Whether the environment, poverty or peace, almost all of today's challenges are also dealt with in one or in another way through the Internet. Online social networks play an increasingly important role in connecting people and offering spaces where groups of individuals can work on solutions and push for change. There are fascinating examples from local to global engagement.What are the different forms of engagement and who takes part in them?
The ease of forming groups
There are two main pillars: Firstly, through the social web it has becomes increasingly easy to find and connect with people sharing common interests and worldviews. Secondly, it is getting easier by the day to set-up online groups online, attract followers and see them coalesce around a shared vision or common mission.
Clay Shirky highlights a social factor in his book "Here comes Everybody": "Ridiculously easy group-forming matters, because the desire to be part of a group that shares, cooperates, or acts in concert is a basic human instinct that has always been constrained by transaction costs." “Everywhere you look, groups of people are coming together to share with one another, work together, or take some kind of public action. For the first time in history, we have tools that truly allow for this.”
Different forms of engagement
Participating in social networks can be very different, for example, from passive sharing to active problem solving. Gaurav Mishra has elaborated the "4Cs Social Media Framework", which helps look at the different forms of engagement. I adopted it slightly and describe each level through different examples.
It all starts with sharing information between people, by publishing content, to let each other know about certain issues and create conversations. It can be by simply sharing a common tag such as web2fordev to collect bookmarks or to use the same hashtags such as #iranelection when spreading news about the recent election in Iran.
This way, far-off individuals can find each other in a spontaneous and informal manner and form networks. It has never been that easy to locate people with similar interests. Lisa Campbell did an interesting study about mobile social networks in Costa Rica and describes how Twitter and Hi5 are gradual forming networks of like minded people. She emphasises how these connections are increasingly fostered by interactions via mobile phones. For example Hi5 has a mobile version in 26 languages. Online networks engaged in development cooperation can be found with the spectrum of DGroups.org.
At the higher level of engagement, people actually start jointly creating things by using text, audio or video. Such efforts are well represented by Wikis, such as the Water Wiki, with the contribution of many other organizations or on dot.sub where volunteers translate the subtitles of videos in their preferred languages.
Collective action can materialise in many ways. For example, people can act collectively in the name of a cause or for expressing their grievances. This happened last year when 50,000 Estonians where mobilized over the web to clean up garbage throughout their country in one day; or in Egypt, where a Facebook group grew to 70.000 members supporting the strike of textile workers in a matter of days. The group triggered a lot of discussion on democracy in Egypt but it did not lead to street protests due the unwillingness of the government to allow demonstrations. Another example is a campaign to rally against the FARC in Colombia. The Facebook group, “A Million Voices Against FARC,” initiated rallies that took place in 165 cities across the globe.
On a higher level, this collective action can generate communities, which differently from an ad-hoc network, have a sustained collaboration and a shared goal. Such is Nabuur.com, existing since 2001, where over 17.000 volunteers try to help villages in developing countries. This online help network is used by participants from around the world to discuss approaches to development, generate ideas, and obtain feedback. For example the "Zero Waste Management project" in Bweyogerere in Uganda can improve its immediate local context through such web enabled support. The Public Participation GIS community is another example with its close to 2000 members active across the globe and collaborating on a number of initiatives at different levels all dealing with participatory spatial information management and communication.
Examples of collective actions towards the implementation of a joint project or more specifically towards the development of a shared product are the communities populating the galaxy of free/open source software (FOSS). Notable examples are the communities which work on the development Content Management Systems like Joomla, Drupal, or other applications like Openstreetmaps.
Real Life Impact
So, higher forms of collective action can have spill-over effects to the real world, for example, improve a situation and create communities to work on more solutions for pressuring problems. One last interesting example exemplifying the whole above described engagement, is the project around Ushahidi, where human rights activists offer a platform that crowdsources crisis information. Although the tool itself has generated a lot of enthusiasm, equally interesting is how it has developed so far. It started with befriended bloggers, who as I understood, got to know each other through their blogs and formed a network of similar interests. That led to a collaboration in the post-election crisis of Kenya, where some of them took action and established a crisis monitoring tool. The people involved had not known each other before and got connected over the web. The tool was used then in the field and triggered a country wide collective action to document human rights violations. The success triggered the coalescing of a community around the issue of crisis mapping with developers and activists developing the tools further and replicating them elsewhere. This is an example on how web-enabled collaboration had real impact in the field. One other outcome is a crisiscamp, which took place recently in Washington. Another one is planned in the UK.
All these different phases do not need to happen in a prescribed order and it should illustrate how much work and effort is needed to build up a community. These illustrate how much potential lies in these new group formations. The majority of interaction is mainly for leisure but with little means an individual engagement can grow for example to a larger campaign. But Beth Kanter has also indicated the difficulty to lead Facebook members to higher levels of engagement. A petition is quickly signed, but to contribute and interact on a regular basis is not happening on a massive scale yet. A critical mass of individuals engaging proactively, trust, animation and experience are needed particularly in often anonymous online interaction, which usually takes up time.
The potentials of social networks are not necessarily for the good. Extremist groups, even hoaxers, are very sophisticated to exploit social networks for their purposes, so that "social networks and video-sharing sites don’t always bring people closer together". Social network providers are not rarely overburdened to deal with all these different forms of activism.
Although the members of social networks in developing countries are still a minority and certainly not poor people as Frederick Noronha outlines in his article, the most creative forms of online collaboration for social happen in these countries, and Web 2.0 applications can be extremely useful to those who act locally and operate on a daily basis with the poorest of the poor and who are committed to the betterment of their life.
Authors: Christian Kreutz and Giacomo Rambaldi