THE POWER, PERIL AND POTENTIAL OF NETWORKS
By Diana Scearce
created by Monitor Institute
© 2011 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, all rights reserved
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial 3.0 License.
Ten years ago, a tiny web site asked people to volunteer to write their own encyclopedia. Today, Wikipedia is the most widely used reference work in the world. Rapid advances in digital media and technology are changing how we connect to information and each other. The way we engage in public dialogue, coordinate, solve problems—all of it is shifting. New networks are emerging everywhere. It’s exciting—and frightening. What is this new network-centric world? What does it mean for community change?
These questions matter to us because our work at Knight Foundation hopes to create informed, engaged communities. We see digital technology changing our relationship to news and information from that of passive consumer to active participant. We see new civic attitudes and competencies, with individuals less eager to defer to traditional institutions. As we work at the intersection of media innovation and civic engagement, we see the trends of increasing interdependence, decentralization and transparency. How might our grantmaking respond effectively to a world in which loose networks of individuals, not just formal organizations, are becoming powerful creators of knowledge and action? What default practices should we discard and what new behaviors should we embrace? We asked our partner, Monitor Institute, to take a critical look at the role of networks in community life. Our lens was apolitical. We were not looking for prescriptions for how citizens and government should interact. Rather, we were interested in the potential of networks—to create stronger bonds or to split us apart. This essay highlights groups that are creatively connecting citizens METHODOLOGY who are making a difference today, and explores how technology A massive body of knowledge about might impact public participation and leadership in the future. networks exists—about network and The pages are rich with useful examples and lessons about complexity science, about using social how networks are unlocking assets in communities to support media to catalyze networks, and about network effects across sectors and in our open government, care for the elderly, help disaster victims and everyday lives. This report does not attempt advance women’s rights. Throughout, the report considers the to recreate or summarize that foundation. role philanthropy can play in harnessing the best network-centric Rather, it builds on that body of knowledge practices, the ones that might unleash individual interactivity to in order to better understand what’s working today, look to the future and recommend achieve social impact at a scale and speed never before possible. We have derived much value from this work and hope that it also has meaning for you. We believe there are considerable insights here that will be of interest to those involved in community change—grantmakers, nonprofits, journalists, activists and individuals. Though some of the examples may soon seem quaint, given the rapid pace of change, it’s our hope that the provocative ideas will have staying power—and spark a conversation about how we can strengthen communities by better understanding and strategically supporting networks.
steps for supporting a networked citizenry in achieving its potential for good. In order to accomplish this, Monitor Institute interviewed thought leaders, on-theground activists pioneering network-centric practices, and grantmakers committed to effective support of networks (see page 48 for a complete list of interviewees). We also developed scenarios by crowdsourcing input through an open survey and engaging Knight staff in framing stories of the future.
Introduction: How Will the Network Age Affect Communities?
The world is becoming increasingly interconnected. How can we ignite the good and mitigate the bad that can come from an increasingly interconnected citizenry?
Seeds of the Future: Connected Citizens Today
Rich and diverse citizen-centered experiments are under way. Looking across them, we find an emerging set of network-centric practices that are making a difference today and hold promise for citizen engagement and community information in the future:
Listening to and Consulting the Crowds Designing for Serendipity Bridging Differences Catalyzing Mutual Support Providing Handrails for Collective Action
Glimpses of 2015: Connected Citizens Tomorrow
How will citizens be connecting and creating community in the coming years? There are some factors we can count on and many questions about what’s next that can only be answered with time. We combine these premises for the future and open questions to create three sketches of what the world might look like in 2015 and then explore what these future possibilities could mean for social change and philanthropy.
How Philanthropy Can Make a Difference
Grantmakers can be the spark that ignites the potential of networks for good. We offer recommendations for how funders can take action to tap that potential by:
Embracing a Network-Centric Mind-set Providing Network-Centric Supports Contributing to Learning
42 43 47
Conclusion: A Vision for Connected Citizens
What is the future that grantmakers can help create?
Tips and Tools for Network-Centric Grantmaking
To get started tapping network potential and acting on the recommendations, we outline a few tips and tools, including:
Questions to Consider and Pitfalls to Avoid When Investing in Networks Additional Resources for Understanding and Investing in Networks
Glossary Credits and Sources Endnotes
HOW TO READ THIS DOCUMENT While we hope you have the time and inclination to read this essay from start to finish, we recognize that different readers will be attracted to different sections. We’ve organized it to allow readers to jump from one section to another in the order that interests you. If you’d like to dig deeper, we encourage you to read the expanded online edition of the paper available at www.connectedcitizens.net. It includes additional stories of networks in action and data about future trends that our research uncovered, along with space to share experiences and insights of your own. We hope the stories in this report and your contributions will begin to build a library of stories about networks for good.
How Will the Network Age Affect Communities?
Over the past few decades the world has become far more interdependent: People, things, money, information and ideas rapidly move across boundaries of all sorts.
