Friday, 20 November 2009

Social media is important, but not the way you think it is

I attended the "Preconference for the EU 5th Ministerial eGovernment Conference. eGovernment Research and Innovation: Empowering Citizens through Government Services across Sectors and Borders" in Malmö on Wednesday this week. I had the pleasure of doing a co-presentation with Sofie and Johan from PWC, who had crafted a study on youth involvement in politics via social media - partly based on a draft version of a book chapter I wrote soon to appear in print. The presentation is here.

The report is getting at least some media attention in Sweden, so I'll put my comments here, as delivered on 18th November. The text is based on my notes.

I have four points to make.

1) Cultural differences
It is important to remember that when interpreting results from nation-based surveys of this kind, you have to take cultural differerences into account. You could actually take Sweden as a most-likely case for youth involvement online. High penetration rates of social media and traditionally high involvement of citizens in civil society, high levels of social trust and high electoral turnout make Sweden a special country.

2) The online-offline divide is pointless
I also believe that we should regard the Internet and social media not as an arena seperate from other channels of communication or life in general. We are talking about a seamless stream of interactions taking place on a number of platforms, but relations, attitudes and interests for individuals are stable over these platforms. This conference should not be about "eGovernment" and "eParticipation" - it should be about GOVERNMENT and PARTICIPATION!

People frequently underrate "new" forms of involvement, but that does not mean that they are right. A woman I interviewed told me that the political mobilisation attempts in Facebook were of no use. "So I got this invitation to join a group to condemn the local transport agency for selling ad space to religious conservatives, but that wouldn't make any difference, so I called them in person to speak my mind." And with that, she was in effect stating the importance of Facebook mibilisation.

3) Identity management might have indirect effects on political behaviour
Also, expressing political views on social network sites is regarded by most people as shrewd identity management, but in making politics and political views a part of your public identity, you come to view yourself as a politically engaged person. And that might mean something.

4) "Young people" are not a homogeneous group
Finally, we cannot view "young people" or "citizens" as a homogeneous group. Individuals have different backgrounds, motives, interests, skills and so on.

Everything we know about political participation tells us that education, age, and socio-economic status are much more important factors determining whether you will engage - not whether you have a Facebook account or not. In order to foster widespread participation among young people we need to start with providing equal opportunities for engagement - and that means providing good education and well-paid, inspiring jobs for all.

Thank you.

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