Technology is not the question or the answer

My friends Tim Walker and Michael Silberman have been doing some thinking about the long-term problems with many of the approaches to date about social change + technology and have popped out a provocative (and very welcome!) manifesto about the need for “web thinking.”

I was honored to contribute some thoughts on the early drafts, and while I don’t think it’s perfect, the final version is a must-read if you’re serious about changing how change happens.   It’s great to see people engaging in serious, big-picture critical thinking like this.  The conversation’s already going on in the comments.  You should join in.  See you there in five.

Popup Forms for Plone

Shortly before dashing out the door for Pycon 2010, David Glick pushed out a 1.0 release of Popup Forms for Plone, which he and Steve McMahon built on top of Steve’s excellent Pipbox and PloneFormGen products.

Popup Forms for Plone makes it point-and-click easy to create timer-driven javascript popup forms anywhere in your Plone site.   You can see a simple example in action at Washington Conservation Voters.   It’s amazingly simple: just build your form in PloneFormGen.  (If you just want to popup a static HTML page or an image, you can use PloneFormGen’s “Form Prologue” and skip adding any form fields!)  Then, you use Plone’s portlets mechanism to assign the form to a page or folder on your site, and to configure an optional time-delay.  That’s it!  No programming, no javascript, no fuss, no bother.

Popup Forms are great for email capture forms, action alerts, user surveys, and many other calls-to-action.  If that’s what you need in your Plone site, I encourage you to check it out!

Using more tools != better

I think we would all be better off without analyses like this which inventory how many social media tools large advocacy groups are using as if using more tools is somehow indicative of sophistication, effectiveness or having a solid strategy for achieving your organizing goals.

Sigh.  When will consultants stop promoting this kind of shallow, tool-centric thinking?  Probably never, because it’s easy, cheap marketing.

Apple: (still) hostile to nonprofits

Lots of nonprofit technologists are unapologetic Apple fanboys (and girls).  I’ve owned and used Apple products over the years, and while some have been fine, they rarely make me swoon.  I think of Apple as just another mega-corporation that sometimes makes nice computer hardware, not some extension of my personal brand identity.

Apple is hardly a friend to the nonprofit sector.  In addition to being notoriously tight-fisted with hardware and software donations, I just read on ReadWriteWeb that they have no plans to allow charitable donations via the iPhone’s new in-app payments system.  That is incredibly lame.

Though Apple introduced in-application payments last month, the feature is only available to paid apps (Public Radio Player is free) and charitable contributions through the iPhone are strictly prohibited. They can’t even be talked about, Shapiro says, because Apple doesn’t want to deal with the possibility of charity scams, there’s tax complications, the platform’s standard 30% fee for payments isn’t tenable in a non-profit context and Apple has no financial incentive to solve this sticky complex of problems.

Flexible external redirects in Plone: a brainstorm

Sam Dorman of the League of Young Voters just tickled my funnybone with a really nice idea for how to elegantly handle external redirects in Plone.  I think this would be really easy to roll up into a nice user-friendly product that would have tremendous, wide-ranging re-usability.  I’d love your thoughts on it.

The problem

Lots of online activism campaigns (like the League!) use generic content management tools like Plone for their main website and supplement it with more specialized online advocacy tools like Democracy In Action.  It’s a winning combination that takes advantage of inexpensive, easy to use, best-of-breed tools.

The problem is that you can wind up with some messy URLs.  For example, Democracy In Action URLs can look like this:

Ugh.  Not very user friendly to stick into an email, a tweet or a blog post.  What Sam really wants is to have a redirect URL like this:

That will automatically redirect you to the DIA page, with someVariable appended.

“Why not just do this with Apache rewrite rules?” I can hear you asking.  Because Sam’s not an apache administrator, and doesn’t know how to write a regular expression (and neither do I).  We want these to be manageable by people with Plone-user skills, not server-admin skills!

My vision

As Sam was telling me his story, a little vision appeared in my mind’s eye.

I imagine an “external redirects” control panel in Plone, where you would be find a screen that would let you add lightweight “redirects” that would have the following attributes:

  • Redirect name (the “someAction” in the example above)
  • Redirect destination (the external URL you’re redirecting to.  Variables to be allowed with things like $1, $2)
  • Enabled/disabled checkbox

I’d see this as a DataGridWidget or something similarly quick and easy.  A site could have quite a few redirects to manage on a single screen, we’d need to use KSS well to avoid too many page reloads.


Plone’s current “Link” object supports some very basic external redirection, and we could extend that as described at PLIP 126, but I’m not convinced that this is a very ideal approach.  The use case I’m trying to cover is about “placeless” adminstration of lots of links, not administering one-by-one links that are scattered within the content hierarchy.  Also, implementing this functionality with full-fledged content objects creates some problems with viewing vs. editing mode, which I think can be avoided with a centralized, approach based on a utility tha could be overriden or extended.

The other concern that would have to be addressed with this approach is namespace collision.  I think that could be avoided by doing a quick catalog search to make sure your proposed actionName doesn’t conflict with an existing content object (KSS validators to the rescue!).  We might be able to entirely avoid namespace collision by letting you define a subdomain in the control panel (e.g., and if possible push that into VHM.

We’d probably need to sanitize variables so that this doesn’t allow any weird injection attacks.

Contrarian thinking about online organizing

Here’s an idea that’s been tumbling around in my brain for a while, and popped out yesterday during a walk:

A lot of people think online organizing helps build enthusiasm about an issue or campaign, and thus holds tremendous promise for small, obscure campaigns.  I think the promise is oversold, and that the most enthusiastic proponents of “web 2.0” style organizing tend to reverse cause and effect.

The most powerful online campaign efforts — Obama ’08, Dean ’04, some of the early MoveOn antiwar stuff — were successful at tapping into already existing passionate enthusiasm, not in generating energy around issues/campaigns that previously lacked it.

In other words, online organizing can’t create energy, it can only tap the energy that already exists.

That’s bad news for small campaigns that need to “go big” to succeed, and are being told that online organizing offers a free pass to the big leagues, if only they figure out the right tools and tactics.

From Sampling to Measuring

Gavin Clabaugh’s got a fun (and wise) new riff on the larger forces shaping our world:

I see this third force everywhere. I see it hiding inside the inaccurately named thing called “social networking. I see it embedded in “American Idol.” It follows me to the grocery store. It wakes me up at night. It’s busy working away on web pages and formatting RSS feeds. It’s reading your electric meter. It’s even there when you drive into a parking lot. It’s monitoring air quality, or temperature, and it’s in that vending machine down the hall tracking the ever-so-important availability of cheese-doodles.

The third force is all about the network and it’s all about the collapse of time. It’s all about a new network of machines, sensors, monitors, and even some humans, that spend their days tasting the world, and talking to other machines about what they’ve tasted. Sometimes it’s frightening.

I once characterized the third force as the move “from sampling to monitoring.” I figured soon we wouldn’t need things like statistical sampling to measure our world. I argued that we were increasingly moving to “real-time” measurements to understand the world. The time and distance between action and feedback would disappear. It’s come true.

Facebook Groups would be more useful if…

… it were possible to include the contents of an RSS feed in the group.

This would make it possible to stream content from a group’s website to their Facebook group space, no extra software needed.

For example, I would really like to be able to embed the RSS feed from in ONE/Northwest’s Facebook group page.  But I can’t.

How lame.  This would be such a quick and easy win

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.)

Facebook starts measuring “engagement” instead of raw users for ranking popular apps

Very interesting.  Facebook has announced that it will no longer rank popular applications by raw number of users, instead choosing to measure “engagement” those users have with the apps they’ve installed.  This is a great, smart shift, and I think it presages lots of changes to how online activism is measured.

We define engagement as the number of users who touch your application every day (measured from midnight to midnight each day).

These touch points are:

  • Canvas Page Views
  • Link Clicks in FBML
  • Mock-Ajax Form Submission
  • Click-to-Play Flash

The number of engaged users is calculated by putting all of these
touch points together. We display this as the number of “Daily Active
Users.” Next to it we also show what percentage that is of the
application’s total number of users.

Hat tip to Jeff.

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.

Marty and Zack

Zack rants, Marty riffs.

Most the people talking to you (especially nonprofits) think of the web/internet as a tactical support for the rest of the operations.

They want the “web” guy to support our restoration initiative, the web team to support fundraising, the web team to support field, the web to support membership. Web is a tactic the departments should use.

The reality is that dominating the web conversation is now a strategic pillar that can drive success in influencing the politics, fundraising, field and other key elements of the operation.

A good strategist and senior management operative will need to look at the over all mission, understand the constraints of other managers, understand the path of the campaign and organizational culture. The good strategist will compete in a larger organizational context for funding and the freedom from other departments to begin to implement a plan to dominate web discussion.


