Roy Stringer Lecture: Democratising the Role of the Web Tuesday 1 November 2011 

FACT Liverpool Chair: Herb Kim (Codeworks) Martha Lane Fox (Race Online) Peter Barron (Google) Andy Miah (University of West Scotland) John Egan (It’s Liverpool) Natalie Gross (Amaze) Patrick Fox (FACT/Arena Housing)

In England, 9 million people out of the 50 million population do not have access to the Internet. In Liverpool, 70,000 out of the 400,000 population do not have access to the Internet. 

These two sweeping facts set the backdrop for the annual Roy Stringer memorial lecture at FACT. Keynote speaker and UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox opened the event, focusing on the amount of people who have no access to the internet. It is estimated that if the 9 million people offline were harnessed through jobs, education or business purposes, the economic value would equate to £22 billion. Lane Fox then spoke about her most famous venture founded during the dot-com bubble in the late nineties. The rating systems featured on the site were, in her opinion, a vital tool in understanding the true potential of the internet – even if she admitted she made up the majority of the ratings up at the beginning!

Chair Herb Kim quizzed Lane Fox on her role as the UK Digital Champion in the government, a role that she isn’t funded for. It was clear that Lane Fox cares deeply about reaching out to people who have no internet access due a variety of reasons. The boundaries that prevent people from getting online include the failure to see any benefit of them being online, the perception of the price and lack of technical skills. These factors often overlap and are linked to impoverished social conditions and areas were resources are limited. Lane Fox cited initiatives of bringing computer hubs to social and community centres, such as Post Offices and pubs. Partnerships that allow special reconditioned PCs and telephone packages for under £100 are practical methods of attempting to address this problem.

The GO ON Give an Hour campaign, to encourage active internet users to give an hour of their time to educate people who are offline, was widely discussed. It seems a good initiative that could be an excellent example of engaging a large number of people and changing a few perceptions. I’m sure there will be no shortage of people lining up to demonstrate the unrivalled procrastination powers of Facebook… Patrick Fox, who has worked heavily with FACT’s in-house community orientated internet TV channel Tenantspin, discussed how the collaborative focus on content generation has enabled Tenantspin to successful impact a wider community. A fantastic fact is that Tenantspin has the claim to be the oldest internet TV channel in the world. Fox spoke of how developments such as Skype have enabled current projects to reach new social groups and engage with new methods of working.

It was genuinely thought provoking to hear Kim’s figures that 3.5 million people don’t encounter anyone else in a day and that 1.5 million people can go a month without any real person-to-person contact. These statistics backed up his proposition that helping to widen the demographic of internet users can make a social impact. Peter Barron, whose corporate rhetoric would have been labelled an ‘assured batting display’ if he had held the crease during a cricket match, represented Google.

Barron and Kim held an engaging discussion about the rise of the smart phone and how it is inverting the hierarchy of internet access. Android, Google’s operating system is the market leader in smartphones. Barron, in response to questions about the role of smartphones played recent Egyptian/Libyan revolutions, said Google always advocated access of information and freedom seen in these instances. Interestingly, when Kim spoke about a recurring theme ‘walled garden’s’ – the few websites that harbour abnormal amounts of traffic such as Facebook and Amazon, he neglected to mention Google.

If this were an oversight borne of politeness for Barron, it would have been as safe chairing, which is a shame. Before he and Lane Fox left early to catch the Euston train, Barron did address this, commenting that Google wished to remove these online bastions. I think that you will have quite a large demolition job on your hands if that is the case, Peter. John Egan spoke of the Go on it’s Liverpool campaign, a no budget campaign commissioned by Liverpool Vision to create a new identity for Liverpool heavily routed in social content generation. It was clear Egan and his team have put together a quite forward thinking project driven by the brief as opposed to the fee.

The charismatic Andy Miah launched into his speech with a raised hands poll aimed at making everyone feel bad for not religiously poring over their Facebook privacy settings. Aside from detailing that you can amend the control that Facebook has over your information, Miah questioned if arts organisations should be on Twitter, attacking the inconsistency of usage policies by organisations. His example that Olympic planning department viewed a ‘re-tweet’ as an endorsement. Personally, I think they of course should be. Although the personality of the employee who runs the feed will inevitably shine through, I believe that this is a benefit and can be a fine example of utilising staff resources, as long as that particular staff member in charge isn’t boring, consistent or irrelevant, of course.

His elaboration of the citizen journalism programme at previous Olympic Games was timely after the launch of All About Us last month. The lecture could have generated more debate and I believe that a more focused structure allowing a set time slot for Lane Fox, Barron or Miah would have suited the event better. The event could be described as suffering from too many cooks, but especially when the two head chefs had to leave to catch their train.

This appeared on the Institute of Cultural Practices blog on November 9 2012