community

Internet solutions appear wherever finding, connecting, and sharing information with others is expensive or difficult. This is especially noticeable when individuals with similar interests but insufficient proximity are finally able to connect. Unsurprisingly, there are now sites bringing together global interest in speaking Klingon, knitting food, and collecting cookie fortunes.

But what about deploying internet technologies for people who are near one another? Certainly this technology isn’t just about bringing together far-flung hobbyists – there should be unresolved information needs that exist at a local level, as suggested by the buzz around hyperlocal news.

In determining these information needs, we must resist the temptation to focus on what media organizations proscribe or what is currently vanishing from existing news outlets. Instead, we should look at routine communication barriers that can be dismantled by internet-based solutions. This is surprisingly difficult to do, since we often don't see the barriers we face or recognize them as unnecessary. In order to determine where technology might be best deployed to address local needs, we must find situations where individual members of local communities are actively trying to find, connect, and share information with one another. Then we can look more closely at the difficulties, delays, and expenses that might be eliminated or reduced through more tailored use of online technology.

Looked at in this way, it becomes clear that finding and connecting with others nearby to exchange our stuff (craigslist.org), meet around shared interests (meetup.com), and initiate relationships (match.com) have all been remarkably successful. But what about sharing local news? Success with local news has been less pervasive and straightforward. Arguably, this is because existing solutions have not yet fully uncovered the true needs and barriers to sharing local news.

Another method for determining what these needs and barriers might be is to monitor online tools that excel at supporting a breadth of communications. Within these tools, we might find clusters of people who share geographic proximity and are actively communicating. Identifying patterns in communications or locations here will reveal which local needs may be benefiting most from the reduced friction of online communication.

Interestingly, most social networking tools provide little of this local communication. Both Linkedin and Facebook, for example, seem to excel at connecting out of touch and geographically disparate individuals. Things have started to shift, however, with the introduction of the short messaging system, Twitter. With Twitter, people are starting to connect with one another simply because they are nearby. Twitter seems different in this regard, and understanding how Twitter is different might just be the key to understanding where frictionless local communication holds the most promise.

Twitter saw its first big explosion in usage during the 2007 SXSW festival in Austin, TX. This was in large part due to the attendee’s unresolved need to connect with others at the conference. Ironic as this may seem, as you move around an event such as a conference, you become a mostly passive recipient of information, cut off from explicitly sharing the experience with others. Communication needs at large events like this range from broadcast heckles to simple queries around where your friends are, what events are attendance-worthy, and who to get to know. In my own experience, this proximity-effect of Twitter carries over into day-to-day situations as well - it becomes valuable to follow someone simply because they live near you. But why?

I believe one answer lies in the immediacy of the information that is shared. Specifically, it is surprisingly difficult to share information about what's going on right now amongst people near one other. As with SXSW, local twitter messages (tweets) are most valuable when they contain information about what is happening right now – often something that might affect me because of our relative proximity. For example, I might monitor the tweets from those I follow locally to know where they are or where they’re going so that I can (presumably) join them. It’s valuable to find out about something as it happens. I can always visit a traditional news source if I need to seek out a specific piece of information or learn of important happenings after the fact, but who’s going to let me know of something important going on right now? It's this active nature of twitter, filtered by real people, providing immediately sourced, proximal information that makes it so valuable. Nothing seems to match twitter for a real-time assessment of what I need to know about that’s going on near me.

Perhaps Twitter points to only one unresolved need – the need for immediate, proximal information, but I believe this need will blossom into a more significant source of local news and take different forms as it more seamlessly encourages useful sharing.

WBUR Hyperlocal Discussion Following a recent post and discussion on hyperlocal news, WBUR was kind enough to let me initiate an open discussion on the topic during their monthly meetup at the station.

Around 15 people participated in this discussion, including Lisa Williams from Placeblogger, Ben Terris from Boston.com's Your Town, Adam Weiss of Boston Behind the Scenes, Persephone Miel from Internews Network, and Doc Searls from Harvard's Berkman Center. You can hear the conversation here:

The conversation covers a wide range of topics, including:

  • Trends and directions of hyperlocal news. Where the emerging opportunities might be.
  • What the user demand might be around hyperlocal news - where the current gaps are in addressing user needs.
  • The rising importance of immediacy and speed of hyperlocal solution deployment
  • The problem of scale and searchability around hyperlocal sites
  • How hyperlocal sites and the online-offline proximity connection might address the human need for social cohesion

WBUR Tweetup

On the evening of Thursday, February 5th, WBUR in Boston will be hosing their sixth (seventh?) monthly informal gathering at the station. WBUR regularly convenes the Boston social media community for the purpose of facilitating discussion around social technology and its growing role and impact on local community, news, and public media. All are invited to attend this free and open event. Details here.

At this event, WBUR has agreed to let me lead a discussion on hyperlocal news - in part due to the good discussion that's stemmed from this hyperlocal blog post and my interest in doing a follow-up on hyperlocal's future potential. Won't you join us?

Keep an eye on this blog for a follow-up from the event.

everyblock.com crime map

The term "Hyperlocal" generally refers to community-oriented news content typically not found in mainstream media outlets and covering a geographic region too small for a print or broadcast market to address profitably. The information is often produced or aggregated by online, non-traditional (amateur) sources.

Hyperlocal news is conceptually attractive because of its perceived potential to rescue struggling traditional media organizations. Most attempts at hyperlocal news websites have not proven to be entirely successful. Hyperlocal appears attractive to traditional media organizations for the following reasons:

  1. There is a perceived demand for news at the neighborhood/community level. The costs of print production and distribution have historically made providing this unprofitable, but the lower cost of web distribution could be used to serve this need.
  2. In an online world, regional media outlets are no longer the gatekeeper of news content and therefore must rely on their geographic relevance to provide unique value. Hyperlocal news leverages geographic relevance.
  3. The rise of citizen journalism and Web 2.0 seems to suggest that users could provide the majority of local content, thereby reducing or eliminating staffing costs.
  4. Local online advertising seems like a promising and not yet fully tapped revenue source.

History & Approaches
Hyperlocal seems to have emerged as a popular concept in 2005, even while regional news websites and blogs were already becoming common1. In 2006-2007, the first significantly funded hyperlocal sites and platforms were launched. There were high-profile failures, most notably Backfence.com (2007) and LoudounExtra.com (from Washington Post in 2008). Many early efforts took the form of online newspaper websites, employing local reporters (or sometimes bloggers), and attempting to source user-generated content by inviting individual submissions or incorporating user discussion functionality. There was much speculation on why this approach often failed. Regardless of the specifics, their universal unprofitability suggests that producing a local newspaper-like presence simply doesn’t create enough demand (online readership) to justify the costs (local staff). Of note are a few surviving examples like the Chicago Tribune’s Triblocal project that create and distribute hyperlocal print editions from their online content, and many hyperlocal blogs which operate on less auspicious budgets.

Around the same time, a slightly more promising wave of information-heavy regional news sites (such as pegasusnews.com) emerged. These sites were inspired by the success of regional review sites such as yelp.com and Yahoo! Local and in response to the high costs of local content production. These new efforts focused on incorporating dynamic regional data, such as crime stats, permit applications, real estate listings, and business directories in lieu of an emphasis on hand-crafted local reporting.

A third and perhaps most promising wave of local news sites emphasized the aggregation of third-party content. These include platforms such as outside.in, topix.com, and everyblock.com – all of which are framework approaches - aggregating content, mostly through RSS feeds, for many geographic locations (in some cases thousands) in order to build enough accumulated traffic to make a local business model work. Some slightly different takes on this model have individuals in specific locations acting as editors and republishing aggregated content (universalhub.com) or aggregator sites focusing on particular types of content (Placeblogger.com).

Lessons Learned
You can’t serve online users the same way as newspapers or broadcasters serve regional audiences. The news and information demands are wildly different. It is not enough to reduce printing and distribution costs or put content into "bite-sized" pieces. The user-consumer is trying to solve radically different problems from a unique perspective around their online information needs.

Giving participatory tools to users does not make them publishers. Users do not produce material that looks anything like mass media content. Users have an expectation of being involved, and their efforts (such as sharing) can be helpful or even necessary in some contexts. However, assumptions about traditional publishers shifting effort "to the crowd" are misguided. Users are also notoriously fickle in their socially-driven motivations. Our understanding around what motivates people to participate online and in what context is limited.

Manually producing local content is expensive. This isn’t a surprise. What shocked people is that there is not enough consumer demand online to justify this cost.

Aggregation is cheap, and if done effectively can create enough demand to be profitable – particularly across many locations. As more sources make their content available through RSS feeds and APIs, this is only going to get better.


1To be clear, the hyperlocal hype from traditional media organizations took fire in 2005, but local sites like Craigslist and H20Town were long-standing successes by this point, thereby playing their part in fueling the excitement.

