For the last few years I having been looking at government agencies around the world moving baby steps on social media.. I have been reading dozens of social media policies, guidelines, strategies. I have been pondering countless blog posts, discussion fora, slideshares. I have been hearing politicians and consultants, self-appointed communication 2.0 experts and bloggers-turned-opinion-leaders.
Everybody has been talking about how social media are changing the relationships between government and citizens, about the willingness to participate, about digital natives joining the government workforce. This is why government agencies are rushing to establish policies, to set boundaries, to articulate business cases, to look for opportunities.
Now, what if this were all pointless? What if the behavioral patterns – both professional and personal – that social media like Facebook will develop and sustain were incompatible with existing regulations, processes, decision frameworks? What if the very concept of government and governance as we know them ceased to make sense?
Let me offer a few hypothetical scenarios for reflection.
- Why should I comply with administrative obligations – ranging from paying taxes or fines, to separating garbage for recycling – if I can instantly access a wealth of information about how not to comply as well as evidence about all those who do not?
- Why should I allow a teacher to give a bad mark to his or her son, if I can launch a cause against the teacher, digging from Facebook information about his or her past and from pupils in previous classes or schools?
- Why should I report a petty crime to the authorities if I can share the picture to a neighborhood watch group on Facebook?
- Why should a student do a home assignment, if the solution is either already available on the Internet, or can be socialized through Facebook with multiple classmate? And how could the teacher give him or her a bad mark, unless there is a mark for “degree of collaboration” or “ability to do research”?
- Why should I accept to be treated by a doctor appointed by my public heath care organization after having seen his or her low ratings on Facebook?
- Why should I accept that theaters and newspaper get government subsidies when I can be a reader, a member of the audience or a performer free of charge?
- Why should I pay a ticket to visit the same museum that I can browse for free in the comfort of my living room?
- Why should there be rules for equal air time for different election candidates, if they can do whatever they like on the Internet?
- Why should I care if the government agency that employs me does not give me access to Facebook? I will use it on my smartphone anyhow.
- Why should I work only with my agency colleagues on a particular problem? I can create a closed LinkedIn group and invite a few folks from my various networks to help me.
Every single relation inside and outside government may be challenged or even turned upside down.
What social media does is to put control back in the hands of the individual. Control in the past has been mostly based on information. Back in history, from oral transmission to manuscripts, from Gutenberg to radio, from TV to the Internet, people have had access to an increasing quantity of information. However this information was always conveyed through some form of organization: priests, publishers, media tycoons, industries, government agencies, unions, and so forth.
Social media is different. Each and every one of us can be a publisher, a commentator, an influencer, everyone’s voice can be heard. Of course this does not make the need for organizations go away: we still need to classify information, to group around issues, to give ourselves some basic rules to turn noise into value, to have welfare, to care about our relatives, our health, to have a job. But we need different kinds of organizations, and all we have today are new infrastructures, such as Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, while others – manufacturers, retailers, newspapers, government, banks – have not really changed.
But they will. Just think about money. It is a concept used to intermediate and decouple the exchange of value. I need something from you and I pay you a given amount of money; you may need something from me, or more likely from an organization to whose value chain I contribute, and you pay me (or that organization) another amount of money. But in a world where information is value, why can’t information be a currency? How many Gigabytes of music will you get me for a connection with a valuable part of my social network? How many tips about how to pay less taxes will I get you in return for a positive rating in your social network?
So while we think we have figured out how to make our existing organizations benefit from or limit the risk of social media, all we are really doing is trying to fit a cube into a round hole.
People on social media are aggregating and re-arranging in new and unpredictable ways, cutting across organizational and geographical boundaries, forming and dissolving bonds, coalescing around a cause to then scatter separately in different directions.
Our government systems are based on pulling together people who share a territory, who have something in common – be it language, religion, land, history, ideals or a combination of all these. Rules of residence, immigration, citizenship apply to processes that take from days to years to be completed. But in social media I can join a platform, a group, a cause today and leave tomorrow. And yet there is something greater than the individual behind value creation in social media too.
So what is the closest approximation to a form of government on social media? Maybe it is federation. Federation of interests, of networks, of information, complementing and contrasting more traditional criteria such as language, religion or political beliefs. Whatever is below that federal level (communities? groups? states? virtual cities?) has yet to be determined.
But, for now, welcome to the United States of Facebook.