Tag Archive | "Web 2.0"

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Should Governments Crowdsource Science Research Funding?


This post was originally published on Huffington Post Science on March 14, 2012.

Recently, I wrote about the trials and tribulations of social networks focused on scientific researchers. I painted a fairly dim picture. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are those in the scientific community who are interested in disruptive innovation within a somewhat traditional and reclusive community.

Here’s another example of such innovation happening. Petridish.org is a new Web platform that empowers users to explore the world around them by participating in funding scientific research projects. Not unlike the well-known Kickstarter, the project owners set a minimum amount of dollars that need to be pledged for the project to happen, and a deadline to achieve that goal. Pledges can go above that goal, but if they fall below the goal by the deadline the entire project basically doesn’t happen.

Not unlike what you may be used to seeing during a public television station pledge drive, there are different incentives offered by the researchers for different levels of pledges, too.

Let’s explain how this works by way of an example. I’m a former insect biologist myself, so I have a certain weakness for things like flies, bees, and ants. Here’s a project from Petridish.org all about ants: New Species of Ants in Madagascar, submitted by Brian Fisher, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences with an “infectious passion for ants.” There’s a video in the previous weblink, and here’s part of the project description:

Deep in the tropical forests of Madagascar, a France-sized island teeming with strange creatures, ants glue together the richest of ecosystems. The tiny insects are armed to protect their homes with bites, stings, acid sprays and even strangling. Yet their real war against human encroachment is failing — only 10 percent of Madagascar’s natural habitat remains.
To save Madagascar’s forests, researchers need to know what’s in them.

I’m Brian Fisher, a conservationist with the California Academy of Sciences, and I’m ready to hop in a raft, navigate a wild uncharted river and scale treacherous cliffs with a team of extreme sports professionals as guides.

It’s not about bragging rights, however — it’s a race against time.

Very dramatic! This sounds like a pretty decent movie description. In all seriousness though, in my experience a lot of researchers are not able to describe what they do to average people very well, never mind enhance their factual descriptions with colorful language. Granted, hunting for ants in a tropical forest is a little more exotic than your average research project, but that’s besides the point.

Where will my money go?

Without discovering what Kasijy harbors it’s tough to convince locals — and the rest of the world — that it and other Madagascar wilderness is worth preserving. For now it’s a forest begging to be turned into firewood and grassland.
My expedition aims to:

Inventory Kasijy’s untold new species and document their roles in a pristine natural ecosystem.
Understand the biodiversity patterns of Madagascar and resolve our “bioilliteracy” of the Kasijy forest.
Set up more robust conservation plans for the island.
Raise awareness of Madagascar’s natural wonders and its ongoing plight.

But the logistics of five inflatable rafts, provisions, a small team of scientists and professional guides won’t pay for itself. To enable the whirlwind expedition, I’ll need $10,000. Another $10,000 would help support laboratory work, including the identification, description and publication of new species, and the training of local Malagasy scientists to do such work and become local stewards of their wilderness.

But hey — what do I get out of my donation?? Here’s some incentives:

  • At the 1-20 level, you’re just helping the project and expect nothing.
  • At the 20-100 level, you get updates from the research team in the field.
  • At the 100-250 level, you get a small stone souvenir taken from the highest point in Madagascar, plus all of the above.
  • At the 250-500 level, you get an original signed photo from the field, plus all of the above.
  • At the 500-1000 level, you get recognition in scientific journals where the work is published, plus all of the above.
  • At the 1000-5000 level, you get a behind the scene tour of the CA Academy of Sciences, plus all of the above.
  • At the 5000+ level, the research team will name a novel species of ant after you or a loved one, plus all of the above.

Pretty cool stuff, and reasonable for the research team to provide as well. Imagine this as potential birthday or holiday gifts for sons or daughters or nieces or nephews interested in science. And this is just one project on Petridish.

What’s the current status of Brian Fisher’s project? They have $7,901 out of $10,000 needed with about 24 days to go at time of writing.

In the U.S, the federal government — mainly via the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Departments of Energy and Defense — is the largest funding resource for academic science research like what’s described above with ants in Madagascar. Despite the relatively specialized nature of such research, there are nevertheless thousands and thousands of such projects just within the U.S., dreamed up by undergrads, grad students, postdocs, part-time and teaching faculty, and more senior full-time research professors and senior research scientists. Most of them do not get funded, because of the relative limits of government funds and the stiff competition.

And a lot of the research (like the ants of Madagascar) will not be funded by corporations because the work isn’t applied enough. Sure, sure, the research could turn out something akin to Sean Connery’s work in Medicine Man — but more than likely not. Drug companies and similar organizations gamble, but usually at a more applied stage, not for the more basic levels of academic research.

What we have in America is a system by which many graduate students achieve their Ph.D.’s and often can secure a postdoctoral fellowship, but then are not able to then move to the next level with a tenured professorship and federal grant money. The reason? There are quite a few reasons. Some are practical — obviously, a given university has limited office and lab space so they can’t hire indefinite numbers of professors, no matter how good they are. Another practical reason is that some people, despite having a doctoral degree and some experience, are simply not cut out for being a tenured professor. But another huge reason is that significant research universities largely rely on professors to “pay their own way” via grants that fund research and from which schools can take a percentage for “indirect costs” like infrastructure (mail, lights, heat, electricity…).

Fair enough. There is a place for this system. But for the B+ and A- researchers (if you will) who have great ideas but for whatever disadvantages are not in the top tier of people who are getting large grants and landing top professorships, is there no alternative?

Companies like Fundageek and Petridish seem to have come up with one. Now anyone — a smart high school student, a part-time high school science teacher, an overly ambitious grad student at Harvard, anyone — can write some convincing text, have some amazing photo and video collateral, and pitch an idea and make their project come to life through a great crowdsourcing platform.

But why are private companies like Petridish and Fundageek providing platforms for this, while agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation aren’t? Promoting and funding innovative projects which help America in some way seems like something the scientific and technically oriented arms of the U.S. government should be involved with. Perhaps there are some legal or other reasons why say the NIH can’t run a crowdsourcing platform on a .gov website; I’d be curious to hear those facts/arguments. But perhaps government agencies should approach Petridish and Fundageek and others and find a way to build a public-private partnership which helps everyone — government, private sector, and academia — involved?

About seven years ago or so, the NIH started requiring two abstracts for submitted research grants — one technical and one that could be understood by general audiences. At the time, I thought this was a great thing. Maybe something like what Petridish is doing with an array of videos, photos, text, and a way for citizens to participate is the next step for government support of scientific research. Of course, there will always be a role for direct government funding via grants; but might crowdsourcing not be a way to supplement the funding of great ideas, or alternatively fund “honorable mention” projects which show promise but don’t make the cut for full government funding yet?

This week, a group of Senators introduced the CROWD FUND act, which would allow small companies and individual entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million a year by making their case directly to investors via “crowdsourcing” — perhaps this is the wave of the future?

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What If Government Were On-The-Record 24/7?


This post was originally published on Huffington Post tech on December 21, 2009.

Recently, I wrote a post about Government 2.0 predictions for 2010-12, and one of them was that government would “always be on-the-record.”

By that I meant that the combination of (1) the proliferation of tech-savvy citizens with mobile camera/video devices, (2) the prevalence of wi-fi or other Web connections, (3) the massive number of people using social networks like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, and (4) the great interest that people have right now in a number of controversial issues like our current wars, health care, and climate change that people could and probably would start documenting everything that government officials do and say, where they go, who they meet with, for how long, what their staffers eat for lunch and with whom, and so on.

And you don’t need to be a professional journalist to do this, or even to do it well. An entire site along the lines of Gawker.com could be started around this, in fact. GovernmentGawker.com, anyone?

Well, I was doing some research to look at planes versus trains to get home for the holidays (in light of the recent blizzard that’s affected transport in the DC-NY-Boston corridor), and I came across a fantastic video that essentially puts the Amtrak Acela First Class service on the record for the trip between New York and Boston (7 min edited clip). Check it out.

Now, imagine if someone did the same thing, but wanted to document a day in the life of Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), currently in the middle of heated debate about health care legislation. It’s not hard.

You check the general schedules of his committees and such beforehand, research powerful, under-the-radar staff and other relevant people on the Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov.com, go through simple security at the Capitol (far easier than an airport), find Nelson’s office in the Hart building, camp out in his waiting area, maybe ask the person at the front desk some questions, find some press in the hallways and ask some questions (maybe visit the Russell rotunda, where the television crews do their spots), stalk the cafeteria (there’s a great coffee shop called Cups in the basement) and listen for people saying “Nelson,” go back to his office and see him leaving to walk down the hall to a committee hearing, take photos of the staff with him on your Samsung ST-1000 with wi-fi and geo-tagging and upload the pics to Bing Maps and Facebook, go to the sub-committee hearing and tape it from a Flip in your coat pocket while you tweet live notes, upload your Flip video to YouTube while you follow Nelson to his next meeting, and so forth.

(Note: This post has nothing in particular to do with Sen. Nelson or health care, it’s just an example “ripped from the headlines” – I’ve even met and chatted with him when he spoke about energy at the Defense Department, he’s a nice person.)

You can surely imagine at this point many variations on this for political appointees you don’t like, lobbyists you’re interested in, principal deputy assistant secretaries that make important decisions but don’t necessarily travel in armored vehicles with bodyguards, various members of the press who might be meeting with sources at Capitol Hill bars, etc. Trust me, this isn’t hard. If you live in Washington, DC, you probably realize how very easy this is, in fact, when combined with some good traditional news sources like the Post, Times, The Hill, and Politico. (If you live in Washington, DC, you also know that it’s incredibly common to know where various officials live, eat, and so forth – I used to live about two blocks from Senator Obama’s pad.)

But why would someone want to create an “ambient stream” of Senator Nelson or anyone else’s life? (Besides it being fascinating in a lowbrow, Gossip Girl kind of way, of course.) Well, most people wouldn’t. But so what? It’s just like Wikipedia – only about 1% of people who use Wikipedia actively edit it; about 9% do sometimes, and 90% just read it. Twitter is not unlike that either – only about 10% of users contribute 90% of the tweets.

So what if 1% of U.S. citizens started doing this? Roughly there are 300 million people in the U.S., say half of them are adults, so we have 1% of 150 million as 1.5 million. Now, if everyone just did this at the state, local, or federal level one day a year, and generated one “amateur journalism piece” from that day, that’s about 4,100 videos/blog posts/tweet sets generated PER DAY. That’s a lot of government on-the-record.

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What Does Innovative Social Engagement Look Like For Businesses and Governments?


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on November 17, 2009.

I’ve been thinking about the topic of Government 2.0 a lot lately. Part of this topic deals with the multi-directional engagement between government and citizens. This is what the White House and others have termed a more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government.

Unfortunately, the engagement for the most part is not very authentic nor meaningful. Boring “fan pages” on Facebook are one example I’ve written about, but there are many others. Often, engagement, when it does happen has so many rules associated with it, or such a high barrier to entry, or such a limited window as to be practically meaningless.

It seems to me that everyone can celebrate the fact that government entities merely have a YouTube channel here, a Twitter account there, or a Blogger profile some other place (the so-called “TGIF revolution“), or we can think a little harder about what the goals of citizen engagement really might be, and how to go about achieving them. But first, a personal example of responsiveness and engagement from the private sector.

On the evening of Nov 2nd, I tweeted from my phone about a local DC restaurant, Co Co Sala, just as I was leaving. We had a nice experience, but the hostess had been a little, shall we say, disinterested in helping us? So I commented as much.

Less than a week later, the co-owner of Co Co Sala sent me an email and cc’d his general manager. He apologized for the treatment I experienced, assured me it was not policy, introduced me to the manager, and said he’d talk to his staff. It was a four-paragraph email. I’ve never met him before, and furthermore, my personal email is discoverable but not the most easy thing to find.

This is what real social innovation looks like. This is what customer service looks like. This is what true engagement with stakeholders looks like. I want to give this great lounge Co Co Sala a hearty shout-out for not only having a great product, but also really caring about their customers.

Now, imagine we weren’t talking about a restaurant here. Imagine we are talking about the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the Patent and Trademark Office, or your Congressman. If you tweeted, would they see it? Would they care? Would they react in any way? I think the answer in many cases is no. And when was the last time you gave the DMV a shout-out for a job well done?

Let’s look at a sliver of data. According to TweetStats.com, the people behind the White House Twitter account reply to individuals less than 2% of the time, and seem to have never @ replied to any single more than once (i.e., they have never come close to a conversation). They re-tweet others’ tweets about 6.5% of the time, but they only seem to re-tweet other government accounts and the New York Times. Granted, there are more people tweeting about White House issues than Co Co Sala, but does the above data represent any caring in any way, shape or form?

The terrific techPresident blog recently noted that actor Vin Diesel is the single most followed living person on Facebook – and that he recently passed up President Obama. Perhaps that’s because Vin Diesel’s Facebook fan page is awesome. He is engaged, his fans are engaged, and the tone is informal and fun. There are also many other high-profile people who have taken the plunge into innovative social engagement; my favorite at the moment is Alyssa Milano.

So when exactly did “serious and formal” become a substitute for “informative and meaningful” in government circles? And why is everyone scared of letting their guard down in public? People and entities that innovate and use new social networking tools to engage with stakeholders will be winners. The ones that don’t will be losers in the long run. It’s that simple.

If a goal of Government 2.0 is to provide citizens better services, and a strategy towards reaching that goal is to use social media tools to communicate better with citizens on multiple channels, it seems to me that listening and responding better to comments and complaints would be a great tactic.

The reason why people still cite the TSA’s blog as a good example of citizen engagement is because few other outstanding examples of federal government social media engagement seem to have emerged in 2009. What does 2010 have in store?

It is somewhat outside the scope of this post, but my guess is that more and more local government responsiveness and engagement is happening. We heard some of those stories at the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in September. What are some new ones that the feds should hear about?

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The Government Blocks Twitter No It Doesn’t


This post was originally published by O’Reilly Radar on July 27, 2009.

In a recent CSPAN interview, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that, “for some reason, Twitter is blocked on White House computers,” which created a minor frenzy among tech-savvy journalists ranging from UPI to The Hill. Later, news upstart Mediaite uncovered that the New Media team in the Old Executive Office Building could indeed access Twitter, but other people working on White House staff do not necessarily share the same privileges. This is all very interesting, but this story is far bigger than the White House, because it serves as a metaphor for rules governing social media tool use for the thousands of employees working throughout the Federal government.

Decisions about which social media sites are allowed in the Executive Branch are somewhat inconsistent, as I pointed out in a Department of Defense research paper earlier this year. Often without explanation or transparency, different agencies and even offices within agencies have different policies about use of social media platforms on the Web. Additionally, even when public affairs employees are allowed to use tools like Twitter and YouTube to communicate, they are sometimes blocked by different authorities at work from using them. So, in a gray area, they employ workarounds using personal laptops, iPhones, and the like.

Such internal contradiction cannot last long. Eventually there will have to be consistent, widely-known policy guidance about what sites can be used, and by whom, and why. And as the workforce age structure changes, and lines between professional and personal increasingly blur, employees will demand access to these sites more. Some sites may legitimately be blocked, but currently, there are a hodgepodge of rules that are often confusing, and possibly make the overall situation worse. Here, I propose two arguments for not blocking most social media sites on most government computers.

One, blocking social media sites does little for safety and security. The statement “Twitter is blocked” typically means that the domain Twitter.com is rendered inaccessible from a government Web browser. The downside to blocking sites this way is that there are simple mechanisms for alternatively accessing the underlying software (Twitter.com can be accessed from TweetGrid.com, YouTube.com from videos.Google.com, and so forth). Hence, official computers can access the same sites through different portals. Employees may also turn to nearly ubiquitous personal devices like BlackBerries to use social media during work hours. Finally, there are many “clones” of sites like Twitter and YouTube; are Identi.ca, Plurk, and similar microsharing sites also blocked? Thus, some employees effectively use the same social networks to send and receive the same information, with all of it being harder to monitor. This is not a recipe for good cyber-security of government systems or employee information.

Two, blocking social media platforms does little for government efficiency, transparency, and citizen engagement. True, when used poorly, sites like Twitter and YouTube are a distraction from official duties and a time-sink. But the same can be argued about phones, email, and even the cafeteria. When used responsibly, however, social media provides real-time information about critical news, helps employees working on similar topics within the government find and communicate with each other, allows the discovery of work-related conferences and other events, helps people better understand how technology is influencing overseas incidents like the Iranian election protests, conversing with citizens about microniche issues related to the office one works in, and countless other worthwhile applications. Blanket social media bans empower information to fall through the cracks rather than get to people who could use it.

