The Awesome Foundation is a simple idea. We support people doing awesome things in the world. Every month we give out a $1,000 of our money to an idea we think is awesome and should be released upon the world.

Yes, but what do you think is awesome?
Awesomeness is more the product of a creator’s passion than the prospect of audience or profit. Awesome creations are novel and non-obvious, evoking surprise and delight. Invariably, something about them perfectly reflects the essence of the medium, moment, or method of creation. Awesome things inspire and attract.

Here's how we support more awesome:

  1. You apply by writing a few sentences about your awesome but unrealized idea. There are absolutely zero restrictions on who can apply and what sort of idea could win.
  2. If we like your idea, we give you $1000. Possibly in a brown paper bag.
  3. There are no strings attached or hoops you have to jump through. Of course, we hope you'll execute on your idea, but, you know, whatever.

Lots of people have been asking to find out more about the Awesome Foundation. Here's some background.

In the early part of the 20th century, radio programs reached national audiences through newly-constructed radio networks. For the first time, mass media news had a human voice – and later with television networks, a face. This drove networks to develop trust as a human asset, and news anchors cultivated personalities that you welcomed into your home and returned to again and again. Over the ensuing decades, we stopped relying primarily on our friends and neighbors to learn about what was going on in the world and instead looked to a few critical human voices that were trusted without question.

This trust began to unravel in the late part of the 20th century. News media fragmented into biased channels, public opinion of reporting eroded around clashes with the federal government, and shifting advertising revenue and downsized newsrooms led to highly visible gaps and gaffs in a previously trustworthy and consistent news reporting environment.

Meanwhile, the Internet is helping consumers become increasingly savvy about media, and new expectations around participation and transparency in information delivery is emerging. In this new environment, a singular voice of the news ceases to make sense – except perhaps when John Stuart mocks the system as a whole. Online tools are enabling collaborative and person-to-person communications as potentially more reliable and trustworthy mechanisms for getting news. Individuals now capture the news on their cell phones, deliver the news on their blogs, and share the news through social networks.

Perhaps news is no longer presented as a single story, cobbled together by a single agency and delivered through the mass media by a single voice. What was once a single story now becomes interpreted and conveyed by a range of voices through different formats, channels, and modes. As humans, we still build trust through human interaction and engage with stories that are delivered with emotion and conviction. Some stories are made more meaningful by our connection to the individuals telling the stories, and others because a fresh authentic human voice speaks to us. I believe we yearn for this raw communication as a method for getting our news and making sense of the information within – something that historically has not been present in mass media.

If the future of news communication is more humanistic and distributed, delivered by an array of authentic storytellers, where does that leave the traditional journalistic reporter? Their importance doesn't suddenly evaporate. What is their place amongst this array of voices? Are we now all journalists or do we expect the ones with the credentials to develop their own authentic voices? Both situations are currently happening in this new environment, as some bloggers are vaulted into mainstream public attention, and some existing journalists now craft their own blogs.

However, I think there's a third less explored role for journalists. A need that arises from an array of unknown, emotion-fueled storytellers who do not necessarily engender trust. The very nature of these raw voices will cast doubt on the validity of the underlying information. Journalists must help the information in their stories be valid, and the stories be trusted. I believe the secret lies in weaving together these new voices into a more cohesive whole. The time-tested role of editor re-emerges to perform this critical function. Perhaps the contemporary journalist wields new media editing tools like the traditional journalist wields a typewriter. The news is not delivered through a single human voice, but by collecting together the voices of others. The editor's red pen ensures the facts are preserved, underlying truths are revealed, and opinions are exposed. In this way, we get original voices, rich with information and authenticity. We are not led astray by their subtle biases or gaps in reporting. A new voice of the journalist emerges, crafting the news out of independent tellings, spinning the traditional piece on its head. Here, truth can be served in a compelling new way, and a variety of voices reveal new insights only possible through the stories of regular people.

