Are you ready for the honesty in the mirror?

It appears that Social Media shows signs of maturity and its appetite can be fierce if not fearsome.  A year ago, the Arab Spring signaled the power of social media to rapidly help like minded individuals with shared frustrations meetup and act in solidarity against institutions. The speed of the social sharing had been seen before but not on this scale and not for this serious a level.

I happened to come across two examples in which social media has begun to provide real levers of change,and illustrate what Scott E. Page, at the University of Michigan and other behavior modelers, recognize as the power, not just the wisdom of the crowd to change outcomes. 

When I say levers, I’m talking crow bars, not mere  shoe horns.

Estimates by the Pew Reseach Center Internet American Life project show that  “two online activities that are nearly universal among adult internet users, as 92% of online adults use search engines to find information on the Web, and a similar number (92%) use email.” Shoehorn persuasion tactics. Email being the easiest and direct persuasion tactic. Its free and so the more they write the more they hope I’ll respond.  Crowbar tactics are when the audience flips the lever back on the sender.  This isn’t the same as the Arab Spring, or if I’m wrong I hope you’ll tell me.

Case #1 Candidate Accountability

Without the benefits of stats, I’d estimate the savvy of the presidential campaigns’ use of social media –getting out their messages to voters, and pulling in donations and volunteers–even with the public and niche user communities’ scrutiny of the candidates claims.

Its human nature  and certainly consistent with the American capitalist tradition to expect something in return, the exchange of effort and value.

Candidates have always been aware of the double-edged exchange of access to voters. More importantly, they also need influence to get favorable results.   I live in Chicago whose rich history of machine style politics used patronage as reward to its soldiers who helped register and then turn out the votes. Social media in 2008 was young,the candidates who took it by the reigns and broke in the users learned how the new media drove influence and when relationships mattered.  Pelting your audience with emails needed a little finesse, to prompt sharing.  Give them something worth sharing and your audience will provide the influence. The voters would be the muscle standing behind the message.  Remember Sarah Silverman’s hit video, that encouraged grandchildren to go visit their grandparents in Florida and get out the vote for Obama?

Again, I’ve no stats, but Jon Stewart’s team as well as Stephen Colbert among others at Comedy Central, provided ample video clips worth sharing.  They also did something else. They reminded their viewers that, like Dorothy they too had the power all along to take on a candidate’s claim and hold them accountable.

Fast forward to 2012.  I receive a ridiculous amount of email pleas for donations and offers to win a chance for dinner with the president.  It’s a little like publisher’s clearing house, and I don’t care about their fundraising deadlines.

Here’s the case that John Souza writing for Fast Company yesterday mentioned.  VP candidate Paul Ryan appealing to potential voters shared, maybe even boasted that he had run a marathon in 3 hours. The effort intended to build solidarity, open up  and reveal a little about him.  But remember this is 2012, and social media’s two-way lever, makes the public more powerful.  Sure, a candidate needs to appeal to the voting population, and leverage common affinities to his favor. How did he fail to realize that this audience had pride in their efforts and might take offense? The savvy campaign staff didn’t anticipate the indignation his boast would draw, nor that it would prompt greater scrutiny.  Rather than drawing them close he found himself suddenly at a huge distance.  [Read the fuller story here, Obama and Romney’s Biggest Social Media Fails courtesy of Fast Company.]

Souza identifies three signs of social media’s crowbar power all made possible by people’s ability to find and then share content that they ultimately can’t control.  No surprise when Facebook has 1 billion users, or  92%, and growing, of american adult internet users use search and email.  Souza points  out how  social media “by shining a continual light, from every possible direction, on every move a high-profile candidate makes,”  has made it impossible for candidates to control their campaign and message.

Elected officials don’t get any more of a break than candidates.  Arguably, few institutions are beyond the reach of social media.  Anyone rewrite the updated version of the Emperor with no clothes yet?   Which brings us to case #2.

Case #2, the messiness of governing.

In early September, the Chicago Tribune launched a useful interaction with the crime data that the City of Chicago has made public. I dropped by the local Datapotluck meetup and met the staff responsible for its launch and learned more about the data challenges.   Six weeks of 3 programmers full-time and the results are very impressive.  I especially appreciate the context they went out of their way to include.  Judge for yourself Crime in your community.

Great that they are more eyeballs analyzing the data, that’s one value to the city.  But more eyeballs analyzing the data is also what a) prevents the mayor’s office from providing all of its available data in real-time; and b) sharing the parallel data of police responses.

What happens when we make people more aware?  Joe Germuska who designs the news applications for the Tribune,  shared some of the insights gained in designing the crime site by sitting with people in various communities to understand what data was useful and why. Parents who want to insure the kids got to school safely use the interactive maps to plan the safest routes. Or the context alters the image of a community area when you the crime stats appear in proportion to the population.

Getting more people to think and act is one of the oldest games on the planet.

There’s no place to hide anymore, and whether you share the data or not, people will hold others accountable.  That  return lever has always been there, but rarely exercised by lesser known individuals raising their voice, surprised to find it carried by strangers. We all benefit from learn how to use these tools more effectively, to motivate, incent or  engage people constructively not merely destructively.

Democracies are messy, but the shot of more people benefitting increases the more transparent and visible the decision-making process.  So Rahm, good job on learning and sharing but you’ve got more to do!

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