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.
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.
High levels of mistrust in governments and politicians around the world, connected to anti-elitist sentiments among both liberal and conservative citizens, has signaled a need for effective strategies and technologies that support monitorial citizenship.
“Monitorial citizenship is a form of civic engagement in which people independently track issues or communities of interest in order to be prepared to take action when necessary. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, co-ordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and individuals and their perceived responsibilities” (Graeff forthcoming).
With the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election, in particular, we are seeing increased interest in monitorial practices from both citizens and technologists, who have responded by developing new digital tools.
But because many projects recreate the design features of existing tools, there is a significant and immediate need to know what does and does not work.
Prior technologies for monitorial citizenship have been documented under names like sousveillance (Mann 2002), social monitoring (Fung et al. 2013), and accountability technologies (Offenhuber & Schechtner 2013), and they have been deployed for a range of endeavours from activism to participatory governance to disaster response (Madianou, et al. 2016).
This paper is a qualitative meta-analysis of the existing literature and additional original case studies, organising monitorial citizenship tools into thematic groups by their theories of change and design features. Based on the success of prior work, Erhardt proposes a set of design principles for tools supporting civic activities such as accountability, critique and solidarity, and insurrectionism, alongside recommendations for deployment.
I was recently prompted to think about what should be included in a new civic participation index. My first inclination was to brainstorm all of the behaviors that are hard to measure or capture:
The cause and reasoning behind various forms of social media participation
Accurate self-assessments of people as “political” or “activists”
Perspectives of people who don’t want to take surveys about civics
Informal knowledge of and engagement with government (e.g., zoning disputes)
Downloads of civic apps versus active user base numbers (usually proprietary data important for startup valuation)
Political news consumption and participation across screens: TV, social media, news sites, offline
Political/ideological values and commitments that drive emotion-based voting versus rational, informed citizen self-images and self-assessments
Internal and external political efficacy around different issues or in different venues (local, state, national)
Trust in whole institutions or classes of institutions (legislatures) versus trust in individual politicians or officials
Nonpolitical and casual activities: traditional forms of monitorial citizenship (Graeff forthcoming) or “eyes on the street” (the kind of intangible close-knit community practices that Jane Jacobs celebrated)
Differences between youth and adults on the same indicators (often surveyed separately)
Baseline levels of political efficacy and participation levels for people with different backgrounds and in different contexts (we need more baseline research, super important!)
Triggers of political activity: word of mouth, news story, formal invitation to participate (social movement theory tell us this is important, but we need to make sure we capture it)
Tracking of a citizen’s development across discrete, seemingly isolated, actions
Conservative activism that uses similar tactics but is conceived of differently by the civic actor
How might we really track Bennett’s (2008) “actualizing citizen”?
Second, I started thinking that it would be nice to develop an empirical approach to finding and tracking Lance Bennett’s actualizing citizen, who is “rooted in self actualization through social expression” and channels personal interests through loosely tied networks with little distinction between production and consumption or between personal and political contexts (Bennett, Wells, and Freelon, 2009).
A dream study design would be able to capture all of the data listed below. But how we would manage to get data from companies and people’s personal devices, from a diverse enough cross-sample, and of course actually find an ethical and secure way to collect and store it all, I don’t know.
Values assessment: ask people about their stance on particular various issues, so we capture their self-assessed valences
Civic and political identity assessment: what kind of citizen (e.g., Westheimer and Kahne 2004) do they see themselves as when it comes to a particular issue or a particular venue?
Media diary across TV, social media, and websites: see if media consumption and engagement correlates with data of actual activities online or offline
Political efficacy survey items: probe across several specific issues and venues
Cohort study: tracks these data for groups of friends and family members to see the influence between them
Bennett, W. L. 2008. Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age. In W. L. Bennett (Ed.), Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bennett, W. L., Wells, C., & Freelon, D. G. (2009). Communication citizenship online: Models of Civic learning in the youth web sphere (A Report from the Civic Learning Online Project). Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, University of Washington.
Graeff, E. forthcoming. Monitorial Citizenship. International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy.
Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237–269.