Collaborative networking

August 27, 2015

The future of social networking is less talk, more action

We have great platforms for sharing with friends and family, following people we find interesting and getting work stuff done. But where do we go to get stuff done with others who care about the things we do? We may not be friends or family, and we may not share a day job, but we share an interest in doing something, however big, about some problem in the world. I think it should be easy for us to go from caring together to acting together but it is often too difficult.

This is especially true when we are not local but distributed, not few but many, and not the same but diverse. We may live in different places, there may be many of us, and we are varied in thought, culture, language and more — but we share a concern. It may not be possible to get us all in the same room, and it is difficult to coordinate as a potentially very large group.

To be sure, our digital tools mean we are more empowered than ever to connect and act, whether in our cities or across the world. Among the most interesting use cases are movements like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Obama’s election, #Kony2012, #SOSVenezuela, #BringBackOurGirls and #BlackLivesMatter. Each leveraged a new reality in which we are collectively more aware, connected and empowered than ever before. Awareness spreads rapidly as we each share with our networks. Hashtags help us loosely coordinate. An assortment of tools help us do things like raise money or sign a petition.

And yet, movements seem to come and go. A recent example is the #IceBucketChallenge, wherein a lot of people dumped cold water on their heads and contributed to the ALS Association. I saw that as a good thing overall, in that it spread awareness, resulted in an influx of resources for the organization, and was a small but important reminder of the potential in our worldwide togetherness. But after initially connecting with each other around the cause, we then formed a relationship with a single organization that was left to figure out what to do with all of us besides spend the money. We moved on down our newsfeeds and the potential in our shared caring was soon lost.

#BringBackOurGirls activated many, then seemed to fade away, with the Nigerian girls still missing and hundreds more kidnapped since. Occupy Wall Street galvanized people the world over, but soon became a case study in the difficulties of manifesting meaningful change. There are many widely recognized examples, and then there are the countless stories specific to our neighborhoods and our communities. Over and over, we coalesce around a cause, soon to be reminded that it is much easier to talk and to share than to actually get important stuff done.

I think part of the problem is a fundamental deficit in our tools. Hashtags and link aggregators can help us quickly tap into a stream of activity, but these streams are one-dimensional by themselves. You can join the conversation and reshare things, but the real action is behind those links, often to narrow services or siloed online communities with poor user experiences. As a result, we can quickly go from surges of concern to low engagement. The big platforms of today are great for sharing, not for coordinating our efforts and getting things done. It is easy to express that we care, but often hard to do much about it.

What we need is a clear place to go — to connect with each other; to inform and educate each other; to learn about what things, big or small, we can do; and ultimately to do them. We should not have to start as friends or struggle to figure out who to follow. If we can express what it is that we care about, we should be able to jump into a place where others who also care are communicating and coordinating and acting.

Contributing money. Signing a petition. Helping make a decision. Technology enables us to do these kinds of things en masse, and they should be as easy as a Like. Of course, more is required of us, and our tools should support more substantive action, but if doing something even somewhat meaningful were as easy and rewarding as interacting with our newsfeeds, we would do it more frequently, and that is a good thing. Our tools should also help drive offline action. Much like people were compelled to head to their yards with buckets of ice or head to the streets in support of black lives, our tools can amplify real world actions to encourage more actions. People enjoy doing things together, even when it is not possible to meet up in person — we just have to make taking individual actions a better shared experience.

Although it may seem ancient given the pace of things, the internet is still in its nascent stages, let alone the tools and services that sit atop it. Once upon a time people connected via terminals, BBS, newsgroups and IRC, fascinated by a new reality in which anyone could interact with anyone else. Then came email for everyone, instant messaging, social networking and a deluge of apps, plus a computer in everyone’s pocket so we could connect with it all.

It is easy to forget how transformational this relatively new ability to interact in a distributed, large-scale, asynchronous way is, and it is easy to take it for granted. Like never before in the history of humankind, we have a way to connect and coordinate en masse.

If we are intentional, we will create new models of participation, resulting in efforts that are more global, can involve more people and are ultimately far more capable of solving the world’s big problems.