The Social Impact of the Web: Society, Government and the Internet

Last Friday I attended The Social Impact of the Web, an event organised and hosted by The RSA. It was one of two events I attended last week, but the only one I managed to be on time for :roll: so the only one I'm in a position to present my summary and thoughts about...

The afternoon was introduced by (RSA Chief Executive) Matthew Taylor, he talked about the issues The RSA was hoping to address (or at least stimulate discussion about) through the event:

  • How do you develop the citizens of tomorrow?
  • How do we foster more self-sufficient citizens?
  • How to be other regarding? (ie. have empathy for other people and cultures)

He discussed what a great opportunity was presented by 'Web 2.0', but warned us all that we were saying the same thing about 'Web 1.0' ten years ago, before sitting down to chair the first panel.

Politics and the Web
The format of all the sessions was a collection of speakers and a chairperson, each speaker spent ten minutes talking, then there were 'questions' from the audience, and then there were responses from the speakers. In this session the first speakers was Andrew Chadwick, a professor and author from Royal Holloway, University of London. He built his talk around three positive and three negative outcomes of the 'Web 2.0 Revolution'. He also had slides, which allowed a slightly better fidelity in note taking :) The three positive ones:

  • Citizen Journalism - on average the BBC website has over one million comments per month, this is equivalent to ten years of letters to all the UK newspapers combined, the web has involved people more than traditional media has ever managed
  • Little brother - blogs and other websites have "turned the surveillance gaze back on the powerful
  • Low threshold to co-present, co-production - ie. people publishing on Wikipedia, Digg,, eBay etc.

The three negative trends:

  • The production/consumption divide - only 15% of the internet population is actively interacting with web content, while 26% are 'unconnected', the median age of the first group is 28, of the second 65
  • The shift to video - the recent trend towards video content (YouTube etc.) reduces the "emancipatory effect of text" which we enjoyed in the earlier days of the web - people are once again able to form opinions from your appearance and accent instead of just from what you write
  • Social network narcissism - or a bunch of people pretending to be social so they could have a friends list with a thousand people on it without forming any relationships or producing any real content, Twitter came in for special criticism here

In conclusion, Dr Chadwick claimed a mood of 'cautious optimism' for what the future of the web might bring.

This mood was soon dashed by the next speaker, Georgina Henry, editor of the Guardian's Comment is Free website. Her first comment on the potential of Web 2.0 - "Don't expect too much of it!" In general she seemed to find the whole web thing a bit distasteful - stating it was not a substitute for other political discourse and generally bemoaning the lower quality of content coming from the uninformed 'public' (rather than qualified journalists), which seemed a bit of an odd position in a conference targeted at increasing involvement in democratic politics. She also said,"you have no chance to shape it if you don't get involved." This seemed a bit of a pessimistic motivation to me.

The final speaker was Tom Steinberg, who is partly responsible for the Write to Them and They Work for You websites (co-incidentally, the only two websites mentioned at this conference I'd actually visited before attending). He discussed the division between 'accelerators' and 'tool smiths' - generally all the web has done has speed up the delivery of traditional news, news has become less scarce and cheaper and this is really just the regular process of capitalism. But this acceleration of news delivery hasn't made more people more interested in the news, it's still basically a one way communication process. What we need are tools which make it easier for people to participate in politics, and this is where the tool smiths come in. He mentioned his own websites and also MoveOn in the US, which has had an impact on the political process.

After the speakers we had some 'questions', though 'statements' might have better described a lot of what was said, and then we had some responses. The format meant there wasn't really much of a debate, and I wondered why, therefore, it was necessary to group all the speakers together like they were. One of the things which surprised me was the general refusal to take on board anything Tom Steinberg said. "It's not tools but people which lead to political activism," we heard, not verbatim but frequently, from the audience and the rest of the panel. I couldn't help thinking this was really,"I can't contribute technically to improve political activism through the web, therefore that can't be as important as other things." One of the reasons this surprised me is because of this statement in the event description:

This conference will ask: How can new internet technologies empower us to interact with each other in novel ways?

How can they all think to address this question without considering the technologies themselves or the tools derived from them? Also there is a prominent advert currently sitting on The RSA's home page for The Coffee House Challenge - here's an excerpt from one of their recent press releases:

New research from a YouGov survey, released today (April 2nd 2007) shows that although Britons are deeply troubled by major issues like crime in their communities, they feel powerless to make a difference individually. The survey is released on the same day that the RSA and Starbucks launch the Coffeehouse Challenge, a UK-wide campaign that encourages communities to take action for local change.

Although two-thirds of the people interviewed in the survey were concerned about crime and policing and anti-social behaviour, less than one third of respondents were members of 'community groups' which might be able to do something about it, and only one sixth felt they would actually be able to do something about the issues concerning them. To me the obvious implication is that people need to be equipped with better tools to facilitate their involvement.

Well, that's the first session summarised and it only took me six days :oops: I'll break off here and resume with the next two sessions in a later post. You can decide for yourself about the speakers by listening to the audio feed, or you can read some alternative summaries and blog opinions.