It’s also an increasingly decentralized world, in which the actions of strangers can affect our lives as though they were friends. Activists can assemble large groups of like-minded volunteers in minutes. Donors can find and support grassroots efforts on the other side of the globe with ease. And we’re experiencing unprecedented levels of transparency, as we share more and more information about our actions, our preferences and ourselves, knowingly and not. What’s less clear at this point is whether this interconnectedness, decentralization and transparency is—and will be—good or bad for the health of communities. On one hand, misinformation can spread instantly; empowered individuals can wreak havoc in ways never before imagined; and, strongmen can use open access to information to their advantage. In late 2010, rumors that President Obama’s upcoming visit to Mumbai would cost $200 million per day spread virally—even after being debunked by government officials. Loose groups of Internet vigilantes called (and acting) “Anonymous” shut down the Visa and MasterCard websites for hours in retaliation for the companies’ refusal to process payment to WikiLeaks.1 The open flow of communications among protesters on platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be co-opted by authoritarian governments, as we saw in the case of Iran, to repress uprising.2 On the other hand, the increasing connectivity creates new possibilities for positive and widespread social change. When Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sameer Bhatia discovered he had a rare form of leukemia, his friends organized an online campaign to register 24,611 new bone marrow donors in search of a match—24 times the number
In the face of such uncertainty, philanthropy is in a unique position to influence this future and invest in creating the conditions for positive citizen engagement.
of donors that patients are usually able to muster.3 The Ocean Conservancy’s annual Coastal Cleanup has become one of the largest volunteer events in the world, growing from a single site in Texas to a global coordinated effort that mobilizes nearly half a million people in 45 states and 108 foreign countries to remove 7.4 million pounds of trash from beaches and waterways.4 Even with the total Internet blackout during the protests against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, protesters were able to make their voices heard by making a phone call and recording a message that was then tweeted for all to see.5 As Bill Clinton said, “[Interdependence] could be good, bad or both, and today it’s both. My simple premise is that the mission of the 21st century is to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of interdependence.”6 For grantmakers, the question is not whether we live in a networked world. We do. The question is how to ignite the good that can come from a networked citizenry and mitigate the bad, for there’s ample evidence that the complex social problems of the 21st century can be addressed only through networked solutions that bring together the input and action of many citizens. In the future, we can be sure that people will be more connected and better able to rapidly share information of all kinds as technology advances. The potential for civic engagement and individual empowerment will only increase, as our interdependence changes how we approach everything from service delivery to daily communications to leadership. Yet there are downsides to this interdependence as well. Network connections can be used to hoard power rather than distribute it. Living in dense and information-rich webs presents real dangers of narrowing rather than broadening our worldviews because we’re forced to filter in order to manage the overwhelming amounts of information. Therefore, the future of connected citizens is highly uncertain. What will be the quality of the new citizen engagement? Will our public conversations be more polarized and fragmented, as people choose to connect with others who are like-minded? Or will we see more bridging of differences? With growing digital connectivity increasing the possibilities for borderless communities, will citizens have stronger or weaker ties to their neighbors? Finally, how widespread will the skills be for artfully using the tools to channel this wealth of connectivity toward social change? In the face of such uncertainty, philanthropy is in a unique position to influence this future and invest in creating the conditions for positive citizen engagement.7 This essay examines how funders can help individuals make a positive difference in their communities and the world amid increasing levels of interdependence, decentralization and transparency. We start by looking at leading-edge practices for promoting community engagement and quality information in this networked context. Next, having examined these seeds of the future, we take a longer view and explore what the world might look like for connected citizens as soon as 2015. We paint three future
scenarios and consider in each the implications for those who want to support strong communities and a healthy democracy. In the final section, we return to the present and offer pragmatic near-term recommendations for grantmakers who want to channel their resources and leadership toward harnessing the power of networks for civic engagement.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY NETWORKS AND NETWORK-CENTRIC? The word “network” means many different things. Our working definitions are:
network-centric practice, noun: Tools
and strategies for strengthening, creating or leveraging network connections. The question often comes up: Do networks have a purpose? Our answer is no: they’re simply the relationships we’re embedded in. As such, networks themselves don’t express political perspectives—conservative, liberal or moderate. But activists can spread ideas and ideologies through network structures and grow groups of people who share a political bent. And strengthening network ties within a group can be a powerful means of aligning and mobilizing action around shared social goals.
network, noun: A group of people who are
connected through relationships. In this essay, we are focusing on loose networks of individuals that are coproducing information, knowledge and action; integrating online and offline strategies; and, bridging differences across communities. We are looking at both networks that are place-based and those that cut across geographies.
network-centric,8 adjective: A way
of organizing that is transparent, open and decentralized. In previous writing, this is what we have called “working wikily.”9
Seeds of the Future
Connected Citizens Today
“The way you explore this space is the way life happens. There are a lot of experiments and most of them die. The ones that work find an advantage in the environment. They suddenly make energy out of light, and that makes everything possible.”
– HOWARD RHEINGOLD10
Social networks are as old as human society. Everyone participates in networks: In our families, schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. For many activists, from Mahatma Gandhi to current Tea Party leaders, understanding networks, linking together citizens and harnessing the power of network connectivity has been core to creating social impact. Today there are countless venues where citizens can connect with one another, nurture networks, and create change for themselves and their communities. Many of these efforts were novel experiments just five to ten years ago. The crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi was piloted in 2007 and is now critical to relief efforts in crisis situations. Facebook has grown from zero users in 2004 to 600 million, or nearly one out of every ten people in the world.11 This story of an increasingly networked citizenry is also about face-to-face relationships. Saddleback Church, for example, has grown from 200 churchgoers in 1980 to 20,000 attending weekly services at the megachurch’s southern California campus in 2011.12 Its growth and sustained participation have been driven by the strong ties that are nurtured through small clusters of members who regularly come together.13 Small efforts to connect and empower people today could be transformative in just a few years.
As open communications technologies—from blogs to wikis, tags, texts and tweets— become increasingly widespread, a network-centric stance toward leadership that favors decentralization and transparency is being engendered.
What’s driving the growing potential for impact through citizen-to-citizen connection? A fundamental shift is under way in how people think, form groups and do their work. As open communications technologies—from blogs to wikis, tags, texts and tweets— become increasingly widespread, a network-centric stance toward leadership that favors decentralization and transparency is being engendered. At the same time, technologies for visualizing collections of relationships are making the abstract concept of networks visible and more easily understood. And the tools are only part of the story. Throughout history, social change has been possible only through the contributions and dedication of many citizens. Today’s network-centric citizen engagement builds on existing know-how, drawing in particular on grassroots community organizing and the open-source software movement. Let’s look for a moment at the roots of today’s potential. From the community organizing world, for instance, United Farm Workers (UFW) and its visionary leader César Chávez achieved impressive gains by connecting the interests and energy of many workers. Since the 1900s large-scale agriculture in the United States has relied on migrant labor and the ability to pay low wages to an unorganized workforce. In 1965, when 800 Filipino grape workers striking under the aegis of the AFL-CIO joined forces with 2,000 Mexican workers and the UFW, a significant civil rights movement began to take shape. Organizing continued steadily in the fields and spread to the cities. By 1970, UFW succeeded in getting many big agricultural producers to accept union contracts, which stipulated gains like a health plan, a credit union and higher wages, and in the process organized the workforce into 50,000 dues-paying members. Working in a different time and context, the development of the Linux operating systems was made possible by harnessing the power of loose groups around a shared interest. Linus Torvalds decided in 1991 to build a PC version of the powerful UNIX operating system. He posted all of his code to an Internet newsgroup and within a month over 100 people were contributing to the project. The network of volunteers continued to grow, building the code steadily towards a full operating system, released in 1994. The project snowballed from hundreds to thousands of contributors, and by 2000 Linux was running over a third of the Internet’s websites. Chávez and Torvalds were operating from different playbooks and passions. But both were connecting large groups of people together to work toward something they passionately cared about—workers’ rights and open software—and, in the process, aligning and coordinating their individual efforts to make a collective impact. Both models offer valuable lessons for community change today. Community organizing at its most authentic and effective frames the issue at hand in partnership with the people affected; it is led and controlled by the community; there is a deep attention to relationships; and leadership for the movement is nurtured from this base.14
Successful open-source projects harness software developers’ energy to create elegant software in community with others who share the same passion. Using transparent organizing systems, open-source projects empower people to experiment together. They also follow clear norms for collaboration and put in place governance structures to sustain this process—to name just a few of many ingredients for their success.15 Taken together, open-source projects and grassroots collective action are important sources of inspiration for 21st-century civic engagement, enabling us to combine the creativity and transparency of open innovation with community organizing’s relational abilities and courage to confront power. In this section, we explore citizen engagement today and strategies that are helping citizens connect, make their voices heard and take action. We studied more than 70 experiments—mostly in the United States and some in other countries—that are helping individuals make the change they want in the world. We focused our inquiry on projects that are embracing a network-centric approach—a way of working that is open and decentralized. Some of these projects have just launched and others have been evolving for several years. Many of them are technologically enabled. Others are rooted in in-person relationships. Most combine online and offline interaction, as well as insights from the open-source movement and grassroots organizing. All of them are about making connections. We were scouting for practices that are worthy of attention as possible harbingers of citizen-centered social action in the coming years. Looking across these 70-plus projects, we noticed the following patterns of network-centric practices that are already working today, and could be promising for future civic engagement: Listening to and consulting the crowds: Actively listening to online conversations and openly asking for advice. Designing for serendipity: Creating environments, in person and online, where helpful connections can form. Bridging differences: Deliberately connecting people with different perspectives. Catalyzing mutual support: Helping people directly help each other. Providing handrails for collective action: Giving enough direction for individuals to take effective and coordinated action. Like the projects we studied, some of these practices are long established, others are newer, and all represent alternatives to traditional ways of getting things done. (See sidebar: Traditional & Network-Centric Practices.) These are not stand-alone models. Projects using a network-centric approach are likely to embrace many such strategies at the same time.
Taken together, opensource projects and grassroots collective action are important sources of inspiration for 21st-century civic engagement, enabling us to combine the creativity and transparency of open innovation with community organizing’s relational abilities and courage to confront power.
We now take a close look at each of these practices in turn—the underlying theory and pros and cons. For each practice, we’ve included a few illustrative cases and called out a handful of practical lessons learned that are worth trying out in other contexts and across sectors. While the field of network-centric civic action is rich, it’s still in its early days. Most of the projects we looked at are experiments, just a year or two underway. Therefore, in the sections that follow we are not describing best practices. We are articulating emerging practices, in the hope that social change makers will use these observations to grow and evolve this high-potential field.
TRADITIONAL AND NETWORK-CENTRIC PRACTICES We’ve outlined below how network-centric approaches compare to traditional, default approaches to addressing a given challenge. The point here is not to create a dichotomy, suggesting the common method is bad and the network-centric alternative good. It depends on the situation. In fact, traditional and network-centric practices are often combined or used side by side. In the coming years, skillfully blending the two will be an important leadership ability. The question to consider is: Are there opportunities to break out of default ways of working and experiment with network-centric approaches that may deliver increased scale and impact?
CHALLENGE TRADITIONAL PRACTICE NETWORK-CENTRIC PRACTICE
Inform designs and decisions Connect a community with shared interests Build social capital Match community needs with available assets Organize community action
Gather input from trusted advisers Hold a structured conference Connect with people who are like you Provide services to those in need Organize a consensusdriven coalition
Listen to and consult the crowds Design for serendipity Bridge differences Catalyze mutual support Provide handrails for collective action
Listening to and Consulting the Crowds
For leaders of social change making decisions that impact outside stakeholders or the public at large, there are new opportunities to cast a wide net for input and advice, and to do so fast.
While decision makers have always been able to consult the public through vehicles like town halls and public-interest surveys, it is now possible to pose a question or request using e-mail, text messaging and social networking platforms to however many people you want or are able to listen to, and receive immediate feedback. In addition to real-time access to a potentially massive and diverse collection of minds, experiences and perspectives, consulting crowds of those concerned can confer added legitimacy on the process and increase support for the final product or decision. In addition to starting conversations, you can also follow the conversation with ease. Often, it’s equally or more important for decision makers to first listen closely and then ask for input by joining an existing conversation on blogs, Twitter or other open platforms.16 Listening to the crowds is important when you’re entering a new field and working to understand diverse perspectives on a given topic. Consulting the crowds is especially useful when brainstorming possible solutions: You can lay out your situation candidly and receive input from a wide-range of sources, which can reveal blind spots. It is equally helpful when you need input from people with specialized knowledge who fall outside your personal contacts. Of course, crowds aren’t always the answer. Gathering input has traditionally been done by reaching out to the people you know, and tapping personal social networks for trusted advice isn’t going away. Furthermore, since the input you get from the crowds is shaped by who’s participating, a diversity of perspectives may not be reflected and there’s always a risk that the loudest or most shocking messages will grab attention.
In addition to realtime access to a potentially massive and diverse collection of minds, experiences and perspectives, consulting crowds of those concerned can confer added legitimacy on the process and increase support for the final product or decision.
No doubt, it’s better to “smartsource” rather than crowdsource when you know what the question is and who to ask for an answer. However, it doesn’t have to be either/or. There are options that blend trusted advice and the wisdom of the crowds.
No doubt, it’s better to “smart-source” rather than crowdsource when you know what the question is and who to ask for an answer. However, it doesn’t have to be either/or. There are options that blend trusted advice and the wisdom of the crowds. For example, the Public Insight Network, discussed in detail below, draws on the expertise of many while making it possible for journalists to target their requests and build trusted relationships with participants.17
case study: Give a Minute
“An easy way to lock up bikes.” “Tax break for not owning a car.” “Cleaner train cars.” Chicagoans have posted thousands of ideas in response to an open call for input on how to increase walking, biking and the use of public transportation in their city. This exchange was made possible by Give a Minute, a public-input platform piloted in Chicago in November 2010. The formula is simple: The city poses a call for ideas, citizens post their suggestions on the website or send them in by SMS, and they’re read and responded to by the local agencies, nonprofits and other civic groups working on the issue. Citizens are asked the question on billboards, an idea they post shows up immediately on the website, and the city’s top leaders respond to at least one insightful concept each day. The result has been 2,893 suggestions as of January 2011, of which 97 percent were on-topic. The most common: Heated bus stops, better train security, discounts on monthly passes, more bike lanes and better clearing of multiuse paths in the winter. The Chicago Transit Authority will incorporate them all into its policy making this year.18 In contrast to focus groups, public meetings or other standard tools for gathering input, Give a Minute offers citizens the opportunity to voice their opinions without having to dedicate hours to the process. The intention is to help civic leaders listen to the community’s ideas for targeted local improvements. The postings and any exchanges are transparent, making it possible for community members to learn from one another and see for themselves that their input is being heard. Give a Minute’s service is being rolled out to cities across the United States for input on a wide range of issues.
case study: Public Insight Network
American Public Media’s Public Insight Network builds committed relationships between newsrooms and a network of volunteer sources, making it possible for journalists to gather input quickly from a broad or targeted group. Participating newsrooms place a button on their websites encouraging visitors to fill out a profile and become a source. Sources are then tapped by the newsrooms, through open calls for input or more targeted inquiries to subsets of the network that share an attribute such as profession, expertise or location. Responses from sources are shared via email and live conversations. Public Insight Network then thanks the sources and explains how their input was used, thereby deepening the sources’ pride of participation. It’s a two-way relationship. Reporters get access to a vast network of sources eager to contribute, and sources have the opportunity to make their voices heard. Sources are never targeted for advertising or contacted for reasons other than their original commitment: To provide input to journalists. Created at Minnesota Public Radio in 2003, Public Insight Network was adopted by the American Public Media business program “Marketplace” in 2005 and opened to other newsrooms in 2007. It is now expanding quickly, with a source network of more than 100,000 people and 30 partner newsrooms at the end of 2010. Input from the network contributed to more than 350 news items in 2010 at Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media alone.
LISTENING TO AND CONSULTING THE CROWDS
Make participation fast and easy. Give a Minute integrates public participation into citizens’ busy lives by asking that they simply “give a minute” during their regular activities, like texting or surfing the web. Show you’re listening. Journalists using the Public Insight Network build trusted relationships with sources by telling them how their input made a difference. City officials using Give a Minute respond frequently to contributors, and their responses are posted online for all to see. Develop a clear contract with
“The Rise of Crowdsourcing”
The article that coined the term, describing the new ways that people were beginning to use online tools to structure projects around the contributions of many people with varying degrees of expertise.
Jeff Howe, Wired Magazine, June 2006. online: http://j.mp/gvt8jj.
“Working with Crowds”
A chapter in The Networked Nonprofit that explores a range of ways to tap input from a large group as part of work on social change.
Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, The Networked Nonprofit, Chapter 8. June 2010. slides online: http://j.mp/hqQEXk.
participants and abide by it.
Participants in the Public Insight Network are more willing to sign up to offer expertise, trusting that they won’t be spammed with advertising or other unrelated communications.
Building on their thesis in Wikinomics that collaborative innovation is transforming business, the authors argue here that it likewise has the potential to address our greatest social challenges.
Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, September 2010. online: http://j.mp/h4JEMV.
Designing For Serendipity
To grow a network is to create new relationships and deepen existing ones. This happens when people come together, online and in person, in inviting environments where there are opportunities for good things to emerge.
