There is a memorable scene in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. It is the culmination of an ongoing argument between Jim Harper and Hallie Shea: Harper is a national network TV news producer and Shea is a correspondent-turned-blogger. In the 3rd season episode “Contempt,” Harper and Shea are arguing over whether Shea was right to publish (on the blog, “Carnivore”) an account of a personal fight between them.
“Your problem isn’t with me and with the site, it’s with the audience,” says Shea. “You don’t like that they like what they like because you need them to like you. . . . I think you’re threatened by technology. . . . I want to be part of the digital revolution.”
“I’m not talking about the apparatus!” Harper interrupts, exasperated.
This is a remarkable moment, not least because it is such an odd thing to exclaim. I think of this scene often when trying to describe the way I think about political systems. To me, politics is ecological, emergent.
Especially when I am talking about what community politics consists of, and what it might mean to foster a more deliberative politics. I think about the ways “the apparatus” can intrude and occlude what I am really trying to talk about.
For instance, when I describe efforts to encourage deliberative discussions on community issues — it seems that often people hear “I am promoting NIF forums.” When I describe the idea of framing issues so that the things held valuable that are in tension are made clear — people often seem to hear “writing NIF issue guides.” When I describe framing an issue so that things commonly held valuable are made clear — people hear “three strategies.” When I describe strengthening civic capacity — people hear “civic infrastructure.” When I describe institutions aligning their routines with how citizens do their work — people hear “promoting participation.”
All of these share a common feature. They mistake the apparatus for the the concept.
This is not to say it is wrong to talk about the apparatus. It is important and a worthwhile discussion. But this is also a challenge, because talking about the apparatus can get in the way of talking about the underlying ideas. I have come to believe it is not surmountable simply by “saying it the right way.” There is something, I believe, about the element of mechanics that short circuits the ability to see and talk about the underlying ideas.
Indeed, the very word, “system,” can become problematic. While it is the correct term to describe the ecology, dynamics and interrelationships of all the disparate actors that make up a “community,” it is easy to mishear. By “system” I mean that set of interrelationships described above. But often, the term is taken to mean something built, mechanical. It’s the same with “network.” To me, that term means a disparate and interlocking set of relationships between and among people and other entities. Networks, in this understanding, emerge. But when the term is commonly used, it is often understood in the way computer networks are understood: as built artifacts.
As I try to explain what an ecology of political life in a community might look like and consist of, people will nod and affirm, “You are talking about systems. Networks. Yes. I get it.” But as we talk, it becomes clear that they think of systems and networks as built things. (They are thinking in machinebrain terms.)
And thus the conversation turns to the apparatus, which pushes out the concept I am trying to get at.
This is an area of research for me where I work. We often talk about it as a linguistic or technical problem: “How can we talk about these ideas in such a way that they are understood?” But even these articulations let the apparatus (of language) get in the way of the idea.
It is really a fundamental question. How is it that the insights of deliberative politics can come to be understood? What blocks this? What encourages it? (Note the passive construction, which is on purpose. Not how can I say them. But how can others understand them.)
This question is articulated throughout our research program and its strategic basis in more and less direct ways. The challenges we face in this area, though, are persistent.
I am traveling today, so rather than post a lengthy article, I’d instead like to point you to a friend’s piece from earlier this year.
One of my favorite thinkers on public life (and a good friend and colleague), John Creighton, wrote a wide-ranging essay as the new year turned about the mood of America. He suggests that, in addition to some of the long-standing core concerns that Americans express for security, control, and meaning — we add “balance.”
The first three qualities – security, control and meaning – tend to develop as a package. As a person establishes personal and financial security, she also gains a sense of control over her life. We have expression to reinforce the importance people place on security and control – for instance, “Everyone is a king in his own home.” Public policy often reinforces these values, too. . . .
In many ways, Americans have come full circle since World War II. We have enjoyed riches and opportunities unprecedented in history. Yet, at the end of a long run, we crave the same things people have always wanted: security, control (freedom) and meaning, now, leavened with a healthy dose of balance.
What’s different is that we must learn to achieve these lifestyle aspirations in a context unknown to our parents and grandparents. The structures of work, learning, socializing and many other aspects of daily life that defined the lives of generations of Americans are quickly fading away.
Time, geography, and social norms, for instance, once forced healthy limits upon our consumption. Now it is possible to instantly satisfy nearly any legitimate need and frivolous whim at any time – 24/7/365 (a set of numbers seldom if ever used in this way until the rise of the internet). The ability to gain instant gratification will not go away. Instead, we must learn to strike balance in our lives with temptation lurking on our shoulder, incessantly whispering in our ear.
