“Participatory culture handed the 2012 U.S. presidential election season a bumper crop of political memes. These “election memes,” largely in the form of image macros, took sound bites from the candidates’ debates and speeches and turned them into “digital content units” of political satire “circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users,” to paraphrase Limor Schifman’s definition of “internet meme” (2013, 177).
“Image macros like the lolcat, feature bold text on top of an image, often a “stock character,” and like all Internet memes are “multi-participant creative expressions through which cultural and political identities are communicated and negotiated” (Ibid.). This case study focuses on three popular image macro-based election memes that came out of the 2012 US presidential election cycle: “Fired Big Bird,” “Binders Full of Women,” and “You Didn’t Build That,” and argues that sharing such memes is a valid form of political participation in the style of what Tommie Shelby calls “impure dissent” (forthcoming).”
Many platforms for civic engagement, whether online or offline, are inconvenient and disconnected from the source of issues they are meant to address. They require that citizens leave the places they normally inhabit physically or virtually and commit to a separate space and set of processes. Town hall meetings are still a key point of engagement, occurring during specific times and in specific places. Online forums function similarly, in that deliberation occurs within profile-based websites for which you need to sign up and regularly return. This paper responds to the design challenge and research question: How do you address barriers to “minimum effective engagement” in community projects, and ensure that all citizens can have their voice heard on how to improve their local communities?
In order to raise levels of participation in community projects and expand the range of voices heard in governmental decision-making, there is a need for civic technology that is lightweight and compelling enough to enjoy continued use and to promote civic learning. In this paper, I develop a theoretical basis for effective citizenship through crowdsourcing monitorial activity by finding connections between several theories of citizenship and learning, which point to this activity fostering civic learning through reflective political practice.
Using a needs assessment of Boston-area municipalities, I reinforce my argument and concretize a set of design goals for a new socio-technical system to foster local civic learning and engagement around issues like urban planning. In the end, I respond to the research challenge and design goals by introducing a prototype for a location-based survey platform for Android smartphones called Action Path, and discuss early-stage user feedback and future work.
Many platforms for civic engagement, whether online or offline, require that citizens leave the places they normally inhabit physically or virtually and commit to a separate space and set of processes. Examples include town hall meetings, occurring during specific times and in specific places, and online forums, where deliberation occurs within profile-based websites for which you need to sign up and to regularly return. This thesis responds to the design challenge and research question: How do you address barriers to minimum effective engagement in community projects, and ensure that all citizens can contribute their input on how to improve their local communities? In order to raise levels of participation in community projects and expand the range of voices heard in governmental decision-making, there is a need for a civic engagement platform that is lightweight and compelling enough to enjoy continued use. To this end, I have developed a theoretical basis for effective citizenship through monitorial actions aided by mobile computing, finding connections between various theories of citizenship and learning to fill a gap in the literature and in terms of civic technology design. My argument and design goals for such a system are reinforced by findings from a needs assessment of Boston-area municipalities that confirmed a desire to use new technologies to elicit feedback on community issues from a more diverse demographic than those who currently attend public meetings. Based my analysis of the literature and the distilled design goals, I built and completed early-stage user testing of a prototype smartphone app-based civic engagement platform called Action Path, which uses location-awareness in the form of geo-fences along with push notifications to prompt users to respond to one-item surveys dotting their urban landscape. Interviews with users suggest Action Path might help people see their communities as filled with opportunities for civic intervention, and might increase their sense of efficacy. Additionally, workshops about geo-fence design and curricular design with potential stakeholders showed how Action Path might be effectively deployed through civic technologists and in schools.
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.
I’m working on a project called Action Path. Similar to Promise Tracker, which will be the featured case study in this session, Action Path is a smartphone app for civic engagement. Specifically, the app uses geo-fencing, a technique based on the awareness of the user’s GPS coordinates, to send notifications to users about opportunities to take quick actions in the form of polls or documentation of a local area for easy, yet contextually-relevant civic engagement. As indicated by my promo slide here, it’s meant to marry mobile computing with the concept of a “Jane Jacobs Walk,” whereby you only really understand a city’s needs and resources through walking its streets. I hope you all agree that this sounds great… at least in theory.
But what does this look like in practice? Well, right now it looks like three two-hour public meetings per week, where I sit and learn about the ongoing planning processes in Somerville—the city where I live and hope to do my research. I am building trust with folks in the planning department at the City of Somerville and the leaders and organizers in civil society organizations who work on issues like land use, affordable housing, and beautification in different neighborhoods around town.
There are lot of conflicting agendas among these different groups, all of whom I need buy-in from in order to, 1) make sure that I have enough people test my app, and 2) ensure the app is stocked with relevant actions that a) make my partners feel good about endorsing it among their members, and b) make the city and private developers happy because the feedback will be in a form that can inform their planning processes, WITHOUT becoming overly politicized. I want to have real impact, and tying the technology to real impact is important for my research
In the end, I have to write this up as a thesis. And that means I need a rigorous study of some kind showing that people’s understanding of their ability to make a difference in their city has changed.
I appreciate that this is an iterative and interactive process that demands flexibility, but it’s also hard from the perspectives of design, research, PLUS overall impact. And it’s actually the social processes around the technology that are harder to design than the mobile app itself.
Action Path is location-based survey platform for Android smartphones that crowdsources feedback from citizens in a way that fosters civic learning through reflective political practice. Existing platforms for civic engagement, whether online or offline, are inconvenient and disconnected from the source of issues they are meant to address. They require that citizens leave the places they normally inhabit physically or virtually and commit to a separate space and set of processes. Action Path is designed to answer the challenge: How do you address barriers to effective engagement in community projects, and ensure all citizens can have their voice heard on how to improve their local communities? It does so by converting individual actions into collective action and by providing context and a sense of efficacy, which may help citizens become more effective through regular practice and feedback.
Related Talks and Publications
- Graeff, E. 2014. ‘Crowdsourcing as Reflective Political Practice: Building a Location-based Tool for Civic Learning and Engagement.’ Presented at Internet, Politics, and Policy 2014: Crowdsourcing for Politics and Policy, Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford, UK, Sep 26.
- Graeff, E. 2014. ‘Action Path: a location-based tool for civic reflection and engagement.’ S.M. Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Graeff, E. 2014. ‘Action Path: A Location-Based Tool for Civic Reflection and Engagement.’ To be presented at Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, Mar 22.