The shape of civil society to come - a Carnegie Trust Inquiry

The Carnegie UK Trust is running an Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. Unsurpringly, the first phase identified new media < cough > as one of the "burning issues" meriting further futures work and asked Suw Charman-Anderson to look at the way social technology and the internet is going to evolve over the next 15 years, and what that might mean for civil society organisations. Suw has kicked off by video interviewing social tech luminaries like Chris Messina & Ross Mayfield. Carnegie's report on The shape of civil society to come says that “The purpose of futures work is to ‘disturb the present’ and to help organisations understand and manage uncertainties and ambiguities. Futures thinking operates on an assumption that there is not one future but multiple possible futures, dependent partly on how we choose to respond to or create change.” My take is that the disturbance will come where the faultlines in civil society are most pressured by the patterns and memes of the social web. The Shape of Civil Society identifies key faultlines such as

  • Voluntary and community associations lose their distinctiveness due to increasing partnership with the state,
  • Traditional political engagement on the wane
  • Diminishing arenas for public deliberation
  • Marginalisation of dissent

These are clearly on collision course with memes like Openness, Transparency, Agility and the return of The Commons. To get a picture of possible futures we'll need a sense of history; maybe even Friedrich Kittler's 'recursive history' where the same issue is taken up again and again at regular intervals but with different connotations and results. And it's not just about history but about how to re-imagine society through the digital which means going wider than the social tech scene. I enjoy taking part in the #4Change Twitter-conversations about how social media is helping to create change, but we'll only appreciate the network mindset by widening our view and looking at marginal philosophies and hidden histories. And I don't really believe that the NGO sector can read the tea leaves of it's own future either. The Carnegie report highlights the blurring of the voluntary sector and the state, which goes hand-in-hand with the corporatisation of nonprofits. It's hard for bureaucracies to change their spots; expecting them to collaborate even across their own internal silos is like asking the tongue to taste itself. They may wish that the pixie dust of social media will restore their humanitarian sparkle but it may simply be that charities are broken. So all power to social startups mashed with the Coalition for Independent Action. And in the mean time, where do we look for hints of a digitally enabled future of civil society? On the margins, I think; taking a punt that the interesting social innovation happens at the edges where the dominant paradigm is migration. In fact, the very term civil society is too static for these times; we need a term that's more about flow, turbulence and transition. Perhaps I'll see you out there in the civic turbulence; in the mean time, keep an eye out for how you can contribute to the important work that Suw is doing.

The social web is a Re-imagination Machine

The social web is a Re-imagination Machine. It prods and encourages us to imagine how things could be different. In part, it's about how we collectively reorganize society for different outcomes. But re-imagining the world operates at a deeper level - by shifting the frameworks through which we make sense of reality.

People are starting to seize on the way that social technologies enable us to organize differently, outside the choke hold of established institutions. Books like Charles Leadbeater's We-think and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody show how the early examples are predictors of mass collaboration, creativity and self-organisation.

And practical initiatives like Social innovation Camp forge more social startups under the rubric 'using the web to help the world organise itself better".

But a symptom of something wider is the way that online modes of organising seem to be seeping offline. Rigid formats for events, office space and leisure time are giving way to barcamps, co-working and flashmobs. In the same way that the term Open Source became a rallying cry for Open everything else, the collaborative and non-hierarchical tendencies of online organisation are being taken offline. A tendency that Rohan Gunatillake calls Ungeeking: "Ungeeking is what happens when behaviours developed online make their way into areas of our lives independent of the technology through which we learnt them."

While the fantasy of the independence of cyberspace has passed, folk like Dougald Hine are realising that the impact of the social web also comes from "the spread of real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media" and are applying it to the crunchiest of problems (see Social Media vs the Recession?)

I'm intrigued by the way these new modes echo forgotten models from the past such as the cooperatives of the nineteenth century or the medieval Guilds. One reason why the chance to disturb the present means having a deeper sense of history that you can get from the latest web hype.

