Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fear Factor

Corporate social media? If that's not an oxymoron at your company or social enterprise, then social media can be scary, difficult stuff -- requiring a ton of courage and patience to deploy effectively, according to corporate social media strategists for Target, PepsiCo, Gap and Facebook.

"It's very, very scary," Claire Lyons, Pepsico's corporate brand program manager, told a packed room of nonprofit and CSR activists attending a panel at today's 2010 National Conference on Volunteering and Service. Social media represent "a huge shift in the way companies operate," she said, "because they [social media] shift the locus of control of a brand, which was always controlled by brand managers, and blows it up. ...It is changing the whole way that brand architecture is considered."

Lyons, one of the lead architects of the company's Pepsi Refresh campaign, said she finds social media "exciting." But using social media to engage employees and stakeholders is "very different. We really don't have control" of the conversation, she said. "This [social media] is a total quality management feedback loop par excellence."

Target also has discovered some uncomfortable moments moving to social media. Jill Pete, a member of Target's national community relations team, said it was hard at first to simply "step back, listen and not react to what was being said" on the company's Facebook page. "We were hesitant to step into this realm, especially Facebook, because Facebook's power is dialogue," Pete said. But the risk has paid off, she said. Target's decision to stay quiet and listen has been "a huge step for us because we'd been seeing some stuff on there that was inaccurate and we really wanted to correct it right away." Turns out, said Pete, the company didn't have to. "all inaccuracies so far, all of them, are usually corrected no more than two or three days after it has been asserted," she said -- by people Target doesn't know but who follow the company on Facebook. "It's testing our strength as a brand," said Pete. "If you're strong as a brand, you listen -- and you learn."

Joshua Rahn, New York Director of Facebook, shared an anecdote of how early Pepsi traffic on Facebook included one comment that simply made the statement: "I hate Pepsi but I love Coke." This triggered a swirl of internal communication at Pepsi, he said -- "the lawyers had a field day" -- but before the company could respond, one of its Facebook "friends" quietly posted a short note telling the detractor that if he didn't like Pepsi, to go to Coke's Facebook page, instead. It worked. End of story. "Before Facebook and Twitter," Rahn said, "people still bad-mouthed products. They always will. You will never be able to control for that. Never. But now, you have the opportunity to shape the responses."

In other highlights, panelists agreed that companies and organizations should:

* Get clear on "who owns social media" inside the organization. "Don't make the person who owns social a second-class citizen," Rahn said. "Your social media person shouldn't be a person who sits in on every third meeting andhas no authority and no independent power. This should be a person who has a voice. Where should the person sit? In your marketing team but they have to be able to make decisions." Rahn cited Starbucks as a good example of a company that "gets it" about social media's internal role, putting its social media team in marketing but giving it autonomy "and the same amount of say as its TV team."

* Consider setting up a private, branded employee social network. Abby Frost, manager of employee engagement and community partnerships at Gap, said the company has launched Sketchbook ["our employee Facebook," Frost explains]. On that social network, she said, employees share the highs and lows of the workplace expeirence, share team projects and communicate socially. Recently, Frost organized an "Ultimate Happy Hour" on Sketchbook, which included a video content among employees to celebrate the company's 48th anniversary. She said prizes were given out to the best employee stories and participation on the network remains high. So do employee retention rates. Said Facebook's Rahn: "As much as companies think of using social media to raise awareness, they also need to be thinking of creating engagement around it."

* Remember that ROI rules. But don't look for magic. Facebook's Rahn said that far too many companies, in their efforts to create a social media strategy, waste too much time trying to get something ready for release. "These are companies that need to consider their 'return on energy' instead," Rahn said. Gap's Frost agrees. "You need to move fast, not perfect," she said.

* Be clear that social media are a must for employee retention. If companies have hired someone to craft their social media strategy but won't let them use the tools on the job, then don't be surprised if you can't hire anyone good -- or keep them once they're on board. Target's Pete said Millennials expect to be able to use social media on the job "If you encourage your employees to engage online, they will engage in your favor; if employees see how you're connecting online and see how effective it is, they will become your biggest ambassadors," she said. "But if you don't let them engage, you may lose them." Rahn called it "social retention."

Erik Darby, vice president of business development for The Experience Project, which just launched TwitCause -- a new offering that helps companies engage Twitter users in their pet causes -- offered attendees "5 Things Your Corporation Needs to Know About Social Media." Here they are, briefly:

1. Know why you're going into social media. "Just going for fans on Facebook and followers on Twitter is not going to cut it," Darby says.

2. Know what ROI metrics you're measuring.

3. Be consistent with your social media engagement. "Don't expect to see results if you send out a tweet once a week," Darby says.

4. Be human. "Don't exploit your audience. Care about them. Ask their input on things."

5. Go where your audience is. "'Build it and they will come' isn't true anymore," Darby says. "If you're a pet company, for example, don't just do Facebook. Go where your customers are. Go on Dogster."

Okay, readers. It's your turn. Got any pointers to add?

-- Marcia Stepanek


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Monday, June 28, 2010


The much-anticipated TEDxOilSpill gathering on the human and environmental impact of the BP oil spill kicked off today in Washington, the 70th day of the Gulf oil crisis, with repeated urgings by speakers for stepped-up nationwide civic engagement around the expanding devastation.

"Most people don't understand the issues that led to this happening," organizer Nate Mook, 28, told the 600-plus people attending the grassroots-organized effort, along with the estimated 10,000 more people watching a livestream of it from their homes and from some 129 Meetup locations across the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia. "[The oil spill has] brought to the forefront a lot of things that have been on the sidelines for a long time -- such as the problems with our oceans, how important the marine eco-system is, where we are getting our energy and what we are putting at risk."

Mook and co-organizer Dave Troy, both DC tech entrepreneurs, told CNN over the weekend that they began organizing the event four weeks ago in hopes of helping people "fill the information void" about the devastation.

The conference kicked off, literally, from several thousand feet, with a show of aerial photographs taken by a team of photographers convened by Mook and Davis to spend a week in the Gulf region gathering new evidence of the spill's impact. [Earlier today, the team, called TEDxOilSpill Expedition, posted its full range of photos on Flicker.] Team leader James Duncan Davidson, TED's conference photographer, described mounting difficulties getting access to the worst areas affected. "Air space over the spill is controlled by BP," he said. "We could find only one pilot willing to take me out over the Gulf" -- and when he got there, Davidson added, the air "smelled like you've dumped oil, gas, propane and Windex all over your garage." Team members later told conferees to tell people who want to help to "go make art, go make media, raise money."

