I'm attending the 1st Annual SB Forum on Digital Transitions at UC Santa Barbara, a very interesting small conference exploring the impact of new media and the evolution of online community development from an interdisciplinary perspective. Fascinating! Thanks to SNCR Senior Fellow JD Lasica for the invitation to this event.
Howard Rheingold opened the event last evening with an excellent and thought-provoking keynote (which I'll write about separately later after I've had a chance to review my notes and process it a bit more).
This morning we were welcomed by UCSB's chancellor and then Congresswoman Lois Capps, of California’s 23 District Capps acknowledged that "the power of the blogosphere on the right and the left and online fundraising have revolutionized politics." She stated "there is a gap that needs to be addressed between information technology and society," and she especially emphasized the need for this in the area of healthcare (Capps has a background in nursing). But, she warned, "there is tremendous resistance in Washington, DC. We need translation of what you do into terms that are understandable for us. Please don't forget that we want to learn from you."
David Toole, president and CEO of Outhink Media and a UCSB graduate said, "in this room there are people that have so many different perspectives. It's important that we capture that and take it to the public. Technology is moving so much faster than the public can understand its ramifications."
He recalled Howard Rheingold's comment during his keynote about the individual's ability to put their voice into the media. "The filters are going away. What impact does that have? There's so much content online today. How is that being interpreted? How is it being viewed?"
He also stated in a piece of personal media he showed, "Im trying to maintain a balance betwen community and commerce."
The first panel was entitled: "Sustaining Engagement Online: Is Community in Tension with Collaboration?"
Moderators: Dr. Bruce Bimber, director, Center for Information Technology and Society, University of California Santa Barbara and Jennifer Earl, assistant professor of Sociology at UCSB
Earl introduced the topic: "We're interested in transitions in communities. Community has traditonally been defined as a geographical group of people with common interests. What does community mean today and how does it work and what does it do? People talk a lot about changing business models - there are changing organzaitional models as well. Now unboundedness, not boundaries enable community and collaboration."
Panelists introduced themselves with some opening comments:
Myles Weissleder: "People tend to throw meetup.com into the social networking bucket, but we consider ourselves outside of that bucket because it removes the element of the online world. We use the Internet to get poeople off the Internet, stimulating real offline community."
Clay Shirky: "The thing that has come to interest me are places where there are elements of community" but it's not the whole thing. (Examples: Oprah, Meetup, Wikipedia) "The thing that makes these examples work is that there is a community of passionate people at the hub of the network. There are a bunch of models where a small dedicated community can leverage a larger group of participants. We don't have as many examples of this convergence in the offline world."
Mena Trott - talked about LiveJournal, and later commented, "Ultimately it is about the sense of belonging and the spread of creativity. What's the utopian reason for doing this? I think it's just the ability of making people feel like they are closer and the same as other people and allowing them to compare ideas. It's just so human."
Zack Exley told us that started out as a union organizer and later got into "this Internet organizing thing, (referring to MoveOn) which had exactly the same problems."
"I'm really interested in the intentionality of this all and think it's inportant that we figure this out for the purposes of making things happen. I'm really not content to just sit back and watch it unfold. I want good people who want to eliminate poverty and environmental destruction. I want us to figure out how to mobilize people really fast and really well. How do we use technology to make this happen?"
"There is a risk, so how do you get over that risk? The MoveOn solution was to put the number of people that were going to attend the event. That got more people to come to the events. If we hadn't used that tiny piece of technology, those events could have been a miserable failure."
Clay Shirky commented: "The more coherent and concise your goals are, the less that community is a good idea or will accomplish the defined goal you set out." That's why corporations have backed away from trying to form communities of consumers, he suggested.
Zack Exley added, "I agree, and we saw that in the Kerry campaign. But I think there's a possibility for a totally new type of community/organization to come into focus. We see some of the roots of this from the Dean campaign and MoveOn. Isn't is possible with technology that we might start accruing a lot of benefits of community while at the same time we define some specific goals."
He later added, "Right now we're all focused on the immigration protests, but as far as I can tell they're not being organized online. If they wanted to, they could use a MoveOn style campaign and have a great deal of influence."
Jennifer Earl asked about the evolution of leadership in online communities, and suggested that leadership can now look more like organizing than the traditional top-down role of the leader.
Other questions raised focused on whether we have a utopian view of online communities and how and why they should and are emerging and the idea of online communities being used for both "good" and "evil" and what kind of rules should we impose on the formation of online communities?
Next up: There was a choice of two breakout sessions:
Wireless Technology as a Catalyst: Possibilities for Next-Generation Interaction
Self-Regulation in Online Communities: Exception or Rule?
I chose the session focusing on wireless technologies. The moderator was Kevin Almeroth, Department of Computer Science, UCSB. Panelists included:
Supratik Bhattacharyya, Principal Member, Sprint Advanced Technologies Laboratory
David Lockton, President, Lockton Ventures
Mimi Ito, Research Scientist, Annenberg Center for Communication, USC
Supratik Bhattacharyya discussed some of the important trends surrounding cell phones and wireless, including
1.the evolution of the cell phone as a multipurpose device
2. More types of services and more means of ubiquitous access
3. and increasing access in rural areas.
He said "think of it as a microprocessor in your pocket that has multiple applications" and suggested that in many ways it can almost replace the PC. But, he noted the critical challenge of the "walled garden of service providers."
Dave Lockton also noted several trends:
- the relationship between content and conduit - only 4-5 large companies that own the content (previously cable operators) and 4-5 that own the conduit and decide what applications we have access to. Both sides have power and a say in how this will shake out.
