Using social technologies for social impact


Our collaborative manifesto for successful Social by Social projects.

We are all still explorers of the ways that social technology can catalyse social change and support innovation in public services. We have tried in this handbook to provide some practical guidance on what’s worked and what hasn’t in various situations, and help newcomers take their first steps into this uncertain new world. But how can we cast a light forward, start some fresh conversations on what might be appropriate, what might be achieved?

We believe that there are some common principles and guidelines that underpin all the successful projects we’ve seen, and which might be applied to all ‘social by social’ projects. We have framed these as Propositions, a set of rules, tips and things to remember along the way. This is a new field – so there are no simple recipes. We hope that the Propositions below will be triggers for a fresh round of conversation about what works, what doesn’t, and what is common to all this work and can be shared by all of us.

What follows is in fact the second public draft of these propositions. True to our principles, we offered up our initial 45 propositions to public scrutiny in April 2009 and got initial feedback and suggestions from our readers before we committed them to print. You can read our original blog posts here:

  • Andy on
  • David on, and again here
  • Amy on

The general feedback was positive, but people were also overwhelmed by the long list of advice. So, we’ve cut and merged a few, and then given them a loose structure to make them easier to follow. Thanks to everyone who picked their favourites and suggested categories and structures for organising them. In the end we’ve plumped for Al Robertson’s “3-Act Structure”, which seemed to make sense of them in a messy, human sort of way.

Act I

  1. Give up on the illusion of control. In a networked world, organisations can no longer control what people think or say about them. If you’re worried, get involved.
  2. People make technology matter. Think about mindset, language and skills before you think about tools, features and screen designs. Don’t jump for the tool.
  3. People want control. If you give them tools for taking more control of their lives, they will pay you back in attention, support, promotion and even hard cash.
  4. Never assume, always ask. You can’t know what your community wants from you without asking, and they are waiting to be asked. Be specific, define the issue and let the answers pour in. Then be transparent about your next moves.
  5. Go where people are. Experienced users have plenty of existing places already, and newcomers are difficult to recruit. Go to them and engage them on their terms.
  6. Respect how they choose to communicate. Some will write, others will take pictures or make movies. Most prefer questions and conversations to tedious reports and “consultations”.
  7. Content is king. Providing great content – resources, information, stories, connections, conversations – means new users will find you and others will stick with you. Give people easy ways to share this content too, freely and openly.
  8. Learn to listen before you start talking. Good conversations require good listeners more than good talkers. Listen first to find out what people want to hear.
  9. Be consistent. Whatever you say in public, remember you are talking to everyone, all the time, so stay true to your principles.
  10. The world is a noisy place. Respect people’s time and contribution, and be direct, open and honest to get their attention.
  11. All energy is good energy. If people are taking the time to criticise you, they are already engaged. Listen to their concerns and find ways to bring them in.
  12. Know your limits. Technologies can solve information problems, organise communities and publish behaviours, but they can’t deliver food or care for the sick.

Act II

  1. You can’t learn to fly by watching the pilot. If you want to understand new technologies, start using them. Dive in.
  2. Start small. It’s always better to build too little than too much. Beware of specifying costly systems until you are absolutely familiar with the tools and know how people would use them.
  3. Start at the top. Get the boss blogging or talking on film.
  4. Keep it simple. Every time you add a feature to your toolset, you make the existing features harder to use, and exclude more people.
  5. Keep it messy. Design to create conversations, relationships and coincidences – not to organise information. If everything’s neat and tidy, it’s because no-one’s there.
  6. Keep it sociable. If you want action, leave room for social interactions and gossip, not just worthy, productive topics. It’s the playful, human stuff that builds trust.
  7. Keep your powder dry. Set aside as much money for design, copy and user testing, and as much for marketing and community engagement, as you do for software and hardware.
  8. Be a pirate. There’s so much free stuff out there just waiting for you. Make use of what others have shared and save your energies for what you’re best at.
  9. Don’t centralise, aggregate. Do you really need data centralisation? Well do you? Use lots of disconnected free and cheap tools and then pull the content together into a central branded location.
  10. In user-centred design, everyone is right. Design for who your users really are, not how you’d like them to be. Evolve systems with the people who will use them, and respect their criticisms.
  11. Choose your words carefully. Get the language right and use copy sensitively and sparingly, or you can quickly put people off.
  12. Eat your own dogfood. You can’t influence the community if you aren’t in it. Besides, if you aren’t using your own services, why would anyone else?
  13. Don’t forget the tables and chairs. If you want people to communicate or collaborate online, bring them together face-to-face too.


  1. Expect the unexpected. Develop tactically, evolving as you go, and find cheap ways to try your ideas out in real situations before committing precious resources.
  2. Be a good host. Make people feel comfortable, then get out of the way.
  3. Follow the leaders. Support the early adopters rather than chasing the sceptics, and they will become your evangelists. And attitude beats ability when tools are cheap and easy.
  4. Be realistic about who will create content. It’s about the same proportion as put their hands up at question time, so learn how to create good invitations and small, actionable opportunities.
  5. Your users own the platform. If they really do own it, they will use it, trust it, help sustain it, find ways to improve it; if they don’t, no amount of “marketing” will help.
  6. Empowerment is unconditional. Telling people what they can and can’t do with their platform is like an electricity company restricting what its power can be used for.
  7. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The more you open things up, the less risk there is of damage to your reputation. Trust people to regulate themselves.
  8. Let users solve their own problems. As the amount of work grows, so does the number of workers. Help them help you.
  9. Empty rooms are easier to redecorate. Be fast and loose with evolving your platform in the early stages, but be cautious of changing things once people start relying on it.
  10. Everything has a cost. Although many online tools are free, everything costs time if not money. Find ways to get your money back right from the start.
  11. Don’t confuse money with value. Look at the other assets you have in your community – skills, volunteers, goodwill – and put them to use in sustaining it.
  12. Failure is useful. If you want to know what works, learn from what didn’t.
  13. Say thank you in public. People don’t need to have something hand-written on headed paper to feel recognized. Use your tools to acknowledge the people who helped make them in a visible way.

We hope that these propositions will be the starting point for a new conversation, maybe a new mindset. We may be wrong. And that’s fine. But we believe we should all be thinking about these things in relation to our projects, and sharing what we’ve learnt.

Agree? Great! Sign up to support or comment on these propositions below.

Disagree? Great! Tell us your views, start a better conversation and tell us about it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: