Uniting a whole country through social media

The benefits of social media to bring people together and share ideas and collaborate are well documented. But how can it be used on a large scale? Read on to discover how a country (Iceland) used social media to establish its own citizen value system.

This impressive story is written for Diary of an internal communicator readers by Sheila Parry, Founder and Managing Director of theblueballroom, an integrated internal and external communications consultancy. Here she shares details of an event she went to last week, TedSalon: Exploring possibilities and in a first for my blog, I’m featuring Icelandic!

I visited Iceland in 2001 and thought it was a stunningly beautiful place with dramatic contrasts in its landscape and a truly fascinating place to go. Sadly I don’t speak any Icelandic, so I can’t tell you what the wordcloud on this page says, but I’m assured it’s printable, and here with all the details is Sheila…

How Iceland wrote its Constitution
A few days ago I had the pleasure of hearing a compelling case study for the use of social media in collaboration on a wide and democratic scale. It wasn’t a progressive consultancy project or major corporation in the driving seat but the scale and depth of the project bears testament to a lot of what is absolutely great about open collaboration on the internet.

Let’s hear it for the people of Iceland, who over the course of 12 months from June 2011 created a Citizens’ Committee to rewrite the country’s Constitution with the input of over 80% of its voting population.

Presenting the story at the TedSalon in London, Political Scientist Silja Omarsdottir one of the 25-strong Citizens’ Committee, set the scene from back in 2008, when three national Icelandic banks collapsed, sending the country into financial meltdown. “God bless Iceland,” declared a desperate and later ousted Prime Minister, Geir Haarde. And, said Silja 320,000 Icelanders feared for their future.

As the world watched Barack Obama being sworn into the White House for the first time, thousands of peace loving Icelanders gathered in the centre of Reykjavik demanding the resignation of the Government. What followed was a demonstration of democracy without precedent as the people declared they needed a new Constitution.

Brainstorming for success
A group of political scientists set up a process to gather the opinions, views and values from as wide a population as possible. First they drew together 1,000 randomly selected people to brainstorm what mattered most to them in the government of the country.  A series of public meetings ensued where people were given the opportunity to raise issues that mattered most to them.

Silja showed the word clouds from those focus groups (the final one is pictured on this page) and they recorded a fascinating picture of modern values: land, natural resources, equality, transparency, honesty appearing alongside the economy, education, public heath and climate change. Twenty five people were then selected to a Citizens’ Committee to lead the drafting process.

And this is where things got interesting. With 80% of the voting population on Facebook, the Committee decided to take communications and consultation onto that forum, publishing drafts, opening debate and gathering input throughout the drafting process right up until the final draft went to the vote.

Schools and youth groups held special events online to contribute as well, and Twitter and YouTube were used to send out updates and prompts and to drive engagement in the discussion at key points.

Scale of consultation
As Silja explained how the discussions were set up, the need for communication protocols to be established and the role of the moderator (where “only once we had to give a warning to a contributor”), what struck me was the incredible scale of the consultation and how pertinent the lessons Silja emphasised are to the corporate world.

Their challenging issues had not been uncontrolled riot, chaos or anarchy, but resource – someone to manage the feedback loops – and inclusion – how to mobilise people who did not take part. There was also bureaucracy; having a gentle dig at her political colleagues in Europe, she said “Don’t launch something like this in the summer – it’s hard to get the experts to comment!”

So next time you are faced with someone trivialising the use of social media and thinking it won’t work for serious and wide-scale collaboration projects, tell them about the Icelanders who not only rebuilt public confidence in a democratic process,  but also, through social media, encouraged an entire population to establish their own citizen value system. How’s that for buy-in.

Silja is quick to point out that the project wasn’t a crowd-sourcing exercise – which some have claimed – since the Citizens’ Committee of 25 held control over the drafting of the Constitution and considered contributions from the platform in an iterative process. Nevertheless, it was a serious milestone project that showed Facebook and Twitter as forces for good in mobilising democratic activity.

Last month saw a referendum in Iceland, where the draft Constitution was approved by the population – it is not legally binding but it is now progressing through the Parliament and expected to be ratified by Spring 2013. It will be hard for the current government to ignore such a representative voice of the people.

Post author: Sheila Parry

Thank you so much for sharing what you learnt at the TEDsalon Sheila. What do you think of what you’ve read? You’re welcome to comment below or tweet me @AllthingsIC.


  1. Cynthia Munoz says:

    Interesting article. Would love to see the results of doing this in the US.

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