Introducing Social Signal: collaboration for communities

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I'm delighted to announce the launch of Social Signal. Social Signal's goal is to support online communities and distributed collaboration networks -- networks of communities that share content and relationships by using the latest generation of web tools. This practice builds on my consulting, research and writing in the fields of online community, public participation, and social software, but extends its value and capacity with the strengths of a new partner: Rob Cottingham, a communications consultant with long experience in online advocacy and web development.

Appropriately enough, the Social Signal web site launched on the same day as our latest project, TechSoup's Net2. Net2 is an online community and conference that will celebate the achievements of the nonprofit web, while asking the ever-fascinating "what's next?"

What's next is a crop of technologies that work the way healthy communities work: decentralized, bottom-up, and participatory. Tech memes like blogging, tagging and RSS -- sometimes described as "Web 2.0" technologies -- allow individual non-profits, community organizations and campaigns to work together effectively, while still maintaining their individual identities. Each organization has its own web site and/or blog, but shares content with other like-minded organizations by using RSS to move news, stories and information from one site to the other; tagging provides a way of structuring this information into particular topics.

This kind of decentralized collaboration parallels the best practices that have emerged out of research and experience in the fields of social capital, public engagement, planning, public consultation, and public participation. For the past twenty or thirty years -- and gaining ground dramatically in the past decade -- public servants and community service organizations have been exploring ways of bringing the public into organizational decision-making. They've discovered that decisions that have been meaningfully shaped by public input not only enjoy broader public support, but are more effective and more sustainable. It turns out that the most successful public decision-making processes are -- you guessed it! -- decentralized, bottom-up, and participatory.

Social movements and community activists have found a similar path. You can't get people to support a cause by offering a laundry list of ideological justifications. You get people to participate in a political movement by listening to them, letting them set the agenda, and providing ways for them to participate wherever, whenever and however it works for them. It turns out that the most successful social movements and political campaigns are decentralized, bottom-up, and participatory.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the Web is finally offering tools that match the best practices in public decision-making and community organizing. The Internet grew from the same cultural wellspring that inspired many civic engagement practitioners and many social movement organizers. The 1960s counterculture has been cited as a parent of hacker culture, which gave birth to the open source movement. Open source software development takes a participatory approach to the creation of computer code, allowing many people to collaboratively contribute to one or more related programs. It turns out that the fastest and most secure way of writing code is decentralized, bottom-up, and participatory.

Software developers, public planners, collaboration consultants, community organizers -- they've all ended up on the same page, working from something like the same play book. They all see the power and joy of a decentralized, bottom-up, participatory model of collaboration. And they're all trying to build the structures -- technological, organizational, and social -- that will make this form of collaboration the new standard for how to do business, make policy, create art, or communicate.

What's exciting about Web 2.0 -- yes, we really need another name for it! -- is that it offers the technological infrastructure for decentralized, bottom-up, participatory collaboration. Instead of creating another community group to compete for foundation funding, like-minded members of existing community organizations can use a wiki to develop a joint proposal. Instead of distributing government surveys, public servants can access spontaneous, focused feedback by aggregating blog-based policy discussions. Instead of focusing on fundraising in order to pay campaign staff, activist groups can create far-reaching information campaigns that are powered by their members' RSS feeds.

We're still in the early days of discovering how the collaborative toolkit of blogging, tagging and RSS -- not to mention other tools that are just emerging -- can transform our organizational, social and economic structures. Net2 is part of this process of discovery. So are the other "Web 2.0" projects I'm working on, like telecentre.org.

Community-based projects like these -- projects that engage with the decentralized, bottom-up, and participatory potential of Web 2.0 tools -- are crucial to unleashing the transformative power of the next-generation Internet. We hope Social Signal will help to enable that transformation.

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