Redefining political participation

The tech­no­log­i­cal capac­ity of indi­vid­u­als to pub­lish infor­ma­tion online expanded tremen­dously over the last decade. Free plat­forms for pub­lic expres­sion and pub­li­ca­tion of ideas pro­lif­er­ated, most recently through ser­vices like WordPress and Twitter. There are now an incred­i­ble vari­ety of tools avail­able to peo­ple that allow any indi­vid­ual writer to poten­tially have global reach.

Many of these tools for pub­li­ca­tion have an inher­ently social aspect. More than sim­ply tools for pub­li­ca­tion and the broad­cast­ing of infor­ma­tion they have con­ver­sa­tion at the heart of their tech­nol­ogy. Communication online neces­si­tates more than just pub­li­ca­tion. With mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools there as much empha­sis is placed upon what hap­pens with the infor­ma­tion once put online.

The last few years have seen the astound­ing expan­sion of three key tech­nolo­gies: near real-time com­mu­ni­ca­tion, rel­a­tively easy self-publishing, and pow­er­ful data aggre­ga­tion. The rise of Twitter and related tech­nolo­gies of the real-time web, such as the Tornado Web Server, allow for mes­sages to be sent, received, and replied to in mere sec­onds. Blogging, and self-publishing in gen­eral, has devel­oped remark­ably pow­er­ful tools as well. What started with tools like Blogger and LiveJournal has now exploded with soft­ware such as WordPress, Tumblr, Posterous, and Movable Type. Finally, with all of this infor­ma­tion being pub­lished at a more rapid rate our tools for aggre­ga­tion have improved immensely. RSS read­ers such as Google Reader and Fever present the abil­ity to cat­e­go­rize, fil­ter, and rank infor­ma­tion from many sources. Furthermore, soft­ware devel­op­ers have begun to lever­age algo­rithms to ana­lyze, sort, and rank news items in a way that allows the soft­ware to fil­ter the impor­tant items out of the noise. 1

The inter­net and its asso­ci­ated tech­nolo­gies have been around for decades and seen a vast array of lit­er­a­ture devoted to their polit­i­cal poten­tial. What is it that makes the cur­rent moment dif­fer­ent? What about the polit­i­cal poten­tial of these spe­cific tech­nolo­gies lacks precedence?

A note on terminology

These tech­nolo­gies pro­vide for struc­tured flows of infor­ma­tion. In many instances these flows are polit­i­cal, in oth­ers they are not. Much of the lan­guage of the fol­low­ing essays will cen­ter around notions of infor­ma­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion. The sim­ple dis­sem­i­na­tion of infor­ma­tion is a polit­i­cal act.

The nature of any infor­ma­tion flow is such that some peo­ple have easy access and oth­ers are hin­dered, either by eco­nomic, social, or cul­tural fac­tors. While the vocab­u­lary herein may empha­size infor­ma­tion heav­ily we must remem­ber that infor­ma­tion serves as the foun­da­tion for our notion of pol­i­tics. Participation is grounded in it. Communication revolves around it. Information, and the ways in which cit­i­zens inter­act with and pro­duce it, con­sti­tutes the basis for any dis­cus­sion of par­tic­i­pa­tion and communication.

Foundation in con­tem­po­rary literature

While ear­lier texts con­cern­ing pol­i­tics and the inter­net are impor­tant to our back­ground for under­stand­ing the polit­i­cal poten­tial of the web many are already dated by this point. Texts like Diane Saco’s Cybering Democracy (2002), Mark Poster’s Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines (2006), and Henry Jenkins’ Democracy and New Media (2004) pro­vide impor­tant dis­cus­sions of the role of tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion online in mod­ern pol­i­tics but are dated for a dis­cus­sion of tech­nolo­gies that have matured and rose to mass adop­tion in the past three to four years.

