Open social networks and their role in society

On: October 9, 2011
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About Wouter Timmermans
27 years old, passion for European art-house cinema, Starcraft II player, Chairman of Filmtheater de Uitkijk, Studying MA New Media @ UvA, love travelling in Asia, interested in open source data, concerned about the future of cinema in a new digital world, dislike populists in the Netherlands.


Social media has grown to amazing heights the last couple of years. Some people say that these social media platforms help to activate citizens and to help answer social issues. Examples of the power of these platforms are abundant: Barack Obama’s election campaign, the Arab spring of 2011. But also in the Netherlands there are projects where citizens are helping the government through social media in building new urban areas: Smallingerland (in Dutch) and how small local municipalities keep in touch with their citizens on Twitter. There is no doubt that social media gives (to some degree) power to the citizens of a country or region. It gives them more options to influence political decision making on a regional or nationwide level. But social media can be used for so much more.

When people are talking about social media, most of the time they talk about Facebook. I would like to address an other kind of social media, social media that emphasizes not on profits through marketing and selling data but on using the strength of social media to help people and using the wisdom of the crowd for a greater good by pooling their voices together.

Ouders Online (parents Online) is an independent information source on the Internet for parents and future parents in the Netherlands. They exchange information, ask experts questions and search for relevant information on the upbringing of children on more than 20.000 pages. Over the years, Ouders Online has become a respected, independent organisation. Because of their unique market position, other private and public parties often wish to collaborate with them and use Ouders Online to conduct surveys among the community. Ouders Online collaborates with commercial identities that enrich the wisdom of the community.  For example: the creation of an online movie database where parents can check if movies, TV series or websites are suitable for their children. They also expanded beyond parenting to topics concerning depression or physical ill health but also birthday parties. The most important aspect of Ouders Online is it its large community of (future) parents, the community is powered by forums and chat rooms where experiences can be discussed and shared with other parents and professionals.

Ouders Online also started to create a database that makes it easier for the experts to answer certain questions and for the editors of the site to concentrate on content instead of becoming an ‘answering machine’. Furthermore, this database also helped to conduct research on the available site data. This is carried out for internal purposes or at the request of clients. Statistics from the site on, for example, nursing are gathered and extrapolated. The director of Ouders Online defines his project as a semi-public and commercial platform. They have to make money to keep on running, but he thinks this is not truly commercial as they remain independent, transparent and open and make their choices with their community. Ouders Online shows us that a community of many-to-many can both be a commercial success and add value to a community. (children telephone) is a telephone network specifically for children. By calling, they can anonymously discuss problems with a trained volunteer staff. Kindertelefoon was founded 25 years ago but only recently discovered that children want to communicate with them on the Internet. They developed a high-tech super secured one-on-one chat function and since the start, the demand is so high that it stretches the capacity of the organisation to a maximum.

Easy to use applications on the Internet help visitors to become part of social networks, and eventually to become active participants instead of passive consumers. Ouders Online exemplify the reinforcing power of the Internet for social capital. These projects have services that are centred on citizens and specific communities, instead of being consumers of companies.

The American TIME magazine elected YOU as person of the year in 2006, the reason was clear. An ever-growing group of people take part in online social networks.  They create their own environment for information gathering, start their own initiatives, and create and distribute their content. The platforms offer a space to share interests and ideas. In his book ‘The Wisdom of the Crowds’, James Surowiecki shows that a group as a collective is more intelligent than may be expected. He defines four requirements for this to happen: diversity, independence, decentralisation and efficient aggregation of data. Many open social networks meet these requirements, the bring people together and in the coming years, platforms will further develop instruments to let the wisdom of open social networks flourish.

But what does this mean for the future of these small social media platforms? In an interview Marc Canter discusses the future of open social media platforms. Marc Canter is the CEO of the technology company Broadband Mechanics. He was the co-founder of Macromind that later became the world famous Macromedia. Marc is an ardent supporter of open social media and specializes in customized semi-private solutions. He is a contributor to many open standards efforts and advocates for end-user controlled digital identities and content – being a co-founder of “Identity Gang” and a co-signer of the “Social Web Users’ Bill of Rights”.

CD:  Why do you think open social networking is so important?

Marc: Because users own their data.  Having a single vendor (Facebook) who controls all the data is not healthy.  So the only path forward is to have a de-centralized model where many vendors (LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, MyClassmates, Ning, others….) all offer us services – and we choose which one to use.  And WE own our data!

The reason I’ve included this small part of the interview with Marc Canter is the fact that he accurately describes what is going to be important in the coming years. Owning our own data, a decentralized model and the fact that the examples I mentioned earlier have an impact on smaller online communities is essential. It would be interesting and of social interest to research these small social media platforms and to keep monitoring the influences large social media have. But how should this research be conducted?

First of all it would be wise to analyse the existing social media projects (in the Netherlands) and how they function in particular communities. The results can be used to create a database where these communities can be interpreted and mapped. Secondly projects can be given help to expand or realize these goals and may even be awarded funding if they reach these goals. Keywords like Marc Canter mentioned earlier are: open decentralized models, which create social capital and community value.

I believe that the future of open social media lies with smaller network platforms like Ouders Online, which provide real knowledge to those who need it; these kinds of platforms have the power to change people from passive consumers to active participants. In the future more research should be done on the effect and the importance of these platforms and the role they fulfil in society.

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