The disturbing effects of social tech on civil society: arrests

Tomorrow the Carnegie UK Trust is running a seminar on how social technology will impact on civil society associations … and Dan McQuillan has kick-started discussion with a terrific post here, touching on the research undertaken for Carnegie by Suw Charman-Anderson (scroll down posts). Dan notes:

Carnegie’s report on The shape of civil society to come says that “The purpose of futures work is to ‘disturb the present’ and to help organisations understand and manage uncertainties and ambiguities. Futures thinking operates on an assumption that there is not one future but multiple possible futures, dependent partly on how we choose to respond to or create change.”

My take is that the disturbance will come where the faultlines in civil society are most pressured by the patterns and memes of the social web. The Shape of Civil Society identifies key faultlines such as

  • Voluntary and community associations lose their distinctiveness due to increasing partnership with the state,
  • Traditional political engagement on the wane
  • Diminishing arenas for public deliberation
  • Marginalisation of dissent

These are clearly on collision course with memes like Openness, Transparency, Agility and the return of The Commons.

Dan’s a bit sceptical about the ability of existing nonprofit organisations to rise to the challenge of the changes:

It’s hard for bureaucracies to change their spots; expecting them to collaborate even across their own internal silos is like asking the tongue to taste itself. They may wish that the pixie dust of social media will restore their humanitarian sparkle but it may simply be that charities are broken.

I’m with Dan when he says that interesting social innovation happens at the edges.

Suw has some videos interviews on her blog, which reminds me that last November I interviewed Dan when we were both at the Amplified 08 event. I was researching the Social by Social handbook and asked some deliberately open ended questions about communication technologies and social change.

Dan said that change came when power shifted, and people felt able to make some real changes in their lives. When do we know that social media is working? One test is when people start getting arrested. It’s terrible… but it shows the media is making a difference, otherwise the powerholders wouldn’t care.

Suw is asking people using social media in nonprofits to help with the research by responding to a survey. More about that here.


  • May 13, 2009 - 11:19 pm | Permalink

    thanks for tying this in with the blog post!

    i stand by arrests as an impact metric.

    Btw, Carnegie are also running a survey on the marginalisation of dissent


  • May 13, 2009 - 11:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read that Jeff something’s book where he watches people doing social things with stuff too 😉

    Seriously, less talking and more doing is powerful, ‘where stuff actually happens’. I’ve just wathced/read this interview on ‘Discovery Driven Growth’, where the tag line is ‘The Only Plan Is to Learn as You Go’:

    Social media is a collection of fantastic tools to allow social innovators to do just that in an accessible way, but the vital element of collaboration playing big part in these new organisation’s growth.

  • May 13, 2009 - 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ben – hope you can join us to play these ideas through at SHINE
    Dan – thanks again for a great interview.

  • July 16, 2009 - 11:44 am | Permalink

    Carnegie Trust UK and Open Democracy are hosting an event on the marginalisation of dissent – to talk about the results of the survey Dan posted about.

    This is the event invitation:

    Civil Society: Enabling Dissent

    St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square London WC2N 4JJ

    4:30pm-6:30pm, Tuesday 28 July 2009

    (Tea and coffee served from 4:15pm)

    The Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland and Open Democracy are delighted to invite you to an event to explore the role of civil society associations in creating and supporting spaces for dissenting voices, both in the UK and globally.

    In 2007, the Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society undertook an extensive futures exercise to explore the possible future threats to and opportunities for civil society, looking out to 2025.

    Contributors to the futures work highlighted the marginalisation of dissent and diminishing spaces for public deliberation as key concerns.

    This event will draw on these concerns and consider the various ways in which dissent is marginalised including factors such as threats to civil liberties and anti-terror legislation, the behaviour of media and self-suppression on the part of civil society associations themselves.

    Key questions that the speakers will address include: What are the roles of civil society associations in enabling dissent?

    Where are the key areas where dissent is marginalised?

    What factors enable or inhibit dissent?

    What practical steps should be taken to support spaces for dissenting voices?

    The event will be chaired by Anthony Barnett (founder of,

    Co-Director of the Convention on Modern Liberty and Co-Chair of Real Change: the open politics network).

    Speakers include: Kumi Naidoo (Visiting Fellow at the Carnegie UK Trust, Honorary President of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Co-Chair of the Global Call to Action against Poverty campaign),

    Sunny Hundal (Editor of Liberal Conspiracy, journalist, commentator, blogger and activist) and Malcolm Carroll (Campaigner and Baptist Minister).

    The Inquiry has hosted two other events on the theme of dissent in Dublin and in Glasgow.

    Findings from these events can be found at the Inquiry web pages, Marginalisation of Dissent.

    To find out more about the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society please visit

    We look forward to welcoming you to the event.

    To book a place please e-mail Catherine at by 22 July 2009.

  • July 16, 2009 - 11:48 am | Permalink

    I just realised how long that post was sorry! If anyone’s interested in coming to the Carnegie and Open Democracy event on the Marginalisation of Dissent, these are the details:

    Is dissent being marginalised?

    Tues 28 July (4:30-6:30pm), London

    The Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland and openDemocracy are hosting an event to explore the role of civil society associations in creating and supporting spaces for dissenting voices.

    Panellists at the event, entitled Civil Society: Enabling Dissent, include Anthony Barnett founder of, global activist Kumi Naidoo, journalist/ blogger Sunny Hundal and campaigner Malcolm Carroll.

    To book a place please e-mail Catherine at by 22 July 2009.

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