Ned Gulley and Karim R. Lakhani presented The Dynamics of Collaborative Innovation (description, audio/video) last week at the Berkman Luncheon series. I had previously recorded and blogged Karim's similar, less detailed Open Innovation presentation back in May for the Berkman@10 Conference. Karim and Ned have been measuring various aspects of collaborative innovation around a programming contest that seems ideally suited for this purpose. I suspect that few real-world environments have such a good built-in mechanism for objectively measuring the strength of innovative contributions.
I found their insights into the differences between novel, game-changing submissions and incremental improvements particularly interesting. Within this programming contest, each individual user submission is objectively measured for performance against a desired outcome (e.g. algorithmic best fit), and the current best performing code submission is highlighted for all to see. This structure may create a problem in that innovative new approaches often do not immediately yield the best result as compared to an incremental code improvement. The social reward of being highlighted as the current best may encourage incremental improvements over novel approaches, potentially having the overall innovation outcome stuck in a local max.
Assuming that introducing novel ideas increases the chance of an eventual best outcome, then innovation environments like this might benefit from better incentives to reward novelty. Additionally, this contest environment has no inherent mechanism for identifying novel and potentially useful knowledge. Ned and Karim highlighted a specific example where a novel, under-performing programmatic approach introduced early was eventually adopted later in a programming contest and provided the conceptual foundation for the winning and final submission. Had this novel approach been overlooked, it is unlikely that the winning code would have performed as well.
I would argue that incentives designed to encourage the introduction and eventual sharing of novel information would prove useful, especially considering our human tendency towards only exchanging shared knowledge and withholding unique (and potentially important) knowledge in many social circumstances. Cass Sunstein explores this hidden profiles phenomenon at length in his book Infotopia.

The following is a draft of a document (updated 6/12) that I'm preparing for the Beyond Broadcast conference On June 17, 2008. I'm posting it here in hopes folks like yourself are willing to provide me with feedback on these ideas - do they hold true in your experience? Thanks to those that helped! Here's the PDF (final update 7/8):
Eight Ways to Help Build Online Participation (PDF).

Throughout 2007 and 2008, Public Interactive worked with public broadcasters to better understand how to effectively engage audiences online. We gathered experience directly from 24 stations and programs such as KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and Car Talk® using our online community engagement tool. Additional stations, programs and networks have also thoughtfully shared their experiences using a variety of tools and platforms.

One important lesson, particularly for those new to online engagement, is that it takes creativity and persistence to engage individuals and get their participation. Stations and shows often seek tips on how to attract contributions. From what we've learned, here are eight ways to help build online participation:

1. Be Genuine
Seek participation around something you understand and care about. Ask for relevant, meaningful input in an area that is true to your values and aligned with your existing communications. If you're format is music, don't ask for input on local zoning laws. If you deliver unbiased news, seeking opinions might be perceived as disingenuous.

2. Be Compelling
Ask yourself why anyone would bother participating. What topics compel your broadcast audience today? How will you use their contributions, or what will you offer in return? Individuals are often motivated to take the role of expert and share their unique insights and experience. You might initiate a project to construct something meaningful together.

3. Reach Out, Invite In
Who will show up to your party if no one sees your invitation? Leverage email lists, reach out to relevant organizations, and integrate highly visible promotions into your website. Invite specific contributions from subject-matter experts and bloggers, cultivate traffic partners who see the benefits of aligning with broadcasters, and post appropriately in social networks and discussion groups.

4. Make it Easy
Clearly state what you're looking for from individuals and how they should contribute. Guidelines, rules and expectations should be conspicuous. Provide a variety of ways to engage and contribute. Require users to sign up only where registration delivers obvious benefits.

5. Get Involved
Demonstrate that participation is important by doing it yourself. Use your real names. Involve producers, editors, and directors. Make it clear that the lights are on and someone’s home by responding to users (without being reactionary), and by enforcing your own rules.

6. Release Control
Online, the role of passive audience gives way to that of partner, co-creator, and contributor. It is misguided to think of "us" creating something for "them." Use your hand only to guide, stimulate, and monitor. As participation grows, give up more control. Individuals should have a sense of ownership over the community, where together you set direction and create value. If you've created an environment where everyone benefits, it becomes that much easier to promote.

7. Focus
A common mistake is to create twenty disparate ways to engage instead of one great one. Focus allows both you and your participants to concentrate your time and energy.

8. Experiment
In the world of online interactivity, there is an expectation of change, iteration, and improvement based on feedback and results. Plan for many tests, and assume ongoing effort will be necessary. Measure and monitor your progress. Communicate what you are learning and changing. Learn from others' successes.

Update 7/11: Since I posted this, the failwhale phenomenon has gotten beautifully out of hand. See my original post on this.

Much has been said about the remix, but riffing on ideas - specifically internet memes, is a slightly different beast. An original idea that resonates might just inspire someone to put a spin on it, extending or enhancing the idea. This is perhaps more common than is generally recognized, and I would argue, a growing trend.

