Charles Leadbeater, well known for his book We Think, has released an interesting paper called “Social Software for Social Change.” The paper presents rich examples about civic action through the web and its impact on democracy. With the advice from Dan Mcquillan, Leadbeater greatly links different forms of activism and engagement; as well as elaborating how these new forms of engagements can promote social change, interact with the state and shape politics. Because it is one of the best peaces I have read for a while, I summarize it in this blog post.

This is the content of the paper:

  1. The social web’s democratic potential
  2. New media, new democracy?
  3. The social web in practice
  4. Conclusions

**The social web’s democratic potential ** Leadbeaters argues that the architecture of participation of web2.0 allows new forms of social activism. One outcome is the focus on causes and not as much on organizations that represent them. It can be called extra-organizational activism, as Allison Fine framed it, or simply ‘do it yourself activism.’ Users can individually start campaigns. The long tail theory can be also translated in unlimited ways for social change; one example is change.org. Leadbeaters also wonders whether civic organizations will be ready to exploit the potentials.

**New media, new democracy? ** The second chapter deals about potentials for democracy. Leadbeaters identifies three main respects:

  1. Accountability: Citizens have new means to held politicians to account. Mzalendo.com in Kenya is such an example.
  2. Debate: The social web allows for more people to have a voice and promotes collective problem solving.
  3. Campaigning: The web dramatically cutting costs of mobilising people in campaigns.

So, is this really a push forward for e-democracy? For Leadbeater deliberation is a major aspect and mobilization another. The social web offers new venues for engagement and conversations about social change. It is not about technology or just signing a petition, but rather a continuous dialogue about public issues. Leadbeaters sees promising examples such as Wikipedia for an ethic of responsible self-governance and open debate. The challenge is about who will be hosting these deliberative conversations: The state, the media or civil society?

Very interesting are also the downsides Leadbeaters identifies:

  • Cacophony of too many voices and few responses.
  • Echo chamber: In a niche one hears from others a confirmation of what they already think.
  • Quality: How can a certain degree of quality be obtained when the classical gatekeepers such as the media are lost.
  • Equality: Those already rich in knowledge, information and connections may just get richer.

**The social web in practice **This chapter analyses new web based actors or “quasi-political parties” such as moveon.org and identifies three forms civil society use the web:

  1. Sustaining innovations in which the third sector uses the social web to do traditional tasks more efficiently
  2. Disruptive innovations which create models for the third sector so it can organize itself
  3. Hybrids in which organisations create a mix of traditional and new ways of working.

Example for the first point are online petitions or fund raising. NGOs are pioneers in widening own constituencies over the web. But another great potential lies in disruptive innovations. This can be for collective problem, e.g. I love Bees, as Leadbeater describes in his book “We Think” or for direct action. The mobile phone is a key for citizen engagement as examples from all over the world show. “A technology that can mobilise friendship networks for political ends thus is potentially very powerful.”

This is only a small summary as the paper goes in much detail and brings together a wide range of thoughts from scholars about this theme. I think it is a great way to learn about the young history for online civic action. Exciting times are ahead for how these new forms will emerge. But one point is the same obstacle online and offline, the citizen have to have an interest to engage and whether the web will open new ways to engage.

I also wonder whether it can and should work as Leadbeaters argues, that the third sector – mainly civil society – takes over to act as independent, trusted guides and moderators for debate, and whether this is necessary? Do you agree with the concerns or downsides? Do you share the potentials for deliberation and mobilization?