Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Beyond “The Crisis in Civics” – Notes from my 2013 DML talk

Two weeks ago, I gave the opening keynote at the Digital Media and Learning conference in Chicago. The conference, which explores how digital media is and could be changing education and learning, focused on the theme of “Democratic Futures: Mobilizing Voices and Remixing Youth Participation“. In the spirit of the theme, my talk examined how digital media is changing how we participate in the civic life of our communities and the world as a whole, and how we might teach a new, digital civics.

This is an issue I’ve been thinking through since coming to the Center for Civic Media at MIT. My friends at the Knight Foundation and the founders of the Center – Henry Jenkins, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Mitch Resnick – believed that our capacity to participate in governance and work for change is expanded and shifted through tools and techniques newly at our disposal. While there’s good reasons to believe this is true – digital tools make it easier to share your views with large groups of people, to find like-minded people to work with on change, and to raise attention and money – there are also reasons for skepticism that new paths to participation will have the power and impact of older, more established forms of civic participation. I don’t have the answer to the question of whether digital civics is all that different from older models, or whether it’s more effective, but I’ve been trying to introduce language that makes it easier to have these debates.

What follows below isn’t a straight crib of my talk – Erhardt Graeff and Matt Stempeck did a good job of transcribing the talk in this blog post (and if you have the time or inclination, the video of the presentation is here.) Instead, it’s a combination of “what I meant to say” and how I’m thinking through these issues after several helpful conversations about people’s reactions to the talk.


(The first six paragraphs below appear in an earlier blog post. Full slides for the talk are here.)

In late January of 2012, Austin Oberbillig and Evan Ricks, students at Olympia High School in Olympia, Washington made a video called “Lunch Scholars“. The video was meant to be a high school version of “Jaywalking“, a sketch Jay Leno has done for twenty years, where he asks people on the street near his Hollywood studio simple questions – Who was the first US President? – and compiles the funniest answers into video segments for his show. Austin and Evan did the same thing, shooting four hours of footage and editing into just under five minutes, featuring the funniest responses.

And then something interesting happened. The video, posted on Vimeo, later reposted on YouTube, began garnering hundreds of comments, mostly negative. A columnist for the Huffington Post used the video to frame her argument that American students were poorly prepared to compete in a global economy. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck devoted a segment of his radio show bemoaning the state of civic knowledge in American schools and suggesting a government conspiracy to ensure ignorance about civics within the American public education system.

As the video received national attention, the creators came under pressure from school administrators who were concerned about their school’s reputation for academic excellence. Olympia High School is one of the highest ranked high schools in Washington state in terms of SAT scores, AP classes and is defending champion in the state’s “knowledge bowl”. The school’s high prestige made some commentators on the video even angrier – “If students in one of the top 5% performing high schools in Washington State are unable to name the US Vice President, give the number of U.S. states, or correctly identify the American war of independence, what are the educational standards like in the other 95% of Washington schools?” The students who made the video say they came under pressure from the school administration to remove it from the web, and that students met with the ACLU to discuss their rights to publish this video online, though elected not to pursue action against the administration.

I found the Lunch Scholars video when searching for answer to a deceptively complex question: Are American schools doing a good job of teaching civics? The group that believes there is a crisis in civics education is far broader than Glenn Beck devotees. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cites recent national exam results as evidence that we have “a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education”, a crisis she hopes to address through a set of free, online games about civics. Others sounding a civics crisis alarm note a decline in the number of elementary and high school courses on civics, the fact that civics is rarely part of the state-based assessment testing, and that those students who are tested generally perform poorly on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests on civics, the test O’Connor cited as evidence of our crisis.

So it’s somewhat surprising to discover that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, students haven’t meaningfully shifted in civic knowledge between 1998 and 2010. (Fourth graders have shown a marked increase in civic knowledge, while eighth and twelfth grades show no major change.) It’s likely that what young Americans know about civic life hasn’t shifted meaningfully for the past half century – for their book What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters, Professor Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter examined decades of data about Americans knowledge of politics and discovered that overall knowledge has changed very little from WWII to the present. What has changed is how that knowledge is distributed in society – high school graduates in the 1990s were at approximately the same level of knowledge as high school dropouts of the late 1940s, and college graduates at the same level as high school graduates five decades earlier. But because so many more Americans go to college than half a century ago, the average level of civic knowledge is as high (or low). If civics is in crisis, it’s a long crisis, not a sudden development.

There’s a case to be made that youth civic engagement has risen sharply since the mid-1990s, when Delli Carpini and Keeter published their research. Youth voter turnout was above 50% in 2008, up from under 40% in 1996, though young people vote at much lower rates than older people – 51% of people under 30 voted in 2008, as compared to 67% of people over 30. Political engagement amongst college freshmen, as measured by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, reached a 40 year peak in 2008, with 89.5% reporting they had engaged in political discussions.