But there's more to it than history. History itself is really a shorthand for 'seeing things differently' and social history isn't a straight line but a strange attractor of different patterns that ebb and flow depending on the era. The problem, as neatly stated by the otherwise bitter-seeming Nick Carr, is that the practitioners of the social web upheaval and the people with the ideas to give it a body are generally separate; "As we move deeper into the shallows, so to speak, we naturally seek a guide. Contemporaries offer little help. Those that know the technology cannot see beyond it, and those that don't know the technology cannot see into it. Both end up trafficking in absurdity. So we look to the past for our prophet. McLuhan is the natural candidate, but it turns out his vision only extended to 1990, and even then he was half-blind."

So we need new frameworks, and there are some likely-looking ones to hand in the ideas of the postmodernists. Carr looks to Baudrillard, as does digital practitioner Simon Collister whereas social media educationlist Josie Fraser invokes Barthes, Foucoult & Derrida. This is the inevitable effect of a remix culture in a post-deferential era where it's common to think that online readers compose their own beginning middle end and in order to exist online we must write ourselves into being.

The point isn't to argue over which post-structuralist predicted Bebo, but to grok that digital tectonics requires us to re-imagine the future at a fundamental level. If the point is not just to undertand the world but to change it, then there's partial roadmap in the Causal Layered Analysis developed by the futurist Sohail Inayatullah to help think about circumstances in which values and underlying metaphors are a significant part of possible social change. It's based on the assumption that the way in which one frames a problem changes the policy solution and the actors responsible for creating change. (See Appendix 1 of the Carnegie UK Trust's Scenarios for civil society). The social impact of social media is usually interpreted at the level he calls litany - "quantitative trends, problems, often exaggerated, sometimes used for political purposes and usually presented by the news media", or possibly at the level of social causes - "economic, cultural, political and historical factors where interpretation is given to quantitative data. This type of analysis is frequently articulated by policy institutes". But Inayatullah adds levels of worldview (how discourse helps to constitute an issue not just to cause it) and metaphor & myth (the collective archetypes, the unconscious dimensions of the problem or the paradox).

So Erik Davies did us all a favour by making the utopian side of all tech innovation visible in Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. The social web and it's siblings are starting to stir ideas at the level of Imagination and we should pile in behind that. At a time when the global scenario is a literal mashup of financial and environmental crisis, we can't afford to simply reorganise the deck-chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The interesting thing is how much the new thinking and new doing are linked; how much the practice of social innovation with digital tools might help us to think differently about the better world that we imagine. And that's why, invoking my own preferred postmodernist thought-gangsters Deleuze & Guattari, I'm betting that the social web can be our Re-imagination Machine.


Flooding the Environment Agency with Social Media

A couple of us dropped in on Alex, a former colleague who now heads up Media and Events at the Environment Agency's press office. The mission; to get the team thinking about how they could start engaging with people and business through social media, as well as just getting news coverage in print and broadcast.

Thanks to Alex the team were aware of tools like Addictomatic even though they couldn't always access them due to the way publicly-funded bodies block internet access. And for any press office there's some easy social media wins, like switching to a social media style press release.

We started with a sketch of Make your Mark's blogging and Twittering. A lively debate broke out about the suitability of tools like Twitter as people struggled to match the free flowing nature of the social web with the strictures of a government agency. It's a challenge to decribe the value of Twitter to someone who's never tried it. But the bigger challenge with social media is message control; 'what if someone says bad things about us?'. To which of course the only answer is 'they probably already are', so one tool that struck a chord was the USAF's blog response flowchart; a guide to graduating your response between concerned citizen and troll.

We also discussed arms length ways to track and highlight online conversations without having to take responsibility for the content, as evinced by the Cabinet Office Open Source report page on Netvibes. Our visit to the agency coincided with the UK Government advertising for it's first ever Director of Digital Engagement (and I also discovered that the Foreign Office has someone working on Digital Diplomacy!). Alongside the DIUS sandbox of social media innovation in the public sector there's a growing body of evidence that a civil servant can invoke when arguing for more use of social media. If Alex does manage to open the floodgates (sorry!) in their media work, the Environment Agency might start thinking about using the web for agile responses to a crisis, like the quick site put together for emergency school closures. Whether they could catalyse the kind of citizen environmental action of Teeme Ara in Estonia remains to be seen.

