Monday, June 22nd, 2009
I’ve been working on this section of my report for Carnegie Uk Trust pretty solidly for the last few weeks, and I finally have something to show for all of the brainstorming, mindmapping, matrices and post-it notes stuck to my office wall! The section is 7,500 words long, so quite a decent chunk of the final report (although also 1,500 words over its allocation!).
You can, if you wish, read the section here and leave your comments as per usual at the bottom. I am, however, also putting it into BookOven for paragraph by paragraph annotation. (That’s a nice collisions of clients!) If you want to be able to comment at a paragraph level, please email me and I will send you an invitation to the site (we’re still in private alpha).
I’m particularly interested in any references you have that either support or rebut my points - many of these were arrived at through interview and workshop, and if there’s something that it’s hard to do, it’s to reference stuff that’s come out of other people’s brains like this whilst simultaneously being imaginative and trying to guess what might happen in 15 years! My schedule makes it a tough job to fully reference everything, so any help you can give would be much appreciated.
I look forward to your comments.
The question of what the next 15 years holds for social media, and the organisations who use it, is a difficult one to answer. Looking back 15 years to 1994 gives us some idea of the difficulties of predicting how technology will develop over such a long time span. In 1994, email was mainly used by academics and technology specialists and only just starting to find wider adoption in business. The web was four years old and beginning to show hints of its future potential. Connections to the internet were made via dial-up modems which ran at speeds of 14.4 or 28.8 kbit/s (compared to connection speeds now of 8 mbit/s or higher). It would have been an unusually prescient person who predicted the rise of blogs at a time when sites were often hand-coded, page by page, in HTML; or the popularity of YouTube at a time when transferring even a highly compressed video clip would have taken hours.
But this section of the report does not aim to make predictions about the nature of social media in 2025. Instead, it aims to examine possible trends and drivers of change that could affect social media, and to use that information to create potential scenarios that provoke the question “What if…?”. This ‘futures thinking’ or ‘scenario thinking’ is intended to help organisations “understand and manage uncertainties and ambiguities”, by helping them to imagine how their organisation would cope if any of these scenarios came to pass.
The technologists consulted for this report all agreed that it was difficult to imagine the web in 2025, but that there were trends which will almost certainly make themselves felt in the way that social technology evolves. The drivers of change and scenarios reported below have been developed through interviews and workshops with technologists, social media experts and third sector practitioners. They are not exhaustive, just meant to provide a scaffold around which individuals and organisations can build their own focused scenarios for the way that they may need to adapt in the present, so that they are better placed to flourish in the future.
Key Drivers of Change
‘Drivers of change’ are the forces acting upon us which shepherd us in a given direction. There are many drivers of change in many different categories that could affect civil society associations. Here we focus on the key forces which may influence the way that social technology develops and the way in which both individuals and third sector associations interact with each other and with technology.
We have divided the drivers of change into three self-explanatory types: predetermined, uncertain and wildcard. This provided a framework within which to think, but we could just as easily have used the PESTLE framework which examines drivers in six subject areas: politics, economy, science, technology, legal and environment.
Predetermined drivers of charge are trends that are either already at play or imminent and countervailing forces are weak or non-existent. For example there is evidence that our population is growing older and no likely scenario that would see that trend reversed.
Increase in number of interpersonal connections.
The number of people that any individual can keep in touch with has been increased by social media. As we reconnect with old friends with whom we have lost contact, and hang on to new friends who we would otherwise have let fall by the wayside, we find ourselves in the midst of larger networks than ever before. The majority of our relationships are weak, made up of business contacts, acquaintances, people we only vaguely know. Our core circle of friends remains small, just 10 to 20 people, but those key relationships last much longer and are less vulnerable to our increasingly peripatetic lifestyles, as we can stay in touch with anyone, anywhere around the world.
Ubiquity of technology and connectivity.
The cost of technology has decreased year-on-year, whilst its capability has increased. Moore’s Law continues to hold true as predicted physical limits for the size and power of processors has been reached and transcended. Increasing power costs has forced manufacturers to focus on efficiency and longevity, so resource scarcity is much less of an issue than predicted just a few years ago. The green movement has changed manufacturers’ emphasis from built-in obsolescence to tech that can easily be serviced or recycled. Computers are more portable and connectivity technologies like 3G or WiMax have consolidated, which has lead to the ubiquitous web. Users really can get online anywhere, 24/7, and everyone, everywhere now has a powerful device in their pocket which is music player, phone and computer all rolled into one.
