Online Presence Analysis

The Participation Gap

The Knight Commission’s Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age report identifies the “participation gap” as a major obstacle to community engagement with digital media and associated technologies.

This is the gap “in social experiences between [people] who have a high degree of access to new media technologies at home and those who do not.’…

Those not participating confront both reduced digital literacy—the understanding of and capacity to use new information technologies—and reduced media literacy—the capacity to access, analyze, evaluate, and create messages in a variety of media.

This gap is in evidence in the communities C-U-Citizen-Access is working with, and may be responsible for some of the hesitancy or disinterest in participation that has manifested itself in the class’ efforts to engage the community and on the website. The in-person strategies detailed in the first section of this analysis can help to bridge that gap, but it is also imperative that online spaces and online tools be built and maintained in such a way as to meet users where they are, ensure safety and privacy, foster community and dialogue, and encourage participation by lowering technological, social, and cultural barriers to entry. This section will address these issues and analyze CUCA’s online presence in search of areas for potential improvement.

4. Incentives for Participation, and Creating Safe Spaces

One possibly fruitful approach is to take an overall look at the website, and examine the sort of community and culture it fosters or signals its intent to foster. Several questions come to mind here on a first perusal of the site. Is this a place to disseminate news, or a place to discuss and interpret it? Or is it both? And what is defined as news here? Is that definition the same as what community members would define as news? If it isn’t, then are there ways to bridge that gap, and combine a journalistic concept of news with a social concept of news in ways that are mutually reinforcing and beneficial?

Is this a place where people might hang out casually and swap information and stories, like a barber shop or a neighborhood watering hole? Or is it more like a workshop or office or… a traditional newsroom?  In short, is this online community a social space, or a professional space? Is anyone going to want to hang around in a professional space in their free time? Or, if this consideration has been taken into account and it is intended to be a mix of the social and the professional, then how does the balance work out, and how are tensions between the two cultures and uses resolved in terms of design and content?

This tension is one that will be explored in more depth throughout this section, but in general, online community is not built around reading or seeking information; it’s built around creating, sharing, and discussing information. Good information is necessary but not sufficient to engaging and building a community online, and just as with physical spaces, real and ongoing time and resources need to be put into planning, building, sustaining, and moderating an online community space.

Two example considerations might serve to better illustrate the kinds of issues in play here, particularly in regards to creating safe spaces where people feel able to share their stories and their information. Safe spaces do not get us to the point of creating vibrant social and intellectual communities online, but they are a prerequisite for even thinking about being able to do so.

The first is related to the issue of the pseudonymity and anonymity of online identities.This has long been a contentious issue in online community circles, and is even more fraught in civic and journalistic contexts where accountability and verifiability are important. However, having some mechanism to protect anonymity, and having clearly stated and transparent policies and practices around protecting user privacy are of even more vital importance in a community engagement context with marginalized communities. Social media researcher Danah Boyd gives a good illustration of the reasons for this:

One of the things that became patently clear to me in my fieldwork is that countless teens who signed up to Facebook late into the game chose to use pseudonyms or nicknames. What’s even more noticeable in my data is that an extremely high percentage of people of color used pseudonyms as compared to the white teens that I interviewed. Of course, this would make sense… The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power. “Real names” policies aren’t empowering; they’re an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people…

What’s at stake is people’s right to protect themselves, their right to actually maintain a form of control that gives them safety. If companies like Facebook and Google are actually committed to the safety of its users, they need to take these complaints seriously. Not everyone is safer by giving out their real name. Quite the opposite; many people are far LESS safe when they are identifiable. And those who are least safe are often those who are most vulnerable.

This of course goes doubly or triply in local, place-based contexts like this, where people online can be readily identifiable offline, and social and professional consequences can be swift and harsh. These communities are socially and economically vulnerable (and in the case of some at Shadow Wood, perhaps even legally), and have been burned before by trying to participate openly in the mainstream processes of civic and social life in the city, so the trust barrier to doing so in a new medium and an unknown context is going to be even higher. It can’t be overcome without great care and assurance about safety, privacy, and good faith.

