Is Web 2.0 and user-generated content the ultimate realisation of participatory democracy, and does it bring about benefits for societies and the world beyond its entertainment value? This is a question I have been exploring for some years, and so I have decided to bore you with my research about it. I researched and wrote much of this in 2008, but have continued to review and revise it since then, and to work my brain hard in the process! I even wonder if I actually understand what I have written now!! It is a longer than usual blog, so only read on if you are truly interested… enjoy, destroy, ignore… the choice is yours. Web 2.0 and participatory democracy are embracing our world globally at a speed that appears unprecedented. I will try to examine what is meant by both of these terms and address whether the content of Web 2.0 is the ultimate realisation of participatory democracy, and whether it brings benefits to global societies beyond entertainment value. It will briefly consider Participatory Democracy and its emerging use and value (or lack of) in relation to the global political platform, and using this impact on citizens as our framework, we will investigate the ways in which a participatory society can inform, represent and support a more approachable and reactive participatory democracy, and why the connectedness it promotes is a benefit to society beyond the value of entertainment.
So what is meant by Web 2.0 and user-generated content? Web 2.0 can be seen as the platform for internet sites and activity, with a central gravitational core. It refers to a second generation of web-based communities and hosted services such as social networking sites, for example Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, wikis[i], blogs and folksonomies[ii] that aim to facilitate collaboration and sharing between users, as well as users and service providers. Users are then able to generate their own content, even though the parameters of usability are set by the providers of the Web 2.0 forum. Web 2.0 could also be considered a form of pop culture and in this way could be considered ideologically as a body of intellectual and artistic development of ideas through the medium of the internet[iii]. Popular culture is a culture that originates from ‘the people’ as opposed to something that is imposed on people, and in this way Web 2.0 can be directly identified as a form of pop culture. When we look ahead to where participatory democracy might lead us, we recognize that pop culture works hand in hand with it, and works towards the changes brought to politics and governance through this culture, and that therefore we must support this new form of media that creates the sense of connectedness and empowerment.
Participatory democracy is situated within a perspective of the struggle for socialism. The social agent of that struggle is the self-organised popular movement, comprising the working class and its allies. Participatory democracy is one key process through which the self-organised popular movement constructs itself and the perceived strategy by governments and organisations to mobilize the population through the participatory democratic process is not simply to create a more active citizenship or to achieve a fairer distribution of social goods, but to create a counter-hegemonic force capable of confronting governments.
Gramsci’s theory of hegemony comes from the notion that government and state cannot enforce control over any particular class or structure unless other, more intellectual methods are entailed. He defined the State as oppression combined with hegemony, and that hegemony is political power that flows from intellectual and moral leadership, authority or consensus as distinguished from autocratic authority[iv]. The media has a central role in this theory and has to be considered within the context of the theory of hegemony due to of the importance of the media and the influence it produces. Communication from government is now primarily controlled by the media and any text has to be considered to be potentially open to the practice of manipulation and therefore, the process of hegemony. Hegemony can be defined as ‘a discursive strategy of combining principles from different systems of thought into one coherent ideology’. In the same way it could be considered that Web 2.0 brings together a number of different modes unifying one logical ideology available and accessible to individuals and organizations.
Henry Jenkins, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Comparative Media Studies (CMA) program, describes participatory culture as culture in which fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content. Participatory democracy includes activities such as voting, expressing concerns at a public forum or local council meeting, signing a petition, or attending a political rally[v]. In understanding the current demand for participatory democracy we might consider the political division of labor between the general population of a democracy and the elected public officials in a representative democracy and noticeably, the movement towards participatory democracy is highest where residency is most widespread and meritocracy is most developed. According to Cook and Morgan[vi], based on current trends it appears that participatory democracy implies two broad features in patterns of decision making, that is decentralization and direct involvement, and they conclude as far back as 1971 that ‘power to the people’ is inevitable.
Bachrach and Botwinick[vii] claim the objective of participatory democracy is to introduce democracy to an organisation not just for the sake of it, but also to have the organization as a leverage point to achieve a more egalitarian allocation of power which will then lead to a more democratic political process. Labrogere[viii] concludes ‘by using Web 2.0 paradigms such as user-generated content. Web navigation is being enhanced and users are becoming the actors and the content providers of the Internet’. Whatever environment Web 2.0 is engaged in, it will have implications to political environments and that both service providers and end users will have no choice but to be involved.
Carpenter[ix] suggests the meaning of the word participation has changed over time and its redefinition has had ideological consequences, and the implications of the concept of power imbalances have been completely removed from its meaning. She gives an example of political participation[x] that points to awareness in the early 1960s of the existence of ‘pseudo-participation’, in which the emphasis was on creating the feeling that participation was possible, rather than a situation where it is possible, and in this way, whether citizens are truly making any tangible difference in the politics of their nation, they feel as if they are.
