I've been talking to some broadcasters recently about now they are rebalancing their work to take more account of the online world, and how they find out what "the audience" think about their efforts.
I'm particularly interested in the second bit: how to consult, engage, discuss with what-used-to-be-known-as Audience (viewers and listeners) when trust in TV news is falling and we spend more time on the Net than watching TV.
Some of the concern to engage stems from loss of ratings and ad revenue - and finding where eyeballs will go next. Some research, like the BBC Trust review of bbc.co.uk, is a formal process to ensure the people who make programmes are fulfilling their duty to provide appropriate services to license payers.
I'm not a great media expert, and my conversations were limited, so forgive me if this sounds a bit naive - but I think there is a shift of model needed here. It used to be that marketing and research people would find out what people watched, and what they were interested in, and tell the people making programmes.
Similarly, researchers on behalf of the BBC Trust (formerly Governors) would find out what license payers thought of what they were getting, and the trustees would use this in their policy guidance to broadcasters. Their role (as in any charity) was to act on behalf of the beneficiaries. Now things have changed. The audience is consuming content online as well as through radio and television... but they are also creating it through their comments, discussions, video uploads and so on.
So does it make sense any longer to see such a clear distinction between "audience" and content-producers? If not, shouldn't any consultation and engagement processes involve everyone who is party to what ends up on screen, on air? If the BBC Trust - or Channel 4 - is thinking about future services for public benefit, shouldn't consultation/engagement involve staff as well as service-user producers/audience?
I've always found that community engagement processes in regeneration, for example, failed when "the community" was involved, but council officers, politicians and others were not. Ideas and recommendations were developed, but didn't get implemented because "not invented here". Maybe a new approach is already being planned, and if so I would be really interested in how the "whole system" engagement process will work.
Meanwhile Gez Smith at Delib give this really useful summary of new internet usage data and thoughts on what it means for e-democracy.
The latest data from the regular Oxford Internet Survey has been released, and, as ever, shows some interesting trends and information about who uses the net across the UK, and how.
67% of the population currently use the internet, up from 59% in 2003. There are still gaps between the age groups, 31% of retired people using the net, compared with 81% of those who work and 97% of students. There are also educational and income differences, just over half of those lacking further education are online, compared with 90% of those with a university education. Only 39% of those with household incomes below UKP12,500 per annum use the net as well.
All good stats, but two bits really stood out for us. Firstly the fact that 85% of net users are using broadband, and dial up connections could all but disappear over the next few years, which it really has to if people want to make full use of the net.
Second, and this is even more interesting, only one in ten people had used the net for political activity. This is perhaps to be expected, given the still relative infancy of e-democracy in comparison with other online services. Of course, the debate over what constitutes political activity online is still to be resolved, if it ever can be, and i suspect that lots of people are actually engaging in what might be termed political activity in civic society terms without directly realising it.
Combined with this, apparently older people were more likely to engage in civic activism online, which is again probably more reflective of the definition of civic activism used by the survey, given that other reports consistently find that young people are very political, just not in 'big P' ways.
So, in summary, it can now surely be said that not to use e-democracy has become an exclusionary act, given two thirds of the population are there to be accessed through it. I'd wager the stats on people engaging in politics and policy through the net would creep up if there were more opportunities for them to do so as well. Perhaps a more stick than carrot approach is beginning to be required to bring civic society and participative governance online? Click here to read a full copy of the Oxford Internet Survey report
Fair enough if Gez is waving the stick at institutions who fail to use the potential of new media for engagement. Need some ideas on how to do that? Ask the "audience".