Getting Organised for Good

After the Limits of Web 2.0

Unorganized City, by Christy C, with Creative Commons licenceSome people can never really get organised, but others do it with natural ease. At the group level much the same occurs, with everything possible from loose yet effective organisation to downright chaotic failure. But in blogs, social networking platforms like Friendster and photo sharing sites like Flickr, Web 2.0 is a great leveller, offering forums for spontaneous activity, flexible boundaries that allow groups to form, function and disperse with minimal effort.

In Here Comes Everybody, Cay Shirky calls this “organising without organisations” and the sense of freestyle coordination plays out most often in protest movements. The other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, is a classic case of that, or at least seems to be. But ask yourself what more could be achieved if this sort of temporary organising became permanent, if Web 2.0 could be a decisive factor in social change.

That notion has been a constant concern lately as the group behind a Death in Hong Kong has started to manoeuvre it away from a focus on one disappearance and death to the broader social, economic and legal problems faced by migrant workers in Hong Kong. So when reading Dave Wallace’s brief Lifekludger post on Clay Shirky and the limits of Web 2.0 yesterday I encountered a few simple but serious issues very much worthy of further consideration.

Dave specialises in workarounds, and he needs to because he’s quadriplegic. Lifekludger is an attempt to draft a community of like-minded people, those willing to look beyond the way things are to how they might yet be, with a nudge or two. Workarounds are ways of getting by and getting better with limited opportunities. I mentioned Dave in a previous post, and his observations tend to make me stop and think, then think again.

Traffic Light, by johnmarchan, with Creative Commons licenceThis time around Dave simply mentions that the social networks created on Web 2.0 tend to be used for STOP actions when GO actions, or forms of positive change, are needed to give his concept of a “collaborative ecosystem” more traction. He does so while introducing a recent Clay Shirky interview that breaks open the whole idea of network limits to poke at how they function.

Shirky mentions that continuity and a density of trust are crucial in moving towards more permanent Web 2.0 networks, but that conversation and a shared mission easily break down. We have a protest culture, he says, but “we don’t yet have a constructive culture”. He also mentions, at the prompting of the interviewer, that third generation mobile phones are starting to proliferate in developing countries, which will rapidly narrow the ‘digital divide’ in telephony.

Neither of these comments are particularly ground-breaking, but they made me think more about combining Web 2.0 and mobile phones in permanent social change. One idea I’ve been tossing around lately is to combine A Death in Hong Kong with a network of mobile phones. At one level, using a centralised computer hub, short versions of the messages on the blog could be sent out to the network. This would be particularly useful for announcing events, but there could also be a more supportive element.

Imagine that you work 6 or 7 days a week, 18 hours a day, and have little chance to meet other people save when walking your employer’s dog, takingUnable to relax, by Pulpolux !!! With Creative Commons licence your wards to school, or doing the shopping. Welcome to the lives of many domestic helpers here in Hong Kong. Mobile phones understandably feature in their days, allowing communication, providing precious links to the world outside. But even so, many helpers won’t discuss important issues like legal rights and health concerns with other people. The embarrassment of being thought ignorant is isolating, and it compounds the already onerous burden of solitude.

Yet if these people first receive news from the blog and can then communicate anonymously with the other people in the network of mobile phones, what happens? A move towards a constructive culture of networking? Possibly not at such a crude level.

But imagine if a helper has just had her contract terminated unfairly, knows she must leave town in two weeks and needs legal advice? She can send a text to the central computer, which will distribute it to all other members in the network. All can reply to the message, again through the central computer, which would filter out truly extraneous messages. Some might be able to offer solace alone, but one might send the phone number of someone who could help. Any non-sensitive information would also be pushed from the central computer to the blog, informing others and maybe even allowing them to help with the original problem.

You Got My Numbers, by twenty_questions, with Creative Commons licenceIn this way, the second generation mobile phone with its simple message function could well become an integral, and not coincidental, part of Web 2.0 activism. Social change builds from that. The system could raise general awareness across a range of issues, and reach out to touch specific people in need.

Imagine starting with 10 people in the network and allowing registration through the blog until 100 people could offer advice, learn for themselves and mobilise to help when someone decides a situation is so difficult that they no longer wish to be anonymous.

Of course the idea isn’t full worked through yet, and from reading the Lifekludger blog I’m very much aware that hardware alone can be limiting in unforeseen ways. How the centralised computer will work is currently but a twinkle in my mind. And another problem will be recruiting the initial people in the network – ideas are so often difficult to propagate because they seem far less substantial than the practical remedies of everyday life, even those that offer little actual relief.

I’ll offer concept drawings here for comment when I’ve worked through the plans more, after I’ve discussed the various aspects of the idea with people I met through an earlier post on this blog. And I hope to discuss them with Dave Wallace soon – he’s invited me to take part in a podcast, flat voice and all.

It’s time for change everybody. Let’s start.

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