Wednesday 28 January 2009

Social Media vs the Recession?

I've spent a lot of time lately talking to people about the economic crisis, how it's starting to play out in people's lives - and what the things we've learned from social media over the last few years might contribute, in regards to lessening the hardship and shaping the world that comes out the other side. Following from those conversations, it feels like it's time to start sketching some of this out in a meaningful way.

Looked at very simply: hundreds of thousands of people are finding or are about to find themselves with a lot more time and a lot less money than they are used to. The result is at least three sets of needs:

  • practical/financial (e.g. how do I pay the rent/avoid my house being repossessed?)

  • emotional/psychological (e.g. how do I face my friends? where do I get my identity from now I don't have a job?)

  • directional (e.g. what do I do with my time? how do I find work?)

With a huge wave of unemployment breaking on the system, public services are likely to be overwhelmed - and yet need to be more responsive than under normal economic circumstances:

"Time is of the essence. The newly unemployed are not usually a focus of government policy because most will find work quickly. This is not true in a recession... Decisive government action now will prevent a temporary slide in employment becoming a permanent slump." Charles Leadbeater & others, 'Attacking the Recession', NESTA

During last week's new media breakfast at the Foreign Office, I was struck by a remark from a UKTI official: if this recession is to be different to previous recessions, he said, our industry has a crucial role to play in that. I guess he may have had in mind the way Finland's tech industry pulled it out of a deep recession in the 1990s, but it also set me thinking about the way the internet has been changing society at large.

Arguably the biggest thing that has changed in countries like the UK since there was last a major recession is that most people are networked by the internet and have some experience of its potential for self-organisation (whether through a myriad of internet dating sites, or through group social interactions such as Facebook, Meetup, Bebo, MySpace, and others - all carry the potential to connect people, both in the virtual and in the physical space). There has never been a major surge in unemployment in a context where these ways of "organising without organisations" were available.

As my School of Everything co-founder Paul Miller has written, London's tech scene is distinctive for the increasing focus on applying these technologies to huge social issues - rather than throwing sheep! Agility and the ability to mobilise and gather momentum quickly are characteristics of social media and online self-organisation, in ways that government, NGOs and large corporations regard with a healthy envy.

So, with that, the conversations I've been having keep coming back to this central question: is there a way we can constructively mobilise to respond to this situation in the days and weeks ahead?

Some ideas on what this might look like

One principle to keep in mind: access to tools and provision should not be limited to the unemployed. It is possible to design tools and offer services which are open to all, but have particular value to those with more time and less money. However, if these are walled off as exclusively for that group, this is stigmatising - and, more important, will stifle creativity by artificially restricting the range of possible interactions and connections. (This valuable approach towards open access is something I experienced first-hand over several years hanging out at Access Space in Sheffield, the UK's longest-running internet learning centre, where I as a (then) BBC journalist found myself learning to build my own website alongside guys who in some cases had been on the dole for much of their adult lives, and for whom the centre offered a route to starting a business, getting a skilled job, or getting funding for their creative activities.)

What follows is not a particularly structured list, though there are a few themes. The basic idea is that we're talking about digital resource-maps for people who have lost access to the market as a source of resources, with an aim to be an enablement tool for all levels of the participant community:

  • Information sharing for dealing with practical consequences of redundancy or job insecurity. You can see this happening already on a site like the Sheffield Forum.

  • Indexes of local resources of use to the newly-unemployed - including educational and training opportunities - built up in a user-generated style.

  • Tools for reducing the cost of living. These already exist - LiftShare, Freecycle, etc. - so it's a question of more effective access and whether there are quick ways to signpost people towards these, or link together existing services better.

  • An identification of skills, not just for potential employers but so people can find each other and organise, both around each other and emergent initiatives that grow in a fertile, socially-networked context.

If the aim is to avoid this recession creating a new tranche of long-term unemployed (as happened in the 1980s), then softening the distinction between the employed and unemployed is vital. In social media, we've already seen considerable softening of the line between producer and consumer in all kinds of areas, and there must be lessons to draw from this in how we view any large-scale initiative.

As I see it, such a softening would involve not only the kind of online tools and spaces suggested above, but the spread of real world spaces which reflect the collaborative values of social media. Examples of such spaces already exist:

Again, if these spaces are to work, access to them should be open, not restricted to the unemployed. (If, as some are predicting, we see the return of the three day week, the value of spaces like this open to all becomes even more obvious!) In order for this to work, such spaces would need to be organised with the understanding that hanging out can be as valuable as more visibly productive activities - both because of the resilience that comes from building social connections, and because of the potential for information sharing and the sparking of new projects. There would also be a need for incubator spaces for projects that emerge from these spaces and are ready to move to the next level.

What next?

These are some ideas that have come out of conversations with Vinay, Colin, Kalam, David, Mamading, Mike, Josef and others over the last couple of weeks. I'm keen to broaden those conversations, because I'm sure we can build on and better these ideas. I'm also keen to get some action going on - so a group of us are getting together at the School of Everything offices in Bethnal Green tomorrow night (Thursday 29th) to work on a first version of a site. Get in touch if you'd like to contribute!


