In recent days, Causes has left MySpace and IdeaBlob has shutdown. To some, these events were unimportant. In reaction to the Causes announcement, Economist bureau chief Matthew Bishop tweeted “Who knew it was on MySpace?” to which New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom tweeted back “No kidding.”
But to many people active in online social action communities, these events had deeper meaning. This is a guest post from Amy Sample Ward, NetSquared’s Global Community Development Manager
By Amy Sample Ward
The Effect on Community in Community Platforms
There’s something in the wind, other than in-coming winter, that has my attention. It’s something I can only wrap my mind around by talking to others and hope that this is a chance to further a very important conversation. First, let’s start at the beginning:
Causes Leaves MySpace
Two weeks ago, Causes, the application that lets individuals and organizations campaign and fundraise, removed itself and all Causes-related content/data from MySpace. (Read more about Causes leaving MySpace here.) This separation came with no public announcement, either before the move or when it happened, except for a very short email sent a couple days beforehand to account administrators as a warning. The message explained that Causes would be focusing on only providing service to the Facebook platform, encouraging any MySpace users that wanted to continue using the application to migrate, too. and then…
ideablob Shuts Down
By now, you may have heard about the very abrupt closedown of ideablob, a competition and promotion platform for entrepreneurs. Late last week, registered users, interested supporters and social changemakers participating in a funding competition were all greeted with the message below when visiting the ideablob website:
Users (whether they were people with a project in the competition, those that had voted to support an idea, or were general registered users of the site) received no notice that the closure was coming, or even when it happened. The only bread crumbs to find were some business reports about Advanta declaring bankruptcy, like this one, that don’t even mention ideablob. Here’s a bit of John Brennan‘s story (an ideablob member who was competition in the competition) from his comment on my original blog post:
"It’s upsetting that companies like this aren’t actually thinking or caring about the real people and ideas they are effecting. This week our idea was up for the sprint and in the top 3. Why did they even start the competition when they already were going through bankruptcy talks?"
What’s this mean to you as an activist, supporter, volunteer, changemaker, entrepreneur, innovator or *insert preferred title* online? Well, it means a lot. We can see (and learn a valuable lesson about) the way current ecosystem of social media works in regards to transparency, data, and community. To unpack this, let’s narrow in on each:
The lack of communication about the actual decision, but more so in the lack of communication about the development, direction and intention of Causes and ideablob indicates that transparency isn’t a part of the package. There are many who approach the online landscape with very different views than their offline business decisions. For example, if ideablob or Causes were a product offline, and you were a funder, an investor, or a consumer/user of ideablob or Causes as offline products providing no integral communication, you would probably not have ever considered participating/consuming. Just because you aren’t meeting offline, in real-time, in the same room with your supporters and the competitors in the ideablob competition, does not mean likewise that you do not need to know if the platform will even be around for your competition to finish. The transparency issue is a steep mountain to climb with social media. Unless you knew that ideablob was part of Advanta, and you were reading the business sections of the papers last week, you wouldn’t have had any idea ideablob was even considering discontinuing. But, transparency is even more than this, and really is a part of the Data and Community, too.
We can count our Twitter followers or how many people have commented on our blog post, or could have counted the number of supporters on Causes or voters on ideablob, but that doesn’t mean we connect with them. Now that Causes removed itself, it’s content, and any related data from MySpace, organizations cannot connect with their supporters who were using Causes. ideablob participants are locked out from seeing any comments or feedback on their ideas. The fact that access to data, whether it’s supporters’ email addresses, tracking actions taken, or anything else, is instantly gone should be a big alert bell to those working in a "networked" way via social media to grow their community. To connect with supporters, organizations and individuals working on projects will need to be sure that data gets back to them. How are you encouraging your supporters all over the web to connect with you directly? For example, when you post a message (whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, or even Change.org) telling your supporters that you’re ramping up for some big news, a new project or something else, include a link where they can sign up with you to be on the email/announcement list. When supporters sign a petition or take action on your organization’s behalf in social media platforms, include "thank you" and "learn more" links wherever possible that link to ways to connect directly with your organization, ensuring the contact information is in your database, not just Facebook’s.
In the Causes move, the issues around community are very clearly focused on the different demographic groups represented on MySpace and Facebook. With ideablob, it isn’t so much that groups are being separated/segregated, but entirely shut off. These events raise many questions and flags about diversity, opportunity, and even corporate decision-making. Communities on both platforms were clearly not part of the development and communications process, yet they were actively using the platform (for example, a grant from ideablob helped Epic Change implement a technology lab in a school in Tanzania). What is the difference between a community actively using a platform and one actively involved in the evolution of the platform? If a platform were to disappear, would the community be able to continue on? Perhaps so if it had been active in the development and direction (or, perhaps that would indicate that the platform would be more unlikely to disappear or at least not without notice)?
I don’t necessarily want to call for the communities on MySpace or on ideablob to call for the return of the tools. We can see by the issues raised above that the platforms weren’t necessarily operating in the best ethos anyway. But, I do want an arena for the communities to describe what they do want and be an integral part of the process to building and sustaining whatever that is.
