Civic culture and everyday discussion online: a netnography of three ‘non-political’ online spaces

This source preferred by Richard Scullion and Dan Jackson

Authors: Scullion, R., Jackson, D. and Molesworth, M.

Start date: 31 March 2011

At the heart of civic culture should be a talkative electorate. Yet despite the conceptual and reported benefits of political talk for a healthy democracy, much evidence suggests that for many it is avoided or marginalized. Our study is interested in how the political [political talk] is embedded in everyday life, and what this tells us about the dynamics of civic culture in the UK. We therefore aim to address some of the main themes of the conference. In order to capture the everydayness of talk amongst citizens, we deliberately shift the focus of much previous research in this sphere away from overtly political online spaces and draw data from a qualitative and quantitative analysis of three popular general interest UK-based online discussion forums over the course of six months in 2010 and 2011.

Findings showed that around 7% of all conversations in these forums started as what we categorized to be overtly or implicitly ‘political’. When such talk did emerge in online spaces not explicitly labeled as ‘political’, it was episodic, brief, did not sustain a detailed discussion, and rarely included a call for action. Indeed, the introduction of political talk often acted to prohibit further discussion taking place. The mainstream media instigates political talk, as people talk about the mediated ‘events’ that make up part of their everyday experience, but such discussions frequently keep separate the spectacle of the news event and substantive policy talk, hindering what we call ‘connected deliberation’.

Making sense of the dominant narrative of conversations, talk is typically framed as personal and individualized, helping to keep the political system and process at a distance; as something that happens to them. The online discussion we found is ‘light’ and lacks a focus. It is primarily not being used to understand issues or unpack them, nor is the conversation about synthesis or compromise. Hence we note an underlying passivity towards the political process in the political talk that does take place.

In the final part of the paper we offer an analysis of how these findings might be accounted for. We argue that the architecture of the online forum matters for the amount and normative quality of discussion. We also argue that a culture of consumption permeates everyday online conversation, which values the immediate, pressing, pleasurable and accessible (talking/thinking about the self and the present). This could be seen as an impediment to civic values (talking/thinking about the social and the future), or as evidence of wider repertoires of political engagement that are emerging in contemporary society.

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