RSA conference on The Social Impact of the Web

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.

4 thoughts on “RSA conference on The Social Impact of the Web”

  1. All in all, some good food for thought today – particuarly Andrew and Tom’s sessions which you’ve pitched about right.
    Good to finally meet you too, if only for a few seconds.

  2. Hi Simon, I’m glad my talk got you thinking.
    Just to pick you up on my point about the production/consumption divide. My argument essentially revolves around what kind of society and politics we wish to see: a participatory culture in which technology enables more people to take part in debate and the knowledge production process, or a more elitist model in which web 2.0 becomes simply a reinforcement of existing patterns? I suspect we’re seeing a mixture of these trends, but I do think it’s worth making the point that the producer/consumer divide now sits as an extra layer on top of the ‘access’ divide that usually dominates ‘digital divide’ discussions.
    A thoroughly enjoyable event.

  3. I meant to ask the speakers and audience to come up with a better catch-all name than Web 2.0 for the whole phenomenon. The trouble with Web 2.0 is that is a turn-off for ordinary human beings.
    I thought “Social networking” better, until my grandson, Josh, 13, pointed out that “You Tube” is not social networking. Nor is “TheyWorkForYou” etc. I respect Josh’s views more than most adults, because his generation are the real users.
    Does anybody have any ideas. It is important to find one, because people will not accept it unless the name means something.

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