Embracing the community and building social capital

Community is one of those concepts government’s seem to be threatened by because it challenges the concept of representative democracy. Using Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter’s language, governments see the concept of a community as a new entrant, lowering the barriers to entry to the competitive market place known as the democratic contest of ideas. In simple language: communities are competition!

One of the scary and exciting things about social media is it’s ability to generate communities based upon niche or popular issues.

Member for Fraser, former ANU economics professor and potential future Prime Minister Andrew Leigh wrote a superb book titled Disconnected which talked about the vast amount of data that shows the long term decline in social capital in Australia as well as offering ten practical solutions to rebuild it. These included ideas like donating, volunteering, holding a street party, contacting two politicians and many more. It seems to me there’s a big opportunity here.

GetUp is the classic example of an Australian grass roots organisation that attempts to galvanise community engagement on progressive issues via the groundswell of social media tools. I think it’s an interesting model, but I think some of their main flaws revolve around their organisation being designed around the tools rather than an idea and they associate themselves too much with The Greens rather than political parties across the entire spectrum of representation.

That being said, I suspect many organisations that exist for a reason besides the use of social media tools to make a little bit of noise in the media are studying GetUp very closely and creating ways to emulate their model of galvinising participation around issues while taking it to the next level by figuring out ways of forming a community using some of the ideas among others in Andrew Leigh’s book (not to mention the thousands of other books written on the subject).

I suspect this trend will only amplify in Australia as social media becomes more and more popular and the public become more motivated by issues rather than political parties. The bigger and more polarising the issue, the more power to the organisation attempting to exploit the groundswell.

If the Government of the day has a different view to the community, they have two choices: they can fight the community or they can embrace the community. Fighting the community seems a futile exercise because the more the government fights, the more they increase the disconnect between themselves and the public which gives more power to the community.

The second choice logically would be to embrace the community by listening and coming to some sort of win/win solution. Of course this would require some good will, a constructive purpose and an end to the constant fight over petty issues. A challenge to go beyond one’s self interests and focus on the larger interests of the community.

People want to feel apart of something bigger than themselves but when they see fighting over trivial nonsense and total war becoming the new black instead of good will, harmony and community, the end result is mass disengagement.

The organisations that deal with the national conversation on a daily basis and understand how to embrace and build communities around big issues will be the big winners of the future.

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