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September 04 2012


From Parenting Listservs to Comedian Message Boards, Collaboration Starts With Community

"A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members..."
- Wendell Berry

In the days immediately after giving birth, I gave thanks for a listserv.

It was Day 4 of my daughter's life, and I was having trouble nursing (sorry if that's TMI [too much information]). In a moment of desperation, I sent an email to the neighborhood parenting listserv: "Need in-home lactation consultant this weekend please." Within minutes, several strangers had emailed me the names and contact information of consultants who lived within a five-block radius of me. Talk about customer service.

A couple of months later, I turned to the listserv for nanny recommendations. One woman replied to me and asked if I might consider daycare; if so, she highly recommended a place about a mile from my apartment. Her email really got my husband and me thinking, and we ended up visiting the daycare and falling in love with it; our daughter is there now, as I type this.

Of course, the way I've described the listserv so far doesn't really illustrate collaboration at work. Fellow listserv members helped me -- and, in other instances, I helped them -- but we didn't exactly "collaborate." We didn't create something together. But wait -- if it takes a village to raise a child (and I believe it does); and if this listserv put me in touch with village members I otherwise wouldn't have known existed; then is it maybe an example of collaboration after all?

In other words, is community a form of collaboration?

I'd posit that the answer is "yes."

Quid Pro Quo

A community can help you do something better than you could have done it alone, whether that something is being a parent or being a journalist. As Josh Stearns of Free Press recently wrote on Collaboration Central, journalists are increasingly coming together to form ad-hoc networks of support. In other words, journalists are helping each other do their jobs, whether by sharing news tips or safety precautions or the best place in town to get a camera repaired. They are forming communities (Stearns uses the term "solidarity"), and collaborating within those communities on matters editorial, legal, and operational.

Back to my parenting listserv. Are we really collaborating with each other, or just helping each other out? Scratch beneath the surface and "help" and "collaborate" may not mean such different things. In an editorial collaboration, one news organization may "help" another by providing complementary resources or expertise. Is this help provided free of charge, out of the goodness of someone's heart? No, probably not.

But the parenting listserv doesn't necessarily run on goodness, either. On some level, I help other members because other members help me. That's human nature. Of course, I'm happy to help another mom if I have information at my fingertips that she needs, or to share an experience. But as a member of the listserv, of the community, I expect the help will flow back to me, as well.

Adios, Silos


Two newsrooms come together to conduct an investigation. They share staff; they share budgets. On the other hand, two freelance journalists come together. They share story leads, sources, lessons learned from the field. Two parents come together. They share daycare recommendations, news about product recalls, and warnings about wayward dentists. (This really happened.) Whether the outcome is a news report, a scoop or an informed parent (or healthier, happier child) -- behind the scenes, the pattern is the same: individuals with a common interest coming together, instead of functioning as silos.

This is remarkable because of just how many silos continue to dominate our world.

In my consulting work, for example, I'm struck by how many organizations still have a culture where departments operate in isolation -- where an employee has no idea that the person in the office next door has information that could help her do her job better. Christa Avampato recently wrote about an innovative way to get executives and lower-level employees talking and collaborating on new product ideas.

It's staggering, really, when you consider how revolutionary it would be for more co-workers to just talk to each other, and for more people to just talk to other people in their field.

It's the People, Stupid

But for now, it's still noteworthy when a community forms, and holds up over time. In public media -- an industry where I've spent a lot of my career -- it took a handful of individuals starting a weekly Twitter chat (#pubmedia chat, R.I.P.) to get many people across the industry to begin to feel like part of a community. Around the time that chat formed, I happened to be the project manager of a multimillion-dollar collaboration funded in large part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). While we learned a lot from that project (I wrote about it here), I honestly think the chat ultimately had a greater ripple effect in terms of increasing collegiality and collaboration industrywide.


Why? Because relationships, not organizations, fuel collaboration. In fact, the best outcome I saw from the CPB-funded collaboration wasn't one of the contractually obligated editorial deliverables -- it was the relationships between individuals. A producer at the PBS NewsHour now knew who to call over at Marketplace, or NPR, and vice versa. These folks now had history together, and therefore trust, and it was easy to just pick up the phone or send an IM. With those channels of communication open, it became easier for collaborations large and small to take root.

