Participation on the Town Square in the Era of Web 2.0

Collective decision-making is central to the quality of life in communities, towns, and city neighborhoods throughout the US whether it is routine and long term planning or timely and critical follow up to crises. Being able to debate, reflect, form opinions, consider counter evidence and make informed decisions is the foundation of civic life. These capabilities are undermined by a strange combination of diminishing (or extinct) local print media, especially local newspapers, and by its obverse, a plethora of information and communication opportunities that are scattered across numerous disparate websites and social software.

How can social software together with network analysis and data mining help to harness and model these myriad online resources and social interactions to support and foster broader and more diverse civic participation in America’s communities? We envision a single unified and comprehensive site – what we are calling a Virtual Town Square based on an automated, continuous aggregation of locally relevant online content generated elsewhere by others with aggregated and built-in social interaction and discussion.

Our research objectives are to:

  1. design, build and investigate a virtual town square (VTS) for geographic communities;
  2. model communication behavior and effects related to the use of social software, including VTS, by diverse users (e.g., civic participation, social interaction, political/collective efficacy);
  3. conduct computational analyses on complex data derived from content in VTS and related uses of social software to identify and analyze implicit social and information networks, and to track and model the flow of information throughout the community.

The social behavior that we expect to emerge from the use of VTS and related social software is an increase in social interaction and discussion among more diverse users due to opportunities afforded by VTS. Overall, the effect of VTS and related social interaction should be to broaden civic participation, and to increase and widen the distribution (i.e., flow) of information throughout the community. This should occur because information gatekeeping is minimized, while relevant content and social interaction are maximized through aggregation and discussion. Ultimately, we expect more diverse users to participate due to the combination of social software (leveraging social networks) and network analysis and data mining.

Intellectual merit: The intellectual merit of our research is multifold. We build on more than a decade of interdisciplinary research on the social and civic/political use and impact of community computer networking and network analysis and data mining. Results of our proposed studies will contribute to an understanding of social media use by local government, community organizations and citizens, and the community-wide effects of such use. Our research will contribute to knowledge about the role of social networks and software in civic engagement and the tools that support and foster such engagement. We expect behavior to emerge among community members that increases the: 1) breadth and diversity of participation; 2) heterogeneity of discussion networks; and 3) flow and distribution of information. The final design of VTS will inform the design of future community computer networking, especially for collective long term planning and problem solving both at the individual and the organizational levels.

Broader impacts: The proposed study is motivated by recent foundational changes in democratic society due to advances in information and communication technology (ICT) and in network analysis and data mining. We expect the result of our work to be an important increase in broad based participation in local democratic processes due to the game-changing role we argue is played by social software, as well as network analysis and data mining. We anticipate changes in civic awareness, political and collective efficacy, civic engagement and information sharing among diverse users, including underrepresented groups (i.e., young adults and adults with lower socioeconomic status). Our findings from a longitudinal study of Blacksburg, VA and environs have been shown to generalize to similar towns, and to mixed lower and middle class rural areas in the US. We will make the VTS software available as an open source project.