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.

04 Dec

Social Media for Everyday Democracy

Social media does not democracy make. While there are extraordinary examples during the Arab Spring, for example, of Facebook and Twitter enabling mass assembly and connecting local movements to the globe, there are many more examples of everyday democracy where technology has fallen flat. In the United States, elected officials often use Facebook to connect with constituents and poll opinions. But there is a clear distinction between the mostly bottom-up use of social media for macro-coordination in the name of democratic protest, and the mostly top-down use of the media to collect opinions. While both serve some aspect of democratic participation, they are qualitatively unique phenomena.

Each has a unique assumption about the user/citizen. The activist model assumes a passionate user that, heated by the moment, will assemble or take action. The everyday democracy model assumes a dispassionate user who can, given only the channel to communicate, provide good, rational ideas. Of course, in practice, it’s never this clear cut. Protesters can be dispassionate, and those providing feedback to government can be quite passionate.

Governments are not interested in enabling mass protest. They typically want to take actions to avoid it. And, one reasonable action they can take would be to enable everyday democracy by providing good channels for feedback. Increasingly, governments and civic organizations, especially within the United States, are doing this. So, as they work social media into their outreach plans, they often employ models that assume dispassionate citizens that are simply waiting to communicate their brilliant, well-reasoned ideas.

Whenever I deploy a social media tool within a local context, the question I get more than any other is: “can you name an idea that someone posed in the system that was actually implemented?” The answer is typically “no.” But more to the point: why would it matter? It is hardly democratic for a single idea to cut through the fat and rise to the top. The hope, I would hope, would be for an idea to gain traction, to transform, and to meaningfully persuade others so that a wider conversation can take place. I typically don’t get questions about the context of dialogue, or the learning objectives of the process; only, did social media mine the one brilliant idea? Or, perhaps more accurately, did social media mine the one brilliant idea that we already knew we wanted to implement?

There is a simple lesson in all of this: social media for everyday democracy cannot be about discrete ideas from the dispassionate citizen. It has to establish context, opportunity for dialogue, modes of sharing and connecting, which go beyond the mechanisms currently in place. If we just build tools that open up decontextualized channels via text or SMS, we are no closer to meaningful democratic participation. We just have more people participating in a system that doesn’t work.

04 Apr

Six Principles of Designing for Engagement

Designing for local engagement within the context of net locality is a multi-faceted process.  Building systems of interaction that are capable of sustaining a user’s attention both to other users and the locality of use, requires the consideration of a wide array of features and modes of participation.  The following six design considerations provide a framework for transforming participation and maximizing engagement.

1) What’s the Reason for Engagement? Too often, community-oriented tools are built with the assumption that simply because they exist people will use them.  In fact, there is nothing inherently usable about a tool – a hammer is good at pressing nails into a hard surface, but not ideal for opening cans.  Good tools are built to address recognizable problems.  The nail is a recognizable problem; the can is a problem forced to fit the availability of a tool. In the case of a community, bad roads and rising crime are recognizable problems; lack of local bloggers is a problem oriented around a tool.  A good tool should reorient its user to the nature of a problem, but it should not create it.

It is one thing for a problem to exist, it is quite another for a group of people to be able to articulate the existence of that problem.  It is therefore imperative that along with the introduction of a tool, there is a clear articulation of the problem to which that tool will be applied and a general consensus on the importance of that problem.

2) Who’s Listening? A community’s engagement with solving a problem is dependent upon who is paying attention to the community’s efforts.  When designing for engagement, it is important to consider not only the internal machinations of community building, but the external considerations that ultimately play a greater role in defining the identity and task of the community. A group of people in a neighborhood can talk all they want about their opposition to a new zoning ordinance, but it is in the externalization of that conversation through a blog, public forum, or some other means, that defines the identity and the goals of the community. 

