Fri, April 08 2011

Connected Citizens: Powerful, scary or promising?

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

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Filed under:   Social Media •

There’s a substantive new report out from the Knight Foundation that is worth attention: Connected Citizens: The Power, Peril and Potential of Networks.  It digs into the role of networks in community life, and it could not be more timely given the movements swelling in the Arab world, the concept of cognitive surplus sparked by Clay Shirky, and the increasing attempts to integrate social good into social networks. 

There’s a lot in this report, so I’m going to be diving into it further in a second post next week.  While the audience of the report is primarily funders, it’s highly relevant to change agents.  The forces it discusses have a profound impact on the work of do-gooders.  We are faced with some serious, seismic shifts: the erosion of trust in traditional institutions (including charities), the fall of mass communication in favor of masses of communicators, and the potential for good or bad amplifying effects of technology.  We need to understand all of this well in order to successfully effect social change in the years ahead.  In my view, this is a time to be alert, alarmed and hugely optimistic, all at once. (I’m a never-better type, which is why I emphasize optimism.)

Connected Citizens cites dozens of real world experiments that are cause for optimism, when networks were used to build better and more engaged communities. They find networks that have pushed for open government, cared for the elderly, assisted disaster victims and more.  The report urges funders to listen carefully, empower involvement and collective action, and create online and offline spaces where people can easily and spontaneously connect and get creative.

So is more of this in store?  The report lays out three scenarios:  “a world of distrust where concerns about privacy dominate and people retreat from the public space into their foxholes,” a “more trusting environment where residents connect to improve their communities at a local level,” and third, “an extremely mobile society shaped more by personal preferences than by place.”  I have a feeling we’re going to get all three of those things simultaneously.  There will be a privacy backlash, but it will be against data miners and marketers more than our those in own networks—networks which will continue to be forces of good as well as ways to share silly viral videos or rail against people who don’t share our world view.  Our networks will do good and do harm, all the while defying traditional borders and boundaries like geography.  Our deepest connections are about shared values and personal priorities.  Those relationships know no bounds - and we should strive to put our causes within their contexts.  We must embrace networks in all their messy, mixed and multiplying glory, because we can’t do the work of change as fast or as effectively without them.

And how exactly do we do that?  Stay tuned.  That’s the topic of the next post on the report, next week.

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