Bringing meaning to social networks

I’m someone who works with social tools for a living. My job is defined by the level of expertise I bring to using them and the way I can use them to connect with people in communities of expertise, mostly in a business context. In a grand failure (or, is it?) of work-life balance, my social and personal life involves a good deal of social network use too.

And, as part of my participation in TEDActive next week, I’m involved in a project called TEDActiveSOC. It’s all about finding deeper meaning in the way we use and create social networks and our ever-increasing hyperconnectedness. My ongoing research and thinking has me convinced that the heart of the project needs to be about enabling the production of social, or public goods.

We all know we can use our social networks for everything from the mundane and trivial to the world-changing.

I want to weight my use and actions in 2011 to real and tangible outcomes; something like a set of Umair Haque‘s laws for organisations into a similar set for social innovation.

It can’t be that hard.

There’s real social capital to be derived for users at the personal level with these outcomes in mind and even greater good at the level of organisations and society as a whole.

I’m keen for a perspective on social, organisational, governmental and personal change as an outcome that use of these tools can amplify. There are no Twitter and Facebook revolutions. Rather there are revolutions of people, somewhat amplified through social networks.

At this point, I’m actually thinking a touch wider. What I want to see is the creation of new social networks (whatever and whenever they are) with a “do no harm” perspective built in from the ground up in the DNA of the companies (and people) who make them.

So too, I want to see the users thinking the same way. Here are the sorts of questions I’m asking myself:

  • How do we use our social tools to ensure that no harm comes to others now and into the future as a consequence of our actions?
  • How do we create thick social value through the invention and use of social tools and networks?
  • How do we ensure our social tools are always about people over things?
  • How do we create and use social tools based on principle versus strategy – aiming purpose over profit?

I think we need to look to Africa and parts of Asia.

In these places, societies are becoming more connected, but in simpler ways that benefit the people directly through outcomes such as ensuring best prices for goods at market (Kenya, I think), knowing which port will buy your catch (Sri Lanka), ensuring police are paid their full wage rather than corrupt officials skimming a cut (Afghanistan), etc. All these projects are enabled by Internet-connected tools, but not accessed by anything more complex than an old-school grey screen Nokia and text messages.

This is the stuff that’s bugging me.

3 Replies to “Bringing meaning to social networks”

  1. Stephen – Many many thanks for your deep and timely thoughts. It has come up on my blog and so I am reading it in the morning. Thinking by myself, “Aren’t we all becoming knowledge workers 2.0 in an interconnected world?”

    Twitter and Facebook are only the pens and ink of todays people. It becomes clear that what is written is more and more read – not just by your peers, friends or so but by the world.

    This amplifies the awareness of people (citizens where ever they may live, whether in Boston where snow is still piling up like crazy, Egypt where the citizen have already chosen to make a difference for the good for them and the community, and all the places around the world where people take the fate in their own hands and spread the word).

    Thanks for initiating another of these moves from Down Under :-)

    Cheers and curious what emerges next,

  2. The Social Capital … as you call it is not a capital and it isn’t social at all. You are free … free to do whatever you want until the financial hedge funds do start to invest in your ‘kind of capital’. Then … then … I will be more than happy to be apart of this whole antisocial distortion. The less we are on the streets, the less we know, the bigger we fail from our roles. Virtual Capital. This is how it should be called. ‘Social’ is for Hollywood.

  3. Stephen, a great post that ponders the big question that bugs many of us. Increasingly in this modern and self-absorbed, materialistic world we live in, social networks have fueled the “me-me-me/self-centered” attitude by providing a platform where people strive to improve their social status in a public digital environment. So much so that an entire generation (Gen-Y) has been branded with this stereotype. This new age of interconnectedness has however provided an opportunity for new ideas and new ways of thinking to take hold. (Look at TED for example.) We have the possibility to make some real change for the greater world good, one that is about people, and connections, and communities. Organisations and individuals have the power to make change that make a impact on a global scale. Coalition of the willing ( is one such example that makes me think it is possible to change the world through social media. I am sure there are many other examples, and no doubt many other people who believe this can and will happen. I look forward to that day.

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