It is important to make explicit the internal and external features of a community’s participation.  A sense of community stems from personal connections and identification with shared problems; but the sustainability of that identification is dependent upon their being an audience.  Designing engagement, therefore, is partly a matter of designing the context whereby a community can find and approach an audience.

3) People Comprise Locations; Locations Don’t Comprise People. In designing for geographical locations, designers tend to approach the problem as a geographical one.  What are the concerns in New York, Paris, or Boise?  While this is a good place to begin, the location often supersedes the people that comprise the location.  There are people in New York, Paris and Boise that, in addition to the geographic specificity of those places, define the locality’s meaning.  The challenge for designing engagement is articulating the connection between a geographic space and the people that participate in its definition. How can a user of a local social software platform, for instance, feel as though their participation matters in the larger context of defining a place? Digital tools are quite good at aggregating user data into something that can reflect the general make-up of a located community.  But engagement requires that in addition to making a user aware of aggregated data, they are perpetually aware of the individual actions that comprise aggregation.  In some respects, this is standard protocol for social software – user data makes the network more usable, but mutual sharing between identifiable individuals makes the network meaningful.

4) Design for the Community you want, not the community you know.  When employing ICTs in any local design problem, there is a component of aspirational thinking.  There is a sense, that goes along with digital technology, that the solutions generated through the intervention will be bigger, better and more sustainable.  This assumption is rife with ideological implications that new technology is associated with progress and even progressivism. These can indeed be dangerous assumptions.  But, the reaction to the possibilities of these assumptions can be equally as dangerous.  To not employ new technologies for fear of bending to these ideological assumptions is equally detrimental.  Simply put, the tool should fit the problem.   And new technologies are both potentially efficient means of doing so and productive means of understanding the scope of the problem. For example, a hammer provides the solution to pressing nails into a hard service; an electric hammer provides the means of doing so on a much larger scale.  The electric hammer transforms the problem without necessarily erasing the original context of the problem.

As such, when designing for engagement, it is important to understand how the tool transforms the reach of engagement.  Digital networks can reach large amounts of people in a distributed fashion.  In some cases, the quality of engagement is contingent on reducing the numbers of those engaged.  In other cases, the quality of engagement is premised on expansion.  Participating in a neighborhood meeting can be more meaningful if those participating feel as though their neighborhood is adequately represented.   Designers of engagement need to consider how scale will factor into user perceptions of their participation.  If the scale is too large, they might not feel connected to others involved in the process; if the scale is too small, they might feel that their participation is not meaningful enough for those listening.  Quantity is not in itself a positive attribute of a process; it is a variable that should be considered in design.

5) Face-to-face Matters.  It is a general misconception that when using ICTs for community engagement, there is no need for face-to-face connections.  In fact, there is considerable evidence that online networks are bolstered by offline networks, and vice versa [2,3].  Intermittent physical presence can have a noticeable affect on giving a community of users a sense of each other and the directionality of online communication.  It can provide a useful visualization of an online network and a human face to many-to-many correspondence.  This can work in two ways: as an introductory framework for online communication; or as an anticipatory framework for online communication.  If people meet face-to-face before they engage online, they can better understand to whom they are communicating; if people know they are going to meet face-to-face after they communicate online, it can serve as motivation for productive and meaningful exchanges.

As a design consideration for local engagement, face-to-face meetings can be quite effective for motivating sustained attention to an online community.  These face-to-face encounters can be used as periodic reminders of the physical context of online communication or can occur only once.  In any case, good design should not just arrange for these meetings to happen, but give the design of these meetings equal and complimentary consideration. 

6) Design for Distraction. Engagement does not imply undivided attention.  When people are engaged in a community process, they are doing multiple other things simultaneously.  They have families, social lives, jobs, and other interests.  To engage them is not to have them sacrifice their commitment to any or all of these things.  It is to have them direct a limited amount of their attention to a particular matter. Designing for engagement is designing for distraction.  Engagement implies sustained attention, but it does not imply absolute attention.  Attention is spread out across time, not just across space.  The ideal user is a multi-tasker, switching from one thing to another with ease. In this regard, civic engagement implies the ability to take from multiple contexts and apply towards a specific matter when nudged by a well-designed system to do so.  With the civil uprisings in the Middle East dominating the media discourse about technologies and local engagement, it is easy to assume that successful media engagement must lead to social revolution.  In fact, in a much more prosaic fashion, civic engagement simply means being aware of civic processes and their corresponding communities and contributing some level of care to decisions made about them.

