In Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, he documents how the Internet has helped people accomplish amazing things by leveraging the power of new networks and connections. “We are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action,” he writes, “all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations.”
However, most of the examples of social and political change that have been amplified or catalyzed via social media are episodic, not lasting (which isn’t to discount their importance). This is in part the nature of social media. The same velocity that makes social media campaigns and memes so powerful, also makes them, for the most part, short-lived or best suited to making immediate change.
As we spend more and more of our time and energy on social networks – recent stats suggest that almost 20% of all time online is spent on social networks with the average person spending 7 hours on Facebook a month – I wonder how we can build a more consistent civic layer over the new digital public square.
Offline, the civic layer of our society is city and town governments, municipalities, non-profit organizations and ad-hoc groups. Their work is visible in and around the community, from maintaining roads and public parks to food drives and charity runs. There are clear ways to get involved, from attending town meetings to contributing your time or money. However, while you may follow your favorite nonprofit on Facebook or Twitter, those and other social platforms lack deep and sustained opportunities for civic engagement.
Social networks are powerful tools for sharing and creating, but how can we make them better engines for problem solving in our communities?
This question came to me when I saw a tweet from Ben Berkowitz, the founder of SeeClickFix – a crowdsource platform for reporting local problems and getting solutions. He checked in at a dog park in New Haven and left a tip: “Want improvements to the dog park? Try requesting them on http://www.seeclickfix.com.” Imagine if you could report potholes, broken parking meters, dangerous intersections and more directly to local government via SeeClickFix when you check in on Foursquare.
Could SeeClickFix, OpenBlock and other similar civic apps help build a more active civic layer over our social networks? I asked Berkowitz if he often left links to SeeClickFix around town on Foursquare. He said this was his first time, but in our exchange he also suggested Instagram would be another great platform for this kind of civic engagement. Snap a photo and report a problem, all using the Instagram app but with a hook into the SeeClickFix site.
When Instagram changed its terms of service (and then changed them back again) I said we should be talking about how to build more community driven public spaces online. To me, this idea of creating a civic layer over the commercial spaces where we gather online is an extension of that idea. Wired contributor Bruce Sterling has described the new tech giants as “vertically organized silos […] re-making the world in their image.”
If these privately controlled networks are becoming our de-facto digital public square, how can we build more horizontal civic layers that bridge these vertical silos? Or, asked another way, how can we leverage the power of commercial networks to help solve the “wicked problems” facing our communities?
This is just the seed of an idea. And it is a question that obviously goes well beyond reporting potholes on Foursquare. But the power of SeeClickFix is that it gives people a sense of civic agency online with real world results. After all, Berkowitz is known for saying that “potholes are the gateway drug to civic engagement.”
There is great work happening in this space at the MIT MediaLab. None of their projects tackle quite the question I’m asking here, but taken together it may be the best body of work that begins to build civic tools that leverage new networks. But I’m sure there are others in the Gov 2.0 space and elsewhere who are working on these problems. Let me know in the comments section and I’ll compile a list of examples below.
This is tangental to your overall point, which I certainly appreciate, but it’s a mistake to think that Instagram changed their Terms of Service back to something like their prior state. While co-founder Kevin Systrom promised a “clarification” that would deflate the “confusion” over their change a few weeks ago, the follow-up seems to have actually expanded the right that had many users concerned. Under the new language, Instagram reserves the right to use the “Content” submitted by users in conjunction with advertising on the service, again without compensation to the user. The catch here is that, where the original language specified usernames, likenesses, photos and actions, the revision defines “Content” to include all of that and more—including types of content, like music files, not yet supported by Instagram. If anything, Instagram users concerned that their online persona might be co-opted for advertising purposes have even more reason for wariness about that particular platform.
