The Social and Political Impact of Virtual Communities –
The Vaikuttamo Case: a Successful Community Serving Local Youth e...
The Social and Political Impact of Virtual Communities –
The Vaikuttamo Case: a Successful Community Serving Local Youth e...
through the use of computer-mediated communication. It is important to see how virtual
communities are located at the boun...
Vaikuttamo is a part of a project called “Students as a local influence”, being carried out in
the region of Hämeenlinna, ...
Vaikuttamo can be used in schools both at the basic level in different subjects and at a deeper
level in students’ own pro...
both of these sets of questions, and the development work in general, including its strengths
and weaknesses.
The Planning...
On weekdays, there are 300 users on average, which is about eight per cent of all the youth in
this age group in Hämeenlin...
3. Control. Vaikuttamo has external control outside the community, in the Media Centre,
which takes care of the administra...
users, but trust between young people and the authorities has yet to be developed. As a whole,
it seems that Vaikuttamo wa...
Luhmann, N. (1995). Social Systems. Stanford University Press. Stanford.
Macintosh, A.; Robson, E.; Smith, E. & Whyte, A. ...
Upcoming SlideShare
Loading in …5
×

Social and political impact of virtual communities

1,685 views
1,603 views

Published on

Local youth e-democracy, case Vaikuttamo (2005)

0 Comments
0 Likes
Statistics
Notes
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Views
Total views
1,685
On SlideShare
0
From Embeds
0
Number of Embeds
1
Actions
Shares
0
Downloads
3
Comments
0
Likes
0
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Social and political impact of virtual communities

  1. 1. The Social and Political Impact of Virtual Communities – The Vaikuttamo Case: a Successful Community Serving Local Youth e-democracy Kosonen Miia Lappeenranta University of Technology Department of Business Administration Telecom Business Research Center P.O.Box 20 Lappeenranta, 53851-FINLAND Phone +358 50 586 2853 Fax +358 5 621 6699 E-mail miia.kosonen@lut.fi Cavén-Pöysä Outi Lappeenranta University of Technology Telecom Business Research Center P.O.Box 20 Lappeenranta, 53851-FINLAND Phone +358 50 554 3633 Fax +358 5 621 6699 E-mail outi.caven@lut.fi Blomqvist Kirsimarja Lappeenranta University of Technology Department of Business Administration Telecom Business Research Center P.O.Box 20 Lappeenranta, 53851-FINLAND Phone +358 40 755 1693 Fax +358 5 621 6699 E-mail kirsimarja.blomqvist@lut.fi
  2. 2. The Social and Political Impact of Virtual Communities – The Vaikuttamo Case: a Successful Community Serving Local Youth e-democracy ABSTRACT This article focuses on the social and political impact of virtual communities. It provides readers with a successful case study of Finland’s first web-based arena and virtual community serving the local youth e-democracy. The “Vaikuttamo” (Impact) case study shows how the virtual community was developed and why it has succeeded well in this challenging field. The article focuses in particular on the development process and the decisions made at different stages in the life cycle of the community, and their impact on the success. The key strengths of Vaikuttamo proved to be locality, trustful relationships, close ties with schools and active maintenance outside the community. E-DEMOCRACY AND YOUNG PEOPLE E-democracy, digital democracy and e-government are all phenomena thatare developing together with ICT sector growth and rapid public-service development processes. Governments, at least in the Nordic countries, have strongly supported change in the Information Society and in electronic services. From a broad perspective the change is not only about transferring the services onto the Internet and making them reachable via different network infrastructures: it is more a question of profound strategic change in public-sector services overall, and a new kind of “virtual” citizenship. Support for traditional political participation will come fromtechnology, on-line information, 24-hour discussion groups and local virtual arenas such as municipality web sites. (Grönlund, 2003; Hacker & van Dijk, 2000) Participation, voting and, especially, youth empowerment are important activities for building up the Information Society. Voting rates have declined during the last few years in both local and government elections in Finland. Similar results have also been reported also from other European countries (Macintosh et al, 2003). Surprisingly, large groups of young people have totally rejected participation in political elections. This has been seen as a strong sign of the possible destruction of the welfare state, and also a major threat to Western democracy. Participation in elections of people from all social groups, from different geographical areas and from all age groups has been seen as the most powerful way of committing citizens to the costs and delivery ideology of Nordic welfare-state services. The traditional decision making in the public sector has been strongly in the domain of the professionals, and it has been implemented in top-down official hierarchies. Elements such as formal politics, administration and civil society are all in a process of transformation. At the same time, emerging technology enables citizens to obtain and actively use all kinds of public information. Information Society rules and regulations have to be rewritten quickly – especially as young people start using the participation channels actively. Today’s youth is familiar with virtual realities in the form of avatars or different kinds of virtual features, and knows how to remain unidentified if necessary. YOUNG PEOPLE AND VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES Virtual communities have recentlyaroused interest in research and in the literature. These communities are characterized by the fact that their members meet and interact mostly