This recent rise and mat­u­ra­tion of online com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies is par­tic­u­larly impor­tant for the tools briefly men­tioned above. Twitter launched almost four years ago but in just the past 12 months it rapidly rose to the con­scious­ness of much of the gen­eral pub­lic. Other tools that are the focus of this work, such as WordPress and RSS read­ers, have only seen grow­ing adop­tion and devel­op­ment in the past three to four years. It is the nature of the inter­net to pro­vide a plat­form that encour­ages rapid pro­to­typ­ing and deploy­ment of fea­tures. Due to this rapid inno­va­tion in online com­mu­ni­ca­tion texts like Saco’s, Poster’s, and Jenkins’ serve as foun­da­tions but we must keep the con­text in which they were writ­ing in mind. The afore­men­tioned lit­er­a­ture pro­vides an impor­tant basis for the the­o­ret­i­cal engage­ment of online com­mu­ni­ca­tion but ulti­mately tools like WordPress and Twitter must be ana­lyzed from a more con­tem­po­rary standpoint.

In texts like Defining Digital Citizenship, the role of tech­nol­ogy and the web too often ful­fills a role in the exist­ing sys­tem of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. To say that the biggest par­a­digm shift since the print­ing press will sim­ply sup­ple­ment our exist­ing polit­i­cal struc­ture misses the point of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of these com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools.

Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks pro­vides not only an impor­tant foun­da­tion for a dis­cus­sion of com­mu­ni­ca­tion online but also presents a con­cep­tion of online tech­nolo­gies as neces­si­tat­ing a fun­da­men­tal shift in social struc­ture. Central to Benkler’s the­ory is the notion of a net­worked infor­ma­tion econ­omy, which is defined by the decen­tral­ized actions of indi­vid­u­als. In addi­tion, Benkler makes the point that, in a net­worked infor­ma­tion economy,

Today’s users of infor­ma­tion are not only today’s read­ers and con­sumers. They are also today’s pro­duc­ers and tomorrow’s inno­va­tors. 2

The impor­tance placed upon indi­vid­ual auton­omy and pro­duc­tion in a net­worked infor­ma­tion econ­omy form a foun­da­tion for the argu­ments I advance con­cern­ing the real-time web, self pub­lish­ing, and data aggre­ga­tion. Benkler’s the­ory lacks a spe­cific dis­cus­sion of the tools of online com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The fact that The Wealth of Networks was writ­ten in 2006 results in some of the same lim­i­ta­tions as texts by Poster and Jenkins. Despite these lim­i­ta­tions the the­o­ret­i­cal back­drop given by Benkler rep­re­sents a vital foun­da­tion to the dis­cus­sion of infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge pro­duc­tion below.

Other more recent approaches toward the polit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of com­mu­ni­ca­tion online approach the poten­tial from a more crit­i­cal stand­point. In a talk given at TED Evgeny Morozov dis­cusses what he terms “iPod Liberalism.” Morozov defines this as a con­fu­sion over the intended ver­sus the actual uses of tech­nol­ogy. Furthermore, Morozov goes on to detail his argu­ment for how online com­mu­ni­ca­tion can serve as a tremen­dous ben­e­fit to author­i­tar­ian regimes. Morozov argues that infor­ma­tion which intel­li­gence agen­cies used to tor­ture for is now avail­able freely online in acces­si­ble formats.

Strong cri­tiques like Morozov’s keep a dis­cus­sion of polit­i­cal poten­tial grounded but ulti­mately the fear of a new polit­i­cal sys­tem should not make us dis­re­gard the present oppor­tu­nity. Furthermore, the pos­si­ble out­come that Morozov details should not blind us to the neg­a­tive aspects of the cur­rent struc­ture. While the net­worked infor­ma­tion econ­omy that writ­ers like Benkler out­line has its own set of prob­lems they should not make us for­get about the polit­i­cal abuses present in a sys­tem where infor­ma­tion flows slowly and through pre­de­fined chan­nels of acceptability.