To be sure, public media is no paragon of collaboration -- like most industries, it has a ways to go. But that Twitter chat morphed into a Facebook group, which, as I recently mentioned, I consider an invaluable professional resource. Like the networks Stearns profiled, this community sprung up because individuals saw a need -- and it's lasted.

A Venn Diagram of Communities

I'm a performer, and in addition to public media and parenting, comedy is yet another community in the Venn Diagram of my life. When I lived in Washington, D.C., Washington Improv Theater was the nexus of my community. Since moving to New York City, I haven't felt as strong of a connection to a group of performers, but one organization that helps provide a sense of connection is G.L.O.C. -- aka Gorgeous Ladies of Comedy (recently profiled in the New York Times). G.L.O.C.'s mission is to foster community among female comedians. Another vehicle for community among comedians is the Improv Resource Center, message boards that performers all over the country use to discuss the art of improv and related matters.

And my comedy friends from D.C.? We're currently collaborating on a web series, long-distance, using Google Hangouts.

The human need for community is as old as time. The interwebs just give us new ways to connect. And these connections provide an essential framework for the kind of collaboration that helps us do our jobs better, and with a greater feeling of connectedness ... of not being in it alone. It's almost enough to make a person sing "kumbaya."

Now You

Do you agree that community is a form of collaboration? And are there areas of your life where you find community lacking -- for example, in your workplace? How can you plant the seeds of community in place of silos? What resources do you rely on to help you feel connected to the communities in your life?

"What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."
- Kurt Vonnegut

Amanda Hirsch is the editor of Collaboration Central. She is a writer, social media consultant and performer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com spends way too much time on Twitter.

Photo above by Flickr user Ed Yourdon.

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September 28 2010


Building an Online Community for People Living with Paralysis

I recently connected with Rob Gerth, the Director of Digital Media at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. After learning that the Foundation was using Blackbaud Social to power their community, I became interested in learning more about the Foundation’s efforts as well as the techniques and technology behind its growing online presence.

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Sponsored post

September 21 2010


September 13 2010


September 2010 Community Builder Chat: How to Participate

The monthly Community Builder chat series is part of the #4Change community of regularly scheduled chats, bringing together people from around the world to talk about examples, practices, tips and more as we all explore the way technology can be used for social change.  This is the second in what will be a monthly series of chats specifically focused on Community Building.



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September 10 2010


San Francisco Online Community MeetUp Wed. 9/22 with speaker Randy Farmer

For our September MeetUp, we are thrilled to have longtime online community expert, Randall Farmer, as our guest speaker. We'll also be joined by Bill Johnston, Head of Global Community at Dell, who will be facilitating the event.

Randy will be speaking about managing reputation systems in online communities. His talk will lead into an informal discussion moderated by Bill. Come join us for an evening of online community strategy and in-person networking with fellow online community enthusiasts.

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December 15 2009


In Search of a Community That Takes 'Me' Out of Social Media

As someone who aspires to be a new media expert, I don't actually use many popular social media services. I dislike Facebook, I rarely tweet, and before winning the News Challenge I had never written a blog post. It would seem like I'm downright un-hip; yet I'm a young technologist who has been communicating online for more than half of my life.

Why the disparity? Simple: I care more about community than myself.

I'm sure you've heard people talk about the ego-centric nature of today's social media, which tend to focus on one-to-one and one-to-many communication. Not only does the spotlight on the individual create an unappealing blend of "often boring" and "always noisy," but it also makes it essentially impossible to facilitate real community. In fact, even the systems that are designed for groups leave much to be desired.

We all want to inform, and form, our communities using today's digital tools, but how is this possible if the proper tools don't exist? If there isn't anything out there that can host community on the Internet without sacrificing something important, then maybe it's time to invent something new. I've been thinking about where community stands at this stage of the digital era, and what these new tools, or tool, might look like. Here are some of my thoughts.