Another, more throughgoing consideration is the moderation of social spaces online with a view towards promoting safe and equal participation in active and enjoyable conversation and exchange. Online spaces can be notorious for their incivility and bile, and most internet users are by now familiar with the litany of spammers, flamers, bores and trolls who are a constant threat to any online community space.

Online journalism is particularly vulnerable to this dynamic, as anyone who has ventured into the unmoderated comments on a newspaper article about a contentious issue can attest. For most of us, this might be an annoyance or an occasion for head-shaking at the decline of society. However, for minorities and members of other marginalized groups, it is often an another opportunity among many to be reminded that there are people out there who view you as a menace, an inferior, or a target.

Again, in a localized context this is effect is even more real, as these comments correspond to people you may be sharing a bus seat or a sidewalk or an office cubicle with. The ugly comment thread in response to a News-Gazette story about Dorsey Homes that grew out of CUCA’s work there during this class is sadly illustrative of the potential for such problems, and the chilling effect on participation that un-moderated or poorly moderated online spaces can have for members of marginalized communities. Needless to say, this kind of atmosphere cannot be allowed to develop if the idea is to create a safe community space where people can share their stories and make their voices heard.

Luckily, there are still many thriving, well-moderated or self-policed online forae, and lots of established best practices for fostering good online community spaces. Three key thinkers in this sphere are: Anil Dash, Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, Matt Haughey.

These are two of the more important issues, but there are many more pieces necessary to designing, creating, fostering, and maintaining a safe and vibrant online community space. As the amount of context and detail required to address just these two indicates, this aspect of the project requires extensive resources and attention to succeed, just as the many other pieces of the Online Community Media puzzle we’ve been investigating do. The following sections will explore aspects of these problems and issues in the more specific contexts of interface design and social media.

5. Access Points and Levels of Participation

The distinction between social and professional spaces, and the participation gap issues around digital literacy and media literacy become concrete at the level where CU-Citizen-Access attempts to solicit user participation. With in-person interactions, many of these things can be addressed through one-on-one teaching and conversation, and the embedded working journalist can help community members determine in what ways they might contribute and how to then go about actualizing those potential contributions.

However, in online mediums, this knowledge needs to be either explicitly conveyed or built into the structure of interfaces and interactions. Fortunately, this has proven to be very possible, even at a vast scale. Wikipedia is a prime example of a collaborative online community that structures user contributions in a very sophisticated way. An outsider might hear “anyone can edit anything” and assume it’s a complete free-for-all, but attempt to make a substantial edit to an existing article or to submit a new one, and you will see that participation is in fact a very regulated and structured affair.

The initial barriers to entry are low and there are many different points of access and ways to contribute for new users, but Wikipedia has developed a variety of cultural, social, algorithmic, and interface structures to train those users and structure their contributions, thus ensuring the quality, relevancy, and accuracy of submissions and the accountability of contributors.

These methods are by and large very successful, and community-based online journalism can learn a lot from this approach. In the case of CUCA, the first lesson is to provide many more and more specifically defined options for user participation on the site. The site currently offers four main ways for users to contribute: they can comment on an article, they can post to the group forums, they can fill out the “Contact or Submit a Story” form, and they can send a Tweet (or SMS via Twitter) to the #cucitzen hashtag.

Other than the “Contact or Submit a Story” form, there is not much contextual information about what each of these avenues is for. A more productive approach would be to think of some of the different roles a contributor could take (Reader, Discussant, Tipster, Leaker, Liaison/Networker, Copy Editor, Fact Checker, Photographer, Writer, Community Moderator, Tech Support, Multimedia/Graphics, Teacher/Leader) and then structure the interfaces and information architecture of the site to solicit and guide these kinds of contributions. This approach both provides more ways to contribute and clarifies what is involved in making a contribution and what roles a potential contributor might be able to play.

Media Critic Jay Rosen has written about this, in a post entitled From “write us a post” to “fill out this form:” Progress in pro-am journalism:

We have to move from “write us a post,” to “fill out this form,” which is more likely to engage the ten percent. Then we have to figure out how to structure those forms so they result in high quality editorial goods. Structured data is therefore a huge part of the future of pro-am (journalism). But we have hardly begun to experiment with it.

Another way to structure and specify user participation is through specific calls to action around a given story or event. These could be done either via social media, or in-situ as part of the story that could use further elaboration or content, or in the user forums. The key is the call to specific action, and being clear about what is needed. The Nuisance Property Public Database project, with its structured and specific submission form and the repeated calls for contributions via multiple channels is a good example of these strategies in action, and this should be repeated and refined to provide clearer expectations about what is needed and why it is relevant, and ultimately to determine how to provide real value and incentive for participation using this kind of approach.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a community-generated site needs regular visitors who will be on hand to respond to its calls to action and requests for structured data submissions. This is where things get more tricky with the abovementioned cultural issues. There is no magic formula for gaining and keeping an online audience, but two big keys are regularly updated content, and providing a compelling social space in which to discuss and interact with it and with other users. CUCA does very well at the first part, but the second could use some work.

This is where the potential tensions with the tone, presentation, and strong editorial line come into play. In-person experience and thousands of other online communities prove that people love to discuss the news, and even moreso when that news is directly relevant to their communities and lives. The problem for a project like CUCA is that their discussion and interaction with it is not usually anything like a traditional journalistic conception of the news. It’s interwoven with gossip, scuttlebutt, jokes, urban legends, pop culture, speculation, and all of the sorts of things that social life brings to bear on any topic it touches.  To attract a regular contributing audience, CUCA is going to have to figure out how to play host to and encourage a certain amount of this kind of freewheeling social activity around stories (and to some extent social definition of what constitutes a story worthy of attention), and even to harness it for tips and community knowledge, using editorial skills and systems of the type outlined above to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This is admittedly a difficult line to walk for a project dedicated to traditional journalistic standards and working under the auspices of respected institutions, but it is possible. The sorts of tools and practices outlined on this page are the things that can make it possible, and a combination of offline/online reinforcement, innovative design practices, careful moderation, and structured data/interfaces can create an online space that is both a thriving social hub and a respected journalistic institution.

6. Usability and Accessibility

Usability and accessibility are heightened concerns for any website attempting to engage with underserved communities. Disability and poverty are highly correlated in America, and thus most communities in poverty are going to have a disproportionate number of disabled users. Underserved and marginalized communities are also more likely to lack access to broadband, lack regular home or work-based access to a computer, and to be stuck with the “leftovers” computing-wise, meaning technology several generations old, with commensurate compatibility problems when dealing with cutting-edge web technologies.

Users with low digital literacy are also less likely to be aware of alternatives (such as browser upgrades) and workarounds that might get that older technology more up-to-date or at least allow it to function when confronted with newer web software innovations.

The upshot of these trends is that any website looking to engage with underserved communities should pay close attention to usability and accessibility guidelines, and should ensure that it loads in a reasonable amount of time on a dialup or slower wifi connection, is backward compatible with older browsers, works on smaller screen resolutions, and that it fails gracefully when more modern computing platforms needed to support a fully-featured rendering of the site are not present.

A general usability concern is the complexity of the site and the “busy” presentation of the front page. Recent design iterations have made strides in these areas, and a news site such as this is bound to have a lot of content and features to fit into a limited amount of screen real estate. This is not an immediate problem, but is an issue to keep tabs on, especially in the course of adding any new features or undertaking any major redesign.

Another is the lack of clear guidance on how to use the interactive features and what to use them for. As above, designing the interfaces of these features to give contextual clues to the user, or failing that, providing inline documentation on how to submit content and what will be done with it after submission is a key to increased participation in content creation by community members.

