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twitter revolutions and participatory networked communities

August 30, 2010

As I’ve expressed previously, I get frustrated by acritical celebration of social media as the harbinger of participatory democracy. That it has the potential to better facilitate participatory democracy than previous technologies seems certain. Whether we, as a society, are embracing that potential is a different question. That doesn’t mean I’m entirely pessimistic, however. I get less inspired by the various colored twitter revolutions than I do by small, scalable initiatives, even if they’re commercially oriented. The NY Times ran a piece on a new set of companies whose business model is based on “allowing people to share, exchange and rent goods in a local setting”. SnapGoods, NeighborGoods and ShareSomeSugar are all mentioned. (ZipCar is based on a similar design.) The gist of it is that one no longer needs to own something in order to have access to it. You can locate a neighbor who has what you need and, for a small fee, rent it. Vacuum cleaners. Cameras.  Extra furniture for a party. My father could generate some significant revenue if were willing to trust anybody else with his tools. For the 99 percent of the people that are not as protective of their things as he, though, the online platforms facilitate a sense of community that is supposed to be strong enough to prevent ripoffs.

From an economic perspective I like this idea. Consumption declines because in some cases people are sharing what they both might have otherwise owned. Quality of life rises, since people have access to new resources. And neighbors have one more reason to meet each other. These outcomes are achieved by leveraging the efficiencies of a networked world, and the same leveraging can be applied anywhere people have internet access.

Could this represent a very early step toward a participatory system of resource allocation?

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