Posts by Greg Bloom

Seriously, how do I know you?

December 28, 2007

Greg Bloom

Now that social networking (okay, let’s be honest: Facebook) has reached critical supermass, we have collectively stumbled across a new problem: the network (well, okay, Facebook) is too large, too loaded across social, professional, and generational lines, and too public for anyone to feel comfortable interacting in view of virtually everyone they know. When your exes, your boss, your aunts, and your little sibling’s friends (born in nineteen ninety what??) can all see your status, updating said status is often going to produce more anxiety than it’s worth. Similarly, high school friends are probably not interested in my essay on the democratic potential of social network sites for multi-directional political dialoguing among representatives and constituents; likewise, you don’t want your co-workers to see your “Spring Break Two Oh OH TWOOO!!!” photo album.

As a result, every week I hear social-network-naysayers unwittingly invoke boyd’s law:
The more people who come into your social network, the more likely you are to experience an awkward social encounter.

Facebook has finally taken a first step toward tackling this problem, with a new feature just rolled out last week: Friend Lists. Sort of like buddy lists – you can create lists of friends, message the lists, send event invites to the lists, and… well Facebook alludes to more functionality to come.

Allusions notwithstanding, this feature – which has been rumored for months – is at first glance rather underwhelming. It’s a barely-workable short-cut to functionality that would, if done right, profoundly improve the experience of social networking. Even assuming the addition of unknown features in the future (so that, presumably, you could tag a status update message or photo album so that it’s seen only by a set list of friends), it still sorta totally misses the point.

The point, by the way, should be impossible to miss: it pops up every damn time you add a friend, when Facebook asks you “How do you know this person?”  After a couple moments considering the options available to you, it’s clear that Facebook doesn’t even take this question seriously.

Currently, it offers options like:

Lived together
From an organization or team
From a summer/study abroad program
Hooked up
Met randomly

The details will then be visible when browsing through the list of your friends – and that’s about it. It’s not exactly robust. It’s not even that much fun to make jokes out of it, since it’s hard to remember the grammatical constructions that will result. For an enterprise that has matured rapidly since graduating from college, this feature is flat-out sophomoric.

Let’s imagine would it look like if “How do you know this person?” had evolved in step with the rest of Facebook. More appropriate and incisive questions would ask:

Have you lived in the same city before? Which one(s)?
Do you know them professionally? In what contexts?
Are you involved in the same activities?
Do you share the same interests?
ETC.

Currently, for the people I met at the 2007 Personal Democracy Forum, I have to wedge them into the “From an organization or team” or “From a summer/study abroad program” categories. It’s awkward and functionally irrelevant – so why bother? Most don’t.

But if these questions made sense outside of a campus, and if the information was actually accessible as you used the site, this process would automatically shape your social network into channels. Through these channels – some exclusive, some overlapping – you could communicate with people based on how you know them, sending and receiving information in much more flexible and precise ways. This would be infinitely more useful than the “limit profile” feature (which, when used, is more effective at insulting people than actually creating a sense of privacy). It would ultimately allow your behavior in social networks to be as fluid as your behavior in social meatspace: changing (subtly or drastically) to appropriately suit the context.

From this early vantage point, however, the Friends List feature leaves the work of constructing these channels up to the users. It’s not only cumbersome and clumsy (and its benefits unclear), but it’s conceptually backwards. The point should be that each contact has a meaningful set of social contexts. If that contextual information were made functional, the shape of one's network would form naturally out of all available contexts, rather than the arbitrary few that would come to mind if one were to try to divvy up friends into lists.

In conclusion: I’m impatient! And, okay, I understand little to nothing about how these computery things actually work—so maybe the social web that I have in my head is actually a technological generation away. But even if it wouldn’t be an easy thing to achieve, it’s still important (and deep) enough functionality that Facebook shouldn’t bank on third-party developers to figure it out. It very well may be the functionality that allows social networking to continue to increase in value, rather than constriction, to users.

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Read the Writing on the Wall

August 27, 2007

Greg Bloom

When Howard Dean “friended” Micah Sifry on Facebook, Micah announced his skepticism about the meaning of this relationship: “What kind of “meeting” is taking place here, between a famous person’s Facebook profile and college students?”

