A Monstrous Mashup - The United Nations and Social Media

  • "How do new communication technologies and their inherent new opportunities for interaction of people and social communities impact the United Nations' ability to act?"
  • "What are the new media's consequences for global networking and international community action in forging and realizing global policy initiatives?"
  • "How can the United Nations system make use of the new media and information infrastructure in order to transmit its ideas and communicate its mission to the youth who will form the next generation of opinion leaders and decision-makers?"

Great questions, of the kind that this blog returns to again and again; but I wonder how many UN folk realise that the answers may turn the UN itself inside-out!

GREEN SHOOTS

The promise of social media for the UN is the opportunity to spread a human rights culture in online cultural spaces (such as social networks) and the potential for large scale mobilization around global issues. The green shoots are already emerging in the shape of projects like the Genocide Intervention Network and Never Again Rwanda, along with spontaneous self-organisation at scale around around crises like Burma .

IDEAL VERSUS INSTITUTION

But the UN is both Ideal and Institution, and the implications of social media are different for the two sides of this duality. For the Institution, the transition to the world of digital natives will be a difficult one. No institution, let alone a leviathan like the UN, is well adapted to the informal & peer-to-peer culture of the social web. More than that, the increased transparency enabled by the web is going to bring pressure to bear on the gritty realities of UN delivery. Big brands are already experiencing this pain and the UN will surely follow.

COLLABORATIVE SOCIAL ACTION

For the ideals that the UN represents, on the other hand, the collaborative space of the social web is a new and energising way for people to organise around issues that they care deeply about. The barriers to innovation are lowered and there signs that online social networks could evolve in to social action networks. These benefits are refusing to be contained by the digital divide and many initiatives are spreading the relevance of web 2.0 to poor & marginalised communities around the world.

NET INTERNATIONALISM

The Internet was constructed as an international and egalitarian technology who's architecture should make it a natural ally of the United Nations Charter. The potential for the net to support a human rights culture can be seen in the digital spaces created by diasporic communities. Unfortunately there are many threats to the progressive potential of the Internet, ranging from censorship & filtering to the loss of net neutrality. The new opportunities for community interaction also bring new threats, setting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights against Terms of Service agreements in a race to the bottom against privacy and freedom of expression. To take full advantage of these spaces the UN will have to help defend the social web against government intrusion and, to some extent, against itself.

REBOOT?

So how can the UN adapt to the digital age in a way that embodies and extends it's mission? There are smaller examples of institutions who are trying to renew themselves through an engagement with social media; one that I'm involved in is the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. There are hints in the notion of the The Permeable Organization and models at hand in open source with "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities".

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT

But the UN can't simply "make use of the new media to transmit its ideas and communicate its mission to the youth". The digital space is post-deferential and participative. The UN has engage young people in dialogue, starting from where they're really at, and not only through the filtered order of schools and universities. I've been working on issue-based campaigns within social media, and particularly in online social networks, and it can be a shock to encounter young people as they present themselves to each other. Txt talk and tattoos, mindwarping aesthetics and absent privacy boundaries - it's a long way from the suited respectability of the UN corridors! But dig a bit deeper and the perennial idealism of youth starts to emerge from their online profiles & comments - as in every generation, plenty of young people care passionately about peace and justice.

UN INCUBATORS

In what ways could the UN go with the grain of the digital age? What does crowdsourcing mean for the UN's mission? What is the Long Tail of human rights defence? One way to take advantage of the innovation that flows from the internet's 'architectures of participation' would be to encourage and catalyse startup projects that embody its values. The UN could act as a 'venture philanthopist' for social enterprises that enact its values, and draw on it's huge reservoir of expertise to act as mentors in the incubation of these projects. One easy way for the UN to get young people directly involved & excited would be to run web-based challenges . If the UN wants to stay relevant to the next generation, it will be hard for it to ignore the global reach of social networks as a way to interact directly with the digital natives. And this is not just an exercise in youth outreach or PR but an engagement with the future face of international community. As the BBC's Bill Thompson writes :

What happens when the photos on Facebook and Flickr show devastated crops and starving families - and these people are not just faces on the television but old friends, people whose likes and dislikes and reading habits and favourite films we know and share?
The world is different when it's the people you know, and I do not think we will be able to resist the forces of change when our friends are dying on screen, in front of us, and we know that we could do something but have decided not to.