I wrote these thoughts in response to the ongoing digital mentors development and in particular, this post about whether it will simply be the white middle classes that benefit from the project. I've expressed exactly these concerns myself in many different contexts, but there's always been a response at the back of my mind that where internet access is relatively easy to get to, people still don't take part.
So, what I've tried to address is a question: if people are invited to participate, why don't they?
Apologies, for the length, it is a bit of an essay but I've tried to break it up so people can skip through and anyone is welcome to extract any useful bits. Also it's a work in progress but if I don't hit publish now I could go on forever. Acknowledgments to Clay Shirky and anyone else whose ideas I might have absorbed in passing.
Looking globally, it is not the case that only the white and middle class are digitally included. In many countries still considered 'developing', groups and individuals with access have been able to collaborate basically as well as anywhere else. A number of projects have focussed on developing this with different models, meaning I could more easily communicate online with some people working in orphanages in Rwanda than in community centres in Stoke. Sure, super-fast broadband and hot gadgets make everything look nicer, but there's no fundamental difference as long as you have the two elements I'm writing about here: technology (however basic) and time. Even literacy becomes less of an issue with increasing use of video and audio tools, but it nevertheless remains the case that education is probably the main dividing factor.
Online collaboration doesn't care about anybody's point of view. In a world where we've segregated ourselves on the basis of race, class, religion, politics while becoming ever more likely to bump into each other physically, it is the fact that we can work together often without knowing these aspects about each other that contributes to the richness and power of collaborative projects and things like community campaigns. It doesn't matter if we fundamentally disagree on religious matters if we both want to fight to save the local swimming pool. However, in the real world, something like different religious views might be one of the factors that would stop us ever talking to each other.
Digital exclusion is a problem because we are still missing out on the contributions of so many talented people.
Why is being online important?
The internet is a platform for anybody to work, play, pay for things or do what they want for free. With internet access, anybody can look up information or join in conversations, for example extending the reach of broadcast media and other aspects of society that could also have been considered 'broadcast', such as politics. Without internet access, simply, they cannot. While a local library has a certain amount of information for people, it is in no way equivalent to the searchable index available at our fingertips. Meetings are a definite positive complement to online interaction, but the internet takes the cost out of all basic organisation. It avoids the need to have meetings at set times when 80% of your community might need to be elsewhere looking after kids or working. With web 2.0 sites, even the time consuming aspects of building are removed. It enables anybody to contribute to their own strengths and decentralises responsibility - as well as control.
What and where is the conversation?
While you can look and learn online, it is all about interaction. You don't just happen to open your web page and see a site, you browse into it, find it through Google or get referred to it by an advert, another website, social network or directly from a friend. You might ask someone with power for information and as soon as they show you where that information is, you become informed rather than frustrated. Because of the sheer volume of 'stuff' online, you need some sort of prompt and that is often where 'the conversation' comes in.
The trickiest part of online participation is that it is really about your capacity, not least your time, to join in conversations. There are, obviously, millions of conversations going on all over the world in different languages and in different places. Although many of these conversations are open, barriers to involvement include your ability to read and type in the right language and the time you have to get to know the context and build up trust within the community. The conversations you join, therefore, are those you want to dedicate time to.
The simplest answer is that the conversations is actually only between the individual and the screen. This is exactly the same as the information you access - the choice to participate is an individual one. However, once you have found your area of passion, your ability to contribute is huge. To give one example, if we worry that language is a big barrier to communication, then just go and see the online community that contribute to Global Voices, translating and editing global posts to provide a more multi-layered view of the world than has ever been provided by the mainstream media. It is a project that could never be achieved on the same scale by a company alone, but the partnership between Reuters, the team they funded and the volunteers that make it happen. Taking part requires a certain level of familiarity with the community and its rules, you can't just jump in and start (although the best communities usually make it possible to do just that on some level). We see that just getting on with solving the problem, however small the initial contribution, is more powerful than merely defining, redefining and arguing over the problem. That is why, from the entirely unequal position of having paid staff on one side and voiceless community members on the other, we are now entering a time when community groups or other collaborating groups can move faster than traditional organisations and win arguments that they weren't even being invited to have before.
So what do people need to participate?
All people need is access and time. This is a big 'all'. Unpicking this, use of social media is a luxury. Access to basic equipment is enough for basic interaction, but the technology you have dictates whether you can access features like broadband. When internet access has a price, time becomes limited. Your ability to have an ambient awareness of the passing world depends if you are near a screen much of the time, for example in a job that is both computer-based and where access to social sites has not been blocked.
