Collaboration is one of the year's most aggressive new trends; two sessions at the Skoll World Forum explored the increasing use of social media by social change advocates to leverage their networks for greater impact.
It's one of the many trends I've been tracking for a book I'm writing, Swarms, about the rise of online networks and their increasing ability to aggressively (and sometimes abrasively) reshape establishment business, politics, media, philanthropy and other institutions.
Bruno Giussani, the European director of the TED conferences and a moderator of one of the panels on social media, said that "the reach of the Web is such that it is becoming far more inclusionary than exclusionary. When we have a phenomenon such as this occurring at this scale, it creates a world in which everywhere something serious and important is happening, we are camera-ready to capture a movement and network-ready to pass on that information to the rest of the world. Human rights abuses are no longer as easy to conceal."
Here are some other ways that social media are starting to influence activism:
*Social media create a common ground and "safer channels" for collaboration. Niche groups and networks are teaming up, increasingly, using the Web to share information and benefit mutual causes and goals. Mona Eltahawy, a speaker and blogger on Middle East issues, said Saudi women are starting to use YouTube, blogs, and Facebook to come together in their struggle for equal rights, including the right to vote and to drive. Eltahawy told the story of one activist in Saudi Arabia who asked a friend to make a YouTube video of her driving and verbally urging governmental authorities to lift the ban on women drivers. She then posted it online, then CNN picked up the story. It triggered a movement. Eltahawy says social networks are helping to consolidate multiple, individual efforts for change and help women activists to find each other. Eltahawy also says social media are giving Saudi activists a "safe space" in which to collaborate. "The government is less likely to mess with someone who's been on YouTube and CNN," she said.
*Social media are giving greater visibility and earlier credibility to new ideas. Kiva and Samasource (both present at this year's Skoll forum) said social media helped them to get funding and favorable attention early on; both said social media can help to rapidly spread new ideas and models for change in ways not possible before. New ideas used to have to pass muster by establishment "gatekeepers" before social media came along. Not entirely true anymore: Premal Shah, founder of Kiva, said a Frontline piece on his enterprise -- when shared virally on the Web and across key social networks -- became instrumental in giving the company the attention it needed at a dire point in its rollout to get funded and scale. Another example of a new activist community that is growing as a result of social media: Xindanwei, a new Chinese company that is helping would-be social entrepreneurs in China to find each other, collaborate, and scale.
* Social media are enabling social enterprises and established institutions to crowd-source some of their work. Responding to a question by a New York Times reporter about how the Web is changing journalism, panelist Joi Ito (the CEO of Creative Commons) advised him to "think of social media as your new newsroom." Organizations no longer have to do everything by themselves, he said. The social Web is changing the way people work. Collaboration between mainstream media and citizen journalists, for example, can reap better and more accurate reportage of current events, regardless of waning news budgets, Ito said.
To be sure, social media are still very new -- especially as a form of collaboration in the social entrepreneurial sector. But give it time, says Ito. "We're just beginning to see the impact of social networks on social innovation."
The Skoll conference ends tonight. Watch this space for further highlights and roundups.