From bowling alone to tweeting together

Last week’s General Election in the UK was supposed to have been the first where the Web, and in particular social media tools such as Twitter, took over from television as the primary vehicle for communication and debate. It didn’t quite turn out that way as the TV leader debates dominated the campaign. Despite this perhaps temporary set-back, a new journal paper by the veteran human-computer interface expert Ben Shneiderman and a colleague, Harry Hochheiser, argues that social media could reverse the forty-year decline in civic, political and community-group participation which was articulated in Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling alone”.

In order to do so social media designers, civic leaders, and community managers will need to:

“deploy the right social media interfaces to restore participation in social, civic, political, and economic institutions” (my italics).

By this they mean interfaces that are, of course, so easy to use and intuitive that just about anyone can engage with them. But also they argue we need to develop ethical systems that help foster participation and trust between individuals online and deal with issues such as privacy, accuracy and destructive behaviour. For example, social media allows anonymity in things like blog postings, by letting people ‘hide’ behind funny pseudonyms. Does this practice act as a barrier to trust and accuracy? They argue that these and many other questions form a major new research agenda for the computing and social sciences and note the launch last year, in the US, of the National Initiative on Social Participation (NISP).

Naturally, they have also launched a Facebook page to take their ideas further.

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