Howard Rheingold was one of the first people who articulated the promise of the social web. With “Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier” he literally wrote the book on online community. Rheingold is an unapologetic enthusiast for the potential of digital community and the network society but he is also thoughtful and balanced in his examination of how we are now using social media. In the same way as ‘Homesteading’ connected with my inital bedazzlement with the potential of virtual community his 2012 book Net Smart connects with my growing sense of the fragility of many of the cultural aspects of the social web which showed so much potential for social change. Net Smart is for me an eloqent discussion of how we all could take responsibilty for making sure that the social web adds to social value. This post is a note for my literature review and I hope an introduction to the concepts he is discussing in the book – but you if you are a regular read here then I suggest you read the book yourself as its both excellent and approachable.

Rheingold’s emphasis is on how to be ‘mindful’ in the way we use social media – ‘net smarts’ is his shorthand for the skills needed to make the best out of these tools. While still positive in tone this book lays out very clearly the fact that the participatory culture which Rhiengold identified in his earlier work is still evolving and that if we wish to ensure that it delivers the social value that many early adopters were energised by we will need to consciously enact these outcomes. He is not unaware that corporate influence and old elites and behaviours are now working actively or passively to reduce the transformative potential of participatory culture and states for example that “The time to control dataveillance through policy means has passed” (p.239). He concludes with this request:

“We are only beginning to see what networked publics can do for good and evil. I have chosen to try and provide resources to increase the amount of good that networked publics can do. I don’t claim that this is sufficient solution to the problem of proliferating literacies and publics. I have been accused of being an optimist, which I am not. I am aware that the deck is always stacked by those who have the most stake if they can manage a way to do it. Nevertheless, I choose to be hopeful. We are all decended rom predecessors who, while their companions might become realistically resigned to the hopelessness of their situation, couldn’t help thinking, “there must be a way out of this”. The future is not guaranteed. There is no influence without knowledge and effort. I’ve tried to provide tools for you to gain that knowledge. Its up to you to make the effort.” (p.253)

Attention
The first chapter talks about attention and the need to relearn the ability to concentrate and control your interaction with an information overloaded environment. Mindfulness, the ability to be ‘in’ the moment of totally focused on what you are doing, is just the first way in which Rhiengold proposes a more visceral analysis of our online experience than is suggested by an information consumption model. As I sit here with 3 devices and 2 open books I am trying to relearn mindfulness.

Crap detection
The next section deals with information management and provides an analysis of the skills which many experienced social media users develop instinctively (though these can always be challenged as was seen by Greenpeace’s brilliant anti-Shell Campaign Arctic Ready). Descriptions of source triagulation for news stories (p.80) demonstrate the active curation skills you need to make use of a tool like twitter and his later analysis of the search engine business points out the balancing of public good with commercial or politcal interest (p.85). He also touches on the social nature of authority and gatekeeping which many yet challenge the preeminance of the search engine as a way of finding news. Rheingold wants to see us developing skills of crap detection and infotention – managing multiple and parallel dynamic information flows – as an underpinning to the act of mindful participation.

Participation
Chapter 3 discusses participation because “In the world of networked publics, online participation – if you know how to do it – can translate into real power” (P.112). The critical element that Rheingold emphasises is the need to have participants who read, comment and share the content that is created. On the one hand this states the obvious on the other it points out one of the obvious shortcomings that most people have in terms of generosity and reciprocity of participation. He uses the term participatory culture as described by Henry Jenkins as compromising of:

1. relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others
3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think of what they have created) (P.113)

Rheingold expands on this by connecting it with his work on online community and mindfulness; “you exercise mindfulness when you ask yourself whether you are enriching someone or stealing part of their attention when you share a video of a revolution or a cute kitten” (P.126). This chapter discusses the role of the curator and describes it thus: “The curator role used to be reserved for the people who ran museums, but the term has been revived and expanded to describe the way populations of web participatns acn act as information finders and evaluators for each other, cresting through their choices collections of links that others can use” (P.127). He goes on to describe curation as “a form of participation that is open to anyone who might not want to blog, tweet, or update a Facebook profile but instead are happy to bookmark, tag, or like other people’s digital creations” (P.127). Where the old model of limited means of production put huge emphasis on the content creators the new model of unlimited content production creates new roles and prominance for the content curators as well as the creators.

There is also a whole section on my personal favourite curation tool – tagging – “Tagging isn’t just a way to participate. It’s the fundamental building block of a whole new way of aggregatng and organzing knowledge” (P.133). He emphasising the power shift inherent in participant organised content when compared by content organised into the ontologies of often narrowly focused elites.

There is also a apposite quote from Danah Boyd on the issue of personal curation of identity; “My way of coping with persistence is to create a living presence, frame my own story in an ongoing way, and creating a digital self that is constantly evolving not to escape but to mature” (P.138)

Collaboration
The latter chapters discuss collaboration and the potential for action that is within the participatory culture described. He focuses on examples of online collaboration such as Beth Novecks design for the crowdsourcing of patent processing and if I were to critcise the book it is in not making the next step to connect online behaviors to offline outcomes.

