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June 12 2010


Social Media and Corporates -- the#Promise Conference

A few days ago Vince Stehle from the Knight Foundation invited me to the Think Social's The #Promise conference in New York, and so i organized babysitting for my new son and came for the day. The conference was about how companies are using social media to advance their goals, and many people (mostly very attractive people, I would add too!) from NGOs, design firms, the corporate world and others turned out to hear the likes of Pepsi, Nokia, MTV, GE and others present their beautiful glossy social media campaigns. It felt like the "place to be" in New York yesterday.

For me, the highlight was MTV's A Thin Line campaign, which aims to reduce cyber harrassment amongst teenagers. This seemed a brilliant campaign because the issue is so totally unusual (at least to someone like me who has no teenage kids), which will certainly make it more fresh for the audience. They shared stats about the incredibly high correlation between cyberbullying and suicide, for instance, and about how often teenagers are forwarding naked pictures of their peers (very often.) MTV's online campaign had some very original pieces to it -- for instance, a digital, teen-made Bill of Rights where teens could work out together what their "community" considers acceptable and not. There is a portion of the site called ""over the line" ":http://www.athinline.org/overthelinewhere kids share stories of cyberharrassment and other kids vote on whether it is "over the line" or acceptable. One girl's story jumped out. She wrote on facebook about her father committing suicide, and kids from her school wrote comments on her fb page like, "if you were my daughter I'd kill myself too." How tragic, the moderator asked, was it that she had to even ask whether those comments were "over the line?" This is one of the most original online campaigns I've seen because it is not about people simply supporting an issue, but people collaborating to come up with an ethical framework in a new area of civic life -- the internet -- where such things don't exist. And that it's being done by teenagers is simply great. Well done MTV!

Moving on to other panels and speakers... I was glad that the conference addressed (at least in one of the panels) the issue of corporate whitewashing (the motivation for many companies in the world to do CSR initiatives) head on. The speaker Douglas Rushkoff presented his book Life, Inc. and made some great comments. He talked about how the core of a company's business should be doing good, so companies don't need to have separate social initiatives. it shouldn't be that a company makes things they are not proud of, and then does social investments to feel better about it. The business itself must be good for the planet.

One thing the companies all talked about a lot is transparency, and how in the internet age companies can't hide or lie or keep their employees quiet. I find it quite disingenuous when people say this, because the old rules do still apply and people will still get fired for speaking badly about their companies. The number of internet leaks or internet whistleblowers is tiny compared to the number of employees who are angry about something the public would find juicy. So I wonder how much the internet is really creating greater transparency about companies? If the live twitter feed running behind the speakers (with only positive comments for all the companies) is anything to go by, people are still concerned that they might actually have a real world reason to stay in their good books -- like a future job, for instance.

For a nonprofit media organization like this, a conference like this is both heartening and frustrating. It's heartening because one sees new ways of using online media, and new metrics of success, and so one get lots of new stories to add weight to one's own beliefs. And sometimes you see really usable ideas -- like Ed Norton (the actor's) new fundraising tool Crowdrise. But it's frustrating because a lot of it is still "old media" simply being pushed out via the internet -- really flashy funny video, written by comedians whose other jobs must be at ComedyCentral.) This is all extremely expensively produced, glossy, and beautiful. What I want to see are the successes of social media campaigns that cost next to nothing, and, ideally, could be replicated. Those are the kinds of things News Challenge winners can try to democratize.

