Open Society Institute, the network of philanthropic foundations established by billionaire George Soros, has long promoted access to information because it understands that information is power and that people in positions of power often try to withhold information from those who don’t have power. In most organizations – and even entire fields – information flows only upward from those with the least social capital to those with the most social capital (and orders flow down). A team of people working on a project report their findings to a manager who then reports to his/her manager until the most important and valuable information from all projects reaches the CEO or executive director. That person then withholds information from others because doing so safeguards his or her importance; no one else has a complete overview of the organization. Helge Fahrnberger has demonstrated this pattern in a variety of contexts. Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody that the modern institutional hierarchy originated with the US railway system in the 19th century when a lack of managerial oversight could easily lead to disastrous accidents. (I have yet to see anyone support or challenge that claim.)

Valdis Krebs, an expert in social network analysis, has found over and over again that the happiest and most innovative organizations are those with a healthy intersection of ideas and debates across different teams. Employees are happier and more motivated to work when information and opportunities are spread widely across organizations with as few information bottlenecks as possible. When their work and ideas just filter up through managers without feedback other than their quarterly evaluations they grow despondent and prefer to spend their days on Facebook (a non-hierarchical network!).

I believe that Open Society Institute’s grantmaking shows that it understand the importance of spreading information, opportunities, and social capital across networks. But as an institution OSI still has a lot of room to improve. And they certainly have their challenges. Not only must they share information across their various programs, but also through their impressive list of in-country foundations. My understanding is that these foundations were created to have a fair deal of autonomy from Open Society Institute (the mothership), but they are still expected to collaborate with one another and with each other. In addition, they are also expected to coordinate with other donors in their countries in order to most effectively support civil society and promote issues that donors have in common.

Of course, the networked nature of social media is an ideal way to democratize grant-giving, distribute social capital, and to gauge what the up-and-coming hot issues are by staying tuned to the influential nodes of issue-based networks.

This is why Beth Kanter and I were in New York today for a joint meeting organized by the Information and Media programs, and with the presence of many donors from the various country-based foundations. I’ll admit, it wasn’t the easiest group to work with at the start (the average introduction was something like “Hi, my name is X and I think Twitter is a waste of time”), but by the end of the day I think we made some converts out of what were initially some pretty harsh critics:

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Of course I had to pay her to post that, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. But really, this is the thing about Twitter and many similar tools – they don’t make sense until you try them. And for most people they don’t make sense until you try them out for a couple weeks. You have to wait until you come across information that is relevant to you – information that you otherwise wouldn’t have come across – in order to appreciate the advantage of being part of the network.

There is also always an inherent power struggle in teaching networked technologies to people in positions of power. New technologies always take power away from one group and afford it to another. Individuals who are at the top of institutional hierarchies often grow frustrated when they come to understand that it’s increasingly not the position you have but rather the connections you have that lead to information awareness, and to power. Often times the workshops I give are full of people who have been working years – if not decades – to move up the institutional hierarchy to positions of power. They are comfortable being reported to by their team and reporting up to their director. But they are often – and understandably – resistant to enter a network where all that matters is how which connections you have and how well you are able to absorb and parse information.

The best part of my job is seeing the uncontrollable smiles when people finally get it. When they realize that they’ve entered a network, that they are part of the ecosystem. I saw quite a few of those smiles today and they always make me happy.

I constantly come across statistics like this one: just two percent of Wikipedia users account for 75% of participation. And the general assumption is that this says something about human nature itself. But rarely do we take into account that perhaps Wikipedia is not well designed to encourage broad participation. (I have yet to really participate myself because no one has walked me through it and I feel the Wikipedia community is intimidating and not always welcoming.) I’ve come across few researchers out there who are really taking an in-depth look at when and why people participate in communities and platforms like Wikipedia, Global Voices, and Twitter. One such researcher who I’m keeping my eyes on is Judd Antin at Berkeley’s School of Information. His preliminary findings show that how a system is designed – and how welcoming a community is to outsiders – has a significant impact on the ratio between active and passive participation. I’m looking forward to Judd’s PhD thesis – so far he’s dealing with a lot of these issues in a very intelligent way.

At the beginning of today’s workshop the majority of those attending were openly skeptical about social media. (Though they obviously had some interest or they wouldn’t have been there in the first place.) But once Beth and I walked them through how the tools actually work and how different activists and organizations have used those tools to their advantage, everyone in the room opened up to the idea of adopting the tools and techniques themselves. Like every other aspect in life, it’s difficult to really accept something until you understand it.

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