Monthly Archives: September 2009

Searching for blogging networks

I’ve struggled with my study this week. After the fortnightly, online #Fo09 meeting I understand why. Blogging networks form spontaneously over time between loosely associated fellow travellers. They’re not necessarily the formal networks I’ve found so easily.

My research took me to formal networks where people are blogging on a single platform. Somebody comes up with a bright idea of attracting bloggers to share their thoughts in one place. Unless the formula is spot-on, there’s a tendency for these types of formal networks to rapidly go stale.

The network I looked at listed over 600 bloggers. Around 15% contributed five or more posts, with a couple of superstars in the hundreds. The vast majority just one. Many of these were old posts. And there was tonnes of competition for your attention, with the same group having a LinkedIn group, Facebook page, etc.

Putting two and two together I suspect there was a conference or promotional push or some sort, people signed up, then…. silence.

If I can I’ll report on a talk with one of the bloggers on a shared platform.

With a new insight gleaned from our meeting I’ve decided to pay more attention to local bloggers talking about the same sorts of topics as me. I’m not sure if I’m joining or forming a blogging network so I guess the best thing to do is get started.

The concept of networking weaving – which Beth Kanter talks about quite often (for starters see “Some Thoughts About Effective Networking Online”), as well as being raised by Sarah (see “Getting our heads around blogging”) – appeals much more than having my very own ‘personal’ network. I see this as much putting in touch, as asking and conversing.   

I have the same sort of worry that Debra Maddock’s raises: “once the connections are started, you just have to keep on the tracks and never get off, otherwise it will be too hard to reconnect”.

No rush…. I guess strong relationships, even virtual ones, take time to form.

More on mapping gardens and kai

The idea I had of listing community gardens around the country wasn’t a novel one (see the nascent plotting community gardens wiki I started). At almost exactly the same time I started out, the folk at Good magazine created a Google map listing all the community gardens they could find. Spooky.

I haven’t found the time to list many gardens as yet. So I was pleased to see the map created by Yu Sin Khoo, a designer at Good magazine’s publishers, has got off to a good start. Already listed are 29 community gardens, and four people have signed up as collaborators. I’ve decided to join as one of them and delete my Google map (once I find out how).

It’s just one of several similar maps I’ve heard of in the last few weeks.

In Christchurch there is a treasure map for the city, displaying information about foraging throughout the city area which are publicly accessible. Started in June 2009 the Otautahi Urban Foraging map has already had over 25,000 views. Anyone can add to it.

Closer to home, is the Edible Wellington – A Gatherer’s Guide map. Wild parsley, plum trees and rosemary are some of the plants listed. Once again the map is open to collaboration by anyone. 42 collective have started at least one other map to help guide people to living sustainably in Wellington.

For Wellingtonian’s eager to talk about foraging and similar practices, the Underground Fruit Economy facebook group might appeal. The level of interaction is extremely modest despite the virtual interest of 198 members – too busy fossicking for kai I suspect.

Debate is definitely happening on Kiwiblog, where the idea of free information about free food seemed to have broad appeal (see “Great initiative”, 25 August 2009). Of course somebody had to raise some spurious analysis about the operation of the market economy along the lines of “if you’re altruistic, you’re not being rationale”.

More maps coming soon I suspect. Hopefully with lots of people joining in to make them. If you know about a community garden, get in touch so you can be listed.

Software up for grabs

Over a year down the track it’s good to news to hear the TechSoup New Zealand programme racking up a substantial number of software donations.

At a function at Te Papa last night jointly hosted by TechSoup New Zealand’s local partner, NZFVWO, Barnardos and Microsoft, there was a fair bit of hoopla about the volume of donations. Some 288 organsations (subject to fact checking) have received donated software since the programme started in July 2008.

The main focus of the cocktail function was on a big donation by Microsoft to Barnardos.

Murray Etheridge, Barnardos CEO, was radiantly postive as he acknowledged the $1.4 million donation. The gift comprises software, along with technical support and I think someone mentioned cash as well. Whether this is a one-off or an example of a new partnering drive by the multinational software giant wasn’t mentioned.

Four other organsations which have substantially benefited from the TechSoup New Zealand programme were highlighted in a short video.

One of these is the Mangere East Family Service Centre. I first met the Centre’s director Peter Sykes when we were both studying social policy at Massey University.

He says the software donation means “for the first time in 15 years all our computers can talk to each other with common operating system”. Peter wants technology to be ubiquitous and essentially invisible to his staff so they can focus on doing the stuff they need to, which means talking with people. In the past, staff have spent be frustrated and distracted by computers getting in the way, rather than supporting their work.

Despite being an ideal time to alert people to an expansion of the range of software products available through TechSoup New Zealand, there was no mention of any forthcoming sources of software donations. I’ve since learned some other suppliers of software will soon be added to the list.

While Prime Minister John Key only talked about the corporate side of things, NZFVWO’s Tina Reid really emphasised the spirit of partnership and community building that sits behind TechSoup New Zealand. In it’s first year it’s off to a great start, with more to come.

BTW: Tech savvy John Key hasn’t yet shared his speech notes (perhaps because he realised after talking he made a slight ommission – he blatantly avoided any references to co-hosts NZFVWO) nor issued a tweet to his 5,982 followers (see JohnKeyPM).

Online community in NTEN-Discuss? Part 2

After talking to both Ian Runeckles and Gavin Clabaugh, members of the NTEN-Discuss online group, I really started thinking about the importance of ‘context’ to an online community.

Rather than concentrate on the current incarnation of the group, both Ian and Gavin talked about where it all started. The current group has it’s origins in meetings between IT advisors working with not-for-profit organisations which started being run in the 1990s. The circuit rider network included face-to-face meetings as well as a mailing list (which continues to this day, even if largely supplanted by NTEN-Discuss).

Face-to-face gatherings have grown in scale, with about 1,400 people attending the last annual NTC meet-up in April 2009. There are also dozens of small local chapters where people meeting in person regularly. Access to a member directory means any of NTEN’s 6,000 plus members can get in touch directly with others. Both the numbers involved and the many years events have been held over means during the life of both NTEN-Discuss and its antecedents many people have actually had contact with one another face-to-face.

Unless there is some form of annual refresh cycle, Gavin says he sees many groups die out over time so he firmly believes meeting face-to-face is necessary to “rekindle the essential human elements”.

As well as the offline meetings, people can interact with each other online in different ways, including attending regular webinars, contributing to multi-author blogs, and by adding material to shared resources in libraries, notepads, etc.

The discussion forum definitely doesn’t stand alone.

The official NTEN-Discuss moderators have light touch within the forum. Ian said he couldn’t see how additional facilitation services would benefit the group. By continually feeding discussion and setting the general atmosphere, the current facilitation approach kept things working.

Gavin was also sceptical about the need for more active facilitation. He says this was tried in the past with mixed success. And he points toward the nature of the group as not requiring more active input.

I am not sure the topics (remember that magic ingredient above — a clear focus and purpose and a shared set of goals and beliefs) would actually lend themselves to more active facilitation. The discussions are usually queries for information or referral. I often characterize NTEN Discuss as a giant random access knowledge management system: I can ask it a question and it coughs and sputters and (sometimes) shoots out an answer. The topics are relatively mundane and wouldn’t lend themselves to facilitation — at least I can’t think how.

A large volume of active contributors can actually undermine a forum. There is a sense that there is a natural equilibrium or balance for people to sustain their attention. Gavin suggested 200 was the maximum number of active and semi-active participants as with any more things go bonkers and people can’t handle a discussion with more than this number. A specific number wasn’t mentioned by Ian, but he sees a ratio of active to inactive participants as constant across all forums regardless of the total number of members.

Understanding the wider world in which NTEN-Discuss inhabits helped me reach the conclusion that more active facilitation is probably unnecessary. I wonder how this insight informs other discussion forums?

Thanks to Ian and Gavin for taking the time to share some history and thoughts.

BTW: This post is the second of a two part assignment exploring whether the NTEN-Discuss forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. See part 1 and more details about the Facilitating Online course.

Hanging on your every word? article

The rush to set up spaces on social networks to raise funds and engage with people is not necessarily a sure fire bet. Even if supporters do hang on your every word through Twitter bon mots it doesn’t mean they’ll reach into their pockets.

People from not-for-profit organisations I talked to for an article published in the August 2009 issue FINZ on Fundraising said they weren’t in it for the money (see “Hanging on your every word?” article). At least, not straight away.

Instead organisations are setting up Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds to engage better with their audiences. This includes connecting with people that they wouldn’t be able to easily reach in any other way.

When choosing different online fund- and friend-raising options not-for-profit organisations Eric Rardin from Care2.com advised organisations to take an analytical approach rather than following fashions. In a lecture on “Creating an online strategy to thrive in tough times” run by Network for Good in May 2009, he shares detailed case studies of the costs of donor acquisition versus the returns.

Rardin, who is Care2.com’s nonprofit services manager, says organisations need to match goals with tactics.

  1. Goals include: branding or visibility, engaging people, generating donor leads, website traffic and/ or list growth, and fundraising.

