January 02, 2013

"Old" and "New" Participation in Democracy (Part 1)

People participation is essential in Democracy.

Hang on! Democracy is such a slippery concept that defining how essential participation is to its nature is dependent upon the form or model it takes. Where democracy promotes individualism, communitarianism or deliberation, the corresponding expectation for participation flunctuates.

In this series, I intend to think through Democracy to define Participation. Many of the thinkers who consider the Internet (digital media generally) a breath of fresh air for democratic culture, mostly ride on the idea that these tools provide people with a means to contribute to how they are being governed by the state. Where media elites dominate and dictate the agenda (or set the agenda as it is in Agenda-Setting theory), the web provides the platform for a plurality of voices - men and women alike, minorities, subaltern, counter-publics etc (Kellner, 2000). Where states and corporate powers trampled on the people, the rise of the Internet has given them a voice to come together and fight back (Shirky, 2008). These a just a few of the optimistic examples.

I thought since we fling this term, participation, around so generously in discussing democratic culture and the public sphere, it is perhaps hightime one investigated what it once meant (pre-digital age) and what it means now. How has it changed? What does the change mean, if it has?

I casually threw the question out on Twitter some weeks back:

"What exactly is political participation in this digital age? Clicking, commenting, blogging?"

I received a range of responses. @Payme2cents said, "I'd take all those as social participation which are necessary. For political ones, you'd actually need to be in a functioning group". Similarly, Perkins Onome (@operko) responded thus: "'Political Participation?' Get on the van of politics, get your hands on the things of politics and decision making."

However, this on the other hand is a random tweet I found (not in response to my question):

My further search on the web yielded a few other people's thoughts about democratic-participation via digital media. Here is a blog post by Dyawhie on Indonesia: Why Democracy and Why Social Media. She said:

I have concluded some aspects that made combination of writing and social networking as the best personal way to promote democracy in a country like Indonesia...One of my friends purchased a plane ticket back to her hometown to vote in the general election. Some clicked their “like this” icon in Facebook. Some people told me that they enjoyed my writings and were waiting for more. Some other thought that the arguments are quite logical and informative...The fact that Indonesia has recently become the third largest user of Facebook is only strengthening my conclusion...

In India, social media is credited with exposing government's mishandling of the truth in the Delhi gang rape case; and in the Times of India, social media is democracy's direct pipeline. Here is an excerpt from this article:

Social media not only gives each individual a voice, it gives him a direct pipeline to people who matter. The sense of having an opinion that counts, of being able to reach out to the void beyond and find an echo in a kindred spirit, of being able to galvanise others and in turn be galvanised creates a new feeling of significance and belonging. Social media both individuates and aggregates. It makes the abstract real, the impersonal personal and the individual collective. The sense of being part of a growing and increasingly noisier crowd, of feeling the heat of one`s own passion and the gathering of strength from others like oneself, and the knowledge that the collective upsurge is visible to others, particularly those against whom the anger is directed is a potent and almost tactile experience of power. By the time the movement spills over into the streets, it already exists in a pre-cooked form in that there is already an assurance that many others feel the same way.

In the heat of all these discussions, there is a need for one to understand what has happened to participation. A public sphere thrives on participation, people deliberating with one another on issues of common concern - whether at a coffee shop or in a forum online. Is there a boundary to what is or not participation in democratic culture? Has the definition of participation changed - shrank or expanded?

These are the questions I will be asking (and searching for answers to in literature) in the second part of this post. First of all, I would identify how the different perceptions of democracy influence the expectations of how people should participate; followed by examples of what used to be participation (old) and what can we call participation today (new).

What would you describe as participation is in this age? Pleaase comment.


Kellner, D. (2000) Habermas, the public sphere and democracy: A critical intervention. [online] Available from: http://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/papers/habermas.htm (Accessed November 29, 2012).

Shirky, C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody - How Change Happens When People Come Together. London: Penguin Books.

- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Kwamina Ekremet

    Participation in democracy takes the form of constructively critiquing whatever goes on in my society, nation and world at large. It involves critiquing everything whenever, wherever in the light of what is working effectively and efficiently, what can work effectively and efficiently, what is not working effectively and efficiently and should be fine tuned or discarded. For me since most of my audience use the social media, I comment on issues on democracy, I blog on issues of democracy, I post on every day issues affecting the democracy in my environment. For instance, in the just ended presidential elections in Ghana, even though I was not present in Ghana to vote, I critically analysed the promises of the parties and objectively made my conclusions devoid of sentiments and ideological biases. Even after the elections, I employed the social media to plead and entreat my compatriots to uphold the peace and democracy in the nation and contest their grievance with evidence in the court of law. To me participation in democracy happens every day I live and I can interact whether through the social media or physically with people, I make my opinions heard and understood. Enjoy the new year!

    02 Jan 2013, 17:38

  2. Tomi Oladepo

    @Kwamina – thank you for your comment. May I have the link to your blog on Ghana’s elections? I would love to read it :)

    02 Jan 2013, 17:46

  3. Noel Ihebuzor

    Participation is basically about getting one’s voice heard, recognised and taken into consideration in decisions on matters that touch on the life of the individual in question. It is said that the digital revolution has greatly increased the scope for this participation but this “truth” needs to be qualified, especially in developing economies, such as Nigeria, and for several reasons. Firstly, literacy levels are low and ICT literacy levels even lower. Secondly, economic realities limit access to the benefits of ICT and bias them to favor of persons residing in urban locations. Thirdly, internet access is still urban biased. Fourthly, there is a growing usurpation and hijack of content by a very aggressive and vocal few who now use ICT to shape opinion, define agendas and confer “legitimacy” on transactions. So vocal is this aggressive few that they have now managed to virtually intimidate the large majority into silence – denying these therefore of any possibilities of real participation. The drowning of voices, the suffocation of alternative view points and the intimidation of the majority are clearly against the spirit of particpiation. So, the digital revolution offers opportunities, but the human in us still prevents the full blossoming of these potentialities. My verdict? Mixed blessings! Information flow is faster but real information democracy which is what participation is ultimately about is not yet here.

    03 Jan 2013, 11:25

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  • Participation is basically about getting one's voice heard, recognised and taken into consideration … by Noel Ihebuzor on this entry
  • @Kwamina – thank you for your comment. May I have the link to your blog on Ghana's elections? I woul… by Tomi Oladepo on this entry
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  • l cannot comment on Nigeria Specifically but I just wanted to add that tribalism in Africa has led t… by mandlods on this entry
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