Social software moves into the mainstream.
Like email before it, social software has now become ubiquitous and essential. Obscure jargon from the turn of the century is now a lingua franca: Everyone knows what blogs, wikis and social networks are, and everyone uses them. Data portability — e.g. being able to move your friends list seamlessly from service to service — has lowered the barriers to entry. Rather than a mishmash of lots of different social networks there is effectively just one, The Social Web, which users access through the interface of their choice. Social media has become embedded into our personal lives, but it has also become a core part of business too, for collaboration and marketing. Organisations without some sort of social media presence find themselves at a significant disadvantage compared to their savvier competitors as consumers base purchasing decisions not just on recommendations from friends but also on judgements of how personable they find company’s representatives in online social environments.
Everything is recorded.
Everything can be and is now recorded, almost as a matter of course. Whilst government’s powers to surveil have been somewhat curtailed by activists’ campaigns, the UK is still the most surveilled country in the world. Technology now allows the capture of almost every type of activity and interaction, and is trivially cheap and easy to use. Individuals routinely record all telephone calls for their own personal archive, as with all their online communications. Organisations of all sorts recognise the importance of attention data, i.e. information about where users are focusing their attention, and regularly collect and mine it for trends and patterns in an attempt to put themselves a step ahead. Archive and search have become core issues for everyone, from mums organising their family’s photo and video archive to charities sorting through their supporter activity database.
The ubiquity of technology, connectivity and social tools has made it trivial for citizen groups to self-organise, and a new culture of ad hoc activism has encouraged many more people to get involved in causes close to their heart. Groups coalesce around the issue of the moment; agree on, organise and take action, and then dissipate. Small numbers of committed activists act as a focal point for a wider community that is constantly in flux, and work as organisers, evangelists, moderators, mentors and provocateurs, all rolled into one. The development of a wide range of e-democracy tools, which allow people to take part in activism online, allow many more people to take small actions that, when amplified by the huge reach provided by the internet, results in demonstrable change. Activism isn’t restricted to the political or civic arena; businesses also find themselves in the firing line for socially unacceptable behaviours such as a failure to embrace green thinking or poor customer service.
The population has aged, with more older people than ever before. In some areas of the UK there has been localised demographic inversion, with more people older than retirement age than younger. Overall, the workforce as a percentage of the population has shrunk, and the pressures put on the health, welfare and pension systems bring them close to breaking point. Many pensioners are unable to survive on the meagre state pension, and because of the global economic crisis, even those who saved and invested find themselves short of cash. People who would have retired at 60 or 65 are now searching for work, but ageism makes it hard for them to find additional income. Meanwhile, advances in medicine mean that many diseases of old age are now treatable or even curable, and both life expectancy and health in old age have improved.
Decrease in trust of authority figures and institutions.
The global economic crisis that came to a head in 2008, the British MPs expenses shenanigans of 2009, and accelerating mistrust of the media have resulted in the collapse of faith in authority figures and institutions of all types. People no longer look to self-proclaimed experts and venerable institutions when seeking information, instead relying on their network of peers to recommend and advise. Recommendation engines, such as the one Amazon uses to suggest books to customers, have become commonplace, and the best combine complex algorithms with human judgement to increase reliability. Consolidation of the media market amidst falling ad revenue and an inability to monetise the web has led to an information vacuum which is filled by distributed expertise sites like Wikipedia, which has now become a well-respected and reliable resource.
Green issues become mainstream.
The importance of the environment and climate change are now accepted by the majority of the population as mainstream concerns. Consumers expect business, government and individuals to behave in a environmentally responsible manner, and punish any organisations who do not live up to high standards. Technology is no longer seen as a threat to the environment, but its potential saviour with the Luddism rife in the early part of the century now frowned upon. The intersection of social media and environmentalism has resulted in the positive application of peer pressure to the point where individual action, rather than waiting for government action, is the norm.
Cuts in public services spending and access.