Frankly, I'm surprised it took so long to happen. Or maybe I just didn't notice it happening much until now. When google pioneered contextual advertising, I assumed that the rest of the world would follow in spades. We'd be getting emailed, nudged, banner-added and text messaged whenever we displayed online intention or contextual curiosity. There is a world of nuance between blatantly unsolicited email spam and "relevant online communications," and I assumed that businesses would rush in to fill this gap. But I really haven't seen it that much. Until now.
 
Enter the Twitter Hawks. Businesses that hover on top of Twitter search terms and then @ you if you mention something relevant to their business. For example, I just got an @ message from an airport shuttle service when they saw me use the name of an airport in my tweet. Obviously, they're monitoring the public feed using Twitter Search or the Search API and replying publicly to tweets that mention airport travel in their business service range. But is this spam? Well, I suppose not the traditional type, but it's definitely unwelcome when my @ stream is filled with unsolicited business messages from orgs - no matter how "well intentioned" who are hovering over my communications.
 
Like any good enabling technology, people see opportunity and rush in to explore, address, solve, and experiment. I'm not surprised that people are exploring this gap, I'm just surprised it took so long.

Last week I posted a mini-app that helps find popular twitter users near you. Simply enter a location, and Twitterstars will search regional tweets and return the top five most-followed Twitter users.

Your Location (City, State):

I got some good sleuthing and feedback from the genius behind lolcode, and have subsequently made some updates and learned enough to provide some caveats. Tips & Caveats:

  • Since this app hits multiple web services, expect a little bit of waiting time as the data is retrieved.
  • If the page returns empty, this is likely because Twitter is struggling under server load or is rejecting API requests from Yahoo! Pipes (known issue)
  • I've locked the radius of search to 15 miles, which in most cases encircles users who put the city name you've searched for in their profile (twitter search API uses LAT and LONG coordinates). I have discovered some examples where the search API stumbles on stated locations, however
  • The Twitter search API returns a maximum of 100 tweets and must analyze users from within that collection. This means that if a popular user has not tweeted within the time window determined by the 100 most recent tweets (sometimes as little as a few minutes in the case of, say, NY, NY), then they will not be included in the search results. Try multiple times during the day to get different results.
  • The Twitter Search API is notorious for its latency. If you're trying to catch a very recent tweet in the result set, you generally won't be successful.
  • Pipes requests in rapid succession will return cached data, so it's not enough to simply hit refresh on the results page (sorry). Wait a few minutes and try again, or hack the URL to change the search radius or LAT/LONG, etc.

If you find this mini-application useful, please let me know. Suggestions for modifications and improvements are always welcome.

[Note: I've posted a Twitterstars update]

Finding and connecting with local social media 'superstars' can be a valuable short-cut for anyone trying to ramp up quickly in online social environments. These enthusiasts are knowledgeable about social media tools, are highly-connected, and understand well how to succeed in the online social environment.

But how do you find the local social media superstars? Today, many of these individuals use Twitter. The "Local Twitterstars" mini-application below takes any US geographic search area that you provide and returns a feed of the top five most followed individuals on Twitter who have been recently active in the region. Below is a more detailed explanation of how I built this mini-application. I also posted an update here.

Location (City, State):

Radius (in Miles):


This mini-application uses the Twitter Search API, the Twitter REST API, Yahoo! Pipes, and some simple HTML.

  1. The simple HTML form above constructs a server GET request through both hidden and user-populated form fields.
  2. This constructed URL queries a custom-built Yahoo! Pipe that takes the location from the URL and converts it to LAT-LONG coordinates.
  3. A Twitter search API query is then constructed by the Pipe using the LAT-LONG and radius data, returning the 100 most recent tweets in this region. Depending on your search area, this could include only very recent tweets or could span a much longer time period. Twitter has some internal smarts around matching the coordinates to include a variety of data that users put into the location field of their profile, including towns, zip codes, iPhone GPS coordinates, etc.
  4. The Pipe then takes all the tweets and constructs a series of queries to the Twitter REST API, pulling back user profile data from each user behind the tweets.
  5. After removing duplicates, the Pipe selects the top five most followed users in the list and builds an RSS feed presenting the username, a link to their twitter account, and the current number of followers they have.

NOTE: If the feed request is empty, try changing your search criteria. It's also quite possible that Twitter is struggling to handle load and won't fulfill the API requests.

If you find this mini-application useful, please let me know. Suggestions for modifications and improvements are always welcome.

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.

Here are some thoughts I've put together in preparation for a Beyond Broadcast panel discussion that I'll be participating on entitled "Mapping the Money."

