In a truly dramatic demonstration of the power of citizen activism, Iceland drew up its new constitution using crowdsourcing in late 2011. Following Iceland’s complete economic collapse and bankruptcy due to irresponsible banking practices, the nation was eager to use social media to get its citizens involved in writing their own future. The initiative began with a national forum in which 950 people were randomly selected to spend a day discussing a new constitution. A council then began working to draft a document, but not in secrecy behind closed doors. Instead, its meetings are open to the public and streamed live on its Facebook page. The council posts each new draft clause on its website where the public can comment. The council also has a Twitter account and a YouTube page where it exhibits video interviews with its members. The draft constitution was put up for a national referendum, with no changes allowed from the country’s parliament. It is truly a constitution written by the people for the people.
Reading about this process, I could not help but think about how the connectivity unlocked by social media is transforming our world. It is radically altering the major institutions and fundamental paradigms of society. Just a short while ago, it was perceived as a shallow medium through which people could share trivial information. Companies used it as just another one-dimensional vehicle to broadcast self-directed advertising. Then the more savvy corporations recognized the interactive power of social media to engage their customers, and we began to see two-way conversations built around asking the public for their ideas.
Social media proved equally, if not more, disruptive in the political arena. We saw how youthful activists achieved historic change in the Arab Spring revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, relying on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread their message of protest, organize demonstrations, and communicate the reality on the ground with the outside world. Last summer’s rioters in the United Kingdom used smart phones and social media to ignite flash crowds of disenchanted youth and, sadly, opportunistic criminals, as well as to mount peaceful protests and clean up after the rioters. Finally, we see Iceland using social media and crowdsourcing in admirably organized and peaceful ways that radically redefine the meaning of citizen democracy.
It is now undeniable that social media—and the democratizing force it brings with it—will continue to reweave our social and political fabric. Functioning independently of traditional media and the hardened institutions of government and business, we will increasingly see social media bypassing the traditional channel of authority and hierarchy that formerly restricted citizens and customers. The tools of social media are creating new opportunities for social dialogue, and inspiring a reformation in the values of the past. They are also helping to break down the structures and processes of every institution, slowly distributing the powers of governance, justice, representation, innovation, and even production among connected people.
Where will this social media revolution take us? Anything is possible, subject only to the limitations of our imagination. We are currently seeing many interesting new applications of social media and crowdsourcing. For example, there is the growing model of social production that draws on networks of people connected by social media to create new products and services. There is the burgeoning movement of social entrepreneurship whereby people motivated by a common desire to solve a pressing social problem that the corporate world is yet to satisfactorily answer put out an open call for assistance. Anyone with knowledge of the problem and its solution can respond, and in return they receive no compensation other than the personal satisfaction that they helped build a better world.
In the coming years, I am certain we will see social media be used increasingly to redefine the corporate world such as by influencing Boards of Directors, annual shareholder meetings, and the transparency and accountability offered by companies for their products and services. It will likely change how people look for jobs and how they evaluate the companies and CEO’s that they wish to work for. It will, no doubt, infiltrate many more areas of government just as it has in Iceland, impacting how laws are written and voted on in local, state and federal government.
What’s important to keep in mind when we think about the future is that social media enables all parties to have a platform. Given this, we can use this technology poorly to launch a cacophony of voices creating a chaos of competing interests – or we can use it as a tool to unify our voices as thoughtful, compassionate beings seeking to build a better world for all humankind.
Do you believe social media will build a better world? Do you think it has already begun to do so?
Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a leading brand consultancy that provides purpose-driven strategy, content, and training that empowers companies to lead business, shape culture, and better our world.