Net Squared – the Mashup Olympics for Doing Good

N2Y3 - the dinner

Mashups for the greater good. Net Squared, year three: Nonprofit web innovators congregate.

Last month I was honored honored to be able to convene a Net Squared session on how to do community building using Flickr. My interest is in how people can build community and passion for their cause using the photo sharing site with or without integrating Flickr image feeds into an external site. The smart people in the room during the Flickr session had plenty of interesting challenges, questions and suggestions. It was fun and totally impressive.

To recap my own primary simple suggestion: If you want to get quality attention to your images (for their subject matter or their artistry or out of loyalty) try to give quality attention to other relevant image makers within Flickr. If you don’t you can stiil use the powerful toolset as an image (and short video) presentation platform, but you miss out on the even more amazing community-building aspects of Flickr, which is designed to be one of the great online social settings.

Net Squared is a project of the long-running CompuMentor organization, which originally got me online in 1990 when I was doing community outreach and donor relations work for a non-profit theater company that needed database help. CompuMentor got me a volunteer consultant who gave me a modem to make assisting me easier, and an email address back in that pre-web, all-dialup era. I became fascinated with the richness of the culture of The WELL which led me into a new world as well as a new career. They are responsible for Net Squared and Tech Soup, an ongoing support system thousands of non-profit organizations turn to for advice, free or inexpensive software and networking.

Check out the amazing projects — not just the winners of the grant prizes, but the whole array of finalists.

Watch for next year’s mashup challenge — the entries are getting better and better:


Online Community Business Forum in Santa Fe 2008

I’m writing up my notes incredibly late for this event, primarily because I ended up with a free evening and some thoughts on the gathering. One thing that is obvious after going to multiple events organized by Forum One is the nature of the ongoing community around these small conferences. Any successful run of conferences tends to create a community of regulars, and in this case they are regulars who know and care about how online community works. I’ve been fortunate to be on quite a run of attending Forum one events. The chicken and the egg of course is that I really enjoy the people who come back, as well as the new voices and thinkers who turn up.

I had thought I might be out of town this summer for another in the series, but last minute changes made it possible to sign up for the next one, the Online Community Unconference, next week. Last year’s unconf was terrific, and I can’t wait for this one. An unconference has the advantage of being almost utterly flexible, allowing all kinds of formats. Visionary presentations given to a handful or a crowd of other event-goers. Open round-robin discussions or brainstorms of any size addressing specific issues. Little breakout conversations that are the conference, and that others may wander into. An unconference will not be terribly interesting if there is not a lot of experience, enthusiasm and intelligence in the room at the start, and that’s why the community that has formed around all the Forum One conferences (including the more formal and the informal unconferences) leads to such satisfying events. It’s all about all the interesting and interested people there.  So what did we talk about?

Continue reading “Online Community Business Forum in Santa Fe 2008”

How Global is your Sympathetic Audience?

Noam Cohen wrote a New York Times story, The Global Sympathetic Audience in the Fashion and Style section, about caring for strangers over the net. (By the way, online sociology and psychology is fashion now? Hmmm. Still an orphan subject.) “Audience” not “community,” you’ll note, which was accurate and to the point in that context. I enjoyed the article for some noteworthy Twitter support stories, after it started off with a weird reference that is close to home.

Weird to read, because as a long time member of The WELL it is freaky to see Blair’s – or would that be Mr. Newman’s – suicide cited in the Times so many years later, without any details about the impact on the then emerging community at The WELL, or his peculiar role there.

As a newbie on The WELL at the time, I was shocked by the diverse set of reactions to Blair’s initial destruction of so much conversational content. The anger was the eye-opener. The violent disapproval quite few members expressed at his “vandalism” of hundreds of his own posts – not seen as a “suicide” until later at Blair’s death – confused and startled me at the time. What was only later seen as a “virtual suicide” pissed people off to a degree that presents a stark contrast to the Twitter support dynamics cited in the article.

People will likely tell a stranger not to commit suicide. However, if the “cry for help” is less obvious, people are sometimes judgmental, sometimes supportive. Your own global audience may be sympathetic to a specific action you describe, or they may be inappropriately harsh and critical because the stakes and the context is not clear or not universally agreed upon.

Howard Rheingold’s classic account of Blair’s death gives some of the context from up close (scroll to the bottom of that section). Guilt and blame fueled widespread rage. Newer members like myself were astonished at all the hidden subtexts and alliances that emerged. As Howard said, “the feelings ran just as high during the virtual part of the grieving rituals as they did during the face-to-face part — indeed, with many of the social constraints of proper funeral behavior removed, the online version was the occasion for venting of anger that would have been inappropriate in a face-to-face gathering.”

There are many stories from The WELL where people were sympathetic and deeply kind to strangers. There have been others where the kindness was not timely or well-distributed, and this was one of those. It’s a famous example, here in the times it was boiled down until all the humanity and insight was removed.

I’m thinking about the man’s family too — how odd years later to have a son or brother famous only as a suicide who deleted first. And my posting this may only make that dynamic a little worse, I know. I am sorry for extending any pain.

