A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a 2-day gathering co-hosted by my visionary entrepreneurial friend, Lisa Gansky. Most recently Lisa has been exploring a set of ideas that she published in her book, "The Mesh," describing the different ways that sharing is better than owning. The gathering, co-sponsored by the EU, among others, was designed to apply Lisa's ideas to cities, and to look at the intersection of social media and social innovation.
(Small digression: One of Peter Drucker's many prescient observations was his comment that, when it comes to innovation, there is more opportunity when it comes to social innovation than any other field. As we watch traditional institutions and conventional categories of work, life, belief, and politics suffer a succession of system failures, it seems clear that innovation applied to our social operating systems can offer new, better, smarter, cheaper, and more efficient ways of living together. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.)
At the end of the gathering I came away convinced that social media and social innovation represent the frontier of change.
To try to clarify my own thinking, I sat down and interviewed myself.
Here's an edited and shortened transcript of that interview.
Q: How does social media create social change?
A: Remember back in the 1990s when the slogan you heard everywhere was "the web changes everything"? And it did. Well, social media is the next wave of web-ification that once again changes everything. It doesn't change only social innovation, but applied to social innovation, it is a powerful tool for clarity, speed, efficiency, personalization--and a different way of organizing how we do things, individually and together.
Q: Say more about this, please.
A: It turns everything it touches upside down and inside out. It takes old established businesses, industries, business models, transaction relationships, operating principles, economic relationships and destabilizes them. Cuts the ground out from underneath them. Makes them look ridiculous. It democratizes everything it touches. Social media helped advance Arab Spring and it is at work with Anonymous in unmasking a variety of social outrages. For good or for ill.
It takes the old, long-standing power relationships and flips them. Companies, even non-profits with old and established ways of relating to their customers suddenly find their authority undermined by a social technology that puts the individual person at the center of their own universe. Markets are preserved; in fact, markets are enhanced as an equal-opportunity location where we can take an offering of our own or find a host of different offerings on display--without having to go through expensive third-party market-makers and rent-takers.
But there's more. It's harder and harder to hold on to secrets. Positions of privilege and unassailable authority are hard to hold on to, simply by asserting the old mantras of wealth, prestige, and inside information. Social media is fundamentally a powerful force for social change.
Q: So where do you see examples of social change happening via social media?
A: Turn it around. Pretty much everywhere you see social media you will see social change. Lisa documents this connection with example after example in "The Mesh." And it's on the front page of newspapers, in magazines, on the web whenever there's a story about innovation or new social practices. A piece in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday described how The Gap and other retailers are tweaking to the new practice among young people to swap their clothes rather than buy new outfits--and how social media helps create the swap marketplaces. Kickstarter has gotten a lot of attention for dramatically altering the way we can finance all kinds of artistic projects; Facebook is about to go public at the same time that it almost becomes passe.
One of the metaphors that Lisa introduced at the gathering was in the form of a question: "How is a city like a platform?"
In other words, how does social media, applied to the way we live in cities, transform virtually every aspect of urban life? How does it change transportation? Elder care? Day care? How does it change the use of office space and office buildings? Education? Getting mundane tasks done? If you map city life differently, do you change the way city life is lead--where people go to pursue all kinds of different interests, from playing basketball to painting to skateboarding to eating at food trucks?
Ultimately, I'm convinced that social media changes our cities from nouns to verbs.
We don't have a "department of transportation," we have a "moving around app."
We don't have a "department of commerce," we have a "buying and selling app."
We focus on how to make more innovative things happen--on the doing, the enabling, the connecting, the improving, the entrepreneuring, the incubating.
Cities should have a whole different social architecture, reflected in new categories that City Hall accepts, starting, I'd suggest, with a new "measuring app."
Start measuring the city in innovative ways; analyze the real cost of the status quo when it comes to a host of accepted urban practices, from parking meters to cab fares, from office rents to hotel rooms.
Social media looks very attractive when you start to see how it leads to innovation and lower costs!
Q: Are there things that don't change?
A: Absolutely! Like most "this changes everything" technologies, social media builds off of a set of old and established institutional frameworks and practices. Markets, for one. This doesn't do away with markets; it simply goes even further than the web in dis-intermediating them. But markets, like diamonds, are forever. Information, for another. The value of information is one of the oldest precepts of capitalism. Friction is another. Friction adds costs; social media takes out some of the friction. And some of the costs. Personalization. Trust. These don't disappear; some get amplified, some get re-invented, some get moved in terms of who holds the reins.
Q: Are there problems associated with this intersection of social media and social change?
A: How couldn't there be? Think of social media/social change as a powerful new tool, a new source of energy, a new competitive capability. A force that destabilizes the status quo. Where ever we see the ground shifting underneath the status quo, we see the potential for enormous social good and untold social destruction. The same force that can offer new solutions to people looking for more control and less cost in their health care, for example, also opens them up to scam artists, fraudsters, and worse. When we first witnessed Arab Spring, the reports were full of hope and expectation, and focused on the use of social media to spread the message and mobilize the people; now the stories are about how reality isn't living up to the early promise of change, and the backlash may be ugly. Social media doesn't guarantee outcomes or happy endings; it's a tool, and like all tools, how we use it says more about us than it says about the tool.
When it comes to social media, the technology and adoption of it is moving much faster than our capacity to generate social mores or legal instruments to buffer or restrain some of these anti-social social media instincts.
So the answer is, yes, there is cause for concern and for open discussion about the abuses that already have taken place, the inevitable mistakes and mis-steps that will add questions to some of these innovations, and the need for heightened awareness, new practices, innovative protections, and even new individual behaviors.
This is real life; so there will always be ways to take a powerful new tool and twist it in a way that applies it for things that are ugly, offensive, dangerous, even criminal.
But social media and social innovation are rushing ahead, and the opportunities to amplify positive change in a wide array of applications through this combination of technological software and human software are enormously exciting.
All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb