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Public engagement: is the future online?

Patrick Middleton and Sophia Collins disagree

Dear Sophia,

Mannerisms, tone of voice, eye contact. How can we appreciate the myriad subtleties of human communication through a monitor?

Let me say upfront that online engagement has its place but, in the rush to embrace new shiny media, we risk losing sight of what we’re trying to achieve.  The list of motivations for public engagement is long, from inspiring to informing to involving. How we go about doing it is equally varied, but it’s us as people, in the flesh, that makes for good public engagement.

You’ll be familiar with the sorts of statistics which show that when people talk together it’s the richness of non-verbal communication that helps us to really interpret and understand what’s being said and what each person is feeling. Emoticons can only go so far in helping us express the sentiment behind our words ;-). Even webcam conversations are stilted and joltingly unrewarding.

For convenience and the illusion of inclusivity the online environment can’t be beaten – but for nuanced, in depth, fulfilling discussion no online tool comes close to looking someone in the eye as they tell you what their hopes and worries are.



Dear Patrick,

You make a moving (and undeniable) point about the richness of face to face communication. But what about the shortcomings? We've all sat in talks where 'Does anyone have any quick questions?' is misheard by a few to mean, 'Please give us a rambling explanation of your thoughts on a tangentially related matter,’ while most of the audience sit there impatient but shy about putting their hands up.

That's just one example, but the truth is, not everyone contributes equally in face-to-face conversations. Online environments can be freeing. People who are quieter in person have the space to give their own thoughts. People can ask for explanation about things they don't understand, without feeling they look stupid. There's less pressure to give 'socially desirable' responses and people can be more honest.

Not to mention the convenience in time and space. People can contribute from wherever they are, with whatever time they have. They don't have to travel anywhere, find babysitters, miss work.

I agree I don't want to replace face-to-face completely. Online is an additional channel, but it's got so much potential. So far we are just standing at the shore of it, paddling out a few metres. I want to see what we can achieve once we truly explore.


Dear Sophia,

Social situations can be difficult or awkward and people can be excluded from conversations or feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions. You’re probably right that the protection offered by online engagement lessens some of these barriers (though no doubt erects others).

Of course, public engagement practitioners use many techniques to lower these barriers in non-online contexts:  breakout groups, post-it notes, feedback forms, role play, video, graphic facilitation… the list goes on.

We should be wary of thinking of online engagement as a magic bullet. As you say, online engagement allows people to contribute in ways that fit with their lifestyles. This is a real positive. But what do we lose by moving online? You and I, and probably many people reading this, are comfortable using online tools but many people aren’t.

While we see people responding to tweets, commenting on blogs and engaging in discussion forums there are lots of groups being excluded, from those without access to those who aren’t comfortable online. What’s more these groups are likely to have considerably different world-views and opinions from us. How can online engagement capture this diversity, and not leave people stranded on your metaphorical seashore?



Dear Patrick,

It's true that not everyone has the means to contribute online. But what are the real facts? 

 In the UK, in 2010, 30.1 million adults accessed the internet every day or almost every day. That's 60 per cent of the adult population.

Can we really say that more people are excluded from online engagement than other methods? Are you saying that offline methods include everyone?

The excellent work that BBSRC does in consulting the public about science policy is a good example of public engagement. But how many people attend a synthetic biology workshop, or sit on a nanojury?

I'm told that what policy-makers want, from a public consultation exercise, is a one-page summary of public views. How much of the deep discussion offline filters through to that magic single page? 

When we run I'm a Scientist, Get me out of Here! events, each scientist takes part in hours of live chat, and also gets sent hundreds of longer-form questions. They emerge with a complex, nuanced picture of the views of teenagers on science. If policy-makers used online methods to engage directly with the public, they'd be exposed to more viewpoints, they'd have their assumptions questioned. The process would be deeper, and more democratic, than anything we have at present.



Dear Sophia,

It would be a mistake to assume that people with internet access automatically have access to engagement – I’m on the internet for hours every day, yet have never commented on a blog and I’m still struggling to use twitter effectively.

What’s more, if policy-makers want quick and convenient one-page summaries then it seems unlikely they’ll have the time for ‘hours of live chat’ and ‘hundreds of questions’ (barring, perhaps, occasional outings on mumsnet!).

For me, clarity of purpose should be what defines public engagement: why are you doing it and what do you hope to achieve? Maybe you want to hear what religious groups feel about your science or inspire school children or foster reflection in researchers.

Do you want to hear all the views out there, or just the loudest voices; are you hoping to change yourself or influence others?

Once clear on purpose, we can begin to think about how to achieve our aims. Undoubtedly, online engagement can sometimes be the best tool for the job (as in I’m a Scientist). But, at the risk of repeating myself, we must be wary of zeitgeists. For some, the online bandwagon is worth jumping on. For others, the lure of shiny new media is best avoided.



Dear Patrick,

You're right, being online doesn't mean you're a computing ninja. But give us some credit, we can make easy-to-use websites. We can also use many online channels and engage people where they are, be that YouTube, Facebook or World of Warcraft.

You say policy-makers who'll only read a page won't want to spend hours in something like I'm a Scientist. It's true, but isn't it a bit of a con? Consultation participants think they've been listened to, they think they've contributed depth, but in fact it all just comes down to a sentence or two?

You ask what the purpose of public engagement is. Well for me, it's genuinely engaging the public in the decision-making conversation. You can't do that by reading a one page summary of what they said.

An I'm a Scientist participant once told me the reason he loved taking part was the efficiency. He could log in any time, from wherever, and start typing. No travel, no rehearsals, no preparing a powerpoint. Every minute he spent was time spent engaging with young people.

That efficiency means maybe online is our best chance of actually getting policy-makers to join in the conversation and make engagement the genuinely two-way process it should be.



Dr Patrick Middleton
Dr Patrick Middleton is head of public engageemnt at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Sophia Collins
Sophia Collins is a Producer at Gallomanor Communications Ltd
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