New on SSIR: Letting Technology Lead

by Amy Sample Ward on November 6, 2009

My latest post for the Stanford Social Innovation Review is up and I hope you’ll dive into the conversation with me!

A recent event has brought up some huge red flags for me around data, around communities, around social impact, inclusion and even more.  It’s a case of letting technology lead (or, rather, the people behind the technology) instead of the communities on the other end.  This event focuses on Causes, an application for supporting and fundraising for organizations by individuals, groups and even the organizations themselves.

First, let me explain what happened yesterday.  Administrators of Causes accounts on MySpace received a notice via email stating, “Thank you for the work you’ve done on Causes on MySpace.  Do to the lack of activity on MySpace, we’ve decided to focus our efforts on the Causes Application on Facebook.”  (To read the full message, click here.)  The message indicated that all Causes-related pages and content on MySpace would be taken down at the end of the week.

This may not seem too terribly interesting or scary, but let’s take a closer look.

What it Means to Individuals

I blogged earlier this year about research that indicates very strongly we’ve replicated our offline social barriers and segmentation in our online social networking platforms.  (Visit danah boyd’s website for more information and research on this topic.) Different communities have aligned and adopted different social networks, social media tools, communications platforms, etc. The tools we use often reflect the communities we are in, whether those communities are geographic, ethnic, or otherwise.

I consistently advocate that organizations go where their community is—because that community is already connected and people are already talking about you, your services or your sector.  Why? Because individuals network together online and the biggest influencers are our closest friends in our network.  When a friend starts a campaign, supports or fundraises for an organization or cause publicly on a social networking platform, they broadcast that action and encourage their friends to do the same.

Causes leaving MySpace means that no users there (though, there certainly seem to be A LOT of users) will be able to continue promoting the causes, organizations or sectors that they care about via a process that’s already been established, adopted, and networked.  I’ve even talked before about how I believe Millennials are using alignment and promotion of social impact areas (whether it’s a sector, like Human Rights; or a nonprofit, like Planned Parenthood; etc.) as a form of self expression and identification.  Applications like Causes also enable individuals to give voices to your work that you don’t have to control or manage – campaigns that benefit you because your supporters believe and appreciate the work you are doing.  (Check out a great post from Ivan Boothe of Rootwork on this topic.)

In a big way, removing the Causes application from MySpace will mean many people don’t have the “space” to bare their badges of support, to leverage a networked dashboard of lapel pins that align them and define them.

What it Means to Communities

Causes’ About statement says, “The goal of all this is what we call “equal opportunity activism.” We’re trying to level the playing field by empowering individuals to change the world.”

The debate around social media and the Internet in general as a leveling force is still heated from all sides.  Yes you can claim that anyone has the power to blog, but that’s really only the people who have access to the tools and the time and the empowerment.  The access debate aside, the removal of Causes from MySpace where there are active communities of supporters means “equal opportunity activism” is defined by only certain communities (as we know that social networking platforms have very different demographic user groups).

It also skews the idea that organizations can focus energy where their communities already are.  Though, with MySpace, organizations have different opportunities for creating profiles and interacting with supporters than on Facebook.

Looking Ahead

Causes has yet to post anything about this on their blog and the MySpace option is still prominently displayed next to Facebook at the top of the site. Obviously, there are many questions users, administrators and communities would like answered.  For example, what will happen to the content, the communications, the information?  Will organizations or administrators still be able to connect with or communicate with their list of supporters? And so on.

But there are many other, larger, questions this example raises for me:

  • Is this an indication that communities will have to take the lead of technologies (and the people behind them)?
  • How can communities communicate and demand technologies take the lead from them?
  • How are organizations building community online in a way that safe guards them from third-parties (maintaining the connections to supporters on MySpace that were gained via Causes by inviting users to register directly with the organization as well, etc.)?
  • What will be the requirement in an open data or open web for applications serving communities?
  • How do we, as public thinkers about this “stuff,” help guide organizations in navigating these questions and others?

What do you think?

I can’t wait to hear what you think! Are you using Causes on MySpace, are you using it on Facebook? Do you have ideas or feelings about the questions above? What other questions do you want answered?

Share your thoughts in a blog post of your own, in the comments below, or on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog.

  • http://readwriteweb.com Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Good post, Amy. This really seems like a shame. Surely there must be some Causes activity on MySpace, right?