With all due respect, I think Micah’s question falls into the linguistic trap of whether social network “friends” really are your friends. If we set aside our notions of authenticity (that’s often a useful thing to do, anyways) we’ll see that what’s happening here is the establishment of a new channel of communication between a citizen and a political leader - nothing more or less. And that’s quite a lot.

Even if Howard Dean’s Facebook profile was managed by the DNC’s lowliest volunteer, that profile page still represents Howard Dean in a much more meaningful way than, say, howard.dean@dnc.org represents Dean. Much more to the point: if Micah was to say something to Howard Dean by posting on his Facebook wall, that interaction would be public – it would stick around (assuming it’s not deleted), and all of Micah’s social network could see that he said it, too.

The potential for this new channel of communication is actually quite profound – once you stop thinking about how politicians can use it to reach out to new citizens, and start thinking about how citizens can use it to reach out to their politicians. We’re talking about tossing around some really disruptive sheep.

By contrast, consider the sad little secret that’s well known around these parts: the most commonly used tactic of online advocacy—Email Your Legislator!—is quietly acknowledged to be of limited usefulness at best in leveraging politicians. Hill staffers will readily admit that the torrential floods of emails seem like spam and are treated as such. But those who run these email petition campaigns don’t seem to be deeply bothered by the ineffectiveness of their chosen tool - probably because email petitions are still the best way for them to build their own list, regardless of whether anyone in power ever sifts through them and reacts accordingly.

Now a post on a politician’s wall would do exactly what an email does not: it publicly manifests constituent sentiment within in a designated space, and this sentiment is even linked directly to the identity of the constituent. Super-Plus Viral Bonus: as the message is delivered to the political leader, it can also be simultaneously communicated to the active constituent’s entire social network.

At the Personal Democracy Forum last May, danah boyd urged the room of campaign technologists to consider online sites like MySpace and Facebook to be “networked publics,” rather than another platform from which to broadcast a message. Referring to the celebrities who’ve used MySpace to not just collect “friends” but interact with them and build incredible excitement through their presence, she asked: “Can this work for politicians?” She suggested that candidates make the rounds to the walls of “friends,” spending some time to give “digital handshakes on virtual receiving lines.” (Indeed, Wes Clark appears to have picked up the good habit of wishing his supporters happy birthday in this way.) danah, ever aware of her audience, was making a point to campaign professionals about how politicians’ networked presences can be useful for campaigns; but if she’d asked them to imagine how politicians’ presences could be useful to an aroused and networked citizenry, she might have freaked some of that audience out.

And this is why Facebook did something remarkable last year with their Election 2006 project, though it went virtually unnoticed at the time. All candidates running for Congress and state governors’ office were given “Elections” profiles. After the election, Facebook kept profiles up for all sitting U.S. Representatives, Senators and state governors. Some candidates’ staff took the opportunity to create a page and build a list of young supporters; a few candidates deleted these pages; many candidates ignored it entirely, and simply left a default page with minimal info and an American flag profile picture. For these special politician profiles, anyone can become “friends” without even needing approval. Most of the politicians have a couple hundred friends, and ten or so wall postings from fawning supporters. On many of the walls, there’s one or two supporters who have expressed support for a given piece of legislation or for a particular stance on an issue.

There is an opportunity here. For months now I’ve been getting on the losing side of arguments about the utility of the Change.org and Facebook Causes app – I’d pan them because they have adopted a narrow fundraising paradigm that doesn’t seem to me to fit right, but I’d lose these arguments because I never was able to verbalize what exactly these political activism applications should encourage. I don’t think I’m going to lose that argument any more! It sucks to be reminded that you’ve raised zero dollars to stop global warming—and may I say that it must somehow suck even more to be reminded that you’ve raised a cool ten dollars to stop global warming—but if I could show my friends how many politicians I’ve told to do something about global warming… well, I just might shoot my mouth off at politicians all day.

