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Friday, June 08, 2007

Web 2.0 Social Change has an Essential Active Ingredient

Last week I attended a very cool conference about social change and the social web. It focused on 21 nonprofit organizations who made their case for funding their particular web 2.0 strategies. At the end, we voted for three who received substantial cash grants while the remaining 18 got enough $ to make the conference well worth their time and effort. My job was to walk around and do short interviews (now called videoblogs) with attendees for Netsquared,the sponsoring organization. If one could transform the idealism there into alternative energies, we could have provided all the electricity for San Jose for at least six months.

There are those who talk about the amazing reach and interconnectivity of the internet in quasi-religious terms, as the harbinger of democracy, human rights, transparent politics, medical cures, and the catalyst for economic justice between nations. You hear a story about somebody in an African village who put a written agreeement from a big oil company onto the web that shows the unfulfilled promises made by the company - that subsequently led to an outpouring of angry emails to the company - that led to a positive course of corrective actions by the oil company.....and it does seem like the web is a pretty magical place where Davids can slay Goliaths and Right can conquer Might.

But it's important to remember that the technology is neutral and can be marshalled for any purpose. Orwell, the author of "1984," would have a heyday with the omniscient breakthroughs that Google has made, linking our individual online searches to our consumer profiles. It's important to remember that the same platitudes were exclaimed about previous communications technologies as they emerged – like radio and television. In the early years of radio, the majority of stations were operated by small decentralized, local companies, unions, churches, etc. and it looked as though everyone would have a voice. After the Rodney King beating was captured by some random person with a camcorder, it was thought that camcorders would usher in a new era of citizen journalism and empowerment. The technology HAS made a huge difference, but always as a tool, albeit an increasingly powerful tool.

Behind every social movement or viral outpouring that has occurred on the web, there is an individual or small group who dared to imagine an amazing outcome and to put the wheels into motion. The action may have been as simple as scanning and publishing an oil company document, but it mirrors the same courage and eloquent simplicity as when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. The activists describing their web 2.0 projects at the NetSquared conference are part of that tradition, and I hope that they see that the most vital ingredient of what they have set whirling and snowballing on the world wide web, is their own creative, courageous, imagination.

photo credit:Lena Zuniga, GK3 Project Team, Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) Secretariat

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