A Call For The New Civic Participation Model

Last week ScienceDaily posted an article warning about the decline in active participation in voluntary organizations, with the largest declines in participation occurring “for fraternal, recreational, and ‘other’ memberships, although declines are seen for all other categories of membership as well.” The study used responses from respondents in 99 small Iowa towns. You can check it out for yourself, but it essentially warns of the downfall of voluntary organizations because they are losing their members, and monetary contributions aren’t keeping pace with the loss of human participation. The problem, as they see it, is that there is an ongoing shift from active to passive participation with various potential explanations, including that: “Communities are designed differently with less neighborhood interaction, commutes tend to be longer, television keeps us inside more, and there are some generational differences.”

I’m interested to know how small these towns were, what their broadband access was, and how their time spent on the internet changed over the course of the study (which was conducted between 1994 and 2004). But even outside of this specific case I doubt that many would be surprised to learn about this trend. Work weeks have been growing longer in this country, and television and now the internet are occupying more and more hours of our days, so our relationships and how we conduct them are changing across the board.

SMS, Email and Facebook now dominate our social interactions, as letter writing and phone calls lament the good old days of their primacy. Facebook users join dozens of groups and pages and never have to leave the house. A huge number of things that people used to think were impossible to buy without seeing them in person first are now increasingly bought online – clothing, shoes, refrigerators, curtains, and almost anything else you can think of. And while these new models of commerce and communication are not wholesale replacements for face-to-face interaction and personal physical relationships with others, they will be an important part of new strategies for civic participation, organization and activism.

The point, and the challenge, is to the next generation of local civic activists to look for ways to create active engagement within and on top of the platforms that people are increasingly basing the rest of their lives around – and not just in terms of “Liking” a page, but extending into groups that actually accomplish civic goals.

The first generation of these organizations might already exist in form of sites like Kickstarter and Jumo that crowdsource funding for founders with goals, and Facebook and Twitter that organize relationships for individuals and groups. I’m excited to see what it is, and how it converts the potential energy of these platforms into something more kinetic, and with any luck, as impactful as the apparently ailing face-to-face civic organizations.

What is interesting to me was the slant this article took that this trend represented the early stages of the downfall of civic participation and interacting in groups. I think that concern has merit, but we are also being surrounded by platforms that enable just such interactions and activities – like in the presentation about the London riots – the technology is neutral, it can work for the benefit or the detriment of any issue/situation.

The key will be for people to step up and create situations and incentives to recreate the new versions of those interactions in ways that actually get stuff done or lead to results – and we may not be there yet. It’s like the earlier days of email where it just starting to show an impact on postal revenue and people were screaming about “but what will you do when the post office can’t afford to stay open anymore and has to shut down?” Because at that point if you asked people “what do you need/use more – email or snail mail?” They would have said “snail mail,” but just a short time later… well what would your answer be now?

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