So much of what’s exciting about this aspect of social networking is still in the realm of the hypothetical. The robustness of these interactions will depend upon some pretty fine technical points (like, when I post on a Senator’s wall, how widely will that message be distributed through my friends’ feeds? What if the message gets deleted from the politician’s page – is there a way so that my network still sees that I posted it in the first place?) Presumably, staffers will keep their bosses’ profile pages sparkly clean; presumably, once they realize how disruptive these walls could be, many politicians would take them down entirely (although many others would learn to embrace it). On the other hand, future “political action” apps will surely augment the process and make the Facebook interactions between constituents and their elected representatives even more dynamic.

But at this very moment there are a whole slew of politicians on Facebook (and pretty much every presidential candidate is on MySpace) who, whether or not they know it, have invited constituents to engage in a brand new kind of dialogue. It’s exactly the kind of dialogue (direct, public, and scalable) that volunteer groups like Energize America and movements like Step it Up could use to direct their web-savvy grassroots energies and force their agenda in front of (or rather, a column over and down a bit below) their elected representative faces. I don’t think anyone has used this tactic yet (although I didn’t check every politician’s profile, and it’s a big internet – so if you’ve seen something like this that’s been done already, please share) but surely someone’s gonna “get it” soon, and there’s the potential for them to get it really, really right.

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Meet the New Organizing -- Same as the Old Organizing?

September 8, 2006

Greg Bloom

On the first day of the New Organizing Institute's August 28-30 summer training in Washington, DC, somewhere into the fourth or fifth hour of instruction on the fine craft of email fundraising, all the talk about response rates and the pursuit of the perfect Subject line started to lose me. After futtering around on MySpace for a while, I leaned over to the trainee beside me and asked: 

"Am I being impatient, naive, or just confused about who is meant to be here?" 

She looked up from some doodling, thought for a moment, and answered: "confused." Then she went back to doodling.
 
I considered my fellow trainee's answer for a while. Who, then, was meant to be here? Already I'd met several directors of young (even startup) non-profit organizations, and I’d met staffers from dinosaur NPOs; I'd met campaign managers, programmers, community organizers, a filmmaker, Carter-era consultants, and plain old (literally, old) "free-agent" volunteers.

By comparison, the NOI Training roster was deceptively close-knit, with sundry big names and lesser-known smarties whose credentials zig-zagged between the progressive net pillars—MoveOn, the Dean team, the DNC, the blogosphere, the consultants. The array was scattered yet inbred, like the credentials of the group that organizes and runs the NOI. Their mission: "to train and support a new generation of technology-enabled campaigners...[with] knowledge gained in the field of political technology and online organizing...[and] results-focused, systems thinking to make progressive campaigns and organizations more efficient."  

Accordingly, in the first hour we NOI attendees had been told that "online organizing [with] political technology" is all about "giving people options," and about creating a "trust network" through which campaigns can be open to feedback and grounded in accountability. But as that opening day passed through hours upon hours of lectures about email, those concepts were quickly, narrowly redefined—as one of our first trainers told us: "it’s all about the list."  

I felt increasingly impatient, but still wondered if I was just being naive. 

So, they want you to talk about wolves.

The training began with a heartfelt speech from a MoveOn volunteer coordinator. She had first engaged with political activism through MoveOn PAC's Leave No Voter Behind campaign in 2004, when she'd been recruited by one of MoveOn's field organizers; I was one of those organizers myself. This Super-Volunteer told the audience that the experience was "transformative" for her; in a rather different way, the same is true for me.

Though she didn't refer to this in her speech, MoveOn's Leave No Voter Behind campaign had actually become trapped, and partially crushed, by its own technology. The "Web Action Center" platform had been the spinal cord for the LNVB campaign -- a centralized command center that ultimately suffered total infrastructure collapse. As a result, we all learned an important distinction between "online organizers" and "organizers swimming with heavy monitors chained to their necks." Last month, at the end of an extended post-mortem of LNVB, I imagined a modernized, robust field campaign in which participants could use peer-to-peer online technologies to facilitate ground operations that are more productive than old-school command-and-control cages. Such a campaign exists, to my knowledge, only in the future.  

