Birmingham, England; The heartlands of the Industrial Revolution. Now, this great city has grown to become truly cosmopolitan, multinational and diverse. It is Britain’s second largest by population (1,010,200 source: ONS).
Without doubt, there is history here; real, evidenced, recorded and recognised for its significance in shaping what we now regard as the modern western world
Great leading figures of the Eighteenth century, amongst them Boulton, Priestley, Watt, Erasmus Darwin and Wedgewood were the influential intellectuals behind not only this city, but also many of the current infrastructures, sciences, arts and industrial practices across the western world that we find commonplace today.
In many ways, the regular social meetings held by these intellectuals (The Lunar Society) were perhaps the most significant recognised physical forum where ideas were, exchanged, critiqued, developed and instigated (listen to the Real Player stream of Radio 4’s programme, “In Our Time” here: www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20030605.shtml )
I was born in Birmingham. I was educated here, and stayed until I was eighteen. After a twelve year gap (spent working in London and touring worldwide), I returned thirteen years ago. During my teenage years, I witnessed the recession, the riots, city landscape changes, the growing integration and discourse between indigenous and ethnic groups, the challenges presented by new technologies, and gradual adoption and acceptance of the fact that no longer was Birmingham the hub of industrial manufacturing as seen in post-Victorian times.
The pits and behemoth factories that “Culture is Ordinary” (Williams, 1958) describes have now all but disappeared in Birmingham, with a few exceptions. The mass ‘working class’ and “depressed” people have dispersed across education, creative industries, banking, and service sectors, amongst others. No longer is this once industrialised city a world leader in manufacturing.
Modern day Birmingham, with its developing cultural offerings combined with the plethora of multiple backgrounds, religions, races, languages and communities is undergoing another revolution, however this time, it is electronic, online and is taking place in real time.
A new industry is emerging. It is based again around social gatherings and meetings, the free exchange of ideas, to be criticised, encouraged, assisted, developed and delivered. This new industry has a revolutionary form of communication, one which is open to all, with shared understanding, learning and engagement at its heart. It is called Social Media.
In 2006 I made a decision to quit the commercial world, and engage in a practice where my focus was people-based. I left behind the trappings, pressure and motivation of financial success, and moved into education and the voluntary sector, to learn about how the democratic decision-making process affected people’s lives, and to investigate how my own actions could positively affect another’s life. I entered the world of Birmingham’s Social Media culture in 2008 (see here: http://justblogging.co.uk/2009/06/how-did-this-all-start/ ).
My very first experience of this new world was a physical meeting- one where ideas were exchanged, advice was given, absorbed and subsequently acted upon. Although new technology and ideas were introduced, I was not left with a feeling of alienation. Challenged; yes. Disconnected; no.
This meeting was the laying of the formation block that later became a community group that is successful, recognised, and is still developing and growing. This group is physical, engaging, welcoming, human and real. The means of communication is delivered via the use of online social media tools, but the real benefits, aims and objectives are delivered in the physical world by people taking action for their self-determined and chosen causes. This group is just one example of many such practices and community groups operating across Birmingham.
Today I am experiencing similar. I attend many physical group meetings across the city. Some are technical, some are discussing developments and relaying information, some are challenging potentially radical changes in the way the city population and government operate, some are simply social, but they all have one common denominator. They all use social media tools as an open format of communication to discuss and develop.
The many community groups and networks operating in Birmingham are cross-pollinating, communicating, sharing, growing, experiencing change and developing together. There are no boundaries; there is no leader or steering committee. However, the cultural experience presents itself to me as one of common good, with all participants working alongside each other to achieve a better society- sharing human experiences, opinions, discussions, and information.
There is a similarity here that draws from Birmingham’s previous history. No longer is the population simply being spoon-fed information by recognised leaders, which is twisted and spun by the mainstream media. Birmingham is slowly shaping its own future, by applying practices and lessons learned from the past. Every person has the opportunity to request information, seek out new ideas, communicate and critique, develop and deliver either individually, or as an entire group.
Such is the cultural offering and experiences to be gained in the Birmingham social media ‘scene’. Engage with it- you will find that the people are human, real, welcoming, warm, considerate, and understanding; yet challenging, expressive, knowledgeable and appreciative at the same time.