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Does mobile communication encourage public dialogue?

Katie Donnelly

Each year, the Center for Social Media supports selected American University graduate students in producing research that pertains to the future of public media. (For example, last year, Joshua Berg explored the connection between civic engagement and Web video in political campaigns.)

This year, the Center supported two graduate students, Carl Yussi Pick and David Norton, who tackled two very different public media issues: political engagement through mobile channels, and tracking memes, respectively. This post examines the conclusions of a paper by Carl Yussi Pick, who now works in the Interactive practice of  MSHC Partners, where he consults campaigns and non profits in their online outreach. Check back here for details on Norton’s research on the viral spread of the “climategate” meme.

Pick’s Mobile Strategies in Political Communication examined the issue of political engagement through mobile channels. Pick combined two frameworks, Alan Rosenblatt's three dimensions of political communication, and the "five C's of public media 2.0"  outlined in CSM’s Public Media 2.0  white paper with a mixed methodology—including content analysis, expert interviews and case studies— to examine three mobile channels of communication: text messages, mobile applications, and Twitter. He found that all three channels allowed users to perform some or all of Clark and Aufderheide's "five C's" — choice, conversation, creation, curation, and collaboration— but all but one of the analyzed projects lacked in Rosenblatt's third dimension: encouraging audience members to converse with one another. Pick asks "whether mobile connectivity is actually resulting in a two-way dialogue…or whether it is simply a novel way to engage in a one-way, top-down message distribution. Do mobile strategies in political communication foster and initiate 'Mobile 2.0,' that is, a Web 2.0 quality of conversation on a mobile phone?"

While the political projects Pick studied were generally successful in getting users to engage with campaigns, they were less successful in encouraging users to interact with one another. For example, out of 1,170 tweets from U.S. Senators, only one posed a question to followers. This same set of tweets also posed very few calls to action, indicating that while Twitter has the potential for wider conversations, politicians may still using it as a one-way broadcasting model. Other mobile channels had their own limitations: political apps offered a great deal of potential but not a great deal of choice, and political text messaging provided routes for action but failed to offer avenues for engaging with other members of the public. Pick concludes that the shift to mobile 2.0 for political communication is still underway.

You can read the whole paper here and view more of Pick's work here.