Other highlights so far include:

* Francis Beland, VP of Prize Development for the X PRIZE Foundation, announced the organization will launch, within the next two weeks, a "clean-up challenge"that will divvy up to $10 million in prize amoney among social entrepreneurs who come up with the best ideas for Gulf Coast recovery. Beland urged entrepreneurs with good ideas for clean-up -- as well as ideas about how to further structure the contest -- to email him directly, at

* Phillippe Cousteau, the grandson of the late ocean environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, said the spill's impact is being "enormously under-reported." He said "the cost to wildlife of the spill is very bad. We're only just beginning to get a full picture. ... The estimate now is that for every bird found, there are 10 birds not found." Cousteau, the founder and CEO of EarthEcho International, a nonprofit, added that governments around the world have "under-invested in oceans for decades. ...We don't really understand the ecosystems in the best of times, much less in times of crisis."

* Casey DeMoss Roberts, of the Gulf Restoration Network (, shared that when she was 17, she lost her father, an oil rig worker, to a typhoon. She said the country is becoming more desperate in its search for oil. "He should never have been out there [looking for oil] in the first place," she said. "How can we stop making human sacrifices for a tank of gas?" Roberts said the toll of the spill is also causing coastal wetlands to die at an alarming rate. "In the Gulf, we lose of football field of wetlands every 45 minutes" due to the spill, she said, as containment efforts continue to fail. She said the spill also is affecting long-held cultural traditions in the region: the Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, the oldest festival in Louisiana, is still scheduled for September 2-6, she said, but "I wonder what that will look like this year?" Roberts ended her talk blaming the federal government, not BP, for doing too little to find alternative energy sources so as to break the nation's dependence on oil. "We can't expect companies that make catastrophic mistakes to stop making them," Roberts said, her voice quavering. "It's time to force our government to think outside the barrel."

* Latosha Brown, a native of Mobile, AL, warned of the expanding impact of BP's use of toxic solvents to break up and disperse the oil in the Gulf. "I have yet to meet a fisherman who is supportive of oil dispersants," said Brown. She fears the fishing industry will be "all but wiped out" if the spill is not contained soon, and urged policymakers in the audience to help local residents diversify their economy, retrain workers and encourage entrepreneurs.

* Lisa Barry of, demonstrated the New Orleans-based nonprofit's crowdsourcing project to help citizens produce and collate their own aerial photographs of the spill and its ongoing impact. For more on this project, see Cause Global's June 5 report, Citizens Rising, on the initiative. "We're collecting images of places that no one ever bothers to photograph, and doing so over time to see the impact," Barry said. "It will help hold authorities responsible and create a public record so people won't forget."

The conference continues through today. Watch this space for updates.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[Photo: A roadside sign outside Grand Isle, LA/from TEDxOilSpill's Expedition Project]

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Google Oogled

In May, Google announced that, for more than three years -- in more than 30 countries -- it had been "mistakenly collecting" personal data from open WiFi networks as its vehicles roamed the streets taking photos for its Street View mapping service. That data could include people's email messages, their passwords and even the logs of their Web site visits.

This week, more than 30 state attorneys general announced they will begin examining the lawfulness of Google's actions, though it still isn't clear whether Google committed any legal wrongdoing. "At the very least, Google acknowledges that intercepting and gathering people's data was wrong," Connecticut AG Richard Blumenthal told WIRED. "But there may be a need to strengthen and enhance federal and state laws." Meanwhile, the chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission has issued a warning to consumers that Google's "behavior" raises important privacy concerns, adding that the collection of WiFi data, "whether intentional or not ... clearly infringes on consumer privacy."

The Google disclosures have triggered one of the biggest public probes of online privacy so far in the digital era. Google, in response to government inquiries and lawsuits, has claimed that it is lawful to use packet-sniffing tools readily available on the Internet to spy on and download payload data from others using the same open Wi-Fi access points. But two months ago, in May, shortly after the FCC and U.S. Justice Department began looking into the Street Maps issue, Google co-founder Sergey Brin told a Google developer conference his company "screwed up" by improperly collecting the WiFi data. "We screwed up, and I'm not making excuses about it," Brin said. "Trust is very important to us and we're going to do everything we can to preserve it." Brin said the company is "putting more internal controls into place and bringing in third parties to work on this issue, as well." Google also has begun destroying some of the Wi-Fi data it collected for Street View -- in some cases, at the request of governments, including Britain's. But privacy advocates now say Google should preserve the data and turn it over to governments.

"The problem here is that there are criminal laws at issue, and there is a real question as to whether Google violated these laws," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a nonprofit privacy rights group in Washington. "If it did, the evidence is in the information Google collected. Google has tried to minimize the data it collected, calling it snippets or fragments. But that's a determination that needs to be made by a third party, possibly a prosecutor."

For one of the most comprehensive overviews of the Street Map issue -- including a timeline of the Street View program from its launch in 2007 to Germany's announcement last month that Street View vehicles have been collecting data from WiFi networks -- see EPIC's Web page on the brouhaha.

Street View isn't the only Google product that has been drawing recent privacy concerns. In February, EPIC filed a complaint against the company with the FTC, seeking constraints on Google Buzz, the company's new social networking service. The complaint describes an attempt by Google "to convert the private, personal information of Gmail subscribers into public information" for the Buzz service. "This change in business practices and service terms violated user privacy expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google's own privacy policy, and may have also violated federal wiretap laws." [Facebook also has come under fire from privacy advocates for ongoing problems with its privacy settings, chiefly the lack of control users have over personal information that others have made public about them, including photographs. Another sore spot: Facebook's decision to push users into using its "instant personalization" feature, the company's link to third-party Web sites such as Yelp and Pandora that share users' opinons on shops and tunes.]

What do you think? As the Web becomes more "social," should consumers have more of a say in how their personal data is distributed across social networks? [See Radical Shock, a Q&A by Cause Global with privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum about the need for new privacy protections that don't care so much about whether data is shared "but whether it's being shared appropriately."] Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek


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Tourist Lane

For an hour last month, the flash-mob troupe, Improv Everywhere, used chalk to divide a Manhattan sidewalk into two walking lanes -- one for New Yorkers and one for tourists. Someone took a photograph (top), posted it online, and the "tourist lane" went viral -- with major media outlets, including CNN, doing brief stories. (So much for the Web's use as a new comedy venue.) But until recently, it wasn't clear who was responsible for the stunt. Improv Everywhere finally owned up to it during Internet Week, posting this "behind-the-scenes" video. The public art group's motto, We Cause Scenes, says it all. [Did we mention that NYC tourists have a reputation for walking slower than everyone else?]