  3. 3. through the use of computer-mediated communication. It is important to see how virtual communities are located at the boundary between formal organizations and social groups that exist, despite the absence of procedural and institutional authority. There are different interpretations of how people act in virtual communities. On the one hand, they are said to do just about everything people do in real life, and on the other it is claimed that virtual communities are likely to change our experience of the real world. People believe that the members of these online communities leave their bodies behind and migrate to a virtual realm. Such communities are characterized in the literature by four central features. Firstly, most of the members will never meet face to face, yet nearly all of themcarry an image of their community in their minds. Secondly, the communities are supposed to be sovereign and free from the interference of outsiders. Thirdly, they and their members seem to carry the idea of horizontal comradeship, although most of themare unequal and the members exploit each other. Finally, they are believed to be limited, although even the largest ones have boundaries with other communities – meaning people belong to several communities at the same time. (Slevin, 2002) When public-sector officials started to build up virtual arenas for young people, they also started to support a new kind of interaction and new kinds of processes and relations between young citizens and adults, including parents, teachers and politicians. How do you recognize trust and psychological group dynamics, and how do yousupport all the different dynamics in the virtual world of youth? Earlier research has emphasized the critical role of trust in most arenas involving social interaction, e.g., communication, commitment and collaboration (Blomqvist, 1997, 2002). According to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, trust may be the most effective means of decreasing social complexity (Luhmann, 1995). It has also been identified as critical in the evolution of virtual collaboration (Järvenpää & Leidner, 1998) and virtual communities (Castelfranchi & Tan, 2002). Face-to-face interaction, as well as character and cultural similarity, are known to build trust naturally. Virtual arenas and collaboration between asymmetric actors make the natural evolution of trust challenging. Castelfranchi & Tan (2002) list four potential types of trust in computer-mediated interaction: trust in the environment and the infrastructure, trust in the one’s own agent and mediating agents, trust in one’s potential partners, and trust in the authorities. THE VAIKUTTAMO CASE A new kind of e-democracy community for young people – based on locality, learning and influence The following case is an example of a virtual arena for youth built up by the public sector. The objective of the Vaikuttamo project is to encourage young people to express their opinions on the local matters that concern them. The development team was the first in Finland to create an active web-based arena and virtual community, www.vaikuttamo.net, to serve the local youth e-democracy. The case study shows how Vaikuttamo was developed and why it has succeeded well in this challenging field. Background
  4. 4. Vaikuttamo is a part of a project called “Students as a local influence”, being carried out in the region of Hämeenlinna, southern Finland. It is primarily aimed at young people between 13 and 20 years of age. The size of an average youth age group in the city of Hämeenlinna is about 620 (31st December 2002 statistics), which means the target audience of Vaikuttamo totals about 3,700. The main contributors are local schools and the Media Centre, which is coordinating the project. The Media Centre is funded by the European Union and its aim is to promote know-how related to information technology in the region of Hämeenlinna. The parties involved and the procedures adopted in the project are presented in Figure 1. The project started in autumn 2001 and the first version of www.vaikuttamo.net was published on 27th March 2002. Vaikuttamo was awarded the prize for the best e-learning project of 2002 in the Eschola contest, and received the quality award for virtual schools from the Ministry of Education and the National Board of Education in April 2003. V A I K U T T A M O School Students Teachers Youth Officials M E D I A C E N T R E Discussion Forums Learning materialsProjects Editing Figure 1. The structure of Vaikuttamo Goals The goals of the project are to promote young citizens’ willingness to participate in and develop their own environment, to strengthen local e-democracy, and to create a virtual culture of action between community officials and young people. A further aim is to develop information-technology –based working procedures in schools in order to promote learning. Vaikuttamo enhances young people’s knowledge of local democracy and offers different ways of contributing. Students know their own rights and have a chance to influence local matters. In particular, they become acquainted with electronic contributory channels, their operational principles and netiquette. They are able to take a critical stance towards the information presented in different media, they can use the software and hardware needed to generate information, and they are able to utilize the media to present their own matters of concern. Content
