From Participation to Power - The Role of Web 2.0 in Social Change

Last night at Citizen Space Shareable co-hosted a talk by quantitative sociologist Harald Katzmair, Ph.D about the potential and pitfalls of web 2.0. The gist of Harald's talk was that web 2.0 can be a boon to social change or a trap. The boon is that it gets us into conversation - a necessary precursor to agenda setting and action. The trap is that society gets stuck in conversation and doesn't progress to agenda setting and action. Participation is the essence of web 2.0, but it is not true power. However, it can lead to power if we understand its role in the ecosystem of social change and it's used accordingly. 

In his talk, Harald used ecosystem thinking to contextualize web 2.0 as particularly important to one stage in cycle of social change. To do this he borrowed from Panarchy, what Harald believes is one of the most important science books of the last decade. Panarchy describes a four-stage cycle of transformation - exploitation (beginning), conservation (maintenance), release (breakdown), and reorganization (slide 13). This cycle is applicable to any living system at any scale human or natural from individuals to civilizations, seedlings to forests.  

In the context of large-scale social change, Harald believes that web 2.0 is critical to the reorganization stage, which he believes we've entered. This is the stage where citizens discuss the alternatives to renew a society in crisis. Perhaps the most apt real-world example today is the Copenhagen talks (COP 15) where world leaders will set climate policy beginning two weeks hence. Along with this is the Hopenhagen online campaign which has asked millions of people worldwide to sign a petition in hopes of influencing leaders at the climate talks. It's unclear whether either of these conversations will be transformed into action. You could also see sites like Shareable, Worldchanging, Treehugger, NextBillion - and the web 2.0 ecosystem in which their content is shared - as hosting a global conversation about alternatives with no guarantee of action.   

Connecting and conversing is necessary, but  again, the danger is that we get stuck in conversation. There is such a thing as being too connected. We have cognitive and time limits. Web 2.0 can overload us with messages, shrink attention spans, absorb our time, erode focus, and thus disrupt our ability as citizens to find common ground and take action together. It's possible that through Web 2.0 we may be, as in the title of cultural critic Neil Postman’s influential book, amusing ourselves to death. After all, web 2.0 goes by another name - social media. 

How can this pitfall be avoided? Harald believes we must structure our conversations so that they lead to shared perspectives, agendas, and actions. Conversations must be transformed into ideas, ideas into prototype solutions, and successful solutions scaled (slide 25). Harald is helping his clients transform conversations in exactly this way. He shared a case study where he designed a stakeholder engagement process in Jordan to help farmers share water.  If they don't come up with a sharing solution, they'll run out of water in about 20 years. Harald was hired because conversations about water sharing have so far yielded little progress in the face of a great crisis. Sound familiar?

Harald talked about the process he's using in Jordan, one he's developed over the last five years working with the European Union, political parties, and NGOs (slide 31). One key element is the impact analysis (slide 34).  In one day, an impact analysis workshop transforms the distributed knowledge of diverse stakeholders into a common understanding of the system on which they depend through a structured conversation. Importantly, this conversation separates causes from symptoms so that stakeholders have a shared view of where to focus resources to have maximum impact. This becomes the basis for a shared action plan.

Harald is well along in his Jordan project, but it's too early to see results. For me, the key takeaway of Harald's talk is that we as global citizens need to get really good at transforming our conversations into action if we want a future worth sharing. And that perhaps Web 3.0 should be a set of technologies that help us transform mass conversation into the dramatic changes needed in the real world instead of just giving us a richer online experience. Now that would be a bandwagon worth jumping on!

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