Why Mix Urban Planning and Social Media?
Contemporary urban planning uses many techniques to get people involved in a particular planning process. These techniques range from mail-in or telephone surveys to multiple-day design charrettes or open houses. The advent of social media, which is a set of tools found on the internet like blogs, forums, wikis, social networking sites, and collaborative software, is really exciting for the planning field. All of these tools can help communities think about, design, and build the kind of communities they want. Social media tools can also help planners and local governments stay in touch with people to make planning more effective and representative.
This essay describes social media in more detail and tries to explain why people like to participate in social media. It also describes ways in which social media can help planning be more participatory. Nevertheless, there are some limits to social media. Hopefully you will find this article interesting! There are plenty of links and references to follow where you can learn more.
- Daniella Fergusson
- Definition of social media
- Incentives to use social media
- Social media’s impact on social change and governance
- The limits to social media-based participation
Although planning has been expert-driven for much of its history, participatory planning has become de rigueur in recent decades. Participatory planning emerged from Latin America as a reaction to authoritarian regimes and as part of a larger leftist social movement. Paulo Freire, for example, argued that development should emerge from the grassroots level, rather than being directed from the top, so that people can define and direct their communities’ growth. Since then, participatory planning has moved into mainstream planning practice. Participation is a desired planning process, because participation is tautologically justified – perceived to be self-evidentially good. Other justifications for participatory planning include creating social change, strengthening social capital, and establishing governance required to manage the commons. Although participatory planning’s impacts on these three areas remain debated, social media provides the planning profession with a variety of ways to improve participation, perhaps achieving social change, strengthened social capital, and improved governance. This essay will focus just on social change and governance, as social media’s impact on social capital is significant and well-documented.
Social media refers to a group of internet communication technologies that allow people to communicate and publish information in groups. Specifically, social media encompasses statistical and deliberative technologies including blogs, forums, wikis, open source software, social networking sites, media sharing sites, creative commons licensing, online polls, user-populated maps, and prediction markets. Some examples are Planetizen’s blog, Cyburbia forums, WikiPlanning, Wordpress, LinkedIn/Facebook, Flickr/YouTube, General Public License, Survey Monkey, SeeClickFix, and Iowa Electronic Markets, respectively. Table 1 indentifies how social media differs from traditional broadcast and communication media. Social media’s distinction is critical as it provides a unique combination of anonymity and social density, as well as permitting information to flow freely (literally and figuratively).
Table 1: Differences in media typologies
|Broadcast Media||Communication Media||Social Media|
|Direction of communication||1-way||2-way||Group|
|Ratio of senders and recipients||One sender to many recipients||One sender to one recipient||Many senders to many recipients|
|Access to information shared||Public access||Private access||Public and private access|
|Relationship between senders and recipients||Anonymous recipients||Social density (sender and recipient know each other)||Anonymous senders and recipients concurrent with social density|
|Technologies||Radio, Television, Print Media||Telephone, email and text messaging to a certain extent||Blogs, forums, wikis, open source software, social networking sites, media sharing sites, creative commons licensing, online polls, user-populated maps, prediction markets|
Surprisingly, people interact with each other via and contribute to social media tools without monetary compensation for their time and resources. People are motivated to contribute with a range of financial, reputation, and status incentives. Financially, most people contribute to social media without remuneration. Although some bloggers earn advertising dividends and “blog-ola,” it seems that many social media users are not motivated by money. To illustrate Cass Sunstein, legal scholar and author, believed that prediction markets were successful because profit motivated participants to make decisions based on accurate information. Instead, Sunstein found that virtual money prediction markets are just as successful as monetary markets. Sunstein, as well as other authors commenting on social media like Clay Shirky and James Surowiecki, believes that reputation and status incentives encourage good quality and deep participation in social media. To illustrate, people spend many hours creating open‐source software, blog articles, and Wikipedia entries for no compensation other than having the personal satisfaction of being an expert or of having learned something. Sometimes, contributors receive a visible status boost. To illustrate, a person may be given a higher‐status account, a different color star, or some other way of showing that this person has contributed to the community.
