social impact of the web @ the rsa

Friday 4:47 pm 5/25/07 London,

I’m one of the half dozen BBC people attending The Social Impact of the Web event today at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) in London.

The central theme is:

“With e-democracy and new forms of on-line consultation and community mobilisation still to become a reality, how can new internet technologies empower us to interact with each other in novel ways?”

The first panel to get a crack at answering this question includes Georgina Henry, Editor, Comment is Free & Editor, The Guardian; Andrew Chadwick from Royal Holloway, University of London; and Tom Steinberg, Founder and Director, mySociety and other projects.

Audio and video streams of the event are available here.

Andrew Chadwick

Three things we should celebrate about web 2.0:

  • Citizen Journalism – 250,000 public comments posted on the Guardian in a month alone (and, quoting Stephen Coleman, the BBC gets over 1 million messages a month)

  • Little Brother – Discusses Conneticutt Bob… a blogger who followed a candidate around and blogged every moment… “we should really like it” that people can turn the public gaze upon politics and politicians
  • Low threshold, co-present, co-production online: wikipedia model (with editors and structure), digg (simple vote) and other forms of collective action such as
  • Three things we shouldn’t celebrate about web 2.0:

  • The production/consumption divide: Pew study said only 8% were deep users of social media (median age 28), only 7% were connectors. 26% were “indifferent” and/or “disconnected” – and the median age was 64. The vast majority is not producing and the older are more likely to be excluded.

  • The shift to video: Back in the old days, we spoke about how text only communication broke down barriers (eg. text frees you to be who you are, not who you look like). Is worried that the sound bite politics of today will be put on youtube and will limit deep political discourse.
  • Social network narcissism: one of the interesting things that people do on bebo, facebook, myspace, etc they are arranged around the idea of socialability. Yet most of the interaction is individualistic. They tell people about themselves on “absolutely bizarre minimalist” sites like twitter – “the greatest manifestation of social network narcissism if I’ve ever seen one”
  • Georgina Henry:

    “If you take a broad view of politics -I like to think of it as what people want to debate, rather than what you want people to debate…”

    “My feeling of the web is don’t expect too much of it… if you don’t expect too much, you won’t be disappointed with what it gives you, and then it becomes facinating…”

    “I’ve learned more in a year working on comment is free about the audience than I did in 18 years working on the print side…”

    “access to it [writing for comment is free] is an important part of it”

    “Whilst I’ve got quite a dim view of some of the stuff that’s posted on the site… [some of it is good]”

    “even if you are a journalist who specialising in something for quite some time, there are times when people come along and tell us something we didn’t know, which is quite humbling…it throws [named columnists] into this big forum with thousands of other people… the feedback has been quite rewarding for journalists, but quite challenging too…”

    “… newspaper sales are going down… the discussion is online and you’ve got to be there… I think it is a very skewed audience… you need broadband, which isn’t universal… tends to be much more male… skewed by people who are often posted in the day, doing the sort of jobs where you can sit at your computer and do this… I never see it as this is life, I see it as this is a slice of life, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage with it…”

    “people who are close to politics [and are asked to blog] can find it a difficult space… you can recieve this barrage of hostility… that has been very difficult for people… it’s skewed by anonymous screen names… but it does reflect a bit of the times I think, and you can’t blame the internet wholly for that… it’s also reflected in the letters for the editor which you don’t see because they are edited out… the difference with blogs is that it’s there for everyone to see…”

    “If you look at political activity in Britain at the moment… people finding it a lot easier are people in opposition… partially because there is cynicism aimed at authority…”

    “I don’t think its a substitute for all the other forms of political debates, but it’s going to absorb more and more of people’s time so you’ve just got to get in there and shape it.”

    Tom Steinberg

    The people who make mysociety happen are the coders and people in the background.

    A friend sent him an email a few days ago saying he wanted to post on Comment is Free but was worried about doing so. Eventually he did it… Tom says: “There are no winners on comment is free, only losers”

    Bloggers and News Media are “accelerators”: “for people like me, political junkies, this is just brilliant… it used to be like a drip feed, not it’s like a drip feed filled with whisky…”

    “News is getting much cheaper….”

    “Politicians have known that if they made a mistake [people would find out about it a few hours later]… now they know people will find out about it a lot sooner…”

  • studies don’t seem to show that the internet is bringing new people to politics

  • “tool-smiths” – people who build tools that make it possible for people to find out who their local politicians are and how to contact them – a Netherlands based voting recommendation service had nearly 5 million users, in a country with about 3 times that in population (a massive percentage)… it’s a tool, not a piece of journalism. Or moveon in America that helped mobilise masses of people…. largely driven by web 1.0 email.
  • the things that the toolsmiths create challenge the way we do things… and because more people will be looking at these tools when they make their voting decisions… theyworkforyou will make it clear not what politicians say, but what they actually vote for, which will – hopefully – represent a challenge to soundbite politics
  • it is the tools that are transformational
  • “we built, as a independent contractor, the Number 10 petition site… 25,000 people a day are coming… what I’d like to do is be able to point people to a debate about what happens next… petitions, a very low form of political engagement, can help get people more engaged…”
  • I’ve just noticed that Sandy Walkington, a Lib Dem councillor from St. Albans where I live, is sitting in the row in front of me. He runs a few web based campaigns, including one called Hands off Herts which raises awareness of development issues in the county of Hertfordshire.

    The second session is on Web 2.0 and Social Innovation

    Bronwyn Kunhardt

  • Quoting Heidegger: “The social character of man is determined by his use of technology”

  • 10 years ago technology was objective, now technology is subjective… “social software”
  • government, corporations and parents all have problems with Web 2.0 because they tend to think in authoritarian ways
  • Edelman has released a study showing that bloggers are very connected to their local communities. And there is a study of 14,000 in Australia saying the same thing. We need to pull all this stuff about online social networks doing good into one place…(thus her new venture “social media consensus”)
  • MT Rainey

    In 1995 Rainey addressed a News International conference and told them that:

  • People won’t seek out brands and organisations that they have never heard of or that their friends don’t use.

  • There will always be the need for a shared media experience because that has value
  • Now, she says, the great things about the web – web 2.0 – are that:

  • ability to share and exchange information with each others
    strong viral effect basically mimics the mass media affect… and is arguably more valuable because it’s more personal.

  • breakdown of user/consumer boundaries… information trails… “is turning consumers back into people”… “we express and display nearly all our choices now, and we are people first…”
  • broadband… price of participation is very low. “Your facebook page can look the same as coke’s facebook page”
  • [Robin Note: Ok, enough. I didn’t realise that users of social media were meant to be in competition with coca cola’s efforts to market beverages to us via facebook profiles.]

    …pitch for some project…web 2.0… “wisdomocracy”… “if google’s model is do no evil, our’s is no wisdom wasted” … etc etc… “relieve the health burden and GP visits”… etc etc

    Nico Macdonald

    “Contrary to the widely held view, technologies in general, and the Web in particular, do not transform society. Society transforms society, and it develops, consciously or unconsciously, tools such as the Web to effect changes, which themselves may be conscious or unconscious. The Web was not developed to transform democracy. It was developed to share scientific research. While many earlier proponents of networked hypertext systems may have had more high-flown hopes for such tools, Tim Berners-Lee had quite pragmatic objectives.”

    Read his presentation in full (yay!!!) on his blog…

    (battery dead… sorry!)


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