A shifting discourse

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sunset-planeI just read Todd Babiak’s recent column on the turning tide of the Edmonton City Centre Airport debate and how a group of largely young (younger, anyhow) upstarts became engaged, involved, and subsequently lobbied to ensure that their desired outcome was achieved, namely the eventual closer of YXD.

In his piece, Babiak makes these rather bold statements:

“What happened this week was a masters class in the present and future of political organization. […] [I]t must have been devastating for the city’s most powerful men and women to watch a group of virtually connected — but politically unconnected — young people creating and controlling public debate with speed, elegance and respect.”

I’m somewhat skeptical of the statement, in spite of having been engaged and involved in the debate, going so far as to e-mail my city council reps Jane Batty and Ben Henderson about the issue. However, the more I started thinking about it, the more it occurred to me I’m too entrenched in the issue, too much a part of the whole story, to really take a long view of whether or not this is truly a significant shift in the way discourse is performed, and the way changed is achieved. I will endeavour to take the long view anyhow.

Whenever I read a politician state, as Mayor Stephen Mandel did in Babiak’s story, “I think we’re seeing a dramatic change in politics. Those traditional ways of lobbying, of getting the word out, that same old cast of characters, don’t mean as much,” I kind of shake my head. How many times has this been uttered about emerging technology? And how many of those technologies wind up being flashes in the pan?

But then it occurred to me: this pan has been flashing brightly and for a long time. We saw it with Bill 44, a debate which will continue thanks in no small part to sensible Edmonton-Whitemud Tories, we saw it on a global scale with Iran (particularly when the US State Department apparently asked Twitter to keep the servers running for a little while after their scheduled maintenance window to ensure Iranians had a place to congregate and broadcast online), and we saw it with the City Centre Airport debate and decision.

What does everyone else think? Is Babiak’s piece prophetic or over-the-top?

Given what I’ve seen on Twitter since I signed up almost a year ago, and indeed on other social media platforms, I’m leaning heavily toward the former. I’ve witnessed increased engagement outside of political party lines with organizations across the city like NextGen and Better Edmonton. Blogging, tweeting, using Facebook… Individuals like Mack Male and Jordan Schroder have this as down to a science as anyone else, and they use these media very effectively and organically. Effectively for obvious reasons (how many among you who emailed your councillors would have done so on other issues?). Organically because the two (and a group of other concerned individuals) came forward and joined forces — if only loosely — to champion a common cause. The “coordination” — such as it was — required to run this campaign wasn’t possible even ten year ago, at least not with this level of ease.

Moreover, the very nature of the web as a public arena gives visibility to all sides of an issue, and forces each side to respond to the other with clear arguments and examples of their perspective. It forces people to be civil and considerate, even if only a little bit. It engages people and demands that they defend their perspectives, or at least better explain them.

To me, the YXD closure debate, emotional though it was for both sides, is a shining example to local, provincial and especially federal politicians for how they should behave. And we have people like Mack Male, David MacLean, and Jordan Schroder to thank for that. But more importantly, it represents a new method of engagement, of organization, and way to change things.

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4 Responses to “A shifting discourse”

  1. kate
    July 11, 2009 at 2:07 pm #

    I read the article. I’ve only been Twitter for a few weeks, so take this comment with a pinch of salt, but I’ve been struck about how close-knit and involved Edmontonians seem to be on Twitter. I don’t see the same thing in Vancouver – maybe it’s a size thing? Dunno.

    Anyway, congrats to all for getting the airport closed. Hopefully it’s redeveloped in a more transit-orientated way. I live in a neighbourhood like that and I love it.

  2. Jeff
    July 11, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    There’s not another issue I can remember contacting my political reps about. (To be fair, I also e-mailed about the Scona Pool this week, but in tandem.)

    I think the passive way I was able to gather information- through links and websites presented to me on Twitter and through blogs, on both sides of the airport debate – allowed me to easily research a topic that has a lot of levels.

    The city streaming online is also a huge tipping point, in my opinion. There I sit at my office, working at the computer, and still keeping up on the debate.

    Time always tells, but if what Mandel and others at City Hall are now saying about the increase in correspondence is true then maybe we’ve seen the first chips form in the facade of old-school lobbying.

  3. Megan (@mig14)
    July 13, 2009 at 10:26 am #

    I don’t think that grassroots lobbying will ever take the place of old school lobbying.

  4. Megan (@mig14)
    July 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    ANNNNNND….I meant to say a lot more than that.

    (in full)

    I don’t think that grassroots lobbying will ever take the place of old school lobbying. Tha main reason is money. Grassroots works well in civic politics, but moving to a provincial or federal level means that huge masses of people will have to be mobilized, not just a small, albeit committed, minority.

    It’s no secret that social media (whatever that really means) played a role in the closure of the City Centre Airport, but I’m not sure about the extent to which it was successful, especially considering that there are more people who supported closure who DIDN’T use social media than those who did.

    The other thing about traditional lobbying is that it will never die until we demand change in the electoral system. As long as candidates need money to run for office, traditional lobbies will stay in place because those lobbies often provide the funding for candidates. Is that broken? Sure, but there’s no quick fix to the problem.