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not yet a widget revolution

i'm a widget believer - but that's mostly a hunch. Sitting in the Widgety Goodness (WGUK07) conference today, my experience is as much of absence as of goodness, even though I agree with Ivan the organizer that widgets will change everything. The geek in me is interested in the distribution mechanisms and the API's - but where's the sense of social relevance? Maybe we've got to wait a while before a new danah boyd can write about the cultural significance of widgets.

Which is a shame. Because surely, surely, this user-powered collaging of the web landscape will have some impact on power relationships online. Isn't that why people are getting excited about Open Social (even though WGUK07 speaker Ankur Shah explained why this is still more hype than reality).

wguk07 logo

The overwhelming perspective seems to be 'how can we as digital agencies use this for the client brand'? Fair enough - but missing the wider impact. To be fair, speakers like Russell Davies put a lot of emphasis on utility, on how a widget can tell me something useful i didn't know. Even better, Russell put it up a gear by reintroducing the idea of fun, and pointed to embodied / offline examples like the Sharkrunner game . (Note: like Charlie Leadbeater i suspect that Alternate Reality Games have a lot to teach us about tools for social change).

When I was at Amnesty we launched irrepressible.info with a widget that allows you to undermine censorship by publishing fragments of censored material on your site. MAPLight.org said they would use NetSquared funds to create customized ‘widgets’ showing campaign contributions and votes in U.S. Congress, updated in real-time. And Steve Bridger has already blogged about a widget response network for emergencies like Darfur and Chad . Maybe when we run the Social Innovation Camp (details coming soon) we'll follow Channel 4's example and run a widget category. As widgets become more widely used I'm sure we'll see widget-based social innovation - and that'll really pump up the goodness in Widgety Goodness.

UPDATE: for interesting posts from other participants, check out the post-conference feeds at  the Widgety Goodness backnetwork .

widgets for action: the 'Make Your Mark' Facebook application

The Make Your Mark Facebook application helps people to make their ideas happen. At least, we hope so. A chance collision with the Facebook app developers at Inuda set us wondering how we could make the most of people's networks in a way that turns enterprising ideas in to actions.

The basic idea is simple; fill out a form for 'I want to...' and 'I need...' and your wants/needs will feed through to your friendship network, and out from there. The viral part should kick in when someone reading your idea thinks 'i can't help with that but i know someone who can' - so we made it easy to share wants/needs with your friends. Networking and connecting is at the heart of making ideas happen.

MYM Facebook app screenshot 1

We've been through several (rapid!) iterations while developing the app, and our guiding mantra is 'share your idea, get help with the things you need, help others make their ideas happen'. We've now decided to open it up via a global view that's visible to all Facebook users. Because the app is being developed for the Make Your Mark campaign we want to inspire the kind of mentoring that research shows is so critical to getting an idea off the ground. The evidence also suggests that it's important for people with an enterprising idea to take small steps quickly (before getting overwhelmed by all the reasons it would never work :), so the app is designed to encourage folk to act on an idea one step at a time.

MYM Facebook app screenshot 2

So far we haven't promoted the app - it's spread itself from our beta test group of 20 or so to about 250 users. It's been a useful experiment, but the results so far suggest we need to re-tune / rethink before it hits the bullseye. In theory, we should have more suggestions than needs, and more needs than users - but the usage graph slopes the other way (although that puts us in good company judging by the long, long tail of Facebook Causes). The quality of ideas and responses is very variable, and we need to work on our pitch because it looks like a chunk of people don't 'get' what it's about.

I was heartened to read about the RSA Networks Prototype which is trying to work the same kind of trick for the long-established RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce). That process adopted similar principles of "propose, discuss, and support" to lie behind their social networking experiment, which is so far restricted to the Society's Fellows. There's a common drive in the two projects to surface ideas and draw others in to making them happen by a mixture of pledging and leveraging of the social graph (as you might say).

But can we emulate the scale of the Stanford Facebook class teams who reached 1 million users in 30 days! ? The interview with the 'KissMe ' and 'Send Hotness ' team members is fascinating, with talk of maths formulas and viral tuning, and i certainly wish i had more of those kind of skills. And (of course) one of the main themes is 'simplify, simplify , simplify'. So simplicity and hotness are great - but is it possible to design something that goes viral yet delivers real world impact? As an early step in the evolution of social action networks , the Make Your Mark Facebook application has some way to go. Please try it, if you're a Facebook user. And all comments and suggestions about our strategy and technique are welcome!

The Access Denied Map of web 2.0 censorship

The Access Denied Map is a high-impact map of the web 2.0 crackdown from Sami Ben Gharbia, creator of the Tunisian Prison mashup.

