Citizen politics (VI): Online Public Sphere

Notes from the workshop Citizen Politics: Are the New Media Reshaping Political Engagement? held in Barcelona, Spain, on May 28-30th, 2009. More notes on this event: citizen_politics_2009.

Granularity in citizen’s online engagement
Andrew Chadwick

Dissatisfaction with the debate around e-Democracy and the concept of the public sphere. A new approach is needed and it would be worth looking at it from Yochai Benkler’s point of view, who states that granularity (of collaboration) determines the success of a (collaborative) project.

The online scenario has change with the appearance of the Web 2.0. Thus, online politics should be reshaped accordingly, and make possible more granular ways to participate.

Usability is one of the things that have radically changed in recent years. Web 2.0 platforms are simple and more easy to use. It is also easier to aggregate simple and small contributions together.

Low threshold political behaviour is central in most Web 2.0 political websites.

Web 2.0 do not solve the trust issue, but they have no doubt addressed this subject and they are far better than other solutions (newsgroups, IRC, etc.).

Community engagement requires third places not explicitly political/politicized (squares, bars, etc.) and this is going online now too. Facebook-like platforms are places where politics can piggy-back other conversations and meetings.

More granularity does not necessarily means less quality (i.e. because there is “less effort” and “less commitment” in just e.g. sending a single petition to the Prime Minister). Numbers matter. And, indeed, more granularity implies less risk.

Granular participation needs reconceptualization of decentralized politics. How to measure this? What’s the role of the intermediaries? Do we need them? Will political content be created?

How to support new patterns of interaction between politicians or policy-makers and the citizens? Will this interaction take place in third places? Will people welcome politicians in these third places? Will politicians be willing to enter these places?

Participation in online creation communities
Mayo Fuster

Online Creation Communities (OCCs) are collective action performed by individuals that cooperate, communicate and interact, mainly via a platform of participation in the Internet, with the goal of knowledge-making and which the resulting information al pool remains freely accessible and of collective property.

Political relevance: they are spaces for civic engagement in the dissemination of alternative information and for participation in the public sphere; and citizen engagement in the provision of public civic information.

Two cases: and Wikimedia Foundation.

There is very strong inequality in participation: active participants (1%) that heavily contribute and are responsible for most of the content; contributors (9%), a low percentage of participants that make small or indirect contributions; and lurkers (90%), a large presence of individuals that do not participate. This pattern repeats everywhere and everywhen.

For the distribution is: 82% lurkers, 14.3% contributors and 3.7% active participants. Distribution of profiles varies depending on what is understood by participation.

97% of participants in presented themselves as individuals, not as members (or even representatives) of organizations.

Participation as an eco-system:

  • Participation is open, the system is open to participation
  • Participation has multiple forms and degrees which are integrated: a critical mass is essential to initiate the project; weak cooperation enriches the system; lurkers provide value as audience or through unintended participation that improves the sys tem
  • Participation is decentralized and asynchronous
  • Po is public
  • P is autonomous, each person decides which level of commitment they want to adopt and on what aspects they want to contribute
  • Participation is volunteering

Norms, technology and information: Pondering the infrastructural choices of “e-participation”
Anders Koed Madsen

Analysis of portals to gather political or public-service-like content: How do the different portals shape and materialize the abstract pormises of citizen participation? Which elements give promises of new modes of citizen-engagement?

1st dimension: Structured semantics vs. unstructured semantics. This is a basis for both transmission and deliberation, though there is a trade-off between noise-reduction and diversity of inputs. There are also differences in how interaction is facilitated. Reacting citizen vs. proactive; moderated vs. unmoderated; agenda setting vs. open agendas; etc.

2nd dimension: Rationalistic content vs. non-rationalistic content. Differences in forms of content. The semantic choice can constrain the dialogue.

3rd dimension: Loose moderation vs. strict moderation.

How the election of these dimensions can affect content?


Brian Krueger: does really a bigger size in the network implies a more useful network? Isn’t there a trade-off between size and usefulness? Is there a way to create networks that are useful to share knowledge?

Ismael Peña-López (re: Chadwick’s): One variable missing in the equation of how Web 2.0 have changed the landscape is the focus of most Web 2.0 platforms, or who benefits from them, shifting form the organization to the individual. Contributing to newsgroups benefited the community, uploading photos on Flickr benefits me; participating with a political party benefits… the party, but participating in TheyWorkForYou or FixMyStreet benefits… me! It is, again, a switch from push strategies (be engaged, then work for the party/candidate) to pull strategies (work for you, then be engaged). In some way, the Web 2.0 allows for including the concept of utility in the equation of political engagement.

Ismael Peña-López (re: Krueger’s comment on Chadwick’s): useful for who? the bigger the network, the more useful for aggregate purposes (more data, more content) though it can be overwhelming at the individual level. In fact, the ideal would be huge networks made out of many small personal networks. Indeed, to share knowledge there must be that shift from working for the others (push) to working for oneself (pull) and then reuse/aggregate this content so that it is connected with other content and people, building a network up.

Citizen Politics workshop (2009)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Citizen politics (VI): Online Public Sphere” In ICTlogy, #68, May 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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