The RSA and Social Media, A Wider Role?

It was the desire to influence, in a small way, the thinking that would go into next year’s National Digital Inclusion Conference that prompted me to add a comment to Mathew Taylor’s Blog in response to his posting on Digital Inclusion. As a consequence I have followed, with great interest, the other comments and have seen the social media theme emerge perhaps not surprisingly as this is, after all, the RSA. Social media has the power to engage, to empower, to develop skills and to provide a cohesive focus for community activity. Everything you want from a digital inclusion agenda in fact. It remains to be seen whether this strong support engages more of the final 29% or whether it just develops the capacity of the already engaged. The role of the RSA fellows should, in my view, go beyond driving the social media agenda because it can play an wider role, as I see it, as a critical friend in three specific areas: to practitioners, the state and to commercial partners.

There is a Marxist ideal behind social media because it gives the power of production to the people. My first question would be: who controls the message? There is a risk that the level of understanding required to make the most of the media vernacular needs a real skill, possibly even talent, to make full use of the vocabulary and syntax of production. If you take Panorama from the BBC and Dispatches from Channel 4, both public broadcasters, and remove the credits and the adverts to leave just the sound and the images you know anyway which organisation made which programme, just as you can understand which newspaper column comes from the Daily Telegraph and which from the Independent. Social media doesn’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, seek to operate at that commercial level but in our desire to develop the skills within the community how do we ensure that the voice is the community voice and not the voice of the social media expert? Bryan Appleyard’s article in The Sunday Times Magazine, 03/05/2009 looked at the technology changes of the last 20 years and focussed on the iphone as the icon of change in 2009. His premise was that technology, despite its advances, doesn’t make us better people . That assumes that a social improvement role for technology and sees us as technology consumers, not producers. Bryan cites the apocryphal quote from Henry Ford ” ‘If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.’ Only Henry knew they wanted a car. This is the unspoken motto of the technocracy. Then they tell us what we want and then, mysteriously, we find we need it. ”

There is another area in which I believe the RSA should be active. How does the State get its messages across to the people? What is the reaction of the state when it can no longer get its message across or when the messages from the people are louder? We see examples of the potential responses across the world and the most extreme in China. There are more subtle approaches, for instance, devaluing the currency of a media channel so that it holds less worth. While Twitter may be the combined voice of the masses today it’s a short step to make it the idle chatter of the masses tomorrow.

The third area where I feel the RSA Fellows can be a force for good lies in the commercial sector. What is the reaction of the commercial sector when it no longer controls the market in information? I don’t know how many people heard Tom Steinberg’s angry young man presentation in the e-Engagement workshop. At the time, it didn’t do it for me and I suspect for others either. I have yet to be persuaded that we fully understand the value chain in a knowledge economy. There was an article in The Sunday Times Business Section by Dominic Rushe entitled “Hold Those Front Pages for the Net” which looks at how traditional print in America is being forced on line by falling revenues from advertising and increased costs of production. Dominic cites an American publisher: “The big problem was not a lack of interest or information but the economics that have underpinned what we have called journalism.” The response of the industry has been at a number of levels: “Papers fought back online,….. Other American papers have pursued ‘hyper-local’ news, generated by readers, as a way to claw back readership. The idea is to create citizen journalists to cover everything from the cat-up-a-tree story to the ins and outs of the local school. …. the local initiative was yet to bear fruit.”

Some of this is familiar ground, on line editions and targeted local news but what emerges as the front runner for the revived economy is premium information:

“There is an enormous opportunity now for publishers to look beyond advertising, to go back to the roots of the industry and create enough value in this space for some number of readers to be willing to pay for access to their content”

There is already a business venture underway for the establishment of an online payment system to coordinate payments across a network of news organisations….. “Not everyone will pay for information online but for those who value in depth news, charges will become the norm.”

The crux of Tom Steinberg’s presentation was that London Transport wouldn’t let him have access to timetables for a community accessible web development. In hindsight I’m not surprised that London Transport wouldn’t let him have their timetable. It’s information and the value of that information is in how up to date it is, and in who controls that. It’s not, nor need it be, public domain. I can just as surely go to the London transport site and be exposed to the advertising sold by them on the back of that information, just as I value the concurrency of the information at its source. What then of the role of the RSA here? There is a danger here of a two tier information system with the greatest value attached to the premium information which is controlled by the market place. A good example today would be the stock market or Reuters. If this were to become the norm then the currency of social media could be devalued to the point where the voice it gives to the people is so small as not to be heard. This is not about competition, this is about currency and value creation from social content.

There is a role for the RSA as a strong critical friend which is able to talk to the social media drivers, the State interests and the commercial partners. In this way it helps to ensure that the people’s voice will not only find new channels through which to be heard but it will be heard clearly, it will be valued because it has currency and validity because it is really the voice of the people and that will be a force for good. Maybe Bryan Appleyard will be able to write again in 20 years time how technology used for production has made us better people.

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