The most intense debate in our session was around public consultations. It was easy to see why press folk are wary of opening things up when they've seen how hostile the public can be; no-one want their house demolished to make a flood defense. But the idea of engaging with a digitally-amplified debate provoked people to think behind the surface - for example, asking whether the agency should be consulting before the 500-page expert report is produced rather than afterwards, and whether that could facilitate peer-to-peer debate in the communities themselves.

And so we find that social media provokes people to approach things differently; not just how they communicate, but how they organise stuff. Being authentic is the way to social media success. Mashing up public consultations and social media will end up looking more like thinkpublic's animation The story of co-design.

In the mean time, those of us plowing the furrow inside organisations will carry on having more conversations like Web Tech Guy and Angry Staff Person.

1607 Flood in the Bristol Channel.

The Apollo and Dionysus of digital evaluation

What's the digital dimension of non-profit evaluation? We started a discussion a couple of days ago at Charities Evaluation Services where myself and UnLtd World's Dan Lehner lobbed some digital stones in to a calm pool of nonprofit evaluation consultants.

Happily, I work somewhere where social media is embraced as a valid campaigning tool. But the righteous challenge is to hang that off the Planning Triangle in a way that answers the 'so what?' question. Facing that challenge means debating numbers versus stories and investment versus insight. This post lays out some of my thinking in the hope that others will pitch in with some ideas.

At Make Your Mark our specific objectives will be partly delivered by different kinds of digital activity, from buzz building to amplifying events to online community development. And each of these has some plausible metrics that can be drawn from lists (like this one for enterprise social media).

But for me the cross-cutting point of all that activity is engagement. As far as I can see, us digital types have been trying to visualise engagement for a couple of years and have been wrestling for just as long with how to make making numbers out of it. As Steve Bridger said "Measuring engagement is like eating an elephant: it’s a big job and you’re not sure where to start".

I wonder if I and others have become a bit lost in the chimera of measuring engagement. Even the latest thinking from the highly laudable Measurement Camp (if you haven't been yet, you're missing something) feels a bit like a post-reality justification for the purposes of satisfying digital buyers' spreadsheets.

Make Your Mark's purpose as a campaign is to change behaviour, so at the end of the day we need to influence people. The Edelman White Paper on Distributed Influence: Quantifying the Impact of Social Media(PDF) has some interesting pointers to measuring influence, ranging from the Social Media Index (uncannily similar to a spreadsheet we already developing for our own internal use) to the concepts of 'meme-starters' and 'meme-spreaders'. It finishes on the thought that traditional comms activities are amendable to metrics like metrics like impressions, conversations, in-bound links and friends, whereas activites that they call Open Collaboration "will adopt entirely new methodologies that measure based on outcomes".

But how do we track the outcomes. Anyone around Make Your Mark has had those experiences of seeing the light go on for a young person, that moment when they become inspired by the possibility of making their idea a reality. Or, equally as inspiring, has heard the enterprise message authentically expressed by someone like the young people from Moss Side who lack a lot of life's privileges. Social media is the story-engine that shares the feeling of what we do, the shared sense that 'this stuff makes a difference'. (There's a great series of NTEN webinars from the end of last year on Social Media and Storytelling). We can also go beyond this to track outcomes that come about because of social media, such as the schoolgirl who left a comment on the Make Your Mark blog which resulted in the team helping her to set up a MYM Club in her school.

So the trick must come in finding the right mashup of stories and numbers. The inimitable Beth Kanter explores this in depth in The ROI of Social Media where she riffs on the term 'Return on Insight'. What's the technique that converts the Apollonian distancing of neatly printed tables to the Dionysian celebration of shared sensations of change? I think one of the consultants at the CES session cracked it when she said that the lab coats of traditional expert evaluation were starting to give way to self-evaluation and user-led evaluation. Maybe what makes the difference is not just the social media but the people who's hands it's in - when the cameras are held by the young people (as they have been at some Make Your Mark events), where users are making the podcasts and the online communities are as self-managed as Savvy Chavvy - then, maybe, it'll be pretty clear what's working and what the impact really is.

Photo by smithmatt

Non-sectarian Social Media & the civilian tragedy in Sri Lanka

What advice about digital tactics would you give to someone who wants to use social media to help civilians caught in a near-invisible conflict?