The Message, Not The Medium

Jeff Brooks channels Roy Williams.  Good to stay grounded:

Just remember, a new medium is not a magic bullet. As brilliantly riffed by Roy Williams in his MondayMorningMemo: The Media Is Not the Message, the real issue is what you say, not where you say it:

Relevance is what determines whether an ad works or not. Every medium fails when it delivers a message no one cares about.

He then enlarges on the importance of the message in something you should make part of your fundraising catechism:

  • Ads that fail in one medium would usually have failed in any other.
  • The medium is not the message.
  • The message is the message.
  • And the message is what matters most.

Yep, Marshall McLuhan was wrong.

There’s no way around it. You have to have a relevant message, or you’re sunk. Get that part right, and then you can start looking for media that take you forward.

ZyprexaKills: bleeding edge online direct action

My friend Jonah Bossewitch has been involved with a fascinating ‘online direct action’ campaign targeting Eli Lilly, who had been conducting an illegal “off-label” marketing campaign around their drug Zyprexa, despite knowing about the drug’s lethal side-effects.

Jonah’s case study of the campaign weaves together simple, freely available technologies such as bittorrent file sharing, anonymous web proxies, tagging, and wikis with issues of free speech, media rights, whisteblowing, and network neturality, and

spotlights… cyberactivism… on the bleeding edge of technology and the frontier of civil liberties. The story suggests how participatory culture might give to way to participatory democracy, and especially how these kinds of technologies can play a leading role in radical actions. It also demonstrates the strong symbiotic relationship between new and traditional media, and presents new models for their future collaboration.

Good stuff, well worth a read for anyone who is working on corporate or government accountability in this digital age.

I’m loving The Agitator

It’s been a while since I’ve fallen in love with a new blog (over-exposure breeds cynicism I suppose), but I’ve just been turned on to The Agitator and I’m head over heels for it.

The Agitator is the blog of Roger Craver and Tom Belford, both of the well-known DC-based fundraising/marketing consulting firm Craver Matthews Smith.  What I love is that they’re not afraid to challenge “conventional wisdom” of the nonprofit sector with respect, integrity and data.

For example, their most recent post, “Just Write The Check, Please” eloquently and respectfully sums up their misgivings with donor-centric (rather than cause-centric) thinking, currently riding a wave of popularity.

Digging through their archives, they’ve clearly got a great track record of politely but credibly calling out well intentioned but less-than-excellent ideas and also highlighting the really good stuff that’s out there.

Great simple online activism/engagement tactic

As Washington Toxics Coalition’s multi-year campaign to pass a first-in-the-nation ban on toxic flame retardant chemicals (known as PDBEs) comes to a rousing finish, check out what they’re doing with user-generated content. They’ve invited members and supporters to send in photographs of them with their own “I Want To Be PDBE-Free” message.

They’ve taken a smart, relatively low-tech approach — no fancy “Web 2.0” tools like flickr. They’re just asking folks to email photos in, then using their new Plone-powered website to publish photos as they come in. Why? Well, WTC members are busy moms, firefighters and just plain folks — they’re not bleeding edge “web 2.0” devotees. So, WTC chose to use the online communications tool that they and their members understand best — email.

Not only are they posting the photos online, they’re also going to turn all the photos into collage, and hand-deliver it to legislators next week during the final push to get the bill passed. A nice mix of online and offline activism!

WTC has also done a very smart thing by providing a sample sign and some ideas for creative messages. Great pump-priming.

A hats off to WTC Field Director Jim Dawson for simple, creative, engaging online activism that meets people where they’re at.

Highlighting Mountaintop Removal Mining with Google Earth

This sounds like a very creative and effective use of Google Earth as an environmental advocacy tool. 

Environmental advocacy group Appalachian Voices
has joined to Google to deliver a special interactive layer for Google
Earth that tells the stories of over 470 mountains that have been
destroyed from coal mining, and its impact on nearby ecosystems.

I hope their layer includes links to ways to take action.

Online Activism Considered

Duane Raymond of Fairsay has got the first three parts of a six-part series on the state of online advocacy/e-campaigning.  Worth a read.  It’s really great to see some big-picture reflection coming from a hands-on campaigner. 

I’m particularly enjoying the latest installment, Part III, in which Duane considers some of the “key campaigning gaps” that go unaddressed.  Most resonant with our experiences here at ONE/Northwest are the lack of clear campaigning strategies, good influence research and creativity in designing actions.  

This is great stuff. I eagerly await the next installments.