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Principle Investigator

Ryan Price
Masters student (MA)
Department of Communications and New Media
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
McMaster University
E-mail: pricer@mcmaster.ca
Twitter: @ryan_price

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. Christina Baade
Department of Communications and New Media
McMaster University
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
McMaster University
(905) 525-9140 ext. 23736
E-mail: baadec@mcmaster.ca
Twitter: @ChristinaBaade

Study Proposal

In the city of Hamilton, many people are engaging in civic change through Twitter, which provides protestors a public forum and a method of mobilization . This can be seen through movements such as ‘Yes We Cannon!’ (a campaign to have bike lanes added to Cannon street by 2015) and ‘Dialogue Partners’ (an online campaign in 2013 to have a city-hired PR firm contract terminated). A prominent blog on civic issues in Hamilton, Raise the Hammer, notes that “Yes We Cannon made strategic use of social media - both Facebook and Twitter - to reach a wide audience in a short amount of time” and CBC Hamilton claims that protesters involved in ousting Dialogue Partners “[made] the city of Hamilton reconsider how it represents itself on social media. And they did it all on Twitter”. Hamilton is seeing a surge of participation, and much of it occurring online through social networking sites like Twitter.

Twitter has become a tool for civic engagement and political change, making it easier for people to “organize, mobilize and engage” (Schmidt and Cohen 122). The one-to-many style of communication makes it an ideal soapbox for protesters and activists to get their messages out and rally support from the public (Chebib et al. 139, Hounshell, Mansour 35, Stekelenburg 227, Eltantay and Wiest 1214). It also makes it easier to share information with other users taking up the cause (Deluca 501, Eltantay and Wiest 1218). Additionally, Twitter creates a horizontality within the movement by removing the necessity to disclose age, gender, or race, ultimately providing the opportunity for everyone to participate (Mansour 8, Negri). The features Twitter provides to protestors and activists has raised the argument that Twitter is a utopian form of Habermas’ public sphere, giving the people of Hamilton a public forum in which they can discuss and debate political ideas as democratic equals. Conversely, dystopian arguments claim that Twitter is a tool to help destroy the public sphere altogether. Regardless of how Twitter affects the public sphere, protesters and activists that come together online share a set of common beliefs and values, that over time can end up forming a community.

Twitter has been studied at length by researchers for its involvement in large-scale movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Springs, but Hamilton represents a different sort of case. Civic engagement in Hamilton is focused on local issues instead of toppling governments or revolutionizing the world. Studying Twitter’s relationship to civic engagement in Hamilton is important to better understanding how it facilitates change and fosters community within smaller populations/geographic regions than those of Occupy and the Arab Springs. To be able to discuss the relationships between Twitter and civic engagement in Hamilton, it is important to define, for the purposes of this research, what civic engagement is:

A civically engaged citizen should have the ability and agency to participate independently or as part of a group (APA) to discuss and address community issues and politics. Civic engagement can include anything from “working in a soup kitchen, serving on a neighbourhood association, writing a letter to an elected official or voting (APA), in an effort to promote the quality of life in a community (Ehrlich).

Many critics see the connections to others (followers) on Twitter as a mere grouping of weak ties (Easley 744, Gladwell, Huberman 6), which cannot constitute community. In this project, I argue that Twitter does help foster community and is more than just a list of acquaintances. For the purpose of this research, I define community as:

a network of individuals connected online via Twitter, who share common geographic boundaries (the lower city of Hamilton), a shared interest (civic engagement), and share a certain communion amongst one another (civic pride). Further, members of the community participate in building social capital, providing help in the expectation of reciprocation, and support a culture of trust and honesty.

Critics opposed to the notion of community online argue that civic engagement needs strong ties to succeed (Easley 744, Gladwell, Huberman 6). That said, weak ties on Twitter exist because of shared interests, such as political alignment; if two people in a social network have a common friend, then it is more likely that they will become friends themselves—a strong tie—in the future (Easley 728). Given these tenets, and with the definition of community laid out above, I argue that Twitter does indeed foster community online and that this community could extend offline as well, given the geographic constraints of civic engagement in Hamilton.

Through my research, I will investigate how civically engaged Twitter users within Hamilton’s lower city use online social ties to build a sense of community with each other, participate in public discourse, and influence city policy, especially in regard to issues of livability, transportation, and representation. My research will address the following questions: