Now that’s what I call social networking…
So there’s been a lot of antagonistic and cynical commentary about Web2.0 tools particularly focused on Twitter, but also encompassing Friendfeed and the whole range of tools that are of interest to me. Some of this is ill informed and some of it more thoughtful but the overall tenor of the comments is that “this is all about chattering up the back, not paying attention, and making a disruption” or at the very least that it is all trivial nonsense.
The counter argument for those of us who believe in these tools is that they offer a way of connecting with people, a means for the rapid and efficient organization of information, but above all, a way of connecting problems to the resources that can let us make things happen. The trouble has been that the best examples that we could point to were flashmobs, small scale conversations and collaborations, strangers meeting in a bar, the odd new connection made. But overall these are small things; indeed in most cases trivial things. Nothing that registers on the scale of “stuff that matters” to the powers that be.
That was two weeks ago. In the last couple of weeks I have seen a number of remarkable things happen and I wanted to talk about one of them here because I think it is instructive.
On Friday last week there was a meeting held in London to present and discuss the draft Digital Britain Report. This report, commissioned by the government is intended to map out the needs of the UK in terms of digital infrastructure, both physical, legal, and perhaps even social. The current tenor of the draft report is what you might expect, heavy on the need of putting broadband everywhere, to get content to people, and heavy on the need to protect big media from the rising tide of piracy. Actually it’s not all that bad but many of the digerati felt that it is missing important points about what happens when consumers are also content producers and what that means for rights management as the asymmetry of production and consumption is broken but the asymmetry of power is not. Anyway, that’s not what’s important here.
What is important is that the sessions were webcast, a number of people were twittering from the physical audience, and a much larger number were watching and twittering from outside, aggregated around a hashtag #digitalbritain. There was reportage going on in real time from within the room and a wideranging conversation going on beyond the walls of the room. In this day and age nothing particularly remarkable there. It is still relatively unusual for the online audience to be bigger than the physical one for these kind of events but certainly not unheard of.
Nor was it remarkable when Kathryn Corrick tweeted the suggestion that an unconference should be organized to respond to the forum (actually it was Bill Thomson who was first with the suggestion but I didn’t catch that one). People say “why don’t we do something?” all the time; usually in a bar. No, what was remarkable was what followed this as a group of relative strangers aggregated around an idea, developed and refined it, and then made it happen. One week later, on Friday evening, a website went live, with two scheduled events [1, 2], and at least two more to follow. There is an agreement with the people handling the Digital Britain report on the form an aggregated response should take. And there is the beginning of a plan as to how to aggregate the results of several meetings into that form. They want the response by 13 May.
Lets rewind that. In a matter of hours a group of relative strangers, who met each other through something as intangible as a shared word, agreed on, and started to implement a nationwide plan to gather the views of maybe a few hundred, perhaps a few thousand people, with the aim, and the expectation of influencing government policy. Within a week there was a scalable framework for organizing the process of gathering the response (anyone can organize one of the meetings) and a process for pulling together a final report.
What made this possible? Essentially the range of low barrier communication, information, and aggregation tools that Web2.0 brings us.
- Twitter: without twitter the conversation could never have happened. Friendfeed never got a look in because that wasn’t where this specific community was. But much more than just twitter, the critical aspect was;
- The hashtag #digitalbritain: the hashtag became the central point of a conversation between people who didn’t know each other, weren’t following each other, and without that link would never have got in contact. As the conversation moved to discussing the idea of an unconference the hashtags morphed first to #digitalbritain #unconference (an intersection of ideas) and then to #dbuc09. In a sense it became serious when the hashtag was coined. The barrier to a group of sufficiently motivated people to identify each other was low.
- Online calendars: it was possible for me to identify specific dates when we might hold a meeting at my workplace in minutes because we have all of our rooms on an online calendar system. Had it been more complex I might not have bothered. As it was it was easy to identify possible dates. The barrier to organization was low.
- Free and easy online services: A Yahoo Group was set up very early and used as a mailing list. WordPress.com provides a simple way of throwing up a website and giving specified people access to put up material. Eventbrite provies an easy method to manage numbers for the specific events. Sure someone could have set these up for us on a private site but the almost zero barrier of these services makes it easy for anyone to do this.
- Energy and community: these services lead to low barriers, not zero barrier. There still has to be the motivation to carry it through. In this case Kathryn provided the majority of the energy and others chipped in along the way. Higher barriers could have put a stop to the whole thing, or perhaps stopped it going national, but there needs to be some motivation to get over the barriers that do remain. What was key was that a small group of people had sufficient energy to carry these through.
- Flexible working hours: none of this would be possible if the people who would be interested in attending such meetings couldn’t come on short notice. The ability of people to either arrange their own working schedule or to have the flexibility to take time out of work is crucial, otherwise no-one could come. Henry Gee had a marvelous riff on the economic benefits of flexible working just before the budget. The feasibility of our meetings is an example of the potential efficiency benefits that such flexibility could bring.
The common theme here is online services making it easy to aggregate the right people and the right information quickly, to re-publish that information in a useful form. We will use similar services, blogs, wikis, online documents to gather back the outputs from these meetings to push back into the policy making process. Will it make a big difference? Maybe not, but even in showing that this kind of response, this kind of community consultation can be done effectively in a matter of days and weeks, I think we’re showing what a Digital Britain ought to be about.
What does this mean for science or research? I will come back to more research related examples over the next few weeks but one key point was that this happened because there was a pretty large audience watching the webcast and communicating around it. As I and others have recently argued in research the community sizes probably aren’t big enough in most cases for these sort of network effects to kick in effectively. Building up community quantity and quality will be the main challenge of the next 6 – 12 months but where the community exists and where the time is available we are starting to see rapid, agile, and bursty efforts in projects and particularly in preparing documents.
There is clearly a big challenge in taking this into the lab but there is a good reason why when I talk to my senior management about the resources I need that the keywords are “capacity” and “responsiveness”. Bursty work requires the capacity to be in place to resource it. In a lab this is difficult, but it is not impossible. It will probably require a reconfiguring of resource distribution to realize its potential. But if that potential can be demonstrated then the resources will almost certainly follow.