  5. 5. Vaikuttamo can be used in schools both at the basic level in different subjects and at a deeper level in students’ own projects. “The contributor of the week” and “Gallup” sections are edited in turn by pupils at various schools and, at the same time, the topics are discussed in the discussion forum. Table 1 categorizes the functionality of the site. Table 1. The content of Vaikuttamo Category Short description of the content General 1. Background of the project 2. Information on the site editors 3. Search and feedback options Guidelines 1. How to contribute: a short manual for participating and influencing (letters to the editors, petitions, voting, demonstrations) 2. Media: how to use the public media as a means of influence Information 1. Our town: overview and history, information on community services, finance and decision-making 2. Under watch –list: communal decision-making matters that concern young people 3. Calendar view: current events 4. Students’ unions in schools Interaction 1. Speaker’s corner: discussion forum, several categories 2. Real-time chats with officials Pupils’ own contributions 1. Stories from youth to youth: school, town, their own country and the world, archives also available 2. ”The contributor of the week” and “The player of the month”: a person or a group of persons being interviewed, archives also available 3. Projects and video clips: produced by the young people, around various topics 4. Gallup Links Among others: the site of the local youth forum, the “Moodle” learning environment The Development Process Key questions in the early stages of community development include: for what purpose will the community be developed, how will its Web site be implemented, how are its usability and social mechanisms being planned, how are the end users’ needs evaluated in advance, and what kind of discussion forums and other functions should the site include. (Preece, 2000) Later, once the community has been introduced, key questions may include: how many users/members does it already have, what kind of user roles have turned up, how feedback and suggestions will be collected from users and what kind of feedback has already been given, how behavior in the community will be controlled and how administrators will deal with dysfunctional behavior. In the case of Vaikuttamo, the project team was asked to assess
  6. 6. both of these sets of questions, and the development work in general, including its strengths and weaknesses. The Planning Phase The history of Vaikuttamo goes back to the year 2000. Only one third of young people voted in the municipal election, and this fostered the idea of a new channel of influence and participation. The idea started to take shape in autumn 2001. The project manager introduced the basics of the concept to local officials and to a local media company, Ambientia Corp. The officials supported the idea right from the beginning, and the project manager was able to develop strong ties with local schools and teachers because he had a position as history and civics teacher. The costs of the project were evaluated during autumn 2001, and some meetings were held with the local youth forum. There was no systematic need assessment with them, because the project manager rather wanted to inform others about his original idea. The concept was such a new one that there were hardly any models or examples available in Finland or elsewhere. Thus defining the purpose and assessing the needs, the first phase of the development process, was carried out inside the development team without end-user participation. The project proceeded quite rapidly because the manager had a clear vision of the result. Interaction in the development team gave the final shape to the Vaikuttamo entity. The next phase of the development process involved the installation of the web pages, and the web arena was built during January-February, 2002. The first concrete action was a competition to give a name to the arena. At first the pages were called Speaker’s Corner (discussion forum), but this was changed later to Vaikuttamo. There was hardly any technical planning in this phase: most of the work involved the content of different sections. There are two types of discussion forum, a bulletin-board system called Speaker’s Corner and a real- time chat site. Both of these are simple basic applications, which are innovative only in the way in which they are used. The main theme in the usability planning was simplicity and an emphasis on the division of the different sections of the content. Because the team did not know whether the pages would ever attract any users, Vaikuttamo had to be as easy to use as possible. Thus no registration policies were included, for example. As the administrators mentioned, the new arena did not arise from user interest or action: it was rather the case that the users were given some “playground” and then the team just waited to see whether it attracted any interest. The first version of the web pages was published in March 2002. In terms of the development process this meant moving forward into a new phase, during which the users entered into the new community. Users and User Roles The primary target group of Vaikuttamo is local youth between 13 and 20 years of age, although, other target groups include teachers and local officials. By October 2003, the project had engaged four grade schools, four upper-level schools and three senior-high schools in Hämeenlinna. In addition to this, some schools from neighboring towns were also involved.
  7. 7. On weekdays, there are 300 users on average, which is about eight per cent of all the youth in this age group in Hämeenlinna. Even during the summer holidays there have been about 1200 users per week, which has surprised the administrators. Interesting conversation topics and positive publicity in the media in particular promote the usage of Vaikuttamo. There have been temporary “peaks” when the project has been given awards in different contests. Vaikuttamo has about 10-20 active “heavy-users” who are able to use the new channel fluently to express their opinions, interact and participate. They may also know each other personally. User roles were evaluated as rather stereotypical: there are active participants, observers and troublemakers. The administrators also mentioned one special user group, “forced ones”, which use the arena because their teacher has told them to do so. Assessment and Development As in other virtual communities, Vaikuttamo’s development is a continuing process. No separate sessions for assessing its functionality have yet been organized. Instead, most feedback about possible problems and flaws has reached the administrators through the discussions in Speaker’s corner, and has concerned technical problems or the moderating. Above all, according to the young people, the officials have not taken a big enough part in the conversations and this has caused some dissatisfaction among them. The development of the Vaikuttamo community is reactive and based on the action itself, not on separate questionnaires or interviews. There are two basic reasons for this: the administrators feel there is only a very small group capable of giving reasonable ideas and suggestions, and another problem is their age. Thus these ideas may be in the area of “Let’s have more games”. Most of the development is based on the team’s own view, in adapting the user interface, for example. Naturally, the administrators have observed the number of users and the type of use. Speaker’s Corner and Contributor of the Week are among the most popular pages. Action is cyclic: the community regularly becomes active and then again more passive. The most important activating factor seems to be interesting discussion topics. So far there has been a low incidence of troublemaking. On average, only about six to eight messages are removed each week, in most cases due to the use of swear words or other kinds of excesses in expressing opinions. Because the administrators actively follow the discussion, these messages have not caused much damage. In their view, the basic reasons for the lack of troublemaking may be the external control in the Media Centre, outside the community, and the fact that the local youth have learned the purpose of its use. The administrators especially emphasize the need to take the right attitude towards troublemaking: some people always act obstructively and the whole community cannot be restricted just because of them. Thus user registration will not be included in the community, at least at this stage of development. According to the project team, the primary strength of the implementation is that the local youth have found the arena. It is difficult to pinpoint why Vaikuttamo has succeeded in its challenging task, but the team mentions the following: 1. Locality. Communities on the Web are typically based on interests, but in this case, a more traditional model of community formation has developed. Cultural similarity can help to create a more trusting environment. 2. Relationships. Vaikuttamo has found support in schools and among teachers because the project manager had worked as a teacher.
  8. 8. 3. Control. Vaikuttamo has external control outside the community, in the Media Centre, which takes care of the administration and moderation. This helps the community to concentrate on relevant topics and to prevent dysfunction. 4. “Automatic membership”. When one age group leaves from school, another comes in its place. On the other hand, membership is not based on free choice, as it should be in democratic virtual communities. It is worth considering whether this kind of community could flourish if it were totally voluntary. The amount of information and material has been a problem for the first version of Vaikuttamo. When the team planned and implemented the arena, they did not imagine that it would grow so quickly. In terms of usability and planning, the team considered it an example of the way things should not be done. Other drawbacks have been problems in following the discussion, and the age range, which has been too wide. Young people of different ages are interested in different topics. Therefore, the children’s own Vaikuttamo was eventually implemented in October 2004. Moreover, discussion forums should be made easier to follow, especially for the officials, and users should be able to find the most important topics from the flow of information. CONCLUSIONS The Vaikuttamo development process has been experimental rather than strictly planned or goal-oriented. This is due the nature of the new arena: the project team could not have known whether a community would emerge at all. Moreover, exploration and experimentation are needed for innovation (Miles et al, 2000). However, the process has included similar developmental phases and decisions in