Digital civic engagement

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, BrightKite, or FourSquare, momentum has been gaining for social media as it reshapes the way we communicate. But in the arena of open communication, does social media make us better, more engaged civic citizens? Not according to Jeremy Littau, whose research examines social involvement in online virtual communities.

An assistant professor of journalism, Littau’s work reveals a new measure of social capital for users of online communities. Social capital involves the various connections within and between social networks. In these communities, people use this type of capital to create and foster relationships and ties.

Littau examined groups of heavy online community users, people who are part of blogging communities, discussion boards, or virtual communities that center on topics of common interest. Surveying nearly 2,000 users, he asked about media habits, including use of social networks. From it, he extracted which social media factors had the greatest influence on their engagement.

Social media can lead to a more engaged public, but it is limited in scope, says Littau. Being involved in causes over distance, which is facilitated by online involvement, is not linked with involvement in local politics and issues. This “web-network” social capital that binds communities online thus can spur involvement in faraway causes such as campaign donations or membership in national advocacy organizations. But a better predictor of local activism and civic engagement is someone who has both thie web-network type as well as social capital built in their local community. Together, they amplify local civic behavior.

“Someone who is just using social media but unengaged with their local community is not going to be politically active locally. It’s not going turn people who were previously unengaged into civic actors, but it is a good bridge to help them find other connections with people in their town who want to be politically active. It still has to be spurred on by information and engagement in local community. That’s really the critical difference.”

“Social media takes people who are already civic minded and gives them avenues for participation but it’s not turning a generation into civically minded people.”

People use traditional media like newspapers and television to gather information about local issues, while social media gives them another means on which to act on that information.  Information seekers might be connected enough in their real-world community, so they do not need the online connection. Yet, users seeking connectivity are in search of resources that let them become engaged.

“In essence, social media and traditional media combine to create better and more powerful tools for people to become engaged, but social media isn’t creating good civic citizens among people who weren’t yet involved.”

Social media still needs further study as media evolve, says Littau. Social media use generally is tied to desktop and laptop devices that keep people in one place. Littau doesn’t rule out the possibility that mobile social media use might yet help create better citizens as people are freed from those constraints.

© IMRC CAS 2016

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