How Not to Use Social Media Towards Civic Ends

“Parking Douche” is one of those ideas that seems brilliant at first, and then, upon a minute’s further reflection, fatally flawed. It’s a project by The Village, a Russian online newspaper. The Android app asks you to document people who park like jerks with your phone (much like You Park Stupid and You Park Like an Asshole, the latter of which encourages anonymous note-leaving).

Parking Douche took the internet by storm back in May, where it was featured everywhere from Mashable to BoingBoing to the Huffington Post. The internet is the perfect medium for these one-off videos promoting a seemingly clever idea. The posts about this video are nearly identical across all of the properties that posted it, with few expressing any skepticism. Ideas like Parking Douche grab us instantly, for three reasons:

  1. Seeing people park and drive like jerks is as widespread an experience as cars themselves
  2. We love seeing FAILs, and parking fails are practically an official subgenre. The ability to not only document, but shame a failure that has personally inconvenienced you to wider audience is a superpower that pre-internet citizens could only dream of
  3. This app bundles these two truths with the latest in “digital media” technology, including a mobile app and geo-targeted advertising
How great is it that users also viewed a “Find My Car” app?

The project differs from its predecessors in its promise to advertise the license plate and make and model of the offending vehicle across the local area (as determined by IP address targeting). It’s a clever repurposing of ad targeting tools towards civic ends, but also a clear attempt to shoehorn social media to solve a problem that should really be handled by local government (enforcement of parking rules with parking tickets).

The clever idea breaks down further when you realize that it achieves virality with site takeover ads (not popups, as the video says, but full takeovers) AND coercive Facebook sharing tactics (you must share to get the ad to go away, violating Facebook’s terms).

One effect of audience fragmentation across a host of channels is that the front page of the local newspaper isn’t quite as powerful a shaming mechanism as it used to be. In our Participatory News class last spring, Ethan Zuckerman argued that in the past, people might behave at least in part because they wanted to avoid being shamed in the news. The corollary of this argument is that the dilution of the mainstream media’s authority also dilutes the power of this socially useful shaming mechanism. As their audiences go a thousand different places, we lose the common platform on which to name & shame people who park like idiots (or commit more serious infractions).

And if there’s one thing we know about douchebags, it’s that they actually crave this sort of attention. Running ads promoting their car and their selfish parking handiwork to their local area could actually provide just the sort of attention they crave deep down, like a sophisticated advertising-network-based replacement for their trucker hat.

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