Mehrdad Baghai in his article in The Australian[xi] states that Web 2.0 is a ‘highly visible single example of a much bigger shift towards collective identity and collective action, and thereby towards participatory democracy’. He says there are also emerging and clearly identifiable signs of a new model for governance that bears a striking resemblance to the increasing number of social networks available to everyone on the internet. He believes ‘this new model arises from a shifting world view that responds to the new global perception of reality’ and that ‘to imagine that this shift towards World Order 2.0 is limited to climate change would be to underestimate the significance of the underlying mega-trend towards a deliberative and grassroots democracy’.
The online campaigns in Australia in 2007 and 2010, and America in 2008 was evidence of the connectedness people feel because of participation. As evidenced in the Australian Federal election in 2007, Kevin Rudd’s online campaigning was more current and user friendly in its style compared to the more outdated television style of John Howard, ensuring voters, especially the X and Y generations were easily connected with the Labour campaign and felt comfortable with their own participation in it. The growth of the use of the site is significant as indicated by the National Library of Australia’s Web Archive, Pandora[xii], and it is evident that non-party user usage was far greater for the Labour party during the 2007 election campaign than the Liberal party. For example, Gen Y voters aged 18 to 24 numbered in excess of 1.5 million and comprised 11.2 percent of the electorate.
In the last election in America, the President elect, Barack Obama was everywhere including more than sixteen sites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, AsianAve, and DNC Partybuilder. His online campaign style, like Rudd’s, was far more current in style, and the connectedness people felt because of participation was quite possibly was the reason so more black Americans voted this year. The ability of voters to contribute donations, even as small as five dollars, also encouraged easier participation offering them further connectedness and empowerment. Obama’s constant catch cry was ‘I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring out real change in Washington. I’m asking you to believe in yours.’ This was in significant contrast to McCain’s catch cry[xiii] whose catch cry was about him and the voters, rather than about how they could contribute to their own world in positive and effective ways.
This notion is reinforced in an article in The Australian[xiv], by Shilkin who at the time was head of corporate communications and public affairs at Google Australia & New Zealand, the parent company that owns YouTube suggests that just as television revolutionized politics in the past, it is now the internets’ turn to do the same, that it will have the capacity to shift our political debate to one of vigorous and purposeful ideological dialogue between political candidates and voters. The interactive nature and the online dialogue it supports voters and candidates. Each and every second of every day, all across Australia and most western countries of the world, the internet is erupting with political arguments and debates. Every established newspaper has its own website with online stories through to encouraging user comments and debate. This gives a voice to people who might never before have ventured into political debate.
‘by empowering Australians to participate in political debate, rather than passively observe it, the changes wrought by the internet promise to be far more profound. Engaging, passionate, democratic, raw and challenging: the era of user-generated politics has come down under’.
More importantly, he believes that the internet holds political candidates more accountable as the utter volume of information, including things such as speeches and promises, as well as virtually all other off-the cuff statements which is easily and speedily accessible, and the rise of internet participation ensures voters usage of this information. He claims there are 12 million Australians online who spend more than 25 per cent of media time on the web, a number that is increasing. For 18-29 year-olds, the figure is already 40 per cent and at the time of writing his article, YouTube alone had three million Australian users, 80 per cent over the age of 18. The volume of users and the amount of information available to those individuals highlights the notion of participatory democracy in the political arena.
Virginia Nightingale[xv] draws together the themes that emerge from Web 2.0 and its impact on participation. She argues it is not just ‘mobile privatization’ that makes it attractive, but the psycho-social attachment or ownership users develop due to their own participation. In this way it connects with the humanness of Web 2.0 users, and the longing inherent in ‘search’ is a powerful motivator for participation. In the political arena, this is significant because the psycho-social attachment factor is likely to encourage ongoing and greater levels of participative democracy. Shaughnessy discusses eParticipation in his article ‘Modern Democracy in a virtual world’[xvi] , claiming eParticipation has been securely arranged in getting people involved in decision making. However he suggests that may not be where the future of democracy lies, rather that it will work just as well if it creates new channels of accountability for governments. This article also suggests Web 2.0 technologies may be too flat in the way they deliver, and that the sense of individual presence would enhance use, which would be assisted with the use of avatars[xvii] because the interactions have a more real quality, and therefore the opportunity to feel even more comfortable when interacting than using things like blogs and wikis. In this way participatory democracy is becoming more innovative and personal, offering political campaigns huge opportunities to harness the power of the people. The term participation means taking part in joint activities for the purpose of reaching a common goal, and eParticipation is the use of information and communication technologies to broaden and deepen political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another and with their elected representatives.
In Creating Connectedness[xviii] the common view is that as we entered the Third Millennium there is a radical leaving behind of the past as we take on an entirely new world and different future characterized by differences and individuality, and continuous innovation and change. The book offers examples of how working together achieves unique outcomes, and how participation is increased through feelings of connectedness and empowerment. In this way, Web 2.0 and participatory democracy are bound to provide connectedness and empowerment of political audiences. Connectedness equates to relationships, which are a social phenomena even though they may be backed by technological supports such as Web 2.0, and only by being connected is it possible to know what others are doing or have done for change and innovation.
