Some time ago I wrote on my noticeboard the question “What is new technology good at?” – I thought I should probably have a stab at answering it (rest assured that this doesn’t mean that future posts will be on other topics from the notice board such as how to take clematis cuttings or a reminder to buy flea treatment for the dog).

When I wrote the question I was thinking around what differentiates online democracy and engagement from the offline kind. I am a natural enthusiast for new technologies but am also very way of the ‘silver bullet‘ risk of pinning too much on a single solution.  Part of the confusion and excitement around social media is that fact that we get seduced by its speed, reach and general shinyness before we look at its substance. And because we are all caught on the dazzle we give way to the marketeers who are trying to us it to sell stuff to us – but that’s another post. However I think we can start to identify a couple of areas where social media is moving us beyond the offline world into new areas – moving us beyond just taking offline behaviours online. As an aside – I think that one of the methods you can use to identify the genuinely new is looking at the legal position – if we know how to legislate it well then its probably been around for a while.

So – this post is exploring where I think social media does take us into new areas and I am going to highlight 3 areas:

  • Transparency and the digital footprint
  • Aggregation and the public sphere
  • Identity and the link to accountability

There are also various facets of social media that need to be taken into account – such as speed and reach – but I see these as by-products almost rather than defining features. I almost added globalism to this list – but I think at this point you are straying beyond social media into communications generally and though there is obviously huge crossover one has to draw the line somewhere to avoid the worst of the scope creep…..

Some of these areas show behaviours which were present but not auditable (or audible perhaps) offline – in others these take us somewhere new.

Transparency and the digital footprint
One of the favourite undergraduate philosophy questions is that whole “how do you know if a tree falls in the forest if there is no-one there to hear”. Online you can always hear the tree fall. The fact that this makes your online life auditable changes things – it means that you need to plan for openness and transparency and you need to think more carefully about the consuqences of what this means. We are in a transition with this fact right now but you can see the ‘digitally native’ teens and early 20’s adjusting this (very good Danah Boyd interview on this) as they become more tolerant of mistakes, less private and generally more aware of the consequences of self-publishing than many older people. I would argue that this kind of transparency does make a difference to our behaviour and given the need for trust in a political context I think this is another reason to look to the social web to help us re-engage people – as long as we also align out attitudes to be closer to those digital natives and start to allow public figures to be actual people rather than media soundbites.

Aggregation and the public sphere
I have written in previous posts about the public sphere – the public conversation about issues and ideas that Habermas identified as supporting the democratic process – and so its not news that I see the social web as having the potential to re-knit the public sphere which has been so damaged by broadcast media. But the way in which social media does this is through aggregation – the ability to connect large groups of conversations together and, through semantic analysis and the like, start to draw meta-conclusions about what the whole group is saying. This kind of broadband listening is new – and its something we need to think about how to make the best of as its an amazing opportunity to make our decision making far more responsive without adding a huge overhead of consultation and debate.

Identity and the link to accountability
Identity is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. I am fascinated by the malleability of identity online – but aware that this needs to be able to accommodate the democratic imperative for accountability. However, once we sort out this little blip with a more sophisticated view of online indentity management (I can’t believe we won’t get there) then we will be able to allow people to have the ability to both conceal their identity while remaining accountable. Is this a good thing – I am really not sure – but its definitely new I believe.  Will be posting more about this as this is just a note really – lots more thinking to be done obviously.

So, transparency, aggregation and identity – all vital to democracy and all embedded in the social web. All good reasons to keep wrestling the social web off the marketing folks and put it to work in a more democratic way…..

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