October 16, 2009
progress on building a Boston civic network
I am in DC and heading for California for several days of family vacation with our college kid. I'm going offline--no blogging or Facebook notes until about next Thursday. Meanwhile, my Tufts students and I have been mapping the civic networks of Somerville, MA and planning a public website though which people will be able to coordinate their service and civic activities in the Boston area. Our progress is chronicled on this class blog. Most recently, we have been trying to choose a name for our project and make some aesthetic decisions about the planned public site. Comments by friendly outsiders are welcome.
September 16, 2009
Facebook: civic strengths and weaknesses
Facebook is an "egocentric network." That's not a disparaging remark; its egocentrism is a source of its strength. As a Facebook user, you maintain and refine your own profile and explore a network of people who have one thing in common--they are all connected to you. Because we are interested in ourselves and our relationships, participation in an egocentric network is appealing. Millions of people have been motivated to join and to invest time enriching Facebook's database with text, images, and video (material that benefits others as well as themselves).
To be sure, you can move away from your own page by examining friends' profiles and their lists of friends; but as you move out into the network, you have access to progressively less information. That's not a bug; it's a feature. Facebook protects strangers' privacy and keeps our focus where our main interests are--close to home.
Facebook does have advantages for doing civic work (discussing issues, organizing events, collaborating to address problems). Nowadays, it is definitely smart to use Facebook to communicate and organize. But it also has limitations, which explain the failure of Facebook's "Causes" application to raise much money and the decision of the Obama campaign to move off Facebook to MyBarackObama.com.
Because Facebook is an egocentric network, the user cannot see the network from a community or social perspective. Our only vantage point is our own Facebook page, not any place outside the network from which we could see the whole thing. That means that:
1. We cannot search the network for people who might be interested in our cause, issue, community, or event. (We can search the names of pages, but we can't do powerful searches that would let us see, for instance, who is several degrees removed from an issue or cause.)
2. We cannot determine who is central to a network around a place or a cause, so we cannot tell who is most important to persuade or mobilize.
3. We cannot find paths from ourselves to someone else, unless the target directly accepts our "friend" requests.
4. We cannot identify strengths or gaps in the network that would be useful to know for diagnostic or planning purposes.
5. We cannot learn about networks that have formed to deal with issues or communities, unless we have "friend" relationships with members of these networks.
Our emerging network map of the Boston area is the opposite--it's "community-centered" rather than egocentric. This image shows the part of the existing map that covers Somerville, MA:
As this map grows and we add tools for search and analysis, it will become increasingly powerful for community organizing. But its weakness is the mirror of Facebook's strength. We need a lot of people to contribute content, not just once, but over time to keep the map current. Because the network is not egocentric, it's unlikely that people would be motivated to add and update information--even once we make it completely open and "wiki-style."
That's why our main goal is to integrate the community-centered map with egocentric networks such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Our current plan for doing that is here. In essence, we want people to be able to stay where they are (on their egocentric networks) but benefit from the data in the community map without a lot of hassle.
September 8, 2009
Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing
Tomorrow (after a very quick trip down to DC and back for the National Conference on Citizenship), I'll start teaching a course at Tufts called "Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing." It is a practical project course that will engage the students in mapping Somerville's civil society. The course website -- which will include a blog, a network map, and other interactive features -- is here. The syllabus is here.
Parallel to the project will be seminar on relevant theory. The biggest theoretical question in my mind is the relationship between new social networks--which are entirely voluntary and non-hierarchical--and traditional civic networks, which often involve structures. One thread in our class will pursue that question by looking at an enormously important social change in Boston's recent past, the struggles between working class whites and people of color and the resulting shifts of population.
Gerald H. Gamm, in Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, argues that institutional structure is destiny. Jewish communities moved out of Boston because synagogues are independent voluntary associations. When individual members make choices to move, their congregations die and new ones form where the individuals have relocated. In contrast, Irish Catholic communities stayed in Boston because the hierarchical church was able to provide resources and set rules that kept their churches in place. The value judgments we draw from Gamm's book are debatable (for instance, was it bad that Jews moved out of Mattapan and African Americans moved in?), but the causal argument is clear: hierarchical structures are more resilient than voluntary ones.
On the other hand, parts of Boston's South End have been able to form new social organizations that promote the welfare and stability of the neighborhood and include people from different cultures and classes. These examples suggest that institutional structure isn't destiny; you can change it. Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar tell one such story in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood. Like Gamm's, their book implies that we need order and structure; it's just that we can make new organizations.
The syllabus also includes books like Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks that celebrate the increase of "practical individual autonomy" that the Internet has given us. The Internet is more like a set of synagogues than a single community organization, let alone a global church. But what kinds of problems can a decentralized voluntary network solve? What problems or vulnerabilities does it create? And how can we achieve both autonomy and resilience?
May 18, 2009
Legislative Aide: a civics simulation
I haven't yet blogged about one of our significant activities this spring. We've helped partners at the University of Wisconsin to develop a game or simulation for teaching civics in high schools. Students play the roles of aides in a fictitious US Representative's district office. They receive emails from senior staff asking them to take various steps in researching a local problem and developing solutions. At the heart of the simulation is the same mapping software that we are using in Boston with college students. It represents the mind of a community organizer or civic leader, who views local civil society as a working network of people, organizations, and issues. Our game combines fiction (the imaginary legislative office) with reality (actual issues and real interviews with community leaders, who are sources of information).
We have been pilot-testing the software and curriculum--called Legislative Aide--in schools in Tampa, Florida (which explains my occasional visits down there). This movie provides an overview:
April 30, 2009
community mapping with Facebook
As described in this slide show, we have been working with college students at Tufts and UMass Boston to build one elaborate "network map" of civil society in the Boston area. The map already has many hundreds of nodes and links; we need to improve the visualization tools so that users can make more sense of the data.
Meanwhile, it has always been our goal to make the map accessible by means of simple applications for Facebook and MySpace. I now feel a little clearer about what those apps. should look like.
On my own Facebook page, I would see a little segment of the Boston-area map with myself at the center and my civic connections around me:
Each of those nodes would be clickable so that anyone on my Facebook page could open them up and see the contact information, mission statements, etc. Moreover, when one clicked on any node, the map would reconfigure to put it in the center, with all its links around it. Thus one could "browse" through Boston's civil society. One could also search the whole map and put the main search result right in the middle. And one could use the tool to find the shortest path between any two nodes. For instance, if I ever need to talk to the Somerville Mayor's Office, there's a path for me via Tisch College and then Tisch College Community Advisers board. This is therefore a tool for community organizing.
February 26, 2009
learning about social media
My head is swimming with recent conversations that touch on social media, civic engagement, and young people. I'd define "social media" as any of the Internet technologies that make it easy to distribute your own creations and form relationships with others online. These tools include "friending" people in Facebook, commenting on their blogs or YouTube videos, or following them on Twitter.
Yesterday, I met with my Tufts colleague Marina Bers, who (among many other projects) has created a virtual world for in-coming Tufts undergraduates who build an ideal university before they attend the real one. A movie of the 2006 summer project is really remarkable.
In the evening, I was on a panel at Harvard with the psychologist Howard Gardner, my friend Joe Kahne (who is one of the most acute and productive scholars of civic education), and Miriam Martinez, who represents one of the best programs for high school students, the Mikva Challenge in Chicago. It was an informal conversation, ably steered by Gardner, and we talked a bit about what kinds of social media use constitute "civic engagement." (Are you civically engaged if you join a Harry Potter fan group?)
And then this morning, I presented our own social media tool, YouthMap, to the Boston Social Media breakfast ( #SMB12 ). That's a gathering of about 75 business, tech, and activist types who meet in a jazz club--at 8 am--to examine new tools and strategies.
Speaking just for myself ... I'm finding Facebook increasingly fun now that the demographics have tipped and lots of us non-hip Generation-Xers are using it. I watched the President speak with Facebook open and got a kick out of the comments. Blogging is a big part of my life--both writing and reading--but it's not really a "social medium" for me. I mostly read blogs by professional reporters and I compose my posts as fairly conventional short editorials. I have a Twitter login but haven't found a way to use it that makes me comfortable.
February 5, 2009
the Boston community mapping project
This little presentation describes our software for mapping a community, and our progress in using it so far in the Boston area.
December 9, 2008
turning "friends" into supporters
In our Boston-area social networking project and related work, we hear repeatedly that the challenge is to convert online connections into "real world" action. Young people are heavy users of online tools like MySpace and Facebook, but they are also quick to criticize these tools for being too easy and superficial and not necessarily changing the world. Allison Fine is producing a series of podcast interviews on the topic. Her first guests are Jonathan Colman of the Nature Conservancy and Carie Lewis of the Humane Society of the United States, both of whom are using Facebook's "Causes" application effectively. Download the MP3 podcast or check out the site for the series.
Our own criteria of success include the number of students who conduct service or activism as a result of using our social-networking tools, the number of organizations they serve, and the demographic diversity of their networks. We won't succeed unless they go offline.
November 25, 2008
mapping Boston's civil society
We're busy mapping Boston. Students place nodes that represent people, ideas, or organizations on a blank plane. Each node stores data, such as contact information, goals, activities, and geographical locations. Connections among nodes represent real collaborations. The data can be shown in lots of ways--on a geospatial map, as a network diagram with various center-points, as a list of search results. Ultimately, this software will be an application for Facebook and MySpace, making it easy for people to add or use data . For now, we have a standalone website.
Here's a screenshot from today. This represents the work of just a few Tufts undergrads over a couple of weeks. We're already working with students at UMass Boston and will be expanding beyond those campuses in the spring. The software is also capable of automatically harvesting organizations and links from the Web and pasting them here to be analyzed by human beings.
- Recruiting people and organizations. One can search for individuals who are connected, even indirectly, to a given issue and then ask them to participate in events or projects.
- Finding opportunities. One can search for places to volunteer, give money, or organize politically. The search can be by key-word. More interesting is to search for organizations that are linked to other organizations.
- Analysis and deliberation. One can link two issues together, or link an issue to an organization, and then debate the connection. Is homelessness worsened by zoning? That hypothetical connection can be discussed on the map itself.
- Broadening sources. Journalists, government agencies, foundations, and researchers tend to ask the same people for information and opinions. They often rely on formal credentials as evidence of knowledge. The network map can lead them to overlooked citizens who are useful sources because of the social roles they play.
- Investigations. One can look for inappropriate or problematic connections, or lack of connections.
Issues that students have brought up so far:
- Privacy: Whose information should go on the map, and who decides that?
- Chilling effects: Would people be discouraged from linking to controversial organizations and causes if their links could be mapped?
- Spam and other bad stuff: Inappropriate content can be added to the map
- Marketing: Instead of recruiting volunteers or activists for a social cause, a company could use the map to find influential customers.
- Sustainability: It's fun for me and my colleagues to build the map. But other people who contribute need to know that it will still be there (and kept current) in five years.
- Limits: This is a Boston area map. That geographical definition gives it useful density. But Darfur could belong on the map, since Boston-area students work on Darfur. Former Bostonians could place themselves on the map. Is there any point to a geographical limit?
November 10, 2008
first steps with a Boston-area social network
We have a fairly large grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service to build a new kind of social network for college students in the Boston area, to support their community research, volunteering, recruitment, and advocacy. At the heart of it is software for "mapping" the networks that exist in a community. This software will soon be plugged into major social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, so that students will find it where they are and will not have to visit a standalone site. Meanwhile, some Tufts undergrads have started to use the not-so-user-friendly standalone version. As part of a commitment to openness and public citizenship, their work is going online from the beginning. And here's a little screenshot from their emerging network map.
September 22, 2008
an exciting day for CIRCLE
(Madison, WI) I wrote this on Sunday in preparation for an exciting day at the National Archives and the Newseum in Washington, DC.
First, at the Archives, the National Conference on Citizenship will release its 2008 national survey of Americans' Civic Health, which includes questions about public support for policies that would encourage citizen participation. A whole "civic policy agenda" emerges from the survey data. CIRCLE designed and led the analysis of the survey. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and others will speak on the program at the Archives. Check out NCOC.net for the survey results.
Second, in the same venue, the Corporation for National and Community Service will announce a set of new grants. CIRCLE won several of these. We received $570,000 to build (and study) a new online social network for college students in the Boston area. Students will conduct community research, discuss, compete, and thereby strengthen their service and activism. We were also asked to serve as the lead evaluator for a whole group of new grantees who are working on social networking projects. And we received a separate grant to analyze national data on volunteering and other forms of engagement.
Third, the National Conference on Citizenship will hold a kind of mini-conference on how to carry civic engagement past Election Day, with many experts and leaders around the table to discuss strategy.
I'll be blogging about the Boston social network, the survey data, new strategic ideas, and other substantive matters in the weeks to come.