The gap in our ‘social’ web

It is a cluttered tech industry out there. So, when a start-up comes along making claims that it has something that we all need, it’s hard to believe that they won’t just be rehashing the old with a new sexy colour scheme, or some other ultimately superficial offering. Yet there is the awareness amongst many people that we’re only at the beginning of the internet age, presenting the often asked question: ‘what is going to be the next step-change in the social web?’

Whatever does come next, if it’s going to shake up the industry it’ll need to be simple enough for a vast user base to engage, yet substantial enough to make a real difference in how we connect with one another.

At Humanity Online we are trying to answer that question and we’ve spent a long time talking to lots of organisations and people across sectors to understand what’s missing from today’s social web. The biggest problem we found was an immense discord between civil society and governments, including those democratically elected, as well as a lot of inefficiencies including missed chances to collaborate and duplication of efforts. Our mission resolutely squared on the need to create a natural communication and action space that is shared between governance, civil society, NGOs, the private sector and the media. This is an ambitious effort and will require an entirely new paradigm for decision making.

So far we know that a big chunk of this paradigm is flipping received wisdom on its head. The web is valued for its pluralistic nature, the beauty that anyone can write a blog and create a website. Whilst this is good, it also means that it is very difficult – even with Google’s help – to understand exactly what is going on in relation to any issue. So, the first premise we’ve established is that there should be one space per issue, per location, where everyone relevant can work together in the identification of the issue as well as the design and implementation of solutions.

How does this ‘new’ idea compare with those that have come before? Is it really that new? The answer is yes and no. Outlined below are four types of websites that we can cross-compare

[1] Conventional social media such as Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, many of which lack advanced collaborative tools and which don’t provide one place per issue to gather

[2] Collaboration platforms like Tracky, Google Drive, SalesForce and various other task or team spaces where social networking, task management and ‘the gathering’ are not combined

[3] Web-platforms seeking to connect humanity to address social issues, like Avaaz, Greenwire, Change.org and Petition.co.uk take advantage of social media and the power of the viral to engage many people in initiatives that are ultimately delivered by a relatively small, passionate team of campaigners. As such, they answer “how can we leverage the web to maximise support and increase pressure on decision makers?” Conversely, Humanity Online asks the question: how do we create a process and an online space that ensures everyone relevant is involved with both understanding and collaboratively addressing an issue?

[4] Newly emerging web-platforms such as Imagination for the People, GLBrain.com and the more established OpenIDEO provide collaborative online spaces to develop initiatives addressing social issues. Their emergence demonstrates the existing market gap in terms of the socially responsible web.

Yet despite all the goodness on the web, and the incredible wealth of collaborative tools that are available, the fundamental structural question remains unaswered. We need to think about social tools in a societal way.

Let’s start with the village, the most basic and elegant form of society. Say there is a problem in the village, a storm is coming. Everyone gathers in the village square to discuss the problem and to figure out how to protect themselves from the storm. They agree that some should go and cut wood to reinforce the roofs, others to go and round up the sheep so none will get lost and others to get to work gathering the laundry. The storm arrives, and everyone is fine. After the storm, they gather again in the town square to sort out any storm damage.

The web today does not work like that at all.

There is no village square, so nobody knows where to gather when the storm is coming.

That’s why despite the fact that people have often compared the world to a global village, this village feels very dysfunctional. People wonder why governments are so slow at dealing with today’s big problems, or why voter apathy is so strong in the digital age when it should be so much easier for voters to engage. Some would like to blame the scheming of the elite, or the stupidity of the people. But the main problem is simpler and more innocent. Those who are trying to solve problems just don’t have a ‘village square’ where they can gather to understand the problems together and plan and deliver effective solutions. Instead, we have a hundred, or even thousands (depending on what issue they are trying to gather around).

The gap in our ‘social’ web