Lucy Pearson said...

Interesting. This chimes with what I've seen among my own group of (online) friends where people's redundancies have been met by a huge outpouring of support and an immediate mobilisation of attempts to find and link to jobs that fit.

The thing that seemed missing from your post, though, is the way this points to the importance of libraries. If social media and the social networking model is to come into force in this way, then the digital divide becomes even more acute as a problem. Libraries and the access they offer to technology and to people who can show you how to use it are key in bridging the gap In terms of meatspace initiatives they're also an obvious place for people to meet - a good library is a community space. Obviously independent spaces like AccessSpace also have a role to play, but we should be making sure we use our libraries and push them in the most fruitful directions rather than reinventing the wheel.

Lucy Pearson said...

(And this is a bonus comment so it lets me tick the email feed for comments!)

happyseaurchin said...

well written... a nice summary of the state of affairs... glad you are not interested in merely throwing sheep... i would like to attend your meeting thursday, if that is ok? is there anything you would like for people to prepare? you mention a site... is this the direction that people will be contributing towards?

Dougald Hine said...

@Lucy - Interested to hear about what's happening among your friends. Would you be up for writing a few paragraphs about that - maybe as a guest post on here?

(That also reminds me of Granovetter's theory of weak links, which points out that people tend to find jobs through their weaker social connections, rather than the people at the core of their network - I've seen this a lot in practice.)

I take the point about libraries! You're absolutely right, and I actually used libraries as an example when I was talking about this stuff the other day. We definitely need to use the resources that already exist, rather than reinventing the wheel. I guess what I wonder is whether libraries have moved far enough beyond the convention of hushed silence, into being the kind of sociable, collaborative spaces we're talking about? (I suspect you may be able to point me to good examples! :-)

@David - Thanks! Will be in touch by email.

Martin Kelley said...

Good stuff here. The first thing it reminded me of was how the whole Web 2.0 scene was born out of the ashes of the dot-com crash. There were hundreds of software engineers who had been working in the bowels of places like AOL building all sorts of crazy pie-in-the-sky services than no one wanted and now they were all out of a job. So they banded together in small groups and started creating services they might actually be able to use and the greatest limiting factor was how long they could hold out without a proper income.

I've found it almost impossible to find a well-paying full time tech job in the semi-rural part of the US where I live but I've built up an independent freelance business that's dependent on one-on-relationships and customized services. I'm a mix of teacher, consultant and developer. I don't have the security of a steady paycheck and have to hope that projects continue to come in but I might be in a better position than my programmer brother, for example, who was just one of a thousand people laid off from a local insurance company he worked at for thirteen years.

What most intrigues me about your article is that piece about softening the line between the employed and unemployed. A large amount of my time is spent on non-billable explorations of social media and on massaging my social media site (your link to it is what drew me here!). The happy irony is that my online public visibility accounts for about a third of my paying clients. That's not why I do it (it wouldn't be interesting if it were) but there's definitely something to be teased out between the relationship between the paying and non-paying work and how this kind of mix might be a new economic model we're evolving into.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with your points, Dougald. In particular, the way that tools and provision should be open to all, and not targeted at the unemployed.

My experience of libraries is that they are failing to engage with new media and new economic models. I love my library as a source of "proper" reading material ;) But from a technology perspective, the computer access they offer is an information retrieval point more than a dynamic, creative space. As outposts of the council, libraries are inherently conservative, under-funded and do not seem to have the technical expertise or resources to adequately engage in new media. I would love to be proved wrong, or for this situation to change, but my experience is just this.

The other issue is that libraries can be viewed as "top down". We can use a library on the terms of the librarian. On the other hand, we can set up Access Spaces ourselves, on our own terms, to meet our own needs.

So, I take a different perspective to Lucy. Libraries may have a role to play, but independent, bottom-up models have the greatest power to address the needs this article highlights--the practical/financial, emotional/psychological and directional. It's not about reinventing the wheel. It's about connecting the wheel to an engine :)

kerstin said...

Thanks Dougald for allowing me to attend the meeting on Thursday social media vs the recession.
An inspiring and stimulating evening.
I'm not too good on the tecchie stuff but the ideas were mind blowing.
So glad that some people are approaching this crisis creatively...
I believe this Pluto in Capricorn recession is an opportunity for change

Dougald Hine said...

Sorry for the slow reply! Thought I'd posted a response on Sunday, but it seems to have fallen down the back of the internet...

@Martin - thanks for a very interesting response! The part about softening the line between employment and unemployment needs to be handled particularly carefully, because it could so easily sound like more of the "flexible labour market" agenda which a lot of people are understandably suspicious of. But your example of yourself and your brother encapsulates two very different concepts of security which underpin two different approaches to work. (In fact, I may well borrow it for an article I'm writing!)

One question I can imagine people asking is whether the kind of distributed security you describe in your own situation is only available to a certain subset of high-skilled workers in particular trades, like yourself?

