Next week I will be talking to a group of civic participation experts about social media and how it may (or may not be) affecting democracy, dialog, and deliberation. I began to put my thoughts together in a series of bullet points and it rapidly became an outline for a longer paper. I thought I would publish it here and point my colleagues to it, in order to jump start our conversation.
Social Media And Emerging Alternatives To Top-Down Professionalization In Public Life
What are we talking about?
The Internet has simply become infrastructure (email, static web pages). Social media is emergent now, but it is also on the way to becoming ubiquitous. Facebook, for example, has 350 million users worldwide, half of which sign in every day. More than 60 million accounts are in the U.S.
Social media is also known as Web 2.0, a term which is almost obsolete. What it means is an approach to the Web in which individual contributions are paramount.
Social media’s inherent difference — the core difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 — is that the contributions, comments and other responses of users are seen as intrinsically important. This is a shift in thinking from masses accessing content to masses creating content online.
The key, for civic purposes is: Social media allows many-to-many communication unmediated by central institutions or organizations.
A Study Of Emergence
Asking what effect the Internet will have on public life is similar to the question of how the telephone changed American life. This is an apt comparison for a number of reasons. At its most basic level, the Internet is a new mechanism for communications.
The definitive social study of the telephone is Claude S. Fischer’s America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940. This book, published in 1992, studied the spread of the telephone throughout California through primary source material as well as through interviews with people who were alive in the 1910-1940 timeframe.
The parallels to social media are uncanny and persistent. For example, the worries that the establishment had about this new technology and its possible deleterious effects were very similar to what we hear today. In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discussed the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the proposed by the committee were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”
Another common response as the telephone emerged into ubiquity was derision at the triviality of the uses made of the telephone. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure they have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.
Also of interest is how the use of the telephone evolved from its intended purposes. In 1910, Bell was advertising the telephone as an efficiency tool, suitable for business and, to a lesser extent, for making the running of a household easier (for example, ordering groceries became easier). Just thirteen years later, people’s actual use of the telephone had evolved to the point where sociability was the main point. A 1923 Southwestern Bell training manual for sales staff said: “[T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that ‘Your Voice is You,’ . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.”
From Emergence To Ubiquity
The best examination of using new technologies to organize — that is, of individuals self-organizing outside of the constraints and plans of institutions — is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing without Organizations (2008). Shirky points out — as does Fischer — that change happens when new technology becomes ubiquitous. Text messaging has driven much more change than has Facebook. The telephone drove change when it became normal to call people and converse for sociable purposes.
The parallel with telephone adoption, and the point about ubiquity, are important ones to keep in mind because they can help frame conversation about engagement and social media, and also stave off alarmism.
Conversations about social media often devolve into conversations about techniques: How can we use our Facebook page to get more donations? That’s an uninteresting way to approach the conversation. It is little different than saying, how can we best use the phone to solicit donations?
Of greater interest are the questions like these:
- What is going on that we can point to as alternative ways of civic organizing?
- What are the implications for democracy?
- Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?
What is going on?
What are alternative ways of civic organizing? The best way to describe what is going on is to say that people are getting used to new mechanisms for engaging with one another.
In looking at what is happening, we should look at (sometimes spontaneous) efforts that unfold over time, and that involve many people interacting with many.
People point, for instance, to the “green revolution” in Iran — people around the world spontaneously developed ways for Iranian people to get information past government censors about what was going on. People outside of Iran began collating and collecting the information. Institutional news sources began using this information in their reporting. The piece in Iran that is interesting is the way spontaneous individual actions (creating repeater sites) was picked up by institutional entities (news organizations). The key driver of the Iran effect was text messaging (a ubiquitous technology).
Another example, this one from Shirky’s book. A 2002 Boston Globe story on Father John Geoghan revealed he had a history of fondling or raping boys and had been moved from parish to parish. In response to this, a small group of laity met in a church basement in January that year. The 30 gathered church citizens decided they ought to organize and so “Voice Of The Faithful” was born. Within six months they were 25,000 strong and international. Their pressure was key in the decision of Cardinal Bernard Law to resign near the end of that year.
This is in stark contrast to a similar set of circumstances ten years earlier, when the story of Rev. James R. Porter came to light, also in the Boston Globe. Similar laity outrage, in that case, simply “dissipated,” according to Shirky.