Returning to the larger point of your piece, though, Systrom’s response was frank about one point at least: social media has an ongoing problem paying for itself. With the exception of Google+, which benefits from the backing of Google’s profitable search+advertising business, the major commercial platforms are all staking their futures on some form of targeted advertising, specifically by leveraging interactions into Big Data. There are, then, two possibilities currently facing any attempt to build a civic layer. One is building it directly on top of the commercial layer, and to some extend, we already do so. An example that springs to mind was the use of commercial channels like Twitter and Facebook to spread news about power outages during Hurricane Sandy. The problem there is that our civic layer is beholden to the monetization strategy employed by those commercial services, which raises the potential for any number of conflicts of interest.
The other possibility is to build dedicated social networks specifically for civic engagement. There, the challenge is of finding an economic model to pay for those dedicated networks. It is an equally daunting challenge, but less fraught with potential conflicts and contradictions. And while there are, as you note, civic networks being created already, they must all eventually deploy one or another strategies for ensuring the continuation of service by paying for what they provide.
L. Rhodes – thanks for your comment. I’ll be sure to revisit the details of Instagram’s changes. In the meantime, I wanted to respond to your second and third points. The tension between building something on top of the commercial spaces that already exist versus building something new is central to my inquiry here and in my earlier post (https://stearns.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/from-instagram-to-open-journalism-towards-public-space-online/) where I suggest precisely the kind of civic/public spaces you describe.
I guess, my hope is that we can create a civic layer that connects these various networks, but also sits on top of them and thus is not “beholden to the monetization strategy” of any one network. I’ll return to the SeeClickFix example here. It is a stand alone service deployed by local governments and media organizations, but could be expanded across these social networks. Even if Twitter or another service changed its terms and broke that connection SeeClickFix would still persist on its own as well as on other networks.
The challenge becomes, if every commercial network moves to silo itself even more and makes it untenable to maintain deep connections across wall gardens on the web.
One stumbling block to potholes as communal civic engagement gateway drug is that governments may prefer not to have such reports be public, and instead feature third-party “report an issue” apps that don’t provide visibility to the public, of what issues have been reported.
How does one get past this?
(One possibility would be to ask candidates for office what approach they’d support, since everyone’s more amenable to supporting good ideas at that stage…)
Hi Anna – While I definitely see that possibility, the trend seems to be going in the other direction. But the folks at SeeClickFix would likely have better data on that since their business model includes deploying out to local governments.
The question to ask is how often, when their app has been offered, a competing, non-transparent app – or nothing – has been chosen instead.
This might make for an interesting crowdsourced-journalism project; invite citizens to suggest SCF to their governments, then report the overall response tone and rate.
I always cringe when I hear folks talk about constructing new networks or even layers to address a specific community. These strategies not only fail the test of financial viability, but also fail to leverage the existing captive audiences and participants, which are what make them so “sticky” and valuable from a big data or advertising perspective. I have yet to see an example of a standalone network that gains sufficient traction to be viable for the public realm. We need to reach people where they already come together.
While an effective platform has yet to be constructed to meet the needs of the full range of civic discourse (SeeClickFix and Granicus have developed various components, including public comment, citizen feedback and public information), we need deeper partnership and integration in existing networks such as facebook, twitter, linkedin, etc. This will enable governments to optimize the market penetration of social networks and build on their success without needing to recreate the wheel. These networks have already succeeded where most governments have failed big – in establishing direct communications channels with citizens.
Corey, I think we agree on most points here. In most cases a standalone network won’t work. But, so far I haven’t seen much in the way of building the civic layer from most of the networks that have developed. Facebook and Twitter have teams working with policymakers and others to deepen their engagement on those platforms but thus far that hasn’t resulted in the kind of expansive civic problem solving tools that could or should leverage both the market penetration and the unique network effect of those platforms. One reason I think this civic innovation may need to come from the margins, is because there may not be the financial incentive for existing networks to build it out themselves, and in addition something that is sand alone but leverages all the networks may be more resilient and independent that the unique (possibly conflicting) tools built by individual networks themselves.
Exactly my point. There is no financial incentive. Unfortunately, making the world a better place isn’t something you can monetize
It would be awesome if there was a way to do this. I think the Gov 2.0 people are the best bet for this or public media. As I’ve said before, I don’t think any profit-seeking entity can helm anything like this. The reasons are obvious.