Building a Civic Layer On Top of the Social Web
In Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, he documents how the Internet has helped people accomplish amazing things by leveraging the power of new networks and connections. “We are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action,” he writes, “all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations.”
However, most of the examples of social and political change that have been amplified or catalyzed via social media are episodic, not lasting (which isn’t to discount their importance). This is in part the nature of social media. The same velocity that makes social media campaigns and memes so powerful, also makes them, for the most part, short-lived or best suited to making immediate change.
As we spend more and more of our time and energy on social networks – recent stats suggest that almost 20% of all time online is spent on social networks with the average person spending 7 hours on Facebook a month – I wonder how we can build a more consistent civic layer over the new digital public square.
Offline, the civic layer of our society is city and town governments, municipalities, non-profit organizations and ad-hoc groups. Their work is visible in and around the community, from maintaining roads and public parks to food drives and charity runs. There are clear ways to get involved, from attending town meetings to contributing your time or money. However, while you may follow your favorite nonprofit on Facebook or Twitter, those and other social platforms lack deep and sustained opportunities for civic engagement.
Social networks are powerful tools for sharing and creating, but how can we make them better engines for problem solving in our communities?
This question came to me when I saw a tweet from Ben Berkowitz, the founder of SeeClickFix – a crowdsource platform for reporting local problems and getting solutions. He checked in at a dog park in New Haven and left a tip: “Want improvements to the dog park? Try requesting them on http://www.seeclickfix.com.” Imagine if you could report potholes, broken parking meters, dangerous intersections and more directly to local government via SeeClickFix when you check in on Foursquare.
Could SeeClickFix, OpenBlock and other similar civic apps help build a more active civic layer over our social networks? I asked Berkowitz if he often left links to SeeClickFix around town on Foursquare. He said this was his first time, but in our exchange he also suggested Instagram would be another great platform for this kind of civic engagement. Snap a photo and report a problem, all using the Instagram app but with a hook into the SeeClickFix site.
When Instagram changed its terms of service (and then changed them back again) I said we should be talking about how to build more community driven public spaces online. To me, this idea of creating a civic layer over the commercial spaces where we gather online is an extension of that idea. Wired contributor Bruce Sterling has described the new tech giants as “vertically organized silos […] re-making the world in their image.”
If these privately controlled networks are becoming our de-facto digital public square, how can we build more horizontal civic layers that bridge these vertical silos? Or, asked another way, how can we leverage the power of commercial networks to help solve the “wicked problems” facing our communities?
This is just the seed of an idea. And it is a question that obviously goes well beyond reporting potholes on Foursquare. But the power of SeeClickFix is that it gives people a sense of civic agency online with real world results. After all, Berkowitz is known for saying that “potholes are the gateway drug to civic engagement.”
There is great work happening in this space at the MIT MediaLab. None of their projects tackle quite the question I’m asking here, but taken together it may be the best body of work that begins to build civic tools that leverage new networks. But I’m sure there are others in the Gov 2.0 space and elsewhere who are working on these problems. Let me know in the comments section and I’ll compile a list of examples below.
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