Thank you. I want to especially thank Marcus for inviting me. It is quite an honor to give the opening talk this morning. In talking to many of you over the last few days, I am quite humbled by the wonderful work you’re doing and I hope I can offer something that will at least be a bit thought provoking. I want to set the stage, throw out a few conceptual problems and see if we can’t get get this conversation started.
I’ll start with a question that I believe pervades much of what we’re thinking about here: What does it mean to be local? Being local means understanding oneself as connected to a defined community. Local knowledge is a shared understanding of a locality. From local customs in a small village to youth cultures in a Japanese karaoke bar, local is a mark of exclusion and inclusion. It can enforce homogeneity (“you’re not from here” or “locals only”) or it can evoke an ideal, i.e. “ support local shops. ” It can be a thing of nostalgia, in the form of longing for a main street where the shopkeepers know you ’ re name to a commitment to eating local food. In these cases, local becomes synonymous with sustainability. In short, local is complicated. And yet, for many of us here, integrating technologies into a local context is what we want to do. And, I should add, all for the benefit of local cultures, whatever those might be.
What does it mean to be networked? Surely, being local does not preclude being networked. Networks often operate within a local context. In fact, good ol’ analog face-to-face gossip is one of the most powerful forms of networked interaction. Information is spread to one or a few people at a time and it is highly efficient. There is little drop off in communication when you’re listening to the dirt about Aunt Jenny’s affair. But there are so many mechanisms, beyond verbal gossip, through which we’re networked. From transportation systems like rail and jet travel to television networks and mobile phones. All of these technologies enable the transfer of information either within or across localities. Networks can bring people together to talk to a distant loved one or provide the mechanism for huge crowds to assemble or simply provide a sense of being connected.
in my book, co-authored with Adriana de Souza e Silva, we focus on trying to understand the tension between these two things: localities and networks. What are the affordances of each? And how are techno-social systems accommodating the meaningful interactions between the two? How is location playing into our sense of being networked (the use of maps and mobile check-ins) and how are networks playing into our sense of localities (bringing information (people and things) to bear on physical geography). The term net locality is our way of distinguishing the kinds of geographies that we are designing for and within. It is suggestive that places and networks are never distinct, even if for the individual and at a given time, they might be.
What does it mean to participate? This conflation of networked spaces and localities complicates what it means to participate in local life. From working in a community garden to voting in an online poll to gathering in the streets. These are all forms of local participation. We’ve always had a participatory culture. This is nothing new. I see the big distinction in what becomes of participation in a context of net locality and how the rhetoric of participation is ramping up to meet the anxieties it provokes. If everything is networked, then there is more at stake in participating. (consider this example of CNN using Twitter to make a point.) For example, the cable news network CNN boasts about the importance of an event because it is trending on Twitter. Why? Why would broadcast media undermine its authority in this way? It is already on television, but somehow trending on Twitter is more impressive. There is an ideology behind this: participation, represented by social media, equals engagement. Tweets about Sarah Palin, for instance, are evidence of user engagement. Even though it makes awkward TV, it is meant to communicate to a TV audience that other audience members are really engaged. But participating in something does not equal engagement. I can participate in a faculty meeting; it does not mean i ’ m engaged. I participate in a local meeting, it does not mean I ’ m engaged. So, we have to stop conflating these terms.
I define engagement as sustained attention to an issue. I can be engaged in a faculty meeting if my attention is sustained. I can be engaged in a civic process if my attention is sustained on that process. Participation can be fleeting - disconnected from the desire to act or the sense of personal investment and efficacy. All too often, however, the word engagement is associated with a correspondence with media indulgences (like the Sarah Palin story) or established civic processes: voting, meeting attendance, or as Putnam discusses, alignment with established organizations. But, engagement, as I am framing it, is not simply joining a pre-fabricated organization, it is an investment of scarce attention on an issue-context that results in increased sense of self and collective efficacy.
There is a continuum between participation and engagement. But we need to be designing for Engagement. The drivers of participation remain in place, but when we focus on engagement, we focus on sustaining those drivers and finding applications for them. This needs to be seen in the wider context of Civic Learning. This is about the establishment of environments where learning happens. Engagement takes place when the drivers of participation become the content and context of learning.
Civic learning can be a powerful concept. The power of the relationship between communities and technologies is the potential for learning foundations. People have the reason to act, we need to give them a reason to learn. Software can do this; technologies can do this. Instead of relying on age-old engagement methods: the town hall meeting, the voting booth; we need to think about learning methods, where outcomes are not just measured by turn-out, but by creative problem-solving, and personal investment.
There are two types of engagement I want to discuss: conversation-based engagement – attention to other people and local resources There are several platforms that attempt to extend local community interactions into networks. These platforms tend to use the language of engagement to convey the importance of physical connections. They are geared towards creating networked connections that manifest themselves in physical space. They use the affordances of digital networks (forging communities of interest and other networked bonds) to strengthen local connections. They are set up as an ongoing presence in a neighborhood, a distinct place for conversation that integrates into the communication ecosystem of the neighborhood.
Problem-based engagement – attention to specific problems, attention is to getting it fixed. Most people engage in a neighborhood issue because they have a pet peeve. They come to meetings to complain. They go online to complain. As examples: See Click Fix or CitizensConnect, are municipal reporting tools. See Click Fix is a civic participation platform that provides people a space to demonstrate concern about a particular issue. Most notably, it ’ s a pothole reporter. And you are able to join together with other users to complain about very specific issues. But, there is little context for learning. While it is a very effective tool for citizen reporting, it does not provide a platform for sustained attention to any one issue or context.
[Click on video link.] So, what’s the solution. Well, games of course. Perhaps not. But clearly games can be engaging. The challenge is: how do you make games engaging outside of the game itself? Outside of the magic circle?
More and more, we are seeing a conflation of engagement strategies and game mechanics. This is often called gamification. Games provide a strategy for framing engagement, but they are not themselves a solution. Games are a logic of interaction and they can assist in creating sustained attention to a locality through conversation and problem solving. There is a lot of talk about gamification in the civic space. Jane McGonical has energized the term. Lots of people looking to game mechanics and systems to foster participation. Mostly, what’s appeared in the civic space is games that use civics as a metaphor, as opposed to games that engage players in civic action.
Let’s look at a few games that do this: Games like the organizing game and all the games in the icivic suite, like responsibility launcher, are meant to teach about civics. The first in the form of “how to” organize a community, the second in the form of how to take personal responsibility in a civic context. These are learning games, but they are learning by metaphor. There is learning about civics, but there is no civic learning.
Games such as DIY Democracy, Ground Crew, and Free Rice are often referred to as “direct action games.” These games are meant to motivate players to take civic action. DIY democracy and Ground Crew are both meant to get users to do something in particular within a local context with extrinsic rewards built into the system. These games seek to forge problem-based engagement within the scaffolding of game mechanics. This means everything from offering points and badges to presenting challenges to be overcome. While free rice is often celebrated for its ability to engage, the game content and object of attention don’t match up. There is no learning.
The games that I build I like to call local engagement games. And they are experiments in civic learning. They provide extrinsic rewards for problem-based and conversation-based engagement. Both Participatory Chinatown and Community PlanIt are designed around the unique context of community-based planning. They seek to engage people by clarifying the association with a problem, and providing a context to deliberate and learn. This happens through establishing the possibility for reflection. In Participatory Chinatown, reflection was built into the game structure itself. People played a game in a room for some time and then stopped to talk about the experience. I’ll show a quick video. Community PlanIt is a game platform that is structured around civic learning. The conversation is missed-based and it leads to value-based decision-making.
CPI proved successful on many fronts. But, it is just a spring board into learning about the scaffolding necessary to produce
Engagement is a matter of extending the driver of participation. We need to understand what motivates people to participate offline before designing digital interventions. Extrinsic rewards such as game mechanics will only work if they reinforce intrinsic rewards.
Engagement is not a solely internal process. Someone with decision-making authority needs to listen. And the technology needs to communicate that to-be-listened-to-ness. People will engage in issues more meaningfully, if engagement is performative. People will want to learn if they know that there is an outcome to that learning.
Engagement needs to reflect local needs. Civic learning cannot just be about civics, it has to be located and reflective of a local context. This is the problem of building and applying platforms. Can we build platforms that can be adapted appropriately to localities? And what does that look like? How can the local remain meaningful in light of networks?
Tools are responsive to community needs. But tools also shape community desires. As an example, if John sets out to build a house, he will know that he needs a hammer and nails. And he will have a sense of how long it will take and what the process will be. If a traveling salesman introduces a nail gun to John, he might at first think it will just make his job easier, but it in fact changes the process and outcome possibilities. He might be able to build four houses, or put the roof on in a different way because he is able to access different angles. In evaluating the effectiveness of a process, we need to understand the unexpected and unanticipated and how new processes alter perceptions of outcomes.
Build face-to-face into any communication ecosystem. However, it is not necessarily the gold standard of communication. Not everyone is good at it, even though it makes us feel good about ourselves when it happens. As others, including our own Marcus Foth, have pointed out, face-to-face should be considered one part of the communicative ecosystem, but it should not be the end goal nor the gold standard.
Engagement is not total. It is something that happens on occasion and should have the freedom to be dispersed. This is the problem with solely face-to-face approaches. They prioritize the concept of totalizing engagement and undivided attention. Tools can be distracting as well. And a little bit of a neat-o effect is not bad. In considering what it means to be local, to inhabit net localities, and to engage in civic learning, the solutions need to accommodate geographic, pedagogical, and social diversity.
The key to evaluation of a technology project should be focused on the creation of a learning environment. In other words, how do drivers, design, and attention result in an environment where people want to productively engage in learning. And how can the researcher, beyond simply solving a research problem, contribute to that environment. The question cannot only be: what makes a civic learning environment? It must also be: what can I do to help the communities with which I work to sustain that learning environment?
<ul><li>Eric Gordon </li></ul><ul><li>[email_address] </li></ul>Designing Local Engagement for Networked Communities