Thursday, October 27, 2005

What is your pain point?

Amit Asaravala makes a great point about not buying into the hype of new techology when working with clients.
The theme I keep arriving at over and over when I come across new Web 2.0 technologies -- or any new technologies for that matter -- is this: What is the problem I'm trying to solve in the first place?
This is a great warning of keeping the bigger picture in mind when working with a client to meet their goals. Whether you're working with a business, nonprofit or other entity they all have particular goals they want accomplished -- they all have particular pain points to address. Don't throw tech at a problem and expect them to be all excited.

Take wikis for example, they do a lot of great things. But are they right for all clients? Just look at the difference between Esquire and the LA Times with regards to wikis.

Looking back, the key takeways from the wiki examples still ring true for me. I also would add that in addition to knowing "the pain points" one must also have keep the bigger picture in mind: institutional buy-in, a plan, and ongoing refinement.

Tech and the bigger picture

With all of the energy around new tech nowadays, it's important for all of us to remember that tech is only part of it. As with any tool, it's success is dependent on a variety of factors including:
  • the institutional buy-in driving the project
  • the plan
  • and ongoing refinement
Institutional support is by far one of the biggest drivers of success of any implementation of technology. Corporate intranets are a prime example of this. For example, if your boss and their boss do not participate, why would you? According to my cousin who works with a university partnership with city schools, if there is no institutional support on the part of city schools, the projects by and large fail.

As for tech being only so good as the plan, this is pretty basic. An organization might say, "I want to buy xbox 360s for everyone on my team." Well, unless there is a reason, cost justification, overall plan to use them in relation to the function of the job and the like, it's simply not going to fly.

Ongoing refinement. As anyone who has ever used technology knows, the second you buy it, there's a newer and better product on the market. This is not meant to say that you must always buy new tech (though upgrades should be part of the standard operating process), however, there needs to be someone, or a team of folks constantly evaluating the existing tech, what's out there on the horizon, and overall, trying to get the most out of what tech you do have as it relates to your work. In many ways, this step is essentially ongoing management; it stresses the importance of ensuring that the current goals are met, while evaluating what's out there to make things even better for you and the organization.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

the role of tv news and a democratic republic

Am I starting to sound shrill about this whole TV thing? I don't know. All I know is news portrayed on television is a powerful force. Here's a recent op-ed from the Seattle Times that talks of this. Also, here's a link to a speech that Edward R. Murrow gave in the 1950s that seems just as relevant today. Ok, I'm done now. Back to your regularly scheduled weekend.

web != boogeyman

I don't typically read Time Magazine (in print) nowadays. So imagine my surprise when I read about a neighboring city to the North in an article on fluoride.

Why even mention that here? Well, I was taken aback by this statement, "All this makes for a potent mix, especially when filtered through the Internet, where health-safety concerns tend to get amplified." Uhm, where did that come from? Yes, the chaff from the wheat is difficult to sort out on the internet, but then again, I would argue it's also true for other forms of communication. As to health-safety concerns getting amplified, doesn't just about everything get amplified if you shine a bright light on it? Perhaps that has something to do with that whole repetition, repetition, repetition thing?

At the very least, the article marginally redeems itself by saying how effective the web can be in terms of motivating people. You'll get no argument there.

TV as a community building tool

It's rather telling that TV Guide advertises one of their site features as a means to "join the conversation" at the water cooler. To me, that's the power of television in a nutshell -- it helps people find a common frame of reference from which relationships can be formed, grow and all that good stuff we expect from communities. Television can be trivial as a passing conversation in the hall, or it could unify a nation, however briefly it may be.

Now, of course, the content on TV is fair game in my book. For example, do I really care what happens on the next episode of "Joey" when I didn't like Friends in the first place for it's dismal portrayal of a rather diverse city? Heck, no. And that's why I don't watch it. Decrying the entire television medium though, as the source of the decline of society or something like that is equivalent to saying the people who deliver mail should be fired because they delivered you junk mail.

Slight non-sequitor...all of this has me recalling all the talk of the fate of network news with Rather, Brokaw and Jennings gone from primetime. It was often cited (though I haven't found too many sources) about the population of those watching network news is much greater than those watching cable news. For those interested though, some info can be found at's State of The News Media report. In short, all the hype about the rise of cable news seems to be just that -- hype.

