Social reporters (and anyone else) as social artists

I’ve come away from the Powering a New Future conference in Lisbon with three interlocking reflections on developing the concept and practice of social reporting – and a new conclusion about what it means to be a social reporter.

My conclusion, inspired by Etienne Wenger – above – is that social reporters can aspire to be “social artists” who help create social learning spaces where people can work together on social issues. It’s something anyone can do, with the right attitude and some skills, but I think social reporters should definitely make it a key part of their work.

If that idea holds up it could be a useful contribution to projects including Open2gether, OpenRSA and maybe RSA Networks. Here’s the reflections that led me to the idea, then how it may apply to networks.

First, it’s been really rewarding working in a team, with Bev Trayner and Josien Kapma, as I described here. We got good stuff done – we shared ideas and practices, creating our our social learning space.

Second, meeting and listening to social learning theorist Etienne Wenger has given me a new perspective on the way that we can collaborate online and in other ways – that’s the social learning part.

Third, there’s a difference between social reporting as a role, and as a process of helping others find a voice and work together. That gives new insights into how to work within networks.

I’ve known Bev for a couple of years, and we’ve worked on projects and events together, but she is based in Portugal and I’m in the UK. However much you email, Skype and blog, there’s nothing like social (learning) time together.

Josien and I read each other’s blogs, but hadn’t met before. As well as talking about social reporting, we had a great lunchtime discussion at the conference about networks and the rural economy, about which more later.

After the conversations with Bev and Josien, I was prompted to go back and read their blogs again.

I realise I’ve forgotten that Bev wrote a while back about the social elements of social reporting, and that Josien picked up on that and made the distinction between this perspective – perhaps drawing on Bev’s work in Communities of Practice – and my emphasis, from a journalistic background, on the role.

I’ve been putting some social into reporting, Bev has put some reporting into social learning. We found common ground, but I’ve only just realised how we got there.

Etienne provided the framework for understanding and synthesising our perspectives in his presentation, recorded here on video. He was talking about the EQUAL programme – sponsors of the the event – and the aim of helping social innovation projects across Europe learn from each other. It is worth quoting at length from Bev’s report of the presentation:

“The real legacy of EQUAL is that of trying to build the social infrastructure of innovation. This is hard work. It takes a complex system of communities and networks to do this. We need to talk to each other beyond our countries and cultures in order to see how we can give a voice of EQUAL to see how to create this social structure.

“The key success factor we’ve found is learning citizenship where learning citizenship is a personal commitment to seeing how we are as citizens in this world. Let me give you an example: I know an oncological surgeon in Ontario, Canada who asks himself how to provide the social infrastructure for patients to learn about cancer. An act of learning citizenship is to be able to use who you are to open this space for learning. I’ve come to call these people social artists, people who can create a space where people can find their own sense of learning citizenship.

“I love social artists. In fact I worship them. First because social artists know how to do what I only know how to talk about; and second because I care about the learning of this planet. I think we are in a race between learning and survival. We live in a knowledge economy where any expertise is too complex for any one person. One person can’t be an expert so anyone who can give voice to that need to work together is a social artist.

“I do a lot of consultancy work for training community leaders, but in my heart of hearts I know the real secret of those social artists is not something I can teach. The real secret of those people is knowing how to use who you are as a vehicle for opening spaces for learning.  I don’t really have the words – but I just know when I see it. It is a way of tapping into who you are and of making that a gift to the world … it’s about being able to use who I am to take my community to a new level of learning and performance.

“I want to leave you with three questions…

  1. How can you act as a learning citizen in this world?
  2. How can we as a group help , sustain, celebrate that capability among ourselves? If EQUAL has done a bit of that – how do we capture it, nurture it cherish it?
  3. For those of you who are movers and shakers – how can you build an institutional structure that enables people to find their voice in the interests of the people they want to serve? Social artists need to fight … How can we enable a structure that enables those people to do the work that they do?

“These are urgent questions. Social innovation is a matter of the heart, not just projects. We need you to do that for the world, not just Europe”.

I find the idea of social learning spaces – as used by Etienne and Bev – more useful than Communities of Practice, when thinking about the role of social reporting.

When we undertake social reporting at an event, we are – at best – helping create a learning space for everyone, not just capturing and broadcasting content. As Bev explains in her post, we are helping everyone use a range of tools – Twitter, photos, video, blog posts – to enhance their experience of the event and interactions with people present and virtually present. That’s social reporter as facilitator and promoter/mentor in the use of social media.

However, social reporting isn’t just – in my mind – about the use of social media at events. It can also be about promoting and joining up conversations across networks.

Here’s where the conversation with Josien created a fresh inspiration. Josien and her husband run a diary farm in Portugal, along with other farmers who have emigrated from the Netherlands, and on her blog she reflects upon the changing nature of the rural economy where farms have to develop a number of different income stream for their business. Farmers need to learn about a lot more than farming, and Josien believes this can best be done together through networks online and at events.

This horizontal networking can complement the more traditional and formal vertical organisations and services to assist farmers. The challenge is to get some connection and integration – because the vertical organisations will have membership fees and closed spaces, while the horizontal ones will be more open. Maybe the social reporter can help broker some collaborative social learning spaces joining up the two.

Josien has been following the development of The Membership Project, started by Simon Berry and I, because this open-closed issue is exactly the challenge faced by the RSA and other membership organisations. How will they survive if members find they can get information, connections and sociability without them? How can we unlock knowledge from silo organisations, when we need lots more cross-overs to solve social problems?

I realise that is what’s been the inspiration for me behind OpenRSA, where a group of RSA members have been both supporting and challenging the RSA Networking initiative. Backstory here, and more news soon, I hope, on some collaborative ways forward.

It also gives me an additional perspective on 2gether09, where I’m working with Steve Moore, Jess Tyrrell and the team on a Digital Festival for next July, with a series of month meetups plus online networking over the next six months or so. We are calling that process Open2gether.

The essence of 2gether08, as conceived by Steve, was to bring together a mix of creative, artistic, innovative people variously involved in digital media to think, talk and inspire each other on how to tackle social issues. Steve has a strong belief that if you bring good people together in a hospitable space, with a mix of organised speakers and activities, and much else organised by participants themselves, then a cascade of fresh conversations, connections and collaborations will follow.

In the past I’ve been inclined to think that we may need a bit more organised process … more ways to help things along so we can point to some successes to re-assure ourselves and also, perhaps, the sponsors.

I know Steve’s approach works, from the terrific buzz and feedback generated by 2gether08 … but I need the additional comfort of a bit of theory. Maybe Etienne’s vision for learning across boundaries (geographical, organisational, sectoral, professional) gives us a model. Maybe Open2gether and 2gether09 will, in part, be about helping create social learning spaces, animated by a troop of social artists. That feels like a good place for a social reporter to be.

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  • December 15, 2008 - 12:18 pm | Permalink

    David – this is wonderful stuff and something I am still churning over in my mind. ‘Social learning space’ seems to be such a perfect descriptor of what the web is all about, and I can see where social reporting fits in, but also digital enabling.

    I wonder if social learning spaces (networked learning?) is what we can hang all the other stuff off too?

  • December 15, 2008 - 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks David – obviously there’s lots of reasons we use the web, but social learning seems a good model if we are thinking about purposeful networking for social innovation and change. To do things differently we need to climb out of our silos, understand others, develop trust, and learn to collaborate. See also Tom Wolff on collaboration at Powering a New Future
    Makes sense?

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  • December 15, 2008 - 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Great post David. I’m fortunate to be part of some ongoing conversations on social learning with Etienne, Bev and Josien (plus John Smith, Nancy White, Bronwyn and Shirley Wiliams) as part of an online conference at CPSquare. I hadn’t come across the term ‘social artists’ before, though I agree with what Etienne says about tapping into what you are and giving this to the world. It’s similar to what I’ve been saying about good community facilitators – it’s more about what they are as people than what they know or have learnt.

  • December 18, 2008 - 1:11 am | Permalink

    great reflections david. Your post really helps me to ‘put into place’ my learning of the experience, our ‘discoveries’. thanks.

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  • January 8, 2009 - 10:27 pm | Permalink

    David – this is wonderful stuff! Thanks so much for sharing it all. Like Dave, I really love the concept you bring flesh to here about social learning spaces. There are so many times when talking with groups or organizations that I explain we are trying to create a space for exchanging and conversation – the goal is not, alternatively, just a website, or a blog, or a widget. A social learning space is really what it’s all about! I will try to come up with a longer and more thoughtful reply (perhaps as a full blog post).

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