Rather than concluding that civics is in crisis, it’s worth considering that the practice of civics may be changing shape. We may be used to teaching that is inaccessible and unpersuasive to students at best, and disempowering and conformist at worst. We need to understand the new shapes civics is taking so we can teach people to engage in ways that allow them to effectively assert agency, to bring about the changes, large and small, they want to see in the world.

Like many Americans born in the 1970s, my civics education included Schoolhouse Rock, which featured 10 America Rock segments in its initial run, including the memorable “I’m Just a Bill“, a three minute explanation of the complex process by which Congressional bills become laws. Much of what I learned about civics in elementary and high school echoed the general tone of Schoolhouse Rock, a simplified version of a system that would admit my limited participation once I became an adult: I could share my concerns with my representative (who I would help elect) and she might author a bill which could become a law.

Passing laws in Congress is an important part of the American system of government, but it’s a lousy way to introduce young people to civic engagement. For one thing, Congress doesn’t pass a whole lot of laws these days – the 112th Congress, described as the least productive in a half century, passed 61 bills of 3914 proposed. (Shep Melnick has the best counterargument I’ve read to the idea that the 112th Congress was badly broken, but I remain unpersuaded.) While excellent books like Bob Graham’s America: The Owner’s Manual include stories of young people who’ve had major impacts on legislative processes, for many people, civic engagement is going to unfold far outside the legislative realm.

We tend to teach a version of civics that would have been familiar to 19th century Americans. Aspects of that 19th century model still apply, but we rarely teach the 20th century model of campaigning that governs our electoral processes, or the 21st century forms of participation that may transform governance and engagement. The mismatch between a 19th century understanding and a 21st century reality may help explain widespread distrust and dissatisfaction with government (I’m grateful to Oscar Salazar of CitiVox for the idea of mismatching expectations in American government over the centuries.)

Representative democracy rests on the idea that a small number of representatives can meet, face to face, and deliberate their way towards solutions, representing the perspectives of their constituents but being open to persuasion through argument and compromise. At the outset of the American experiment, the nation’s founders argued at length about the size of congressional districts, wanting a balance between a number of representatives who could meaningfully debate with one another, and districts small enough to allow representatives to “possess a proper knowledge of the local circumstances of their numerous constituents”, in the words of James Madison in Federalist #55. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, a long-time advocate for expanding the size of Congress, points out that George Washington’s sole intervention during the constitutional convention was to argue for districts that included 30,000 citizens, not the more massive 40,000 proposed.


Image from Wikimedia Commons

Congress hasn’t expanded the total number of districts since 1913, except to add seats for Alaska and Hawaii, and the average representative now speaks for 709,000 people. While it was possible – perhaps even likely – that voters had a personal relationship with their representatives, it’s much less likely now. This, in turn, challenges the logic of representative democracy, raising questions of whether representatives know the opinions of those they represent, and whether those represented trust their representatives.

The shift towards larger districts has been accompanied by a shift towards broadcast democracy, where representatives campaign via newspapers, radio and television, and where broadcast media in turn provides information to representatives about the preferences of their constituents. These broadcast channels amplify a limited number of voices to very large audiences, and with the rise of nationwide cable news networks, they likely have contributed to a shift in which politicians address voters nationally, not just the voters in their communities. Representatives who are out of step with the broader mood of their party are likely to receive criticism from around the nation, and will suffer financially when they run for local office, as party money and money from outside donors is likely to be withheld.

In the process, moderates have completely disappeared from the Senate, according to the National Journal, which ranks politicians on ideology based on their voting record, and finds that no Republicans are more liberal than any Democrats, or any Democrats more conservative than Republicans. That’s a stark change from a few decades back, when New England Republicans were often more liberal than Southern Democrats. Those liberal republicans were able to get elected in a state like Massachusetts, because many voters found a mix of fiscal pragmatism and compassionate social policy to be an appealing mix. But that mix doesn’t work when audiences are national – Mitt Romney, who was elected governor as a progressive republican was forced to declare himself “severely conservative” when running for the presidency.

The 20th century has seen both the de-regionalization and homogenization of politics and the rise of political specialists who understand how to work the mechanisms of broadcast democracy. Lobbyists have grown powerful offering the vast sums of money necessary to finance television campaigns. Pollsters and media consultants manage the process of determining voter perspectives and communicating messages locally and nationally. While the recent trend in campaigning is towards hyper-targeting, as explored in Sasha Isenberg’s “The Victory Lab“, the technical innovations in identifying and mobilizing the few conservative voters in liberal Cincinnati in the hopes of winning office in Ohio are hardly victories for increased agency – broadcast democracy often treats voters as a mass entity, and targeting treats them as smaller masses, not as independent actors in an ongoing conversation with their representatives to build and shape policy.

With the rise of social media in the 21st century, media has become more personal and less homogenous, leading to concerns that individuals are occupying filter bubbles or echo chambers that make it harder for people to empathize and find common ground with those who hold different opinions. Social media has helped people find micropublics, circles of friends who share an interest or a common history and tend to be highly responsive to each other’s posts, updates and online sharings. People are becoming used to creating “content” of all sorts, and receiving feedback on this content, whether a post about their personal life or their political beliefs.

The US government is slowly adapting to this new reality. We the People is an odd mashup of pre-digital political technology – the petition – with the micropublic, where 100,000 people can join together and demand a response on an issue they are passionate about. In this model there’s the possibility of creating a community that debates and develops a response to an issue, but that capacity is more latent than realized, as Catherine d’Ignazio reports in her blogpost on a White House civic hackathon.

In the meantime, other groups working for social change are acutely aware of the dynamics of social media. Invisible Children’s KONY2012 campaign was flawed in many ways, but it showed a deep understanding of how to use social media to mobilize a massive wave of attention, collecting 100 million views of a 30 minute long film in 6 days. Millions of teenagers used social media to voice their awareness of the issue and to pressure friends, parents and teachers into watching the video and bringing the issue onto their agenda. While criticism of the campaign has noted that Joseph Kony is still at large, Michael Poffenberger of The Resolve made the argument at a conference at MIT in June 2012 that the campaign was wildly successful, inasmuch as President Obama has committed to keeping military advisors in Uganda, and in that military and diplomatic officials in Washington DC are acutely aware that there’s a constituency demanding Kony’s capture and prosecution.

If this analysis is right, and we have 21st century voters responding to 20th century campaigns to elect representatives to a 19th century system of governance, it’s not hard to understand widespread dissatisfaction with US government institutions, or why many attempts at social change focus on working outside, not within, these institutions. A common thread between four popular and visible recent political movements – the Tea Party, Occupy, Anonymous and Wikileaks – is acute frustration with the workings of the government and a desire to seek change outside of sanctioned mechanisms. The Tea Party sees government’s ambition as a form of hubris and elects people likely to slow and stall government. Occupy famously resisted calls to issue a set of concrete demands, arguing that their practical experiments in collective decision-making offered an alternative to a government system many saw as irretrievably broken. Wikileaks sees transparency as a way of weeding out corruption in government, which it sees as endemic, and may see government’s overreactions to secrecy as a way to topple corrupt institutions – see Aaron Bady’s analysis of a Julian Assange manuscript that outlines this reading. Anonymous focuses much of their attention on institutions outside of governments – the companies responsible for the “financial blockade” on Wikileaks, the Church of Scientology – and uses tools that manipulate media, not traditional government power.

(I am radically oversimplifying all these movements, and my one line descriptions may not match your understanding of the movements’ motivations, tactics or values. In my defense, three of the four are explicitly decentralized movements which can be very hard to pin down. And this is one slide in a 60 slide talk…)

I’d like to find language that helps us explore movements like Occupy and Anonymous, as well as less well known, but fascinating groups like The Harry Potter Alliance, a group that uses youth culture to organize campaigns against rightable wrongs in the world, or the DREAM activists, who are pushing for immigration reform using personal narratives and “coming out” stories about identifying as undocumented and unafraid. Towards that end, I’ve started thinking of civic engagement in terms of a two-dimensional matrix.

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The two axes of this matrix move from “thin” to “thick”, and from “symbolic” to “impactful”. This second axis, in particular, is badly named. As I was giving the talk, it became clear that I’d biased my language towards engagement that was in the bottom right quadrant – thick and impactful – and that I was giving the other ends of the axes short shrift. “Voice” would be a better term than “symbolic”, using the term as Albert Hirschman does in “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“, and my colleague Ed Schiappa has suggested “expressive – instrumental” as fairer and more helpful set of labels. I’ve not decided what terms I prefer yet, so I’ll use the slides as written, with the disclaimer that I know these terms aren’t the right ones.

By “thin” engagement, I mean actions that require little thought on your part: sign a petition, give a contribution. In a campaign that uses thin engagement, the campaign’s organizers know what they want you to do and simply need you to show up and do it. In thick engagement, the campaigners ask you for your creativity, your strategic sensibilities, your ability to make media, research, deliberate or find solutions – the campaigners know they want to do something, but ask you what you think they should do.

