Sunday, 17 May 2009

Benign revolution or mob rule?

The manifesto for social media, the film Us Now, can now be watched online.

For 60 minutes a succession of digital gurus, including Clay Shirky, state their case. Any villager should be gladdened to hear such committed advocacy for a 'gift economy', 'collaboration' and a new take on community spirit. The movie brings to life many of the examples quoted in Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody. Appearances from politicians like Ed Milliband and George Osborne have added piquancy given the current revelations about expense claims in the British House of Commons.

And yet... It sounds churlish but the utopian zeal, for this villager at least, comes close to undermining the whole case. "If you could actually combine that innate intelligence {of} millions of different opinions from people with different perspectives you would end up with fantastic policies," says one contributor. True, but that is the holy grail of democratic politics. The absence of any detailed discussion of power, conflict or decision making on complex issues suggests it would be foolish to assume that social media is the path to democratic utopia. Another voice adds that the new freedoms powered by technology would open the way for people to "go round the side of representative democracy." Chilling, if you push the notion to extremes.

A more moderate view pops up near the end of the film and concludes that what might be a revolution to Clay Shirky is "not a recipe which will work in every situation."

Despite villager's scepticism this is a film which every PR practitioner should see. Nobody will look at one-dimensional stakeholder maps in quite the same way again.

Postscript: Strange to report, but the accompanying Us Now blog is a pretty lifeless affair. Perhaps the film said it all. Or people agreeing with each other makes for poor blog copy.


  1. Yo villager. Methinks the MP's expenses scandal aptly proves your point if public comments are anything to go by, such as 'bring back the stocks so we can throw rotten veg at them'. Our wide-spread instant communications are truly amazing, but not much good for crowd control...

  2. You might be on to something Snowbird. Who said direct communications was new? You can't get much more direct than lobbing rotten veg. Maybe gatekeepers shouldn't be dismissed quite so readily?

  3. I agree with your "too many cooks and all that" analogy. We will never get complete agreement or consensus and everyone all talking at once just creates a din like a boozy drinks party (but, in your example, a whole lot less fun) and, of course, it has been tried before. Remember Tony Blair's Big Conversation where we could all have our say? I don't remember hearing of many positive outcomes from that... Now, Grunig's two way symmetrical communications can work but there still needs to be a direction, strategy and some idea of what the desired outcome will be.