Network Weaving

Sunday, September 07, 2008

New Resources for Non-Profits

Two recent posts on the internet point out some exciting possibilities for non-profits and community organizations. They point to huge shifts taking place that we need to work together on if we want to find the emergent "vein of gold."

The first is the rapidly increasing numbers of retirees (and many of my friends who are retiring are still in their 50s!) who want to become engaged in civic life. They are your future donors, volunteers or even staff. But they want to be engaged. Many don't want to just drop money on you but will insist on becoming actively involved in what you are doing.

The second is what Clay Shirky (you really ought to read "Here Comes Everyone" - It is so good and an easy read) calls cognitive surplus. In the past, people spent an enormous amount of time passively watching television.

If you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project—every page, every edit, every line of code, in every language Wikipedia exists in—that represents something like the cumulation of 98 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 98 million hours of thought.
And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 98 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, "Where do they find the time?" when they're looking at things like Wikipedia don't understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of the cognitive surplus that's finally being dragged into what Tim O'Reilly calls an architecture of participation.

Now, the interesting thing about a surplus like that is that society doesn't know what to do with it at first... Because if people knew what to do with a surplus with reference to the existing social institutions, it wouldn't be a surplus, would it? It's precisely when no one has any idea how to deploy something that people have to start experimenting with it, in order for the surplus to get integrated, and the course of that integration can transform society.

But, Shirky argues, that surplus is moving to the interactive spaces on the web. Many, many people would rather be active, and as opportunities for interactivity on the web explode, people are flocking to sites that let them do something! (Look at all those contributing to Wikipedia or Flickr.)

Web 2.0 enables us to find people who have already moved from passivity to interaction. Just hop on Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, delicious, etc. You'll find people who just might be interested in (maybe inspired by) your visions or directions. Then we need to weave them (and their network) into our network through involvement in specific projects: helping to set up a meeting or helping to make your web space more interactive.

As Clay Shirky says, "People want to participate, they want to produce, they want to share." Now how can we engage that energy to help the world become a better place for more people?


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