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Digital Content: 'Free' No More?

Here's a new type of social media startup -- Flattr, out of Sweden. It's in private beta at the moment but it's already starting to cause social innovators and entrepreneurs to sit up and take notice. [Micah Sifry, the cofounder and executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, posted a short piece on it today on his techPresident blog and says he finds Flattr "intriguing."]

He's right. Flattr is a new micro-payment system that would make it possible for people to get paid for what they produce online -- directly from the people who consume it. "When you create, there's no good way right now to get money for that content, and when you find something you like, there's no good way to show love for it," Flattr's founders say. "The problem is universal for bloggers and their readers, musicians and their listeners, photographers, film creators, programmers and so on."

And it doesn't end there. "Before Flattr," the founders say on their site, "the only reasonable way to donate was to use Paypal or other systems to send money to people. The threshold for this has been quite high. People just ignore sending donations if it isn't for a really important cause. Sending a small sum has always been a pain in the ****. Who would ever log in to a payment system just to donate one Euro? And 10 Euros was just too high (a price to pay) for just one blog entry we liked..."

Flattr founders say they've solved the problem. Here's how it works: Once you register on the site, you're asked to put a small sum of money into an account there, which you then use to pay all of the people (or causes) you choose to "flattr" each month. The site lets you both send and receive payments. The idea? You can "flattr" people and they can "flattr" you back. (You can pay people for their content -- if you like it a lot -- and they can pay you for yours.)

Says Sifry: "This strikes me as very smart social engineering since it tackles the most obvious obstacle -- our propensity to want to get paid, more than pay others, right from the start. In effect, Flattr sets up a worldwide poker game and you have to ante up to play."

For more on Flattr, here's the video. The site's motto, translated into English from Swedish, says: "Many small streams will form a large river." What do you think?

Could this new "social micro-payment" idea help to bridge the so-called 'social action gap' (between talk and action) for many causes? Could it help to close the 'payment gap' for creators of online content and spark new levels of entrepreneurial activity? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Simon Oxley for

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Agitprop, Totally

There's a new BP protest site that's getting some serious buzz this week. It's called You Should Totally Apologize to BP and it's inviting visitors to "click here to say you're sorry" for buying the oil company's gas for your car or eating its cheese snacks. [BP sells snacks through its Connect convenience store franchise.]

The site was launched over the weekend by some of the same folks who have been bringing the world @BPGlobalPR, the spoof Twitter site that masquerades as the beleaguered oil company's PR stream.

It's just the latest in a series of anti-BP oil spill sites to get organized over the past month as the enormity of the spill begins to seep into the American psyche. Chief motivation for this latest bit of agitprop, organizers say, were remarks made last Thursday by Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton, who called the new BP-funded, $20 billion victim compensation fund a "shakedown" by the White House. "I don't want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something legitimately wrong, it's subject to some sort of political pressure that amounts to a shakedown," Barton said in remarks broadcast on C-SPAN, "so I apologize" to BP on behalf of the American government.

But the last word on Barton goes to the spoofsters, who wrote on their site (under a video clip of Barton's remarks) the following:

Rep. Joe Barton is right. BP deserves better than the horrible treatment they've gotten from America. The GOP is ashamed of America, and you should be, too. All BP did was try to bring us delicious crude oil with which we could drive our SUVs. They made tremendous sacrifices. And what did they get out of the deal? Just a little profit, which they could ow lose, thanks to mean American holding them accountable. This year, they could make over 25% less billions in profits, thanks to America's socialist agenda. The best America is one that privatizes profits and socializes losses. So Apologize to BP.

Though put up just recently, You Should Totally Apologize to BP has already started netting hundreds of followers on Facebook and Twitter. A tweet posted a few hours ago on the site's #ImsorryBP feed reads as follows:

Dear BP, We are so sorry we are carbon-based life forms requiring water and air free of misplaced petroleum to continue living.

What do you think? If you were BP's social media director (or Barton's press secretary) at this point -- and still wanted the job --where would you go from here? Let us hear from you.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Networkers' Bill of Rights

An influential group of Silicon Valley tech activists are circulating a petition across the Web that calls for a Social Network Users Bill of Rights. As reported here earlier, the group met last week at the 2010 Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in San Jose to hammer out the document, a response to the ongoing Facebook privacy uproar and concern over Goggle Buzz's recent release of users' top email contacts.

Here's what emerged:

We, the users, expect social network sites to provide us the following rights in their Terms of Service, Privacy Policies and implementations of their system:

1. Honesty: Honor your privacy policy and terms of service

2. Clarity: Make sure that policies, terms of service, and settings are easy to find and understand

3. Freedom of speech: Do not delete or modify my data without a clear policy and justification

4. Empowerment: Support assistive technologies and universal accessibility

5. Self-protection: Support privacy-enhancing technologies

6. Data minimization: Minimize the information I am required to provide and share with others.

7. Control: Let me control my data, and don't facilitate sharing it unless I agree first.

8. Predictability: Obtain my prior consent before significantly changing who can see my data.

9. Data portability: Make it easy for me to obtain a copy of my data.

10. Protection: Treat my data as securely as your own confidential data unless I choose to share it, and notify me if it is compromised.

11. Right to know: Show me how you are using my data and allow me to see who and what has access to it.

12. Right to self-define: Let me create more than one identity and use pseudonyms. Do not link them without my permission.

13. Right to appeal: Allow me to appeal punitive actions.

14. Right to withdraw: Allow me to delete my account, and remove my data.

What do you think? Google and Twitter have, so far, declined to comment; a Google spokesperson said the company already has its own set of posted privacy standards. Facebook, when asked to comment on the principles by the San Jose Mercury News, issued a prepared statement, which said that while Facebook shares the goal of ensuring "a safe and trusted environment" for its users, "we don't agree with all of the proposed elements" of the Bill of Rights, including any provision that would let people use pseudonyms.

