Friday afternoon’s session at the RSA – looking at the ‘Social Impact of the Web’ – was more stimulating than I expected. There was very little mention of technology, and a lot about community and communities.
Andrew Chadwick from Royal Holloway offered three things we should celebrate about social media, which all seemed to be the same basic point about consumers becoming able to produce. He went on to offer three negatives.
I take his point about the ‘social narcissism’ that can develop. When I saw ‘the shift to video’ listed as one of his negatives, I expected this to be a point about the extra time and financial commitment needed to do video, putting it out of the reach of most potential contributors. But no – his point was about the continuation of soundbite culture. And I’m really not sure about his third point, regarding the ‘production/consumption divide’. Guess what – most people aren’t blogging. Would we ever expect them to? For me, the new tools provide a means for people with something to say, to say it. Those most likely to use the tools, I’d suggest, now have the tools.
Which leads neatly on to Tom Steinberg from MySociety. Several speakers would later pick up Tom’s points that ‘it’s the tools which are transformational’; they argued that it’s the people who are transformational. But I think Tom had it right. It does take both… but we already have the people. Yes, it takes a train driver to drive a train, but all those people stuck at Reading station are going nowhere unless there’s a train in the first place. (And yes, I had a tricky journey home.)
Cass Sunstein‘s closing session didn’t sound gripping – does the web need a constitution? Er, no it doesn’t, end of. But his talk was mainly about the problem of group polarisation – where basically, if you put a bunch of likeminded people in a group, they tend to make each other more extreme. I’ve since found a paper he wrote several years ago on this topic, but obviously, the social web gives it a whole new dimension.
His references to Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory, and the need for ‘unexpected encounters with diversity’ struck a chord. We need public spaces, he said, where views can be expressed and exchanged – and you might come away thinking differently. It was suggested that the BBC might be that public space in the UK, but that previous attempts had fallen flat. I’m inclined to agree: there is a gap in the market for something like this. I guess Comment Is Free comes closest… but the Guardian brand means it’s off-limits to many. It sounds like Matthew Taylor has plans in this field for the RSA itself.