The untouched public – an urban myth?

Some time ago, we carried out some research for ScienceWise, looking at how to target online and social media with stories about public dialogue.  What we found turned our thinking on its head.  In particular, we became convinced that the ‘interruption’ model of communication (getting your information in front of people who are really looking for something else – through adverts in popular TV programmes, for instance) just doesn’t work online. As I explained in a blog in January 2009:

Online media outlets are extremely fragmented. This means that it’s easy to reach niche audiences (the famous ‘long tail’) – ideal if you’re a model soldier company looking to sell to model soldier enthusiasts, but less helpful when you’re trying to involve citizens in discussions about stem cells. You really aren’t looking for stem cell enthusiasts, but a posting on the local ‘stitch’nbitch’ forum might be out of place.

I know we’ve had lots of debates about public/publics for many years, but the fragmented online world has made me wonder whether we ever did move beyond the concept of a ‘disinterested public’ when it comes to public dialogue and engagement. For many projects, the mass media is seen as a bridge from the world of policy to the world of these disinterested creatures. But it’s not a realistic perception – newspapers reach particular groups of people, and an even more particular sub-set of those read a given article. Even if you get the occasional person with no interest in stem cells accidentally reading an article about your stem cell consultation (maybe it’s next to an article about knitting?) surely they’re not going to volunteer to take part in the debate unless they have some personal connection to the issue? Apart from those instances when projects have chosen participants off the electoral register and paid them to give their views, have we ever really involved citizens who aren’t interested? Is it time to move away from the ‘interrruption’ model of communication and come to terms with the fact that our audiences are interested, so that we can start defining the niches to target more clearly?

Surprisingly to me, neither the blog posting, nor the report and various presentations I’ve made of our findings have generated any response let alone debate – apparently the issue of the disinterested public is settled for science communicators in the UK.  A new paper ‘the high cost of citizen engagement in high technology’ in this month’s Public Understanding of Science journal raises the same point but from a very different and US, perspective however.

Using two case studies that the paper’s authors had been involved with and comparing the kind of people attracted to each and the responses given, they suggest that in an era in which the barriers to civic engagement—most especially time—are large for many citizens, significant incentives are likely to affect participation. These incentives may be internal (e.g. a personal interest in a topic or an investment in a policy outcome) or external (e.g. money). In this context, they critique the aim of recruiting “blank slate” participants for consensus conferences and other deliberative democratic forums.

These points seem to challenge the basis of most public dialogue activities – that the public has a different perspective to experts and that its worth time and effort soliciting these views.  There are of course other purposes for dialogue, but if it’s not to hear new perspectives then the purpose shifts towards a democratic rather than utilitarian argument.  Which seems a matter worthy of discussion to me – particularly when budgets are tight.

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