I held my first talk this week, at the 'Lobbying the EU' Event by Julia Redas office. Initially her team asked whether I'd like to participate, and when I said that I'm not certain what I could contribute to discussions about copyright or geoblocking, where my interest nowadays lay mainly in online democracy, I was invited to come and talk about online participation instead. This was absolutely exciting, because I've only just finished my MSc with a thesis about the use of the web in decision making processes within political parties. It was also very scary, because all of a sudden there was this talk on the table in roughly ten days' time. I spent basically the entire time between saying yes and the actual talk preparing. I went back over papers I had read a year ago, notes I had taken in various seminars, and my own thesis. I wanted to tell a compelling story, make it interesting for my audience, knowing only that they would have a rather practical than academic interest. I found this preparation a great exercise in itself, because it showed me how much I already know about this stuff. As a hint for any fellow PhD-students: This is great against traces of imposter syndrome!
I pondered what would be relevant for people who are politically active, and figured that what they really needed to know is how they can make online participation successful. But then, there isn't that many success stories around that apply to political activism. So I figured that debunking some of the assumptions about online participation was a good start. This fitted well with my own work: I am doing research in this field because I have seen online participation fail, and I want to understand why that happened and how it might work in the future. I know a lot about what does not work. This is how the story goes:
Through the web, there's a whole load of tools that are available through which interaction can happen. At the lower bound, there's emails and mailing lists, which are used for rather plain communication. Then there's forums, which facilitate some sort of group discussion platform. Posts are ordered by time, and potentially by topic, and stay available so people can go back and look at stuff that has been written in the past. This hardly happens though, and rather the same arguments are repeated over and over again, and at some point someone will always start trolling or pull a Godwin and the discussion becomes meaningless. Next in line, there's social media: Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, YouTube, you name it. All of these are great for distribution, because communication scales, and without too much effort messages can reach huge audiences. But there's also a problem with network effects: If you are a bunch of friends that follow each other, each of you can interact with a message, but the closer your group is knit, the harder it is to make your message heard outside of this group.
There are also various tools for collaboration, of which Wikis are probably the best known example. They are used to create content, document things, maybe discuss a bit, but mainly to capture the agreed consensus, as it happens on Wikipedia. From these, it goes on to Survey or Voting tools, such as LimeSurvey, or even Liquid Feedback, where the main goal is to gather either qualitative or quantitative data: 'What do you think about x? Do you prefer x, y or z?' Finally, there is argument mapping. I only discovered this as a 'thing' rather recently, and think that it may help solve some of the typical issues with online discussions. There are some tools out there, such as the Deliberatorium. Argument mapping drastically reduces the noise in online discussions, by structuring them. Issues, questions, pro and contra arguments are linked together, and every point is made only once, exactly where it is relevant. It is a steep learning curve for users, but ultimately makes their lives much easier, and their results much more usable.
The main arguments for online participation are always the same: It is cheap, and it is scalable. It doesn't cost much to set up an online forum, as opposed to face to face meetings, and you don't need as many volunteers to run an online survey as opposed to standing on the market place and talking to people that come by. It is so much easier to post a link on Twitter and get people to engage than it is to convince them on info points.
Since there is this vast variety of tools, they are available, cheap, and require only light maintenance, people, especially very techy people, generally assume that the web is that fantastic new platform through which political participation suddenly becomes a common good. Because the web is for everyone, and everyone has access, and no-one knows who you are online, so it does not matter if you are a woman or a person of colour, because nobody sees you. So you can act freely and no-one will judge you by these things that typically lead to discrimination, and so discrimination is no longer an issue, and everyone becomes equal online. And because this is so great for everyone, everyone will become very interested in politics and getting involved in decisions, and then really, we do not need a government when we can vote on everything online. Right?
Well, no. Actually, this is more or less entirely wrong. First of all, not everyone has access to the web. Most of us, even the techy people, are kind of aware of that. Why else would there be campaigns for broadband connections across the country? Roughly 80% of Europeans have access to the web, which means that 20% do not. That's a fifth of the population of Europe. Those that have access are rather skewed by country: in Romania, 56% of the population use the web, opposed to 96% in Denmark.
