social action networks
I get a real sense that we're due for a step-change in the evolution of social networks, and I think the momentum is towards networks that enable action.
causes - so what?
What an odd experience it is to be recruited to so many causes on Facebook. I've joined with hundreds of others on what feels like dozens of causes. And i'm left with the feeling - so what? What does it mean to have joined a Facebook group for issue X? What level of active participation comes from 'friending' an issue on MySpace? I'm not dismissing the real world impact that social networks are already having (see my earlier post on 'social networks for social change') but they're acting as networks of communication rather than as engines of active collaboration.
At least Project Agape's Causes application for Facebook is adding a network-effect to fundraising by encouraging (and tracking) virality. But it's still about donations, not about enabling people to directly contribute to the activity of their chosen cause. Nothing wrong with that, except the risk that it could eclipse the potential for more active participation (see also my post 'chuggers in cyberspace' ). Surely one of the most exciting potentials of the social web is the way it could enable new forms of collaborative organisation and action - possibilities that are more disruptive and creative than simply using social networks for social marketing.
The difference of social mode I'm talking about is described in Beth Simone Noveck's paper 'A democracy of groups' as the shift from 'virtual communities' to purposeful groups:
"Virtual communities, according to Howard Rheingold, are defined by conversations among people who meet in cyberspace. But a group in the sense that I use the word is unlike two people talking or ten people on a street corner or even unlike ten thousand people on Craig's List. It is not defined or determined by the size of its membership or the level of sociability. It is not defined by the rights it has or does not have ... A group is an agglomeration of people with the affirmative purpose of bringing about change. The group moves beyond the 'illusion of companionship without the demand of friendship' that characterizes virtual community."
How could social networks support change by becoming enterprise and action networks? Maybe we need to look at business models for web-enabled collective action. When Allan Benamer emailed me about his startup 'socialmarkets' he described how they embedded an action model in the site that goes beyond connectivity:
'I'd say the only way you can make Web 2.0 really interesting is using it to harness certain behaviors either on the part of nonprofits or on the part of donors. You have to choose the behavior you want and then break down those behaviors into their constituent parts. That's how Wikipedia works. The granular and atomized tasks that together form an emergent pattern of content contributions that is Wikipedia is pretty much how the Web works. So it's not really connectivity, but the emergent properties of mass activity that need to be looked at.'
I think the same logic can be applied to evolve social networks - iterate functionality that aggregates useful behaviours in to some kind of concrete change.
What would this look like for social networks, and how would it come about? Certainly that 'how' is not going to be in the mainstream functionality of the social network platforms but via their application APIs - the actionability of social networking will emerge via widgets like Pledgebank's Pledges app . My first guess at the 'what' is apps that distribute a major task in a way that can be directly actioned, and then aggregate the results. For example, the MediaVolunteer project described on the Network-Centric Advocacy blog . Each volunteer was assigned two reporters to call, out of which the project aimed to assemble a national media list of media contact details:
"To influence media coverage our groups need a good press list. The communications people for these groups need to be able to jump online and find all the reporters that cover health in Georgia or who covers veteran issues across Pennsylvania. The groups need to be able to work the media as with the same tools as Madison Ave. P.R teams hired by Halliburton. To update and develop lists of tens of thousands of reporters would eat up staff time. However, a few thousand volunteers could update the list in a week with just a few calls each."
collaborate at scale
Imagine the MediaVolunteer example as a Facebook app, using Skype to make the calls directly from the computer. This could have the same virality as the Causes app and give the same kind of visible feedback (e.g. calls made, friends recruited). As Charlie Leadbeater says in 'Social software for social change' :
"The rubric of the social web is: contribute, connect, collaborate, create...Under the right circumstances, people can collaborate and coordinate their activities at scale, without requiring much of the top down hierarchy of large organisations...As a result, large scale collaborations can create quite reliable, robust and complex products ranging from open source computer programmes such as Linux to compendiums of knowledge such as Wikipedia."
Will social networks evolve beyond 'connect' to 'collaborate', or will the disruptive potential of network-centric collective action spring from elsewhere?