"It's kind of fun to do the impossible." -- Walt Disney.
What is "Social Networking"?
The internet is a breeding ground for buzzwords. Terms like "blogging," "wikis," "phishing," "Googlewhacking" and "groking" dot the landscape of this new kind of wild, wild west online frontier. Some terms grow beyond the kitsch factor and spark a whole new way of connecting not only online, but in "meatspace" as well.
Social networking is an example of an activity that occurs outside of cyberspace (the Chamber of Commerce; Junior Achievement; the Boy Scouts; service clubs like the Optimists, Masons and Lions; and even mom's bridge club are example of social networks), and where the possibilities are amplified exponentially online. The success of online social networking utilities, such as "Friendster" and "Linked In" point to the value of being able to expand our connections.
How Does "Social Networking" Work Online?
Over the years there have been lots of interesting experiments in social networking. Many have become social utilities that feed personal relationships in very traditional ways. How we apply social networks might often lead to hot dates, new jobs and a heft of noisy new friends, but could it also be a recipe for social and economic reform on a global scale?
|"Connecting in this small world is the most powerful thing that has happened. To be in a place where people are in a take and give mood I am able to bring change in the space around me. Since joining Onet 6 months ago I have learnt lessons which no institution in the world can offer. When I am short of ideas people come in and top up my emptiness. Onet is full of diversified people but with common goals of bringing changes with great impacts."
student in Narobi, Kenya, Africa
and one of the team leaders in the recent Vigil for the Sudan
Friendster is to dating as Linked-In is to business as omidyar.net is to?
... better world building.
Some online social networks are intended to connect "better world scouts" in a way that allows us to compare notes about what's working in the world, and how to scale that up. Internet pioneer Howard Rheingold's "Smart Mobs" uses a very clever set of conventions to tap into the way that our instant messaging gadgets - cellphones and pagers and PDAs - allow us to invoke instant action on a large scale. (Click here for more on this from my October 20, 2004 show.) In the "Cooperation Project" Howard talks about how building a "literacy of cooperation" could alleviate suffering and create wealth.
Other social networks, like the one cultivated through the WorldChanging blog, tap into the rich vein of independant media to share best practices from around the world, suggesting simple actions and points of engagement for scaling them up.
A third social network of distinction -- omiydar.net -- began inviting people to cultivate the same end-goal -- better world building -- without presuming to know how to do it. It neither implied a set course of action, nor a particular way of reflection. Instead, it's hosts merely offered it as a platform and connecting point for "people to discover their own power to make good things happen".
What Makes omidyar.net Different from Other Social Networks?
Pam and Pierre Omidyar have been recognized as two of the most generous philanthropists in the world. Since its inception in 1999, the Omidyar Foundation provided a significant pipeline of support to non-profit organizations demonstrating breakthrough innovation in various forms of social justice and better world building. Pam and Pierre recognized that the traditional foundation approach to scaling things up had inherent limitations. It was based on a finite set of resources that many organizations had to compete for. This notion of "scarcity" is one of the things that often throttles innovation. Where many research-based organizations have in fact discovered practices and resources that may lead to the end of things like famine, disease, and the larger issue of poverty, they are compelled NOT to share what they have and what they know because it's the very thing that will ensure them continued funding.
|"We know now that value of the 'tail' is immense (online sales of books, music etc in the tailend eclipsed that of bestsellers). The BIG question is: would the action that comes out of the folks on the tail, regular joes like you and me (outside of the NPO/govt spheres) - would one day have a larger impact than those traditional institutions?
I'm on the optimistic side of the scale: seems to me there's tremendous value to support the germinating actions of civil society at large. And as the network grows, the flow of information that enables would increase (and the scope of the action)."
-- Niny Khor
Stanford Graduate student in Economics,
and omidyar.net better world scout.
Social networking nurtures cooperation, and perhaps offers a means to getting some of the best innovation out of those silos, and out into a place where collaboration will allow things that work to be scaled up. The Omidyars recognized that this was an opportunity to change the way that supporting social entrepreneurship has traditionally occurred by cultivating a new way for discovering innovation and scaling it up.
The Omidyar Network team used a common set of technologies -- discussion tools (forums) and workspaces (wikis) -- to collaborate internally. They recognized that making these tools available on a broader scale might encourage more people to connect in this way, and to begin sharing what they knew, and what they did, and who they partnered with. These things might in turn lead to a set of tipping points for global community capacity building in a sustainable way.
They wanted the space to be open to invite accountability and transparency, and they wanted to cultivate a space that was governed by a small handful of guiding principles, instead of the usual command and control structure:
- We are all here because we believe in making the world a better place.
- We believe in treating each other with respect.
- We believe everyone has something to contribute.
