the online world looks dark

(Chicago) I’m at the #ObamaSummit, much of which can be followed online.

In the opening plenary, several speakers (including President Obama) noted the drawbacks of social media: psychological isolation, manipulation by powerful companies and governments, fake news, balkanization, and deep incivility.

I remember when discussions of civic tech were generally optimistic: people saw the Internet and social media as creative and democratic forces.

I went to the specialized breakout session with “civic media” entrepreneurs and asked them whether they shared the dark picture painted by the plenary speakers. Each gave an interesting and nuanced answer, but in short, they said Yes. The reason they build and use digital tools is basically to combat the larger trends in social media, which for the most part, they see as harmful. Even Adrian Reyna of @ United We Dream, a leader of one of the best social movements that has used online tools, emphasized that relying on civic tech can disempower people and alienate communities.

This is no reason to give up on improving the civic impact of digital media. The work remains as important as ever. It’s just that the atmosphere now feels very sober; the heady days of cyber-optimism have passed, at least for people concerned about politics and civic culture.

[See also democracy in the digital age and four questions about social media and politics]

democracy in the digital age

New chapter: “Democracy in the Digital Age,” The Civic Media Reader, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), pp. 29-47

Abstract: Digital media change rapidly, but democracy presents perennial challenges. It is not in people’s individual interests to participate, yet we need them to participate ethically and wisely. It’s easier for more advantaged people to participate. And the ethical values that guide personal relationships tend to vanish in large-scale interactions. The digital era brings special versions of those challenges: choice has been massively disaggregated, sovereignty is ambiguous, states can collect intrusive information about people, and states no longer need much support from their own citizens. I argue that these underlying conditions make democracy difficult in the digital age.

teaching online civic engagement

For several years, Joe Kahne and his colleagues have been conducting intensive research on young people’s use of digital media for politics and what that means for education. Their research has taken the form of large-scale youth surveys, interviews, and experiments. The following is a broad and detailed new article that pulls together much of their research and provides concrete examples of classroom practice:

Joseph Kahne, Erica Hodgin & Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, “Redesigning Civic Education for the Digital Age: Participatory Politics and the Pursuit of Democratic Engagement,” Theory & Research in Social Education, Volume 44, Issue 1, 2016, pp. 1-35 (open access)

The authors address two concerns that I have raised in previous work. First, “Many efforts to produce and circulate content will confront what Levine has termed ‘the audience problem’ (2008, p. 129). Simply put, many blogs or other digital content may get relatively few views and little or no response.” I would add that this is almost a logical inevitability because there aren’t enough eyeballs to allow millions of content-producers all to reach large audiences. As I can testify from years of experience, the median blog or video reaches just a few. The authors reply:

Of course, many off-line political activities also fail to engage many members of the public. We would classify a blog that addresses a political issue but has few readers an act of participatory politics just as we would classify a protest that people ignore as a political activity. That said, clearly, the power of public voice is diminished if one fails to reach a public. This reality highlights the need for educators to help set realistic expectations and to support and scaffold activities so that youth can more effectively produce and circulate political content.

Second, “a number of scholars (Levine, in press; Sifry, 2014) have detailed ways that individuals’ and non-institutionalized groups’ efforts to achieve greater voice by leveraging the power of the digital media often fail to prompt institutional change. Expressing caution, Milner (2010) wrote, ‘[youth who] turn their backs on [institutional] politics in favor of individual expression will continue to find their priorities at the top of society’s wish list–and at the bottom of the ‘to do’ list”(p. 5).” Here I would add that loose online movements are frequently defeated by disciplined organizations, such as corporations, armies, and security agencies. But the authors reply:

one might note that a wide range of significant change efforts ranging from #BlackLivesMatter, to the DREAMer movement, to the protests against SOPA, to the push for marriage equality have employed digital media in ways that changed public attitudes and that these changes have enabled new legislation. Still, the concern remains. Watkins (2014) noted, for example, that when it comes to digital media, youth are often “power users” (frequent users), but they are not necessarily “powerful users” (influential users). In order for youth to realize the full potential of participatory politics, they will frequently need to both understand and connect their efforts to institutional politics. Helping youth identify ways to build bridges from voice to influence is vitally important.

These are just two of many issues discussed in this extensive and deeply researched survey article.

Does Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?

