01 May

What are civic actions?

In 2000, the sociologist Robert Putnam was unambiguous in his concern that the new World Wide Web was leading to the decay of civic engagement. People were simply spending too much time online and becoming more comfortable with being disconnected from their physical space. Much has changed since the days of Alta Vista and personal homepages, but specifically the proliferation of social media and what I have elsewhere called net locality have led to a complex civic landscape where civic actions exist well beyond geographic communities and institutions. It is possible to advocate and to organize entirely online. Protesting Facebook’s newest privacy policy is a civic action, signing an online petition against the passage of SOPA and PIPA is a civic action, even joining a Kickstarter campaign to get a website funded can be a civic action. These “online” actions are civic insofar as they are taken to affect change in a community or institution outside of one’s private domain. In other words, the deliberate taking part in any social situation that extends beyond one’s immediate family and home can be considered civic.


While expansive, this definition can be troubling. One of the values associated with civic engagement is commitment and responsibility to an outside social situation. In an ideal case, voting in a presidential election demonstrates not simply participation, but a commitment to an external institution (government) and the responsibility that comes along with participating. Or in the Harry Potter Alliance, as an example, when young people advocate for changes in corporate policies by rallying together with other Harry Potter fans, there is responsibility to the fan community, beyond one’s personal reputation, represented by the Alliance. Whether these actions take place online or offline is not important; instead, the relative responsibility that the actor feels to the institution or community, indicates the “thickness” of the engagement.   When the action is taken towards an ephemeral issues without institutional or geographic grounding (liking a group on Facebook, for example), it is more difficult for the individual to feel a sense of commitment or responsibility. The civic action is qualitatively different, even though its basic mechanics are the same.


Responsibility is dependent on the relative presence of an institution in one’s life. If one feels little connection to the city in which they live, for example, they are less likely to feel responsible for interactions with their local government. But if one spends eight hours a day in World of Warcraft, then they are quite likely to act to better the community of players, perhaps even to improve the game world.


The reality is that people are spending a large amount of time online and they are accomplishing everyday tasks, from reading the news to chatting with friends, on their computers or phones. The institutions to which young people feel responsible are the ones that interface with everyday life, and not the ones that appear to represent distant structures outside of lived reality. And as government remains married to its original (read: authentic) modality of town halls and voting booths, than government becomes a distant institution, one that seems increasingly distant and irrelevant to civic life. So civic actions are not in decline, in fact there is good evidence to suggest that this generation is more civically minded than previous generations, only the target of their actions and the publics they cultivate are outside traditional government and institutions.


Civic actions are increasingly accessible, shareable and playful. They are accessible in so far as the institutions or communities with which people interact have a presence in their everyday lives with clear channels of communication. They are shareable in that actors tend to legitimize actions by sharing them with a clearly articulated community of actors. For example, when sharing something on Facebook, the user has an understanding of the audience for that post. When posting a comment on a newspaper website, for example, there is only a generalizable concept of audience. And they are playful in that there is room for interpretation and exploration in the act itself as opposed to it being prescribed with clear outcomes. Voting in a presidential election is not playful, but engaging in a participatory budgeting process is.


This is how people are engaging in the world and this is how individual actors are taking responsibility for institutions and communities. It is imperative that government understands what civic engagement looks like and work towards establishing points of connection that match these practices. Most governments are still working towards putting services online. That’s just not enough. If government as an institution is going to matter to young people, it needs to enable interactions that are accessible, shareable and playful.

2 thoughts on “What are civic actions?

  1. It seems to me that interactions in politics are grinding, shopping, duespaying, envelope stuffing, and knocking on doors of strangers, dealing with interminable meetings with often unpleasant and even stupid people who vehemently wish you dulid not exist. It is sausagemaking, duspaying and conflict. The republic was engineered to guarantee that no one wins. So into this democracy melee, how are we to accommodate your prozac generation of social mediacs? I don’t really have a first clue how to sanitize politics, anything redder in tooth and claw than one might fin in a canned food drive for charity, for the crowd you seem to be describing.

    We need to be engaging footsoldiers in civics, but mostly, we have no organizers to give structure and agenda to all-politics/civics-being-local.

  2. Pingback: Technology for the future | Introduction to Media & Culture

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