Social software - get real

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Community, democracy and social capital don't come at the click of a mouse.

Social software is the latest buzz-phrase emanating from technology evangelists, who are concerned with how to apply information technology (IT) to the real world.

For the moment, discussion of social software is confined to the digerati and switched-on social policy think-tanks. It is likely to spread further afield, since talking up the potential of networks and mobile technology is now seen as a panacea for the ills of the downtrodden IT industry.

The key idea behind social software is that by using technology we can reinvigorate interest and participation in the democratic process. Any website or application which connects users with similar interests and ideas together, via the internet, can be described as social software.

By creating and fostering communities of interest, distant disenfranchised sections of the population will supposedly begin to establish new partnerships, which will help to transform political activity. The key words and phrases of social software are 'transparency', 'decentralisation', 'inclusion', 'local not global', 'the powerless majority' and 'power to the people'. You get the picture?

If you thought all of this sounded like New Labour policy, you'd be right. At its root is the desire to recreate lost social capital. The book that best encapsulates this idea is Robert D Putnam's bestseller Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (1). Putnam's thesis, which has found many followers, is that our social fabric is being eroded by destructive market forces. The argument goes that as we no longer live and associate together in the same way, the potential to participate in the political process is being diminished.

Unsurprisingly, this argument has found resonance with the UK government's IT policy unit. IT seems to offer the potential to connect with voters in new ways, which is seen as useful to a government that feels so out of touch.

The government e-envoy Andrew Pinder organised an 'e-Summit' in November 2002, setting out the government's future deployment of IT (2). At the summit, Sian Kevill, former Newsnight editor and now head of the New Politics Initiative at the BBC, spoke about a funky new BBC initiative called iCan, which is to go live in the first half of 2003.

'UpMyStreet's discussion boards are full of hot air about local pubs, clubs and organic food

The plan is to eradicate obstacles to participating in the democratic process. By building tools such as 'a database of democracy' and community-based websites, the BBC hopes their project will 'engage people in a unique interactive community through which they can make a difference in civic life'.

The reason for all of this? The BBC has come to the earth-shattering conclusion that we're bored with politics. Last year, it commissioned ethnographic-based research - that's videoing people, to you and me - and found that there is widespread 'disenchantment with politicians and a political process that fails to deliver evident and assessable outcomes'. The outcome of this is that the BBC is changing its role from being a mediator to being a facilitator, keen to 'help a wider audience find their voice by tackling obstacles to greater participation' (3).

A forerunner to this BBC initiative, and a useful reminder of what social software really means in practice, is the popular location-based search provider UpMyStreet, 'the real-life guide to your neighbourhood' (4). As a provider of useful information, UpMyStreet certainly works. It was originally developed as an information service typically used by homebuyers, providing facts about people's locality, amenities, schools, and so on. However, it recently launched a new venture, UpMyStreet Conversations, which aims to raise the level of participation above local chatter.

UpMyStreet Conversations is being pitched as a social software project, to help 'local communities reconnect at a grassroots level'. Essentially, it's a discussion board which connects users together based on their postcode and their proximity to one another. UpMyStreet boasts that this community discussion will become 'hyper-local'.

An UpMyStreet press release assures us that we have the most in common with people 'who live close by'. Forget the idea of sharing commonality along ideological or political grounds - it's what's going on in the 'hood' that matters most. The same press release goes on to say that since we live in the same area, we're likely to share 'similar backgrounds' and 'use the same schools, hospitals, roads and restaurants' (5). In reality though, UpMyStreet's discussion boards are full of hot air about local pubs, clubs, builders and organic food.

The paradox is that the drive by advocates of social software to rebuild connections between individuals, is really about top-down coercion - even though it masquerades as bottom-up participation. Social software claims to put the citizen back at the centre of political life, but in reality, such dumbed-down participation reduces citizenship to the mere consumption of information and services.

Sian Kevill argues that the internet 'has the potential to create a new dynamic between the powerful few and the powerless many...through...new coalitions of interest', allowing people 'to exert their aggregated power faster than in previous eras' (6). But in truth, offering us more choice in how we connect with one another does nothing to redress imbalances of power, especially when social relationships are established in such a touchy-feely way. By boosting interest in local issues, we ensure that substantial political debate remains untouched.

'The real consequence of social software is a cheapening of participation

The technology behind social software is not the problem. Rather, it is the application of the technology that is limited. Talk of rebuilding social capital by establishing social networks through social software, is, as Jennie Bristow puts it elsewhere on spiked, 'a prescription for social control (or social cohesion, if you like)'. And forcing through policy to connect people together, whether they like it or not, is a sign of 'deep distrust of the allegiances and choices that people make when left to their own devices' (7).

Interest in formal politics is at an all-time low. For UK prime minister Tony Blair and his cronies, it's getting harder to exert influence when the general public is retreating from the very idea of politics or social change. An isolated government is investing in anything which appears to offer it a possibility of connecting with us - hence, the largest growth areas of IT are now government-related: local councils, the National Health Service (NHS), and online government.

Advocates of social software are keen on seeking alternatives to mainstream politics. Kevill explains the BBC's new focus: 'Rather than making people vote, the focus is on civic life between elections.' (8) But will such concerted effort to introduce referenda and petitioning really change anything?

What both the mainstream politicians and the social software advocates fail to register, is that most people are unmotivated by politics because the content sucks. Innovation in networking technology is vital, but encouraging greater access to the political process isn't going to reap the expected returns.

The real consequence of the discussion around social software is a cheapening of participation. Ross Mayfield, who runs a weblog devoted to discussing social software, argues: 'as the cost for forming issue groups falls, expect similar groups and coalitions to form around otherwise less fundable issues.' (9) For Mayfield, low-cost engagement brings more diversity to the table. But by reducing the meaning of political debate, we only reinforce the helpless feeling of being consumers first and foremost, and citizens second.

This problem is best summed up by the title of the latest book by Howard Rheingold, who writes about virtual communities and networks. His book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution - Transforming Cultures and Communities in the Age of Internet Access, asks whether networked technology can make the 'mob' smart (10). The danger of such patronising thinking is that technology will have the final say, instead of us being smart enough to see otherwise.

 

Footnotes

(1) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D Putnam, Simon & Schuster, 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(2) See the e-Summit section of the Office of the E-Envoy website

(3) The BBC's plans for digital democracy, Sian Kevill, openDemocracy, 20 February 2003

(4) See the UpMyStreet website

(5) World first in online communities helps reconnect people in the real world, UpMyStreet, 10 January 2003

(6) The BBC's plans for digital democracy, Sian Kevill, openDemocracy, 20 February 2003

(7) Down with social capitalism, by Jennie Bristow

(8) The BBC's plans for digital democracy, Sian Kevill, openDemocracy, 20 February 2003

(9) Distribution of influence, Ross Mayfield's weblog, 26 February 2003

(10) Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution - Transforming Cultures and Communities in the Age of Internet Access, Howard Rheingold, Persus, 2003. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)