Engagement that’s symbolic, or based around voice, is intended primarily to show your support for, opposition to or identity with a cause – there’s little expectation that your voice will lead directly to change, but there’s reason to believe it can change the climate in which that change could occur. By identifying as undocumented and unafraid, DREAMers are trying to make it easier for other undocumented youth to take political action and not be held back by fear of arrest. Through public visibility, not just at marches and demonstrations, but in communities and workplaces, gay and lesbian people have contributed to Americans’ increasing support for equal rights.

On the other side of the spectrum, engagement that is instrumental or focused on a specific impact and outcome seeks change through passing laws, through influencing authorities to change their minds, by building new institutions and infrastructures, or through other paths to a tangible, specific outcome. On this side of the spectrum, engagement tends to lead towards measurable outcomes: bills passed, meals served at a homeless shelter, corporate policy changed by a boycott.

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The upper left corner of the matrix, engagement that is thin and symbolic, is a quarter that’s widely criticized. Evgeny Morozov’s critique of slacktivism as activism that has no impact other than to make participants feel like they did something is an applicable critique to some of what unfolds in this space. This is a form of activism easy to ridicule offline as well as online – Xeni Jardin, a breast cancer survivor, has mounted a #pinknausea campaign to counter the “activism through consumption” that characterizes breast cancer awareness month. That said, it’s possible for engagement that is thin and symbolic to have effects: the Million Hoodie March for Trayvon was chiefly a symbolic and attention-gathering act, but likely had significant impact on bringing Trayvon Martin’s killer to justice. (As you’ll see, the dichotomies proposed on these axes are always complicated and less than absolute.)

(NB: Evgeny’s first book, “The Net Delusion”, is more about slacktivism than his new book, pictured above, but why not plug the new book? And the cover illustrates this form of engagement well.)

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We need some types of engagement to be thin. You shouldn’t need to be creative and committed to cast a vote – a voting system that requires thick engagement is likely one that’s limiting and discriminatory. And while there are smart, passionate cases for not voting, like the one Quinn Norton offered in 2012, voting is often impactful, both in terms of electing representatives and in terms of documenting shifts in demographics and attitudes. It’s hard to imagine the Republican party shifting stances on immigration without evidence of Latino voters turning out in large numbers in the 2012 election.

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One possible reading of the Occupy movement is as engagement that was thick, but mostly symbolic. It’s hard to deny that Occupiers were creative, dedicated, and participated in inventive and original forms of protest and organizing. Criticisms focused on whether occupying did anything, or whether a movement that opted out of engaging with conventional politics could have impact beyond raising awareness and voicing dissent.

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Supporters of Occupy have pointed to campaigns where the movement was engaged in ways that were thick and impactful, like Occupy Sandy, where members of the movement raised funds and provided key supplies and services to victims of the hurricane. It’s easy to see who these efforts have benefitted, and that the creative solutions designed by Occupiers make clear that they were not following a pre-determined script of thin engagement.

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Many of the examples I can find for engagement that’s thick and impactful are deeply embedded in communities, and often includes examples of building new institutions or infrastructures to meet community needs. It’s often difficult to scale this form of engagement beyond these communities – it’s not clear that Occupy Sandy could be replicated to address similar crises across the world.

I’m interested in participating in civic engagement that is thick, impactful and at scale. As someone who’s worked in the social change space for the past fifteen years (Geekcorps, Global Voices, Ushahidi, Open Society Foundation, etc.), I’m sensitive to the idea that a great deal of activism has little measurable impact on the world. While I think many of the hopes early internet adopters had for the internet as a space for engagement that was radically participatory were overblown, I think the ability to author, remix and share content with potentially global audiences is important and argues for the internet as a space that enables thick engagement. The ability to rapidly form groups and to reach audiences beyond the local suggests that it’s easier to work at scale with the advent of the consumer internet.

All that said, it’s clear that my biases are impacting my ability to think about this space in a way that’s clear and comprehensive. Friends danah boyd and Cathy Cohen have both suggested that I’m underestimating the importance and impact of voice, and as you’ll see further on, I’m still wrestling with how symbolic/voice activism can be a form of measurable change.

My reason for starting to think about this matrix was a study I’m carrying out with support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics initiative. My students, my colleagues and I are working with digital activists from around the world to document their projects and understand what strategies and techniques are working in what countries. Our work began with a deep dive into Mary Joyce and Phil Howard’s Global Digital Activism Data Set – we expected to find a lot of initiatives of the basic form: “I was upset about this issue so I created a Facebook group”, activism that was thin and mostly symbolic.