November 12 2009


TED India -- the experience of a technology non-profit

I just returned from TED India, where I was one of the 100 TED Fellows they had invited to attend, and my head is spinning with all the new ideas and my pockets heavy with all the business cards. This was undoubtedly the best networking event I've been to, and the people on stage were only marginally more spectacular than the people you turned to for chit-chat on the police escorted-buses from Bangalore to Mysore, where the conference was being held at the Infosys campus. The chap sitting next to me, for instance, told me as an aside that he had invented a needle that can only physically be used once (see Pointcare -- it's needle retracts inside the case after one use and can't come out) which had saved millions of lives in the developing world and caused policy changes In India. We then proceeded to discuss Indian handicrafts. Such is a typical TED conversation.
There are a million things one can write about after attending TED. What I wanted to write about here was my experience as a TED Fellow from the non-profit sector, and what it is like to be meeting so many technology corporations at TED and having the possibility to "pitch" your work to them.
For Video Volunteers, being at TED was amazing in several ways. My goal in attending was to connect with people who could help us develop the business model of citizen journalism amongst the disadvantaged, so it was fantastic there was such a strong presence of Nokia, Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Reuters and various media houses. I had a brief connection with all of them. I explained in my talk on the TED Fellows stage why I felt that content produced by poor communities could be monetized - and also my hope that citizen journalism might allow the next TED India conference stage to reflect the kind of diversity of voices and economic backgrounds that this one (like all conferences, unfortunately) lacked. For me, the efforts to talk about my work with these various companies was a real learning experience in communicating with corporations. VV's strength has been in engaging the NGO community and doing community-level work, and we need to learn to better engage corporates if we are ever going to really scale. All of the companies I mentioned are investing heavily in rural markets, spurred on perhaps by the obvious fact of the size of the population at the "base of the pyramid" (and hence its potential) and by the huge success of one key sector, the cell phone providers, in achieving such growth through rural markets.
Nokia was at TED sharing the experiences of Nokia Life Tools, Reuters of Reuters Market Light, and Cisco, its technology and education programs. The many people from google.com and google.org were talking about their translation tools and their local language search. These tools have made an impact on our work. I just returned from three weeks working on our program in Brazil, where google translate provided us instant translations of the scripts and story pitches the Brazil producers made. The ability of google to search content in various Indian languages has helped some of our community producers, who had no concept of or interest in the internet, to get excited about it. It has huge potential for research in rural areas on issues like health, water, education and thus can improve the content produced by community journalism. But a huge problem is that most searches in the regional languages end in frustration for our community producers, because there is so little content that is digitized. Local newspapers and local government offices don't put their info online, and key data - such as, for instance, World Bank or WHO data on health issues in India - is not translated. There needs to be as much investment in offline activities as there is in developing softwares or applications, or else there will be many great softwares for rural markets but few people able to use them.
Another thing I observed in my conversations at TED with different companies is the possibility of corporate partnerships to drive one off mission. Like me, many of the other TED Fellows running NGOs were eager to connect with these companies. And in general, the corporates seemed open to having NGOs help them in spreading their technologies to rural markets. NGOs eager for partnerships will be tempted to create technology projects tailored to the companies' needs just for the sake of "getting a foot in the door," but this can drive one off-mission. And for the corporations, who seem to have lofty ideals of creating systemic change at the base of the pyramid, they would make more impact by trying to tackle the root problems, rather than focusing on tailoring their technologies to meet a smaller technology need.
TED India struck the right chord between culture, corporates and activists. Because it was held on the campus of Infosys, one of the most iconic companies in "shining India," and because of the conference theme the "Future Beckons," one might have expected it to be super gung-ho and aglow about India's growth and future prospects. But it didn't, and there were probably as many representatives from "civil society" as there were from corporations. The most popular talk (as far as I could tell) was by Sunitha Krishnan, a young woman who has rescued thousands of women from human trafficking and whose very pointed talk - speaking also about the audience's collusion in allowing such things to continue - got a very emotional response, as did Eve Ensler's talk about the "girl gene", which I will remember forever. The TED Fellows program brought people between 20-40 years old into the TED community from a really wide range of interests and backgrounds, mostly from India but also from around the world. There were rockclimbers, a pastry chef, writers, musicians, magazine owners, and many others. Like the Knight Foundation events, there were also a lot of extremely interesting people who ran nonprofits and particularly technology nonprofits - especially in areas like using cell phones to disseminate information in rural areas. Every time I come to a forum like this I'm struck by how many people are working in the information space for social change, and what a positive development that is.
Some TED Fellows wondered at the absence on the stage of some of the most prominent but outspoken activists, people like Medha Pathkar who led the struggle against the Narmada Dam, or the writer Arundhati Roy and people who worked on issues of Hindu-Muslim tension. These are some of the people who are most critical of India's current totally pro-business direction. Did the organizers have to choose between the two opposing points of view? Would either business leaders or the more radical activists have refused to come if the other "camp" was present? Some people said yes, there must have been a compromise, while I felt that probably there was not. Such is the power of a space of dialog like TED, that today (at least in relatively peaceful places like India or the US), even the most vociferously opposing people would be willing to share a stage, when they know that the audience is open-minded, curious and non-judgmental. This was the beauty of TED India for me, and I wish it could be an annual event. Or better yet, that it does spawn lots of TED X events, which are the independently organized TED events, where people take it into their own hands to spread ideas and create dialog.

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