Where Is Everybody?

February 9, 2009 at 11:22 am 3 comments

Who would have ever thought that the RSA could be so damn edgy? Andy Parsons is promoting his latest tour of comedy gigs and guess what it’s called? Yup. Citizens.

When you hear that one of Britain’s most popular comics is doing a show based on your egg-head obsession, it’s tempting to think that you’ve finally caught up with the zeitgeist. Or even that, considering that the RSA was founded when people-power was hot the first time around (1750’s), the zeitgeist has finally caught up with you.

It’s  more likely to be a case of if you stick with something long enough it’ll be back in vogue eventually. And that shows in Andy Parson’s reasons for doing the show.

“It talks about all the amazing things that have happened…” he says in this morning’s Metro. “Us now owning the banks… the ability to close down Lapland in Dorset after a Facebook campaign. Now we have started to get some power, what will we do with it?”

Now, just to get nerdy for a moment or three, that’s an interesting account of what being a citizen is. Andy P is not excited about us voting or paying our taxes. It’s what most people would call engaging with civil society, the stuff beyond ourselves but outside of the state. It’s not actually that new and, as befits an organisation that was founded by a group of friends in a coffee shop, we’re rather keen on it.

So what’s the hook, then, Andy? “It’s all about the internet, which makes it easier to find like-minded souls.”

Ah, the internet as democratising force. And there’s the problem. Andy Parsons talks about the new power of grassroots activism, particularly the power in coming together to work for a particular change we want to see in society: he cites the Obama campaign as an example.

But we’re quite a long way from knowing that what’s happened in the last fifteen years is an improvement on what we had before. The democratic deficits of the analogue age are well recorded, but we’re only just learning about exclusion and voicelessness in a digital world.

Some of it’s quite obvious. 51% of people with an income of £10,400 per annum or less have never used the internet. So they’re unlikely to be using it to organise a mass rally or a wombling session in their local area for a start.

Some of it’s less immediately apparent, and still needs a lot of research. Clay Shirky’s  Here Comes Everybody espouses the “1 per cent rule“, the idea being that one per cent of people create original ideas and content online, but the other ninety nine per cent of us get to choose what’s important or relevant in a way we couldn’t before.

But if the poorest of us aren’t there in the first place, and  most of us are not being actively asked what we think’s desirable or not, that’s far from being democratic. I’m not aware of any study of which demographic blogs most successfully, but there’s some anecdotal evidence that women are not well represented in political blogging, for example.

And we still don’t know for sure if and how online communities translate to vibrant real-life communities or social capital; that process remains pretty opaque. That’s why the Connected Communities team are looking into doing some research about it… Watch this space.


Entry filed under: digital inclusion, social networks. Tags: , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Wilcox  |  February 13, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Clay Shirky’s latest take on this emphasises that online crowds aren’t always wise. As in most areas of influencing, we need to look for checks and balances, and at legitimacy.
    However, what is also important is that the shift of advertising and other activity online means we are likely to lose a lot of our local papers … and bloggers won’t be able to fill the gap
    That’s going to affect everyone in local communities – online or not.

    • 2. Rosie A  |  February 16, 2009 at 3:06 pm

      Cheers David and thanks for the earlier links.

      I think we’re heading into a really exciting time for e-democracy and the civic uses of the internet. It’s mirrored in some of the policy thinking round digital/ media literacy we’ve seen recently – best summarised as going from access to participation. That’s true for public services too, and it’s something that I personally welcome. My interest is in what the relationship between one percents and ninety nine percents should be to help us create a fairer, greener, caring and more socially conscientious society…

      And no, I can’t make the networks workshop on the 19th – I’m in Newcastle at a different workshop for a different network! But thanks for the heads up.

  • 3. David Wilcox  |  February 16, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks Rosie – I agree about access to participation, and hopefully towards empowerment aka doing things for ourselves. This stuff gets interesting when people start to use tools to challenge the way that institutions are offering engagement, I think.
    You might be interested that I’ve pulled the feed from this blog and others into an OpenRSA-RSA startpage
    Any chance of a comment feed?


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