We ended up finding a much wider range of strategies in use. Kirtii.org is building tools that allow autorickshaw riders in Bangalore to report when they are ripped off by rigged meters and corrupt drivers, and is working with the city’s authorities to ensure reports lead to change. Rynda.org is a Russian project born out of volunteer responses to Russia 2010 wildfires – Muscovites use Rynda.org to provide peer support to one another during moments of need, picking up someone nearby whose car has broken down, or providing shelter to someone locked out of their apartment. The 5000 kyat SIM card campaign in Myanmar is closest to a “found a Facebook group” form of activism, but it’s notable in that it’s a widespread campaign in a country long known for a closed political climate.’

Talking with these activists, we made an interesting discovery: our friends drew a sharp distinction between the work that we were doing and “being political”. We asked our friends when they’d “become political”, and most insisted that their work wasn’t political, explaining their goal wasn’t to elect individuals or influence legislation. They saw themselves as engaged in change, as activists, but not as involved in politics.

To try to find a way to talk about activism and politics using the same language, my students and I have started thinking about civic engagement in terms of levers of change. Most successful campaigns try to manipulate multiple levers of change simultaneously, but successful campaigns tend to be acutely aware of what levers they are moving.

Campaigners for equality for gays and lesbians are trying to move a legislative lever when they propose legislation for marriage equality at the state or federal level. There’s a tendency in social change organizations to see legislative change as the gold standard for progress, and there’s a good reason for this: win marriage equality at the federal level, and the entire apparatus of government supports that decision, ensuring compliance with the law through the executive and judicial branches. But, as noted previously, legislative levers can be very hard for individuals and for new groups to move, and focusing solely on the legislative lever misses other promising opportunities for change.

Authority is often a more accessible lever for activists to move. When Chick-fil-A’s president Dan Cathy revealed that he gives millions of dollars to support groups that work against gay rights, pro-equality supporters organized a boycott of the chain. The boycott generated an enormous amount of attention, including a counter-boycott in which former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee encouraged conservative Christians to buy a sandwich to support the chain. Ultimately, the boycott succeeded in persuading Cathy to stop donating to anti-gay groups, according to a recent audit of the 990 forms of anti-gay organizations. Authority-based strategies are popular in countries where the legislative process is broken or captured (the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt were focused on moving the authority lever, perhaps in a way that was shortsighted, as ousting one authority may lead to one that’s as compromised), or when governments have little control over an entity (lightly regulated businesses in the US). It’s capable of impressive change at times – a quiet campaign by city of Cambridge, MA employees to call attention to the federal tax implications of marriages unrecognized by the federal government led city officials to equalize the cost of health benefits for gay and lesbian employees and their partners.

Many online campaigns focus on public opinion as a lever of change. Around an issue like equality for gay and lesbian people, public opinion is a profoundly important lever – ultimately, we don’t just want gays and lesbians to be able to marry, but we want equal treatment for gay and straight people. Legislation doesn’t necessarily change minds, and true equality for gays and lesbians in the US may have as much to do with Ellen DeGeneres and TV shows like Will and Grace as with passing laws. What’s challenging about this lever is that it takes a very, very long time to change public opinion, and our tools for measuring this sort of change are inexact at best.

(It’s not clear to me whether symbolic/expressive/voice based engagement should be viewed as attempting to manipulate the lever of public opinion… in which case, my symbolic/impact or expressive/instrumental axis is really and truly broken. I’ve been working on this problem with Danielle Allen for some months now, and I can show cases where raising one’s voice is a way to try to sway public opinion, and ones where it’s a personal act of affiliation and identity.)

Sometimes it’s too long to wait for laws to be passed, for authorities to change their minds, or for public will to swing in your favor. While we wait for equality for gays and lesbians, organizations like PFLAG and The Trevor Project are building support services for GLBTQ teens, hoping to prevent bullying of gay youth and address the problem of high suicide rates amongst gay youth. I’ve started thinking of this lever in which communities build the infrastructures they need as DIY, and it’s a powerful lever for change, even if it is very hard to bring to scale.

Thinking of change in terms of levers makes it easier to analyze the different techniques of engagement used by social and political movements. A petition, either online or offline, is primarily designed to persuade an authority to make a change – petitioning to change public opinion is a pretty indirect and ineffective approach. DDoS – overwhelming a computer server with traffic to cause it to crash, a technique popularized by the group Anonymous – is in part an attempt to influence an authority. But while Anonymous’s attacks on PayPal or Bank of America may have caught the attention of those company’s CEOs (at least their CIOs), it was primarily a way of influencing public opinion, as media outlets flocked to cover the “hacker” attacks an explain the ideology behind them.

