There is a visible and growing interest in complexity science among social media specialists. This interest is highlighting once again some longstanding flaws in the information approaches of aid agencies.
In a recent interview, Arthur L. Jue, co-author of ‘Social Media at Work‘ has suggested that both social media and Open Space Technology share a common basis in the ideas of complexity science. As he said to Tom Clifford:
Open Space Technology (OST) draws on principles of chaos and complexity theory, such as self organizing systems, to offer a methodology for facilitating critical conversations in face-to-face meetings that achieve breakthrough outcomes in relatively short timeframes.
…It occurred to me that OST and social media are really quite similar – they’re both applications of chaos and complexity theory in different socio-technical contexts. Whereas OST reflects microcosms of complex adaptive systems at work in the physical world, social media reflects the same thing in the virtual world.
During an OST facilitated meeting, for example, practitioners adhere to a “Law of Two Feet,” moving from one cluster of conversation to another wherever they feel that they are learning and contributing optimally. Similarly, social media involves an organic flow of self-organized, emergent interactions online. Whoever shows up in OST is considered the right person because s/he cared enough about the subject to attend. The same is true for social media. Whenever people comment on or contribute to blogs, they are “showing up” because they care about the topic under discussion.
Social media is really one grand OST experiment using the Internet as our meeting place. That said, studying principles of OST in designing online experiences can help organizations gain valuable insights about how to best utilize social media internally.
In December, Venessa Miemis wrote an article entitled ‘Is Twitter a Complex Adaptive System?‘, and concluded that there was “…a striking similarity between many… key properties [of complexity science and] what’s occurring on Twitter…”
What is the relevance of this for aid agencies? A recent report by the Vodafone Foundation that suggested that many aid agencies have so far failed to take advantage of new social media tools. This has been explicitly linked to the way in which aid agencies are structured and managed. As one of the report authors, Diane Coyle, noted in a BBC interview:
The top-down and centralised nature of aid agencies fails to take advantage of the potential offered by [new] technologies. It’s really quite a different approach from what they’ve done traditionally…
The report suggests that aid agencies could work best by providing a framework for the use of social media technologies, coordinating their use by people in poor and disaster-affected communities, and allowing the free flow of information among people.
This idea, whilst in keeping the ideas of emergence and self-organisation from complexity science (see previous Aid on the Edge posts on distributed leadership in the Obama Campaign and on the use of Open Space in conversation) stands in sharp contrast to the traditional information biases common to aid work. As highlighted by numerous researchers, agencies place greater emphasis on their internal knowledge and capabilities compared with the knowledge of aid recipients and local and national organisations.
The fundamental change called for is spelled out by Coyle:
I think the frame of mind of aid agencies is that it’s their job to help… but it may be that actually the best help you can give is letting other people do it. For the first time the people in affected populations could do more to help themselves, but they can’t do that if the structures of the people trying to help them don’t change.