Recent events have led a number of commentators to question whether social media has grown so anarchic and disruptive that it needs, somehow, to be regulated. One of the more bizarre catalysts has been not the extraordinary role of social media in Egypt and Libya- the revelation of its truly revolutionary potential- but the role of twitter in unveiling the sexual predelictions of a premiership footballer.Â It seems we are comfortable with twitter undermining the rule of law, as long as it is not our law, comfortable with transparency as long as they are not our secrets.
There are legal, ethical and logistical questions to debate here. As with the furious polemic that greeted the release of the Wikileaks Iraq files, these are complex questions without easy answers as our desire for transparency meets our need for privacy and security (personal and national).Â As Clay Shirky pointed out in a recent edition of the New York Times, freedom of speech comes with implications we must acknowledge-put more simply â€œFree speech is not a ponyâ€.
I realise as well that comparing the situation in Egypt with our fascination with the Giggs family drama is comparing the sublime (truly sublime if we consider this extraodinary shot from Nevine Zaki) to the faintly ridiculous.Â Whatâ€™s best in us with whatâ€™s grubbiest. Yet perhaps thatâ€™s what the behaviour of the crowd reveals-sometimes vox populi is vox Dei, other times it’s a angry mob. Social media doesnâ€™t change the crowdâ€™s behaviour, it simply (and radically) amplifies and accelerates it, the superinjunctions giving us a Spartacus moment for the 21stÂ century thatâ€™s somehow appropriate in its absurdity.
So, the situation is complex. I think complexity is okay. I like nuance. I think weâ€™ll get somewhere as long as we recognise that there are grey areas and weâ€™re willing to discuss them.
Iâ€™m not a lawyer though, or even much of a philosopher and I donâ€™t propose to go there in much detail.Â The questions I want to tackle here are:
- What do uprisings and superinjunctions tell us about how social media drives change?
- Is social media truly beyond regulation-or are the superpowers within social networks sowing the seeds of a more centralised (and therefore more easily regulated) web?Â
So, what have we learned about how social media drives change?
Clay Shirky, in his inspiring SxSW keynote on Social Media and Revoution, outlined three mechanics whereby social media drives social change-by enabling people to:
1. Synchronise: To share, and therefore consolidate opinion
2. Co-ordinate: To come together to act as a group
3. Document:Â To show the world what is happening
These are precisely the same mechanics consumers use to respond to brands in the on-line space: to share, validate and document their good (and bad) experiences.Â Itâ€™s critical that brands think about how they can enable consumers to come together around the good experiences and are prepared to respond when those consumers document the bad.
These mechanics are also a powerful road map for any brand seeking to drive change, either internally or in partnership with consumers. How can the brand engage its stakeholders (internal and external) in a conversation that builds a shared vision of its future, how can it use social media to enable those stakeholders to come together as a collective with a shared interest and how can it use social media to document its progress, bearing in mind that it will, inevitably, lose rigid control of the conversation as it does so.
Is social media (and the web more broadly) truly beyond regulation?
The knee jerk reaction is to say yes, of course it is-you canâ€™t stop the signal (man). Itâ€™s easy to view social media as a powerful force for decentralisation. This visualisation of the spread of information in the Egyptian revolution by Kovas Boguta for example contrasts powerfully with that of the Iran uprising of 2009, where just 5 major nodes of influence could be clearly identified.
And as this exceptional post from Jonathan MacDonald points out, decentralised structures are extraordinarily resilient.
In a world where there are more and more nodes of dispersed influence and where open APIs and portable social identities mean that web experiences can be dispersed across a host of different touchpoints (sign in with Facebook, buy from youtube, tweet from anywhere within iOS 5) it can sometimes feel that the web is becoming ever more decentralised-and thus ever more resistant to â€œcontrolâ€.
From another perspective, of course, a very few super-powers are spreading across the web and what looks like decentralisation is in fact consolidation-and the consolidated structure is a much more vulnerable one. Thereâ€™s an extraordinarily resonant line in MacDonaldâ€™s post where he outlines the ways in which one might destroy decentralised organisations, among them:
â€œCentralise them by giving them constructs in which greed is builtâ€
It might just be that the only thing that can stop social media is social networksâ€¦.which is why concepts like Altly-a Facebook alternative-may be more important than we think. If only because of what happens when Facebook goes down.