Friday, April 19, 2013

Digital Civil Society

I think a lot about Digital Civil Society - how are digital technologies changing how we use our private resources for public benefit? It's easy to see the surface level changes that smart phones and laptops offer in how we organize, fund, create, and distribute these goods - online, with thumb clicks instead of by writing checks, instantly and more socially - but what really matters underneath the ease and speed? These questions are the premise to my work on the #ReCodingGood project.

I find it helpful to hash ideas out in public - and I seem to have thicker than usual skin for getting things wrong publicly - so I often put pretty half-basked ideas out there. You can find one undercooked version of a talk on Digital Civil Society here and it's pasted in below.

This post on Friday by Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic caught my eye for just how quickly our involvement in digital civil society is changing. Disasters, sadly, seem to bring out plenty of opportunities to see both the best and the worst of what we can do with these tools. In his post, Madrigal points out the costs of all those volunteers searching through digital photos for culprits - vigilantism. When the crowd jumps in to help it can often nab the wrong person. It's one thing if those eager volunteers are calling in tips to hotlines - those calls get vetted and checked on by professionals, who follow a code of practice and the law (or are supposed to).

When the crowd zeroes in on a photo it can track down the identity of the person, find their online presence (Facebook, Twitter), and harass the person in significant ways. As Madrigal points out, there is a reason we have due process. As worrisome is to realize there is no recourse against the crowd - when it makes a mistake it can just walk away, leaving a trail of damaged reputations in its wake. As Madrigal writes, "No one is saying the police are perfect or that the FBI is always fair, but they have an ethos, a set of rules they're sworn to uphold, and accountability if they make mistakes. And in any case, the way to fix the failings of our law enforcement procedures is not to create an even more flawed system."

I don't think it's a matter of one or the other. Today we have both versions of civil society very much in place. Formal, trained, legally structured systems and informal, voluntary, mobile, connected actors. The former has power, resources, and rules. The second group is quick acting, has cutting-edge tools and skills at its disposal, and loose, mostly unwritten rules of practice. How it can be most helpful - while causing the least collateral damage - is not yet clear. But with every natural and man-made disaster, as well as with every advance in micro-donations, data contributions, hackathons, and mobile organizing, we get closer to needing answers to this question, not just more action. The future is not one system or the other, it will be the blend of the two.

We're reaching a point now where we should anticipate these digital civil actions. Good journalists seem increasingly self-aware of their need to involve the public in news gathering, but not act like the public when it comes to trafficking in credible information rather than rumors. Civil society also needs to adapt to its hybrid analog/digital state.

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