For example, I was recently directed to a clever image that poked fun at Twitter culture on a day that Twitter was suffering performance issues. This image resonated with me because I TOO was affected by these issues and was inspired to attach my own meaning and create a different image that poked fun. This, in turn, inspired a friend to create more, clever interpretations of the idea...

(From Twitter)


(from Mykl Roventine)


(From Keith Hopper)


(from Andy Carvin)

This is only one example of an expressive idea train, where each of us saw different meaning and chose to share that meaning in a slightly different way. Based on how a specific idea might inspire you (and towards what ends), modification and republishing of a meme might manifest as a remix, knockoff, spinout, or analog of the original idea, described as follows:

Remix: Taking a single idea and modifying the orginal content. For example, you might take a funny image and give it a soundtrack, or mash it up with a video, making it funny in a new context.

Knockoff: Same idea, different name. Generally done by someone who perhaps wants to suggest they originated it.

Spinout: Different idea, but with a common source of inspiration, such as a topic - like different jokes based on the same high-profile cultural event.

Analog: New content based on the same core concept - often in a different context, e.g. LOLcode as a derivative of LOLcats.

The social technology for non-profits superstar Beth Kanter asked on twitter today for thoughts around social process for wiki projects. While I think there's a distinct possibility she DM'd me by accident(she didn't), this did not stop me from responding. The response got long enough that I decided to blog it. Aside from the impulsive wikipedia edit, I have experience noodling on a couple different wikis. There always seems to be a lot of social process in wiki communities, but it's all organic and mostly undocumented. Keep in mind that WikipediaIsNotTypical. Here's a couple thoughts that pop to mind:

  • Biggest challenge, as with all social media projects, is getting participation. Social process, whether formally declared or emergent, should address this as the primary objective.
  • Mentor/guide program. I find the best wiki communities provide only initial documented guidance with lots of emphasis on 'be bold'. The critical period is the first few weeks that a noob pokes out of lurk and publicly expresses interest in contributing. At this point, it's hugely valuable to have a guide swoop in and attach themselves to this person for a bit... send them emails, be willing to publicly encourage and correct them where others shouldn't or won't, etc.
  • Agree on objectives. Revisit frequently. Lots of projects go awry here over subtleties in what people thought they were trying to accomplish.
  • Marry conversation with "page building". Media wiki isn't very good at conversation, but conversation is great for getting participation and working through theories - especially if you have a relatively small group. Both wikis I've been involved in spend a lot of time on trying to encourage effective page building through social process.
  • Probably the most documented topic on wikis that I hang around in is around how technology and design work in tandem with social process - how they reinforce each other - how good tools are simple but use affordances to leverage human social tendencies and behavior towards desired outcomes. E.g. point systems and leader boards.

Eric Von Hippel and Karim Lakhani spoke on "Democratized and Distributed Innovation" at the Berkman@10 conference last week and You can listen to the session here:

Von Hippel and Lakhani focused on internet-driven collaboration in user-led innovation communities. They point to some specific research examples including kite surfing, PostgreSQL, and the MATLAB collaborative programming contest

Over the last several years, these two (amongst others) have radically challenged the conventional thinking on who innovates and how it's done. Our understanding of the innovation process is at an interesting juncture, where open sharing and online collaboration has helped highlight the growth of user-led, community-driven solution design. This notion first gained popularity in 2005 when Von Hippel published a book on his research, inspiring me to first blog about democratizing innovation.

Description from Berkman:
Internet and the widespread availability of sophisticated digital design tools are radically changing best practice in product and service development. What was until recently a process concentrated within producer firms is now becoming democratized and widely distributed. This fundamental change has widespread consequences. What is the impact of these developments on innovation processes, business models, and government policies?

Berkman at 10Last night's "Food for Thought" dinner at the Berkman@10 conference was a real treat. It also could easily have become a game of who-coined-that-famous-term. Our group of 13 or so included Tim Wu (coined 'net neutrality'), Dave Weinberger ('small pieces loosely joined') and Doc Searls ('markets are conversations'). We tried to discuss the small, humble problem of 'how to save the Internet'. Considering the dinner immediately followed a 2-hour open bar and we were dining on a rowdy roof deck, it's a miracle we got through introductions. The big takeaway for me was learning of some great initiatives from JP Rangaswami, who is innovating British Telecom from the inside-out and Joshua Kauffman from REGIONAL, redesigning the tools of democracy around the world from the bottom-up. Finally, props to Cole Camplese from Penn State, who, aside from manging the digital download chaos of 100,000 students, clued me into how to how to tunnel out of university firewalls in order to get access to my SMTP services. Thanks, man.

