Online lifestyle communities and ‘strong politics’: a new stage of e-democracy?

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

Start date: 9 October 2015

Although the ubiquity of social media points to everyday concerns, when it comes to analyzing its use research typically focuses on the formal and exceptional. While this provides insight into a highly visible and strategically mediated phase of the political process (both formal and extra-parliamentary such as social movements), it ignores the communicative mundaneness of daily democracy. We maintain that there is much to be gained by investigating how political talk and engagement emerges in everyday, online, lifestyle communities: i.e. third spaces.

But what happens when governments begin to engage with citizens in these communities, and – in Habermas’s terms – everyday discussion in lifestyle communities within the general public sphere sluices into formal channels of strong politics? In this paper we document UK government attempts to move their e-democracy strategy away from government-sponsored spaces, and increasingly into large, general-interest ‘user-generated’ ones such as The Student Room (n=49m posts), Money Saving Expert (n=37m), and Netmums (11m).

Through a detailed qualitative content analysis of the online debates around a series of policy-oriented government interventions led by both government and by forum controllers, alongside semi-structured interviews with forum moderators and owners and government civil servants, we examine how the UK government engages with third spaces in formal and informal consultation processes. We ask how government departments tap into and listen to the tone and content of public debates around specific policy areas; and how the citizens in these spaces respond to consultations. Do they embrace the opportunity to connect with formal political institutions and influence government policy, or is there a tension between the everyday essence of lifestyle communities and their potential ‘politicization’? Findings are discussed in the context of ongoing debates concerning the internet, public space and political participation.

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