Tag Archives: Mobile Phones

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.

The revolution will not be televised

Or the importance of being both good and original.

While I’m not a big fan of musicians reworking past hits, I’m beginning to wonder if we should ask Gil Scott-Heron to run up a new version of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. He made a good point then: that real change comes from the people dealing with the day-to-day challenges, not the people talking about them. His point still holds today. Web 2.0 might be where the buzz is, but the real revolution will emerge from the child care workers, farmers, folk working in Starbucks, and all the other people who live outside the limelight.

There appears to be a disconnect between the technology community—the world of a-list bloggers, venture capital, analysts, (non-)conferences, etc.—and the people who doing real things. The world we technologists live in is not the real world. The real world is people going out and solving problems and trying to keep their head above water, rather than worrying about their blog, twitter, venture funding, or the new-new thing. This is the world that invented micro-credit, where fishermen off the african coast use a mobile phones to find the market price of their cash, and where farmers in Australia are using Web 2.0 (not that they care what it is) to improve their farm management. These people don’t spend their time blogging since they’re too busy trying to improve the world around them. Technology will not change the world on its own; however real people solving real problems will.

We’re all too caught up in the new-new thing. A wise friend of mine often makes the point that we have more technology than we can productively use; perhaps it’s time to take a breather from trying to create the new-new-new thing, look around the world, and see what problems we can solve with the current clutch of technologies we have. The most impressive folk I’ve met in recent years don’t blog, vlog, twitter or spend their time changing their Facebook profile. They’re focused on solving their problems using whatever tools are available.

Mesh Collaboration
Mesh Collaboration

Which I suppose brings me to my point. In a world where we’re all communicating with each other all of the time—the world of mesh collaboration—it’s all to easy to mistake the medium for the message. We get caught up in the sea of snippets floating around us, looking for that idea that will solve our problem and give us a leg up on the competition. What we forget is that our peers and competitors are all swimming in the same sea of information, so the ideas we’re seeing represent best practice at best. The mesh is a great leveler, spreading information evenly like peanut butter over the globe, but don’t expect it to provide you with that insight that will help you stand out from the
crowd.

Another wise friend makes the equally good point that in the mesh it’s not enough to be good: you need to both good and original. The mesh doesn’t help you with original. Original is something that bubbles up when our people in the field struggle with real problems and we give them the time, space, and tools to explore new ways of working.

A great example is the rise in sharity blogs. The technical solution to sharing music files is to create peer-to-peer (P2P) applications—applications, which a minority of internet users use to consume the majority of the available bandwidth. However, P2P is too complicated for many people (involving downloading and installing software, finding a torrent seeds, and learning a new language including terms like torrent seed) and disconnected from the music communities. Most of the music sharing action has moved onto sharity blogs. Using free blogging and file sharing services (such as Blogger and RapidShare, respectively) communities are building archives of music that you can easily download, archives which you can find via a search engines and which are integrated (via links) into the communities and discussions around them. The ease of plugging together a few links lets collectors focus on being original; putting their own spin on the collection they are building, be it out of print albums, obscure artists or genres, or simply whatever they can get their hands on.

What can we learn from this? When we develop our new technology and/or Web 2.0 strategy, we need to remember that what we’re trying to do is provide our team with a new tool to help them do a better job. Deploying Web 2.0 as a new suite of information silos, disconnected from the current work environment, will create yet another touch point for our team members to navigate as they work toward their goals. This detracts from their work, which is what they’re really interested in, resulting in them ignoring the new application as it seems more trouble than it is worth. The mesh is a tool to be used and not an end in itself, and needs to be integrated into and support the existing work environment in a way that makes work easer. This creates the time and space for our employees to explore new ideas and new ways of working, helping them to become both good and original.

Update: Swapped the image of Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of Man for an embedded video of The revolution will not be televised, at the excellent suggestion of Judith Ellis.