Is the potential for social media to change the world over-hyped, or are social change organisations too slow in seeing the potential? If change is coming, will nonprofits be by-passed as we start to organise without old-style organisations? Does it all depend upon context?
A new book, and recent conference sessions, raised these questions for me yet again.
Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody leaves us in no doubt about his view of the potential for Web 2.0 to change the world:
Everywhere you look, groups of people are coming together to share with one another, work together, or take some kind of public action. For the first time in history, we have tools that truly allow for this.
In the same way the printing press amplified the individual mind and the telephone amplified two-way conversation, now a host of new tools, from instant messages and mobile phones to weblogs and wikis, amplify group communication. And because we are natively good at working in groups, this amplification of group effort will change more than business models: it will change society.
It's another step on from Charles Leadbeater's We-Think ... We-Act together, differently. I've been reading the book, and Clay's blog, at the same time that I'm editing some video from the recent Circuit Riders conference. There's a big gap between Clay's vision for the future, and what I heard from people who are currently providing front line technology support to nonprofits that are in the business of social change. Who is more realistic? There's a video of Clay speaking recently here, and you can see him in person at the RSA on March 18.
Here's the videos from the opening session of the conference, where Circuit Riders talk about the reality of using new technology tools on the front line. The session were skillfully facilitated by Marc Osten from Summit Collaborative, and I asked him to provide me with a recap on the two questions he posed... firstly about whether Web 2.0 tools are available to change the world, and then whether Circuit Riders have the skills to satisfy the organisations they serve.
Here then is video of the first session, where the question was whether tools are available. Some people felt they were, and were being used - giving as an example the recent Parliament roof protest where protestors used a mobile phone to talk to the world directly via news media. Others were more sceptical.
We then moved on to the second question - whether Circuit Riders had the skills needed to satisfy their client organisations.
This second question brought a rich discussion about the need for both technology skills and those necessary to help organisations plan and change. I think the discussion gives us some insights into ways we can address the questions I posed at the beginning - and consider whether they are the right questions.
Much of Clay's book is about how people who may not not have operated together before can use the Net for a whole range of purposes. Almost all the Circuit Riders discussion was about how to help existing groups adopt technology which is often unfamilar to them and may not have immediately obvious benefits.
I'm sure we will see more and more of the organising without organisations that Clay describes. At the same time, people will continue to organise by meeting and working together using a range of old and new communication tools. The issue is perhaps what works for whom, and in what circumstances.
I also ran a workshop at the conference with Laura Whitehead and Nick Booth. There's an excellent conference round-up from Laura here, and reports on the workshop from Paul Henderson and Beth Kanter, who joined us by video from Boston.
I also posted an item to The Membership Project, where I'm developing a new site, with others, to explore how the social web and other factors are changing the ways in which we may belong to groups and organisations. My posted was triggered by hearing at the conference one Circuit Rider say, a little ruefully, "The committee won't go for it". I guess the key issue then is whether you think we will continue to need committees or not. Even The Tuttle Club, where Lloyd Davis is organically growing a social media cafe, is getting a bit more formal with a move towards incorporation. Will there be virtual Board meetings?