Designing for serendipity means creating spaces that focus more on people and less on specific results. Such environments welcome people and make it easy to connect with others and with new ideas and resources.
People are often brought together in environments with rigid structures organized around predesigned outcomes, like a training program or an industry conference. Yet, in many cases, the most valuable interactions happen outside or in between the planned sessions—an unexpected conversation with someone you sat next to during a panel presentation or an introduction made during the coffee break. Designing for serendipity means creating spaces that focus more on people and less on specific results. Such environments welcome people and make it easy to connect with others and with new ideas and resources. They are designed to optimize for good fortune, increasing the likelihood that people will bump into others sharing similar interests—or goals. This might happen in a shared workspace, over dinner, in a foyer, a “room” online, or a mixture of venues, virtual and physical. While the tactics vary with the situation, the process is not random. Designing for serendipity is intentional, rooted in insight about complex systems and network dynamics. It requires having a general sense of why you’d like to connect people, such as promoting a healthier community or a more vibrant local economy, while being open to participants determining for themselves how to get there. New opportunities take time to emerge, especially when relationships need to be forged and leadership distributed. Therefore, in order to be successful, these spaces must be maintained—or “held”—so that people continue to feel welcome and motivated to return. Network expert June Holley refers to people who are dedicated to holding such environments as “network weavers”—people dedicated to making connections, strengthening ties and bringing new people into the network.
The notion of designing for serendipity, rather than outcomes, contradicts much conventional wisdom about how to make change: Be clear on your mission, vision, path to get there and measures of success along the way. While a shared mission and vision are critical when designing for serendipity, you have to be open to a range of actions, and sometimes the outcomes may veer in a different direction than what you were trying to achieve. Plus, it can be difficult to know the impact you’ve had when activity is decentralized and, at times, happening beyond your purview. The good news is that if you can let go of control and create environments that empower the community to act, the results can be impressive and long lasting. The ultimate goal of designing for serendipity is meaningful connections that lead to exchanges, cross-fertilization and collaborations benefiting the individuals and the community.
The ultimate goal of designing for serendipity is meaningful connections that lead to exchanges, cross-fertilization and collaborations benefiting the individuals and the community.
case study: The Making Connections Louisville Network
Louisville’s Making Connections Network is a movement for community change that connects people from tough neighborhoods with each other and with opportunities in Louisville, like jobs, health care and housing.19 As executive director Dana Jackson says, “It is an approach. It is not a program,”20 rooted in the fundamental belief that the people in these tough areas have the power to bring about community change. Core to this approach is the creation of intentional environments where members can break bread with neighbors, meet new people, find out about local resources and work together to create new value for the community. Staff members have come to think of themselves as network stewards and weavers. They create and hold spaces where members can fulfill their own and the community’s needs. There are multiple doors of entry—different reasons why residents might want to enter the network. Once inside, members have an opportunity to connect with others, access resources, share their talents and lead. For example, the network’s 3,600 plus current members and newcomers are invited to regular “Network Nites” for food and conversation. The staff used to assume responsibility for doing the setup work and recruiting for Network Nite; now it’s on the way to being executed, and owned, by members. In 2010 alone, the events were attended by 900 people. According to Davidson, “Whoever can get it done should do it. Leadership is not just about who is sitting in the seat. You have to plant leadership in a lot of different places, cultivate leadership and create room for leadership to come from sometimes the most unlikely places.”21 The network’s model of shared leadership is delivering meaningful outcomes for Louisville. Since 2005, there have been over 1,200 job placements through the network, and residents have benefited from $9 million in housing value saved through the network’s foreclosure conciliation partnerships, to name just a few of the quantifiable results.
case study: The Hardwick Potlucks
The 3,000-person town of Hardwick in Vermont had been on the downswing in the mid2000s. The granite companies that had been the mainstay of the economy were long gone, and Main Street was dotted with vacant stores. But today the town can celebrate a burgeoning cluster of food enterprises, which has added 150 jobs over the past few years to the town’s previous 500 and is attracting a steady stream of businesses from the surrounding area. A simple series of potlucks attended by Hardwick’s small-business owners who share an interest in local food has helped make this possible. Started in 2006 by a small group of friends, the group has met each month at a different business where they share a potluck dinner, tour the business and hold a two-hour “think tank” discussion about a pressing issue for that operation. Now numbering about 40 people, with
15-25 attending every month, the group includes participants from across agriculture and food distribution. It is open to any nearby owner of a business focused on sustainable food, but the founders have intentionally kept the size small, bringing in new members only when there is a clear fit. When there was a sudden wave of interest in 2008, they helped others start their own groups, of which there are now four. All meeting has been done face to face, augmented by an email listserv that averages two to three messages a day. The original group has hosted over 50 gatherings, totaling over 300 hours spent together sharing challenges, offering advice, learning about each others’ businesses and forging partnerships. The members share tips about graphic designers, promote one another’s products at trade fairs, buy equipment at auctions that they know their colleagues need and have given one another short-term loans totaling over a million dollars. They have even launched a formal nonprofit, the Center for an Agricultural Economy, which has grown to eight full-time employees who work on public education, community-building and other socially focused aspects of the group’s broader vision. All of this is happening without a formal structure. There’s no 501(c)(3), no central coordinating body, no strategic plan and not even a name, just word of mouth and a regular meeting time each month among friends and acquaintances who mostly live within a five-mile radius. The key ingredients, instead, include creating the opportunity for business owners from across the system to come together with a shared sense of purpose (improving the local food economy) but without an agenda, creating a welcoming environment by sharing food and convening on a regular basis over the course of several years. “Things that seemed totally impossible not so long ago are now going to happen,” said one member. “In the next few years a new wave of businesses will come in behind us. So many things are possible with collaboration.”22
DESIGNING FOR SERENDIPITY
Make it easy to enter. Neither Making Connections Louisville nor the Hardwick potlucks have complex requirements for admission. Participants with a broad shared interest but diverse individual motivation are welcomed, and in both cases sharing food has brought people together. Build trust through repeat
“The Essence of Weaving”
Veteran network weaver Bill Traynor offers his reflections on the fundamental work of network weaving: Helping people to build—and connect to—more relationships of trust and value.
Bill Traynor, The Value of Place, May 24, 2010. online: http://j.mp/f1i6Cb.
It takes time and trust for opportunity to emerge. The Hardwick potlucks and the Making Connections Network Nites have facilitated this by providing regular opportunities for the participants to meet over several years. Design the space, not the outcomes. Making Connections Louisville catalyzes opportunities for connection, engagement and shared leadership by network members, without predesigned outcomes. With no organizational core, the Hardwick potlucks are simply opportunities for connection; the people who gather create the outcomes.
“Network Weaver Checklist”
A practical self-assessment for gauging your own strengths and weaknesses as a weaver of relationships in a network.
June Holley, 2006. online: http://j.mp/fuwsL5.
Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide
Describes how to use the “open space” approach for facilitating a large group conversation where the agenda and content is driven entirely by the participants.
Harrison Owen, April 2008. online: http://amzn.to/acous3.
Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities
Offers conceptual grounding and practical advice on how to use online tools in a way that helps a community accomplish its goals.
Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith, 2009. online: http://j.mp/fuKwqr.
It is a natural human tendency to connect with people like ourselves. As the adage goes, “birds of a feather flock together,” because connecting with others who are similar is comfortable and easy.
Solving complex community problems usually requires breaking down boundaries and bringing together people with diverse perspectives, experiences and priorities.
However, solving complex community problems usually requires breaking down boundaries and bringing together people with diverse perspectives, experiences and priorities in order to spark new insights, foster unusual alliances and lay the groundwork for public problem solving. As universal Internet access draws near, the potential for connection is exploding. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that social networks are becoming more diverse. The proclivity to surround ourselves with our own “flock,” combined with information and “friending” overload, is making it dangerously easy to develop a narrow view of the world, filtered by what our likeminded friends see. The social media scholar danah boyd has already documented evidence of this phenomenon, known as homophily, in the choice of many white teens to switch to Facebook as MySpace became more dominated by African-Americans.23 Given our tendency to divide, it’s all the more important that we be intentional about creating connections that cut across divisions. While the obstacles are not small, there are promising efforts under way to motivate relationship building across differences. For example, the Peace Dot project at Stanford helped create peace.facebook.com where data is updated by the hour on the number of new friend connections between Israelis and Palestinians, Sunnis and Shiites, and conservatives and liberals. By highlighting connections across ethnic, religious and political divides the Peace Dot project is using real-time data to inspire more such connection.
case study: CouchSurfing
Four thousand travelers a day are welcomed as guests by strangers in places and cultures far from home through CouchSurfing.net.24 Looking for a free place to stay, CouchSurfers often find a new friend as well who is willing to show them their town and a slice of their life. Hosts typically volunteer their hospitality because they’ve experienced it from others and now relish the chance to connect with a foreigner. This culture of exchange is encouraged by features like an optional background check that make it easier to establish trust. The CouchSurfing experience frequently shows travelers a more intimate side of life in another country than is available to most tourists. In the words of Matilda McCarthy, a member from Sweden, “The most wonderful thing about CouchSurfing is not budget accommodation or tips on how to avoid tourist traps. It’s the fact that CS totally challenges all your prejudices! I have found friends through CS that I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise, and although we’re very different, our friendship bridges those differences.”23 Since CouchSurfing was founded in 2004 the site has attracted over 2.3 million members from 243 countries and territories who have formed an estimated 2.8 million new online social connections among them.26
The most wonderful thing about CouchSurfing is not budget accommodation or tips on how to avoid tourist traps. It’s the fact that CS totally challenges all your prejudices! I have found friends through CS that I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise, and although we’re very different, our friendship bridges those differences.
case study: Localocracy
Localocracy creates online “town halls” designed to bring together citizens with diverse perspectives and promote healthy dialogue and debate on local issues. Since its founding in 2008, the startup site has rolled out to six cities in Massachusetts, choosing locations where the team can work with local leaders to make it a success. Conversations begin when a member of the community, ideally a leader such as a police chief or school committee head, poses a question that can benefit from community deliberation. Community members on different sides of the issue can then engage in discussion, vote on proposals and encourage others in their networks to join the debate. The only restriction is that participants have to be registered voters, use their real name when commenting (although voting is anonymous) and allow their comments to be publicly visible. Localocracy prides itself on its neutrality and works to create a space that promotes engagement on an issue among people who hold varying points of view. For example, school committee member Catherine Sanderson posed a question in the Localocracy town hall for Amherst about shifting a resource-sharing agreement that the local school district had with the neighboring town of Pelham. She had tried previously to initiate that discussion on her blog but the result was a divisive exchange with many anonymous comments. By contrast, the discourse she hosted on Localocracy productively involved over 100 people who weighed in through comments and votes. As a result of the conversation, Sanderson reframed the issue and established greater common ground between the two sides.
Matilda McCarthy couchsurfing member
Develop systems for establishing
Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital
Explains the two core concepts of social capital: Brokering useful exchanges between social groups and creating greater internal connectivity within them.
Ron Burt, 2005. introduction online: http://bit.ly/ieHAll.
reputation and trust.
CouchSurfing builds trust among members through external verification— open member-to-member reviews and background checks. Localocracy does so through transparency—real names and records of activity. Use influence to recruit diverse
participation and catalyze bridging.
