Third Space and Formal Politics: Consultations, web-chats and data-mining

Authors: Wright, S., Jackson, D. and Graham, T.

Start date: 30 March 2015

Third spaces are formally non-political online environments, such as cookery and parenthood discussion forums, where everyday political talk emerges (Wright, 2012a, b). Research has shown that there is significant amounts of political talk in such spaces; that this is often deliberative in nature (Graham and Wright, 2013; Van Zoonen 2007; Oates 2009); and that talk leads people to take or call for a wide range of formal and extra-parliamentary political actions (Graham, Jackson and Wright, UR). This paper takes forward existing research by analysing how formal politics listens to and engages with such spaces - a key aspect of the Power of Information Review (Mayo and Steinberg, 2008). The research focuses on four very large, UK-focused third spaces: The Student Room (n=49m), Money Savingexpert (n=37m), Netmums (11m) and Digital Spy (57m). Moving beyond everyday political talk and bottom up organising with the general public sphere, this research looks at how - in Habermas' terms - talk and opinion within the general public sphere sluices into formal channels of strong politics (Eriksen, 2005). In particular, this research analyses how the UK government engages with third spaces in formal and informal consultation processes (including science education, the future of the BBC); how, if at all, departments tap into and listen to the tone and content of public debates around specific policy areas; and the extent and nature of debate around formal politician-citizen debates such as web-chats and informal participation in such spaces. The research questions are: How and why are government departments using third spaces within the policy process? How do users and moderators perceive government consultations using the forum? How, if at all, do civil servants engage in debate and facilitate interaction? The research design combines 50 semi-structured interviews with forum moderators and owners; participants and super-participants (Graham and Wright, 2013); and with civil servants, elected representatives and activist groups with a detailed qualitative content analysis of the debates around a series of policy-oriented government interventions led by both government, and by forum controllers.

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