Recasting the net

For those who follow my twitter stream, you’ll be aware that last night I attended and participated in the POLIS and Channel 4 event, Recasting the net, a debate series to be offered all over the UK on a range of topics relating to delivery of public services through emergent media.  Last night’s issue was ‘Where is the Revolution?’ and was designed to use the history of the internet to explore its social potential, not just its commercial and technological opportunities.

Inevitably with a brief that broad, it was difficult to cover much in terms of calls to action and social opportunities to be derived from emergent media.  The speakers tried to highlight some of the historical precedence in place and the examples of social interaction now possible through the internet, but they were often side-tracked into issues associated with broadband networks and the democratising potential of internet technologies rather than exploring what we have and trying to identify what we need.

But unlike some rather caustic and unsophisticated comments about the event that were emerging last night and today, I saw the event for what it was attempting to do, rather than what was achieved during the course of the evening.  Some tweeters at the event were frustrated that we were focusing on the term ‘revolution’ – in spite of the fact that that was the main question for the event – and were instead interested in how their product/service/activity was going to be critiqued/coopted/blocked by mainstream media and policy makers.  Other commentators criticised the event for being populated by those who focus on public interest (referred to in a vaguely derogatory manner as paragons of worthiness), again in spite of the fact that POLIS made it very clear this event was about delivering public services – not lining the pockets of entrepreneurial attendees.

So to the extent that it focused on the revolutionary aspects of the internet (admirably covered by Helen Milner and Tom Loosemore), and to the extent that it talked about the internet as a medium for service (covered perhaps better by Matthew d’Ancona), the debate did what it intended to do.  I just wish I could apply the Amplified methodology at events like this and lay down a challenge to come out with 3-5 tasks/products/activities that could go some way to addressing an identified need.

While there were several examples of both state and independently driven public service delivery innovations that were cited last night (,, Up My StreetNHS Direct, Write to Reply Wiki, Mapumental, OS Openspace, etc), there were few examples of how to make connections between users and services and how to fill in the gaps for the services that are not yet available.

At communications and public service events such as these I am often taken aback that the participants in a debate don’t seem to have any sense of the opportunities that mainstream media, telecommunications and policy makers have in facilitating access, and identifying weaknesses in service delivery.  Matt Locke last night noted that at least in his time with the BBC he had been associated with initialisation of a study on who had access to what technologies in the UK.  But given this information was collated, it seems paradoxical that there aren’t clear attempts to exploit existing local mainstream media for the delivery of public services.  Interestingly, the launch of Directgov as a freeview and teletext channel is at least a first step in bridging the gap between the information haves and have-nots, but so far the only people who are using Channel 106 seem to be those who already access government services online.  Further, the limited interactivity of television receivers means that much of the service is about broadcasting content out, rather than engaging with citizens.  And while more citizens have access to television sets than internet connections, it is entirely another issue for those non-internet-connected citizens to feel comfortable and engaged with the content on offer. Yet they feel comfortable with voting via SMS for Britain’s Got Talent or Big Brother, and with watching content on their standard channels.

There’s a lesson there. Maybe BBC or Channel 4 should be allocating a few hours a day to ‘programming’ which doesn’t abide by normal production standards, but is instead a kind of talk-back television programme where public service representatives respond to the needs of a live audience community.  No, you do not need a programme host.  No, you do not need a programme jingle/theme or set.  You just need a time slot, an sms number on screen to which people can pose questions and ask advice, and a bunch of public service representatives and citizens who can respond to questions.  A kind of online helpdesk, delivered on BBC3.  Media people will say – what if there are no questions? And what if a complete nutter asks a question or wants to make a point?  To the first question I answer, ‘so what?’.  If there are no questions it’s a quiet day. You get vision of a blank screen and a phone number to pose a question.  Maybe you can have a fish bowl as a screensaver. Or watch the channel operator having coffee. It doesn’t matter. It’s a service, it’s not a news programme or a quiz show. It’s the same when you walk into a bank or a business. You get someone behind a counter to deal with your queries.  If they are not busy they still have to sit there.  But to be honest I don’t think it’d ever happen. To the second question I answer, ‘that’s what sms screening is for’.  You let the questions through that are legitimate.  You ignore the rest.  But even the most basic questions (‘where do I pay my electricity bill?’, ‘where do I get advice on innoculations for travelling abroad?’, ‘what expenses can I claim as a Member of Parliament?’) should be able to be addressed in this channel, and it could reach the people that are so far disconnected (or at least disengaged) with public service offerings. The advantage of this method is that the BBC (or Ch 4) is more likely to promote a channel/programme which belongs to them, and will tell audiences how to engage with the content, just as they do when they advise people to watch sports programming and so on by pressing the red button on their remote. It can also help those who are disconnected as a result of poor infrastructure, literacy or affordability (rather than by choice) to be ‘heard’ more clearly, and can impact on policy development.

But most importantly, this kind of initiative is more of an example of what I see as truly revolutionary about delivering public services with emergent media.  Mainstream media and policy makers and telecommunications service providers don’t need to see emergent media as competitive or threatening.  They just need to get over that their primary products have altered, and their role as intermediaries has shifted.  Where journalists used to be the 4th Estate, and mediators of the public interest against the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons, their role is now moderated, and they are sharing that role with citizen news creators and public initiatives, but mainstream media still have a role in ensuring equity of access to those diverse news and information platforms.  Where telecommunications carriers used to be technological monoliths that simply connected our calls, they are now a complementary technology for delivery of the same style of content we used to receive via broadcasting, and they work with broadcast media to heighten interactive potential.  And perhaps most significantly of all, policy makers and political representatives have come from a time where they acted in the interests of their party to a time when they are expected to act more distinctly as their constituency’s servants.  So the revolution passed may be a user-led, technology-mediated victory of participation.  And the revolution to come may be one of putting our assets to work for the masses.

Recasting the net, indeed.  Maybe hauling it in, too.

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