All that being said, these issues pale in comparison to the overriding usability and accessibility problem for CUCA, which is the mobile interface. The Pew Internet and American Life project’s Mobile Access 2010 Survey found that African-Americans and Hispanics use cellphones for internet access (and often as their primary vehicle for that access) at a much greater rate than the rest of the American population:

Continuing a trend we first identified in 2009, minority Americans lead the way when it comes to mobile access—especially mobile access using handheld devices. Nearly two-thirds of African-Americans (64%) and Latinos (63%) are wireless internet users, and minority Americans are significantly more likely to own a cell phone than their white counterparts (87% of blacks and Hispanics own a cell phone, compared with 80% of whites).  Additionally, black and Latino cell phone owners take advantage of a much wider array of their phones’ data functions compared to white cell phone owners.

As many of the neighborhoods CUCA is engaging with are majority African-American or Hispanic, and also underserved by broadband carriers, it is imperative that CUCA provide a fully-featured mobile version of the site. Currently, a limited mobile site is provided via a 3rd-party service called Mobify. This worked reasonably well for reading when tested on an iPhone and a Kindle Fire tablet (both of which have fully-featured native web browsers, which is not the case for many more basic phones), but came up woefully short on interactivity and content creation. Currently, the only consistently workable avenue for submitting or creating content to the site via many mobile phones is SMS via Twitter, which has its own problems in terms of privacy and requiring the user to sign up for another service as a barrier to participation.

VozMob, a citizen journalism site targeted at migrant workers that the class learned about at the Allied Media Conference, is an excellent example of what is possible with the well-conceived application of mobile tools. It provides posting interfaces and tools that are customized to work with even very simple cellphones, and it takes strong measures to ensure user privacy and anonymity. Tools like this are becoming increasingly vital to engaging younger people and marginalized communities, and should be a part of any online/offline engagement plan that aims to reach these populations.

7. Social Media Strategy

CU-Citizen-Access has been active on social media from the beginning, making Twitter a vital part of the site’s infrastructure, using Facebook extensively, and also maintaining a presence on YouTube and several other networks.  This amounts to a great start, but the use of social media could be more innovative and flexible in pursuit of the goals of promotion, dialogue, and information gathering and curation.

Dale Blasingame’s study from the 2010 International Symposium on Online Journalism describes the use of Twitter by traditional media outfits as adhering to  “broadcast” convention. That is, media outlets are primarily using Twitter and other social media to do promotion and push information outward, rather than to engage in dialogue and exchange with their audience. This appears to be the model for the CUCA Twitter and Facebook accounts. Blasingame recommends that media outlets move to a more conversational and exchange-based social media strategy, in order to  take better advantage of the full range of possibilities inherent in these tools.

“The key is to respect the relationship with users. I like the 80/20 rule, where 80% of time you add value, 20%  you promote.” Briggs said he considers linking to a story on a station website as “adding value,” but clarified that automated services like Twitterfeed chip away from that value. In the end, his 80/20 rule could be the standard stations use as they begin to truly embrace Twitter as a platform for content delivery.

The individual CUCA reporters appear to use Twitter more in this fashion, so the practice is already in place. However, it would be beneficial to have the organization involved in community dialogue in social media spaces under its own brand name as well.

As for what form that dialogue should take, and what the possibilities in this space are, several options come to mind. The early attempts to help community partners build a social media presence and social media skills at Dorsey Homes and Salem Baptist Church are encouraging, and should be extended.

To begin mapping the local social media landscape and ultimately better engage partners and individuals who already have a social media presence, a locally-adapted version of the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Toolkit should be employed by working reporters as part of their background work. CUCA needs to go where their users are and be a part of the conversation online as well as offline, and having a good sense of the shape of the local information ecosystem is vital for this.

Finally, CUCA should be on the lookout for creative new journalistic uses for social media tools. One promising new use for Twitter is for information gathering and curation around an ongoing story. NPR journalist Andy Carvin has been pioneering a new form of social media based journalism by exhaustively covering and curating the Arab Spring revolutions on his Twitter account.

Social media journalists also used a tool called Storify to great effect in collaboratively covering the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing Fukushima nuclear disaster, collecting and providing vital public information even as the government and traditional media fell down on the job.

