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The BBC just launched their greatly anticipated iCan service in beta
mode. Visit it at:


After spending a few hours with the site, I've composed my detailed
reactions below.  The BBC's iCan is one of the most significant
e-democracy contributions to date.  Congratulations.  Making it work,
despite the excellent framework and technology, will be both hell and
essential civic work.  So fight the good fight for citizen
involvement and democracy in the information-age.

Related links:

Social Software and Social Software Presentation
http://www.theworkfoundation.com/pdf/James_Cronin.pdf (works on iCan)

Web Antidote for Political Apathy  (May 5 2003 article on iCan)

BBC's submission to UK Government e-democracy consultation
(Essentially says, let us do most of the direct citizen part)

Media call for BBC internet curbs (Sept 28 2003)
(Essentially says, no let the commercial media do this)

My comments below ...
(Essentially say, let the BBC do it, but help E-Democracy.Org take
the citizen-based model to local place around the world ;-))

What is iCan? iCan rules ...
See the text at the bottom of this message

Steven Clift
Democracies Online Newswire
http://www.e-democracy.org/do <- Join 2500+ people from 75+ countries

Comments on the BBC iCan Beta - by Steven Clift, http://publicus.net

What they have right ...

1. Local action - The system gears people toward picking issues that
seem to prompt local action in particular.  This is a winner - it is
my experience that local use of the Internet in public issue
involvement is more likely to result is a sense among active citizens
that their online efforts have resulted in something tangible.  For
every one "e-citizen" who led an effort that effectively used the Net
to influence the U.S. Congress I'll bet there are 100 local e-
citizens who felt the same sense of empowerment from their small
scale online activities.

2. Social networking - The "Find People" tab connects with the whole
"social software" movement.  iCan, as a mediator of future
relationships, is bringing often unaffiliated people together.  Say,
along with http://edemocracy.meetup.com, http://friendster.com,
http://ryze.com, another new site, http://emode.com is on the rise.
http://E-Democracy.Org hopes to someday use online tools to foster
the creation of local citizen-based chapters (think Rotary or Lions
service club model) to host viable local online public issues forums.
 The social networking technology is finally advancing to point where
I can see things really taking off.

3. Bringing out support - Most online discussions of politics do one
thing really well - they help people come to understand differences
in opinion.  Online discussions, except for the occasional side poll,
do not bring out the middle opinion or allow existing or emerging
consensus to express itself.  Not that the BBC system will solve this
problem, but I like how under "Take Action" they first encourage you
to "Get support
for your idea."  This language is very very different from words like
"Speakout" or "Soapbox" which were used on most media-hosted web
forums on U.S. media sites (many are now closed ... not profitable)
in particular or "Have your say" on government web sites. Their
language says you, the citizen, are in the drivers seat.  Very good.

4. Non-partisan - This is the unlearned lesson that must be learned
more widely to move the Internet from primarily an advocacy and
campaigning tool toward a public problem-solving and community
involvement system.  The challenge outside the BBC context is one of
support and funding.  As http://E-Democracy.Org develops its future
expansion plans, one of the challenges we've discussed at length is
how to articulate why generic online democratic "overhead" is
required between government, advocacy, and the media.  Funders are
typically looking for solutions that focus on a specific issues - the
unfortunate result will be many online systems without a critical
mass of participation.  Anyone know how much iCan cost to build and
what resources it will have to operate?

Outside of the BBC I know of no public service broadcaster or media
entity that would host something like iCan.  Do you?  So one question
is - if their system works, what do you need to build in other places
to support something similar? (I do wonder where open source options
fit into this space as well.)  Or if this doesn't work, do you blame
the model, the technology, the citizens, or the fact that such a
system stretched the role of the media too far?

