And many, many other thoughts on the RSA conference:-

THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF THE WEB: Society, Government and the Internet
25th May 2007
RSA, London

I went to this afternoon conference at the RSA a couple of weeks ago and wanted to put down an account of what was said, along with my thoughts, counter-arguments, and of course a plethora of thought-provoking links. I would have written about it earlier, but I’ve been flat out getting teacher packs ready and sending them out for I’m a Councillor. As always here at Gallomanor Towers, our clients (and community engagement) come first!

It was all a bit odd, because some friends of mine had their wedding reception at the RSA last September. So the last time I was there I spent my time drunkenly ceilidh-dancing and telling friends I hadn’t seen in ages how much I loved them. Obviously I tried to keep these activities to a minimum on this visit, as it was on company time.

First session:-

Andrew Chadwick – Politics Prof. Thanks to the marvellousness of First Great Western, I was late and missed part of Dr Chadwick’s talk. He seemed to be giving us reasons to celebrate web 2.0 – essentially collectivism and the overturning of power structures, and reasons to worry in the form of a divide in how people use the web (younger users ‘interact’ web 2.0 style, older users don’t), increasing use of video returning us to ‘lookism’ and the narcissism of much social networking.

Georgina Henry – Editor of Comment is Free on the Guardian. She seemed to talk as a print oriented person, rather than an internet native, so to speak. The qualities of the internet were described in terms of how it varied from print, rather than as it’s own thing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s a lot of very starry-eyed, overly simplistic technological determinism amongst internet enthusiasts. She talked about running Comment is Free, which seems a lot like being engaged in an unending flame war.

This raises the question I’d come hoping to hear discussed. Namely – why does so much internet communication descend into aggressive, willy-waving pointlessness and are there ways that web 2.0 can tackle this? It annoys me that so many discussion spaces just turn into a kind of bearpit for certain sorts of people to shout and bluster, silencing everyone else and skewing debate. And surely web 2.0’s interactivity holds the promise of better ways of promoting discussion? Or, to put it another way, why is slashdot so much more constructive than CiF? I felt that while she touched on this, she didn’t really get to grips with it.

Tom Steinberg – Messiah of e-democracy. Tom talked about ‘Accelerators vs Toolsmiths’. My understanding is that by accelerators he means things like news websites – the news is getting to you faster, but it’s much the same as it was before – and the (superior) toolsmiths are people like MySociety (what a coincidence!) – making tools which actually change things.

I’m only gently poking fun, I do think what MySociety do is great. I look at stuff they produce and marvel at the clarity of thought and purpose that’s gone into them. Why didn’t we have something like They Work For You years ago? Because it would have taken years just to write the spec through the normal Whitehall channels, and then we’d have ended up with something as un-user-friendly as The Trainline or Transport Direct, instead of something brilliant like the Accessible Train Times site.

However, I think he was being a little simplistic. Surely interactive elements built into many news and discussion sites do (or can) make a difference? They allow the audience to influence the news agenda and make the media less top-down. And surely many of the tools he talks about don’t necessarily change things as much as you might think? Yes, I’ve used Neighbourhood Fixit and They Work For You in the past week, and they’re great, but then I’m definitely a usual suspect.

Or, for example, Tom talked about a ‘who to vote for’ site in the Netherlands (I didn’t catch the name, so I don’t know if he was referring to The Voting Pointer or The Voting Compass, but I suspect it was the former). It asks you questions about your opinions, then tells you, based on manifestos and public statements by parties, who matches your opinions. He said 5 million people had used it, suggesting this makes a difference. Well, perhaps. But who were those people? Were they the kind of people who follow politics anyway, or was it reaching new groups? If they were, as I suspect, mainly the usual suspects, then is this really any more than "accelerating" their access to political analysis and info?

