My l…e…n…g…t…h…y response to David Wilcox’s excellent and provocative blog post titled Charity web managers sceptical about walking the web talk.
Cross-posted in the comment section of his blog post.
Should I post here (David’s blog comments) with a comment or should I use my own blog?
With a comment, I am essentially a second class participant, while on my own blog I a member of the “popular in-crowd.”
This is why e-mail lists still dominate. They have strong identity – your e-mail address. Conversation is two-way – no one is technically superior. This is also why despite the great nptech blogs in the U.S. you mention, most of our equivalent conversations to those UK are thriving on e-lists like NTEN Discuss and onlinefacilitation.
If everyone had a blog, then e-mail lists would have less currency. Most people do not have their own work life blogs, except for us “experts” who don’t fear the online version of public speaking. More should blog, but the laundry list of Web 2.0 tools (see David’s Wiki Carnival on social media) is boggling to most people except for us rare seekers. I think of e-mail as Internet 1.0 – when pre-web you had an identity and highly interactive exchange made public through e-mail lists – not as “web 0.1.” In fact, Web 2.0 is bringing us back to the spirit of Internet 1.0 (I still remember visiting all of the web sites in the early nineties via Telnet and thinking how much less interactive it seemed than e-mail and newsgroups.)
While E-Democracy.Org used tagging and a “mashup” with our Voter Voices experiment, push our project blog, and even use a public wiki for drafting grant applications and collaborative local election link directories, we focus on technology choice and reaching people where they are with our discussion forums.
Over two years ago we made a big leap off Mailman and YahooGroups to the open source GroupServer platform. In short, it encourages equitable e-mail and web participation in the same open space. The problem with all of these new Web 2.0 tools is the huge diffusion of audience and attention.
This diffusion is OK when you have a large audience and aggregated channels (like Beth Kanter’s curating of the nptech tag stream or my promotion of the e-democracy tag), but my sense is that most people don’t know where it is worth replying. Ultimately, most folks need a sense of audience to motivate a reply – hence the lack of comments on most blogs or contributions to smaller wiki efforts. This is probably why most blogs (even if most are personal diaries not expertise blogs) are not very interactive. Here is an interesting recent example - TheOpenTheHouse.com project blog (with lots of Web 2.0 advocates involved) has few comments yet when the blog posts are forwarded into their Google Group (similar to GroupServer) the discussion takes off. I say location, location, location.
So strategically, my advice to advocates for Web 2.0 use in non-profits/NGOs is to figure out how to fundamentally integrate those tools into everyday e-mail usage. Do not settle for simple e-mail notices that say “come to the website for X, Y, or Z.” E-mail equity means you can make a new post, share a comment, edit a page, tag something, rate something, etc. all from your life’s universal aggregator – your e-mail in and outbox.
On that note, I’d love to have other non-profits join us investing in the most advanced GPL open source tool for equitable (and therefore effective) group communication – GroupServer. (If you are part of the Drupal hegemony take a look at Organic Groups with OG2List or if you want something free with ads Google Groups is eating YahooGroups’ lunch.)
We are thinking about how to introduce “citizen media” aspects into our local community Issues Forums. We have deep daily ties with hundreds of citizens in 8 local communities in Minnesota, England, and soon New Zealand. Hosted by OnlineGroups.Net we have access to GroupServer features in development including an innovative files feature that encourages you to not just tag files, but more importantly attach them to topics – via e-mail or uploaded via the web view. Instead of e-mailing the full file out, a simple link is included in a group e-mail and the web message view simply integrates the files in discussion topics and via a traditional file listing. I also have a proposal out there for automated thumbnail display of uploaded/e-mail attached images. Imagine this discussion on graffiti in Minneapolis with photos e-mailed in from mobile phones!
Taking this a step further, since each group has a native ATOM feed (like RSS), all GroupServer needs to add is the ability to “ping” when a new topic (or subject) is started. Technically speaking you would now have a massive multi-editor blog that Technorati and Google Blog Search will slurp up regularly (they already do some extent). So now we have an a e-list, a linear web forum (like PHPBB) and a group blog.
