The internet presents an interesting option for civic engagement. Think about it: how many of your friends on Facebook are fans of politicians or are in political groups? Since you are reading a policy blog, I imagine the number is at least greater than 0. Social media seems ideal for demonstrating solidarity – people able to express preferences, argue positions, and encourage each other’s beliefs they have in common. (I cannot continue here without remembering fondly Stephen Colbert’s “The Word – Solitarity” where he mocks social media movements’ commitment. My favorite quote, “Make the MAN wish he never visited your site.”)
The sense of everyone being on the internet (and social networking sites) provides a false concept of public space. danah boyd recently presented an interesting critique of the demographics of social media. Her article, “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online,” suggests a stratification of different sites (she focuses on MySpace versus Facebook). In my view, the take away message is to remember that the audiences of Facebook, or even the internet as a whole, are not the entire public.
What this means for government (or non-profits) is that utilizing sites that allow feedback, groups, and interaction are limiting. Just as we must question statistical surveys’ methods of reaching the public, we must question the access to both the internet as a whole and the specific type of site (Second Life is still around – NASA and the US Air Force even use it as recruiting –but each user must pay to participate, an obstacle for many).
The article also brought up an issue that is quite old. The internet (especially at high speeds we now use all the time) is not everywhere. To go back another step, up-state Wisconsin even has areas that do have neither cell reception (!) nor public television (now digital in Wisconsin). Radio and landlines, if that, are the access to the outside world. Back to the subject of the internet, access for people with visual disabilities can also be limited on more complicated, interactive sites (see this American Foundation for the Blind publication).
Access is a must for public policy. While social media (blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) is growing on me, remembering that not everyone is fluent in these formats reinforces the need for diverse means of communication. Considering yesterday’s post, good, old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation that happens at physical, real public forums is not obsolete. Using social media can augment those interactions, but it isn’t the answer to everything.
“That kid is bored. He’s probably thinking, ‘I can’t wait for them to stop tasing that guy so I can go home and watch them tase that guy on YouTube.’” – Stephen Colbert