Getting Involved

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.

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4 comments

  1. Hi, Scott, and welcome to town. I especially welcome anybody who asks such excellent questions. Anybody who can quote Shirky is okay with me ;->

    You bring up an excellent point about how people find local sites like H2otown. One problem for sites like these is that they are often buried several pages deep in Google’s search results. Because Page Rank is in part based on incoming links, local sites may be at a disadvantage. After all, if you live two towns over, why link to H2otown? Sites that are topically focused can be linked to by a larger number of sites and enjoy proportionately higher Page Rank. Popular local sites are likely to have high traffic but low inbound links.

    I actually created another site, Placeblogger.com, in part to make it easier for people to find local sites. At Placeblogger you can search by location. It’s a very modest effort at present but I’m going to keep working on it.

    Your basic issue, though, is whether or not a self-selecting pool of people can create a community site that can make a geographical community “better,” for suitable values of better. But how can we know what a community will choose to bond around? The sociologists Amitai Etzione asked this in an article about Robert Putnam’s book-length paean to traditional communities, “Bowling Alone.” Etzione’s article was entitled “Is Bowling Alone Sociologically ‘Lite’?

    Etzione says:

    “Putnam prefers what he calls “bridging” social capital in which bonds of connectedness are formed across diverse social groups…This approach does take us part of the way, but it does not deal with the other risks communities do pose…for instance, if the Sicilian Mafia would “bridge” with the Russian mafia, there would still be cause for concern. And if one bridges liberal communities with macho ones, one cannot assume that liberal values will win. In short, those concerned with restoring community cannot limit themselves to the study of social bonds; they must analyze the mechanisms through which new moral cultures are formed and and study what will prevent them from locking on to values that are incompatible with a free and fair society.”

    I’m not sure this applies exclusively to online formats, though; although Watertown’s population is 32k, the circulation of the newspaper is about 4300. So there might simply be a limiting factor that has to do with how many people will be civically engaged via any medium.

    In the end, I don’t think there are any “set it and forget it” solutions to creating an online community that is, at minimum, non-harmful to its offline counterpart. For my own part, I feel like I have to engage with what’s there every day, and make consistent efforts to broaden the number of people who know about the site and feel like they are entitled to consider themselves part of it.

    PS. I’ve added your weblog to the H2otown Newswire, which lets people who aren’t using RSS aggregators browse headlines from Watertown bloggers.

  2. Hi! Thanks for stopping by, and for your input on this. Placeblogger is a fantastic idea! And thanks for putting me on the newswire :-).

    The newspaper circulation number is interesting, and a bit troubling — do you know whether it’s always been low, or is it caught in the general newspaper downturn?

    Part of what I was trying to get at here was not just that the user base for (e.g.) H2otown is self-selecting, but that it’s self-selecting from an already-selected portion of the population: people who are not only interested enough in civic engagement in their community to look for such sites, but who also have the means to afford internet access, the opportunity to learn to use computers and in particular blogs, fluency in English, and enough time to learn about current issues and to follow and participate in an online forum, as well, of course, as feeling “entitled to consider themselves part of it.” That part is certainly important, and please understand that I’m far from faulting you for these problems; no one yet, that I know of, has found a solution to them.

    It’s just that it’s very easy — for me not less than anyone else — to get caught up in thinking, “hey, this online civic engagement stuff is awesome!” (which it is), and forget that there may be people, such as those stuck in poverty, or members of immigrant communities who may not speak English well, who have as much of a stake in the overall town community and would want to be engaged if they had a way to. Again, I don’t think there’s any one-shot or easy answer to this; indeed, it’s a specific case of a fundamental problem for any democratic system. But structural things like this have been something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    And, after all, given the low newspaper subscription numbers, perhaps there really is as much an issue of overall malaise as there is of structural barriers to access. (I don’t know if you listen to the Radio Boston program on ‘BUR, but they had a fascinating piece this past Friday on the boom in ethnic media as traditional broadsheets’ numbers dwindle.)

  3. I share your suspicion towards what we might call “web triumphalism.” I don’t think H2otown is a substitute for a newspaper or for other forms of civic engagement. Or for social progress in terms of socioeconomic advancement and access to resources.

    In terms of digital divide issues in Watertown, I have sometimes wondered if age and transiency are bigger drivers of connection or lack of connection locally than socioeconomic factors. The average family income of a family in Watertown is quite a bit higher than the national average, and we have very high penetration of both cable TV and broadband internet access. (Consider that we’re part of the 6% of Americans that have competitive cable, and in a “rich get richer” arrangement, Verizon is planning to bring in FIOS to bring us even more and faster access).

    This does not mean that divides don’t exist — they just have a wider variety of sources. My suspicion is that civic engagement in Watertown is more likely to be determined by age (youths aren’t particularly civically engaged, seniors absolutely are very active) and transiency (homeowners more engaged than renters) than by economic factors alone.

    One of the related questions brought up by your post is this: do online communities give a megaphone to people who already have plenty of chances to be heard? In the case of H2otown, I think it does little to change the age distribution of voices in the public sphere, but it does make some modest inroads in making the voices of people who are not lifelong residents more audible.

    Digital divide issues — whether they stem from access to the Internet, economic factors, education, residency, or age, are hard for an individual to tackle, because they require the cooperation of huge numbers of people to effect change. They’re the kind of problems that are typically addressed by governments or markets.

    I heard that same piece on ethnic media — and I’ve met Ellen Hume a few times. One thing it made me think of was that maybe the fact that ethnic media grows while english-language newsmedia shrinks is that it’s a Neil Postman situation — ethnic media might thrive simply because the people who depend on it the most have fewer media options. Anglophones with internet access and cable TV won’t ever run out of entertainment and/or news options, but someone who speaks Hmong probably really looks forward to a weekly in their native language.

  4. Hm, you’re probably right about the Watertown-specific digital divide issues; obviously you know the town better than I do after only living here a couple months! :-) And checking Wikipedia just now, I see that Watertown’s got a somewhat higher median income, and somewhat lower racial diversity, than Waltham. My expectations probably just haven’t recalibrated yet.

    I like “web triumphalism,” though — very apt. I think I’ll have to think more about this stuff before I have anything else substantive to say, but thank you again for the thought-provoking discussion!

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