Workspaces:3. Intermediaries changing environment/virtual communities

How virtual communities alter the development landscape

Curt Beckmann, Appropedia Foundation

The last few years have been heady times for grassroots world-changers in the international development world.  In the political arena, internet communities are changing the rules for authoritarian regimes.  Economically, Kiva (www.kiva.org) and others are working to democratize microfinance.  Socially, preteen girls in Delhi are interacting with peers via Facebook, and finding strength in their voices (hyperlink?).  The Web 2.0 era has changed the equation in several dimensions.  The impacts are brought about not so much by technology, as by the culture and community engendered through technology.  These new internet-based communities are not just affecting the lives of intended beneficiaries; traditional organizations that focus on providing access to information are also seeing their world change.

In my experience, mainstream organizations bridge between the haves and the have-nots. One side has abundant money, freedom, education, justice and opportunity. The other side is lacking in one or more of these areas.  The two sides may be in different regions, or may coexist in one geography.  Mainstream organizations, typically NGOs, have their communities, usually with a predictable structure.  A small group of passionate, committed experts, mostly from the fortunate world but with vital connections and experience in the poor world, form the core of the community.  Then there are the supporting side of the community from the rich world (usually with some substantial seed money), and the beneficiary side in the poor world.  The core of committed experts, funded by their supporters, has provided services, in the form of training and education, to the beneficiaries.  Meanwhile, NGO's also recognize the importance of building awareness of the plight of those in need.  Since the developing world has generally been neglected by the mainstream media, and NGO's fill in sharing their own narratives about the challenges and success in the poor world.  The stories, while truthful and informative, were necessarily simplistic and incomplete, and inevitably tilted to highlight the importance of the organization's mission in the equation.

Virtual communities have different attributes and dynamics.  They are built around a compelling idea, articulated by a core group of internet-savvy supporters.  An example is Appropedia.org, the site for sustainable solution sharing, which has sprung up in this new community era.  The site was founded on the assumption that providing free infrastructure for sharing solutions (a website with collaborative software) would prompt a number of global citizens, including NGOs, to form a community that would use that infrastructure to build a vast free library of practical tried-and-true solutions that are already deployed on the ground.  Others would translate the articles into local languages. Beneficiaries could stand on the shoulders of others, learn about the ideas in their own language, and expand on them without repeating past mistakes. The result: a vibrant, benevolent and sustainable community similar to the Wikipedia model. Is it that simple?  Or is this an unnecessarily simplistic narrative?  How do these new communities complement or challenge the work of traditional organizations?

 

In considering these questions, it's helpful to look at some key attributes of these new communities:

  1. They are self-organizing and "peer-to-peer", with each member having equal stature.
  2. Identities are not formally authenticated. Users can hide or expose as much of their identities as they choose, and may misrepresent their identity or even adopt another person's identity with permission.
  3. They disintermediate information by enabling communication between all members.  This can bring previously separated groups into contact.
  4. They are technology-based.  The reach, speed, fluidity and relative low cost of the internet invites new dynamics.  Scale and low cost implies a huge number of consumers which attracts content contributors, so that only a tiny percentage must participate to build a powerful resource like Wikipedia. Internet speed and reach allow  for many-to-many conversational interactions that build familiarity and enable relationships and community.

Here are some examples of how each of the above attributes can be either complementary or challenging to the work of mainstream organizations.


Aspect Complementary Challenging
Self-organizing Most online communities are largely democratic and "free speech", which can help to build a sense of empowerment for community members who may not experience that in their political environments.  Separate but like-minded communities can join forces Anyone can participate, and so there is no minimum threshold for competence or commitment.  Contrarians can sign up and undermine community cohesion.
Unauthenticated identity Allows for anonymous sharing of information, which can provide safety to people who would otherwise be at risk for speaking out. When identity cannot be authenticated, the validity of statements or ideas is unknown and potentially suspect. Bad actors can adopt "troll" behavior with impunity.
Disintermediation of information Disintermediation allows other narratives to compete with the propaganda of oppressive regimes.  Useful information (prices, best practices, etc) can quickly and easily move from producer to consumer. Information from untrusted sources can be unreliable. Rapid peer-to-peer communication can become a vast game of "telephone".  The rapid spread of potentially bogus memes is especially problematic if health or safety are involved.
Technology-based Rapid low-cost broadcast-capable transfer of information is fast and efficient.  Awareness building is no longer limited to whatever mainstream media regards as worthwhile. Rapid community growth can help build support and influence policy.  Culturally, technology oriented communities are likely to be younger and tolerant or even expectant of change, with relatively little vested interest in the status quo. The narrative becomes uncontrolled, potentially chaotic. Despite new abilities to spread the word, information overload can make it hard to hold your audience. When the cost of joining community is low, loyalty can also be low. Despite the rapid spread of communication technology, the digital divide still exists.

Some opportunities offer change that is more than complementary. As demonstrated by Wikipedia, entirely new collaborative paradigms are possible based on internet communities.  Complex organically developed structures and policies for voluntary engagement can enable rapid growth of multilingual good quality, well-organized encyclopedic information.

By the same token, the collection of challenges posed by online communities may represent existential risk to some mainstream organizations.  Mainstream organizations that have focused on providing access to information may be at risk of perceived irrelevance.  Some mainstream groups may lay special claim to clever ideas or wise approaches as being particularly key in achieving their mission.  What happens when new internet-based communities spring up with similar missions but without the wisdom and connections? These new communities can threaten to dilute the value of existing work, especially that of smaller groups.  Such groups face a difficult choice. If they seek to maintain their unique brand identity by keeping a proprietary hold on their "secret sauce", the new groups may be inefficient or even do more harm than good.  Or they may choose to share their wisdom in order that the new communities can benefit, and in so doing they may accelerate the achievement of their mission.  But in so doing, they may undermine their unique value, which may be a key element that attracts support.  In short, mainstream organizations may face dynamics that cause new tradeoffs between mission and identity.

Today's environment of large fluid communities and information overload, mainstream organizations face more challenges than ever.  Their traditional supporters are being distracted, providing increased pressure for compelling narratives to capture and maintain attention.  When mainstream media discusses complex topics, simplification is inevitable. Controversy (such as that around Dambisa Moyo's recent work) and sensation (Nobel prizes or massive philanthropic commitments) attract a lot of coverage in a context where nuance is not valued and complexity not acknowledged.So, what can mainstream organizations do in the face of this wave of online communities? The first decision is whether to participate in online communities, or not.  This seems to me, though, to be a false choice.  Non-participation might seem viable in the very short term, but not when we imagine the richness, depth and breadth that online communities will have even as soon as ten years from now.  The question is not "should one participate", but "how should one participate?"  Online community is simply a new tool that requires new skills.Earlier I questioned the assumption behind Appropedia.  Will a vibrant collaborative community spring up in the presence of a free and powerful infrastructure?  It's still a little too early to know for sure. At this point, the Appropedia.org site has thousands of registered users who have made tens of thousands of edits to thousands of articles, which have been viewed over 10 million times.  But there is much work to do for the site to approach its potential.I prefer to ask a different question. Given the scale and variety of shared global problems that we are facing, is there much chance we can solve them quickly enough to minimize the consequences without new models for collaboration?  And given the pace of growth of the internet, and the expansion of online communities, should we seek to solve our problems without leveraging these tools?  As above, I believe that the question is not "should online communities be applied to these problems", but "how should they be applied". 

Author Bio

Curt Beckmann cofounded the Appropedia Foundation in 2007 with two others and continues on that board. He is also on the boards of two ground-based NGOs. Village Hope (www.villagehopeinc.org) works in Sierra Leone villages to support economic development. LeapingStone Foundation (leapingstone.org) is building infrastructure in villages in Togo. He has taken an active role in both organizations, including working with the villages in those countries. He has worked with the Clarence Foundation (now part of FSD International) to allocate funding to grassroots organizations in Africa, and with Architecture For Humanity (www.architectureforhumanity.org) to evaluate candidates for AFH prizes. His "day job" career is in high technology, where he has co-authored patents in hardware and software networking technology, and cofounded start-ups. He holds degrees from CSU Fullerton and Santa Clara University, and has studied international development and microfinance through Colorado State University's IISD arm (http://www.colostate.edu/Orgs/IISD/).

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