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20 November 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

What iCan can't do
The BBC's new website will not build community or rescue democracy.

by Martyn Perks

UK home secretary David Blunkett has suggested setting up 'community advocates' to deal with unaccountable policing (1). Apparently the police want the public's ideas, support and sympathy. If you're not interested in tackling crime, what about chewing gum stuck on the pavement, or litter in your local area? Thanks to a new website launched by the BBC, you can now do something to address such issues.

The BBC's iCan promises to 'change the world around you', by providing an online space for people in their local communities to talk to one another, read about issues that matter most and 'even start a campaign online' (2). After creating a user account, you can start your own campaign, vote on others, write articles or discuss issues.

Exciting stuff - but beware: at the bottom of every page it says: 'If you think the iCan rules have been broken, please tell us.' The rules make depressing reading for any budding campaigner. Apparently, we should 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' (3).

Hang on - isn't iCan about encouraging opinion, rather than restricting it? The list of rules reads like a draconian code of conduct. Everything goes - so long as they oversee what we say and cut out the rude bits.

The warnings continue: 'Stick to the truth.... Respect others.... No personal attacks.' Contributions based on assumptions rather than accurate facts will be removed. God help you if you libel anyone. And if you say anything 'abusive, threatening, offensive, obscene, harassing, harmful, inflammatory, racist or otherwise objectionable', you'll will be in even more trouble - especially if anything is directed against 'private individuals'.

If you dare to tiptoe further down the page, the 'finer points' have even more rules: 'Don't contribute anything that's against the law, that encourages unlawful behaviour, or which could affect current court proceedings.... fundraising [is not allowed].... no campaigning before elections.... MPs and councillors are encouraged to participate...but [they] are not allowed to become organisers of iCan campaigns.... Don't misuse the complaints system. We take complaints very seriously.' And finally, iCan only accepts English and Welsh contributions!

The BBC demands content from us - and lots of it
Surely iCan should be renamed iCan't. No wonder the current featured campaign is about banning chewing gum (4).

The launch of iCan has been very low-key, barely meriting a mention anywhere else on the BBC's website. Confusingly it is still in beta (which means it is still being developed) - and over the coming months it is being publicised on radio and TV in five areas: Leicester, Bristol, Cambridge, Sheffield and South East Wales. The nervousness about promoting iCan highlights the risks that the BBC is taking. The BBC is in the spotlight to justify the value of its services - and it is also slowly recasting itself beyond its traditional role of public service broadcasting.

BBCi, the BBC's interactive division, is under considerable pressure to justify itself, after many of its commercial competitors have gone to the wall. Those sites that remain are questioning the BBC's monopoly over online content broadcasting - especially since the BBC receives a significant amount of public funding and attracts the best talent.

While the BBC's funding continues to be debated, iCan represents a significant shift in thinking. Here the BBC is addressing its future role, taking its cue from a political elite that is unable to connect with an uninterested population. From voter apathy to the police struggling to prove their accountability, we must suffer more attempts to coerce us into playing ball.

iCan has taken over a year to develop. Its launch has been widely anticipated by many who see IT as the best way to reinvigorate the public to fulfil their duty as citizens and take part in the democratic process. In November 2002, Sian Kevill, the then Head of BBC New Politics Initiative, unveiled the iCan idea at a government-sponsored e-summit, speaking of the need to re-enact civic participation and engagement with the democratic process. The Reithian vision of high-quality public service broadcasting has given way to an agenda based around connecting each of us with each other (5). In the past, we demanded quality broadcasting from the BBC. Today, under the helm of director-general Greg Dyke, the BBC demands content from us - and lots of it.

iCan has been prototyped elsewhere - but the BBC brings greater scale and resources to address our lack of participation in the democratic process. Known as social software, earlier examples include UpMyStreet.com, which provides useful information including council, schooling and housing statistics based on the users' postcode. UpMyStreet has recently developed a Conversations section, which was a forerunner for iCan. The Conversations let people debate issues based on their geographic location. When UpMyStreet was bought in May 2003 by US-based uSwitch, some of its team continued to help develop iCan.

IT 'spaces' are no substitute for community
What UpMyStreet started, iCan continued. While both are technically innovative their proponents are misguided and sometimes naive. In 'Why the BBC has invested in iCan', an article published to coincide with iCan's launch, Sian Kevill wrote: '[iCan] will help people engage with politics not from the top down but from the bottom up, using their own experiences to help others.' (6)

The appeal of being 'bottom-up' is widespread. But IT 'spaces' are no substitute for community, for the forging of relationships through real-life engagement and debate. There is little evidence that using IT to connect people will magic the world into a better place. Kevill and others seem to use technology in blind faith, hoping that iCan and similar projects will kickstart our interest in democracy and civic participation. In fact, by placing our local experience above all else, such projects belittle how we experience the world. Where we live doesn't define who we are.

The problem with putting local issues first is one aspect of iCan's limitations. More importantly, iCan encourages anonymity and unaccountability - hardly conducive to open, democratic debate, where the emphasis ought to be on publicly sticking by an argument or policy.

The drive for widespread inclusive participation actually negates any positive outcome. When a user creates an account, he or she is entitled to create a campaign or to participate in others. What this means is that they can vote, while withholding their names and protecting their anonymity. Dressed up in the language of safety and decorum, this encourages a free-for-all in which anything goes (unless of course you flout the iCan rules), but minus the responsibility. Effortlessly and continually voting for appealing campaigns depreciates the significance of what you are voting for.

Also, reducing the effort needed to start a campaign will greatly reduce its impact. As if there aren't enough charities and single-issue campaigns to deal with, iCan would continue to personalise and individualise our experience of the world. Instead of highlighting broader issues that require real political intervention, we are treated to a sanitised version that reduces everything to a deeply personal view of the world. This can only exacerbate an already alienated and disjointed view of ourselves - surely what iCan seeks to eradicate in the first place?

The outcome substitutes real political problem-solving with a narrow and parochial agenda. Imagine it - a new campaign for every day of the year. In reality, iCan can't deliver what it promises. The faith some have in iCan avoids tackling real issues head-on and belittles us with a safe, comfortable idyll. By playing village politics we will lose sight of how to better society through considered debate and, when necessary, confrontation.

Martyn Perks is a user experience consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. See his website

(1) Blunkett's plan welcome in Wales, BBC News

(2) See the BBC's iCan

(3) iCan rules

(4) Ban chewing gum, BBC iCan

(5) See Social Software - get real, by Martyn Perks

(6) Why the BBC has invested in iCan, BBC News, 4 November 2003

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