A great deal of attention gets paid to activism that uses techniques like marches or sit-ins to move an authority lever. This form of activism is often celebrated as more “authentic” than other forms, both due to the historical ties to American’s civil rights movement, and to Gandhi’s protests against the British colonial government in India, and because such protests put participants at risk of harm or arrest. But this is rarely the space in which young, net-centric activists are working. They use media techniques to try and shape public opinion. This makes sense, in that media tools are the ones they are most familiar with, and because it allows them to build campaigns that are testable and trackable, allowing them to see their content spread. But it’s difficult to track the impact of these campaigns as public opinion tends to change slowly, and is hard to measure.

If our goal is to help students of digital civics make their engagements more thick and impactful (and I concede, again, that there are good arguments in defense of engagement that’s primarily about voice), we need to teach civics in terms of levers of power. We need to understand who we are trying to persuade and why we believe they are able to enact the change we seek. Once we understand what levers we’re trying to move and who we seek to persuade, we can track our successes and learn from our failures.

But moving towards engagement that’s thick and participatory requires that we think about the needs and motivations of our actors, not just those they are trying to influence. Mimi Ito and collaborators offer a helpful direction with Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out, a set of ideas that so neatly explain interest-driven, participatory learning that they are often shorthanded as “HOMAGO” in the digital media and learning community. Young people find out about opportunities for civic engagement through hanging out with friends and figuring out what peers are passionate about. They mess around, sometimes creating and sharing media, as they explore a subject, and sometimes take a deep dive, geeking out and learning about a topic in intense detail.

The phenomenon of geeking out offers a possible solution to one of the thorniest problems of thin civic participation: the ladder of engagement. Political campaigners and activists are taught to help new recruits to a movement to climb this ladder from simple to more complex forms of engagement. A voter who’s willing to buy a bumper sticker might be willing to put up a lawn sign. The voter who puts up a lawn sign might staff a phone bank and then campaign door to door. Not everyone will climb the ladder, but those who do become leaders within a movement, setting the strategy for the next set brought into the pipeline.

Ladders of engagement work well for many forms of thin civic engagement – if you know you need 100 volunteers for a phonebank, recruiting 500 to put up lawn signs is a good way to identify potential participants. But the Kony2012 experience shows where the approach can do wrong. People watched the video, shared the video, bought the bracelets and postering kits and prepared to organize teams to put up posters in their communities. But Invisible Children didn’t do a very good job of helping their recruits deepen their knowledge of northern Uganda or the organization’s strategy for change, so when questions were raised about whether Joseph Kony was in Uganda, or whether an organization primarily focused on making promotional films was the appropriate way to seek justice in Uganda, recruits to the movement had little knowledge to fall back on.

In helping people move from thin to thick civic engagement, we need to help people deepen their knowledge and understanding while climbing a ladder of engagement. A different Kony2012 campaign might have worked to ensure those who’d joined the movement learned about the history of the LRA and explored the different campaigns that have worked in post-conflict northern Uganda. Rather than reacting with anger or panic when grounds criticized Invisible Children’s analysis or strategy, new activists who’d worked on deepening their understanding might have incorporated the criticism into a more nuanced, complicated understanding of the Ugandan conflict and its aftermath. Some of the people who watched the Kony2012 video might have climbed a very different ladder of engagement, learning about Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, learning about US and Ugandan organizations working on conflict recovery, questioning efficacy of different approaches and working with Ugandan organizations as well as with IC, possibly becoming movement leaders either with IC or in partnership with Ugandan groups.

Moving from thin to thick engagement involves teaching digital literacies, helping people understand how to make sense of opinionated media designed to promote specific agendas, and how to triangulate between these different perspectives. That’s the sort of reading Dan Gillmor argues we all need to get better at in his book Mediactive, but it’s especially critical for people who want to move beyond taking the steps prescribed by a movement leader or political strategist and towards proposing novel solutions to problems.

If moving from symbolic to impactful requires understanding levers of change, and moving from thick to thin involves deepening knowledge, moving from small to large scale may involve thinking through issues of control. If Occupy Sandy is an exemplar of crisis response at a local scale, and the Red Cross at an international scale, it’s worth considering how the two organizations manage themselves. To work at scale, the Red Cross works hard to make opening a chapter a fairly thin and routine process. This requires careful control, which can manifest in amusing ways. Looking for an American Red Cross logo to illustrate this talk, I found myself on ARC’s Brand Standards page, filling out a complex form to get a downloadable logo. I cheated, and grabbed one from their website instead.

