#twicket, community, and social capital

Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet on the Our Society front lately. This post is about #twicket, which is one of the reasons I haven’t been here much lately.

 I am not going to tell the full story of #twicket, as I have documented it all, in quite some detail here http://wp.me/ppLRZ-dH. If you don’t know what #twicket is, then the rest of this post may not make much sense to you, so I suggest you read that post first, or listen to my interview about it on Radio New Zealand http://wp.me/ppLRZ-fc.

I want to talk about what #twicket has taught me about community and social capital.

The first point is about serendipity. I put together two random tweets and built something which became a lot bigger than I had ever envisaged. I think this illustrates how the internet is increasingly being used help people find common cause with others, from those seeking social change in North Africa, to those wanting to discuss the intricacies of 1970’s prog rock lyrics. And, in defiance of the tabloid newspaper headlines, I believe we are finding new ways of using online interactions to reinforce, enhance and develop face-to-face relationships, rather than replacing them. I think Our Society is a good illustration of this factor, keeping the conversations going in between face-to-face events. From those random beginnings, #twicket quickly built a community of people interested in pushing back the boundaries of the web, rural broadband, content creation, and cricket. And this proved to be a much bigger community than I had ever imagined. Not all of them were equally interested in each of the elements, but there were enough people interested in their intersection, and interested to different degrees in bits of the package, to make the whole thing a major success. And then there were people who said to me “I hate cricket, but I’m going to be watching this match”.

A key element in the success of #twicket was that it was built around a fun activity. I hope those people who have been championing the cause of rural broadband for years do not mind too much that #twicket seemed to generate more interest in 15 days than much of their campaigning has done in years; but, I think the point is that putting the cricket match up front made people turn their heads in my direction and I then had a platform from which to make some serious points about countryside connectivity, which I was able to do on the regional BBC TV News, Radio Lancashire, the Guardian Technology Blog, the Metro Newspaper, and Radio New Zealand. It was a bit frustrating that TalkSport and BBC London both chose to focus exclusively on the cricket match and to interview players involved, which was great for them, but wasted the opportunity to make some of the main points to other audiences.

And so to my final point, about social capital. I’ve been grappling with this one since the whole thing started, but I was blown away by the people who were prepared to chip in and offer time and resources to help make the project happen. I suppose you could call this cashing in social capital. I am extremely grateful to everyone who helped, whether they were in Wray on the day making the event happen technically, or writing Wikipedia entries, or just re-tweeting the latest news as events unfolded. I hope all those who helped got as much of a buzz out of it as I did, and I sincerely hope that those who donated time and resources to the cause get a positive business outcome from it. Some of the people who helped out in big ways I had never met before #twicket began, so I think that does show that Twitter friendships can become real friendships and that social media can generate social capital as much as helping people in “real life”.

I think there are important lessons here for Our Society, Big Society, Community Organising, and Localism. We must mix online and offline interactions and activism if we are to include everyone. Online work can fill in the gaps between real life actions, maintain the conversation and embrace those not able, because of time or access issues, to take part in physical interactions. And we should not dismiss online relationships as ephemeral as they can be just as important, if perhaps in different ways, to the friendships we experience in the offline world.

Comment by John Popham on June 4, 2011 at 18:26

Organisations don’t make social capital, people do

How true, Lorna, I wish everyone could see that.
I think Social Media Surgeries, as you well know, are a good start in the direction you are talking about. It always disappoints me when I help someone set up a new account (Twitter or whatever) at an SMS and then I never see them use it. As I often say, the technicalities can be relatively easy to grapple with, it’s the voice and the conversation that can be more difficult. I also, often advise people to treat Twitter like a new group they have joined. Initially they might be reluctant to say much, but they can listen to the conversation, and, eventually, find the confidence to join in.
This is also why I take every opportunity to talk to the mainstream media about social media. This helps to counter the negative perceptions that the dinosaur media likes to put about as they feel threatened by the new tools. This does mean, however, that many people approach social media with their heads full of these negative perceptions.
Another key barrier I come across all the time is people who work in organisations where all social media is blocked. This adds another barrier, as it gives them the idea that social media is not a serious professional tool, and using it is somehow doing something “naughty”.
Comment by Lorna Prescott on June 4, 2011 at 18:15
I agree with you John, there’s great learning here. I’ve only been using online social tools for a year, but by learning from generous people like you I have unexpectedly made amazing connections which have had a hugely positive impact on every aspect of my work. I wonder if Our Society could look at ways to support people who are interested, or dipping their toe in, but haven’t quite figured out how to develop new online relationships? A few recent (offline) discussions have helped me to understand a couple of things which can result in people listening but remaining unsure how to give online. The first is a lack of introductions/welcome – for example on twitter. I was warmly welcomed by you and others thanks to a sort of invisible introduction by @sospot. This made sending a few tweets much easier, and helped me to feel that I was in a virtual room full of the sort of people I would really get on with. I think some folk join twitter but then hesitate to join the conversation. The more of us that can either go over and say ‘hi’ or provide them with something to give them the confidence to do this the better. Another barrier (in my view) is the belief people have that online they need to keep separate their job or voluntary role from the rest of who they are as a human being. This feels a potentially huge block to social capital development online, and especially when this is exacerbated by people who seek to behave as an organisation online. Organisations don’t make social capital, people do – so can we help people to be themselves online?
Comment by Garry Garrilla on May 12, 2011 at 11:26

this illustrates how the internet is increasingly being used help people find common cause with others

So true. One of the ‘broader picture’ themes that is emerging out of ‘new social’ is that both new communities of interest are being created, but also adds new impetus for existing communities to reconnect – and the growth of hyperlocal is testament to this. We all know how the ‘entropy’ of 20th Century living fractured ‘community,’ and particularly the diminished returns on social capital investment – ie being neighbourly/citizenly/etc.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on the difference between serendipity-based self-organisation and active mobilisation of community – is there a dichotomy here, or do we need manifold approaches?
Comment by chris conder on May 10, 2011 at 19:16
spot on John. I invited many government ‘types’ to the event. Only the one you invited made it. They missed so much. I don’t know if they watched the archived stream, but this event proved that big society is alive and well amongst the grassroots. Shame the ones who are in charge of the agenda don’t seem to understand how it all works, either in the analogue or digital world. Twicket proved more than one point that day.
1. that rural areas really do need decent internet connections like Wray.
2. that friendships made on twitter/fb etc end up making friends in real life.
3. that using social media new communities can JFDI and make even more (and bigger) things happen.
4. we don’t need funding or government intervention (but there is a limit to how much we can do without it).
5. people power can and should be harnessed to do more good, and the only way to do it is from the bottom up, not the top down way the government is trying to do it.
Rant over. great post.