When Micah Sifry read that post and asked me to cover the NOI, it seemed to both of us that this training might be where the seeds of such a campaign are being planted. Go to DC, Micah told me, and see if the New Organizing Institute is really "exploring new ways of empowering grassroots members and activists as co-creators of political organizing efforts." (The NOI had announced that almost each session of its training about online organizing was to be "off-the-record"; that doesn't seem like a very realistic request, given the content and audience, but I'll try to respect it here.) 

The training spanned impressive boot-camp hours of 8:30AM to 6:30PM, over the course of three days. So forgive my impatience upon discovering  that almost the entire first day would cover MoveOn-style email fundraising. And imagine my sore naivete when we heard but one peep about the very idea of social networking -- and that peep was along the lines of: "if someone on your campaign wants to create a MySpace profile, that's fine -- but don't let it distract from the tasks at hand."  

At the end of the first day, we broke into groups and were given an assignment: for our campaign (actual or hypothetical), write the "key" email that would prompt the decisive step on our path to Victory.Pay special attention to the subject, the first sentence, the ask."ask."  My group leader was Kevin Thurman, a senior strategist with Blue State Digital, and he coached us with palpable relish:
 
"Your emails are telling a story. And every good movie has a ticking bomb of some kind or another. It has to be urgent. It has to practically scream "CLICK NOW!", and there has to be a good reason why they should take the time to do it right now. Remember that your supporters need to see online donation a form of activism -- a new way to participate. But you have to make it worthwhile for them."" 

I stayed behind when the session was over, and asked Kevin how an email campaign could really be about activism, or whether these were just techniques for top-down marketing. 

"Well that's kind of a 'when did you stop beating your wife' question, isn't it?" he asked with a laugh.  Then he made a convincing case for why I'd presented a false dichotomy: in a proper email campaign, he explained, recipients are communicating to the organization, even without writing a response. Their open rates are tracked; their clickthroughs are like votes for the particular message being clicked upon. A smart campaign will spend a lot of time reading and responding to what people write back, and it will regularly call its list-members, to speak with them in-person about its emails. "If you're doing it right, this is really like a conversation with your membership. You're figuring out what they want you to be talking to them about."

By the second day, I'd spoken with a number of trainees who were finding all the email instruction to be essential. "Email is just the bread and butter of what we do," I heard several times.

At least the bread and butter was getting spiced up with some sprinklings of hard data--for example, from the PowerPoint presentation by the vice president of a national environmental protection organization:  Wolf-focused tone [in email] increased donation rates by 29% in one segment.

Platforms and “Virality”

On the second day, my patience was rewarded almost immediately after the email seminars were over, during a show-and-tell of various web sites. Benjamin Rahn took us through his Act Blue, which seemed to singularly encapsulate why we were all here: in just a couple of years, the site has proven its usefulness as a fundraising tool -- not just for any and all would-be candidates, but for individual supporters as well. (Rahn made sure to note that a tool that can inspire said supporters to actually do the fundraising for their candidate is not built into the platform.) 

The brightest moment of all (IMHO) came when the plucky Working Assets folks showed off their brand-new Volunteer for Change, an event-sharing site for non-partisan activism. On Volunteer for Change, organizations can advertise their events, provide instructions and contact information, and prompt volunteers to invite their friends. When you sign up for an event on the site, you’ll be sent reminder emails -- a week before and a day before -- and thank-you emails afterwards. Heads snapped to attention across the room upon hearing that the thank-you emails ask volunteers to submit feedback on the event, and organizations' feedback rating is then compiled and displayed next to its event listings. Some organizers will fear this development for the same reason it delights me: an organization that lists an event on Volunteer For Change is going to have to take particular care that the event will make good use of its volunteers' time -- if it wants to be able to attract any volunteers in the future.

The rest of the day covered the basics of The Website--from simple definitions of Content Management System and Constituent Relationship Management platforms, to advice on managing the prickly human relationships that revolve around site construction and management. It had my attention, and a number of novices who actually had websites to build were watching rapt and anxious--while those trainees who’d had any prior experience in site-building were now the impatient ones. Tough crowd.