Andrea Jarrell drew my attention to this talk by one of the deepest thinkers about the new structures in society, Clay Shirky. In this talk, Shirky describes the idea of cognitive surplus, and relates it to the way media gets produced and consumed.
The large point Shirky makes is that society is only now beginning to figure out what to do with what he calls the “cognitive surplus” that was created as the prosperity kicked off after World War II gave people leisure time that they had not had. For decades, television was what people “did” with the time they had in the evenings and weekends — time society had not had before.
Now, as technology has expanded the options of “things to do” with leisure time, we have seen the growth of new activities. People are creating their own media, and sharing what they create. This is not just popular media, it is also new online projects, lines of research, and creative efforts. Old-line media production organizations (TV networks, movie studios, and publishers) see this interest in self-production as a blip, but Shirky sees it as a fundamental, one-time shift that is not unlike the Industrial Revolution in scope.
His point: there were always three things people liked to do with media (consume it, produce it, and share it). But until recently the high cost of production and sharing allowed a structure to grow up that focused only on producing media for consumption. Now that it is easier to produce and share, the three legs of the stool will equalize, as people pay more attention to their own.
Shirky ends with a story of a dinner party where a friend’s four-year-old daughter is watching a DVD. Suddenly, she gets up and runs behind the TV, rooting around in the cables. “Whatcha doing, honey?” asks her father. “Looking for the mouse,” she replies.
“A four-year-old knows that a video screen that ships without a mouse ships broken,” observes Shirky. The little girl wanted to interact with her show.
Current and future generations know intuitively that media that does not allow for interaction will seem flat and useless.
Cognitive Surplus and Institutions
In the work John Creighton and I have done on the new citizen-centered society, we’ve seen a similar phenomenon. Citizens are less and less willing to adapt themselves to the needs of institutions, and are demanding that things go the opposite way. Institutions that do not recognize this have a rude awakening coming.
It is instructive to relate Shirky’s argument to public institutions and politics in general. Richard Harwood’s landmark report for the Kettering Foundation in 1991, Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street, pointed out that Americans are not apathetic but instead feel pushed out of politics. Politics is no longer relevant to the day-to-day concerns of Americans — and political institutions are no longer looked to as a means of solving problems.
(Note that I am not saying the “government” should solve problems. I am describing the use of political structures for helping us decide what to do and organize our response. For instance, the town meeting.)
Since 1991, Harwood’s research and others shows that, if anything, the alienation of people from formal public life has increased.
“Looking for the Mouse” In Public Life
At the same time, however, in other areas of life, the new realities have begun to take hold. People are “looking for the mouse” when they deal with institutions.
What will this nascent change look like as it moves forward?
Some public institutions have begun to respond, in small ways and not always the best ways — but it’s begun. Florida, for example, now requires all school districts to have a formal online learning component. You can view the rise in voluntarism, in part, as an element int he same trend.
We are also seeing experiments where the formal structures are designed to allow citizen involvement (for instance, changes in how Californians operate their primary elections). Some of these experiments will work and others will fail. But the overall trend will be toward more citizen control not less.
One small trend that seems positive is the growth of on-the-ground efforts at more participatory democracy. Localities are the true laboratories of democracy, and some are beginning to rely more on dialog and engagement with citizens in order to make decisions. This is only happening in pockets, but it represents a response to the new citizen-centric demands that public life is placing on formal institutions.
As cognitive surplus increases, and as people begin to understand what they can do with it, such experiments will gain momentum and some may even become new norms.
We don’t know what the change will look like, but we can bet that it will involve “looking for the mouse.”
As many of my readers know, I have been thinking with my colleague John Creighton about the role of institutions in public life. We have been discussing the rise of the citizen-centric world and the resulting erosion of our previous institution-centric lifestyles.
In his most recent article at the Washington Times Communities in his blog Dispatches From The Heartland, John has just about the best explanation of the concept that I have seen yet. The argument we have been building is in three parts. First, why do we have institutions? Here’s how John puts it:
People once were dependent upon institutions to decide and do things on their behalf. The capital and transaction costs required for people to decide and do things for themselves were too high. . . . It made practical sense to delegate authority and dollars — with representative community oversight — to centralized organizations.
