Can Web 2.0 save the world?

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It's easy to get fixated on the shiny toys of the Web 2.0 world: the latest invitation-only beta of the hottest new collaborative technology using the coolest whatever. Nothing wrong with that; our natural affinity for cool and new helps provide a built-in audience for technological innovators.

But the bright glare of technological promise can obscure its social impact... and not just the negative effects that technology's critics are fond of citing.

The social web holds enormous promise for social transformation. Alex recently posted about how you can help steer the web toward that promise, but it's also worth asking: just what makes us think the social web could be so transformative?

Bear with me for a minute, because answering that question isn't as easy as it might look. Before you can say whether a particular technology can bring about change, you need to have an understanding of how social change happens... an understanding that's likely to evolve throughout your life.

Getting to Maybe book coverAnd one way my understanding of change is evolving is through the 2006 book Getting to Maybe by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton. The authors take an in-depth look at several cases of social innovation from a range of perspectives: chaos and complexity theory, behavioural psychology and even biology and ecology.

Drawing on examples from the so-called Boston Miracle to Brazil's fight against HIV/AIDS to the creation of the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network*, they found tremendous diversity – but also important areas of common ground. And that led the authors to offer a series of recommendations (framed as advice to a philanthropist looking to support social innovation).

Have a look at them... and see if you aren't as struck as I am by their alignment with the social web (italics are my comments):

  1. Support vision, people with a strong sense of calling, and emergent possibilities.
  2. One of the most powerful characteristics of the social web is the way it has tended to give the highest profile to those who combine passion with clarity, and transparency with authenticity. And the recombinant possibilities of features like tagging, RSS, aggregation and social networking create an environment where complex interactions can lead to emergence.

  3. Support intense interactions, networking and information exchange among those who have the potential to tip a system in a new direction.
  4. Remove barriers to innovation [and facilitate new interactions].
  5. Conversation, content, connection and collaboration are the lifeblood of the social web. It offers tools to discover others who share your sense of calling, communicate with them across barriers of time and distance, and share ideas along the entire spectrum of media, from the crispness of text to the richness of video.

  6. Speak passionately about the things that really matter to you. Give voice to those you serve who live the problems you want to attack.
  7. The social web's killer application is self-expression – in particular honest, passionate self-expression – and the way it extends the ability to speak and be heard to a larger swath of the human race than at any time in history.

  8. Practise expressing your vision and calling in a way that helps you attract others of like mind and commitment. Be mindful and attentive to the reactions generated by what you say, and use those reactions to form powerful alliances for change.
  9. Take the emblematic medium of self-expression the social web: a blog. Its simple interface allows you to post quickly and easily; its culture encourages you to speak not only with facts and statistics, but with stories and self-revelation. Its newsfeed allows people to subscribe to your blog and then follow it – again, quickly and easily. Tagging allows your content to be discovered by like-minded people. And commenting, trackbacks and keyword search feeds provide a network of conversation and reaction.

  10. Watch for the simple rules that sustain and hold in place the existing system, and work to understand the attractors that will need to change and be confronted in the processes of social transformation. Expect that when real change starts, your own interactions as well as those of others will change. Expect this to feel risky.
  11. The disruptive effects of Web 2.0 technologies have already caused waves in fields like the news media, entertainment and politics. (Ask George Allen how he feels about video-sharing sites some time.) I wouldn't claim for a minute that social media's disruptive impact is predictable, or that they are without their own hierarchies and power structures. But their potential for traversing those structures is enormous.

  12. Support social innovators in getting to maybe by helping them articulate their passion and commitment. Don't prematurely force the passion and commitment of social innovators into the boxes of operational goals and logic models. Rather, stimulate and capture the early articulation of the problem as a baseline for use later, when more formal evaluative thinking becomes appropriate and helpful.
  13. One of the things I love most about the social web is the space it leaves for innovation, and the value it places on an interesting failure. Combined with its cultural openness to self-expression and self-revelation, and you have a space that, at its best, is especially well-suited as an arena for experimentation, floating ideas and honing your vision.

  14. Watch and listen for those who articulate a vision that you share, who are acting on a calling that inspires you. Watch for individuals from whom you can learn [...] Consider your own calling. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself called to social innovation.
  15. Moving almost seamlessly from passive surfing to active participation is one of the most common stories I hear from the social web: you start by reading blogs, wind up commenting on a few, and before you know it you're starting one of your own. You watch YouTube videos, feel moved to leave a few video comments with your webcam, and start to find your own voice. That, and the ability to discover like-minded potential collaborators, can create a powerful upward current for participation.

  16. Allow for imperfections – in yourself and others.
  17. Just off the top of your head, how many Web 2.0 sites have been in beta, oh, forever?

Much of this, I'll readily admit, is still in the column of potential. And the coin is still in the air as to whether Web 2.0 remains a venue for freeform collaboration and creation, or succumbs to the drive to transform it into a rights-managed, closed-platform equivalent of cable TV with a mouse.

But the potential is there. And I suspect the social web broadens the field of potential social innovators well beyond what even the visionary authors of Getting to Maybe had imagined. That's critical... because with humanity facing a bewildering convergence of global-scale challenges ranging from climate change to poverty to peak oil, we need all hands on deck, and the full innovative and imaginative power of our species brought to bear.

* Full disclosure: PLAN is a client of ours, and Getting to Maybe was a gift to us from them.


Melanie McBride says

December 4, 2007 - 11:55am

Can web2.0 change the world? Let's think about youth, schools and teaching.

Teaching in inner city schools is a good place to see the future. On the one hand you've got a lot students engaging in wired, mobile, multitasking activities; on the other they are doing so in the absence of positive social philosophies or critical mindedness.

Contemporary inner city educators are working hard to engage active citizenship, equitable social values and critical literacy and inquiry skills but they're working against a dominant corporate culture that promotes competition, materialism, cruelty and narcissism. By and large, they're taking in social and cultural philosophies that are deeply sociopathic.

The reality shows like Survival and the new breed of Gossip-themed culture is sexed up social Darwinism. Young people aren't stupid but there is a point where they start to say things like "Survivor IS reality. It's the way of the world" - I actually had a student say this to me. And she meant it. I explained that this is, indeed, one "model" of how the world works but that there are many others. Unfortunately, they're only getting this one idea - over and over and over again.

Look at some of the most recent applications in Facebook: "compare" me, "rate" me, "honesty box" ... these apps don't build community, compassion or cooperation but competition. Who is "most" or "least"... "best" or "worst." I literally shiver every time I see one of my so-called "friends" adding one of these apps, which are (in my opinion) transparently sociopathic.

If web2.0 is going to enable any sort of real change, then we have to focus on creating spaces and tools that enable genuine empowerment, learning, citizenship, authentic joy and all those SOFT skill social learnings that our young people are NOT getting from corporate culture.

Here are some of the ideas we need to promote - through applications, tools, services and community philosophies that promote POSITIVE social values and engagement:

- compassion (v. competition)
- empathy (v. narcissism)
- care (v. cruelty)
- mindfulness awareness (v. disconnection)
- citizenship (v. nihilism)
- critical mindedness (v. coercion)
- social consciousness (v. sociopathology)
- social justice (v. social hierarchy)
- equity (v. agency)
- creativity (v. consumerism)

Social Signal on...

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