5 Things About Online Public Engagement

Friday, August 19, 2016
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Back in November I wrote a post entitled "Thinking, fast and slow about online public engagement" Today I'm going to push that thinking a deeper, provide some examples and generally expand the premise and reasoning behind the original piece. In so doing I will undoubtedly re-cover the some of the same ground so the original isn't mandatory reading. Oh and heads up this, is a long read.

Thinking, Fast and Slow about Online Public Engagement

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow is from the increasingly popular field of behavioural economics. It was widely read in government circles in Canada and elsewhere, so if you haven't read it yet, you might considering picking it up. If that's not your speed you could sit down for an hour and watch the video below or just read my quick explanation underneath it.

At it's core Kahneman's thesis is that the human mind is made up of two different and competing (metaphorical) systems: System 1 (fast) and System 2 (slow).

System 1 operates automatically, intuitively, involuntary, and effortlessly — like when we drive, recognize facial expressions, or remember our name.

System 2 requires conscious effort, deliberating, solving problems, reasoning, computing, focusing, concentrating, considering other data, and not jumping to quick conclusions — like when evaluate a trade-off (cost benefit analysis) or fill out a complicated form.

The problem — according to Kahneman — isn't that people have two systems of thinking, but that they often rely on one system in situations when they should be using the other.

So, what happens if we apply Kahneman's fast and slow thinking to the realm of online public engagement, where -- presumably -- we can citizens to be deliberate and considerate problem solvers?

First, let's look at the technology of participation

Nearly all of the popular (or would-be popular) the technology providers out there are relentlessly focused on design as a means to make things as easy and as intuitive to use as possible, to make things fast, to reduce friction. That's because more online product and/or service providers want to 'conversions' (e.g. want you to take a specific action, such as click, share or purchase). in fact there's a whole field called Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO); here's how the ever popular Shopify describes it (h/t Jason Pearman for the link):

"Your store needs to be designed with your customers in mind.

While boosting your traffic can generate more sales, it’s just as important to focus on turning your current traffic into paying customers.

At every step of your customers’ purchasing journeys, there are new opportunities for you to make their paths shorter, easier, and more enjoyable. Through rigorous experimentation and analysis, you can fine-tune your website to push people closer to making a purchase. This process is called Conversion Rate Optimization or CRO.

Conversion Rate Optimization is a technique for increasing the percentage of your website traffic that makes a purchase, also known as a conversion.
And, on a much smaller scale, conversions are happening all the time leading up to that moment, too.

For instance, a conversion on your homepage might mean having a visitor click through to a product. A conversion on a product page might mean a customer clicking ‘Add to Cart’. Conversions can be entirely dependent on the purpose that a specific part of your website serves.

To optimize your online store for conversions, both big and small, you need to be constantly testing each and every aspect of your website."
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with the logic of using design to reduce friction and increase conversions if that is your ultimate goal (with perhaps the exception of Dark Patterns, user interfaces which are designed to trick people); businesses need to make money and conversions generate revenue. It's obvious that these firms want you to buy, like, or share as effortlessly as possible. It's why they use browser cookies to keep you logged into their network, why they store your credit card and shipping information, why they offer delightful mobile experiences and single click checkouts. It is clear that the vast majority product and/or service providers purposefully deploy design online in a way that primes them for system 1 thinking; in many cases their entire business model depends on it. Thus it shouldn't come as a surprise that the dominate design discourse is one of ease of use (i.e. ease of conversion) because the discourse itself is being predominately driven by the product and/or service providers themselves. From a public administration perspective, this is inherently problematic for a couple of reasons:
  • Private sector product and/or service leaders set digital experience expectations for citizens in the public domain
  • Governments follow private sector leaders and design accordingly, hoping to meet citizen expectations
  • Ease of use (system 1: fast thinking) may be congruent with some of governments objectives (e.g. reach and amplification) but not others (e.g. deliberate feedback on crunchy policy issues) which may require a more conscious effort (system 2: slow thinking)
Essentially my point here is a little bit of Marshall McLuhan's the medium is the message and/or if you prefer we shape the tools then the tools shape us.  In other words, if we use fast tools tools for online consultations then we ought to expect loose answers. Despite what anyone else will tell you Twitter is not a good medium for in-depth, meaningful, and sustained conversation. Sure it can be bent to suit that purpose from time to time but it certainly wasn't designed for it. Twitter chats are a great example of fast rather than slow thinking, the medium (Twitter) shapes the message. Participants have to be brief, reactive, and quick if they are to be a part of the conversation as it happens.

