Guest post by Paula Goldman
The wisdom of crowds, the insanity of crowds.
Mention the word “network” to most people and their reactions tend to sway between these two polar extremes. It’s either “crowdsourcing is the answer to everything” –or it’s a complaint that social networks like Facebook and Twitter are just “too full of chatter.”
If I have one takeaway from the GEO/Monitor Group conference on Networks earlier this week, it’s about how crucial the curator is in determining the difference between a successful network and one that simply makes lots of noise.
Disrupting Business as Usual
This insight hit home for me when serial entrepreneur Lisa Gansky talked about innovative businesses like CouchSurfing (http://www.couchsurfing.org/), Zipcar, and AirBnB. Gansky calls these “Mesh” businesses (http://meshing.it/)—enterprises that leverage data and social networks to allow people to share resources conveniently (a car sitting idle, an extra room in your house). And she argues that they represent the future of our economy.
Gansky may well be right- but it’s not just in the for-profit world that these kinds of start-ups are disrupting business-as-usual. Some of the most promising innovations in the non-profit space are using substantially similar models. Donors Choose (http://www.donorschoose.org/), for example, allows people to pool small donations to help enterprising teachers get funding for classroom projects. Ushahidi (http://www.ushahidi.com/) allows people to pool information into online crowdmaps with diverse uses—for example, allowing aid workers to see where resources are most needed after a natural disaster. And Kiva (http://www.kiva.org) builds on already existing networks (including that network of networks we call the Internet) to give people the opportunity to loan money to entrepreneurs in the developing world.
The Value of Specificity
Of course, Kiva, Ushahidi, and Donors Choose and hardly the only non-profits trying to bring people together for a common purpose- one might argue this is embedded in the mission of almost every non-profit. And they’re certainly far from the only non-profits trying to take advantage of online networks and the access they provide to reach new supporters and constituents.
What does distinguish these organizations, though, is the specificity of what they ask people to do when once they’ve brought them together in conversation. They don’t just say, “You’re here now, talk amongst yourselves.” They give community members a very concrete piece of information to take advantage of. A woman in Kenya (replete with name and photo) who could use your $50 to start a corner store. A car at the intersection three blocks away which you could use to take the trip to Target that you’ve postponed for two months. A specific classroom in rural Ohio that needs $200 for a science project.
To produce this high-quality information, these organizations have to make early and careful editorial decisions about the format and kind of information that will or won’t appear on their site—making sure it’s easy to use, (relatively) easy to source, and easily actionable.
Finding the Right Balance
It’s always tricky to find the right balance of specificity and openness–directing people toward action but still giving them room to be creative. But time and time again, this is what successful network leaders do, whether online or off. In their effort to catalyze networks of young Jewish innovators to revitalize American Jewish culture, the folks at Reboot (http://rebooters.net/) bring together a group of leaders for a in-person summit every year. Not only do they very carefully select who will be in the room, so as to maximize the chances of creative chemistry. They use the ‘open space’ methodology for the conference—allowing participants to set the agenda, while also giving some structure to their explorations.
As philanthropy takes up ‘network thinking’ as its next frontier, there is the danger that we’ll get too caught up in the technicalities. We’ll focus on the fancy tools of mapping and graphing; we’ll have debates about terminology and definitions. All of this is very important. But at the end of the day, when you bring people together, the key to spurring collective action isn’t just about our technical sophistication with network theory. It’s about how well we frame the opportunity.
In other words, the secret to thriving networks boils down to one thing: good curation.
Paula Goldman (@pdgoldman) is Director at Omidyar Network and an expert on making unorthodox ideas mainstream.