Ungeekery: the real magic behind social media

One reason I like the social media scene and its growing networks is that people are generally friendly, open and willing to share new ideas. Geeks, techies, webbies are not (beneath the surface) entirely obsessed with code and cool tools, whatever the popular perception.

However, because social media tools are good for conversations, widening connections, and working with others, there’s a temptation – if you are in the business – to suggest that adopting the technology will in itself lead to social innovation. That’s to fall into the technology trap. Tech-led seldom works on its own because people need new skills and mindsets. Frustrating.

Rohan Gunatillake, who leads the Web Connect strand within NESTA’s Connect team, is turning the problem on its head by promoting ungeeking – although as you’ll see that doesn’t mean abandoning technology. The Web Connect team believe:

… that all innovation is, in essence, something we do together. When boundaries are crossed, be they between organisations, interests or geographies, the new conversations that result can lead to effective action and unexpected benefits.

Rohan suggests – if I understand him correctly – that the technology can help in two ways. Directly if you are ready to adopt it, and indirectly because collaborative behaviours learned in the online social environment are now leaking into the non-tech world and reminding us that we can re-adopt participative behaviours we’ve always known about. See Howard Rheingold speaking at NESTA for more on that.

I met up with Rohan at Amplified08 last week, and invited him to preview a blog post – provisionally untitled Ungeeking the Nation, I believe –  that he’s been planning for a little while … and in a typically open and collaborative spirit he gave me the four-minute version above.

As you’ll hear, Rohan feels that non-tech collaborative activities like Barcamps and unconferences – including Amplified08 – are being adopted by geeks, and then promoted back into the non-geek world. They are “social media made flesh”. There’s nothing new in these techniques, but social media is helping us relearn them. Young people who – increasingly – adopt social media and its ways of doing things, expect to find similar behaviours distributed more widely in society.

I wrote recently that perhaps The Web 2.0 magic is fading – meaning that simplistic evangelising of social media isn’t going far. Rohan has a more sophisticated message that we can use social media to sprinkle some older, more valuable magic dust to bring out our natural capacities for doing good things together. How do we explore further? At an unconference, I should think.

Update: Rohan has now given us more on ungeeking over here, with promise of a further article, and an invite to a very relevant screening.


  • December 1, 2008 - 10:22 am | Permalink

    Great post David and needless to say I agree wholeheartedly. Just wanted to say how good it is to have a social reporter in our midsts (i.e. you!) and capture our thoughts and ideas before they fade. The ungeeking thread is a strong one, and one we’d like to explore and develop with others over the coming weeks and months. I’m sure Rohan will respond or post shortly with more details.

  • December 1, 2008 - 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David – it’s a terrific summary.

    I’ve now done my first post on ungeeking at http://bit.ly/LpLP and it’ll be something we’ll be exploring for a while to come so please everyone join in and help us build it.

  • December 1, 2008 - 5:35 pm | Permalink

    It’s great to see Rohan thinking through these interesting ideas on behaviours.

    When we get hung up on whether we’re ‘too’ geeky, too exclusive, whatever, we forget that what makes the web different is the ease of collaboration, ie people with different skills are more effective working together than separately. So instead of being competitive, we are learning to capitalise on what everyone else is good at along with what we ourselves can bring, trusting that we will all share in the end product (whatever that might be) instead of worrying over who is going to get rich from it.

    While we can be forever grateful to the people who built the tools and the platforms for everyone else to play on, it is now at the stage where you don’t need special skills to participate, you can bring your own skills to easily-usable platforms. That is why it is more important to build participation and confidence than new tools – although if people want to build new tools, that too is great.

  • December 2, 2008 - 12:35 am | Permalink

    Great. So now we can start discussing openly the historical currents that are resurfacing through the gaps rendered by social media.

    On that subject, I popped along to the Taking Liberties exhibition at the British Library and noticed (alongside the Magna Carta) the The Charter of the Forest from 1225, which restored the traditional rights of the people where the land had once been held in common.

    An Norman-era GPL? 🙂

  • dowdinsk
    December 4, 2008 - 10:26 am | Permalink

    “…you don’t need special skills to participate, you can bring your own skills to easily-usable platforms…”

    Sorry to be chippy, but this doesn’t at all accord with my world view. there’s still a massive digital divide. which for me makes ungeekery in addition to imaginative tactical tech a glimpse towards a way forward.

  • December 4, 2008 - 5:36 pm | Permalink

    @dowdinsk I agree with you on the divide, which is now about mindset, skills as well as access. Ungeeking could help by showing why it is worth engaging with social media – if it brings scope for collaboration etc that people value in non-tech contexts. At the same time social media folk would do well to focus more on the “what’s the point” questions … there are some responses now.

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