- the user interface - "I predict that we're on our way to the 'information appliance.' In a short period of time, the interface will configure to what you "tell it" you want with voice recognition and will be customized to your interest and will incorproate a digital TCP, a wifi capability and a broadcast path for VOD and aduio on demand and will switch back and forth to provide you with all the content and services. But this will not be feasible until the phone's form factor is changed to accomodate those services."
Mimi Ito focused on the everyday behavior of users from an anthropological perspective. She studies users in Japan and noted:
- Japanese users turn the phone to manner mode when they leave the house
- Use text message more than voice mode
- Japan is the country with the longest and most established use of text messaging they subscribe to mobile internet so they can have cross-platform access to text messaging (not for web surfing)
- Primary driver of mobile internet is private communication with 2-5 and usually no more than 10 contacts - a personal, private communications portal
She predicted that there will be a convergence between the PC Internet and the mobile Internet and posed a couple of questions:
What will it take to shift the commerical mode of communication to more communal forms?
What will it take for the handheld device to become a media content and sharing platform?
All of these behaviors, even if they just look like simple, trivial modifications of existing technologies have the ability to change and leverage online communities in important ways, pointed out Ito.
Howard Rheingold talked about Larry Brilliant who has founded INSTEDD, and is interested in using the global mobile phone base and SMS technology to start an international network to inform and address world problems like hunger, poverty, disease.
"We saw after the tsunami and Katrina this emergence of response using new technologies. There are challenges to making something like this happen, but it is going to happen."
Rheingold then issued a call for action to move this project forward. "Let's do something with this in terms of collective action. There's huge opportunities for public health education using the mobile phone as a platform. Moore's Law is going to make these 2 billion devices more powerful."
"But I'm not so optimistic that a lot of these predictions are going to come true," concluded Rheingold, reinforcing the challenges posed by the control held by the carriers and the constraints they impose.
One question addressed the threat of VoIP to cell carriers. Supratik Bhattacharyya answered that providers are aware of this as a threat, and are "not anti-IP, but are trying to figure out how to address it." (or as some in the audience said "cash in on it").
And, Doc Searls noted: "All of this stuff was invented by geeks. A problem with cell phones is that they are "closed things" and we have to put up with what the manufacturers give us. What I'd like to see is an unbundling on the manufacturing side, but the inventors right now aren't in a position to offer anything into the marketplace."
The luncheon keynote speaker was Dr. Noshir Contractor, professor of Communication and Psychology at the University of Illinois - Urbana-Champagne. His presentation featured a demo of digital harvesting and CI-KNOW analysis which used the SB Forum speakers' biographical information, published articles and URLs as the data which was analyzed using a variety of tools and technologies in order to create a multidimensional network analysis and visual charts showing connections between people and keywords. As he said, "this is a new way of looking at knowledge network and navigating through social networks." So cool!!
The two afternoon panels offered were: Coordinating People Online and Techno Roaming - Spotlighting Innovations from Around the World
The panel focusing on Organizing People Online was led by Jennifer Earl of UCSB. Panelists included:
Jennifer Earl introduced each of the panelists and encouraged them to "say something provocative." Here's what they had to say:
Kevin Matthews - "One of the characteristics of the human condition today is that we act on the world and each other as an enormous mass organism and we don't have the consciousness to effectively direct the mass impact. So somehow we need to develop a mass consciousness that can help to steer that mass impact. These online tools are the best tools we have available to develop that mass conscousness."
One thing that has been interesting to note is how PetitionOnline has become an outlet for shared emotions, like Ilian Gonzalez, the 911 tragedy and Dale Earnhart's death for NASCAR fans results in mass participation, noted Matthews. "It's clear from the level of participation and the passion that it really fills a need. Part of the social structure of PetitionOnline is that people use it as a method of last resort. You petition when the door has been slammed in your face, and the people that use it are passionate."
Sheeraz Haji - "Most big groups suck at organizing people online." Most are not doing a good job of using their core people to advocate or fundraise for them. They are also not good at integrating the online with the offline experience. What's next? Email is dying. The solution: using RSS without people having to figure out that it's RSS.
Josh Silver - Freepress has emerged as the leading national media reform organization. The Internet is changing really quickly, and Josh identified some critical threats to the future of the Internet, including the proposed bill to eliminate net neutrality.
Josh introduced us to one of FreePress' initiatives, the Media Reform Action Squad, but said, "I don't know if this is going to work." He cautioned, "You can't just start an online tool and then let it roll. It takes as much legwork as it did in the 60s. You have to have professional organizers working it."
The issues that people find really important - like the woman's right to choose, war, etc. that are visceral are the easiest things to organize around. But in general, we see things going the other way becuse of three structural problems: campaign finance, politicians are bought and sold, and the corporate-run media. These structural issues need to be fixed.
Cynthia Stohl - discussed collective action theory and traditional types of engagement within organizations. "What we know is the traditional key elements are no longer viable. There's no longer the need for very tight boundaries and there's much more fluidity in organizations, so the theory isn't really relevant anymore." The study she is leading involved the creation of a "collective engagement space, consisting of several types of organizations, including "entrepreneurial," "personal," "impersonal" and institutional. What was surprising was when we talked to people in organizations about their online presence, the organizations leaders' goals was to become more entrepreneurial and personal. But the members' perceptions of the organizations were quite different. And, there was often a disjuncture between the members' perceptions of these organizations online and what organizations thought they were accomplishing online.