I'm two-thirds of the way through Clay Shirky's new book - Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in the Connected Age - and I wasn't planning on writing about it until I was done. But in a perfect meta-example of both my point and the behaviors of distraction described in excruciating detail in today's New York Times, I got an email, linked to a blog post, commented on the post and now here I am, madly blogging before I get back to work.
I'm reading Shirky's book with pencil and notepad (!!) in hand - taking copious notes and loving it. Shirky does an incredible job of illustrating a point that I care about deeply - it's not the technologies that matter, it's the behaviors and expectations that they allow. (See Disrupting Philanthropy on this point).
What Shirky adds are clear research and compelling stories that make us understand that our human motivations are age old, technologies provide new opportunities, and that this combination (motivation + opportunity) can change our behavior. Not only that, the nature of our current technologies changes the scale of our individual behaviors.
Reading this was an Aha! for me. I've been trying to make sense of the relationship between "data" and "crowds" as a I work on my own forthcoming book. The DataJam crystallized something for me - data and crowds are two sides of a coin. Crowds can organize around data - think of people coming together around photos on Flickr. Then they use the data - commenting on photos, linking to other photos, tagging and grouping photos, adding photos - and they become the source of more data. Another example - Ushahidi unlocks crowdbased data in terms of geotagged tweets or SMS messages. These data are then integrated with, compared to, considered by holders of "central data" - such as the State Department or Red Cross - and suddenly we have a different type of coordination solution for getting aid to earthquake victims. Crowds use data and crowds generate data. There is a feedback loop that can grow and accelerate.
But Shirky takes this further and argues that the feedback loops and the data and the crowds add up to more than the sum of the parts. They provide a new "soup" (my word, not his) in which we behave, old behaviors come undone and new relationships and linked behaviors get created. Our individual behaviors create a collective set of behaviors, and, in turn, the collective changes our individual behaviors. Shirky's focus is on how individuals and groups shifts along these lines, and he makes a clear and accessible connection to the re-emergent interest in the commons as a form of production and governance. (I'll be back with more on Shirky's book - but for now, let me tell you, it is a must read. Available in bookstores on June 10 - Thursday!)
So I read until late last night, got up this morning, read the NY Times about how distracted technologies make us, checked my email and found an email and a link to this post at Change Charity - Collective Venture Philanthropy. I get sent a lot of things like this - but I read the email and clicked through on the link because I had seen a tweet about the post last night, emailed it to myself as a reminder to read it and the two emails (mine to myself and the one from the post's author, Jeff Raderstrong) came up in my inbox back to back.
Jeff's post is well worth a read. He posits the possibility that social media will allow small donors a direct role in launching, creating and funding riskier new startups - moving them to a new place in the philanthropic capital stream then ever before. He uses Kickstarter as a model and reflects on the success of Kiva and DonorsChoose in engaging individual donors in new ways.
I think Jeff is raising the right questions. When we wrote Disrupting Philanthropy, my colleagues Ed and Barry and I had endless debates on the meaning of two of the graphs in the book - The Long Tail of Giving (p 11) and The Long Tail of Receiving (p 12).
Each of the graphs is accurate in and of itself, and they look a lot alike. But we disagreed on what they meant when considered together. We couldn't find any conclusive data or analysis of data that satisfied all three of us on how these two pictures relate to each other. Who funds the long tail of nonprofits? Big donors, small donors, and in what mix? For that matter, who funds the head of the tail of nonprofits - big donors, small donors, or both and in what mix?
We don't have great data on exactly how this relationship has worked - but the power of technology and social media is likely to change whatever relationship has long existed. People are using online giving platforms to find information on giving options, to share their own ideas, to propose their own solutions, and to find like-minded donors. They are cross referencing Nick Kristof columns with Charity Navigator data, searching for organizations on Guidestar and then making a gift on GlobalGiving. They are encouraging their friends to join communities on Facebook and proposing their own community garden projects to charity contests on JustMeans.* We are using and creating a new ecosystem of information (What I call an Infostructure) that informs us, raises awareness of new types of experts and expertise, and generates new ideas for new sources of information. They are using data and adding data. They are behaving as individuals but the collective impact is changing the landscape of giving. And the collective landscape is changing how each of us gives the next time around.
I commented on Jeff's post here - and won't repeat the whole thing on this site. Go check out Jeff's query and my comment and join us in the discussion either here or there. This is a real time, living example of the very forces that Shirky describes, that today's NYT bemoans, and that I believe are here to stay and are fundamentally shifting how we make change happen.
*Full disclosure: The Little Haiti Community Garden Project linked to on JustMeans was brought to my attention in an email from a friend who volunteers there.
(cross posted at Philanthropy 2173)