Three reasonable steps should be taken. First, top-level government information assurance analysts need to determine what security risks various common social media websites pose to the government; they should be “binned” into categories like “Use only on non-military computers” or “Not for government system use.” Second, policies need to be transparent, consistent, and well-publicized across the government; employees will frown on radically different policies being applied in different buildings on Independence Avenue, or on different Army bases in Virginia. Third, employees and contractors working in government facilities need to be educated about the positive and negative aspects of using social media websites, just as they are about other aspects of cyber-security and other government procedures.

These three steps should counteract possibly less secure employee workarounds, and go a long way towards the more open, transparent, and participatory government that the President proposed in the first memo he disseminated after taking office. Interestingly, while the U.S. debates whether or not certain computers can and cannot access Twitter, across the pond the U.K. has released an official government template for how to use Twitter – it’s a 20-page document offering practical advice, and uploaded online using Scribd for the entire world to see. Just as we look to other countries for ideas about how we can improve transportation, health care and the like, we might include social media on that list.

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Bantamweight Publishing in an Easily Plagiarised World


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on July 15, 2009. I still (2014) think this – ownership and plagarism of micro-publishing – is a greatly underappreciated topic.

Even professional writers are prone to infrequent accidental plagiarism. But in the world of novels, newspapers, and college exams, there are rules about bootlegging others’ work that are well-established – most everyone agrees on what behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences are. In bantamweight publishing, however, the rules are not so clear.

In order for the British Army to raise more units during the First World War, it created battalions of otherwise healthy men with lowered minimum height requirements. In this way, short, powerful miners and similarly swarthy individuals were able to contribute to the war effort. These soldiers were called bantams (a term now heard most commonly in boxing, bantamweight). Similarly, in a Web 2.0 environment, the short powerful bursts of searchable, findable, and sharable data emitted from personal electronic devices are a form of bantamweight publishing in which persons outside the regulated publishing industry can contribute to the information sharing effort.

Bantamweight publishing comes in many forms. Twitter is certainly in this category, but there are a steadily increasing number of ways to share small bits of information with the world. From updating your Facebook Wall to Yammering inside your enterprise to updating your LinkedIn status to commenting on people’s BrightKite locations, everyone is doing it. But in an easily plagiarized world, who owns your sentences once you publish them? It’s not really clear. And in a murky environment where someone might get a macropublishing book deal by popularizing someone else’s creative hashtag, bantamweight publishing runs the risk of serious future problems.

Oh, bantamweight publishing has its customs. Self-policing crowds ensure that most people who lift someone else’s excellent quote or funny picture or news link give credit to the originator using the “retweet” (RT) convention followed by a username. But there is little downside to cheating relative to being expelled from college or fired from your newspaper. As is well known in animal behavior circles, it can be temporarily advantageous for cheaters to infiltrate a system like this.

To be sure, quoting someone’s original haiku verbatim and making it appear as if it were your own is an infraction of bantamweight publishing customs. But what if someone tweets an Abraham Lincoln quotation – must the re-tweeter cite the originator? The custom seems less pressing in this case, mainly because of a lack of intent to deceive and arguable “fair use” of a well-known statement by a famous person. One can imagine altruistic plagiarism as well, where people repeat memes to raise money for charity, or virally make people aware of an immediate Amber alert. Further, who could fault someone for copying information about a charity onto their Facebook Wall without citing the originator? In the bantamweight publishing world, information sharing can easily supersede attribution. There are gradations of citations.

Bantamweight publishing is popular among those who feel brevity is a virtue. But when an entire work of art is bounded in 140 characters, even brevity has its limits. Sometimes, squeezing in a proper attribution through editing content can change the original meaning, when the edits unwillingly shift from cosmetic to substantive. And what happens when you run out of space when attempting to retweet someone who retweeted someone who tweeted an important quotation from the Washington Post? To a large degree, a work of bantamweight publishing is like a painting with an upper weight limit, where the novelty is the canvas and the attribution is the frame; most viewers would choose to appreciate the canvas without the frame if given the hard choice.

Another major difference between regular publishing and bantamweight publishing is the lack of research and editing standards. Sometimes people attribute flawed information properly. It is obvious that excellent curators of information like NYU professor Jay Rosen and publisher Tim O’Reilly are exceptions to the rule, based simply on the phenomena of Rick Rolling, #moonfruit, and celebrity death hoaxes. To many, bantamweight publishing is not an micro-investigatory piece to be researched, sourced, edited, and spread, but rather a form of enhanced social chatter and gossip spreading. And according to the rules of gossip, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from; gossip is fun.

Few would argue that the British bantam units were a bad idea, and likewise bantamweight publishing has many virtues. But there are also pitfalls to this in an easily plagiarized world, particularly when money comes into play. Who’s looking out for the intellectual property of a winning hashtag that becomes a book, or a stream of haikus that becomes a blog that companies advertise on? At some point, bantamweight publishing will no longer be a lawless frontier territory; what will it look like next?

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Twitter is Not a Conversational Platform


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on June 9, 2009, and it was quite controversial at the time.

Perhaps the most common reason given for joining the microsharing site Twitter is “participating in the conversation” or some version of that. I myself am guilty of using this explanation. But is Twitter truly a conversational platform? Here I argue that the underlying mechanics of Twitter more closely resemble the knowledge co-creation seen in wikis than the dynamics seen with conversational tools like instant messaging and interactions within online social networks.

