Friday, July 25, 2008

Mobile Volunteers

NYU new media professor and Here Comes Everybody author Clay Shirky likes to tell the story about a recent day when two of his friends were sitting with their four-year-old daughter, watching a DVD. "In the middle of the movie, apropos nothing," Shirky says, the girl jumps up off the couch and runs behind the screen. Her dad thought she was going to see if Dora (the explorer, from the kid’s cartoon show) was hiding there. But no, the girl was rooting around in the cables. "What are you doing?" her father asked. Sticking her head out from behind the screen, the girl says, “Looking for the mouse.”

For Shirky, it's a tale of the times. “Four-year-olds know a screen that ships without a mouse ships broken,” he says. “Four-year-olds know that media that is targeted at you—but that doesn’t include you—may not be worth sitting still for.”

No question: all social media innovators today are “looking for the mouse”—working to find new ways to let those who use, hear, read, and watch media to participate more fully. The most innovative enlist the use of mobile phones for a cause: the nonprofit National Democratic Institute uses text messaging to spot vote fraud in elections around the globe; asks its supporters to photograph human rights abuses with their cellphones; the Zumbido project in Mexico created a mobile social network for people living with HIV/AIDS.

But nobody has cracked the challenge of "on demand" volunteering—until now. Social media entrepreneur and activist Ben Rigby, author of Mobilizing Generation 2.0, thinks he's "found the mouse" for it with Volunteer NOW, his on-the-spot, GPS-aided mobile application that directs people who suddenly find themselves with some free time on their hands to a list of short-term volunteering opportunities near to their present location—be it an airport, an office building, a local Starbucks, or a city park. Rigby's goal: to transform volunteering into an "impulse activity" that, for the cause-wired not otherwise looking to tune out or cat-nap, could be done on the fly. (Got 20 minutes? Review a contract for a nonprofit. Translate a document for a non-English speaker. Or, text for the nearest beach or park clean-up drive and spend your lunch hour in the sun.)

"Projects like SETI@Home showed that massive computational problems can be solved when a distributed group of people donate their computers' spare CPUs to crunch data," Rigby says. "(Volunteer NOW! ) explores the possibility that this same theory can be applied to spare human 'CPUs.' We believe it will reveal a massive, untapped capacity to do good."

Rigby is not the only social media innovator intrigued by the idea of spare-time, mobile volunteering. Leaders of Do Something, a New York-based nonprofit, started using mobile phones in March to recruit volunteers. The Beta version of its Do Something NOW! mobile program, funded in part by the Sprint Foundation, invites young people to sign up for volunteering through a form on its Web site; Do Something then sends them one or two text alerts each month with volunteer opportunities that fit their locations and preferences. So far, more than 1,000 people have signed up for the text alerts: Do Something hopes to have 10,000 signed up by year's end. Opt-out rates, says Chief Marketing Officer Aria Finger, are running less than 5%.

Look for more examples of mobile volunteering in the months ahead. Katrin Verclas, founder of, will be showcasing some at her global summit on cause-mobile technology in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 13-15. Google's recent entry into the mobile phone market will add fuel to the mobile advocacy movement in coming months.

For more on how cellphones and other social media are dramatically changing society's notions of free time, check out the video of Clay Shirky's wildly popular talk at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco this past spring. It's about 10 minutes long but well worth the cognitive surplus—Shirky's term for free time—that you carve out to watch it.

(Illustration by Richard Borge c/o

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Video blogging—vlogging–seems more cause-minded than ever.

New-and-improved digital video-sharing sites with names like Vimeo,, Flickr video, Seesmic, and Viddler are making it easier for citizen activists to share their concerns about the world around them. One new storytelling form emerging on these sites is the short, "cause vlog" —brief, home-made mini-documentaries meant to create community around issues close to home.

Here are a couple of recent examples:

* Bike-Lane Emergency from Nicholas Whitaker on Vimeo. Whitaker attaches his camera to his handlebars and takes us for a dangerous, humorous spin through the streets of New York City.

* River Reactions from Kevin Co on Vimeo. Co uses a combination of news and original footage to raise safety concerns over the proposed construction of a nuclear reactor in his Yukon River village in Alaska.

Want to distribute your cause vlog globally? That's easier now, too: Dot.sub is a Web service that lets cause activists publish their docs with subtitles in other languages—and makes it possible for others to add subtitles of their own, in other languages. Viewers, meanwhile, can choose their preferred language for watching.

Founder Michael Smolens wanted to substantially remove language and cost as a barrier to cross-cultural communication using video. "I remember thinking after I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 that if one documentary film in English could have an impact on a very close U.S. Presidential election, imagine if all independent and documentary films, TV programming, and video from all cultures could be made available in all languages," Smollen says.

Look for wider use of vlogging by nonprofits in coming months. Here's how one, the global citizen news community, Rising Voices, is using dotSUB to distribute an informational video about its work in more than a dozen languages. Click here to see its vlog.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Censorship 2.0

In the weeks running up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing August 8-24, China's authorities are expanding their censorship of the Internet to Twitter and other forms of social media.

See these noteworthy posts by Australian Lou Veyret writing from Sydney, as well as by Thomas Crampton, a former writer for the International Herald Tribune in China. Crampton talks about how the Chinese government has hired a small freelance army of "opinion shapers" to influence opinion in chatrooms, on blogs, and now on Twitter, the free social networking and micro-blogging service. Here's an unedited interview Crampton did with Oiwan Lam, a blogger who writes from China for Global Voices Online and Inmediahk, a watchdog site in Hong Kong. Inmediahk bloggers attempt to cover stories in mainland China that government censors seek to quash.

For more on China's ongoing Net censorship, see an article by Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, an independent news Web site on China. He writes about how visitors to, China's largest Internet portal, may be greeted by two pop-up cartoon police officers who provide links to the Internet police section of the government's Public Security Web site, where readers can click to report any "illegal information" they see. ABC's recent report—"China: The Great Firewall"—also provides some context.

The containment isn't only happening online. According to a recent post on the Christian Science Monitor 's Olympic Glory blog, Chinese authorities are creating "protest pens" in three Beijing parks to contain demonstrations during the Olympics against Beijing's policies on Tibet and human rights.

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