And many, many other thoughts on the RSA conference:-
THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF THE WEB: Society, Government and the Internet
25th May 2007
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.
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:-
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 www.spy.co.uk, 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.
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.