Civility, Civic Discourse and #hamont

By Wayne MacPhail
Published February 08, 2013

I've been thinking a lot about civility and civic discourse lately, especially in relation to the #hamont community on Twitter.

It's clear that standards of discourse on #hamont are foreign to some politicians and assorted business folks in town. They don't know what to make of it, and don't like it very much.

Their reaction is like that of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, dismayed by the modern world and its lack of respect - for tradition and, more importantly, for his position in it.

In the past, a mayor, alderman or business leader had the expectation that his or her wealth or position afforded a priori respect - a respect that translated into the civil behaviour and deferential attitude of those they communed with. In other words, they felt they had an authority that should be recognized.

When it came to civic discourse, it was not a level playing field, it was one where their voice counted more, and where civility was part of the natural order. Disrespect was met with, even if it were only spoken inwardly, the response: "You can't speak to me like that."

But Twitter and other social media spaces changes that dynamic dramatically. On #hamont the Mayor, a Councillor, a casino promoter and others are just a few more Twitter handles, more assorted voices in the crowd.

That crowd is often direct, clear and eager to call out BS when there's a hint of it in the air. Especially if that misinformation is coming from a Mayor, Councillor or another civic figure.

That's new. Politicians are used to working rooms, delivering speeches, aping talking points, being sought after for sound bites and staying on message. #hamont brings them down a peg. They don't like being fact-checked by the rabble and called out by anybody with a computer and a wifi connection.

It's one thing for that to happen on a gated call-in show or a Letter to the Editor. It's another when you're no better or worse than the next guy and you're neck deep in a media you really don't understand.

And so, when a Council decision is derided, or a Councillor or the Mayor are called out for a flipflop, an outburst or a misrepresentation, the voices on #hamont are seen as troublemakers, rude and declassé. They are "the usual suspects" or "a few loud voices".

That language attempts to marginalize engaged online citizens.

"Who are these people?" Peter Mercanti recently asked. "What is their background? What have they done?"

What they've done is create a forum that doesn't play by the rules of power. It speaks truth to power. And sometimes it flips power the bird.

Is it sometimes ill-informed, ill-mannered and cliquish? Yes. But it also is often dead right, respectful and inclusive.

Its community standards are different than the rules of engagement at a Kiwanis cocktail party, but when it's at its best it is dissent that is a stronger power for good than boosterism and forelock tugging.

It's trite to say that #hamont citizens wear masks and hide behind them, just as it's trite to say people in the real world do the same thing. I recently called casino promoter Peter Mercanti "an ass" on #hamont. A friend of mine asked me if I'd say that to his face. I would say, "you were an ass to ask, "Who are these people?" or "your comment was asinine" to Mr. Mercanti. I should have said that on Twitter. Brevity and haste sometimes betrays bad manners. I admit that.

But I think that the public discourse on #hamont is closer to the frank exchanges I imagine take place at in camera meetings and business peoples' bar stool chats. #hamont just shifts the domain of the discourse from the private to the public space.

It's a question of openness, not a shift in manner. The worst of #hamont, I'm sure, is equaled by anything one Councillor might say to another when no one is listening. On #hamont it's easy to forget you're living in public - or, for some folks, easy not to care that you are.

There is no doubt in my mind #hamont has sparked a new level of civic discourse in Hamilton. Could that discourse be more civil? Yes, I think it could. It can speak truth to power with clarity, assurance, strength and conviction without devolution.

But it is the new civility of an engaged citizenry, with more edge and attitude than the power brokers of Hamilton have ever seen. And, they're just going to have to get used to that.

First published on Wayne MacPhail's tumblr.

Wayne MacPhail has been involved in creating online community, collaboration, conversation since the early 1980s when he created the first hypermedia journalism in Canada. He is a former photographer and managing editor for Hamilton Magazine and a reporter and editor with the Hamilton Spectator. He went on to lead Southam Inc’s exploration of future information products at Southam InfoLab, and helped to design the first polypublishing toolset for newspapers in Canada. He then co-created a comedy site for AOL Canada that had a robust international community and fanbase.

Since then he has created online content for major online network players in Canada (including AOL, CANOE, MSN and Bell-Emergis). As Director of Content for Sympatico-Lycos he introduced rich content and powerful discussion forums for the cross-Canada site. Wayne has also launched discussion forums internal and externally for York University, Centennial College and the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario (ASO). He teaches online journalism at the University of Western Ontario and Ryerson University and is a published playwright and book author.

Wayne is also an avid runner, cyclist, photographer, videographer and gardener and lives with his wife, Barb, on Ray Street North in Hamilton. He has his own emerging media consultancy, w8nc inc., whose clients include University of Toronto, McMaster University, Random House, The Association of Science and Technology Centres and the Association of Ontario Health Centres.


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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2013 at 22:03:27

Interesting article.

I guess I'm part of this new breed who thinks politicians should be working for us instead of "ruling" over us.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted February 09, 2013 at 08:26:48

Sorry, I don't use Twitter so most of this article makes no sense to me. Can you at least put it in context and provide examples to back up your claims?

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2013 at 17:52:31

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