That being said, the intellectual architecture for this is explored in the form of a discussion of social dilemnas – where the needs of the individual are in conflict with the needs of the many – can be resolved through collaboration. Rheingold references Elinor Ostrom’s work which examines how “institutues of collective action” come together to overcome the ‘tradgey of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968). Ostrom was one of the architects of the concept of co-production in community development and so this is an important link between the two literatures.

Rheingold describes collaboration as being the most purposeful form of collective action (p.154) but also describes how networking, coordination and co-operation all support and ‘lubricate’ the process of collaboration. From this he goes on to discuss Jane McGonigal’s work on gaming and her belief that gamers are becoming ‘supercollaborators’. This is the point of connection between Ostroms work on co-production and the idea that ‘gamification’ of collective action can start to provide pro-social action. Collective intelligence, as introduced by Levy in 1999, indicates the potential of networks to consciously solve problems which will defeat individuals or hierarchies and in a more deliberate way than the ‘wisdom of crowds’ model which is largely undirected.

There is a huge amount of wisdom in this book for anyone interested in the practical skills needed to be effective on the social web. For example the section (P.213-215) outlining Rainie and Wellman’s description of the characteristics of the successful participatory actor includes this;

Those who can function effectively in different contexts and ‘collapsed contexts’: The act of joining and belonging to multiple groups requires a development group understanding or knowledge as each has different histories, norms and folklore. People must learn the ropes in these different milieus. The more gracefully thet can do this, the quicker they can assume greater roles within multiple communities and networks”

Rheingold later talks about the emotional connection between actors as being the differntiator and refers back to his 1998 essay on “The art of Hosting Good Conversations online” which is still spot on with respect to techniques for community building. “Knowing the difference between a community and a nework is as critical socially as crap detecion is essenital informationally” (p.163). He explores a social capital analysis of online community and makes connections with social network analysis and the emphasis on weak ties / bridging capital (p.215) which is a useful link for community managers and starts to make the connection to offline behaviours. This section also returns us to the need for reciprocity in this environment and provides the practical advice to anyone looking to increase their influence to “be a bridge” (p.222).

Anyone interested in learning platforms or knowledge mabagement should read the section on Personal Learning Networks (P.225) which describes self-directed learning in an online context. He also discusses learning and the skills we should be teaching children in the context of “net smart’. The whole section made me ask how we can teach being net smart to politicans – something to ponder on I think.

Conclusion
This book codifies many of the instinctive conclusions of the experienced social web participant. It describes the need for ongoing curation and information management and the way in which your sense of self is actively created. Rheingold describes the new roles developing for curation and the essential act of appreciation and sharing within the participatory environment – he moves the discussion past the content creators to look at the whole ecosystem. He also highlights the fact that ‘social good’ or democratic outcomes are not inherent in a participatory culture – it is exactly what we make of it.

It’s both exhausting and exilerating to contemplate the world of persistant participation that Rheingold describes and this is perhaps why he emphasises the need for mindfulness and also the need for human connections throughout the book. Where Sherry Turkles later work, Alone Together, seems to talk of being overwhelmed by technology Rheingold is trying to describe the tools we need to ensure we retain a directed experience of the social web. Tremendous energy is needed to exert that directional control but there there are huge potential social benefits from doing so. This is perhaps the final thought I took away from reading this book – if we are to get the best out of networked technologies in terms of social impacts that we cannot think that to do so is the easy option. We have perhaps been seduced by the ease of production into thinking that outcomes are as easy to create – as with any other medium making a difference is hard and we have to decide whether we choose to make the effort.

Rheingold provides the answer to why we should bother to do so:

“Pay attention to opportunities you might have to improve the public sphere. It’s not up to anyone else. Apply crap detection when you encounter political assertions, including those you agree with, especially online. Learn to participate in political discussions online and strive to raise the level of debate in the social media public sphere. Contest positions, don’t attack people; cite evidence and be willing to change your mind. Collaborate with others to advocate, persuade, and organize; join informed collective action. If you aren’t an actor in a democracy then you are acted on. Know how networks of power and counterpower work, and seek to understand your place in them. The public sphere is a theory about what is, at its base, a simple question: Am I going to act as if citizens acting in concert can wield any power to influence policy? Or am I going to leave my liberty to others?” (P.242)

Speaking personally – I do not intend to leave my liberty to others – but I think that before we can envisage this kind of participatory networked public sphere we perhaps need to make sure that the old elites that are currently in power are listening.

Net smart is a brilliant exploration of the social web – but it highlights the vulnerabilities of the participatory culture as it grows and develops. Perhaps the final point to take away is that that those of us who value the culture of the social web as it is now need to ensure that new participants learn this net smart skills in order to avoid overwhelming the environment with entrenched offline behaviours.

So – yesterday’s post on civic architecture was I have to confess a little text heavy – below is the diagram which I think encapsulates the different areas of the digital ecosystem which we need to consider the need to create civic architecture online:

Civic architecture diagram

The Machine layer refers to protocols and TCPIP or the convention of things like HTTP. The infrastructure layer refers to choices of operating system or web server (for example the choice of open source Apache vs a proprietary web server). The Application layer refers to things the specific service such as Facebook or Twitter and the Content layer is as it says – the content – and includes the semantic information needed to make this portable and accessible.

. Running through all of these layers are on the one side the rule of law and the organisations managing this and on the other the influences of culture and identity which effect choices in each of these layers.

