Fostering civic engagement in digital spaces

Michele McLellan, a fellow at the Knight Center for Digital Media has started a conversation she calls “civic engagement 2.0”. She’s examining the tools and best practices that journalists and other news providers can use to foster civic engagement in digital spaces.

In her recently revised post on civic engagement 2.0, McLellan asks:

Is this the best way to be looking at this issue?
What best practices exist and who is developing them?
Do some of these practices exist outside journalism? Should I see if they can be adapted?
What is most missing in terms of tools and best practices that can help journalists engage in civic discourse online?

Much of civic engagement must come from a mindset of servicing a community and while journalism is a “calling-based profession,” the organizations themselves have not broadly defined themselves as a listening organizations. In order to serve a community, a listening posture is required.

customer-service

Understanding the larger cultural movements and gestalt of our times can also help media organizations and more nimble hyperlocal operators service communities better. A good book for understanding our current cultural path is called “Craving Community: The New American Dream” by Todd Mansfield, Ross P. Yockey and L. Beth Yockey. While their primary focus is on designing physical communities that foster connectivity, they also examine the science of community…our human need to connect.

These listening practices may come from a corporate America and companies that practiced a continuous improvement model to gain competitive advantage. Books like “Service America” by Karl Albrecht and Ron Zemke help to define the actions of this service posture in a consumer-focused culture. Their latest edition examines the effects of technology on service and how technological efficiency has set back customer service by 10 years.

When I created mytopiacafe.com (now defunct) for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, I created a service posture and philosophy. We were an organization/skunkworks designed to service the community. All our functions, content, tools, and actions were designed to foster community dialogue and build social capital (a way to measure the effects of your actions is by looking at social capital metrics).

That meant returning phone calls, getting that graduation photo scanned and up online and returned to grandma, going anywhere and everywhere to demonstrate how the site could be useful to the community. That service posture went a long way to developing a real following in the community.

  • Listen.
  • Do what you say you’re going to do.
  • Do it promptly.
  • Don’t think technology is the replacement for real service.
  • Walk the streets and listen to everyone.
  • Honor the stories, contributions, and complaints of those you come across as opportunities for improvement.
  • Work at humility.

But monetizing civic engagement is a difficult proposition for for-profit entities. The effects must build over time and unfortunately, the experiment called mytopiacafe.com was shelved just as it had reached its tipping point. But the lessons learned are valuable for anyone venturing into fostering civic engagement in digital spaces.

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Fostering civic engagement in digital spaces