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How Technology Is Changing Civic Engagement (And How It’s Not)

Photo By: Mark Smith

Civic engagement. A buzzword in many activist and political circles, but what does it really mean to citizens? The way that people are interacting with their surroundings is changing. This is not only in the way that people shop or socialise, but in how they engage with their governments and communities. Technology is changing the way we can both contribute to our governments and get feedback from our own communities. The way we interact is more online today than ever, but how much is technology really changing the conversation? A few changes that we are seeing in civic engagement are that:

Young People Are More Engaged

Thanks to the rise of social media, young people have more access to information that ever before. Attending town hall meetings is still limited to those specially dedicated to a cause. But those citizens are now sharing their campaigns on social media, furthering the reach of their message. Young people may feel as though they are taken more seriously on social media or other on-line platforms. This is because their age is not immediately clear. An on-line platform often allows participants to be valued in their thoughts and words, rather than external qualifications such as age, race, or gender.

On-line Campaigns Have Greater Reach

The level of civic engagement in a certain project is no longer limited to a certain location. Whether you choose to use an established social site such as Facebook or Twitter, or you create your own space using a platform like WE THINQ, citizens will not be limited by time or space if they want to take part. This is a unique opportunity to reach out to under-represented groups who may be unable) to get to an offline event.

However, technology has not yet changed everything about civic engagement. This US study found that:

Political Activity On-line Is Usually An Indicator Of Offline Activity

While online social engagement has the power to reach new people and expand the conversation, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Most of the people who are actively engaged on-line, were also engaged in an offline medium. Yet, it is possible that people are learning about projects or campaigns on-line and then getting involved with the campaign in their local community. Whether we are reaching people online who would not have been found before, online communities are allowing conversations to extend beyond interpersonal interactions. The wealth of information that is on the internet no doubt helps citizens stay informed. We’d love to see more research go into this field. We would like to learn what exactly the effects of on-line engagement are for citizen reach and how we can further improve upon it!

And the last hopeful way technology is impacting civic engagement…

Educational And Economic Divides Still Occur In An Online Context, But They Are Starting To Even Out

Those with a higher socio-economic status are more likely involved in government and policy decisions. This is problematic because this means there is an entire part of the population whose voices are not heard. In on-line settings, the divide still exists- those with a higher income level are more likely to be a part of the conversation. Yet the gap seems to be closing somewhat on-line. As technology becomes more accessible, we hope to see this gap close further, leading to an equal voice for citizens across class, race, and gender divides.

Do you think technology is good or bad for civic engagement? What tools or methods do you use to try to expand your reach and connect with your community?