The researchers will develop, implement, and then study a comprehensive site for collective decision making. Their project is motivated by recent foundational changes in democratic society due to advances in information and communication technology and in network analysis and data mining. Their proposed system, which they call a Virtual Town Square (VTS), both automates the collection of locally relevant online content (generated elsewhere by others) and facilitates social interaction and discussion. They will design, build and investigate VTS for geographic communities, and they will model communication behavior and effects related to the use of VTS social software by diverse users in multiple contexts such as civic participation, social interaction, and collective deliberation. In addition, they will conduct computational analyses on complex data derived from VTS content and related uses of social software to identify and analyze implicit social and information networks, and to track and model the flow of information throughout the community. They expect the use of VTS and related social software to promote an increase in social interaction and discussion among an increasingly diverse set of users. The resulting activity is expected to broaden civic participation, and to widen the distribution and increase the flow of information throughout the community.
The intellectual merit of the VTS project research is multifaceted. The project builds on more than a decade of interdisciplinary research on the social, civic, and political uses and impacts of community computer networking, network analysis, and data mining. The results of this project are expected to contribute to an understanding of social media use by local government, community organizations and citizens, and the community-wide effects of such use. It will also contribute to knowledge about the role of social networks and software in civic engagement, and to the tools that support and foster such engagement. The final design of VTS will inform the design of future community computer networking, especially for collective long term planning and problem solving both at the individual and the organizational levels.
The potential broader impacts are also quite substantial. Previous findings from a longitudinal study of Blacksburg, VA, and environs were transferred to similar towns, and to mixed lower and middle class rural areas in the US. The researchers will facilitate the transferability of the following impacts by making the VTS software available as an open source project. One impact that the results of this project are expected to promote is a substantial increase in broad-based participation in local democratic processes due to the game-changing role that is likely to be played by social software, as well as network analysis and data mining. Also anticipated are changes in civic awareness, political and collective efficacy, civic engagement and information sharing among diverse users, including underrepresented groups (such as young adults and adults with lower socioeconomic status).