Friday, September 18, 2009

Tweet is the Sound of a Whistle Blowing

We have begun to absorb various manifestations of the social web, from web omphaloskepsis ("What am I doing right now?") to the web at work (wikis, webinars and such). We are taking increasing advantage of the opportunities for learning, working, sharing and finding noted in my last post. The question that naturally comes to mind is, "What's next?"

Scott Simon aired an NPR interview last Saturday on the power of Twitter, with a focus on local crowdsourcing of data needing municipal attention (the example was potholes). The New York Times speculated more broadly Sunday on whether we are about to see the dawn of the new era of collaborative democracy—as imagined in a glowingly optimistic (and long) documentary video —or whether we are more likely to leap into the mundane.

On this side the Times reminds us that when President Obama invited ideas about national priorities he found, embarrassingly, that mass wisdom rated legalization of marijuana as the top issue. Further, a Times op ed this week points out that the Twitter format can't really communicate complex ideas all that well ("Don't Tweet about Health Care").

The items mentioned above suggest, perhaps, that the simplest observations may have the greatest potential for cascading through social media. Reporting potholes, or other unsafe or illegal conditions, can provide data to help government agencies to prioritize. This may be a promising insight for nonprofits interested in a powerful approach to advocacy.

Resistance is not futile

Last summer we did some work with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on adapting its organizational culture to social media. The Trust's staff demographic is older than the typical user of social media, and its membership is highly tilted toward people of retirement age. Recognizing that the preservation movement is predicated on effective communication with the public, and that a younger public communicates in new ways, the National Trust transformed its website into PreservationNation. Incorporating blogs, wikis, photo and video sharing, and other online tools PreservationNation, is “a virtual town square where people share proven tools, make connections, and get inspired to save historic places.”

Most nonprofits that have taken the social media plunge (few of them as large, mature and demographically remote from social media use) have done so for marketing, brand building, and fundraising. These are certainly important issues for the Trust. However, two other aspects of the effort are very compelling:

As noted in the pothole issue above, advocacy is among the most natural of functions for social media. Social media provide the Trust accessible and vivid vehicles to broadcast notification of a threat to a valued historic resource, and to channel the reactions of all those who share a concern for preserving it. The ease and accessibility of social media create unprecedented power to generate pressure for matters of public interest.

While a change in the organizational culture of the Trust was seen as a necessary facilitator of the transition, in itself it may actually be a transformational byproduct of the first order. The mind set of an organization infused with social media thinking is fundamentally different from the closed hierarchical model in which all external communications are funneled through a rigid vetting process. The social media revolution seems parallel to the Total Quality Management initiative that swept the corporate world a while back. They both are based in the idea that empowering individuals can be a transformative force on culture.

Nonprofit organizations are filled with true believers and much larger groups who are passively supportive—staff, board, donors, and different broad constituencies that vary by organization type (members, subscribers, users, parents, alumni…). Nonprofits have a latent reserve of commitment ready to be engaged in the right way. Until now we could draw on that commitment through a limited number of means, each requiring a significant act: financial donation, volunteering, membership, or physical presence at an event. Moving a constituency—or potential constituency—to take actions of this sort can require significant effort from the organization.

Historically, few organizations have found a way to draw effectively on their wealth of true believers, much less their passive supporters in a flexible, consistent, sustainable way. This is the achievement of social media.

For the trust, a list of issues link to specific information and actions that can be taken, such as posting a photo of a favorite or endangered building or landscape, viewing or sharing a video, chatting on Facebook, or tweeting or re-tweeting an alert. When multiplied by thousands, these are powerful capabilities for positive action or residence to a threat. The potential was clear in the Trust's mobilization in defense of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery. Through blogging by people with audiences far afield of their own membership, they generated large-scale attention quickly to the issue. By attracting the attention of people with a diverse set of interests to a specific issue, they can draw them into the orbit of the organization, where they may become interested in further engagement. Or they may assemble for a specific issue and then disappear.

What could be better for a nonprofit than to have all of its stakeholders marketing their cause to others, ready to mobilize to promote an idea or blow a whistle at any emerging threat?