I am proposing a civic communicative layer which fulfils a number of needs:

  • To ensure information and cultural exchange between applications and operating systems which are currently controlled by market forces often in proprietary systems
  • To ensure that the conditions of a healthy public sphere are met in terms of ensuring free exchange of information and views rather than a reliance on market managed media sources
  • To ensure balance between social and financial outcomes

There are alternatives which might also deliver civically vibrant online space; for example the new economy might create collaborative and open norms or improved take-up of open source technologies by content creators might swing the balance in favour of a more civic digital ecosystem. However, while waiting for these outcomes to happen and while matters of identity and culture develop I am proposing we ensure the robust existence of a civic communicative layer.

Happy New year! I have been off in a Christmas and PHD (and drink) filled bubble for the last few weeks but as I am back in the office on the 9th I need to catch up on some blogging – which is a welcome change from the tedious but necessary process of brutally editing the thesis. First up is a belated action research post about We Live Here – so Here we go….

Status update
We are still in the process of mapping the communities that we are working with and moving on from the first iteration of network analysis which documented the networks and names known by the immediate project team and engagement officers as well as the first online search. We are now starting to conduct interviews within the communities we want to work with as well as doing walk arounds in order to locate civic space and generally observe what is happening in the areas. These walkabouts should be a good way of finding relevant local businesses and also understanding how ‘public’ the community is with respect to shared space – more on that when I have got my coat on and had a trot about….

The interviews will involve the following steps:
1) Introductions based on the research statement from the last post
2) Semi-structured interview broadly along the same script we used for the first iteration
3) Social network analysis – checking the connections from the first group and then expanding this with new names

Broadly what we expect to happen is that the star burst pattern shown below will become something more like a tangled ball of wool (or not – it could be that no-one is speaking to anyone else who knows!!).

B&R First iteration network map

From our knowledge of the three pilot sites we are speculating that we will have one fairly tight network with outliers and one site with much more diffuse participation. The third pilot site is a community of interest rather than place and the project teams don’t have enough contacts to make the same mapping approach to be viable so the first step with this group will be for me to sit down and do an exploratory interview with a couple of the names who we know are central to the network. We’ll do some online research first so we don’t turn up completely clueless.

I have to say I am looking forward to this next step as it makes it inevitable that we need to step above the parapet and make the project more visible in the City. I have written before about our hesitancy about this and one of the things I want to do is to get comments from the project team as to why they think it is. Its been going on a while now and I want to try and understand if there is an underlying issue that I am not understanding.

Community directories – very much an alpha
In parallel with the mapping work we are starting to develop our thinking as to what the first version of the community sites could look like. We intend these to be a straightforward directory in the first instance which just shows the research results from the area (with all the data protection thinking that this involves) and they will be based on our Citizenscape platform (the nearest example is currently here bit we have got some development work planned in January so expect this to change).

We are in the co-production dilemma here – we don’t want to be prescriptive and close down ideas from the community but we do have a view on them and we also know that if we turn up with a blank piece of paper (or digital equivalent) then we will struggle to get anything ready in a reasonable timescale.

Our approach is therefore going to be to put our suggestion on the table and then get comments and amend accordingly. As we roll this out the next set of sites will be based on the comments of the community that we have worked with in the previous iteration and so over time we should mitigate our influence and get a better balance of ideas in place. I am in two minds about this – in some ways I am with Steve Jobs who used to say that customer often doesn’t know what they want until they see it. On the other hand underlying design assumptions and attitudes infect code and therefore digital spaces (lex informatica) and we need to be careful that these spaces really are owned by the public.

CO-production
I think one of the issues that this internal discussion has highlighted is one of the inherent misunderstanding that people have about co-production. Put simply – it doesn’t mean you can’t, as the instigator of a conversation, have an opinion. The idea that we go values and opinion free to any interaction is one of the misconceptions which has got politicians into such a pickle and destroyed so much trust in the process. OF COURSE WE HAVE AN AGENDA!!! No-one believes we are just turning up for the sake of it – we want something to happen.

More seriously – this is actually more than just a misunderstanding. Firstly – I think that community engagement practitioners are rightly oriented towards getting people’s voice heard not speaking for them. Taking part in the conversation rather than facilitating I think firstly exposes practitioners as overt actors in their own right and this is not necessarily a comfortable place to be.

Secondly it risks reducing the power available to the community – there is only so much conversation time. This is not a new issue – its something that practitioners in the developing world are very familiar with and this where a lot of co-production theory and practice comes from (Gavanta, Cornwall).

The fact that we have an agenda doesn’t mean that the outcome we initially set out is what is going to happen however – we are very committed to the need for communities to shape their own spaces and we are very aware that anything that we create or impose of them will not work (Ref: eParticipation – if we build they really won’t come). This is really where co-production ‘lives’ – where you come with an objective and an suggestion and then enable the participants to take that where they want to go. Further into the project the balance in this should be redressed with conversations being instigated as often by the community as by the project team but this is currently aspirational.