11 Sep

Community PlanIt

While it has been announced in a number of forums, I have not yet written about the Engagement Game Lab on this blog.  In August 2010, the Engagement Game Lab was born as a virtual research organization at Emerson College. The lab is a place to hone in on the production and research of local engagement games (LEGs); more directly, the work of the lab is to advance games that seek explicitly to foster local civic engagement and local community.  This includes the design of new games and the design of research methods that address how the experiential qualities of play correspond to the pragmatic concerns of local life.  We want to explore ways of evaluating the success of these games that go beyond the isolation of simple variables.  Does playing a game result in increased voter turnout?  I think that’s a silly question.  I would prefer to ask questions such as, does playing a game cause players to rethink how they approach their vote?  Games do not prompt new behaviors, in most cases.  They can, however, provide a new lens through which to view familiar actions.  In the case of LEGs, they can provide a new lens through which to view one’s neighborhood and the social and political structures therein.

Our current game that we are designing with support from the Technology for Engagement Initiative at the Knight Foundation is called Community PlanIt.

Community PlanIt

Community PlanIt is a LEG that uses web, mobile phone and tablet interfaces to engage communities in local urban planning issues.  We are building a game platform so that it can be used in any locality.  The foundation of the game is a mission system that gets players exploring their own neighborhoods in order to share the local knowledge they possess. They compete and collaborate with neighbors to create and gather data that will then factor into an official planning process.  The planning meeting itself will be augmented by the game.  Players/participants will demonstrate their understanding of the neighborhood and the issues by giving a virtual character a tour of the neighborhood.  They will have to see the neighborhood through someone else’s shoes before they are able to make their personal recommendations.  The platform we are designing will allow for the customization of characters and missions to make the game maximally appropriate for the local context.

Community PlanIt can be used for any community planning process centered on physical space.  For instance, planning a town square, creating a transportation plan, identifying healthy lifestyles, or mapping sub cultures.  We are building the platform in partnership with four communities so that we can anticipate possible uses and cover the widest array of necessary features.

We are planning a 9 month development cycle and hope to have a prototype available by April 2011.  


16 Apr

Civic Multitasking

Local civic engagement is an outcome of local attention.  When people engage in their neighborhoods they are paying attention to their neighborhoods amidst the myriad other things to which they could be paying attention.  They are stopping to engage in a local group, a process, or a meeting, and for that brief period of time, turning their focus towards their local geographic space.  So, the problem of waning civic engagement, so thoroughly documented by scholars such as Robert Putnam, is not merely a disenchantment with group processes, but can also be considered a problem of attention.  And, if we consider attention as something that is multiple, rather than binary, civic engagement (local attention), is not undivided.  In other words, we have the capacity to participate in local affairs through many avenues – joining a neighborhood listserv is one; attending a community meeting is another.  Civic multitasking is a viable form of participation and it in no way compromises the value of that participation.  It is similar to what N. Katherine Hayles describes as hyper attention – “Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

Civic multitasking does not presume shallow focus, but instead assumes multiple foci, with each capable of depth.  And with most instances of hyper attention, deep and momentary focus bleeds over into other foci.  For instance, seeing a powerful film will influence the way you see other films, engage in fan communities, etc.  Just because focus is multiple, it does not mean that it is equally distributed.  So I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the participatory chinatown project.  We have built a game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown in that neighborhood’s master planning process. The game is intended to provide a deep and meaningful engagement in the neighborhood’s issues over the course of a two-hour meeting.  It is intended to, through the process of augmented deliberation, create a deep and lasting experience.  It is clear how the game can create a deep experience – it provides a scaffolding of interaction that quite literally captures the user’s attention and focuses participation onto the local context.  However, how it provides a lasting experience is less clear.