Furthermore, social media also has few barriers to entry. Although one needs a computer or cell phone with internet access to connect to social media, a person’s “real world” social status is irrelevant. People can establish and develop their own status online. Furthermore, the internet is cheap and neutral, so people can publish whatever they like without having to ask for permission or capital.
In her 1969 essay, A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Sherry Arnstein argues that true citizen power is social change, making a high degree of participation a revolutionary act. Arnstein’s broad categories or participation are: “non‐participation,” “tokenism,” and “citizen power”. Non‐participation is a monologue spoken to the community and carried out by planners only during the plan stage, and not the meta-planning or implementation stages. By contrast, empowered participation, or “citizen power,” is a multi‐directional dialogue with everyone having access to meta‐planning and implementation.
Arnstein’s ladder can help evaluate how well social media can foment social change due to increased participation. Social media is participatory by nature and higher on Arnstein’s ladder compared to broadcast and communications media. To illustrate, Table 1 shows that social media has changed the direction and nature of dialog between people, making it far easier for many people to reach many more friends and strangers. Shirky believes that new technological developments, with social media being the latest development, create the platform social change because they facilitate new kinds of group formation. Thus, it seems that social media is, de facto, empowered participation.
To complicate social media’s impact on social change, it is important to note that there are varying levels of participation within social media. Arnstein’s ladder for social media could be “Shirky’s Ladder,” a ladder of increasing participation based on Clay Shirky’s delineation of social media types. Shirky’s ladder has three rungs: sharing, cooperation, and collective action. Sharing requires the least amount of participatory effort. Examples of sharing are posting photos publically online, emailing news articles or websites to friends, tweeting an activity, and other activities that mimic broadcasting. Cooperation requires individuals to change their behavior to coordinate with other people who have to also change their behavior to synchronize with the group. Cooperation leads to the creation of a group identity, more communication between group members, and a greater sense of community. Collaborative production, like writing Wikipedia articles, is a form of cooperation and results in a product where no one author can claim credit for the work. Collaborative production is challenging, because collective decisions need to be made. Shirky’s highest form of participation is collective action. The hardest form of group effort, collective action requires people to commit to participating in a group and to agreeing that group decisions are binding on members. Examples of collective action include political flash mobs that have occurred in Belarus, Philippines, and Iran. As people move from sharing to collective action, more coordination between people is required and less planning is possible as actions tend to occur in real time.
Shirky’s ladder demonstrates that social media provides broad and deep participation options. Arnstein criticizes planners who involve the public only at the planning stage, leaving people out at the meta-planning and implementation stages. While this criticism is valid, considering empowered participation and consequent social change through the lens of social media suggests that a system can be just and permit social change by offering a spectrum of participation levels. In other words, social media provides a community with options, so each person can choose how much he or she wishes to participate. In fact, social media-based participation allows social change to take place at levels below Shirky’s collective action stage. Even sharing and cooperation can foment social change. To illustrate, after the June 2009 presidential elections in Iran, youth tweeted and posted photos on Flickr of protests, arguing that the election had been stolen by the incumbent. On June 13, the government curtailed internet and text messaging networks as an effort to stop Iranian youth from self-organizing by Twitter into mobs and to prevent the sharing of photos with foreign journalists. Thus, in light of new technological developments, Arnstein’s ladder is perhaps out of date and planners now have more opportunities to encourage social change via social media-based participatory tools.
Social media is changing governance in terms of what the commons are, who manages the commons, and how the commons are managed. Although the commons is conventionally used to refer to physical areas, such as parks, oceans, or the atmosphere, intellectual commons also exist, such as public domain writing or recordings, photos, and general knowledge. The internet has greatly expanded the commons, as the digital era has made copying and sharing of previously-privatized information very simple. To explain another way, intellectual property laws on text, sound, and video have not prevented the sharing and derivative creation of media, enlarging the commons available to people. Thus, what we think of as the commons is much larger than what was available before the internet.