The difference between 2002 and 1992 was the advent of ubiquitous means of sharing news. “In 1992, the Globe wasn’t global, and the Porter story stayed in Boston,” writes Shirky. “In 2002 the Globe didn’t need to spread the Geoghan story to the world’s Catholics; the world’s Catholics were capable of doing that themselves.”
The key elements here were: News on the Web, email, and blogs repeating and republishing. These ubiquitous technologies had coalesced into an ecosystem.
What are the implications for democracy?
This is a harder question to answer than “what is happening” because it is inherently speculative. The answer is we do not know what use citizens will make of brand-new tools as they become ubiquitous. But one good guess is that people will use new technologies to do the same things they already do in civic life: kvetch, discover problems, name them, and consider how to solve them.
To the now-entrenched ecosystem described above, social media has now been added in, primarily in the form of user forums such as Craigslist and through Facebook. Civic organizing outside of institutions now takes place in these areas, as a dynamic ecosystem: blog posts and comments, forums, email lists, and Facebook. The linchpin of neighborhood organizing is increasingly the email list. Most computer literate citizens are a part of some community list (for parents, it is often a school list).
These lists — because of their ubiquity — are areas where emerging civic issues crop up, and get named and framed (to use terms from deliberative theory) before crossing into more institutional regimes (for instance, being brought up in community meetings).
Social media is also acting as a gateway for new people to enter — or feel a sense of efficacy in — public life.
Here is a very small example. I founded a community blog, Rockville Central, which I run with a partner, Cindy Cotte Griffiths. It has grown to become the second most-read local blog in Maryland. This has brought new readers. As this has happened, a number of people who did not see themselves as civically active before, now expressly point to online activity as having opened the door for them to be involved in public life. They now contribute and pitch in on community meetings, some have become community activists and speak up at city council meetings. More importantly, many have become “connectors” in the community-leadership sense of the word.
To sum up: New means of communication have become ubiquitous and are already being integrated into the already-existing community ecosystem dynamics.
Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?
My colleague John Creighton and I have been doing work on the difference between institution-centric and citizen-centric public life. There is a confluence of factors that make for a coming revolution in many of the public institutions. Citizens are taking matters into their own hands — in part because they can, and in part because that is their expectation. Both of these are as a direct result of ubiquitous new technologies.
These new demands are driving radical change. For instance, Florida now requires all school districts to have an online education plan.
A citizen-centric organization will understand and work with the ubiquity of these new channels and the desire for people to use them.
From Adelaide, Australia, a story made the rounds a few months ago and had people wringing their hands. Two girls trapped in a storm drain chose to update their Facebook statuses with pleas for help rather than dial the local equivalent of 911.
This had local officials worried, according to a government spokesperson: “If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000 [the local equivalent of 911], so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway.”
This is an institution-centric view of what happened: The girls did not use bureaucratic systems properly. But they actually were communicating in as effective a way as they knew. It is the problem of the institution that it has not caught up to the way people increasingly communicate: through social media where one comment can go out to many people at once.
It’s not just teenagers, either. In Atlanta in May 2009, a city councilman was worried that his cell phone battery would go dead while he waited on hold for 911. So, he sent a message to Twitter: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson St. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet.”
One thing that we can watch for in terms of less organization-first thinking is for these institutions to acknowledge that social media is a part of the ecosystem people use to communicate, and not a “channel” to be “managed.”
Consider a comment that I heard at a recent working session on social media and community benefit organizations, which was organized by the National Conference on Citizenship, the Case Foundation, and PACE. At this working session, Scott Heiferman, founder of MeetUp.com, complained: “You know how all these organizations have links to their Twitter and Facebook accounts? Most of them say ‘connect with us.’ But why would I want to do that, and why do you want people to ‘connect’ with you? That still sees your organization as the mothership. Get people to connect to each other somehow.”
That’s the point of the Atlanta councilman’s “Pls. Retweet” note. His plea got picked up and quickly made its way to the right person — not because he sent it to through the right channel, but because a connection of his did. This is the power of the many-to-many facet of social media, and the largest change for public life. The many-to-many is becoming ubiquitous.
This is the crux of the difficulty for organizations. The whole notion of an institution wanting to “connect” with its public is problematic. Organizations that move themselves away from being the focal point will contribute the most to public life.
But, for an institution, to take itself out of the equation and getting people connecting with one another may be the toughest discipline of all.