There is all this frantic talk of social media adoption —and rightfully so. A lot of this talk will generate more Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts within Cooperative Extension, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
The problem, at least, as I see it, is that amid all of this frantic adoption we’re missing the most critical point: Social media adoption is more about mastering a handful of applications; it’s about cultivating an entirely new mindset.
Actually, it’s about something more. As rhetorically overblown as this may sound to some, it’s about our returning to the core principles that have always defined Extension work, at least, implicitly — inclusiveness and empowerment.
More about that later.
A Movement, Not a Tech Trend
I have to admit that in driving home this argument I’ve felt a bit like a member of a paltry handful of John the Baptists crying out in the wilderness — or, to use another analogy, a starry-eyed idealist stuck in the clouds. This is precisely why I was gratified a few weeks ago to read a Google-Plus comment by the ever-resourceful and farseeing Bob Bertsch, who harbors a strikingly similar view.
Bob mentioned that his experience with the NetLit Community of Practice, of which we are both members, has driven home a similar conviction. He argues that “instead of serving an audience or trying to change an organization, we should be inviting people to be part of a world of 7 billion interconnected teachers.”
Why? Because this is about a movement, not some fleeting technological trend, Bob says.
He gets all of this in a fundamental way. He understands that our challenge is providing our people as well as our diverse audiences with a cosmic view of what’s taking place, because in a very real sense, what is occurring is cosmic — cosmic in the sense that it is reordering every facet of life on this planet, whether this is occurring in a relatively remote Sub-Saharan African city or in downtown Manhattan.
Our challenge is to show our professionals as well as our audiences how all of these changes reflect a movement that is unfolding globally. Most important of all, though, we must demonstrate how they are empowering people by rendering all facets of life more inclusive.
“Why Nations Fail”
This brings me back to a visionary book I’ve read and re-read over the last few months: “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu, James Killian Professor of Economics at MIT, and James A. Robinson, David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University.
As these two professors contend, nations fail and ultimately collapse because of their elites’ unwillingness to provide fertile conditions in which inclusive economic and political institutions can develop. One of the really tragic facts of human history is that only a paltry handful of nations have succeeded in building durable, inclusive societies.
Inclusive societies emerge when elites are shorn of their incentives to deprive less advantaged groups with the means of improving their economic and political plight. Over time, a kind of positive feedback system emerges — a virtuous circle, as Acemoglu and Robinson describe it — one that preserves inclusive institution in the face of attempts to undermine them.
Over time, this feedback system sets in motion forces that lead to even more disadvantaged groups becoming economically and politically enfranchised.
In the 19th century American elites did something truly remarkable: Instead of undertaking a futile rearguard action against the relentless march of inclusiveness, as previous generations of elites had done, they created a series of institutions with inclusiveness as the end goal.
What were the Homestead Acts and the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 other than attempts to expand this virtuous circle. Within the next few decades, these legislative acts were reinforced with passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established a national network of outreach programs known as Cooperative Extension.
Cooperative Extension represents something remarkable in human history: a cadre of educators charged with empowering people and, in the course of which, ensuring higher levels of inclusiveness.
This reality lies at the heart of our history, and it should comprise the defining principle of social media adoption within Cooperative Extension.
Yes, all this frantic social media adoption is a good thing. But we must understand these online technologies for what they really are: As powerful new ways to empower our diverse audiences—to extend the virtuous circle.