Petition organizers are hoping to get widespread support for the document, regardless. "A networking Bill of Rights is a tool that users can use for education and empowerment," said Jack Lerner, director of the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic and one of the drafters. Jon Pincus, a co-chairman of the conference, added that "Facebook, with its 400 million users, likes to describe itself as equivalent to the third-largest country in the world. But what rights do the citizens of that country have? Users of social networks need to know about how some of their rights are being subverted and need to know how to protect themselves."

What do you think? Noble pipe dream, or the start of something big? Go here to vote in favor of the petition; go here to vote against it.

-- Marcia Stepanek


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Friday, June 18, 2010


A group of environmental activists and social innovators will be hosting a TEDxOilSpill event on June 28 in Washington to talk about clean-up solutions to the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Since Monday, a group of photographers and videographers tied to the conference have been in the Gulf gathering visual evidence of the spill's spread (and the anger it is causing among some Louisiana coastal residents). The team's best work will be shared with conferees on the 28th; for the past week, the photographers have been sharing some of their trip observations on Twitter, at @TEDxOilSpill.

According to a group spokesman, the photography team is attempting to cover what mainstream media is not, capturing scenes of ravaged beaches; of BP officials attempting to interfere with news coverage, and of the impact the devastation is having on families. This also is information, TEDxOilSpill organizers say, that is not being shared by local tourism officials and other local authorities.

Some of the images collected so far include aerial photographs shot by TED conference photographer Duncan Davidson, one of the team members on the TEDxOilSpill expedition. Here are a few he posted today on his site:

To see the full set of Davidson's oil spill photos so far, check out his collection on Flickr and on his journal site. For more on Davidson, see his short bio on Wikipedia.

Can't make it to Washington on the 28th? There are, as of today, some 67 TEDxOilSpill Meetup groups organized to watch a live stream of the event as a catalyst for local discussion groups. The TEDxOilSpill speaker roster includes ocean explorer Philippe Cousteau, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and inventor Saul Griffith.

(Photos by Duncan Davidson for TEDxOilSpill)

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bill of Rights for Social Networks?

Reacting to the Facebook privacy uproar and Google Buzz's recent release of users' top email contacts, an influential group of social media activists is meeting this week in Silicon Valley to hammer out a Web-wide Bill of Rights for social network users.

The goal: to catalyze a user movement that will compel social network owners and operators to give users more say over their personal information -- including a right that lets users quit a site (leave it) and take every trace of their data with them.

The group, meeting through Friday at the 2010 Computers, Freedom & Privacy conference in San Jose, is livestreaming and posting its deliberations, as well as conducting some of its conversations on Facebook and Twitter so as to involve as many interested users and viewpoints as possible. (Those interested may follow the deliberations at #BillofRights and #cfpconf.)

"We're not the first people to have the idea of a social network users' bill of rights," said conference chair Jon Pincus. "In fact, we decided to make the creation of a user Bill of Rights a main focus of our gathering because people all across the country are starting to push for a set of principles to define best practices for social networks. We thought it was time to combine inputs and produce one such document that embodied the sentiments of as many social network users as possible."

Being used as a basis for the discussion is the Electronic Frontier Foundation's recent framework, which proposes that any rights manifesto should contain three broad categories of rights: the right to informed decision-making (compel social network owners to tell users what they are doing with user data); the right to control (giving users ownership of their information and control over who can view that information), and the right to leave (letting people quit Facebook or any other social networking service with the ability to take their personal information with them.)

"A networking Bill of Rights is a tool that users can use for education and empowerment," Jack Lerner, director of the USC Intellectual Property and Technology Law Clinic, told conferees yesterday. Lerner added:

"Facebook is the 800-pound gorilla right now but that won't necessarily be the case forever. Our purpose this week is to galvanize users of all social networking sites and educate them, not just on what they ought to be looking for in a social network but about how some of their rights are being subverted. Some networking companies have been reckless and irresponsible and not a lot of people yet realize what all is at stake here. There are complaints now from people who say their Facebook pages are disappearing if they're critical of the company. I think it's time for clear guidelines about what is acceptable company behavior and what is not. This is not just about privacy and social media but whether users are being treated fairly by the companies that depend on their information."

What do you think? What rights should users of social networks have? Are user rights a value that social media entrepreneurs can build new businesses around?

-- Marcia Stepanek


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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cities Calling

There's a new social innovation initiative that just launched called Code for America. It's a big deal; it was founded to help American cities innovate around paralyzing budget cuts, old technology and rising taxes.

Starting this month, Code for America is recruiting the brightest minds of the Web 2.0 generation to transform city governments -- to re-wire them for transparency, citizen participation and action. "Our cities are in major crisis," says Founder Jen Pahlka, yet this is a time of major opportunity for social innovation in cities across the country. Some 60 percent of municipal employees, she says, are set to retire over the next five years. "What if, instead of cutting services or raising taxes, cities could leverage the power of the Web to become more efficient, transparent, and participatory?"

Pahlka says her project aims to do for city governments what Teach for America has been doing for America's public schools -- creating a body of knowledge and context for how institutions need to rebuild themselves for the Digital Age. The initiative also represents a big step for the accountability-in-government movement; freeing up more of the information stored in city databases for public use "will catalyze new forms of problem-solving and service," Pahlka says, "and there is a huge community of talented technologists and designers who want to help."

Pahlka and her team have chosen five cities for Code for America projects -- Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Boulder, and Seattle. Pahlka is now recruiting people to work on those projects. Five fellows will be chosen per city; each five-person team will attend a short training program in the San Francisco Bay area and then travel to their various host cities to learn about each cities' unique challenges. The fellows then will return to the Bay area to build solutions; top social innovators in government and technology will be brought in to support the fellows in their work "and help them create this new ecosystem of open cities across America," Pahlka says. "We're looking at each of these cities as a new tech start-up." The year-long program will provide each fellow with a $35,000 stipend and cover all travel costs.

Interested? The application deadline is August 15.

(Illustration by Giovanni Merino for

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Social Media Skewered

The Web comic Baratunde Thurston (The Onion) delivered a send-up of social media and the news business at last week's Mashable Media Summit. The Onion, he said, "has 2.2 million Twitter followers but follows no one in return. No one. No one." [Thurston also used the stage to unveil News from the Year 2137 - a new Onion news project offering "news so fresh it trumps real-time," Thurston said. "It's news that hasn't even happened yet."]

