Connected Citizens in the New Year

I read the Knight Foundation’s Connected Citizens report (subtitled, “The Power, Potential, and Peril of Networks”) a few months ago (it came out in late April, I think, but, giving birth kind of put me behind in my reading this year), and I’ve been thinking about it more lately as I look to the future, especially since the report is, itself, in part an effort to predict where and how networks may change our lives and our efforts for social change, in the years to come.

I expect that some of the questions the report poses, and some of the hypotheses it suggests, will filter into my thinking and writing about advocacy (especially in the online context) and community organizing over the coming year, but here are my reactions as we straddle this period between the past and the future, at the (almost) dawn of 2012.

  • Do we truly have greater transparency today? Or does the proliferation of information mean that it’s that much easier to hide the important stuff, in the midst of a lot that doesn’t matter? I’m torn about this, really–on the one hand, there’s the demise of traditional investigative journalism, with all that that means for our ability to uncover the truth and publicize it; on the other, there’s the rise of citizen-supported journalism and independent cataloguing of so much that happens in our world. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s like “the truth is out there,” but will we be able to find and recognize it, in the middle of so much…stuff? And what does that mean for our efforts to be megaphones for the voices that are so often silenced, as we know we must, in order to truly empower those whose stories need to become part of our policy narratives? Since policymakers are vulnerable to this same information overload, how do we push past the noise to be heard?
  • Will technology enable us to turn ever-more inward, or seek and build alliances with unlikely partners? Or both? How do we resist the tendency towards silos, or, indeed, is such homogeneity all bad, in terms of building strong identity? Since, again, policymakers are people, too, how will their increasing reliance on what their “friends” prefer, in terms of policy approaches, and, indeed, even what their social networks hold as “truth” and “information” impact our ability to construct policy solutions that can cross rigid ideological lines? I’m not too optimistic, really.
  • How can we engage our crowds so that the barrier to participation is minimal but still meaningful? As the default for “participation” becomes quick engagement, how do we invest in the deeper relationships that are truly transformational?
  • Social workers know how to “design for serendipity.” From our direct practice experiences, we get the idea that we cannot predict outcomes flawlessly but must, instead, create the spaces (physically and, more importantly socially and psychologically) for real magic to happen in people’s lives. This makes us, I believe, champion “network weavers”, if we can leverage those clinical skills into social change work.
  • Anyone who has ever read the comments on an online newspaper article about immigration policy knows the link between anonymity and the deterioration of dialogue in a public sphere. The challenge here, as we increasingly shift to broader conversations detached from a local, identified context, is to figure out how to cultivate relationships that breed accountability while taking advantage of the boundary-less nature of online networks.
  • We can all get excited about the rise of mutual support and the tremendous potential of networks to address real, pressing need. But we should also be very afraid of the parallel risk that such indigenous resource provision becomes an excuse for abdication of our collective (read: public) (read: we still need taxes) responsibility to uphold the social contract and provide for the needs of those without strong networks in the first place (because such network resources are, like nearly everything else in this world, not evenly distributed).

    Again, there’s more there than what I’ve captured here, including some thoughts relevant to my work with the Sunflower Foundation, particularly this question of whether measuring network health and strength can tell you how close you’re getting to a desired change, given that networks are, by definition, rather uncontrollable and certainly dynamic entities. But, in chiming in so late on the conversation, I’m partly hoping to restart it a bit, since we know that we’ll be dealing, increasingly, with networks in our work in the years to come–indeed, they may become the default way of approaching our shared concerns–and we need to understand how to engage them effectively, how to critically evaluate their roles and their shortcomings, and how their existence will shape ours.

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