Can online engagement empower people? In an attempt to answer this question, Dave stumbled upon the fuzzy definition of empowerment and shared his thoughts. He ends up defining motivation, information and action towards an outcome, as the necessary parts of empowering someone. Now I quite like his definition, and it’s always a good start to a meaningful discussion! So I started to write a response, which then turned out a tad too long. And then I thought: what the hell, let’s make a post!

Now, to get potential lawsuits out of the way, I acknowledge in advance that I’m not a connoisseur of the subtle connotations of the english language. But to me, the word empowerment sounds like one of these buzz motivational words (if you don’t get quite how motivational it is just search for empowerment in google images!) that more confuses rather than facilitates this sort of discussion.

Putting my linguistics hat on (source: clipartpictures.blogspot.com)

In my simple understanding it means to enable, to endow someone with the power to do something. In that sense, it implies provision of a way, or a medium to an end, and it encompasses mostly the information part, which should necessarily point out a way to action as well. Motivation helps, but is not necessary in this definition, as well as the final outcome.

A quite different but not unrelated meaning of the word is for a person to feel empowered, that is, more self-confident or satisfied as a result of achieving or knowing it can achieve something. In this definition, a palpable outcome is desired.

Now that we got the linguistics out of the way, let’s get to the point, which is I guess how do we make online engagement have an impact on real life (you native speakers think of a word for that!). And here Dave’s decomposition comes much better into play. A well designed website can relatively easily be good in one thing: providing information. If it is a social networking space it can also provide some engagement. The real game changers are motivation and providing a course of action (the latter is the empowerment!).

The second is also usually the easier part: from online actions in its simplest form (donating money via a credit card, signing an online petition, re-tweeting or broadcasting a message) to real events like arranging a fishing trip, a tree planting or a pressure event. Choosing an effective course of action is another big discussion for another time.

And lastly, motivation. Now, that’s where it all becomes difficult – not only for online, but also for any more “conventional” community. More so if you think that motivation is usually inversely proportional to the effort required for the action and the scale of the result: it’s much easier to convince someone to sign an online petition claiming more recycling is needed, rather than to get them to recycle more.

Motivational? Perhaps back in the day... (source: flickr)

I won’t give a structured answer, mostly because I don’t have one. The usual approach is to appeal to reason (if we don’t cut carbon emissions, global warming will destroy the earth) or a sentiment (people die every day due to lack of water, so stop wasting it). In a world flooded with pictures, the more original this appeal is, the more likely it is to engage someone – is the motivation it provides proportional though?

I tend to believe that there is another factor that maybe is even more important in this equation, and that’s attitude: how much a person is ready to change their mind and their life, learn and act. And that’s something that goes far beyond a website. It’s education, and family, and friends, and society – the conceptual monsters that all these discussions inevitably have to face. But I won’t go down that road. People willing to act, for whatever reason, do exist. A website provides a medium, a platform, to bring them together, to communicate information in an original, engaging way and maybe hint towards courses of action. This is a spark. Put it together with the right material – human creativity – and a small fire might be on its way.

Back in my undergrad days, I was lucky enough to take part in the starting of an online student community. The basic idea was to help each other with the courses and have some fun chatting online. What noone of us imagined, was that this would lead to real changes, small but significant, in our everyday student life. Because some people saw that some things were not right. They had some ideas how to improve them and were willing to pursue them. Once we gave these few people, lost in a 2000 strong student population, a way to find each other, get together, and discuss, there was little doubt: changes were on the way!

The results? A new departmental library, run partially by students on a voluntary basis and new departmental computer facilities. A cooperation between students and teachers better than ever before. An increased awareness and participation of students in the department’s life. A sense that if you needed support, there was a community where you could find it.

Oh, and yes, the empowerment. That we could and had made a difference. All we needed to do is try.


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