Beyond The Email Etiquette Policy: Local Government and Social Media

With the 2012 national election now over, we can expect a steep drop in some kinds of political participation in our democracy--from campaign volunteering to learning about candidates and issues through the multitudinous media channels now available to encourage participation. These days, the most talked about channels of political and civic participation are social media. 

What interests us most, however, is not how social media are involving voters in national political campaigns, a common enough media story. We are more intrigued with how social media are doing citizenship work close to home, that is how they are courting broad civic participation at local government levels. And because our commitment is to ethics matters, we want to learn how local governments are responding to some of the potential ethical dilemmas social media potentially pose---from conventional free speech rights to unorthodox forms of collective enfranchisement. 

We received an ebullient and sweeping introduction to these issues in our conversation with Professor Cliff Lampe at the University of Michigan School of Information. Professor Lampe is a pioneering researcher whose work about online communities and social media is creating and advancing a new field. He is also the first researcher using this expertise to study, and on occasion, to counsel local governments, nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups on how to establish beneficial relationships with constituencies to improve democratic governance. 

When we asked him the most basic questions, he gave us a new language to talk about these issues in the future. When we asked him about privacy concerns, he clarified our confusion. When we mentioned equity and access, he offered us a different perspective on what local officials are really worried about. 

Some of his own worries are not what we imagined. He is not bothered by the much publicized narrative, made popular by law professor Cass Sunstein among others, that citizens using social media are primarily afforded more opportunities to flock to channels that reinforce and support their own political attitudes. Instead, Lampe is more apprehensive that citizens will not "flock at all"--to the many more channels that now provide varied access and valuable opportunities for citizens to possibly create new forms of participatory democracy.  

At the end, we felt our time with Cliff Lampe was too short. We never did get around to learning what he thinks about the participatory budget games a few cities are testing, which allow citizens to voice opinions and choose how they would allocate scarce government dollars.

But as Professor Lampe pointed out, we live in an increasingly "thick attention economy," where attention itself is an allocation-of-scarce-resources challenge.  So, how should we spend this scarce time well?  We recommend giving some of your valuable attention looking into the provocative work and ideas of Cliff Lampe and his colleagues.