Mathew Lowry

Creating trust by example

Over on the Belgian IABC’s thriving ‘web2eu’ site, Philip Weiss embedded a TED video of Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, discussing the revolutionary impact of social media (more references on the be-IABC site). It’s really so good I thought I’d repost it here and add some observations (it takes some time to load):

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The part that really resonated with me came right at the end, when he discusses the Obama campaign. Apparently the then Senator Obama changed his mind on FISA (a political issue) mid-stream. A lot of his own supporters attacked Obama, forming an online group to build support against his decision.

So what? Well, they set up the group on Obama’s own site.

Obama chose to not back down on the issue, and also chose to not run away from his supporters-turned-critics. They, in turn:

“realised that Obama had never shut them down. Nobody … had ever tried to hide the group… delete it or take it off the site. The [people running the online campaign) had understood that their role was to convene their supporters, but not to control their supporters. That is the kind of discipline that it takes to make really mature use of this media.”

– Clay Shirky, How social media can make history

They may not have agreed with him, but this maturity – in a politician, it’s courage – won him respect even from those who hated his decision. Noone wants to be controlled.

This illustrates something I was discussing on ReadWriteWeb a while back, where commenters (see eGovernment2.0: is the US experience overrated?) observed that people didn’t participate in institutional online spaces much because:

“… we’ve been trained to expect to be ignored. President Obama’s administration may be trying to change that, but there’s a deep seated mistrust because we haven’t had such a mechanism in the past, and what we’ve tried has been unsuccessful, so why try again?”

– Nancy Creighton, commenting on RWW

In other words, if you don’t feel that your views will be respected, you don’t get involved. And if people don’t get involved, then we’ll never harness the benefits social media offers online discussion.

It therefore follows that mutual respect is essential to harnessing these benefits. There are just two problems:

1) Mutual trust doesn’t exist. Trust in institutions, media, companies, everything is lower than ever before.

2) Mutual distrust is a vicious circle. It’s difficult to create trust when the prevailing climate is poisoned with mistrust – if the first person brave enough to put their head above the parapet to talk gets it shot off, who’s going to go first?

Well, Obama went first. I like this example because the consensus is that Obama’s strategy won him more votes than he lost.

It’s not that surprising. For every person engaged on an online debate, there are many more reading it. For every person who changed his vote on the FISA issue, several more would have decided that FISA was less important than the fact that Obama obviously respected his critics.

While mutual distrust is a vicious circle, therefore, mutual respect is a virtuous one – respect creates respect, and wins sympathy and votes. Let’s hope trust continues to develop in the right direction, on both sides of the Atlantic – it’s social capital that is easy to lose, and hard to get back.

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  1. Mathew, you have been writing some really interesting things recently. They are much appreciated in my part of the EU blogosphere, wherever that is…

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