[Summary: Links and reflections from a day live-blogging with Web Scientists in North Norway]
The Dyroy context
I’ve spent the last few days with a group of Web Science students in the community of Dyroy, in Northern Norway, about two hours by boat from the regional capital Tromso, and located around 69 degrees North – inside the arctic circle. Dyroy, like many rural areas, is facing a tough challenges to maintain a vibrant community as opportunities for employment draw young people away towards the cities, and as old industries and trade decline. Yet, as we heard from the Norwegian Minister for the Regions at today’s Dyroy Seminar, the area is not one to simply shrug and let decline set in – but is an area where citizens have come together to find new ways to sustain and develop the community. Although electricity only reached much of Dyroy in the 1950s, the Old Trading Post where we were staying brought a phone line into the area in the mid 1800’s, and the modern development of Dyroy relies heavily on high-speed Internet connectivity (hence the Web Science connection…).
One of the ways the community comes together is through a bi-annual conference, exploring topics of interest to the local community. This year’s seminar focussed on youth – looking at issues of youth participation, as well as exploring questions of identity and sustainable entrepreneurship and employment. As Web Science students we were present to explore how the web could be used to amplify some of the discussions from the first day of the seminar, and to build new online connections between ideas from Dryoy and the wider world. The day before the seminar, we spent time with students at the local school, running a number of workshops, including one exploring how social media could be used to campaign on key issues.
You can find a wealth of live-blogging and social reporting from the seminar here, and on the Dyroy Seminar website you will find a number of Norwegian reports about our projects. However in this post I wanted to draw out just a few reflections about some of the key youth participation themes of the last two days, in a way that I hope will be helpful both for those who took part in Dryoy, and for the wider readership of this blog.
Participation, politics and power
I was hopeful that in Norway, the first county to establish a Children’s Rights Ombudsman, that when I asked a group of 13 – 15 year old students if they were aware of their right to participate under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that every hand would go up. However, translation issues aside, both in the school where we worked, and the seminar, ideas of participation did not appear to be explicitly rooted in the human rights of children and young people to have their views heard in matters that affect them. Building on a rights-based foundation is important to highlight (a) that children and young people’s participation needs to be about having an individual say, for example, in home life – as well as having a collective voice on community issues; (b) to recognise that all young people have participation rights, not just those who shout loudest or who get involved in formal structures.
Forms of participation that involve an individual expression of views can sit alongside participation in more formal politics: where debates are often concerned with the allocation of scarce resources. However, as a number of youth councillors, and young political party members debated during the seminar, it is important for young people engaged in political participation structures to be aware of the dangers of pursuing power for it’s own sake.
Structures, shared values and shared challenges
Much of the morning of the seminar involved discussion of how Norway is well on the way to having a Youth Council in every municipality, with the possibility of legislation to require Youth Council’s to be established. There was some debate over whether national requirements for youth representation would lead to an over-prescriptive set of structures, and whether instead flexibility was needed for each local area to develop it’s own youth participation approaches. The importance of handing over real power to youth fora was discussed, including mention of youth-led grant making (such as existed at scale in the UK with the, now sadly much rarer, Youth Opportunity Funds and Youth Capital Funds, and as still exists in other youth led grant making globally), or youth involvement in budgeting (or perhaps budget monitoring and advocacy, as a number of global youth participation projects are exploring).
In my experience of working on youth participation structures in the UK, when approaches are formalised it is important to recognise that there is no single structure that can support effective participation and representation, or that provides a suitable means of engagement for all young people. Rather, good participation involves a spread of interlinked approaches, from good complaint and feedback systems, through one-off-events and activities, to regular and structured representative structures. With the right design and active facilitation, online social media tools are potentially very effective to ‘bridge the gap’ between forms of one-off engagement, and more sustained engagement in local decision making.
Even with a good mix of approaches to youth participation, and many channels through which young people can get involve – without ‘shared values‘ being clearly articulated, and a wide shared understanding in the community that children and young people are equal citizens – participation of all forms risks becoming tokenism.
One of the peculiar properties of youth participation structures over other participation structures, is the relatively rapid turnover of membership. By definition, one can only be a member of a youth council for quite a short period of time compared perhaps to the main council. This leads to a need for both shared values, and participation structures, to be regularly revisited, revived and regenerated. It can also lead to a structural disadvantage for young people seeking to express their views – as they have to spend comparatively longer picking up the background knowledge needed to engage in particular debates, or may have less access to prior experience that could support them to secure the outcomes they want.
I’ve long been interested in the potential of the web to create a stronger institutional memory for youth campaigns: with social reporting and regular online reporting of youth activities generating an open record that future young participants can pick up – able to benefit from the experience of their predecessors. However, although it is often claimed that the Internet never forgets, in practice, keeping content updated and discoverable over many years turns out to be very challenging. For example, content from the Youth Council Website I developed and maintained over 10 years ago is now only available in the Internet Archive, where you would only find it if you knew where to look, and the archive of Oxford’s Social Responsible Investment campaign is scattered across a number of sites. Even if it was easy to deposit content from youth participation on the web as part of a long-term archive, we need better approaches to curate it so that future generations of youth representatives and campaigners can quickly find the intelligence they need to strengthen their hands.
Having drawn on a rather oppositional idea of youth participation above: with the need to strengthen the voices of young people in contrast to those of adults, I want to step back and example whether that opposition is useful. There is a common platitude in youth participation events to talk about ‘young people as the future’. This is often met with the reply from young people that ‘we are part of the present too’, which is a very fair response. However, what concerns me more in this claim is that it often covers up an implied abdication of responsibility on the part of adults. By saying ‘we need the innovative ideas of young people to sort out future problems’, adults can be letting themselves off the hook for also being part of creating those innovative solutions. It can be a way of pushing the solving of the problem off into the future, perpetuating the generational injustice that has seen those currently in power create environmental problems, burden states with debt, and enable vastly unequal development (an accusation I target more at political leaders in the UK than Norway here).
In many cases the challenge is not to listen to the voice of youth, but to find ways for people to be involved in shared problem solving, regardless of age or background.
Entrepreneurship and legitimacy
Anders Waage Nilsen took us away from participation structures in his presentation to the seminar, highlighting how, particularly with the web, it is possible for people of all ages to self-organise, bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to problem solving. This approach, rooted in an impatience and desire to see change, suggests that young people should not wait around to have access to formal decision making power from which they can call for alternative models of economic and environmental development – but suggests that young people should use their networks to actively create the sorts of future they want.
The forms of ad-hoc social innovation enable by the web, by new practices and emerging norms of self-organising truly offer great opportunities to attack persistent social challenges, but when they become one of our primary modes of acting they also raise challenges of legitimacy. How far can, and should, communities (from local communities like Dyroy, to national communities like Norway) exercise collective self-determination over what happens amongst them? When the ability to take advantage of technologies to self-organise is not conditioned only by access to technology, but also by wider access to social and financial capital, how can a community avoid those with money and networks over-dominating the shape of local development by simply getting on with what they want to do outside of representative structures?
I’m not at all suggesting here that social innovation should be curtailed, and I would generally celebrate the forms of entrepreneurial social action Nilsen described. Yet, the most that ‘political action’ is conducted through ad-hoc actions, the more we need to find new ways to respond to it. To some extent our representative structures are about striking a balance of power, and as power shifts in the network society, we may need to develop new ways to regulate it’s legitimate exercise.
Web Science reflections: bridging with artifacts and agency
I’ve already mentioned a few ways the web might impact upon youth participation: from helping maintain an institutional memory for youth fora, to supporting new models of social action and problem solving.
In our workshop with students yesterday, we used the Social Media Game (with some extra cards made specially for this workshop), to explore how students might use the web to campaign on issues that affected them – from the poor quality of some roads, to a lack of activities, and issues relating to drugs and crime. A number of the strategies for using the web the young people put together involved strong use of online and offline channels – recognising that, for example, the support gathered on a Facebook page might need to be expressed through a letter to a politician to get their attention, or nothing that out-and-about exploration of problems with potholes could be taken online through videos and shared to raise awareness of the problem.
As we have also been exploring acting as social reporters today, bridging involves a mix of technical artifacts (tweets, blog posts, video clips and so-on), digital networks, and human connections. Understanding how these interact, and the different dynamics that affect each (from the design of content and messages, to the structure of digital networks, and the social psychology of sharing content) should be an important part of the contribution Web Science makes to thinking about participation.
Where next in a social reporting cycle?
For many of the Web Science DTC students, today was a first taste of live blogging and social reporting. Even for a single track conference, live blogging and social reporting generate a lot of content. Unlike events such as the Internet Governance Forum, where social reporting may be part of facilitating engagement in the live event, in the case of the Dyroy seminar, our social reporting has served more to amplify and create a record of the event. Working out sustainable ways to create a legacy out of this content is a challenge. For me, a first reflective blog post is a way to draw out some themes to reflect on more – that might emerge into future writing. However, with such a wealth of content generated through today – we do need to think more about how we might curate elements of it to further share ideas and debates from today’s event.