Down the road we hope to attract some donations or funding to add some further Web 2.0 integration:
1. Video and Audio Display – A simple idea from some WordPress plugins. See a link to YouTube, have GroupServer embed the video automatically. Upload or link to an MP3 audio file, insert an Flash-based audio player. Both right in the topic/post web view.
2. Recommend Posts – We’ve always been nervous about rating tools that might be used by a political majority to drive out the minority – diversity of voices in our political forums comes first, however we’ve reached a point despite our hands on forum facilitation (not moderation) that we need to add the positive incentive of an even larger audience for participant posts to encourage higher quality contributions as well as give less frequent visitors quick access to the â€œmust readâ€ contributions. So we need a feature where people can “digg” it from either their e-mail, the web, or the feed with one click. Then it will be up to us to display this “best of” content in a profile way.
3. Citizen Media or “News” - Our roots are in many-to-many citizen engagement, but increasingly we see mindshare competition from citizen media efforts, many of which base interactivity on produced “news” or “content” or “commentary.” I am inspired by a number of “placeblogs” including Griff Wigley’s work with LocallyGrownNorthfield and his previous work with Northfield.Org. However, there is something about having an editor on top or content above conversation which seems too centralizing to me. I guess blogs are democratizing media and national political punditry BUT in smaller places they are encouraging new or reinforced elites (my popular crowd comment above). One to some blogging simply feels so much less democratic to me than well functioning many-to-many online spaces. Then again, if someone does citizen media right (and can subsidize it with time, energy, or advertising) who wouldn’t want more of it in their town … as long as it is complemented by many-to-many spaces.
To flip this upside down, I’d like us to develop features that encourage “news” or well developed content to rise up from the forum into a “citizen media” space on the site. Tagging a post “news” might be a simple step along leading to highlighted web display. ATOM feeds based tags assigned to posts might be what we need. Then I’d add enhanced display of attached photos (e-mailed/uploaded) with captions within the story. (Wouldn’t it be nice if below the subject line in a mail program there was a line for tags – although we could tell e-mail publishers that the first line with “tag: news, event, picture, commentary, report, etc.” their post will get processed uniquely and displayed specially.)
4. Mashup Display – I’d love to have a Minneapolis Today page generated automatically along with a daily e-mail version sent to our forum members to prompt forum discussion. Our forums are meant to be at the cross-roads of local public life and not positioned as an alternative or a privatized online shopping mall (what commercial forums are in many ways). With Voter Voices, we used the basic embedding tools of Flickr and YouTube and web feeds for Del.icio.us based on the tag “mnpolitics.” Each of our local communities could adopt and promote an unique tag like “minneapolisissues” or “newhamissues” as well as monitor organic tag combos (e.g. minneapolis, politics) that seem to gather relevant content. Spreading group tagging behavior to events with Upcoming.Org and grabbing search results to feed content from Google News and for blogs both Technorati and Google Blog search and we really could display “today” for our local community. I want a feature in GroupServer (or another service we link to) that automates this by allowing our local forum volunteers to simply “just set it and forget it.”
I can go on, but rather than embrace a further diffusion in local participation and lose the “there, there” that defines us, I want to bring Web 2.0 into the heart of working online communities – into equitable two-way spaces. I resist the technological determinism I see coming from tool fanatics based on hyper-individualist models that use the terminology of national democratization that in reality make things less democratic when applied locally or in smaller groups. Yes, thought leadership and well-edited experience sharing via blogging needs to be encouraged at all levels, but turning aside â€œold-fashionedâ€ e-mail will drive a wedge into effective online communities of practice designed to reach out beyond the always-on broadband crowd to average Internet users. Anything that limits or removes the ability for someone to simply press “reply-to-all” to be part of public life, to publish, is a democratic step backward.
If any of these approaches interests you or you want to see some of these tools get built contact me about how to help: firstname.lastname@example.org
Perhaps you have better ideas than those listed above that will help implement a realist perspective that reaches people online where they are and moves them collective baby steps into effective Web 2.0 features. Expecting mass conversion to new technologies that require people (who aren’t paid to be there) to be proactive or pulled continuously is counter to the productivity generated through invasive, accessible, and naturally cluttered voluntary e-mail experiences.