Social media: bubble, definitely not; revolution, probably not; evolution, absolutely

Is Social Media in general (and mobility in particular) a bubble or revolution? Is it a a powerful and disruptive force that will transform governments and social organisations? Or is it no? There seems to be a few{{1}} people{{2}} pondering this question

[[1]]The video above is less than a minute long. Please … @ bryan.vc[[1]]
[[2]]Is The Mobile Phone Our Social Net? @ AVC[[2]]

Mobile phones are interesting as they are addressable. Two-way radios made communication mobile a long time ago, but it wasn’t until mobile phones (and cheap mobile phones, specifically) that we could address someone on the move, or someone on the move could address a stationary person or service.

The second and third world showed us the potential of this technology over ten year ago, from the fishermen using their phones to market and sell their catch while still on the boat, through to the distributed banking based on pre-paid mobile phone cards. Image/video sharing is just the latest evolution in this.

The idea that this might be a revolution seems to be predicated on the technology’s ability to topple centrally planned and controlled organisations. Oddly enough, central planning is a bad enough idea to fall over on its own in many cases, and the only effect of mobile technology is to speed up a process which is already in motion. The Soviet Union might well be the poster child for this: collapsing under the weight of it’s own bureaucracy with no help from social media (or mobile phones, for that matter). Even modern democracies are not immune, and the US energy regulation policies leading up to deregulation in the late 70s is a great example of the failures of central planning{{3}}. The (pending) failure of some of today’s more centralised, and authoritarian regimes, would be more accurately ascribed to the inability of slow moving, centrally managed bureaucracies to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Distributed planning always trumps central planning in a rapidly changing environment.

[[3]]The Role of Petroleum Price and Allocation Regulations in Managing Energy Shortages @ Annual Review of Energy[[3]]

If we pause for a moment, we can see that governments do a few distinct things for us.

  • They provide us with what is seen as essential services.
  • They create a platform to enforce social norms (policies and laws).
  • They engage with the rest of the world on our behalf.

The reality is that many of the essential services that government provides are provided by the government because it’s too difficult or expensive for citizens (and to some extent, corporations) to access the information they need to run these services themselves. Mobile phones (and social media) are just the latest in a series of technologies that have changed these costs, enabling companies and citizens to take responsibility for providing services which, previously, were the sole domain of government. From energy, water and telecoms, through FixMyStreet and the evolving use of social media in New Orleans, Haiti and then Queensland during their respective natural disasters, we can see that this is a long running and continuing trend. Government is migrating from a role of providing all services, to one where government helps facilitate our access to the services we need. Expect this to continue, and keep building those apps.

As a platform for agreeing and enforcing social norms, then it’s hard to see anything replacing government in the short to mid term. (As always, the long term is completely up for grabs.) These social norms are geographical – based on the people you interact with directly on a day-to-day basis – and not virtual. Social media provides a mechanism for government to broaden the conversation. Some governments are embracing this, others, not so much. However, while people like to be consulted, they care a lot more about results. (Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs{{4}}.) Singapore has a fairly restrictive and controlling government, which has (on the whole) a very happy population. China is playing a careful game of balancing consultation, control and outcomes, and seems to doing this successfully.

[[4]]Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs @ Abraham-Maslow[[4]]

Finally we come to the most interesting question: government as a means for us to engage with the rest of the world. In this area, government’s role has shrunk in scope but grown in importance. Globalisation and the Internet (as a communication tool) has transformed societies, making it cheaper to call friends across the globe than it is to call them around the corner. We all have friends in other countries, cross-border relationships are common, and many of us see ourselves as global citizens. At the same time, the solutions to many of today’s most pressing issues, such as global warming, have important aspects which can only be addressed by our representatives on the global stage.

So we come back to the question at hand: is social media a bubble, a revolution, or an evolution of what has come before.

It’s hard to see it as a bubble: the changes driven by social media are obviously providing real value so we can expect them to persist and expand. I was particularly impressed by how the Queensland government had internalised a lot of the good ideas from the use of social media{{5}} in the Victorian fires, Haiti et al.

[[5]]Emergency services embrace Social Media @ Social Media Daily[[5]]

We can probably discount revolution too, as social media is (at most) a better communication tool and not a new theory of government. (What would Karl Marx think?) However, by dramatically changing the cost of communication it is having a material impact of the role government in our lives{{6}}. Government, and the society it represents is evolving in response.

[[6]]The changing role of government @ PEG[[6]]

The challenge is to keep political preference separate from societal need. While you might yearn for the type of society that Ayn Rand only ever dreamed about, other people find your utopia more akin to one of Dante’s seven circles of hell. Many of the visions for Gov 2.0 are political visions – individuals’ ideas for how they would organise an ideal society – rather than views of how technology can best be used to support society as a whole.

China is the elephant in this room. If social media is a disruptive, revolutionary force, then we can expect China’s government to topple. What appears more likely is that China will integrate social media into its toolbox while it focuses on keeping its population happy, evolving in the process. As long as they deliver the lower half of Maslow’s Hierarchy, they’ll be fairly safe. After all, the expulsion of governments and organisations – the revolution that social media is involved in – is due to these organisations’ inability to provide for the needs of their population, rather than any revolutionary compulsion inherent in the technology itself.

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