  • http://beth.typepad.com Beth Kanter

    Good post Amy. That’s a shame they’re leaving MySpace. But aren’t there are other fundraising applications or platforms that might fill the void?

  • http://www.twitter.com/tomjd tomjd

    Good post Amy, thanks. I agree that it’s a shame they’re leaving Myspace. But I also think sustainability for organizations is important and that if maintaining their myspace presence isn’t sustainable currently we can blame them for this decision.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Thanks for joining in here, Marshall. I definitely agree – nearly 190K stated users certainly seems like it would be enough activity to warrent the application’s existence/remaining on the platform. I then think, well, it’s not always a number game and raw metrics are always misleading… but then I think about WHO is using it on MySpace and WHO is using it on Facebook. Or, more precising, who is on each platform at all.

    I think you’ve nailed it in the RWW post. Encouraging other readers to comment there as well:
    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/causes_on_myspace.php

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Hi Beth – thanks for putting a positive spin on things. I do agree that this naturally opens up an opportunity for other applications to fill the void, but that doesn’t mean I’m not worried about the consequence or innuendo of that pattern of relationship between applications/platforms/user communities.

    Like I said, I think this is the very beginning and I hope we can continue watch developments with critical eyes and be vocal about the way we want our web to work.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Thanks, Tom – I agree, partly, about your sustainability point. I do always advocate that organizations make strategic and sustainable choices in their social media plans. But, if you want to look at it as you are saying, then using any social media tool or platform that isn’t self-hosted is “unsustainable” because they could all be taken down at any minute. But, we can’t play it that way or we wouldn’t be doing much outside of hosting our wordpress blogs :)

    It’s important to use this as a case study in evaluating sustainability though, especially by diversifying where you are online and encouraging supporters to sign up with you directly so you can contact them outside of the platforms.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Beth Kanter just followed up with some more great questions to add to the list above in the post:
    Do people on Myspace using Causes feel angry about this?
    How muchmoney is being raised?
    Does Causes work well as a friend raising app there?

  • http://www.marketingfornonprofits.org Jocelyn

    Amy,

    Great post! And, I’m so happy to know that you are a leader in this conversation. I think your question, “Is this an indication that communities will have to take the lead of technologies (and the people behind them) is a great one. In my mind, the clear answer is, “Yes!” Even though I write about it all the time, I often forget that technology itself does not create change. It’s how people do or don’t use the tools. It’s also hard to forget when you are in a position of class privilege that there are so many people that do not have access to the technologies that we take for granted. I look forward to continuing this conversation at #10NTC and beyond.

    XO, J

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Thanks, Jocelyn!

    I totally agree – this is only the beginning of the conversation. It is integral to our work to remember that, as you say, technology doesn’t make social change, but people do. That should be the guide in the way we evaluate new technologies, create new applications, and work towards collaboration online.

    Thanks for adding in here – and look forward to seeing you next spring at #10NTC!

  • http://beth.typepad.com Beth Kanter

    I just finished summarizing your post
    http://beth.typepad.com/beths_blog/2009/11/causes-ditches-myspace-dont-put-all-your-fundraising-relationship-eggs-in-one-third-party-proprietar.html

    More to add to the puzzle – have organizations/individuals also lost their supporter data as well?

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Thanks, Beth! Ivan as posted a great piece as well exploring many implications for organizations including, as you say, retaining supporter data and more. His piece is at:

    http://rootwork.org/blog/2009/11/causes-abandons-184674-nonprofit-supporters-myspace

  • http://ext337.org marnie webb

    Well said, Amy.

    I think it’s more than a shame that causes is leaving MySpace. But I have to say that I think it is our fault too. Well, not our fault as in you and me, but our fault as in the NGO community. My data here, so to speak, is largely anecdotal. But I don’t think we are making the effort to put up pages and reach out to the MySpace community. Undoubtedly, much of this happens because of good advice — go to where your community is (the same advice I give) — but it is unintentionally perpetuating the kind of divide that danah boyd writes about. Maybe we should be making an effort to go to diverse community and find the best way — which may not be Causes — to interact there.

    So, I wonder if there’s something that we can do to help stop this community red lining.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Thanks, Marnie! I really appreciate your comment and agree that this is a note of a larger issue and responsibility goes all around. Do you have any suggestions about how we can start making a shift on this issue?

