Design Principles for Participatory Politics

The following design principles were developed for the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network by a committee consisting of Danielle Allen, Lissa Soep, and Jennifer Earl. We share them here as an extension of my interview with Allen.

Design Principles for Participatory Politics 
Are you a digital change-maker? Do you want to be? Do you want to help someone else get there?

Sixties activists insisted, the personal is political. Change-makers in the digital age get that idea, and one-up it with another rallying cry: the political is social and cultural.

Your platforms and digital strategies need to make this principle count, so that you, your peers, and your audiences engage each other, and the allies you all want, in high-quality, equitable, and effective participation in digital-age civics, activism, and politics. What’s more, you need digital environments that actively support the secure development of your identities as participants in public spheres, so your civic and political engagement today doesn’t harm or haunt you later.

Thinking that through comes first.

Top Ten Questions for Change-Makers Using Digital Platforms to Promote Participatory Politics

Whether you’re creating your first Facebook page to support a cause you care about, or seeking to engage your friends, associates, and even strangers in a new platform aimed to achieve civic ends, these ten questions will help frame your decisions. Use them to shape your strategy and to check whether you’re doing everything in your power to achieve maximum impact. These principles have been developed on the basis of national research (by the MacArthur Foundation research network on youth and participatory politics) on experiences and structures that support young people’s agency with respect to matters of public concern.

Why does it matter to me? Start with the experiences and interests you and your friends already can’t get enough of, and connect that engagement to civic and political themes. Popular culture fandom, for example, is a great source to harness. Overall, you and your peers know a lot about a lot, and you’ve got all sorts of authentic ways to bring your friends on board. Use that expertise to build traction for your cause by finding unexpected alignments. And take the time to figure out why your passion matters to you.
What it can look like: IMAGINE BETTER PROJECT

A project of the Harry Potter Alliance that taps enthusiasm for popular culture and applies fandom energy toward social change. By appropriating storylines, characters, and iconography from popular narratives, fans “turn the fictions they love into the world they imagine.”

How much should I share? Take heed: real names can help foster better dialogues, but they can also put people at risk and discourage taking positions or acting on controversial issues. Consider how much you should share. Which part of your persona do you want to see live online? Can you keep your offline and online selves separate? If so, how? Or do you have to expect them to merge? Which features of your offline responsibilities and roles should limit what you do online? Help your community consider how different audiences may react to their posts and how a post might impact them years down the road. Give them choices about how much to disclose, and make it possible for them to change their minds.
What it can look like: Global Voices

Global Voices is a community of writers and analysts from around the world who contribute, largely on a volunteer basis, to a news site that publishes under-reported stories on topics ranging from digital rights and activism to religion, labor, and LGBTQ rights. There is an option for authors to contribute anonymously if their safety is at stake, and the site provides specific guidelines for how to maintain anonymity when publishing online.

How do I make it about more than myself? How can you and your community take it from “I” to “we”? Help your users think of themselves as part of something bigger. Can you expand the network of engagement for yourself and your users by actively rewarding authenticity, accuracy, truth-telling, and bridge-building across social divides?
What it can look like: OBAMA FOR AMERICA NEW ORGANIZING INSTITUTE

Marshall Ganz’s organizing theory invites people into a movement as individuals, where they are asked to share their stories and connection to the cause. Then, the strategy helps them see their shared collective interests with others in the movement before introducing them to the fierce urgency of acting now. This principle is the bedrock of numerous campaigns since Obama for America popularized the model in the 2008 presidential election. Participants are asked to become part of something major and give more of themselves as a result.

Where do we start? Go where your peers go. Can you make use of spaces where you and your friends and associates already gather to connect and pursue shared interests? (Hint: for right now at least, text and mobile are key). Perhaps you’re interested in building a stand-alone platform? Think twice before you do. A custom platform is easier for opponents to hack and probably harder for your friends to use, than a common mainstream, commercial platform. But remember that existing platforms have their own cultures, which you’ll need to consider and fit into.
What it can look like: #CANCELCOLBERT

Hashtag activist Suey Park used Twitter to create the #cancelcolbert hashtag in the wake of an ill-considered tweet from the Colbert show. As the hashtag trended it generated widespread conversations about race and racism in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, “Colbert’s offending tweet was later deleted,” and “Colbert deleted the Comedy Central-run account on his show,” directing “people to follow his personal account.”

How can we make it easy and engaging? Remember that some engagement is better than none, and think early and often about your target audience. How can you engineer an array of entry-points and pathways to participation for your community? Where are the opportunities for light-touch engagement that is potentially powerful in itself and also a possible gateway into deeper involvement? Make acting easy, so your users can co-produce your civic and political engagement.
What it can look like: DO SOMETHING

DoSomething’s creative campaigns invite teens to take part in a variety of ways, and almost all of the campaigns revolve around a teen’s group of friends. For example, The ‘Fed Up’ campaign invites teens to upload photos of their cafeteria’s school lunch program to begin an investigation about the food it contains. Students can rate photos ‘eat it’ or ‘toss it’, and are simultaneously provided with better-lunch advocacy materials.

How do we get wisdom from crowds? Invite investigation and critique. Create openings for your friends, associates, and even strangers to dig into, verify, challenge, and contribute to the knowledge-base you provide, and stay open to evolving purposes. Don’t act like you know the whole story. Because you don’t. There is wisdom in crowds.
What it can look like: REDDIT

We aren’t as deferential to political elites and institutions as earlier generations used to be, and that can be a good thing. Campaigns have responded to this shift by seeking engagement in new ways. Reddit, an evolution on the venerable web discussion board, has emerged as a space where citizens can jointly examine and expose issues of public concern, in some cases powering investigations that rise to national and international prominence. Not without controversy or risk (as evident when Reddit ID’ed the wrong suspects in the Boston marathon bombing), the platform nevertheless is an important model for how to spark and sustain collective inquiry through a digital platform.

