The real way that Twitter can change society

How we use social media may be up to us but it is also shaped by our culture, politics and governmen

As London descended into chaos and looting, data and social media took on a surprising dual role as both bogeyman and white knight. Whilst some used Twitter and BBM to coordinate their criminality, others used live-reportage to quickly develop maps of areas to be avoided and to warn their peers of trouble pending. In the aftermath, Twitter especially was used to inspire and organise a civic response -- hundreds of broom-wielding street-cleaners organised by the invisible hand of technology. Neither the censor-happy "ban the net" crew nor the internet evangelists are wholly right about the role played by data and technology in disturbances like those we witnessed. The truth is that how we use information and social media may be up to us but that it also shaped by our culture, our politics and our government.

Equally, what citizens expect from government is shaped by the culture they inhabit, the aspirations and expectations people have, and their sense of what they are entitled to. Social media and the web are remaking those expectations: how we expect to get information, make our voice heard, connect to others and receive services. Even if social media does not become a platform for overtly political activity, it is already changing how citizens expect to be treated and so what they expect of government. As people are being inducted into a more open, participative and expressive culture in their everyday lives, they are bound to carry those expectations into their interactions with government.

Decades after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the web is creating a parallel but arguably more effective universal set of expectations among citizens. Facebook and social media are creating the expectation that you will be able to link to people, to find allies. Wikileaks, and the wider movement towards transparency and open knowledge, is creating the universal expectation that no secret can be kept for long. Google has created the expectation that if a piece of information exists it should be discoverable. YouTube and mobile phones with cameras are creating the expectation that if something has happened we should be able to see it. Twitter has created the expectation that if something is happening we should be able to hear about it first-hand, from people close to the real events. Blogging, feedback forms and collaborative rating have created an expectation that we should be able to give our assessment of virtually any experience. Social media is creating the conditions for the emergence of a civic long tail, a mass of loosely connected, small-scale conversations, campaigns and interest groups, which might occasionally coalesce to create a mass movement. From now on, governments everywhere will have to contend and work with this civic long tail.

But far from being threatened by the rise of social media, governments may yet find that through the masses of data it generates, social media offers a way to understand the shifting sentiments, interests and demands of citizens. If government can analyse and understand these data cleverly and quickly it should be in a better position to respond to emerging needs and even to forestall them. Government could become more intelligent, use its resources more efficiently, and create personalised services and localised solutions more easily. If government was good at using the tools and the data which the social web is making available, then it could become more accountable, collaborative, innovative and effective all at the same time. Just as importantly, communities and citizens should become more capable, adaptive and resilient. Better government and stronger communities could grow together.

In contrast to the speed of response people get from online and digital retail services, such as ASOS and Amazon Prime, public services often still seem slow and cumbersome. Through social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn, people are used to connecting with people easily. In contrast, public services can often seem inflexible, departmentalised, obdurate and unyielding. Given this track record, it seems unlikely that government will be well placed to take advantage of "big data" to make its services more attuned to citizens' needs. It lacks the skills necessary on the scale required. Opening up the data to allow private companies, such as SAS, civic entrepreneurs, like Dr Foster Intelligence, and campaigners like the Open Rights Group to draw on it will help. But openness per se is not the answer. The key will be in crafting the right relationship between government as the holder and collector of data and the civic long tail of people who want to put it to public use, creatively and effectively.

The promise of "big data" to make government more intelligent will only be realised if government learns how to open up data so citizens, entrepreneurs and campaigners can start using it for themselves. "Big data" or, as Francis Maude has termed it, "Freedom of Information 2.0", and the civic long tail need to work in tandem. Together, these powerful concepts translated into reality can mean we see a lot more of the civic activism of the riot clean-up and less of the disenfranchisement and rage that, just possibly, contributed to their happening in the first place.

Charles Leadbeater is an associate of Demos.

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Jeremy Corbyn may be a Eurosceptic, but he still appeals to the values of many Remainers

He reassures Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-EU areas that things will be OK.

There are two facts about Brexit that everyone seems to forget every few weeks: the first is that Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. The second is that the first fact doesn't really matter.

The Labour leader's hostility to the European project is back in the news after he told Andrew Marr that the United Kingdom's membership of the single market was inextricably linked with its EU membership, and added for good measure that the “wholesale importation” of people from Eastern and Central Europe had been used to “destroy” the conditions of workers, particularly in the construction industry.

As George Eaton observes on Twitter, Corbyn voted against the creation of the single market in 1986 (and the Maastricht Treaty, and the Lisbon Treaty, and so on and so on). It would be a bigger shock if the Labour leader weren't advocating for a hard exit from the European Union.

Here's why it doesn't matter: most Labour MPs agree with him. There is not a large number of Labour votes in the House of Commons that would switch from opposing single market membership to supporting it if Corbyn changed his mind. (Perhaps five or so from the frontbenches and the same again on the backbenches.)

There is a way that Corbyn matters: in reassuring Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-Remain areas that things will be OK. Imagine for a moment the reaction among the liberal left if, say, Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock talked about the “wholesale importation” of people or claimed that single market membership and EU membership were one and the same. Labour MPs in big cities and university towns would be a lot more nervous about bleeding votes to the Greens or the Liberal Democrats were they not led by a man who for all his longstanding Euroscepticism appeals to the values of so many Remain voters.

Corbyn matters because he provides electoral insurance against a position that Labour MPs are minded to follow anyway. And that, far more than the Labour leader's view on the Lisbon Treaty, is why securing a parliamentary majority for a soft exit from the European Union is so hard. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.