Nick Booth, founder of the Birmingham social media firm Podnosh, explains how the social media surgery movement in Birmingham typifies the city’s reputation for online activism.
It’s the evening of October 15, 2008, and a dozen Birmingham bloggers are sitting in a pub in Digbeth. They’re buzzing. They’ve just spent 90 minutes giving away their skills to local active citizens and community groups.
It was the first social media surgery for community and voluntary organisations.
It was also supposed to be the last, but the volunteers – “surgeons” – had such a good time and met such extraordinary people that they asked me to organise another.
From that Brummie enthusiasm and energy a movement started to grow which has seen surgeries run in 60 places in the UK and five other countries. It’s also just been recognised with a Prime Minister’s Big Society Award.
The concept originated earlier in 2008 with Pete Ashton, who applied the politician’s drop-in surgery approach to his social media consultancy.
It was Pete’s way of condensing all the people in local arts organisations looking to pick his brains for free into one efficient, easy-to-organise hit.
We’ve since scaled and morphed it into something which is easy for volunteers or even local councils to duplicate in their communities – something which helps hundreds of community groups, active citizens and local charities understand how to use the web to further their cause, to hold power to account.
The Prime Minister described the movement as “such a simple idea and yet so effective.
The popularity of these surgeries and the fact that they have inspired so many others across the country to follow in their footsteps, is testament to its brilliance. A great example of the Big Society in action.”
How come it worked in the first place? How come it spreads?
I think it’s down to social capital – or good old-fashioned trust.
We put together two groups of people: the active citizens I’d met and interviewed through the Grassroots Channel Podcast and the brilliant, civically-minded and digitally very savvy people from the vibrant Birmingham bloggers’ group.
Neither really knew what to expect.
The people looking for help turned up, were placed next to one of the volunteer bloggers and simply started chatting.
The charities explained what they were trying to achive, the “surgeon” showed them how the web could help them.
It was practical, simple, instant, enjoyable.
We were putting together the social capital from two different sets of relationships.
The Grassroots Channel podcast had helped me build trust through nothing more complicated than being interested in people.
Every time I would interview an active citizen from the Birmingham Community Empowerment Network a new knot was tied in a new network.
I was able to help connect them with new people, they were able to tell their story. Trust grew and as one told me later: “I just turned up to the surgery because I worried it might be a flop and you’d look stupid.”
Similar bonds of social capital were also being built in the Birmingham bloggers’ group – partly on the web, partly through meeting monthly in a café or a pub.
We were feeding what I now call our stock pot of social capital. We didn’t know what we would use the stock for, but every time we met, the stock got a little richer. Mine went into the social media surgeries.
Others used theirs for different things: Jon Bounds on the the Big City Plan Talk website, Joanna Geary on the social media cafés and blogging for the Birmingham Post, Chris Unitt and Pete Ashton on the Created In Birmingham shop in the Bullring, Stef Lewandowski and many others to rebuild Birmingham City council’s website with the BCCDIY experiment.
With each of these, Birmingham demonstrated not just how civically minded and innovative its digital citizens were.
It also showed how the most potent ingredient in online digital activism is that precious commodity – trust.