How do we handle the downside of crowds? Be prepared for people to say and do things you don’t like in your shared space. Do you know how you would respond? Is your platform or digital strategy being overtaken by a sub-group of users? How can you keep the nastiness out of crowds? Do you need moderators? Algorithms? Special functions? The goal is to keep your community open and democratic, and that also means protecting it from those who misuse that freedom and opportunity.
What it can look like: #IFTHEYGUNNEDMEDOWN

This campaign fostered a powerful critique of media bias in the coverage of young black people who are shot and killed by police. Black Twitter users began posting two side-by-side photos of themselves, asking the question, which would the media publish “if they gunned me down?” It didn’t take long for the meme to morph, as other Twitter users appropriated the hashtag to post trivializing images (e.g., of their pets), or photo pairings that mocked the campaign’s intent. Still, those detractors were largely drowned out, and months later, the media bias critique is the lasting legacy of this campaign.

Does raising our voices count as civic and political action? Raising awareness is key. Changing what people care about already makes a difference, and just getting your views into the public conversation is meaningful. Making the invisible visible is already an important civic and political action and a form of activism. Are you also trying to drive change beyond visibility? You’ll need that raised awareness to elevate civic and political engagement over time.
What it can look like: QUEER UNDOCUMENTED IMMIGRANT PROJECT’S NO MORE CLOSETS CAMPAIGN

The Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project organizes the LGBTQ undocumented community along with allies through advocacy campaigns, leadership development, and toolkits and resources. The No More Closets campaign calls upon “undocuqueers” to come out through videos in order to raise visibility about and fight for the dignity and empowerment of both communities.

How do we get from voice to change? Is your goal is to convert voice to influence over policies, institutions, or concrete practices? If so, you’ll need to move beyond raising awareness to mobilize specific actions on the basis of the attention you manage to get. How can you get traction—real change in concrete practices, institutions, and policies? The research shows that this often comes from a mix of digital and face-to-face organizing. But it’s also possible to achieve influence with online-only tactics. Make sure you know what your targets are, and what changes you want to see. Then you can figure out whether building numbers online and taking aim at your target’s reputation, or criss-crossing the line into hybrid online-offline efforts makes more sense.
What it can look like: NO MORE STEUBENVILLES

After high school football players sexually assaulted a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio, two young people–one an athlete, the other an activist–launched a change.org petition that was signed by almost 68,000 individuals. The goal: to get the National Federation of High School Associations to offer sexual violence prevention training to the almost 100,000 high school coaches that organization works with. In 2013, the association agreed to partner with seven sexual violence organizations to develop and implement those trainings.

How can we find allies? It makes sense to call on institutional power holders like established organizations or influential individuals who can support your interests. Gaining influence requires building alliances with people who control decisions over policies and institutions. But it can be hard to reach people in power. What’s more, how can you engage with power players in a way that benefits your cause and also empowers you? The answer often involves connecting with allies who can provide mentorship and broker on your behalf, being creative in your methods, and seeking elites in a variety of places–sometimes beyond the usual suspects.
What it can look like: STUDENTS FOR LIBERTY (SFL)

Founded and led by students, SFL is a network of pro-liberty organizations and individuals from diverse locations and backgrounds. It is not a top down, chapter based, or membership organization. However, SFL works with some of the most influential think tanks and policy-makers in D.C., offering young libertarians a range of opportunities to meet with political movers and shakers at both campus events and national conferences. Sometimes making it to events is hard, though, so SFL affiliates of all ages often rely on their own social networks like Twitter to gain face time with like-minded individuals and political elites alike. Regardless of whether it’s online or in person, when young people build allies and tap into the political establishment through their involvement with SFL, it often means working with groups and individuals on both sides of the aisle.

What the Principles Get You

Based on the research of the Youth and Participatory Politics research network, when you use these ten principles to frame your decisions and shape your strategies, you are well positioned to achieve four important outcomes: Engagement, Quality and Equity, Effectiveness, and Security.

Engagement in participatory politics = you and your friends are drawn in and pursue more opportunities to exercise your agency in civic spheres, using your platform to do so.

People are “engaged” when they lose track of the time they spend participating in an activity; when they describe the activity as important to them; when they are driven to share what they’re up to; and when they invite others to participate in the activity as well.

High quality and equitable participatory politics = you and your friends do authentic, accurate, connected civic work with your platform, no matter who you are; you also look out for chances to spread participatory opportunities to those for whom they are hard to come by.

High-quality platforms are broadly accessible and foster norms of accuracy, authenticity, equity, and openness to social diversity. You can’t have quality without equity.

Effective participatory politics = your platform’s activities make the difference your community seeks.

Participation is efficacious when participants can point to something that has changed on account of their efforts—for instance, someone’s opinion or attitude; a decision-maker’s choice; a law or policy; the attentiveness of the media to an issue.

Secure identity management in participatory politics = your users—to the extent possible—determine the boundaries and public visibility of their participation in your platform, and they plan for the digital afterlife of their choices.

Contrary to the usual understanding, secure identity management is not only about managing pseudonyms, aliases, and privacy and security settings but also about preserving psychological integrity in the face of the challenges presented by digitally-enabled participation: the collision of our separate social networks (for instance, a gay teen who participates in gay rights initiatives online but hides that activity in the face-to-face rural setting in which she lives); the unpredictable repercussions of speech and action in digital environment; the dangers that come with public exposure.

This is my final post for the 2014-2015 academic year. I am going to take time off over the summer and get things going again sometime in late August or early September.