In The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer explains why Twitter seems not to be as fun or as socially satisfying as some other networks. He thinks it uncomfortably and unsuccessfully “smooshes” together aspects of oral communication (spontaneity, rapidity, and interactivity) with aspects of written communication (permanence, sharability, and the capacity to reach strangers). Meyer thinks that “the more visual social networks have stayed fun and vibrant even as the text-based ones have not. Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram don’t traffic in words, which can be reduced to identity-based magnum opi [that should actually be magna opera], but in images, which are a little harder to smoosh. Visual conversations have stayed chatty, in other words.”

Meyer’s theorists are Walter Ong and Bonnie Stewart, but there are also hints of Habermas in the article: Ong is quoted on the “human lifeworld,” and Meyer notes ways that the public and the private “get smooshed.”

A core Habermasian insight is that there are different norms appropriate to private and public speech.

In public, you must make arguments that can persuade strangers. You must therefore provide adequate reasons and explanations for everything you say. Since you can’t assume that strangers understand your assumptions and experiences, you must make them evident. You are accountable for your remarks and should be responsive to reasonable critiques. You should (generally) take the same positions when talking to different people. When Mitt Romney complained to donors about the 49% of Americans who were “takers,” but he didn’t want the 49% to hear him, he became one of many public figures who have been caught violating the norms of public speech.

In private, the norms are authenticity, spontaneity, and responsiveness to the concrete other people with whom you have relationships. You should (generally) say what you really feel in the moment, although you are also obligated to care about what the individual who hears you thinks and feels. That may require tact. You need not fully explain your thoughts, and your explanations certainly need not convey entire, self-sufficient arguments to strangers. You are not responsible for treating everyone alike. In fact, you are obligated to favor some people, the ones you love and who love you. You have a right to privacy, so if you are videotaped saying something that you wouldn’t want strangers to hear, that is a violation of your rights.

It is dangerous to confuse these domains, to “smoosh” the public with the private. Often, marketing and political propaganda consists of pretending to have an authentic private conversation while actually influencing strangers. Voters mistakenly choose candidates based on their impressions of politicians’ private lives, which are irrelevant at best and fictional at worst. Meanwhile, powerful people privatize the public sphere by making policy decisions on the basis of personal relationships and inventing spurious justifications or avoiding rationales entirely. Prying journalists and governments violate privacy. And sometimes ordinary people retreat from the public sphere and either take no positions at all or develop irresponsible positions on public matters because they can’t or won’t interact with strangers as if they were real decision-makers.

I am not sure, however, whether Twitter exemplifies the smooshing of public and private that worries Habermas. Twitter is a fairly flexible platform. You can use the 140 characters to address the public, although that will often require embedded links. Or you can use the 140 characters to keep your close friends informed about your social plans. You can develop a persona as a public person or as a private one. The two can be confused, and awkwardness can arise. For instance, as Meyer notes, disclaimers that “RTs do not constitute endorsements” are odd ways of distancing a Tweeter from the content. But it could be that Twitter is a useful vehicle for both public and private conversations, and the feeling of tension simply reflects the parlous condition of our public life, more broadly.

See also: Habermas illustrated by Twitterprotecting authentic human interactionfriendship and politicsOstrom plus Habermas is nearly all we need.

crowd-sourcing information as a form of civic work

(Milwaukee, WI) Beth Noveck has been a leader since the 1990s in connecting online, collaborative knowledge-production efforts (tools like Stack Exchange) to government, and vice-versa. She has pursued that cause both as a scholar and as an Obama Administration official. I have not yet read her latest book, Smart Citizens, Smarter State, but Andrew Mayersohn’s review lays out important issues. This is a quote that mentions me, but I recommend Mayersohn’s whole article:

The ultimate goal of Smart Citizens, Smarter State is not simply a more competent regulatory state, but a transformed relationship between government and the governed. To policymakers and bureaucrats, Noveck makes the case that soliciting citizen expertise can make governance more effective; to democratic theorists, Noveck argues that providing expertise is a genuine form of civic engagement, and that it can help remedy the “broken, staccato rhythm of citizen engagement today” with something more substantive and sustained.

