Power to the People -write on!

September 14, 2009

I am writing this in the week all the Beatles albums have been re-released –digitally re-mastered; ironically all those albums fail to  include John Lennon’s iconic single “Power to the People” in a time when the digital revolution is re-mastering the world.

Not re-mastered

What has digital re-mastering to do with “Power to the People”?  How can sites that help students publish pictures of drunken parties and let you know that they have just gone into a built materials lecture really be changing the world?

Well, it is all about information and the control of it.  Information is the traditional source of power in a liberal society, i.e. one in which political power does not “grow out of the barrel of a gun”.

From technically possible to real world phenomena

The big difference is this: in the old world people got what they were given either on the web or through the media or from record companies, in the new world people provide the content:  socially, politically and as consumers.

In the last five years, so much has moved from being technically possible to being a real world phenomena.

  • People trust other users more than “ professional advisors” see www.tripadvisor.co.uk, Amazon and the marketing campaign for “Mamma Mia” in which ordinary people’s positive  comments were substituted for the traditional critics negative ones to help make it one of the most popular films of all time.
  • Facebook campaigns like our own NUS HSBC campaign and Marks & Sparks Bras can demonstrate public opinion so cogently and quickly that Corporates and even governments respond.
  • Viral emails accelerating and amplifying public views and flooding politician’s mailboxes are much more powerful, cheap and immediate than old style letter writing. Take a look at the Oxfam campaigns for how well this can work.
  • There is no practical reason (excuse) not to publish full details and documentation since it can all be put on the web for the world to see.  This includes publishing the comments made by everyone on a consultative document which again shifts the power to select and ignore inconvenient views away from the leaders and towards the people.
  • Unspinning and rewriting consultative documents to make them clearer and more engaging see http://bigcitytalk.org.uk/ where a group of bloggers rewrote Birmingham’s consultative document much to the initial consternation of the city council but to the delight of the citizens.
  • Twitter has created a way for public figures to reach over the Media to talk to those who are interested direct and get some immediate feedback.  See Jonathon Ross and Wes Streeting on Twitter.
  • The fact that everyone carries a camera in their phone and that images can be published instantly changes the power relationship for anyone that is thinking of doing something shameful e.g. the hedge fund managers footage of Ian Tomlinson being assaulted by police immediately prior to his death from a heart attach at the G20 Protests in London.
  • iPhone apps have make it possible to invent and market software from your bedroom once again .
  • Laptops and iPhones together with Wi-Fi and 3g mean you can view video as easily as reading a flyer.
  • Websites are easy to set up, easy to update and it’s easy to leave comments for others to read and comment back on.

Students have sophisticated phones, broadband and compulsory connectivity before you even get to Facebook.

The sophisticated readers of Agenda will already have made the leap to ask what the implications of this are for Students’ Unions.

It changes the game on governance.

A hint of the future has come from the phenomenal growth in voting numbers which has undoubtedly been led by on-line voting unheard of numbers and percentages of students have engaged with their Union at this most basic level of deciding who will lead it.

Old style representative democracy looks a bit lame in comparison to the phenomena of facebook groups being set up to discuss and debate issues in the Union.  What happens when it is the Union, not HSBC, that the students are angry with?  Some of our students didn’t like our pricing structure for the Grad Ball this year, but the debate was all over on facebook before it got anywhere near Union Council.  Students love immediacy and informality and online debate can deliver that even better than more staid referenda using the new technology in essentially an old format.

Our traditional role of representing students is also challenged.  When we have in issue that is really important to students or even a section of students we can very quickly mobilise clear indications of support.  The problem is, it also becomes painfully clear when we are flogging the horse of student indifference.  Our opportunity is to use the web to find new ways to engage students and develop their understanding and trim our messages to reflect what they really think.

A well made video is much more likely to get a message across than the old school flyers and posters but we need to learn the new communications skills to make it effective and get it watched.

Students can and do set the agenda and we have no more control than anyone else.  The new thinking  on how to live with chaos is more important than ever: being flexible, agile and above all tuned in to your members is at the heart of every successful organisation.

So you want to take a closer look at all this?

These issues are vast; this article has given me some small space to scrape the surface.  Do you want to take a deeper look? Think it’s time to get ahead of the game on this one?  We will be exploring how to use new technology and web 2.00 to engage members at a series of AMSU/NUS seminars held over the course of the year.  The first one in November, has sold out but there will be another later in the year watch  www.amsu.net

One of John Lennon’s other tunes asked us to Imagine.  He did not imagine a world where everyone more than half the world could talk to each other, instantly. We live in such a world and our challenge is to work out how to use that people power to change the world for the better.john-lennon-imagine



  1. Very interesting blog.
    I would only caution that we must be careful that “Power to the People” doesn’t end up being simple “Majority Rule” or, worse, “Loudest Wins”.
    The availability of fantastic new technologies should enhance the principle of broad representation, not REPLACE it.
    It becomes even more vital that unions (and others) work even harder to reach their more distant constituencies. Making an assumption that ALL students have access to technology in the same way, are able to use it to the same degree of complexity or even have the time to do so would be a dangerous mistake.
    From a governance point of view, this may actually mean being MORE structured, doing MORE work, and managing MORE conflict at different levels. The upside, of course, is that we should all arrive somewhere much better at the end of it!

  2. Good Post.
    Here is a perfect example Andy.

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