Government 2.0 and Society 1.0
At the Personal Democracy Forum in New York last week danah boyd (now spelled correctly) spoke on the way people access online tools such as Myspace and Facebook. I recommend reading the full text of the talk. She notes that it applies specifically to a US audience, but there are lessons for us.
Her premise is that the divisions that exist in society exist in on-line society. The truth of this has important implications for engagement online:
One thing to keep in mind about social media: the internet mirrors and magnifies pre-existing dynamics. And it makes many different realities much more visible than ever before.
The clearest divisions are between Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. In terms of age distribution, Ben Shepherd crunched Nielsen Netview numbers for Australia: 32% of Facebook users are 25-34; 43% of Myspace users are 12-24, 60% of Twitter users are over 35.
Each community has its own voice, its own language and its own ettiquette. For many, other online communities are foreign places. boyd argues that these differences reflect the differences that exist in sociey.
Social stratification is pervasive in American society (and around the globe). Social media does not magically eradicate inequality. Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible. What we see online is not the property of these specific sites, but the pattern of adoption and development that emerged as people embraced them. People brought their biases with them to these sites and they got baked in.
While the race and class dynamics are different in Australia than they are in the USA, we can reasonably expect that the essential demographics that create divisions of age, gender, socio-economics, geographic location, education, ATSI (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) and CALD(culturally and linguistically diverse) background in our society also create divisions online.
boyd also notes that people participate in social media with their existing off-line networks rather than engaging with new people. This creates another puzzle for governments wanting to engage with people online – how to engage using social media when the networks are essentially social. One exception to this pattern are people with a business, career or cause agenda. These people are active connection makers. For the most part I expect that people reading this blog fall into this category.
Adding to the problem is that the networks are fundamentally corporate and competitive. Sharing friends and information across networks is not possible, and third parties crossovers are incomplete and often unsatisfactory. This separation reinforces the boundaries between communities and therefore the social divisions that led to the divided participation in the first place. Twitter is different to Myspace and different to Facebook and different to Bebo and Second Life and so on.
Online participation is, for many, unpredictable and inconsistent. People have different reasons for participating in networks and different levels of participation, and participate at different times. It should be no surprise that the level of engagement in online public life reflects how people engage in public life. It is important that government engagement considers this context.
But here’s the main issue with social divisions. We can accept when people choose to connect to people who are like them and not friend different others. But can we accept when institutions and services only support a portion of the network? When politicians only address half of their constituency? When educators and policy makers engage with people only through the tools of the privileged? When we start leveraging technology to meet specific goals, we may reinforce the divisions that we’re trying to address.
This is the critical challenge that faces government online engagement: Whether through social networking communities or through other Web 2 mechanisms we risk new inequalities, add to the division between those who can and want to participate online and those who don’t, and re-inforce, or worse legitimise, the online reflections of existing divisions, in our society.
This complexity in the context should not be seen as a dealbreaker. Understanding online dynamics is not so different to understanding the dynamics in society, but it is critical that we understand them. It could also be seen as an opportunity to create bridges across some of the boundaries.