Demographic inversion and an extended recession have significantly damaged government coffers. Taxes on individuals and small to medium sized individuals cannot be raised further without the risk of serious civil unrest, whilst the rich — individuals and institutions — continue to avoid otherwise punishing rates. Government’s only recourse is to cut spending, which means reducing the size of the civil service and cutting services. The first to go are the politically easy targets, such as prison reform or support for drug addicts, followed quickly by science research — particularly the less sexy sciences such as physics and astronomy. As the population ages, the financial demands put on society, and particularly the NHS, increase leading to more vulnerable adults and children being let down by the system and requiring assistance from charitable organisations, who will have to step in to fill the gap left by disintegrating government services.
The Digital Divide becomes a matter of choice.
With the availability of cheap technology and the trend towards multiple-use devices, everyone with a mobile phone now also has a capable computer. The web has become genuinely mobile as sites and services no longer need to create specialised ‘mobile’ versions — all devices can present the internet in a useable manner on small-format devices — although many also provide additional applications that can run on mobile phone operating systems. Telecoms providers continue their habit of giving away handsets to woo consumers into signing contracts, so even the lowest end of the market has access to what were once called ‘smartphones’. Yet still not everyone embraces the web and social media. A percentage of the population class themselves as ‘technological refuseniks’, with no interest in being a part of the web. This is not age-related, as the blossoming of ‘Silver Surfers’ proves, nor is it an economic or class issue. Instead it is related to confidence with technology, digital literacy, and fashion. For some, it’s just not cool to be online.
Uncertain drivers of change are either trends that appear to be reliable at this point, but which could easily be turned around by an unknown force at some point in the future, or ones where the trend could take two very different directions.
Split between inwards-looking individualism and outwards-looking collectivism.
Social tools split into two main categories: inwards-facing sites which encourage people to interact only with pre-approved friends and which create the appearance of privacy; and outwards-facing tools which encourage people to be public in their interactions and prohibiting access only to people who have shown themselves to be bad actors within the group. The illusion of privacy created by the ‘walled gardens’ — whose ‘walls’ are actually more like holey fences — causes problems as users fail to understand that actions they believe are private are actually on view to a much larger group, leading them to act recklessly. People who prefer closed sites also engage less with the rest of the internet and avoid situations where their assumptions and prejudices may be challenged or overturned. More outward looking people are attracted to sites which allow them to stumble upon interesting people and novel ideas, and are much more likely to engage with the wider community.
Experimentation and failure becomes more acceptable.
As the cost of technology decreases and knowledge of how the web functions — on a personal and technological level — spreads, so barriers to entry for participants wanting to experiment with the web are lowered. Third party tools enable organisations to create increasingly sophisticated web presences in multiple arenas without specialist computer programming knowledge. The rapidly expanding freelance technologist market enables companies without in-house specialists to hire in the expertise they need, when they need it, to ensure that they make the best of limited budgets. But the low cost of entry, and the spread of the web’s “fail fast, fail often” culture means that organisations become more relaxed about experimentation and more willing to take risks or venture into unknown territory. Huge budgets no longer hang in the balance, so technological projects are free to evolve, adapting to emergent behaviour rather than attempting to dictate behavioural change.
Wide availability of information leads to either overload or smart/group filters.
More information is available more easily to more people than ever before. Information comes from sources worldwide, and automatic translation has increased the amount of content we can now consume, should we wish. But this flood of information, exacerbated by a lingering mistrust of technology, is too much for many people to handle. Instead of trying to find ways to assess different sources so as to find the most interesting or reliable, people reject the web as an information source and instead refer to their peers for advice and answers. This leads to the easy spread of misinformation, some of which has serious consequences. Yet others have come to rely on smart filters which combine algorithms and human judgement to rate and recommend news and information sources. Loyalty to specific information outlets is a rare anachronism, with people being varied and fickle in their personal news-gathering habits.
Consolidation of the media; rise of community-sourced news.
The failure of the media to find an adequate replacement for falling ad revenues has resulted in many newspapers, magazines, radio stations and even commercial TV channels failing. The BBC’s licence fee is no more and the organisation has had to radically reinvent itself as a commercial venture, a transformation with which it has struggled. The newspapers which are left have focused on commentary over journalism and sensationalism over reportage as a response to drastic budget and staff cuts. Disillusioned with an increasingly shrill and desperate media, the public finally takes to blogging — in a way that the rest of the world did two decades before. Increased transparency at all levels of government, a consequence of government’s attempt to rebuild trust after the scandals of 2009, has made it much easier for people to cover political beats formally only accessible to press pass holders. And there are plenty of out-of-work journalists with the skill and imagination required to create community news ventures that directly compete with their old employers.
Over-regulation of the internet stifles growth, or splits the internet into White/Grey/Black Nets.
What started as an attempt to clamp down on music piracy in the first decade of the century turned into a global effort to rein in the internet and provide a way for governments around the world to control what their citizens and subjects could do online. Over-regulation of the net, including international databases of everyone’s web surfing habits and a policy of instant disconnection for transgressors, has lead to a reduction innovation and development. Businesses cannot now risk investment in a medium that could be shut down at the drop of a hat. Meantime, elite technologists create work-arounds for the automatic control systems imposed by government in an ongoing arms race. The net splits into three: The White Net, which is restricted in scope but legal; the Grey Net, whose legality is dubious, where specialised software hides minor transgressions; and the Black Net, which is illegal to access, but which maintains the freedoms envisioned by the Web’s creators. To all intents and purposes, the White Net becomes useless for businesses and the third sector alike, particularly for organisations campaigning on political and humanitarian issues, forcing them to either abandon the internet or use illegal means to operate on the Black Net.
Multiculturalism leads to either tolerance or increased conflict.
The opening up of the world via the web also improves access to and cross-pollination between different cultures. Whilst some cultures are tolerant and open minded, drawing from the best of the the different world views now accessible online, for others the threat to their lifestyles and beliefs from strangers with contrary views becomes intolerable. For some, making contact with others in radically different cultures from their own is educational, a welcome eye-opener, but for others it merely emphasises how alien they find these distant cultures. Mostly, that alienation comes to nothing, but occasionally it feeds the flames of intolerance which erupts not just online, but offline in the form of increased racially- and religiously-motivated attacks on both personal and international scale.
Flexible, portfolio careers becomes more common.
The concept of a ‘job for life’ died at the end of the last century and has now been replaced with portfolio careers. Recruiters no longer look for long, stable periods of employment with a single organisation, but instead seek to hire people who have had a variety of roles, and show clear progression in their career. Many more people are employed in two or more part-time jobs, despite the tax penalties that come from doing so. Companies have learnt to trust remote workers, which allows them to hire the best people regardless of where they are, but the best people are also in demand and can move from company to company in a more peripatetic lifestyle.
Businesses engage in more “co-opetition”.
Economic conditions have taken a long time to recover after the global economic crisis that began in 2008, and businesses have learnt to be flexible and adaptive. They have been forced to enter into alliances with organisations that they previously considered competitors in order to achieve their business goals. This ‘co-opetition’ happens where organisations strengths complement each other, thus fundamentally changing the way that they think about competition.
Whilst wildcard events have a low probability, they would have a large impact and cause significant disruption if they came to pass.
Massive population change, either increase or decrease.
Either advances in medicine and technology increase life expectancy leading to a much larger population as fewer people die; or a serious global pandemic wipes out a significant proportion of the population. Both scenarios could result in social unrest as societies based on slow population growth come under unprecedented pressure and collapse.
Fragmentation of large political entities, increased localism.
Political blocs such as the UN, the G20, or Europe, grow too large and lose cohesion. Knock-on effects include the fragmentation of nations such as Italy into city-states and increased demands for regional power in the UK. The concept of ‘central government’ is undermined as people vote to have power returned to local officials.
Resources shock as peak oil, water and food is passed.
Changes in climate cause food shocks as droughts, storms and floods devastate much of the world’s growing regions. Altered rainfall patterns cause widespread water shortages and conflict. Oil output begins to decrease, causing prices to soar, which again causes conflict. Aggression is not just between nations but also social and civil unrest.
Huge increase in war, insurgencies, and civil unrest.
Multiple causes of conflict, mean that the majority of the world is embroiled in some sort of war, insurgency or civil unrest. Western nations are put on the defensive as terrorism increases and pull troops home not just for defensive purposes, but because war abroad is no longer politically tenable. This leads many struggling countries to collapse completely.
Change in value system from GDP to happiness or wellbeing index.
The global recession turns into a global depression, and the concept of money is re-evaluated. Disillusioned by an incompetent financial sector, people start to look for other measures of success.
Advances in biotech, nanotech and genetic engineering usher in the Post-Human Age.
Advances in prosthetics pave the way for us to connect humans and computers at a neurological level, increasing our intelligence, memory and physical endurance well past human limits.
