Do you factcheck news stories that confirm your beliefs?

Environmental Graffiti posted an interesting story about a hoax written by Mark Twain in 1862 about the discovery of a petrified man. The story was widely copied and reprinted even though basic facts were evidently wrong.

Why am I sharing this? Besides being amusing, I think it teaches a valuable lesson about our predisposition to accept stories and theories that confirm our own preconceived ideas and biases. An example in development policy is the tragedy of the commons that still today is used to justify the dismantling of local (often collective) property rights systems in favor of individual, exclusive property rights.

Let’s question our assumptions before we take important decisions especially when they have an impact on others.

Justifying the Value of the Social Web

Last week I read two (German) articles on the social web taking very different positions: Christian at published an article about “Das Netz der Ideen” (The Net of Ideas) in Internationale Politik, in which he talks about the positive learning effects the social web can have for development cooperation. The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published an article called “Die neuen Idiotae Web 0.0” (The new Idiotae Web 0.0) with the conclusion that most of the content on the social web is “Loser Generated Content,” by users who think they know everything (while in reality not knowing anything at all) and rejects the notion that the transparency generated by the social (or participatory) web will lead to positive change. This anti-web 2.0 view illustrates a point that Christian makes in his article and that I want to focus on in this post: there is a need to continuously justify the value of the social web and collaboration more generally.

The increased transparency of the social web leads to more possibilities for collaboration, but also to more competition, which often is perceived as a threat especially by experts and other established opinion leaders like the author of the “Web 0.0” article. Working for development organizations I have encountered the same issue myself. Employing approaches and tools (both for research as for management) that lead to more openness and transparency and thus decrease control are often met with resistance. This resistance, however, is not only a result of fear to lose control and power. Other reasons have to do with literacy, time pressures and trust.

Even if they want to, it is difficult for many people to invest enough time to learn how to use the new tools. Additionally, engaging with people means listening and engaging with others, which again requires time. Many of us have to deliver outputs in the short-term and are pressured by supervisors, clients, or donors, so we often cannot afford to “lose” time by fully engaging with too many people.

Another reason for resistance is the noise to signal ratio of the social web, which is the main argument made by the “Web 0.0” article against it. Already, most people are struggling with their email trying to separate the important messages from the rest (spam, other mass emails, FYIs, newsletters, etc.), so the thought of having to deal with even more of the same on other media (feeds, social networks, wikis, blogs, etc.) does not make us eager early adopters. The question whether I’ll be able to manage all the information I can access thus turns web 2.0 into a threat more than it is perceived as an opportunity.

Especially in research people live from the uniqueness of their ideas in a highly competitive environment, and sharing a half-developed argument to be developed further by a group of people who do not necessarily know each other (for example on a wiki) is something many people will not be comfortable with. Trusting others is not an easy thing to do in an environment that is characterized more by competition than by collaboration.

So, what’s the solution? I have asked this question quite often and this is what people usually reply:

  • Be an example and use the tools and approaches yourself (walk the walk);
  • Work with the enthusiasts to make a case for more openness to show that the benefits outweigh the risks;
  • Help those who are willing to try but don’t know how to approach and use the new tools; and
  • Try to not overwhelm users with new tools and ideas (sometimes it is best to go with a tool with fewer features that does not require too much change).

What do you think? Does this reflect your experience? What other advice can you give someone who is trying to improve collaboration? Is embracing the social web the right strategy to promote a different more transparent way of working?