Archives for October 2010

Oct 28

Malcolm Gladwell redux: networks of strong linkages


Colin attended last week’s Pop! Tech event, an annual mass media and technology conference in Camden, Maine. He'll be sharing some insights from the conference here on this blog.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece for the New Yorker, which my colleague and I discussed on this blog, he argues that social media provides us only with a series of weak ties to our networks and not the strong ties needed to bring about genuine social change.

Gladwell sums up his argument in his article by saying social media “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have an impact.” 

At Pop! Tech, Riley Crane from the M.I.T. Media Lab discussed the idea of strong and weak ties and suggested that we are really at the “adolescent stage” of a new paradigm in which we are actually developing a “whole new set of ties.”

He argues that technology has “lowered the cost” of keeping up with our weak ties that we are finding new and powerful ways of using these networks in ways we never could before. The example he uses, and one featured many times throughout the conference is of the organization and technology platform Ushahidi.

Ushahidi was developed as a crowd-sourced human rights violation tracker that allows people to easily submit data to a map and provide information and data to governments and NGOs. The platform was built in Kenya and has been used around the world to provide local data on local problems.

Perhaps its most famous use, and one that illustrates Riley’s point the best, came during the earthquake in Haiti. Within hours of the quake, Patrick Meier, a staff member of Ushahidi who was studying in Boston at the time, had a map up in hours. Shortly later, a team of volunteers camped out in his apartment who were starting to filter reports onto the map to show where people were still trapped and where people needed aid.

Over the next few days, the network of volunteers working on filtering news reports and over 80,000 direct text messages grew to over 4,600 people around the world and became the primary data source for search and rescue teams and aid workers.

This network of volunteers grew from that living room of friends in Patrick’s apartment and spread from connection to connection all the way around the world. This is something that Riley attests “wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago.”

Patrick seemed to define this new paradigm best when he said what they built was a network of “weak ties and strong links.”

As we move forward and tap into these new ways of organizing around weak ties we need to be looking for powerful ways to create strong linkages — whether they are groups of volunteers in a living room or activists at a lunch counter.

Oct 27

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re...


 Colin attended last week’s Pop! Tech event, an annual mass media and technology conference in Camden, Maine. He'll be sharing some insights from the conference here on this blog.

Given the state of the world, there’s much to be depressed about. But as adventure and environmentalist David de Rothschild said at last week’s Pop! Tech conference, “there are more solutions than problems.”
De Rothschild, famous for his reclaimed plastic boat named Plastiki, spoke about using storytelling as a way to bring attention to important issues. If possible solutions are plentiful, as de Rothschild says, the question becomes how do we incentivize people to generate the ideas and the desire to bring those ideas to life? Despite popular belief — at least my belief — there are more ways to incentivize people other than just monetarily.

X Prize Car
Photo Courtesy of Flickr user Kris Krug

“The prize purse is a tiny reason why people do things," said Dr. Erika Wagner, the executive director of MIT’s X Prize Lab. Addressing a session called Using Prizes and Challenges to Drive Innovation, Wagner explained that people are far more driven by solving big problems than simply by money. This is great to hear from someone who doles out $10 million prizes.

In the same session, Challenge Post  founder  Brandon Kessler  added that people are also motivated by glory, stimulation, competition and altruism. The latter is especially good to hear for companies and organizations seeking to tap into the community of people who want to help people and make a difference. Kessler's company is on the forefront of tapping into social innovation with sites such Apps for Healthy Kids  and, an innovative program in which the federal government seeks input from everyday people to solve problems.

In the age of the increasingly relevant Web, we need to make sure that we are constantly creating opportunities to stimulate our competitive spirit and our desire to be a part of the solution.

If you have doubts, see for yourself how a team of traditionally underprivileged high school students in West Philly has gone toe-to-toe with MIT students:



Oct 26

Tailored Web or dangerous bubble?


Colin attended last week’s Pop! Tech event, an annual mass media and technology conference in Camden, Maine. He'll be sharing some insights from the conference here on this blog.

The future of the Web is you.

The Web wants to get to know you and deliver what it thinks is relevant to you. From Netflix movie recommendations to Google Priority Inbox, algorithms are increasingly deciding what people see when they visit a website. In one sense, this helps us process the extreme amounts of information available online, but what do we lose in this tailored environment?

For one thing, we lose “randomness or serendipity” when the Web becomes too prescriptive, says Eli Parser, the founder of and author of the upcoming book “Filter Bubble: What the Internet  is Hiding from You.” There is something useful when life brings people outside of their comfort zone to watch a movie they wouldn’t otherwise see or better, hear a political view they wouldn’t otherwise wish to hear.

In his talk at Pop! Tech, Parser quoted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaking to the future of personalization: "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa." To Parser, this exemplifies his fear that people will increasingly use the Internet to create a bubble of self interest around them.

This trend puts the onus on us as communicators, especially communicators who are trying to get people to care more about people dying in Africa. We have to find ways of gaining relevance among those that do care as well as look for ways of breaking through the filter bubble.


Oct 25

New Opportunities for Checking-In


Recently the NBA announced the launch of its very own location-based service, Turnstile, which will allow users to check-in to an NBA game either at the stadium physically or as a spectator at home or in a bar. When a user updates their location on Turnstile they can also sync it to their Facebook, GoWalla or Foursquare account and share out to their personal network.

The growing trend of virtual check-ins adds a new twist to the behavior of people using location based services to share out their physical location and presents new opportunities for engagement. Instead of sharing out, “I am here at X location,” it evolves to users saying “I am having X experience.”

While conventional means of fostering engagement can bring good results, without using virtual check-ins, your organization might not be achieving all that it can. I think virtual check-ins have the potential to build community around an experience by adding another level of engagement among users and allowing organizations, businesses, marketers the opportunity to quantify how many people are talking about that experience.

For many nonprofits, the fundraising year is anchored by an annual event that can range from black tie galas, telethons and TV specials, to 5K Races or Dance Marathons.  Whatever the event may be, the purpose is to bring people together at a certain point in time to raise awareness about the issue at hand and funds for the organization. Many of the organizations behind these events already have great, shareable content to engage their audiences but while thinking through some of the opportunities I see with a virtual check-in, I think a nonprofit could leverage this trend and build on its presence: 

-    Building Community Over A Shared Experience: Users are connected over a shared experience in real time and can be linked to people outside of their social networks. Individuals who are unable to join in-person can join the thousands of other fans virtually and vocalize their support for the event that is taking place.

-    Establishing Added Engagement Level: An organization can promote checking-in as an additional level of participation and offer up a way for those who may lack financial resources the opportunity to support a cause by generating word of mouth. Going a step further, a check-in can activate a donation on behalf of the user. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm brought this idea to life and drove charitable donations through Foursquare check-ins at billboards across San Francisco.

-    Quantifying Participation: By creating a unique destination for participants to check-in, you are pulling into one place the same information that is posted to a user’s Facebook or Twitter feed but could be restricted by privacy settings. It’s safe to assume that individuals may have Tweeted or updated their Facebook status to say they were watching the TV special, but what if they had one destination where they could share this update and layer it over their personal social platforms? This gives the user a sense of community and the organizer a sense of how many people participated virtually.

-    Gain Insight And Build A Following: The individuals who opt-in to a virtual check-in are willing to vocalize their support of a cause and share that with others. A non-profit can use this information to gain insight of their online following, begin a conversation, and foster continued engagement.

Since audience engagement created by virtual check-ins isn't limited by walls or even time, the applications are endless. How do you see the use of virtual check-ins evolving?

And finally, below are some helpful reads for any nonprofit looking to explore the use of location based services:



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