On Localocracy sites there is more participation when decision makers or locals with the ability to mobilize action initiate the forum. These individuals are then well positioned to bridge diverse viewpoints as they moderate the online conversation. Make it fun. CouchSurfing members are able to broaden their worldview by learning directly from the “other.”
“Blogs and Bullets: New Media and Contentious Politics”
While journalists often connect the adoption of social media directly to resolving simmering social tensions by spurring activism, this report weighs the evidence and finds that its impact varies widely.
Sean Aday, et al, United States Institute of Peace, July 2010. online: http://j.mp/ffUnpM.
“White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook”
Shows that teens have tended to self-segregate by race between MySpace and Facebook and raises the question of whether communities online will generally tend to reflect existing social divisions.
dana boyd, Digital Race Anthology (forthcoming). online: http://j.mp/eeI96V.
Catalyzing Mutual Support
One of the promises of network-centric organizing is the opportunity to help others directly and, better yet, receive help in return.
The traditional and centralized approach to getting people the help they need is “social services.” Recipients of social services interact with a bureaucracy, like a local job placement center, as people who need assistance. A network-centric model of mutual support begins by connecting members directly with one another, encouraging them to discover the community’s existing assets, and then coordinating their needs and offers through trusted and reciprocal relationships.27 Asset-based models for mutual exchange aren’t new.28 Mutual aid or benefit societies have been around for centuries, most recently in forms like credit unions, self-help groups, cooperatives and trade unions. There are countless stories of the power of reciprocity made possible through informal social networks. For instance, immediately after Hurricane Katrina, social ties were critical to effective disaster response. Locals preferred to rely on their personal relationships rather than the bureaucratic formal channels for disaster relief. As one Mississippian expressed: “Nothing compares to having prior relationships in a disaster.”29 How do you create the conditions for sustained mutual support, so it’s a regular practice rather than a product of disaster?30 And, how do you make it easy to engage? Participating in cooperatives and other forums for mutual exchange can get bogged down by time-consuming consensus-driven deliberations. Moreover, what if some members take more than they give? While there’s no blueprint for catalyzing mutual support, transparent and accessible systems for organizing these exchanges are lowering the cost and accelerating the speed with which people can both share and meet their needs, while encouraging high integrity interactions through their openness.31
A network-centric model of mutual support begins by connecting members directly with one another, encouraging them to discover the community’s existing assets, and then coordinating their needs and offers through trusted and reciprocal relationships.
case study: The “Village” Movement in Senior Care
People stumble in to find lost Fido or Fluffy and they stick around because they learn about the car break-in two doors away or the house fire a quarter of a mile from where they live, and they’re not finding that information anywhere else. It becomes part of their daily practice.
Ninety percent of people over 65 would prefer to live in their own homes, but most of the elderly find themselves on a one-way track toward a retirement community, an assisted living facility and finally a hospice. Confronted by this rigid path, 11 retirees living in the Beacon Hill area of Boston decided to create a new model that would give them the benefits of a retirement community without having to move. In 2001, they started the Beacon Hill Village, a community that has now grown to 440 retirees living in their own homes who volunteer to help each other with everyday tasks and organize their own social activities. What the members can’t offer one another directly is provided by a small dues-supported central office that can answer questions, offer advice, coordinate volunteers and recommend discounted services. This “village” model has now been adopted in 56 other communities nationwide, with about 100 more now being started. All are grassroots creations, building on a manual and set of materials that the founders provide for a small fee. Each one is different, many establishing themselves under the umbrella of existing organizations and some creating a hub-and-spoke collection of affiliated villages that span a broader area. As of January 2010 the villages carried the mutual-support model forward by establishing the Village to Village Network, a duessupported online space for peer-to-peer connection open to the leaders of any village. The Network currently has about 100 members sharing advice with one another and working together to codify best practices. A small team in Arlington, Va., coordinates weekly webinars, hosts online discussion forums, holds seminars in cities around the country, and spreads awareness of the village model.
Michael Wood-Lewis founder of front porch forum
case study: Front Porch Forum
Arthur Goyette knows the value of good neighbors. While his wife Betty was battling cancer, his neighbors brought countless meals to their home. When the neighbors learned that Betty had always wanted to ride in a convertible, they found a dealership willing to loan them a car and surprised the Goyettes with a Chrysler Sebring. The couple drove down the block with the top down, surrounded by people waving and taking pictures. Arthur marvels that he barely knew some of the people who helped them, and might never have met them at all if it weren’t for an online network called Front Porch Forum. Front Porch Forum’s simple service is similar to Craigslist but operates at the neighborhood level, forming groups of between 500 and 1,500 households. The system currently serves 150 such neighborhoods around the city of Burlington, Vt., and a statewide expansion is under way. About 30 of the neighborhoods currently using Front Porch Forum maintain a steady stream of activity (around 100-200 messages per month). Every account is tied to a real name and address, with postings visible only to others in the neighborhood. In the words of founder Michael Wood-Lewis, “People stumble in to find lost Fido or Fluffy and they stick around because they learn about the car break-in two doors away or the house fire a quarter of a mile from where they live, and they’re not finding that information anywhere else. It becomes part of their daily practice.”32 The most common conversations are what one would expect among neighbors: Finding a good babysitter or plumber, slowing down traffic or cleaning up graffiti. It is also frequently used as an aid to projects such as fundraising for the school or advocating at a public meeting, since it acts as an easily accessible mailing list for the neighborhood. Over time, these daily exchanges among locals build trust so that when an urgent need rears its head, such as bad blizzard or serious illness for a single mom, the ice is broken for neighbors to be neighbors.
