Politicians adopt web 2.0 tools. Slowly.

Presidential elections are a circus. It’s a long race. Like little sperms reaching for the far-away egg, they are all frantically fighting for their shot at “making it”. Does anyone remember “Look who’s talking?” with John Travolta? There’s a cool scene with the blind sperms swimming up the fallopian tube; some go in the wrong direction, some swim against a wall without much success, and some get tired before reaching the goal. All are tirelessly fighting to be that sperm that gets to the egg first, the only sperm to get in- the presidential sperm.

So in this frantic attempt to gain an edge, it appears that almost all the candidates (or better said, their campaign advisers) place certain importance on web 2.0 tools. They all have blogs on their webpages, most appear on youtube.com’s Spotlight feature, and they really like to seem like they are connected with the Internet phenomenon.

They must be commended by their efforts to explore anything that will aid them in their quest and turning to web 2.0, but I must say they are missing the point. No candidate that I’ve seen thus far is actively posting on a blog, or frequently uploading videos- of themselves. Not only that, but the political rhetoric does not translate well to Web 2.0. While most renowned bloggers, those who are influencing the way blogging happens (such as Doctorow, Searls, etc), have a very open and transparent way of communicating that can be challenged by the contributors of the blog, I consider the political presence in the Web to be the traditional way of political communication:

1. Avoidance of making controversial statements that they could be held accountable for.

2. Staying on talking points.

3. And crafting a message designed to be liked by “everyone”.

That’s just not what I would consider contributing to the wealth of networks we are creating right now. However, I do think this will change if mainstream politics wants to enter this new medium, but that will require a change in campaigning itself.

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Social Media Club: Evolving the Discourse

Last night, we went to the Social Media Club of San Francisco (SMC-SF). The discussion was on “how do we create networks” and “how do we create value in our networks.” The event was full of many different people who had a lot more experience than us in developing and interacting in digital social networks. The mood of the event was engaged and we got the sense that people were very interested in collaborating to improve their offers, those of the other members, and the collective offer of “Social Media Club.”

At the same time, we didn’t get a sense that the group had yet built a way to “win” this game of collaboration — there was no shared purpose or goal in coming out of this event. In the beginning, Chris Heuer asked the group to say what they thought of when they heard the word “Social Media.” People threw out words from “wikis” and “podcasts” to “collaboration” and “trust.” We listened to “Social Media” as everything and anything that has to do with the Internet, from the tools, to the social practices, to the assessments, to the moods, to the narratives about the good in human nature. This broad definition was so all encompassing that it was meaningless; it didn’t bring forth any new actions or commitments for us to take.

This confusion that showed up for us happened when participants used other words, such as “value,” “trust,” “network,” and “intentionality.” We plan to explore the phenomena that these distinctions were being used to show in future posts.

In this post, we suggest that some of uncertainty and inability for us to see distinct new actions was part of the style that this group had. It was still young and hadn’t built a rigorous communal language or clear offers of what joining this group will bring to the participants. While this is good in the beginning — it leaves a space for thinking about what concerns of participants (present and future) the group plans to address — we 1. don’t assess that this group is rigorously asking what are the concerns of the participants, and 2. propose that this group is growing (it now has 17 different local teams across the country/world) and is should begin to define itself with an offer. We claim that if the group doesn’t build an offer, its relevance in the lives of the participants could first be confusing and then obsolete.

Having a strong offer produces more certainty and more possible commitments out of that offer. If we take the example of LinkedIn, they offer a digital space for professionals: to meet clients, providers, partners, etc. who have been previously recommended by others in their network; to find available job positions, to facilitate introductions with networked members, etc. LinkedIn’s mission is “to help you be more effective in your daily work and open doors to opportunities using the professional relationships you already have.” These are clear offers which help to shape the space in which people work together in this group. One participant at the SMC-SF event mentioned how he accepts or rejects members into his LinkedIn network not whether he is friends with them or not, but whether he can vouch for their professional skills, responsibility, etc. LinkedIn has a clearer offer and the community around it preserves that offer.

We don’t want to make this critique from the sidelines. We listened that there are many individuals, including ourselves, who want to build the SMC in order to bring value to the community. We want this post to help open up a space to build a stronger offer oriented to specific concerns of the community, a more rigorous communal language, and a shared narrative of who we (SMC) are and what we are doing in the world.

Wonder at CCSalon

Last week (yes, I realize that a week to blog about an event is unforgivably bad in our modern networked world), I went to the Creative Commons Salon in San Francisco with Santi. I had been in the city most of the day at the Web 2.0 Expo but stayed for the CC event. It was only my second CC Salon and I was interested to hear more about what was happening in the distributive licensing crowd.