And far more problematic to me, how does the site come up with its advice? Who decides what questions and issues are included and what aren’t? Who defines what statements match what? These aren’t value-free judgements. There is a level of influence here that it’s easy to overlook. I’m guessing those decisions were made by educated middle class white men with backgrounds in politics. I’m sure they had the best of intentions, but no-one can help bringing their own cultural assumptions and baggage to a task like that. So perhaps it’s not changing as much as they would like to think.

Earlier on, in his explanation of accelerators, Tom suggested that the internet is just the march of capitalism applied to news, comment and analysis – it’s now cheaper and more plentiful ‘like mills replacing home weavers’. But surely the proliferation of blogs and citizen journalism is far more like the opposite? Now, a great number of people (although not, of course, everyone) can produce and publish their own news and comment, without needing the money or connections necessary to publish their own newspaper/build their own mill.

To explain what he saw as the lack of significant impact, Tom then asked (in relation to things like CiF and the proliferation of blogs), "Who has resigned because of it? What public policy announcements were made because of it?" This struck me as a very politics junkie way of measuring things. 90% of people in this country couldn’t name five members of the cabinet. 40% couldn’t name one. Most people couldn’t give a toss if one of them resigns. I suspect public policy announcements pass most people by too. The arcane games and procedures of Westminster politics are not really the point. More interesting questions might be things like, ‘do people have easier access to information about their rights, or other useful stuff?’, ‘is wrongdoing by governments or powerful individuals more likely to be found out?’.

There’s lots more interesting questions and I don’t have straightforward answers to them, but I do think that, for example, things like netmums make it easier for parents who might otherwise be isolated to access useful information. It helps them to feel like they aren’t the only ones. And that makes a difference. It’s empowering, for want of a better word. And that is real and it is significant.

Also – maybe bloggers haven’t caused Tony to resign, but that’s not to say that they don’t have an impact in some places. United We Blog in Nepal played a significant role in getting out news of the Royal coup in 2005 and subsequent repression. At a time when the King had a violent stranglehold on the media in the country, they helped let the rest of the world know what was going on.

In a similar vein, an audience-member took issue with the fact that Andrew Chadwick had included twitter in his examples of social narcissism. He pointed out that activists in Egypt use twitter to notify their movements, (‘I’m leaving home’, ‘I’ve arrived at the office’). If they ‘disappear’ there are people around the world who will raise the alarm. There are all sorts of ways that people around the world are using seemingly trivial sites for serious uses. We can’t judge the global usefulness of media by looking just at British people telling us they’re making toast or emailing each other stories about amusingly shaped vegetables.

I see I have got increasingly long-winded as I describe each speaker, I’ll try to be briefer as there are four left…

After the break:-

Bronwyn Kunhardt – Head of Corporate Reputation and Diversity at Microsoft. (Is it just me or does that sound like a tough job?). Bronwyn was brilliant, I thought. I suppose you’d have to be. She was very smart, focussed and insightful. One of her first points was that there’s a massive dearth of information on what people do online – the research is outdated, the wrong questions are asked and the information isn’t shared. She gave an example, which I see she’s also used in a piece on Comment is Free:-

"A great case in point is the Pew research on internet usage,
which says that 91% of internet users have ever sent email, 30% have
ever used the internet to find religious direction, and only 4% have
ever used it to share adult content. Hmmm."

I share her hmmm. Perhaps I hang out with the wrong people but I’d be very surprised if anyone I know has ever used the internet to find religious direction…

Bronwyn went on to talk about the wonderful Danah Boyd, quoting her saying (if my notes are right), "social networking isn’t a technology, it’s a network" and that new behaviours are appearing and old ones being adapted. Young people are often the ‘natives’ in these new environments and we shouldn’t pontificate without really understanding them.

She suggests that the people who struggle with social networking and web 2.0 are:-

  • Policy-makers
  • Corporations
  • Parents

Because they all want to control what happens in a very top-down way and it makes it difficult for them. What is behind a lot of the success of social networking, etc, is our search for connectedness and like-mindedness. If it makes it easier to find other like-minded people then, she suggests, it reduces isolation and helps people come together to achieve things. She thinks policy-makers should show more respect for social networking. I suspect they will do so when highly paid consultants tell them to, when they could have just asked their own kids.

