Why we engage: how theories of human behavior contribute to our understanding of civic engagement in a digital era

22 October 2013

This paper brings together literature from behavioral economics, sociology, psychology and communication studies to reveal how civic actors, institutions, and decision-making processes have been traditionally understood, and how emerging media tools and practices are forcing their reconsideration.

Introduction

As digital communication technologies have evolved over the past few decades, the convergence of network structure and accessibility with hardware and software advances has allowed individuals to interact in various, even contradictory, ways. They can explore, hide, reach out, evaluate, connect, negotiate, exchange, and coordinate to a greater degree than ever before. Furthermore, this has translated to an ever-increasing number of users interacting with information in unprecedented ways and, due to device portability, in totally new physical locations. Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare update each other simultaneously across application platforms with near-real time photos and impressions of places; mobile exercise applications allow users to track their own movements as well as view where others in their geographic vicinity went running; Yelp users can read selective reviews from social network friends and strangers in their community on a specific restaurant; and Facebook friends can see what their peers bought, listened to, and read - from anywhere they are able to access the Internet.  Most of these apps update across platforms enabling both maximum reach across a user’s social group as well as a highly selective direction of information to a subset of their social network.

Just as the rapidly evolving landscape of connectivity and communications technology is transforming the individual’s experience of the social sphere, what it means to participate in civic life is also changing, both in how people do it and how it is measured. Civic engagement includes all the ways in which individuals attend to the concerns of public life, how one learns about and participates in all of the issues and contexts beyond one’s immediate private or intimate sphere. New technologies and corresponding social practices, from social media to mobile reporting, are providing different ways to record, share, and amplify that attentiveness. Media objects or tools that impact civic life can be understood within two broad types: those designed specifically with the purpose of community engagement in mind (for instance, a digital game for local planning or an app to give feedback to city council) or generic tools that are subsequently appropriated for engaging a community (such as Twitter or Facebook’s role in the Arab Spring or London riots). Moreover, these tools can mediate any number of relationships between or among citizens, local organizations, or government institutions. Digitally mediated civic engagement runs the gamut of phenomena from organizing physical protests using social media (e.g., Occupy), to using digital tools to hack institutions (e.g., Anonymous), to using city-produced mobile applications to access and coproduce government services, to using digital platforms for deliberating.  Rather than try to identify what civic media tools look like in the midst of such an array of possibilities (by focusing on in depth examples or case studies), going forward we will instead focus on how digital tools expand the context of civic life and motivations for engagement, and what participating in civic life looks like in a digital era.

We present this literature review as a means of exploring the intersection of theories of human behavior with the motivations for and benefits of engaging in civic life. We bring together literature from behavioral economics, sociology, psychology and communication studies to reveal how civic actors, institutions, and decision-making processes have been traditionally understood, and how emerging media tools and practices are forcing their reconsideration.

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