Conversation with Ross Dawson, Chairman of the Future Exploration Network, on Social Networking & New Media

Ross Dawson

I had a great conversation over Skype today with Ross Dawson, Chairman of the Future Exploration Network, on New Media and Social Networking and how it could influence the socio-political dynamics of countries and regions embroiled in violent conflict.

We talked for nearly an hour and covered a number of interesting ideas and issues related to the definition, development and future of social networks. Ross’s Future of the Media Report, which I’ve read and used extensively in discussions on new media in Sri Lanka, was the foundation for our conversation.

Ross first pointed out the need to differentiate between new media and social media / social networking, which I found a useful way to seperate the technology from the content. He spoke of “reputation systems” that would build on models such as eBay’s buyer / seller comments and ratings systems that would allow social networks and their constituent authors establish themselves as respected voices and opinion makers in the blogosphere and social networks.

In response to several questions I asked him on how social networks can help in peacebuilding and strengthening democracy, Ross responded by saying that technology should not be looked upon as a panacea, but also stressed that social networks and new media afforded new ways of communications that could transcend state censorship and help engender reconciliation. I then asked him, given my experience of Moju, how best one could weed out the extremist hate speech and create social networks that were progressive. His response gives much food for thought.

I appreciated Ross’s interest in looking at the ways through which diaspora networks operate. The ways through which the diaspora create national and international social communications networks is of central importance to the establishment of frameworks that get them engaged in the socio-political dynamics of peacebuilding in a country such as Sri Lanka.

Ross, in passing, mentioned the importance of scenario planning to encourage those sceptical of social networking (such as many mainstream print journalists today, and many older NGOs and CSOs) to more fully grasp the tremendous potential for networking, collaboration, communication and advocacy made possible by new media. He also mentioned the importance of using case studies to appeal to journalists unused to the revolution made possible by technology – in response to a question I asked of him of the difficulty sometimes faced when trying to explain the possibilities of new media to journalists in Sri Lanka (not a single Editor of a mainstream newspaper in Sri Lanka runs a blog, and very few journalists have their own blog).

Though we couldn’t flesh it out in detail, Ross mentioned something quite interesting during our conversation – his belief that face-to-face communication is far more important that web / internet mediated communication. I, along with friends such as Colin Rule, are deeply interested in this topic and will possibly discuss it at the up-coming Cyberweek 2006. My own experience with F2F meetings is that they are, on occasion, highly undesirable. In such instances, conversations mediated through the web (thru IM, email, VoIP etc) can play a useful role in setting up the necessary frameworks of mutual trust, reciprocity, understanding and compromise in order to set the stage for a progressive real world face to face meeting between antagonists. I’d also encourage people to read The Honesty Virus – which is a fascinating look into how, sometimes, we are more honest online than we are in the real world. Furthermore, as I’ve written in The future of Online Dispute Resolution, we need to look at how virtual F2F solutions can augment real world F2F processes, and how online F2F mechanisms can complement efforts in the real world to establish idependently verfiable indicators of trust that appeal to all the antagonists who wish to meet to discuss their differences.

Speaking about the exponential growth of mobile phones in Asia, Ross appreciated initiatives such as the Grameen Phone system in Bangladesh and the ubiquity of mobile devices in countries such as South Korea and Japan and indicators of the potential of mobile phones to strengthen democracy, engender economic development (Cellphones for civic engagement) and help communities move out of poverty.

Ross mentioned towards the end of our conversation that the single most useful aspect of social networking and new media was that it gave (marginalised) communities and individuals the ability to write themselves into the social, political and cultural fabric – to let them “feel they have a voice”.

You can listen to the full recording of our conversation here.

Also see:
Can technology create world peace?

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