The following is my chapter in its entirety from my published book Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace.

Solving Problems Collectively
The widespread proliferation of online participatory systems such as wikis and blog networks helped popularize the idea of collective intelligence. Value that emerges from these systems shows that a whole system can appear more intelligent than any individual contribution. As these online participatory systems continue to broaden in application and increase in sophistication, they take on a more targeted and significant role as tools to accomplish focused, productive work. More specifically, online environments will be constructed to collectively solve complex and multifaceted problems. Imagine the possibility of adjusting aspects of an existing, productive online community in order to stimulate the ideal resolution of specific problems, much like a marketplace might be arranged over time to produce the most efficient and valuable transactions.

In a long anticipated move, idea submit & rate engines are finally catching some meme-like popularity. They're certainly easy to build. In a follow-up post, I will tear them to bits for the flaws they introduce and the assumptions we make around their utility. They do poke at some interesting aspects of Collective Problem Solving. Here are a few:

How might media organizations better engage their audiences online?

Over the past year, I teamed up with several public broadcasters to try and answer this question. We collected lessons while rolling out online participation software at NPR’s Car Talk, KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, PRI’s The World and a dozen others. We are learning that the future of media engagement goes beyond invitations for listener comments. The leading examples involve much higher expectations from the "audience"; specifically, their partnership in delivering on more collaborative projects.

Can the motivations that drive individual behavior towards online collaborative production be explained entirely by enlightened self-interest? More generally, in this new culture around collaboration and online participation, what motivates people to share? This was (essentially) the question posed by a research associate of Yochai Benkler at Clay Shirky's talk at Harvard last week. Enlightened self-interest can be defined as individual motivations that are neither purely selfish nor altruistic, but are ultimately based in the knowledge that helping the group might ultimately help oneself. This is exemplified in the shopkeeper who is only generous to customers so that they might ultimately profit in the long run through future business. Can this alone explain why people cooperate online?

I had the good fortune to hear Clay Shirky speak last night at Harvard Law School. The event was hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center as a lead-up to their 10 year anniversary celebration. The event also coincided with the release of Clay’s new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Clay spent the majority of the discussion outlining the book. He began by pointing out that the book is not necessarily targeted to just the folks in the room (various flavors of webophile), but rather to a wider and more generalized audience. His argument for this was that "the web is no longer a decoration on society, but a challenge to it," meaning that usage and adoption of the Internet has become ubiquitious and integrated into how we do things to the level that for many of us, the Internet has become "the dashboard for our lives". So, theoretically, the book should have more universal readership.

I attempted to Twitter the presentation. I tried to capture his sound bites and cogent points, but Clay is a veritable font of wisdom and one-liners. I ended up with a serious case of twitterrhea. Below is a slightly cleaned up transcript of my tweats over the course of about an hour. Shirky direct quotes are in quotes. Everything else that isn’t labeled as my own thoughts [Ed:] can be attributed to Clay Shirky.

From Clay Shirky website: "If I had to describe what I write about, it would be "systems where vested interests lose out to innovation."

Historically, media innovations that allow two way communications produce active groups. Broadcast technology... not so good at this.

If Clay had to boil the book down to one bullet point = "Group Action Just Got Easier"

"Groups get complex faster than they get large" [Ed: i.e. the network effect, Reed’s Law, etc.]

The Internet acts as a prosthetic for existing group activity.

New social tools on the Internet make group connections ridiculously easy to form

Email was an afterthought of the Internet

"Reply all" was the Internet's first social feature

Curiously, once the technology gets boring, the social effects get interesting [Ed: by this, he means once the technology gets out of the way, becomes commonplace, and slides beneath the radar of awkward attention, then it becomes integrated into how we function as social creatures and the most interesting social effects of a technology begin to emerge]

"Me First Collaboration" = social effects that emerge from self-serving behavior, e.g. lets me store my bookmarks, but ultimately becomes useful to all [Ed: Or Google extracting social relevance from individually created links]

The annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade is an example where amateur photographers leveraged ad hoc online sharing (via flickr)

HDR photography as an example of using a flickr group to accelerate innovation through a community of practice (what used to take 8 years for a technology/process to emerge from lead users to professional process to documented practice to trade magazines to amateurs to shared understanding now takes weeks)

"every URL is a latent community"

"Sharing + conversation leaves a residue of instruction"

A comparison of a Buffy discussion board moving to a new platform is like a hermit crab changing its shell

Sharing -> Conversation -> Collaboration -> Collective Action are things that require increasing amounts of synchronization of group action.