For this to work we need to be very open and transparent with our agenda – which we are calling our Statement of intent. We also need to be very open and accepting of change to this intent both from the results of the actual practical process and also with as we start to get more input from people outside the core team. Our first step towards this happened before Christmas with a meeting of our “Non-Steering Steering Group” who are a varied group of active individuals, practitioners and subject experts from around the City. The most reassuring aspect of the meeting was the fact that everyone was clear about what we are trying to do and broadly in agreement. In terms of adjusting our thinking – the discussion showed a much wider opportunity for using the civic spaces we hope to create for engagement with other governmental organisations (in the first instance the Police and NHS) and we were also steered towards thinking more creatively about how we interact with the business community something which needs to be developed a bit more.

Statement of Intent
This is my first draft of this for discussion with the team – the idea of this is a simple statement of our values and objectives:

  • We Live Here has been created to try and strengthen the democratic process within Brighton and Hove. We want to get more people involved in a way which is meaningful to them and we want to ensure that the elected representatives are going to work effectively with this increased participation.
  • We believe that the first step to doing this is to connect the different networks which are situated within communities together so that they can create an more effective voice for their community. To start this process we are researching what networks already exist within the communities in the City
  • We think that these networks, when connected, create a civic space which should mean that civic society is more visible in our communities. We believe that the governance of the civic space should be in the hands of the participants and not with the Council either with respect to officers or Members.
  • This statement is our initial objective – we believe for this project to work we need to allow communities to shape the objectives for themselves and that we need to create a transparent and accessible process for this to happen.

We’ll be tweaking this a bit / a lot and will publish our first proper draft on the website.

Curation
This question of governance of the Civic Space is something that is currently in ‘the ring of uncertainty’ which is project team speak for something that we hope will be easier to answer the longer we wait. We are clear that these spaces need to be curated and not moderated and we are also clear that this needs to be managed by the communities that they represent (with a small R). However – at this point a deep unease and worry sets in – what does this actually mean? Who are we empowering, how can we stop this going wrong? Should we stop it going wrong or even have an opinion about what wrong means?

At this point we all step back and take a deep breath – this is not as complicated as the worst case scenario analysis would make it look.

My background is with online rather than offline community and I am perhaps on the more robust end of the spectrum on this. I think we need to leave it to communities to figure it out and if their civic spaces become unpleasant places to be then we need to make sure that we have a robust path of appeal and peer group review. Actually – most communities (and in particular online) tend towards the reasonable and self-manage brilliantly but that doesn’t stop the free floating anxiety around the idea that we are going to put people in a bag and suggest they fight it out like ferrets.

What can we do for you
One of the elements we come back to repeatedly is how we reciprocate for effort within the community. We don’t just want to turn up with a list of demands and get people to do stuff – the idea is both that we are helping them to achieve ideas that they already have but also that we are using the energy and interests of the community to fuel the civic spaces. We will of course be funding community meetings and buying tea and buns when necessary but more meaningfully we hope to be able to make connections to other resources in the Council that might not be transparent or accessible to people outside of that environment – we are calling these positive byproducts. One of the aims of the mapping exercise is to start to highlight some of the reciprocal benefits that we can bring to these communities but this highlights a big elephant in the room. Should any of this reciprocity be in the form of funding?

There are some brilliant projects that have been funded by Councils in the past but they won’t all be funded in the future. This is an uncomfortable sentence to write but the reality is that the funding is not there and the current economic and political climate is not going to change within a short enough timescale to save many of them. We risk losing an amazing infrastructure at the same time as we rid ourselves of some dead wood.

The We Live Here project is a response to what we perceive as a new context. This context is not just financial – I think that the social changes that mean that we have more people voting for Big Brother than the General Election (Coleman) are more significant even if they are not as immediate. However it is the financial landscape which is driving immediate change and this is what is at the front of people’s minds. Its a question we should come back to in 5 years time – are we going to see greater levels of innovation and as a result better social outcomes within this new context as a result of the austerity measures or are they going to stifle our ability to act so that innovation becomes destructive and we are forced to change so as to be unrecognisable? Hmmmm……

With respect to the funding / We Live Here issue we have a practical problem as to how we manage the transition and ensure that we help organisations and we also have a philosophical question with respect to what actually should be funded in this new context.

This forces us to consider what we believe the benefits of the project will be – beyond the slightly intangible ambition to strengthen the democratic process which is difficult if not impossible to translate to the balance sheet.

Our working assumption is that more networked and visible communities that are actively self-managing will hold more social capital and as a result be more resilient. Resilience is something that we can put a value to.

This is something we need to establish over the course of the project. In the meantime I expect we will do some tricky financial horsetrading with the organisations that want to work with is – all the time hoping that we are not setting any precedenets that we can’t live with.

I’ve been mentally hibernating for the last couple of weeks after some rather robust feedback from my supervisor on the latest draft of my thesis which means that I have some large rewrites to do – this post is an action research note reflecting on some of these rewrites. As I have been thinking about the implications of this work, as often happens, a couple of the things I have been doing this week have come together to help me answer the question. The first of these was taking part on “a curated conversation” organised by Fred Garnett and held at BIS – talking about social innovation and the network society. The second was a research workshop with a group of Inspectors and others at Susssex Police which was intended to help shape the next phase of the virtual policing work which I will write up properly next week (I hope).

