On Increasing Civic Engagement in Governance

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 08, 2010

Adrian of the MyStoneyCreek has kindly invited The Hamiltonian's Cal DiFalco and your humble RTH editor to offer an answer to the question: "How we can increase civic involvement in the governance process?" Here's my attempt at a response.

The twentieth century, for the most part, was the century in which the prevailing communications technologies conspired to produce the idea of a mass audience, i.e. the citizenry as a more or less undifferentiated collection of atomized consumers.

This mass audience were consumers not only of the goods and services that were advertised on the broadcast media and whose ad revenues paid for those media; but also, pointedly, consumers of the information broadcast on those media.

Because of the centralized, top-down nature of the broadcast media, access to the production side was inherently scarce, and a professional class of content producers and quality control gatekeepers grew around the media outlets.

The primary purpose of these professionals was to protect the capital investments of the owners by ensuring that the content produced and distributed through these scarce, expensive channels was good enough to attract viewers/listeners/readers. Yet the professionals came to take themselves so seriously that they often deluded themselves into thinking they were controlling quality on behalf of their audience - as if the audience was incapable of determining quality for themselves.

But a major practical consequence of the decidedly one-way and gatekeeper-controlled media environment was to frame the actual citizenry as mere passive spectators to the production of culture and to the political process.

A major deterrent to wider political participation was simply the high transactions cost of one-on-one discussion and organization, which was the only means of communicating in a culture dominated by centralized, one-to-many communications channels. A few rebels attempted to run 'alternative' one-to-many media entities with varying levels of success, but such entities were always economically insecure and vulnerable.

The effect of this enervation on political engagement is obvious: mere consumers could no more produce their own political change than they could produce their own consumer electronics.

Of course the idea of citizens-as-consumers was always a contrivance and never entirely took hold; and the underlying liberal democratic principles of most industrialized societies was a significant countervail that flared up periodically in popular movements.

But for most people, most of the time, politics was something you watched on TV and read about in the paper, not something you did. At most you maybe complained about the damned politicians as a kind of social ritual.

Many-to-Many Communications

Now that's changing. The internet, fast becoming the dominant communications medium of the 21st century, is an inherently decentralized, distributed, many-to-many communications medium. The economic and technological barriers to entry for content producers are negligible compared to the barriers to entry for radio, TV or print.

For the first time, citizens have a practical, hands-on opportunity to see themselves not just as passive, atomized consumers watching/listening/reading in isolation, but as active, connected producers taking part in a larger ecosystem of citizen-producers communicating with each other.

Whether it's facebook status updates, short posts to twitter, photographs uploaded to flickr, essays and reports posted to personal blogs, homemade videos uploaded to youtube, annotated cat pictures posted on comedy forums, self-conscious check-ins to location-aware social networks, comments added to someone else's content, or any of an astonishingly wide variety of other forms of content creation, citizens are for the first time producing culture as well as consuming it.

Some of these activities may seem amateurish, banal, even puerile; but that's beside the point. The point is that the internet has given people an opportunity to participate in the manufacture of their own culture to an extent never before seen in industrial liberal democracies - and people are participating in spades.

Political Engagement

What emerges from a communications medium based on participation rather than consumption is an inclination toward participation that spills over into areas of life still framed by the 20th century consumer model - like politics.

The pressure for internet-values to cross-fertilize into politics is already driving the Gov. 2.0 movement as well as politically oriented websites like Raise the Hammer, The Hamiltonian and My Stoney Creek.

These communications channels take advantage of the low barriers of the internet to create online communities where citizens who want to be more politically engaged can talk to each other about their community, its challenges and the opportunities to produce change.

At the same time, the traditional top-down media are starting to recognize that the role of professional content producers is changing, and they're slowly starting to reposition themselves as professional enablers and curators rather than gatekeepers per se.

The question of whether they can find a business model in this new role that preserves their professional status remains open, but is in any case secondary to the phenomenon by which citizens assert the right to get a word in edgewise, to contribute to the public discussion, and perhaps to shift the political momentum toward a more inclusive outcome.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 22:28:33

Ryan, good read and reminded me of a book I read years ago The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson. Very interesting what is happening with this communications engagement without question.

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By rayfullerton (registered) | Posted September 08, 2010 at 22:40:23

Very interesting, thanks for the primer on the changing of communications from" one-to many" to "many-to-many" due to the Internet.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 13:35:04

Good article, Ryan. Just to clarify, or at least distill your response, you're suggesting that by democratizing communications media, we can increase civic involvement in the governance process?

I certainly agree the internet has very low barriers to use, however I often wonder if it privileges the ideas and opinions of highly-educated, highly-literate groups of concerned citizens. Not that there aren't ways for (let's say) a functionally illiterate, yet socially engaged individual, to participate in these communities. But do you ever worry that they may be excluded from some online communities? Is there a way to reliably link online and real-world communities so that people aren't segregated by how they prefer to communicate, thereby creating information silos or otherwise isolated/unconnected communities?

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted September 09, 2010 at 15:52:43

Ryan: "and one of the things that has been interesting me more in the past year or so is the question of how to use the internet to foster more real-world organization."

Any observations you've made so far that you can share? I've been looking at this question since grad school, when I was writing papers on social movement organization and the internet. At the time, I found that most online organization mimicked its real-world counterpart, but this was at least five years back, and before the explosion of social networking software.

I still discuss the issue with organizer friends who swear by Facebook as a movement organizational tool, but they're also willing to admit that while it's made organizing easier (inviting people to a rally with a click of a button vs. our old method of rounding up students in the school's common areas), no one has gone so far as to suggest its actually increased the numbers of attendees to meetings/events/rallies, etc, or the success of the movements that use them. By this point, they're happy using social networking as a tool that can supplement traditional organizing, but stop short of claiming it's revolutionized the process.

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