What does successful e-participation look like?

[Summary: expanding on scribbled notes from a recent workshop on e-participation]

A few weeks ago I took part in the YouthPart launch workshop in Berlin at the kind invitation of Nadine Karbach. YouthPart is a new project, led by the German International Youth Service exploring e-participation for youth engagement. I was there to give a short 10-minute input on some elements of youth e-participation in the UK (slideshare slides here). During one of the break-out discussions, I was on a table exploring the question “What does successful e-participation look like?”. 

At first, the discussion centred on the fact that the success of e-participation should be measured just the same as the success of any participation: for Practical Participation that would mean can we measure what’s changed (doc) for the people involved and for the wider community. But there also developed an interesting thread of questions about the unique success criteria that we could apply to e-participation projects, particularly e-participation for young people. Some of the questions that might point us towards success criteria that I jotted down here:

  • Was the platform and process selected appropriate?
    Did it set reasonable expectations about the decisions that were being made, and the scope for influencing change? Did it give people the freedom to express their views on the issue at hand? Did it keep discussions adequately focussed? Did it allow you to give participants feedback on what changed as a result of their input? Was  it cost effective? Did technical problems get in the way of people participating?

    Whilst e-participation isn’t just about the platform, choosing the right platform for the right process matters. It is often tempting for e-participation projects to try and build their own platforms (I’m certainly guilty of going down this route in the past), but more often than not, there are good tried and tested platforms out there: the trick is in finding the right one and pairing it with the right process and facilitation support.

  • Did your e-participation tilt the balance of power in favour of young people?
    Young people often face significant inequalities of power when it comes to participating in policy making: whether explicit (not being able to vote; not given a shared role in decision making), or implicit (lack of experience makes it tricker to make your point; limited time to engage with an issue because of pressures of school or college make ‘competing’ with full-time lobbyists and advocates difficult etc.).

    Good e-participation should address these power imbalances, and should work to rebalance power in young people’s favour.

  • Is it inclusive?
    Have all the groups affected by the decisions being made been able to input? Have you seen a diverse range of views and opinions? How could you choice of platform or process exclude particular groups? Have you reached out in a range of communities? If you have been reaching out through social networks, how have you checked that you are not just going to easy-to-reach networks?

    E-participation often involved disintermediation of the youth participation process: young people are invited to input directly into discussion and decision making, without facilitation in groups or from workers. That can make for a more inclusive process, but it can also leave some people out.

    E-participation might need to be part of a blended strategy that involved online and offline working. Reaching out to different groups is just as important online as offline.

  • Are the parameters of your e-participation transparent, and open to critique
    Lawrence Lessig’s idea that ‘Code is Law‘ highlights that in digital environments the limits we set to what can be done can act as firm, but often invisible, restrictions on our actions. Whereas in a face-to-face workshop that asks people to fill in boxes on a flip-chart with ideas someone can scribble ideas in the margins – outside the set boxes and categories – the digital world often doesn’t offer these opportunities. Whilst in a face-to-face setting someone can more easily question the way of workshop is being facilitated if they feel there is a bias in it – that’s often harder to do when the ‘facilitation’ is coded into an e-participation platform.

    Thinking critically about the constraints built into an e-participation platform, and making sure you are sensitive to participants questioning your assumptions about the parameters is important.

  • Does this e-participation project increase the chance of the organisation/young people creating change next time?
    One of the big observations of workshop participants was that bad participation experiences can put people off civic engagement for life; but that you can’t expect every participation experience to lead to change clearly enough or fast enough to satisfy many young people engaging with a participation opportunity for the first time.

    So, if you’re not sure your project will lead to a satisfying and positively reenforcing experience of change for young participants, should you try starting it at all? Or should you avoid building expectations you might risk seeing crushed? Well – one way to guide the design of a project might be to think: it should have the maximum chance of making change this time, but it should also build participants capacity, skills and opportunities to create change in future.

This list is by no means a definitive set of considerations for e-participation projects (and in coming to write them up I notice they’re a little more abstract and in need of further clarification than my scribbled notes from the workshop suggested), although I hope they point to a number of elements worth exploring. What criteria would you use to measure the success of an e-participation project?



Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet

[Summary: Workshop report from the Internet Governance Forum, Nairobi, 2011]

I facilitated a workshop at this year’s Internet Governance Forum on the topic ‘Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet‘. The workshop report is available on the IGF Website, and also available to read below. I hope it can act as a useful resource in any policy work around young people and the Internet. Both the USA IGF, and Child Net’s Youth IGF Project held their own discussions and debates on the topic of ‘myths about young people and the Internet’ in the run up to the forum, and it seems to work well as a discussion format to dig deeper to understand young people’s online experiences.

I also shared some of the myths from the workshop in a recent keynote to the EU Safer Internet Forum, the slides from which you can also find below.

Workshop 92: Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet

Claims about youth are central to many Internet Governance discussions. However, many of the claims made about youth and the Internet are based on myth and misperception rather than on reality.

Myths come in a variety of forms. Some are compelling, but mistaken claims: intuitively plausible, but not backed by evidence and research. Others are based on stereotypes or distorted media coverage given to issues. Other myths are propagated by those with vested interests or particular agendas, seeking to secure support for their cause by making exaggerated claims.

Workshop 92 provided a space for constructive dialogue about how we should understand claims made about young people in Internet Governance. Contributions from ten panellists and the floor addressed a wide range of  myths or misunderstandings about young people and technology: highlighting where we need to think more deeply before making Internet policy based upon generalisations about children, young people and young adults.

This report looks at the myths in turn, before reporting some general points from discussion at the end. The Youth Coalition on Internet Governance will continue to develop a resource based on these myths to offer as an input for future IGF sessions. A number of the myths draw on headings from a list of common myths put forward by danah boyd.

The Myths

Myth: Young people are either digital natives, or digitally naive (Sheba Mohammid)

Our descriptions of youth and technology are frequently polarised with youth described as opposite extremes: either as digital natives, with ubiquitous understanding of technology, or digitally naive, and in need of protection. This can lead to technology projects ignoring the need to do work on pedagogical systems and educating youth; or it can lead to responses that perceive only the need for control and protection of young people online.

There is limited dialogue between those who describe youth as ‘natives’ and those who focus on youth ‘naivete’. The tendency to pigeonhole young people into one category or the other prevents us from developing a deeper understanding of diverse youth experiences of networked media, and how individuals can have different experiences at different times and in different spaces.

Talking about ‘digital natives’ or ‘digital naivete’ may have intuitive and rhetorical appeal – but whenever speakers use these phrases, they gloss over the reality of young people’s online lives and can lead to unhelpful policy responses. The following myths explore in more detail the subtleties that we need to bring to our discussions.

Myth: The Internet is a dangerous, dangerous place (Alannah Travers)

“There are dangers online, as in the real world, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad, or only dangerous and never good.” 

Starting from the assumption that the Internet is inherently a dangerous place can have negative impacts on policy. It’s important to develop skills and resilience to protect yourself, and, as with crossing the road, once you’ve learned to manage the dangers, you can be secure and safe.

Myth: The Internet is a free playground for youth (Max Kall)

“The myth is that youth regard the Internet as a free and anarchic playground where they can do whatever they want, and actions can unfold in whichever way they desire. Young people can spend hours and hours on social networks, gaming, and the myth is that young people think it’s all free. It’s all open and whatever you do, it does not yield any negative consequences. 

The opposite is actually the truth. For many young people the Internet is everything but free.”

Youth are frequently aware of the possibility of surveillance from law enforcement authorities, companies, employers or just from teachers or parents, and this can lead to ‘chilling effects’, limiting freedom of expression and democratic participation on the Internet.

The impact of these chilling effects vary from country to country, with a BBC survey finding that up to 49% of people in ‘democratic countries’ agreed with statements that the Internet is not a free space, rising to 70% is some countries. One workshop participant highlighted self-censorship by bloggers in the Congo. By contrast, in France and Kenya, the BBC survey found that 70% or more of people did regard the Internet as a free space. As with any claim about youth and the Internet we need to question the geographic and cultural specificity of the claim. Regardless, the levels of young people feeling inhibited in their free expression of political views online should be a cause for concern.

Myth: Youth don’t care about privacy (Kellye Coleman and Connor Dalby)

“…there is a myth that youth don’t care about privacy. I think youth do care but at the same time youth don’t fully understand what privacy means.”

Young people value education that empowers them to make positive privacy choices, where reasons are given for why certain privacy behaviors might be important: “If the why of privacy is shared I think we as young people can become more empowered and invested in taking actions to protect ourselves.”.

Education based on ‘fear tactics’ is less likely to be popular amongst young people: “[Scare tactics] are the wrong way to go about it. You are scaring youth to not share things they should be sharing, great things, or [scaring them to] stop using the Internet or social networks altogether. The best way to go about it is teaching about settings, not trying to scare them too much but teaching them good things that we can improve.”

Cutting through myths about youth and privacy is complicated by the ambiguity of the term. Threats to privacy can be many and varied, and different people may value particular aspects of privacy differently: some willing to trade their personal data for services from Internet companies, others seeing this as a threat to privacy. Young people’s views on privacy in particular situations, such as whether Amazon’s personalised recommendations are a positive or negative thing, are as diverse as those of the adult population.

Myth: The Internet is the ‘great equalizer’ (Matthew Jackman)

On the one hand, the Internet is a place where anyone could start a business, or choose to express themselves. On the other hand, “if you want ask someone where they would find videos they would clearly say YouTube…We find a monopoly website which control whole sectors.”

Just because the Internet presents great possibilities for access to information that doesn’t mean that everyone can access and make the most of it.

“…the Internet has potential to bring equality but with so many barriers with access, be it disability or affordability and censorship …[in practice it doesn’t]”.

However, we should be careful about assuming that disabled people, for example, are not only at all. One delegate reminded the workshop that young disabled people often rely on the Internet as a first port of call for information and resources, confounding the common assumption that they are not online. Projects and policies need to address barriers to the the realization of the equalizing potential of the Internet.

Myth: All young Nigerians as cybercriminals (‘Gbenga Sesan)

“I’m sure everyone here has probably, not even probably, has, received an e-mail from somebody who claims to be a Nigerian prince.”

The stereotyping of a whole nation can have profound consequences on the young people who live there. Young Nigerians are locked out of e-commerce opportunities as services like PayPal block the Nigerian market. Young Nigerians seeking to participate in online discussions can find their e-mails deleted by spam filters. And “this myth prevents the world from knowing what exactly is going on with young Nigerians on the Internet”, such as the 2011 mobile-phone based election monitoring application development by young Nigerians, or recent investment into Nigerian online businesses.

The association in popular conciousness of Nigeria with cybercrime is a modern stereotype: but a particularly harmful one to youth and one that needs to be challenged.

Myth: Social media is addictive (Dan Skipper)

Claims about youth ‘Internet addiction’ or ‘addiction’ to social media are common in policy debates, and at the Internet Governance Forum: often leading to polarised arguments. Although a small number of people may exhibit “compulsively driven behaviour with negative consequences” in relation to the social media, and many young people prefer not to be without access to social media for long periods, general claims about youth Internet addiction are based more in rhetoric and myth than in evidence; and a focus on ‘addiction’ can divert a focus on important issues such as whether people are enjoying a great enough diversity of online experiences.

“I think social media is not addictive, just a luxury people enjoy using so you could in a way argue anything is addictive if you are saying social media is addictive. If you play a sport and you love playing and you play it every chance you get, same with being on social media.  If you enjoy social media, you use it as much as you can. I don’t think you can say it is an addiction.”

Myth: Young People are all creating their own online content (Gitte Stald)

It is commonly claimed that the Internet allows young people to become ‘content creators’, yet The EU Kids Online Research has found that very few young people are actually creating their own content online. “What the majority do is very mundane, and not creative.”

This can be seen as a missed opportunity both because young people are not exploring creative skills, and because it is recognised that there is a lack of good quality content for young people online – and peer-created content could help address this.

Myth: The digital is separate from the real world (Naveed-ul-haq)

Discussions of ‘cyberspace’, or ‘the virtual world’ or even ‘spending time online’ often have an implicit assumption that the digital world is separate from the real world. But for many young people (and adults) it is more accurate the say that the digital world is simply an integral part of the real world for many people.

“The most important thing that we do in our real world is communicate. How do we communicate with others and with people around us and talk about digital world? There are five billion mobile users: so we cannot say that digital world is separate than real world.”

However, policy makers, parents and teachers often frame discussions with an artificial divide between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ which doesn’t reflect the reality of young people’s lives, increasingly including the reality in developing world contexts too, where mobile phones mean everyone is carrying a connection to the digital world around with them.

Taking forward discussions

Delegate noted that simply presenting the myths challenged in the workshop would be a useful input to future IGF debates: allowing workshops planned in future to avoid framing debates around myths, and to ask better questions. Particular themes included

The importance of evidence

The session highlighted that two forms of evidence are vitally important. Firstly, high quality statistical evidence (particularly from studies using shared methods to promote International comparison) helping us to understand the prevalence of a wide range of online issues – from safety issues, to freedom of expression issues – and helping us to see the local variations in issues of importance at any particular time. We need evidence to help both highlight difference between contexts as well as commonality. Secondly, we need evidence and input from a diverse range of stakeholders, including diverse groups of children, young people and young adults – able to offer insights into the varied online experiences and opinions of youth.

The diversity of youth experience

The workshop discussions demonstrated that challenging myths and generalisations requires us to engage with a diversity of views and approaches to address key Internet issues. We were reminded that “we’ll not have one answer that fits all… what might work in developed countries might not work in developing countries”, and a debate between young panelists and delegates highlighted the range of different views held on whether censorship, web blocking and filtering was every appropriate.

A shared responsibility

One delegate issued a challenge to young people to think about how they can work to dispel myths about youth and the Internet, and another mentioned the possibility of using social media to challenge myths. The importance of challenging myths in local and regional debates was also raised.

Next steps

The Youth Coalition on Internet Governance (www.ycig.org) will continue to develop resources based on the workshop transcript and report.

Random Hacks of Kindness – Oxford – 3rd/4th December

[Summary: Volunteer for Random Hacks of Kindness, Oxford] 

Random Hacks of Kindness events bring together digital innovators to work on building practical open technology with the goal of making the world a better place. As a follow up to the open data day held in Oxford last December, this year White October are hosting a Random Hacks of Kindness weekend on the 3d and 4th December set up in partnership with Oxfam.

The event is on the look out for designers, developers, data wranglers and others who are willing to give up a weekend to work on practical solutions to key social problems… and maybe even to take forward the ideas after the weekend.

You can find more details and sign-up here.

I’m sure we’ll be linking up with some of the parallel open data day hacking going on too.