Based on combining some of the drivers above, these scenarios are meant to posit possible futures and to examine their effects on civil society organisations.
Rise of the Silver Surfer: What happens when an ageing population meets increasingly powerful, and usable, technology?
The “We Can” World: Fed up with a corrupt ruling elite and inspired by the opportunities provided by social tools, people self-organise to right civic wrongs.
The Battle for Attention: Faced with increasingly diverse and entertaining ways to spend our time, those who would claim our attention find themselves in fierce competition.
Rise of the Silver Surfer
Today’s sixty-somethings are considerably more au fait with technology than their predecessors, although to cast the rise of the Silver Surfer as a new trend would be to underestimate pensioners’ adaptability and curiosity. Since the web first began, curiosity and a willingness to experiment has been more important than age. Indeed, the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, a seminal work examining the impact of the internet on businesses, markets and consumers, had an average age of 48 when it was written in 1999. The impact that David Weinberger, Doc Searls, Rick Levine and Chris Locke had on the understanding of internet culture cannot be underestimated and now, in 2025, Weinberger (75) and Searls (78) in particular continue to be leading voices discussing web technology, innovation and culture.
Age has never been a real barrier to engagement with the web, but confidence has. The last fifteen years has seen an improvement in the usability of computers in general. The main operating systems have become more robust and reliable, as well as much more usable. Web browsers have similarly improved and so the cognitive barriers to entry have been lowered. Digital literacy efforts over the last fifteen years by government and civil society organisations alike have paid dividends across the board, bringing a new confidence to people who had otherwise felt insecure in this new technological environment.
Demographic changes have increased the number of over 65s, whilst the working population has shrunk. Whilst there was some hope that immigration could help to flatten out the demographic hump, bolstering the workforce and increasing tax income for the government, the xenophobic sentiments of the 2000s have instead translated into tougher immigration policies. Whipped up by the tabloids and far-right political parties, over 60% of the British population in 2009 want immigration stopped and politicians grant them their wish.
Pensions have been under increasing pressure since the pension scandals of the 80s and 90s. Private pensions are mistrusted and therefore undersubscribed and the state pension is at a level so low that it is below the poverty line. Many people coming up to retirement age are ill-equipped financially, and multigenerational households become common as sons and daughters take in their parents, whose retirement is now partially funded by the sale of their house.
Advances in both medicine and medical technology — an unexpected benefit of the Iraq War was the dramatic improvement of prosthetics — mean that age-related illness and disease is now controlled, treated and cured with a much higher success rate. Previously feared diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s have not been eradicated by they are now relatively easily treated.
The damaged pensions infrastructure, combined with workforce pressures and better health, has forced the retirement age to be raised significantly. Those who have the means to retire early still can, but many people choose to continue working into their 70s, either because they have vitality and energy to spare, or because their personal economics require it. Demands from other sections of society, including parents and disabled workers, have increased the acceptability of teleworking and part-time jobs, creating opportunities for older workers to continue their professions well into their 70s at a level of activity sustainable for them.
As business and personal use of social technology increases, so many more over-60s are exposed to it in their everyday life. Photos of the grandkids are routinely circulated to grandparents via photo sharing sites; videos of school performances are taken on camera phones and privately shared through social network sites; and elderly people who might otherwise have felt isolated are using social tools to keep in touch with friends and relatives. This gives them a huge advantage over their predecessors as all this social stimulation helps, alongside radically improved medicine, to keep them healthy.
As health in old age improves, and as an understanding of technology and the social web permeate the Silver Surfers’ culture, so pensioners being to take their experience of the web into their own hands. Dating sites just for the over-sixties are well established, but now there are focused social networks, blogging sites and activist groups.
Web accessibility becomes a hot topic, particularly around ensuring that websites function in screen readers or with larger text. The over 60s engage fully with web standards groups and have become the driving force behind campaigns to make businesses take accessibility seriously. But the it doesn’t stop there. 3D printers and access to manufacturers in Asia allow pensioners to design and build their own hardware, creating text input devices that take into account loss of dexterity or video cameras that can be more easily operated by the elderly.
Silver Surfers are no longer a minority online. The web is their future as much as it is their grandchildren, and they embrace it with open arms.