Second, let's look at language of participation

I recently read an interesting and related piece in the Atlantic entitled "The Decay of Twitter" that made a number of related arguments (as is worth reading in its entirety). The article discusses the work of Walter Ong (a student of the aforementioned McLuhan and his scholarly work on "the transition of human society from orality to literacy: "from sharing stories and ideas through spoken language alone, to sharing them through writing, text and printed media". Ong's work catalogued the differences between these two cultures. Noting that orality treats words as sound and action, emphasizes memory and redundancy and stays close to the real life experience while literacy treats words as something that can be looked up, abstracted, and analyzed. Ong's work perfectly illustrates how online communications channels such as Twitter shape the nature of the discourse that happen there on.

As a starting point I would argue that the differences between Ong's conceptualization of orality and literacy are congruent with the differences between Kahneman's fast and slow systems; and the similarities between their analytical frames, apparent. The article goes on to discuss at length the idea that the decay of Twitter has a lot to do with the notion that it blurs the distinction between orality and literacy and thus blends the lightweight nature of ephemeral conversation with the permanence of the declarative/analyzable nature of the Internet.

This blending is where all the faux-societal outrage comes from. Its why a single errant tweet can sink a brand, destroy a career, or make the entire Internet mad for the day:
"In other words, on Twitter, people say things that they think of as ephemeral and chatty. Their utterances are then treated as unequivocal political statements by people outside the conversation. Because there’s a kind of sensationalistic value in interpreting someone’s chattiness in partisan terms, tweets “are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers.” Anthropologists who study digital spaces have diagnosed that a common problem of online communication is “context collapse.” This plays with the oral-literate distinction: When you speak face-to-face, you’re always judging what you’re saying by the reaction of the person you’re speaking to. But when you write (or make a video or a podcast) online, what you’re saying can go anywhere, get read by anyone, and suddenly your words are finding audiences you never imagined you were speaking to."
The article goes on to argue that not just that conceptions of orality and literacy are blending online, but also that the public and private blend, the personal and professional, and the subjective and the objective -- to which I would add Kahneman's the fast and the slow. This becomes especially troubling when we realize that the communications technologies we rely on for engagement and consultation are actively creating a disconnect between the what people say and how it is ultimately interpreted or understood (e.g. context collapse).

Third, let's look at the politics of participation

There was a lot of coverage on the confluence of Brexit and the social media ecoystem. It was an inflection point about how much ought we trust algorithms to decide what make it into our information diet. The Guardian ran a particularly interesting piece entitled The truth about Brexit didn’t stand a chance in the online bubble which argued that in the current media landscape the burden of being thoughtful and seeking out opposing views on particular political issue (in this case Brexit) falls predominately on consumers rather than producers of media and/or social networks. It opens:
"In the quaint steam age of Mark Twain it was the case, as the writer allegedly noted, that: “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. Owing to significant changes in the media landscape since 1900, the same lie can now circumnavigate the globe, get a million followers on Snapchat and reverse 60 years of political progress while the truth is snoozing in a Xanax-induced coma, eyeshade on, earplugs in.

Modern truth is not just outpaced by fiction, it can be bypassed altogether as part of a sound political strategy or as a central requirement of a media business plan. In an illuminating exchange with the Guardian last week, Arron Banks, the wealthy donor partly responsible for the Brexit campaign, explained leave’s media strategy thus: “The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success."
Again, this is classic fast/slow, orality/literacy playing out online. Success in the the political realm -- in the case of Trump and Brexit -- isn't about being slow or literate (or factually correct) it is about being fast and oral (or sensational). The article continues:
"Politics however is just exploiting an information ecosystem designed for the dissemination of material which gives us feelings rather than information."
And concludes:

"If we tolerate a political system which abandons facts and a media ecosystem which does not filter for truth, then this places a heavy burden on “users” to actively gather and interrogate information from all sides - to understand how they might be affected by the consequences of actions, and to know the origin of information and the integrity of the channels through which it reaches them."
It is clear that the media landscape currently favours fast/oral and thus hyper-partisanship over thoughtful discourse. Expecting citizens to exert more control over their media environment and actively slow themselves down in this environment is unrealistic. Anyone who has ever read the comments on an Ottawa Citizen piece about the government (regardless of political stripe) knows this to be true.

