Social design rant 2 — James Duggan

As part of our Expert Workshop, we asked participants to each make a 4-minute rant on a designated topic.

We are blogging the text of some of them, with thanks to their contributors.

The second of these is by Dr James Duggan, of the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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‘Social Action Platforms’

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There is something beautifully simple and seductive about social action platforms but they’re also a bit of a black box with ‘Internet solves the problem’ written on it. Scott’s ‘Seeing Like a State’ explains the destructive consequences of top-down, technical and rational policies and technologies in imposing a simplified perspective on a complex world, such as big dam projects, agrarian reforms… and extending this, parts of the welfare system as well.

There is a constellation of digital and social tools that potentially could enable communities to work with the grain and granularity of their own local complexities. Amongst these SAPs are websites that enable a user to describe a project or problem and get members of the community to resource it, such as Spice Hive and OpenIdeo. Although there are a few examples of successful platforms, there are many more failures and the potential remains unrealised especially in terms of focusing and cohering local-level, grassroots civic projects.

There are lots of reasons for this but given the limited time, I’d like to focus on the partial ‘social’ in social action platforms. Here ‘social’ could mean social good or social media tools but what I don’t think it relates to is the everyday social fabric of communities as they come together to develop projects to improve things.

Some of the issues are to do with using online technology and a social enterprise business model. The wider the geographical scope, the greater the number of projects and money raised and so the more commission going back into the platform. But people live in places. I think there’s something different and substantial about communities doing local projects that the platforms don’t engage with. Not everyone has a new, discrete, fundable project but people have lots of small, diffuse and different things going on and might like to know who in their city could and would help them, if anyone is doing anything similar and so on.

At this point I should say that I tried unsuccessfully to develop an alternative social action platform called ‘Weave’, a place-based social action platform-cum-ecosystem to bring together people at the local level around social innovation and civic projects. As the plans got more comprehensive and complex, links to the council and enterprise hubs and so on, we decided we had to focus on something simple around the social.

I was interested in how FaceBook built and marketised the social graph by enabling users to share pictures of ‘lolcatz’ and see who was single or not. From this we came up with gratitude as a proxy or analogue for the exchanges and relationships that were integral to the emergence and flourishing of civic projects. Gratitude is social and relational: ‘I thank you’ has a strong cultural, religious and normative base – from telling children to say ‘thank you’, to cards, flowers and chocolate boxes…

Gratitude is also useful. Take the sentence ‘John thanks Jane for help designing a website for his new project’. Here we learn that Jane has web development skills, that she knows and will help John and so maybe people like him. We also learn about John’s new project. At under 140 characters it can be Tweeted and FaceBooked etc. Significantly, John has an incentive to log on and thank Jane and she is flattered to log on and accept. At least that’s the theory.

Beyond the individual level, gratitude can be re-interpreted as an incentive for a variety of organisations to collaborate. For a university gratitude is research impact or community engagement, for businesses it’s CSR, for local politicians it’s campaign content. All of this can be brought together around the identity of a place, e.g., WeaveMCR with Black Birkenstock events to recognise and inspire wider engagement. So we created Thnku, a simple web interface that enables users to thank other users and pin thanks under categories… but that’s as far as we got.

One view might be that social action platforms have come as far as they should. Not everything needs to be replicated online, serendipity exists in the real world too. I think there’s a place for them though, but connected to the real world, rooted to the people and organisations in places. Implementation is another matter.

More widely, unpicking the social in social action platforms reminds us of the blind spots in technologies and our ideas as they conceptualise, reconstruct and afford new social relations but always the importance of weaving them into the warp and weft of the social life of complex communities.

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