5. Displaying real names - When you register they ask for the usual
member name, but once they have you, they ask for your real name a
couple registration pages later. According to their site, "Why do we
need your first name? We believe you will be more effective if you
stand by what you say. Your first and last name will be displayed on
this service, along with your BBCi membername."  Good for the BBC ...
I was about to suggest that without real names, the social trust
required to connect community-interested people would be
significantly hindered by member handles which often obscure people's
identities.  I know this runs counter to the Internet myth that
anonymous political expression is effective or sacred - it is
certainly is a right, but unless you live in a place where you can be
jailed or killed for expressing your views, anonymous political
speech is not an effective foundation for sustained civic
involvement.  (E-Democracy.Org recently instituted a five year ban on
the participation of anyone in our local forums who is verifiably
found to have violated our essential rules against anonymity in our
own forums - we do link to alternative places where this freedom is

6. Audio help - This is cool.

In general, the site appears extremely usable and you can tell they
are keeping the text to a minimum.  Some sort of site map or
graphical tree of their overall environment would be useful ...
something like how an idea becomes an action (e.g. how a bill becomes
a law) illustration might work.

What might not work ...

1. Connecting dislike minds - The Internet is naturally used by like-
minds to organize (often in opposition to something) particularly at
the national and international level.  The Internet also makes it
easier for like-minds to hangout and reaffirm their righteousness in
isolation from those with different ideologies (take a look at the
some of message archives of the specific Yahoogroups listed here
http://www.e-democracy.org/us/discussion.html .)

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"  http://publicus.net/articles/oecdpublicnetwork.rtf
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.

2. Action sustainability - The problem with weblogs, is that for the
most part they represent the "Speaker's Corner" where individualism
reigns supreme.  The problem with most political e-mail list
discussions or the extremely rare city-wide e-mail discussion list,
is that they live and die with the interest/time of the "owner." For
actions, beyond a one-off meeting or litter pick-up, to be sustained
the hard work of establishing an association is required.  I would
guess now, that many of the Meetups are facing this problem, we've
met five times, now what? Who is in charge? Who gets a say in what we
do? Etc..

While you might imagine a citizen "adhocracy" where individuals
gather in temporary relationships and then create new relationships
in a fluid evolving organic civic environment ... I don't buy it.
This is how opposition and protest efforts seem to work, but not how
people gather to solve or involve themselves in solution-oriented
civic activity. Most normal people want to belong to something that
is named, something with ritual, something they can identify as
lasting and strong.

When the novelty or original passion wears off, my organizing
experience tells me that you will be left with a core of say 5 to 7
dedicated individuals who must see and understand their duties to the
group or everything will land on the shoulders of one, maybe two main
leaders.  Will citizens use iCan a second time for a new issue if six
months after using the system to organize a graffiti clean-up, they
are left with bottles of cleaner and no lasting or sustained
volunteer team to use the material?  This won't be the BBC's or the
technology's fault, but the more content they can provide on how to
lead, run a meeting, be a good volunteer, the more likely efforts
launched on their system will be successful.  As I comb Yahoogroups
for viable local city-wide public issue forums, I find one forum with
50 or more members for every 500 I happen across (I can still count
the local city-wide "critical mass" forums on my hands including the
three that E-Democracy hosts).  The technology makes you think you
can do something easily with limited effort.  We know that
recruitment can take months to reach our magic 100 participants
before a new forum is opened and that training a new facilitator
should take six months if done right.  Can BBC's technology help
society skip the hard work required for effective civic engagement?
Perhaps it can help skip some steps ... and I am glad they are giving
it a try.  Just be sure to set reasonable expectations or your effort
will be toast.

3. Agenda-setting - I believe that creating spaces for public agenda-
setting online is the first step toward building an effective
information-age democracy.  For the most part, these spaces need to
be built to exist just like we build town halls, public parks, and
name our roads.  A number of online deliberative democracy
experiments and government online consultation efforts have in some
sense skipped the stage where citizens build the skills of e-
citizenship. Will this second generation activity, and the BBC's
third generation activity, ever be successful without a solid
foundation of active e-citizens who have experienced basic first
generation activity?

