online collaboration, the startup process, company news & other stuff

Archive for the ‘organizing’ Category

Risk, Reward and the Evolution of a More Participatory World

Monday, June 16th, 2008

For years, wide-eyed journalists, politicos and academics have captured people’s imagination with musings about the many ways the Internet would democratize our society.  A decade and a half after the Internet’s emergence, the anticipated transformation is certainly underway.  Media, political, and corporate institutions have begun to incorporate readers, constituents and consumers into their regular operational and decision-making processes.  However, relative to the initial projections, the pace of change isn’t fast enough – at least to the impatient ones, including us here at MixedInk!

There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, government, media, and corporations are hesitant to cede real power to their stakeholders.  News reporters and editors don’t want to be fact-checked by their readers because it threatens their perceived status as “experts.”  Politicians want complete control over their policies, platforms and messages.  Companies want to know what their consumers think, but they don’t want consumers to have a say in decision making.

This reluctance is increasingly beside the point, however.  New, more democratic norms are coming to govern the relationship between reporter and audience member, elected official and constituent, company and consumer.  This is because free markets and elections provide these institutions with an existential reason to engage citizens transparently and democratically that overrules their hesitance: doing so brings them more votes, more dollars, and more attention.

Another challenge is that the trial and error process of testing social technology takes time.  Social processes are often counter-intuitive and difficult to manipulate, so it’s hard to build web-based tools that are a natural social fit.  New online tools thrive not because they solve some previously impossible technological problem, but because they provide “elegant organization” that offers an outlet to harness people’s energy in a productive (or at least entertaining) way.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict how people will interact with each other using a new tool in advance.  Thus, finding ways to ‘organize elegantly’ requires a slow process of trial and error.

In practice, this has meant that innovative media and political organizations simply try out different tools to see what works, and then, over time, others imitate the tactics that turn out to be successful.  Being currently immersed in this trial and error process, the MixedInk team is very much aware of the time it takes; the way people use our private beta site sometimes surprises us.  As a startup, however, we don’t face the same risks as those at large, prominent institutions.  If things don’t go so well for us, few people will notice.  If they fail, everyone pays attention!

There’s plenty of cause for optimism, though.  The pace of change seems to have increased within the last several years between the growth of new media and the beginnings of a shift towards more democratic user engagement among corporate, political, and media organizations.  As Vanessa mentioned in a recent post, Dell’s IdeaStorm and MyStarbucksIdea are significant innovations in the world of corporate America.  Others, like the YouTube/CNN primary debate here in the US and the UK Prime Minister’s “Ask the PM” represent the beginnings of a democratic transformation within the media and political sphere.

To continue our online democracy’s forward progress, it’s important to recognize and address the risks involved with each of these efforts, though.  Each one engaged a large, critical mass of stakeholders with an up-front promise to publich, incorporate, and respond to their input in a meaningful way.  This sudden, very public democratization of communications meant risking that users might overwhelmingly contradict each institution’s official message and branding.  Yet by capitalizing on citizens’ desire to communicate directly with decision-makers, these efforts have been quite successful.

For all of us who aim to contribute to the emerging wave of online democracy, understanding the risks that that innovators like Starbucks, Dell and CNN face can be the difference between success and failure.  Only by adequately balancing risk and reward will new social technologies and applications be able to bring our emerging online democracy to its inevitable tipping point.  In my next post, I’ll describe a few different models for engaging citizens that provide varying degrees of risk and reward, allowing institutions with a range of risk-aversion and participatory ideals to strike the balance that’s appropriate for them.

power to the people

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

There was a great NY Tech Meetup last week that got me thinking about collective organizing. For the first time the NY Tech Meetup had a theme, “Power to the People: The Future of Organizing.” It’s exciting to see great new ideas promoting people power – and forums that uncover and celebrate their budding existence online.

MeetupIt was especially appropriate that Meetup identified this as a theme, being huge innovators in the world of local, do-it-yourself organizing. For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, Meetup is a website with an elegantly simple premise: let people post an idea for a community meeting about anything – whether it’s saving the earth, starting a business, or knitting – and allow interested people in the area to attend. In hosting this event, the NY Tech Meetup (run by Scott Heiferman, the co-founder and CEO of Meetup) aimed to bring kindred spirits in the online world of organizing together.

The seeming legendary Clay Shirky was there to chat about Here Comes Everybody, “a book about organizing without organizations.” He made an interesting presentation, mostly about how much easier group action has become – and how often it’s happening these days. The simple fact that people with something in common can now find one another is a huge step. Philosopher William James once said “thinking is for doing.” Clay says “publishing is for acting,” meaning that publishing is increasingly used to gather and coordinate people.

Check out this excerpt from Clay’s book about Meetup here. He makes the point that Meetup groups can’t be organized top-down – being self-organized is key: “Though it seems funny for a service business, Meetup actually does best not by trying to do things on behalf of its users, but by providing a platform for them to do things for one another.” The book is brand new and promises to be an inspiring read. Update: Check him out on the Colbert Report…

A bunch of interesting online innovators presented at last week’s Meetup, but I was most excited about ThePoint. The Point is a brilliant new website run by Andrew Mason in Chicago that’s based on a few basic principles: (1) People want to stand up for themselves and their beliefs (2) standing up for yourself is usually a waste of time, because you’re just one person and it’s hard to be heard, and (3) people don’t want to waste their time. So he figures that people are generally being pretty rational when they skip out on standing up for themselves.

Here’s how his site solves the problem. Say you love KFC, but you want them to treat their chickens a little better. You don’t want to boycott the place by yourself, which would certainly deprive you of that deep fried goodness without much chance of sending a strong message to KFC. So you head to ThePoint, sign in to the “Tough Love for KFC” campaign:

“KFC, your chicken is so tasty. Your biscuits are so buttery. Your colonel is so regal. You’re hard not to like. But maybe you could be just a little nicer to your animals?”

And you pledge to stop eating there if KFC doesn’t adopt the suggestions of their animal welfare board only if 1,000,000 join the movement.

Now you know you won’t be forgoing those tasty morsels for naught. You can assume your actions are sure to mean something when pooled with a million like-minded souls. So ThePoint allows you to be sure the conditions exist for your actions to be meaningful.

But this tool is not confined to social movements – you can use it to make anything happen that requires cooperation. For example, you can use it to organize your neighbors to build a new community garden, only if 1,000 of them pledge $10 each to pay for it. Pretty cool. PledgeBank, a UK-based site, provides a service that’s similar to ThePoint.

This whole people-powered online revolution thing seems to have caught on in the news this week as well. There’s an interesting article in the Guardian, “People power transforms the web in next online revolution.” Like Clay’s book, the article looks at how we are going to organize ourselves “without the trappings of traditional organizations.” It talks about flash mobs – when a group of people gathers somewhere to do something random together, like smile in October Square in Belarus. Flash mobs have affected elections in Spain, Philippines, and South Korea. In China, flash mobs are staging campaigns despite 54,000 cyber police, and it seems it will soon be impossible for even the most totalitarian governments to stop people from organizing. Update 4/16/08: Check out this story about a student twittering his way out of jail in Egypt! The article also discusses Wikipedia and other movements to make information openly accessible, including the Encyclopedia of Life (about all the Earth’s species) and the Public Library of Science, an open-access journal.NetSquared

At MixedInk, we certainly plan to play our part in helping folks self-organize and harness their collective power. We just came up with an exciting idea that could make our democracy a little more people powered, which we submitted to the NetSquared Mashup Contest. It’s called Government by the people. You can help us win by voting for us! Anyone can register as a NetSquared user, making them eligible to vote – the contest is being decided, appropriately, by the people.

Update 4/16/08: Check out Seth Godin’s interesting article on the power of organizing.