terms of community purpose, target audience, functionality and common policies as occur in any virtual community. The reasons for Vaikuttamo’s success can be summarized as locality, strong ties with schools and teachers, and external control from outside the community. Together they have enabled Vaikuttamo to empower the local youth and to develop a positive feedback loop, where the community becomes even stronger through its regular action. The most important area for development is in securing the commitment of local officials. The team should be able to find new tools and models to encourage officials to participate in electronic forums. There are still only a few experiments in which both the youth culture and the official and political decision-making culture meet in the same arena. This kind of e-democracy and learning environment is still in its early stages. It is not only a question of the lack of infrastructure, as there is also a lack of both knowledge and courage in terms of combining formal and informal information, discussions and the empowerment of young citizens. Trust, communication, a common language, and the willingness to understand young people’s needs and their expression are keys to the development of an innovative Information Society. The evolution of trust is a key to communication and collaboration between different sub- cultures. In the Vaikuttamo case, the project manager had a boundary-spanning role. He had a clear vision, and he was able to build trusting relationships with the authorities, active student users and schoolteachers. Because of his background as a teacher he could understand the needs of schoolteachers. It also seems that there was sufficient understanding of various users’ (young people and teachers) needs, even if users did not participate in the development as such. There also seemed to be sufficient trust in the infrastructure, the technology and the
  9. 9. users, but trust between young people and the authorities has yet to be developed. As a whole, it seems that Vaikuttamo was accepted very well by the local youth, who felt it was their arena. Even if the lack of involvement of the authorities was seen as a drawback, it may have created the impression, that Vaikuttamo really is the place for the young. In conclusion, it could be said that young people in the region have been active within the project and have succeeded in making their voices heard better than before. The social impact could be characterized as the new and even revolutionary way of empowering, activating and encouraging citizens to engage in dialogue and develop shared welfare services. The political impact could be enormous, especially if different political parties could see the wide possibilities of direct virtual communication with citizens. This kind of development could be the most important step after formal democracy process was taken into use in Western countries. The best outcome would be that these new virtual services would support local empowerment and foster a shared concern about the development of local communities in the face of alienation and the negative effects of globalization. Definitions of the Key Concepts Virtual community Virtual communities are “social aggregations that emerge when people carry out public discussions on the Net long enough” (Rheingold, 2000). A virtual community could be defined to “consist of people, policies, a shared purpose and information systems” (Preece, 2000, p. 10). Both definitions refer to socializing and networks built in cyberspace: this is what virtual communities are primarily about. Moreover, they are based on members’ needs. Trust Trust is defined as “an actor's expectation of the other party's competence and goodwill” (Blomqvist, 1997). References Blomqvist, K. (1997). The Many Faces of Trust. Scandinavian Journal of Management. 13(3), 271-286. Blomqvist, K. (2002). Partnering in the Dynamic Environment: The Role of Trust in Asymmetric Technology Partnership Formation. Acta Universitatis Lappeenrantaensis 122. Castelfranchi, C. & Tan. Y-H. (2002). The Role of Trust and Deception in Virtual Societies. International Journal of Electronic Commerce. 6(3), 55-70. Grönlund, Å. (2003). Emerging Electronic Infrastructures. Exploring Democratic Components. Social Science Computer Review. 21(1), Spring 2003, 55-72. Hacker, K. & van Dijk, J. (eds.) (2000). Digital Democracy, Issues of Theory and Practice. Sage Publications, London. Järvenpää, S., Knoll, K. & Leidner, D. (1998). Is Anybody Out There? Antecedents of Trust in Global Virtual Teams? Journal of Management Information Systems. 14(4), 29-64.
  10. 10. Luhmann, N. (1995). Social Systems. Stanford University Press. Stanford. Macintosh, A.; Robson, E.; Smith, E. & Whyte, A. (2003). Electronic Democracy and Young People. Social Science Computer Review. 21(1), Spring 2003, 43-54. Miles, R.E., Snow, C.C. & Miles, G. (2000). TheFuture.org in Long Range Planning, International Journal of Strategic Management. 33(3), 297-474. Preece, J. (2000). Online Communities. Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons. Rheingold, H. 2000. The Virtual Community. Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. London: MIT Press. Slevin, J. (2000). The Internet and Society. Polity Press, UK. Vaikuttamo’s web site. URL: www.vaikuttamo.net.

×