A couple of months ago I moved from Waltham, MA to neighboring Watertown. I liked Waltham very much, and have been missing it (in particular, missing being a few blocks from the fantastic Watch City Brewing Company, which I cannot recommend highly enough). One thing I always felt like I should have done, but for one reason and another in my five years in Waltham never did, was to get personally involved in some way in local politics. I’m not interested in running for or holding office, but I’m mighty sick of feeling like I follow the news, read up on political theory, and get agitated about the state of affairs I see, but don’t actually do anything about it.
Recently, I came across H2Otown.info, a Watertown-focused blog and news site. It seems to be quite active, and from a quick perusal it looks like quite a lot of local politicians, businesspeople and interested citizens participate there. Several town councillors have accounts, for example. I hope that my initial impressions are accurate, and H2Otown is an indicator of an engaged and active political culture in my new hometown. Indeed, this is the sort of thing I’d love to see in every town, and I wish I’d known about it sooner — as it is, I don’t think I’ve had enough time to learn about the candidates for tomorrow’s Councillor-At-Large election to vote in it, something I feel bad about.
Another issue, of course, is that something like H2Otown is only going to be found by those who are sufficiently interested, sufficiently motivated, and who also have easy access to the internet and leisure to engage in online discussion. So it’s great as far as it goes, but does it go far enough? Is it feasible to try to greatly broaden participation, or will that inevitably run up against Shirky’s Law? In short, when extant structural bias in society is, perhaps unavoidably, reflected microcosmically in a site like H2Otown, which is (presumably) intended to increase civic engagement across the social and political spectra, what can or should be done to work against that bias? Or is this mode of political engagement merely new, in beta as it were, and should I relax, and assume that as all future generations grow up not knowing an Internet-less world, access will naturally spread outside of the privileged few to whom it is currently, for the most part, restricted?
I sound, perhaps, more down on projects like H2Otown than I mean to. I do think it’s a great idea, and I’m glad to see it’s there. I look forward to participating in an at least nominally town-wide discussion of local politics, policy and governance, and indeed, as I said above, I would be thrilled to see such sites start to sprout in more towns.