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Civic Tech and Engagement: Announcing a New Series on What Makes it "Thick"

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, July 24 2014

An old-fashioned barn-raising in Lansing, Canada (circa 1900-1919)

"Our problems are connected, but we are not."
--Ami Dar,

One of the enduring values of the Personal Democracy community is the belief that people using Internet and other connection technologies can help make civic participation easier and more effective. Despite the prevailing trend towards using data and analytics to enable small groups of people to more intensively target, manage and manipulate large atomized lists of other people, we believe today's technologies can enable something more than the digital equivalent of direct mail. Not only that, we think that activism and community action enabled by tech can involve much more than the "thin" kinds of engagement--signing up on lists, clicking on petitions, and sharing social media--that are so prevalent today in the advocacy sector. Under certain conditions, tech can enable much deeper kinds of connections between people, communities and those with power, and make everyday life better for people in the process.

In this context, I'm very pleased to announce a new series of feature articles that we will be publishing over the next several months, thanks to the support of the Rita Allen Foundation. Our focus is on digitally-enabled civic engagement, and in particular, how and under what conditions "thick" digital civic engagement occurs. What we're after is answers to this question: When does a tech tool or platform enable actual people to make ongoing and significant contributions to each other, to a place or cause, at a scale that produces demonstrable change?

We are approaching this series of exploratory articles, which will run with the header "Civic Tech and Engagement," with the sense that the debate over how to use digital technologies to enhance civic life has reached a flawed consensus. That conventional wisdom goes like this: Tech tools and platforms are great for "thin" engagement. You can get fairly large numbers of people to click, rate, comment, or share, but then they disappear into the ether. Only a few people will engage further. Most people aren't interested in participating virtually in more intensive kinds of dialogue, action, project planning, or policy deliberation; the best if not only way to get that kind of in-depth, or "thick," civic engagement is still face-to-face. 

I think that it is too early to make this judgment. Our ongoing reporting and preliminary research suggests that under certain settings and conditions, and with appropriate patience, thick online engagement that involves significant numbers of people on an ongoing, self-aware basis and with tangible offline impacts is possible.

In using the short-hand terms "thin" and "thick" to describe different kinds of civic participation, we are borrowing slightly from terminology Ethan Zuckerman of the MIT Center for Civic Media proposed a year ago at the Digital Media and Learning conference in Chicago, but not using these words in exactly the same way he did. For the purposes of distinguishing between different kinds of civic activity, Zuckerman posits a matrix where thin vs. thick is one axis, and symbolic vs. impactful is the other. In a post summarizing and expanding on his talk, he wrote,

By “thin” engagement, I mean actions that require little thought on your part: sign a petition, give a contribution. In a campaign that uses thin engagement, the campaign’s organizers know what they want you to do and simply need you to show up and do it. In thick engagement, the campaigners ask you for your creativity, your strategic sensibilities, your ability to make media, research, deliberate or find solutions – the campaigners know they want to do something, but ask you what you think they should do.

In line with today's conventional wisdom about tech virtues and shortcomings, Zuckerman's examples of "thick" engagement--the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Occupy Sandy effort to raise funds, organize volunteers and provide direct aid to victims of the 2012 hurricane--both required face-to-face on-the-ground organizing. Clicktivism, hashtag campaigns, symbolic attention-gathering efforts like KONY 2012--these are all examples of "thin" engagement.

To me, thick engagement includes not only instances where a campaign asks (and obtains) an intensive level of engagement from its participants, but also cases where people and government actors or agencies engage intensively with each other, or where people on their own choose to work together towards some common goal without an outside agency urging them on.

Thus, in this series, we are going to be exploring a range of cases, including efforts by local government agencies try to engage with a geographically-bounded population (and vice versa), experiments in hyper-local self-organization powered by online tools, platforms that enable a virtual or local community with a clear common interest to work together on an ongoing basis, and attempts to foster new kinds of community cooperation around previous unrecognized but pool-able interests or social goods.

Over the coming months, we plan to report on a variety of intriguing examples. Our working list includes GitHub, Public Lab, SeeClickFix, NationBuilder, Front Porch Forum, The Civic Commons Ideastream (of northern Ohio), Action Alexandria, iHollaback, the Jersey Shore Hurricane News, OurCommonPlace, and Favortree. (Please add your suggestions in the comments thread.)

By looking at how online platforms and tools may enable rich engagement, we in no way mean to discount or disparage the obvious value of traditional forms of thick civic engagement like attending community meetings, serving on boards, running a club or a soup kitchen, rallying volunteers to aid people in crisis, and so on. But we suspect that there are certain kinds of civic engagement where being digital-first rather than solely face-to-face could be an advantage. Think of the challenge of having to attend a daytime city council meeting in order to make a public comment, which discriminates against working people, or families with young kids. Or look at how the transparency of a specific public service request on a SeeClickFix page can allow a non-synchronous but very rich community conversation to coalesce around solving a local problem.

Indeed, SeeClickFix, to take one excellent example of thick digital civic engagement, has definitely hit a tipping point in the city of New Haven, CT, where it was born six years ago. The site is fully integrated into the city's administration, and its button is prominently featured on the top right corner of the city's official website. Fresh news from SeeClickFix user reports also flows continuously onto the front pages of the city's local papers, the New Haven Register and the New Haven Independent. An impressive twelve percent of the city's population of 140,000 have SeeClickFix accounts. While reports are not evenly distributed across the whole city (middle class areas have more coverage), updates come from every neighborhood, ethnic group and class. And so our series starts there, with "How SeeClickFix is Changing the Fabric of Local Reality."