The internet’s inherent disorder and freedom has encouraged, if not necessitated, the development of many governance tools to manage these commons. Management of media has been taken away from professionals by what Shirky calls “mass amateurization”. Because anyone can publish written works, photographs, films, and music using the internet, professionals no longer have the monopoly on publishing, and therefore on filtering, what is available. Blogs and media sharing sites, like Blogger, Wordpress, Flickr, and YouTube, are free platforms used to publish writing, photos, and videos. Wordpress, in particular, is open source software, which is software developed publically and communally with an open license, so users can use, modify, and distribute the software. Other examples of open source software are Apache and Linux (operating systems used on many web servers), MySQL (a database system Wordpress blogs use), bbPress (forum software), and Firefox (a web browser). Anyone can participate in the many levels of the internet, from creating the software that servers and websites use to writing a blog post or sharing a photo link with a friend.
Management of the commons online involves activities ranging from sharing a link to deliberating with peers on how to construct software or how to write a Wikipedia article. An individual may decide to publish a home video on YouTube and then give the video a Creative Commons license, allowing other people to “remix” the video. A recent example is “Keyboard Cat,” a video of a cat playing a keyboard that was remixed, spawning a meme where the cat “plays off” particularly bad mistakes caught on camera. Or, a group of people may debate the merits of editing a Wikipedia article on a WikiTalk page. Overall, media is generally self-policed. For example, users of Wikipedia repair articles that have been defaced. Social media’s ability to facilitate people to submit photos, reviews, videos, and other media informally and easily is a tremendous asset to planners, since residents can self organize to describe their community and its assets.
Social media’s ability to promote participation is limited by the inequality of participation, the limits of deliberation, and spam. The inequality of participation is also known as the “Power Law of Participation” and the “90‐9‐1 Principle” (See Figure 1). The principle states that 90 percent of users of social media sites are “lurkers” who never contribute. Nine percent of users contribute a little, and only one percent of users account for almost everything. When specifically referring to blogs, the 90‐9‐1 Principle more closely approximates 95‐5‐0.1, indicating that blogs are less participatory than the average site. Wikipedia’s ratio is much worse, with the most active 0.003 percent of users contributing two‐thirds of the site’s content and edits! Not only do the vast majority of users online hardly contribute anything, but difference between the most active and least active users becomes starker as the number of users of a site grows. Nevertheless, unequal participation does not necessarily mean that social media is unjust. Shirky cites examples of the “ultimatum game,” a game where two players decide how to divide money that is given to them and punish each other for unfair divisions, to suggest that systems that have nonfinancial motivations may be more tolerant of variable participation. Surowiecki complicates this idea, stating that culture impacts how people feel about earning money or status: in America, people attribute wealth to skill while Europeans attribute it to luck. Finally, Shirky points out that the “long tail” of the power law distribution of users is a vital part of the functioning social media site; eradicating these users does not make the site more efficient.
The limits of deliberation are also evident in social media-based participation. Cass Sunstein critiques deliberation, arguing that it can cause sub-optimal group outcomes. Sunstein show examples where deliberation causes people to act like mobs, amplifies decision and information errors, and causes poor outcomes. Surowiecki also show examples of when groups fail due to mob-like behavior and failure to share information between group members. Nevertheless, Sunstein and Surowiecki recognize that social media can create situations where the limits of deliberation can be overcome, especially when different types of social media tools are matched with the type of problem that is to be solved.
A final limit of social media-based participation tools is the amount of noise, or spam, in the system. Because social media makes participation so easy, many users are fake, created by software for the purposes of spamming. To overcome noise, websites can employ meta‐moderation or other methods that facilitate constructive input and hinder noise. Slashdot’s meta‐moderation system promotes good comments. People who consistently make good comments get accounts with more rights and responsibilities, while people who consistently make spam or flaming comments may have their accounts suspended. Other sites use tests before users can create an account or write anything, to see whether a participant is human or an automated bot.
If participants in social media can experience social change and improved governance, then planners ought to consider using social media-based participatory planning methods. Internet‐based tools, like wikis, blogs, open‐source software, and websites with forums, commenting systems, and/or social networks can improve participatory planning by allowing people to choose how much they want to participate and letting them choose their status within a group. Social networks also decentralize decision-making to self-selecting groups. Although the internet is rife with incorrect information, noise, participation inequality, and enclaves of people who share polarized perspectives on a variety of topics, web‐based technologies have a number of opportunities to overcome these limitations. Social media presents an opportunity for planners to reap the purported benefits of participatory planning while improving on the Arnstein model for participation by allowing people to choose how much they wish to contribute.
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