Social technology: An oxymoron?

During a breakout session at the Social Entrepreneurship Summit, an interesting dialogue about connectedness, more specifically social technology, got the table riled up. The discussion seemed to break into two camps (as most interesting discussions do): Team “the human touch” representing one side and, in the opposing corner, team “technology.” Albeit simplified categories, this division served as the underlying counterpoint.

The question focussed more or less on how social entrepreneurs go about developing their base of resources, their audience and their market. The discussion opened with: “What is the role of social technology?” There was a palpable silence, with participants gathering their thoughts but hesitant to take the first stab at the answer.

Then, the ice broke: “I don’t think this is a technology-thing. I think the strength in connections is the person-to-person, colleague-to-colleague, neighbour-to-neighbour encounters.”

Teammate: “I agree. I think it’s those meetings as well as the connections that people make with others. Going on the notion of ‘weak ties,’ the potential in any given room is amazing.”

Rebuttal: “Yes, but what about the greater international context, which is increasingly important for global creative cities? Technology and web 2.0 applications have now made it possible for people to connect when they are not in the same country, let alone the same room. I think this will be increasingly important for social entrepreneurs, even those that have a local mandate, but may have a virtual office. Connectedness is all about communication, and sometimes that is not possible in person.”

Backup: “A great example of social technology in use is the Ashoka Changemakers’ website. It brings the open sourcing model to competitions for social entrepreneurs, which offers:
a) a powerful way to see what others are doing
b) a direct way to communicate with others in similar fields
c) match-making opportunities between entrepreneurs, high profile thought-leaders, issue stakeholders and sponsors
d) an online archive of all the competitions, dialogues and participants.

It’s an incredible tool for networking, and I think more organizations and enterprises can profit from adapting such tools as the open source model.”

There was no winner at the end of the discussion. When it comes to technology, some of us still get that proverbial knee-jerk reaction: that technology will phase out important human contact. On the contrary, social tech is meant to be highly intuitive and less linear, that is to say less “techy” and more user-friendly. It is meant to support and broaden the human connection base, not replace it. And hopefully, as this area gains further ground, there will be less disconnect in its reception.