Category Archives: Internet and public issues

the online world looks dark

(Chicago) I’m at the #ObamaSummit, much of which can be followed online.

In the opening plenary, several speakers (including President Obama) noted the drawbacks of social media: psychological isolation, manipulation by powerful companies and governments, fake news, balkanization, and deep incivility.

I remember when discussions of civic tech were generally optimistic: people saw the Internet and social media as creative and democratic forces.

I went to the specialized breakout session with “civic media” entrepreneurs and asked them whether they shared the dark picture painted by the plenary speakers. Each gave an interesting and nuanced answer, but in short, they said Yes. The reason they build and use digital tools is basically to combat the larger trends in social media, which for the most part, they see as harmful. Even Adrian Reyna of @ United We Dream, a leader of one of the best social movements that has used online tools, emphasized that relying on civic tech can disempower people and alienate communities.

This is no reason to give up on improving the civic impact of digital media. The work remains as important as ever. It’s just that the atmosphere now feels very sober; the heady days of cyber-optimism have passed, at least for people concerned about politics and civic culture.

[See also democracy in the digital age and four questions about social media and politics]

democracy in the digital age

New chapter: “Democracy in the Digital Age,” The Civic Media Reader, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), pp. 29-47

Abstract: Digital media change rapidly, but democracy presents perennial challenges. It is not in people’s individual interests to participate, yet we need them to participate ethically and wisely. It’s easier for more advantaged people to participate. And the ethical values that guide personal relationships tend to vanish in large-scale interactions. The digital era brings special versions of those challenges: choice has been massively disaggregated, sovereignty is ambiguous, states can collect intrusive information about people, and states no longer need much support from their own citizens. I argue that these underlying conditions make democracy difficult in the digital age.

teaching online civic engagement

For several years, Joe Kahne and his colleagues have been conducting intensive research on young people’s use of digital media for politics and what that means for education. Their research has taken the form of large-scale youth surveys, interviews, and experiments. The following is a broad and detailed new article that pulls together much of their research and provides concrete examples of classroom practice:

Joseph Kahne, Erica Hodgin & Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, “Redesigning Civic Education for the Digital Age: Participatory Politics and the Pursuit of Democratic Engagement,” Theory & Research in Social Education, Volume 44, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 1-35 (open access)

The authors address two concerns that I have raised in previous work. First, “Many efforts to produce and circulate content will confront what Levine has termed ‘the audience problem’ (2008, p. 129). Simply put, many blogs or other digital content may get relatively few views and little or no response.” I would add that this is almost a logical inevitability because there aren’t enough eyeballs to allow millions of content-producers all to reach large audiences. As I can testify from years of experience, the median blog or video reaches just a few. The authors reply:

Of course, many off-line political activities also fail to engage many members of the public. We would classify a blog that addresses a political issue but has few readers an act of participatory politics just as we would classify a protest that people ignore as a political activity. That said, clearly, the power of public voice is diminished if one fails to reach a public. This reality highlights the need for educators to help set realistic expectations and to support and scaffold activities so that youth can more effectively produce and circulate political content.

Second, “a number of scholars (Levine, in press; Sifry, 2014) have detailed ways that individuals’ and non-institutionalized groups’ efforts to achieve greater voice by leveraging the power of the digital media often fail to prompt institutional change. Expressing caution, Milner (2010) wrote, ‘[youth who] turn their backs on [institutional] politics in favor of individual expression will continue to find their priorities at the top of society’s wish list–and at the bottom of the ‘to do’ list”(p. 5).” Here I would add that loose online movements are frequently defeated by disciplined organizations, such as corporations, armies, and security agencies. But the authors reply:

one might note that a wide range of significant change efforts ranging from #BlackLivesMatter, to the DREAMer movement, to the protests against SOPA, to the push for marriage equality have employed digital media in ways that changed public attitudes and that these changes have enabled new legislation. Still, the concern remains. Watkins (2014) noted, for example, that when it comes to digital media, youth are often “power users” (frequent users), but they are not necessarily “powerful users” (influential users). In order for youth to realize the full potential of participatory politics, they will frequently need to both understand and connect their efforts to institutional politics. Helping youth identify ways to build bridges from voice to influence is vitally important.

These are just two of many issues discussed in this extensive and deeply researched survey article.

Does Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?

In The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer explains why Twitter seems not to be as fun or as socially satisfying as some other networks. He thinks it uncomfortably and unsuccessfully “smooshes” together aspects of oral communication (spontaneity, rapidity, and interactivity) with aspects of written communication (permanence, sharability, and the capacity to reach strangers). Meyer thinks that “the more visual social networks have stayed fun and vibrant even as the text-based ones have not. Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram don’t traffic in words, which can be reduced to identity-based magnum opi [that should actually be magna opera], but in images, which are a little harder to smoosh. Visual conversations have stayed chatty, in other words.”

Meyer’s theorists are Walter Ong and Bonnie Stewart, but there are also hints of Habermas in the article: Ong is quoted on the “human lifeworld,” and Meyer notes ways that the public and the private “get smooshed.”

A core Habermasian insight is that there are different norms appropriate to private and public speech.

In public, you must make arguments that can persuade strangers. You must therefore provide adequate reasons and explanations for everything you say. Since you can’t assume that strangers understand your assumptions and experiences, you must make them evident. You are accountable for your remarks and should be responsive to reasonable critiques. You should (generally) take the same positions when talking to different people. When Mitt Romney complained to donors about the 49% of Americans who were “takers,” but he didn’t want the 49% to hear him, he became one of many public figures who have been caught violating the norms of public speech.

In private, the norms are authenticity, spontaneity, and responsiveness to the concrete other people with whom you have relationships. You should (generally) say what you really feel in the moment, although you are also obligated to care about what the individual who hears you thinks and feels. That may require tact. You need not fully explain your thoughts, and your explanations certainly need not convey entire, self-sufficient arguments to strangers. You are not responsible for treating everyone alike. In fact, you are obligated to favor some people, the ones you love and who love you. You have a right to privacy, so if you are videotaped saying something that you wouldn’t want strangers to hear, that is a violation of your rights.

It is dangerous to confuse these domains, to “smoosh” the public with the private. Often, marketing and political propaganda consists of pretending to have an authentic private conversation while actually influencing strangers. Voters mistakenly choose candidates based on their impressions of politicians’ private lives, which are irrelevant at best and fictional at worst. Meanwhile, powerful people privatize the public sphere by making policy decisions on the basis of personal relationships and inventing spurious justifications or avoiding rationales entirely. Prying journalists and governments violate privacy. And sometimes ordinary people retreat from the public sphere and either take no positions at all or develop irresponsible positions on public matters because they can’t or won’t interact with strangers as if they were real decision-makers.

I am not sure, however, whether Twitter exemplifies the smooshing of public and private that worries Habermas. Twitter is a fairly flexible platform. You can use the 140 characters to address the public, although that will often require embedded links. Or you can use the 140 characters to keep your close friends informed about your social plans. You can develop a persona as a public person or as a private one. The two can be confused, and awkwardness can arise. For instance, as Meyer notes, disclaimers that “RTs do not constitute endorsements” are odd ways of distancing a Tweeter from the content. But it could be that Twitter is a useful vehicle for both public and private conversations, and the feeling of tension simply reflects the parlous condition of our public life, more broadly.

See also: Habermas illustrated by Twitterprotecting authentic human interactionfriendship and politicsOstrom plus Habermas is nearly all we need.

crowd-sourcing information as a form of civic work

(Milwaukee, WI) Beth Noveck has been a leader since the 1990s in connecting online, collaborative knowledge-production efforts (tools like Stack Exchange) to government, and vice-versa. She has pursued that cause both as a scholar and as an Obama Administration official. I have not yet read her latest book, Smart Citizens, Smarter State, but Andrew Mayersohn’s review lays out important issues. This is a quote that mentions me, but I recommend Mayersohn’s whole article:

The ultimate goal of Smart Citizens, Smarter State is not simply a more competent regulatory state, but a transformed relationship between government and the governed. To policymakers and bureaucrats, Noveck makes the case that soliciting citizen expertise can make governance more effective; to democratic theorists, Noveck argues that providing expertise is a genuine form of civic engagement, and that it can help remedy the “broken, staccato rhythm of citizen engagement today” with something more substantive and sustained.

Noveck is right to suggest that we should start to think of providing expertise as another form of engagement like protesting or voting. Tufts University’s Peter Levine estimates that at least one million Americans are members of organizations that practice “open-ended discussion, problem-solving, education, and collaboration with diverse peers” such as the Industrial Areas Foundation and the League of Women Voters. Levine argues that such people are an important constituency for a more participatory democracy, since they have already seen it work in practice and developed the skills involved. Noveck’s proposals would greatly increase their numbers and, perhaps, begin to accustom a portion of the public to the idea that governance can and should be collaborative.