Joining in the many-to-many conversations online takes longer than face to face, but it is at least more possible than actually moving to the same gathering points. Twitter's strength is that it is virtually as quick to post as it is to read updates, so many-to-many conversations have become quicker and more open than email. Unless you protect your updates, you open up your interactions for anybody to follow. When Twitter becomes widely accessible by mobile phone again it will become easier for this to happen away from computer screens.
What has changed in the UK?
It goes without saying that there were plenty of active people online in the UK for the last decade. However, there has been an underdevelopment in UK communities. The active people I knew were generally part of international communities. Twitter has contributed to a change. In the blog and email era, it was just as easy to interact with people in other time zones as our own. On Twitter, the general chatter is in the same time zone as you, unless you have the time to scroll back at what happened while you were asleep. I have a fair spread of people I follow in the UK and America, but I'm much more likely to keep in regular touch with the people in the UK, including those I didn't know before Twitter. While there was an online community before Twitter, its connectivity seems to have sped up in the last few months and I think it's partly thanks to Twitter. It's also connected to the increasing professionalisation of a generation who would have got their first email addresses towards the end of high school or college and are now reaching the stage of making decisions in organisations.
There's something that is slow to change and that's the culture change that comes in an open, digital society. In a society where everyone is invited to participate, people still need to know they have the invitation. I look at Twitter or Wikinews and assume that it is fine to participate in the conversations (as long as I know a Twitterer I am following has followed me back, otherwise they won't hear me), but there are many people who will assume they are not included unless they receive the embossed invitation in the post. Part of the culture shift of the social web is the assumption that all are invited to participate and in communities that are hierachical by nature, this is a bigger shift than people from the educated classes might realise.
To illustrate further specifically to this area:- In two direct examples, a person has told me that he will not go to a meeting with a chairman because he has been made to feel unwelcome and another has said he would not go to the majority of community meetings because he is a different race and considerably younger than the people he would expect to see there. It goes the other way - I know plenty of managers who would not dream of walking into certain pubs. Hardly anybody who is white in Stoke has visited a mosque and hardly anybody who is Muslim has gone into a pub (excuse the inconsistent capitalisation, anything else looks wrong). With all these invisible walls, the internet is the best place where we could have direct conversations or, better, widen the impact of the community projects that seek to build bridges and bring people together in neutral, friendly spaces.
Particularly in the realms of politics as in corporations or any form of infrastructure, the conversation needs support to be effective. In the case of, say, an MP, a good rapport can be built up while only a few people are emailing them but as soon as all 60,000 people start taking up the opportunity you need some serious admin support to avoid unanswered emails and angry constituents. This is no longer about engaging when you need votes because scrutiny is now constant, but engaging all the time, beyond politics. This is partly a matter of making information as intuitively available as possible.
Right now in Britain (especially areas relatively new to the social web and political spheres) we're seeing the anger of exclusion bubbling up into the internet. It starts quietly and then turns into a flood. Then you get the clash of angry people. Accuse me of rewriting history if you wish, but I'd argue that America was at this stage four years ago, way back when we used to hear about hanging chads and the like. A few long, long years later and we have the incredible site of Barack Obama sending the whole world crazy.
What changed? In my view, what changed is that the people who do participate (adapting Wikipedia's statistic probably less than 1 in 100 of people who are even on participatory websites) brought their online interactions into the real world. Obama and his team have managed to bring together the traditional party system, which remains the only way you can take political power, with the collaborative power of people who couldn't care less about politics. They have completely disproved the notion that online activists can neither influence people outside their immediate circles or that they have no financial power. They have also shown that vast swathes of people who have given up, who don't think there's any point getting involved because they're always let down (but who were never, as often labelled, apathetic) can be brought in to the ballot box.
What is the role of digital mentors in the real world?
If programmers have built a world where their tools can be shared and reshaped, then it is now up to the communicators to bring that same culture into the real world. Communicating, luckily, requires fewer special skills than programming. Digital mentoring should be open to anybody with a passion for the social change that the digital sphere can bring who is willing to share that with other people, particularly with those communities that remain voiceless.
The community of digital mentors will be able to share projects and areas of practice that have worked, particularly getting over those tricky situations when you've spent ten minutes explaining the joys of Twitter only to blank stares and suggestions that perhaps it's time you stopped playing and got a proper job.
Who funds it all?
It is perhaps underappreciated, because I rarely hear it said, that the architecture of the digital revolution has, on the whole, not been provided by governments or philanthropists but by the commercial sector. The fact that community groups need not fill in a funding application to get a website built for them but can simply sign up for a blog on Blogger is perhaps why not all of them do - we have a voluntary sector that often relies on funding and assumes that the end of funding means the end of a project. It is neither necessary nor desirable for governments to build a suite of tools equivalent to those freely available from the big companies and while you can (and should) consider whether you want so much information to be held by Google and Yahoo, I think there is greater benefit than cause for concern in the fact that anybody can sign up for everything from an email address to a group wiki for free and also anonymously.
