Archive for January, 2011

I’m writing this around a fire in the Great Basin Redwoods State Park, a couple of hours south of San Francisco. (I become more like my father every year it seems, he would often take laptops camping, much to my mother’s dismay).

Today was a day filled with the simple magic of the outdoors. Waking from a long sleep. Making a fire to warm up and cooking breakfast. Going for a hike down a gorgeous gully filled with extraordinary trees. More fire. More food. Good conversation and company. There’s something about spending time with trees, especially giant, ancient trees, to help put things in perspective, lend the appropriate scale to your stresses and anxieties. I always find time in nature focusing. I come back to the city more relaxed, calmer, ready to do the work that needs to be done.

The time around the new year is a great time for taking stock. I know the calendar ticking over doesn’t really mean anything, that time marches on regardless of the organizational structure we impose on it. But it matters, of course, because we choose to say it matters, and for me it is a chance to pause a moment, to look back at the year just past for meaning and look forward to the year I wish to create.

I’ve been doing a lot of that over the past couple of weeks. 2010 was a really hard year. Nothing seemed to quite go according to plan. Much of it was filled with movement and uncertainty. I went through the complexity of securing a new visa mid-year and moved to San Francisco only for the job I came here for to disappear only five weeks later. A series of contracts has allowed me to stick around but does not guarantee being here in the longer-term, my visa requires that I’m working near full-time without any break in employment. This lack of certainty makes it hard to settle down, to really feel like San Francisco is home, as much as I love it.

This will work itself out soon, one way or another. I’m involved in a number of conversations about exciting opportunities, both for full-time and longer-term consulting gigs, that I hope will lead to greater stability soon. I have a great deal of confidence that whatever happens will be what is meant to happen, and that this year will be all about laying new roots, having new experiences, and contributing to my community, wherever that may lead.

A big part of my positivity is my excitement over StartSomeGood, the social enterprise I am co-founding. I really believe in our idea and vision and think we can create a sustainable platform which helps grow the social entrepreneurship movement by connecting great ideas with people ready to support them to happen. (If you missed it please check out my announcement from last week. You can also follow us on Twitter.)

Soon after the new year K and I held a little ritual, standing on the top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, designed to help us leave behind in 2010 some of the things we wanted to let go of and welcome new things to our lives in 2011. In preparing for this I was inspired by Beth Kanter (who was inspired by Chris Brogan) to identify three concepts which I hope will guide me this year. They are:

Learn – Stay open to new information and ways of doing things and constantly refine what I do based on what I learn. I want to learn more about myself, my practice and the world around me, develop new skills be really present to the people I meet and what they have to teach me.

Explore – Don’t fall into ruts, don’t settle, keep seeking out new places and experiences. Spend more time outdoors in inaccessible places. Challenge myself. Connect with new people and participate in new communities and cultures.

Make a Difference – Find an organization I believe in and help them make amazing things happen. Help find and launch innovative new social good projects. Support my friends, family and partner.

If I focus on each of those things I’m pretty sure this will be a great year, however uncertain things may be right now. Onwards and upwards!

What are your intentions for this year?

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I was away camping in the Big Basin Redwood State Park over the weekend and was shocked when I returned to civilization to find out about the attempted assassination of Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Shocked, but not surprised. I have been afraid something like this would happen basically since I got to the US in June 2008, just as the rhetoric of the Presidential campaign was heating up.

It’s hard for me to put this into historical perspective, it feels different being here, but this seems more intense than previous boughts of violence-laced paranoia. It’s hard to describe to Australians how nutty it can be over here. There’s simply no analogues that are sufficient. I try to describe Glenn Beck to people and they say “so like Stan Zemanek ?”. Well, yeah, sort of, both right-wing radio hosts and all that, but also, no. Way, way beyond Stan Zemanek.

America can feel like a country coming apart at the seams. There have always been extremes in American politics, people who lived in their own bubble, convinced of their own truth. But it’s different now. The advent of social media and an ever more diverse and niche-focused media landscape has actually allowed this bubble to grow larger, more immersive, to become all-encompassing for many millions.

It’s said you’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts but that simply isn’t true anymore. It’s hard to imagine a belief which can’t in some way be collaborated online. Within a wide window of beliefs you can construct a media diet consisting of TV, radio, print and online which corroborates and reinforces your beliefs. America’s most-watched news channel promotes wild conspiracy theories and declares that Obama is a socialist intent on taking over America and changing all that is good about it. And millions of Americans in their living rooms nod along, becoming ever more convinced that the America they love is somehow slipping away, that despite the clear prominence of their beliefs they are a persecuted and at-risk minority, that time is running out.

The rhetoric is regularly violent, the tone almost always urgent. Words like treasonous, socialist, Nazi and conspiracy are thrown around with an intensity and regularity I could not have imagined before moving here. It may be that political ideology did not specifically inspire Jared Loughner, the Arizona shooter, but it’s hard to imagine that a climate such as this would not increase the risk of crazy people doing crazy things. Combine this with the number of guns in America (and, shockingly, this event has only led to a spike in sales of the gun used) and it’s impossible not to worry about violence like this.

America seems to be a country that can no longer talk to itself. The gap between the factions is so large as to overwhelm attempts at dialogue, and when that happens democracy itself comes under threat. Democracy requires respecting your fellow citizens and accepting their choices even while working to change their minds but operating within their own factual universe the partisans of the American far-right, who increasingly control the Republican Party, will stand for no compromise and accept no facts that interfere with their beliefs. There’s no chance for the Presidency to unite the country when millions of Republicans do not even accept Obama’s right to be President.

I hope this assassin proves to be a “lone nut”. I hope nothing like this happens again. But unless something changes in America it’s all too easy to imagine this just being the beginning.

What are these changes that are needed? How do you bring a country back from the brink? How do you rebuild trust, reduce fear, reclaim a common identity that supersedes politics?

This is, I think, the most urgent work that needs doing in America today. A challenge that calls for both visionary social entrepreneurs and the everyday activism of people doing things differently, reaching out, connecting. As we search for exciting social change ideas for StartSomeGood I really hope we will see many taking on this vital challenge, building the bridging social capital that is needed to revitalize so many democracies.

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Used with permission.

Quora is my newest favourite website. And it’s clear I’m not alone. After quietly building buzz through 2010 Quora has blow up, doubling in December and then doubling again in the first week of 2011.

I’m not surprised: Quora, a question-and-answer platform, is tapping into a really important trend, the rise of the interest graph alongside the social graph in online importance. Nathaniel Whittemore discussed this in a smart post a couple of months back:

If Facebook is the service with the internet’s most complete (visible) social graph, Twitter is the service with the internet’s most complete (visible) interest graph. “Following” a person — even one you don’t know — is an affirmation of your interest in their insights and recommendations. “Friending” someone is simply an act of acknowledging an existing relationship, that in many cases, has more to do with a previous shared experience (think: your freshman dorm) than with a really active shared interest.

At the time of Nathaniels post it did seem that Twitter offered the best example of the emerging interest graph. It’s non-reciprocal linking structure allows you to follow those that interest you, not just those you know, creating a blended social/interest graph. Hashtags further allowed you to follow specific conversations and connect with new people who share that interest.

Quora was built intentionally to capture the interest graph (Twitter was originally built to allow friends to keep track of each other) and so naturally takes this the next step, encouraging you to formally “follow” a variety of topics that interest you, from locations (“San Francisco”), industries (“media”, “tech”), companies (“Facebook”, “Twitter”), concepts (“crowdsourcing”), individuals (“Larry Lessig”, “Jack Dorsey”) and more (all examples are topics I follow). In addition you can follow specific questions, to get a notification each time there is a new response, and you can follow individuals, those you know or otherwise. Your feed is a blend of the topics, questions and people you follow.

This design influences your behavior on the site. There are people I follow on Twitter, because they are my friends and I’m interested in them, who I would not follow on Quora, simply because we do not share significant interest in common so their questions and answers are less likely to be relevant to me. While Quora is social I’m not there for a social experience per se, I’m interested in learning and, where possible, giving back in the form of answers.

The quality of the information being shared currently is phenomenal. It’s common to see founders of companies, even very large companies, responding to questions about that company. Steve Case responds to questions about early AOL decisions. Ashton Kutcher gives his opinion on how to get cast for a show. Evan Williams shares how Twitter managed to blow up at SxSW. Insiders share the thinking behind business deals or technology advances. It’s very skewered towards Silicon Valley/tech/startup but if it can maintain this quality across other topics it will become a vital site for many people.

For cause-focused organizations Quora also provides another powerful platform for sharing knowledge and stories, building authority and connecting with people who care about your issue. This has to be done respectfully, by passionate advocates of the organization, speaking as themselves. Credibility is built by thoughtfully providing answers and asking honest questions about things you seek to know. Admitting you don’t know everything is more likely to build support than pretending you do, and may even bring you unexpected answers and ideas.

It will be interesting to see how Quora evolves under the strain of growing users and the need to improve the user interface to encourage less tech-savvy participants. What I do know is that right now I’m leaning more useful, actionable information from Quora than anywhere else. For those that never likes the 140 character constraints of Twitter Quora might be the social network for you. Here’s my response to a question on, where else?, Quora, Is Quora more interesting than Twitter right now? Why or why not?:

Absolutely. It’s the best of twitter and blogging together in some ways (although I don’t think it will replace or impact either). There is so much knowledge here, freely and cogently expressed, and this knowledge is vastly more searchable and accessible than that shared through Twitter. That said, I’m not sure Quora will be the relationship-building tool Twitter has been for me.

Are you using Quora? How are you finding it?

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A few months ago a friend from DC, Alex Budak, called me about a social enterprise he was starting called StartSomeGood. The idea, simply put, was to create a crowdfunding (or peerfunding) platform for social change initiatives. He wanted to know if I wanted to be involved in an advisory capacity, helping him design the communications and outreach strategy for the company. I was happy to agree, both because I’m always up for helping a friend and because the idea itself was compelling. While the crowdfunding model has been proved by sites such as Kickstarter and FundBreak these sites are exclusively for creative projects. There is a clear opportunity and a need to provide this service to the social sector.

