Saturday, July 31, 2010

Context Deficit Disorder

Worried that there might be too much information about you online? Microsoft researcher and social media expert danah boyd says it's better to worry that there may not be enough. "The material that is being put up online is searchable by anyone, and it is being constantly accessed -- out of context and without any level of nuance," boyd told attendees of the Supernova conference in Philadelphia on Friday. "That kind of spotlight on people can be deeply devastating, and a type of exposure that may not be beneficial to society."

Put simply, boyd said, "we can't divorce information from interpretation ... or we risk grave inaccuracy." Example: the online record of a woman that lists her arrest on charges of sodomy against a minor. "I think everybody would think, just by seeing this bit of information, that this person is not somebody we would want anywhere near us," boyd said. "But when I tell the story about a 17-year-old in Georgia who was arrested because she was forced into having sex with a 15-year-old classmate in the school and now has a permanent record of sodomy against a minor, we then have a very different image of what's going on."

Okay, so who gets to decide whether the information we see about ourselves and others online is (or isn't) complete? That's where it gets really uncomfortable, boyd says. We don't have complete control. [According to algorithmic data, boyd said, some data profiles of her list her as a truck driver, presumably "because of all the Motel 8s I stay at" as she travels across country doing field research, she says.] "(Anyone) can put together massive amounts of dossiers on people, but where are the ethics and responsibilities around doing this? Journalists have had an interesting and long-standing discussion about ethics and privacy but that same concern doesn't necessary pervade the blogging culture. People who don't see themselves as journalists now have the same rights and the technology to speak really loudly."

A big part of the problem, boyd says, is that people can't agree on a definition of privacy. [Author Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do?), who joined boyd on stage to talk about privacy, agreed.] "We don't know what we're talking about (when we use the term privacy)," boyd said. "Companies don't know and the media don't know." But boyd took a stab at it:

"What I have found from talking to a lot of people is that privacy is about understanding a social situation and how information will flow -- and then making decisions that will recognize this. ... People scream 'privacy fail' when they feel they've lost control of the context of what is being said; when they feel as though the system has told them the information will flow one way but then they find out it will flow differently ... and it's also important to realize that people see privacy as something related to the different actors they care about -- or don't (such as parents or other local authority figures like teachers, college admissions officers, employers and social influencers.) I promise you that come fall, we will be debating what notions of privacy we care about as we think about regulation."

Jarvis agreed. "What forces our fears about privacy are very important to deal with," he said. "...but the social Web is (triggering) Gutenberg-like changes here, so we don't know where this is all headed."

For more on the evolving privacy debate, see Radical Shock on this blog, along with Machine Rule and Google Oogled.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Joaquin Croxatto for

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Making Waves

As the "do-good" conference season sputters and slows in the mid-summer heat, here are eight new social media tips and takeaways from the recent National Conference on Volunteering and Service in New York:

* Message shorter. There is one big "missing" in the use of social media, says Twitter co-founder and Chairman Jack Dorsey. Too many groups get their messaging wrong, he says. "You're more successful if you focus on simplifying your message," he told NCVS conferees. "Make sure the message is in as few words as possible."

Get analytical. Many nonprofits, social enterprises and social service
organizations don't have a good sense of analytics, Twitter's Dorsey adds. "Ask yourself: Where are we today? Where do we mark today and where do we plan to go? If you don't know where you're coming from or going to, it's hard to figure out if anything is actually moving or not inside your organization. On the outside, your members and supporters want status updates. They want to know -- before they throw money over the wall -- that you're making progress. It's very, very important to constantly show a sense of momentum and a sense of movement. It can be as simple as updating people in a simple message."

Compete harder. Sure, collaboration is all the buzz and today's holy grail. But Joe Rospars, a founder of Blue State Digital and on the social media team that put President Obama in the White House, says that for him, two questions come into play for organizations having trouble mobilizing people -- especially "during these in-between times between crises and big moments." His advice? Make sure you're adequately communicating "not only the reasons people should be involved in your cause -- but also why people should choose your organization over another fighting for the same cause." Rospars says most groups get the first part right but miss the second.

Work harder. Your supporters want to help but they don't want to phone it in -- nor want you to do that, either. "Oftentimes, signing a petition isn't enough to ask," says Rospars. For some people, it's too insignificant. People know when their time is being wasted, Rospars says -- "when things are being phoned in by the staff who aren't thinking about things very deeply." Rospars says if you lose your enthusiasm, so will the people you're trying to engage. "Even on the worst, most busy days, it pays to remember that your responsibility is to the people out there who only have an hour to give," Rospars adds. "Don't waste their time. Make it worthwhile. People will know the difference if you're passionate and urgent and authentic about engaging them."

Get clear on ROI. "The term, ROI, is widely misused," says social media marketing strategist Paul Gillen. "It's a financial metric. It's not a number of followers, or number of page views, or number of unique visitors. Those things are results, not returns. A return is a financial metric." But don't despair. According to Gillen, anything that can be expressed as a result can be expressed as a financial metric. Next time you're asked what the value is of raising your organization's visibility, do a standard marketing study called a "lift study," Gillen says. "If you have historical data that says that the last time your organization's visibility increased by 5 percentage points, the amount of giving increased 20 percentage points, then that is an ROI," Gillen says. "You can say that if this social media campaign to boost visibility succeeds in raising your visibility by 5 percentage points as determined by a lift study, then you can expect X amount of return for each speaking engagement. It's all in the math."

Measure the dollar value of your donors. To see how much money a member or a donor is worth over the course of their lifetimes, says Gillen, take the total value of giving to your organization in a year and divide it by the total number of members/donors during that same time period. "If you can draw X number of new members as a result of a social media campaign, you can say that the campaign will yield a specific lifetime value," Gillen says. "When you start to think in those terms, ROI becomes much easier to forecast."

Measure the dollar value of your followers. Look at the total number of visits to your Web site per tweet stream over a given period, then look at the percentage of those visitors that converted into donors and the value of their donations over any given amount of time. Says Gillen: "Move all of that back up the spreadsheet and see that the value of a follower is, let's say, 2.5 cents. It's a matter of mapping the numbers that you use to see the impact they have on your bottom line."

Push or pull leaders into the pool. Don't keep social media in a corner. Make it everybody's business, starting at the top. According to Twitter's Dorsey, organizational leaders need to be participating in social media use every day, to make it a part of the culture. "Your leader will make mistakes and will learn from them but what's most significant is that he or she is sharing the learning curve and the lessons throughout the organization," Dorsey says. "Assigning someone else to look at social media can only go so far; it won't speak to the spirit of what your organization is trying to bring to the world." Dorsey also said that leaders must be willing to try new things themselves, both in their personal lives and in their organizational leadership. "It's an attitude and a willingness to jump in that makes all the difference," says Dorsey. "A leader's passion is clear and contagious. Don't shut out the leader or underestimate his or her power, both outside and inside the organization."

Got any tips to add? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek


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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


The whistleblower Web site, Wikileaks, is becoming increasingly controversial as a hub for classified documents and video. At the 2010 TEDGlobal conference last Friday in England, TED's Chris Anderson interviewed the elusive, Australian founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, who is reportedly being sought for questioning by U.S. authorities. [A controversial figure, Assange has been criticized by some who question whether his site's publication of top-secret documents is reckless and does more harm than good. Others have lauded Assange and his work; Amnesty International last year gave him its International Media Award for public service.]

Here's an excerpt of the TEDGlobal Q&A:

Chris Anderson: It's been reported that Wikileaks, your baby, has -- in the last few years -- released more classified documents than the rest of the world's media. Can that possibly be true?

Julian Assange: Yeah, can it possibly be true? It's a worry, isn't it, that the rest of the world's media is doing such a bad job, that a little group of activists is able to release more of that type of information than the rest of the world's press combined.

Here's the video of the full interview, released today by TED:

(Illustration, top, by Brandon Lauftenberg, for

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tweets Like Us

What do our Google queries and Tweets say about us? The short answer: We're a pretty divided lot in cyberspace -- but then, we kind of already knew that, right? [We're divided offline, too.]

What's new is that we can now tell what unites us, just from visualizing the knowledge we seek on Google and the hashtags we frequent on Twitter. A new data visualization tool called Web Seer, developed by two former IBM colleagues, provides some insights into what it is about the echo-chambers of today's identity politics that keeps us all arguing so much to begin with.

Skeptical? Let's have a look. Go to "Google Suggest" on your browser and click on "web search." Type in the word "why." Thanks to an "auto-suggest" feature that this and many other search engines now use, just typing in the word "why" produces a list of suggested, presumably popular completions. Today's list? "Why...did I get married?" is the most popular question, followed by, "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why do dogs eat grass?" ["Why don't you love me?" also ranks right up there with "Why did I leave Astoria?" -- a question that people who live in the New York City borough of Queens might especially appreciate.]

Amusing? Yes, and according to a new data visualization tool called Web Seer from Flowing Media, a new startup cofounded by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, searches like these also give the Web-curious "a little peek into our collective souls," says Viegas. "Exploring this Web Oracle can be quite revealing of society's fears, curiosities and prejudices."

Let's type in a new question, "Why doesn't he ... ?" When I did this, I got "call me" and "like me" and "ask me out." Sure enough, typing in the question, "Why doesn't she ... ?" surfaces similar completions. The differences, though, are the most telling in this case; Web Seer's visualization of the Google Suggest data spots the male-female divide instantly. Men tended to complete uniquely with "call me back?" and "just leave?" and "like me anymore?" while women appeared to be more interested in why he didn't "text back" and "want a relationship."

Viegas says deeper gender divisions become evident when it comes to family issues. The question "Is my daughter ... ?" is most likely to generate "pregnant" and "a virgin" and "gifted" and "austistic." Type in the question, "Is my son ... ?" and you'll likely get "a homosexual" and "on drugs." Says Wattenberg, "If you play around with this for a while, you start to see a portrait of people's anxieties and, I think, ultimately, a very clear gender division in society."

When Web Seer is applied to party politics, the divisions seem even more troubling. "Are Republicans ... richer than Democrats?" and "evil?" and are Democrats "socialists?" and "communists?" Viegas says that people in the analysis seem"confused, very much so, about party differences." But the areas of agreement, in this case, were just as revealing. According to Web Seer, people who typed questions into "Google Suggest" about either party asked if both Republicans and Democrats "are retarded" and "are morons" and "are destroying America" -- in other words, most who query "Google Suggest" about U.S. politics are similarly, deeply skeptical about the effectiveness and integrity of either party.

Okay, so now let's check out Twitter. Are we divided there, too? To find out, Viegas and Wattenberg analyzed Twitter trending topics over the 2010 Memorial Day weekend; after analyzing the photographs of those tweeting in some 10 Twitter trending conversations, ranging in topic from #wordsbeforedeath to #oilspill, the pair discovered that non-whites and whites were mostly equally involved in some conversations -- but not others. In this case, whites and non-whites were about equally involved in a conversation about #wordsbeforedeath -- but #cookout tweets were being written predominantly by non-whites and #oilspill tweets were being written, overwhelmingly, by whites.

The point here? "It's not to think, wow, there's racial segregation on the Web. We sort of knew that; the Web is a reflection of real life," said Viegas. "The point here is that this level of segregation is just one click away from the Twitter home page and it's happening in the trending topics. The fact that you can look at trending topics and be immersed in conversations that are so separate from one another is something to keep in mind."

Beyond simply insightful, these kinds of real-time "focus group" data visualizations are starting to be used by political groups, as well as by nonprofit causes seeking new supporters and social enterprises in search of some target markets or information about potential trouble spots beyond those which may seem obvious.

Got any further insights to share? Let us hear from you.

Here are Viegas and Wattenberg at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum in June:

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration, top:

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Story Corps

At this past week's TEDGlobal 2010 conference in Oxford, the former diplomat and international relations professor Joseph Nye said that in modern-day diplomacy, "it is the story and the narrative that now wins (conflicts). Great powers have great stories." True enough, but fellow TED presenter Elif Shafak took it up a notch Wednesday, arguing that the power of the personal story trumps all. "The problem with today's cultural ghettos is not lack of knowledge," said Shafak, the best-selling female author in Turkey and the daughter of a diplomat and a philosopher. "We know a lot about each other, or so we think. But knowledge that doesn't take us beyond ourselves makes us distant and disconnected." Fiction, said Shafak, takes us into new territories. "Identity politics divides us, fiction connects," she said. "One is interested in sweeping generalizations; the other, in nuances. One draws boundaries; the other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks; fiction is flowing water."

Here's Shafak's TED talk, released today:

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Who's Your Mayor?

Blanketing BART stations in San Francisco since mid-June are public service announcements urging passers-by to use their cellphones to "drill the oil industry." Another Twitter campaign? Guess again. Think Foursquare, the new mobile social network, which a number of nonprofits are using to drum up some money and a crowd -- online and off.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm in the Bay Area, is asking BART riders to "check in" with them on Foursquare. For every check-in, one of Earthjustice's major donors is pledging $10 to help the nonprofit's attorneys fight environmental pollution. So far, so good. The campaign has raised over $10,000 for the cause, says marketing manager Ray Wan, and has brought a crowd of people to the Earthjustice Web site that didn't know about the group previously. "We're getting some amazing buzz from this," Wan says. "It's an easy way to get people involved in helping us to fight for the environment."

It's not the first nonprofit to experiment with Foursquare. For the uninitiated, Foursquare is a location awareness application that people use on their phones to check in at various locations throughout major cities all over the world. People who check in this way earn points, join friends, and unlock goodies as they go. The person with the most check-ins at one place become that venue's "mayor." Businesses already using Foursquare to lure new customers to their venues are awarding those who come in the most often with discounts and free goods. Nonprofits are still experimenting.

At the Brooklyn Museum, chief technology officer and social media maven Shelley Bernstein has begun using Foursquare to boost the personal dialogue between the museum's staff and the people who visit the museum, live in the neighborhood, and patronize the site. On Foursquare, people leave "tips" at venues they like -- bits of advice so that other people know what to expect when they go there. "Many of our staff are essentially local experts, so we've queried them to compile tips to the wealth of options that exist in our local neighborhood, Prospect Heights," Bernstein says on the museum's Foursquare page. "So now, as people explore our area, the Brooklyn Museum staff help them along in their journey, pointing out the joys of pancakes at Tom's Restaurant or the killer wine selection at Abigail's."

Bernstein is working to establish venue pages for the museum's exhibitions and permanent collections. "People could check in at the galleries they visit -- American Identities, The Dinner Party, Egypt Reborn, etc. and become the mayor of not just the museum but of their favorite installation within the greater whole." The goal, of course, is to get more people to visit the museum -- via a Brooklyn Museum "badge" that gets unlocked after a certain number of visits, rewarding people for multiple visits. Writes Bernstein: "As simply as I can put this, Foursquare is about place and identifying yourself through that. It is a celebration of the visitor -- the people who crossed the river, who made it in the door and decided to identify themselves with us, right here."

Another nonprofit, Naperville, Ill.-based Big Love Little Hearts, which works to help children born with congenital heart defects, also has been experimenting successfully with Foursquare. Last April, the nonprofit's volunteers were asked to add the following "tip" to 600 Foursquare locations: "1 in 100 children are born w/ a heart defect. Pulse-Ox screening saves lives -- you can too! Check in with the hashtag #100X100." Organizers embedded a link in that "tip" on Foursquare that drove people to the nonprofit's Web site.

Seven hours into the campaign, a donor volunteered to donate $1 for every person who checked in. Within 12 hours into the campaign, the hashtag had been used 11,703 times, and the donor was so impressed, she ended up giving the nonprofit $25,000. The nonprofit used Foursquare again as part of a campaign to get supporters to check in (or contact) their Illinois lawmakers to push for legislation to help people with congenital heart defects. "And one last nugget," says chief organizer Estrella Rosenberg, "is that this was all free."

How is your nonprofit or social enterprise using Foursquare to raise awareness, boost patronage, or raise money for a cause? Let us hear form you about what works and what doesn't so far.

-- Marcia Stepanek


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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hollywood Social

Sony today released the first full trailer for The Social Network, the much-anticipated movie about the creation of Facebook. Directed by David Fincher (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sports Night), the film tells the story of how Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg helped to dream up the iconic social network at Harvard University way back in 2003. The tale includes the perspectives of other young entrepreneurs at the time who sued Zuckerberg, saying the site was their idea. [Hint: the tagline reads, "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies."]

The film, based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 book, Accidental Billionaires, will debut at the New York Film Festival on September 24, before the movie is released on October 1.

It was the second time in as many weeks that social media have been the subject of Hollywood buzz. Last week, producers/directors Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald announced they will make Life in a Day, a nonfiction movie knitted together with crowdsourced YouTube video clips.

What's next? Foursquare, the film?

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Minding the Gap

Okay, so you're a change agent at a traditional nonprofit organization -- or you're a social entrepreneur who has just started a social enterprise. You've got your seed funding and a rock-solid business plan. So now what? How do you inspire people, from your CEO to rural farmers to consumers, to change their ways to do good (or at least better) for society?

Don't laugh. How to get people to care more about "doing good" is one of the hottest new topics making the rounds of this season's social innovation conferences. Referred to more clinically as "the neuroscience of change," the topic popped up for the first time last spring, at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, then again last month at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service -- and then again this past week, at the annual Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

Whether inspiring consumers toward fair trade, persuading corporate executives to care more deeply about labor practices or empowering women in a rural village, the challenge to influence behavior is a tough one, indeed. Neuroscientists, including Chris Frith, a professor of neuropsychology at London's University College, say that based on the circuitry of our brains and the emotional responses that direct our behavior, there is some practical knowledge that can be used by social innovators to be more effective in changing hearts and minds.

Here are four quick pointers about the people you're trying to influence (with apologies to conference presenters):

They/We Are Not Different. Neuroscientists say our brains have an "us-versus-them" default; individuals have a tendency to think they are special, or different, than the people in need of help around them. We all stereotype others, whether we do it consciously or not, as a sort of primal safety mechanism. Humans have a tendency to frame the world in terms of people who belong to our "in group" and those who do not. Social entrepreneurs need to fight that human reflex by honing in on the similarities that unite them to their constituents. Key are storytelling initiatives or strategic interactions that show donors and higher-ups that they're not much different than the people your "do-good" efforts are attempting to serve.

They/We Have Choices. Framing the challenges you are trying to ease is key in gaining support for your work. For example, 600 people are on a deserted island and are hit by a deadly flu. You have a life-saving vaccine. The catch? You can give people two options. Option 1: You have 200 doses of the vaccine and can give it to 200 people, guaranteeing their recovery. Option 2: You can try a new vaccine on all 600 people with only a one-third chance it will save them all. Most people will choose Option 1. But if you frame the dilemma differently -- that Option 1 will kill 400 people and save only 200 lives, most people will opt for Option 2. Stress positive outcomes.

They/We Are Not Helpless. Donors, people in need and frustrated social entrepreneurs need to avoid confusing frustration with the feeling of helplessness -- that sense that, in the face of challenge, nobody can really make a lasting difference. To avoid this, draw up clear goals along with a list of steps required to achieve them. Set deadlines. Start measuring your progress. Broadcast your accomplishments. Measuring incremental change sets up a continuous improvement loop. Also key? Invite the people you're trying to serve to be part of the process. Train them how to measure results incrementally. As long as there is knowledge of impact, the "we are helpless" syndrome won't stand a chance.

They/We Are Not Smarter. Neuroscientists on recent panels refer to stagnant thinking that tends to challenge donors and executives, who have self-wired their brains with data and categorizations. New thinking that challenges these categories tends to be dismissed or downplayed -- not so much because it is bad or good, but rather because it falls outside the categories that most people have already built for themselves to cope with their everyday challenges and to compensate for what they think they do well or poorly. The antidote? Don't ask people to take action. Instead, create situations in which people are expected to act in a certain way unless they take decisive action to behave otherwise. If they opt out, then rinse and repeat. [See the previous bullet point, "They/We Are Not Helpless."]

These are just four quick tips from the pros. What might you add to the list?

(Post by Marcia Stepanek; illustration by Mark Strozier for

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Friday, July 9, 2010


It was inevitable, perhaps, that somebody would attempt to crowdsource a movie. Who better than YouTube, in collaboration with Oscar-winning documentary director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and Producer Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner)?

The team is creating "Life in a Day" -- a film experiment that is asking YouTube users from around the world to upload short, nonfiction video clips of their lives to a designated channel on YouTube. The goal: to create a user-generated, feature-length, content-driven documentary -- which Macdonald will stitch together into a video collage representing one 24-hour period of human life on the planet. The film will premiere on YouTube, for free, on the same day the film debuts at next year's Sundance Film Festival. Scott's production company will own the rights to the final film.

According to The Wall Street Journal's "Digits" blog, Macdonald has hired 10 multi-lingual editors to help filter the good stuff from the dross and start cataloging user clips for review. And here's the good part: to help spur the creativity of the crowd, Scott is distributing 500 free video cameras to NGOs and nonprofits in 20 countries and "areas on the wrong side of the digital divide" to ensure a multitude of diverse voices are represented.

The concept for the film isn't new: The "A Day in the Life" photo projects published earlier in the decade by leading magazines featured images shot on a single day by various photographers working in multiple locations around the world. Macdonald also told The Washington Post that to prepare for the project, he also studied the Mass Observation Project, which was a project in England in the 1930s that assembled diary entries and opinions of 500 citizens to create a document of the era.

It's also not the first time that YouTube has been involved in a crowdsourcing experiment. Last year, the company partnered with Carnegie Hall to assemble 96 of some of the best musicians on YouTube and got them to play together, offline, in the famous concert hall. But unlike the YouTube Symphony, whose members were determined by an online vote, the YouTube movie will be Macdonald's creative production.

Macdonald told Digits: "Like a lot of filmmakers, I'm very anxious about the Internet because we see the piracy and people stealing our ideas and well, putting them on YouTube, and that's going to destroy the film industry like it destroyed the music industry. This YouTube documentary we're making is the flip side of that. It's about what's really positive about the Internet and the creativity that only the Internet is capable of."

Listen up, citizen videographers. Macdonald says he is specifically looking for video clips submitted on July 24 -- the "day" in the life he is choosing to curate. For more information about the project, watch this video:

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Texas Tea

A coalition of politically progressive online organizers, local bloggers and some Democratic politicians today announced they are launching a Tea Party-style, "grassroots" political movement aimed at forcing BP to make clean-up workers wear respirators, so as to protect their health as they work along the Gulf Coast.

Called the BP Makes Me Sick Coalition, the group -- comprised of Gulf fishermen, locally elected officials, and some national figures including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an environmentalist -- is layering a digital networking campaign on top of more traditional, offline political organizing tactics in hopes of building a mass movement against BP and those protecting the oil company from more stringent penalties. "We cannot let the denial of protective gear that hurt so many 9/11 clean-up workers happen again with the Gulf clean-up workers," the group's Web site reads.

Will this next-generation Web campaign work? Organizers are hopeful: some eight hours after announcing itself, the coalition had amassed more than 25,000 digital signatures on a petition urging BP to allow and distribute more protective clothing.

The coalition's announcement isn't the first hint of worker health hazards. Media reports have been surfacing for weeks. [Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., told MSNBC host Keith Olbermann last month that clean-up workers are accusing BP of threatening to fire those who wear respirators; CBS News reported tonight that some 47,000 people helping to clean up the oil spill are at risk of respiratory problems from exposure to toxic fumes.]

What's new is the campaign, itself. It's one of the first to attempt using social media on a national scale to bridge the "action gap" between public awareness of a national problem -- and mass action required to help resolve it.

Forrest Brown, a senior organizing fellow at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group behind the BP Makes Me Sick coalition, told the Daily Kos earlier today that the drive is using blogs, social networks, Twitter and offline Meetup groups to achieve its goals. Organizers also are sending out video clips about the hazards of the oil spill's toxic fumes, including this recent report by MSNBC's Olbermann. BP has not yet issued a public response to the allegations, nor has confirmed or denied the report.

What do you think? Have social networking and other forms of social media evolved enough to be able to translate awareness into mass action? Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Shane O'Brien for

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Game Theory

(Scene from Riverbed, a new game about water scarcity)

Water shortages? There's a game for that now, too. Ditto world famine, the global oil market, and the struggle for Middle East peace. In fact, over the last couple of years, there has been an increase in the number of video game developers who would rather design for social problem-solving than entertainment (Think Grand Theft Auto meets the electric car).

That's good news for the rest of us: video games have finally begun to shed their one-size-fits-all reputation for blood and bombast; behavioral experts now agree that so-called "games for good" can teach empathy to those who play them -- a prerequisite for collaborative problem-solving.

But the really good news here? Demand for such "social issues" games is rising, too -- thanks in part to the federal government, which is starting to view them as a new and effective catalyst for education and civic engagement. Kumar Garg, of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, says there are hundreds of games now being commissioned across multiple agencies, with more demand certain to continue, at least for the next couple of years. "Society is becoming more social given the social networking technologies before us," Garg told a recent Games for Change Festival in Manhattan. "How can we channel today's rising levels of collaborative social interaction into social problem-solving? Games can be that bridge to more civic engagement."

Garg said the most aggressive new demand for interactive games is coming from the Army, the Department of Education and public health agencies seeking to catalyze public action around complex social problems and skills training.

Here are three of the newest games out this summer:

The Riverbed. There's a new social issues game about water scarcity called Riverbed that says "water IS the new oil. According to the United Nations, a shortage of clean water is a root cause of poverty, social instability and even war." So what's so fun about that? Developer Mary Wharmby wraps a murder mystery around it to make the sleuthing an interactive -- and educational - experience. Wharmby told Cause Global that she got the idea for the game 15 years ago while writing an academic paper about the Aral Sea in central Asia, which has lost 75 percent of its mass since 1960. Said Wharmby:

"This game is a mystery that asks players, who killed the environmentalist? As you solve this, you realize there's a deeper mystery, which is, who killed the river? All suspects are based on character archetypes who have a stake in real-life water scarcity situations -- fishermen, politicians, farmers, engineers. By the end of this game, you've solved the murder and brought this person to justice. But you also have restored the river. For each suspect you eliminate, you get a chance to undo his or her environmental damage."

Fate of the World. Due out in September, Fate of the World is the latest offering from the British husband-and-wife team of Gobion and Hannah Rowlands. Their social enterprise, Red Redemption, co-developed an earlier game called Climate Change with the BBC; that game was used in 2007 and 2008 by the World Economic Forum in Davos to help train CEOs in the effects of climate change under various scenarios. The couple's latest offering takes scenario play to a different level. "Players have a choice," Hannah told Cause Global. "They can either save the world or burn it down, depending on their use of various scenarios covering the next 200 years." The game's synopsis says it all: "After another decade of inaction, the governments of the world wake up to a planet in chaos. The first impacts of climate change, population growth, resource over-exploitation and species loss have struck and a global organization has been created to respond. You are that response. Will you help the whole planet or will you be an agent of destruction?"

That both games are about environmental "crimes" is no accident. Hannah is a climate modeling expert with an Oxford degree; Gobion had been working as a forensic psychologist in the UK by day and tinkering with game development at night. Climate Change was the couple's first project together, made partly in the couple's kitchen. "I have been making games in various forms since I was 10," Gobion says, "but the satisfaction you get when you make a game that matters is huge, and these next 200 years are really critical to humanity. I felt disconnected at first from the issue of the environment. Games are a way to connect people personally to any number of social problems."

Participatory Chinatown. Players assume the role of one of 15 virtual residents of Boston's Chinatown district, all working around language difficulties and differing income levels to secure jobs, find affordable housing and discover new places to socialize. "This project is really an intervention into the community," says Eric Gordon, a new media professor at Emerson College in Boston who received a MacArthur Digital Media and Learning grant to develop the game, which debuted May 3. "Participatory Chinatown is a new way of engaging the democratic process," he told Cause Global. "I think what we've done is innovate the town hall meeting by bringing in gaming, by bringing in social networking. I think we can change the way that decisions are made -- as well as the way groups get together, collaborate, form political alliances and do the dirty work of democracy." Gordon says that game is targeted to teens as well as to seniors. "We are trying to foster inter-generational collaboration," Gordon says. "The game is not designed for gamers but for those with no gaming experience and those with some."

What do you think? Games-for-change attempt to foster "empathetic learning" -- putting players into the "shoes" of others so as to teach them new perspectives and solutions to global and local civic problems and societal challenges. How effective do you think games might be in bringing about behavioral change in the streets or in the boardroom?

Let us hear from you.

-- Marcia Stepanek

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