If the internet and the social web is the modern equivalent of roads, especially in an era where transport is going to become more limited, then there is a Keynesian argument for the government to be investing in people to help make those connections. The roads will be formed by people once they have had their starting points. We haven't yet got the British equivalent of Google (have we?), but there's no particular reason why that shouldn't happen if we - the public and private sector - invest in creative, collaborative people who can respond flexibly to our ever-changing global circumstances. It's a far, far better strategy for regeneration than retail parks, I'd suggest, with one eye firmly pointed at those people making decisions for North Staffordshire.
The concern that digital mentors would simply be going round telling people what to do is, hopefully, not what is going to happen if people who understand social media become the ones who take the project forward (most importantly, not just those who see it as an opportunity to "bung a few banks of PCs in community centres". Teaching is a pretty old fashioned form of broadcast. Mentoring is more about developing participation, it's the modern version of show and tell, but without the tell. When I think about the people I'd try to involve I have one friend in particular in mind, Mark. He started out by emailing a campaign via its website and quickly got immersed in the debate. Two hugely successful campaigns later and he remains a central member of the group. He has taken part in some community development training with the local university, making him almost as qualified as many of the fresh-faced consultants that parade through our communities at the start of each new tender process. As well as emails bouncing around the group, Mark now runs a one-man online attack on an array of local and national government figures, wheedling out individual contacts from big corporate departments. He's not the only one in the group and their advice has spread further, helping campign groups in other parts of the country to force council rethinks. What I like about the digital mentoring project is the fact that the DCLG must realise that they're going to create a generation of people who are going to make their lives a misery, but that ultimately we will have a more connected, empowered society.
Becoming a Mentor
What was it that first got you excited about the web? I'll guess it started with something you read or heard from someone else, possibly after hearing all sorts of things that you ignored, that got you curious. After that, it was just you and the computer screen, along with the tools and the people out there - the communities. It was when you found enough to be passionate about that you become an advocate, even an evangelist for the web. That, along with a bit of experience and enthusiasm for building or contributing to communities yourselves is really all you need to award yourself the title of Digital Mentor.
We need to find a balance between giving people adequate reward for their time (particularly where we see priority areas, to ensure digital mentoring is something adequate numbers of people have the time to do rather than assuming they will all be those that can afford to do in their spare time) and opening our knowledge and experience up to ensure that anybody with online experience who wants to share that for community benefit can find the role and take it on voluntarily (along with the other titles that have struck a chord with people such as blogger and social reporter, and no doubt there will be many more to come). We need transparency in recruitment for the paid positions and the possibility of being trained into the paid roles, or other paid work using the skills.
I think alongside a large organisation taking the lead on the proposal, we will need some of the leaders identified in this exercise, and those who emerge in the future, to be national connectors who have the ability to roam the country making sure small organisations know about each other's work (as we know, however good we might be are at online networking and getting better all the time, you do still miss a lot when you can't have real conversations with people). Clearly this needs to be matched with connectors on the ground and this is where it becomes less likely that the government-led scheme alone can afford to.
I see it shaping up into a type of open source collegiate community which needs enough resources to bring people together and enable people to work in communities (perhaps on lead, 'model' projects), while also drawing in people all the time to make a contribution to the project and to digital engagement, therefore deepening the core work and unlocking further resources, both people/volunteers and further grant funding, for example small community grants for computer centres that could be equipped with a free suite of key social sites and then that centre can be added to the Online Centres network.
Perhaps, since this does have the government angle, this sort of connecting role is also something that MPs could be encouraged to take part in. (don't look so surprised!) Furthermore, we need to spread the idea that digital communication is something that more workers are given time for within their jobs.
There will always be those people who feel they have missed out once something is up and running without them, but one of the unwritten rules of the social web is that it is better to build a structure and then see what happens than to wait until you have everybody on board and absolute agreement. Failure as a possibility is acceptable but if you don't have a defined outcome then all outcomes can be a success. As long as the Digital Mentor project has an open and welcoming community and aims to collaborate with anybody who wants to throughout its lifetime, then it will have more success in joining up the circles of online and offline conversation than all of the traditional, top-down, expensive projects that so often land upon us.
We move into a more constructive social media community when we realise that spending your precious typing time arguing and complaining about being excluded is really not as good as just doing it. Doing what? It's entirely up to you.