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My friend and colleague Clement Chau invited me to attend a Ben Shniederman talk Understanding Social Media, Accelerating Social Participation at Bentley University, present by Boston CHI. We were eager to hear about issues relevant to our civic engagement research with Henry Jenkins from the perspective of Human Computer Interaction. If you’re interested, check out his slides for this talk.

Shneiderman turned out to be a great speaker, very passionate about how the potentials of social media might be harnessed for the good of society, and a pretty funny guy.

Apparently, his paper, which explores how effective disaster response systems might benefit from emergency citizen reporting, was more widely read than anything he’d previously written. And this was before the shootings at Virginia Tech. Once universities did implement emergency communication systems using SMS, only a small percentage of students signed up. Shneiderman was very clear on this point – technical solutions had been offered, but social solutions were still missing. If people were not opting in, even for something this important, how can we motivate people to participate?

Shneiderman took us through a survey of citizen reporting efforts which had experienced varying degrees of success, including the US Geological Survey’s Did You Feel It? earthquake reporting site, the well-known Amber Alert system, which grew from a small non-profit to a US Department of Justice program, the Sahana free and open source disaster management system created during the 2004 Asian tsunami, Katrina’s Angels, and Nation of Neighbors, which emerged from one local neighborhood watch site.

These systems all rely heavily on voluntary citizen reporting. Why do some work, while others fail? What motivates participation? Shneiderman quickly took us through a few theoretical models – people are scared enough to act (Rogers, 1975), people act of out revenge (Hanson, 2008), out of some public service motivation (Perry, 2000), or from varying levels of egoism, altruism, collectivism, or principlism (Batson, Arhamad, 2002).

Of course this led into a discussion of stages of participation. One nice model he offered was the Reader to Leader framework he developed with Jennifer Preece, which I especially like because it allows for the nonlinear movements people may make between and among stages of participation:

At the end, his talk became almost giddy, and truly expansive. Turning to embrace a global scope, Shniederman looked beyond harnessing social networking for national priorities, to how we might use social media optimization to help world leaders achieve the UN millennial development goals. Later, he claimed that “the impact of social media will be as powerful as the impact of atomic energy”. He admitted (several times) to being an optimist, and I found his buoyancy so refreshing.

Of course, nearly all the audience questions were rebukes for ideas he had missed in his talk, but he took the opportunity to put social participation into action: When asked (sharply) how user generated content and individual authorship concerns fit into larger structures of policy, Shniederman opened up his power point presentation and added “authorship / ownership” to his list of “Long Range Goals”. It was a great moment – collaboration in action. We all laughed, although I caught a glimpse of the questioner, and he did not appear to be amused.


This is a promising model: businesses are challenged to reduce their negative environmental effect, community members vote on which business to reward, and at an designated time, they converge on the business and spend money there. This great animation further clarifies how carrotmobs work:

With the use of Twitter and blogging to coordinate the voting and action, this is a great example of using digital media technologies to impact communities in a positive way.

In a June 19th interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Ethan Zuckerman critiques the popular claim that a “twitter revolution” is happening on the streets of Tehran. Zuckerman says “the real story is that we have a protest movement where hundreds of thousands of people have very bravely taken to the streets”. He dismantles the notion that social media played a major role in organizing the protests in Iran’s captial after the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the presidential election on June 13th.

Zuckerman says it is more traditional media – phone calls and text messages – that are being used on the ground, while social media – Facebook and Twitter – have played valuable roles in connecting people and amplifying voices. Messages on Twitter have allowed family and friends to connect and share information globally, and the amplification effect comes from Twitter’s “retweet” feature, with 1 out of every 3 twitter messages tagged “#iranelection” being retweets.

Echoing some of Zuckerman’s statements, John Palfrey, Bruce Etling and Robert Faris argue in a related opinion piece in today’s Washington Post that “the real revolution is on the streets – and offline”:

Yet for all their promise, there are sharp limits on what Twitter and other Web tools such as Facebook and blogs can do for citizens in authoritarian societies. The 140 characters allowed in a tweet are not the end of politics as we know it — and at times can even play into the hands of hard-line regimes. No amount of Twittering will force Iran’s leaders to change course…if true revolution is coming, it must happen offline.

But in a CSPAN video highlighted by Andrew Malcom on the LA Times blog, Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to take a more optimistic view of what social media can to do create political change:

It is increasingly difficult for an authoritarian government to maintain control of all the means of communication that are available to its citizens…I think it’s a huge win for freedom around the world

Clearly, the political influence of social media cannot be parsed with a few thoughts and quotes, but it will be interesting to continue monitoring the analysis in this area.

DIOSA Communications, a web marketing agency with clients such as Women for Women International and, offers Facebook Best Practices.

Facebook’s redesign in March 2009 was an attempt to evolve the social networking site into a space more open to participation. This is good news for nonprofits looking to use the site in more productive ways. After all, it doesn’t really provide concrete ROI to have individuals become a “fans” of organizations. DIOSA’s guide provides simple suggestions to “maximize participation” on your organization’s Facebook page.

about Anna van Someren

I am a research associate at Center for Future Civic Media a collaboration of the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies.

Previously, I worked as creative manager at Project New Media Literacies where I produced videos and developed the Learning Library.


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