What if social media was a place where social good could happen, rather than a place where people put out campaign messages saying social good should happen?
Social media, the name we give to a whole variety of different platforms, activities and mechanisms, is already all of those things. As I’ll be exploring further at “What can social media do to make social good better?”on April 29th, it’s incorrect to think about social media as medium for publishing content or for ‘doing publicity’. You can, of course do that if you so choose, but you’re really not seeing social media for what it really is.
A layer of communication; the world turned upside down
With the growth of mobile technology like smartphones and tablet PCs; social media feels less like a set of websites that we visit and more like a layer of communication, community and interaction that sits over our everyday lives. The growth of social media has led to an expansion in the self-production of media and to a blossoming of public debate. Social media can almost be considered a series of glorious, noisy islands lying off the coastline of traditional ‘real life’. The growth of public debate has grown from a mass adoption of this new kind of connectedness.
People who have made a career as social media strategists will tell you lots of stuff about brand value, reach, conversion and will keep talking until they’ve wowed you with metrics and strategies. Great, if that’s your bag, but they’re really talking about social media as a vehicle to drive sales. What if driving sales is not your aim? What if the relationship you want with other people is not just through the mechanism of financial exchange?
As with the adoption of mobiles phones and of text messaging, after an initial rush of early adopters, it has been people in the broadest sense, not organisations, that have made social media a force with which to be reckoned. Social media is still in a Wild West phase, not yet quite assimilated into our existing institutions and structures. It still allows hitherto impossible situations of creative disruption to existing ways of doing things – or at least it does if we grasp its potential. It has opened a new space where things might happen, and one which those with existing bases of power are keen to either occupy or to police.
As an extra layer of communication and connection social media builds networks between people, enabling the flow of information in such a way that reputation, and in turn, influence grows. In social media, the contours of this influence landscape don’t always follow the contours that exist offline. Many currently active on public social networking sites like Twitter are there precisely because Twitter throws up unexpected contacts and unexpected information. Social networking ‘power’ and ‘real world power’ have yet to settle into a comfortable relationship. The last two years has represented an intense period of legal cases and collective head scratching about the legal status of social media activity, a proxy argument for the question ‘where does this new realm of public action fit into our existing ways of doing things? Can social media make the powerful powerless and and the powerless powerful?’
Despite this element of creative disruption, the great, the good and the powerful have gone to where the people are, rather than trying to draw the people to them. Social media, once a flash in the pan to be discounted has increasingly become another front in the battle for real world power. At present all social media is a jostling between subversives, establishments and everything inbetween.
Just as the access to people has drawn those with real world power, the same has also been true of those who have previously found themselves ignored, discounted or acted against. Social media, for the time being at least, has evened some of these hierarchies. This is by no means guaranteed to be the case indefinitely. Social media is only the sum of the ways in which it is is used and is constantly in flux; making it even more important that we seize the time to make social good happen via social media.
In a Nominet Trust paper published in 2011, Charities’ use of the internet – Current Activities and Future Opportunities: A state of the art review, Dr Eleanor Burt and Professor John Taylor explore the ways in which charities are using the internet as a means to generate value.
They write about an emerging way of doing things online, with people’s online activities representing a series of expectations which, far from the mass consumption model of previous generations, “these consumers, it is argued, look to create relationship value with organisations, value that is personal to them, value that can be sustained or reduced by the specific encounters that they make”.
‘Relationship value’ is one key to understanding the potential and actual benefits of social media. People who are engaged with social media are not passive recipients of information. They are people who are actively seeking relationships with those that they follow, be they individuals, institutions or organisations. According to Burt and Taylor: “citizens (who are also the employees, volunteers, service users, and other stakeholders of third sector organisations) come increasingly to embrace the online environment, there will be growing imperatives to adapt and change in pursuit of new information-intensive relationships.
Increasingly, what we recognise as the public sphere is extending further and further into social media space and what happens in social media space is increasingly influencing the rest of the public sphere.
One of the most exciting, and challenging, aspects of social media is that it’s happening right now. It does not happen when the newspaper publishes a story based on a press release, or during office hours. Social media is a constant and never ending river made of packets of information. It constantly rolls past the attention of people observing.
As social media brings people together around interests (this is what I am interested in) and affinities (this is the kind of person I value) people with strong interests often find themselves conversing and sharing on a relatively level playing field, rather than finding themselves being divided by traditional organisational, structural, geographical or professional barriers. In this lies the potential for social media to jump traditional divisions between peers, and between organisations and the public.
Building something bigger than us alone
While relationships that extend across geographical and professional boundaries are the building blocks of social good through social media, the real horizon for building social good through social media is its potential to help us build things that are bigger than us.
Social media connects us with each other, with information and ideas and possibilities by creating ways in which we can all share little bits of something. That something might be a single tweet, a blog, a comment, a bit of time processing data, a few minutes proofing a document, a few pounds towards the funding of someone elses project. Social media has made it easier than ever before to share little bits of our surplus resources in ways that it make it easier for ourselves or others to aggregate them into something much bigger.
If anyone has witnessed how quickly a meme grows or how fast the process of developing an idea can move when it’s powered by social media-enabled relationships, they’ll have seen this process at work. Where once we were limited by people we had met in real life and with whom we could organise a face to face or telephone conversation, or by people we had met virtually and could communicate with by letter, now we can devote our resources to a social good working closely with people we have never, and will never, even meet.
Good reciprocal relationships make for good conditions for sharing and building together. That’s the opposite of ‘building your brand’.
It’s this something much bigger that really interests me, and which I hope to explore on the 29th April. I’ll be asking: in what ways can we use social media as a way of bringing together lots of little things to make a big change? I’ll be exploring how we make sure that social media does not lose its potential to disrupt in positive ways without succumbing to the crushing, deadening logic that turns social media from a zone of possibility and adventure to an arena for corporate message advancement.
I look forward to you joining me, Shirley Ayres and Paul Taylor on the 29th April to be part of a very social conversation. Book your ticket now – the early bird price ends 18th April.
PS: If you cannot access paypal we can provide an invoice but we will need to charge the full price to cover the additional costs involved.
PPS: If you are unable to attend and want to support what we are doing let us know if you would like to sponsor a place!
You can follow the discussions on Twitter using the hashtag #socialconvo