One hope that I see is that online group formation seems to be
natural and highly civic in nature at the neighborhood level.  The
challenge is to "name" spaces that tie closely to political
jurisdictions that govern a place or allocate public resources to
address a public issue.  At the same time, if you encourage people to
segment themselves into their hot-button issues via iCan, they might
not see their public goals in relation to others.

For example, one outcome of iCan might be an effort to push a local
government to shift spending priorities toward their campaign's goal
of graffiti clean-up.  What if another iCan group is pushing for
litter removal in another part of town and they suddenly find out
that resources were redirected out of litter pick up into graffiti
removal?  It is my sense that one the most important outcomes from
online local involvement is the opportunity to learn how your
priorities stack up against your fellow citizens and gaining a better
understanding of the competition for public resources.  We need
places online where citizens can not only hold government or media
accountable, but also where citizens can generate new public opinion
and hold each other accountable. In the end, the more iCan and e-
democracy as a whole can be designed to foster opportunities for
greater public agenda-setting the more likely we will live in
societies where our governance structures can continue to accommodate
the will of the people.

Steven Clift


What is iCan?


Last updated: Tuesday 21 October 2003

If there's something bothering you in your area, then you've come to
the right place!

iCan is a new BBC service which aims to help people start doing
something about issues in their life. You can find advice,
inspiration, and a growing number of people able to help you.

The site doesn't officially launch till 3 November 2003, but we've
put it out now in a "beta" version so you can start using it early.

If you want to find out how iCan can help you, why not take our quick
step-by-step tour, which will be available in the next day or two?

If you're stuck on how iCan works, why not try our Help section,
which has tips, advice and frequently-asked questions.

And don't forget to tell us what you think by contacting us!


The iCan rules


Last updated: Wednesday 22 October 2003

We want iCan to be challenging and provocative as well as safe, civil
and constructive. We therefore ask all users to stick to these rules.
Any contribution that breaks the rules may be removed, and offenders
risk being barred from the site.

Please note that the BBC is committed to impartiality. We provide a
platform for iCan users to make contributions or run campaigns, but
we do not endorse or support any of them.

If you want more detail on how iCan works and how to use it, please
look at What is iCan?

The top three iCan rules:

Stick to the truth. Base your contributions on accurate facts not
assumptions, and if possible support them with sources or weblinks.
If we are alerted to something that is potentially libellous, we may
have to remove it. See our guide, How to avoid libel.

Respect others. We donít want contributions that are abusive,
threatening, offensive, obscene, harassing, harmful, inflammatory,
racist or otherwise objectionable.

No personal attacks. Donít make accusations against private

The finer points:

Be yourself. iCan aims to help you change the world around you, so we
encourage you to say who you are and stick by what you say. And donít
impersonate other people.

Stay legal. Donít contribute anything thatís against the law, that
encourages unlawful behaviour, or which could affect current court

No money-making. We don't want people to use iCan for advertising,
commercial activities or fund-raising.

Keep to the point. Donít contribute repeated messages or spam.

No campaigning before elections. In the interests of fairness, we
don't allow users to campaign for political parties or candidates in
the run-up to an election. Candidates in a forthcoming election
should also refrain from contributing to iCan, and there will be no
new activity on any iCan campaigns which could influence those

Campaign restrictions. Elected representatives such as MPs and
councillors are encouraged to participate on iCan by signing up as
users, contributing articles and lending people their support, but
they are not allowed to become organisers of iCan campaigns.

Contribute in English or Welsh. Weíre sorry but we donít have the
resources to deal with contributions in other languages.

UK residents only. iCan is designed to help people in the UK make a
difference in their community. Although anyone may read material on
the site, membership is limited to those in the UK.

Donít misuse the complaints system. We take complaints very seriously
and treat abuse as a breach of the iCan rules.

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Steven L. Clift    -    W: http://www.publicus.net
Minneapolis    -   -   -     E: [EMAIL PROTECTED]
Minnesota  -   -   -   -   -    T: +1.612.822.8667
USA    -   -   -   -   -   -    M: +1.612.203.5181

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