In his book The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson talks about different eras in America that idealized different types of citizenship (1998). What it meant to be a good citizen at the dawn of American democracy differs substantially from whatever it means now. In particular, Schudson talks about how the ideal of the “informed citizen” dominated the discourse of the 20th century and was deeply intertwined with the role journalism played in society.
However, we are at a point where journalism’s role is fraught in society and where the range of information necessary to be a fully realized participant in democracy, according to these ideals, is impossible. There is too much to know and too much to have an opinion on. Schudson argues that we need a new framework, a new kind of citizenship for contemporary times.
One model he proposes is the “monitorial citizen.” “Monitorial citizens scan (rather than read),” in Schudson’s words (1998, 310). And they integrate their civic duties into their daily lives: watching their kids, keeping abreast of important consumer recalls, noting how weather affects the cost of groceries or their ability to check in on family members’ safety. In aggregate these might give us the omniscience necessary to fully participate in Walter Lippmann’s opinion, that is according to Lippmann’s books The Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925). So rather than rely on individual specialist and experts, we might crowdsource expertise among monitorial citizens—to use contemporary jargon.
This can be a year-long, rather than a season-long practice of citizenship, argues Schudson. We can’t and don’t need to expect the kind of participation that only emerges during the fall of a Presidential Election year.
Where I think we can go one step farther than Schudson is by saying that monitorial citizens are gathering useful information rather than simply watching. Mobile phones and social media give us a trail of data that might be convertible into civic utility.