The “We Can” World
The idea of a ‘ruling elite’ has never felt more like an anachronism than it does now. The MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 kicked off a series of exposés which took public confidence in the British political system to an all time low. Sticking-plaster fixes, including rambling discussions of a possible British Constitution that seemed to go on forever but never lead to action, by Parliament fail to fool the electorate and political engagement collapsed. Low turnout at elections lead to far-right and fringe parties winning seats in the House of Commons, further damaging the general public’s trust in government.
Local government fairs equally poorly. Budgets were mortally wounded by recession of the late 2000s, leading to swingeing cuts in crucial local services accompanied by unpopular rises in council tax. Further scandals, this time at a local level, lead to hard questions being asked about how councils are funded and run, but satisfactory questions are far and few between.
Whilst faith in the political system collapses, so does the media. A failure to monetise the web during a period of falling ad and subscription revenue deals a mortal blow to the press, with the majority of regional titles either closing or merging with neighbours. National titles fair just as badly, with the broadsheets — which have never sold as well as the tabloids — suffering the most closures. Advertising spends on TV and radio also crash, taking down many stations. The BBC loses its licence fee completely, but struggles with the transformation into a commercial business. A strike by staff over working conditions brings the Corporation to its knees and it nearly doesn’t recover.
Worried as much about local terrorism as a response to the building frustration with in the UK as global terrorism, the Government tightens terror laws. Whilst the worst excesses of surveillance, such as 24/7 personal location tracking via mobile phone GPS chips, are curtailed by the European Court of Human Rights, the Government pushes for as much surveillance and control as it can get away with. Already the most surveilled country in the world, the UK is flooded with more CCTV cameras, despite evidence that they are ineffective. There are several high-profile cases of ‘suspects’ being wrongly detained, prosecuted and even shot dead as the fear of being the officer who “let the terrorist get away” permeates the police force and causes a culture of over-reaction.
But in stark contrast, individuals feel empowered as they never have before. As individuals see a failing in society, so they use social technology to rally around that cause and take positive action. Social networking tools extend people’s social reach well beyond what was previously possible by hooking together different people’s networks into one. With just a few hundred immediate contacts, one person can end up with a network of several million people within three degrees of separation (i.e. a friend of a friend of a friend). This allows ideas to, potentially, spread through society like wildfire.
In reality, many good ideas don’t get the social traction needed to make them truly “go viral”, but it’s also true that most activism doesn’t rely on huge adoption of an idea, but on a committed few. This proves that the “1:9:90 Rule” — which states that 90% of a social website’s visitors are passive, 9% engage partially with simple or easy actions, and only 1% engage fully as committed users — holds true for civil society organisations too.
Activism isn’t limited to the political, although there’s a lot of that going on. Rather, people are focused on the civic and personal needs of their own and of the people around them. Small local groups form to deal with local issues, such as lobbying the council to fix potholes or to raise money to pay for local amenities such as refurbishing a children’s playground. The internet also has “localities” and people who share a common interest, in issue such as copyright reform or the provision of support for teenagers, gather virtually to effect change.
This grassroots activism becomes much more common and stops being the preserve of a vocal minority. The ease with which people can take action, whether through e-democracy services that help people interact with their elected representatives or whether through social tools that make activism fun, dramatically lowers the barriers to action. Culturally, being an activist is more acceptable too. Gone are the days of rampant individualism that characterised the 80s and 90s; instead, people are returning to a more considered, collaborative way of being and collective action is a big part of that cultural shift.
Ad hoc groups, which form for a short time in response to a specific issue and then dissipate, also become more common. The idea of becoming a life-long supporter of a single cause fades as people to shift their focus according to shifting priorities. Ad hoc groups raise money online using services like PayPal without creating large organisational structures, but also without necessarily accounting for their expenditure. A high profile charity con results in an attempt to regulate, but there is little that can be achieved through legislation to combat such scams. Instead, a new class of third sector organisation is created which is easier, quicker and cheaper to set up, govern and dissolve when no longer needed, and which provides previously informal groups with some legal protection.
The ease with which individuals can embrace voluntary work also changes the nature of their relationship with existing civil society organisations. They can now create both symbiotic groups which act to support existing associations, or groups which directly compete with established rivals. This ability to self-organise is embraced by some traditional organisations who find creative ways to work with the talent available on the internet, frequently collaborating with groups that they never meet in person. Other third sector organisations reject this opportunity, and find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant. If an organisation does not embrace the web itself, the supporters of its cause will fill the gap however they can, with or without their sanction or support.