Another slight non-sewuitor -- if we are to "Get your news only through the radio and internet. (My personal choice is NPR.)" as suggested by Kathy Sierra, do we not run the risk of achieving the fictional future portrayed in epic2014? There's quite a lot of partisanship and talk of red and blue states (is that why we have purple mountain majesties"?). It's happening with our sources of information as well. Should this continue, what does that mean for this representative democracy of ours? Do we really live up to "E pluribus unum" or will we die like a chopped up snake?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Killing TV, Kills Common Experiences

Just finished reading Kill the television, keep the shows from creating passionate users, and I must say that I disagree.

The main thrust of the article is that watching TV mindlessly does a lot of bad things, but a TV can also foster good things like watching dvds, playing games, etc. I would argue that TV is much more than that. TV's, by virtue of the fact that they are one of the most basic plug and play devices out there, help to facilitate a common experience for an otherwise fractured and increasingly disconnected society.

Two cases in point. Katrina and 9/11.

Starting with the most recent, Katrina was a horrific event that put a spotlight on the the tragedies that happened following the devastating hurricanes. Not only that, but it shamed many in the nation to realize that poverty, lack of basic needs, class inequalities -- all exist in a society that was mesmerized by the round the clock coverage on TV. While radio and the web certainly played a large role in what happened post-Katrina, it was the presence of live images that grabbed the conscience of a nation, and briefly woke it up from a haze.

Likewise, following 9/11 this country was glued to the TV, as was the rest of the world. Personally I could not bear to watch much of the coverage, knowing those impacted, and having walked many of those streets day in and out years ago, but still, the images on TV humanized, personalized, and unified the experience who would not otherwise have known the full scope of the destruction. Print can sorta do that. Radio can also do that to some extent. The power of images, combined with voice, sound, and words though allows tv to trump other forms of media.

True, moments such as these (thankfully) do not happen often. When they do, however, TV is the messenger that unifies this country. This power of the news, when broadcast on a television is an incredibly powerful force and should not be underestimated, especially in times of crisis, tragedy, and the like.

One of the challenges to those of us interested in using technology to foster greater civic engagement -- ie, community action -- as I see it is how do you take the best of what broadcast journalism is without the worst of scenarios that lead themselves to great coverage?

Lee LeFever Interviews Steve August, KDA Research

This is interesting. Lee from commoncraft, used IM to interview Steve August, a research with KDA Research, who uses blogs to conduct research. Here's a little excerpt:
Lee: You mentioned how your new site would tell the KDA story better. What is the KDA story?
Steve: KDA Research focuses on helping companies understand their customers' world - meaning we focus on understanding how a particular product or service fits into the wider context of peoples' lives. We use a variety of research methods to do this, all based in a sociology/anthropology framework. So offline, we'll do ethnographies or on-site studies where we go out into the customer’s environment and observe people to discover opportunities for developing new products or improving current ones.
We've now started to take that ethnography framework and apply to research we conduct online.

Here's the rest of the interview on commoncraft.

Talk about using tech in different ways to further one's core mission!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Petitions online just the first step

Take-Two Interactive is underfire again for one of their games -- Bully. This time, there's even an online petition hosted at petitionline.

All of this got me wondering about the effectiveness of online petitions. On one hand, it's great in that it generates press like that Business Week article. On the other hand, at least for me, I have absolutely no investment with whatever the issue is after signing a petition. How exactly does that raise civic participation? How does that get people more invested in their communities?

Back to the bully petition for example. While I can see the intent, what is being done in that particular state with regards to bullying? Some states look at anti-bullying legislation. Even on the federal level, this comes up now and again. Couldn't resources be directed towards enacting these laws locally and nationwide? If that's too broad, what about something on the local school district level?

If you choose to use an online petition to raise visibility of a cause, that's great. But remember to build from that and give people the option to do something more tangible, local and realistic to their own experiences. Whether (in the case of bullying) it's attending a school board meeting to talk of bullying, or volunteering at your kids school, etc, there's a lot of ways in which you can build greater civic engagement in addition to signing an online petition.

Friday, October 14, 2005

A picture is worth a thousand words

Last night, we took a tour of the East Kong Yick (pronounced gung yick) building, the soon-to-be new home of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. The building is an old "mixed-use" space built in 1910 by the pooled resources of 170 Chinese pioneers. Over the years, it has housed migrant workers, served as a community center, in addition to providing retail space for the neighborhood.

This picture is one of the images I took last night. It's of a sink in one of the communal kitchens in the building.

While it doesn't even begin to capture the full spirit or history of the area, it helps me to convey my experiences to others about the history of the building beyond what these words here could ever do.