I was contacted by a British Sri Lankan who wants to do something positive about the plight of civilians caught up in the conflict back home. She wants to aggregate news and bring people together (outside of allegiances to the Sri Lankan Government or the Tamil Tigers) to come up with ideas about how to address the problems.

She's seen the way that internet campaigns have captured public attention in the cases of Gaza, Tibet and Burma - how the highlighting of inequity makes people want to get out there and protest. I knocked out an email with my first ideas but I'm blogging for more. My thoughts are below; how would you use the power of social media to help?

My ideas:

  • Check out Sri Lanka news on Global Voices, the global blogging project - it's a start for news aggregation outside of the mainstream, and a way to find good contacts
  • Get you and our friends on to Twitter; use search to find other interested people & start conversations; start a hashtag like #srilankacrisis; do some
    coordinated tweeting at a critical moment. (Here's an interesting post by Ethan Zuckerman about following the under-reported coup in Madagascar via twitter).
  • Think through what you want to achieve online; what are your goals? who do you want to reach? how will you know if it's working?
  • If you just want to aggregate news, start with something like Netvibes
  • If you want a space for sharing and collaboration you can use an off-the-shelf social network like Ning
  • For sure, you can't expect people to find you; you'll have to go out and find people in the online spaces where they already are.
  • So, er, Facebook for starters (like the Burma example I linked to in
    A Monstrous Mashup - The United Nations and Social Media)
  • And you can use a tool like Addictomatic to find other places where the crisis in Sri Lanka is being discussed.
  • Decide what kind of digital activism might work for you. Do you want to fundraise? to mobilize? to collect video evidence? Check out the extensive case studies at Digiactive.
  • If there's people on the ground who can help, consider the use of tools like Ushahidi (an open source project which allows users to crowdsource crisis information to be sent via mobile).

My contact also said that lots of NGOs seem to be fed up of working in Sri Lanka because of the restrictions imposed on them by the Government. But if there are ways that social media can help, why aren't these NGOs being more agile about using digital means? Not as a replacement for vital on-the-ground humanitarian aid, but in the innovative style of Ushahidi. I suspect that the truly interesting stuff will come from passionate people like my contact who can catalyse self-organisation amongst the concerned diaspora and others, using the power of social media.

Transparency Tech and Riga Rioters

Suddenly, the workshop on 'Interactive Tech Tools for Transparency' I'm leading in Riga in a couple of days (February 5th & 6th) has been given a sharper focus. On January 14th hundreds of demonstrators clashed with riot police in Riga after an anti-government protest. The disillusioned young people involved, fed up with what they see as arrogant and corrupt governance, are ripe for being reached by pro-transparency NGOs. This isn't just the case in Latvia but plays out in different ways across a lot of the Central and Eastern European countries where the NGOs attending our workshop are based.

We'll certainly be accelerating their pilot projects as mySociety's Tony Bowden (handily based in nearby Estonia) will be passing on his experiences of developing the definitive Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow. But as I found out at last year's Crowdsourcing for transparency launch there's an urgent need to boost the way the NGOs mobilize through social media. This time round they'll have the benefit of Nixon McInnes's Anna Carlson taking them through a buzz monitoring and network mapping bootcamp.

Personally, I'm fired up by the potential of Ushahidi-style transparency engines that can be cloned and deployed in different settings; and by engine I mean both the tech and the collaborative model that it embodies. This Latvian blogger seems to think a clampdown on free speech may follow the recent disturbances in Riga. Certainly, whatever tools & techniques the NGOs settle on will get a reality-check from experienced digital activist Sami Ben Gharbia who knows all about repressive regimes. Fascinatingly the same Latvian blogger refers to an emerging youth movement called The Penguins (Pingvini). What are we to make of the fact that their civil disobedience blog sports the Linux penguin..?

Making History with the Interweb, 2009 to 1649

There's some nice histories of the Internet knocking around, like this animated documentary using PICOL icons . The Internet changes so fast that webheads use the word 'traditional' for stuff we were doing 2 years ago.

And there's an upsurge in people figuring out how to use the Interweb for social change which was my deepest hope when I started this blog.

