From citizen feedback to the problem of ties

(via Gatewatching) – The Australian government’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) has recently launched its public blog, entitled “Digital Economy Future Directions.” The Australian Government is working on a “roadmap for Australian businesses, househoulds and government to maximise participation in the digital economy;” and the explicit purpose of the blog was to ask for the ideas, comments, views and suggestions of internet users – to solicit direct online citizen feedback on some – thankfully much more narrowly defined – subjects.

The Gatewatching blog describes the initial reactions to the blog – and some of the challenges it had to face. Most interesting among these – for me anyway – is the problem of too many contributors too soon. Quoting Axel Bruns quoting Clay Shirky:

communities have strong upper limits on size, while audiences can grow arbitrarily large. Put another way, the larger a group held together by communication grows, the more it must become like an audience — largely disconnected and held together by communication traveling from center to edge — because increasing the number of people in a group weakens communal connection.

Contradicting this argument somewhat, Bruns argues that it is indeed possible for online communities to grow very large – but growth should be gradual, tied together with some kind of internal community building and organization, and thus aided by proper practical (technological) support (such as some kind of rating and/or filtering system within the platform that hosts the community). (This was not the case here; in a matter of days, the DBCDE blog attracted what turned out to be a slightly too large number of contributors.)

But let me chew a bit more on this quote. As I have mentioned, one of the underlying hypotheses of my research is that social news sites work best with a community of “ideal size:” there should be a large number of contributors so as to provide a large and diverse pool of sources, but on the other hand there should not be too many of them, lest discussion becomes impossible. I thought this was a very commonsensical argument. But I had to realize Bruns had a very valid point there; of course, the size of the community is not the single factor that counts.

In fact, this once again points to the fact just how important all the practical, technological, usability-related features of websites are. I’m not sure if peer rating system might work – it probably can under certain circumstances and cannot under others -, or if the customizable visualization of comments (á la Digg or Newsvine) is where it’s at; but the point is that such features do matter –

and, they especially do matter in the case of a community that does have a “sense of purpose and direction,” such as the communities of social news sites or themed discussion boards. Because on these sites the ties to which Shirky refers with the term “communal connection” are likely to be qualitatively different – most probably much looser – than what we would normally understand as “ties” in a social network. In other words, “communal connection” within a community that is oriented towards an explicit goal, and where this goal determines or at least heavily influences the ways in which people establish ties with each other – so, “communal connection” might be very weak or “narrow” even among members of the community who are seemingly tied close together.

So in the end I arrived at some empirical questions, regarding the nature of these ties. What are they? How strong are they? And how does the quality/strength of ties affect in this particular setting the number of ties one can maintain?

Well, these are questions to be asked in the 2nd phase of my research.

ps – The DBCDE closed down commenting on the blog after a short period of time – it really was just an experiment -, but it promised to “reflect in the new year on the many lessons we have learned, in the hope that we can ensure that future online engagement efforts are more productive for everyone.” I’m looking forward to these reflections.

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