MT Rainey – Advertising supremo and social entrepreneur. Unfortunately it wasn’t very easy to hear a lot of what MT said and partly she was reading aloud the text of a speech she’d made in 1995, so she wasn’t that easy to follow. This 1995 speech seemed to be predicting that shared media experiences and word of mouth recommendations would become increasingly important. A lot of what she said seemed very brand-centric. Understandable I suppose for an ex-advertising person, but I think, to be honest, she’d misjudged the topic and the audience.

Then she told us about her mentoring social networking site. I didn’t feel it was very clear what she was actually saying or what argument she was making. She ended with the words, ‘The internet is the place where the kindness of strangers meets the wisdom of crowds!’ The man next to me started sniggering and the man on the other side of him couldn’t stop himself saying, "Oh, for fuck’s sake!" out loud.

Nico Macdonald – Who has kindly put his speech (or what he intended to say) on his site and runs a website called, which appears not to be working. He said web 2.0 was a solution looking for a problem, which I liked. But then he said, "technologies don’t change society – they don’t have agency – people have agency". He seems to be using agency here to mean intentionality. Now it seems to me to be pretty obvious that something doesn’t need ‘agency’ in this sense in order to change things. The Black Death changed society. Mountains change the course of rivers. Soap, penicillin and vaccines have changed life expectancy…

I, of course, accept his point that technology on it’s own doesn’t change society – other drivers need to be in place and are probably more significant, but, much like nature/nurture, it’s the interaction between new technologies and social forces that defines what happens. But he’s right that we can’t rest on our laurels and think that web 2.0 will democratise the world, without changing other things about our institutions too.

Question asked by:-

Matthew Taylor – Former New Labour policy supremo, now head of RSA and chair for earlier session. The photo of him on the RSA website is very "catalogue shot", don’t you think? I mean no disrepect – definitely a very expensive catalogue. I had a thought at this point. I once spent a lazy day on holiday playing ‘fantasy casting’ on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Yes, I’m a geek. It suddenly occurred to me that Matthew Taylor would make an ideal Vetinari. Much better than Alan Rickman, our previous best suggestion, who I always felt was a bit unsubtle.

Anyway, Matthew asked, in response to all this talk of social networking and evolving new social behaviours, "How can we bring the paternalism back?", which seemed pretty surprising. He expanded on this and seemed to be positing some kind of benevolent paternalism which encouraged pro-social behaviour.

Now Matthew is extremely bright and savvy, can he really be missing the point that paternalism is out of fashion for valid reasons? Does he really think that people, given autonomy, will never be pro-social? That "the masses" will turn into a baying mob without people like him to lead them? Does he really think that values or norms imposed from above by those higher up a hierarchy will send a message of mutual respect and co-operation and that’ll be the way everyone on the internet learns that might is not right?

Surely what we need is less paternalism, and a bit more respect from the politicians? Personally, I think we should try a bit of maternalism if we have to have anything. But then I’m a bit of a nurturant parent liberal type. I do think, as I mention above, that it’s important to work out ways that conversations online can be productive, and not flame wars. I think it’s possible (in fact important) for that to be a consensual, bottom-up process, rather than a top-down one.

Last session:-

Cass Sunstein
– Law prof. This was actually one of the most interesting talks of the day.  It was titled, "Does the  web need a constitution". In my blinkeredness I hoped this would be a talk on my question of, "How can we make web discussions less shouty?" It wasn’t, but it was still thought provoking. Essentially, Cass’s point was that if you survey a group of likeminded people on an issue, then allow them to discuss it together, then survey them again, they will all be more extreme in their opinions than they were before. This is a well documented effect called "group polarisation".

