Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Communication Tools: 1/7 of an Effective Advocacy Network

network, advocacy, activism, social change, communications, connections, Netcentric Campaigns
At Netcentric Campaigns, we talk a lot about the Seven Elements of Network Advocacy. These are the key pieces that make advocacy networks successful. One of these Seven Elements is having a solid communications grid. A communications grid is the mix of communications tools people have access to within the network.

On a personal note, I have a master’s in communication, I’ve worked for one of the biggest communications firms in world, and my title for six years was Communications Director. So it’s easy for me to look at a problem from a “communications lens.”

In advocacy networks, having the ability to write, call, chat or meet other members of the network seems like a no-brainer. And that’s why so many people associate the word “network” with what we would refer to as a “communications grid.”

But it’s not, really. A network is much bigger than any one tool like Facebook, email, or a phone. And that’s why we make it just one of seven elements that make up a good network.

That said, it is definitely an essential one. Not all means of communication count as “good” communications grids, though. For example, many communications tools are used in a top-down, broadcast style. A press release, a newsletter, even an email blastthese aren’t really the most effective communications tools for an advocacy network.

Networks operate best when there is flat communications grid, when everyone can easily reach out to other members of the network. This means that communication in the network is decentralized, and that enables members to build stronger ties directly with one another.

For example, for two of the networks we work with, and, we built a digital map where you can see all the other leaders in the movement. With one click of the mouse, members of a network can reach out to others directly. In other networks, we’ve used simpler tools like listservs, LinkedIn Groups or Facebook Groupsbut each only as one part of a larger communications grid.

Not everyone will want to use the same tools to communicate and nearly everyone will want to use those tools in different ways so it’s wise to have a range of tools that your network members can access to build relationships with one another. And it’s important to have a variety of tools so that different preferences and network needs are addressed. (As an obvious example, Facebook messaging won’t give you the same functionality as sending an email will, and posting to a LinkedIn group won’t necessarily distribute information in the same was sending to a listserv would.)

Even though the communications grid is just one of the Seven Elements, it also works to complement the other elements. A strong communications grid can help build social ties and trust within the network as people use the communications tool to build relationships with one another. It can disseminate feedback mechanisms (or be used as one itself), and help people navigate what’s working well in the network and what needs improvement. And it can promote the shared resources network members have access to through the network.

What is your favorite flat communications tool? What mix of tools do you find most effective for your organization? Let us know in the comments section!

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by kris krüg

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Network of Networks vs. Moving People Across Network Boundaries

Occasionally, I run across the phrase “a network of networks.” The general idea is pretty clear, but the language can also sound a little “empire building” or “the one ring to rule them all” -ish. It is important when this language pops up to dig into it.

A network of networks is not about combining networks, discounting the value of any networks, or suggesting that a solution to the current problems is to create only one network. If we are talking about a network of networks, we want to pivot that conversation to talk about the most important part: people. People are real, tangible and wonderful. They are the heart of any network. People are the ones collaborating to actually make change. In more technical terms, people are the core building blocks - or nodes - in any basic conversation about networks in a social change context. Multiple people can be tied to each other, and when multiple people are tied to each other, they are a network.
  Usually, people are in several networks simultaneously. Many of the ways we visualize networks are flat and designed to show networks with various distance across a two-dimensional space. In reality, not only are networks intersecting, but they overlap through many people and can occupy very same spaces. The extent, robustness and overlap of these many connections among people build the network’s strength among them. People can (and do) leverage many network ties to build the quality and strength of relationships with each other. If the networks are functional, the more overlap and ties people have with each other the stronger the network connectivity is among them.

For example, think of a close friend of yours. You might have kids in the same school and be on a parents’ listserv. You might have gone to the same college and be in the same alumni network. You also might be friends on Facebook, LinkedIn and other online communities. You might like some of the same companies and organizations and be in shared “networks” for those issues or brands. While any one of those spaces might claim your relationship with one another as a “connection” in their “network,” you know that it is much deeper than that. You see each other at parties, you pass each other while you’re walking your dogs, you have phone calls, you might even video chat. Those platforms and communities don’t define the connection between you. It’s not a two-dimensional relationship. Your connections are made stronger by each person that you have overlap with.