Here's the video:

Watch live streaming video from mashable at

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fortress Fighters

In the past couple of years, the Internet and social media have begun to disintermediate traditional charities -- requiring them to radically reinvent their role-as-middlemen between the wealthy and those in need. Today's Web-driven, mass philanthropy movement is energizing all sorts of people, rich and poor, to "give direct" (their money or their time) for social good, often bypassing traditional charities altogether. This change is spurring spirited debates about the future of nonprofits across the giving sector. [See Cause Global's Feb. 15 post, Are Charities Becoming Obsolete?]

To be sure, it's no longer a question of whether the Internet will upset the status quo at traditional charities. The question now is which charities are transforming themselves most effectively so as to become more socially relevant and sustainable?

The latest book on the subject is The Networked Nonprofit, out this month from consultants Allison Fine and Beth Kanter. [Kanter writes the long-running Beth's Blog, which has been tracking the growing use of social media by nonprofit organizations for almost a decade.] At first skeptical about social media's radical impact on non-profits, both Kanter and Fine now agree with others in the field that unless charities thoroughly embrace social media (and the new leadership behavior their use requires), these organizations will not survive the decade.

"The size of the (philanthropy) sector has exploded geometrically but on any measure of social change, the needle hasn't moved," Fine told those attending the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum. "The problem? Complex social problems today outstrip the capacity of any single organization or individual to solve them. We don't need to grow non-profits. We need to grow networks for social change." Fine likened many of today's charities to "fortresses" whose executives "need to start leaving the building and crossing the moat" to work with others for greater impact.

Such fortress-storming is already occurring at nonprofits large and small; the Fine-Kanter book, like an earlier one (Cause-Wired) by nonprofit consultant Tom Watson, is filled with a number of good examples of old organizations scrambling to reinvent the way they fundraise and manage. [See also Lucy Bernholz's recent paper, Disrupting Philanthropy, which examines the immediate and longer-term impact of networked digital technologies on philanthropy.]

America's oldest nonprofit, the American Red Cross, is one example cited by Fine and Kanter and a favorite of many others writing about change in the sector. [My magazine, Contribute, profiled the organization's modern-day challenges in a lengthy, 2007 case study by writer Keith Epstein]. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the 129-year-old nonprofit was in obvious need of organizational change: between 2002 and 2008, it had been through seven CEOs, and post-Katrina, it was being criticized widely for being out of touch, unwieldly and largely unresponsive.

After the storm, the ARC hired Wendy Harman as its first social media manager to help turn things around. "I had felt we were going to war," the 26-year-old Harman recalled in April during a panel I led at NTEN in Atlanta. Yet four years after taking the job (and despite making big strides for the organization), Harman said she was still having serious doubts about her ability to make change on the ground. "Yes, I have helped the American Red Cross to gain thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, but I started asking myself last December, 'Was all of this interactivity online actually doing anything to help people?'"

Fast forward to January 12 of this year, the day Haiti got hit by an earthquake. Harman wasted no time partnering with MGive to launch a mobile phone texting campaign that ended up raising more than $32 million online for Haiti in a week.

"This was a wildly successful event in the face of unspeakable tragedy," Harman said Thursday, addressing social activists attending last week's Mashable Media Summit in Manhattan, one of New York's 2010 Internet Week events. But Harman says much work is still needed by the nonprofit to boost aid delivery on the ground. "There was a woman in Haiti trapped under the rubble in a supermarket who was able to text her family, who then texted to us that she needed help," Harman told the Mashable crowd. "I was able to listen to that but was not able to do much about it." Harman added: "This was a huge wake-up call for us."

Going forward, Harman said, "we'll continue to try to bring this stodgy old organization into the 21st century," but by using more social media, not less. She said GPS-enabled location awareness technology such as Foursquare could be additionally useful, though the technology has yet to be tested in aid delivery.

Here's a video of Harman's brief remarks at last week's Mashable event:

Do have stories to share about how social media are turning your organizations upside down? We'd love to hear from you.

--Marcia Stepanek

(Photo: Bodiam Castle/England by S. Greg Panosian for

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Raising the Bar

What's the biggest takeaway from today's #Promise conference, the last of several social media gabfests to be held this week in Manhattan under the Internet Week banner? It's this: promises mean increasingly less if tied to CSR campaigns employing social media. The cause-wired want more from companies than active Facebook pages, "do-good" prize competitions and a series of product launches tied to cool charities, speakers said. They want less talk and more social problem-solving -- with results.

[Indeed, the public's growing impatience with corporate gabbing-for-good seemed even more pronounced this morning, amid the continuing gusher of bad news from BP and the Gulf. BP's "beyond petroleum" campaign used to be considered one of the CSR movement's more successful "green" branding exercises. But now? The oil spill has dashed the credibility of that campaign; the spill is making it tougher for all high-profile CSR campaigns to be taken very seriously at the moment, speakers agreed.]

To be sure, while nearly a dozen companies used the #promise venue to tout new-and-improved CSR campaigns -- including Pepsi's "Refresh Everything" project to support social entrepreneurship and Twitter's new HOPE140 outreach to nonprofits -- the social activists in attendance were proving to be a tough crowd to please. [Timberland's announcement that it was planting 5 million trees in China and Haiti over the next five years, for example, took some hits on the conference's Twitter back channel. Some argued the trees are needed closer to home while others criticized the company's choice of Yele Haiti as a nonprofit partner, given a recent story in The New York Times questioning Yele's recent financial reporting practices. The sniping continued throughout the day, at one point questioning why Pepsi was touting its Dream Machine recycling initiative without having recycling containers in greater evidence at the conference venue.]

Keynoter Douglas Rushkoff underscored the bad mood of the crowd at mid-day, when he told attendees [and PR types in the audience] that "corporate communications no longer matter. The only thing that actually matters is corporate activity. If it's doing something real, that will be communicated. You don't decide to be transparent. You are transparent."

Among other social media-in-business takeaways from the day:

* Small isn't big enough anymore. Twitter Social Innovation Manager Claire Williams; IBM's Adam Christensen, and Andrew Katz, who manages the Pepsi Refresh Project, agreed as a panel that corporate efforts to retain, develop and attract corporate talent are getting tougher, requiring ever-bigger efforts by companies to develop do-good initiatives that scale in both meaning and impact. IBM's Corporate Service Corps program, where top talent is sent into communities around the world for six-month stints to work on social problem-solving projects, is now "harder to get into than Harvard right now," said Christensen. "(This program) is a kind of Peace Corps for companies and a great way for us to develop our talent and promote leadership skills." Now, he says, IBM is expanding it to include top-level managers.

