Friday, July 24, 2009

Us Now film - social participation, mass collaboration, democratic opportunity?

Us Now poster

I can't actually remember how I stumbled over the film Us Now a week or two ago. But what I could quickly understand about it triggered me to order a copy on DVD to watch on TV rather than sit through the 59 minute long documentary online on a small screen.

It's a film that explores changing patterns of social participation through a series of interviews with web visionaries, bearded boffins, couch surfers, football supporters and the odd politician too. It asks what government can learn from the kind of mass collaboration that is becoming the norm for a growing (though perhaps still small) proportion of society.

Case studies edited into documentary include couch surfing (the practice of opening up your spare bed to strangers who book in over the internet), Netmums, Ebbsfleet United (football club where over 30,000 fans democratically select the team) and Zopa (an online money exchange allowing people to offer to lend money to others who wish to borrow).

While the film is careful to balance the utopian vision with some of the possible weaknesses of following the crowd, it does intelligently explore some of the opportunities and in particular challenge governments to consider embracing the crowd. And useful to see the film include examples of participation and community decision making that didn't require electronic tools but could instead support enfranchisement face to face.

There's a good discussion of transparency - which can engender trust in and bring stability to an organisation. Yet a naked organisation needs to look good in the buff!

Overall, it's a documentary that more people should see. Particularly, those who are grappling with new social participative tools, and those who think they've been elected to rule/govern/serve.

If I could be critical for a minute, the background music is a bit too overpowering in the first few minutes of the film, overpowering the softer words. So it's a shame that the PAL DVD doesn't have subtitles (though there is an online version with subtitles). There's also a nearly complete focus on London imagery - highlighting Westminster government functions and denying the UK's considerable devolution.

Strikes me that it will be compulsory viewing at the upcoming "adult" version of PCI's Technology Camp that will be up and running this time next week. And makes me wonder whether someone shouldn't arrange a Northern Ireland screening for practitioners and politicians.

In the meantime, you can watch it online, and if it catches your imagination, the Us Now website gives access to rushes of the longer interviews conducted during filming and the written transcripts can be browsed through. Us Now was directed by Ivo Gormley, produced by Hugh Hartford and edited by Mark Atkins.

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