Social Media and Governance: Two different debates?

Last week I was at the Wilton Park Media, Social Media and Governance conference. It was a really good opportunity to hear presentations from a great number of really interesting people.

Things I liked:

  • Charlie Becketts presentation (here) on the future of journalism was stimulating. To my mind connected with the ideas of ‘networked public spheres’ that
  • Transparency and Accountability Initiative: their recent report on technology in transparency and accountability work provides a useful overview, and a helpful typology of efforts in this area (‘pull’ efforts that help citizens access data and ‘push’ efforts that promote citizen voice).
  • Global Voices: Always striking, Solana Larsen‘s presentation on the people behind the blogs was powerful because we heard real people’s voices (see below).

The  debate that stayed with me after the conference:

There were so many interesting discussions and debate, but there seemed to be one that didn’t really happen. It was almost as if there were two separate discussions happening at the same time – the impact of new communications technologies on communications for development and the impact that new technologies have on what people choose to do.

Communications for Development (C4D) focusses on planned uses of the media to achieve specific, and measurable, changes. To me the most interesting examples of this at the conference were the uses of new technologies in governance initiatives profiled by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative. There were examples of using technology  to map information, provide citizen feedback and hold government to account. But nearly  all were examples of projects – mostly projects dependent on aid for their operation and for the definition of their purpose.

The other debate focusses on the impact that new communications technologies have on the information ‘ecosphere’. What happens when information flows through social networks faster than ever before? Google’s Sarah Painter talked about her work, emphasising the importance of maintaining an open and accessible internet (no doubt referencing both the ‘walled garden’ phenomenon of non-searchable/linkable sites like Facebook  and the rise of internet apps) for citizens and activists. Solana also showcased the work of bloggers and tweeters such as  sillybahraini girl and Amira al Hussaini. And although the conference was conceived of over two years ago, long before the Arab Spring blossomed, it was the role of new technologies in social uprisings that somehow didnt feel really addressed – or rather what the implications of new communications technologies were for spontaneous civic action, or to put yet another way, to respond to the question of when the way people communicate changes what, if anything, changes?

Whilst I think the hyperbole of technologies’ role in causing the Arab Spring uprisings is clearly misplaced (see Shirky et al, who’s position has been somewhat painted into a straw man), its worth asking when social structures and the flow of information and communication changes, does anything else change? Zeynap Tufekci’s work on the sociology of technology has some interesting ideas, particularly her post Faster is Different – where, referencing network theory and epidemiological mapping, she argues that the many to many communication characteristics enable populations to outmanoeuvre the traditional ‘whack-a protest’ response.

Im also really interested in the infrastructure that these technologies and communication processes rest on. The internet service providers and particularly the mobile network operators play a crucial role in enabling networked communications. Of course, mobile phone operators are first and foremost businesses, and face political pressures (to accomodate monitoring, shut down networks, filter key words etc). Within those constraints, what might operators do that would further enable the free flow of information? And what might the international community do to support, or pressure, the operators to maintain that open flow?

Could Vodaphone, Bharti, or Telenor be the next Nestle and open access to communications the next babymilk?

Although I know that the GSMA is engaged in discussions on these issues, it was a shame that they weren’t at the conference.

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