Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era: An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

There was an early discourse that read digital media in terms of “virtual communities” largely unmoored to physical geographies and unrelated to the locations where we live, work, and vote. To what degree is this book part of a larger move to reintroduce “location” and “locality” into our understanding of how online communities operate? To a large extent, we want to mobilize civic media to look across online or offline divides. In 2011, one of us (Eric) wrote a book called Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. The reason for writing this book was to do precisely that.

While one of its chapters was on civic engagement, it was more concerned with the qualities of urban environments. The book critically addressed how locality or location-awareness (both human and machine) was impacting urban form. What cities look like and how people interact within them was being impacted by the increasing amount of located data found within them.

In Civic Media, we pick up those arguments again. But instead of focusing on questions of urban form, we focus on how people are coordinating and cooperating to get things done with media, in space and across space. We focus on how the texture of located communities influences online interactions, and vice versa. We question how power, through access, digital literacy, and institutions, defines who uses the media and to what ends. The concept of civic media necessarily interrogates false binaries of physical / real, online / offline, and located / distributed. This is the generative work of the term.

Many early conversations about civic media assumed a fairly simple link between the ideal of the “informed citizen” and the emergence of information technologies. Yet, many of the examples running through your book are focused less on civic engagement as a structure of knowledge and more as a structure of feeling. So, what place should there be in the study of civic media for more touchy-feely concepts like community or empathy or the imagination?

We wouldn’t call a structure of feeling “touchy-feely.” Indeed, we see this move away from the informed citizen as a move towards the affective, and/or experiential aspects of civic engagement.

Knowing does not necessarily lead to acting. What motivates young people, for example, to participate in civic life is not primarily the understanding of an issue, but the experience, or promise of the experience, of acting on that issue.

Creating or sharing memes, connecting within a social network, even playing a game—these can all be civic actions disconnected from work-a-day rational self-interest or interest in cause. These actions can be motivated by the desire to “act with” and “to feel a part of,” and in some cases have no connection to a particular knowledge base.

This is what is inspiring about the range of civic media forms; knowing is only one piece of experience. The frame of civic media has the potential to unlock civics from its long dependence on rationality.

To some degree this book represents an attempt to define or at least solidify a field of researchers focused on civic media, many of whom are appearing together here for the first time and who reflect a broad range of different disciplines. What can you tell us about the tribes you are bringing together here? What disciplines have had the most to say on these topics? To what degree does the interdisciplinary conversation a book like this represents add something that would not exist if everyone remained in their disciplinary spaces?

Academic disciplines are not designed to solve problems in the world. They are designed to create generalizable knowledge, disciplined by methodologies and theories. Applied social research is often difficult, because the social world, with all of its complexity, does not easily succumb to disciplinary structures. So the promise of interdisciplinary work is prioritizing problems to be solved over knowledge to be made.

Civic Media brings together scholars and practitioners from a range of disciplines, including Philosophy, Sociology, Communications, Media Studies, Computer Science, Urban Planning, Art, Government and Law, to answer the question “What can civics be?” While the media scholar might ask “how is civic life mediated?” and the sociologist might ask “how are the structures of civic life changing?” and the artist might ask what are the forms that civic life can take?” when each speaks only to those asking similar questions with similar methodologies, knowledge refines, instead of generates. We see civic media as a generative project, made possible only by the cross pollination of intellectual perspectives and traditions.

“Engagement” has been described as a buzz word of our times, one as likely to be used by commercial industries (“fan engagement”) as by governmental agencies set up to increase citizen engagement. So, what do you see as the relationship between these two discourses about engagement or indeed, are they two separate discourses? To what degree do commercial understandings of engagement spill over into the work of governmental agencies or nonprofit organizations?

You’re right, engagement is an annoyingly “buzzy” term. But we still find it to be productive. We run a lab called the “Engagement Lab,” where we investigate the interfaces between individuals, communities and institutions and we strongly believe that “to engage” is a transitive verb. People engage in nouns: people, places and things. They are typically not engaged by nouns.

In other words, engagement is relational, it just doesn’t happen to you. When commercial industries invest in customer engagement or fan engagement, they are looking for a way for engagement to happen to people. And sadly, even when public institutions use the term, they are looking to “do engagement,” to make people engage with a service or process, but not to enable people to act together.

But just because the term is overused, we don’t believe we should abandon it. Engagement means caring; and there is a difference between attentiveness to a product or service and caring. One way of understanding that difference is that caring is relational. We take care because of how others perceive our actions, or we care for others through some structured reciprocity. Engagement in the business and (sometimes) government sectors has come to mean extreme attentiveness, but the frame of civic media places it back into the realm of caring.