More than anything, this is an open letter to Rebecca MacKinnon of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society who recently set up BloggerCorps amongst much enthusiasm and applause of fellow bloggers only to see it squander in lack of activity and participation. A couple of days ago she lamented on her own blog that “with nobody else posting (and nobody else requesting author privileges), Bloggercorps has gone dormant for the last month.” She then sent out an email to a few of us asking for our thoughts. Here are mine.
The Peace Corps Project
On July 31st I was reading Kottke.org where I found a link to a blog post by a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana named Scott Stadum who was trying to build a network of bloggers and web designers to help NGO’s that came in contact with Peace Corps volunteers. Many of us enthusiastically volunteered. In fact, it’s interesting to look back over the comments and see that Zack Rosen of CivicSpace (who I met for the first time at the Internet and Society conference) was one of the first to comment.
We started a mailing list. Then a project blog (with the tagline, “gettin’ things done”). Then a wiki. (you can still see my “volunteer page“) We divided into “teams” based on our strengths, on what we could offer to the various projects. We even started an IRC channel to keep in constant communication. In fact, we were so good at talking that we had a page called “discussion about discussion.”
But when it came time for us to finally chip together and get a project done, the whole operation fell apart. Not only did we stop “discussing about discussing,” we stopped discussing period. We each had our own excuses: work, family, friends, etc. But a potentially incredible network of like-minded do gooders fell by the wayside and all we had to show for it was our own incessant babble.
I first heard of BloggerCorps from a podcast of BloggerCon III when the idea was still germinating. There was so much buzz about the project from so many of the so called Alpha Bloggers that I was sure it would be able to accomplish what we had failed to do with the Peace Corps Project. Here is the perfect opportunity for those who can offer help and those who need it to come together and be productive. Yet sadly, BloggerCorps (so far) seems doomed for the same tragic fate as the Peace Corps Project.
If I have learned anything in online organization it is that personal contact cannot be emphasized enough. It doesn’t make sense to write personal emails when you’re discussing messages that might be important to the entire group, but in the end, it’s the only way to get things done. Blog posts and mailing lists create an exciting buzz that gets linked to a lot for about a week, but they don’t get the job done. When I saw the post about Bloggers helping kids in Kentucky on BloggerCorps I immediately thought of my Kentuckian blogger friend Thivai who is an English professor, an outstanding blogger, and a thoughtful guy. I could have posted a link to the post on my own blog which would have reached many more readers, but by writing a personal email to Thivai, it had much more of an effect.
So it’s clear that there is a powerful philanthropic intention amonst bloggers throughout the world to help people as much as they can, but how do we best empower them (us) to do so? First of all, we need much more than just a blog. ICTlogy has linked to the Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. I have yet to read it, but I am sure there are some good hints regarding organization. Alex King has made the software program Tasks Pro which allows online users to coordinate projects, dish out responsibilities, and get things done. Bugzilla, meant for finding bugs in software, is also a great, free resource in project management.
But ideally, the model that BloggerCorps can learn the most from is at the SourceForge community. Here are hundreds of thousands of volunteers all dedicating their time to improving open source software with donations and notoriety as the only forms of recognition. Sourceforge succeeds because of the popularity of Slashdot, the sense of community, and the great system of organization that it uses to encourage the constant and rapid development of software. Each project page has its own summary, fully customizable subdomain home page, forums, to-do list, and donations page (which actually acknowledges those who have donated). I think that this is the same model that BloggerCorps should take. Specifically I would recommend that WorldChanging becomes BloggerCorps’ “slashdot” and that CivicSpace is used as the content management system to create a BloggerCorps version of SourceForge. (I have a hunch that Zack would enthusiastically help out)
Choosing your battles and avoiding duplication
I am constantly trying to be involved in everything at the risk of not accomplishing anything. So I have made it a point to pick my projects carefully and concentrate on doing those well instead of dabbling in just about everything. Social entreprenuerial ideas are a dime a dozen compared to actually getting them done. So, for now, I have limited myself to three projects:
I think we each need to limit ourselves to a set amount of projects and concentrate on those efforts while continuing to remain in contact to avoid duplication. Just this morning I came across this blog post from a fellow at Stanford’s Digital Vision Program. In it he says:
I have a new dream: an internet marketplace for social development that facilitates and fuels cross-sector cooperation among grassroot enterpreneurs, communities, NGOs, corporations, local governments and volunteers in Venezuela and then, worldwide. These actors would aggregate into project teams to work together and accomplish their social goals.
Sound familiar? It’s time we all start working together to really get this ball rolling. If the Berkman Center were to work with Stanford’s Digital Vision Program and other universities around the world dealing with narrowing the digital divide, a global social entrepreneur’s version of SourceForge would be completely viable.
In the end, though, I think the most important point is perseverence. BloggerCorps resonated with so many of us because it is such a great idea. But it’s going to take a long long time before it succeeds. Years if not decades, but if a core group of people stick with it despite the ups and downs of participation, then just like Wikipedia, Creative Commons, and SourceForge, it will in fact succeed.