Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Some thoughts on next steps for the BBC’s iCan project


As we mentioned recently, iCan is a new BBC project that has just emerged into beta testing, describing itself as “a website to help you do something about issues that matter to you.” It provides space and tools for ordinary people to get involved with local civic campaigns and issues, and helps them start their own initiatives relating to issues that matter to them. Prompted by a Wired News article that mentioned our reservations about the project, we decided to expand upon these issues and suggest some possible areas in which iCan might be extended in the future
Some people will inevitably question whether online civic engagement is a job for the BBC, the government, local activists, community workers, individuals or all of the above. Indeed, is it a job at all? E-democracy activist Stephen Clift addresses this when he asks
“To what extent should online advocacy be subsidized by a public entity or the media? This is a very grey area, however, promoting more local online civic activities on issues that are less ideological might make a lot of sense. This connects with idea of “Public Net-work” where governments (and others) involve stakeholders and citizens via online means in the implementation of _established_ policy priorities. If iCan can help people navigate to online involvement activities on diverse sites, not just within their system, that might be very useful.”Clearly this is a tough one for the BBC to answer, and will be the focus of much of the discussion about the project. Under political pressure from a government for whom the corporation is regarded as the de facto official opposition, and under attack from cheaper, more populist commercial media organisations who resent its success, the BBC does not want to provide any hostages to fortune. As it stands, iCan seems to be a brave and potentially exciting project that is true to the original public service ethos of the BBC, and it certainly deserves the time and space to develop. Good luck iCan and all who sail in her
On the positive side, the project encourages civic engagement, which is to be welcomed; but on the negative side it can be seen as slightly patronising because it thinks that we (“the people”) are only interested in micro-level local issues, rather than the major national and international issues the BBC covers on its main news services.
This is perhaps a reflection of the original assumptions of the project, which seem to be two-fold: first, that people are less interested in party and electoral politics and are only concerned with local issues that affect their own lives; and, second, that mainstream politicians and the media must never again miss an important “bottom-up” story such as the UK fuel protests that took place in 2000. Matt Jones, who was one of the team that created iCan, expresses these aims in the language of the bloggerati when he says “it is all about the tail [of the power law graph depicting audience distribution]”. However, the fact that in the UK alone more than two million people mobilised three years after the fuel protest in response to a complex international issue that did not directly affect most of their lives (US/UK war in Iraq) suggests these assumptions are not entirely correct.
In an age of globalisation and interdependence, the idea that “all politics is local” is patently facile. This myth is perhaps most widespread in the United States where, it could be argued, all politics is in fact international, as the lifestyle of its citizens depends upon its position in the global system and access to natural resources in other countries. In power law terms, the government and the military look after the (mostly international) issues at the head of the power curve, whilst under this protective umbrella the media encourage people to focus on the issues at the tail, which are indeed local. In the UK, we are slightly more fortunate, in that the BBC has a well-deserved reputation for covering important national and international issues, and it retains a mission to inform and educate the public. That is perhaps why we have high expectations of iCan
The iCan project’s focus on supporting civic engagement around what by implication are actually the least popular issues has already been parodied by a slightly unkind spoof site called iCan’t
“Topic of the week: Speed Bumps. We’re never going to discuss anything important to anybody. So let’s get you on MI5’s secret list by adding your comment … “NYU Professor Clay Shirky popularised the (often mis-used) power law perspective on audience distribution among Weblogs, but he has also written extensively about the nature of online communities and online social interaction in general. Importantly for the iCan project, he reminds us that it is users who own an online community, not the host organisation that provides the software. This point cuts to the heart of the tricky issues the BBC will face if iCan proves successful, and is the basis for some of the most obvious questions that could be asked of the beta site right now
In a system such as iCan, control over the infrastructure is a key determinant of power in a political sense. Power does not derive only from “hits” or website viewers, but from control of the infrastructure – in this case the system, its taxonomy of issues and how it describes them. If we could represent our own issues on our own terms and in our own language, then that would mean that the users own the community. Sébastien Paquet recently illustrated just how an approach to taxonomic organisation can be a political issue, citing the example of the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library collection of resources relating to the War against Iraq. If users own the community, then in an ideal system they should be able to work together to influence the way their issues are described and organised on a site such as iCan, though some kind of distributed metadata management
Another feature of an ideal iCan-like civic engagement platform would be to link it to the news. It is widely accepted that aside from the most localised issues, many people who start campaigning are inspired to do so by what they see on TV or read in the newspapers. The homelessness charity Shelter was formed as a response to a TV documentary on the BBC. These days, the BBC would happily provide a telephone helpline to call if we found the show upsetting, but could iCan spawn a campaign to create another Shelter? Clearly there are political and legal issues for the BBC in being seen to support political action linked to its own reporting, but given that the BBC is only providing a social software platform (not funding or weapons 😉 this should surely be an aim
Similarly, the lack of any content aggregation features that extend beyond the walls of the iCan system seems to be a notable omission. If somebody decides to take the step to create a campaign, one of the first and most useful things a system such as this can do is to scrape related content from other sites. This is probably the fastest way to establish what other people and organisations are already addressing your issue of concern. At the moment, iCan has links to the BBC’s own search engine and some local information based on the old UpMyStreet system, but that is all. Online community practitioner David Wilcox wrote rece
ntly about civic knowledge management as an emerging area of focus for online community engagement initiatives in the UK, which are moving from a focus on providing online access to thinking about levels and types of participation. Civic knowledge management based on content aggregation would be a useful function for iCan, but it would need to extend beyond the walls of the BBC
iCan is a welcome departure for a mainstream media organisation, and should prove to be a very valuable experiment in facilitating meaningful online social interaction regardless of whether it is a success or not. It is far too early to judge the project, and any criticism should take into account the many legal and political difficulties the project must have faced within the BBC to even reach beta stage. However, there are some clear limitations of the way the project is currently configured that if addressed might help iCan fulfil its stated aim of stimulating civic engagement. Most importantly, by maintaining “big story” national news as the preserve of the newsroom and restricting popular action to local issues, with the implicit assumption that these are small-scale and unthreatening to the status quo, the project may not be a solution to the particular problems it seeks to address.

