Thursday, August 21, 2008

Collective wisdom

Like this photograph? Join the crowd. It is the top choice of some 3,344 people who answered an open call by the Brooklyn Museum of Art to curate 389 crowd-sourced photographs that best fit the theme, "The Changing Face of Brooklyn." (This photo was shot in 1979 by Marcia Bricker Halperin from a street in Brooklyn, through the front window of the legendary, long-gone Dubrow's Cafeteria.)

Halperin's photograph—the reflection of a Checker cab on Dubrow's window that appears to mingle with the patrons seated inside—joins nine others in the Top 10 "cut of the crowd" that comprise the museum's show, Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition. Entirely Web-sourced and Web-curated, the exhibit represents the first use of "crowd-sourcing" by a nonprofit in this way. The museum's goal: to build community, woo potential donors, and raise awareness of its work.

Organizer Shelley Bernstein, BMA's dynamic new manager of information systems, was inspired by the 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. In it, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki offered the world a simple but profound idea: a large, diverse group of people will make better judgments and smarter decisions than an elite few—no matter how individually brilliant.

Bernstein set out to test that theory in the context of visual art. First, she displayed the images anonymously on the museum's Web site, where anyone interested was invited to log on and rank them, one by one, on a sliding scale from "least effective" to "most effective" in fitting the theme. After a six-week rating period, Bernstein posted the top 20 percent of the images selected—78 photographs in total—on the site and they were pared down further by the crowd. Finally, Bernstein grouped them on the site into various lists, including "Most Discussed" and "Top 10 Compared."

"I wanted to build our community, expand it, and ask it to participate in what we do in some way," she says—critical for engaging new, cause-wired donors and patrons in advocacy today. Bernstein said she was "amazed" that many people who identified themselves as novices selected some of the same photographs as did the experts. (To hear more about what worked and what didn't in Bernstein's experiment, click here for the podcast of a June 28 discussion, which included Surowiecki and fellow crowdsourcing expert Jeff Howe.)

Here's another Top 10 photograph from Click! Called Just Girls, it was shot by photographer Donna Aceto last year at Coney Island:

For more on the wisdom of crowds, click on the video below, in which Howe talks about his new book, Crowdsourcing. It goes on sale next week in bookstores around the country:

Watch this site for more on the lessons of Click! I'll be moderating a September 23 panel on Web 2.0 technology and nonprofits that will include Bernstein and a discussion of her experiment at the Harvard Business School Club of New York's Social Enterprise Summit.

In the four years since Surowiecki's book, the phrases, "the hive mind" and "crowd-sourcing" have entered the lexicon: those inventing the next, "2.0" version of the Web are testing ways that companies, educators, and social change advocates can tap into their thousands of new and expanding social networks—on demand—for better ideas, more money, and greater influence.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Photographer, filmaker, and multimedia artist Douglas Gayeton is a new kind of digital storyteller. He creates immersive story experiences for virtual worlds and social networks, including Second Life, Gaia, Habbo Hotel and Sony Home—the first high-def virtual world (which released in public beta in June).

In case you missed it the first time around, here's a clip from one of Gayeton's better-known projects, Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey. He wrote, produced, and directed this documentary, the first-ever shot entirely within Second Life. The highest-rated video in the world on YouTube, Molotov Alva was purchased recently by HBO.

Gayeton is the chief creative officer at Millions of Us, a San Francisco-based agency that specializes in marketing programs in Second Life. He is preparing a one-man retrospective of his works for Slow Food Nation, a San Francisco celebration of the sustainable food movement that's to be held at Fort Mason over the Labor Day weekend.

I will be sitting down with Gayeton in Chicago in early September to hear about his plans for using virtual environments to raise awareness of social issues. "People sometimes use virtual worlds to redefine themselves and the world in a way that's closer to the vision that they have of it and themselves," Gayeton says. Watch this site to learn more about Gayeton and his thought leadership on the newest forms of social media for social change.

—Marcia Stepanek

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Peep Show

For cause-wired advocates this week, there’s been no missing the irony of China’s Olympic slogan, One World, One Dream. The aggressive push by China’s 30,000 cybercops to continuously monitor and control the information that citizen advocacy groups are able to send in and out of China is only boosting the perception of this year’s Olympics as a qualifying heat for one of the biggest contests of the coming decade—the battle between an expanding, cause-wired citizenry and governments around the globe who would block the free flow of information. (For a comprehensive overview of the battle, click here.)

