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Category Archives: PDF2007


Lessons for Social Software

I’ve admired Clay Shirky‘s work since first meeting him a couple years ago at a Personal Democracy Forum.  Somehow though, I had missed his excellent 2003 piece “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.”  So thanks to Rich Gordon for pointing to it this week.

Clay’s speech lays out commonalities across social software, pulling lessons from the past few decades… and pre-Web 2.0 explosion.  It reads, to me, like a text book version of the lessons we’ve learned “the hard way” in hosting Front Porch Forum.

My wife, Valerie, and I started FPF in 2000 as a stand-alone online neighborhood forum.  We leaned on our neighbors to help us develop the rules of engagement… some firm (e.g., no anonymity), others soft (like a generally civil and constructive tone).  In 2006, we launched a network of 130 online neighborhood forums blanketing our pilot area of Chittenden County, VT, and continued to evolve our rules based largely on member feedback.

Some of Clay’s points from 2003 that strike a chord…

So there’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.

He cites some research too about groups defeating their own purpose by veering off course… three patterns…

Sex talk… the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members

Identification and vilification of external enemies

Religious veneration. The nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets… something that’s beyond critique.

And…

You can find the same piece of code running in many, many environments. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. So there is something supernatural about groups being a run-time experience. The normal experience of social software is failure. If you go into Yahoo groups and you map out the subscriptions, it is, unsurprisingly, a power law. There’s a small number of highly populated groups, a moderate number of moderately populated groups, and this long, flat tail of failure. And the failure is inevitably more than 50% of the total mailing lists in any category.

Clay’s tips for developing and running social software…

  • You cannot completely separate technical and social issues
  • Members (“super users”) are different than users
  • The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations (serve the group over the individual)
  • Design for handles (similar to identity) that the user can invest in
  • Design some way in which good works get recognized
  • You need barriers to participation. You have to have some cost to either join or participate, if not at the lowest level, then at higher levels. There needs to be some kind of segmentation of capabilities.
  • Find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations.

PodTech features Front Porch Forum

Robert Scoble and I talked on camera about Front Porch Forum during a party at Googleplex NYC last month… part of the Personal Democracy Forum.


State Rep. and City Councilor Agree

Steve Urquhart, a Utah state rep. who I met at the PDF conference had these wonderful things to say on his blog

One of the most interesting projects I saw at PDF was FrontPorchForum (FPF). FPF is using online community to build real community. According to FPF co-founder Michael Wood-Lewis, about 20% of the people in Burlington, Vermont, are FPF members. Membership groups are limited to neighborhoods and sign-in is by real name. By using the forum to help match needs with resources for things like shoveling snow, moving furniture, obtaining emergency firewood when a furnace failed, selling old cars, staffing neighborhood watch programs, etc., FPF is using the Internet to help build better neighborhoods in Burlington. Way to go, Michael!

UPDATE (Later): My friend Arjun Singh, the bloggingist city council member in all of Kamloops, British Columbia, paid me a visit in the comments. It’s really funny how people see the world. As far as I know, Arjun and I were the only two elected officials at PDF (at least he’s the only one that I met, I should say). And we both work on the local level (though city and county council types might challenge me on that assertion). While there were lots of famous and important people there and lots of cool things to catch someone’s attention (I’ll blog about some in the coming days), if you look at his blog, you’ll see that Arjun and I both lasered in on a not-so-flashy site doing worthwhile things at the local level.


Amazing Event in NYC

The Personal Democracy Forum was intense! Amazing that Front Porch Forum landed me on the agenda alongside the CEO of Google, the founder of Craigslist, best selling authors, a thrice Pulitzer Prize winner, several web advisers to presidential campaigns, A-list political bloggers, top academics, other VIPs, and lots of up-and-comers. I was and am honored and thankful to Micah Sifry for the invitation.

I learned much from the various sessions and hallway conversations. Here’s a photo from Steve Garfield of one panel’s audience (with me typing away on the floor in the foreground),

and another by Caviar

Front Porch Forum was very well received by a several folks I met there, but not all. Our approach is different enough that it requires a ready and open mind to understand it, and in a “30-second elevator pitch” environment that can be a challenge. That’s fine… many there were eager to know more.

Part of my pitch…

Imagine much of today’s social media occurring among clearly identified nearby neighbors, instead of anonymous distant strangers.  It’s happening with Front Porch Forum where 20% of our pilot city has subscribed in our first half-year.  Every plumber recommendation, restaurant review, piece of citizen journalism, classified ad, etc. posted not only gets a direct result, but all those messages add up to neighbors getting to know each other and build real community in their neighborhood.  People LOVE it!

The speakers’ cocktail party the night before the event was hosted by Google at their NYC digs… definitely not your usual cubicle farm. Here’s the view (thanks to Steve Garfield again)…


Yahoo! We’re going to Google NYC Party

Just got an invitation to a gathering at Google NYC! It’s the speakers’ cocktail party for the Personal Democracy Forum. Photo ID required to get into the party… guess we’re not in Vermont anymore. ;-)

Front Porch Forum is on the agenda, alongside some A-List political bloggers (Huffington Post, TPM), successful dot.com entrepreneurs (craigslist, Wikipedia), Presidential campaign online directors (Edwards, McCain, Joe Trippi), best-selling authors (Thomas Friedman), etc. Very exciting. The conference is May 18 at Pace University. I’ll write about the experience here.


Front Porch Forum on Big Stage

Front Porch Forum just accepted an invitation from co-organizer Micah Sifry to speak at the Personal Democracy Forum on May 18 in New York City. Wow! What an honor and opportunity. Dare I say, I think we have something to add… what we’re doing is unique (from all that I’ve seen at least), off to a promising start, and potentially powerful.

This will be a great event. Speaking or in attendance…

I imagine that we’ll be tucked away in some corner… but we’ll be there! I better start combing the hayseed out of my hair.