As many of my friends know, I’ll be leading a session with Joe Peters of Ascentum at the upcoming “No Better Time” conference on participatory democracy. The session I’m a part of is called “Tech-Savvy Citizenry.”

Here is the session description:

A tech-savvy citizenry: New media for public participation, policy deliberation, and social change

Facebook and other social networks. Online video. Twitter. Online neighborhood forums. Technology is already reshaping deliberative democracy. What are the most promising tools and resources now available, and where is the potential for future innovation? What technologies work best for local democracy, for national democracy, for community organizing, and so on? In this session, we’ll examine what’s hot, what’s tried and true, and what’s tried – and failed. We’ll also consider the kinds of skills citizens need – and students should acquire – in order to be active participants in a tech-savvy democracy.

There are a lot of ways someone could go with this, and we’ve gone back and forth. The session is still evolving, but I am pretty excited about where we have ended up so far.

The No Better Time conference is July 8-11

The No Better Time conference is July 8-11

I wanted to get some of my thoughts down to set the stage and also to help me clarify my ideas. Disclaimer: All this is provisional and Joe and I might jettison it at the last minute and just hold class outside!

Tools, Purpose

At my Facebook discussion on this subject, Hildy Gottlieb makes a good point: “Where I see groups do well, their planning sees technology as just one of many tools to use in creating an engaged citizenry. Where I see it done less than well, folks are focusing first on the tools.”

It’s tempting to think about the session as a survey of the “tools available.” But there are a few pitfalls there. First, we are not experts in all social media (far from it). Second, it could throw us into the trap that Hildy describes, where we let the tail wag the dog. Third — and this is not a small concern — it could get pretty dry.

So we needed a different way to “cut” the session. We hit upon rooting the whole thing in purpose. There is a range of intentions we might have when we engage the public:

  • Educate
  • Advocate
  • Gather Input
  • Organize
  • Engage

While we can use social media tools in with any one of these purposes in mind, we very well might use them in different ways, depending on what we are up to. So, for instance, if my purpose is to educate people, I will use my blog in a very different way than I would if my purpose is to gather input in order to make a decision.

Just A Tool

Here’s a great illustration in a post by Hildy:

Imagine this conversation.

“I am thinking about getting a phone. Who should I call? What should I say to them? How long before the phone will help us reach our goals?”

Sounds silly, of course – but that is really what we are asking when we ask, “What should I talk about on Twitter or Facebook or MySpace?”

Just like a telephone, Social Media is simply a tool (or more accurately a group of tools) that can help facilitate engagement.

So this brings us to an important point: While it’s important to know how to use the tools, it’s more important for people to get a sense of what to use the tools for.

Building A Framework

We also are well aware that there are going to be some very savvy people at the conference. They may well have a range of familiarity when it comes to social media tools, but they will have a strong grounding in civic participation and dialogue. We can use that!

So we began thinking, what if we put enough on the table, so to speak, so that we can get people involved in creating a simple (and provisional) framework that everyone can walk away with.

In other words, we would develop — there in the room, on the fly — some ideas about what it might look like to use blogs (or Facebook, or Twitter, or YouTube, etc.) for organizing vs. for advocacy vs. for engagement.

So, that’s the broad brushstrokes of what we will be doing next week in New Hampshire. If you are attending the No Better Time conference, consider coming to our session! It will be Thursday afternoon at 1:30.