citizens, agency, independence

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Finding myself in a funny lull between summer work and the start of a new job, I’ve had a little free time to dance around the web and investigate things I wouldn’t usually spend a lot of time with. As proof of this, please see yesterday’s post, titled “Pigeon Cheese.”

I’ve also gotten to know a web application called 30 Boxes which I’ve come to like quite a lot. It’s an online calendar with a “social” (code for Web 2.0) concept: you get your friends to use it and you share events. What I like about it is the way it ties a lot of online data together in the form of feeds: what co-founder Narendra Rocherolle calls a “social supernet.” Your Flickr and MySpace accounts, blogs, email accounts (eventually, I think) and any other stuff you use online can be collected at one place which is also where you keep track of your schedule. That’s a cool use of the web, and a good illustration of how this Web 2.0 business can consist of more than fresh new business plans.

But the hyperbole surrounding this kind of things is awful business-plan-like. One blogger responded to Rocherolle’s post by calling 30 Boxes “the most interesting, life-changing calendar ever!” Granted, we’re talking about calendars here, so nothing’s gonna be geek-free. But life-changing?

This has all reminded me of questions I had last November when I first discovered Flock, a still-in-development web browser that integrates blogging, feed-reading, and photo-sharing into one application. Beyond it being a cool toy (it is), I was interested in the way it billed itself as a revolutionary tool of the social web. Said CEO Bart Decrem,

We are part of the participation revolution, a shift of control away from corporations, publishers and other large entities, and towards the individual.

Yes! I want to pump my fist to that. But I’m a little dismayed at the way political and cultural language is being used not to promote a political or cultural cause, but to create a product — as is evidenced by stressing the individual at every possible turn. Again, these are good products, but what happens to this powerful language if it becomes detached from the kind of real-life social issues that citizen journalism is trying to address and instead stresses the role of the individual above or outside of society?

Another quote that prompted this post is from the home page of Citizen Agency, a consultant group run by Chris Messina (who once worked for Flock) and Tara Hunt. They do interesting work with people like 30 Boxes, and as far as I can tell they believe in the ideal of an informed, participatory democracy.

We are a group of consultants, loosely joined across the globe who, together as independent citizens, make up the most powerful agency of all time.

I think they’re doing good work and have said interesting things about the possibilities of the Internet (I particularly credit Messina’s work for getting me interested in this stuff). However, what do they mean by “independent citizens”?

I know that since its inception the tech industry has had a hard libertarian bent and this shows up in peoples’ liberal social attitudes and elevation of individual interests above all else. But for me, the very definition of a citizen is someone who participates in civic society, hopefully leaving behind iPod-istic notions of the “individual” for something more noble. The Internet — and especially these Web 2.0 tools that enable an unprecedented amount of participation and collaboration — helps us to be more involved, but it also helps us be more self-involved.

I’d like to see folks like Messina and Hunt, who do great work advocating open-source and socially relevant projects, address this issue. Just as text messaging can be used to organize political groups and help them achieve real change, so too can social networking help get citizens involved in the truest sense of the word: involved in their communities, participating in civil society, and working toward social ends.

In response to my earlier post about this, Messina wrote:

…in so much as we are able to help bring a new vehicle for encouraging a wider diversity of voices on the web, I believe that we will be doing a great service for the advancement of human dialogue and debate. (How’s that for lofty ambitions?)

That’s a start. But we need to think about a bigger purpose for the Web than simply making venture capitalists happy and individuals comfortable with their new identities.

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