3 Responses to Some thoughts on next steps for the BBC’s iCan project

  1. By David Brake on November 1, 2003 at 3:19 pm

    Oddly enough the current top-ranked iCan campaign is for a national registry of empty property, which seems to suggest they are open to starting national campaigns. They also have a section on international aid and other international issues. To be honest though much of the time it makes more sense for people to start local chapters of existing national groups rather than fragment effort further by trying to do their own from scratch, so if all iCan does is match people up then it’s being useful. Also I note that contrary to what you suggest while the iCan database of links is a little sparse at the moment there are several places where users are being encouraged to add their own links.

  2. By Lee Bryant on November 3, 2003 at 11:06 am

    I think you are right, David, that many people will use iCan in support of national or international issues, but I hope that the system evolves towards a more open system that can avoid the BBC “framing” issues to reflect its own view of objectivity and acceptable debate. There will always be a tension in a state-run (not government-run) media organisation facilitating civil society initiatives, although this does not mean it is wrong for the BBC to try.
    Ideally, in my view, iCan should avoid “framing” either the spectrum of opinion or the issues themselves as far as possible. Simply inviting the submission of links is not enough. In practical terms, this might mean devolving control over the way subjects and issues are described and organised, perhaps through some kind of distributed metadata system that gives users the ability to contribute to how content is named, grouped and linked. It should probably also reflect the wider world by placing more emphasis on aggregation, partly to solve its own content problem and partly because this could help provide some really useful civic enagement functionality for people organising campaigns. Finally, I don’t think the focus on the “tail” (does that just mean least popular by the way, or am I understanding it wrong?) should mean that we ignore one of the basic roles of the BBC, which is to “inform” civil society activity through its often excellent investigative reporting and analysis – i.e. why not create links between BBC output (News, TV and radio programmes, etc) and related issues and camapigns? That’s what created the impetus for campaigns such as Shelter and Oxfam. Indeed, the people involved may have such developments in mind already.

  3. By Ian Kirk on November 3, 2003 at 2:37 pm

    I really like what you have written. And you know I couldn’t agree more about the way that much of what passes for either activism or cultural debate is a distraction from attempting to formulate some kind of political engagement with genuinely powerful institutions. Whilst I don’t imagine this was their intention, the ‘flash mob’ phenomenon is in many ways practically a performance art piece about the ease of ‘web activism’ and also its futility.
    Something about the emerging culture seems to make it easier for us all to live our lives in a warm bath of perpetual ideological reinforcement. I can spend all day finding people all over the world who agree with me – it makes me feel good but of course nothing actually changes. I’m always aghast at the brand discussion groups’ conversations because they seem to think that other people are both listening and influenced by the conversations. (I’m also aware of what that says about even this correspondence).
    One example is the way that the news handles the gay bishop story. This is only ever presented as an issue that is a problem within the Anglican Church. News programmes put a ‘liberal’ bishop against an fundamentalist one to discuss any potential split. Sadly for me the gay atheist perspective is not admitted to the debate. This is more than just a personal gripe – the real conflict is not between factions of the church but between church and state. Homosexuality is more socially acceptable so that brings with it an inevitabilty that gay clergy will be living openly with their partners rather than skulking about as before. But the real point is that European legislation, and soon British legislation is seeking to allow gay adoption, gay marriage and workplace anti-discrimination laws at a time when the Church clearly and openly opposes these. Scandalously, the UK Government has already written exclusion clauses for the Church in relation to workplace discrimination without any public debate. The church is clearly in opposition to the state, but the news agenda and debate is not yet framed in this way. The logic of such a debate would result in disestablishment, which is probably why everyone avoids it.
    I could go on and on, and probably will next time there’s a bottle of wine and some Headshift people nearby.