SMW 2012: From Hierarchies of Power to Networks and Collaboration

“If I had to choose the one big change I’ve seen in the last 4 years, it is that power is shifting, from hierarchies and institutions to networks and people. And that has had huge implications for society at large.”

Thus Alec Ross, U.S. State Department director of innovation, remarked in his excellent keynote address on Feb 17, 2012 at Social Media Week NYC (SMW). He went on to draw on excellent examples of this change from 2011:

  • How social networks brought together diverse disempowered actors to hasten the Arab Spring

  • How the powerful Chinese government censorship apparatus was foiled by widespread outcry on Sina Weibo (a microblogging platform) concerning the China Rail disaster, forcing government actors to be held accountable

  • How the passage of SOPA was effectively derailed not by lobbying (of which there had been much on both sides) but by individual and group protest actions

For better or worse (and mostly better, so far) this decentralization has put “control freaks” such as dictators on the retreat and influenced many of the political of the changes we witnessed in 2011.

Decentralization: beyond politics

The theme of decentralization Ross highlighted extends beyond political change, to many other subjects of focus in SMW 2012.

In the realm of social entrepreneurship, Social Media Week focused on two primary types of enterprise:

  • Social change tools, catalysts, incubators and consultants such as Causes.com, COMMON and Purpose discussed how motivated individuals can now form movements that raise awareness and foment change around the globe

  • Collaborative consumption enterprises discussed how new tools enabling goods and services to be shared, swapped, bartered, and rented among consumers themselves, with attending economic and environmental benefits

Both categories of enterprise share in Ross’s theme of decentralization.

Social Change Catalysts help activists magnify their voices through networks

Social change catalysts ask ordinary citizens to do, as COMMON founder Alex Bogusky succinctly put it, “what matters most to you” and create change through decentralized networks. Purpose's mission is to “deploy the collective power of millions of citizens and consumers to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”

Collaborative Consumption Enterprises turn consumers into sellers, renters and traders

Collaborative consumption enterprises allow consumers to buy and sell directly to each other, cutting the central producer out of a large number of beneficial commercial transactions and enhancing consumer power. Ebay is, of course, the biggest example, but the new decentralization trend has spawned a series of young companies is this space.

COMMON held an event on the Wednesday of SMW for young collaborative consumption companies to pitch their business:

  • Pitch event winner GoodKarma will let parents sell hand-me-down baby clothes

  • Runner-up KeyWifi allows users to share their home WiFi bandwidth with others in their neighborhood: the benefits of this model extend from improving efficient use of radio bandwidth to reducing connectivity costs and bridging the “digital divide” between richer and poorer citizens.

  • WebThriftStore allows users to sell used goods directly, with non-profit charities as the beneficiaries of the payment

The pitch presenters included: Chris Kiernan of Zoko, Doug Krugman of Web Thrift Store, Will Dennis of Spinlister, Adam Black of KeyWifi, Sharon Schneider of GoodKarma, Lori Argyle and Chad Rogers of Unum, John Zimmer of Zimride, and Engin Erdogan of Itemology.

Another important Collaborative Consumption event was help on the Monday of SMW. SharedSquare hosted “Design For Collaboration.” This event highlighted Keywifi, GoodKarma and Zoko as well as Ridehack, a platform for ride-sharing built around people going to major events like concerts.

Those interested in this space should also check out two other great NYC-based companies, Skillshare (user-produced online classes) and Knodes/SnapGoods (social discovery of resources such as interests, talents and loanable items).

As Razorfish Founder Jeff Dachis said is his Monday Keynote: “You have the privilege, opportunity, and the responsibility to do amazing things.” All of these companies are taking these words to heart.