Fourth, let's look at the broader implications of this type of engagement on society

What if being reliant on technologies that prime the wrong system, falling victim to the hybridization of oralilty and literacy online, and the political exploitation of both, is only half the challenge? The half immediately in front of us. What if the net result of those two things coming together has a broader and longer-term impact on society? What if it is eroding the very idea of civic participation by over-simplifying the complex task of participating in governance. To wit -- from In the Clutches of Algorithms (also worth reading in full):
"Apple, with a reputation for simplifying large technological problems, making them manageable for most people. In other words, the company’s software masks the complexity of a task. But rather than helping us understand the task, this kind of simplification helps us ignore the task and instead understand the device. I now communicate with my phone as a surrogate for adjusting the temperature and flipping light switches. Modern living now applies the same obedience principle too often seen in classrooms: Our devices now teach us not how to do things but rather how to comply with their interfaces. We are, as Seymour Papert warns, not programming the machines, but instead being programmed by them." 
If you apply the same logic to governance as applied to Apple above, then the question becomes have we allowed our pre-digital understanding of public consultation to be re-programmed (re-imagined, re-understood, re-simplified) in the digital age? And if so, what have we lost in the process and what are the long term implications of that loss on our governing institutions? Who -- if anyone -- is looking at these questions? The closest corollary I can find is Rushkoff's Program or Be Programmed which makes the case that if you don't understand how the program works than you basically beholden to it (i.e. you are being programmed by it); another logical extension of McLuhan.

Moreover, what this does is make it incredibly hard to shift the normative discourse to one that is more thoughtful and civically minded. You simply can't introduce slow issues into fast environments and expect meaningful discourse. A normative fast culture also is anathema to the very discussion of fast versus slow because in order to understand the latter you need to actively engage in it for a moment. In other words, you need to slow down to understand how slowing down could work. The fast pace of the internet is running head long into the slow pace of governance, and while speeding some things up is important (e.g. current service delivery) speeding up others could be counterproductive (e.g. designing future services) if that speed causes them to miss the mark.

Fifth, let's consider what slower, more literate online public engagement could look like

The technology has to be different. It needs to prime people for a slow/literate process rather than a fast/oral one. That means its not likely not something that is already mainstream like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. It is also likely that these companies will not be the birth place of slower more deliberative technologies.It will also need to crack the anonymity nut which exacerbates all of what I have outlined above by removing accountability and the consequences that flow therefrom (Placespeak is a good example in this regard).

The context needs to be clearly articulated. People need background information. They need white papers, videos explaining the problem, and links to additional information. Moreover, the process (and the technology) needs to nudge them into consumption and reflection before it asks solicits their input.

The questions need to be well articulated, specific, directed, and perhaps even technical and/or exclusionary. The truth of the matter is that you for any given engagement the proponent likely doesn't want everyone's input but rather a highly specific subset of it. Failing to narrow the scope of the engagement means receiving input that needs to be 'looked at' (which has a cost) but ultimately goes unconsidered.

All in all

I think the field relatively new, poorly understood, and littered with varying degrees of amateurs. There are a lot of interconnected pieces and insights from complimentary fields (I've strung together but a handful in a cursory way above) that have yet to gel. When this finally happens we will start to have a better sense of how to execute more sophisticated online public engagement, produce better outcomes, and ultimately create more public value and improve our system of governance.

Oh and in case you managed to read your way down this far -- yes, I am perfectly aware that I engaged your fast system with a click-bait title. It was deliberate and hopefully the irony wasn't lost on you.