Earlier this year, Clay Shirky, the renowned social media commentator and author, was interviewed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts by Brian Eno. The discussion was followed by a question and answer session. One teenage blogger asked how the digital age had changed the way we lived. She was a child of the digital revolution, she explained, and could barely recall the world without the internet.
Shirky’s reponse was telling. He said that the biggest shift in the past five to 10 years was not the explosion of choice – the mushrooming of TV channels, online content and mobile services. Instead, the most radical change was the democratisation of discourse. Before social media, if you wanted to speak in public, you needed permission. If you were a musician, you needed the resources of a record label to promote and distribute your music; if you were a film-maker, you needed a Hollywood studio or TV channel to take a risk on your artistic vision; even if you just had an opinion you wanted to share, you had to get the attention of a newspaper, magazine or book publisher to make that opinion public.
Nowadays, he noted, anyone with a laptop and broadband connection can share their opinions, rants, private thoughts and creative work with a global public audience. This doesn’t mean that all this new content gets equal attention – most is viewed by a few people and ignored by millions – but it’s still a radical shift.
Of course, this change raises new problems and questions – when anyone can voice their opinions, how do you get noticed? If you’re passionate about your message and want to change the world, how can you use the web to reach others who are as passionate as you?
That’s what Channel 4 is exploring. This week, the education team launched a new project, Battlefront, to find out how 20 teenagers in the UK are using the web to campaign about issues affecting their lives. The project works on many levels – there is a main website that aggregates all the campaigns and their progress; a site on Bebo that lets the audience become part of the campaigns and connect with the campaigners; and two five-part TV series that will run on Channel 4 in autumn 2008 and at the end of the project in 2009.
The project demonstrates how social media technologies can be used for good – connecting people who want to share information and change their lives. Social networks offer incredible opportunities for teenagers to share their experiences, talk to peers, and learn from others who have faced the same problems.
This is the single most valuable thing about the web – it connects people who need information with others who already have it. In the case of Battlefront, our campaigners will be part of a large community who are already commenting on their campaigns, offering advice and getting involved. We’ve also recruited a community of mentors, from leading lawyers, designers and social entrepreneurs to experienced campaigners, viral marketers and professional trouble-makers.
Over the next nine months, we’ll follow the teenagers as they develop their campaigns on the web, finding out how to get attention, how to build a community, and how to turn that community into real change. Will Manpreet Darroch succeed in helping to reduce the number of young people killed in road accidents? How quickly can Alexander Rose’s campaign to stop gun and knife crime gather momentum? Can Rachey Betty persuade the Government to increase the minimum wage for under-18s, and raise awareness of how much young people contribute to the workforce? Will James Mummery succeed in his quest to reduce the waste generated by the careless disposal of free newspapers? Can Aimee Nathan encourage us all to start drinking from reusable coffee cups and maybe get a cheaper cup of coffee into the bargain, and how many of us will Tom Robbins encourage to do thoughtful things for other people, by carrying out random acts of kindness?
The legacy of Battlefront will not only be the outcomes of the individual campaigns – it will also be an online database of tips, hints and tricks for future campaigners. This is the other great thing about the web – it creates a permanent record of shared experience, from the conversations of many, not the opinions of a few.
Perhaps, as Clay Shirky suggested, we should rethink our assumption that social media is a threat, and recognise it as a truly liberating opportunity for the next generation to find their own voice, in their own space, and on their own terms.