After more than a decade of e-participation initiatives at the urban level, what remains obscure is the alchemy—i.e., the “arcane” combination of elements—that triggers and keeps citizens’ involvement in major decisions that affect the local community alive. The Community Informatics Lab’s experience with the Milan Community Network since 1994 and its two more recent spin-off initiatives enable us to provide a tentative answer to this question. This chapter presents these experiments and looks at election campaigns and protests as triggers for (e-)participation. It also discusses these events as opportunities to engender more sustained participation aided by appropriate technology tools such as software that is deliberately conceived and designed to support participation and managed with the required expertise.
We take community networks (CNs) as the starting point of our analysis, because they can be considered pioneer experiences for supporting e-participation in local communities. Even though, over time, many community networks have declined or even disappeared (Luisi 2001; Schuler 2009, forthcoming), they remain landmarks, providing significant input for the design of socio-technical systems aimed at empowering active citizen participation. Community Networks as conceived in the 1990s (Schuler 1994; Bishop 1994; Silver 2004) were virtual (or online) communities, strongly rooted in a specific territory, whose shared focus of interest was ‘public affairs’. They provided a framework for gathering civic intelligence (Schuler 2001), for supporting the development of people’s projects (De Cindio, 2004), and for promoting public dialogue among citizens and between citizens and local institutions (e.g., Casapulla et al, 1998; Ranerup 2000; De Cindio et al., 2007). Kubiceck and Wagner’s (2002) “ex post” analysis of CN development is helpful in understanding the evolution of CNs as generational succession, with one generation following upon another in a common line of tradition. They state that every generation of community networks is characterized by the advent of new technologies (which represent the formative “collective event” for each generation) and by changes in cultural context under the influences both of the preceding generation and of its own Zeitgeist. On the other hand, Selznick (1996) stresses that the emergence of community is based on opportunity for, and the impulse toward, comprehensive interaction, commitment, and responsibility. Extending these considerations, we claim that participation rises within a specific socio-technical context around particular opportunities and impulses.
In the following section, we therefore examine today’s socio-technical context in order to show that all conditions for a new “generation” of participation are fulfilled. Against this backdrop, we then identify moments that can trigger participation and modes for transforming these opportunities into well-rooted participatory practice. We also provide examples of these moments and modes, analyzing them through some statistical indicators.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Community Manager: The community manager orchestrates the ongoing life and the structure of the online community. S/he also activates and coordinates the community’s activities.
Blog: A blog is a frequently updated site (often on daily basis) where posts have the form of journal or diary entries. The blogger’s (the owner of a blog) posts often are opened for discussions, generating online conversations.
Moderator: In online communities, the moderator has the role of mediator among the actors in a discussion. S/he typically determines messages’ approval according to the community rules. So her/his activity should not be seen as censorship, but as a necessity and a protective service to the community. (De Cindio et. al, 2003)
Forum: Inspired from ancient fora (the public spaces in the middle of a Roman city which held public meeting or assembly for open discussion), online forums allows for messages to be posted and kept on a website for further (public) readings and discussions.
Web 2.0: The term “Web 2.0” was coined by O’Reilly Media at a conference in 2004 (O’Reilly, 2005) and it has become the label to refer to the next generation Web. The main characteristic of Web 2.0 is the central role that individuals play in creating social interactions, collaborating and sharing information online.
E-participation: Participatory processes supported by ICT (information and communication technologies). E-participation is the use of ICT to broaden political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another and with their elected representatives (Macintosh, 2006). Usually, e-participation is used as a macro-category that includes a variety of areas such as e-consultation, e-legislation, e-petition and e-deliberation.
Community Network (CN): Community Networks (and related initiatives, such as “free nets” and “civic nets”) are online enabling environments that promote citizens participation in community affaires (Schuler, 2000).
Facilitator: An individual who enables groups and organizations to work more effectively, collaborate and achieve synergy. Within online discussions, a facilitator helps participants listen to each other and envisage solutions together.