The Wikileaks organization has been in the news a great deal the past couple weeks with its large scale disclosure of internal communications from the US State Department, and promises to release reportedly explosive internal discussions from banks at a later date. I have held off commenting for awhile to see how the issue played out a bit, and what the potential effects on how enteprises use social software might be.
Last week’s announcement that Mark Zuckerberg is Time magazine’s “person of the year” for 2010 put the issue in perspective. Many were aghast at this perceived slight of Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, but I tend to agree with it.
Too many years ago, I did a customized undergraduate college degree in the Philosophy of Journalism, so I probably should have some deeper opinions about the issues Wikileaks raises. When I was thinking about journalism in the early ‘80s, I was mostly considering differences between the Soviet model of journalism and how it compared to Western ideas. Like so many projects studying anything having to do with the Soviet Union, all that work has since become utterly obsolete and almost completely irrelevant.
Now I spend more time thinking about how enterprises use social software, an endeavour which might remain relevant for a bit longer. The Wikileaks affair actually does not have much to do with social media, or at least it shouldn’t. Despite its name, Wikileaks does not have much to do with technologies like social networking, discussion boards, or even wikis. The organization uses fancy security and anonymization techniques to keep their web sites up and protect contributors, but there isn’t much social about what they do in the way that Wikipedia or Yelp are social.
The rise of internet-mediated social interactions has had a profound influence on how we work, play, and interact as humans. Without downplaying the effect that Wikileaks will have on politics, journalism, and potentially business (if Assange’s threat/promise to release controversial banking documents comes to pass), the influence of social software goes much further. While not the only driver, Facebook is the public face of this influence.
So for once, I agree with Time. It doesn’t happen often.
I fear that an unavoidable, but unfortunate result of the furor around the Wikileaks disclosures will be an increased desire to lock down conversations and restrict communication at both commercial and government organizations. It will be used as a reason to block access to social media sites, stop sharing information, and treat many who want to collaborate widely with suspicion. After a period where sharing and access were generally encouraged, I fear that the pendulum will swing too far back the other way. This inevitable reaction is unfortunate from a social media perspective because encouraging participation is one of the biggest challenges I find organizations facing. As social software gains in maturity, usage grows beyond the pioneers who are naturally attracted to the technologies and interacting that way. After the pioneers, the settlers need encouragement. Clamping down amid an atmosphere of fear is not conducive to encouraging participation.
This would not be the first time that a desire for one thing triggered the opposite. When deciding on steps to take post-Wikileaks, I really hope that the familiar relationship between babies and bath water does not get forgotten.