He offers two reasons for this – a) People are persuaded by the arguments they hear and in a group who share a point of view, those arguments will all be on one side. b) People have a desire to appear a certain way within a group (e.g. feminist or traditionalist) and when everyone in the group is one side of centre, they have to move in order to preserve that position. My immediate thought was, isn’t it possible that people’s opinions don’t change that much, but their self-reporting will change according to what they think is acceptable? For example, a racist will come out with far more extreme things at a BNP meeting than they might in a job interview, but it doesn’t mean their thinking actually changes. I assume psychologists who study such things have thought about this already, but it does seem to me that all three effects probably operate.

Anyway, he points out that given this, the way the internet allows you to choose your news channel, what commentary you read, etc, means people can be insulated off from difference opinions or evidence and become more and more extreme in their views. He argues for new norms to prevent the balkanisation of discussion. These include public discussion spaces where all views are represented. For example he suggests the BBC could provide this (shame they closed most of their message boards after the Graf report because they were seen as competing with the private sector and providing discussion spaces wasn’t something that the BBC should be doing). He also recommends a convention of ‘hat-tipping’ – linking to other points of view.

Tom Steinberg wrote a post about this some time ago, arguing that because bloggers do link to blogs and sources with contrasting viewpoints, it’s all OK. But I think that’s a bit simplistic. Someone needs to study what kind of links people make. If they are ‘but hey, this guy has got some interesting points to make on the other side of the argument’, then all well and good. But if they are, "Haha, look at this nutter", or worse, "This is the dangerous nonsense your children’s minds will be filled with if we’re not careful, remember to vote against X!" then I don’t see that that counteracts group polarisation at all.

Personally, my experience is that when a link to a viewpoint they oppose is provided by someone on the internet (be it blogs I read, discussion boards I visit, or emails from friends) it’s far more likely to be "look at this nutter" than not. And certainly in a science communication context, there’s evidence that this group polarisation (or opinion insulation) does occur. I think the statistic quoted by Michael Kenward is pretty damning. "23%
of college educated Republicans think global warming is attributable to
human activity, compared with 75% of Democrats".

Anyway, all this was a bit of a bucket of cold water over the happy talk of likemindedness and people finding new friends on the internet or whatever. Of course this group polarisation has always occurred – that’s how you end up with one tribe who believes that homosexuality is the devil’s work and another who think shagging whoever you feel like is fine. But until pretty recently you were less likely to be living right next to people with opposite opinions. And that’s where a lot of the difficulties emerge. In some ways the internet allows us to live in what communities we choose, regardless of geography. Which leaves old-fashioned geography with a problem.

My closing remarks:-

I don’t really have a neat, wrapped-up conclusion, and I’ve made my points as we went along, which I’m sure we’ve all enjoyed. But the overall thought I had, which didn’t really go with any specific speaker, was what a mishmash of people were there. I bumped into two people I know from years ago – one a total computer geek (sorry Rob!), and one a former civil servant with an interest in democratic engagement. I also bumped into Andrew Brown, friend of Gallomanor and civic blogger. I got chatting to a couple of charity PR people in the breaks. There were councillors, journalists, academics from different fields.

There seemed to be people coming at the subject from very different fields of expertise – computer types, Westminster types, and community engagement types – with different assumptions about where we were going, what we wanted to do and why. And different assumptions about what the conference should have been and what was missing. Naturally, these people have different terms of reference, assume different background knowledge and even use different jargon. There’s just too much stuff that’s potentially relevant for any one person to have their head round it all. Politics and political systems, internet innovation, coding, sociology of communities and engagement, media… And I’m sure that Science and Technology Studies would assume that this is THEIR area of expertise.

I know these collisions have been going on for a while, but it seems like they are all really joining up now. I think there’s going to be interesting times ahead, as people clash over some of these questions. But then, my theory is that the places where different cultures meet are always incredibly creative and productive. Like Constantinople in the Middle Ages, or 18th Century London. I’m a biologist at heart you see. You can’t create new things, entire unto themselves, from thin air. But given a bit of variety you can mate things together and produce an endless array of fascinating hybrids. I guess that exactly what the RSA were trying to do. I await developments with interest.

