Saturday, September 5, 2009

What's the link between virtual discussion, civic engagement?

Just skimmed over the recent report on The Internet and Civic Engagement from The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project (available here). Interesting stuff about how civic engagement generally and online posting about political issues are correlated. It definitely will require a deeper read.

I'm especially interested to see if it sheds any light on something that I think is a critical, but under-rated, aspect of the whole issue surrounding online civic engagement: the question of causality.

In other words, are people who are just naturally inclined (for whatever reason) to become social/political activists using the Internet as one more tool to communicate, the way earlier generations of activists used newsletters, phone-trees, mailing lists, etc.? Or, does the ability to build communities of interests around specific agendas (political or otherwise) using interactive online communcation really lead people to become engaged in civic matters when they otherwise would not have done so (if the online tools weren't there)?

I've tried to explore some of this in my own research and the evidence I've seen on it is kind of mixed, but leans toward the first of those approaches; i.e., that people tend to be civic activists first. Joining social networks, discussion forums, and the like is just a natural progression for them, building on their innate interests to become involved. Despite the ease and efficiency of becoming "virtually engaged" in civic matters, the Internet isn't creating large-scale civic engagement out of nothing as some of the "cyberutopians" predicted it might back in the early days of its development.

There probably isn't a definitive answer here, and in fact there may be causal influences both ways -- that someone with a mild tendency to be engaged who participates in online civic engagement strengthens that natural tendency, which makes them even more inclined to become more engaged virtually. In other words, a feedback loop develops.

Like I said, it will be interesting to read the Pew report more thoroughly to see if it says anything about these issues. If anyone has any thoughts or ideas about this or suggestions for other research in the area to look at, I would be interested to hear them.

PS: Thank you to Len Witt at for his post about this, which led me to it.

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