@Mark - interesting perspective! Clearly it's not an either/or between libraries and other kinds of spaces. In fact, one of the worst outcomes of the idea that we need these ambiguous learning/producing/sociable spaces would be a national programme of identical spaces of any one kind. Having worked at Access Space yourself, what do you think is the minimum external support needed (financial/other resources) to get a space off the ground?

@MsM - thanks for coming! It was good to have your perspective and I'll look forward to bouncing ideas off you as things develop.

Anonymous said...

"In fact, one of the worst outcomes ... would be a national programme of identical spaces of any one kind."

I think this is fundamentally the point I'm making. Any "national programme" would, by definition, result in lots of similar projects which share the same model. This is why I think libraries are unlikely to play a core role here, unless they are able to become much more responsive to local need.

Even though we're in a developed country, I think the best model here will be that of the appropriate technology proponents. Appropriate technology is that which has been chosen and implemented by the people who use it.

"Having worked at Access Space yourself, what do you think is the minimum ... support needed ... to get a space off the ground?"

Access Space needs quite a lot of resource to run--a large venue in the city centre, about 4 part-time staff. Having said that, it has made hyper-efficient use of it's resources by using only free software and recycled hardware--therefore enabling all the resource to be spent on staff, volunteers and participants, and accomodation.

But Access Space is a big and mature project. I'm about to start discussing setting up a similar project on the outskirts of Sheffield, and we're looking at a much wider range of options. We might not have a fixed venue. We might organise, work and create partly online. We might even set up a couple of commercial activities which help to finance training and drop-in support.

I don't think there is a minimum. I think even just 4 or 5 people chatting through Skype, working at each others homes, and meeting up for regular socials could do a huge amount in their community.

I almost think the role of funding and government/quango support would be damaging, especially as a long-term model. He who giveth can also take it away. And funders are rarely risk-takers. I think if you tether these kinds of ideas to any kind of centralised support, you start down the slippery slope away from appropriate technology and back towards the national programme.

Dougald Hine said...

@Mark - This made me think of Jonathan Rose's fascinating book, 'The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes'. He charts the history of grassroots self-improvement and working class education movements in the UK. He describes groups of working men (and sometimes women) organising regular discussion meetings in the room above the local pub and setting up their own libraries, by subscribing a penny a month into a book-buying fund. I suspect there's a lot that could be borrowed from the experience of these earlier self-organised networks, when it comes to creating the kind of spaces we're talking about.

I'm interested, too, that you're thinking of the appropriate technology perspective. One of the people I've been working with on these ideas, Vinay Gupta, is very involved in the appropriate development world. I'd be interested in his take on this discussion - not least because his work has included working with the US Department of Defense to introduce appropriate development thinking into their disaster relief and international relations strategies - which sheds an interesting light on the issue of government support!

Pen Wilcock said...

I see immediately the force of all that your post suggests.

One useful facet of creating open opportunities that do not bracket off the newly unemployed, is that it would enhance the likelihood of their rubbing shoulders with those who have been successfully living under the aegis of what Brother Roger of Taize called 'The Power of the Provisional' as standard.

Being newly unemployed might feel less depressing if one found oneself in company with people who by choice accept the risk of precarious occupations for the sake of the freedom that can thereby be won.

Dougald Hine said...

@ember - Thanks for the comment. "The power of the provisional" is a very striking phrase. I'm reminded of the Helen Keller quote about security being "mostly a superstition".

noel said...

just seen this on the guardian, how about using "slack spaces" for good? Wish we had this in our area as our pretty vacant Woolworths is opposite a gleamingly superficial shopping mall, performance cafe and learning space would be bang on!

Anonymous said...

That is a very interesting post. I think that the connections people make through social media could be important to them in times of recession/depression/falling of a cliff.

I picked up on this post through Twitter - I am very amused you have registered "collapsonomics"!

Anonymous said...

Good post Douglas. I think there is a lot that civil society initiatives can do to help individuals impacted by the recession.

But I think it is also really important that government and public services grasp the opportunity to use social technology to deliver more responsive services at a much lower cost. I wrote a post about this issue just the other day:

Anonymous said...

Hey Dougald, interesting post. Some of this reminds me of the "wiki as a money-making tool" ideas we kicked around at Maybe the time is right to revisit them?

Dougald Hine said...

@noel - thanks for the link to the Guardian article. I'd be interested in people's ideas about what local and/or national government could do to support creative use of "slack spaces"? When I visited Utrecht a couple of years ago, I heard about some interesting models there. I'll try to find out some more.

@patrick - Glad you like the Collapsonomics name! A few of us have been using it as a term for work on the scarier scenarios for how the economic crisis could play out. Vinay Gupta defines it as "the economics of collapse and avoiding collapse." Will put some stuff up on that site soon.

@Lee - very interested in your post - thanks for the link. I certainly don't think it's an either/or choice between civil society and government responses. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation!

@Paul - great to hear from you. I actually used Yellowikis as an example in a talk about this stuff a few weeks ago. I'm sure there are lessons from the ideas we were kicking around then which can be applied to the kind of resource mapping I'm talking about.

Past Expiry said...

Check out this cartoon about the recession!

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