Wikis are causally thought of as platforms for “collaborative” document creation. But on Wikipedia, while many people share knowledge to co-create pages, the process is not formally collaborative in the sense that contributors are not cooperating with each other ways that form group identity (to paraphrase Clay Shirky from his book Here Comes Everybody). To the contrary, passionate experts write the majority of text, and a long tail of other contributors offer relatively few, small edits. Many users contribute nothing. Through this process, Wikipedia pages often become valuable repositories of knowledge.

Brian Solis recently posited the dichotomy of whether Twitter is a conversational or broadcast platform. New data bears on this. According to a Harvard Business School study, about 10% of Twitter users contribute roughly 90% of its content. Anecdotally, these 10% are subject-matter experts, passionates, mavens, and thought leaders who break news, write strong opinions, and tell jokes. Like on Wikipedia, most users merely read this information, and a modest number of people in the long tail use the information in the form of re-tweets, comments, corrections, and alternative opinions or links.

So while an individual user may use Twitter primarily as a conversational tool or a broadcast medium, in its totality, Twitter operates a lot like a wiki: as a knowledge-sharing, co-creation platform that produces content and allows its consumption. Conversation is perhaps the most simple and obvious form of collaboration, but would anyone claim that Wikipedia is a conversational platform? Despite the presence of information sharing, co-creation of an end product, and even discussion pages, Wikipedians on the whole aren’t having conversations.

According to this argument, Twitter is no more a conversational platform than Wikipedia is. But is it a social networking platform? New HBS data showing that men have 15% more followers than women and being twice as likely to follow another man than a woman also bear on this to some extent. Authors Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski state: “On a typical online social network, most of the activity is focused around women – men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know. Generally, men receive comparatively little attention from other men or from women.”

As in the case of the conversational platform, it seems that Twitter is also no more a social network than Wikipedia is. Wikis have user accounts and discussion pages, and it is possible for relationships to form. Twitter has user handles and direct messaging, and relationships can form. But social relationships on Wikipedia and Twitter are not a prerequisite for satisfaction and success (inasmuch as that can be defined). For instance, the popular and useful account @BreakingNews has hundreds of thousands of followers but participants in effectively zero engagement. There are many Twitter users who contribute large amounts of useful information and engage in relatively little conversation. And it is not common for people to describe Wikipedia as a social network.

Andrew McAfee notes that two useful Twitter traits are its asynchronous and asymmetric nature. These two traits are also critical to Wikipedia, but importantly much less so within popular social networking platforms like Facebook and MySpace. Thus, entities that are clearly social networking platforms can be but are not necessarily knowledge co-creation platforms, and entities that are clearly asynchronous knowledge co-creation platforms can be but are not necessarily social networks.

If microsharing tools resemble wikis more than conversational tools and social networks, this has huge implications for how people and organizations approach use of this emerging technology. Solis suggests, I think rightly, that “sometimes it’s effective to…maintain a presence simply by reading, listening, and sharing relevant and timely information without having to directly respond to each and every tweet.” The strategy of being a “lethally generous” member of a community would seem to be more worthwhile in this context, contrasted with the individual-level customer service approach of (for example) @ComcastCares.

This framework for thinking about microsharing platforms as knowledge co-creation enablers also puts Nielsen’s recent data on Twitter’s “user retention and loyalty” in a new light. When the average user is a consumer of the content produced by subject-matter experts and passionate mavens, how much does it matter if the majority of use is infrequent spectating (particularly when the information is archived for asynchronous retrieval)? As Shirky recently noted in his talk at the IAC/ACT Management of Change Conference that I attended in Norfolk, VA, such an imbalance of contribution is not a condition of failure for the platform or its users.

Finally, if microsharing is equated with knowledge co-creation, rules for attribution becomes an important consideration. But while the wiki attribution process has generally been worked out, attribution on Twitter is like the wild west – there are no rules; only conventions that are commonly accepted in some circles but not others. In addition, it is relatively easy to cheat the system, hard to catch someone doing it, and difficult to determine what the consequences are of such behavior. This problem will be a lasting one, requiring careful consideration by not only the user community, but also Twitter itself.

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Citizens are Conversations


This post was originally published on Fedscoop on March 4, 2009.

Post-inauguration Washington, DC has been very interesting from the standpoint of the technology community. From the top down, all indications are that within their limitations, leadership in the new administration is moving forward on a platform of more transparent and collaborative government. And from the bottom up, a group of people dubbed the “Goverati” are using their knowledge of government and social technologies to influence the overall Government 2.0 movement.

Social technologies like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter used to be collectively termed “new media” – but that adjective isn’t accurate any longer. Rapid, online, multimedia information flow about conflicts in Mumbai and Gaza, a dramatic plane crash in the Hudson river, the presidential inauguration and more have made it clear that new media is now more aptly called “now media,” as I remarked on January 20th.

But it would be misleading to suggest that social technologies are simple merely because they are prevalent – they’re anything but. Social media is a rapidly evolving ecosystem. The experts debate constantly at conferences and in the blogosphere. There’s no rule book. Social media is a giant, chaotic experiment.

So, for a government newcomer to using these tools, everything can seem overwhelming. Many people ask me how to use these tools to communicate what their office or agency is doing. There is no one, simple answer, but perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that social media is social – it is about the conversation that people are having now, perhaps about you or your interests, whether or not you’re a part of it.

Here, I want to advance the notion that citizens are not mere receiving vessels for press releases and whatever you put on your government website. They’re not a captive audience. They are groups of individuals having conversations with their families, at the proverbial water cooler, and on popular social media sites like the blog ReadWriteWeb, the microsharing site Twitter, and the video conversation platform Seesmic. Social networks people form online are becoming an increasingly important and powerful force in their lives and one need only look to the election of President Obama to see the effects that they can have.

