Social Media In The Service of Civic Engagement

Today, Joe Peters of Ascentum and I led our session called “Tech Savvy Citizenry” at the No Better Time conference at the University of New  Hampshire. We had a great turnout and there were people from across the spectrum of practitioners and institutions in the “deliberative democracy” movement.

My post this morning described a quick thumbnail sketch of some social media tools and categorized them very roughly. In our session, Joe and I highlighted a few tools and showed examples. I described my local blog, Rockville Central, of course! Joe showcased a very interesting use of YouTube by CDCStreamingHealth as well as a new “soft-launched” Facebook application developed by Ascentum that Speak Up For Change is using.

Then we asked people to break into groups and respond using social media to a number of scenarios.

Here were the scenarios:

Local Health. You run a nonprofit health clinic in a rural resort area. The surrounding county is relatively poor. Over the last few years there’s been a steady upsurge of obesity and obesity-related conditions such as diabetes. You have been speaking with a local community foundation about creating an education campaign about wellness and obesity.

No Truck With That. You are the Executive Director of a national environmental organization based in DC.  Within an omnibus bill before the Senate, there is a provision that would remove emissions regulations on transport trucks and heavy equipment for five years with a chance to be renewed for another 5 years.  The intent is to not overburden the fragile shipping and construction industries during this economic slowdown.  You need to mobilize a national campaign to let senators know that this is an irresponsible approach that has long term implications for a short term benefit.

Senator Senior. You are a new Senator looking at establishing new legislation to protect seniors.  It has come to your attention that seniors often face abuse in retirement homes, hospitals, and while in palliative care.  You need to get input from citizens on their stories and experiences.  You also want to hear about potential solutions to eliminating elder abuse.

Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. You’re chairperson of a citizens’ association in a fancy part of town. A nonprofit real estate developer who specializes in affordable housing has purchased a parcel of land that’s adjacent to your neighborhood. The developer’s plan is to create a 4-story apartment building that includes subsidized housing. You know your members are vocal and have strong views running the gamut — from “not in my back yard” to “we should have more affordable housing.” The developer has asked the association to help it understand what would and would not be acceptable to most in the community.

Welcome Home. You are a mayor of a small mid western city.  It has come to your attention that many new policies are adversely affecting new Americans.  You want to established a sustained relationship with members of a new advisory committee, but don’t always want to wait till the next quarterly meeting.  How can social media help maintain relations and gather input in between the meetings?

We asked people to discuss how they might use social media in each of these scenarios.

Some Challenges That Surfaced In Our Session
Some Challenges That Surfaced In Our Session

The responses ran the gamut. One group suggested that they could use blogs and a wiki to support a community-wide face-to-face dialogue — a sort of reporting and support mechanism. One group created an integrated strategy that gathered stories from people using YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook — creating a repository of stories. Another group crafted a campaign that was rooted in part in “old school” tools like e-mail (still perhaps the killer Internet application).

Of most interest to me were some of the challenges that the groups found they had to contend with. These are useful to keep in mind:

  • Timing: At what point in the “life cycle” of the issue are you coming in? some issues have already developed to the point where people are taking positions and there is a lot of mistrust. That might not be the point to launch an input campaign because it  will further harden the lines in the sand. Some issues are just developing, and social media tools can add to the dialogue.
  • Emotion: People participate in the things that move them. In some circumstances, anger can be a powerful and positive motivator but it can also get in the way. How do you build emotion in (so people participate) but channel it (so people are constructive). Social media by itself can’t solve this dilemma.
  • Purpose: This is related to timing, but it’s separate too. Some organizations are engaging citizens in the service of a broader advocacy campaign, while others are trying to get people to connect with one another. It’s straightforward to use social media to further a specific interest, but it can be a big challenge to build an initiative where people are interacting with one another without any mediating organization.
  • Divide: The “digital divide” does exist. There are people who just aren’t online, or who are not comfortable being online. This gets laid on top of the familiar problems that civic engagement projects have of getting new people in the room who are not just the “usual suspects.” Really effective social media uses will take that into account and use tried-and-true organizing techniques to draw people in. This takes sensitivity.
  • Norms: People don’t have a habit of civil discourse — at least, not everyone has that habit. Open social media tools can let in unhelpful voices as well as important yet previously unheard voices. While there are ways to help  an online community self-police (for instance by allowing people to flag inappropriate postings), there’s still got to be a human element making sure that norms get set and people are reminded of them.

We thought we might be able to create a framework for people to choose which tools match up with which purposes. With more time (like a whole conference), we might have been able to do that but instead we were able to surface questions like these.

Also important, though, is that people were pushed to interact with social media tools in concrete ways, rather than in the abstract. For some people, that seemed very useful. For others — who were more conversant already — this might have been rudimentary but they played important roels  in their small groups in helping others understand how the tools could work.

I want to thank Matt Leighninger and Nancy Thomas for inviting me to be a part of this session, and Joe Peters for a great collaboration.

Thematic Taxonomy Of Social Media Tools

At the No Better Time conference, my friend Joe Peters and I will be running a session called “Tech Savvy Citizenry.” That could mean a lot of things, but for us it means we are going to talk about different ways of using social media to engage the public.

One thing we’ll be doing is creating, in the session, a sort of thumbnail taxonomy of social media tools. So instead of just talking about particular tools, we’ll be discussing types of tools.

I thought I would just do a quick list of possibilities — knowing full well that in the session people will come up with a lot more ideas:

Overall Social Media platforms:

  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • LinkedIn

Text-Based Content

  • Blogs
  • Forums (Google Groups, Yahoo Groups, etc.)

Photo-Based content

  • Flickr
  • Picasa
  • Photobucket

Video-Based vontent

  • YouTube
  • Vimeo
  • Ustream
  • Seesmic


  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon

Status Updates

  • Twitter
  • FaceBook
  • MySpace

Mobile-Based Posting Services

  • Posterous
  • Twitpic
  • myFrog
  • Tumblr

Location-Based Content Sharing

  • Latitude
  • Urban Spoon

That’s a lot! It got me thinking that maybe there is a simpler way to cut it, because the above list is just too much to keep in mind at once. So:

Content: This is all the tools that allow people to create and post content — blogs, YouTube, Flickr, forums

Sharing: These are the tools that allow people to share that content — Digg,, link-sharing in Facebook, link-sharing in Twitter

Categorizing: These are the tools that allow people to gather bundles of shared information together into thematic subjects– the tagging functions in YouTube and, Squidoo.

Platforms: some tools are built to incorporate all of the above at once — Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn.

Why is this important? It may not be. But it seems to me if I am mounting a “social media strategy” for a project, I will want to have these four bases covered. I’ll want to create content, get it shared, and provide people a way to categorize it properly. And I will deply these strategies within one or more platforms (as well as beyond).

As an example, think about the No better Time conference. I am creating material both in the conference but also on this blog and on Posterous (images). I’m sharing that information by seeding links to the content, and conference organizers are helping people categorize it through use of the “nbt09” tag. And we’re doing this through social media platforms (Facebook) as well as through other channels.

These are just some late night thoughts as I prep for the session.

How Blob Marketing Works

I’ve been fiddling around with social media for a while now. Long before that, I was active online. I had a blog before the word was invented. And I promoted that blog (it was an occasional column about California politics I called Content) through a simple email list that I grew to a couple hundred in my spare time. That was back in 1996 or so.

That’s all to say, I dig these tools and I tend to adopt them early. What’s more, I’ve been using them in a certain way for more than a decade now — and most intensively in the last five years.

I’ve developed a method for marketing and tending to my “personal brand” (oh how I dislike that term, though it is apt here) that I have come to call “Blob Marketing.”

Blobs Vs. Targets

Most of theories of marketing or promotions that I have come into contact use a target as the metaphor. Some members of your audience are your bull’s-eye. They are who you want to reach, because they have money, or can act on your ideas, or whatever. They are the special ones in your universe. Outside of that ring is a group of high-propensity folks, who probably are into your stuff and could be turned into customers or evangelists for your brand. Outside of that ring are people who are on the fence, and outside of that are people who might have just heard about you once, and so on. As the rings get larger, the level of attachment is reduced. Your job is to get people moved from the outer ring into the bull’s eye.

For years I tried to use that model and I found that it did not work for me.

Here’s why: I produce too many disparate elements to sequence them like a target. I’ve got a blog, I’ve got my Facebook account (now I have a public page to go along with it), I’ve got my Twitter account, I’ve got an email list I mail to each Friday, and I’ve got a bunch of colleagues, friends and family who sort of know what I do and are interested once in a while.

I see each of these audiences as amorphous blobs, sort of like this:


Working The Blobs

You can see that some people overlap from blob to blob, but not all. Also, it is not necessarily predictable and tidy. For instance, you can see that some of my work colleagues get my email, and some read my blog. Few follow me on Twitter or are friends on Facebook, which are two of my main methods for getting my ideas out there. But all the overlaps are valuable, even ones that aren’t necessarily where I would put the middle of the bull’s-eye if I were turning this into a target. (Note that this is not an exactly accurate depiction of my blobs, I am just illustrating the point. Plus there are blobs I am missing, like YouTube, Posterous, and elsewhere.)

The trick, it seems to me, is to follow a few principles:

  • Add content to each blob on a regular and predictable basis, but don’t flood that blob (ten Tweets a day is OK, but not ten blog posts)
  • Try to vary content from blob to blob (so the overlap people don’t get bored due to redundancy)
  • BUT, cross promote and don’t worry about a little bit of duplication (people need repetition before they will take action on a new idea)
  • Try to track and monitor so you know where your overlaps are (this will help you know what nodes are most important so you can adapt tactics)

Your set of blobs probably looks very different than mine. But I bet you’ve got one.

My Taxonomy Of Community Participants: The 90-9-1 "Principle" In Person

(cc) Jake McKee
90-9-1 Principle for online communities

Among people who work in, study, and manage online communities, there’s something called the “90-9-1 Principle.” The idea is that in most online communities, 90 percent of the users are audience members, passively reading posts and comments. Nine percent of the users are “editors” editing posts (in wiki-style communities) or adding comments (in blog-style or forum-style communities).

Just 1 percent are “creators” — people who start threads and articles from scratch.

A corollary of this idea is that, for online community managers, one of the leverage points is the Creators. More Creators will multiply into more action by Editors.

In consulting and in business management, there are lots of similar theories and ideas that hinge on a catchy duo or trio of numbers. I always wonder if these numbers are accurate, what they are based on, and if there is any way to test them.

But the 90-9-1 idea seems intuitively true. I wonder how it would hold up in real life communities.

In a physical, place-based community like a neighborhood, the roles might go by different names.

Remember, in the online community the 90-9-1 rule does not take into account the people who are unaware of the community or only have glanced at once or twice. Similarly, in many neighborhoods, there is a large segment of the public that isn’t engaged and is unaware of some of the community issues. They go to work and go about their business, but aren’t connected in in any significant way.

Outside of that group, the in-person 90-9-1 rule might look like this:

  • The majority of “audience” might be called the attentive public. They attend community meetings, and keep up on events and news.
  • The next group (“editors”) might be called the active public. They stand up and comment in meetings. They write letters to the editor, and take substantive part of
  • Finally, there are the leaders. These are the people who step forward and take focal-point roles. They run for office, lead neighborhood groups, chair committees, serve on commissions.

These “leaders” are not just the officials in office. It’s lots of different kinds of people. Someone who is a leader in one context might be active in another and simply attentive in a third. But the key leverage point for increasingly community vibrancy is on getting more leaders.

For a number of years, there has been a new theory of community leadership building. The idea is that people emerge as leaders from communities — they aren’t anointed, appointed, or made.

This simple notion has driven new kinds of community leadership programs, ones which don’t focus so much on creating a Chamber of Commerce-style network, or even a policy school-type of cohort of highly knowledgeable lay people (even though both of these are important and necessary). These new kinds of leadership programs focus on cultivating leadership skills among people who might not otherwise see themselves as community leaders . As more of these people step forward, into the public square, more active and attentive people follow suit.

Growing the ranks of leadership is one key leverage point (not the only) in fostering a vibrant community life.

Helping Nonprofit Managers To Overcome Fear Of Social Networks

My skeptical look by Flickr user imrational
"My 'skeptical' look" by Flickr user imrational

All over, I see middle management being urged to “get on the social media bandwagon” because they may get left in the dust.  But, often the senior management of the organization is skeptical or downright hostile to the idea. By understanding the fears that are driving this hostility, you might be able to break through.

This is from an excellent transcript at the Chronicle of Philanthropy on nonprofits’ use of social media. I’ve pulled out the fear-based questions that people asked. I recommend you read the whole thing, because there’s lots more!

Worries organizations have about social media:

  • My organization is concerned about putting our name out there to possibly be “manipulated” in a negative way on . . . these social networking sites.
  • Is it bad if members within the organization don’t always speak with a unified voice?
  • [H]ow can an organization that has no experience with these media options “get started?”
  • I would like to get my organization started in social networking, but my boss is skeptical. How can I show her it’s not a waste of my time?
  • I work with nonprofits whose executive management teams are resistant to the idea of social networking as none them are willing to invest staff time in the effort. Also, none envision value-added results.
  • [H]ow much staff time need be committed on a daily basis?
  • Our main concern with social networking are the liability issues that may arise. . . . [H]ow can we utilize a social medium like Facebook, without having to worry about any of our service recipients leaving comments that are crisis issues.
  • [H]ow does a development director or volunteer get management to trust (give up control)?

This adds up to just a few real fears:

  1. We’re out of control (of friends, of supporters, of staff)
  2. It’s a waste of time and money (and diverts us from better pursuits)
  3. Something bad will happen and we’ll be blamed (a friend may harm another friend)

What You Can Do

The best suggestion I have, as someone who’s been both middle and senior management in nonprofits, is to take baby steps. If you see utility for your organization in pursuing social medi, you’ll need to cover these bases:

  1. Make the business case for getting involved. Here is my favorite article on that (the key bullets are at the end).
  2. Start small so consequence of failure is low and the dislocation to the organization is minimal. Here are ten tips for new Twitter users, for example.
  3. Make sure you are ready to monitor performance. That means you will have to decide what success will look like. And you will have to spend time listening — but you can decide how much.
  4. Point out that it’s more likely you’ll be able to use your social network to respond to bad news than it is you’ll be the victim of your social network. The story of Domino’s is a good example of both the power and necessity for respect.

Community Builder? Read This

my neighborhood by Flickr user chrisdlugosz
"my neighborhood" by Flickr user chrisdlugosz

One of my entrepreneur and social web heroes, Seesmic founder Loic Le Meur, is among the most open and accessible members of the digerati. He is constantly sharing and praising others. He recently was at a conference where Internet star Chris Pirillo was speaking and the subject turned toward community and community building. Chris had some interesting things to say, and Loic responded in equally interesting ways.

Note that these folks were talking about online communities — my question for readers is to what extent, and how, do these observations apply to real-world, neighborhood community building?

Chris Pirillo’s Comments

These are from Loic’s notes:

I don’t want to be part of anything viral about any community ever, that’s just me a blog is just a tool. If you think a blog is a community then you too are a tool.  [Y]ou can’t build a community it is either there or it’s not. You know you have a community if it takes care of itself.

YOU are the asset of a community and not the other way around. [T]he best community leaders come out of the community rather than being hired or thrown in.

If you cultivate your community like a plant it will grow. If you empower and guide your community, you will lead it. if you have something to say, if you have a voice, use it, exercise it. Make those connections. You will be a leader before U know it.

[C]ommunity is the antithesis of ego. It is inside you but it is not about you.

Interesting ideas there. A few points:

  • The idea that YOU are the asset of a community, and not the other way around. So many of my friends in the community-building world look at the networks they are trying to build within the communities as “assets” to be used (either by the community members or by the parent organization).
  • We are quick to call something a “community” that just isn’t. Chris is withering when he tells bloggers who view their commenters as a “community” that “you are a tool.”  How many nonprofit orgs see communities where there are just groups of people? (A related question, for another time, might be: what turns an accidental group into a community?)

Loic’s Response

Loic, in inimmitable fashion (follow him a while and you will come to recognize it) has a few things to say. One thing he takes issue with is the idea that you can’t “build” community — in Loic’s view, you can:

I think you can “build” it though, it is just a question of words. Chris says “cultivate” by sharing regularly amongst other things. I think you can build with passion.

He goes into more detail in this brief video, and if you listen to his points from the standpoint of a nonprofit organization seeking to build community, there is a lot to be learned: