“Us Now” – Can social media help us govern better?

Just before I left for my mini break to Prague last week (great city!) I saw “Us Now“, a one hour feature about how collaborative tools can help us make better decisions.

The film is public domain and if you want, you can watch the complete documentary below. You can also buy it on DVD, watch it on YouTube or download it as a torrent! In fact, the film project’s website is almost as interesting as the film itself, which is why I will spend two blog posts writing about it. This post is mainly about the content, the next will look at what can be learned from the project itself.

Interesting examples, many of them new

“Us Now” looks at a number of cases were people collaborate online to create something positive. This includes websites like Couchsurfing.com, a website for young moms, a web community of football fans that actually bought a real world club in England and now votes on game strategies online, it includes people-to-people lending and a few other examples.

They are all great examples and I loved watching them, particularly since many of them were new to me (by the way: contrary to what the title suggests, the film focuses on the UK). But I don’t think “Us Now” did a very good job at exploring the question whether these tools can be used to govern.

Where are the critical thinkers?

The website states: “For the first time, [Us Now] brings together the fore-most thinkers in the field of collaborative governance to describe the future of government.” Well – what I am missing are the critics! Personally, I think we can do great things using the power that is inherent in online networks. But I don’t think we should embrace them uncritically and without thinking about the dangers.

Because, when you say that a mass of people normally knows the right course of action better than a selected group of individuals, then you might discover you are advocating giving power to the mob! I’m sure we don’t want verdicts to be handed down based on online votes. But why not, if the crowd knows best? That would be the logical next step.

Full steam ahead?

I am of course exaggerating slightly. But “Us Now” is so one-sided and focused on advocating for going full steam ahead, that I feel myself backing away and saying: “Wait? Have you thought this through?” I think it’s a pity the producers didn’t spend any time looking at the risk that these tools could be used to cause harm.

Here are three questions which could have been discussed:

  • What are the risks that the weight of the cloud will suppress the interests of minorities?
  • If we were to crowdsource part of the decision-making process in government, is there a risk of everything becoming even more populist?
  • Could someone orchestrate a genocide with the help of social media tools? And if so, how could this be prevented?

I’m not saying that we should stop exploring social media as a means to inform government. I think it has great potential to do that! But before we start putting decision-making power into Facebook-apps, I think we should also discuss these questions. And even though I liked the film, I think it is a shame that no time was spent on that.