Communities once were so dependent upon institutions the social expectation was that people should conform their lives to the operational needs of institutions. For instance, people were expected to show up for work, take breaks and vacations at institutionally prescribed times. Our language reflects these expectations — working 9 to 5, lunch break, night shift, spring break, summer vacation, etc. Institutional parameters are baked into public policies — 40 hour work week, mandatory school hours, etc.
The second part of the argument relates to why institutions (or, better put, institution-centric institutions) are no longer working as they used to:
New (and not so new) technologies now make it practical for people to decide and do things for themselves. The capital and transaction costs that once made independent action impractical are moving toward zero. . . . Indeed, the problems that led communities to delegate authority and dollars to centralized organizations are slowly — and in many cases rapidly — going away. Yet, institutions continue to do what they were originally designed to do. . . . Now that people have access to tools that make it practical to decide and do things for themselves a new set of public attitudes, values and expectations are emerging. People are no longer willing to conform their lives to the needs of institutions. They won’t accept mass-market products. They won’t accept being forced to be part of an institutionally (geographically) defined community. And, they aren’t willing to accept an institution’s authority at face value. Indeed, many people would rather abandon an institution than try to influence its direction.
The third part of this concept is forward-looking. People still need institutions — only they must look different than they have in the past. They must be citizen-centric. Whereas people in years past have conformed their lives to the needs of institutions, this has inverted and now institutions must conform to the needs of citizens.
Here is the rub: There is no consensus about what that would look like. It is easy to point to successful organizations, mostly for-profit companies, and say that these collectively make up the best practices when it comes to what new institutions ought to look like. For instance, look at Facebook, Apple, Google, and (yes) Microsoft — what do they have in common that makes them useful as institutions to their constituents?
But this may not be a useful comparison. Organizations with a public trust may not be able to model themselves fully on private, for-profit organizations. On still another hand, though, entities like Facebook are becoming de facto public institutions in many important ways. Simply pounding the table and saying “companies can’t be public institutions!” is not an adequate response.
There is not enough concrete work on this in the civic engagement field (my field). Among “practitioners,” people have divided into camps over which technical method of engaging citizens is best. Among the thinkers, much more energy is spent making the case that “civic engagement is good” than is spent thinking about what new and useful institutions might look like.
Yesterday on the DC Metro, I found myself seated behind someone who was reviewing the minutes from a board meeting. I don’t normally read over shoulders but this was just about being shoved in my face. The font was large and clear and had lots of bold. I recommend that people think twice about what sensitive documents they peruse in public — I am not proud to say I could not stop myself from glancing along.
The heading proclaimed these as the minutes from the meeting of a very high profile national advocacy organization. This is an organization that has been around for decades and has been very effective in changing national views on a range of issues. (I am not saying what group this is.)
The page my travelling companion was reading recapped a contentious discussion about membership. Turns out that this organization has fewer than 60,000 members. That caught me up short. It seemed wildly out of step with the organization’s powerful profile.
It also opens up a window into the crisis of confidence that large nonprofit institutions are facing throughout society. Everywhere you turn, you see formerly-major institutions losing relevancy and crumbling. They are good organizations that do good work. But they are running into brick walls all over the place. The United Way, the League of Women Voters, many public broadcasting stations, and more. Community benefit organizations are facing more difficulty in fundraising, and increasing skepticism. And memberships are falling off the cliff.
Shrinking memberships is a real problem for these organizations, as dues are one of their important revenue sources. Here’s one thing that I believe is going on: The perceived value of my membership has increased. That is, it takes a lot more to get me to “join” an organization now than it used to.
There are many reasons for this. An argument could be made that declining membership rolls are reflective of a sector that is ripe for a shakeup. That may be part of it. But there is a broader force as well.
There are now more ways to show one’s support of a cause, campaign, or organization than there used to be. From easy “liking” and “fanning” on Facebook to retweets, online petitions, and blog comments, the spectrum of options available to prospective members has widened and deepened. Actual, dues-paying membership is ‘way over there at the edge.
Effective organizations are taking account of this and are finding new ways to find revenue (creating for-profit non-profit hybrids), and using new metrics besides just “members.” For mission-based organizations, focusing on “members” will undercount your actual influence and distort your operations, taking you off mission. More important is having a good understanding about how people move from one form of support to another, what levers you can push to encourage that, and what the utility is of each form of support.
Next week I will be talking to a group of civic participation experts about social media and how it may (or may not be) affecting democracy, dialog, and deliberation. I began to put my thoughts together in a series of bullet points and it rapidly became an outline for a longer paper. I thought I would publish it here and point my colleagues to it, in order to jump start our conversation.
