BBC's Vogel discusses iCan Network in MGP Q&A

Link to the Media Giraffe profile of Vogel and iCann

EDITOR'S NOTE -- The following is a Q&A fomatted exhange in December, 2005, between Media Giraffe project researcher Kristen Hamill and Martin Vogel, who runs the iCan Network for the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC). 
 
1. To start off, it would be great if we could get a brief background of your education and career, your previous involvement with the BBC, and who/what inspired the formation of the BBC's original iCan Network.
 
I was educated at Durham University and the London Business School.  I joined the BBC as a journalist 16 years ago, having previously worked, among other things, as a radio reporter in Glasgow and as an MP's researcher in Westminster.  I've worked in the BBC's national newsrooms for television and radio and as a reporter at Parliament before doing a spell working on strategy projects.  I've been working in new media since 1998.
 
iCan, now Action Network, grew out of a shake-up of the way the BBC covers politics - which was instigated after the 2001 General Election, when turnout fell below 60 per cent for the first time since the First World War.  The vision for the project emerged from a small group of internet developers and journalists, who wanted to tap into emerging social software trends to offer people a radically different way of engaging with politics and civic life.
 
2.  Currently, how many registered/active Action Network members are there? What is the demographic background of your members? In particular age and sex. Do you see a trend in the participation of one particular group?  Freshly graduated university students? Mid-aged mothers? etc.
 
We get around 175,000 unique users a month and have nearly 20,000 registered users.  Most of our users are either in full-time employment or studying.  Our most active users are people with time on their hands.  Many are younger people - about 30 percent of the user base are aged between 25 and 34.  But we have a lot of active elderly users.  About 10 per cent of the user base are elderly, but they seem to be disproportionately active in the site.
 
3.  Are you aware of similar sites to the iCan Action Network that have been successful in the U.S?
 
We're not aware of any sites which are similar to Action Network.
 
4.  Could you comment on the Action Network's stance in the debate over whether news organizations should be able to edit citizens' media submissions to sites such as yours?
 
We don't edit Action Network users' contributions.  That's because the ethos of the project is about giving users space and control to set their agenda.  We reserve the right to take down material which might be offensive or which might otherwise break our house rules -
http://wwwbbc.co.uk/actionnetwork/actionnetworkrules.  But otherwise people are free to contribute what they want.  We do make clear through design cues that the material does not carry the same validation as content authored by the BBC.  On the whole, I think users understand the difference.
 
5.  Also in regards to this issue, the Network has received some criticism about inadvertently encouraging a "free-for-all" in which individuals protected behind anonymous usernames can create campaigns in which they have little responsibility for. A quote pulled from this particular critic's website- "reducing the effort needed to start a campaign will greatly reduce its impact." The campaigns have been accused as being too narrowly focused on the individual's point of view and less on important broader issues.  What is the response to this criticism? Should the Network have some role in mediating the campaigns that are posted, or none at all?
 
I think this criticism is to misunderstand the difference between creating a campaign page in Action Network and starting a campaign.  It's easy to create a campaign page, but that's meaningless unless you are doing so in order to pursue a campaign in the real world.  The site is about supporting people trying to undertake civic activities which have real impact.  That's why, alongside the functionality that we've developed, we offer a suite of content on how to get things done.  Certainly some people do start campaign pages which never go anywhere, but the most vibrant campaigns on Action Network are those by users who make their campaign page the online focus of activities they are undertaking in the real world - knocking on doors, getting people to meetings, writing to MPs, etc.  By this token, campaigns which are focussed narrowly on an individual's point of view are unlikely to prosper.  The site helps people to find common cause with others - often people who they might not have considered as potential allies.  So the broader perspective is essential.
 
Action Network users don't hide behind anonymous usernames.  From the outset, we have always asked people to participate using their real names and were pleasantly surprised at how willing they were to do so.   The reason we do this is because people can't expect to be taken seriously in civic life if they're not prepared to put their name to what they're doing.  Since people contribute using their real names, they are accountable for what they submit to the site - which means the quality of contributions tends to be relatively high.
 
We don't see it as our role to mediate campaigns.  We are an impartial facilitator; it's for users to make of the site's potential what they will.
 
6.  Has the relationship between the Action Network and BBC broadcasting networks been relatively symbiotic?  In other words, has BBC successfully used the Network to investigate and report issues that concern members?  If so, has the BBC remained impartial in reporting these issues, or have they endorsed any particular Action Network campaigns?  Has their been any criticism of this relationship?
 
News programmes at national and local level have used Action Network to report stories about grassroots concerns which wouldn't otherwise have come to their attention.  The programmes remain impartial when they do this.  In other words, they use Action Network as a useful source of stories but apply normal journalistic rigour.  We have not faced criticism for covering stories found in Action Network. 
 
7. In your opinion, what has been the Action Network's biggest success story regarding a campaign?
 
I particularly like this one - Save Elliston Infant and Junior School:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/actionnetwork/G1117
 
It typifies the kind of community issue that tends to motivate people to use Action Network.  The user incorporated the site into a variety of campaigning approaches to achieve her objective.  Then she came back to the site to share with other users her insight into how to organise a successful campaign:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/actionnetwork/A4900493

8. I noticed that the Network was awarded an e-democracy honor not too long ago, along with some other very influential websites and journalists.  Can you suggest to us any other potential "giraffes" fostering innovative participatory democracy that you are familiar with and find particularly exceptional?
 
The My Society team in the UK are doing exceptional participatory democracy projects with a string of sites to help people get involved and hold politicians to account.  I particularly like Pledgebank -
http://www.pledgebank.com/.  There's a number of people involved in My Society - which is a group of volunteers.  Tom Steinberg is their front man.