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this extensive and meandering analysis. Obviously, some other attendees were briefer and rather quicker off the mark with their accounts, if you’d like to read them instead. An audio feed of the conference will appear, allegedly, at some point here.  In researching some of the points in here I also came across this conference in the States, which seems to have covered some of the same ground.


Tom Steinberg · 15th June 2007 at 10:03 pm

Well, I’ve never been called a Messiah of anything before. And I’m not sure I’ve been called simplistic twice in one writeup. before either 🙂
A few points:
1. The accelerators vs toolsmiths is divide is just my way of making people think about the political internet without just thinking about blogs. I needed a relatively simple way of making people realise that there are political uses of the internet that often have both bigger impacts and bigger audiences than blogs.
2. The Dutch site I mentioned is . The answers are submitted by the parties themselves, such is the significance of the site. I certainly have reservations about it, and mySociety definitely decided against it at the last election. Google for Arrows Theorem to see why.
3. I like your foreign examples about blogging impacts. I still feel like the impact of political blogs on UK politics is most akin to a new slew of faster, cooler tabloids, than anything qualitatively different about the nature of political discourse or policy making. I’m happy to be proved wrong! I’d like to see sites like the german bildblog and the democratic strategist here, to see if they had more of an unusual impact.
4. In relation to Sunstein, my problem when I researched my piece on his work was that the only evidence which existed at that point both signified that the opposite of this argument was true: it is of course possible that further research has come along and refuted this. But it wasn’t just that there were links between opposition blogs, it was that people who got their news online *knew more about opposition policies*.
Also, the example of Republicans and Democrats differing on global warming doesn’t seem to make any sense here. You need a control group of internet and non-internet using people from both parties to work out if this divide was anything to do with the technologies they use to consume their media at all. I tried to find out from the paper myself, but it costs, and I’m not that obsessive that I’ll spend money on a blog comment 🙂
Anyway, last thing to say is thanks for doing the detailed write up of the whole day. I had to miss lots of it and it has been greating reading it.

Sophia Collins · 18th June 2007 at 3:17 pm

Hi Tom,
Well, don’t knock it. When I started working for Shane full-time I suggested that my job-title should be ‘Harbinger of Democracy’ but he thought that was silly and wouldn’t let me. I apologise for the brace of simplistics though, which were stylistically bad.
1) Fair enough, but, well, yes, I think it’s over-simplifying.
2) Arrows theorem is interesting thanks for the tip, but apart from the maths, the sociological objections seem to me to be significant. The parties may submit their own answers, but who sets the questions? There is always going to be an extent to which the site organisers have a disproportionate influence on the way it works and the output. Unless they got together a citizen’s jury to set the questions, etc.
Also, political parties need to make many different decisions once they are in power – decisions they can’t always have anticipated in manifestos or pre-election statements. Publicly stated positions on particular issues aren’t necessarily the best way (or the way many people choose) to decide who to vote for. People also make judgements on what they can work out of the authenticity or personality of politicians. The Voting Pointer can’t help you with that, in fact distances you from it, it seems to me.
3) a) If we’re talking about blogs on national politics, I can see your tabloids comparison. Although I think it’s fundamental that it’s so easy to start a blog. It may well be that opinions which don’t fit narrowly defined ideas of ‘news agendas’ (held by a small number of individuals who happen to be editors of national newspapers) are still widely held and found to be interesting by many.
b) I’m not just talking about blogs either. For example, I think that ‘have your say’ type features on news sites allow a different kind of input by the public into the national conversation. I know people who get most of their political chat and news from seemingly apolitical ‘community of interest’ webforums – e.g. music-related ones. Maybe that’s still web 1.0…
c) I suspect that much of the interesting impact of blogs will be at a very local level, rather than the national stage. If local (or even parish and town) councillors get into more conversations with their communities then I can see that leading to better decision-making. But this won’t necessarily grab the front pages.
4) The papers you cite don’t completely reassure me that Sunstein’s group polarization can’t be a problem. The first paper is most positive, and even that refers to ‘selective reinforcers’ as a significant type of consumer of news media – although they aren’t restricted to the internet by any means. And the same paper shows only a very small effect of broadband usage on knowing the arguments of political opponents, etc. It wasn’t very clear to me how statistically significant these findings were.
What does seem to be happening at the moment is that, mainly, people link to things they agree with. As the second study you reference says, “In our study we witnessed a divided blogosphere: liberals and conservatives linking primarily within their separate communities, with far fewer cross-links exchanged between them. This division ex-tended into their discussions, with liberal and conservative blogs focusing on different news articles, topics, and political figures.”
The only evidence I could see about the *kind* of cross-linking (i.e. is it ‘look at this nutter’ or is it ‘this guy may have a point’?) seemed to be in the section on names of political figures, “For example, the following figures are cited by name predominantly by the right: Dan Rather, Michael Moore, Yassar Arafat and Terry Mcauliffe. On the other hand, the left leaning bloggers account for most mentions of: Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Zell Miller and Tim Russert.
“Notice the overall pattern: Democrats are the ones more often cited by right-leaning bloggers, while Republicans are more often mentioned by left-leaning bloggers… These statistics indicate that our A-list political bloggers, like mainstream journalists (and like most of us) support their positions by criticizing those of the political figures they dislike.”
This doesn’t convince me that everyone is using the internet to be terribly open-minded and having their ideas challenged. It rather suggests that cross-linking is often about constructing strawmen, or even bogeymen.
I was a bit unclear with the Michael Kenward link, my apologies. I feel the internet doesn’t exist in a vacuum, people get their information from a combination of sources. In Nepal, FM Radio was crucial in spreading news within Nepal itself. Independent print, TV, newspaper websites, word of mouth and even old-fashioned pamphleteering all went on. It’s the overall effect on people, their beliefs and behaviour that’s crucial.
My citing of the study about Democrats and Republicans and global warming was therefore not intended to make any point about the internet. It was simply about how people are insulated (insulate themselves?) from different opinions and the serious consequences that can have. Therefore, even in something arguably fact-driven like anthropogenic global warming, people make significantly different assessments of the evidence, (and probably are exposed to different evidence) based on their initial opinions. Initial opinions (voting Democrat or Republican) which might seem to be pretty unrelated to the issue at hand.
I don’t think that the internet is solely to blame for this at all. As you point out in your blog post, self-selection of news content happens offline too. I do think that the internet has some unique features to help tackle it. It’s much easier to link to contrasting views online than it is in a physical newspaper. It’s also much easier for others to come and join in a conversation and put a different point of view. Therefore, theoretically, writers and editors are less insulated in their assumptions.
For these reasons I think group polarisation is something we need to be aware of and think about seriously. And I think that his point about the importance of public discussion spaces is worth bearing in mind.

Nico Macdonald · 1st October 2007 at 1:50 pm

Your reflections on my talk are well considered. I do recognise that there is a reciprocal relationship between technology and society, and I noted in my draft remarks that “it is true that social behaviour is changing, unconsciously and in unintended and unexpected ways, as a result of the tools we have created”.
I would argue that technology, or nature, don’t change society but change _the environment in which is operates_. We decide choose the specific response to those changes.
We live in an age in which human agency, around political change, has been hollowed out as a concept, and change is projected onto various external forces — such as technology. Hence the need to ‘bend the stick’ on this subject. For instance, many commentators thoughtlessly map scientific evidence of global warming to specific policies we ‘must’ adopt, and it is even more important to emphasise human agency, choice and problem solving.
BTW, it would useful if you tracked back to my draft remarks so your comment can be found in that context.

Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: