Category Archives: Internet and public issues

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.

debating the continued importance of institutions

Back in June, at the Boston Civic Media conference, I was part of a panel with Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, Christine Gaspar, director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Doris Sommer, professor and Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University. Among other topics, we debated the continued importance of institutions in a world increasingly characterized by loose networks. I took an institutionalist (maybe even an unrepentantly paleo-institutionalist) line. Boston Civic Media has put up a brief and cogent summary of the panel as well as the full audio, which is below. See also “why I still believe in institutions,” which I posted immediately after.

the launch of Brigade

Yesterday, Sean Parker of Facebook fame launched Brigade, a new app that lets you express opinions about political issues (including new issues that you introduce), discuss and persuade other users, identify people with similar concerns and views, and recruit them to your own “projects.”

If a random person invented such an app, I would be highly skeptical that it could attract enough users to be valuable. A network’s value is proportional to the square of its users (Metcalfe’s Law), which is why Facebook itself is a valuable place to engage and participate, and most startups go nowhere. But with Parker’s fame and his almost $10 million of initial funding, Brigade could “go to scale.”

I think it will do good if the design causes people to engage in relatively substantive (yet fun) ways, without degenerating into trollery or being taken over by organized interest groups. I think it will do even more good if users routinely introduce and share valuable content from other news and opinion sites in their efforts to persuade.

I can envision dangers if Brigade’s scale becomes huge and it gains some control over our public sphere, but that seems a distant hypothetical problem. As I told the Huffington Post’s Alexander Howard, I am rooting for Brigade to gain a substantial user base because I think it can be educational and energizing.

Brigade emphasizes issues rather than candidates and campaigns. In talking to the Washington Post’s Ana Swanson, I exaggerated the following point:

Parties, candidates and analysts alike have also found that Millennials are more willing to organize around particular issues rather than political parties. “For all human beings, it makes more sense to talk about issues than parties – who cares about parties[?] Most people are more interested in solving issues,” says Levine. “But I think it’s especially true for young people, who have a particularly weak attachment to political parties.”

In fact, a lot of people are driven by partisan attachments, which can even determine where they stand on specific issues. For some, loyalty to party comes first, and the issues follow. I nevertheless believe that there is a substantial proportion of Americans–especially young ones–who do not have strong partisan loyalties, and for whom Brigade’s focus on issues will be appealing.

media literacy education article

This is just out today: Levine, P. (2014). Media Literacy for the 21st Century. A Response to “The Need for Media Education in Democratic Education.” Democracy and Education, 23 (1), Article 15. It’s an invited response to Jeremy Stoddard’s fine piece “The Need for Media Education in Democratic Education.” My response is not a critique but just a complementary perspective. The abstract:

We cannot pretend to educate young people for citizenship and political participation without teaching them to understand and use the new media, which are essential means of expressing ideas, forming public opinions, and building institutions and movements. But the challenge of media literacy education is serious. Students need advanced and constantly changing skills to be effective online. They must understand the relationship between the new media and social and political institutions, a topic that is little understood by even the most advanced social theorists. And they must develop motivations to use digital media for civic purposes, when no major institutions have incentives to motivate them. Until we address those challenges, students will struggle to make sense of the new media environment, let alone take constructive action.


on daily blogging after 12 years

I started this blog on Jan. 8, 2003 and have posted virtually every work day since then. Each January 8, I have posted some thoughts about the blog on its blogaversary (while trying to avoid such self-absorption for the rest of the year). This January, I forgot, but then Andrew Sullivan announced he would stop posting daily after more than 15 years, and various prominent bloggers reflected on whether the whole form was dying. (See Ezra Klein or Kevin Drum.) Those articles reminded me to pause and say something about the evolution of this blog and its context.

In the early 2000s, most blogs were the property and invention of individuals who sought to participate in a national or global conversation called (with tongues partly in cheek) the blogosphere. Some, like Sullivan, were already famous, but others wanted to become pundits or public intellectuals without needing the approval of paid editors and other gatekeepers. These bloggers linked to each other and replied to each others’ arguments. As I noted on Dec. 6, 2004, the blogosphere had a “long tail” distribution, with a few sites attracting a vast majority of the links and many sites drawing only a few. I was definitely out on the long tail, very occasionally noticed by the high-traffic blogs. But, apart from its lower traffic, my blog was otherwise similar to the big ones–self-published, unpaid, part of a network connected by html links. You found new blogs to follow by seeing links on established blogs.

Most of the really popular bloggers are now paid for their work and blog on platforms owned by firms like The Atlantic or Mother Jones or by the bloggers themselves. Some did not start as bloggers but were well-known editorialists who now also maintain blogs. I bookmark a few of these and still read them frequently (now on my phone as well as a computer). They are news sources, comparable to a newspaper, and they draw my attention because of their professionalism and their volume. I am unlikely to bookmark a page that is updated less than once a day.

Meanwhile (like a few billion other people), I follow a lot of individuals and organizations through Facebook and Twitter. Some of these people link to their own blogs, which I read when the summaries interest me. Others post substantive comments on the social media sites themselves. Although short, these tweets and status updates play a similar role to blog posts ca. 2003. One difference is that I personally know and like most of the people I follow. Because these are social networks, they appropriately include a high proportion of baby photos and vacation updates along with political commentary. The link structure of the whole network is more transient and less public than it used to be when people pasted html links into their blog posts.

The traffic on this blog has been remarkably stable for a very long time, averaging between 6,000 and 8,000 visits per month in both 2006 and 2014 (two years for which I saved data). But I think more people are now also catching glimpses via social media. My most popular post of 2014, in terms of the number of unique page views, was “Foucault and Neoliberalism.” I was never able to find the Tweet that sent 6,000 people there in a few days, nor did I see many replies, but somehow it became part of a social media conversation prompted by a Jacobin Magazine article.

One difference between a blog and social media is that the former builds up a public collection of searchable writing. Of my top 10 most visited posts in 2014, two are notes on famous poems (Auden’s “Sept. 1 1939” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”) They appear fairly high on Google searches for those two poems, and I suspect they are being consulted by students facing essay assignments. The most common searches that take people here include “types of freedom,”  “kinds of freedom,” and variants thereof, which send people to a post in which I suggested that freedom came in at least six forms. Again, I suspect that students are working on class assignments and Googling their way here. These posts are more like archived publications than social media contributions.

I guess what I aspire to is some kind of durability. I’d like to write things that people still want to read in a while. Although I strive to engage with events in the world, I’d prefer not to be merely topical. When blogging began, it seemed to be highly responsive, nimble, offering a very short path from conception to publication–but also prone to superficiality. In the era of social media, a long-standing blog is beginning to look more like a curated collection of relatively careful writing than an ephemeral contribution to the day’s discourse. And that’s why I’m still at it.