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#Ask4Change: Making better use of our ‘cognitive surplus’

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Imagine if, as Clay Shirky has suggested, a fraction of the time we spent collectively pissing around on the web, could be channelled into constructive, positive and relatively easy actions for social change…

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Twitter Revolution

Image by Patrick McCurdy

Ed Whyman and I have been bumping into each other at events and on the street for at least six months. The first time we met – in the company of David Pinto – we mulled over the idea of a piece of social technology that could match-up small tasks related to good causes, with people a) interested in that particular good cause, and b) with the skill set required to easily do that small task.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a couple of hours at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, conversationally moving between abstract ideas and practical ways of applying them, Ed and I (with the valuable technical input of Andy Broomfield) revisited the idea we had tossed around several months before.

Cognitive Surplus

A few months ago I saw Clay Shirky speak at the RSA on his new book, Cognitive Surplus. His thesis is basically that more and more of us have loads more leisure time than we used to and that the internet is gradually enabling our collective free time to connect with others to do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise, whether sharing YouTube videos of cats doing cute stuff, or giving away stuff we’d otherwise throw away.

I didn’t immediately put the pieces together, but yesterday, Ed and I’s conversation made me think about how this concept might apply to our idea of a still-to-be-built social wotsit…

The social wotsit we were thinking of

Imagine if you were a campaign group or a charity, working around:

  • Human rights
  • Youth violence
  • Drug addiction
  • Cancer treatment
  • International conflicts
  • Etcetera…

And you needed:

  • A database cleaned
  • A legal letter written
  • A venue for a meeting
  • A speaker for an event
  • A CSS edit to a website
  • Etcetera

Now imagine if you were a person (difficult, I know), who had a particular interest in [insert cause from above], and had [insert relevant skill or asset associated with listed need] and had a particular amount of time on your hands, whether five minutes, or five days… and said charity or campaigning organisations was able to easily get hold of you and let you know (with no obligation) that they could use your help… Is there a chance you might do it?

Crowd-sourcing a Twitter app?

So we (Andy Broomfield’s technical knowledge was of great help here) started thinking about this as a Twitter app… we’re continuing the conversation on a Google Doc… and are wondering if anyone with some of the relevant skills or further ideas would be interested in helping make this happen? Or if something just like this already exists and we don’t have to bother?

We are working on an ‘everyone does something that we can all feel good about’ kind of basis, so no money will change hands, but credit will be appropriately shared around… Check out the Google Doc if you’re interested in taking part!

Cheers!

Liam

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Trust works for business, why not for charity?

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Paul Story in Edinburgh

Paul Story in Edinburgh

I met Paul Story in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival last week. Paul is an author of fiction. I admittedly don’t read much fiction (Kurt Vonnegut aside), but when I met him, he was handing out hard copies of his novel ‘Dreamwords’, having dubbed them ‘The Honesty Edition’. Here’s how he describes ‘The Honesty Edition’ on his website:

“I ask people to help themselves to a physical copy of Dreamwords Book One on trust. They should pay only if they wish to see the rest of the series published. Book Two is complete but it needs to find its readers before it is able to survive. By trusting people to be honest I hope that future fans of the series will father the next book by paying for the one they have just read. Furthermore, honest readers who do not respond to the story are honour bound to find someone else who agrees to the honesty deal. This way, and with luck, each copy will have a chance to find its own champion. In an ideal world, I only want those people who enjoy the book to pay for it.”

Sounds a bit naive, doesn’t it? Giving people you’ve never met the product of your labour, on the trust that they will send you some money, some time down the road? Traditional economics and much old school psychology would both likely toss the idea before giving it a chance to breathe. Paul Story ignored them, maxed out a credit card and printed 10,000 copies to give out on the streets of Scotland.

“There are no tracking chips in the spine, no check-out tills nearby, no security cameras or guards monitoring the display and no legal documents to sign. The Honesty Edition has been designed so that the reader is free from any pressure to pay beyond their own sense of honour. My bet is that most people are trustworthy and that enough will enjoy the story to make this crazy idea work.”

Bias declared: I loved the idea from the moment I read the sign Paul had set himself up with in Edinburgh. That said, when he outlined some of the early outcomes, I was still very impressed:

  • He has made more on the books he’s distributed so far (from the money people have sent him online), than he would have if he’d sold them in stores;
  • The 1st thousand distributed copies of ‘Book One’ of the series have (I believe) gone ½ way to paying for costs of the entire run;
  • If he is paid the suggested £7.99 for less than ½ of the total 10,000 copies, it will subsidise the costs of both Book One and Book Two. Anything more pays his rent.

Post-Web?

Dreamwords cover

Dreamwords Book One

I see Paul Story’s ‘Honesty Edition’ as a ‘Post-Web’ experiment – taking the ideas underpinning the ways we’ve come to use the internet (to share, discuss and work together for mutual benefit on a mass-scale) and bringing them back into the ‘real world’ again.

Paul has trusted each of us who have taken a copy of the book to be both its funders and distributors – much as countless independent bands have done online in recent years – but primarily through people we are in human (rather than exclusively web-based) contact with. The internet will play some role in its potential success (it’s how payments are sent, people may Tweet/blog about it, etc), but this will be secondary to directly passing the book along to someone you think will appreciate it.

Much like how Shinobi Ninja, Steve Lawson and countless other musicians use Twitter and other social platforms, Paul Story lets the fan do his marketing, promotion and distribution, based-on the sense of value they/we get from his work. What’s most interesting to me is his structured experiment to see if the same behaviours will carry-over at a comparable scale in the non-online world…

Trust works

The key lesson I’ve taken from ‘The Honesty Edition’ is that even in the seemingly impersonal and self-motivated context of business transactions, trust works! As James Surowiecki, looking at the growth of successful Quaker-run businesses in eighteenth-and-nineteenth century Britain highlights, “as Quaker prosperity grew, people drew a connection between that prosperity, and the sect’s reputation for reliability and trustworthiness” [The Wisdom of Crowds, p. 119].

Dan Pink summarises a similar theme from Clay Shirky’s latest book, Cognitive Surplus, demonstrating the issues with creating untrusting structures in our workplaces, businesses and elsewhere in society:

“when we design systems that assume bad faith from the participants, and whose main purpose is to defend against that nasty behaviour, we often foster the very behaviour we’re trying to deter. People will push and push the limits of the formal rules, search for every available loophole, and look for ways to game the system when the defenders aren’t watching. By contrast, a structure of rules that assumes good faith can actually encourage that behaviour.”

In another recent piece, Pink writes: “Like any valuable relationship, the ones we have in business hinge on trust. And trust depends on openness, respect and humanity.”

What are voluntary sector organisations doing about trust?

So what have leading voluntary organisations and non-profits done with these ideas? My experiences have found very little, as many of us have clung to the traditional idiom that trust is at-best a naive guiding principle, and have structured our organisations accordingly.

Has your organisation bucked-the-trend? The voluntary sector should be leading the charge in this shift, but I’ve yet to see evidence that this is the case…

I’m hoping you can prove me wrong!

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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