    I stand by the “go where your community is” strategy. I do think that organizations can assume where their community is without actually knowing, not recognizing that their community may be on multiple platforms or at least not on the same ones as the staff or other stakeholders, etc.

    Thanks for joining in!

  • http://ext337.org marnie webb

    I hear you, Amy. Go where your community is advice I give and stand by too.

    But maybe there’s something else about deliberately seeking diversity — to change ourselves but also be sure that we are providing more opportunity for others not so much like ourselves to get involved.

    And I wish I had a concrete suggestion. I, frankly, don’t know enough about this issue yet. But I think that there might be some people to recruit into the conversation so that we can have concrete suggestions.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Marnie, I love your honesty. I don’t think any of us have the answers as this is all still so new. But your idea to continually bring more new voices into the conversation is excellent and actionable. I know Joe Solomon is consistently working to do this by broadcasting to networks and to individuals.

    The idea, though, of encouraging organizations to reach out to a diverse audience is rooted, perhaps, in the need for solid organizational and project goals. Audiences are tied to goals but many times our goals aren’t clear. If we can be concrete about what we are doing and how we are changing the world, the people to involve at what time, and how to involve them certainly will touch all members of the community or the geographic area or even the world. But, trying to reach out to everyone about everything you are doing, all the time, will just be a waste of time. So, it all comes back to creating measurable and actionable goals as a first step, that guide naturally the involvement of a diverse audience (whether they are volunteers, donors, or collaborators, etc.).

    Thanks for helping talking this out, thinking out loud together!

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  • http://communityorganizer20.com Debra Askanase

    Hi Amy-
    I’m so incredibly thankful that you were notified, and moved to notify the community about Causes leaving MySpace. The discussion in the comments has been really thoughtful and worthwhile to read. I have a few thoughts:
    – it strikes me as most glaring that Causes didn’t reach out to the MySpace community and express its concerns or thoughts about continuing to offer Causes. What a missed opportunity to include the actual stakeholders – the ones who are MOST vested in the success of MySpace Cauases – in this decision. Would the users of the application have rallied to keep Causes? How much do they care and use it? Could the users have worked with Causes to suggest important changes that could have been instrumental in realigning the application with MySpace? This is just another example of a company not using its resources for success. Even if it had notified the users that Causes was considering closing down the application, that would have been an opportunity for bridge-building.

    2. Your main point about not relying on 3rd party technology for nonprofits is critical, but how realistic? You mention that it is unrealistic for every nonprofit is going to self-host applications and software, and I agree.

    That said, I would look at this through the framework of: what can nonprofits do to create deeper stakeholder relationships with tech providers? (In addition to all your thoughtful questions within the post)

    Lastly – thank you for writing this. It’s a really important discussion.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Thanks so much, Debra, for joining in the conversation here!

    Your first point, about Causes not even alerting the MySpace community about it’s plans to leave, is one of the most furstrating parts of this whole episode. Yes, we’ve covered much of the conversation from the organizations’ perspective or impact but it is equally important to discuss the implications and actions for the individual users. We will never know if the users would have rallied to keep the application, collected feedback to improve the tool or anything else, since they’ve already made their decision and made their move, closing down and deleting all the Causes content from profiles and the site.

    In discussing the people behind the technology and those in front, Sean Watson just published a draft “social media agreement” that I think you’d be interested in:
    http://bit.ly/3ZJ5MA

    I’d love to explore further your question about creating deeper stakeholder relationships with tech providers. I think it’s definitely something people have feelings about and I’d love to hear the different opinions!

    As a next step in the conversations, is there an example you could give of software/platforms/applications you use and the way you’d like to see that relationship work?

    Thanks again for joining in!

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  • http://humanservicestech.wordpress.com jeanine buford

    I’m turning over in my head the conversation about going where your community is, and being open to finding your community in surprising places, and it’s making me think of ourselves–Nonprofit/NGO technology people–as a community not making itself heard enough. I spend time encouraging nonprofits to control their technology destiny, and encouraging individuals to do that too. Perhaps part of the challenge is that we don’t have enough influence/control over the community-building tools we rely on.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Hi Jeanine-

    Thanks so much for jumping into the conversation here! I couldn’t agree with you more. Really.

    I think that this is a perfect example or reflection of rings of communities with strikingly similar issues: the nptechies themselves, the organizations we work in, the larger community and sector of social impact, etc. We can campaign for causes but not for our own sake!

    How can we, as you say, start making more of an “influence/control over the community-building tools we rely on?”

    Would love to hear any ideas you have!

  • http://www.donortools.com Chris Dumas From Donor Tools

    Amy,

    Some very good thoughts from you and the others. Thanks.

    I will be interested in seeing how the space is filled or if in fact there is no demand. If there is an opportunity there, have no fear, someone will make something to fill the void. This is the internet after all.

    When I stopped working working for nonprofits to launch our startup (Yes, our entire management team has worked for nonprofits!), my largest frustration was that I as a person using the software never felt listened to by the technology providers I was working with. This was one of the problems we wanted to fix.

    We have always looked at our customers as our investors and have designed workflows, features and UI with their feedback. We have a very active beta program for organizations that want to invest in the process of giving feedback and in turn getting technology designed how the want.

    What else can technology providers do?

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Thanks for joining the conversation, Chris!

    I appreciate, and totally agree with, your point that the internet isn’t short on tools :) If people really do want something like Causes on MySpace, we trust it will be built.

    It’s great to hear about technology providers who do understand the nonprofit sector, as you’ve all come from there and as it sounds have remained quite open in your development process. I think, for many other providers, the hardest first step is the mindset and the understanding. So, you’re already far ahead.

    For organizations to be able to make educated decisions about the technology they use, I think providers need to be clear about their intentions, their goals and their incentives, as well as where the users fit in.

    It definitely sounds like you are trying to work in an inclusive and user-centered way, and that’s really great to hear. I would love to hear as well though how you communicate with users about your goals, what’s driving your work, and what the future of your tools is, etc.

    Thanks again for joining in!

  • sam freund

    Guess I’m a bit late to the party, but I can’t say that any of this is at all surprising. the only part surprising to me is that this hasn’t happened more often. As more and more functionality and data gets tossed into the cloud, should it come as a shock when a particular segment of the cloud no longer works? It’s why I’d always be nervous about cloudsourcing any type of data or application storage, especially if it’s “free” which usually means you don’t get full control over it.

    I suppose, in general, that this is the danger of going the ‘free’ route; there are no guarantees of anything, since while you may be a “stakeholder”, you also don’t have any proverbial skin in the game, no contract which you can hold someone to, &c.

    I guess my point is: be careful how much you trust anything to still be there 5 years from now. And, if Causes (in particular) were a truly important application, I’m sure 25 nonprofits could toss $50 into a hat to hire a dev to make something similar. With 190k users total (less active), I’m guessing it isn’t.

  • http://amysampleward.org Amy Sample Ward

    Hey Sam – you’re never too late to this party! :) Thanks for joining in.

    I think you raise a great point that I want to touch on a minute. Yes, things that are free often offer less control and access to data or customization, etc. But, I don’t think it’s the “free”-ness of the tools that we necessarily, or exclusively, need to be concerned about. It’s the fact that social technologies are developing at a break-neck pace and thinking about tools being here 5 years from now seems impossible if not silly, just because of the speed of “new” and culture around it fueling its acceleration.

    Thanks again for adding to this! It’s really becoming a rich conversation.

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  • sam freund

    I guess my point is that the “free”ness of the tools makes them in more serious danger of vanishing without handing you your data. If you’re paying for something, there is a legal and financial incentive for the provider to a) stick around and keep providing, and b) give you your information back if it all goes to hell. I’m not saying that there’s *no* danger with a for-pay service, but the blithe reliance on free web apps comes with inherent risks that some don’t recognize.

    I suppose the next unasked question is whether or not an org (npo or otherwise) would *want* to remain on dated technology *coughmyspacecough* when the “new hotness” is available, as well. Clearly the risk there is alienating or losing the folks well behind the technology curve for whatever reason. There’s a good paper (which I can provide the link to if you need it) showing demographics on Facebook and MySpace; economically, it paints a fairly stark picture.

  • http://www.amysampleward.org Amy

    Thanks, Sam! I really appreciate your point about the need for recognizing the level of obligation or “guarantee” of access to data between free and paid-for products. I think that knowledge around this topic is something that will hopefully increase as people become more and more familiar with technology/social media/etc.

    As far as the research you mention…if you could post links for interested readers to learn more, that would be great! I included a link in the main post to danah boyd’s research around social demographics of different social networking platforms, specifically as it relates to choosing networks based on who your organization’s audience is. The more resources, the better!

    Thanks again

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