Yesterday I happened to read an intriguing and contrarian post by Umair Haque on the Harvard Business Review blog. Although certainly controversial, as many of the comments he received pointed out, it is somewhat refreshing, as it challenges the common wisdom that social media are creating value. He suggests that relationships created through social media are shallow:
The “relationships” at the heart of the social bubble aren’t real because they’re not marked by mutual investment . At most, they’re marked by a tiny chunk of information or attention here or there.
and offers five observations supporting his assertion:
- The manyfold increase in number of “friend” has not led to a rise in trust
- Social tools have not replaced intermediaries of all sorts (such as PR agencies, recruiters, etc).
- The social web fuels lots of hate against people, places or subjects
- People self organize into very homogeneous groups and sometimes obsessive and rather narrow common interests
- There is little to no value in relationships created over the Internet, which is proven by the fact that people and advertisers do not pay to enjoy them
He also makes a direct observation about government:
The internet itself isn’t disempowering government by giving voices to the traditionally voiceless; it’s empowering authoritarian states to limit and circumscribe freedom by radically lowering the costs of surveillance and enforcement. So much for direct, unmediated relationships.
One can agree or disagree with Umair’s view, but it is undeniable that, so far, the value of social media is in the eyes of the beholder. Most conversations around government 2.0 or open government are based on the assumption that social networking – as enabled by technology – will revolutionize the way citizens relate to each other and to institutions. I, for one, have been theorizing that the future of government is one where all boundaries blur and quite a few government functions get complemented, altered or replaced by social networks.
Reality is that nobody really knows. We can just observe how behaviors and attitude change, how people formulate their opinions and make their choices under the influence of their social relations, but is this any different from what we were doing before, when we would go to a movie than a real (as opposed to a virtual) friend would recommend, or choose a doctor who has successfully treated a friend of a friend? Social tools give us a greater number of contacts, but isn’t this the triumph of breadth vs depth?
As our research shows, the value of a social network is closely linked to how common and compelling its purpose is for its participants. As Umair says, people self-organize into groups of like for like. An interesting example of this is politics. I am currently following a number of discussion groups in Facebook, as we have local elections in Italy, and I am impressed with how cohesive certain groups are by self-reinforcing their positions and rejecting – often quite violently – opinions offered by others. I do remember greater openness to dialogue in the late seventies, when left and right wing supporters would hit each other in the streets but also listen to each other positions at school meetings. Social networks seem to have made extreme positions even more extreme, which supports Umair’s point about “hate”.
As governments plan their engagement strategies, it is important to look at the dark as well as at the bright side of social networking. To what extent does this constitute a new phenomenon that allows more effective citizen engagement and to what extent it just exaggerates some traits of citizen-to-government relationships, making engagement more rather than less difficult?
In my research I have said many times that it is important for governments to listen and be open to what people are doing with social networks, in order to leverage he value of social networking and connect with social initiatives. But how can they determine whether those initiatives are the expression of a bi-partisan desire to solve real problems, rather than hiding the agenda of few (or many) individuals who want to profit from changes in government service delivery, policies and operations?
One could argue that such a problem would not occur on social channels created and administered by government agencies themselves. I do not believe this is the case either, since the way smart people (or reckless or motivated or both) can manipulate the dynamics of social networking in ways that the average government employee (and the average citizen) cannot detect or contrast.
This rather negative view would suggest that it is better to keep looking at social media with skepticism, accepting that most relationships will remain shallow, and that government should focus on re-asserting its single version of the truth (when it comes to data or services) and actively challenge the trust that citizens may be putting in those social networks.
But is this a sustainable position to take? Not really, because the erosion of the truth vs trust equation is already happening. Citizens as well as government employees are already exposed to multiple social networks and – irrespective of whether this is a bubble or not – their behaviors are changing and put increasing faith for increasingly critical decision into those shallow relationships that Umair dismisses.
We are all together on a rather steep learning curve to understand the answer to the very question posed by Umair’s post: how can we determine the value (as well as the risks) of social networking?
As usual, there won’t be a single answer, nor any best practice, as it will depend on many different elements (demographics, domain, jurisdiction, political context, and so forth). There will be cases where social networks will make government more effective, efficient, flexible, participative; as well as cases where they will make government operations more difficult and expensive; and other cases where they will be on a collision course with the very concept of government and the principles of democracy. There won’t be a single way to deal with them, to categorize them and to anticipate their impact and evolution.
We all have to accept that we are on a journey together and we have to watch out for each other to extract value for us and society as a whole, as well as to shield us and those we care about (be they real or virtual relationships) from its inevitable risks.