Once you acknowledge that citizens are conversations, what do you do next? Generally, you want to find people talking about your topic of interest, listen to what they’re saying, participate in the conversation, and then start new topics of conversation. Generally, you want to tip-toe into the chaos in the order outlined above. As a DC-based communications consultant once wrote: blog last. Below, I briefly outline some other tips to guide you into the world of citizen social media.

It’s good to be a RAT: Unless you’re a computer programmer, social media isn’t really about technology. It’s about people talking to people. Social interactions have a lot to do with personality and trust. As wine entrepreneur and social media maven Gary Vaynerchuk suggests, try as much as possible to be a social RAT: real, authentic, and transparent.

Street smarts count more than book smarts: A lot of social media is learned by doing, and more importantly through trial-and-error experimentation. Speaking in a transparent manner with a human voice can’t be taught easily in a book or at a conference. The same is true for building and maintaining trusted relationships with people. Useful metaphors can be found in organizations as diverse as old-school journalists and the mafia or other crime organizations.

Citizens are talking about your brand: Traditional public relations unidirectional, and has been called things like “outbox only” and “fire and forget.” Government entities need to pay more attention to their brands, and who is talking about them). Organizations should talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships, because word of mouth is still the most powerful force for spreading trusted information. If you don’t know who’s out there talking about your brand, how to you know who to influence when the time comes?

Deploy ambassadors on a lethal generosity mission: Organizations should belong to a community and allow some employees to be individually empowerful. By being the most generous member of a community, they may become the most trusted (http://redcouch.typepad.com/weblog/2008/10/using-lethal-ge.html). Ambassadors should have knowledge but also great personalities, exhibiting openness, transparency, accuracy, honesty, and respect. They can build valuable new relationships, cheaply (http://www.briansolis.com/2008/07/comcast-cares-and-why-your-business.html).

Engage minds with indirect, intimate influence: Return-on-investment (ROI) is quickly becoming return-on-engagement, or ROE, because personal engagements with people and their word-of-mouth are the new “reach” of messages. Use indirect, intimate influence (http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2009/01/government-20-how-social-media-could-transform-gov-pr005.html) to get that ROE. Influence people through being a valuable member of their community.

Seek out government role models: Colleen Graffy from the State Department successfully used Twitter to connect with overseas journalists as part of her public diplomacy mission (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/23/AR2008122301999.html). The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses a public blog called Evolution of Security (http://www.tsa.gov/blog/) to listen to travelers and their complaints – and overtly discuss policies and problems with them. Representative John Culberson from Texas uses live-video service Qik (http://qik.com/johnculberson) to better communicate with his constituents. What these three people, and others, have in common is that each one of them is a RAT (in a good way) and that they have learned, through trial and error and experimentation, the lessons above.

As top-down decisions trickle throughout government and grassroots efforts propagate upward), are you prepared to join the conversation? It’s happening) with or without you.

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The Oval Office Facebook Group


This post was originally published by Science Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress, on November 3, 2008.

On Wednesday, November 5th, 2008, a presidential transition team will immediately begin preparing for inauguration day 2009—the day the new president will take office. This team will take over from the campaign staff and work on behalf of the newly elected president in order to make the transition of U.S. leaders as smooth as possible.

The process itself is extremely complex and will happen very quickly. There will be about 800 people on the transition team, which will spend roughly $9 million. Given that this team will have about 11 weeks to form a new government as the country skids through an economic crisis, it will not be an easy job. The handover of power will involve an unprecedented amount of information and will require fast, effective communication. Briefing books, face-to-face meetings, and phone calls will be insufficient. The transition team must make the most of modern information and communications technology to shape, coordinate, and run the process of moving the next president into office. Here are some suggestions on how that can work.

Previous administrations—and ultimately the American people—have suffered from poor communication and coordination during transition periods.

One of the first priorities of the president-elect must be issues that could affect national security and other vital interests. Ordinarily, this information gets passed around in the form of briefing books and PowerPoint slides. But now, information and communications technology allows experts to conduct briefings remotely using videoteleconferencing, present information via secure webpages and internal wikis, and conduct real-time discussions and make document modifications using collaborative software and chat tools.

Previous administrations—and ultimately the American people—have suffered from poor communication and coordination during transition periods. For example, the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident occurred in Somalia at the time of the Bush 41-to-Clinton transition, and the “Bay of Pigs” occurred during the Eisenhower-Kennedy transition. Ultimately, these crises, and numerous others, boil down to lack of communication, coordination, and collaboration.

But the U.S. Intelligence Community has already cleared a lot of the technical hurdles in this area. Their recent advances with INTELINK and its cousin A-Space are essentially mashups of the functionality civilians are familiar with through Facebook, LinkedIn, GoogleDocs, and Google Reader—all rolled into an addictive work environment. These social networks allow status updates, subscriptions to real-time news feeds, activity streams, content management, a community tag cloud, drag and drop, discussion threads, a “scrapbook,” and widgets. This system is better than anything I know about in the private sector and the whole government should now make good use of it.

Using INTELINK to coordinate the intelligence and national security teams of the incoming administration is but one important example of how social networking software and Web 2.0 tools can facilitate the presidential transition, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What is the transition team?

Broadly defined, the presidential transition includes the entire campaign season, the election cycle, and a number of months after inauguration when the Senate confirms appointees and leaders are stepping into decision-making roles. The team that coordinates this process exists in two critical and intertwined worlds.

The first is in the Executive Office of the President, where transition staff are concerned about staffing the White House, vetting potential cabinet members, developing advisory councils, recruiting lower-level personnel, coordinating with the outgoing administration, communicating with key outside advisors and leaders in government and the private sector, and drafting an initial presidential agenda.

The second world is executive branch departments and agencies, where team members have three main responsibilities: analyzing the overall organization and function of parts of the executive branch, reassessing key senior personnel positions and responsibilities, and looking at pressing and long-term issues in subject-matter areas.

Department-specific teams are especially important during a change in which the incoming president is from a different political party from that of the outgoing administration. In the event that Sen. Barack Obama wins, those transition teams within departments and agencies are likely to be larger than what was normal in the past.

Technology in the transition

During the Clinton-Bush transition to the 43rd presidency, the United States was just past the Y2K confusion and at the peak of the dot-com bubble; Time-Warner purchased AOL; Microsoft released Windows 2000 and was in the middle of an antitrust case; Netscape launched its open-source Navigator 6.0 browser; Wikipedia did not yet exist; and the first short film to be widely distributed on the Internet, “405: The Movie,” had just appeared.

But now the presidential campaigns are longer, more expensive, and more stressful, and the government is larger. Since that last transition, there is a new department in the executive branch for Homeland Security, as well as significant new coordinating offices like that of the Director of National Intelligence. As such, transition organization will be more difficult than ever.

In this process, personal connections are imperative, and new social software lends itself to precisely these situations. A new administration in transition, just off a grueling campaign, cannot reasonably be expected to comb through mountains of data which are not necessarily well-organized, in agreement, or even fully available due to classification issues. Social technologies, inherently designed to bring people and ideas together, can improve the transition process.

The transparent transition

Eight years after the last hand over of the presidency, collaboration tools have emerged and evolved, and the complexity of projects like managing an 800-person government transition, organizing what might be the largest White House ever, and analyzing a myriad of government agencies, employees, contractors, and policies, could be easier and more effective by drawing some lessons from Wikipedia and even the familiar Facebook.

Immediately post-election but pre-transition, there is a huge need to understand the institutional memory of the White House and of the cabinet agencies. Eight years ago, briefing books—big thick binders of information— were still in vogue. But now, social tools like websites, wikis, and collaborative software can help by making information more widely available, searchable, and discoverable, and it can also promote and aid discussions between relevant transition personnel with areas of overlap.

The White House must also coordinate a recruitment effort to seek out individuals with required expertise to staff the incoming administration. This involves not only the creation of a website for this purpose, but management of the resume information—which they can expect will be about 40,000 applications in the first few weeks and eventually total 70,000 interested persons, according to an article written by Clay Johnson III, the current deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and previously the executive director of the Bush 43 transition team. Social software will also facilitate the associated research for vetting job candidates. Information management tools, collaborative software, advanced Internet search algorithms, and knowledge of online social networks would greatly facilitate a good deal of this important task. In addition, current career government employees could staff some of these thousands of open positions. The transition team is in a unique position to reach out to and recruit those people—even if just temporarily—using social tools. This approach would leverage existing bureaucratic knowledge without risking administrative gaps in the critical first months of the presidency.

Next, the incoming administration will be immediately and constantly overwhelmed with “advice” (some wanted, some unwanted) from think tanks, previous administrations, “experts,” interest groups, lobbyists, governors, legislators, and donors. And this information will come from a variety of sources using diverse media—print, email, video, and audio. Points of contact for these people and groups need to be organized and coordinated; information must be organized and shared; and staffers must meet and sometimes partner with groups, all in the effort to craft the short and long-term agenda of the critical first 100 days (and beyond) of the new administration. New social websites and software allow coordination of formal debates so as to allow actionable conclusions from what might at first seem like the chaos of many opinions. And the new administration might consider using social networks to reach out to stakeholders as well.

Within departments, small teams from the incoming administration will be interacting with existing personnel in order to prepare for the cabinet and sub-cabinet heads, tee up important upcoming issues, and reorganize resources and personnel. Social tools would enable teams interacting with different departments to share information and advice while they perhaps struggle to obtain information or solve problems. Social software can also help coordinate informal social networks and organize advisory groups of outside-subject-matter experts to advise the transition team members, keep track of discussions, and include people who cannot attend in person.

Risks during the transition

Once the president takes office, there is a very real chance of a crisis that will test the new administration. Both World Trade Center incidents occurred in the first year of a new presidency. If this happened in 2009, would formal and informal networks and communication be in place? Social media can reduce these risks by getting the right information to the right people before they need it. Prior to September 11, 2001, groups within the intelligence-gathering community did not share information. Tools like INTELINK, discussed above, have solved many of those information-sharing problems in principle, but the transition team must plug the right people into the system right away—and they have to use it.

Within the Executive Office of the President, every administration’s staff is organized differently according to the president’s desires. But this organization has consequences for communication and effectiveness. For example, staff with insufficient titles cannot go to certain parts of the White House, including the Mess. Where else might important, informal, evolving staff interactions (say, between speechwriters and policy advisors) come from? Social media can help create more of these interactions. One potentially useful idea from corporate America is that every morning each person must enter one sentence into a collaborative system, answering the question, “What are you working on?” These data—available to anyone on the system—are simple, searchable, discoverable, and archivable.

In addition, now in office, the president must focus not only on the voters he needed to get elected, but on the public sentiment of the entire nation. Governing is very different from campaigning. Social software can help with this too. Websites like Twitter offer real-time information on public discussions people are having on the Internet. Quantifying public sentiment using these and other tools, both open and proprietary, will be very important for reaching out, listening, and engaging the citizens post-election, and henceforth for influencing new policies and programs.