Our power to be kind is clearly equaled by our power to be cruel, using any technology we invent. It’s odd to see this complex, troubling example used in conjunction with the global kindness of strangers, but with a little context, it reveals the other side of the problem of seeking support from distant friends and kindred strangers.

International Bloggers Day for Burma

The eyes of the blogosphere are on Burma… will this mean anything?

I recommend this site:

Their use of a simple webpage opinion pole about what the international response should be is brilliant, naive or a bit of both. Some of the eyewitness accounts there have been stunning.

Ideas from Online Community Summit

Kim Baine after the session at Online Community Summit

I was pleased to attend Forum One’s Online Community Summit again this October. It’s not the wine country setting but the intoxicating ideas that bring me back for another year. For me some of the most exciting ideas on design and group behavior came out of the “Recent Research in Online Community” session.

Paul Resnick of the University of Michigan presented on design and group behaviors. He is starting a project to build an open design handbook on the web, based on actually testing and quantifying the gut design choices we make when designing for interactive groups.

Fundamental findings so far:

  • The ease of discarding identities does matter to the quality of discourse. (We all know in our gut that this degrades interactions, he designed a test and confirmed it.)
  • A “can’t trust newcomers” attitude grows if sockpuppets, reincarnation with another persistent identity and driveby posting are too easy.

Solutions and useful approaches include:

Continue reading “Ideas from Online Community Summit”

Do we all live on one massive social graph?

What if all human relationships were mapped, and if all your connections were always seamlessly available to you for some form of remote information sharing and communication? A good plan? This concept has been bouncing around more and more this year. Brad Fitzpatrick offers an enthusiastic overview of the idea in his hugely-viewed post “Thoughts on the Social Graph.”

I’m thinking about the patterns humans have made while socializing in other times and spaces. People have evolved with social and physical walls, borders, and segmented places where people can behave differently or be in different group contexts. We carry this desire to extend, block and retract our connections into our online interactions, so we create filtering, privacy controls and the ability to convene a new group and invite or exclude people.

Perhaps the most socially powerful online social context is the “Third Place” (as in the classic description of The WELL by Howard Rheingold.) We’ve all experienced some of that kind of scene at various times. It’s not home or work. It’s an interactive setting. It’s relatively open to newcomers. It’s informal. It’s not a confessional or a therapy session. It might not work for you if you dragged your boss, therapist, priest or parent in via an underlying grid of all your social relationships. It works because it is not universal or enduring, and parts of your graph are dark to people in other parts of it.

Historically, that great good pub in the village, while beloved and important, was not a place for blanket confidentiality. However, it was a place where there were certain understandings, and where the things you had talked about once you might not be talking about now because of who’s here or who you might have had a falling out with. It was easier to adjust with a smaller number of connections, face to face in real time. Those adjustments are still needed.

Groups of people have mixed degrees of cluefulness about what to gossip about, and when to be silent. Continue reading “Do we all live on one massive social graph?”

Flickr Led Directly To This

Now Showing at the CPUC, originally uploaded by fotogail.

Please come to our party Thursday September 20th. Thanks to the encouragement of talented friends in the Flickr Community and to WELL pals arto & kayo, we’re hangin’ in the public sector.

Art Siegel (artolog) and I are proud that our photos were selected for display at the California Public Utilities Commission as part of their Art on the Walls program. Kay Hardy (yuzu) encouraged us to apply, and we were accepted. Kay has been amazingly supportive of getting out there.

Please come to the reception:
Art on the Walls
California Public Utilities Commission HQ, at
505 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, near city hall.
Thursday September 20, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm

PS… There will be a little after-gathering from about 8:00pm at Olive Bar and restaurant up the hill a bit at 743 Larkin, near O Farrell Street, since there are no libations in the halls of the CPUC building.

Here are all the photos in their original form and full dimensions:

1. here comes the wet season, 2. grids, 3. bus pool, 4. night ripples, 5. pebbled water, 6. after the cloudburst, 7. evening sky trek, 8. three rocks, 9. sea foam nebula, 10. bucket of sun

Another very good friend from the Flickr community, Bruce Grant, was responsible for me having printed water images from last year’s “Haunted By Waters” show, which made this easier. Bruce is a great inspiration to me in my flickr and vimeo aspirations.

Thanks Kay and Bruce!

Facebook cautionary tales: When Hubs Collide

Last night I was at a meetup at TechSoup for Online Community professional types, and there was an engineer from Facebook on hand. People were talking about the desire to spam for good causes within Facebook versus various privacy questions, when somebody told a fascinating story from a user perspective.

She’d been logged into Facebook late, added a few friends and networks, dozed off on the couch, woke in the morning to see that she had connected the dots and outed a young man to key people in his home town, to his horror. Facebook networks are not always easy to grasp. “Chicago” as a network is not the same thing as a college campus.

She also said she never would put resume info or a work network up, despite working in a field where social networking is part of career life. For her, Facebook is a walled garden. Except that it’s not, so much.