Access Denied Map

The map provides an overview of online censorship efforts related to the social web and major web 2.0 websites, and aims to amplify the local campaigns defending the right to access them. As Sami writes in his introduction; "The recent successes of ... citizen journalists and citizen watchdogs in Pakistan, Burma, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, have confirmed once again the enormous potential of user-generated content as an advocacy tool and as an alternative and independent source of news. The common characteristic of all these cases is that they have made efficient use of web 2.0 technologies in exposing abuses and injustice."

While Sami's map highlights the collision of the social web with what he neatly describes as the “authoritarian reflex”, the dimension of web 2.0 censorship unmapped in this mashup is the exercise of unaccountable authority by the sites themselves, and we need a Freedom of Expression League Table for Web 2.0 along with a campaign to defend it. One aspect that increasingly interests me is the power of the social web as a cultural space; and it's the cultural (rather than directly political) aspects that, a few days ago, seems to have resulted in Syria banning Facebook. As a blogger from Damascus writes

“Who lives in Syria knows that it's the country of “nothing's going on” except to hang out in old Damascus' cafes, but recently there has been a cultural awakening; people are starting to organize their interests in concerts, galleries, conferences, plays, screenings…etc. and Facebook is facilitating the process which is very hard to do in an inactive militarily controlled society. There are no cultural institutions in Syria, no private independent NGOs, no civic institutions, who represent the populations except the government? Syrian Facebookers are trying now to represent themselves. Those who cannot be activists in a “real” Syria can be one in a virtual Syria.”

BISH! to copyright term extension and BASH! to e-voting

Today is ORG day, when we celebrate the digital rights startup that answered the question "Where's the British EFF?". The Open Rights Group was founded in December 2005 by a Pledgebank pledge from 1000 members to 'create a standing order of 5 pounds per month to support an organisation that will campaign for digital rights in the UKâ€'. Since then, the organisation has been punching above its weight; it's been BISH! to copyright term extension and BASH! to e-voting as ORG packs pounds of facts in to its interventions, and as a newly minted board member of ORG I'm looking forward to another action-packed year! In a time when threats to privacy and attempts at censorship are spreading, I believe it's vital to have a group like ORG with "a remit to cover any issue where digital technologies affect civil liberties, consumer rights or human rights". So show your support for ORG (and note that any donations or membership payments will be doubled by the generous match funding of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust).

A Monstrous Mashup - The United Nations and Social Media

  • "How do new communication technologies and their inherent new opportunities for interaction of people and social communities impact the United Nations' ability to act?"
  • "What are the new media's consequences for global networking and international community action in forging and realizing global policy initiatives?"
  • "How can the United Nations system make use of the new media and information infrastructure in order to transmit its ideas and communicate its mission to the youth who will form the next generation of opinion leaders and decision-makers?"

Great questions, of the kind that this blog returns to again and again; but I wonder how many UN folk realise that the answers may turn the UN itself inside-out!

GREEN SHOOTS

The promise of social media for the UN is the opportunity to spread a human rights culture in online cultural spaces (such as social networks) and the potential for large scale mobilization around global issues. The green shoots are already emerging in the shape of projects like the Genocide Intervention Network and Never Again Rwanda, along with spontaneous self-organisation at scale around around crises like Burma .

IDEAL VERSUS INSTITUTION

But the UN is both Ideal and Institution, and the implications of social media are different for the two sides of this duality. For the Institution, the transition to the world of digital natives will be a difficult one. No institution, let alone a leviathan like the UN, is well adapted to the informal & peer-to-peer culture of the social web. More than that, the increased transparency enabled by the web is going to bring pressure to bear on the gritty realities of UN delivery. Big brands are already experiencing this pain and the UN will surely follow.

COLLABORATIVE SOCIAL ACTION

For the ideals that the UN represents, on the other hand, the collaborative space of the social web is a new and energising way for people to organise around issues that they care deeply about. The barriers to innovation are lowered and there signs that online social networks could evolve in to social action networks. These benefits are refusing to be contained by the digital divide and many initiatives are spreading the relevance of web 2.0 to poor & marginalised communities around the world.

NET INTERNATIONALISM

The Internet was constructed as an international and egalitarian technology who's architecture should make it a natural ally of the United Nations Charter. The potential for the net to support a human rights culture can be seen in the digital spaces created by diasporic communities. Unfortunately there are many threats to the progressive potential of the Internet, ranging from censorship & filtering to the loss of net neutrality. The new opportunities for community interaction also bring new threats, setting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights against Terms of Service agreements in a race to the bottom against privacy and freedom of expression. To take full advantage of these spaces the UN will have to help defend the social web against government intrusion and, to some extent, against itself.