Charting Digital Media

I'll try to simplify things by visualizing the current state of social media in terms of "focus" and "scope." (See image below.) The location of each icon on the spectrum is subjective, so don't ruffle your feathers if, for instance, you think Twitter should be closer to the "group" side. The point is to get a sense of where existing services might fall, and start thinking about the costs and benefits of each quadrant.


Focus (Individual vs. Group) describes the type of social interaction users engage in on the system. Is the tool's functionality geared toward private conversations or group discussions? Is content sharing ego-driven, or is there a focus on discussion? For me, if the system is primarily designed for one-to-one or one-to-many communications, then it is individual focused.

Scope (Niche vs. Global) explains the type of people found on the system. Is the site universally attractive, or is there a well defined target audience? Will users tend to find information thanks to common interest, or will they be exposed to a wide range of perspectives?

This setup creates a framework for thinking about online services. Here is what I was thinking about when I tried applying it (why I put the icons where I did):

  • Social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn) allow global users to contact one another directly, and create a detailed digital identity. These services provide effective one-to-one communication tools, such as private messages or wall posts, but the group-oriented features often feel shallow and impersonal.
  • News media repositories (Digg, Reddit) let groups share and discover content through collective intelligence. They provide a space for many-to-many conversation, but tend to aim at a global audience, since they rely on network effects to achieve a critical mass.
  • Personal media publishers (YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, blogging platforms) make it easy for users to get their message to the world, and therefore focus on one-to-many communication.
  • Discussion Platforms (Ning, PHPbb, and niche community websites) facilitate communication by creating a space for groups to use. This makes it possible for niche communities to function, though they do so with an element of isolation from the global community.

Looking for Trends

There are a few traits to consider within this framework:

The Noise to Information Ratio: How difficult is it for a user of the system to get the information they want? Intuition tells me that global services have more content, but they also have a better chance of getting enough users to support collective intelligence -- and collective intelligence can help the system route information more efficiently. Niche services, however, have less content and a more specific audience, so there will be less noise in the system.

The Value of Contribution: A participatory system can only exist if it has users contributing content. It seems to me that it is much easier for a user to "freeload" on the activity of others in group-oriented sites by lurking in the shadows. On sites with an individual focus, the user won't get nearly the same experience if they don't interact in some way.

There are also some unscientific generalizations to be made about the four quadrants.

  • Global-and-Individual (upper left) leads to popularity. There is a lot of interest in being able to share your voice to the world, and these sites do exactly that. These are the places online where an individual could become a superstar, or at the very least feel important. If I were a psychiatrist, I'd probably be able to make an argument that people flock to these sites because they secretly like themselves a lot, but I'm not, so I won't.
  • Niche-and-Individual (lower left) promotes personal relevance. If a user chooses to participate in a niche-content system, they presumably belong to that niche (or aspire to). If the interactions are individual-focused, they are probably applicable to the individuals involved. This adds up to a system where most of the messages are naturally relevant to the people that see them.
  • Global-and-Group (upper right) creates and organizes knowledge. There is something to be said about the crowd's ability to organize information. When you have a global user base behaving as a collective, there is huge potential for the creation and organization of knowledge.
  • Niche-and-Group (lower right) facilitates community. Community requires group interaction with an underlying common identity. These sites provide space for exactly that.

Dreams of the Future

Community tools exist, but they are drastically underpowered. The systems lack the popularity of Facebook, the societal potential of Wikipedia, and the personal relevance of email. As a result, they are drowned out by the far more successful alternatives that I outlined above.

To change this, we need something that can:

  1. Host niche communities without isolating them from the rest of the world.
  2. Give individuals a chance to shine without letting their egos dominate the content.
  3. Attract enough people to drive collective intelligence, while maintaining the level of granularity needed to provide a truly personalized experience.

That isn't too much to ask for... right? I personally believe that these systems will be the key to meeting community information needs. As such, I believe this is the direction that news organizations need to move if they want to maintain/reclaim their role as community informer.

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