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.
Monitorial forms of civic engagement are on the rise, sparked by high levels of mistrust in governments and politicians around the world and access to technology that makes recording, organizing, and sharing information easier. We need to ask what this means for how we conceive of citizenship, the design of our civic tools, and the future of civic learning. This presentation introduces a new definition for monitorial citizenship, surveys exemplar technologies and practices, and calls us to action to design new technology and pedagogy.
“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.” (Graeff 2018). Technologies that support monitorial citizenship have been used for a range of civic and political work from activism to participatory governance to disaster response. Educators and youth organizers play an important role in encouraging young people to develop monitorial skills, use these tools, and launch new projects.
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.