Social Media And Emerging Alternatives To Top-Down Professionalization In Public Life
What are we talking about?
The Internet has simply become infrastructure (email, static web pages). Social media is emergent now, but it is also on the way to becoming ubiquitous. Facebook, for example, has 350 million users worldwide, half of which sign in every day. More than 60 million accounts are in the U.S.
Social media is also known as Web 2.0, a term which is almost obsolete. What it means is an approach to the Web in which individual contributions are paramount.
Social media’s inherent difference — the core difference between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0 — is that the contributions, comments and other responses of users are seen as intrinsically important. This is a shift in thinking from masses accessing content to masses creating content online.
The key, for civic purposes is: Social media allows many-to-many communication unmediated by central institutions or organizations.
A Study Of Emergence
Asking what effect the Internet will have on public life is similar to the question of how the telephone changed American life. This is an apt comparison for a number of reasons. At its most basic level, the Internet is a new mechanism for communications.
The definitive social study of the telephone is Claude S. Fischer’s America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940. This book, published in 1992, studied the spread of the telephone throughout California through primary source material as well as through interviews with people who were alive in the 1910-1940 timeframe.
The parallels to social media are uncanny and persistent. For example, the worries that the establishment had about this new technology and its possible deleterious effects were very similar to what we hear today. In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discussed the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the proposed by the committee were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”
Another common response as the telephone emerged into ubiquity was derision at the triviality of the uses made of the telephone. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure they have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.
Also of interest is how the use of the telephone evolved from its intended purposes. In 1910, Bell was advertising the telephone as an efficiency tool, suitable for business and, to a lesser extent, for making the running of a household easier (for example, ordering groceries became easier). Just thirteen years later, people’s actual use of the telephone had evolved to the point where sociability was the main point. A 1923 Southwestern Bell training manual for sales staff said: “[T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that ‘Your Voice is You,’ . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.”
From Emergence To Ubiquity
The best examination of using new technologies to organize — that is, of individuals self-organizing outside of the constraints and plans of institutions — is Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing without Organizations (2008). Shirky points out — as does Fischer — that change happens when new technology becomes ubiquitous. Text messaging has driven much more change than has Facebook. The telephone drove change when it became normal to call people and converse for sociable purposes.
The parallel with telephone adoption, and the point about ubiquity, are important ones to keep in mind because they can help frame conversation about engagement and social media, and also stave off alarmism.
Conversations about social media often devolve into conversations about techniques: How can we use our Facebook page to get more donations? That’s an uninteresting way to approach the conversation. It is little different than saying, how can we best use the phone to solicit donations?
Of greater interest are the questions like these:
What is going on that we can point to as alternative ways of civic organizing?
What are the implications for democracy?
Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?
What is going on?
What are alternative ways of civic organizing? The best way to describe what is going on is to say that people are getting used to new mechanisms for engaging with one another.
In looking at what is happening, we should look at (sometimes spontaneous) efforts that unfold over time, and that involve many people interacting with many.
People point, for instance, to the “green revolution” in Iran — people around the world spontaneously developed ways for Iranian people to get information past government censors about what was going on. People outside of Iran began collating and collecting the information. Institutional news sources began using this information in their reporting. The piece in Iran that is interesting is the way spontaneous individual actions (creating repeater sites) was picked up by institutional entities (news organizations). The key driver of the Iran effect was text messaging (a ubiquitous technology).
Another example, this one from Shirky’s book. A 2002 Boston Globe story on Father John Geoghan revealed he had a history of fondling or raping boys and had been moved from parish to parish. In response to this, a small group of laity met in a church basement in January that year. The 30 gathered church citizens decided they ought to organize and so “Voice Of The Faithful” was born. Within six months they were 25,000 strong and international. Their pressure was key in the decision of Cardinal Bernard Law to resign near the end of that year.
This is in stark contrast to a similar set of circumstances ten years earlier, when the story of Rev. James R. Porter came to light, also in the Boston Globe. Similar laity outrage, in that case, simply “dissipated,” according to Shirky.
The difference between 2002 and 1992 was the advent of ubiquitous means of sharing news. “In 1992, the Globe wasn’t global, and the Porter story stayed in Boston,” writes Shirky. “In 2002 the Globe didn’t need to spread the Geoghan story to the world’s Catholics; the world’s Catholics were capable of doing that themselves.”
The key elements here were: News on the Web, email, and blogs repeating and republishing. These ubiquitous technologies had coalesced into an ecosystem.
What are the implications for democracy?
