From Corante: snail mail as a digital campaign tool

From my blog on Corante: Anti-war e-activists have embraced one of the old standbys of pre-digital politics: snail mail. Bring Them Home Now is selling postage stamps with the “bring them home” symbol: a yellow ribbon super-imposed on a peace sign. BTHN is...

Business tunes into grassroots community

I’m just back from SXSW, where I was reminded that there are still a few people out there who are thinking about the Internet as a potential business opportunity rather than as a chance to reinvent democracy.

At the panel I was on — Remixing Business for a Convergent World — it seemed that what is really converging is how both business folks and political hacks are looking at the Net. Let’s take, for example, the question of how to make strategic use of blogs — a question that my fellow-panelist, Robert Scoble, addresses in his recent book Naked Conversations.

Thanks to blogs, businesses can no longer afford to ignore even their smallest customers. Traditional blue-chips are starting to recognize that their next p.r. crisis could be precipitated by a cranky shareholder or dissatisfied customer who blogs about the company. As for the latest generation of web start-ups — sites like Squidoo, Frappr, or LinkedIn — they’re not only sensitive to customer perceptions: their entire business models are based on user (i.e. customer) contributed value.

Once you start to see customers are value creators, rather than value consumers, a lot of business truths get turned upside-down. Take, for example, the idea that businesses are primarily accountable to their boards or shareholders. Does anyone out there think that the success of or Flickr depends more on Yahoo shareholders than on the users who are contributing bookmarks, photos, and software plug-ins?

If businesses find themselves suddenly accountable to their users, that kind of accountability is old news to both government and civil society organizations. Governments have always been primarily (if imperfectly) accountable to citizen-voters, and civil society organizations (whether community service groups or political advocacy organizations) have always been primarily accountable to their members and donors.

The net result is that it’s business that now needs to learn from civic and public organizations about how to enage at the grassroots level. It’s not like public and nonprofit organizations have all the answers — great examples of effective two-way member/voter engagement online are still rarer than the many examples of organizations that are still in “broadcast” mode — but at least there’s a decade of effort to look at.

For those of us who’ve been thinking about online democracy and grassroots engagement for something like that long, the rise in business interest should come as (mostly) good news. Sure, there’s more competition for public attention: efforts at getting voters to participate in policy discussion now have to compete with businesses offering free ipods in return for customer feedback.

But there’s also a rapidly expanding toolkit for grassroots community-building. Tools like Squidoo, Flickr, and offer entirely new ways of involving members and encouraging members to interact with one another. Just as important, the private sector’s growing embrace of customer “community” may help to build a broader culture of pervasive engagement.

Monkey Love

Monkey love Last night someone handed me this monkey at the Flickr/Yahoo/ party,and told me I was supposed to pass it along. I confessed that I really wanted to just pass it along to my 2-year-old, and whoever it was who handed it to me thought that sounded...

UPDATE: Choosing effective tags

I wrote this almost a year ago, as a relative newbie. Now that I’m a little more experienced, I’ve revised it to include some new tips to choosing effective bookmarks. Step 1: Lie awake at night, wondering whether there isn’t...

Look who’s popular

When I opened up my custom Google home page this morning I noticed that one of the most popular links for today was a guide to creating a block hover effect for a list of links. This sounded cool — basically, a neater-looking alternative to links that simply change colour when you mouse over them — so I checked it out.

And what does this popular page turn out to be? A tribute to the brilliant work that NetSquared’s designer, Veerle Pieters, has done in redesigning her own blog. So brilliant, in fact, that somebody went to the trouble of documenting exactly how she accomplished her link rollover effect.

Tag your way to domination

I wrote this almost a year ago, as a relative newbie. Now that I’m a little more experienced, I’ve revised it to include some new tips to choosing effective bookmarks.