Noveck is right to suggest that we should start to think of providing expertise as another form of engagement like protesting or voting. Tufts University’s Peter Levine estimates that at least one million Americans are members of organizations that practice “open-ended discussion, problem-solving, education, and collaboration with diverse peers” such as the Industrial Areas Foundation and the League of Women Voters. Levine argues that such people are an important constituency for a more participatory democracy, since they have already seen it work in practice and developed the skills involved. Noveck’s proposals would greatly increase their numbers and, perhaps, begin to accustom a portion of the public to the idea that governance can and should be collaborative.

debating the continued importance of institutions

Back in June, at the Boston Civic Media conference, I was part of a panel with Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, Christine Gaspar, director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and Doris Sommer, professor and Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University. Among other topics, we debated the continued importance of institutions in a world increasingly characterized by loose networks. I took an institutionalist (maybe even an unrepentantly paleo-institutionalist) line. Boston Civic Media has put up a brief and cogent summary of the panel as well as the full audio, which is below. See also “why I still believe in institutions,” which I posted immediately after.

the launch of Brigade

Yesterday, Sean Parker of Facebook fame launched Brigade, a new app that lets you express opinions about political issues (including new issues that you introduce), discuss and persuade other users, identify people with similar concerns and views, and recruit them to your own “projects.”

If a random person invented such an app, I would be highly skeptical that it could attract enough users to be valuable. A network’s value is proportional to the square of its users (Metcalfe’s Law), which is why Facebook itself is a valuable place to engage and participate, and most startups go nowhere. But with Parker’s fame and his almost $10 million of initial funding, Brigade could “go to scale.”

I think it will do good if the design causes people to engage in relatively substantive (yet fun) ways, without degenerating into trollery or being taken over by organized interest groups. I think it will do even more good if users routinely introduce and share valuable content from other news and opinion sites in their efforts to persuade.

I can envision dangers if Brigade’s scale becomes huge and it gains some control over our public sphere, but that seems a distant hypothetical problem. As I told the Huffington Post’s Alexander Howard, I am rooting for Brigade to gain a substantial user base because I think it can be educational and energizing.

Brigade emphasizes issues rather than candidates and campaigns. In talking to the Washington Post’s Ana Swanson, I exaggerated the following point:

Parties, candidates and analysts alike have also found that Millennials are more willing to organize around particular issues rather than political parties. “For all human beings, it makes more sense to talk about issues than parties – who cares about parties[?] Most people are more interested in solving issues,” says Levine. “But I think it’s especially true for young people, who have a particularly weak attachment to political parties.”

In fact, a lot of people are driven by partisan attachments, which can even determine where they stand on specific issues. For some, loyalty to party comes first, and the issues follow. I nevertheless believe that there is a substantial proportion of Americans–especially young ones–who do not have strong partisan loyalties, and for whom Brigade’s focus on issues will be appealing.

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media literacy education article

This is just out today: Levine, P. (2014). Media Literacy for the 21st Century. A Response to “The Need for Media Education in Democratic Education.” Democracy and Education, 23 (1), Article 15. It’s an invited response to Jeremy Stoddard’s fine piece “The Need for Media Education in Democratic Education.” My response is not a critique but just a complementary perspective. The abstract:

We cannot pretend to educate young people for citizenship and political participation without teaching them to understand and use the new media, which are essential means of expressing ideas, forming public opinions, and building institutions and movements. But the challenge of media literacy education is serious. Students need advanced and constantly changing skills to be effective online. They must understand the relationship between the new media and social and political institutions, a topic that is little understood by even the most advanced social theorists. And they must develop motivations to use digital media for civic purposes, when no major institutions have incentives to motivate them. Until we address those challenges, students will struggle to make sense of the new media environment, let alone take constructive action.

 

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on daily blogging after 12 years

I started this blog on Jan. 8, 2003 and have posted virtually every work day since then. Each January 8, I have posted some thoughts about the blog on its blogaversary (while trying to avoid such self-absorption for the rest of the year). This January, I forgot, but then Andrew Sullivan announced he would stop posting daily after more than 15 years, and various prominent bloggers reflected on whether the whole form was dying. (See Ezra Klein or Kevin Drum.) Those articles reminded me to pause and say something about the evolution of this blog and its context.

In the early 2000s, most blogs were the property and invention of individuals who sought to participate in a national or global conversation called (with tongues partly in cheek) the blogosphere. Some, like Sullivan, were already famous, but others wanted to become pundits or public intellectuals without needing the approval of paid editors and other gatekeepers. These bloggers linked to each other and replied to each others’ arguments. As I noted on Dec. 6, 2004, the blogosphere had a “long tail” distribution, with a few sites attracting a vast majority of the links and many sites drawing only a few. I was definitely out on the long tail, very occasionally noticed by the high-traffic blogs. But, apart from its lower traffic, my blog was otherwise similar to the big ones–self-published, unpaid, part of a network connected by html links. You found new blogs to follow by seeing links on established blogs.