"Thinking is for doing" [Ed: by this, he means that the purpose for human thought is so that we can then take action; quote attributed to someone I’ve forgotten] => "Publishing is for acting"

"Flashmobs are the Flagpole sitting of 2003"

"Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream"

Ridiculously easy group-forming improves sharing, conversation, collaboration, and collective action

Behavioral economics states that social behavior online is more than just enlightened self-interest, for example, see the ">ultimatum game and the self-defeating individual act of punishing defectors

Irrational individual behavior spent towards generating social cohesion cannot justifiably be explained away by enlightened self-interest

Social technology can be used for more than just good… case in point, YM magazine shutting down their discussion boards because pro-anorexic girls were swapping practical tips

What’s the future of investigative journalism and its impact on smaller cities that can’t afford newspapers who have historically played this role? "I don't yet see a way that blogs can create sustained observation that stops civic corruption"

There are no good examples of long-term collective action - institutionalization becomes a problem over time

What works with collective action right now [to stimulate participation and worldwide attention] are surprises... but they are a wasting asset

Where individuals change their behavior BECAUSE they're members of the group is the key definer of collective action

"Immersive games get us out of the hell of continuous partial attention"

In a neighborhood near my home, there is a school playground with an enormous three story chain link fence along one side – presumably as a barrier for errant basketballs. The fence is constructed inches away from an adjacent home. I thought to myself "that would suck - I would probably rather have broken windows than live behind that huge fence". Then I thought of all sorts of examples of aggressive organizational behavior in our society that is tolerated, even though their behavior could easily be perceived as unfair or intrusive. I'm not suggesting that all business behavior is universally tolerated, but rather that their fundamental commercial presence is often quietly accepted. For example, we forgive the school's fence because we deem urban play areas for children are worth the tradeoffs. We also forgive Apple's fierce closedness, Google's ads, and Nike's ubiquitous branding. What's most interesting to me, however, is that we don't have a single standard for what is tolerated. There are some interesting nuances here. For example, I doubt my neighborhood would have tolerated a condo developer building a fence like that, and ubiquitous branding around your religion’s holiday is generally frowned upon.

Has news innovation stalled? The last decade has seen significant shifts in how news is created and delivered: grassroots publishing and online news aggregators have resulted in shifting advertising dollars and widespread panic in traditional mass media outlets. However, fresh approaches both in traditional media and in new media exploration has felt scarce as of late. Most of the recent thinking around news delivery involves slapping the latest social technology idea or delivery device onto a news outlet and calling it innovation. Or worse, a retreat into potential profitability through a focus on niche or hyperlocal audiences. Of course, some exceptions exist, but there is too much opportunity tied up in new technology and the shifting demands of the public to slow down the exploration of new ideas.

So the nagging thing about community is… what exactly is it? I feel compelled to ask, since the term gets tossed around quite a bit in the blogosphere and elsewhere. The term “social networking” was great back in 2002, but community seems to better capture the current ethos of getting together to do something meaningful. Or when referring to an online community, at least complaining about something meaningful.

''A growing body of empirical work shows that users are the first to develop many, and perhaps most, new industrial and consumer products.''
- Eric von Hippel

The idea that users develop great volumes of successful innovations is not new, but it is perhaps shocking in its implications. This idea suggests that our traditional view of manufacturers or entrepreneurs as the primary and best source of new ideas may be flawed. Are the billions spent on R&D misguided and only introducing limited innovations? Additionally, there appears to be a growing trend for users to freely and openly distribute their innovations (think open source). This won't help businesses relying on secrecy and legal protection to leverage their own innovative assets.

In his new book “Democratizing Innovation,” Eric von Hippel presents compelling evidence of how and why users innovate for themselves, and why they see many benefits in freely revealing these innovations. He points out that businesses that rely on innovation for continued existence (such as product manufacturers) should take note of these emerging trends and leverage methods for profitably working with user-driven innovation.

Eric von Hippel is Professor of Management of Innovation and Head of the Innovation and Enrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His new book “Democratizing Innovation” is available for download under Creative Commons License at his website:

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