Participation, Civics and Your Net Coffee Maker

5 August 2014


Phil Howard’s response to the article by Ethan Zuckerman “New Media, New Civics?” published in Policy & Internet (2014: vol. 6, issue 2).

Ethan Zuckerman’s essay on participatory civics offers a nice example of how to push ideas forward with both grounded and complex examples.  It’s a nicely crafted essay precisely because he offers some of the great instances of creative civic projects and reminds us of the larger number of stalled, failed, and low-impact instances of digital activism.

He also exposes one of the great ironies of political life in many advanced democracies.  The internet may seem to deepen democratic institutions, with ever more rich data about political actors, voter preferences, and the wealth of civic engagement tools that allow people to launch truly inspiring projects.  Yet the exercise of citizenship also seems thinner, because it is so easy to be politically expressive without being substantively engaged.  I also like the metaphor of thick and thin citizenship.  But important part of Zuckerman’s observation—and one he develops well in his book Rewireis thateven the light interaction with new political issues and unfamiliar perspectives helps people bridge contexts.  It would be silly to expect everyone to be engaged on every issue or to expect that real engagement is only something that can happen face to face.  But if an online petition, viral video, or potent tweet creates a new community of people interested in a social problem, that’s a positive outcome.

I agree with much of what Zuckerman says is valuable about the exercise of one’s political voice.  Yes, it is often the first step in engagement, and speaking up certainly does encourage other people to voice their opinions.  But does exercising voice set the agenda in quite the way he suggests?  Maybe—but probably not as often as we’d like.  So many digital activism projects stall or fail.  And unfortunately, there aren’t many times that civic expressions of voice actually set the political agenda.  There’s a lot of research in political communication demonstrating that even large issue publics have trouble setting the agenda.  Lobbyists, politicians who are already in office, established media organizations and ruling elites set the agenda most of the time in many different kinds of regimes.

Howard, P.N. (2014), Participation, Civics and Your Next Coffee Maker. Policy & Internet, 6: 199-201.

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