The internet provides not only a new platform on which to communicate: it changes the manner in which we communicate. The world of online communication is, by and large, very democratic and non-hierarchical. Every user has the potential to broadcast a message to millions worldwide at the touch of a button and consequently the concept of ‘citizen journalism’ is growing by the day. That message will then appear unaltered and without confusion of an external influence. In principle if not in practice, a level playing field has been created and large organisations which were once able to use their position to influence are now exposed to previously unencountered levels of challenge and opposition online. Consumers now have greater expectations from organisations and the power to ask for information publicly. Through the internet we have a greater opportunity to be informed and also a greater capacity to seek knowledge. But where the lack of an organisational filter removes the need for checks to be made, misinformation can occur.
With the advent of Web 2.0 in 2004, the extent to which people could collaborate, comment and share information increased, resulting in the internet ceasing to be only a vehicle through which information could be sought to an opportunity to both broadcast information and enter into dialogue on a number of levels. The speed by which information now travels would be inconceivable to someone living in the first half of the twentieth century – through websites, blogs, social media, apps and email, information can be both sought and imparted within seconds. Not only does the initial message occur immediately, but a post, email or Tweet can be shared with similar speed, ‘snowballing’ and thus reaching millions. Many websites will now enable this to occur automatically – composing a Tweet or a link to Facebook the moment a purchase has been made or a poll completed – crucially, with little or no effort on the part of the author / publisher. In fact, the curating and sharing of a piece of information can occur devoid of human interaction: the algorithms that power Facebook and Google are responsible for much of the content that we consume.
The American University Center for Social Media[i] identified internet usage as falling into five categories: choice, conversation, curation, creation, collaboration. In a planning context, these behaviours might be described as follows:
- Choice: finding information on Local Plan formation, policies and planning applications though search engines, recommendations (on or off line), news feeds and niche sites.
- Conversation: entering into debates on discussion forums, blogs and microblogs, taking discussions into new forums by sharing links and mobilising action.
- Curation: selecting and drawing together information on blogs to form powerful arguments, carefully targeted to specific groups; posting and reposting views and suggestions and sharing links.
- Creation: posting brand new multimedia content, including text, images, audio and video rather than simply responding to information posted by a local authority, developer or government body.
- Collaboration: creating groups of support or opposition for the purposes of campaigning both online and offline
As the capabilities of the internet, along with internet usage, grow, the opportunities for involvement within each of these categories will undoubtedly increase and individuals’ behaviour online is likely to become less passive and more powerful. Developers who opt not to have an online presence, or install a consultation website with no mechanism for dialogue, run the risk of their scheme being debated on closed blogs and Facebook groups and as such will be unaware of any mounting objection until it becomes too late to prevent it. The industry must accept the changing communications landscape and monitor sentiment and proactively encourage constructive consultation online.
Taken from Public Consultation and Community Involvement in Planning: a twenty-first century guide by Penny Norton, to be published by Routledge on 10 July 2017. Please email Penny to receive notification of its publication.
[i] Clark, J and Aufderheide, P 2009 Public Media 2.0: Dynamic Engaged Publics Washington, DC : Center for Social Media.