Even co-operation is in competition, it seems. Social media has sprung up all over the place, and even those that "get it" are feeling fairly confused. Should we set up a new conversation, or find an existing one? Should we post our thoughts to Facebook or to a blog? Should we be broadcasting or engaging?
For some people, the answers to these will be "obvious". But often what we think is obvious is actually just what's lacking - what we're arguing for more of.
Really, the answer is that there is no answer. Sometimes broadcasting is useful, sometimes listening is useful. Sometimes blogs are fine, sometimes Facebook is fine. It depends. It matters. And yet at the same time, it doesn't matter. Conversation is more than a blog post or what-have-you, because conversation is about ideas - and good ideas will spread across networks, across media.
Stepping back a moment, Louise Kidney does a great job of picking up on digital inclusion/exclusion within existing groups, and takes a practical line of engaging people with the communication tools they need in the modern world.
I think this is vital. It's ridiculous to think that our democracy is limited to pre-defined routes of communication. Imagine if you couldn't phone a council because they were afraid of misusing the telephone. Imagine if you couldn't e-mail them because they weren't sure whether to say "Hi" or "Dear Sir".
But at the same time, I think we need to look beyond this. (Hey, I like big ideas.) We need to look under the hood and ask why there seems to be a continual mismatch between the tools being used by citizens, and the tools being used by authorities. Can we really afford to re-assess every new website as it forms? Following on from that, should all forms of communication be used to engage with citizens? And if not, which ones should be? When should support for old networks get killed off?
(I don't have answers for these. What I do have is a different way of approaching the situation, rather than going in circles. I'm a geek. I abstracterise things. Big ideas come out somewhere along the line. Sometimes these make things clearer. Sometimes not.)
In my mind, the "problem" is not, fundamentally, one of tools - but of how and why we organise ourselves.
Go and read this article on Scotland's social media efforts. Go on. I'll wait.
Now notice - the strapline there mentions social media. The article mentions Twitter and Facebook a couple of times. But really, the core point of it, is not what people are using, but who is doing it, and how. Social media are just one way this manifests.
But the tools are ephemeral. In the real world, groups form around issues, and tools form around groups. Not the other way around. I use many websites and I even go to a few face-to-face meetings. But, largely speaking, the networks are the same across all of these. Sometimes bits of these networks use tools I don't use (e.g. Tumblr) but that's fine - I participate using the tools I find most useful (e.g. Beer).
Learning how to use a tool/interface is useful, but it's not essential. True engagement happens whatever the tool - it comes from getting involved, turning up to meetings, listening to people, feeding back, taking things seriously, having fun.
And I think it's this level of engagement that people are struggling with - new social rules, not new interfaces. People are afraid of turning up to workshops or pubs in the same way they're afraid of using new websites, but if we're to make something that benefits everyone, we have to work out what methods and, more importantly, what networks suit each person best. (That's one to return to in a different post, though.)