Clay Shirky writes in his recent book, Here Comes Everybody, that,

When we change the way we com­mu­ni­cate, we change soci­ety. 3

This can be seen with tech­nolo­gies like the tele­phone, tele­vi­sion, and even email. These tech­nolo­gies have become main­stays of soci­ety in gen­eral and of polit­i­cal cam­paigns in par­tic­u­lar. Debates are tele­vised, move­ments are orga­nized via email newslet­ters, and some politi­cians make heavy use of robo­call cam­paigns. Conceptualizing a polit­i­cal move­ment that does not make use of these com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies becomes impossible.

With online com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the form of Twitter and WordPress, mil­lions of peo­ple have once again changed the way they com­mu­ni­cate in their every­day lives. We are now at a point where these behav­iors have solid­i­fied enough to start affect­ing sub­stan­tial social change. Furthermore, these advances of the past few years have so dra­mat­i­cally altered the way in which we engage with one another and exchange infor­ma­tion that we must con­sider the tech­nolo­gies as more than just a sup­ple­ment to the exist­ing struc­ture. Tools like Twitter and soft­ware like Fever allow for a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent notion of participation.

Rapid flows of public-by-default infor­ma­tion orig­i­nat­ing from mil­lions of peo­ple pro­vide a polit­i­cal struc­ture in which indi­vid­u­als can engage with one another on a direct level to orga­nize around shared con­cerns for polit­i­cal action. Additionally, all of this rapid-flowing, individually-published infor­ma­tion can be aggre­gated together, with tools that are acces­si­ble to indi­vid­u­als, to cre­ate a new type of informed citizen.

Defining par­tic­i­pa­tion in a new age

While impres­sive from a purely tech­no­log­i­cal stand­point these advances hold far more poten­tial when placed in the con­text of expand­ing polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion in the United States. For the pur­poses of this dis­cus­sion a def­i­n­i­tion of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion must first be given. This project draws on two key facets of American polit­i­cal thought: civic repub­li­can­ism and delib­er­a­tive democ­racy. Ultimately I posit that par­tic­i­pa­tory actions not aimed toward per­sonal or eco­nomic ben­e­fits ful­fill polit­i­cal virtue. Three key fea­tures define these par­tic­i­pa­tory actions: a citizen’s rel­a­tive lev­els of polit­i­cal inter­est, dis­cus­sion, and knowledge.

In the American polit­i­cal tra­di­tion these ideals have taken a strong place in the writ­ings of many writ­ers foun­da­tional to the United States’ polit­i­cal sys­tem. Chief among these writ­ers is Thomas Jefferson, who believed that an informed cit­i­zenry was of the utmost impor­tance to a healthy and thriv­ing polit­i­cal sys­tem. 4

From another stand­point the involve­ment of cit­i­zens in polit­i­cal dis­cus­sion is cen­tral to the delib­er­a­tive notion of democ­racy that writ­ers such as Joshua Cohen advance. In an essay titled “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy” Cohen defines a delib­er­a­tive democ­racy as,

an asso­ci­a­tion of whose affairs are gov­erned by the pub­lic delib­er­a­tion of its members.

This pub­lic delib­er­a­tion pro­vides the struc­ture for address­ing key polit­i­cal problems.

While the role of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­lic dis­cus­sion in American pol­i­tics is vital to the demo­c­ra­tic tra­di­tion other authors have been crit­i­cal of the role that tech­nol­ogy plays in the polit­i­cal process. Phillip Agre writes in an essay titled “Real-Time Politics: The Internet and the Political Process” that,

In the polit­i­cal realm, a tech­nol­ogy that democ­ra­tizes the tech­ni­cal capac­ity to speak and orga­nize is cer­tainly to be wel­comed. But “brand names” play an impor­tant role in pol­i­tics as well, as do long-cultivated net­works of per­sonal acquain­tance. In pol­i­tics and mar­kets alike, the Internet helps both the incum­bents and the chal­lengers, and both the big and small play­ers. 5

Agre urges cau­tion con­cern­ing the democ­ra­tiz­ing aspects of technologically-mediated com­mu­ni­ca­tion and polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion. There may be a pos­si­bil­ity for “brand name pol­i­tics” to play out online but the web allows for much more. The poten­tial for non-democratic ele­ments does not wholly pre­vent demo­c­ra­tic expansion.