* CEO buy-in is critical but it's the bottom-up buy-in that counts the most. "As we've seen with so many movements," said Pepsi's Katz, "the power comes from the ground up. Top-down involvement helps, and if companies have enough people who feel really passionately about making a change and doing business differently -- it can work. But it has got to be a little bit of both. Your CEO can give you a little bit of air cover, but unless you have that body of people who are really interested in this, it's not going to go anywhere -- inside or outside the company."

* Patience is a virtue when trying to change the way a company operates. According to Pepsi Refresh's Katz, "we wanted results immediately but the reality is that with what we're trying to do with the Refresh Project, it's a slower burn. Right now, we've done a really successful job against 10 percent of the population that is really deeply engaged in the project. But how do we make that mainstream and mass? We need to balance the need for immediate results with our objective of trying to change the way we're doing business."

* Stakeholder engagement is a resource in times of crisis. "Imagine if, when (the BP) disaster happened, BP had embraced the social networks," Ogilvy planning director Evan Slater said. "Instead of telling people, 'you can't come research this' ... imagine if they had gone out to the social networks and said, 'We're going to take $30 million and put out a reward for the group of individuals, the organization, the company that can find a solution to this problem.' I think the difference would have been phenomenal.'

Were you at the #Promise conference? We'd love you to share some of your take-aways. Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Women Deliver

Watch this week's Women Deliver conference livestreamed from Washington, D.C. Featured speakers include Melinda Gates, United Nations Secretary-General Ban ki-moon and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank. The global conference runs through Wednesday in Washington, D.C.:

Watch live streaming video from womendeliver at

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

Citizens Rising

Here's another new start-up that aims to empower citizens affected by the BP oil spill. It's called, and it's aiming to help Gulf Coast residents take high-resolution, aerial photographs of the spill. The goal: to compile an ongoing public record of the spill and its impact.

"There's been a kind of media blackout of the spill and it's tough to see what's actually going on," Founder Jeffrey Yoo Warren told people attending the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum this week in New York. "These maps create documentation that can be used as evidence in the legal arena and help focus resources in clean-up efforts in the weeks and months ahead."

Warren, a fellow at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media, described his New Orleans-based nonprofit to PDF attendees and a VC panel that included tech angels Esther Dyson and Craig Newmark, the founder of "Our idea," Warren said, "is to get a lot of people involved in producing digital maps of the spill that can be shared, Wikipedia-style."

Since early May, the nonprofit has been assembling and distributing free citizens' mapping kits that each contain a helium canister, a balloon, an inexpensive Canon mini-camera, and an array of simple household items, including a $3 roll of cotton string. The cameras, programmed to shoot a new frame every 5 seconds, "produce imagery so detailed, that we can count animals on the ground and count the vegetation," Warren said.

Once the images are captured by citizen mappers, they are geo-referenced and stitched into online composite maps, where they get overlayed onto Google and become viewable in Google Earth and OpenLayers. The images appear at 10,000 times the resolution of daily satellite images posted online by NASA, Warren says -- and at a price of roughly $230 per kit, they cost far less to produce. "By creating open-source mapping tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we are giving citizens affected bythe spill some power in this crisis," Warren told PDF attendees. "all of the imagery we capture is owned by the residents who shot it."

Warren is working with another new oil spill start-up in the region, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which is making a crisis map of the disaster. The LBB is helping Warren to distribute the Grassroots Mapping kits to as many residents of coastline towns and cities as possible.

Over the past five days, Grassroots Mapping, founded in January originally to produce citizen maps of the Lima slums in Peru, has raised more than $5,000 for the Gulf project via Kickstarter. [Immediately after pitching to the PDF crowd on Friday afternoon, Grassroots Mapping had raised nearly $495 more.] Said Dyson: "It's nice to see something that is not totally digital. That's what we (investors) want to see -- simple, low-cost applications of existing technology to empower citizens to make change." Added Newmark: "This is like something out of a Cory Doctorow novel, about how the street finds its uses for technology." PDF co-founder Andrew Rasiej put it more philosophically. "There has always been the fear that the government would be Big Brother," he said. "But this (start-up) is an example of how we are Big Brother; Big Brother is you."

For more on Grassroots Mapping, here's a short video that Warren produced on the project:

What do you think? Can citizen mapping projects help citizens to hold authorities accountable in times of crisis? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Jayesh Illustration for

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Battle Royale

Susan Crawford, a former technology policy advisor to President Obama, issued a stark warning to civic activists and Internet technologists attending this year's Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan. "We are," she said Friday, "in a titanic battle for the future of the Internet in the United States" -- one that pits those who would keep open, high-speed Internet access available to all and those who would seek to change that.

Crawford, an Internet and communications law professor at the University of Michigan, said Web technologists and social media-for-social-good activists are "radically under-represented" in this battle and need to start getting involved so that online social advocacy and open government can evolve and thrive, unfettered by corporate controls and new pricing restrictions. She said that Web innovators and social media entrepreneurs should not take for granted the kind of low-cost, high-speed, open Internet access they now enjoy -- nor ignore Washington's telecom policy battles any longer.

Crawford, a member of the board of directors of ICANN from 2005-2008, opened her speech with a reference to Wikipedia Co-founder Jimmy Wales, who -- when asked on Thursday whether he thought free and open high-speed Internet access for all was critical to online activism, ducked the question. "I have no idea," he said from the PDF stage. "I build Web sites."

Crawford, picking up on Wales' comment the next morning, told PDF-ers the following:

"What Jimmy was saying is that 'Web sites mean government over there.' And I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. I was brought up -- trained -- in the Internet Age by people who really believed that nation-states were on the verge of crumbling and that anything that a telephone company wanted to do, we could just geek around it --we could avoid it, and that these people were just irrelevant, essentially. So I feel as if, for the last seven years (of now working in and with policymakers in Washington) that I have been learning a foreign language and traveling in a foreign country, and so I'm here today to do a little translation (of Washington) for you.

...You might have thought we broke up AT&T in 1984. Well, I want to report to you that they've found a way to gather together once more. We essentially have two gigantic telephone companies dividing the country up amongst themselves. You also may not know that the cable providers have (divvied up the country in such a way) that no one (cable company) competes with another. So there is lots of merging going on and no legal limits on (broadband providers) and their ability to discriminate. And what I am really here to tell you today is that we are in a titanic battle for the future of the Internet in the United States; that the technology community is radically under-represented in this conversation and that Jimmy Wales' response -- 'I make Web sites' -- is no longer appropriate or sufficient."