REBOOT?

So how can the UN adapt to the digital age in a way that embodies and extends it's mission? There are smaller examples of institutions who are trying to renew themselves through an engagement with social media; one that I'm involved in is the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. There are hints in the notion of the The Permeable Organization and models at hand in open source with "the movement of innovative activity to the edges of organizations and into communities".

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT

But the UN can't simply "make use of the new media to transmit its ideas and communicate its mission to the youth". The digital space is post-deferential and participative. The UN has engage young people in dialogue, starting from where they're really at, and not only through the filtered order of schools and universities. I've been working on issue-based campaigns within social media, and particularly in online social networks, and it can be a shock to encounter young people as they present themselves to each other. Txt talk and tattoos, mindwarping aesthetics and absent privacy boundaries - it's a long way from the suited respectability of the UN corridors! But dig a bit deeper and the perennial idealism of youth starts to emerge from their online profiles & comments - as in every generation, plenty of young people care passionately about peace and justice.

UN INCUBATORS

In what ways could the UN go with the grain of the digital age? What does crowdsourcing mean for the UN's mission? What is the Long Tail of human rights defence? One way to take advantage of the innovation that flows from the internet's 'architectures of participation' would be to encourage and catalyse startup projects that embody its values. The UN could act as a 'venture philanthopist' for social enterprises that enact its values, and draw on it's huge reservoir of expertise to act as mentors in the incubation of these projects. One easy way for the UN to get young people directly involved & excited would be to run web-based challenges . If the UN wants to stay relevant to the next generation, it will be hard for it to ignore the global reach of social networks as a way to interact directly with the digital natives. And this is not just an exercise in youth outreach or PR but an engagement with the future face of international community. As the BBC's Bill Thompson writes :

What happens when the photos on Facebook and Flickr show devastated crops and starving families - and these people are not just faces on the television but old friends, people whose likes and dislikes and reading habits and favourite films we know and share?
The world is different when it's the people you know, and I do not think we will be able to resist the forces of change when our friends are dying on screen, in front of us, and we know that we could do something but have decided not to.

Join a real-virtual colloquium on the United Nations and Social Media on Friday, 16 November 2007

I've been invited to join a panel for a real-virtual colloquium on "The United Nations and the New Media/Information Age: Education for the Next Generation of the People of the United Nations" hosted by the Academic Council of the United Nations System and taking place on Friday, 16 November 2007. Anyone is invited to join in during the colloquium, posting questions that will be forwarded to the panel moderator; join the Colloquium live or pose a question in advance

seedcamps for social innovation (because charities are broken)

I've heard quite a bit about seedcamp and it's high octane approach to incubating web innovation. I wonder if the same model could be applied to social innovation? For sure, we need some new methodologies, because it looks like the old way of organising into charities and NGOs is broken.

UNDERMINING INNOVATION

At first sight, seedcamp is a purely business proposition, mentoring startups on competitiveness and providing injections of venture capital. What's that got to do with alleviating social problems? But compare and contrast with the characteristics of many charities. In my experience, the amount of innovation that makes it out of the door of an NGO is a tenth of what it could be. And the limiting factor isn't rigerous testing of ideas against reality, but institutional conservatism. Anyone who's worked in the sector knows the score; anxiety-based leadership, a focus on internal politics, inter-departmental struggle and an unquestioning conflation of the charity and the cause.

CATCH UP OR CATCH 22

But charities don't own social issues. And it's lazy behaviour for the rest of society to assume that bunging charities a regular donation is actually good value. We'll see what happens as more sousveillance and web-enabled transparency is applied to the third sector. The web-savvy minority in nonprofits know that it's urgent for their organisations to catch up with the digital age. "If only the CEO would blog more, if only our campaigners understood facebook..." But are these the core issues? Or is the starker question that the inherent nature of charities as institutions makes them anithetical to the participative and post-deferential nature of the social web?

ROUTING AROUND BLOCKAGES

Personally, I'm more excited about the new modes of collaborative innovation opened up by the web, and how these can be powerfully applied to solving social issues . I don't just mean web tools themselves, but the wider social modes and processes opened up, from the virtual organisation to crowdsourcing, and from open IP to self-organising networks. There are already examples of NGO startups; GetUp systematically applied the accidentally viral success of MoveOn to the Australian third sector, and in six months had more members than Amnesty Australia. So if we want to encourage social innovation that leverages these possibilities we need ways to incubate it that are native to this space rather than native to the nineteenth century. Roll on, social innovation seedcamp.