Movements like the Rock the Vote cam­paign show a strong bloc in American pol­i­tics that believes more vot­ers means more democ­racy. After all, if a gov­ern­ment claims to truly be “of the peo­ple by the peo­ple [and] for the peo­ple” then hav­ing a large per­cent­age of the peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing is cru­cial to its legitimacy.

Ultimately, an increase in self-publishing, data aggre­ga­tion, and the real-time web can shift the role of polit­i­cal knowl­edge, delib­er­a­tion, and par­tic­i­pa­tion from actions that are seg­mented into annual or qua­dren­nial peri­ods to a more con­tin­ual mind­set. These tools do not require exor­bi­tant invest­ments in time, cap­i­tal, or labor to orga­nize through. Movements can be cre­ated, infor­ma­tion can be spread, and groups can take action all in far less time and with far less over­head than before. When polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion for com­mon goals opens up to all peo­ple the polit­i­cal poten­tial of the every­day cit­i­zen is revolutionized.

We have already seen early exam­ples of these types of rapid, online-mediated polit­i­cal move­ments. Tools like Twitter played such a cen­tral role to the protests in Iran last sum­mer that the U.S. State Department urged Twitter to resched­ule main­te­nance in order to keep the ser­vice up. The actions of the Iranian gov­ern­ment in attempt­ing to shut down ser­vices like Twitter, Facebook, and more also serves as recog­ni­tion of the cru­cial roles for online com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools. Despite the efforts to shut down online com­mu­ni­ca­tion dur­ing the sum­mer of 2009 the Iranian peo­ple ulti­mately found ways of cir­cum­vent­ing the gov­ern­ment fil­ters and kept tools like Twitter at the cen­ter of their com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies. 6

Using these tools as a foun­da­tion any cit­i­zen can make his or her views known and, if a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple feel like­wise, work toward affect­ing real polit­i­cal change. Twitter, WordPress, and acces­si­ble forms of data aggre­ga­tion cre­ate a future in which any cit­i­zen can be a leader. They allow for cit­i­zens to engage with each other, and with their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, in a pub­lic forum through tools that rapidly trans­mit infor­ma­tion at times not dic­tated by elec­tion cycles. That is rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The chan­nels have been opened to all so that the polit­i­cal can become a part of the every­day. When that hap­pens there is lit­tle stop­ping every cit­i­zen from becom­ing a part of the deci­sion mak­ing process.

Notes:

  1. A def­i­n­i­tion of noise will be impor­tant to keep in mind through­out these essays. In this dis­cus­sion I am using Matt Pearson’s def­i­n­i­tion “Irrelevant & unwanted data; any­thing that is out of con­text [to an indi­vid­ual] given the intended sig­nal of the medium in ques­tion.” It is impor­tant to main­tain that noise is rel­e­vant to indi­vid­u­als and par­tic­u­lar con­texts. For these essays there is no objec­tive, uni­ver­sal def­i­n­i­tion of noise.
  2. Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 38.
  3. Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here Comes Everybody. Kindle Ed. New York: Penguin: Location 254–263.
  4. This notion of an informed cit­i­zenry comes from Jefferson’s dis­cus­sion of edu­ca­tion in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.”
  5. Agre asks for the copy of this essay that appeared in The Information Society jour­nal to be cited but for rea­sons of acces­si­bil­ity I have cited the linked essay since it is freely avail­able online.
  6. For a fur­ther dis­cus­sion of the inter­play between Iranian gov­ern­ment efforts at shut­ting down social media and the ways in which cit­i­zens avoided this fil­ter­ing see a dis­cus­sion from PBS’ Newshour