This is a harder question to answer than “what is happening” because it is inherently speculative. The answer is we do not know what use citizens will make of brand-new tools as they become ubiquitous. But one good guess is that people will use new technologies to do the same things they already do in civic life: kvetch, discover problems, name them, and consider how to solve them.
To the now-entrenched ecosystem described above, social media has now been added in, primarily in the form of user forums such as Craigslist and through Facebook. Civic organizing outside of institutions now takes place in these areas, as a dynamic ecosystem: blog posts and comments, forums, email lists, and Facebook. The linchpin of neighborhood organizing is increasingly the email list. Most computer literate citizens are a part of some community list (for parents, it is often a school list).
These lists — because of their ubiquity — are areas where emerging civic issues crop up, and get named and framed (to use terms from deliberative theory) before crossing into more institutional regimes (for instance, being brought up in community meetings).
Social media is also acting as a gateway for new people to enter — or feel a sense of efficacy in — public life.
Here is a very small example. I founded a community blog, Rockville Central, which I run with a partner, Cindy Cotte Griffiths. It has grown to become the second most-read local blog in Maryland. This has brought new readers. As this has happened, a number of people who did not see themselves as civically active before, now expressly point to online activity as having opened the door for them to be involved in public life. They now contribute and pitch in on community meetings, some have become community activists and speak up at city council meetings. More importantly, many have become “connectors” in the community-leadership sense of the word.
To sum up: New means of communication have become ubiquitous and are already being integrated into the already-existing community ecosystem dynamics.
Can we name what is needed that evolves away from organization-first thinking?
My colleague John Creighton and I have been doing work on the difference between institution-centric and citizen-centric public life. There is a confluence of factors that make for a coming revolution in many of the public institutions. Citizens are taking matters into their own hands — in part because they can, and in part because that is their expectation. Both of these are as a direct result of ubiquitous new technologies.
These new demands are driving radical change. For instance, Florida now requires all school districts to have an online education plan.
A citizen-centric organization will understand and work with the ubiquity of these new channels and the desire for people to use them.
This had local officials worried, according to a government spokesperson: “If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called 000 [the local equivalent of 911], so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via 000 anyway.”
This is an institution-centric view of what happened: The girls did not use bureaucratic systems properly. But they actually were communicating in as effective a way as they knew. It is the problem of the institution that it has not caught up to the way people increasingly communicate: through social media where one comment can go out to many people at once.
It’s not just teenagers, either. In Atlanta in May 2009, a city councilman was worried that his cell phone battery would go dead while he waited on hold for 911. So, he sent a message to Twitter: “Need a paramedic on corner of John Wesley Dobbs and Jackson St. Woman on the ground unconscious. Pls ReTweet.”
One thing that we can watch for in terms of less organization-first thinking is for these institutions to acknowledge that social media is a part of the ecosystem people use to communicate, and not a “channel” to be “managed.”
Consider a comment that I heard at a recent working session on social media and community benefit organizations, which was organized by the National Conference on Citizenship, the Case Foundation, and PACE. At this working session, Scott Heiferman, founder of MeetUp.com, complained: “You know how all these organizations have links to their Twitter and Facebook accounts? Most of them say ‘connect with us.’ But why would I want to do that, and why do you want people to ‘connect’ with you? That still sees your organization as the mothership. Get people to connect to each other somehow.”
That’s the point of the Atlanta councilman’s “Pls. Retweet” note. His plea got picked up and quickly made its way to the right person — not because he sent it to through the right channel, but because a connection of his did. This is the power of the many-to-many facet of social media, and the largest change for public life. The many-to-many is becoming ubiquitous.
This is the crux of the difficulty for organizations. The whole notion of an institution wanting to “connect” with its public is problematic. Organizations that move themselves away from being the focal point will contribute the most to public life.
But, for an institution, to take itself out of the equation and getting people connecting with one another may be the toughest discipline of all.
In the new Citizen-Centric World, the relationships and roles of institutions and citizens are changing. People are demanding that public institutions cater to them, rather than fitting their behavior to the needs of the institution. There are examples of this in education, in politics, in nonprofits and philanthropy, and elsewhere.
One big change is that accountability is becoming something completely different than it used to be. Time was when “accountability” for public institutions was to institution-defined metrics. But people are now bringing their own metrics and judging institutions on their own criteria. Transparency is the new accountability.
Some institutions are trying to be responsive to the new accountability. They are trying to be transparent. Because this is a new area, they are having mixed results. Case in point: the “jobs created or saved” numbers as they relate to the stimulus package. . . .