Monitorial citizenship is a form of civic engagement in which people collect information about their surroundings or track issues of local or personal interest in order to improve their communities and pursue justice. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, coordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and elite individuals and their perceived responsibilities. The term originates in Michael Schudson’s 1998 book The Good Citizen. Schudson proposes monitorial citizenship as a successor to the “informed citizenship” paradigm to better account for our current age of information overload, arguing “the obligation of citizens to know enough to participate intelligently in governmental affairs be understood as a monitorial obligation” (p. 310). This original concept positioned monitorial citizens as “defensive rather than proactive” (p. 311). The idea of citizens paying attention to public affairs and serving a monitorial role pre‐dates Schudson and, of course, the Internet. What is different now is that technologies like the Internet and smartphones enable the average person to be more effective at monitoring topics of interest and powerful actors in society through the construction of distributed networks and ongoing campaigns that can leverage sophisticated narrative strategies with data to hold them to account. Some contemporary scholars believe monitorial citizenship may be one answer to revitalizing civics in an age of mistrust (Zuckerman, 2014), an effort media literacy can support.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election stoked concerns about the potential of digital technologies to disempower citizens and erode democracy. Such concerns followed years of promises from tech companies and investors about the democratizing power of the internet. Since their founding, Twitter and Facebook have touted themselves as tools for democracy and citizen empowerment. A closer look, however, reveals that tech company incentives are often poorly aligned with the social goals they espouse and the type of good they promise to do for the world.
A new crop of companies — self-titled “civic technology” companies — are now taking the democratic mission more seriously by designing their platforms and tools with the explicit intention of promoting civic engagement. Some of these companies are nonprofits or ventures with the dual mission of making a profit and providing social benefits. Others are traditional startups financed by venture capitalists. In both cases, these companies need better metrics to ensure that their products and business designs remain aligned with their social missions.
Unfortunately, Silicon Valley companies are often judged simply on their ability to attract exponentially rising numbers of users and maintain user engagement. This standard for “success” encourages companies to work with paying customers who advertise to users and exploit their attention and data — rather than serving users in empowering ways. In turn, such standard measures are what matter to business leaders and investors. Measures of success need to change in order to encourage more tech companies to pursue democratic goals. Industry leaders, governmental and citizen users, and investors — all must create new performance standards to redefine success and hold tech companies accountable. New measures for evaluating company performance should be tied to service to democracy and to citizen empowerment.
In a June 2017 post, Mark Zuckerberg introduced a change in Facebook’s mission from “make the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Facebook may not be able to give people power, but the goal of empowering people and building community is language familiar to civic engagement and participatory democracy, similar to the core idea of relational organizing—building interpersonal relationships that can be mobilized for collective action. In a February 2017 post, Zuckerberg first articulated this new thinking: “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Companies like Facebook often claim to serve the public good through their products; however, this particular language and the depth of explanation in Zuckerberg’s posts imply a recognition of ethical responsibility and at least an intention to design for true citizen empowerment.
I believe it is fair to insist that if the creators of a technology platform seek to make claims about empowering users, they must set explicit design goals for citizen empowerment and evaluate their platform against those goals. Facebook continues to face steep challenges to providing equal access to its platform. To aim for communities that can be effective and serving the public good is an even loftier goal. How Facebook will know whether it is actually making progress on its mission remains to be seen. However, technology companies have a reputation for religiously articulating goals and measuring them empirically. In fact, one of the architects of the data science team at Facebook claims that they invented the term “data scientist” to describe this important role (Hammerbacher 2009).
Democracy that values citizen-centered governance requires citizen empowerment (sometimes called “civic agency”), and empowered citizens need certain skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits that lead to effective civic engagement (Boyte 2009; Levinson 2012; Gibson and Levine 2003). Empowering experiences and learning opportunities can promote a virtuous cycle of reinforcing citizen empowerment and strengthening democracy. Spaces like town hall meetings, protest marches, the voting booth, and the civic education classroom traditionally represent where these experiences and opportunities take place. The emergence of networked digital media have created new, pervasive civic spaces—the networked public sphere. Whereas public spaces offline have seen a decline (Zick 2009), their online replacements, largely private spaces like Facebook, have grown to astounding size and influence with limited accountability to governments and the public.
Social media platforms like Facebook, government communication tools like We the People, and smaller civic technology platforms like SeeClickFix are increasingly the spaces through which citizens seek empowerment in the form of direct response from their government on key issues. As important actors in U.S. democracy (as well as other polities), the creators of these spaces have a responsibility to design for citizen empowerment and ensure they are advancing empowering processes and outcomes for citizens by evaluating whether their platforms are actually serving this mission. These creators of digital technology used for civic engagement should be understood as stewards of democracy with an ethical obligation to serve the public good.
Ph.D. Dissertation (revised)
Civic technology should empower us as citizens. Despite its breadth as a field, civic technology often takes its lead from Silicon Valley companies that espouse design goals potentially hazardous to participatory democracy. In this dissertation, I explore: How might we design civic technologies for citizen empowerment and evaluate their impact on this goal?
With their growing role as mediators of democracy, it is insufficient for civic technology designers to evaluate their designs in terms of ease of use and increased engagement with their platform. Research from political and developmental psychology shows the importance to lifelong civic engagement of learning experiences that cultivate a citizen’s perception they can make change (political efficacy) and their belief in having responsibilities to the public good (civic identity). To achieve these positive feedback loops, we need a richer framework for civic technology design.
This dissertation proposes two solutions: 1) empowerment-based design principles for civic technology and 2) a prototype toolkit for evaluating the impact of civic technology on political efficacy. Because empowerment is contextual, the proposals here focus on tools and platforms built to support “monitorial citizenship,” an increasingly popular form of civic engagement aimed at holding institutions accountable. To see these solutions in action, I report on a case study of SeeClickFix, a civic technology company that builds tools enabling citizens to report infrastructure problems to local governments. Two surveys of political efficacy and a randomized experiment with active users of SeeClickFix, followed by interviews with SeeClickFix staff, indicate the validity and utility of evaluating political efficacy as a measure of empowerment as well as the limitations of testing for incremental improvements.
The text of Section 1.3 Research Questions in the submitted dissertation was missing. The proper text for this section is included in the revised version of the dissertation on this site. Note: this errata has not been submitted to MIT’s archive for approval.
The last time you cast your ballot, did you get your #democracysausage? In his 2016 book Social Media and Everyday Politics, author Tim Highfield exhibits his #democracysausage Instagram photo from 2015 (p. 147). As he explains, the ritual of compulsory voting colliding with Australian culture and participatory media led to the emergence of the #democracysausage and #democracycake hashtags with detailed maps and dedicated accounts tracking the availability of such food at polling places across Australia. Alongside Highfield’s 2015 polling booth selfie in the introduction (p. 2), these personal examples illustrate the book’s central premise that social media-oriented practices of politics are also the practices of everyday life, performed and documented at the blurry intersection of the private and the public.
Social Media and Everyday Politics provides an extensive look at the state of political communication theory and Internet scholarship covering social media and politics. Highfield intends the book as “a lens for examining the ways that individuals engage with political and personal issues as part of everyday social media activity, and by extension what this means beyond the social media context” (p. 11). Not only does he touch on many of the key debates and findings over the past decade to shape this lens, but he also complicates our understanding of these practices with caveats that account for gender, race, and other social and cultural categories. As an introduction to the research and theory on the topic through 2015, this book is a welcome addition to the scholar’s shelf.
However, rating the book as a helpful contribution of new research rather than a textbook-like compendium is more complicated. As an emergent research area, the landscape of social media and politics is inherently understudied and undertheorized. Highfield’s approach to the topic emphasizes comprehensive coverage of existing theories rather than a novel, narrative argument. To summarize the findings we have at the intersection of private, public, and political lives played out on social media, Highfield borrows the concept of “everyday politics” from civic studies scholar Harry Boyte (2004). Highfield’s use of everyday politics provides a new frame to researchers conversant in this literature and binds together the ideas and research he cites. However, a deeper dive into the civic engagement literature would be necessary to explore Boyte’s vision of everyday politics more fully.