The term “citizen expression” first of all evokes a public statement, an expression relating to life in society. This differentiates it from personal expression, and therefore calls for greater attention in the organization of freedom, in the extension of “rights to communicate”.

Forms of expression and media - newspapers, pamphlets, posters, radio, speeches, theater, poems, music, television, cinema, videos, etc. - are as varied as the means of communication. Moreover, expression can take many forms - individual, associative, artistic, through parties, forums, petitions, voting etc. - reflecting the diversity of interventions in our societies.

The word “citizen” derives from civitas meaning city, a word itself formed from civis signifying “one who lives in the city”. The term “citizen”, that appears in the words of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and that was employed in this sense after the French Revolution of 1789, is no doubt stronger and more laden with historical undertones in France than in other countries where it is used only in a descriptive and functional way.
“Citizenship” is traditionally expressed with reference to a territory, either geographic or symbolic (“citizen of the world”). It evolves in open societies in which public spaces can develop. As an essential tool in the extension of democracy, citizen expression is individual or collective expression concerning relationships with other people and life in the city and in society.

Citizen expression and governance

If it is to have any sense in our society, free and uncensored expression, creating new worlds, must be capable of influencing the realities. Indeed this is where expression encounters a limit: one of decisions and actions, which are necessarily discontinuous and limited in number.

Peoples that have learned reading and writing and progressively obtained an extension of their democratic rights now demand a say in the way they are governed and justification of decisions affecting them. It is through their interactions with the decision-making system that citizen expression confronts “governance”.

- How can we ensure continuity between “citizen expression” and “citizen decision”?

- Are the information sources, a prerequisite for pertinent expression and necessary to form an opinion, accessible?

- How can we give expression the persuasive quality that makes it strong and free?

- How can policy-makers use what they hear from citizen expression? Will the decisions they make take into account what has been expressed?
Using the Internet for citizen expression has already led to some success, in particular by being able to link local issues to global ones: city development, participatory budgets, social exclusion, the North-South divide, patentability of living organisms, genetically modified organisms and women’s rights and status are just a few examples of topical themes that have only taken their rightful place in open societies through debate and citizen expression.

An expression that creates identity

In parallel with the functioning of the democratic process (through confrontation of arguments), public expression, or statements made by a certain public, also plays an identity role: assertion of one’s position relative to others. Indeed, in the case of isolated groups, identity definition may be a key motivation of public expression. This need lies in the difference between the image that the group has of itself and the image it actually projects. When stigmatised, a group seeks to appropriate criticism and invert it, or least exploit it as an effective identity statement.
In this case, citizen expression concerns the recognition of people, individual or collective. The Internet’s capacity to project these demands also make of it a form of technology that builds social links.

A milestone in participatory democracy

From the public’s point of view, this demand for reasoned public debate and for people recognition is a milestone in the process of participatory democracy as an extension of representative democracy.
Paying attention to this expression is confirmation that citizens’ points of view really count.
Forms of expression vary according to the chosen type of participation:

- Information is top-down expression to which no response is expected;

- Consultations solicit an opinion that will be counted (vote) or synthesised (public enquiry);

- Dialogue involves discussion that may affect a decision;

- Co-construction exploits citizens’ collective intelligence and usage expertise to contribute to decisions made by experts and elected bodies entrusted with power.
This latter activity, still rare today, is certainly the most sophisticated form of participatory democracy, and the most demanding and complex.
Yet anti-establishment, citizen expression also plays a part in preserving the democratic system as a whole by daring to raise problems that are often brushed aside or neglected by leaders.

Around citizen expression

Citizen expression is synonymous with a certain freedom, acquired or claimed. Sanctions or threats in response to oral or written public expression, still common in many countries, are a sure sign of weak democracy.
The tribunes used by personalities, political associations opposing the ruling party, non-governmental organizations, militant networks and social movements are an essential (though only small) component of citizen expression in that they enable declarations by people, members of the civitas.
We need to question the symbolic function of expression: which people consider they have the legitimacy needed to speak? On what is this legitimacy based? Numerous public statements employ the indeterminate word “we”, leaving things open to confusion.

To create the best conditions for high-quality citizen expression, it is not enough that a few “citizens” with easy access to the means of communication claim to speak for all. Although freedom of expression is a prerequisite for expression, it is far from sufficient.
In practice few people express their opinions orally or in writing. Looking around us, it quickly becomes clear that public expression is not easy for most people. Publication is not an insignificant sign, for suggesting to look at a message, and debate it is a political act, part of a project of life or society, part of an identity (personal or group) and part of social trajectories.

