The New Digital Divide
Call it the New Digital Divide. In the early days of the Web, social innovators predicted it would spawn a more open and democratic society. Today, though, that hope is being strongly challenged.
* We are not using the social media tools we have to solve problems so much as we are using them to socialize with like-minded people about these problems. It's time to get more active offline, said Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs and cofounder of the online political strategy firm, Blue State Digital. Social entrepreneurs and activists need to focus less on using social media to build email lists and focus more on getting people active offline solving social problems, he said. He cited the online social network, Momsrising.org, as a good example of a social network that is highly civically engaged, using government data on health, education and economic trends to create a "Moms Score" to help catalyze offline protests and social change.
* We must work harder to break out of these self-imposed (or machine-imposed) comfort zones if we're to affect social change. "We are too focused on climbing the hierarchy ladder in our workplaces and social networks online, and not focused enough on dismantling these hierarchies, which is where the true power lies," said Deanna Zandt, a social media consultant and author of Share This! a new book about social networking. "We're living like fish right now," she said. "We don't know we're wet. We're taking our perception that the Net is a wonderful meritocracy but that's not true. We need to interrupt this pattern of thinking immediately." Zandt urged conferees to shatter their comfort zones to start making the Net a more hospitable place for civic engagement. "We have to work harder at civic engagement online," she said. Zandt, who is white, shared her own experience of finding herself in an unexpected discussion on Twitter about race in America after she spoke out against an action last summer by Philadelphia's Valley Club to ban black children from swimming in its pool. "This was completely outrageous, I got really angry about it and signed petitions and all of that, but what was more interesting was what happened in the days following that," Zandt said. "People started sharing on Twitter about the first time they'd been discriminated against as children and this blew me away. I wouldn't have found myself in a group of people of color, sharing stories about discrimination without Twitter" and without "stepping out."
* We must stop enabling the status quo. John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a 20-year-old nonprofit digital rights advocacy group, told the gathering that he stands by his earlier statement, made many years ago, that "the Internet is the most powerful event since the capture of fire." Barlow said there is massive power in the hands of individuals, thanks to the Web, but this is power that destabilizes the status quo and can cut both ways, for better and worse. Most people still don't know how to use this Web power to organize and affect social change. But they are learning, he said. "We have to stop expecting the government to shower us with things it can no longer deliver," he said, "and start running this country and our institutions (including companies) the same way the Internet is run, from the edges."
* We must stop assuming that civic engagement will occur online on its own. James Fishkin, the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, said the best way to boost public deliberation online is to create it. Fishkin says that the current way we "self-select" our social networks online has led to only the most extreme views being heard by one group or another. He suggested a five-step "Deliberative Polling" methodology to start creating issues circles, which first gets all stakeholders together from all sides of an argument to agree to a set of detailed survey questions that will help frame a debate around issues where civic engagement is most needed. Second, select 500 people who represent specific groups across viewpoints to participate. Third, send them the survey. Fourth, assemble them in small groups and facilitate discussion and deliberation, either online or in person. Fifth and last, survey the participants again to see if their opinions have changed as a result of that engagement.
* The Net can be a force for civic engagement, especially in societies around the world where there has been none before. Ethan Zuckerman -- a social media expert, blogger, founder of Tripod.com, a Web hosting enterprise, and cofounder of Global Voices, an internationally crowdsourced news site -- said the Net "really changes things in the long-term by creating a new public space, one that in most closed societies around the world is not available any other way."
What do you think? Does the surge of online social networks and corporate use of Net filters to segment consumers of their products make it harder for people to engage with one another -- in or out of the workplace? Let us hear from you.
-- By Marcia Stepanek