Getting real

Sociability Associate and The People Speak co-founder Saul Albert recently pointed me in the direction of this post by Dan McQuillan about the relationship between social networks and social action. Saul and I are currently developing the second phase of the RSA's new networks platform to help their fellowship collaborate on action-based social and civic innovation projects. It's a fascinating project and I'd agree with Dan that this kind of system seems like the next step for social networking. Someone from Yahoo asked me earlier in the year what exactly I do with LinkedIn. Once you've collected all your contacts together, met a few extra people and got to 100% in the "profile complete" stakes, well... it all just sits there, doesn't it? I'm more connected than I've ever been, but so what?

Of course, online knowledge-sharing and relationship building is important for all kinds of activities; the point is, at some point it needs to leave the virtual world and "get real". There are good examples of social technology being harnessed to stimulate action, such as My Society's nifty (and Facebook-enabled) application, Pledgebank, but aside from a few notable exceptions the majority of online tools for social enterprise currently seem to fall into two main camps: raising awareness by joining "campaigns" or supporting "causes"; and donating money so that other people can make things happen with it. Of course, this fits with the two main uses of the internet since day one: exchanging information and exchanging money. But with so many new collaboration tools emerging, how can the internet be harnessed to actually get things done?

One excellent example of networks being harnessed for collaborative action is open source software. A distributed group of people get together using online tools to collaborate in the creation of something tangible the benefits of which are then shared openly with the community. It works, it's more powerful than anything commercial business can come up with, and surely provides some useful models for the third sector. The other, of course, are the activist networks, distributing responsibility for action among a community and sharing information about what's planned and what's happening. The latter are the most interesting to me, because they move between online and offline - between the virtual and "real" worlds.

So what lessons can we learn from these about how social networks can be used to stimulate action? The RSA has built up a big head of steam around a huge range of projects, and the next step is to turn some of them "real". If we can crack this one, we'll really be going places.