By centralizing and formalizing processes, the American Red Cross is likely sacrificing some of the creativity that thick engagement offers, and may be turning off people who are rooted in remix and media creation culture. For a contrast, consider Planned Parenthood’s reaction to threats of defunding by the Susan G. Komen foundation. Planned Parenthood invited supporters to campaign online on their behalf, and Deanna Zandt responded by starting a Tumblr called “Planned Parenthood Saved Me”. The tumblr collected thousands of stories of people for whom Planned Parenthood provided key support, both around issues of family planning and around other health problems. The stories on Tumblr led to media coverage and to broader support for Planned Parenthood, which increased pressure on Susan G. Komen’s leadership to reverse their defunding decision. Planned Parenthood relinquished some control over what supporters did on their behalf, and was rewarded with engagement that was thick, impactful and at scale.

Understanding civic engagement in terms of the framework I’m proposing is going to be a long process, starting with a debate over whether this is an appropriate frame. Colleagues at MacArthur’s Youth and Participatory Politics project are engaged in descriptive work, understanding what forms of digital civic engagement are being used by groups like DREAM Activists, Invisible Children, Rynda.org and others. The work I’m doing with Yochai Benkler at MIT and Harvard around Media Cloud is evaluative work, trying to understand how online campaigns against SOPA/PIPA succeeded in influencing bill sponsors to change their positions and withdraw legislation. As Media Cloud and related projects grow, we’re getting better at understanding what campaigns do and don’t move attention online and lead to media coverage offline, but there is vast work to do in understanding how to best evaluate civic engagement that doesn’t use moving media as a primary technique.

Ultimately, we’d like to be able to offer normative suggestions on what forms of digital civics are most engaging and participatory. If I were a properly cautious scholar, I would resist the temptation to offer those suggestions at this early stage. Fortunately, I’m more activist than scholar, and that temptation is irresistible, as I’d like to see people working on the causes I care about be as successful as possible.

If we want civic participation that is thick, impactful and scaleable:

- We need to get beyond distinctions between politics and activism and think about agency – our goal is to help people bring about the change they want to see in the world.

- We can’t just develop new digital tactics – we need to think about levers of change and understand who we’re hoping to impact and why we believe they can help us make change.

- We need to help people climb ladders of engagement while broadening their understanding of issues, so they can build their own ladders for others to climb.

- We need to understand that thick participation at scale means devolving control away from the center and trusting that the people we are inviting into our movements will shape them going forwards.


Thanks for reading a very long post. I’ve gotten very helpful reactions and pushback to this talk in person and via digital means – hope you’ll continue that trend in the comments, in linked posts or by contacting me directly.

7 Responses to “Beyond “The Crisis in Civics” – Notes from my 2013 DML talk”

  1. Matt says:

    Great writeup of a great talk, Ethan. It’s nice to have a written document to refer to that summarizes so much of your thinking in one place.

    Regarding your (and slacktivism critics’) question of whether voice and symbolic actions can actually produce change, I think the “change your avatar” action is actually a good example. Everyone looking for an easy example of ineffective digital action has talked a lot about how making one’s Twitter avatar green didn’t really help the Iranian revolution. And today, we have everyone changing their Facebook photo to support equality, even though we’re pretty sure the Supreme Court was not looking at Facebook in their considerations.

    But many of these ‘voice’ efforts are directed not at those with the power to change things directly, but at those who know us. It’s a very indirect lever, but no one taking these actions is expecting a direct result. Yet this action, taken by many, can matter. We know that support for gay marriage is linked with how likely it is we know someone who is openly gay. And we know that people care deeply about societal norms. Ever-increasing support for gay equality, generated at the interpersonal level, is only strengthened by this often-attacked tactic on social networks. People may be smarter than slackademic critiques allow.

  2. Ethan says:

    Matt, the idea of voicing your preferences to friends and family is an interesting one. One theory is raising awareness, ala the Iranian avatar. Another theory is showing affiliation, as is going on with the marriage equality debate. I think both are potentially important and influential, but I also think they’re very hard to measure in terms of impact, which means I need a better way of understanding and accounting for the importance of voice in this model. But yes, I agree that voice has real impact on issues where changing public opinion is part of the theory of change, like marriage equality.

  3. Great post, Ethan. Someone’s got to take the big picture view here.

    Re the troubling issue of whether your “symbolic/impactful” axis is broken: when I imagine the ideal state of participatory politics, I find I want it to have two related-but-different qualities:

    1. citizens can get involved and cause real change
    2. citizens *feel* like they can get involved and cause real change

    To my mind, both are necessary. #1 is the most basic test of efficacy, and perhaps it is just a restatement of the ideal of democracy. #2 not only provides legitimacy for the prevailing institutions, but is an essential psychological prerequisite to personal agency.

    These two interrelated goals may require somewhat bifurcated tactics.

  4. Something else: what happens when we empower all of these different groups and discover, inevitably, that they have different ideas of What Must Be Done?

    This is something almost never discussed in activism/civics/participatory democracy circles. There’s almost a tacit assumption that The Right Thing is clear. Very often, it is not. Very often, it is deeply contested.

