Creating Technology for Social Change

Notes on Monitory Democracy and a Networked Civil Society

Schudson's The Good Citizen

Ethan and I have been exploring the concept of monitorial citizenship in the pursuit of a definition or roadmap for “effective citizenship.” We are working on related projects trying to operationalize Michael Schudson’s idea of monitorial citizenship from his book The Good Citizen, but using slightly different definitions. Ethan’s project Promise Tracker, being developed by several of our colleagues at the Center for Civic Media, thinks of monitorial citizenship as the responsibility of citizens “to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave.” My master’s thesis project Action Path thinks of monitorial citizenship more like Jane Jacobs idea of “eyes on the street,” whereby average citizens are being civic and gathering useful information in aggregate by simply “watching their kids, keeping abreast of important consumer recalls, noting how weather affects the cost of groceries or their ability to check in on family members’ safety.”

Both of us may be thinking of monitorial citizens in different ways than Schudson and other scholars use the term. Marc Hooghe, in a paper reacting to Schudson called “Does the ‘Monitorial Citizen’ Exist?” [paywalled] looks for citizens who are critical non-participants in political life, but care deeply about social issues.

This week Ethan and I read a couple of papers as part of our ongoing conversation of monitorial citizenship. Schudson, himself, kindly pointed us to an essay by John Keane, unpacking monitory democracy as a new vision of “democracy in our times.” Ethan has also been eager to dive into a prescient manuscript by David Ronfeldt, which proposes a framework for societal evolution wherein networks represent the latest organization form necessary for the success of advanced societies.

The following are our thoughts on these two pieces… 

I found the Keane helpful for the first 10–15 pages, where he outlines his ideas of monitory democracy as a response to post-modern, post-representative democracy, but I wish he’d define the idea precisely, if only because we’re having such a tough time finding a single definition. That said, I’m grateful for the core idea that representative bodies are increasingly being held in check by more distributed citizen bodies. What was frustrating to me is that the later part of the essay, which reflects some predictable frustrations with online discourse, seems to miss an opportunity to consider ways in which individuals using the internet to monitor in digital coordination might be as powerful as traditional organizations formed offline.

Part of what’s helpful to me in Keane’s vision is the idea of a weaker, more constrained state. I recommend Ivan Krastev’s In Mistrust We Trust as a great introduction to the idea of governments constrained by market forces and unable to live up to their citizens’ expectations, and I’m really enjoying Moises Naim’s The End of Power, which makes the case that being in charge of a large organization, corporate or state, is nowhere near as fun as it used to be, in part due to some of the forces Keane discusses. This reality that states aren’t as powerful as they used to be and that a key part of monitoring (as I’m using the term) is problem-solving in conjunction with the government is something I want to think more about.

If Krastev and Naim are a little depressing (their writing, not the people, who are both lovely guys), I find the Ronfeldt fascinating and inspiring. He wrote this in 1996, and while it’s steeped in the cyberutopianism and the enthusiasm about the third sector of the time, I think much of the framework is sound (and I appreciate his cautions later in the piece about the absurd ambition and breadth of his attempt). Ronfeldt took ill not long after this paper, and has been in extremely poor health since. It looks like he was going to write four books—he wrote the Tribes one, which I’m considering reading, and he continues to blog on these ideas at

One hole in the Ronfeldt is the question of what we want the network society/third sector/global NGO complex to do. One answer is that we may want it to take on the monitorial function Keane identifies. In my opinion, both Keane and Ronfeldt overfocus on organizations and movements, and not enough on the idea of individuals quickly organizing groups when they need them, or activating social networks. In fairness, social networks were a pretty early concept when Ronfeldt was writing and aren’t Keane’s focus. But I find it exciting that Ronfeldt’s view of the world, evolving towards a system of human organization that incorporates tribes, institutions, markets and networks places the sort of behaviors we’re studying in a central role.

I agree with your characterization of the Keane piece. He could definitely be clearer with regard to the definition of monitorial democracy, at the same time, he’s trying to make it all encompassing. The most interesting part of the argument, I thought, was his strong distinction between participatory democracy and monitorial democracy; the latter is completely dependent on continued practice of representational democracy, and it’s through the identification and critique of legitimate or illegitimate representatives of the people wherever they lie—government, industry, the media, etc.—that monitoring takes place. This is key because we tend to hope that monitorial citizenship can be a kind of participatory democratic practice, and certainly Schudson—the way I define his concept in reference to Jane Jacobs—frames it as a kind of local, participatory governance. This is worth thinking more about.

Keane loses me later, and not only at the predictable frustrations of online discourse section, but when he argues that “all of the big public issues… since 1945…” are the result of power-monitoring networks. His example of the civil rights movement is all well and good, but it is also the “Wikipedia” of social movement examples; I would love to see citations or summaries for other examples, rather than simply believe his argument based on this one, highly original moment in history.

As for Ronfeldt, I also found it inspiring to see him writing about networks in this way in 1996. And it’s really nice to read this in conjunction with the Keane piece because monitorial democracy fits very closely on top of Ronfeldt’s view of networked organizations’ roles in civil society: representational democracy is reinforced by the efforts of networked organizations, and networked organizations work best in a capacity as diffuse sensors (page 35 basically outlines monitorial democratic practice).

But what I find really interesting in Ronfeldt’s piece is how he lays out the Civic Media research agenda we are currently exploring in the last few sentences:

“Determining appropriate designs for all manner of sensor organizations may become a good meta-theme for innovative research a development in the years ahead.” (36)

And I think the central question around this as this relates to local, national, and global societies is about the imperative of a “balanced combination” of networked civil society with hierarchical governance, market-based transactions, and tribal interrelations. This is obviously a process—something that requires us to dismantle Drucker’s “Megastate” in Ronfeldt’s opinion—but there is the larger question of the role we at the Center for Civic Media might play in pushing for balance, or oversampling to achieve balance, by trying to empower citizens to be better monitors/networked sensors with the aid of contemporary technology.

I’m with you on Ronfeldt and sensor networks—the idea of citizens as sensors is one of the core ideas behind Promise Tracker. But when we began testing those ideas in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, it became clear that people weren’t content just being sensors. They wanted to be storytellers and problem-solvers as well. I think the richness of Ronfeldt’s framework is that it supports all those possibilities—he simply wants to acknowledge that monitoring institutions and markets is going to require massive, decentralized cooperation and leaves it up to us to build it. That’s a great challenge to have.

Here’s a question re: Keane—Does monitorial citizenship have to begin with acceptance of representative democracy as is? Can it only demand that representation work better (for various definitions of better)? Or is there a way that monitorial democracy and participatory problem-solving (the direction I am hoping to push this work) can lead towards more fundamental changes and reforms?