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Themen: Vermessung der Netzwelt 

Abstract

DIVSI Study on Areas and Forms of Participation on the Internet

23. Oktober 2014

Of clicktivists and genuine activists: What does Internet participation mean?

Prof. Dr. Miriam Meckel

The select committee „Internet and the Digital Society“ appointed by the German Bundestag worked for two years to acquire understanding of the Internet – in its repercussions and practical applications. The process itself prompted the most obvious investigation: German citizens were asked for their participation to let their own ideas and comments influence the work. The result is evident at a glance: 12,579 members of the online platform „EnqueteBeteiligung“ (www.enquetebeteiligung.de) submitted 494 proposals, left 2,356 comments and cast 14,602 votes.

But a second glance prompts the question: Is it good or bad, a little or a lot, helpful or a burden, and, above all, what has become of this kind of civic participation? Although it is possible to narrow down the response to some of these questions by taking a closer look at the website, many aspects remain unclear.

This is not merely true of this participation platform; it applies equally to almost everything that happens on the Internet under the term „participation“. The rise of digitisation and connectivity has transformed the term into a buzzword, removing its precise coordinates along the way to widespread popularity. So it is high time to take a closer look, to debunk a few myths revolving around the idea of participation.

First myth: We are always on the lookout for ways to participate

There is no doubt that participation is an integral element of the social Internet’s DNA; but do we use it? The Milieu Study (2012) conducted by the German Institute for Trust and Security on the Internet (DIVSI) revealed: a „participation gap“ persists in Germany. The group of „Digital Outsiders“ especially, which still accounts for roughly 40 % of the population, remains fairly inactive on the Internet. And in the same way that a minority of people become activists in real life, the „Pareto principle“ applies just as much on the Internet, also: there is a vital few and a trivial many.

Second myth: Participation is always equatable with political activism

It is entirely judicious in traditional media and communication research to express reasonable doubts as to whether the clear distinctions between information and entertainment are accurate. This applies all the more to the Internet. Many boundaries between what previously had been considered clear boundaries between motives for, and forms of, use are becoming increasingly blurred on the Internet. There are two entirely different forms of engagement on the Internet. Politics represents the most important area of participation, at least in terms of the corresponding scope of academic and public appraisal. Nevertheless, forms of engagement that are not attributable to the political realm are not necessarily apolitical or uninvolved. The Internet yields impressive forms of „peer production“ that stand for participation in business. The Net also releases a creative force in the area of art. New teaching and learning platforms (e.g., MOOCs) are among the examples of participation in the education sector. And people who use Internet forums to share experiences of their common illnesses are also involved in a kind of participation. So politics is just one of the fields that involves connectivity, and others are equally worthy of consideration.

Third myth: We all use the same Internet

Technically speaking, it’s true. We all move through one and the same Net, use standardised Internet protocols and IP addresses to navigate, frequently on just a handful of popular platforms. But there are no standards when it comes to what people do on or with the Internet. Instead, here the Net reveals its capacity for non-central and dynamic avenues of development: Surfing and posting, mailing and downloading, skyping and chatting, consumerism and creativity – all of this is possible on the Net. It places the platform and the instruments at our fingertips; but what we use them for is up to us. „I’m online“ – twenty years ago it was new and a valid statement to describe the next stage of technological development. For some time now we have used the Internet – as the global computer network – for a broad variety of undertakings: For instance, we use the World Wide Web via HTTP and browsers, share our experiences via social networks such as Facebook or Twitter (Web 2.0), become customers in proprietary systems like the Apple platform iTunes and sometimes rove through domains that are hidden from the eyes of the general public such as the Dark Net. Wherever we look there are people participating. But they are involved in a wide range of things on a variety of activity levels that may differ extensively in terms of their purpose and form.

Fourth myth: Participation is always desirable and good

This is a fair assumption, but it is a very normative perspective and also not consistently true. Firstly, the Internet users in Germany tend to belong to groups with a higher socio-economic status. Secondly, participation has more than just its positive sides. Between these lines there are unremarkable or less spectacular forms of participation that play out in the simple acts of shopping on the Net, playing online games or working. It appears that the traditional understanding of participation is unsuited to some forms of engagement: For instance in the political realm when it comes to „clicktivism“ or „slacktivism“1 , in which participation is no more than „liking“ a protest movement on Facebook. By the same token, excessive participation in our social intercourse may lead to the fragmentation of public structures when the high stakeholders only perceive what pertains to, and suits, their interests. Equally, too much participation may quite simply prompt an overload: „Information overkill“ and „techno-stress“ are the consequences.

Fifth myth: The Internet changes everything or nothing

This is how the discussion of new technologies goes: Two extreme perspectives quickly form, and the truth is usually found somewhere in-between. The Internet does not suddenly transform everyone into an activist, neither politically nor socially. But we are adopting an overly simplistic stance if we assume that the main point of online participation is to ease our consciences by clicking on the Like button. Let’s remember: As a „mass medium“, the Net is less than ten years old. So we are all venturing forth into a new era that most certainly will experience fundamental changes thanks to the Internet. But it is a marathon, not a dash. We need to take breaks en route, pause for reflection and look forwards to see where the path will take us.

Our summary of research into the topic area of participation on the Net shows: There are three rough concepts that require more in-depth analysis and that will help understand that participation on the Internet is a rich and multifaceted concept. The Net is an enabler; primarily, therefore, it delivers access to information. It can be integrative and hence offer opportunities for interaction, dialogue and connectivity. It can also empower, allowing us to engage in cooperative forms of interaction in our processes of design and decision-making. The three forms of participation reveal more than just shades of difference. And we will have to distance ourselves from a few received wisdoms in order to understand and interpret them correctly.

We see also: The Internet provides us with extremely varied forms of participation. Some of them exhibit similarities with what the term has meant traditionally; but others open up entirely new doors and perspectives. It is increasingly difficult to draw a clear line between analogue and digital, offline and online participation. The boundaries are becoming blurred. More and more people are choosing nonconformist methods of participation on the Net, beyond the familiar institutionalised forms. Indeed, perhaps the term „participation“ itself no longer entirely matches what it describes in the Internet age. Maybe we should speak instead of „connective action“ (Bennet & Segerberg, 2012)?

It is worthwhile to leave behind some of the aforementioned myths to acquire a greater understanding of what actually drives people to become involved on and with the Net. Participation is not always equatable with substantial activity or important decisions such as those involved in elections. Participation may also be simply using the Net to purchase lipstick in support of an AIDS charity or by „liking“ something on Facebook merely to draw attention to the pros and cons of a particular concern. And statistics alone are meaningless. Are a million „likes“ worth as much as 100 votes in an election? And who decides whether they are?

Digging trenches in the understanding of participation, accepting only a conventional understanding and reducing it to political activity, means refuting the intentions or opportunities of many people to play an active role in a digital, connected life. This would be a fairly arrogant – and in many respects quite inaccurate – stance when we consider the new opportunities for engagement that the Internet offers. After all, it is not always a question of more, faster, farther. How much people undertake in which period of time to display their engagement in a certain process via the Internet is meaningless in terms of their personal benefit or indeed contribution on a grander scale. So what was that again with the select committee „Internet and the Digital Society“?

Miriam Meckel
St. Gallen, March 2014

  1. A hybrid of the words „click“ and „activism“. Describes the use of electronic media – primarily social media – for a social concern. Critics are concerned that non-committal or essentially inefficacious „clicks“ on the Internet may replace real-world engagement. The neologism „slacktivism“ is a hybrid of the words „slacker“ and „activism“. []

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