How we can participate

As technology and the tools for communicating online become more mature and accessible, some general trends emerge. First, with the rise of the real-time web and services like Twitter communication online happens faster. It is also coming from millions of individuals who can publish from nearly everywhere using the mobile capacities of WordPress, Twitter, and similar software. Finally, this increase in speed and quantity of communication fuels the development of sophisticated tools for aggregation and filtration of information flows. All of these tools are usable and deployable by individuals. What is possible with all this technology is a radical shift toward individual control and influence in political participation. Political participation need no longer be something mediated through interest groups and representatives. Instead, technology has allowed for the potential for individuals to play their part in the broader political arena.

We must keep in mind that as revolutionary as all of these technologies can seem they are no guarantee of expanded participation. Technology in and of itself does not determine politics. Application and adoption by citizens determines political impact. Yochai Benkler makes a similar point in the introduction to The Wealth of Networks when he writes that,

Neither deterministic nor wholly malleable, technology sets some parameters of individual and social action. It can make some actions, relationships, organizations, and institutions easier to pursue, and others harder.1

Communication platforms like the real-time web, Twitter, WordPress and consumption mechanisms like Google Reader and Fever drastically altered the parameters of potential individual and social action. Individual citizens have such significant opportunity at their fingertips that the boundaries of political participation have expanded significantly. None of this is assured, rather it is potential that we must put into political practice; however, some recent events can provide optimism.

The parameters that have been expanded through online communication are twofold. First, our ability for individual action and autonomy expands through these tools than previous methods of publication. Second, this individual autonomy allows for more independent group formation that maintains the identity of individual citizens.

Having the ability to publish to a potential global audience was something open to only a select few in a pre-internet age. To globally distribute information was something restricted to mass publishing houses and mainstream media publications. The democratization of publishing has changed this dynamic. If an individual wants a mass audience the potential exists to have one. The physical limitations of printing presses and capital resources to disseminate information have largely dissappeared. As Clay Shirky said at Web 2.0 Expo in 2008,

the internet introduced post-Gutenberg economics. The cost of publishing has fallen through the floor.

The availability of this type of publishing to individuals represents a remarkably political event. Through these tools individuals have tremendous power to publish their viewpoints and through software like Google Reader and Fever they can aggregate information from other individuals to find areas of common interest and shared concern. This ability to publish, aggregate, and organize presents a unique opportunity of group formation and mobilization online that is not the same under a traditional political system. Groups can come together as true collections of individuals who all have access to public-facing communication channels. Symbolic leaders are not needed to relay information and tell members what is important, this process can all be done by individuals.

Ultimately, though, as powerful as this technology is nothing will change by itself. In order for political participation to truly be revolutionized it will rely upon citizens taking advantage of the tools available to them and beginning to publish online and aggregate sources together into a personalized information flow. None of the potential matters if we, as political citizens, obstinately refuse to change our habits. If we continue to give precedence to organizations that do the aggregate, filter, and publish information for us then the potential of all these technologies disappears. However, if we decide to take individual ownership over the publication of our opinions and seek to construct personalized information streams, then the potential of these technologies will become fully realized in revolutionary political change. Through the political application of these technologies we have the ability to gain individual control over our information consumption and publication. We can organize rapidly as individual to undertake collective political action. Ultimately, we can transform political participation from a slow, occasional process that happens at the government’s convenience to something defined by small actions taken as part of a continual process that works toward iterative political change.

  1. Benkler, 17.