I have been thinking about transparency, social media, and government accountability for a while. At the FiRe conference in San Diego, I ran into fellow sf writer and contrarian, David Brin, who authored the non-fiction book, The Transparent Society. This book made a difference in the way I think about government and life, and has made me a firm believer in the idea that transparency begets accountability.
As a futurist, I knew a long time ago that the Internet would be the doorway to the future. I just didn’t know how that doorway would open. Ten years ago I felt the insemination of Twitter and YouTube and FaceBook, but I could not have told you what they’d look like. I might have guessed a few of the features of FaceBook, but Twitter has been a true wildcard. Instead of simply providing hyperlinks between the static bits of information, the overlapping concentric circles of followers that tweet and re-tweet are linking human hearts and minds across the globe.
That’s a powerful thing.
The current obvious example is the unrest in Iran. Anyone in the world with an interest has been able to easily discover events that would have been fairly easily kept far more secret ten or twenty years ago, and in realtime. Video is linked to as soon as it is posted, and retweets its way around the globe in what looks like minutes. The tweets coming from and about Iran (primarily #iranelection, but many more) are helping to force accountability on the regime in Iran. It’s too early to tell how this story will play out, but it is clear that social media has been a player.
Before we leave the subject of Iran, right after the protests started in Iran, many twitterers put pressure on CNN to provide coverage (see #CNNfail). That’s the pressure of the popular stream on a third estate company.
Some of our largest retailers have had the transparent breadcrumbs of Twitter work against them as well. Or Take the #amazonfail slapping-about that happened within hours of people discovering that sales rankings on GLBT books were being dropped. Amazon is being fussed at on social media networks as I write this because it appears that a book from Amazon can only be re-downloaded a set (and smallish) number of times. But we have to re-download every time we see it on a different device or even update our kindle technology. My guess? That will change. Amazon will have to answer for the consequences whether intended or not, and it will choose a more consumer-friendly business practice.
I just gave a talk in Memphis Tenessee. The topic got away from me a little – shifting from the future to social networking. Everyone (me included) appears to be fascinated by that topic. After the talk, a photographer came up to me and said that social networks have built his business, and that he hoped the people would take what I had said to heart. I have sold stories on Twitter, to be distributed by Twitter, and even for print magazines because I was toe–deep in the stream of Twitter at the right moment.
I’ve been trying to figure out a better government model for our times (I’m an sf writer – my mind does weird things). I think giving all of the people a way to talk immediately to anyone else who wants to listen may be a lynchpin setting tool for stories as I work this out in my head.
Twitter does not appear to have a traditional business model. But maybe a primary value of social networks is in the peace, properity, and accountability they bring to the world. Maybe its in the trail of transparent breadcrumbs we drop for each other across cyberspace in 140 character bursts.