One can imagine CUCA taking a similar approach to a big ongoing local or regional story. For example, in the case of the recent pepper spraying arrest tape, there was an opportunity to use this model in combination with several other of the tools and strategies introduced here to cover the story, provide background and context, solicit community reaction, and hopefully become the locus of the community discussion about the story.

This arrest video came to light in a context of ongoing issues with police brutality both locally and nationally. The casual use of pepper-spraying to force compliance put Champaign in the midst of several other incidents associated with the Occupy Wall Street protests, and a growing national debate about police practices. Storify, Twitter, and similar tools could have been used to put this incident in the context of those events and that debate, and draw the local community into a discussion of these questions, both on social media networks and at the CUCA website. One could even imagine holding a public forum or other event at one of the partner sites to facilitate the online/offline discussion, and provide an opportunity for community members to engage with CUCA and one another around the story.

Further, these tools could have been used to put this particular incident in the context of longstanding local issues with community/police relations and accusations of police brutality. The response of the community showed that this is an issue of utmost importance and great interest, and a flexible organization like CUCA with embedded community contacts can deploy social media tools situationally and creatively in cases like this to do reporting that couldn’t be done otherwise and provide the basis for an informed community discussion of these issues where voices that are usually silenced can be heard.

8. Branding and Design

Finally, branding and design are a key component of engaging and building community in the online world. The current design of CU-Citizen-Access is clean, usable, and functional, but lacks personality. It doesn’t “move”, in either sense of the word. Likewise, the name and branding of the site have somewhat of an institutional feel. “Citizen” is not a term that many people identify with today, and “access” is a word more common in academic papers and committee meetings than everyday conversation. These decisions are already made, and at any rate part of the site’s branding should reflect its institutional values and stakeholders, but some steps do need to be taken to balance this out and better appeal to ordinary people and communities.

This studio class has done work in the past on how design, architecture, and surroundings in general affect the character of community and collaborative spaces. The Design Principles for Public Computing explore how issues such as light, color and space can affect collective and individual mood and even cognitive capacity, and thus set the tone for activities and interactions in a space.

This is also true of online community spaces. In his seminal work on online communities, Design for Community, early community technologist Derek Powazek described these effects:

When you are creating a community space, it’s important to create a space that is warm, welcoming, and inclusive. When translated into pixels, these things often mean soft warm colors, curved elements, and photos of friendly faces. Are these things cliche by now? Probably, but only because they really work…

That’s why so many community sites used curved elements with warm colors. They’re designed to make you feel comfortable. The idea is for them to feel organic (which they are, since they grow with people) instead of cold and technological (which they are, being websites on computers and all).

This does not indicate turning the site into a technicolor spectacle. Even quite subtle use of color, texture, shading, and font weight can change the tone of an online space without the need to make any drastic changes to the layout or organization of the site. These effects are subliminal, but they do add up to a better user experience and a more conducive community environment.

These elements can also be used to good effect to address some of the previously mentioned issues around editorial voice. Instead of physically separating editorial and community content into different pages or sections, it can be differentiated within the same page with the use of color or other visual indicators. Many blogs and newpapers already do this by highlighting comments by editorial staff, either with shading or with a special icon. This would allow important distinctions to be made about who is speaking and what the professional expectations should be for that content without the need to sharply segregate editorial content. These techniques can also be used to highlight breaking news, messages to the community, or other content that the editors want to have stand out from the pack temporarily.

Most of all, the CUCA site really needs a human face, and needs to tell a story about itself, what it does, and what its value is through text, multimedia, design, and branding. Profiles and pictures of reporters should be prominently featured on this site, within the limits that privacy concerns might impose. The journalistic process should be documented as it happens and demystified. If the community is going to adopt journalism, it needs to see it put into practice in ways it can identify with and absorb, both online and off. These things already take place at the embed sites where working journalists can embody, explain, and put a familiar face to the work they and CUCA do, but in an online environment where less informal social information exchange occurs, this must be done more explicitly and intentionally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *