45 provocative propositions about using social technology

Over the past few months I’ve been working on and off with co-authors Andy Gibson, Amy Sample Ward, and Clive Holtham and Nigel Courtney of Cass Business School, (since rebranded as Bayes Business School) on a book about how we can use social technologies for social benefit.
It’s going to be called Social by Social: a practical guide to using new technologies to deliver social impact and it should be published and distributed by NESTA next month.
There’s case studies, a sort of routemap for planning and starting projects, lots of how-tos and an A-Z of key terms.
Amidst the serious stuff we wanted something a little provocative to get conversations started, and I think it was Andy who suggested something a bit Cluetrain Manifesto. That was the book 10 years ago with 95 theses at its heart, the first of which was “Markets are conversations”. I laboured on a messy first draft, others chipped in, and Andy turned it all into something really useful, as you can see here.
NESTA kindly agreed we could fly the propositions a little early, and we are planning to put them up somewhere easily commentable, so people can agreed, disagree, and add some “if you believe that … try this”. You’ll be able to see if it matches the way we have followed through from the propositions to practice.
It should be a great warm-up for the book, which we hope will also end up on a wiki with a creative commons license to allow remixing. NB proposition 38 – eat your own dog food.
I’m keen that we find a way of joining up discussion about the propositions with the digital engagement manifesto I’m helping develop over here. Proposition 38: don’t centralise, aggregate.
Meanwhile feel free to thrown in a comment here, or at Andy’s place. I’m sure will join in … and we hope it will be all over the place. Prop 13: keep it messy.
Then, of course, we’ll need a social reporter to make some sense of it all …

The 45 Social by Social Propositions

A set of principles and guidelines which we believe underpin the most successful ‘social by social’ projects.

  1. People want control. If you give them tools for taking more control of their lives, they will pay you back in attention, support and even hard cash.
  2. Empowerment is unconditional. Telling people what they can and can’t do with your platform is like an electricity company restricting what its power can be used for.
  3. People make technology work. Think about mindset, language and skills before you think about tools, features and screen designs.
  4. Know your limits. Technology can solve information problems, organise communities and publish behaviours, but they can’t deliver food or care for the sick.
  5. You can’t learn to fly by watching the pilot. If you want to understand new technologies, start using them. Dive in.
  6. Start at the top. Get the boss blogging or talking on YouTube.
  7. Don’t jump for the tool. Be clear on who your target audience are and what you will do for them. Choosing technology is the last thing you should do.
  8. Start small. It’s always better to build too little than too much. Beware of specifying costly systems until you are absolutely familiar with the tools and know how people would use them.
  9. Planning ahead is hard. Find cheap, easy ways to try your ideas out with real people in real situations before committing lots of resources.
  10. Expect the unexpected. Be prepared to develop tactically, evolving as you go, and learn to maximise possibilities.
  11. Give up on the illusion of control. In a networked world, organisations can no longer control what people think or say about their products and services. If you’re worried, get involved.
  12. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The more you open things up, the less risk there is of damage to your reputation. And restricting access can severely reduce usage and innovation.
  13. Keep it messy. Design to support conversations, relationships, stories – not to organise documents. If everything’s neat and tidy, it’s because no-one’s there.
  14. In user-centred design, everyone is right. Evolve any tools and systems with the people who will use them, and respect their complaints. Bring them in and let them help you.
  15. Never assume, always ask. You can’t know what your community wants from you without asking and they are waiting for you to ask. Be specific, define the issue, problem or idea, and let the answers pour in. but be transparent about your next moves and highlight the answers that informed your next steps.
  16. Design for real people. Tailor your offering to the real skills and characteristics of your users, not how you’d like them to be.
  17. Keep it simple. Every time you add a feature to your toolset, you make the existing features harder to use.
  18. Don’t centralise, aggregate. Do you really need data centralisation? Well do you? Use lots of different, disconnected tools and then pull the content together into a central location.
  19. Be a pirate. Don’t make things yourself; make use of what others have already shared.
  20. Empty rooms are easier to redecorate. Be fast and loose with evolving your platform in the early stages, but be cautious of changing things once people start using them.
  21. Build it and they may well not come. Build relationships and they probably will.
  22. The world is a noisy place. Getting people’s attention means offering them something valuable.
  23. Go where people are. Experienced users have plenty of existing places already, and newcomers are difficult to recruit. Go to see them and say hello.
  24. Learn to listen before you start talking. Good conversations require good listeners more than good talkers. Learn how to say things that people want to hear.
  25. Be consistent. Whatever you say in public, remember you are talking to everyone, all the time, so stay true to your principles.
  26. You can’t force people to volunteer. Contributing content and spreading the word are voluntary activities, so learn how to create good invitations and actionable opportunities.
  27. Respect how people choose to communicate. Some will write, others take pictures or make movies. Most people will just listen and view, and maybe comment.
  28. Enthusiasts are more important than experts. Attitude beats ability when tools are cheap and easy.
  29. Be realistic about who will create content. It’s about the same proportion as put their hands up at question time.
  30. Put your energy where their energy is. Support the early adopters rather than chasing the sceptics, and they will become your evangelists.
  31. All energy is good energy. If people are taking the time to criticise you, they are engaged. Don’t waste that.
  32. Throw a good party. Make it fun and sociable as well as worthwhile to get more commitment.
  33. Be a good host. Make people comfortable and then get out of the way.
  34. Don’t forget the tables and chairs. If you want people to communicate or collaborate online, bring them together face-to-face too.
  35. Keep your powder dry. Set aside as much money for design, copy and user testing, and for marketing and community engagement, as you do for software and hardware.
  36. A marathon, not a sprint. Launching the service is just the beginning; the hard work starts once you have something for people to engage with.
  37. Content is king. Providing great content, whether it’s resources, information, connections or conversations, means new users will find you and others will stick with you. Give people the means to share this content too, freely and openly.
  38. Eat your own dogfood. If you aren’t using your own services, why would anyone else? And you can’t influence the community if you aren’t in it.
  39. Your users own the platform. If they feel own it, they will trust it, help sustain it, and find ways to use and improve the tools; if they aren’t interested, no amount of pushing will help.
  40. Let people solve their own problems. As the amount of work grows, so does the number of workers.
  41. Someone has to pay. Although many online tools are free, everything has costs of time if not money. If possible, make sure the money comes from the core purpose of the project.
  42. Don’t confuse money with value. Look at the other assets you have in your community, like skills, volunteers and goodwill, and put them to use in sustaining it.
  43. No-one knows anything. The only thing worth watching is what your users are actually doing.
  44. Failure is useful. If you want to know what works, look at what didn’t. Fail often, fail usefully.
  45. Say thank you in public. People don’t need to have something hand-written on headed paper to feel recognized. Use your tools to acknowledge the people who helped make them in a visible way.


  • April 6, 2009 - 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Nice one David. Couple of early comments over on Sociability, and Euan Semple has picked his favourites too. Looking forward to seeing what comes of it.

  • Clare White
    April 7, 2009 - 9:44 am | Permalink

    This is a great guide and I will definitely be able to share it with people who want to understand how to engage. It well illustrates the culture shift that the people formerly in charge need to understand.

    If you were looking for anything more, I would add something adapted from @codinghorror that is in my favourite tweets list:
    “It’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.

  • April 7, 2009 - 11:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks Clare … could add ” … and it is easier to seek forgiveness than ask permission…”

  • April 7, 2009 - 12:04 pm | Permalink

    More about conversation please. Social media works best in conversation rather than as a monologue. It’s a factor that’s implied here, rather than explicitly stated.

    You may also have mentioned and I’ve missed it, but is it worth saying, ‘Be prepared to change course’? Your aims may not be fulfilled, but you may find success in a different way.

    Looks good though

  • April 7, 2009 - 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Great stuff and I’m really looking forward to the debate that’s already starting up

    I’ve cross posted this at Councillors connected: the social media online conference where it’s prompting some interesting discussion.

  • April 8, 2009 - 7:23 am | Permalink

    Great post David. Much seems so obvious – but has to be said.

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  • Laura Bunt
    April 28, 2009 - 10:44 am | Permalink

    This is great David – I’m really looking forward to reading the full report as already I can see how these principles and guidelines could help anyone wanting to use social tools for social change. Really exciting stuff!

  • May 11, 2009 - 11:29 am | Permalink


    I like the football analogy

    ” Let the ball do the work ”

    When kids, we used to try at first doing it all ourselves ; the coach used to ram this one home.

    Is there a read-over to the social media world ?

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  • May 30, 2009 - 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Gold dust.

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