Some reasons why balanced learning can’t happen in LinkedIn Groups – Case Study

socialmedialimitations

Putting aside the unprofessional and inevitable troll behaviour of some individuals, there are particular limitations of electronic communication media sites for deeply considering issues of importance.

This study highlights the dominance of ‘agonistic pluralism’ in social media-based public dialogue ‘where users go to declare views in a competitive environment’ (Ingham 2013: 1).

I would recommend [introduction of] … ways of ensuring greater academic research involvement in public dialogue projects ……in order to enhance the quality of delivery, analysis and evaluation.

Extracts and guided reading from: Social Media-based Public Dialogue: Potential, Theory and Practice, Dr Eric Jensen Department of Sociology University of Warwick, http://bit.ly/1EdBcVs

Today, rather than meeting in a common physical space to witness an event or to engage in political debate, many citizens meet in symbolic, virtual spaces based on shared interests, needs or identities. This article emanates from the Sciencewise commissioned report entitled, ‘In the goldfish bowl: Science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world’ (Latta, Mulcare, and Zacharzewski, 2013).

Research conducted by Pippa Norris (2001) highlights three distinctive forms of digital divide: ‘global’ (between rich and poor nations), ‘social’ (inequality within a nation) and ‘democratic’ (between those who use digital technology for political, or ‘public’ purposes and those who do not). When debating the potential value of social media for public dialogue, it is important to consider these three digital divides.

Beyond my concerns with the overstatement of digital engagement’s benefits and the understatement of its limitations, it should here be noted that the headline claim, ‘dialogue is an approach, not a delivery mechanism,’ is problematic at best. ‘Approach’ and ‘delivery mechanism’ are not opposing ideas: Digital public dialogue methods can be both an approach and a delivery mechanism at the same time.

Limitations and risks of digital engagement

Information quality

The authors state that, ‘Information can easily go “viral” – particularly where inaccurate information has a strong simple story, and the reality is complex.’ (pg. 6). The authors are correct here. As with traditional journalism, simple stories and explanations tend to get the greatest attention, and the digital sphere allows for ever quicker spread of rumour and false information. However, this is primarily a concern if one is working in a public relations context, trying to push a particular message out. Within a two-way dialogue, there are opportunities to clarify one’s meaning.

In such a two-way dialogue, scientists and policymakers should focus at least as much attention on ensuring they understand public perspectives as on concern over their own views being oversimplified or misunderstood. Understanding why online publics hold specific viewpoints would open the space for negotiating a shared understanding on the topic.

Translating complexity into public debate

The authors state that: ‘simplifying complex findings without losing accuracy is fundamental to supporting open debate’ (pg. 6). Certainly, the ability to speak in plain language about the technical details of a topic is important to public dialogue, both online and offline. However, competent jargon-free science communication does not always translate into a better or more open debate. Particular social media platforms for dialogue can make substantive scientific debate more difficult. Twitter, for example, places strict limits on message length.

This limit can compel users to (over)simplify their messages, which in turn increases the importance of the background knowledge individuals bring to the conversation. Dialogue on a site such as Twitter can inadvertently create parallel conversations because of the limited space for explanations. Therefore, it is important to ask for clarification when ambiguous statements are made.

Creating a ready audience

The authors state that: ‘Enhancing dialogue with digital tools should aim to give participants a baseline of knowledge, not a baseline of opinion’. This point seems to be based on the idea that the public must first reach a knowledge threshold deemed ‘informed’ before being worthy of engagement (this issue is discussed in more detail later in this report). This can be problematic as everyone is to some extent informed and ignorant about different topics and different elements. Instead, it is important that policymakers and scientists are honest about the boundaries and limitations of their available evidence on a topic.

Building trust, online and offline

‘The views of a trusted member of a chat-room, online group or social network may command more weight than that of an official spokesperson or expert scientist’ (pg. 7). Indeed, this is a general feature of social reality (offline as well as online): The views of individuals in people’s immediate social circle will often carry greater weight than an official or expert.