Crawford then cited another co-keynoter at the PDF conference, U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra, who told conferees earlier that the government has what he called "a new role" -- opening up increasing amounts of government data to the public over the Internet, information that Chopra said has been, "until now, hidden within the bureaucracy." But there's a second big new role for government, Crawford said, "to provide a level playing field for Web innovators." She told conferees they need to worry about Web personalization -- the growing use of increasingly sophisticated filters by Web data aggregators such as Google to narrow and define the information people have access to online. People also "should worry about personalization at the network level," Crawford said, "because these (telecom) carriers are convinced that monetization of Internet applications content is the only way they are going to survive."

She then reminded conferees that "the Internet would not exist absent government regulation. ... The fact that telephone companies were required to allow computers and modems gave rise to the Internet. If those same phone companies would have understood the Internet (back then), they would have tried to monetize it. They didn't get the chance," Crawford said, but they're trying again now.

She said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's recent proposal to make high-speed Internet access a regulated service has triggered a furious round of lobbying by telecom companies and their lobbyists -- even though "high-speed access to the Internet (by all) is a central economic tenet of our age," Crawford said. She added: "Companies are arguing that they should have no oversight and not be regulated by any federal actor. So that's where we are. A titanic battle. And what's at stake? I saw some comments on the Twitter feed (at this conference) about the importance of rural America (having better access to the Internet). The FCC wants to be able to bring broadband to all Americans and they can only do this by classifying Internet access as a regulated service."

Just how intense is this battle on the Hill? Crawford said AT&T spent $6 million in the first three months of this year lobbying against any form of regulation, "attacking the FCC and (waging) a definite campaign of personal destruction. ... We need your help and the tech sector needs to be part of this conversation and it's not yet there. [The FCC] is doing its best to be constructive and do the right thing ... but I want to encourage you to find ways into this conversation and make sure that your voices are heard."

Crawford also asked those in the audience to speak up against further consolidation of broadband services as represented by recent merger talks between Comcast and NBC. She said the FCC is holding a public forum July 13 at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago on the proposed Comcast/NBCU/GE joint venture, and urged everyone in the audience to spread the word.

"Remember Jimmy Wales' comment, 'I make Web sites'?" Crawford asked the audience. Concluding her remarks, Crawford quipped that Wales should, instead, be asking: "Do I want to be able to make (Web sites) in the future?"

Crawford got a standing ovation.

What do you think? Is it time for the the technology, social advocacy and open government communities to get involved in this fight? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Photo: J.D. Lasica, on Flickr)

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Fixing Social Media

A lot of cause-wired groups aren't using social media effectively enough yet to bring about large-scale social change, NYU Professor and author Clay Shirky told people attending Day 2 of this week's Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan. "Digital activism has, in a large part, trapped itself in a tragedy of the commons," he said today.

Rather than help a majority of cause activists to become more active and effective, he said, social media -- more often than not -- are being used to simply make activists more vocal. "Much activism online so far has been more about making noise than sending persuasively strong signals" to those in power that change is necessary, Shirky said. Failure by cause-wired groups to improve this "signal-to-noise ratio," Shirky said, will risk turning digital activism into little more than "crowdsourced PR" for any number of do-good causes. "The thing I would like most to see now is more of an effort by social activists" to help cause-wired groups send stronger signals for change to those in power, he said.

The popular author of Here Comes Everybody (and a new book, Cognitive Surplus -- both about the rise of self-organized groups online) -- shared three ways that cause-wired groups might become more effective online:

1. Raise the cost of communication. Design your cause around group commitments to do more than simply fire off emails. "When the cost of communication falls, the (strength of the) signal falls," Shirky said. Case in point: A group of women in India last year formed a group on Facebook called The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women to fight beatings by religious conservatives seeking to squelch their freedom of expression. The group attracted hundreds of supporters, who organized a campaign to send pink underwear to leaders of the conservative group and to government officials to fight the harassment. The women won; the government stepped in to stop it. "Governments (authorities) tend to respond to groups rather than individuals," Shirky said.

2. Assume factions. The Obama Administration's site, during its first days, stumbled when it asked people to list what one issue they wanted the government to tackle most immediately. The crowdsourced favorite? Marijuana law reform -- above all other issues facing the nation at the time, including war and the failing economy. "Was this a result of people who hadn't been given a voice before finally getting their say or was it a successful effort by some people to game the system so that their issue could came out on top?" Shirky queried. "That's one of the central tensions facing online activism today." The government, in this case, needed to enable multiple discussions around multiple issues on the site, Shirky said -- rather than invite supporters to make just one list. "By making one list, the Obama administration made a mistake," Shirky said. "It didn't give each faction room to have its say online."

3. Regard elected representatives (or corporate managers) as partners, not targets, in your push for change. On Capitol Hill, Shirky said, lawmakers consider messages from activist groups that are delivered via thousands of emails to have "zero signal" and so they largely are ignored. But if a social action group could say, instead, to a lawmaker that it was "sending only 1,000 emails from people who really care about a particular issue, who live in your district and who vote in each election," the noise turns to signal -- "and a rare kind of signal that is largely missing in digital political activism these days," Shirky said.

Among other conference highlights from today:

* Alison Fine and Beth Kanter, coauthors of the new book, The Networked Nonprofit, said most nonprofits still act like fortresses, detached and self-protected from the world around them. This needs to change, Fine said. Nonprofits needs to start engaging their supporters and others interested in the issues they're advocating, or these organizations will risk losing support and won't survive.

* Howard Rheingold, author of the 2003 book, SmartMobs, said it's time to start teaching people how to better vet and shoulder the explosion of information that's coming at them over the Web. He also urged conferees to be more mindful -- intentional and deliberate -- in what they do to fight for change online. "By mindful, I mean there needs to be more directed attention given to things," Rheingold said. "We need to get out and meet each other and engage in the physical world. ... We need to give more active attention to the big issues .. to making sure, for example, that the information we are getting online is not getting narrorwer and narrower" because of rising use of Web filters by Web companies seeking to provide personalized information to their users.

* Susan Crawford, on the law faculty at the University of Michigan and formerly an FCC advisor to President Obama, urged conferees to fight for keeping high-speed access to the Internet accessible to all. “We are in the course of a titanic battle for the future of the Internet in the United States," she said. "The technology community is radically underrepresented in this battle" and needs to speak out so that digital citizen activism can have a strong future. Crawford urged the few hundred technologists in the audience not to take "high-speed, open Internet access for granted" and to speak up against further consolidation of broadband control by corporate interests.

