Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Tools, they are a-changing

I’ve been reading The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger. I’d heard of it before, but decided to take a closer look when it was recommended by Alex Hillman of IndyHall. It’s an outgrowth of the website of the same name, with its 95 Theses of the new paradigm heralded by the web. Although it’s focused on the implications of the web for business, its dominant theme is really all about how the web enables authentic voices and meaningful connections.

Its biggest drawback is that it was published way, way back in the year 2000 – eons ago in Internet time. But, as I read it, it still seemed fresh and interesting, and didn’t seem out of date, until we “... take a tour of the various conversational modalities the Net offers”: e-mail, mailing lists, newsgroups, chat and web pages”. Let’s call these “Group A”; they are all great and unprecedentedly important tools which have dramatically empowered people by liberating their voices and making possible fluid, dynamic and serendipitous human connections.

But what feels dramatically and profoundly missing, what hadn’t been invented (or at least weren’t popularized) back in those olden days, are blogs, podcasts, videoblogs, Twitter, social bookmarks, YouTube, Flickr, Slideshare, Craig’s List, much of what passes for “social networking” and much, much more. These are “Group B”.

The absence of Group B tools in the book struck me harder than I would have expected. Group A tools are not out-of-date clunkers; they are all mainstays of the cyberworld. And in retrospect, it certainly seems like Group B represents a natural progression and evolution of empowering Group A communication tools. But on the other hand, something about Group B feels deeply and profoundly different.

So, what’s different about them? All I come up with at the moment is that, when you speak through the tools in Group A (except for “web pages”), you have some degree of sense and control over who the audience is. Sure, it’s likely you don’t know all the readers in your mailing lists or newsgroups (and not knowing much or most of the audience is a critical part of their value). But, you likely have some sense of who the audiences are, because each mailing list, newsgroup or chat channel has some sort of name, identity, purpose. And you have some control over who hears your message, at least to the extent of being able to quit one mailing list or join another.

But Group B tools enjoy an audience of the whole world. Put out a blog post (like this one), or a Flickr pic or even a Craig’s List listing, and anyone can see it, link to it, love it, hate it. These newer tools carry voices anywhere, everywhere. Sure, groups of audience do emerge (a Twitterer has a certain number of followers; a podcast has a certain group of RSS subscribers). But these “groups” form even more dynamically, organically and unpredictably than the groups who subscribe to a mailing list or newsgroup.

Relatively speaking, a newsgroup is a silo. A blog is an open door.

But I don’t think this quite captures it. What am I missing? What do you think?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Using Social Networks for Social Change: a Slideshow by Ivan Boothe

Ivan Boothe has put together a very nicely done slideshow (with voiceover) on using social networks for social change. In this very young field, Ivan is a veteran. He co-founded the Genocide Intervention Network, which has used social networks very successfully to engage members. He is currently the Creative Director of Rootwork, as well as a co-organizer (with yours truly) of Philly NetSquared. If you've considered (or even tried) to use social networks to advance social change causes, this presentation will provide some very helpful insights and tips.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

About "Civic Capital"

I've been interested in social capital for many years (though I didn't have a name for it before reading Robert Putnam's groundbreaking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.)

But I'd never heard the phrase civic capital before hearing it used to describe the effect of Barack Obama's successful "netroots" campaign. The On the Media interview below with Marshall Ganz describes how the Obama campaign helped to develop civic capital among its volunteers:

It talks about how, at "Camp Obama", volunteers were trained to articulate their own personal narratives, because it's "from their own stories that they're most effectively going to be able to engage others." Ganz goes on:

... a whole tier of volunteer leadership were cut into the action ...there was a level of empowerment, of volunteer leadership at the local level, that is a theme that's run all through this campaign. And that's why you see the responsibility, the enthusiasm, the creativity. And that's why when the campaign is over, as it is now, this isn't going to go away.

The term civic capital is new to me. (And I'm not the only one. Interestingly, there's no Wikipedia entry [yet] for civic capital, though the Wikipedia article for social capital was started way back in 2002!). So, it seems to me that civic capital is a form of social capital -- one that is self-consciously focussed on the improvement of the community or society of which its members are a part. It certainly wasn't invented by the Obama campaign. (A quick Google search cites the term used a number of years ago; and -- even without the term itself -- the reality of it no doubt goes back as far as civil society.) But the Obama campaign exposed and exploited it. And, to the question of whether we can use civic capital to help transform our society into one that is more just, green and peaceful, there's an obvious answer: Yes we can.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obama's plans for information and communication technology

If you haven’t seen it already, Barack Obama describes specific plans for change on his slick website, I find the Technology Agenda page particularly interesting and exciting.

Of course, just saying these things doesn’t make them happen. But I’ve never seen a politician articulate so clearly, unambiguously and (seemingly) sincerely information and communication policy intentions that are so close to my heart.

Describing the problem, the very first sentence reads, “We need to connect citizens with each other to engage them more fully and directly in solving the problems that face us.Connect citizens with each other. This is not the worn out platitude of “let’s get valuable input from the people”— a one-way process where all the real control lies with the recipient of all that valuable input. Connecting people with each other (actually, “one another” would be more grammatically precise) bespeaks a trust in people that harkens both to Jefferson and to Web 2.0.

Here are some of the bullets from his plan (with quoted excerpts from the text) that I find most exciting:

  • Protect the openness of the Internet. “... strongly supports the principle of network neutrality”.
  • Encourage diversity in media ownership. “... encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation’s spectrum.”
  • Protect Our Children While Preserving the First Amendment. “Obama values our First Amendment freedoms and our right to artistic expression and does not view regulation as the answer to these concerns.”
  • Safeguard our Right to Privacy. “... harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy.”
  • Open Up Government to its Citizens. “The Bush Administration has been one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history.... An Obama presidency will use cutting-edge technologies to reverse this dynamic, creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America's citizens.”
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century. “Obama and Biden believe in the American people and in their intelligence, expertise, and ability and willingness to give and to give back to make government work better.” and “... will appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO)”.
  • Deploy Next-Generation Broadband. “As a country, we have ensured that every American has access to telephone service and electricity, regardless of economic status, and Obama will do likewise for broadband Internet access.”

Exciting stuff. Exciting times. Exciting opportunities.