With both of these my interest was focused on how you manage the points of tension and connection between new networked and agile behvaiours and traditional hierarchial and more process driven organisations. Within the thesis I have been perhaps too focused on showing that there is no real point of connection between new digital civic spaces and the representative democratic function. My belief in this lack of connection has made me rather didactic on the subject and has stopped me looking at where there is the potential for the blurring and shifting of these boundaries and has also meant that I have not really engaged with the wider debate about some of these issues (am fairly sure my supervisor thinks I write like a rampant egomanic). So humble pie digested and redraft underway but I wanted to capture some of these connections and tensions here as a response to the weeks activity – and yes it is still a bit of a polemic but I promise its cleaned up before it goes in the thesis…..

I have an underlying belief, and often unstated, belief that there is need to look at how we transition large organisations within the public sector towards a more networked state and that this transition does need happen in the form of positive distuption within these organisations as much as in the form of of external pressure to change. This involve compromise and an evolution towards a goal rather than a ‘big bang’ solution.

One of the reasons why I argue for greater use of both Agile and Experimental methods (as discussed by Gerry Stoker) to explore new policies and process as well as to build technology is that these allow us to describe our destination without having to also define the whole journey plan. The Virtual Policing work is a good example of this – we know that we want to see social media embedded in a useful operational role within neighbourhood policing teams but we are open with respect to exactly what ‘useful’ means in this context and it is one of the objectives of the next phase of the project to try and describe this usefulness with respect to the current processes within the teams. These will almost certainly need to evolve these processes to accomodate the effects of wider engagement using the social web but its clearly impossible to consider greater operational use of social media in operational policing without referencing the processes and outcomes that form the core of neighbourhood policing today. We will use disruptive change where necessary but experiment based policy making is also a valid way of moving forward.

The work with the Police, but also the curated conversation at BIS, is partly about trying to address the difficulty of reconciling the idea of hierarchy with the network society. Networks don’t have hierarchies (though they do have power) and the behaviors that are rewarded are different from the behaviours which we currently associate with authority. Leaders in hierarchial organisations are going to hang on to those sources of power and if we want to make systemic change then we perhaps need to start exploring with senior staff how they become more networked themselves in order to help them encourage that behaviour in their own organisations.

Emphasising the role of mavericks and disruptors is useful but only if they can set up a creative rather than distructive tension with the current power structures – because lets face it as this point no government organisations is in a state which means it will be overwhelmed by a networked change – the State is still too rooted in hierarchy and we are not yet in a place of such disatisfaction as a society that we have the will to overwhelm it. However I am consistently and increasingly coming across individuals within the Public Sector who are discovering the power that is latent within their networks and deciding to exploit this rather than relying on the usual decision making process – but we don’t yet know how to make this systemic as opposed to exceptional behaviour.

Part of this discussion is practical – we just don’t understand how we can deliberately create large projects in a networked way – how we both create a singular vision and also deliver this vision in a networked when we know that this vision has been created outside of the network. This links very much to the thoughts on networked leadership and the need for a persistent conversatation around vision that I posted here.

I am a pragmatist and looking at changing the process by which we manage these projects – with adopting agile or experimental approaches – is one way in which we can start to address this need to create and manage more networked projects and learn about creating projects which can flourish within a network without losing their coherence.

We also need to appreciate that there is the difference between the social web and the network society and start to discuss behaviours and not technologies. I am all for trying out Yammer but lets start to examine the friction it creates with traditional structures within a large organisation and start to learn from this.

Much of the difficulty of creating a public service that is fit for purpose in the network society is actually deep rooted in some of the underlying design assumptions that live within public service. Perhaps the most important one of these to address is, in my view, the need to create a default position of ‘open’ within all organisations at the same time as creating an appetitie for evidence based decision making that demands a higher standard of information and scrutiny than is currently the case. How many of us have worked on pilots which become policy just because we need to bank a ‘success’ rather than learn from evidence?

Greater openness and ‘publicness’ is a natural state for the network society which is as Castell’s describes it a ‘space of flows’ where information is the currency that creates and binds networks. Boyd’s depiction of ‘networked publics’ describes an arena of open public discourse. We can expect nothing less I believe from our public services in a networked world than a default state of openness.

However, there is one other area where the need to consider openness and publicity and one other important design assumption for public service. We design our public services to be open and accountable to the democratic process – whether we achieve this is entirely another story but this is the aspiration. This is a different kind of openness.

With respect to the architecture and infrastructure on which the network society is manifest we are currently building our online world on a largely unregulated and propriatory infrastructure – if code is law as Lessig suggests then our current law makers are the mamagement of companies such as Facebook and Google.

If the social web is the manifestation and delivery mechanism for the network society then the fact we are building it on closed systems at the mercy of what is surely a flawed financial system is a disgrace which will continue to stunt the potential of a systemic change away from a failing post-industrial environment.

There is a conflict here with the nature of public service which deserves to be highlighted and discussed and not just swept away with our understandable frustration with the public sectors glacial movement with respect to technological change – this is about principle not just code.

There are good as well as bad reasons as to why there is institutional resistence to using something like Facebook even if this is not well or even accurately articulated and if we are trying to help the State wrestle with this then we have to acknowledge and not rubbish the valid concern.

Social change doesn’t happens instantly – we really do need to address tranisiton as well as dreaming about the future.

This weekend you’ll be pleased to know I have been reading the recently released update of the OXIS survey (which you can get hold of here – but large thanks to Tim Davies for posting me a copy!).  I have also been updating my Facts Glorious Facts page if you like that kind of thing so this post is really just a few highlights and observations from the report.

For those of you who haven’t come across it the Oxford Internet Survey is the UK answer to the Pew report and consists of a questionnaire sent to a weighted sample of 2057 people on the UK (response rate is just less that 50% which isn’t bad).  Its not huge but its an excellent summary of where we are as a country with respect to internet usage and as this is now the 5th year (its been running avery other year since 2003) it is now a good source of longitudinal data about internet habits.

The headline number of people that are online according to OXIS is around 73% of the population with household and individual access being almost the same.  Reasons for not going online are interesting however:

And reasons to stop using the internet are also revealing:

Next Generation – how star trek

One of the main findings of the report is the emergence of what the authors (William Dutton and Grant Blank) call next generation internet users.  They define these as

someone who accesses the internet from multiple locations and devices.  Specifically, we operationally define the next generation user as someone who uses at least two internet applications (out of four applications queried) on their mobile or who fits two or more of the following criteria:  they own a tablet, own a reader, own three or more computers.  By this definition 44.4% of internet users in Britain were next generation users

The interesting thing is that these are not just “The Young People” (have started capitalising this since turning 40) – there is a stronger correlation with income and employment – though students are a large part of this new group.  Given the fact that reasons for not using the internet are closely linked to the costs as well as the access to technology that is driving this next generation use then I for one will be watching very carefully to see whether or not increased market penetration of smart phones and cheaper tablets starts to change this picture.

Yet more content….

According to the report content creation online is a generally increasing activity with around 25% of internet users creating something (higher that the OFCOM estimates).  The graph below shows these increases:

But the next generation users are more likely to be doing this:

Overall the use of social networking sites has moved from a minority position in 2009 to a majority activity (60%) in 2011.  Importantly schooling is not important to the use of these sites – but as we saw earlier income is.

Government – meh

Overall the levels of participation with government and democracy indicated by the report are small – and though the next generation of users are more active this is as likely to correlate with the fact that they tend towards a higher income than specifically being linked to their next generation use – if indeed you can separate this at all.

Political efficacy is shown to be positively associated with internet use but there has been no significant increase in online political participation evidenced by the research desipte the 2010 election having been held since the last survey in 2009.

Civic participation is also not huge (NB they use a difference definition of civic to the one I use and are talking about participation in non-political associations rather than the wider desire to connect to your community with or without formal organisations).

Given the levels of disatisfaction with the political process and the results from for example the Hansard Audit these findings should not suprise us – though they should be of some concern.  It would be interesting to see what the results would be if the questions explored membership of online campaigning movements such as Avaaz or other online campaigns such as ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight” – are we really these low levels of participation or are we seeing them specifically with respect to the formal political process?

Internet use is settling down to be very very important

The report is detailed and I recommend having a read.  The entry point of the nature of your access as a way of codifying your relationship with the internet is a useful one and the next generation internet category is a good way of exploring the differences in internet use that we see.  I would like to see more exploration of which came first – the behaviours or the devices but we probably have to accept that they drive each other.

The nature of the digital divide is clearly changing and with respect to my work I think we need to be even more conscious than ever that the people we see creating content and demonstrating their political efficacy are a fairly specific group.

The good news is that if you can give people access then indications are that there are few barriers to them participating – but the question is whether or not enough people will get smart phones for Christmas in order to start changing this picture.

Overall the picture from the research is of internet use becoming more and more embedded – there is a lot of detail on this but I was struck particularly by this graph showing the effect on other media:

I am reading the brilliant “Amusing ourselves to death” at the moment and I must say that we have to ask whether or not the passive entertainment that the television has provided us is going to be a bit of a blip with respect to how we chose to spend our leisure time – ask me again in 2050.

Within this section there is some important stuff about levels of trust in different media and organizations (sorry government – last again here with trust levels being between 2.5-2.3 out of 5).

And one of the other interesting details was the fact that the desire to regulate the internet has reduced since 2009:

And that has to be good news as far as I concerned and probably a good place to close…

Addendum 24th October

This is a more in the way of a note to self hence the late addition.  Throughout this report the authors have spoken about respondents ‘using social networking sites’ – but the fact is that according to the OFCOM data this really means using Facebook for the vast majority of people.  It may not be the case for the content creators who make wider use of social media services (we have found it around 50:50 with the social media audits) but we need to be careful I think about whether or not we are seeing one successful service – Facebook – as opposed to a general trend.  My personal view is that we are seeing a general trend and that the next generation users are embedding the social web in their lives in lots of different ways but the overall growth may be less that these stats show as Facebook take up is masking other kinds of behaviours.

Mmmm….not sure….one to think about…

How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

This is brief write up of the Robin Dunbar book “How many friends does one person need?”.  I read the book as a balance to the way in which its very easy to start thinking of networks mathematically and systemically even though its incredibly important to remember the fact that social networks are made up of people and as a result will behave in messy, emotional and human ways.  Its also an important contrast for me with the enormous rationalist thinking of the age of enlightenment approach of Habermas’ Public Sphere for example.

