Thursday, November 27, 2008


Some holiday reading on social media and giving worth noting:

* Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices Online, writing about the use of social media in closed societies. Check it out here.

* Mario Morino's personal essay on the shifting landscape of need and giving in these uncertain economic times.

* Suzanne Seggerman's piece on video games-for-change and Barack Obama.

* Patty Stonesifer kicks off a new weekly advice column for, called My Goodness, on "how to make the world a better place." Stonesifer, the former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will be co-writing it with her daughter, Sandy, a project manager for a national study of the consequences of unintended pregnancy based in San Francisco. Read the introductory column here.

* Tom Watson's terrific new book, CauseWired, chiefly Chapter 7, on the rise of "flash causes." Watson has been a consultant with Changing Our World, Inc., and is a co-founder (with colleague Susan Carey Dempsey) of a new media consultancy called CauseWired Communications. Watson writes of flash causes:

"New groups organizing online are eschewing traditional labels and structures, creating themselves for short-lived but powerful campaigns, and then morphing into other types of causes and campaigns...These flash causes have changed the definition of charity and volunteerism, and they are an important microtrend."

(Illustration by Bodhi Hill for

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fast Film

(Still photo from I Like Webcam, a film by Myles Lewando/ 2008 Disposable Film Fest)

Some of the biggest global dramas of recent times—the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Burma, the China earthquake, suicide bombers in Israel, the hanging of Sadaam Hussein—all were filmed on cell phones, snippets of strife seen and shared by people all over the world, thanks to digital video.

But there also is creativity in these ephemeral, on-the-fly images of our accelerated times—and a new artistic medium for both filmmakers and social advocates looking to change the world, ever-less expensively. “People are making films now on whatever is available—video cameras, cell phones, point-and-shoot cameras, Webcams, and what-have-you,” says Carlton Evans, a San Francisco film-maker working in the medium. "They're cutting these films and are starting to make some really incredible little pieces.”

Inspired, Evans and creative partner Eric Slatkin earlier this year founded the Disposable Film Festival, a selection of hyper-short digital videos from around the world by people testing the artistic limits and possibilities of social media for storytelling. It Never Rains in Los Angeles, for example, a short film by Ishai Setton, was shot entirely on a Nokia NSeries cell phone. "It's the first-ever cellphone film noir,” Evans says (see below), an intriguing example of this new medium's possibilities.

Other examples include the work of Red Bucket Films , a Brooklyn-based collective of young filmmakers who work almost entirely in disposable media, preferring the hand-held, grainy images they offer to convey the simple beauty (and, at times, the savage humor) in the rhythms of everyday life. The authentic feel of many of these films is derived, in part, from the technical limitations of the devices. Webcams, says DFF’s Evans, offer an in-your-face intimacy; videos shot on cell phones tend to generate a more voyeuristic tone and feel, while point-and-shoot cameras can conjure up richer, more evocative colors and light.

Check out Red Bucket’s Buttons project, a collection of 60-second, nonfiction vignettes, a kind of moving photo album consisting of hyper-short portraits of New York City that include some intimate observations of subway musicians, children having temper tantrums in Central Park, and a series of Weegee-like shots of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. One short film, shot with a cell phone from an apartment window high above the parade, offers an aerial view of a gigantic, Sponge Bob Square Pants balloon hovering almost menacingly over dwarfed bystanders as it is tugged down Manhattan’s tree-lined Central Park West parade route. Cofounder Alex Kalman says the Buttons project started when he and his 20-something colleagues began carrying small digital cameras around with them to capture images on the fly as they moved around the city.

There is poetry to be found here—and a new medium for persuasion. “We originally conceived this [festival] as a vehicle for social action,” says Evans. “We’re pushing the idea that, for a very small budget, you could, for example, give people living on both sides of a dangerous border—in the West Bank or on the Mexican-American border, say—a chance to shoot their surroundings and then make a film. You could assemble a collection of video dialogues that could redress political situations. It seems infinitely scaleable. It seems like there is tremendous potential there.”

This month, Evans and Slatkin have been working with 826 Valencia , the San Francisco arm of writer Dave Eggers' national nonprofit to help kids ages 6-18 develop their creative writing skills. The pair is helping the group with a project that uses cell phone videos and other forms of disposable media to teach children ages 10-14 a new way to document their lives. At the first workshop, held last week, Evans says, “we saw kids expressing themselves through film in ways that were utterly impossible a year ago.” Look for a limited screening of those films in San Francisco later this year in partnership with KQED, the local PBS affiliate.

For more examples of the emotional power of these films, see this DFF selection, How Memory Works (below), a film by Jason File, about regret.

My personal favorite is My Balloon Can Go Higher, by Red Bucket cofounders Kalman and Josh Safdie, about a man who visits the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan with his own balloon. (You can find this one only by going to Red Bucket’s home page, clicking on “Films” tab, and forward-clicking your way through the collective’s home-album-looking pages of movie listings. This particular one appears on the seventh page, top-center.) Shot in my Upper West Side neighborhood, the piece perfectly captures the parade’s weird magic—to be conjured up again (live) on Thursday.

This year, I'm definitely taking my cell phone.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Hope Flickrs

The Guardian in the U.K. has been overwhelmed with public response since setting up a Flickr group Nov. 6 asking readers to send in messages to president-elect Barack Obama as he prepares to take office. There have been more than 900 photographs sent in so far, and photos are still coming in. Most convey good wishes; these photos are among those submitted. Check out the "messageforobama" group on Flickr by clicking HERE. (And for a look at how Obama and his team may use social media to help it govern, see The Wired White House by Alan Boyle, posted today on's CosmicLog.)

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Real Money

According to an exclusive interview in The Washington Post published last night, Barack Obama raised half a billion dollars online in his 21-month campaign for the White House. In all, 3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online, adding up to more than $500 million to the campaign's warchest. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once. "People exceeded our expectations as to what they were willing to do," Obama's New Media Director Joe Rospars told Post blogger Jose Antonio Vargas in The Clickocracy.

Watch this site for more numbers measuring the impact of Web 2.0 on this year's presidential election.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008


A piece in The New York Times today, on the front page, caught my eye. It's a story by Richard Perez-Pena and carries the headline, Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Community Watchdogs. Increasingly, the news business—information and its consumption—is becoming a nonprofit activity, more like public broadcasting.

Perez-Pena cited Voice of San, which does original news reporting at close to half the cost of what it would probably cost offline. Similar nonprofit Web news operations have cropped up in other cities, including Chicago and Seattle, and news nonprofits without a specific geographic focus—such as Pro Publica, a news site devoted to investigative journalism -for-hire—also are trying to fill the void left by dying local newspapers and imploding old media newsrooms. In fact, public- or foundation-funded news operations are getting close to reaching critical mass: some of the people running these new nonprofit news operations say they plan to form an association to start fighting, collectively, for future funding.

The question, though, is scale. Is there (and will there be) enough funding available to nurture the expansion and adequate development of this new model for news? Is this truly the future of journalism—a form of taxpayer-funded, citizen-led advocacy, in its own right? The topic has been hotly contested for years—but there seems no doubt, especially this week (and in this economy) that the movement toward "nonprofit news" is accelerating., a new platform for community-funded journalism, officially launched this week. It promises to give the public a way to commission journalists "to do investigations on important and perhaps overlooked stories." Its open-source platform promises to build a template that can be used by others, to reinvigorate civic engagement in local communities. Stanford's own John S. Knight Fellowship program, meanwhile, just announced it is revamping its vaunted program for mid-career journalists, to focus more on newsroom innovation and the use of social media to foster new forms of community engagement in journalism, online and off. (Last week, as if to underscore the urgent need for new models, the Knight Foundation launched a new community site called Knight Pulse, to discuss the future of information, itself.)

Buzz Woolley, a San Diego businessman quoted in the Times piece, says that "information should be thought of now in the same way as education and public health. It's one of the things you need to operate a civil society and the [current] market isn't doing it very well."

The bad news? Competition is becoming more brutal for existing nonprofit dollars, and the economy isn't helping. But there is also an upside: there have never been more ways to get a story told, nor as many people looking to help tell it. And that's not all: thanks to inexpensive video cameras, Webcams, digital video cameras, and still cameras, it's never been cheaper to tell stories that can make a difference.

This year's market-rattled giving season may have already gone bust, but now's the time to start engaging supporters, readers, and stakeholders of all stripes in telling the stories of their lives. This year's recession? A great place to start.

(Illustration, Target Man, by Miroslaw Pieprzyk for

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Monday, November 17, 2008

So now what?

Okay, the crowd's all here. The cause-wired came out for Barack Obama. They delivered. They're still hanging around, for the most part. So now what?

Is this crowd-force sustainable? Can it be turned into a perpetual vox populi for the soon-to-be Obama administration? Or, more significantly, can any crowd amassed via the Web for any purpose be persuaded to stick around as a cohesive group for a while? It's the question of the hour as nonprofit advocacy groups (and corporate America) look to evolve their as-yet-untested social media strategies to raise new money and court more supporters, Obama-style. Obama proved it's possible to build an effective viral marketing machine and an online mega-fundraising army for a cause. Can nonprofits apply some of those same strategies to, say, saving the whales?