When members of the public (often rightly) suspect that officials and experts do not understand them or their situations, it is understandable that expert views are not given paramount consideration. Experts should work to make themselves trustworthy and to maintain an on-going humility about the boundaries of their knowledge. They should also recognise the value of non-experts’ experience, and expertise. Again, this applies both online and offline.

In or out of the Goldfish Bowl of online public dialogue?

In summarising this review, it is perhaps useful to look toward the framing device used to ground the report. The authors provides very little elaboration of the ‘goldfish bowl’ metaphor that is included in the title. They simply articulate the metaphor as follows: ‘The core benefit of digital engagement as an enhancement to dialogue is that it allows dialogue to take place in a “goldfish bowl” – visible to the outside world but separate from it. In the world outside the fishbowl, separate discussions and communications take place that boost the impact of the exercise.’ (pg. 13).

The authors are certainly onto something with this metaphor, but it has important limitations.

Firstly, it is important to consider who becomes the focus of attention (i.e. who is inside the goldfish bowl) in a public dialogue, including one taking place online. Contrary to the authors’ recent response to Part 1 of my critique, I do not think the significance placed on digital technology is the most important limitation of their report. Rather, it is the differentiated nature of digital exclusion that is not acknowledged, and which could most undermine the credibility of online public dialogue. The 73% of the UK population who currently use the Internet are not evenly distributed across the population: the poor, elderly and less educated are less likely to have access to it. Therefore, whose voices are heard? Which discussions are included, and why? These kinds of inclusion/exclusion dimensions are essential to understanding the validity of online public dialogue in practice (i.e. not just its potential).

Secondly, we cannot take for granted the permeability of the membrane between what has been deemed the site of online public dialogue on one hand and the grand cacophony of voices that is the broader social web on the other. Simply saying that discussions outside of the boundaries of the online public dialogue will ‘boost the impact of the exercise’ begs the question of how precisely a two-way stream of communication can be maintained in this circumstance.

Policymakers wishing to engage with online public dialogue should consider whether it is truly necessary to create a separate space or pathway to inform social policy, or whether they should go where the dialogue is already happening on the web. This ‘naturalistic observation’ of incorporating public perspectives on specific issues could easily be more inclusive in terms of the number of participants. If rigorous social scientific methods of analysis were employed, the exercise could be more systematic than current face-to-face practices. It would also place effectively no demands on participants’ time, and be far cheaper and more straightforward to conduct.

There are certainly limitations to such an approach, especially when attempting to gather feedback on issues that are not yet widely known. However, given the greater cost of managing a dialogue ‘within the goldfish bowl’, the burden of proof lies with those advocating such a managed approach to demonstrate its superiority. Of course, it would be feasible to employ both approaches within a single digital public dialogue initiative.

Qualitative analysis of naturalistic observations of on-going social media discussions could inform the issues raised in a managed public dialogue. The findings could also help place the managed deliberative exercise within a broader context. Social Media and Principles of Public Dialogue In looking to answer the questions stated at the outset of the report, and posed during the critique of the Goldfish Bowl report, it is useful to draw upon a comparison between current Sciencewise-supported face-to-face public dialogue activities and the possible use of social media-based public dialogue.

As I suggested in my discussion thus far, there are two main points that need to be taken into consideration when looking specifically at social media. Firstly, in principle, the expansion of social media means that it is a busier, more diverse and more pervasive setting for dialogue than ever before. Secondly, in practice, there are still many limitations to relying upon social media as the sole, or even primary, venue for public dialogue. In order to make comparisons, let us begin by thinking about what we are trying to achieve with public dialogue, and then weigh up the relative advantages of social media or conventional face-to-face approaches for achieving those goals.

This can then serve as the jumping-off point for a more in-depth critique of the two methods, based upon theory and extant empirical research. In the analysis that follows, the Sciencewise definition of public dialogue is used to assess whether social media-based public dialogue is commensurate with face-to-face public dialogue. Given that any method of facilitating public dialogue will have limitations, I present this assessment (Figure 1) as a comparison with current face-to-face public dialogue approaches.