Its very easy to ignore the ‘social’ bit of ‘social networks’ – when you are working online there is a pull towards a technological / engineering mindset which is difficult to resist as you build your environment.  Online space is created both by code and by the narratives and content that use that code – but the fact is that the code comes first and that often results in an environment that ultimately wants to resolve to a whole series of zeros and ones.  One of the exciting things for me in terms of technology development over the last few years is the way in which User Experience and user centred design has grown as a field – acknowledging the fact that we don’t all need to earn our ‘right’ to be online by hand coding at the command line.

Dunbar’s work looks at how groups work, not as networks or learning sets but as biological and social imperatives.  His research discusses the evidence base that shows our social behaviour is innate and our forming of a groups a necessary part of our humanity.  He is a longstanding science journalist as well as a researcher and he is best know for coining the term the ‘Dunbar number’ which he defines as:

“….as the set of people who, if you saw them in the transit lounge during a 3 a.m. stopover at Hong Kong airport, you wouldn’t feel embarrassed about going up to them and saying: `Hi! How are you? Haven’t seen you in ages!’ In fact, they would probably be a bit miffed if you didn’t. You wouldn’t need to introduce yourself because they would know where you stood in their social world, and you would know where they stood in yours. And, if push really came to shove, they would be more likely than not to agree to lend you a fiver if you asked.”

He’s describing the number of people you can trust and have an emotional affinity to – and the number got considerable press as at the time it was very close to the average number of ‘friends’ each person had on Facebook.

I just want to pause at this point and be clear that we are really talking about two different definitions of ‘friend’ here.  Dunbar is using the term to refer to people who we have an emotional attachment to which meets certain criteria.  In the context of Facebook ‘friend’ is used far more loosely – would you lend £5 to everyone who you are friends with on Facebook?

Dunbar talks about the ‘Dunbar number’ as being an evolutionary limit – basically our brains can’t handle more connections than this.  There are also similarities with clan group sizes in tribal cultures – groups of this size as being discernible within overall clan sizes of between 500 and 1500 people.

This is not to say that he thinking all social grouping larger than that are doomed – but at that point we need different social structures in order to provide the sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity that communities need in order to function – it can’t just be done on the basis of that emotional bond.

Dunbar also describes patterns in these larger social grouping which work on broadly a factor of three.  This builds up from what social psychologists call a ‘sympathy group’ of 12-15 people whose death would leave you distraught , to groupings of 50 which are found in aboriginal society, through to a group size of 1500.  Interestingly Plato went one further than that when he suggested 5300 as the ideal size for a democracy.

He also talks about the need for physical contact – the chimps grooming each of other – and the fact that language provides another kind of social grooming with gossip having a role in providing the glue that keeps communities together – passing information about each other indicates you are part of the same group.

One of his overarching points is the fact that our brains evolve a lot more slowly than the pace of technological and social development – the aphorism of ‘stone age brains in a space age universe’ – and that we need to remember this when we consider our reactions to change around us and take into account the fact that our first reaction may be an emotional rather than a rational one.

This is a challenge to the thinking of sociologists like Habermas who approach the question of society and democracy with an age of enlightenment rationality which often fails to take into account that human reactions are often irrational and based on our feelings of belonging rather than an idealised view of how we want the world to me.  Successful orators tap into this emotional response and any effective communicator is appealing to you emotionally as well as rationally.  What’s more Dunbar explains that judgements about morality and practical utilitarian decisions are not located in the same part of the brain and are not necessarily called on at the same time – Hume was right when he talked about the idea that morality is born of our emotional response and not our rationality – we are not always thinking when we act.

So what is it that forms that social glue that turns friendship groups of 150 into communities of 5000?  Dunbar talks about gossip and conversational grooming.  He also points out the role of religion in creating this common framework.   Laughter and music also generate the endorphins that we need to ‘bond’ with other people.  What is clear is that he is suggesting shared activities and opportunities to connect to people beyond your immediate circle of friends.

Relating this back to civic space and hyperlocal communities – it would be interesting to look at the numbers of participants to see how they relate to Dunbar’s groupings and it would also be interesting to look at how these numbers relate to the types of tools and interactions that work well with different numbers in the groups.  There is also little work as yet as to whether or not the Dunbar number and the tribal based group behaviour patterns translate in any way to online interactions.

Dunbar (and evolutionary biologists) provides a useful balance to the far more rational approach taken by many of the authors looking at the network society and provide an important reminder that the our emotional needs are as important – or more important – than our intellectual needs.  As we contemplate our to re-connect people to their local communities – either online or offline – its important that we remember this perspective and design for hearts as well as heads.

I’m not going to try and comment on what has been happening in London and beyond over the last few nights – I don’t feel qualified apart from to express the outrage and sympathy that so many people thankfully share – I do want to add my view though as I think the wider the debate about the causes and solutions the better.  The first step to a good solution is a good analysis of the problem – and the idea that social media is part of the problem that seems to be the implication from the debate in the Commons yesterday is very flawed – I want to explore that here.

There is no single answer to a situation like this and one of the things that strikes me about the news coverage is the way in which commentators are grasping at ideas in order to try and create some kind of understandable narrative – each expert being convinced that its their field that has the answer but not being able to fit their story neatly on the situation.  I think what is being revealed is a narrative of two completely distinct cultures within the same society.  The point is the fundamental lack of understanding between the two groups – and if you listen to the youth and community  workers who are being interviewed this is the most important point they are trying to get across – we can’t possibly solve anything without a more real understanding of the other group’s position.

If we are going to use the frankly insulting metaphor of a sick society then lets at least use it properly.  These riots have been a symptom and not a cause and medicine moved on from just treating symptoms a 100 years ago – you would hope that politics could reflect a similar modernity.  People need to be punished, symptoms need to be treated, but we also need to change the context and remove the causes.

You always view these events through the lens of your own preoccupations and experience and so hopefully its not surprising that I am looking at this with respect to the networks and the network behaviours that it reflects.  This analysis is one contribution as to how we address the issues that the last few days have revealed.  That’s right – revealed and not created – these issues were there already but have been made unavoidable with the speed and violence with which they erupted.

I think what is needed at this point is not for all of use to speak from our individual perspectives but that different experts and people with real knowledge of real communities can come together and create some solutions that don’t just work well when we say them in the media but work well on the messy, difficult human ground within communities.

Network one of two:  Technology

Its been much quoted in the media that the rioters and looters have been using the Blackberry instant message network – BBM – to communicate and organise.  This is significant because the BBM is a technologically closed space.  The security on the network is excellent and has been built with an assumption of security and privacy which is a marked contrast social media tools like twitter which have a diametrically opposite set of design assumptions.  It was built with enterprise business use in mind – bankers with secrets – and so its designed to keep messages within the audience you send them to.  This has been of major concern to governments in the middle east and you may recall the reports about Saudi Arabia and India wanting some assurances that they could extract messages and intercept messages before Blackberry’s owner RIM got permission to trade there.

Blackberrys have been the dominant handset in the 16-24 demographic for a while now with 96% of 16-24 year olds having a mobile, half of them having a smartphone and 37% of those smartphones users having a Blackberry (Source:  Ofcom 2011 Marketing report).  Overall take up of mobiles is similar in the 25-34 and 35-54 groups but with a lower percentage of smartphones.

There are a number of reasons for this and the main one is probably the fact that the Blackberry was one of the first smartphones to offer a pay as you go option – but its difficult to imagine that  RIM expected this to be the outcome – its an odd brand situation to say the least with the devices being used at the top and the bottom of the market (in terms of spend).  The thing to note however is that its unlikely that, given phone replacement cycles, this will change over the next few years without intervention.  And the implication of those same phone replacement cycles will be that parents and grandparents will then get these handsets handed on.

The fact that these message exchanges are free at point of use means that they are obviously going to be a channel of choice for a young and low income group.  We know this is also a demographic that is less likely to have access to the internet in other ways and so we have to accept that this closed communication circuit may be in place for some time.

Network two of two:  Social

Why does this matter?  Apart from the obvious implications of an anti-social crowd being able to mobilise quickly and secretly which is probably enough of a concern to anyone trying to police increasingly agile crowds of course….lets not forget there is a practical problem here as well and acknowledge this difficulty.

All of the work by practitioners around the use of social media for community engagement- and much of the optimism that many of us feel – is really predicated on the open and collaborative culture of the social web.  Where we talk about the use of mobiles it around the use of mobiles for internet access and SMS.  We know that young people engage with Facebook and other tools from their phones and we see this as a route to engage with them in turn.

The use of BBM explodes this paradigm – the culture is not the same and the network is closed and not open – the optimism that many of us feel with respect to the possibilities of the social web to engage people in constructive and deliberative debate is less founded with this technology.

The strength of weak ties

Cultures will always form sub-cultures and groups need and should have some degree of privacy.  I think the issue here is more that there is no connection with the BBM using younger demographic and a great portion of society.  We really have no idea of how this sub-culture functions online and we have few points of connection to it – to the extent that it was notable that a Guardian journalist actually made any connections at all.

Contrast this with way in which twitter was being used to organise the cleanup and to dispel rumours.  Even when you step out of the cosy intellectual, middle class bubble that many of us live in online there was outrage and anger about the rioting.  We can’t forget about the idiots who posted their loot on their Facebook pages – but we can note that this is also perhaps a cultural stupidity with them being more used to the closed systems of the BBM and text messages.

The problem here is so obviously not the technology – to say so is to take a technological determinist view of the world that ignores the fact that we have been on a path to a more networked society every since the telegraph enabled us to reach across the planet.  You can no more remove the networked behaviour at this point than you can stop people talking on street corners (or are we planning that?).  Yes – shutting down technologies will slow the spread of information – but that means good and bad information.  It would of course make us new friends in the form of all kinds of oppressive regimes who we have been criticising for just these reasons.  The revolution in the middle east has not been tweeted but it has surely been helped (read Gladwell and Shirky on this).

We need a culture of openness and we need to make connections across all of the networks in our society if we are going to build communities to live in that we can trust and feel safe in.  Networks are not the only analysis here but one small way forward could be to consider how we become part, or at least known to, the networks and groups that have been organising violence and looting over the last few nights.

This isn’t an online issue – the technology is not the problem – but the underlying lack of connection between two segments of society which is illuminated by the technology is I think a root cause and could give us an entry point to try and make things better.

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