Archive for July, 2011

Civic Participation and Personal Identity

Do you ever wonder why some causes gain dedicated followers and others don’t?  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of social media in civic participation.  Can access to information  from peers help people get more involved?  To understand that, you need to understand why people take action for causes in general.

If you ask someone why they embraced a particular cause, they will most likely tell you about the cause and its importance.  What’s harder to understand is, why that particular cause? The world has an endless number of good causes. Everyone decides where to donate their time and their money.  You can’t support them all.  So how do people choose? And why do some people devote large amounts of time and others little or none at all?  Beyond the worthiness of the cause, I will argue that much of the answer is found in the individual.  Supporting a cause is one way of expressing to the world who you are. It’s a way of constructing personal identity.  It’s also a way of finding a supportive community–a group of people who embrace the same identity and values.

Hollaback is an interesting example. Jill Dimond, a PhD student working with me at Georgia Tech, is studying and helping develop the website and social movement, which is aimed at ending street harassment.  For most of history, if you were walking down the street and someone cat called at you or groped you or worse, your only course of action was to ignore it and walk away quickly. Hollaback encourages victims of street harassment to blog about their experience as a way of raising awareness. Over the last year, the site has exploded in popularity. Each participating city has its own sub-site, and Hollaback has grown to 24 cities around the world and there is a waiting list for new cities to come online.  It’s wonderful to see the growth of this social movement.

But the inherent worthiness of the Hollaback cause doesn’t really answer the question of why this particular cause is growing compared to others.  I think part of the answer is in the timeliness and appropriability of the kind of image of self that supporting hollaback can help foster.  It’s about being a strong woman and also being beautiful (the sort of person who might get whistled at).  Hollaback’s high tech infrastructure of mobile and social computing also connotes a certain intelligence and independence.  People are devoting time to Hollaback because the cause is worthy, but also because participating helps them build a sense of personal identity that resonates for them.

Building a compelling sense of personal identity is just one of many factors that can help make a social movement popular.  But much of social computing is about building a sense of personal identity in relationship to your community of  strong and weak ties. The research question I want to tackle is: how can we design social media environments to encourage civic engagement. The dance of building personal identity within a community may be one key. It’s not just about the importance of the cause, but also about the identity of the sort of person who is dedicated to the cause.

Categories: identity, social computing
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