The Great Debate
Does providing a space with few boundaries and the credibility of the Omidyar name mean that housewives and CEOs will roll up their sleeves to work side by side on healing the world?
|When I first published my little post on Niger, it did not attract much attention, until suddenly some people said they were going to activate their network for it. Somebody once said it takes 6 steps to reach anybody in the world, just by networking with others. And a network like the o.net is one of those steps."
-- Anna VandeAak
omidyar.net better world scout from the Netherlands.
Yes, and no.
Yes, people like Cynthia Gentry from Atlanta, Georgia arrived and turned the place upside down by announcing that she couldn't imagine how and where she could fit in with pioneers and academics, and then promptly went out and engaged Paul Rusesabagina (whose life the movie "Hotel Rwanda" was based on) and dove into the Darfur crises head on, reached out to a group of young men who are working to change the fate of child Soliders, helped turn a water pump into child's play in Africa, nurtured the power of play by building a playground with KaBOOM!, and is now getting ready to head off to India and then Uganda. Her moment of truth? "If not now, when? If not us, who?", promptly followed by "and I'm not kidding!". While not every housewife in North America will go charging out into the world the way this polite southern belle has, Cynthia Gentry is a good example of what works best about a place like omidyar.net: it makes people believe. In a post 9/11 world where hope is at an all-time low, and donor-fatigue at an alltime high, people need something to believe in again, and believing in their own power to make good things happen is a very good place to start.
I did say "no" as well. Simply setting the table with a good set of shared goals and values doesn't always mean that it will be easy to scale up amidst the kind of personal and cultural diversity that defines an online community. One of the most visible realities of the omidyar.net community is that it is a new way of learning to engage, interact, and share. Its success may be defined by more longterm outcomes than by the "big bang" that many people were hoping for in form of the more short-term by-products of connecting.
Yes, executives from companies like Google have arrived. Yes, the man that set of the "Random Acts of Kindness" revolution rolled up his sleeves too, as did leaders from Oxfam, the Grameen Bank, world-renowned authors of social change, and of course a woman named Pam Omidyar who dug right in there with the rest of us and worked side-by-side to change the daunting realities now faced in Darfur, Sudan. The question is whether or not this curious mix of better world scouts is indeed sustainable. With communication gaps, cultural gaps and a vast array of expecations and experiences, this may be not only one of the biggest gambles philanthropists like Omidyars can take, it may be just the thing that works.
|"The most powerful insight on onet was discovering other people on the planet who felt like I did, that when only one other person aligned on a project the world opened up, and that a small spark of an idea can transform lives."
-- David Rosenberg,
Hollywood screenwriter for The Rugrats, Rocketpower & The Wild Thornberrys
champion of soldiers,
purveyor of magic,
omidyar.net better world scout.
Are There Still Traditional Kinds of Investments?
While this may be a new way of discovering innovation, the work to support good things still goes on in concrete ways. This is visible in places like:
|"When I was working on the archive of action (still in it's infancy and so incomplete) I started listing actions I remembered off the top of my head... I was so shocked to see them all... and very encouraged. There is concrete evidence that o.net is not "all talk". I think niny said it great... i'll paraphrase what i heard... :)"
"The power of one to make a difference can cause an effect so wild and immesurable, that all the money in the world couldn't duplicate it's power if it tried."
founder of Touch Studios, LLC.
and "The MusicLand Band"
And while you'll also find the conventional tools of doing business, these too bear evidence of a leadership that is committed to defining a new way of doing business, member-driven, from the ground up. The first Annual Report is a good example of how the Omidyar Network team continues to engage the community in unconventional ways.
One of the more surprising departures from tradition came in the form of an offer of $25,000, which the Omidyars made available for members of the community to decide how to invest. Seems a little too good to be true? The experiment was punctuated with painful learning opportunities about the way a diverse group of people thinks about things like process, consensus building, the value of momentum, discovering the authenticity of uplift opportunities, and cultural and communication norms. It may have illustrated that a departure from the traditional foundation style of grant-making is fraught with peril, but it also led to some "Aha!" moments about how ideas like "micro-philanthropy" may become the new guideposts for giving.
What about Canadians?
Not every action is inspired by Hollywood's cry for help. While The ONE Campaign, Make Poverty History and Live8 may have the currency of celebrity to shake people from their sleep, not everyone's waiting for a tinseltown invitation to engage. Canadians like Ray and Jackie Brosseuk, and Meron Moroz just rolled up their sleeves and found a quiet place to start.
|"The most powerful thing that has happened to me -- and it is still happening -- is that I have recognized the power of bringing like-minded people together in one place. Could you imagine the logistics of transporting several thousand idealists, visionaries, better world scouts, social entrepreneurs -- all in all, good people -- to the same little town so that we could live and work together? In our web-entangled world it's possible. And it works."
-- Luke Martin, transplanted Canadian from Elmira, Ontario
and omidyar.net better world scout now living in sunny California.
"Over the past 9 years we have shipped over a million pounds of goods to the poor. My wife and I work on a very simple philosophy, just collect it as it is given, get it ready and organize it, then when there is enough collected to fill a 40 ft container ship it."
This is how Ray Brosseuk began to engage at omidyar.net, and what, in the minds of many, set a "chain of miracles" in motion, fuelling a number of spin-off activities within the omidyar.net community. Ray posted a note called "Unbelievable Donation", talking about a large donation of building supplies made available by a local Vancouver supplier. (See the sidebar on the left for details).
What began as a simple accounting of a generous gift, led to the engagement of many more members in helping Ray not only ship these supplies to a village in South East Asia to help rebuild following the Tsunami, but to continue to find other ways of collaborating on similar uplifts. When community member John Firth suggested that aid can be too big for a village, community members not only broadened the discourse, but found that they wanted to serve as a "virtual village" to continue the kind of uplift that Ray and Jackie Brosseuk began. Hence, the birth of another accidental leader, as British Columbia native, Meron Moroz challenged the group to help buy a fishing boat to replace one of 70 that had been destroyed by the tsunami, wiping out the livelihood of an entire village of families. This discussion thread spawned not one, but several projects in response to the need to support friends in South East Asia. A project to help dig wells in Aceh province, and others to help rebuild preschools and send badly needed supplies, followed the initial efforts of this diverse group of people as they learned how to work together in new ways.
|"One of the high points of the year for me was Michael Wilson's gift to Ray Brousseuk. I thought it was a great example of networked interaction, and how trust could be raised through peer-to-peer discussions and activities. It seemed to be a wonderfully efficient way of connecting people; something to be learned from and replicated."
Founder of GivingSpace
and the Uplift Academy
Did these things change the world? They certainly changed a small group of people, including a few better world scouts in Canada, who came together for a time, and leave one to wonder if this new way of learning to interact might also lead to the kind of empowerment the Omidyars imagined when they invited people to discover their own power to make good things happen.
|"Knowing that Help a Soldier, Help Arnold, Invisible Children, Marissa, Peace Tiles, 100 Day Tag Team Fast, spokes4votes, Stop Genocide Now, and dozens of other things was just the start, the best is yet to come."
partner in Spread the Good
ringleader of the FOOD CHAIN
How are People Working Together at omdiyar.net?
The example above is just one of the ways that a group of better world scouts found not only some common ground, but the need to create simple tools to make it easy to work together.
|"For me the most powerful thing that's happened has been the cross-polination and strengthening of actions happening all over the place. The support we each receive from knowing that others are cheering for us, giving us suggestions to improve our action, and working to re-frame their jargon in our words and ours in their words makes it possible to go on when otherwise isolation might get the better of us."
the Humanist Movement
Chicago's Ted Ernst is another example of someone recognizing the power of a small group of people to reach across the globe to affect change in new ways. Using tools like DropCash and PayPal, Ted was able to invite people to throw a bit of spare change into a digital tin cup, and used it to buy wheelbarrows and shovels for group of people in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana so they could dig trenches to help combat malaria. It was a small campaign, but one that demonstrated the very personal connection that people can cultivate when reaching out to affect change.
And that's the rub: unlike an online catalogue, omidyar.net helps bubble up uplift opportunities that are not only unique, but that allow communities members to engage in a very hands-on way.
A series of "mini actions" became a small, personal invitation to individual engagement, and while some may argue that they are not changing the world in significant ways, others seem to recognize the value of this kind of consciousness-raising, hands-on, global connect. Digital tin cups began to spring up, with people sticking virtual fridge magnets on them as a means of bubbling up attention so that these uplift opportunities could be more easily found, attracting allies along the way. While there are glitches to be worked out, this new form of "scout driven" micro-giving seems to have taken root, supported by "matching funds" from the Omidyar Network team along the way.
|"I think it's obvious you can make good things happen without money, but everyone has to eat and some are starving to death. Money can be used more or less wisely or for evil purposes. It isn't the money. It's always about how something is done more than whether it is done."
rattlesnake bite survivor, and better world scout
championing the cause of Invisible Children
and torture survivors
Where Do I Fit In?
The vast appeal of a social network like omidyar.net can be better be understood when when we sit down in front of the radio or t.v., and try to absorb yet more of the daily horror that seems to surround us in the form of tsunamis, bombs and other painful news. While these things often make us feel compelled to want to do something, they don't always give us a concrete, simple way to take a next step.
Early on Tom Munnecke described the potential of omidyar.net like this: he said it might become a "do something" router, helping people move from "feeling" to "acting". It might become a simple place where they could find natural allies and engage in the kinds of uplift that called them most. Where the shock value of a daily barrage of media sometimes leaves off, omidyar.net might be able to pick up, inviting people to talk more about the things they cared about, and find the simple, initial conditions that lead to meaningful action. That action might simply be learning more, or it might be finding a way to connect locally with people who care about the things that you do to, or it might be a Cynthia Gentry style of global engagement where the words "no" and "can't" seem to lose their meaning overnight.
|"I met Tim Berners-Lee in 1993 shortly after he had invented the World Wide Web. We had several long discussions about how change happens from the bottom up, and how the web would provide a new medium of connectivity. Few people appreciate how simple the web was; just three standards driven by a vision of global connectivity. It wasn’t long before, as Tim said, the web was “gently, gently, exploding.”
It struck me that the best way to achieve global transformation was to figure out the simplest initial conditions that could trigger off an explosion of good will around the world. The Internet was introducing an entirely opportunity for global connectivity. Was there some way to use this connectivity to uplift humanity as a whole?
I think that we have it here in this network."
Founder of GivingSpace
and the Uplift Academy
Not everyone will be spurred on by the kind of do something moment that Tom had in India back in the 90's, but many of us feel deeply moved to act on some front.
Having just returned from their very first community conference, a number of omidyar.net members are working to find better ways of reaching out to new folks as they arrive.
In the interim, there are a number of "tried and true" ways to dip your toes in the water at omidyar.net. If you know someone there, search for their "member profile". You'll find a handful of helpful things there, including a listing of some of the discussions they are participating in, and the workspaces that they are helping to build. These are like little rabbit holes through which we tumble down into our personal wonderlands, and can be a quick way of discovering other people who are interested in the same things you are.
The ONTopic newsletter, prepared by Omidyar Network staffer Susan Megy, is another good way of tapping into what's happening within the community. You'll find the What's New and What's Hot tabs at the top of every page, and a link to the central help index too.
The Welcome Wagon continues to be built by the community members themselves, offering tips and ideas to help you get oriented and find the good stuff along the way.
Why in "The Wild"?
Traditional mechanisms -- for example, conferences on Global Public Good -- recognize leaders in particular areas where they are interested in making better inroads, exploring things like sustainable agriculture, potable water, and halting the spread of malaria. Such connections are efforts to tackle the "root" causes of global decay: poverty, disease, environmental risk, violence and so on. This often leads to a fairly homogenized community of like-minds and global thinkers, a place where it is easier to gain traction on ideas and in the application of resources to scale good things up.
So why would the Omidyars take a chance on what some have come to describe as "the inmates running the asylum"? For years Pam and Pierre have invested much of the profits made through eBay back into social enterprises and global good. Through their Omidyar Foundation they became recognized as two of the most generous philanthropists in the world. Why then would they close down their foundation, and opt for a wide-open, transparent and ungoverned wild-wild-west approach? Because they wanted to do something different. Because they wanted to invest in not only the traditional non-profit inroads to better world building, but also in the breakthrough innovation of some of the for-profit models as well. Because they recognized that there weren't already many solid ways for doing this using the tools of the day. Because they could.
Has the gamble paid off? Some would say no, or not yet, considering the level of funding that the original foundation made available and the very clear ways that this led to visible global good. Others would say that they have, in fact, done exactly what they set out to do: to cultivate a primordial soup out of which continues to emerge breakthrough innovation driven from the ground-up; that they've created a brain gym where CEOs and housewives are in fact rolling up their sleeves and digging in side by side.
The Last Word
So exactly how does a billionaire roll up her sleeves and dig in? One of my very first introductions to Pam Omidyar was through a posting titled "This is unacceptable and I am tired of excuses" in June of last year. Those words launched one of the most resilient explorations on omidyar.net to date, as people struggled to come to terms with the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the lack of a meaningful global response. The thread in which Pam invited people to engage through those words has now become many threads, where she does, indeed, work side-by-side with people from all different walks of life. There is no lack of putting their money where there mouth is when it comes to Pam and Pierre's very personal form of engagement. It's a lesson in social networking I suspect you won't see repeated elsewhere, as these two better world scouts set the tone for the kind of individual engagement they're hoping will take hold in this new community.
One of the best ways to sum the value of this experiment in social networking up? With Pam's own words, taken from a commencement speech she delivered at Tufts University back in 2002:
"Be an enzyme - a catalyst for change. Act on the environment around you. Make it your mission to make some small difference in the great scheme of life...The kind of catalytic impact that can bring change to bear on all manner of scientific challenges and social problems. And that really is the effort that must animate all of us: The effort to build a sense of community, citizenship and service into all aspects of life... Not only in the classroom but in the community, too... And not only later in life - when your learning years and earning years are over - but early on, and at every stage of life, so that the commitment to service has every opportunity to cascade out, and create a world of change."