Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why nonprofits should promote social media in general

The NetSquared “think tank” topic this month is:
What do you think the role of nonprofit organizations is in the changing world of social media?
When I first read it, however, I mentally transposed “the changing” to “changing the” and read it as:
What do you think the role of nonprofit organizations is in changing the world of social media?
The two questions have different meanings. The first one asks about the role of nonprofits in the world of social media (a world which happens to be changing). The second question implies that nonprofits are actually causing that change. And I find this second question more provocative. (Answering one question kind of answers both, but I’m focusing on the second.)

One reason I find the second formation interesting is because many of us (NetSquared folks and others) are focused on how to use social media to benefit the world of nonprofits. But I never thought about asking the opposite question: How can nonprofits be used to benefit the world of social media? (And why should they bother?)

Well, as social media become more pervasive in our society, and as ever-new forms of social media emerge, I believe they will continue to create new opportunities for helping nonprofits that we can’t anticipate beforehand. And, if that’s true, then maybe it’s in the “self-interest” of nonprofits not just to utilize social media to help their own causes, but also to promote the use of social media in general.

When nonprofits employ social media tools they are by definition promoting social media. But, maybe they could go further. For instance...
  • When inviting people to join your Facebook cause, provide links to resources about how they can get more out of Facebook for other purposes as well.
  • While encouraging people to comment on your blog, provide links to services where they could start their own blogs, or where they could learn how to blog more effectively.
  • On your organization’s podcast page, include information about how you made the podcast (tools, techniques, problems), which not only humanizes the process, but may inspire the user to take a leap and create her own podcast.
I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but I’m starting to see how nonprofits and social media exist in a sort of symbiotic relationship. And the lifeblood of that symbiosis, IMHO, is empowerment. Social media, of course, are the epitome of empowerment. (It’s more empowering to put your video onto YouTube than to simply watch someone else’s.) And nonprofits are about empowerment also – either directly (microlending to help a poor villager start a new business) or indirectly (realizing that your single voice is important in stopping global warming). So, as we all work to transform our world, perhaps we should be more aware (well, I am, anyway) that we should be thinking not just about how social media can benefit the world of nonprofits, but how nonprofits can benefit the world of social media. Ultimately, they may be one and the same.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Strength of Weak Ties today

I really enjoyed an interesting Philadelphia Knowledge Management group web conference last week, led by Steve Ennen (Managing Director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative) on Measuring Knowledge Management in a Web 2.0 World. At one point in the session, Steve referred to a recent paper by some folks at the HP Social Computing Lab, entitled “Social Networks that Matter: Twitter under the Microscope”. So, I fetched the article, and was looking forward to reading some current research from such a well regarded source. Although I didn’t intend to be critical, I was shocked at how strongly I disagreed with their assumptions, methodology and conclusion.

Focusing on Twitter, the basic theme of the paper is that within any large social network, people tend to interact primarily within a small subset of more strongly connected, reciprocal relationships --which the authors refer to as “friends”. It’s hard to disagree with that basic premise, which we can readily observe in all our social networks, from the workplace to the neighborhood.

But, I have a lot of trouble with their conclusion. I don’t doubt “the existence of two different networks: a very dense one made up of followers and folowees, and a sparser and simpler [“hidden”] network of actual friends”. But then they assert that
most of the links declared within Twitter were meaningless from an interaction point of view. Thus, we need to find the hidden social network; the one that matters when trying to rely on word of mouth to spread an idea, a belief, or a trend. [emphasis added]
The authors show lots of statistical associations, but I think it’s a big leap to assume that degree of “influence” necessarily resides within that “network of actual friends”.

It is particularly ironic that the authors cite Mark Granovetter’s groundbreaking 1973 article The Strength of Weak Ties (which Philly networking pioneer Stan Pokras introduced me to nearly 30 years ago, and which Wikipedia refers to as “one of the most influential sociology papers ever written”). My understanding of Granovetter is that he would regard these “networks of actual friends” as exhibiting “strong ties” among themselves, and that many of them also have “weak ties” with members of other “networks of actual friends”. His main thesis is that weak ties can have disproportionally strong influence because they help to bridge between otherwise unfamiliar networks.

In my own experience (admittedly without the statistical backup) new social networks like Twitter only validate and reinforce Granovetter’s insight that so-called “weak” ties can have unexpected “strength”:
  • Some of the people I follow on Twitter are my favorite authors and thinkers, who don’t have any idea who I am (a weak tie). But they’ve influenced me greatly with some of the ideas and references to resources from their tweets.
  • The authors don’t even mention “retweeting”, the fairly common practice of “forwarding” a tweet. People retweet posts specifically in order to bridge from one of one’s networks to another. (Retweeting has little value within one’s own “network of friends”.)
  • Because of the profusion of hyperlinks within tweets, it’s really easy to follow-up on any weak-link tweet that seems even a little interesting, thereby enhancing their potential influence.
Maybe my experience clouds my perspective, but I truly believe that Twitter and other Internet-enabled social networks make weak ties more important and influential than ever before. It’s great to have a circle of friends; and it’s really cool to also have a much, much wider circle of potential friends.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Internet Threat

In The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind, James Boyle devotes Chapter 4 to “the Internet Threat”, which is the way of thinking that “Big Media” (my term--not his--for publishers, music labels, movie studios...) use to justify continuing their grip on power. His explanation helped put things into context for me. The Internet Threat, he explains
... is beguilingly simple. The Internet makes copying cheaper and [so Big Media] must meet the greater danger of illicit copying with more expansive rights, harsher penalties, and expanded protections. ... [w]ithout an increase in private property rights, cheaper copying will eat the heart out of our creative and cultural industries.

This has a certain logic – but it also sounds way wrong. Why? Boyle is clear that he does not disagree with the basic idea of copyright, and admits that Big Media are harmed by illicit copying. But, he goes on to show how this thinking is “dramatically incomplete” – and bad for individual freedom and cultural expression.
  • For one thing, although new technology enables the potential for harming copyright holders, it also enables potential for benefitting copyright holders (e.g., with new promotion and distribution opportunities). It’s not clear, on balance, whether the harms outweigh the benefits. (And, even if this could be accurately measured today, the balance will likely change tomorrow.) “A large, leaky market may actually provide more revenue than a small one over which one’s control is much stronger.” Big media wants protection from the dangers, without regard to the benefits they receive.
  • Another problem with the argument of the “Internet Threat” is that Big Media uses it to target the technologies which threaten them. Boyle describes the story of video recorders, which came on the scene in the ‘70’s with dramatically “cheaper copying”. Movie studios were “horrified” by video recorders, which they saw as a critical threat to their business model of tightly controlled distribution. In a famous suit against Sony (manufacturer of the Betamax), the movie studios sought to hold Sony liable because their machines could be used to violate copyright. Effectively, they wanted to be able to control the technology that threatened them. But the Supreme Court recognized that, since the technology could be used for legitimate, fair use purposes (like for time-shifting of TV programs), then the movie studios had no right to control the new technology. They had to learn to live with the existence of video recorders (and, ironically, figured out how to profit from them).

One way to view all this is that the new technological and social developments of the Internet represent entirely new “industries”. And, if established industries feel threatened by that, they can either adapt or perish. But, they should not control the playing field for newcomers. “Imagine”, opines Boyle, “if we had given the lamp-oil sellers the right to define the rules under which the newfangled electric light companies would operate”. We are, together, creating a new world of information and social relations. Exciting. Challenging. Profound.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jeff Pulver and tag tags

I attended yesterday's Breakfast with Jeff Pulver, billed as "the only breakfast with real-time social tagging". This was an attempt to apply some of the practices of electronic social networking to the face-to-face world. It is in line with my own thoughts about "tag tags" expressed in a previous post.

Jeff describes his process in a 4-minute video, and it works like this: Each person receives a "Personal Social Networking Toolkit": a baggie with 2 blank, self-adhesive name tags, one sheet of blank tiny labels (about 0.5" x 0.75"?) and a pen.

  1. On the first name tag, each person writes their name, plus a "personal tag line".

  2. On the other name tag, other people affix "tags" (which they've written on their own tiny labels) about that person that they've learned from their conversation.

In other words, in the first mode, people tag themselves; and in the second mode, they tag each other. All of these tags are what I referred to in my other post as "networking hooks". The second mode is useful -- because how people tag one another may reveal networking hooks that the original person may not have considered when tagging herself. So, as the event progresses, each person (ideally) accumulates additional tags resulting from their encounters with more people. More networking hooks (and more types of networking hooks) provide more opportunities for people to strike up conversations and to make meaningful connections. Great.

I like the idea, but it felt a bit awkward, and I noticed that some participants didn't tag anybody else. So, here is a brainstorm of ideas that Jeff or others may want to consider when doing something similar in the future.

  1. Include a clipboard in the kit. This would make it much easier (and therefore more likely) to write on the tiny labels. (And the clipboards can be returned for future use.)

  2. Do something to identify the tiny tags with their respective authors. Ideally, this would mean having people's names on all of their blank tiny tags, but it could be as simple as having all the tiny tags on each sheet indicate an identifying number. (All of my tiny tags have a 17 on them; all of yours have a 22.) This is more analogous to electronic social networks (where you can see who has created a tag or comment). Not only does it tell you who wrote each tag, but it silently encourages people to be more prolific in their tagging. ("Boy, I see #22 has done a lot of tagging.")

  3. I would have needed 4 hands to really take advantage of the breakfast. As anyone who's been to a buffet reception knows, it's hard enough to juggle a cup of coffee and plate of danish while talking to somebody. Add to that using a pen to write on a label. It can't all be done at the same time. I opted to keep my pen ready and got really hungry. Others ate a nice breakfast, but weren't doing any tagging. I think an ideal environment would have a number of standing-height tables. Then, as people walk around, they can more easily put down their coffee to write a tag.

  4. Finally, I'd love to see this idea applied to a speed networking scenario. You know, the kind of event where you have 2 minutes to exchange business cards and talk to another person; then move on to the next person for 2 minutes; and so on. Imagine also encouraging people to tag their partner before moving to the next one. Not only would this add useful networking hooks, it would encourage people to listen to one another in a particularly purposeful way.

I believe (as does Jeff and many others) that tagging can be a useful practice in certain face-to-face situations. How else can this concept be applied?