CATALYZING MUTUAL SUPPORT
Leverage existing and
The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing
Gives a wide range of examples, with an expanded list online, of new enterprises that provide value by helping people share resources with one another.
Lisa Gansky, 2010. online: http://meshing.it/.
The Beacon Hill Village is coordinating existing community assets and creating a new asset—the community’s aggregate demand. Front Porch Forum taps community assets that might otherwise sit dormant—a long-time resident’s knowledge of neighborhood history or a seldom-used extension ladder. Provide enough structure for
immediate benefit and enough openness for new opportunity.
Participants in Front Porch Forum may enter for a targeted reason, like finding a babysitter, and once they’re in, find many new reasons to engage in the community. Build trust in the system. Show participants that the system for mutual support is credible and effective. For Front Porch Forum this is achieved through daily exposure to requests and offers among neighbors, and the use of real names. For the “villages,” a central coordinator helps establish credibility.
The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods
Ideas and practices for reweaving the social ties in a neighborhood so that the community becomes more supportive of a fulfilling life.
John McKnight and Peter Block, June 2010. online: http://j.mp/h7z2B5.
A UK design firm that has launched a variety of social enterprises which address social challenges by creating and strengthening relationships among citizens.
description of their projects: http://j.mp/f7yedE.
Providing Handrails for Collective Action
By setting forth a clear vision and strategy to guide action, individual efforts can be organized so the parts create a whole that produces lasting social change.
Outline steps people can take to make a difference; offer feedback mechanisms so activists can learn together and see their collective progress; and all the while, push power to the edges, letting participants own the work and share leadership.
Social networks can be a powerful asset for leaders of social change. Ideas can spread like wildfire. Citizens can assemble at a moment’s notice, whether for a light-hearted pillow fight or a coordinated protest against an authoritarian regime. Advances in technology have made it cheap and easy to “organize without organizations” and achieve outsized impact.33 On the other end of the spectrum, playbooks for organizing social and political action typically emphasize strategic focus and solid planning. Policy campaigns have clearly articulated goals and accompanying strategies to get there. Advocacy coalitions invest in deliberative processes for achieving the consensus required to speak with one voice, along with branding and messaging to present a unified front. How can the generative and emergent nature of networks be tapped while mobilizing and coordinating action around targeted goals? The trick, as we’ve seen in various contexts, is to artfully combine clear direction and structure with ample space for participant-driven action. When organizing collective action is your goal, provide handrails for participants: Outline steps people can take to make a difference; offer feedback mechanisms so activists can learn together and see their collective progress; and all the while, push power to the edges, letting participants own the work and share leadership. Of course, balancing participant-led action with a defined strategy isn’t simple. It raises thorny issues around decision-making rights and who leads versus follows. Furthermore, messaging can end up fragmented and conflicting when there are lots of independent actors involved. There are also risks that come with loosening control: What if the movement is co-opted for counterproductive ends? Transparency at
all levels—documenting participant activity and opening up governance—helps with building trust among participants and in the decision-making process. And, as always, there is no substitute for skillful leaders who can effect change from behind.
case study: The Crisis Mapping Standby Task Force
When heart-wrenching images and stories began flowing out of Haiti following the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010, thousands of people around the world wanted to help. They gave money. They sent relief supplies. They went to Haiti to provide medical care. Patrick Meier, the director of Crisis Mapping at the crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi, who is also a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School, responded to the disaster by creating a map using the Ushahidi platform. Then, he reached out to friends at Fletcher for assistance. A former student of Meier’s in London recruited friends in Britain. Soon there was a tightly connected group of over 100 volunteers in Boston, New York, Geneva, Washington, D.C., London and Portland that was collaborating to create a live crisis map of Haiti. The map provided a venue for nearly 2,000 people to coordinate their desire to assist by translating text-messaged cries for help from Creole to English, placing them on a map, and feeding that information in real time to aid workers on the ground. The project pioneered a new form of crisis response. That largely ad-hoc response is now being streamlined. Some of the core volunteers who worked with Meier to create the Haiti map have since trained 150 more people from 17 countries to use the Ushahidi platform. They formed what is now dubbed the Standby Volunteer Task Force, a growing group of committed crisis-mapping volunteers who trade advice and train newcomers. Since the Haiti quake, Task Force members have been involved in crisis mapping projects for Chile, Pakistan, Sudan and more recently Colombia during the United Nation’s recent earthquake-simulation exercise.34 The goal: Expand the cadre of leaders who can respond in times of crisis, but also proactively organize social action by creating platforms for collecting and visualizing information. The Task Force is now a growing corps that can strategically guide collective action.
Transparency at all levels—documenting participant activity and opening up governance—helps with building trust among participants and in the decisionmaking process.
case study: The Pink Chaddi Campaign
In the southwestern Indian city of Mangalore in February 2009, a group of orthodox Hindus called Sri Ram Sene (Lord Ram’s Army) stormed into a bar named Ambient and assaulted a group of women who were drinking, driving them out onto the street. Passersby shot video of the attacks, and when the footage aired on television, Sene justified its actions on the basis that the women were behaving indecently and promised further attacks on anyone its members observed celebrating Valentine’s Day. Responding to the fear that Sene’s attacks inspired, a Mangalore resident named Nisha Susan decided to respond with a public rally. She created a Facebook group called the Association of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, which attracted over 15,000 members in a matter of a few days, and announced the Pink Chaddi campaign. The instructions were clear: Send Sene as many sets of pink women’s underwear (chaddi in Hindi slang), a publicly feminine gesture of exactly the kind that Sene was committed to fighting. The Sene offices were deluged with underwear, many carrying confrontational messages, a phenomenon covered by the mainstream news. In response to