47th Symposium on International Relations
Social Media: Global Impact on Political Engagement, Youth & Privacy
Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut Education Fund, Inc.
Co-sponsored in cooperation with PIER and the Councils of African and Middle East Studies at The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Pat Sabosik, President, Elm City Consulting—advises companies on new digital strategies
Carolyn A. Lin,Professor, University of Connecticut Dept. of Communication (Impact on Political Engagement)
Erhardt Graeff, Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard (Impact on Youth)
Lauren Henry Scholz, Postdoctoral Associate in Law, Information Society Project, Yale Law School (Impact on Privacy)
Nancy Ruther, Visiting Fellow, the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies
Designing and Evaluating Technologies for Civic Learning
This general exam proposal is designed to prepare me for my larger PhD goal: to design future civic technologies optimized for the development of effective citizens using definitions and measurements of civic and political learning in a way that captures the complexity and needs of contemporary, digitally-mediated democracy.
Last January, I attended a Civics Research Workshop at Google in New York. The leaders of the field of civic technology in attendance, from industry representatives, practitioners, scholars, and funders, all agreed we severely lack ways of measuring impact or even defining it. And yet, there is a rush into this field attracting vast amounts of funding and media attention. With lots of technology being built, claiming to extend citizen voice and efficacy, this is the moment to be working on measures for evaluating and improving civic technology design.
First, there is a need to define this space more clearly by analyzing the design of civic technologies, in terms of their embodiment of certain goals, values, and definitions of democracy and civic participation; how they conceive of good or effective citizenship and of the development of users into those kinds of citizens; and the ways these platforms and their designers measure success. Second, focusing on the potential of technologies to empower citizens to grow into more effective civic actors, it’s important to understand the way Western civilizations have looked at the development of citizens in offline and now digitally-mediated contexts, and how we might assess new forms of civic learning. Thus, my general exam areas cover:
- Primary Area: Designing Technologies for Civic Engagement, surveying the range of platforms, technologies, and uses of those tools to promote civic activities.
- Contextual Area: History and Philosophy of Civic Education, surveying the most prominent political and educational philosophers and trends in civic education since the birth of modern democracy.
- Technical Area: Statistical and Psychometric Validation of Measures of Civic and Political Learning, covering recent approaches to valid assessments of learning in digital contexts.
- Ethan Zuckerman, PhD Advisor at MIT Media Lab
- Peter Levine, Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service
- Andrew Ho, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
“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.