Open and Generous – the two principals for the modern web.

Too much time and public money is being wasted on closed systems which rarely work as networks.

If you’re a community group in Birmingham you can create your own free web presence on two new services Birmingham Voice (see also) and ChangeUp. The principal problem with both is ownership. Yes you can sign up and fill in your organisations details and create a webpage – but the chances of you using it are slim.

We know this from two other similar endeavours – the (excuse me for a moment while I bite a hand that feeds ) b:cen microsites and the similar Banf microsites. Neither work, they just create a series of moribund pages which are updated automatically with news from the central organisation. My own local Cannon Hill Neighbourhood Forum illustrates this perfectly (link).

Both also suffer from login mania. The b:cen chat rooms require you to login to see the conversation, never mind contribute to it.  Imagine two rooms where people are talking, one with an open door the other a closed door. Which conversation are you most likely to join? Banf goes a step further with this little treat on the “Welcome” page telling us “If your are a citizen of Bimringham please register to access the resources on this site”.

Lessons from these two examples are that some people do register, some create their own miscrosites but virtually nobody uses them, updates them or visits them.

Why I ask should we expect Voices or Change Up to be any different? As sites they live in their own bubble. Change up has isolated itself from the modern web to the extent that not even it’s news page carries an rss feed. The terms and conditions for Voice include these two gems:

Except for setting-up of an approved link you are not entitled (nor will you assist others) to set up links from other websites to VOICE (whether by hypertext linking, deep-linking, framing, tagging or otherwise) without our prior written consent, which consent we may at our absolute discretion, and without providing a reason, grant or withhold.

and

Create links with other websites, without obtaining the relevant permission or authority where required

Which basically means you can’t link to or from this site without our permission!

Earlier today I popped round the corner and showed the administrator for a women’s project how to set up a free blog, went through the basics of rss feeds and talked about how to integrate content with Facebook and Youtube etc etc. Like Pete Ashton I know these are simple powerful and inexpensive tools. Like Stefan at 3form I believe it also needs to be explained how they help create networks and relationships. So showing people how to use these tools is a much more potent approach than any portal which essentially seeks to contain and control information. All the state needs to do then is create and share quality content on an RSS feed.

Thanks to Bounder for the email tip.

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13 comments

  1. bounder says:

    Thanks Nick, I knew you\’d put it better than I could – I\’ve organised my thoughts on this a little (here: http://www.jonbounds.co.uk/blog/42/when-free-is-a-bad-deal/). I\’m not sure that the concepts behind RSS and blogging are quite simple enough – I\’ve tried to explain them to a number of very intelligent people that could really use them but not always with much success. There are some big concepts here that mere evangelism such as we practice isn\’t quite enough to solve.

  2. Hi Nick, great post. I totally agree with many of your sentiments here, and sites like these are growing daily.
    Often also one of my gripes is they do not actually deliver what groups think they’ll deliver, and have little real grass roots benefit, and in many cases, standards and accessibility aren’t the best. Community directories and portals (and there are some good ones, but only a few in my eyes!) often don’t serve much purpose (my view again) other than the project runners being able to profile a sector (which does have a use although groups and communities should also be encouraged to be able to create their own space more in harmony with these other ‘exclusive’ sites too) There is alot to be said about empowering like you say, a group like you did today, to be able to do it themselves. The voluntary sector is one that should innovate and promote an inclusive society, and things like these ‘closed’ sites create more barriers! My own personal views (have to be careful what I write because of my main job!) is that often ideas for projects like this are driven by those that don’t always fully understand the wider potential of what could have really been achieved. If this has been missed, the real chance for opportunity and benefit has been lost.

  3. Hi Nick
    Thanks for saying this. I know you’ve ben frustrated by the echoing passages of unused cyberspace on these so-called community forums. The silly thing is that they could be used by so many of us, but all my voluntary work with at least 4 community groups is done via other routes. What a crazy wasted loss of opportunity – or do the designers of these forums not want them used for the same reason as some librarians are supposed to hate to see their books sullied by being read.

    Best

    Simon

  4. Dave Briggs says:

    Great post, Nick.

    There are two options here:

    1) Wherever possible we instruct people in how to use existing, free tools to create the community they need

    2) The many people with an interest in social media and community networks get together to develop something that is open and *useful*.

    I’d be up for either.

    D

  5. nick booth says:

    Thanks for the comment Dave. I hope you’re enjoying the new laptop. I’m a huge fan of number 1 – not least because it helps people link to each other – which is of course what the internet is. What do you have in mind for 2?

  6. Dave Briggs says:

    I’ll be honest and say that I don’t really know 🙄

    But… this is an issue that has come up in a umber of different forums, most notably the UK Internet exchange list (let me know if the link doesn’t work).

    I don’t think it would take too much work to hack together a Drupal based community platform with a base in social media, that could be made available free to communities or local authorities wanting to put communities together (as is often the case) and supported through it’s own community.

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