Pedler and Burgoyne[xix] discuss action learning, which they say is a combination of self development and action towards change, which starts and ends with purpose and is used in many areas particularly where self management is required. Its power can be that any attempt at praxeology rests on philosophical positions, that is, critical realism, pragmatism and risk imperative, with critical realism being the most useful because it is on open system with emergent properties. Action learning seeks continuous improvement in systems and self development through individual and collective action, with the purpose being to improve outcomes and participation in collective learning. Similarly, Web 2.0 and its value in participatory democracy is that is brings about purposeful action towards societal change.
Obviously there are dangers with the amount of Web 2.0 activity and perhaps the gravest barrier to participatory democracy is the ongoing threat to our security and privacy caused by the aggregation and sometimes theft, of our personal information. The dampening effect of privacy concerns, including the ongoing onslaught of spam, cannot be underestimated, and neither can the damage it can cause to broad participation and the use of social media to effect social change and the process of developing legal standards for Web 2.0 behavior will be challenging. It will range from simple social interactions, [When and how can one use mobile phones in public?], to far more serious issues [Who owns my health care information?] important now in light of the new eHealth system being introduced in Australia. However with organizations such as the online Lobby group publication PR Watch, a quarterly publication of the Centre for Media & Democracy[xx] is dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry, which serves citizens, journalists and researchers seeking to recognize and combat manipulative and misleading PR practices, there are some consumer safety nets in place. It offers an online lobby style forum full of information, all of which is provided by Web 2.0 and which allows democratic participation.
Hugh Mackay[xxi] suggests it has become clear that much of the stress in the course of our life is we spend so much of the time feeling as if we have no control, and Web 2.0 can give us the feeling that we can get this back. Within the realms of changes to their worlds through politics, citizens can feel as if they have some control, and are making a difference. Through participation of a fundamentally global and different communications style, Web 2.0 inspires and creates connectedness, self-determinism and empowerment along with the momentum brought about in individuals collectively. It is a connection that provides individuals with virtually unlimited access to literally millions of self-organizing communities and organizations. Self-determination and participation are conjoined principles powering social change in the Connected Age, and human beings long for connectedness, for arranging themselves within larger communities and groups. Harnessing the resulting positive energy so that we can use it to create significant and lasting social change, particularly within our democratic political arenas can surely be seen as a far greater benefit to society than any amount of entertainment value. You might wonder why I have been researching and thinking about all of this? Well, I wonder also, but have decided it is my desire to try to understand why I blog, and what the value of the internet is. I have many friends who love what can be called Web 2.0, and others who simply will not engage in it, and I feel like the ones who refuse to get involved are missing out. Who knows, one day, I may change my mind!
[i] Online documents that anyone with internet access can contribute to
[ii] Online political administrative or activist groups
[iv] Bocock, R, Hegemony, Chichester [West Sussex] : E. Horwood ;London ;New York : Tavistock Publications
[v] Jenkins, H 2006, Convergence Culture, New York University Press, New York, p. 290
JohnMcCain.com: McCain-Palin 2008, viewed 10 November 2008, <http://www.johnmccain.com/>
[vi] Cook, T & Morgan, P 1971, Participatory Democracy, Harper and Rowe Publishers Inc, New York, pp. 1-40
[vii] Bachrach, P. & Botwinick, A 1992, Power and Empowerment: A Radical Theory of Participatory Democracy, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, p. 9
[viii] Labrogere, P 2008, ‘Com 2.0: A Path Towards Web Communicating Applications’, Bell Labs Technical Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 19–24
[ix] Carpenter, N 2007, ‘Participation, Access and Interaction: Changing perspectives’, in New Media Worlds, eds V Nightingale & T Dwyer, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Victoria, p. 215
[x] Verba 1961, cited in Carpenter, 2007 pp. 220-221
[xi] Baghai, M 2007, ‘Web 2.0: a brave new world ordered by people power – Future Summit: Special Report’, The Australian, 26 April, p. 27
[xiii] ‘I’ve been called a maverick, someone who marches to the beat of his own drum… I don’t work for myself, I work for you.’
[xiv] Shilkin, R. 2007, Wired citizens drive debate. The Australian, p. 14, from Newspaper Source database, <http://ezlibproxy.unisa.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=200707261014241213&site=ehost-live>
[xv] Nightingale, V 2007, ‘Participation’, in New Media Worlds, eds V Nightingale & T Dwyer, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Victoria, pp. 287-289
[xvi] Shaughnessy, H 2008, Modern democracy in a virtual world, Irish Times, 10 March, http://ezlibproxy.unisa.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=9FY2035440215&site=ehost-live
[xvii] a virtual-world “character”
[xviii] Gustaven, B, Finne, H, & Oscarsson, B, 2001, Creating connectedness: the role of social research in innovation policy, Philadelphia, PA : John Benjamins Pub. Co.
[xix] Pedler, M & Burgoyne J 2008, Chapter 21, Action learning, in The Sage Handbook of Action research: Participatory Inquiry and Practice, eds Reason, P & Bradbury, H Sage Publications, London, pp. 319-330
[xx] A wiki-based investigative journalism collaborative focused on the public relations industry and whistle-blowing manipulative or misleading practices
[xxi] Mackay, H 2008, Advance Australia … Where, Hachette Live Australia, Sydney, p. 72