Connecting the excluded

One of the questions that Clay Shirky was asked when he spoke recently at the RSA about the role of online networks was how to tackle social exclusion, and connect people to greater opportunities. His answer: concentrate on those who can make connections, rather than trying to fund the excluded directly to connect with others.

Clay was talking about his book Here Comes Everybody. He said that research by Duncan Watts suggested that social density, the social clustering that gives you access to social capital – by which you can get loans or help – has much to do with like-with-like clustering.

What we end up with are small groups of people who are very similar, and there are only a handful of individuals in any given society who brigdge those gaps .
If I wanted to set up a programme to address social exclusion I would not try to address the bulk of the group because most of those resources would go to waste, because most of the people that people know are other people like them.
I would fund the people who are bridging the structural – I would find the people who knows someone in in council housing and someone who is living over in Belgravia. I wouldn’t fund the people in Belgravia or the people in council housing to just get together and talk to one other. I would find the people who are naturally bridging that gap somehow. I would give them the tools specifically designed for the connection or social bridging function that’s different from just what that everyday user might have.
What we found in every social system we looked at is that the imbalance of participation means that a few people are responsible for most of the social systemic connectivity, and concentrating on those people, on the outliers rather than on the average actually can improve the system as a whole
I think you could move more information, awareness, empathy, sympathy or what have you across those otherwise relatively unbridged gaps by funding the natural bridgers and strengthening them rather than trying to build new ones from scratch.

I think that one of the roles of the social reporter is to act as a connector between groups and across networks – so I’m naturally pleased by Clay’s analysis. I think it also ties in with the analysis of different types of online community identified by Ed Mitchell and the challenges of facilitating them.

Audio file available from RSA here
Report at Designing for Civil Society

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