    If we don’t consider this issue, empowerment becomes merely an arms race.

    The best framework I have for understanding this issue comes from conflict transformation, which sees conflict as a normal part of the process of societal change. But though conflict is inevitable, conflict transformation also posits that it can be managed well or poorly.

    What constitutes good conflict management in these spaces? When is it appropriate to adopt a pose of righteousness, and when is listening, understanding, and compromise better? What are the best tools (in every sense of the word) for dealing with those who disagree with you?

    This question has become the focus of my research; it seems both critical and mostly ignored. See, for example, my work visualizing the gun debate.

  5. Kate says:

    Thank you — you’ve asked and identified vital questions. I think of my job, as a journalist, as building community.

    In witing about the arts community, I am, or I hope to be, contributing to it: supporting the museums and theaters and artists, encouraging people to come out and support these places and people, encouraging people in the community to meet each other. People care about communities, and they can do a better job, I think, the more they can feel and see that a community is, and what it is.

    On the teaching of civics, I think of efforts like the local elementary school teacher who gave each of her students $5 and challenged them to use it to help, in some way. They each chose different causes and actions, they raised funds, they gave presentations, and according to their responses, they felt involved.

    Could we teach civics by getting students involved with the politicians they can meet — selectmen, state officials, the governor who lives in our county? I had never seen a town government in action until, in my first job out of college, I was assigned to cover a local select board — and it taught me volumes. I’m not suggesting that a nine-year-old should sit through a two-hour town meeting, but a nine-year-old who cares, for example, about the town debate over fixing the soccer fields could talk to the people involved.

    Giving people the feeling that they can do something in the community, at any age, is one challenge, and ideas like these are fairly simple ones. The harder challenge I think you’re pointing to is deciding what to do — finding a way of speaking or acting that may help.

    My dad told me that the hardest arguments are conflicts of values or priorities. Group A wants to help employers, and group B wants to help employees. Group A wants to save open space, and group B wants affordable housing. Each side has a valid argument. How, in this case, do you work for change?

    You’ve pointed out that social media can group people by their values: “Social media has helped people find micropublics, circles of friends who share an interest or a common history and tend to be highly responsive to each other’s posts, updates and online sharings.”

    I agree with you: this kind of communication can have immense strength and influence. People working in community can topple giants, fund microloans, restore the prairie, redesign irrigation, build schools … and change the Spanish Inquisition into the Renaissance.

    But I also agree that it has dangers.

    One thing print journalism, as I’ve learned it, is supposed to do — emphasis on the supposed — is to show more than one discussion, to talk to different micropublics. In is also supposed — same emphasis — to challenge all of them. It is supposed to test different arguments, to find strengths and weaknesses, and to show the weight of different ideas and the consequences of different plans. Douglas Adams argues passionately against the idea that all opinions are created equal. I would put that argument at the core of journalistic ethics.

    Within activist groups who share the same goals, the question of what to do is, of course, infinitely varied and heated. After a forest fire in a National Park, the Arbor Day Foundation wants to plant a million trees, and the Audubon Society wants to let the land alone to regenerate (source, an Audubon Magazine article from 2007) … and each is afraid that the other’s approach will devastate thousands of acres of land.

    So … do we plant a native tree, join the conservation commission, get a farm share, buy efficient light bulbs, hike the Taconic Crest trail, teach a child to recognize a maple leaf, support the local land trust, write a novel? I don’t know. And I’d better go put together the April “Live Green” Supplement while I think about it. Thanks very much.

  6. Kate says:

    The missing thought in all that: Some kinds of change may come from within a micropublic — some may come from separate micropublics working together.

    I owe that idea to Anthony Leiserowitz, talking with Bill Moyers about climate change, identified ‘six different Americas,’ six different micropublics and six different ways of talking with them and turning talk into action. The show re-aired earlier this week. http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-ending-the-silence-on-climate-change

  7. Randy says:

    I really like your two-dimensional analysis of activist engagement. As you noted in your reply to Matt, there is also something about whether someone is trying to affiliate with her/his tribe (and perhaps build inter-tribal solidarity) or is trying to persuade the opposition. This might be a third dimension. Thinking about the audience of an action, you might like the little chart on this page:
    http://www.vernalproject.org/papers/understanding/WhyNV/WhyNonviolence4.html

    Seeing your 2-D model made also me think you might find the work of Bill Moyer (the deceased activist, not the famous journalist) useful:

    “The Movement Action Plan: A Strategic Framework Describing the Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements” http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/10/24/1029671/-Learning-from-Successful-Movements

    And his four roles that activists play: http://paceebene.org/sites/default/files/1_a_moyer_roles.pdf

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