RSA explores how online networking may help build social capital

The RSA is breathing fresh life into exploration of the relationship between two issues – digital inclusion and social capital – with a seminar tomorrow launched by a paper from Will Davies on The Social Value of Digital Networks in Deprived Communities. The paper will be available at some point after the seminar, informed by discussions. The opening position  is:

  • Digital inclusion is the use of technology to improve the lives and life chances of disadvantaged people and the places in which they live.
  • Social capital is a way of understanding the (positive and negative) impact of social networks and norms on people’s lives.

… with evidence showing strong correlation between those who are socially excluded and those who are digitally excluded. The seminar – and the Connected Communites project being developed by the RSA – will explore how far online networking may help develop the socially and economically important weaker links that connect people beyond friends and family.

The recommended approaches from Will’s paper include:

  • Focus on building effective networks, not particular technologies, work out pathways to social participation
  • Consider peer-to-peer and mentor-based strategies as a way of impacting on online and offline networks at the same time
  • Evaluate existing projects to see how much they manage to cut across economic and cultural divides

Focus on particular areas relevant to social capital:

  • Facilitating circulation of job information
  • Formation of online networks among older users
  • Creation of user profiles to help people to recognise and interact with each other in the street
  • Provide opportunities for first-hand reporting of experiences of a place and services

I’ll be at the seminar listening out for some good ideas … but feeling relaxed in the knowledge that the excellent Tim Davies will be the official social reporter. I invited RSA researcher Damani Goldstein to join us over at the Digital Engagement Network, so there will be discussion there as well as on the RSA blog. The network was set up for the National Digital Inclusion Conference, and is continuing as a place for anyone interested in these issues.
It will be interesting to compare the discussions emerging from the seminar with the vision for a Digital City developed by Marc Canter for an event in Begium today. He’s not focussing explicitly on digital inclusion, and his vision is more about the necessary mechanics than resulting relationships, but I do like the ideas for customisable citizen dashboards.
My belief is that while devices like dashboards – and the services behind them – may help build social capital, even more important is the role of the connecting people as Clay Shirky emphasised when speaking last year at the RSA:

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 bridge 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.

Clare White makes a similar point about intermediaries when sharing a couple of insightful presentations that she has developed on digital inclusion.

I hope we will also hear more tomorrow from seminar chair Matthew Taylor, RSA chief executive, about his broader ideas on Can the RSA help close the digital divide?

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