Performing civic participation on the social web

When we sign a petition to keep a local school open, and then give permission for the petition site to ‘share’ that act with our network on Facebook, this constitutes a performance of civic participation. When we engage in a debate on twitter about asylum seeker policy in Australia, our tweets can become records of our views and attitudes. When we change our Facebook profile pictures to support or reject marriage equality (or same-sex marriage or ‘gay marriage’, whichever discourse you want to plug into, a topic for a whole other post) we’re participating in a complex, global conversation about rights and equality. At the same time, though, we’re also performing that civic participation, and telling a story about ourselves.

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On March 25, the ‘Human Rights Campaign’ (HRC) – an LGBT lobby – urged people to change their Facebook profile pictures to a pink-on-red equals sign to show support for marriage equality, corresponding with the U.S. Supreme Court meeting to debate the issue. The Facebook data science team reported that 2.7 million more U.S. users changed their profile pictures than usual on March 25, which they attributed to the HRC push

Although a U.S. based campaign, the profile picture (and many variations on the profile picture, a few of which are shown below) rapidly spread and became a global phenomenon. This might be interesting in itself, but what I’m more interested in here is how this represents the performance of civic participation.

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Does changing your profile picture equate to activitsm? Or is this just ‘slacktivism’? In this (long-ish, sorry!) post I’m going to argue that it’s part of the broader discussion, ‘invigorating’ (Christensen 2011) the discourse. Beyond this, however, we can also use this HRC case study to think through some of the ways we can use the social web to reconceptualise civic participation.

What is civic participation?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) uses the following definition to pin down civic participation: 

In measuring civic participation, we consider collective and individual activities that reflect interest and engagement with governance and democracy: for example, membership of civic organisations such as political parties and trade unions; serving on committees or clubs, voluntary organisations and associations; contacting members of parliament; participating in demonstrations and rallies; and attending community consultations. More recent forms of civic participation include support for global or local advocacy groups or campaigns, email networks, or one day activities such as ‘Clean Up Australia’ (630,000 people participated in Clean Up Australia day in 2009) (CUA 2009).

The line here on ’email networks’ clearly dates the current ABS definition (it’s from 2006), but it’s hard to blame them, as the terrain here moves so quickly. Hopefully the next time the ABS updates this definition the social web will get a look in.

In [the] 2006 [census], 19% of adults reported that they had actively participated in civic and political groups in the previous 12 months. This level of involvement varied with age, peaking […] for people aged 45-64 years [with lower levels of involvement from younger and older persons]. The civic or political groups that people were most likely to be active in were trade union, professional and technical associations (7%), environmental or animal welfare groups (5%), followed by body corporate or tenants’ associations (4%). Only 1% [of all Australians] reported active participation in a political party (ABS 2007b).

I cite this in detail is because I want to draw attention to the framing here, and the way we are measuring civic participation. As I will explain later in this post, this represents a traditional form of civic participation that I’ll describe below as associated with the ‘dutiful citizen’.

But before I get to that, this definition also silences so many forms of civic participation that don’t fall within these frames, because they are more difficult to measure. I’m thinking about the conversations that occur in everyday settings, in pubs and over dinner tables. I’m thinking about the debates sparked when a first year university student comes home for dinner to find his parents hungrily consuming a Today Tonight expose on the boat people invasion, or when someone raises entitlement culture in an otherwise one-sided discussion about how terrible tax is. These are valid and valuable discussions, and for me, they constitute participation in civic life.

Sometimes, as I described in the introductory section of this post, these forms of civic participation are also mediated online. Rather than vanishing into the ether or human memory, as with physical conversations (that are not recorded), conversations mediated online leave digital traces, and this is a reality we’re still coming to terms with.

The digital trace

The digital trace is a record the of things we put online. Geoffrey Bowker (2007) explains that people with access to the internet are increasingly conducting their everyday lives through it, leaving their ‘traces’ wherever they ‘surf’ (p. 22).  When we first post something, that trace is more visible, as people usually sort their social feeds (or their feeds are sorted for them) chronologically. With time, however, some old traces, like a single tweet from someone who tweets a lot, becomes obscured and sometimes more difficult to find. Other traces, like a Facebook profile picture in a profile picture album that only gets updated every now and then, can stay centre stage for longer.

Performances of civic participation on the social web should not be thought of as slacktivism or as somehow replacing other forms of activism like writing an email to or calling your MP, or joining in a march and kicking down some doors (figuratively) for a cause that you believe in. And that’s the critical part. A lack of participation in traditional ‘party politics’ (and I’m referring to political parties like the Labor Party and the Liberal Party, not politics at parties) does not equate to a broader lack of civic participation, but it may represent a shift in the way we measure and frame participation.

From the ‘dutiful’ to the ‘actualising’ citizen

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In studying how young people engage in democracy online, Fredrik Miegel and Tobias Olsson (2007: 231) consider a shift in conceptualisations of citizenship from what they describe (via Lance Bennett 2007) as the ‘dutiful citizen’ towards the ‘actualizing citizen’. Whereas voting and joining a political party are at the core of civic participation for the dutiful citizen, the actualizing citizen participates in civic life differently, favouring loose networks of community action (neo-tribal in the Maffesolian sense) and ‘personally defined acts of participation’ over voting, rigid party-based politics, and other traditional, institutionally sanctioned forms of action. Miegel and Olsson establish a generational divide between these two approaches to citizenship, with young people tending towards the actualising citizen.

What actually constitutes civic participation is clearly changing. As Harris, Wyn and Younes (2010: 27) argue, the social web can allow young people a place to ‘have a say’, giving them a voice. A voice in an arena that is otherwise dominated by people with power. Thus, perhaps changing a Facebook profile picture to support same-sex marriage or making a status update about asylum seeker policy can constitute a valid and generative and even ‘invigorating’ (Christensen 2011) form of civic engagement. Just because these performances of civic participation are mediated online should not render them as less valuable, as somehow ‘not real’. So, individual-centered, personally motivated forms of civic participation mediated online can represent an important part of a new conceptualisation of civic life. By adjusting the lens through which civic participation is measured, and drawing the ‘actualized citizen’ into our understanding of civic life, a rich terrain of engagement will actually be made visible.

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