Last but certainly not least, the people of America should be engaged in knowing about what is happening during the presidential transition process, and what increased risks (if any) there are during that period. Historical incidents, like the World Trade Center bombings, tell us that there are increased risks. In an increasingly fragmented media and information society, that level of engagement requires more than a press release on the White House website and stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post. It means full multimedia engagement in a myriad of locations and times using a blizzard of tools including blogging, speeches, informal gatherings, mobile technologies, podcasts, online video, and widgets. In addition, the outreach should use social tools that allow not just message “push” but rather bidirectional conversation—increasing citizen participation and interest in government.

Dr. Mark Drapeau (mark.d.drapeau@ugov.gov) is an Associate Research Fellow directing the Social Software for Security (S3) project at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy of the National Defense University in Washington DC. These views are his own and not the official policy or position of any part of the U.S. Government.

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How to Execute (Against) Your Resume


This post was originally published on Mashable on October 15, 2008.

Anyone who has pried opinions out of me (or seen my eyes glaze over) knows that I admire simple, clear language and despise buzzwords and jargon. Well, at a recent New York event , the wine entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk said one of the smartest and simplest things I have heard about incorporating emerging social tools into your life: “Execute against yourself.”

Sounds strange, right? But according to Gary and the people he was sharing the stage with, Julia Allison and Loren Feldman, you must first have a core business, purpose, or mission, and only then can you enhance that core using peripheral social tools for marketing and other purposes. As Gary puts it, “Content is King. But marketing is Queen, and she rules the house.”

Execute your resume

My personal “core” is using a scientific background to devise analytical approaches to strategic problems. But in the last six months or so I have developed a modest expertise with emerging social technologies that in principle can stand on its own. And so, logically, I have been thinking about how to display this newfound experience with social tools on my resume, given that I work largely in an area where those skills are peripheral but perhaps important to the main tasks. Are they computer skills? People skills? A relevant hobby?

With traditional media gatekeepers becoming decreasingly influential, it seems like everyone who is tech savvy is laying the groundwork for online personal and business branding. And I have heard more than once that “Google is the new resume.” You are your search results as far as anyone is concerned. So, someone could reasonably argue that the resume as we know it is dead. Resume, R.I.P.

Execute against your resume

But I say, long live the resume. Because simply saying that “Google is the new resume” is not entirely true. And here I disagree with authorities like author Brian Solis. Traditional careers like doctor, lawyer, scientist, architect, and so forth are not going anywhere. Even as social software tools become pervasive in society, people in such careers will simply figure out how to best add them (or not) into their work to add value. They will not entirely restructure how they carry out their lives; they will use them to enhance their existing lives. In Gary Vaynerchuk’s terminology, they will “execute against themselves.”

Hip to be elite

My strong suspicion is that people who travel in elite circles (went to Yale, had a Fulbright, worked at McKinsey) will not rely on event attendance and microblogging to sell themselves. At the same time, this does not mean that they cannot leverage social tools for their advantage. To the contrary, I predict that hip digital immigrants will gradually develop more powerful online presences than digital natives once they maximize the effect of combining old-school strengths with new media strategies.

So, if you are a handsome chef, a starving artist, a club promoter, or a professional blogger – maybe resumes are dead and you can rely on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and other sites to entirely promote your brand. But to the rest of the world, I say: long live the resume.

Dr. Mark Drapeau is an Associate Research Fellow studying Social Software for Security (S3) at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy of the National Defense University in Washington DC. These views are his own and not the official policy or position of any part of the U.S. Government. Email: markd [at] mashable.com

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Will New Media Save Television Ads?


This post was originally published on Mashable on September 8, 2008.

People often speak of old and new media as a dichotomy, with stodgy network television channels and traditional newspapers on the one hand, and hip, technologically sophisticated youth on the other. But recently, old media –- in particular, large television outlets -– have been catching on. A recent post on Mashable noted that CNN is using Twitter to interact with viewers. I commented that Fox News Channel is also using Twitter and Facebook. Many traditional newspapers, national and local, are also using Twitter and other social software to various degrees.

Because I use my Comcast Cable DVR to watch shows on delay about 75% of the time, I found myself this morning viewing a national news show and realizing that I couldn’t interact with the hosts via Twitter, because I was an hour too late. Show hosts asking viewers to “Twitter your comments” is clearly the modern version of “calling in with your questions for our guest.” The key question I asked myself was, as more television media master their new media brands, will we find ourselves more likely to tune into their shows in real time?

The financial consequence of not using DVRs, or downloading the shows from a third-party website, or other new options, is that more people watching the real-time version means more viewer share, which in turn means more advertising revenue. People are more likely to engage the show in real time and therefore more likely to see traditional commercials. I don’t know if the gurus at television networks or advertising firms they work with are thinking about it this way yet, but it seems like a truism to me.

So what might be a strategy going forward? As an avid watcher of television, particularly political news, complex dramas, and reality shows, I could imagine many scenarios in which incentives are created to watch shows in real time – viewers pose questions for the guest, guide alternative dramatic scenes, or decide what challenge the players have to perform. How cool would it be to watch Donald Trump, Sr. using Twitter on a BlackBerry in the middle of the live Apprentice finale? And the advertising underbelly is that you are statistically more likely to purchase paper towels, basketball sneakers, or a dream vacation cruise.

With the increasingly “long tail” of niche television channels, magazines, and similar outlets only becoming more prevalent, it might behoove the “blockbuster” organizations like NBC to become the leaders in “old new media” to win some of that viewer share back. This summer, the startup social network and search site Searchles inked a deal with the venerable Washington Post to create social networks among people with common reading interests. Why not similarly network all the people who voted for Clay Aiken, are fans of Gossip Girl, or hate The View?

Mark Drapeau is an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy in Washington, DC. These views are his own and not the official policy or position of any part of the U.S. Federal Government.

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