Our viral web

We are all Big Brother now. Not in the Orwellian dystopic sense of course. But we all have access to the power of social media, and with appropriate use, and with enough of us involved, we are all watchers - and we can all make a difference. Reading a blog post by Jonathan MacDonald today got me thinking about the vast, untapped potential of the social web to inform, challenge, educate and motivate. MacDonald witnessed a tube train guard threatening and verbally abusing a passenger. He reported it online, sharing his outrage with his social network. The story went viral, spreading rapidly across other networks. YouTube, Twitter and the rest of the social media family were quickly unundated with comments and views. Within 24 hours, the story (and others of a similar nature) had made it into the mainstream on traditional mass media, where it was covered by the likes of BBC TV News and Sky TV News, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail. Even the Mayor of London joined in with the discussion. The guard was subsequently suspended and is under investigation.

In an interesting episode last year, I personally experienced the power of the viral web through Wikipedia Commons. I took several pictures of Punk Godfather Malcolm McLaren when he spoke at Handheld Learning 2009 in London. The next day I posted his picture onto my Flickr account and licenced it under Creative Commons for free sharing and re-use. Subsequently others loaded it up in several versions to Wikimedia Commons. None of us were aware at the time, but Malcolm's speech was to be one of his last public appearances before his untimely death in 2010. The media went into overdrive, and of course, searched around for images they could freely use to illustrate their stories.

Many journals and newspapers found and used my image of McLaren, with me duly credited as the photographer. My photo even graces his Wikipedia page (in all language versions). My name is now forever linked to that of Malcolm McLaren. A simple search on Google using his name and mine together will deliver you hundreds of hits. Try it. It's an example of a picture going viral on the web. There are many other examples of the viral spreading of images, videos, sound bites and ideas - some are legendary. They become memes as people pass them on quickly across the social web from one to another. There are also many examples of citizen journalism, where those who are actually present at the scene of an incident can upload their images quickly, or can tweet their observations instantly, for sharing to a potentially world wide audience on the web. The truth of what is happening becomes common knowledge, even before the press can get there to report it, or in some cases edit, sanitise and filter it.

I don't believe we have even begun to tap into the true potential of social media yet. As more and more people connect with each other in different ways, across a multitude of platforms, through a bewildering array of devices, I think we are going to see some extraordinary things happening, socially, culturally and politically. Communities are going to be transformed and our society forever changed by the use of these tools. Let's hope it will be for the better.

Image source by Ocean Flynn

Creative Commons Licence
Our viral web by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


P@ said…
I agree we probably haven't really even seen the start of it all yet. The network effect will amplify the ways people can interact, and we will probably see uses of the technology which we haven't even dreamed of over the next decade and beyond.

What concerns me slightly is that the speed of communication might make social systems less stable. Positive feedback loops can form ('fake' film clips designed as viral ads are a hint at this, with people believing they are true, for instance) and the potential for harm to people's reputations - as well as genuine social unrest - is not fully understood, in my opinion.
Steve Wheeler said…
I totally agree Pat. All tools can be used for goood or for ill. I can only reiterate my last comment on the post - ley's hope it will be for the better.

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