How can this work? I can’t speak for others working in the "innovation sector," but at NetSquared we can’t emphasize enough that our Community is what drives us – whether’s it’s online or offline. Community feedback shapes everything from our goals to our website and everything in between. We are able to work as a small team on the organization side because of the passionate, collaborative, dedicated Community. For example, you can follow the website redesign process via the blog where the feedback and directives for the redesign, the people who stepped up to implement, and the step-by-step process have all been open and Community centered. This isn’t about creating a new splash page, this is involving the users in the design of the Gallery where their Projects are housed, showcased and voted on; involving bloggers in the design of the collaborative sharing space they contribute to already; involving Community members in telling us both the bad stuff and the good stuff, so we can work to make it everything they want.
As another example, the Net Tuesday network is now up to 56+ groups meeting every month around the world—a global network of events, bringing the NetSquared Community together offline—and growing in an entirely organic way. That doesn’t mean NetSquared’s perfect, by any measure, but it does mean that a quick abandonment isn’t in store. That also doesn’t mean that NetSquared is the *only* or the *best* place for absolutely everyone to find what they are looking for. It is, though, one example of trying to make it work.
Your invitation: Join this conversation. Tell me what the recent Causes/ideablob announcements means for our sector and for you. And share your ideas with your friends and colleagues to further the breadth of the conversation. The more voices the better! Here are some places to start:
- Evaluate your use of social media tools: do you encourage your supporters on other platforms to register on your website, ensuring you have their contact details?
- Evaluate your community: are you reaching a diverse community or operating in a silo?
- Evaluate your relationship with developers: are you using tools that allow you to surface suggestions, ideas, and useful functionality for development? Do you know what the plans are for the tools you are using?
I’m not sure this is a bad thing. The sector should and will continue to evolve, with only the strongest surviving. Too many nonprofits get too far from their core mission, and it’s not sustainable. For instance, if Causes determined that MySpace just wasn’t worth the ROI, then they were right to shut it down, especially if that means they can invest more in the Facebook platform.
In terms of social media and our community, I expect we will continually be forced to adjust and adapt our communications strategies. Right now Facebook and Twitter are hot, but there’s a reasonable chance that in 2010 we’ll completely give up on them and move to something else. Additionally, as the tools are learning to be more and more open, then the cost of switching, or connecting users from one network into another, is nominal.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think there is a difference we need to be clear about in this conversation between nonprofit organizations using the tools, and the companies developing/building/providing the tools. Organizations may be suffering from “mission creep” but nonprofits operate differently than companies building software.
I think you are right that Facebook and Twitter are hot “right now” and that the field of social media is evolving at a fast pace; who’s to say that next year something wont pop up that makes us all forget about the tools we “love” now, right? But, that’s exactly what I’m saying in this post: that because some tools may be hot and others not, and because most social media tools are being provided by companies that aren’t focused on changing the world or making the same social actions that the nonprofit community of users are, that we need to create/find ways to let the community speak and lead in the development instead of following.
The exchange that Sean aptly quotes between Matthew Bishop and Stephanie Strom is really telling. There are really two different ethos’ in collision. You could call it the commodification of innovation and of collaboration. And what is happening, is an exploration in real time of whether these two manifestations of ‘human potential 2.0’ can be effectively treated as market capital in a more or less traditional way, or whether it is baked into this new wave of collaboration-based innovation that the collaboration be transparent and community-driven.
I don?t know how this will play out. I wouldn?t bet against the forces of commodification. Their resources translate into attractive sites! People were on Ideablob because Ideablob offered attractions and off-the-shelf functionality. We know from our NetSquared experience how hard and expensive that is to accomplish. ‘Causes’ itself depends on numbers and the numbers come from the genius of Facebook and its team in building a functionality that attracted gigamillions.
On the other side of the ledger is the inchoate urge that seems to be bubbling globally to resist being commodified, to resist being controlled, to establish the terms of one?s own engagement.
I’d challenge your notion about “only the strong surviving” being a good thing. When folks are building tools / platforms that rely on the time and energy of innovators and change agents to be successful, they have an obligation to keep them informed and be responsive to their needs. When Causes / Ideablob ended their services, they left those folks in the lurch, without the data to keep in touch with their constituents. They put certain organizations and networks – in the case of Causes, networks and orgs more likely to serve racial and ethnic minorities – at a competitive disadvantage. Inexcusable, in my opinion.
Yes, the platform / tools may not have been the ‘strongest’ (a debatable point), but their strength is in no way a reflection on the folks who chose to use them. In a user-centric world, they committed a mortal sin.
Justin, I think you touch on an important aspect of this conversation: social media, is, after all, a strong part of the long tail! Can tools be measured simply by the number of users? Not in the long tail. Unfortunately, social change isn’t necessarily something (yet!) that every single user of the Internet is after. So the tools usage numbers would reflect that.
Thanks for adding to this conversation!
I’m not disagreeing with the “should’s” of Justin’s user-centric world, but I’m left with this thought: What consequences do ideablob/Advanta or Causes incur as a result of these recent moves?
While it would be great if all of these platforms were more altruistic and going in a coordinated direction, I don’t believe that’s likely to occur on any widespread basis. What is more important is that non-profits have the capacity and ability to quickly react to changing environments. This technology world is moving very quickly these days, and non-profits need to be able to change rapidly – or possibly as Amy said, actually help direct the flow.
I do agree with Justin that no-warning shutdowns are inexcusable, but unfortunately may be part of the casualties of our Great Recession.