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Saturday, March 22, 2003

Social Software is Real

Its one thing to say that Social Software, like all technologies, could be skewed for malicious ends.  But its another thing to say that technologies that enable conversations to build social capital erode democracy and political participation.  And its is just plain ignorant to say that increased conversations between citizens enable coercive control by a state.  In fact, it is just the opposite, a society without social capital between its citizens fosters totalitarianism.

In the most unclueful populist hyperbole I have read, Social Software - get real, Martyn Perks the IT columnist of Sp!iked, derides social software and the role of social capital in democracy.  He should be credited for calling into question the political implications of technology.  As designers and implementers we need to consider the consequences of our technologies.  But the article centers on the BBC Online's iCan project -- a social software project to build social capital in local communities to foster democratic participation -- and claims its means and ends are misguided with flawed logic.

The article takes issue with initiatives to build social capital through technology and if its the real problem in political life.  On social capital, it borrows misguided logic from another opinion piece by the same rag:

The technology behind social software is not the problem. Rather, it is the application of the technology that is limited. Talk of rebuilding social capital by establishing social networks through social software, is, as Jennie Bristow puts it elsewhere on spiked, 'a prescription for social control (or social cohesion, if you like)'. And forcing through policy to connect people together, whether they like it or not, is a sign of 'deep distrust of the allegiances and choices that people make when left to their own devices'.

Bristow's article fails to provide a causal link for campaigns to encourage building social capital is coercive.  Connections are not being 'forced,' and the rationale is not because of distrust of the way people form relationships, its the opposite -- believing in citizens and their right to associate outside of the state.  This trust in citizenry doesn't exist in totalitarian regimes, it should in democracies.  

The paradox is that the drive by advocates of social software to rebuild connections between individuals, is really about top-down coercion - even though it masquerades as bottom-up participation. Social software claims to put the citizen back at the center of political life, but in reality, such dumbed-down participation reduces citizenship to the mere consumption of information and services.

Perks' article fails to provide a causal link for how social software dumbs-down participation.  A more connected citizenry does not lead to isolated consumption, its the opposite -- citizens deliberate the issues for informed opinions and resultant group forming creates constituencies politicians must recognize or they will activate themselves as Smart Mobs. 

What both the mainstream politicians and the social software advocates fail to register, is that most people are unmotivated by politics because the content sucks. Innovation in networking technology is vital, but encouraging greater access to the political process isn't going to reap the expected returns.

The real consequence of the discussion around social software is a cheapening of participation. Ross Mayfield, who runs a weblog devoted to discussing social software, argues: 'as the cost for forming issue groups falls, expect similar groups and coalitions to form around otherwise less fundable issues.' [Distribution of Influence] For Mayfield, low-cost engagement brings more diversity to the table. But by reducing the meaning of political debate, we only reinforce the helpless feeling of being consumers first and foremost, and citizens second.

Again, I don't see the link between low cost group formation and cheapening participation.  Its the opposite -- if the cost of forming a group is high, there is less diversity of groups to join, people join groups they a real affinity with and thus will not participate if their choices do not match their needs.  What's more, increased social capital and conversations may enable citizens to discover affinities they otherwise would not have through deliberation.

Which system would you rather be a part of?  One where the only social ties you should form are with the state or one where you can freely associate at a low cost to engage with the state.  The former is communism which leads to totalitarian control.  Which by the way would still exist in Eastern Europe if a civil society built upon social capital didn't rise up against it.  The latter is an open democracy, and I'll take that, thank you.

6:16:05 AM    comment []

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