Over the past few months I’ve been working with Alex to refine the vision and product. Over this time I have felt myself get more and more drawn in, and more and more excited about the potential of the project. We have refined our model to make it more distinct and, we think, better adapted for the sector we seek to serve. We realized that success would require more than just advice; Alex needed a collaborator equally-committed to the success of the enterprise. And so I’m really excited to announce that I’m joining as a full co-founder with Alex, and that we should be launching our site next month.

Why launch StartSomeGood.com?

There are so many people with ideas for how they want to make a difference in the world, yet they lack the resources that they need to get started.  StartSomeGood connects budding social entrepreneurs with the financial and intellectual capital that they need — all in a fun, engaging and community-driven way.  Our site taps into the power of the crowd, allowing social entrepreneurs to ask for small amounts of money from lots of different people – rather than hope for one lump sum.  This crowdfunding model is becoming increasingly well-established, especially in the arts, and we believe it is perfect for supporting the launch and development of social change organizations.

Over the past 10 years an incredible online fundraising infrastructure has been created for social change organizations. Organizations can fundraise through Facebook and Twitter, supporters can establish their own fundraisers on platforms like Razoo, Global Giving can help you support projects in the developing world from the comfort of home. But almost all the infrastructure that exists has been created exclusively for use by only one type of organization: tax-deductible nonprofits. And we all know that there are many ways to make a difference other than simply establishing a new charity.

In all the commentary about the Kickstarter the most overlooked aspect of their success is the fact that they allowed fundraising by unincorporated groups. The two sectors where a huge amount of value is created by unincorporated groups are the creative industries and the social change movement. StartSomeGood will allow any type of group, unincorporated, nonprofit and for profit to find supporters and raise funds for social good projects. Having been part of many grassroots initiatives I know how much good gets created by small teams, formed for discrete projects. We hope to help more people make a difference in their community.

Ultimately our goal is to contribute to creating a world where every person has access to the financial, intellectual and relational capital they need to become changemakers, where every person can create the future they wish to inhabit.

How is StartSomeGood different from other crowdfunding sites?

StartSomeGood has several critical differentiators from existing crowdfunding platforms:

  • We focus on social change organizations. The biggest existing crowdfunding platforms, Kickstarter in the US and FundBreak in Australia, are exclusive to creative projects. We want to provide this same functionality to social entrepreneurs working to address poverty, crime, climate change and more.
  • Blended-risk fundraising model. Kickstarter and FundBreak both use the all-or-nothing fundraising model. This makes perfect sense of creative projects, many of which have specific fundraising tipping points (enough money to print the book, finish the film, go on tour, etc). IndieGoGo allows you to keep whatever you raise, regardless of how you did against your stated goal. StartSomeGood will have a blended model, whereby an initial amount is all-or-nothing, depending on the specific tipping point of that project/organization, but there is also a best-case goal beyond that, which they can keep any funds raised towards. This allows the individual entrepreneur to set their own level of risk/reward, as it should be.
  • StartSomeGood is based around both organizations and projects. Social change organizations can maintain permanent profiles fueled by dynamic feeds, aggregating and building their community of supporters across multiple fundraising campaigns.
  • The StartSomeGood platform will allow for not only financial contributions but other forms of probono support needed by social entrepreneurs.

Get Involved:

Do you think this sounds exciting? Do you want to help? Great!

Support our fundraiser on IndieGoGo – we are currently fundraising on another crowdfunding platform, IndieGoGo, and would love your support. You get half of your contribution back in the form of a voucher to pay forward to a social good organization on our site when it goes live. So you’ll not only be supporting the launch of our new social enterprise but another beyond that! The remaining funds will support our outreach and promotion around the launch (including competitions to give away more vouchers, most of it will ultimately flow directly to the enterprises launching on our site), hosting costs, etc. This modest amount of start-up funding is important to allowing us to launch effectively, and having pre-committed funds ready to support new enterprises is critical to building early momentum when we launch.  Please contribute.

Help us find great ventures – task 1 for us is to find inspiring initiatives to help launch. We have several really exciting groups lined up for the launch but are looking for more. If you know of a great social change initiative looking to launch in the next six months please put them in touch.

Become a StartSomeGood Mobilizer – we are recruiting a team of Mobilizers to help get the word out, people who are passionate about social change and innovation, enjoy meeting new people and talking up new things. I am so thrilled with the caliber of people who have agreed to get involved, thank you friends! But there are gaps in our network so if this sounds like you or someone you know I’d love to hear from you, especially if you are in Perth, Adelaide, Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Denver, Boston, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh.

Stay in the loop – if you would like to be the first to know when the site goes live please sign up for our newsletter at www.StartSomeGood.com.

I’m very excited to be commencing on this journey. I think there’s a real opportunity to create something sustainable of real value, and to learn a lot along the way. I look forward to your support and collaboration and to starting some good in 2011!

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