-existing process that have space for more co-production but also where the limits are – this is really what we meant when I talked about exploring real localism in the wild.  One of the implications for greater citizen participation is the opportunity for the citizens to exert greater power on the context that the Council sets for a particular conversation at the moment.  This is another area where we need to be thinking about new forms of process and I return to thinking about how agile can help and also perhaps about how you would involve citizens in something like Gerry Stokers suggestions around experimentation within policy making.

I also think that there is an important conversation that all the projects in the Creative Council programme need to engage with around how we evidence and explain the new context that we are all working in not just in terms of financial squeeze – we need to make the case for change beyond the need to save money otherwise we will always be forced down a ‘make efficiencies’ route by people who do not accept a new analysis rather than being able to aspire to transformation.  The new values of a new context challenge orthodoxy – and I think this is at the heart of driving innovation.

However I also I find all this talk of innovation a little tiring – it’s not the biggest problem – it’s translating and implementing an idea beyond the innovation team and embedding it in the place. It’s about accepting the need to change the idea in the face of fear or established practice and go more slowly.  I think our feedback from the Creative Councils Camp was hugely helpful – we have a vision but we really need now to concentrate on making it work in the real world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this differ from social media monitoring?

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

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

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

Social, Civic and Democratic activities

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

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

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

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

Organise a community meeting

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

Rate a webcast (or a meeting)

Comment on a blog

Comment on webcast

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

Rate a comment on a blog

Rate a video clip

Comment on video clip

Collectors Save something to your user profile 

Sign up for alerts

Subscribe to an RSS feed etc from a social reporter 

Social tagging of content

Joiners Sign up to attend an event 

Sign a petition

Create a user profile

Contacted a political party

Donated money to a civic organisation or group

Joined another civic organisation or association

Donated money to a political organisation or group

Join a discussion forum 

Taken part in a lawful public demonstration

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

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

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

Site type Description
Active individuals broken down by: 

Local / General

Local / Topic

Twitter

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

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

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

What’s Significant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So – what does it all mean then?

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

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

The ability to reach the other side of the world without leaving your sofa brings changes beyond saving the cost of a stamp. The ability to share data and content without doing so in person or setting it in the aspic of print gives it a life of its own which starts to interweave with the relationships that the internet allows us to build. As I have discussed previously the internet changes the dynamics of place and community and as we move to a post-industrial society to a network society we clearly need to consider this in terms of social impacts as we well as political and cultural change. One of the interesting changes in mainstream discussion of the online world, at least for someone like myself who has been a huge cheerleader for the opportunities that the internet brings, is the fact that it is now seen as being ‘real’. Its no longer left to the technology pages of the newspaper and its no longer just the preserve of the ‘geeks and nerds’.

As the use of the internet started to grow beyond its military and then academic antecedents (Naughton 2000) writers started to talk about the information society – focusing the the fact that the greatest effect on society had been around the creation and sharing of information. However I choose to use the nomenclature of the network society which better reflects the fact that the big change here is in how people connect to one and other.

Frank Webster (2006) describes this difference perfectly:

“The point is that quantitative measures – simply more information – cannot of themselves identify a break with previous systems, while it is at least theoretically possible to regard small but decisive qualitative changes as marking a systemic break. After all, just because there are many more automobiles today that in 1970 does not qualify us to speak of a ‘car society’. But it is systemic change, which those who write about an information society wish to spotlight, whether it be in the form of Daniel Bell’s ‘post-industrialism’ or in Manuel Castells ‘information model of develop’ or in Mark Posters ‘mode of information’.”

But describing it as an Information society doesn’t look beyond the nature of this systemic change to the impact – that of vastly increased and diverse networks in society.  Castells’ strength and weakness is the holistic way in which he views the world –

“his approach is one which emphasises the connectedness of parts, though often these are in contradictory relationships, and their very frictional character is an important contributor to change” (Webster 2006).

This grand scope gives an excellent and compelling narrative but by drawing his vision this widely he perhaps does not then give sufficient emphasis to the offline world. I have talked in more detail about Castells in previous posts and you can read more here .

One thing to enormous heart of Castells’ does do is to balance off, for example, the more age of enlightenment views of Jurgen Habermas and start to move us away from the technological determinism of early information society writes such as Negroponte. Habermas’s ‘Public Sphere’ focuses on rational debate and in many ways ignores the social pressures on conversation and political discussion. The concept of the Public Sphere is a compelling one – he argues that the rise of capitalism and the departure from feudal / tribal living brought about the development of arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues. In terms of the network society we are talking about the ‘publicity’ of information and government.

However Habermas’s idea of ‘publicity’ is one which should be challenged when you consider the shifting boundaries between public and private which the social web can bring both in terms of identity and in terms of content. Where Habermas relies on the idea of people choosing to participate in the Public Sphere he does not take into account the impact of a life led mainly in public and the fact that this brings with it some necessary blurring between social and political thinking. Habermas’s Public sphere has a degree of formality, and rationality, which results from the idea of participants choosing to interact with it. His emphasis on public service broadcasters and the formal media also reflects this. I would argue that any Public Sphere today is less mediated and less formal than this. It is made up of the informal civic participation that I have described earlier with the blurred boundaries between formal/informal and civic/social that I have discussed in earlier posts .

I am not attempting a in-depth critique of Habermas within this thesis (though whether or not I need to will be a subject of debate next time I see my supervisor!!) but this concept of ‘Public Sphere’ is fairly central to the concept of a civic space – a place which provides a locus of local civic conversation.

If we accept Massey’s definition of place as space which has been given meaning and the distinction between place and local place is in the narrative of the people who consider themselves to be local to that place (more about this in a previous post) then a local civic space could be defined as being a space collecting together local narrative and opinion about local civic issues or as Webster describes it an “arena which is independent of government but dedicated to rational debate of civic issues”. What is notable about seeing this this debate happen online is the fact that it is visible and auditable, and that we can start to construct spaces around the debate.

This grounding of the network society in the idea of place is possible once we accept the reality of the interactions which we see online in terms of their ability to build community (Wellman, Rheinegold, Turkle) and provides a very different perspective to the Internet Galaxy that Castells writes about. His comment that “Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing” is just as true if we consider it from the hyperlocal perspective and allows us to start considering what the implications of the network are at the local level.

The Virtual Town Hall pilot is an attempt to examine these implications and to consider what it means to be both local and part of the network society – specifically with respect of the way in which this hyperlocal activity might influence or connect to local democracy and as we start to gather data I will be examining whether we are successful in creating this local civic space as well as seeing whether participants value it, as well as going on to try and describe some of the characteristics of this space.

Ultimately my criticism of Habermas is that he is all head and little heart – not taking into account the importance of the social relationships that support the conversations within his Public Sphere. This is largely because he seems to see the public sphere as being an evolution from the family / feudal spheres that I mentioned earlier rather than being able to coexist in parallel. This parallel existence is perhaps of less importance prior to the existence of a network society but as our ideas of ‘publicity’ change the boundaries between these different spheres becomes blurred. But what Habermas doesn’t seem to accept is the idea that this blurring can be a positive outcome and that the social interactions sustain and support the more formal interactions (Putnam).

When Castell’s shows us a picture of the Internet Galaxy (ref) he is mapping it in terms of the number of transactions – not in terms of their impact on the people and communities involved. I would argue that if we are going to consider the network society then we need to get away from its initial enthralment with the global opportunities that it holds and focus instead of what these opportunities are at a local level.

Barry Wellman, in his studies of ‘Netville’ starts to explore this connection:

“Affordances are the perceived capabilities of an object, environment, or technology (Gaver, 1991; Gibson, 1979; Norman, 1988). Arguably, the dominant perceived affordance of the Internet, as a means of communication, is one that involves exchange over distance. The earliest observers of the Internet noted this affordance to participate in the inexpensive, instantaneous exchange of resource with geographically dispersed others, expressing it through such concepts as the “space of flows” (Castells, 1996) and the “death of distance” (Cairncross, 1997). Whereas distance is perceived as the dominant affordance of Internet communication, it may not be the only communication affordance. Researchers have argued that when a critical mass of people within a shared local environment adopt the Internet, such as a neighborhood or workplace, they cultivate an increased awareness that the Internet affords communication within local space as much as it does across distant space—a concept referred to as glocalization (Hampton, 2001; Hampton & Wellman, 2003; Hampton, 2007).” (Wellman, Internet Use and the Concentration of Disadvantage: Glocalization and the Urban Underclass, 2010).

He goes on to say:

“Adoption of the Internet for local communication within a local setting may vary on the basis of the ecological constraints of the environment. However, there is virtually no existing research on the the relationship between ecological context and media use. Whereas an extensive sociological literature exists on neighborhood or contextual effects, from a communication perspective the role of ecological context remains relatively unexplored. In fact, within the literature on contextual effects, there is an implicit assumption that social contact operates through only one channel; that is, meaningful social interaction takes place only through in-person contact. This is problematic for both the study of space and the study of media: Studies of the Internet often ignore the role of physical place and context in everyday life, and studies of ecological context often ignore that a variety of media (old and new) can be used to form and maintain social ties. The result has been a failure to explore the possibility that some media likely afford social contact at different rates within different ecological contexts, which may influence inequalities derived from social interaction.”

The main findings of his research point to the idea that access to technology has a positive impact on civic participation but goes on to highlight the dangers of this additional connectedness being focused on the articulate middle class and draws attention to an additional concern around the impacts of the digital divide – though he does point out that disadvantaged communities are in fact going online at a faster rate than other communities – though I do not know what the situation is in the UK (Wellman is working in Canada). The paper is fascinating and I would recommend giving it a read – but one other item struck me when reading about the i-neighbours digital communities:

“The only outside group or institution to appear among the most frequent concepts was police, which appeared in over 7% of e-mails from disadvantaged areas but in only 3% of e-mails within other areas.”

Where on earth were the politicians in all this civic activity???

But Wellman’s overall conclusion is very hopeful:

“The Internet affords social cohesion and collective action in neighbourhood settings that are otherwise unlikely contexts for collective efficacy.”

Though he also goes on to point out that this conclusion should be tempered with the knowledge that it is a limited study and that the i-Neighbours effect may not be generalizable this study clearly supports the idea that hyperlocal activism can have a positive effect on local communities and that this effect is also there for less advantaged community members.

One final view of the network society is the work of Anthony Giddens. Webster says

“Giddens does not write much, at least directly, about the ‘information society’. It is not a concern of his to discuss this concept, not the least because he is sceptical of the proposition/ It is his view that we live today in an epoch of ‘radicalised modernity’, one marked by the the accelerated development of features long characteristic of modernity itself.”

Ideas of networks and globalisation are central however to Giddens work and he is concerned with the changing divisions between public and private and there impact on democracy and governance. To my mind this makes he work very relevant to any discussion about the Network Society as it becomes more truly part of mainstream sociological thinking. However, without an clearer tie to the sense of place which is so important to the individual there is the continuing risk that ideas of globalisation overwhelm what is potentially the greatest impact of the internet – its ability to reconnect local communities.

I started this piece by talking about the ability to reach the other side of the world without leaving your sofa – by connecting ideas of place with the network society we perhaps replace the desire to do this with a more meaningful connection to the communities right beside you.

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