“Doing things together online”

Recently, a couple of events allowed me to look again at how groups of people “do things together online”.

I’ve had a chance to meet up a few times in a short period with Aldo de Moor, and that helped us reflect on where things have come since we first drafted the contours of our “social context model”, nearly ten years ago now.

Add a few potential projects in the pipeline that deal with global networks of people who should produce something together. And the opportunity to dive a bit deeper into the NABUUR concept, to see how it is still pretty unique.

Aldo and I quickly concluded that although a lot is happening, and happening fast, there actually has been little progress in what we see as the hardest part of (online) collaboration: supporting work flows. Sure enough, people find ways to use the techno-centric tools that emerge, and services like Basecamp are making inroads into this. But most platforms still have some way to go.

With the rise of general-purpose social networking platforms, more and more organisations look at ways to also have such a platform. Let’s first distinguish two aspects:

  1. One is to create a meeting point for like-minded people, to (eventually) work on a group activity.
  2. Another aspect is to use it for “social media marketing”, to let people talk to their peers about an idea or campaign.

General-purpose platforms like Facebook, MySpace, Hyves are great tools for the social media marketing. With technologies like OpenSocial and Facebook Apps, you might even be able to structure your meeting points inside such a platform. Or you just build a “store-front” like a group or fan page that tries to draw people into your own platform of meeting points.

So now you are gathering groups of like-minded people. Now what?

Many platforms seem to stop at this “gathering phase” around a more or less single step: sign a petition, raise funds, pass on some viral video, feel solidarity around your idea. To me, it often feels “evangelic”, people take turns and “come out”, talk publicly about their deep-felt passion and ideas. However, there is no support or follow-up to actually help you through implementing your ideas, and often even little opportunity to actually have a real group conversation. It’s more like a flash mob, depending heavily on the social marketing to go viral.

  • Pledgebank helps you make a pledge and get solidarity from others
  • ChangeEverything lets you express the change you want to make
  • Kiva and MyC4 let groups of people raise money to invest in business

Keep the members informed

Some platforms make it a bit more sticky, and do offer tools to develop a group identity, essential for group members to build stronger commitment, and a level of (individual) accountability. This usually happens with tools like discussion forums, blogs, document and file sharing, and perhaps an agenda or wiki. Since the first BBSs of the 1980s, the technology has become easier to use (task-level improvements), but has not developed a lot of workflow support yet (group process improvements). The execution happens “outsite”, with progress reports online, and few tools to track progress or results.

  • Change.org gathers people around causes, keeping each other informed
  • Voor de Wereld van Morgen helps actions to gather support by others
  • Amazee is actually mentioning “collaborate” as part of the activity (but still needs to deliver)

Track progress

And then there are a few initiatives that actually try to help a group translate their goals into individual tasks and phases, closer towards a work breakdown structure, and then offer tools to let group members keep track of tasks and results. The main example of successful communities collaborating together online are open source projects, where group process patterns have emerged, and tools like issue trackers, road maps, and revision control actually support group members. Attempts in other fields seem to be still exploring how to make such group process patterns understandable for “everyone”.

  • NABUUR has “project rooms” with tasks you can do, and is adding story-telling and more social fun elements
  • OpenPlans helps keep track of tasks needed to realise the goals
  • Microvolunteerism is just starting to explore tools and formats to structure volunteer collaboration
  • BiDnetworks allows investors to also coach the projects they invested in


The “group gathering” initiatives build mainly on personal motivations of members, offering a story-telling environment to strenthen and sustain such motivations and connect individual members. The “work process” initiatives are pretty results-oriented, with very implicit reference to motivations of members.

Bringing these approaches together is a first step. They cover different parts of the sociality model, and address different levels in the social context model. But then there still will be gaps.

Next week, Aldo and I will be on a work-retreat, something we do more often, to mix day-time work with night-time deep reflections. We’re both stoked to dust off and develop our social context model, and I hope to have another look at the sociality angle as well.

Posted in Ideas, Research and tagged , , , , , .

One Comment

  1. He Rolf, leuke voorbeelden. Er is ook nog http://www.helpalot.org. Er gebeurt best veel, ik weet niet zo goed of er nu ruimte is voor alle initiatieven of dat er wel wat meer mag worden samengewerkt voor je gaat bouwen? sluit goed aan bij de context masterclass over web2.0 voor draagvlakversterking.

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