This was an interesting case. Whenever you don’t know that you’ve just given permission for people to learn about your friends, networking gets most interesting and unpredictable. The outcome could be positive or negative, but the one making the connections has no idea what’s been opened up within the friends information permission architecture. You are not connecting friends, you are connecting friends of friends, or little sociogram hubs.  Each social networking platform behaves a little differently, and everyone’s in a hurry to fill out yet another profile and list of friends.

I asserted that by making mistakes, we will all get better at being semi-transparent, and learn to set instinctive limits for our candor. Not a recipe for disaster, and perhaps even a way to make the world more forgiving.

What a social experiment! What a time.

Civilty, codes of conduct and sustaining community

(“community isn’t instant but..” – photo by me, as fotogail)

I’ve commented on Civilty Smackdown 2007 (starring Kathy Sierra, Chris Locke, Tim O’Reilly and scores of other thoughtful people)  in discussions within The WELL itself, so it’s time to summarize here for anybody to read. (Fellow members of The WELL, see in the Blog Conference, topic 113 — entitled “a blog code of conduct?” for that continuing conversation.)

Yesterday I took some time and responded at length on O’Reilly Radar, saying:


Tim, I respect and understand the idea behind this. Because of my experience and background in dealing with non-anon expression and accountability, this brings up a flood of concerns and suggestions.

After 15 years in management at The WELL, in a context where there is close to no anonymity, paid participation, and twenty two years of debate about what Stewart Brand’s famous WELL aphorism, “You Own Your Own Words” or YOYOW really means to participants and volunteer conference hosts, some things that seem simple turn out to be more complex.

At The WELL we see an astonishing range of civility and bluntness among our conferences, where the same people play rougher in different arenas. We also see teasing that doesn’t bother the participants who are pals but looks rude to strangers. You probably would not find any hosts willing to put up a sheriff badge. If you go back to the model of hosting a dinner party, the range of styles and behaviors are almost infinite.

Your proposed “sheriff badge” icon is pretty much asking for rebellion and mockery.

Aside from that, it’s a cold image to present in terms of our wanting to welcome guest contributors, friends and community. Obviously that varies depending on blog popularity, and of course the graphic can be changed.

Perhaps a slightly more flexible and thoughtful commitment to moderation along wth a more inviting badge of hostship would help as an addition, or even a replacement, to this wild-west sheriff stance.

Requiring an email address in the world of free and disposable addesses is a little hurdle, but we all know it is not an identity guarantor. Getting a credit card, payment, mailing address, etc. adds a little more hurdle, but at some level pseudonimity is still in the mix. If the hurdle and the peer scrutiny are at a good level, people will still bother to join and behave with accountability, but some will still be assholes. My feedback: don’t over-idealize the beneficial effects of non-anonymity, though they can be powerful, and don’t define anybody with an email address as non-anonymous, either. Too much potential confusion!

Taking responsibility for the comments of others is very interesting. This is where it makes sense to look at the legal context. I don’t think all bloggers can be expected to understand defamation law, frankly. Is it fair to ask them to say they will behave with the liability of a publisher or editor? (I’m looking forward to discussing with some legal experts!) Not wanting to make new laws doesn’t make existing real world laws go away, and we can’t forget that.

Also, there is the question of time. Does the sheriff badge mean comments must be pre-moderated, or is there an assumption that spammy trollish crap could go up and and may be looked at or decided on later?

Backchannel private communications can be helpful, but it’s a judgment call when to do them, and promising to always do them can set you up for being gamed by a group who demand more backchannel attention than you can give, for example. Maybe unconsciously, maybe not.

Finally — because this has gotten long and I have got to get some work done — check this out, from (Adapted from some great advice from former WELL host John Hoag and others, and intended for application within a non-anon environment):

Whatever rule you make, someone will eventually question it — even if it is “no rules at all.” The most casual glance at human history shows that humans love making rules and arguing over them…

There are, however, ways to avoid some of the more common rule pitfalls. If you feel your place needs a special rule, take care to consider its fairness before implementing it and try to imagine how it might be circumvented. Words are a malleable medium, and they can be made to say things by inference, innuendo, and ambiguity which are very hard to pinpoint. Suppose you set up a place in which you wanted everyone to be nice to each other, and you made a rule saying just that. You might have a difficult time enforcing it because language can be made to imply something unkind even while saying something ostensibly respectful. Excessive niceness, through hyperbole, can even convey an insult. Rather than creating a rule, you may want to depend on the direct yet respectful approach, calmly asking people to clarify whether an insult was actually meant, and making it possible to save face …

Sorry for blurting out a mini-tome. I feel like I have been stewing in these issues for eons now. Thanks for your thoughtfulness, and best luck.


It would have been all too easy to go on… what happens if you display a blog badge and say you will moderte, but somebody feels you didn’t live up to it? Is that false advertising? Etc, etc.

This is a very old argument, online and through history. The discussion of how civility and kindness can be cultivated is valuable even if cut and dried answers are awfully elusive.  Human interaction is messy.  The main thing is to to try to elevate the quality a little bit, as a moderator or as a participant, whenever and wherever  you can.