Granted my digital photography skills are lacking a bit, but it helps me share this quickly. If I had a camera phone, and a flickr acct tied to this blog, I could have uploaded it here a lot quicker. Tie in the blogging aspect in real time, and that's even better.

Had I all the tech, I would do that all the time. The notion of digital pics and sharing them in real time present really interesting opportunities for fostering greater civic engagement. I'm not the first to write on this I'm sure, and certainly I won't be the last. I just believe that if digital pictures are used effectively, they can help spread the mission of an organization or cause far faster and wider than what any of us could do ever before. Likewise, I think this same tool, if used well can then also inspire people to action, and help people document, record and share with a wider group than before...fostering greater momentum and the like. Tie in the notion of say GPS with an image...and then you can have an invite to a specific place with the context all provided in the image. Could you imagine what that means for protest or participation in public meetings, etc?

Sure we're not all bloggers or photojournalists...but if there's something to be said about getting better with practice, we all might be soon enough.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

focusing on the endgame

friendster, myspace, facebook, spaces, blogger, typepad, etc. we have all these ways of interacting, communicating, and connecting online, but do we actually accomplish anything? There's a lot of talk about this stuff nowadays -- the latest story being Yahoo adding blogs to their news search..but so what?

I had a meeting last night to talk about the role of civic engagement, loosely tied to technology. It was interesting that the notion of face to face meetings came up and that those there seemed to value these encounters more. The thinking behind this was that they seem more scarce and out of the norm. In other words, the simplicity of connecting with people, online, through email, blogs etc makes the actual f2f gatherings *more* important because it's not as common, and in some ways, more difficult to control. Indeed, think about how many IM conversations a person can have at once, contrasted with the same number of f2f meetings at the same time. It doesn't really work so well.

Why is this relevant? I think in light of the shock (snicker) of some regarding teen use and technology, ypulse has it right. Tech is a tool. It's a means to an end, and not a means unto itself.

Tieing this all back to the whole notion of more choices of tools, what do we really want to accomplish with the tech? We can communicate to lots of people much easier than ever before, but if there is nothing to say, what's the point? Me, I want to get more people involved locally. If that means using a blog, myspace, dodgeball or whatever to get people more informed, motivated and active...all the better.

Oh, for a real life example of how to use "tech" for specific goals, check out this event by the Puget Sound Business Journal. Brilliant!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Myspace as a rallying point

There's been a story that's been making the rounds about a missing student. Typically, I don't pay too much attention to this stuff, especially given what seems to be a pretty clear bias. But it was more the role of myspace (and live journal) that caught my eye. Not only are the authorities reviewing comments left on the blog for clues, it has also turned into a sort of guestbook/memorial for Behl.

I couldn't help but think about another story that made headlines over the summer about the "deprogramming" summer camp. Not only was myspace a big part of that story, that too turned into a public space for people to comment, organize, and the like around a particular person or issue.

That myspace has been used in these instances as a rallying point of sorts, isn't really new. Tons of organizations have profiles on various social networking sites. What I wonder though, is how many are actually effective at reaching their base, fulfilling their mission, and the like? Is it too much to ask of organizations to actually do all of that with social networking sites? Could the fact that they are there on these sites be enough?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Games as social instruments

There's a really interesting (at least to me) article in Wired about latest venture from the creator of Pong. Even more interesting, this comes from the author of Urban Tribes (I'll explain more in a second).

To briefly summarize the article, basically there is a relatively new venture called uWink Media Bistros(.pdf). The whole concept behind this is to create a space where people can interact with one another around the concept of games. It's basically a restaurant that has games (the maker of Pong also owned Chucky Cheeses) and people can use the games as a means of interacting with others -- perhaps even leading to romantic relations.

Why is this good? Well, it helps to create a third space that becomes a hub of activity for people. It builds community, it builds relationships, strengthens ties, etc. You know, good stuff that people desire.

This ties in nicely with the fact that Ethan Watters wrote the article. Watters is also known for Urban Tribes -- a book that explores the notion of family, friendships, and ultimately community for those roughly 20 to 30ish. It's been awhile since I read it, but it was enjoyable. It was mostly a series of personal reflections and interviews with people trying to find their community. It's also a rebuttal to the outsider perspective that people in their 20s and 30s are basically a bunch of self-interested slackers with no ties or committments. Watters tends to argue that the doomsayer theories lamenting the decline of newer generations is wrong -- relationships, families, engagement just looks different in this day and age.

So what's the point of all of this? I think the concept of games and community is a case in point of Watters' argument, though it's not specifically generational. I know many folks, well into their 40s, 50s and beyond who find community through games, or otherwise non-traditional ways of looking at families and commitment.

