Why a perpetual state of anxiety?

Alison Fine just wrote a report on the use of social media tools among Overbrook Foundation human rights grantees, for, um, the Overbrook Foundation.  Her top-line finding: “a perpetual state of anxiety” among nonprofits about “Web 2.0” tools:

  • Overall, the grantees are firmly entrenched in the Web 1.0 world,
    meaning that grantees use the web largely as a source of information
    rather than interactivity. 
  • A small handful of grantees, for instance Witness, the ACLU,
    Breakthrough, WYNC Public Radio, are using social media in spectacular
    ways to engage their constituents in conversations.
  • Most grantees are not taking advantage of easy-to-use social media
    tools effectively. The first is the fact that only half have blogs, and
    that only half of these groups allow comments on their blogs.
  • Survey respondents and group discussion participants often felt a
    “common struggle” in understanding which tools are critically important
    to their work and were at a loss as to where and how to get help for
    selecting and using new social media tools.

Alison asks for comments.  Here’s mine, which is admittedly not based on having read the report yet:

I wonder how much of this anxiety is the product of nonprofit sector consultants and pundits hyping Web 2.0 tool after Web 2.0 tool.  

How short was the hype cycle of MySpace?  Of Flickr?  Of YouTube?  Of Facebook?  Of Second Life?  Are all of these important?  Equally?  Should all nonprofits be doing all of these things, plus blogging, social bookmarking, IM, screencasting, user-generated content, etc. etc. etc.?

I think the message that nonprofits are getting from us “yes, and wait until you see what we’re excited about next!”  I’ve seen a lot more enthusiasm for these tools than reflective analysis of their real-world value in organizations with scarce resources.  And I think that’s what’s creating a lot of anxiety.

Or maybe I’m just having a curmudgeonly day. 😉

I’m looking forward to digging into Alison’s report in depth.

(Hat tip to Beth.)

“The Chandler Knowledge Worker”

Remember Chandler?  Mitch Kapor’s open-source “Outlook killer” that was supposed to change how we manage information forever? 

Well, that was a few years back, and while they still haven’t gotten to a 1.0 release, they’ve finally put out an interesting “0.7 Preview” version.  And along the way, they’ve really done some amazing thinking about how knowledge workers need to manage information.

I’ve not checked out the software yet, but I was struck by their vision document, titled “The Chandler Knowledge Worker.”

Often called a project manager or product manager or program manager,
our Preview Target User however is a special breed of PM. They work
closely with every member of their team, acting as a communication hub.
They know how to ask the right questions to gather input and feedback.
They identify problem areas, figure out when meetings need to happen,
who needs to be there, what needs to be discussed, and then they
facilitate the discussion to define concrete next actions and
ultimately drive their team towards informed decisions.

They go on to offer an intriguing diagnosis of what’s wrong with the current state of the art in personal information management, which underpins Chandler’s different approach.

As the prototypical “Chandler Knowledge Worker” it will be interesting to see how Chandler works.

Kudos to Mitch and the OSAF team for having the wherewithal to stick with a project that has become far more interesting and complex than they ever imagined, I’m sure.

Why Facebook/Twitter/IM/Blogging etc. Might Actually Be Significant for Relationship Building

Marty shows yet again why he is one of the keenest observers in the nonprofit technology space:

Direct online interaction robs the very important inattentive trust building components to relationships. Twitter, facebook, etc. provide a unique window into watching someone without paying direct attention to them. How many of you log on to do work late at night and “see” in AIM list and Skype list folks that are still online working. Does that over time build your relationship with that person in any way? Does a facebook update on someone going hiking at a place you have hiked before influence your interaction with that person next time you meet even thought you never discuss the hike? Yes.

What if they were taking jazz lessons? What if they twittered they picked up a new Hummer? or bagged a black bear on the first day of the season? You might never bring it up in a work context or direct interaction but you know it is there and your brain files it in the mix. It is inattentive. They were not telling you. They were not looking for a reaction. They were just letting you see if you cared.

One of the key components of network health is social ties. There may be passive network building strategies that should be tested and deployed within a campaign context that help foster building inattentive trust. Such activities might include micro blogging activities and work, shared calendars, regular questions asked about non-campaign related activities and republishing the information back across the network.

The tools are catching up very slowly to all the complex needs we have to understand one another. We need to be aware of the opportunity they present to enable us to build more powerful network capacity even in inattentive and passive ways.

This feels really right to me.

Interesting paper on platforms

Managing Proprietary and Shared Platforms: A Life-Cycle View by Thomas R. Eisenmann looks like a really interesting examination of the challenges of both shared and proprietary platforms as they grow and evolve.

The research shows that challenges confronting platform managers vary systematically, depending on whether the platform is proprietary or shared and on the stage of platform development. As in most industries, platform-mediated networks exhibit predictable patterns as they pass through life-cycle stages of birth, maturity, and decline. Exceptions do occur, but the patterns hold often enough that life-cycle patterns provide a useful guide for planning.

How Plone Keywords Should Work

We’re finishing up a big intranet project here at ONE/Northwest, and that led to an interesting conversation between me, Dave Averill and Gideon Rosenblatt about tagging and keywording content in a website. Here are a few notes from it.


1) “Tags” – keywords that are stored per-item and per-user, ala del.icio.us. Plone doesn’t provide out of the box support for tagging. That’s probably OK, because tagging doesn’t really work well unless you have a LOT of users.

2) “Keywords” – keywords that are stored per-item, but not per-user. Plone provides this out of the box.

How Things Work Now, And What’s Wrong

Plone’s current Keywords user interface is really clunky. So clunky as to be nearly useless, in fact. (Sorry.)

keyword widget

The main problem is that as the list of keywords in the site grows (which it does, very quickly, because keywords are not per-user, they’re global across the site), it quickly becomes very difficult to find and choose the keywords in the scrolling window.

Worse, you can’t easily see at a glance which keywords have already been selected.

How to fix it

Fortunately, I think this should be fairly easy to fix.

I would do the following things

  1. Move the Keywords widget from the “Properties” tab to the “Edit” tab. (Plone 3.0 fixes this quite a bit, by making the schemata refresh without page reloads, so this may ultimately be a moot point.)
  2. Show the list of keywords assigned to a content object above the keyword widget. (Bonus points for making them clickable to a search!)
  3. Change the widget to an Autocomplete widget. (Note: I need to check whether the Autocomplete widget will let you add new items to the vocabulary.) Del.icio.us uses an autocomplete widget like this for tag entry, and it’s really efficient.

    autocomplete widget
  4. Make keywords part of the default content view templates (again, with clickable links to other items with the keyword). It’s easier to remove them (especially in Plone 3.0 with the viewlet manager) than to add them, and having them there by default will signal that we value keywording.  UPDATE: Shane Graber below points out some instructions he wrote for doing just this, in Plone 2.0-2.5.   Zope 3 fans might prefer this as a viewlet, but that’s a pretty trivial implementaton detail.
  5. We should build a screen that allows one to very quickly assign keywords to many objects in a single operation. I think I’d want to execute a search (or build a smart folder), then see a list of all found objects, their descriptions, the keywords they currently have, and an autocomplete widget for each object. Rip through the screen, assign keywords to a bunch of objects, then hit save once. That would be really fast and efficient.
  6. Finally, we should make sure that permission to assign keywords to content is separated from permission to edit the object itself. (I’m not sure if this is already the case, please leave a comment if you know!) This would make it possible to create a “tagger” role which could be used to let site members keyword content items.

OK, that’s it. All of this stuff seems like it would be pretty easy to do without any major changes to the underlying plumbing.

What do you think? Would this be more sensible, more “humane” behavior for Plone? Is there more low-hanging fruit that I’m missing?

Update: It also might be interesting to look at auto-generating keywords by using Yahoo’s Term Extraction API.