The ways the ties in a network are allowed to be used are governed by formal and informal constraints. The governance of how the ties and network can be used are called network protocols. In our work, we are very clear about what a tie is (via our Seven Elements). When the ties across a network of people are followed to their ends, we identify that edge as a network boundary. When people are not connected, they're considered beyond the boundary of the network. Network connections and network resources do not flow beyond network boundaries. 
We know that some network builders like Facebook try to make the ties within a network all-inclusive and the protocols for use very restrictive. But they can’t manage all their users’ ties and network overlaps. People are on Facebook, but they also call or each other, and can use different networks like LinkedIn, or Twitter in very different ways. 
It is up to the network designers to encourage and enable people to leverage multi-level and multi-network ties to work more closely with each other. Network standards and protocols enable networks to connect more deeply and allow for smoother flows of certain people and resources across network boundaries. Network protocols are the rules that govern the use of the ties. The ways we help people move resources, knowledge and collaboration across the network boundaries requires focusing both on building overlap and harmonizing network protocols and making the network borders more porous so that the people can leverage multiple levels of network interaction to work more efficiently and effectively.
The vision is not one of a “network of networks,” but a vision of creating the network-spanning protocols and opening trusted gates across the networks so that power and resources are delivered and available to each leader or person―no matter where they plug in to connect or who their first ties are into the network.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by Chrysa Papalazarou

Friday, February 6, 2015

Networks, Information, Engagement & Truth

One was an 18th century leader of the Enlightenment, champion of democracy and individual rights, American founding father and president. The other was a 20th century psychologist, computer scientist and visionary of the powerful promise of computer networks. And for me, like bookends, they provide the supporting beliefs that have formed the basis of my thinking about the promise of the potential impact of the Internet on politics. The metaphorical shelf of books that their thinking supports has grown very large over the last 20 years, during which time the Internet has exploded into widespread use, and in doing so has developed and demonstrated tremendous impacts. Exploring the breadth of that shelf is more than can be tackled in a single blog post. Instead, I want to write just a bit about the thinking of these two visionary Americans, and their specific words that have meant so much to me.

Among his many diverse interests and areas of expertise, Thomas Jefferson was well known as a champion of education. In 1779, as governor of Virginia, he introduced A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge—his plan for a system of public education. He viewed his efforts to establish the University of Virginia as among his most important accomplishments. Jefferson believed not only in the ability for any individual to better themselves through education, but also that a well-informed and educated citizenry was necessary to prevent the tyranny of those in power and ensure the overall success of any democracy.

For many years, the above bit of ASCII art (an original piece of my own creation), along with a favorite quote from my favorite founding father, served as the signature that was appended to every email that I sent. The image of the Capitol captured my pride for my work in the U.S. Senate, and the Jefferson quote was both a reminder and a warning that our nation, and civilization itself, depends on people being informed.

Sometime around 1998, I read a wonderful history of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon called Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. And through that history, I was introduced to the work and writings of the other bookend of my thinking about technology and politics: J.C.R. Licklider.

In 1962, Licklider was the Director of the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPANET was the predecessor of the Internet) and is considered among computer science’s most important figures. His prescient writings about computers, networks and their impacts, well, sort of blew my mind. The below excerpt from Where Wizards Stay Up Late captures the key Licklider (Just ‘Lick’ to many) prediction that I’ve never forgotten:

The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted was that technological progress would save humanity. The political process was a favorite example of his. In a McLuhanesque view of the power of electronic media, Lick saw a future in which, thanks in large part to the reach of computers, most citizens would be “informed about, and interested in, and involved in, the process of government.” He imagined what he called “home computer consoles” and television sets linked together in a massive network. “The political process,” he wrote, “would essentially be a giant teleconference, and a campaign would be a months-long series of communications among candidates, propagandists, commentators, political action groups, and voters. The key is the self-motivating exhilaration that accompanies truly effective interaction with information through a good console and a good network to a good computer.

Wait, what?? Did he really foretell and describe online advocacy as we know it today 50 years ago? Blogging, websites, broadcast emails, meetups, online petitions, social media and everything else...providing the self-motivating exhilaration to move people to participate in our political process.

But where Jefferson flagged the danger of an ignorant citizenry to democracy, and Licklider noted technology’s role in connecting voters to truly effective interaction with information, I can’t help but think of another cautionary quote from a great American President:

At a recent conference, during a discussion about climate change, I uncharitably expressed my frustration with my fellow Americans who would elect a Congressional majority that overwhelmingly denies climate change is real and caused by our actions. To which a colleague replied, “They are just buried in the same lies repeated again and again, leaving them unable to tell what the truth is.”

Information itself can be good or bad, and technology cares little about which sort it disseminates and propagates. Avoiding ignorance, as Jefferson’s hopes for civilization require, presume an ability to recognize and reject bad information to avoid being ill-informed. Licklider describes a ‘good console’ and a ‘good network’ as needed for facilitating an ‘effective interaction with information,’ but not specifically ‘good information.’ An effective interaction with bad information is equally likely. Ignorance born of bad, but effectively delivered information can and does do damage to our political process.

Ultimately, individuals must not avoid the real work of reasoning, discriminating and validating the information they choose to consume online. Licklider’s vision for public engagement through the effective dissemination of information is no antidote for the potential of the ignorance that may still result.

Tonight, while working on this blog post, I learned that my long-beloved Jefferson quote is only partially accurate (a common dilemma among Jefferson quotes). Better informed as I am now, thanks to Licklider’s network and my effective interaction with good information, I still believe that their two bookends provide hope for the ongoing positive development of a well-informed and politically engaged public.