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, and 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, 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

Killing time

killing timeAh the internet. What started as an alternative communication system for CERN, intended to give scientists the ability to more easily share their findings, has now become many people’s go-to place for killing time. Reddit. TV Tropes. Tumblr. YouTube. All brilliant in their own way, but it’s still a bit of a shame that what started with such noble goals has now devolved into a glorified way for people to send funny cat videos to each other.

It’s safe to say that an awful lot of people go online just to pass the time,* and there’s no denying that the internet is almost without compare if you’re just looking to fill an hour or two. It’s kind of like going for an absent-minded walk – except you’re sitting in a comfy chair and have videos of animals doing stupid things to amuse you – so, better in just about every way.

A big part of the problem is that it’s so easy to get trapped. If you’re browsing Buzzfeed, Cracked, or Wikipedia, by the time you finish one page you’ll have about ten more tabs open, and the cycle continues from there. The average Briton spends an hour a day on social media, presumably not doing an awful lot – chatting with friends, sharing pictures, and so on. Facebook is essentially the online equivalent of having a casual conversation in the pub: you don’t get anything done, but it’s still pretty enjoyable.

People aren’t just killing time by themselves, though: plenty of them are wasting time with others, even working together with them. At time of writing, World of Warcraft has over 7 million subscribers, and as of January 2014, a staggering 27 million people per day – more than the population of Australia – are playing League of Legends, an arena-based battle game where players have to work in a team to capture structures and beat the opposing team.

 What could we do if just a little of that time were spent on something more productive? It’s not that wasting time on the internet isn’t fun, but it would be amazing if a little of that time everyone spends on Facebook every day were put towards making the world a better place. It’s clearly not that people don’t want to work together, otherwise League of Legends, in which you’re likely to get verbally abused or outright kicked out of the game if you don’t work in a team, wouldn’t have the ridiculous number of players that it does. So, the reason for all this time-wasting must either be apathy or the absence of a space that genuinely allows the average person to make a difference.

The huge popularity of petition sites and the upsurge in slacktivism seem to rule out apathy as the cause – and indeed, the existence of Anonymous is quite a clear sign that people are more than willing to band together if they actually feel they can make a difference. People are willing to work together on things that they think are fun and worthwhile, and so our work is cut out for meeting the internet’s potential for collaboration; a huge potential which has yet to be realised.

 *According to the Pew Research Centre, 75% of people do:

Killing time