Community is everywhere we look, sometimes in places we might not otherwise think, but it's there. People are connecting with one another each day -- through games, computers, blogs, or whatever. And sometimes, as in the case of "Ping", it doesn't even have to be very complex. Maybe we just need to remember that the tech isn't the be all and end all, but a means to something much greater than the sum of it's parts. There's something very powerful about that. There's something intrinsically human about that.

the wisdom of us

I wonder what the wisdom of this crowd is? Apparently the BBC had a fantasy world leader league and Nelson Mandela came out on top. Personally, I think that's great. Granted -- I don't know all that much about him, his politics, etc...but he did help end apartheid in South Africa and the whole reconciliation notion was brilliant so that's good in my book.

What was really striking to me though, was the number of business leaders (Gates, Jobs, Branson, Soros) on the list. I find this interesting, especially in light of the notion of trust (can you tell I'm on a big trust kick?)

What does it mean when people are more willing to trust business leaders than elected officials?

I think there's something inherently wrong with that. If people are more willing to trust business, is it any wonder why we have the seeming disengagement around policy and social issues? The work of elected officials seems to rank pretty low on the radar for most Americans, especially when you consider that there are tons of headlines about the latest with Jennifer Aniston, Britney or whoever.

Unfortunately, this lack of trust often seems to be well founded. Take a Bush's nepotism in appointing Michael Brown to direct FEMA, for example. Or a more local (Seattle) example, look at the amount of waste related to re-laying rails for transit. Is it any wonder why people are disillusioned with government officials?

I get the sense there's a strong lack of faith in elected officials (understandably, too) in posts like this. I say ok, you're disillusioned. Let's do something about it. It seems that with blogs, 43things, and countless of other tools (including offline, face to face meetings) we can really get something going here in terms of:
  • motivating
  • informing, educating, learning
  • connecting
  • inspiring
  • acting
  • acheiving
...something to change things we don't like. Again, I go back to that notion of showing up. If we don't show up, so to speak, those that do will call the shots. Us not showing up is in essence giving others free reign to make the decisions that impact us.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

trust as a basic building block

I *finally* finished James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. I say finally as I have a bad habit of starting multiple books at once and then it takes me that much longer to actually finish them. Anyway, I finished it, and it has me wanting more. Maybe it's the pop-science writing style, or maybe it's that I've read so much about it. I just didn't feel that any of the vignettes went into enough detail. I loved the section on democracy -- common good vs selfish-intent, but there wasn't enough red meat there for me. I thought that he would go towards explaining deliberative democracy in more detail, or highlighting AmericaSpeaks, but alas I was left wanting more. The author did detail alternative theories on democracy and crowd behavior, but still I wanted more.

I could go on, but this is not meant to be a book reviews. Rather, I'm struck by Surowiecki's thesis -- that groups, when individual members act independent of one another, are smarter as a whole than any one individual or a group acting with one mind. This sounds similar to the notion of Kathy Sierra's idea of keeping the sharp edges when working in groups -- that is, consensus isn't always good. I'm still struck by the anti-thetical nature of this. What happened to the notion of compromise and picking and choosing your battles? Aren't we supposed to try, for lack of a better phrase, "and all get along?" Maybe it's not so much on the notion of consensus vs independent actors, but in paraphrasing Surowiecki, "Democracy is does not showcase the wisdom of crowds. Instead, that things are done democratically, is the wisdom of crowds realized."

I wonder at what point people come to this realization? At what point do people realize that they made their case as best they could, they acted as an independent actor, and so did others, and only then, does the group decide something which essentially looks like consensus? I would think it's only after they begin to trust one another. Once people begin to trust that their individual fates are tied with that of the others at the table, only then does it seems that one can reconcile the notion of consensus with acting as an independent actor. In some ways this is like the that classic game theory where a person will reciprocate actions with the other player. If they trust that the other person will do the same, they'll act in kind. The second that a person acts in their own interest, the other player will reciprocate that self-interest/lack of trust.

So what does all of this have to do with tech, and the notion of civic engagement? To me the message is clear. Any use of tech to further civic or whatever means will need to take into account the notion of trust, and community. It doesn't need to create trust or community by itself, but it must either compliment or enhance it. Trust is one of those weird things that takes time to build. Communities also take time to build as well. Familiarity is part of it. Consistency also plays a role. One long-time community leader asserts that part of being invited to the table is just a matter of showing up and participating in the community. How else would they know to invite you to the table if they don't know that you're there and interested?