Most of the really popular bloggers are now paid for their work and blog on platforms owned by firms like The Atlantic or Mother Jones or by the bloggers themselves. Some did not start as bloggers but were well-known editorialists who now also maintain blogs. I bookmark a few of these and still read them frequently (now on my phone as well as a computer). They are news sources, comparable to a newspaper, and they draw my attention because of their professionalism and their volume. I am unlikely to bookmark a page that is updated less than once a day.

Meanwhile (like a few billion other people), I follow a lot of individuals and organizations through Facebook and Twitter. Some of these people link to their own blogs, which I read when the summaries interest me. Others post substantive comments on the social media sites themselves. Although short, these tweets and status updates play a similar role to blog posts ca. 2003. One difference is that I personally know and like most of the people I follow. Because these are social networks, they appropriately include a high proportion of baby photos and vacation updates along with political commentary. The link structure of the whole network is more transient and less public than it used to be when people pasted html links into their blog posts.

The traffic on this blog has been remarkably stable for a very long time, averaging between 6,000 and 8,000 visits per month in both 2006 and 2014 (two years for which I saved data). But I think more people are now also catching glimpses via social media. My most popular post of 2014, in terms of the number of unique page views, was “Foucault and Neoliberalism.” I was never able to find the Tweet that sent 6,000 people there in a few days, nor did I see many replies, but somehow it became part of a social media conversation prompted by a Jacobin Magazine article.

One difference between a blog and social media is that the former builds up a public collection of searchable writing. Of my top 10 most visited posts in 2014, two are notes on famous poems (Auden’s “Sept. 1 1939″ and Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses.”) They appear fairly high on Google searches for those two poems, and I suspect they are being consulted by students facing essay assignments. The most common searches that take people here include “types of freedom,”  “kinds of freedom,” and variants thereof, which send people to a post in which I suggested that freedom came in at least six forms. Again, I suspect that students are working on class assignments and Googling their way here. These posts are more like archived publications than social media contributions.

I guess what I aspire to is some kind of durability. I’d like to write things that people still want to read in a while. Although I strive to engage with events in the world, I’d prefer not to be merely topical. When blogging began, it seemed to be highly responsive, nimble, offering a very short path from conception to publication–but also prone to superficiality. In the era of social media, a long-standing blog is beginning to look more like a curated collection of relatively careful writing than an ephemeral contribution to the day’s discourse. And that’s why I’m still at it.

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four questions about social media and politics

My post on the Monkey Cage (the Washington Post’s political science blog) is entitled “Social media hasn’t boosted young voter turnout.” The post may have turned out a little rambly, but the point is to contrast some effective recent social movements that have been driven by social media (the Dreamers and marriage equality) with the completely flat turnout rate of recent midterm elections in order to ask about the advantages–and limitations–of social media for various kinds of politics. At the end, I pose four questions:

First, can the new media engage young people who start without an interest in politics, confidence, or skills? There is little sign that large numbers of formerly apolitical young people are being recruited into politics online, even if we define “politics” broadly to include consumer and cultural activism.

Second, we can point to impressive examples of videos, slogans, and images that “go viral” and make their creators famous and influential. But for every such case, there are many that go nowhere, being seen only by the maker and perhaps a few friends. What is the impact of being unsuccessful in a competitive online arena? Is repeated failure discouraging, especially when the rare successes are so widely trumpeted?

Third, the removal of “gatekeepers” (such as newspaper editors, TV anchors, and party elders) has made information freer. Anyone can create and share a video without permission. But the task of sorting reliable from blatantly false information has become harder. How will young people — and older people, too — learn to separate the wheat from the chaff?

Finally, can online social movements be sustained in the face of adversity? The ALS Challenge (in which people dump water on their heads to raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), has raised $115 million. There have been 10 billion views of the Challenge videos. That was an impressive burst of activity that probably far exceeded the goals of the organizers. But the Challenge faces no organized opposition and need not continue to achieve its purposes.

In contrast, the Arab Spring, also powered by social media, faltered when it encountered disciplined resistance. The events of Ferguson, Mo. in the summer have prompted much online organizing (some from the right as well as the left), but that attention may also fade. To make a difference on a complex and contentious issue requires lasting effort. Whether the new participatory politics can sustain political engagement remains an open question.

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