From public speaking to citizen expression

We see that citizen expression is not something that comes spontaneously; it implies a certain development path, accompaniment, a critical eye, and individual and collective recognition of people.
Indeed, there is a long way to go before citizen expression becomes a fully-fledged right, like vote. This path first involves training in expression. It requires a cultural change: the interiorisation by the largest possible number of people that this expression is not only a right but also a source of social transformation.
Yet even today we find little evidence that politicians encourage and accompany this form of expression.
That is why citizen expression is not only public expression relating to life in society but also the product of an accompaniment and learning phase. It is the entire process that enables people living within a territory to express themselves in a participatory manner on issues concerning life in society.
This idea of a process evokes a developing mechanism, a collective organisation, a recognition of collective and individual identities; a process that remains to be adapted through observation, understanding, analysis, and comparisons of situations.
Under what social conditions and in what political context can citizen expression develop? And how does it relate to participatory approaches?

Within information societies

Today citizen expression invites us all, city dwellers and citizens of the world, to explore new regulations of our social lifestyles. As the boundaries between the local and the global increasingly fade, the changes brought about by the “information age” are impacting on citizen expression and participation.
The digitization of information introduces several radical changes:

- The coding of information makes it reproducible: what I receive is also accessible to others.

- As technology advances, digital convergence adds the possibility to digitally exchange data, text, photos, sound, and moving images.
Forms of citizen expression are multiplying, enabling everybody to “speak out” according to what they do best.
Electronic networks allow people to communicate across national boundaries using a panoply of connected devices operating over the air or via cable or telephone networks. Local censorship becomes impossible, information reaches diasporas, local citizenship is lived out in the eyes of the world.

The digital revolution

Until recently, individual expression was limited by the scope of oral and written media. The arrival of mass media has vastly increased capacity to receive information, yet we are still far from a similar expansion that would enable ordinary citizens to use newspapers, radio and television to make themselves.
On the other hand, electronic networks and new digital cultures are opening up unprecedented possibilities for “connected” people to express themselves and interact with social, public, and political spheres.
While today’s incessant technological innovation is driven mainly by IT and telecom laboratories, interpersonal interchanges play an essential role in the development of usages. The major applications of the digital age - email, web browsing, chat, peer-to-peer, blogs, etc. - were conceived and approved by end-user communities.

The wide availability of digital tools is accompanied by the emergence of new communication practices. The millions of websites become an information source that can face mass media. During a political debate a blog page written by a single person can achieve the same level of readership as a newspaper or radio station - with interactivity thrown in. In a local area, a web magazine (“webzine”) can provide a counterpoint to municipal information [1]. Collective sites, like indymedia, the best-known alternative information network, offer alternative reporting of important events.

The emergence alongside traditional “one-to-all” media (newspapers, radio, TV, etc.) of distributed media, in which the expression of individuals or groups are dominant, now calls forms of governance into question. The rapid distribution of information around the world enables the organization of opinion-making movements in unprecedented forms of networks. The availability of contradictory information opens up debate and obliges decision-makers to justify their actions; comparing ideas accelerates the collective conception of alternative schemes.
When the success of distributed media is based on the quality of its content and its animation, decision- makers used to dictating their choices on the strength of their appointed function in the hierarchy are encouraged to work more closely with the people who gave them their mandate, directly or indirectly. Participation is now an emerging culture but one that has so far carved out little power in societies largely organized around representation and granted mandates.
It is also necessary to question the usage values of mediation via computers. The “think globally, act locally” maxim, pertinent in the framework of the New Social Movements network, in fact operates only for a limited part of the population.

Indeed, different forms of expressions (oral, writing, gestures, etc.) do not always call on the same aptitudes or the same codes. Discussing an issue via a chat service, sending an e-mail to a mailing list, posting comments in a forum, creating a blog, writing on an association site, speaking on a public site, producing a radio show or a video: not everyone has the same cultural, intellectual, cognitive assets (nor of course the same technical tools) to adopt the new forms of expression. Extending these practices to all citizens is a task that must involve all those active in citizen expression.

Citizen expression challenging traditional media

The success of distributed media is also the evidence of a certain mistrust of public decision-makers and mass media. Broadcasting the same images on all TV channels and practically interchangeable articles alert active citizens to the concentration of the mass media. Yet here again, we find the most popular songs exchanged via peer-to-peer are the same as the Top 50!
Distributed media, reflecting emerging social practices, can also encourage the repetition of a model “that works” rather than finding a way round it to invent another form of expression.
It is this emerging movement that we need to question.

The contribution of digital networks: new possibilities and their limits

If expression is to exist, suitable media must be available to convey it. Digital tools lift a number of barriers that formerly kept the ordinary citizen away from access to mass media.
Using a simple computer connected to the Internet it is now possible to publish a magazine of communal information, create an expert site on a controversial social issue, and rapidly link information from any part of the country or indeed anywhere on the planet. Eye- witness accounts from those directly involved has become an essential means of promoting a recounting of events that includes all points of view and all situations. This has been evident in the recent natural disasters that have shaken the world.

However, among the millions of blogs that now exist very few relate to citizen expression: the vast majority isused for personal expression or within small groups. And as with district newspapers, association publications and free radio stations, it has to be admitted that collective expression stimulating debate, linking people in a territory or providing meaning, in fact involves very few people today. Publication websites rarely exceed a hundred contributors, and the vast majority of visitors never spontaneously make a written contribution or leave remarks.

Keeping an open mind

Citizen expression is activity that is growing, a project. What is important today is both to use the experiences that look ahead, and to enable a transfer of the know-how that is developing in that context to the communities that express themselves the least, because collaborative writing tools and open-source software prove that the desire to contribute to the common good can attract thousands of people to collaborative projects.
Distributed media make it possible to mobilize large communities working to distribute content normally produced by public structures. Outside officially appointed entities we now find a multitude of unofficial initiatives: office communication tools (Open Office, Firefox), encyclopaedias (Wikipedia), maps, atlases (Open Geodata), scientific reviews (Budapest Open Access Initiative), popularized knowledge (online training and self-training), and educational content (Open Courseware). These efforts, which feed our common heritage of knowledge are not necessarily politically motivated (for example, many Wikipedia contributors are involved only for reasons of amusement or passion). Nevertheless they are part of the emergence of a new form of citizen expression.

Likewise, artists using multimedia are also part of the movement. Digital representation in the form of text, images and sound, the use of simulations, 3D, sampling and remixing, the multiplication of collective works, open to interaction is helping to expand artists’ investigative horizons, including some artistic organizations that are now exploiting this form of expression to give it a political dimension.
In the face of this profusion of experimentation, determination, in the face of the difficulties encountered in increasing the number of participants, much work remains to be done to examine the multiple forms of expression and the conditions needed to ensure the development of citizen expression.

Open questions

Information and communication technologies greatly enhance the possibilities of self-expression for people having access to them and knowing how to exploit them. To better describe citizen expression, to increase the number of those involved in it, we need to keep on asking questions:

- Who should speak (number, social status)? On behalf of whom?

- Why? (why do they feel it is legitimate to do so?)

- How? (through which media? individual or collective?)

- What mechanism enables this expression? (technical, cognitive, etc.)

- What accompaniment makes it possible? (initiation, mediation, training, etc.)

- How is this expression taken into account in governance? (how is it relayed? how is it incorporated in the classic democratic process?)

- How can we take into account the opinions of people naturally far from this expression (in order to ensure fairness)?

- What is the difference between “citizen expression” and “public opinion”? Is one the result of the other?
While traditional debates on “freedom of expression” and the “right to information” look at the social organization of the tools disseminating information (press freedom), media pluralism (economic and political control over the media) and the capacity of people living in a geographical area (town, country, region) to access independent information, the irruption of the Internet has shaken the picture.
Thanks to online distributed media, citizen expression calls into question the organization of democracy, extending it towards greater participation.
How can each individual use this network to communicate publically?
Not only through exchange among peers, friends or in voluntary networks, but how has multimedia writing in the public arena of the Internet upset the relationship of citizens with information and with those governing them?

How can we ensure that the needs of communities are heard and that solutions emerge from the collective intelligence? The tools are available (email, websites, blogs, cooperative encyclopedias, file-sharing, and so on) but a new skill, knowing how to speak out rather than knowing how to do, must be invented and transmitted to all, in particular to the marginalized.

16 February 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

Knowledge should be shared in free access... But authors and editors need an economy to keep on creating and working. If you can afford it, please buy the book on line (39 €)