Social media presents new challenges for all organizations and for government nowhere more so than in modernizing public engagement where traditional techniques often fall short. Successfully linking heightened participation and better outcomes requires deep-seeded innovation in devising and nurturing deliberation.
Deliberation is different than information and expression. The internet generates massive amounts of information and governments are making strides in both contributing public data and harnessing value from its wider usage. Yet much of this world is automated and shielded from consumers and citizens alike, often even politicians as well. Google’s immensely powerful search engine algorithms similarly provide more immediacy than interaction.
The internet is also replete with expression, some we could do without. Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell has coined the phrase, the Shout Doctrine, to capture the essence of today’s digital universe where opinions widely outnumber conversations. The ties between traditional and new media matter as many of us gravitate, intentionally or unwittingly, to online sources that tend to reinforce our world view rather than expose us to contrarian perspectives and fresh insights.
New research sponsored by the highly credible Pew Center in the United States goes further in revealing that social media users may also shy away from opinions on controversial matters. The study, released online in August, suggests a “spiral of silence” phenomenon where many of those on social media hesitate to share their viewpoints unless they are certain beforehand that their audience is largely in agreement.
At least part of this hesitation may be rooted in fear. In the days following the passing of iconic comedian and actor Robin Williams, his daughter publicly declared her exit from Twitter and Instagram due to hurtful and offensive content. Twitter responded swiftly with measures aimed at enabling users to create their own safe zones, a set of virtual walls if you will. Yet many have correctly observed that such steps are fundamentally counter to the ethos of openness and sharing that drive online communities, to say nothing of Twitter’s shareholder returns.
This latter point speaks to a fundamental tension in pursuing public engagement via social media platforms, namely their commercial underpinnings. On the one hand, governments have no choice: a 2012 report by the British government on social media usage acknowledges the necessity of public servants going to where the action is rather than pretending that the public sector’s virtual terrain can possibly suffice. On the other hand, such forums fueled by advertising and consumerism may hardly be conducive to meaningfully discussing public policy and evaluating government performance.
The advent of mobility can further complicate matters. While instantaneous feedback is a new benefit in some quarters, the quality of participation may be suspect. Universities are a case in point: shifting course evaluations from paper and pencil in the classroom to smart phone-friendly systems has often resulted in plummeting participation and skewed data. Those most satisfied, or possibly those with some of the most thoughtful reflection to offer, may simply go unheard.
Government’s challenges are even more complex due to wider demographic and content cleavages. For instance, in his new book, The End of Absence, Michael Harris examines those born before 1985 as the last generation knowing life before and after the internet. For those younger, and for many who have simply forgotten life before email (a distant dream), social media is less an option than an engrained tenet of professional and personal spheres evermore intertwined.
The nexus between social and mobile also impacts content in an environment where video is rapidly displacing paper and text. Except perhaps in government, where online engagement can often mean posting a mainly written document and inviting comment in a similar manner. With more than one hour of content posted to YouTube every second, creativity in both provisioning dynamic content and inviting novel forms of reaction and input is essential.
Open government, therefore, is not nearly enough. An innovative and participative public sphere is one that seeks and nurtures deliberation more outwardly and creatively, at times swimming upstream to ensure that civic learning and conversing rival shopping as an online pursuit valued by an otherwise hurried and fragmented digitized citizenry.