Thursday 18 August 2011

Digital Demo(cracy)

The recent UK riots highlighted the role of social media and the networks. Key features being the use of BBM (Blackberry messaging) to coordinate among rioters. And the use of Twitter to coordinate @riotcleanup. We also saw examples of citizen journalism: eg Leon Piers, 21 year old in Bristol – who covered riots by cycle & twitter "A guy on a bike & a group of friends, dotted around Bristol, bringing you only CONFIRMED riot news & Keeping you updated so you can stay safe!" And the role in amplifying the story and tracking both it and the public reaction realtime: #londonriots was the trending topic on Twitter one day and #riotcleanup the next.

David Cameron was said to be considering shutting social networks down to prevent their use by rioters. He should be aware that precisely this action by the Egyptian government was what turned a 20,000 activist protest into a 2 million public one (what would you do if the government pulled the plug on internet and phone?)

Also from Arab Spring we learned (as if it needed to be learned) that brands should not try to take the credit for ‘enabling’ such processes: as one Egyptian blogger put it "Never mind the years of activism, the protests, the decades of cumulated grievances, the terrible economic situation, the trampled political freedoms, the police brutality, the torture, etc. Nah - we just watched a Vodafone ad, and thought: 'Hey! We're powerful! Let's topple the president!'" (Mohamed El-Dahshan).

More broadly there has been a stream of successful challenges to corporate and government power, particularly around the theme of information, secrecy and privacy. Wikileaks successfully opened government in the way that was often promised but never delivered. The Newscorp phone hacking scandal lifted the lid on journalistic ethics and celebrity. And more importantly on corporate governance as the debate about who knew (and hence who should go to prison) continues. The Murdoch campaign was partly coordinated by Avaaz, which is a growing force in galvanizing and coordinating public pressure.

What many are starting to recognize though is that the role of social media has been limited mostly so far to digital demos; attacks on the status quo from the fringes, or solutions for when society is under extreme stress – like Ushahidi for mapping election violence or in disaster relief - rather than citizens getting involved in the everyday running of society. I heard recently that there is a UN project underway working with some leading global innovators in technology to look at developing positive applications for everyday democracy.

True digital democracy is still cut short by the “leave it to us” model. 1 in 7 American voters took active part in the Obama campaign, but once he got in it seemed to be back to business as usual (meetings with lobbyists behind closed doors) and an administration quickly bogged down in climate backtracking and healthcare reform. In the UK you can now at least table a proposal to be debated in the House of Commons if 100,000 sign your petition. Stimulated by the UK riots, 2 million did visit this site in the first two weeks and the first petition has achieved its goal, with 208,000 signing a proposal that “Convicted London Rioters should lose (social security) benefits”. Meanwhile in America a new scheme called Americans Elect looks set to offer voters the ability to nominate their own presidential candidate; it is accredited so far in 4 states, has passed the crucial 1.6 million signature test in California and the organisers say they expect to be accredited in all states by 2012.

One criticism of direct digital democracy is that few people can actually be bothered to get involved. So that you will get rule passed to those with time on their hands (as is often seen in online forums) regardless of their actual merits. But the evidence is that with the right scheme you can actually get mass participation. There were 76 million votes cast in the $20m community cause giveaway scheme Pepsi Refresh.

Another is that the ill-educated public will always make kneejerk choices and proposals of the “take away the benefits of convicted rioters” or “bring back hanging” variety. It is true that a thriving democracy relies on educated citizens. But having spent the last fifteen years exploring digital lifelong learning models I would suggest that if you give people a meaningful, compelling and relevant decision to make then (and only then) they will inform themselves perfectly well using search; just as they would around issues like a child’s health symptoms or a legal problem. For instance working with an ethical coffee company last year, one of my suggestions was to allow consumers to set their own price buying online; but to do so by moving sliders to decide how much money should go to farmers, community, development projects and so on; taking Fairtrade to the next level. Of course if having deeply researched a subject people still want to make choices which are unfair or illiberal, it is their society: the principle which Socrates literally died for.

The questions posed by digital media to democracy, are in many ways the same ones which they pose to all old world institutions, including companies and brands. As Nicolas Negroponte wrote in Being Digital in 1995, the media are not just restructuring how messages are distributed, but actually who is in control; moving from a passive audience to active participant or agent. We have adjusted our style of marketing accordingly; for instance modeling strategy on (computer) gaming. But we have hardly changed the democratic access to real decisions a company makes. So that so far it is only protests – by eBay users over a new feature, by a passenger whose guitar was broken by United Airlines, by green leaning Apple fans – which have brought any real response.

But we are starting to see companies embrace a truly participative way of operating, for instance in open innovation. It is most obvious in the case of digital brands where the users create the value – for instance the 15 million user logged venues in Foursquare. And there is just the distant possibility that in future every brand will be more mutualized and democratic. The customer as citizen. Might this not be the key to the value most desired and most distant in all modern marketing – loyalty?

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