The RSA



Rebooting social media

As Social Media Week (24th-28th September) dawns upon us, Noel Hatch FRSA and Marcus Hobley reflect on how we can move from being socialised by the medium of digital technology to harnessing it to create new forms of public goods.

The advent of digital social networking spawned an initial ‘in’ or ‘out’ mentality separating those embracing the digital communication revolution and those resisting it. A tipping point in its adoption came when the default avenue for inviting friends to desirable social occasions moved from the formal written invitation or phone call to the digital evite. If you didn’t want to miss out, you had no choice but to get in on the act.

A by product these networks brought to their users was the removal of geographical boundaries often limiting the experiences on offer and defining who was ‘in’ our networks at any given time. Digital networks allow users engaging from the other side of the word to share in real time experiences.

The parallel in this is while everyone was experiencing more contact with more ‘friends’, the sheer volume of sharing watered down the depth and attention given to any one event or interaction. This at times creates an artificial feeling of connecting with others on a meaningful level that would evidently not be the case should the clues of proximity and body language be available to see. Playing such a digital persona in the broad light of day is not so easy! Addictions of any kind can be damaging to us both as individuals and society as a whole. While Facebook rehab clinics are an extreme example, they put digital networks into perspective: they do not meet the human need to connect, and in fact create a few problems of their own.

We need to remember that however many technology bubbles the economy creates, however many digital landfills of retweets pile up in the internet cloud, we will always be left with handmade communities and the social bricks and mortar. These embody the behaviours that social media reminds us have been lost, without having to be dependent on the tools themselves.

As Clay Shirky once said: “transformation in society doesn’t happen when it adopts new tools, it happens when it adopts new behaviours” We rarely reflect on this, as we create videos, craft presentations or curate conversations. When the next technology shift happens, let’s not try and pretend that Youtube won’t follow VHS into the graveyard of fashion. At least we can turn cassette tapes into jewellery and hack VHSes into pinball machines.

But what if we used the techniques that digital technologies have given us without actually using the… technology?

Will the human microphone used in the Occupy movements be the next generation’s retweet? Will the complaints choirs spreading across the world be the alternative to a feedback form? Will the mindful map be the future of data visualisation?

What all of these have in common is that they put digital techniques out into the open air and in contact with the senses that technology all too often finds so difficult to recognise or value.

But what if we could make the medium social, so rather than be socialised by the medium; use the technology infrastructure to create public goods?

A clue in answering this question is held in the second evolution of social media. Organisations like the Knight Foundation are looking to offer answers to how we link online action that can result in ‘real life’ actions to improve communities. Community PlanIt, is one example of a platform that looks to use gaming to involve citizens in community planning efforts.

There are also examples where technology is being harnessed to better society, such as the story of a group of high school students who created an app to help fight bullying. This is perhaps a glimpse of what is possible when we ensure we are masters of technology and not its slaves.

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  • Carys Davies

    Or do both: I remember when expert systems were put into chemical process plants, the idea was to supplement the human senses of sound, smell etc. But people stayed in the control box (why? another discussion, like the success of ATMs) . So we have to also encourage digital/human hybrid behaviour, I think, as well.