The conference ends tomorrow.

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The New Digital Divide

Call it the New Digital Divide. In the early days of the Web, social innovators predicted it would spawn a more open and democratic society. Today, though, that hope is being strongly challenged.

According to Eli Pariser, a cofounder and former Executive Director of, data aggregators like Google have started using increasingly sophisticated filters to decide what information we consume online. Trouble is, these new levels of data-personalization, along with the growth of social networks that we use to self-aggregate, are threatening to hamper civic engagement. The filtering, Pariser told those attending this week's Personal Democracy Forum in Manhattan, is starting to keep us from being exposed to a surge of new information and ideas -- and chiefly, viewpoints that may differ from our own.

For example, Pariser says, Google now uses 57 different personalization filters to customize what we see on the Web, even if we aren't logged in. That makes it harder for us to see news and information that Google's algorithms suggest might bore us or upset us. And that's not all, says Pariser. Often, these "filter bubbles" keep information from us without our specific permission -- and worse, without our knowledge. [Google isn't the only culprit. Facebook also customizes content, using information on the links people click to tailor the news that appears in their personal feeds. Pariser, a progressive, says he has tried hard to add conservative friends to his own Facebook feed but their links and feeds keep getting blocked by Facebook's personalization algorithms.]

"What you see on your screen may be different from what the person sitting next to you sees during a similar Google search," Pariser told the gathering of more than 600 social change advocates, social entrepreneurs and open-government activists. "...We really need to get away from that silly idea that (computer) code doesn't care about anything."

Data-filtering isn't new, of course. But these new filter bubbles differ from what we've seen before, and in three key ways, Pariser says. First, the degree of personalization is higher. You're no longer simply being grouped with a bunch of people who read The Nation. Now you're alone in your bubble. Second, filter bubbles are invisible. You don't realize they exist; you can't see them. And third? You don't choose them. They choose you. "As the face of curation of what we see and consume online changes from a person to a machiine, we need to start questioning the values of these filtering devices and get the power back to make these decisions for ourselves," Pariser says. "The filter bubble may be good for consumers but it's bad for democracy."

Other assertions made by presenters:

* There is racial segregation on the Web, even in trending topics on Twitter. According to data visualization experts Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, the thousands of hashtags being used to collate and segment different conversations by topic also may be keeping many people out of the short-messaging site's most popular and/or important conversations. Example: Two of the top-trending topics over the recent Memorial Day weekend -- #cookout and #oilspill -- were starkly segmented along racial lines. Viegas said the #cookout conversation was attended mostly by blacks and #oilspill, mostly by whites during the same period. "Hashtags are the bumper stickers of the 21st Century," said Wattenberg. Added Viegas: "On many topics, it's a heterogeneous crowd, but there's a whole other chunk of topics where race divides people. We need to be aware that even online, we can be immersing ourselves in conversations that are segregated in ways that might be worrisome."

* We are not using the social media tools we have to solve problems so much as we are using them to socialize with like-minded people about these problems. It's time to get more active offline, said Clay Johnson, the director of Sunlight Labs and cofounder of the online political strategy firm, Blue State Digital. Social entrepreneurs and activists need to focus less on using social media to build email lists and focus more on getting people active offline solving social problems, he said. He cited the online social network,, as a good example of a social network that is highly civically engaged, using government data on health, education and economic trends to create a "Moms Score" to help catalyze offline protests and social change.

* We must work harder to break out of these self-imposed (or machine-imposed) comfort zones if we're to affect social change. "We are too focused on climbing the hierarchy ladder in our workplaces and social networks online, and not focused enough on dismantling these hierarchies, which is where the true power lies," said Deanna Zandt, a social media consultant and author of Share This! a new book about social networking. "We're living like fish right now," she said. "We don't know we're wet. We're taking our perception that the Net is a wonderful meritocracy but that's not true. We need to interrupt this pattern of thinking immediately." Zandt urged conferees to shatter their comfort zones to start making the Net a more hospitable place for civic engagement. "We have to work harder at civic engagement online," she said. Zandt, who is white, shared her own experience of finding herself in an unexpected discussion on Twitter about race in America after she spoke out against an action last summer by Philadelphia's Valley Club to ban black children from swimming in its pool. "This was completely outrageous, I got really angry about it and signed petitions and all of that, but what was more interesting was what happened in the days following that," Zandt said. "People started sharing on Twitter about the first time they'd been discriminated against as children and this blew me away. I wouldn't have found myself in a group of people of color, sharing stories about discrimination without Twitter" and without "stepping out."

* We must stop enabling the status quo. John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a 20-year-old nonprofit digital rights advocacy group, told the gathering that he stands by his earlier statement, made many years ago, that "the Internet is the most powerful event since the capture of fire." Barlow said there is massive power in the hands of individuals, thanks to the Web, but this is power that destabilizes the status quo and can cut both ways, for better and worse. Most people still don't know how to use this Web power to organize and affect social change. But they are learning, he said. "We have to stop expecting the government to shower us with things it can no longer deliver," he said, "and start running this country and our institutions (including companies) the same way the Internet is run, from the edges."

* We must stop assuming that civic engagement will occur online on its own. James Fishkin, the director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, said the best way to boost public deliberation online is to create it. Fishkin says that the current way we "self-select" our social networks online has led to only the most extreme views being heard by one group or another. He suggested a five-step "Deliberative Polling" methodology to start creating issues circles, which first gets all stakeholders together from all sides of an argument to agree to a set of detailed survey questions that will help frame a debate around issues where civic engagement is most needed. Second, select 500 people who represent specific groups across viewpoints to participate. Third, send them the survey. Fourth, assemble them in small groups and facilitate discussion and deliberation, either online or in person. Fifth and last, survey the participants again to see if their opinions have changed as a result of that engagement.

* The Net can be a force for civic engagement, especially in societies around the world where there has been none before. Ethan Zuckerman -- a social media expert, blogger, founder of, a Web hosting enterprise, and cofounder of Global Voices, an internationally crowdsourced news site -- said the Net "really changes things in the long-term by creating a new public space, one that in most closed societies around the world is not available any other way."

What do you think? Does the surge of online social networks and corporate use of Net filters to segment consumers of their products make it harder for people to engage with one another -- in or out of the workplace? Let us hear from you.

-- By Marcia Stepanek


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