In some ways it is true that everyone is equal online. But it is more true the other way around: Everyone online is more or less equal. Because using the web, especially for political participation, is a sign of privilege per se. There are many examples in research that show this quite clearly. Halford & Savage have analyses the relationship between web-use and inequalities, and found that social inequalities are reproduced online. Web access is broadly aligned with class, and those who do have access to the web derive unequal benefits from it based on their class. Zhang has looked at case studies about reproduction of existing inequalities through technology, and found that technical capital is needed for participation online, but it is not equally distributed, because it is linked to social and financial capital. Since disadvantaged groups do not have access to either, their disadvantage translates quite directly into their web-use. In short: If you are disadvantaged offline, going online is not sufficient to remove your disadvantage*.
I imagine the way to online participation somehow goes like this: First of all, people need to have access to the web. Then, people need to be literate to participate. Because if you cannot read and write, then it is really tough to have a discussion online, unless it is through audio or video channels. And this already excludes quite a lot of people. A study just recently found, that roughly 15% of Germans are functional illiterate, meaning they are not able to read and write basic information. Then, they have to have skills, they need to be able to use the hardware and applications required to participate. This starts with switching on a computer, goes past using a web browser and ends at the sometimes rather advanced tools that are used. Anyone who ever tried to post something on a Wiki without having basic skills in coding will know how complicated this can be. But it doesn't stop here. People also need the time, the leisure, to be able to participate. If you are working twelve hours a day to feed your family, maybe participation isn't that high on your agenda, regardless of the benefits it might bring. Even if you have the time, because maybe you are unemployed, you also need money to be able to pay for the hardware to access the web. Let along for that access. And lastly, you also need experience, or at least friends that can guide you along.
I can easily imagine, how with every step the group of people that has all of this becomes smaller and smaller, until you end up with that small dot of highly educated, mostly young to middle-aged men that still tend to dominate most web-statistics. And that is no surprise, really. But it is a problem if your goal is to achieve broad participation. Because what you need then is diversity. You want to hear the views of people that are different from the guys who are always online, because they will have a different view of the issues you care about. They will have different narratives, new ideas, and they will also help to burst filter bubbles and bring messages to new audiences. Diversity matters, a lot.
So does equality, especially if participation is supposed to happen in a more or less democratic manner, when giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate is key. And equal opportunity does not mean that everyone gets to jump through the same hoop. I recently heard a talk by David Caldwell, who nailed it saying "You have to treat people different to treat them equal." If the only way that participation is possible is through advanced online tools, then people who work with these tools are likely going to be the main audience. If you want to engage other audiences, you have to actually engage them. You have to find out where they are, speak to them directly, in a language that they understand, and offer them routes to participation that are inviting for them. That may mean that you have to start and moderate your forum to not let trolls in, that you attend meetings of support organisations or local communities.
Ultimately, there is no perfect solution to online participation, and the best solution will always be dependent on specific use-cases. It depends on the goals of a participation exercise, and the target group. If all you are interested in is Twitter users, then it is okay to just use Twitter to find your participants. But the downsides and potential exclusions need to be recognised in each case. I cannot tell how often I have seen claims about 'what society thinks' that came out of a Facebook poll. Social media is not society. Based on goals and target group, select tools that suit both of these, and often this may mean offering more than one route. Maybe you can have an online discussion and a phone number that they can call in to contribute ideas. Engage the groups you want to be engaged, and make sure you support them in the way that you need. If you reach out to victims of sexual abuse, be sensitive to their needs, be that in language, in anonymity, or whatever it may be. And lastly, make whatever you do in terms of online participation meaningful. Because there is nothing worse for participants than to engage and contribute, spend time and effort on something - and then nothing comes out of it. There is probably no surer way to disappoint and drive those contributors away.
*I have to thank my supervisor Kieron O'Hara for this exact wording.
The slides for this talk are available on Slideshare.