Step 1: Lie awake at night, wondering whether there isn’t something that can organize your favourite web links that will work better than your browser’s favourites collection.
Step 2: Lie awake at night, wondering whether you should use Furl or Spurl or

Step 2a (optional): Lie awake at night, wishing you’d chosen

Step 3: Lie awake at night, wondering which tags you should use for all the web pages you are now adding to you make it to step 3, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be a lemming. Check how other people are tagging the kinds of sites you want to remember. Delicious Linkbacks makes this very easy. Bear in mind that different people will bookmark the same site for different reasons: I might bookmark Terminus 1525 as a great example of a Drupal site, while you are saving it as a link to young Canadian artists.
  2. Follow the herd. When in doubt, pick the tag that seems to have the most links — this is the leading tag of the options you’re considering, so hopefully will emerge as the dominant focal point (so you don’t have to check open-source, opensource AND open_source to keep on top of the big world of open source). deliberately obscures the question of how many links exist under any one tag, but you can get a rough sense by seeing how many pages exist for a given link by adding a number to the tag page you’re looking at, with the syntax For example, pulls up a nice healthy-sized page of links, whereas gives you no links at all — demonstrating that opensource is the more popular tag of the two.
  3. Avoid camels. Camel case (you know, CamelCase) doesn’t work — it just comes out as all lower case letters, with the words mushed together.
  4. Like nature, abhors a vacuum. Blank spaces don’t work either. So if you tag something “camel case” it will show up on the tag page for “camel” and the tag page for “case”.
  5. Punctuate with care. Underscores and dashes work ok. But before you create a tag with an underscore or a dash, ask yourself: Does this tag exist in a non-underscored form? For example, I don’t think the world is especially well-served by having three separate forks for open-source, open_source and opensource. Whatever you do, stay away from commas: while there are lots of tag-enabled web services that comma separate their tags, comma-separating your tags will add commas to your tags.
  6. Independence is a virtue. If your underscore or dash serves to separate two words, could each of the two words be more useful as independent tags? For example, tagging the Drupal site with the tags “open” and “source” — so that it shows up on separate pages for open and source — is a lot less useful than giving it the opensource tag. But rather than using the tag canadianpolitics, try using two tags: Canada and politics. That way your resource will show up under resources about Canada and about politics.
  7. Hang out at crossroads. If you’ve followed the guideline above to use two separate tags rather than smooshing two words into one tag, find the resources you’re interested in by using intersecting tags. For example, even if you use the tags politics, you can easily find all the links on Canadian politics by entering the URL into your browser’s address bar.
  8. Co-ordinate your efforts. If you’re part of a professional community or community of practice, consider establishing a common set of standards for how to tag resources you want to share among yourselves. A wiki can help do the job.
  9. Tags are written in pencil. Unlike a Tiffany engraving, a tag is not a permanent commitment. If you realize that you’ve used the wrong tag for a particular link, you can alway re-edit that link. Even more useful, will let you rename any of your tags — so if you tagged a bunch of stuff “food” that you later wish you’d tagged as “cooking”, you can re-tag them by visiting[yourdelicioususername]/tags. Bonus tip for Mac users: the Cocoalicious client (which offers another interface for accessing your bookmarks) is a really great tool for renaming tags. If you decide to do a major renovation of your tagging schema, Cocoalicious makes the job much faster and easier — you can just click on any tag to edit it, just the way you’d edit a file name in the finder.
  10. On, everyone knows you’re a dog. Or at least, they will know — if you tag a photo of yourself with the word “dog”. That’s right, you’re tagging in public, so think twice before adopting the tag “enemies” for your business competitors, or “prospects” for all the folks you’re pitching.
  11. Shh! This one’s for:you. There is one way to be discreet when you’re tagging on, which is to use the “for:” tag. (Thanks to Richard Eriksson for this tip.) If you know a friend or colleague’s username, you can send him or her a recommended link by tagging it “for:username”. So if you wanted to send me a link, for example, you’d tag it “for:awsamuel”.
  12. Spread the word. The very best way to refine your tagging practice is to embed yourself in a community of users. If your colleagues, friends and collaborators are fellow, that is a powerful incentive to tag your links in a way that makes them discoverable to your community. So start building that community today by encouraging everyone you know to leave browser favorites behind, and get

Vancouverites: learn about Open Space

Open Space Technology is an increasingly popular alternative to conventional “talking head” conferences. But a successful open space event involves more than just booking a room. Now, BC-area folks have a chance to learn about how to organize open space...

Choosing your e-mail tool

As we gear up to send out our very first Social Signal e-newsletter, I’m investigating some of the e-mail newsletter tools out there. There’s a lot to be said for using a tool that’s integrated with the rest of your web site — like the NetSquared Newsletter, which is powered by Drupal — but there are some additional bells and whistles that come with a dedicated e-mail tool. There’s a really fabulous round-up of the options over at Idealware.

If you want to see which tool we choose, then sign up for our newsletter