The shift from passive to active support transforms civil society, and online social tools are the glue tools holds that activism together.
The Battle for Attention
The internet in general, and social technology in particular, has made it easier than ever for people to keep in touch with friends, relatives, acquaintances and business contacts. Social networks and micro-conversation tools (such as Twitter) have encouraged people to maintain many relationships that would, in previous decades, have fallen by the wayside. These ‘weak’ relationships — perhaps with school friends that one no longer sees, or colleagues from a job one left years ago — last for years, and there’s a blurring of the line between ‘friend’ and ‘acquaintance’, with relationships waxing and waning, but rarely ending.
The number of strong relationships that people maintain, however, has remained relatively steady at between 10 and 20, a limit that appears to be built-in to the human brain. However, the spread of one person’s influence is no longer limited to just their immediate circle of friends, but instead ripples through networks of networks. People spend considerable time maintaining these networks and relationships; the feeling of being connected is important, and people not only feel that the effort is worth it, but that it’s enjoyable to be a part of a larger group.
As the number of relationships we maintain blossoms, so do the opportunities we have to spend our time socially online. The opportunities to interact online are seemingly endless, from the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORGs) that gained huge popularity and mainstream acceptance during the 2000s to blogging to all the apps and games provided on social networking platforms.
People spend more and more of their time making their own media. Video cameras have been cheap for years, and the skills and tools required to shoot and edit short films are becoming common. The social rewards for creating a YouTube hit are massive. More people than ever are writing, too; not just blogs but books as well as self-publication becomes easy and culturally acceptable. Crafting and tinkering with electronics has seen a popular resurgence too, as people long to make physical objects and to own beautiful hand-made pieces. A trend that started during the recession as people tried to make a little extra money through selling hand-crafted goods has persisted even though the economic incentive has gone.
All this additional activity means that traditional ways to capture our attention have atrophied. Despite the switch to digital television, the average amount of time spent watching TV has steadily declined. On-demand TV services have proven to be too little, too late, as watchers switch off in droves so that they can spend their time doing more sociable things. As audience numbers fall, so advertising spend falls with it, sending the broadcasting industry into a downwards spiral.
Other sections of the entertainment industry are also in decline, especially the music and film industries, whose lobbying of Government for harsher intellectual property laws has done nothing to protect them from a public who want more than the formulaic output that’s be come the norm. The industry’s habit of punishing fans for ‘intellectual property infringement’ has alienated the public, who have rallied round independent musicians and film makers and abandoned the mainstream.
‘Attention’ has become a scarce resource. The number of hours in the day that people can spend on leisure activities roughly the same as it’s been for the last few decades, but the number of ways we can spend that time seems limitless. Industries and sectors that depend upon attention are now fighting for their share. Advertising is no longer as effective as it once was, and the shock tactics used by some civil society organisations to get their message across has had the opposite effect, inuring potential supporters and alienating them at the same time.
The organisations that do well, whether business or third sector, are the ones who take the time to work with these changes, instead of fighting to return to the olden days. The careful building of relationships and a sense of community has replaced shiny PR campaigns. The concept of being ‘on message’ has been shown to be outmoded, as people not only appreciate honesty and transparency, they actually reward organisations who have shown themselves able to admit to and correct mistakes.
But despite the opportunities that social tools provide to connect with people, getting attention in this age of information continues to be challenging.
How do civil society associations communicate effectively with their constituency in a world where attention is scarce and the media inaccessible?
Two factors — the consolidation of the media market and increasing competition for attention — are going to make it difficult for civil society associations to continue with their existing marketing and communications strategies. Print, TV and radio advertising are likely to become less effective at attracting supporters’ attention and may even reach the point of becoming uneconomic. The third sector will not be immune to consumers’ green preferences, which means providing more information and services via the internet, with direct mail campaigns attracting the ire of recipients. Civil society associations will have to radically rethink their communications and fundraising tactics to take into account supporters’ need to be able to do everything online.
What does it mean for civil society associations to nurture relationships with their supporters at an individual level?
With broadcast style communications no longer effective, and social technology the norm, civil society associations will have to adapt their communications strategies to fit web culture. In 2025, as at the birth of blogging at the turn of the century, the cultural watch-words remain: transparency, honesty, openness, authenticity. This means a huge cultural change for third sector organisations and as they struggle to accept that they cannot control their ‘brand’ and that conversation trumps PR ‘messaging’. In larger organisations with more rigid hierarchies, the concept of letting staff talk about their work on Twitter or blogs will at first be an anathema, but it will eventually become a business necessity.
