Sunday, March 11, 2012

Connected Citizens, First Text for Assignment 2

Knight Foundation | Connected Citizens [report]

Connected Citizens -  The power, peril and potential of networks by Diana Scearce highlights a study by the Knight Foundation about networks, “groups that are creatively connecting citizens” (Scearce, 2012, forward).  Rheingold uses the term smart mob to describe networks: “Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation” (, para 1).

The Knight Foundation is a funding organization that states on its website that it “supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts” (para 1 About the Foundation). 

The report echoes the caution that Rheingold states in his MIT presentation in 2002, that the smart mobs will “not always necessarily be peaceful and democratic.. (the) future won’t be all progress and light” (2002, MIT video).  Connected Citizens reports, “What’s less clear at this point is whether this interconnectedness, decentralization and transparency is—and will be—good or bad for the health of communities” (Scearce, 2011, pg 1).

The Knight Foundation, with its partner the Monitor Institute studied more than 70 projects, to determine whether the “potential of networks (is to) create stronger bonds or to split us apart” (Scearce, 2011, Forward). 

It cautions, “there are downsides to this interdependence as well. Network con­nections can be used to hoard power rather than distribute it. Living in dense and information-rich webs presents real dangers of narrowing rather than broadening our worldviews because we’re forced to filter in order to manage the overwhelming amounts of information.

“Will our public conversations be more polarized and fragmented, as people choose to connect with others who are like-minded? Or will we see more bridging of differences? With growing digital connectivity increasing the possibilities for borderless communities, will citizens have stronger or weaker ties to their neighbors? Finally, how widespread will the skills be for artfully using the tools to channel this wealth of connectivity toward social change?” (Scearce, 2011, pg. 2).  

The report noted the following patterns in successful networks:
Listening to and consulting the crowds
Designing for serendipity
Bridging differences
Catalyzing mutual support
Providing handrails for collective action(pg. 7).

The report also asks some key questions:  
How much trust and mistrust will here be?
- These are addressed through bridging differences and deliberately connecting people with different perspectives by successful networks

What will be the nature of public participation and the public conversation?  
- These are addressed by designs for serendipity and catalyzing mutual support by successful networks

What will be the impact of technology on (the quality of) civic information and engagement?
- The report makes the point that sometimes it is wise to “smart source” rather than crowdsource.  “since the input you get from the crowds is shaped by who’s participating, a diversity of perspectives may not be reflected and there’s always a risk that the loudest or most shocking messages will grab attention” (pg. 9).

What will be the nature of leadership in a network-centric world?
- These are the “handrails” of successful networks.

The report quotes Harold Rheingold:  “The critical uncertainty about collective action and the question, ‘Is the Internet and mobile device era good for us or bad for us?’ depends on the percentage of the population who know what to do with the tools. The knowledge itself isn’t a capital intensive resource. How you get it to people depends on institutions. How will learners organize together, and how will they be facilitated?” (pg. 29).

 The report describes 3 compelling pictures of what 2015 could look like, with both positive and negative repercussions. For instance, in Digging Foxholes, people retreat to protect themselves from governments that use social media channels for their own ends.  In Know Your Neighbour,  people become myopic and don’t see new ideas from outside the network they know. In MobileMe, the hyper-connectivity results in a world where your home is not defined by geography and the local infrastructure deteriorates – children attend school online and the local system fails, for instance.   The report is not suggesting that one of these scenarios will be exactly what happens and each is an undiluted look at the pros and cons of each – but we can see elements of each in 2012.
I think all of this highlights the need to be transliterate, across the new technologies, but also in traditional face to face connections, in ‘reading’ and understanding human behaviour.  This means preparing current generations of learners to be fluent (transliterate) in this new reality.  Jenkins reflects the gap with his statement,  If we were to start from scratch and design an educational system to meet the needs of the culture we have just described, it would look very little like the current school system” (2006, para. 14). 

The solution is to educate ourselves (and our children) about networks, how they work, how to make connections, how to recognize the downsides, and how to grow them.  It seems to me that not connecting is not a solution.   This rings of the lesson we learned in our first MACT institute that we can not not communicate.

Jenkins, Henry. (2006).“Eight traits of the new media landscape,” confessions of an aca-fan. Retrieved March 8, 2012 from: /11/eight_traits_of_the_new_media.html.

Knight Foundation. (2012) website Retrieved March 8, 2012 from

Rheingold, H. (2002).  “Smart mobs: The next social revolution.”  MIT World. [Video file]. Retrieved March 8, 2012 from:

Scearce, D. (2011). Connected citizens, The power, peril and potential of networks. John S and James L Knight Foundations. Retrieved March 8, 2012


  1. Kim, I like the point you've raised about "smart sourcing" vs. "crowd sourcing" in the context of civic engagement. If a network can be parallel to a political structure, you might look at a democracy as smart sourcing and an anarchy as crowd sourcing. In a democracy, elected leaders (should) have a sense of obligation to protect the rights of minorities. In an anarchy, the mob wins - at the expense of minority rights. For the good of society, the loudest or most prevalent voice shouldn't always win, even if it's in the majority.

    I'm curious to take a look at the "Digging Foxholes" resource you've referenced. It seems like so far, it's often the citizenry who are a step ahead of governments in their use of network technologies. Sites like, which inspired many to join the Occupy movement, seem to have taken most of those in power by surprise, just as some oppressive governments in the Middle East didn't expect their citizens to be able to organize as effectively as they have over the past year. However, it seems that in China protesters have been using "foxholes" to communicate. Since the government is quite media savvy, they censor the use of such words as "democracy" and "protest", leading protesters to develop an elaborate code system.

  2. Linda - That's an interesting description of a foxhole as well. When I heard the presenter talking about China I didn't make a connection with foxholes in this article. But it is certainly another possible view of what a future might look like.

    The Concerned Citizens report described a foxhole as a place where citizens retreat and disconnect as they fear too much information is known about them, or available about them and they try to get off the grid. It is a result of people mistrusting and fearing the connectivity that we are witnessing now through the Internet. If Big Brother has these tools, then I will avoid them.

  3. Hello Kim,

    Really nice post. I appreciate the quote: " “there are downsides to this interdependence as well. Network con­nections can be used to hoard power rather than distribute it. Living in dense and information-rich webs presents real dangers of narrowing rather than broadening our worldviews because we’re forced to filter in order to manage the overwhelming amounts of information."

    Here, I can see echoes of my own research into smart mobs and the hacker collectivist, Anonymous. Often, especially in the Internet news world, I feel like there isn't much of a focus put on the negative impacts of the Internet. However, if you look at a lot of large Internet structures that have a lot of power (Reddit immediately comes to mind), there often seems to be very narrow viewpoints put out that aren't receptive to any opposing opinions. Thanks for reminding me that not all connectivity is good connectivity!