Us Now: how the social web is creating social change

Last week I popped along to see a screening of Ivo Gormley's documentary Us Now, presented by my old colleagues at NESTA. Not only was I curious to see the film, but I was also curious to see what was happening in the whole 'social networking' strand of NESTA's Connect programme, as some potentially cool stuff seemed to be brewing just as I was leaving my job there. Although I didn't get much of an insight into the programme's projects and output, I did enjoy Rohan Gunatillake's intro into the film, especially the tag clouds he had made based on the first names and employers of who had registered for tickets (no surprise that 'Miko' was a tiny speck in the cloud, dwarfed by 'Paul' and 'Sarah'!). Rohan is the new member of NESTA Connect who is looking after the Web Connect side of things. I look forward to finding out more about what Rohan has in mind for NESTA.

The film itself was an hour-long series of interviews and case studies on various social media projects, based mainly in the UK. The intention of the film was to demonstrate how social media is not just a side activity people use to waste time and gab with their mates, but that the very nature of exposing connections and allowing for easier connection and collaboration between individuals could have a profound impact on society as a whole. Ivo Gormley introduced the film by stating:

more people can say more things to more people than ever before

- and there's no way something as big as that can't have an impact. I agree - there's no denying this has had huge impact on the way business, governments and individuals now communicate. Transparency is now more critical than being 'on message'; timeliness is now more important than dotting the i's and crossing the t's. This was touched on in the film, but the core messages of the film were about connectivity, participation and trust.

I was glad to see some case studies I hadn't already heard of, and I particularly liked the inclusion of an offline case study: that of Morecambe Council, who decided to let the town citizens choose how to spend £20,000 of taxpayer money on a project of their choosing. The projects ranged from improving playground facilities, to cleaning up the churchyard, to building new track for the model railway. Each project had a live 5-minute pitch, and the audience (town citizens) could vote on who got the money - a real return to town hall meetings of not-so-long ago.

It would be interesting to see if Gormley would have made a different film today, knowing what we now know about the Obama campaign and his commitment to returning power to the people. I think an interesting parallel could be drawn between the Morecambe case study and Obama's decision to empower his constituency to canvas for votes using their own language in their own time. I think examples such as these set a precedent in which people expect to be involved, and once that's set, it's hard to go back to the old top-down ways. It's this increasing expectation of participation that will create lasting, real change. The more we can collaborate, edit, re-write, comment on, vote, rate, review, participate, upload, remix, mash-up, link up and create content online, the more we will come to expect it as a baseline part of the deal, whether online or off.

It's hard to convey the sense of hope and positivity the film embued, so I suggest you check it out for yourself. There's loads of clips and info over here on the Us Now site if you can't make it to a screening. And if you fancy seeing what impact the film had on the audience, Rohan has put together a Slideshare deck made up of people's written response to the film on the night. Warm feelings just in time for Christmas!