An empirical case of social media-based public dialogue

In this section, I discuss an empirical analysis of online public dialogue as a way of further examining the benefits and limitations of such an approach. Ingham (2013: 1) conducted a mixed methods study of venues for online public dialogue, including the Facebook page of the European Parliament. The results showed that the online discussions were ‘more competitive and argumentative than deliberative’ (Ingham 2013: 1). It also found that ‘the degree of interactive debate was very low with users showing little respect for each other where they interacted at all’ (Ingham 2013: 1).

This finding highlights the value of a facilitated approach to public dialogue (such as the approach followed by Sciencewise-supported face-to-face dialogue activities), which can be structured to enable mutual listening and understanding. Such a facilitated approach may be transferrable in some respects to a social media context, but this has yet to be demonstrated. From the perspective of a public dialogue model influenced by German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas (i.e. the Sciencewise model), a particularly negative finding is the lack of ‘reasoned debate with justifications for arguments’ (Ingham 2013: 1) within the unmoderated social media discussions.

While Ingham found no indication that debate participants shifted their positions because of their social media-based interaction, such interaction can nevertheless inform and influence the opinions of others viewing, but not directly participating in, the debate. In sum, ‘the rules of the sites, the overall structures in which debate takes place and the cultures of the participants which value free expression and the ability to state a diversity of views over deliberative ideals’ (Ingham 2013: 1) would not fit well with the Sciencewise definition of public dialogue.

This study highlights the dominance of ‘agonistic pluralism’ in social media-based public dialogue ‘where users go to declare views in a competitive environment’ (Ingham 2013: 1).

This kind of non-facilitated social media discourse is likely to be viewed as problematic based on the current Sciencewise model. In principle, however, a well-structured formalised public dialogue exercise conducted face-to-face could instead produce more constructive and cooperative forms of discussion. Ingham has examined a very specific, relatively informal and unstructured form of online public dialogue. Therefore, just as structured and formal face-to-face dialogue may address Ingham’s conclusion, so may more structured online dialogues.

Conclusion

There are a number of objections that could be made about moving public dialogue into a social media setting, and the first part of this report did just that. However, after analysing these objections, this report has found that the limitations of such a shift towards social media-based public dialogue are different to, but not greater than, current practices in formal face-to-face public dialogue exercises.

Objections to social media-based public dialogue

1. The digital divide means that whole swathes of the population would

Indeed, this is a major limitation of social media-based public dialogue, which means that alternative engagement methods are needed to reach the poor and disenfranchised. However, not be able to participate in such a dialogue. current approaches to public dialogue using face-to-face methods typically fall foul of this same objection when their methods of recruiting participants are scrutinised.

2. Social media-based public dialogue would yield findings that are not representative or robust

As discussed in the body of this report, the representativeness and robustness of the most recent practice in face-to-face public dialogues is dubious. Like face-to-face dialogue exercises, the key will be the quality of the facilitators or analysts commissioned to run the exercise, as well as how the dialogue online is structured or facilitated. Trialling different techniques for social media-based public dialogue in advance of a full-scale formal departmental public dialogue would be prudent. However, such trials must employ robust social scientific evaluation methods if they are to yield accurate insights.

3. The voice of experts will be drowned out online

Certain forms of social media dialogue may fail to distinguish between experts and the public. Firstly, however, this addresses the imbalance of current face-to-face dialogue practices supported by Sciencewise, where only experts are allowed to set the context for the debate. But, secondly, as I have mentioned, social media dialogue could be structured to avoid entirely ignoring expert views.

4. Broader participation in dialogue through social media will not yield more informed policy conclusions.

Social media-based public debate, if effectively facilitated, could lead to decisions that are better informed and more robust than current Sciencewise-supported practices are producing. It could mitigate pitfalls, such as constraints on the range of factors being considered, which can affect formal, face-to-face public dialogue exercises, but are less likely to apply to social media-based debate.

Finally, I would recommend that Sciencewise develop ways of ensuring greater academic research involvement in public dialogue projects (particularly from social scientists interested in science and technology studies) in order to enhance the quality of delivery, analysis and evaluation.

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