This evening I met with Rob and Chanai, who are Young Advisors. They have been asked to set up an online tool which will encourage young people to talk online and respond to various consultation activities which local public services wish to involve young people in.
Having just finished reading Clay Shirkey’s excellent Here Comes Everybody I shared a couple of key points made in the book. When Rob talked about a goal perhaps of attracting 500 young people to an online site, I immediately thought about the power law distribution which Shirkey describes really accessibly in the book, and a tad more technically in this blog post. In his book this is described as a predictable imbalance – where we see user-generated content online the bulk of the content has been contributed by a small fraction of participants. This is observed widely, and Shirkey says that the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users. The power law might be more familiar to some as the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule which states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So even if 500 young people can be attracted to an online space, how will it feel if 5 or 10 of them are engaging most of the time and otehrs only once or twice ever?
Given the context of the discussion with Rob and Chanai, I couldn’t help also thinking about how it feels as though this applies to involvement in consultation or other community engagement activities. Those ‘usual suspects’ that some public sector officers feel exhausted by can also be seen as our golden nuggets, the few who do participate, and can be supported to do so in the interests of the many.
We also talked about how people network, and the few people who act as connectors between different networks. These Small World networks highlight the importance of a few highly connected individuals. In terms of inviting young people to engage with the public sector we might wish to identify these important connectors.
The area I’ve really got stuck on though, and hope to help Rob and Shanai out with, is where their project fits within a process of engagement, or in this case any number of unknown future processes of engagement. Putting the tool before the process really is putting the cart before the horse, and yet it somehow feels good to want to create a space where young people can chat and also potentially influence change. And there’s the rub. As yet there’s no definition of what is open to influence, no promises of influence, no promises of dialogue with people who have influence. I’m hoping to work with the Young Advisors and other young people that they convene on an advisory group for this work. I think we should be looking at lessons in David Wilcox’s excellent Guide to Participation, which I still use on a frequent basis and has stood the test of time, and also Voice and Echo
And I will return to Shirkey and his suggestion that the successful use of social tools relies on a successful fusion of a plausible promise, and effective tool and an acceptable bargain with the users.
I would welcome ideas, thoughts and signposts to anything else which might be useful. I’m meeting Rob again on 14 March to think through some of this.
NB. I haven’t covered the issue of safeguarding and engaging young people online, as I intend to blog about that separately following a great discussion at our recent Community Engagement Network event in Dudley.