Briefly share some observations and suggestions on funding streams/structures for public media. [The idea here is that traditional public media is trying to find its place on the Internet, and in so doing, needs to find a sustainable funding model.]

I probably approach this from a different perspective than those who are actively allocating funds towards this problem or are trying to generate revenue for broadcasters (I help generate community for public broadcasters through our community engagement platform, Public Action). They are seeking a sustainable monetization scheme first and foremost. While I think there are some untested funding models based on Public Media's existing online presence that have promise, I have a slightly different approach to building sustainability online.

In the online world, community and user participation is, in and of itself an asset to be cultivated and social production and interaction are, in a sense, the new online currency. There's a reason that Google and Yahoo! give away their content and applications for free. They are trying to attract people. 

This is not a new idea for "Web 2.0" companies who often don't initially try to monetize. They concentrate first on building up a base of users. For these new web applications and services, there is real value - sometimes in the millions or even billions of dollars - in merely getting users to interact with your product or media in some way. The objective here is to connect and relate to more people in a positive way, whether this means more downloads, more registered users, more redistribution of content, more comments about your product on Twitter, etc.

One of the reasons for focusing on users is the network effect that results from attracting a critical mass of individuals. If your product benefits from more users, which most do at least on the word-of-mouth sharing level, then more users means a better chance of attracting even MORE users. In essence, there is a cascade effect. With this increased number of participants, you ultimately have more choices in how you might eventually choose to monetize things. You certainly have more leverage in working with other organizations and potential partners.

Additionally, individuals have an increasing amount of control over your products, your visibility, your brand perception, and ultimately even how you make money. Traditionally, you made money only by being a centralized business entity - you invested in a means of production and then controlled the revenue stream. This is changing. Distributed individuals now can dictate not only if you succeed, but even how and why - in fact, the public media monetization scheme of the future may be entirely created and controlled by the public. Ultimately, the organizational entities that we know and love today may play little to no role in how public media is funded. An argument for attracting participation might be if only to position ourselves better and be more literate in this for this future.

It is important that public media institutions try to build their online user base before aggressively monetizing their media and services. The best chance of generating meaningful dollars is through increasing our visibility, reach, interactions and relationships. We must figure out how to relate positively to more people online - something that we're notoriously bad at doing. Success will increasingly be dictated by the number of users on the Internet, their opinions, their participation, their goodwill, their willingness to share – none of which are in our control, and the more we try to control, the worse off we'll be.

The problem with an initial focus on monetization is that issues arise when users are seen as something to be mined for cash. This is where you get into trouble. If monetization is an initial goal, it will create an unwelcome environment for engagement and deter the participation that is needed in the first place.

We need to be extremely cautious about monetizing public media – the competition here might just be free and open production, whether organized in a structured gift economy in places like Wikipedia, or truly distributed across blogs and bittorrent. If, like the New York Times, we try to enclose our assets to make money, we will be effectively losing out to those providers who chose to be open and free.

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.

Sweet mention on Make Magazine's blog from yesterday for the Arduino workshop I held with the Boston Dorkbots today.

It was great fun introducing Physical Computing to so many software developers. There was tons of interest with standing room only in our room. Even helped 4-5 people to stick around and build blinkys on their own Arduinos.

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.

On Thursday, the MIT Center for Future Civic Media as part of the MIT Communications Forum and Civic Media Series hosted a talk between Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein, moderated by Henry Jenkins and entitled "Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly."

The premise, of which I was skeptical, was to get Cass and Yochai to duke it out over whether internet participation was headed anywhere good. I was dubious of MIT staging a scholarly drama, but Benkler, Sunstein, and Jenkins have written three of the (arguably) most important recent works on the participatory internet, and for that fact alone, attendance was mandatory.

Many great arguments were articulated, all of which can be heard here.

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?


A couple years ago, I wrote about Neil Gershenfeld’s cool MIT Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory). On Monday I was fortunate enough to join the Boston Dorkbot crew for a tour of the Boston Fab Lab. I’ve posted a photoset of a few machines. Pictured are three computer-controlled prototyping machines, including a room-sized router, a micro-milling machine, and a laser cutter. Missing from the photos is a sign/vinyl cutter, several non-computer-controlled tools, and a nicely-outfitted electronics workbench.

The mission of the fab lab is a noble one: to empower creative people to make things with the assumption that, well, we’re all creative. Exposing individuals to commercial prototyping machines encourages people to explore, learn and have a significantly wider range of choices – both in what we might envision and make, but also in how we view the world and imagine our role in its future.


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.

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