social web

Can Social Technology help prevent Genocide?

The distressing footage of violence in Kenya and the reflective horror of the Darfur documentary 'The Devil Came on Horseback' prompted me to revisit Tom Glaisyer's thoughtful paper on Social Computing Technology and Genocide Prevention. I was struck by the fact that an analysis of the genocides in Armenia, Germany, and Rwanda shows there was enough information available at the time to have enabled preventative action. And yet that action wasn't taken. Tom concludes that "simple knowledge of genocidal potential or acts is insufficient to provoke people to act".

While his paper is a careful analysis of the various roles the social web could play, especially in supporting 'the third side' ("the surrounding community, which serves as a container for any escalating conflict"), it's basic thesis is that personal connection is the necessary driver for prompt intervention. Hence the potential for social technologies, and I'll quote the BBC's Bill Thompson again because he says it so well:

"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."

Of course, there were no laptops or wifi networks in the burned out villages in Darfur visited by Brian Steidle, the disillusioned peace monitor profiled in 'The Devil Came on Horseback'. On the other hand, the amazing spread of mobiles in Africa has already led to some human rights uses (for example 'Rural Women To Report Human Rights Violations Against Them Using Mobile Phones'). And it's interesting that the concrete project propose by Tom Glaisyer looks to me a lot like the WITNESS Video Hub. So the humble mobile may become the technology vector for a genocide prevention platform.

But maybe, when looking at the impact of the social web on genocide, the focus on tools is the wrong tack. After all, as Tom also points out, all technologies can be used to promote genocide as much as to prevent it. There is such a thing as User Generated Racism and fascists and racists "get" Web2.0.

The critical point is the influence of culture on whether human rights are defended or abused. In The Wealth of Networks Benkler points out how rights-based liberalism (the basis for most human rights organisations) is made impotent by ignoring the power of culture. Within cultural (and counter-cultural!) values lie the shared motivations for spontaneous action. Since the digital space is a cultural space I'm suggesting that the biggest brake the internet can have on genocide is by propagating an online culture pervaded by a sense of fairness & justice. Whether that happens by writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in to all web 2.0 Terms of Service, or by flooding social networks with raw human rights hiphop , history will judge the role of the social web in our darkest collective moments .

p.s. while writing this post I was intrigued to see how many torrent sites are hosting 'The Devil Came on Horseback' - that's got to be a good sign, no...?

Who Is the Best of the Nonprofit Social Web for 2007?

This month's Net2ThinkTank is asking for 'Best Use of the Social Web by a Nonprofit in 2007'. Like Britt Bravo I'm looking forward to reading some great answers. But the bigger question is how the social web is having a direct impact on the social causes, and I bet a lot of that comes from outside the usual nonprofit circles.

I can quote a couple of cracking human rights examples from Egypt. For starters, the use of Twitter by activists to let people know whether they've been arrested or disappeared. To quote Ethan Zuckerman;

"When I saw Alaa a few weeks ago in Doha, the first thing he did was grab my computer, log into Twitter and, as he put it, "let everyone know I'm still alive." This is a good thing to do when you're an activist who routinely gets detained or arrested. Alaa's Twitter feed includes updates for his compatriots every time he goes to the police or to a demonstration so he can let people know where he is¦ and if they don't hear from him, perhaps they need to reopen the FreeAlaa blog."

This is a genuine social innovation, taking something that's already been invented and turning it to some unexpected and valuable purpose, and is one that i predicted.

Another one is the courageous use of YouTube by award winning blogger Wael Abbas , whose videos captured the torture of victims at the hands of police and led directly to the first ever jailing of an officer for abuse and brutality. The recent suspension of Wael's YouTube account highlights the clash between human rights and web 2.0 Terms of Service.

So i guess my categories for picks of 2007 would include 'best use of mobile to frustrate a despotic regime' and 'best use of a sharing site to shock people out of apathy' :)

In setting their categories for 'Best of the Social web', Britt & the Net2ThinkTank recgonise "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities" and have added Best Use of the Social Web by an "Extra-organizational Activist" (taking the term from an interview with Allison Fine).

Saul AlinskySaul Alinsky

And although MySociety has been around for a while, I'm going to pick one of their 2007 projects called FixMyStreet. More than a reporting tool, it encourages and enables people to take collective action to sort something out. As Daniel Ben-Horin reminded me, this is exactly the starting point for community action recommended by the great Saul Alinsky.

The other category I'll invent as one to watch is 'best web-enabled ngo startup', a concept that I was switched on to by the 2006 Netsquared conference. A flowering of new and unexpected projects is my hope for 2008, because the full potential of the social web won't be unlocked by nonprofit institutions. Netsquared's slogan is 'remixing the web for social change', to which i reckon we should add 'remixing nonprofits for social change'.

As to the question 'Who Is the Best of the Nonprofit Social Web for 2007?', I'll follow the example of the 1st International Open Web Awards and invite nominations via blog comments...

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!


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 .


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.


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.


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.


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".


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.


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.

seedcamps for social innovation (because charities are broken)

I've heard quite a bit about seedcamp and it's high octane approach to incubating web innovation. I wonder if the same model could be applied to social innovation? For sure, we need some new methodologies, because it looks like the old way of organising into charities and NGOs is broken.


At first sight, seedcamp is a purely business proposition, mentoring startups on competitiveness and providing injections of venture capital. What's that got to do with alleviating social problems? But compare and contrast with the characteristics of many charities. In my experience, the amount of innovation that makes it out of the door of an NGO is a tenth of what it could be. And the limiting factor isn't rigerous testing of ideas against reality, but institutional conservatism. Anyone who's worked in the sector knows the score; anxiety-based leadership, a focus on internal politics, inter-departmental struggle and an unquestioning conflation of the charity and the cause.


But charities don't own social issues. And it's lazy behaviour for the rest of society to assume that bunging charities a regular donation is actually good value. We'll see what happens as more sousveillance and web-enabled transparency is applied to the third sector. The web-savvy minority in nonprofits know that it's urgent for their organisations to catch up with the digital age. "If only the CEO would blog more, if only our campaigners understood facebook..." But are these the core issues? Or is the starker question that the inherent nature of charities as institutions makes them anithetical to the participative and post-deferential nature of the social web?


Personally, I'm more excited about the new modes of collaborative innovation opened up by the web, and how these can be powerfully applied to solving social issues . I don't just mean web tools themselves, but the wider social modes and processes opened up, from the virtual organisation to crowdsourcing, and from open IP to self-organising networks. There are already examples of NGO startups; GetUp systematically applied the accidentally viral success of MoveOn to the Australian third sector, and in six months had more members than Amnesty Australia. So if we want to encourage social innovation that leverages these possibilities we need ways to incubate it that are native to this space rather than native to the nineteenth century. Roll on, social innovation seedcamp.

return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?

"What do you think is the return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?" is Britt Bravo 's latest Net2ThinkTank question. It's a hot topic for nonprofits and companies alike because of the time soaked up by tending social networking sites, but I think there's at least three dimensions to social web ROI for nonprofits, namely metrics, the paradigm shift and the new enclosures.


Non-profits aren't focussed on a financial return but they have a duty to use donations effectively. So it's good to see initiatives like frogloops ROI calculator for social network campaigns, which uses the tried & tested perspective of email marketing to calculate value for money. Metrics may be harder for the social web but nonprofits would be unwise not to try it - in part because the social web also leading to greater pressure for transparency.

paradigm shift

Even when the return rates are low, nonprofits should be investing in social web experiments because they herald a paradigm shift in how people will organise to have a social impact. In Participatory Web for Development I described how an era of mass collaborative innovation will lead to new ways of tackling social issues. Either nonprofits take part, or they risk being left on the beach.

the new enclosures

The big feature of the web 2.0 boom is the way that value generated by users is being cashed in by the site owners. As I warned in social networking and social change, one consequence can be nonprofits getting booted out if they get too 'controversial'. Monetisation of the social web is often done in a way that ignores the mass of contributors and threatens it's nature as a kind of common ground. As well as making creative use of this space we'll need to find collective ways to defend it. Mass investment of time, creativity and content implies a return for the common good.


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