Reflections from the Personal Democracy Forum

I spent Monday and Tuesday last week at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, an annual conference which explores how technology is affecting politics. It was my second PDF after I took myself off to it last year soon after landing in America while I was waiting (hoping) for a job offer.

I much preferred this year's event. The upcoming elections loomed over PDF 08 and people could talk about little else: what would work, what wouldn't, what would happen next. Now we have answers for some of these questions and a lesser sense of urgency for others and therefore many the ideas and conversations at PDF 09 seemed focused on a higher order of questioning: not who would win an impending election but how were these technologies effecting our society, our communities and ultimately, us.

The past week has given me the chance to consider the ideas and information presented, re-read the tweets I favorited and see what has stuck.

The presentations which stands out in my mind most prominently was that by danah boyd, now a researcher at Microsoft. danah (who writes her name in lowercase) reminded us that the communities we are building online are not perfect and that they are in many ways reflecting the social fissures of the offline world. She described the shift of the educated, wealthy and white from MySpace to Facebook as a digital form of white flight, which instead of creating better understanding across class and racial boundaries is reinforcing those boundaries. When asked who was on MySpace almost no hands went up. It's easy to believe that Facebook is destroying MySpace in the social networks war but that's not the case, their traffic remains relatively even. But what is true is that the people I know are on Facebook and not Myspace, just like the people I know are mostly middle-class, educated, and urban.

This lack of connection and interaction with people unlike us, despite the possibilities of the internet to facilitate such connections, diminishes social cohesion, understand and empathy. This is powerfully demonstrated by recent polling which shows that the number one determinate of whether someone supports same-sex marriage is knowing someone who is gay. Contact leads to understand which leads to empathy. Gay people don't seem so threatening when they are your colleagues, teammates, friends, family. They cease to be the “other”. But according to danah social networks are failing to connect us across class and racial lines, which allows the sense of other to remain. In other words, if we're not careful social networks will simply mirror the fissures and divides in our offline communities.

I had not thought about this dynamic much, although I have thought a great deal of another pervasive divide across social media: political orientation. It is easier than ever before to curate a media diet which conforms entirely to your pre-existing opinions and biases. You can read, listen to Air America satellite radio and watch MSNBC for liberal commentary or, most talk radio and Fox News for conservative commentary. This gap has become so wide that the two sides can literally barely talk to each other. They no longer agree on the same basic sets of facts, and each side's set of facts get supported by their team of talking heads and commentators with few questions and less nuance. Very little listening seems to happen. This reduces a societies ability to work together to solve tough problems and together to address shared challenges. There seems no hope currently that a consensus on what constitutes the key challenges could emerge, and America is the poorer for it.

Social media undoubtedly builds social capital, but danah reminds us that not all social capital is the same. Social media could prove to be the greatest tool invented to create bonding social capital, connecting you to people much like you in class and orientation while failing to meaningfully increase our bridging social capital, the connections between people who are unalike. It is bridging social capital that is most vital to the health of democracy, for it allows us to talk together in civil and constructive ways.

The internet almost automatically creates horizontal communities of interest. These contain both a bonding and bridging dimension, focusing around a particular theme and often encompassing people of significant geographical diversity. But other types of bridging capital are harder to create, and will take conscious effort to effect. I hope danah's presentation was a reminder for everyone that if we are serious about creating a fairer and more just world we must consciously reach out to those who's stories and perspectives are different from our own, and ensure that we include them in the conversation.

You can read danah's presentation here and I really recommend that you do.

Another highlight was Michael Wesch, of “The Machine is Us/ing Us” fame. Michael is a media anthropologist and has been focusing his inquiries on YouTube and the community and culture it creates, the humanity it allows people to express, the identify formation playing out in real time. His was a hopeful talk, with the central idea being that social media channels like YouTube are creating a shared culture which is very human and which has the possibility to inspire in us a sense of commonality, a chance to express ourselves and do “whatever it takes”. “We know ourselves through our relationships with others. New media is creating new ways to relate." Anything which alters the way humans express themselves and relate to one-another changes the way we view ourselves, how we define our contributions to society. Looking at the comments section on YouTube, easily the most useless comments anywhere on the internet, he observed that anonymity + physical distance + rare & ephemeral dialog = hated as performance but, importantly, also a freedom to experience humanity without fear or anxiety.

Michael's overall optimism was a nice balance with danah's concerns, and both pointed at the deeper changes social media is bringing.

His talk also featured the stunning statistic that 20 hours worth of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. And the somewhat less stunning but more important stat that after 1 minute, 54% of viewers have stopped watching a YouTube video, while after 2 minutes 76% have quit. Keep your videos short! But be sure to stick through the whole 20 minutes of this video of his talk, you'll be glad you did.

My friend from Australia Mark Pesce also did his usual mentally invigorating thing, drawing connections from across the media and cultural landscape to try and identify where we are going. He sees an immediate future filled with clashes between hierarchies and ad-hocracies, systems so different that they struggle to engage with each other effectively, leading to conflict and consternation. Meanwhile David Weinberger, one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto ten years ago (!), the reading of which got me really focused on the web for the first time, outlined the changing role of facts in our society - where once they were used to settle arguments now they are used to start them. He described it as the "great unnailing", a process as chaotic and messy as democracy itself. It is only through debate and argument that we arive at wisdom. "Knowledge is a property of the network, not the individual." (Update: You can see a video of David's presentation here).

PDF09 was a fascinating conference where we seemed to pause for a moment and reflect deeply on how, as Michael would say, the Machine is using us, and how the machine is us. Internet technologies are affecting our work, politics, social lives and cultural formation. At their most basic they can impact how we perceive ourselves and how we mentally construct society around us. In other words, we don't simply use these tools to win elections, raise money and advocate for our concerns, which was all so much the focus of PDF08, we use these tools as part of a process of identity and cultural formation, to figure out who we are and where we belong. PDF09 was a reminder that we are not simply sitting in the pilot's seat but that all of us who live online are changed by the experience and that these aggregate personal changes are adding up to something much more profound than the victories we seek.