Indeed, like the athletes competing for Gold in Beijing’s Water Cube, China's censors have wasted no time showing off their speed and muscle: their moves to censor Twitter, crack down on video-sharing sites (both YouTube and a Chinese version of it called, and make it hard (if not utterly impossible) to load some Web sites such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters sans Frontieres from inside the Foreign Press Center remain firmly (and predictably) intact as of today.

But what's happening this week in China, despite the widespread use of beefed-up, anti-censorship software by those would not be bowed, is more than simply an internationally-broadcast dust-up over who gets the last word (or the first online).

Internet censorship is on the rise in many countries, partly a reaction by nervous governments to the rapid and growing use of social media by citizen activists around the world. John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, says there has been a surge in the scale, scope, and sophistication of Internet filtering. In the past five years, he says, "we have gone from a couple of states doing state-mandated Net filtering to 25."

But there's another big reason for social-change advocates to pay attention to Net censorship. The issue isn't just about the type and number of Web sites accessible to Netizens at home and abroad. It's also about what a free flow of digital information enables people to do. Social media, unfettered, change the way people in society organize themselves to get things done. Such things as mobile phones, Twitter, video-sharing services, and social networking sites make it really easy for people to self-organize into groups from the ground up rather than to be organized by others from the top down.

New media expert Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, a new book on the impact of social media on society, says this Net-driven social revolution (with a small "r") won't be occurring at the expense of existing institutions (like governments or nonprofits, for example). But it could, he says, provide compelling alternatives that may, over time, weaken them considerably.

And that's mostly what's making officialdom from Beijing to Washington really nervous lately: this Web-enabled shape-shifting is already starting to happen. "Newly capable groups are assembling," Shirky puts it, "and they are working without the managerial imperative and outside the previous institutions and structures that bounded their effectiveness in the past." (Quick—remember that panel you missed at the last Net conference you attended about the waning influence of government? Odds are, they weren't talking about George Bush.)

For now, the information war has no definitive winners or losers: governments, as seen in China this week, are winning some rounds; citizen activists are wracking up other wins elsewhere, as in Burma during last fall's Myanmar revolt and again in May, after Cyclone Nargis. But Net activists fear that sooner or later, governments could get the upper hand—and they've been using China's Olympian censorship efforts to get everyone into the pool. (Amnesty International’s new Uncensor Web site named July 30 a Day of Protest against Net censorship in China. The Uncensor campaign is a joint fundraising effort with an Australian Facebook Cause group and organizers hope the partnership will last well beyond the Olympics.)

Not sure you're ready to jump in yet? Go ahead. Re-read your mission statement. Take it global. Welcome to the war.

(Illustration: Copyright2008 by Cathy Gendron for

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

6.6 Degrees

Small world? Apparently so. A study by two Microsoft researchers of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people around the world suggests that socially, each person on the planet really is, at most, about 6.6 people away from knowing actor Kevin Bacon (left)—or any other stranger on Earth.

The study—which reviewed one month's worth of Microsoft Messenger instant messaging traffic—was presented to the World Wide Web 2008 Conference in Beijing in April and reported today in The Washington Post. The findings appear to corroborate the popular "Kevin Bacon" theory of social networking that puts you just one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everybody they know, and so on. At best, this six degrees of separation, or small-world theory, says that any two people—on average—could be linked by roughly seven or fewer acquaintances.

So why does this Microsoft study matter? Researchers say the findings underscore the real-world power and potential of social networks and social media to organize groups of people in order to raise money, spread ideas, and influence the way others spend their time. Until now, the "six degrees" theory was only a hunch. Now, researcher Eric Horvitz told the Post, "it's pretty shocking. What we're seeing suggests there may be a social connectivity constant for humanity...People have had this suspicion that we are really close. But we are showing on a very large scale that this idea goes beyond folklore."

Illustration of six degrees of separation concept
(Source: Wikipedia/Map of Six Degrees Theory of Social Connectivity)

Kevin Bacon—the well-connected actor for whom a 1994 college game about the phenomenon was named—has been applying the small-world theory to fundraising. Last year, Bacon launched, which maps his own social network and invites others to join it to raise money for social causes. In a Spring 2007 conversation, Bacon told me he initially thought the three college students who created Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon were poking fun at him:

"I thought at first that they were making fun, asking why a loser like me could know so many people, right? (laughter) Then I met these guys and saw it was for real," Bacon said. "Now, of course, this concept (of six degrees) is in the zeitgeist: the movie, Babel, was all about human connectivity. The potential here is that one person can reach out to two people and have those two people reach out to two more, and so on, and see the power of change grow exponentially around somebody's hope of having an impact. "

Bacon's site—developed with social entrepreneur Bill Strathmann, the CEO of Network for Good and co-author of People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities—has raised some $4 million for a variety of social causes.

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