13 thoughts on “Building a Civic Layer On Top of the Social Web

  1. This is tangental to your overall point, which I certainly appreciate, but it’s a mistake to think that Instagram changed their Terms of Service back to something like their prior state. While co-founder Kevin Systrom promised a “clarification” that would deflate the “confusion” over their change a few weeks ago, the follow-up seems to have actually expanded the right that had many users concerned. Under the new language, Instagram reserves the right to use the “Content” submitted by users in conjunction with advertising on the service, again without compensation to the user. The catch here is that, where the original language specified usernames, likenesses, photos and actions, the revision defines “Content” to include all of that and more—including types of content, like music files, not yet supported by Instagram. If anything, Instagram users concerned that their online persona might be co-opted for advertising purposes have even more reason for wariness about that particular platform.

    Returning to the larger point of your piece, though, Systrom’s response was frank about one point at least: social media has an ongoing problem paying for itself. With the exception of Google+, which benefits from the backing of Google’s profitable search+advertising business, the major commercial platforms are all staking their futures on some form of targeted advertising, specifically by leveraging interactions into Big Data. There are, then, two possibilities currently facing any attempt to build a civic layer. One is building it directly on top of the commercial layer, and to some extend, we already do so. An example that springs to mind was the use of commercial channels like Twitter and Facebook to spread news about power outages during Hurricane Sandy. The problem there is that our civic layer is beholden to the monetization strategy employed by those commercial services, which raises the potential for any number of conflicts of interest.

    The other possibility is to build dedicated social networks specifically for civic engagement. There, the challenge is of finding an economic model to pay for those dedicated networks. It is an equally daunting challenge, but less fraught with potential conflicts and contradictions. And while there are, as you note, civic networks being created already, they must all eventually deploy one or another strategies for ensuring the continuation of service by paying for what they provide.

    • L. Rhodes – thanks for your comment. I’ll be sure to revisit the details of Instagram’s changes. In the meantime, I wanted to respond to your second and third points. The tension between building something on top of the commercial spaces that already exist versus building something new is central to my inquiry here and in my earlier post (http://stearns.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/from-instagram-to-open-journalism-towards-public-space-online/) where I suggest precisely the kind of civic/public spaces you describe.

      I guess, my hope is that we can create a civic layer that connects these various networks, but also sits on top of them and thus is not “beholden to the monetization strategy” of any one network. I’ll return to the SeeClickFix example here. It is a stand alone service deployed by local governments and media organizations, but could be expanded across these social networks. Even if Twitter or another service changed its terms and broke that connection SeeClickFix would still persist on its own as well as on other networks.

      The challenge becomes, if every commercial network moves to silo itself even more and makes it untenable to maintain deep connections across wall gardens on the web.

  2. One stumbling block to potholes as communal civic engagement gateway drug is that governments may prefer not to have such reports be public, and instead feature third-party “report an issue” apps that don’t provide visibility to the public, of what issues have been reported.

    How does one get past this?
    (One possibility would be to ask candidates for office what approach they’d support, since everyone’s more amenable to supporting good ideas at that stage…)

    • Hi Anna – While I definitely see that possibility, the trend seems to be going in the other direction. But the folks at SeeClickFix would likely have better data on that since their business model includes deploying out to local governments.

      • The question to ask is how often, when their app has been offered, a competing, non-transparent app – or nothing – has been chosen instead.

        This might make for an interesting crowdsourced-journalism project; invite citizens to suggest SCF to their governments, then report the overall response tone and rate.

  3. Pingback: Building a Civic Layer On Top of the Social Web | Media Studies Matter | Scoop.it

  4. I always cringe when I hear folks talk about constructing new networks or even layers to address a specific community. These strategies not only fail the test of financial viability, but also fail to leverage the existing captive audiences and participants, which are what make them so “sticky” and valuable from a big data or advertising perspective. I have yet to see an example of a standalone network that gains sufficient traction to be viable for the public realm. We need to reach people where they already come together.

    While an effective platform has yet to be constructed to meet the needs of the full range of civic discourse (SeeClickFix and Granicus have developed various components, including public comment, citizen feedback and public information), we need deeper partnership and integration in existing networks such as facebook, twitter, linkedin, etc. This will enable governments to optimize the market penetration of social networks and build on their success without needing to recreate the wheel. These networks have already succeeded where most governments have failed big – in establishing direct communications channels with citizens.

    • Corey, I think we agree on most points here. In most cases a standalone network won’t work. But, so far I haven’t seen much in the way of building the civic layer from most of the networks that have developed. Facebook and Twitter have teams working with policymakers and others to deepen their engagement on those platforms but thus far that hasn’t resulted in the kind of expansive civic problem solving tools that could or should leverage both the market penetration and the unique network effect of those platforms. One reason I think this civic innovation may need to come from the margins, is because there may not be the financial incentive for existing networks to build it out themselves, and in addition something that is sand alone but leverages all the networks may be more resilient and independent that the unique (possibly conflicting) tools built by individual networks themselves.

  5. Pingback: Looking Back at 2012: News Roundup 2012 « The Amazing World of Psychiatry: A Psychiatry Blog

  6. It would be awesome if there was a way to do this. I think the Gov 2.0 people are the best bet for this or public media. As I’ve said before, I don’t think any profit-seeking entity can helm anything like this. The reasons are obvious.

  7. Pingback: News Roundup 2012 « The Amazing World of Psychiatry: A Psychiatry Blog

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