The Argus, our local paper here in Brighton, asked me to write a piece on the social networks.
Earlier in the week I’d had an enjoyable conversation with Jo Wadsworth of that same newspaper about how I felt their news was disappointingly negative.
I really respect Jo’s opinion, and I felt I got a good drubbing and ended up the sad little optimist, defeated by a healthy dose of ‘reality’.
This summed up the conversation for me (click to biggify):
Good news doesn’t work – bah, grrr and nooooooooo!
Anyway, I wanted to write something that did address the dark side of the social web – the reality of snark, bile and polarised opinion. But maybe also highlighted some things we can do, some reasons for optimism.
It’s a bit long. I wouldn’t read it 🙂
Let’s start with the dark side.
Perhaps it’s the grey weather, but I’ve been thinking recently that there are times when nowhere is darker or more negative than the web. A quick trawl of the comments on any newspaper website, videosharing or social networking space usually quickly reveal the very worst of our collective bile.
That’s tough for those on the receiving end.
The kind of specific, personal sniping previously limited to politicians, celebrities and other public figures is now reaching into all of our every day lives. Schools – see Varndean’s spat with a mocking if fairly benign student campaign in Facebook and now Twitter – and teachers, event organisers, colleagues and mid-ranking bosses, shop keepers, hoteliers, mums in the playground – are all at the wrong end of digital sniping.
The things is, most of us don’t really want to live our lives in the public eye – it’s not what we signed up for in life! But one effect that online social networks have is to enable gossip, leaked memos, photographs and general “snark” to spread instaneously and with much less hassle and effort than before. One dodgy photo uploaded and we could be Tuesday morning’s unwitting internet superstar.
A number of the web’s characteristics seem to lend themselves to skewing this aspect of the web towards the darkside, but anonymity is usually cited as the most influential. The fact that any of us can pretty easily conceal our identities online removes inhibition in a big way. No holding back! And for many this has evolved into a daily pursuit – ‘trolling’, the act of deliberately starting arguments online, and the constant invocation of Godwin’s Law (Google it).
Even so I remain resolutely positive about the impact that the internet can and already is having in society. Despite the bile and negativity, positively world-changing things are happening both generally and specifically in this city of ours.
If we play our cards right Brighton can really come into its own in the next decade. This funny little city of ours has somehow grown a community of digital businesses and organisations that stands out in Europe and perhaps beyond.
This community includes video game companies, creative agencies, digital marketers and a thriving sector of independent web freelancers and expert practitioners. It is a marvellous and mixed party pack of “internetty” talent.
In 2009 an HSBC report picked Brighton as one of 5 ‘Super Cities’ set to thrive in the emerging knowledge economy. With 11% of our workforce employedin creative industries versus a 3% national average, this isn’t a foamy marketing claim – this is real.
So what now? Given the shocking and continued impact that the recession and its fallout is having on many people’s livelihoods, I believe this is too serious an opportunity to be relegated to the ‘nice little media sector’ box.
This isn’t just a business or a ‘creative sector’ thing. It is and can continue to be a city-wide thing. The city council is making positive noises about both supporting this growth and also harnessing the power of the web to improve its own shape and performance. (When you have to reduce your budget by as much as they do, there’s a real imperative to change – but their kind of change is incredibly painful and wide-ranging in its effects).
Other associated movements in the city are gaining momentum and need to be nourished and celebrated.
The Open Data project, kindled by Greg Hadfield of Cogapp, describes itself as “a collaborative project to transform Brighton and Hove into a world-class open-data city, in which all citizens can together lead more rewarding, more prosperous, and more fulfilling lives”. That might sound a tad ambitious for us slightly sceptical Brits, but I do believe in this project. If we can embrace the disruptive changes that the internet will wreak anyway, and consider how city-life can be improved by opening up and joining up information sources, and show the rest of the world an example, then we will all benefit.
Take, for example, the link between information about public transport (like when the next bus is coming) and the challenge of creating healthier habits around exercise and reducing carbon emissions. Or the opportunity of matchmaking the time and experience that older people have, who are also often lonely – which is a significant health risk – with school-age kids whose reading ability is behind where it could be. If we can find city-wide ways to helpfully connect, we can truly improve lives.
The second and closely-related initiative worth joining in with is CityCamp Brighton. Again, this is a free, volunteer-driven effort to apply the skills and ideas of Brightonians to the goal of making the city better. With a sleeves-rolled-up ethos, open participation and serious attention from city leaders, this is your and my opportunity to get stuck in to the job of creating a more enriching future for Brighton & Hove.
By way of explanation and disclosure, we believe in the City Camp format enough to have ‘sponsored’ it through the leadership and hard work of Max St John in our team, working with The Democratic Society and Public-i, two other progressive organisations that care about this goal. I know they are actively welcoming involvement so do get on board.
When I think about the web, it can be overwhelming in its many facets – good and bad. Nevertheless, today the real potential of the web to make life tangibly better is slowly emerging, and with it is our chance as a city and a society to take a big step forward. The time for action is now: get involved.