We listened to speakers from Technorati, Swivel, SpinXpress, and Interplast.

I have been reading Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks. In it, Benkler brings forth many distinctions, and two that showed up for me at the Salon were accreditation and filtration. For me, filtration is the practice of assessing what is useful for your concerns in the information available. Accreditation is the practice of assessing the “quality” or “credibility” of the information. Benkler claimed that when the Internet began, some people proposed that the massive amounts of information would overwhelm the users and they would not be able to assess the information they receive and take action from it. But, as Benkler tells, the practices of filtration and accreditation emerged in a decentralized fashion alongside the Internet.

The distinctions that I got from Benkler were able to orient me to what the presentors spoke about, not just as single events, but as moments of the pattern that Benkler distinguished. Technorati’s WTF was not just a tool for users to rate the blogs but was an instance of filtration for relevance in a decentralized manner. Swivel wasn’t just a site that would store data and facilitate its mash-up, it was a site that could become a power accreditation tool for journalists or social organizations interested in telling a story. SpinXpress was the power of decentralized and collaborative culture-building at work.

As the CC Salon unfolded, I was repeatedly triggered and shaped by Benkler’s distinctions in such a way that I saw beauty and power for the whole Commons in each small new “tool” or “feature” that each group was bringing. It was an experience in which I found wonder in the small events. Very nice.

What is Journalism?

We are learning what journalism is about, what the distinctions are that journalists have used and continue to use, how these distinctions can orient journalists to a networked future, and how the distinctions can be changed to produce more value.

We have started a wiki as a space for building and refining our work. Please join us in this discussion.

As an important note: We don’t pretend to be journalists and are learning about journalism by reading texts, speaking with journalists, and participating ourselves in citizen journalism. But the knowledge and participation of journalists directly in our work would be very valuable. Our know-how primarily lies in a design discourse that draws from biology, linguistic, and phenomenology. And our social interests lie in Web 2.0, Citizen Media, and other networked communities.

Assignment Zero. 21st Amendment, SF, March 22nd

The cultural manifestations of the new networked world.

I am starting to discover a certain culture that permeates the fabric of the networked world. Regardless of what group is meeting, the room is always filled with a thirst for knowledge regarding this new world and the anxious desire to make sense of this forming world in a clear way. To think of a “new collaborative networked world” as something that occurs in the Internet, or an Internet-based phenomenon may be too shallow an idea at this point.

Past Thursday I went to an Assignment Zero event in San Francisco. On the table pints of beer and around those David Cohn, from Assignment Zero, Phil Kast, co-founder of Writewith a collaborative writing tool, Frances Oman, who heard of this event through an email from a Texan friend, Sarah Cove and myself. It became eventually apparent to me that my difficulty to speak of how all our projects were part of a same phenomenon was something I shared with the rest of the group. However, the initial “difficulty” was well handled due to everyone’s interest in genuine collaboration. The conversations were centered around the offer of greater possibilities through new tools, books, experiences.

How is collaboration possible? Through transparency and accountability which generates trust between collaborators. The major questions that we explored were how we can build and use systems that will have that transparency and accountability in order to create a trusted network of collaborators in the fields of journalism, politics, etc. in order to give the user not only an offer or product they want, but something they in turn are responsible for creating.

Tools to Produce Social Change: FrontlineSMS

Another speaker at last night’s Net Tuesday was Ken Banks of kiwanja.net. He is currently a fellow at Reuters Digital Vision Program at Stanford and has been involved in bringing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to Africa to improve conversation and development.

The mobile network has grown in Africa and is becoming a powerful tool for dealing with breakdowns. Examples Ken gave included:

  1. tracking animal populations via signal transmitters that can be picked up by cell phones
  2. antibiotic pill containers containing a device which sends a signal to a doctor whenever the cap is opened to ensure that antibiotic treatment is followed all the way through
  3. health text messages on HIV/AIDS sent out to cell phone owners
  4. individual market prices sent out to phones so fisherman and farmers can know which markets have the best prices or which one is full
  5. Mobile for Good, which sends texts about city job notices to those in rural areas so that they have a chance of getting to a job before it fills up
  6. environmental disaster warnings

Ken is developing a program called FrontlineSMS, providing non-profits with text-messaging services to coordinate their programs across large distances. And he is planning to make the program Open Source, pending a grant from a major US foundation.

In Africa, it seems that cell phones are the major networking tool for individuals. And the network that is being built is vast. For example, Ken said that in South Africa, 98% of individuals have are in cell phones coverage areas. The presentation, and once again the potential of networks, impressed us. Now, how can we learn from and enrich this network?

Note: Changes made thanks to Ken Banks checking for accuracy.