It seems like the Interweb is ready to make real history, influencing social and political upheavals. But a lot of the talk puts the Interweb alongside Guns, Germs, and Steel; a technical determinism that ignores the cultural history of socio-economic change.

Why aren't people closest to the curve talking about the currents that are resurfacing through the gaps rendered by social media? Maybe Net generation insiders have a narrow perception of what's going on. On the Netsquared blog, Alex Steed questions the narrow conformity of ideas being circulated:

Q: What books have you read this year?
A: Here Comes Everybody, Groundswell, Tribes ... you know - the usual.
Q: Anything else?
A: I've been meaning to, but not yet. Hopefully in 2009! [Nervous, embarrassed giggles]

As he puts it - "Social change has a history. It didn't begin with Twitter, or Barack Obama. I think that 2009 will really be a year in which we go back to the history books in order to figure out how to move forward".

Here's to a history of the Interweb where The Diggers doesn't refer to people voting web stories up and down...

Amplifying the Other - a response to Amplified08

Some events just make you go 'hmmm', and last week's Amplified08 was one of them. A critical mass of UK social media types assembled themselves at NESTA for an evening's unconference, and real cred goes to the volunteer organizers for pulling it together. The declared mission of this Network of Networks is to boost interconnectedness - but that strength also seemed to me to be it's weakness. Amongst the Twittering throng my head throbbed with the question 'Amplify what?'. Amplify creativity? Amplify business? Amplify racism?

Perhaps most of the crowd at #amp08 felt that more connectedness is enough of a purpose, and fair play to that. Robert Putnam's take on Social Capital highlights the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from these networks as a broad societal measure of communal health. But let's not forget that Bourdieu, another pioneer theorist of social capital, emphasises it's role in forming and maintaining elites. Part of my 'hmmm' is to wonder which way is the Amplified 08 - 09 - 10 train is heading.

The other 'hmmm' I have is a frustration that there could be something really powerful in Amplified 09, but only if it's mixed with other ingredients. The voices that really need amplifying are "the Other"; the excluded and the marginalised. I'd be switched on by a social media geek gathering that nailed that mission to it's mast, in the same way that 4IP is digitalising Channel 4's public mission to "champion alternative voices and fresh perspective and to challenge people to see the world differently". So we've had Amplified 08 and we know who 'we' are; let's get out there and mash it up with the outsiders. As it says in NESTA Connect's core beliefs "extreme collaboration can lead to bigger leaps forward".

A bemused bald guy at Amplified 08.(Photo by Lloyd Davies )

Another World Is Possible: submit your idea for Social Innovation Camp

 "Another World Is Possible" - a slogan of defiance and hope, often on the face of overwhelming odds. But at this particular moment in time, history has delivered us the tools to start making it a reality , especially in the gaps left by the Leviathans (corporates, governments, NGOs). Hurrah for the Internets!

At Social Innovation Camp we are asking "What does that other world look like, and how can we use social tech to make it happen ?" At the first camp, people said it looked like a world

- where having a physical disability doesn't mean you have to fill your house with relics from a crimean war hospital, where you can enjoy usable and stylish products like the rest of us: it looks like Enabled By Design.

- where where visiting prison is not a demeaning, family-wrecking experience: it looks like Prison Visits.

The second Social Innovation Camp happens between 5th and 7th of December 2008, and it's your chance to say what an alternative world could look like, because it looks like something driven by your passions, your frustrations: like the social need you feel most strongly about, like the cool tech you know would have an impact if it was released in to the world.

Social Innovation Camp is a vessel for helping to make those ideas happen. We assemble the ingredients, mixing the tribes of geek and social change activist in a space that is itself outside of 'business as usual', a space where all the usual rules are off; you can imagine whatever you want about the possible impact of this digital stuff. The Social Innovation Camp call for ideas closes November 7th, so get your ideas in now.

Photo by Roland Hartig

Austin Tweetup Blood Drive

The Austin Tweetup Blood Drive: nice example of how online tools can be used to organise offline action. Twitter users will know how memes sweep across Twitter feeds - I like the way that's been turned into something real.  (Cred to the We Are Media Project for surfacing this). 

AustinBloodDriveTweetup from Kristine Gloria on Vimeo.

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