There’s a tendency to emphasise the benefits of tangible activities which involve significant investment of time and energy: carrying out the scientific experiments; interviewing the stakeholder communities; writing the research paper; developing the software; organising the events; etc. Outside the higher education sector we see this, for example, from the New Year’s Honours list which describes how “In total 984 people have been recommended to The Queen for an award. 70 per cent of the recipients are local heroes, who’ve undertaken outstanding work in their communities“. You don’t win an award or get promotion for a trivial piece of work, would you?

I wouldn’t like to be critical of people “who’ve undertaken outstanding work in their communities” – although, as described in the Observer “It is far more difficult to see the reasoning behind the award of an unprecedented third of knighthoods to bankers and businessmen, including Paul Ruddock, a hedge fund manager and Tory donor who profited from the collapse of Northern Rock“. But rather than make this obvious political point, I feel there is also a need to reflect on the implications of the minor decisions and actions we can all make which can have an impact across the society we live in.

This is clearly true in the parliamentary democracy we live in. Last year I took part in our democratic processes by voting in the General Election. And whilst it’s true that I am unhappy with the result and the subsequent consequences, I know that that’s how western democracy works and I’ll have to accept the implications of my vote for the Lib Dems, in order to keep out the Conservatives in Bath.

Voting in general elections every four to five years is accepted as how parliamentary democracy works in the UK. But it has recently occurred to me that we are also seeing similar effects happening in the online world, in which the small actions of individuals can have a significant influence in both the online and offline (real) worlds.

We see this with Google searches, in which the first sets of results will be affected by the numbers of links to the pages. People who create Web pages containing links to other pages are therefore helping to vote for pages which will be displayed at the top of a Google search.

The influence of individual Web page authors is now likely to be fairly minimal, as Search Engine Optimisers will be using a variety of other techniques in order to manipulate Google’s search algorithms. However the social media provides an alternative means by which simple actions can have an influence.

The University of Oxford’s Facebook page informs us that there have been “349,820 likes” and “5,549 are talking about the page”.

Looking at the most recent Facebook status update for the page, the season’s greetings from the institution, we can see that 707 people have liked this and 192 comments have been made.

The implications of lightweight activities such as liking a resources, favouriting a resource or following a user struck me after the recent update to the Twitter Web site (and Twitter client on my iPod Touch).

The activities of people I follow on Twitter are now highlighted so, as illustrated, I can see how the Twitter account for the J Paul Getty Museum has favourited a tweet from Carl Silva, how Garret McMahon has started to follow Elaine Byrne and Clay Shirky, James Burke and Mike Gulliver are now following Rupert Murdoch.

Back in June 2010 Christina Rogge suggested ways in we could go about BUILDING A COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE WITH TWITTER and, In November a post on the Mashable blog described How Hashtagging the Web Could Improve Our Collective Intelligence. Also last year Anthony Deacon suggested ways of Using Facebook Groups to Harness Collective Intelligence.

In the 2010 General Election there were 10,706,647 votes for the Conservatives, 8,604,358 for Labour and 6,827,938 for the Liberal Democratic Party (including one from me). There have also been 349,831 Likes of the University of Oxford Facebook page, also including one from me. I wonder if my trivial activities on social media sites will have a more productive outcome than my vote in the last election? And although we will still need people to “undertake outstanding work in their communities” we should also remember that, to a certain extent:

It ain’t what you do, it’s the fact that you did it. That’s what’s gets results.

The “it” can involve a mark on a voting slip or a click on a Like or +1 button. Activists understand the importance of the need to persuade people to exercise their vote at elections. We will need to understand the potential significance of similar small-scale actions in the online environment.

Twitter conversation from Topsy: [View]