The game is intended as a reference point for civic multitasking.  It becomes a powerful reference within the multiplicity of a user’s attention.  Through the creation of a deep experience, it draws attention back to the locality, when attention might otherwise have gone elsewhere.  We have devised many, less time consuming mechanisms of paying attention to the game space after playing it, without playing it again.  Users can consult the website for continued updates on the process and on their own contributions to the game.  Paying attention to the game’s website, if only periodically and momentarily, is precisely the kind of civic engagement we are seeking.  The game provides an attentional reference point that can be continually called up within a psychological and social environment of multitasking.  In order for a game like this to be meaningful and effective, we have to adjust our terms of assessment.  The game will not result in a return to focused civic engagement; however, through the lens of civic multitasking, the game will hopefully provide that moment of deep attention that will ground the hyper attentional realities of civic life.  Our goal is to get people to pay attention to their local communities; but, likewise, our goal is to reorient expectations of attention and to discover and develop new platforms for civic multitasking.

28 Oct

Augmented Deliberation

The central premise of the Participatory Chinatown project is the staging of what we call “augmented deliberation.”  We introduce augmented deliberation as a possible design solution that addresses uniquely difficult contexts where deliberation is complicated by one or many external factors, including language barriers, power differentials, visualization and challenges with communicating professional discourses.  It is specifically relevant in the context of urban planning, because the prospect of communicating complex urban concepts associated with rather abstract spatial dynamics is a significant challenge – one that requires creative solutions.  Augmented deliberation is the process whereby a group of people deliberate in a face-to-face setting while they are simultaneously immersed in virtual environments. It consists of three design values: 1) it is a multimedia group communication process which balances the specific affordances of digital technologies with the established qualities of face-to-face group deliberation; 2) it emphasizes the power of experience; and 3) it promotes sustainability and reproducibility through digital tracking.

The Participatory Chinatown project, which is the second iteration of Hub2, is coming close to realizing the goal of augmented deliberation.  We are in the process of designing a 3D game that will run in a web browser.  The goal of this game is to get participants playing a role whereby they accomplish everyday tasks in their neighborhood.  The game board is the existing space of Boston’s Chinatown.  Players are tasked with things like finding a job, finding an apartment, or finding a place to socialize.  In doing this, we aim to create the shared experience of the space in question that can serve as the springboard for productive deliberation.  Once the players have had  the opportunity to explore and complete their quest, they are then asked a simple question: “what does the neighborhood need now?”  They are then given the opportunity to make decisions both individually and collectively as a means of providing input into the process and, perhaps more importantly, to give them the sense that they are engaged in an ongoing conversation about the neighborhood.  They will have the opportunity to go back into the game to play different quests and to read and write comments about the neighborhood.

Augmented deliberation is the process.   The game is the form that we happen to be investigating.  We believe that providing the game scaffolding is going be very useful for getting citizens to deliberate over the complex matters of physical urban transformation.  Specifcally, the qualities of immersion and role play.  We are spending a good deal of time trying to make the game fun and engaging; this is the incentive for participation.  But we remain aware of the potential pitfalls in this kind of project.  If the serious work of community planning is fun, will it be misinterpreted by the community as frivilous?  We will see.


10 Jul

Creating Empathy Through Role Play

We’ve made some good progress on the Participatory Chinatown (PC) project.   Building off of the first iteration of Hub2, PC will continue with the focus on creating platforms for “augmented deliberation,” but it will do so by more thoroughly exploring the power of role play in people’s ability to understand urban issues.  In the past project, we experimented with role play by giving participants a piece of paper with a character description on it and asking them to “inhabit” their avatar “as if” they were that person.  They were immersed in the space via Second Life, but they weren’t sufficiently immersed in the character.  This time, we’re taking role play to the next level by building the experience around character identification.  I’ve partnered with Eric Klopfer at MIT to develop the game concept and we’re using a new platform called Sandstone, developed by the good folks at Muzzylane, to build out the game.

The premise is simple: we want people who come to a community meeting to have the experience of Chinatown as someone other than themselves so that they might  be better able to make good decisions about the neighborhood.  By getting people out from behind their own concerns (if only for a few minutes), we hope to create the kind of empathy and civic mindedness that is ideal for providing valuable input into a planning process and also for developing trust amongst stakeholders.   The idea stems from some research done by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford.  In their article, “Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective-Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments,” they demonstrate how the strength of stereotypes that college students hold about the elderly is reduced when they inhabit an avatar of an elderly person.  By being in someone else’s digital shoes,  a player is able to identify with that person in a substantial way.  Yee and Bailensen develop their study from the concept of perspective-taking.  

When we judge ourselves, we tend to rely on situational factors (i.e., “I did poorly on the test because I didn’t sleep well the night before.”).  On the other hand, when we judge others, we tend to rely on dispositional factors (i.e., “He did poorly on the test because he’s not that bright.”).  Thus when people are forced to observe their own actions (via a video tape), they tend to make more dispositional rather than situational attributions.  The reverse is also true.  When participants are asked to take the perspective of the person they are observing, participants tend to make situational rather than dispositional attributions (148).

This is precisely what we’re trying to accomplish in PC.  We want players to make situational observations about their characters so that they might be better able to put their needs into a situational rather than dispositional context.  For instance, we want people to say “gentrification might affect that person adversely because of their social circumstances,” not simply to say “those people don’t know what they’re doing and what they’re missing.”

There are lots of questions remaining about the nature of the game we’re designing, but the goals are becoming quite clear. We want empathy to enter into the practice of community deliberation.  And we think we can get there by allowing players to literally walk a mile in someone else’s digital shoes.

13 May

Paying Attention to the Local

While new mobile technologies are often characterized as distractions from the world around us – just consider the outcry over train operators texting while driving – they are, in fact, technologies of attention.  They get us to pay attention to them.  Actually, that’s not true.  We don’t pay attention to our devices, we pay attention to what our devices mediate.  We pay attention to our girlfriend (as is the case of the Green Line operator in Boston); we pay attention to restaurant reviews; we pay attention to that latest iPhone app.  These little devices have the remarkable capacity to organize our attentional allocation away from the living, breathing world around us and towards miniaturized icons and intermittent text.  It’s remarkable when you consider how critics of modernity lamented the presence of the very large and present in our urban landscapes as defilers of focus.  And crtics of post-modernity (if that’s what we want to call it) lament the presence of the very small and distant as instigators of distraction.

But the truth is – these very small devices don’t only distract us from the world that is in some a priori manner; they focus us on certain things that are equally constructive of our worlds.  I am not saying they can’t take us away from where we are; in fact, that’s very possible, even probable.  But that is just one of their capabilities.  Mobile technologies can also draw our attention to things that matter in the environment.  Consider Wikitude.  They can attach our focus to the world around us, even if that happens by pulling information from the web or connecting to a friend not physically present.   It is all a matter of design.  Mobile technologies should be considered tools for the urban attentional architect.  How can they be used to draw attention to certain things while not precluding experience outside of their mediating power?  How can they make a user aware of the architectural significance of a building, while encouraging an interaction unmediated by the device?  Mobile technologies do not have to dominate any given experience.  Properly designed, urban experience can be a complex interweaving of networked information, face-to-face encounters and the presence of physical structures.  Urban architecture is not just physical.  It is attentional.  What we pay attention to in the urban environment is subject to design well beyond the boundaries of buildings.   But architects and technologists are largely ignoring this aspect of urban experience.  I wonder if there can be a role for attentional architects in the future of urban design.