Digital Democracy: Introduction & Overview

My colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new course on Digital Democracy and we just had our first brainstorming session. We see this class as being a series of brainstorming opportunities as opposed to traditional lecturing.

Josh and I we started the class by asking what the word democracy means to everyone. We sought to go beyond conventional text-book definitions to understand what democracy means to all of us on a day-to-day basis. Students shared the following thoughts; namely, democracy is:

  • About being heard;
  • Minority rights;
  • Accountability and transparency;
  • Advocacy for change;
  • Access.

We then asked what adding “digital” in front of “democracy” means for all of us:

  • Empowerment of the individual;
  • Fall of hierarchies;
  • Wider participation;
  • Democratization of information.

With these definitions in mind, we explored the digital technologies used to document today’s historical democratic event, the US inauguration. We spoke about uses of Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, etc., and the tools in place to promote transparency and accountability in the Obama Administration. A list of these are available on the course wiki. The point of this survey was to emphasize that these tools can also be used to improve other democratic processes.

(Incidentally, we chose to set up a wiki because the academic online platform Blackboard is just a gated community. The platform reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s recent book on “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” I’d like to suggest an idea for a new start-up: Blogboard).

We then delved into the readings by Benkler and Ronfeldt (also available on the wiki). This brought up some neat conversations ranging from issues on censorship and anonymity to digital activism, the digital divide and the information economy. A couple students recounted their experience with censorship when they lived/worked in China. Another student described the dynamic between repressive regimes and digital activists as an “information race,” which I found to be spot on. We also spoke about the role of the media in a digital democracy and discussed the rise of citizen journalists.

After the brainstorming session, we went through the syllabus and briefly introduced each session. As part of this week’s assignments, we’ve asked students to get a Twitter/Twhirl and Google Reader account. We’ve created a Twitter feed for the course: @digidemocracy. Weekly assignments will include writing blog posts on the readings and Tweeting current events/issues related to digital democracy.

As previously mentioned, Josh and I welcome feedback from anyone vis-a-vis the syllabus, the individual session outlines, tweets, blog posts etc. In the meantime, please feel free to send the class relevant links/articles to @digidemocracy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

3 responses to “Digital Democracy: Introduction & Overview

  1. Awesome! Great to read details on the course … sounds like a really good discussion. I think generating shared definitions/understandings of abstract terms like democracy is so critical to a fuller discussion. It also reminds us of the essential … it’s not about the tools themselves, but how we use them. To what shared end are we using digital tools? How can technology further democratize our processes.

    I really like how adding “digital” transformed and expanded the definitions of democracy. To the first bullet point, “empowerment of the individual,” I would probably temper that with “strengthening of the collective.”

    Also, Blogboard = great. You should get moving on that. Or perhaps it could be a project of the class?


  2. Pingback: Smart Mobs » Blog Archive » Course on Digital Democracy at Tufts University

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