Yes—and no, not yet. Even Obama's people are locked in a spirited debate over how to keep everyone engaged post-election. (According to Los Angeles Times reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, some Democratic Party insiders are pushing to make Obama's Internet operation part of the party apparatus, while deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand fears that pulling it into the DNC might alienate Obama's cause-wired following: many of Obama's Net faithful have not necessarily seen themselves as party devotees, and could easily flee if they felt that someone or some group was trying to co-opt or control them, insiders say. Click here to see that LA Times piece.)

Jeff Howe, the author of the book, Crowdsourcing, is asking the same questions. In an interview earlier today, Howe says that "building a community is really, really hard; maintaining a community is much, much harder." Sustainability of any crowd-sourced group, he says, depends on the ability of the cause—in this case, Obama's social media gurus—to keep engaging group members in ways that reassure them that they're truly having an impact. One has a much better chance of being able to influence a volunteer army of supporters via social media if the cause or candidate keeps winning ongoing victories. (There's a cause-and-effect momentum in a campaign primary season that's easy to exploit.) But when it comes to governing, that input-equals-results factor that feeds the self-organized might not be so easy to demonstrate and maintain—at least not in a system where change can often take months, if not years, to accomplish.

Perhaps, then, the Web is ushering us into a new era of hyper-incrementalism, a time when it will be more important than ever in social advocacy and politics, alike, to tout—if not to really start sweating—the small stuff. "You have to give the people in a crowd-sourced group lots of stuff to do, all the time, and they have to feel like they're genuinely having an affect...or they'll dissipate and move on," Howe says. "Communities form as long as they're needed or feel like they're having an affect day-to-day." It's a crowd-management challenge, at the very least. It used to be said that all politics is local. Now it's becoming even more important, in a digital world, to make it feel that way to potential supporters.

As a hopeful campaign blogger, Christopher Hass, recently wrote on "The tools here are your tools now—they always have been."

The promise of social media in politics and advocacy is empowerment, for better or worse. It's all about engagement. Social media make it easier to organize a group to make change. (See the four-day-old, a flash-reaction to California's anti-gay Proposition 8.) Now let's see if social media can help to make the often more tedious, sticky business of democracy and compromise easier, too.

(Illustration: "Expectant Crowd" by Philip Atherton for

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Top 100 Social Action Sites

For a list of Top 100 change Web sites—"networks for people who want to change the world"—check out Christina Laun's just-released list HERE. The cause-wired networks she's citing are divided into categories, including the environment, social responsibility, charities and nonprofits, politics, and more.

(Photo of paper dolls by Stefanie Timmermann)

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Friday, November 7, 2008

It's the Network, Stupid

Check out this panel discussion from today's Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco about the role of social media in Barack Obama's election win on Tuesday.

New York Magazine writer John Heilemann moderated Huffington Post Founder Arianna Huffington, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and political strategist Joe Trippi, who concluded that Obama's victories in the Democratic primaries and the presidential election would not have been possible without Internet-empowered fundraising and social networking. "Were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president," Huffington said. "Were it not for the Internet, he would not have been the Democratic nominee." By contrast, she said, "...the McCain campaign didn't have a clue [about Web 2.0]. ...The Internet has killed Karl Rove politics."

Here's the bulk of that panel discussion:

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Secret Sauce

(PHOTO: Gray's Papaya hot dog stand, 72nd & Broadway, Manhattan, 11-5-08)

Both Barack Obama and John McCain used the Internet to reach voters this election but Obama mastered the medium early "and exploited it to the hilt," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and co-founder of There's no question: Election 2008 will go down in the books as the first nationwide political contest for social capital.

In an interview today with Cause Global, Rasiej credits Team Obama's "culture of belief in the Internet" for building a movement for change among ordinary citizens energized via social media into a community of engaged, viral marketers for Obama's campaign. The Web strategy, says Rasiej, was critical in helping the Illinois senator win the White House.

(Indeed, an analysis of the vote today by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press says that without a doubt, "the overwhelming backing of younger voters was a critical factor in Obama's victory." Obama drew two-thirds—or 66%—of the vote among those younger than age 30, Pew reports. In addition, Trendrr, an online statistics mashup tool, shows Obama had a clear lead in using social media to connect to his audience, as well as an overall lead in winning the attention of the blogosphere as a whole. On social networks, Trendrr says, Obama held a big lead over McCain, with 844,927 MySpace friends compared with McCain's 219,404. Between November 3 and 4 (election day) alone, Obama gained more than 10,000 new friends, while McCain only gained about 964. On Twitter, says ReadWriteWeb, Obama gained 2,865 new followers between November 3 and 4, for a total of 118,107, while John McCain's Twitter account only had 4,942 followers in total.)

Team Obama also saw an opportunity in exploiting the flagging credibility of mainstream media—again chiefly among younger voters. "[Obama's team] leap-frogged the mainstream media by producing content that they knew would get distributed for them [via social media] once it was uploaded," techPresident's Rasiej said. Especially in the final days before November 4, Obama's campaign sent daily emails and text-messages directly to supporters, urging them to vote with friends, participate in phone drives, and volunteer at campaign events—even offering up a contest in which last-minute donors could be selected to attend Obama's election-night party in Chicago. Says Rasiej:

Going forward, social capital will become increasingly more valuable than fund-raising dollars...The political power of the future will be a question of how robust and engaged a political entity's [social] network will be"—not just how much money a candidate has in the bank or how many friends he/she has in Congress.

A key lesson for cause activists everywhere from the election? Two quick reactions surface among nonprofit leaders this week. The first—be consistent with your message and broadcast it widely and continuously through the use of social media. Second? Create a movement around your cause, not just awareness for it. "Social media build powerful movements—but only when the cause is powerful and moving," says Melissa Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. "Even the most powerful social media can't build a movement if people aren't poised to sign on. What's remarkable about social media is how quickly they can forge the links that create a movement—when the message is right."

Adds Rasiej: "What we really saw here [with Obama's Internet strategy] is the reaction of a new network publicsphere—or, you could argue, a whole new political media ecology, a generational shift that's empowering an entirely new human experience of participatory, civic engagement. It's taking our former notion of civic engagement and redefining it as something that should be continuously very relevant to people's lives."

For more on the lessons for nonprofits in Election 2008, check out Tom Watson's post today at, where he is a consultant and writer. Watson is also the author of the forthcoming CauseWired, a book about the use of social media in advocacy.

Writes Watson: "While there is a temptation among those who track causes and online fundraising to separate political organizing from philanthropy, I think that's a mistake - it's wishing for a division that the audience simply won't tolerate going forward. It's like hoping that a print classified operation will continue to grow during the age of Craigslist. Young people don't separate their causes into neat little boxes labeled politics and charity. They simply respond to what moves them, what their friends recommend, what they believe might change the world.

"...It's no accident that my nonprofit clients are asking about websites like Barack Obama's. The [old] order is rapidly fading."

(Photo by Marcia Stepanek)

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Monday, November 3, 2008

Vote Watch

Social media as tools for election-monitoring are being put to their first U.S. presidential election test. Vote Report (which I wrote about here two weeks ago, when it launched) is a nationwide project that is asking anyone with a cellphone, personal digital assistant, iPhone, or computer and a Twitter account to immediately share any first-hand knowledge of voting irregularities via instant-messaging. You, too, can participate. For more information, check out project partner National Public Radio's recent podcast about the initiative here. (Also worth checking out is Twitter's general election 2008 page, the fast-running Twitter stream of commentary by voters heading into the final hours of this historic election cycle. Much of the chatter this morning alludes to voting delays and massive turnout that could slow final tallies.)

YouTube, meanwhile, has been working with PBS to organize its Video the Vote project, a national project that asks voters to shoot short videos with their cellphones or digital video cameras to document any examples of vote suppression or other problems—and then post them to the site. "This is a way to spotlight voter experience...and get people to show and share experiences where there have been exceedingly long lines, voter intimidation, or broken machines," says Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube. "We want people to use YouTube to get those messages out to the world." Want to participate? Click here for a video about how.

Other non-partisan election-monitoring and voter-information sites worth checking out include:

* iDashboards: a running string of results from the election that allows you to roll your mouse over states to see up-to-the-hour voting results so far.
* Social Median: a news aggregator with an election page that includes blogs and Twitter posts, along with an array of videos that can be filtered easily
* Topix election site: a national, digital debate by topic.
* a site that shows up-to-the-minute projections of who's winning, for political junkies who want to track the last-minute whims of the undecideds, all the way up to the concession speeches.
* a daily digest of Web content that tracks the election.

And here's one of my favorites, Shifting the Debate, which measures the movement of ideas through social networks, chiefly tracking which YouTube videos bloggers are linking to on both sides of the political spectrum. It is creating an ongoing portrait of video political commentary, with the site's Video Barometer displaying who's watching which videos, and which are most popular at any given time. Fascinating.

Go ahead, share your favorite electon sites and give us a head's up about your favorite election videos. And don't forget to vote.

(Illustration, Angry Elephant, by Diane Labombarbe for

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