How do civil society associations get up to date with, and stay up to date with, technological advances which affect not only the way in which they communicate, but the way that they work internally and achieve their business goals?
Whilst traditionally it was the role of the IT department to assess and recommend technology, that role has now morphed into a much more risk-averse, less experimental one. Many IT departments are tasked with keeping the technical infrastructure ‘safe’ at any costs, and often that cost is flexibility, adaptability and agility. Organisations who rely on IT to identify new technology will lag behind those who empower every employee to look at, experiment with and recommend social tools. This is particularly important at small organisations who may not have the resources to employ a person solely to look after IT, or whose IT departments are struggling simply with keeping the network alive. Digital literacy training will need to be widespread, as will an adaptable and curious mind.
How do civil society associations respond to a decrease in trust of authority figures and institutions?
A sea change in how we define and react to authority will fundamentally affect the position of third sector associations within society. As authority figures, such as MPs, continue to abuse their position and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, so scepticism about all types of authority will creep in. The only authority that will be respected will be authority earnt and proven through continual demonstration of knowledge and ability. ‘Claimed authority’ will wane as people question why some people have rights and privileges that others do not, for no discernible reason. This loss of respect for authority will leak through into the third sector, with civil society associations expected to prove themselves and open themselves up more to scrutiny so that the public can ensure they are honest and trustworthy. Organisations will have to think about how they can earn trust in a less trustful world.
How do civil society associations create a culture of experimentation, and how do they learn to cope positively with failure?
The cost of experimenting with social media and other technologies is currently low and set to go lower. There is lots of open source software of an excellent standard available for free, so the cost of experimentation is not high, but the cultural barriers are. The idea of a “website launch” is outdated and outmoded, with the majority of new websites and services preferring to invite a limited number of users into a “closed alpha” as an extended test before opening up into a “beta” testing phase. This allows unfinished software to be rigourously tested and improved in conjunction with users, who no longer expect to be presented with finished, perfect software. This cultural change, from a controlling and risk-averse culture to an innovative, risk-accepting culture is one that has shown itself to be key in technology and will become just as important in the third sector.
How can civil society associations ensure that their digital strategy includes opportunities for older staff and volunteers?
The concept of the ‘digital native’ is a common but flawed way to think about those people who have a talent for understanding web culture and tools. Whilst younger people are often exposed to more technology and can find it easier to adapt to change, many older people also have the right mindset and skills to fully engage with social technology. As the population ages, so it is likely that more older people will become involved in the third sector, and although many will have the capability to use social tools, they may not necessarily have had the opportunity to learn about them. Civil society organisations that take digital literacy seriously and ensure that all their staff and volunteers have the opportunity to become familiar with new technologies will find themselves much better placed to take advantage of the web.
How can civil society associations use technology to fully empower their staff, volunteers and supporters to act, rather than passively receive information?
The web is not just a medium for communicating information to a constituency, but is a platform for action. The 2008 presidential election campaign by Barack Obama clearly illustrated how the web can be used to rally support both online and offline, and it is rightly held up as an inspiring example. Civil society organisations which simply use the web to broadcast will be much less successful than those who provide ways for supporters and volunteers to engage with the organisation and each other. Many of these paths to engagement may be very simple, but empowering people to take positive action via the internet will become a key part of civil society association’s work over the next 15 years.
The internet has change immeasurably over the last 15 years, and it has changed the world around it in fundamental ways. There is no reason to think that such a significant will not happen again over the next 15 years. The web in 2025 is not going to just be ‘more of the same’, but is more likely to be unrecognisable compared to what we have today. Exactly how it will change is unknowable, but we can prepare for the unknown by focusing on the traits that make people and organisations adaptable, forward thinking and innovative.
Every part of society is going to be touched by technology, and social technology in particular. These changes provide a valuable opportunity for civil society organisations to become more efficient, more capable and more adaptable. Social tools provide a way for organisations to form stronger relationships with their supporters, their audience and their volunteers. Organisations which don’t embrace technology will find themselves cast to the margins as more and more people enjoy the convenience and connection afforded by the web to be an essential part of the way they live their life.