Tactical Tech is hiring

My friends at Tactical Tech have asked me to highlight these job openings :

They're a great bunch who've convened some of the coolest grassroots tech events in the social change scene . So if you're inspired to empower non-profits across the Global South – in particular human rights defenders and rights advocates - get on to them before the deadline of Monday 29th October.

return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?

"What do you think is the return on investment (ROI) of the social web for nonprofits?" is Britt Bravo 's latest Net2ThinkTank question. It's a hot topic for nonprofits and companies alike because of the time soaked up by tending social networking sites, but I think there's at least three dimensions to social web ROI for nonprofits, namely metrics, the paradigm shift and the new enclosures.

metrics

Non-profits aren't focussed on a financial return but they have a duty to use donations effectively. So it's good to see initiatives like frogloops ROI calculator for social network campaigns, which uses the tried & tested perspective of email marketing to calculate value for money. Metrics may be harder for the social web but nonprofits would be unwise not to try it - in part because the social web also leading to greater pressure for transparency.

paradigm shift

Even when the return rates are low, nonprofits should be investing in social web experiments because they herald a paradigm shift in how people will organise to have a social impact. In Participatory Web for Development I described how an era of mass collaborative innovation will lead to new ways of tackling social issues. Either nonprofits take part, or they risk being left on the beach.

the new enclosures

The big feature of the web 2.0 boom is the way that value generated by users is being cashed in by the site owners. As I warned in social networking and social change, one consequence can be nonprofits getting booted out if they get too 'controversial'. Monetisation of the social web is often done in a way that ignores the mass of contributors and threatens it's nature as a kind of common ground. As well as making creative use of this space we'll need to find collective ways to defend it. Mass investment of time, creativity and content implies a return for the common good.

 

Participatory Web for Development

Web2forDev in Rome

A big shout out to the organisers of the Web2forDev conference in Rome. They're shaking the hype out of web 2.0 and wrestling it in to relevance for the world's poorest and most marginalised.

Connectivity, Innovation, Censorship

If I'd had a chance to contribute to the conference, I'd have stepped back from the real issue of rural connectivity and looked at the less examined issues of innovation and censorship - the good and bad futures for the social web in the developing world.

The dark side of web 2.0

The bad news first - as soon as social media starts to make a real social difference it will be subject to some form of repression by those who favour the status quo. The downside for web 2.0 is that, under the wrong circumstances, its social networking side could become an engine for privacy invasion and surveillance. We must learn from places where social media survives and thrives in the face of corruption, military might, and the intimidation of opponents. Embedding human rights in social media requires eCampaigning for Internet Freedom.

Innovation - the disruptive fruit of participation

The real powerhouse of web 2.0 for dev will be innovation, the disruptive fruit of all architectures of participation. Charlie Leadbeater's book We-think starts with the example of the Barefoot College before going on to show how examples like Wikipedia are the herald of a new era of mass collaborative innovation. His wide global analysis of the new era mashes silicon valley with social innovation - as he says about a peer-to-peer AIDS support network "Low-cost, self-organising networks might be the height of organisational fashion on the US west cost but they are a matter of life-and-death in places like Mbuya Parish, Kampala".

Web2forDev HowTo

So where do we find guiding values for the development potential of web2.0? If I'd been at the web2fordev conference I'd have plagiarised the Res Publica Report 'Prospects for e-Advocacy in the Global South' and proposed this set:

  • Work within Movements: Working within a movement means that all the talent of the various members can be brought to bear in creating solutions and the lines of communications within the network can be used to quickly disseminate new methods.
  • Worship the Power of the Network: Through networks we aggregate our knowledge, amassing insight that is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Bring Technologists and Advocates Together: Innovative solutions emerge when technologists collaborate with advocates, working on a specific campaign problem or network goal.
  • Build Innovation Systems: Rather than think of innovations as pieces of hardware or even creative ideas, it is better to think in terms of "innovation systems," combinations of hardware, social structures, and economic models that solve social problems.
  • Promote Independence not Dependence: Seek to empower, and explicitly address sustainability.
  • Engage with Youth: In almost all societies, young people are most likely to adopt new ICT methods. They are more familiar with ICT because it has been present for most of their lives.
  • Cultivate the Fringe: The boldest new ideas often come from far outside the
    mainstream.

I applaud the organisers and participants at the web2fordev conference for their global fusion of social media and social impact. The scale of that impact will depend on how well mass creativity can challenge the status quo. As the APC's Anriette Esterhuysen says "The key is NOT to think of social networking tools (or Web 2.0) as a completely new set of tools/applications. ... but as representing significant changes to power structures that characterise the creation and use of content on the internet".

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