From my unscientific polling, some frustration seemed to linger in the room around the question of "What is online organizing?" The issue crystallized late in the second day, during Zack Exley's presentation,"Nothing is Viral (Sorry!)" His argument was, essentially, that the internet is not just some magical ether that can summon millions of dollars if you wave some wacky Flash on your site -- you still need a way to bring people there, and it's still going to take work. Exley's point was surely well-taken -- amusing stories abounded through the crowd of profound folly committed in the name of making something that can send a campaign "viral" (I even had one of my own). But amid all the deflation of hype, a more important point was missed. The internet does not have a Special Viral Tube that can funnel out to millions of people if you put something crazy into it, but this is still technology that's changing behavior, relationships, and culture. Extreme “virality” is just one very visible effect of how information is being transmitted in new ways. 

I was still impatient to hear about those ways. As one lifelong organizer (a "fuddy-duddy," in her own description) observed to me: "there's technical change, where you use new tools to do your thing, and then there's adaptive change, where you actually do new things with your new tools."

Day Three: The Super-Activists Will Rise

The shadow of MoveOn, which had fallen over the email sessions, loomed once again on the third day of the training. Talks about field ops and press relations were (at times explicitly) more concerned with a campaign's scale and timeframe, rather than its content and effect. Questions of content and effect were still raised -- but still in the margins, and in passing, and mostly by the trainees themselves. Alan Rosenblatt, Executive Director of the Internet Advocacy Center, finally acknowledged the potential of social networking sites (MySpace got a bullet point!) and actually landed right on the head of the matter ("We need strategies that will engage the activists to become stakeholders, rather than just worrying about how to get this information to them") at the very moment he was told that his time was up.

 Patience was again rewarded.  Amanda Michel, Communications Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law, gave a field-smart primer on what to do with 'Super-Activists' -- people who not only open your emails but read them all and will even do stuff if you ask them to. Up until now, the only thing we'd heard about Super-Activists was how to craft a fundraising email campaign so as not to piss them off through multiple requests for money. Michel hit a long series of important notes about how to craft and manage a volunteer program -- concrete goal-setting, patient training, thorough feedback, and firm protection (i.e., don't give out your volunteers' names to other people's lists).

And yet, almost all of her insights would have fit right in at an Old Organizing Institute. (Except, perhaps, for one particular point: If you don't give your Super-Volunteers something to do, they'll probably just do it on their own, and then it might not serve the campaign's objectives.) The question remained: how can technology generate more and better Super-Activists, how can it make them even more Super?

It took a blogger to grapple with it. Tim Tagaris told us that one of the true roles of the blog community in the Lamont-Lieberman race was lost amid all the talk of the "rise of the lefty bloggers." It’s not just that they were zealous and loud -- –and Tagaris was not just a blogger. He was an organizer, and his  Super-Activists worked together (without central command or even having met one another) to cohere into an open-ended hyperlocalized media machine so effectively that one Connecticut reporter stated that the LamontBlog (which up until recently was not affiliated with the campaign) is the first thing he reads every morning. And even though Tagaris didn't have a teachable lesson as to "how do you do it?," he didn't need one. He had results.

The Future Is When

In between sessions, NOI co-founder Judith Freeman told me: "We're always talking about those issues [like social networking, etc], and we plan to work on them in the future -- but we wanted this training to provide our trainees with the most effective ideas that can be brought to bear on this election." Indeed, by the end of the seminar, every trainee I'd spoken with had found something to be important, and each section had been important to someone. Everyone got their share of time for a one-on-one consulting mini-session -- for those who actually had campaigns to run, this was very helpful. And for what it's worth, Judith was serious about the NOI's plans for the future -- just a few days after the training, the NOI announced the initiation of RootsCamp, its version of the open-ended, genially radical BarCamp. RootsCamp will allow anyone with ideas or experience, not just a select group of trainers, to come together immediately after the upcoming election, to share what went right (or what went horribly wrong) and what they want to try next.  

That won't be a moment too soon. The day after we turn the corner on November 7th, right up the road will be 2008. NOI probablymade the right move by mostly dodging the questions this time, but there will never a "good time" to plop down and get it all figured out. The campaigns and organizations have to start asking the questions while doing the work. So I'll stay impatient, thank you very much. Hell, I'll even hang on to the naivete -- it might come in handy.

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