  2. Tactics include: search engine marketing, banner ads, email list growth services (something I’m not aware of in NZ), and social network outreach.

There is no single tactic that will magically meet all goals. The tactics achieve different things.

Talking about social networks, he says they:

… have proven to be valuable opportunities for branding and connecting, and most people that I’ve heard talk about what they think of how things have done on MySpace and Facebook and elsewhere, they end up talking mostly about the community they built, the branding, and a lot less about traffic and donations.

When pressed Rardin says “I think that using email to drive traffic to your site to get donations is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy here, because it’s a loop here. So the question is: how do you grow your email list? That’s often the most critical step.”

So we’re still looking at a three legged stool. Laura S Quinn from Idealware suggests splitting your time and budget three ways:

  • website, with functionally to capture new contacts and accept donations
  • email communication, including e-newsletters
  • online marketing and outreach, including a social network presence.

(See “Prioritizing Websites vs. Email vs. Online Outreach”, 27 August 2008).

The Network for Good learning centre freely share lessons from the fundraising frontline, including presentations and audio lectures like Eric’s one. It’s good place to start if you want to explore these questions in more depth.

Does community exist in the NTEN-Discuss forum? Part 1

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

Each NTEN forum has a map of where members are based.

I was heading to the library self issue machine with a couple of items under my arm – one book on parenting, the other a computer magazine – when I stumbled on “Managing Online Forums” by Patrick O’Keefe.

There’s a whole wad of advice in the tome. O’Keefe promises to “show site owners and administrators how to create a safe and entertaining community that users will return to again and again”. It’s based on O’Keefe’s practical experience moderating forums and running something called the iFroggy Network, plus other forums he owns.

The book is listed as an extra resource for the current blogging assignment in the #FO09 course I’ve joined in. We’re looking for online community in discussion forums. Does it exist?

If my practices are anything to go by, I really do wonder. I tend to randomly visit forums and mostly only when I need something, rather than visiting on a regular basis. Although many forums require me to join, it’s such a low threshold to overcome: giving away my email address and agreeing to terms and conditions isn’t onerous. I don’t really feel bound to the forum ‘community’ just by signing up. Without a prod or peer pressure, it’s easy to slip in but not necessarily join geared up to participate.

I notice there are very active discussion forums around. Just take a look at on TradeMe and ones run newspapers like “Your Views” the NZ Herald or “Comment is free” at the Guardian: they’re incredibly vibrant. Some niche forums also thrive, such as the Black Dog Message board – set up “for people living with depression and other mental illnesses”.

Of all the forums I dip into I’ll talk a little bit about the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) member only “NTEN-Discuss” affinity groups. It’s one of the most regularly used of the 120 affinity groups set up by members. When I wrote 1,325 people were signed up, out of a total of a 5,996 NTEN members. Each affinity group has a blog, news feed, wiki and library, as well as a discussion forum. You can read posts online or contribute via email.

The beauty of the system NTEN use – for the technically minded it’s a social media enterprise platform offered by GoLightly – is the amount of choice I’ve got as a member: I reveal my address or not, let people see my profile and even add my location to a map. The setting for the group are very easy to see, and you can contact the moderators from any page.

There’s a fair amount of activity in the forum. Nearly 4000 posts in the archive, since the new and improved NTEN-Discuss forum was launched in September 2006.

The things I notice about the forum include:

  • Friendly conversational language, but it’s by no means bland as people forcefully express their views at times
  • Members have a visible presence, mainly through their avatars with anyone new to the group highlighted on the main page
  • Any conflict (if there is any) seems to be handled by members themselves, with very little visible intervention by moderators
  • A simple count of the number of posts made by each member gives some idea of peoples online reputations
  • The terms of use are easy to find, though there are not groundrules for this particular forum
  • A clear, though very general common purpose for the group is adhered to by members.

This list includes most of the things I’d expect in an online community: common interests or aims, rules and guidelines of some sort, adjudication if people misbehave and a means to have a social presence, and most importantly active participation. It’s a very comfortable place to be, with all the characteristics of an online community I’d suggest.

Looking at “Managing online forums” to see if any light is shone onto the presence of community I don’t find a lot of help. O’Keefe does not seem too interested in helping readers identify whether community exists in their particular forum. Instead he’s offering a step-by-step guide to ‘managing’ community. Facilitation doesn’t seem to come into, merely enforcement of rules.

My next step is to talk to a member of the forum about their opinions whether the forum might benefit from more active facilitation of some sort. I’m also interested to see what they say about whether there is a pulse, a lifeblood. I’ll report back soon.