Tag Archives: opensocial

social networks, walled gardens, and decision trees

Once again, it would appear that Beth Kanter is reading my mind.  Or at least my email!  Not two hours after I had a meeting to discuss the pros and cons of rolling out an organization-specific social network, I found this post in my feed reader.

She raises the question of whether or not it makes sense for nonprofits – especially small or medium nonprofits – to roll out self-contained social networks, rather than just go ahead and use, in whatever limited way, the big box SoNets we all already know and love, like Facebook, MySpace, and the like.

Three key points jumped right out at me, because they were practically verbatim the main topics of the conversation I had just been having with my web development folks:

  1. Facebook and MySpace are only good for reaching younger supporters.
  2. Custom SoNets offer branding and data integration that you can’t get on those sites
  3. Most organizations’ donors aren’t on those sites anyway.

This seems like circular thinking to me, to be honest.  Of course most of your current donors aren’t on Facebook and MySpace – it’s still a pretty new thing for most of the population.  However, most internet usage has historically been led by the young and the early adopters, followed – in time – by the rest of the general population.

When your constituency finally makes it to Facebook, MySpace, or whatever global site we are using in 5 to 8 years, don’t you want to be there when they go looking for you?

And don’t you want to be already quite good at it?

I take a long view of the return on investment in social networks.  It’s like learning to conjugate your French verbs or memorizing the multiplication table:  At the time, it seems like a waste of time and utterly impractical.

But one day, when you’re scrambling for the right bon mot in an interview, or need to rapidly figure out just how many blasted seats you need at your tables of ten at your next big fat fundraiser, the knowledge is THERE.  It’s just there, ready to be used.

The time when you need to be fluent is NOT the time to start learning the language.

And, just like learning French, immersion is often the best method.  You just have to get out there and hack away, atrocious accent and all, until you get the hang of it.

So, first of all, I believe that it is just a matter of time until most of our constituents are all over Facebook, etc.  As it is, right now there are Boomers swarming all over MySpace.  And we should be there to greet them.

Second, you have to make a decision about whether or not you are content to only reach your current members.  Although it may be true that most of your members are not currently using SoNets, could not those who are using SoNets be your next obvious target market?

I work with a lot of cultural organizations, like opera companies, theaters, and symphonies, and these groups have long bemoaned the aging of their audience.  Eventually, all of our current constituencies are going to age up.  Smart organizations will have a plan for recruiting the next generation of audience members, supporters, and donors.

All this having been said, I find the idea of rolling out a custom Social Network very intriguing indeed.  And I am intrigued for all the reasons Beth talks about in her post:

  1. I want to integrate the data I am getting from web users with the data I am getting from my members offline.  I want, in short, to put a face with the IP address.
  2. I want to customize the experience to the particular needs and interests of my organization’s constituency, so that I can further our mission, not Facebook’s mission.
  3. I want to brand the heck out of it.

And our constituency is older and rather tech-resistant.  However, they have increasingly been voicing their desire for more online delivery of services (online grant applications, online tutorials and webinars, online resource sharing and collaboration). 

Are they saying We want a social network?

Of course not.

But is a custom social network a potentially powerful and practical way to build the core around which these services can be provided?

I think so.

You want clear objectives and a measurable way of gauging our success?  I’m going to suggest we stick with what we know: Advance Our Mission.

For us, this may simply boil down to increased service delivery.  We have a set menu of programs we offer our members – how can a custom social network help us increase the reach and grasp of these programs?

We can easily enough look at what our current numbers are along such metrics as:

  1. Number of grant applications received
  2. Number enrolled in workshops and classes
  3. Number assisted through collaborative marketing
  4. Number of members renewing each year (in as much as this implies satisfaction with service delivery)

And there are many more – these are just a few.  Then we can measure those numbers again after a year on a custom social network.

And finally, I hope that I can find somebody to design a site that will be able to take part in the OpenSocial wave of the next few years.  Whether the site is based on Ning or some other platform, it should be built on open enough architecture to allow for widgets to be built and used on your site.  Otherwise, you run the risk of creating yet another silo of information – yet another walled garden.

And good God, do those things get weedy.


So, what were those main points again, from way back at the beginning of the post?

  1. Facebook and MySpace are only good for reaching younger supporters.
  2. Custom SoNets offer branding and data integration that you can’t get on those sites
  3. Most organizations’ donors aren’t on those sites anyway.

What if we changed that to:

  1. Facebook and MySpace are good for reaching younger supporters
  2. It’s likely that usage by oldsters will increase over time
  3. It would be great to reach those younger, tech-savvy audiences we are currently not reaching
  4. It’s clear that our organization should be fluent in the language, etiquette, and mores of Social Networks
  5. Let’s consider developing some small, manageable project – suited to our mission, strategic plan, and budget – that might be obtainable by getting started on a big box social network.


  1. A custom social network might fulfill different needs and desires, such as better branding, more custom features, and improved data integration
  2. We could improve our services to our current members
  3. We could help introduce our more tech-resistant constituents to the language, etiquette, and mores of social networks by giving them a safe, familiar place to get started
  4. Let’s see if building a custom social network fits our mission, our strategic plan,  and our budget.

The most important thing is to keep our mission firmly in sight at all times.  Resist mission creep!


unforeseen consequences of OpenSocial

I was slightly stunned this morning to have coffee with a friend who, when I mentioned the Google announcement about OpenSocial, hadn’t heard about it. Sometimes I forget that not everyone has the same feed reader as I do – I still sometimes think it’s like the New York Times, a shared experience.

So I had the opportunity to take a first pass at trying to explain OpenSocial to someone, which is really good practice for me, since I will be presenting on Web 2.0 for nonprofits at Philanthropy Day on Tuesday, and this announcement does change things somewhat.

Thank god for the rapid-fire response to OpenSocial in the blogosphere!  Over the last couple of days, most if not all of the blogs I regularly read have offered either their take on OpenSocial, or a digest on the posts they found interesting or helpful.  I was able to draw on a few of these when improvising an explanation to my friend this morning.

So I get how OpenSocial will help streamline Social Network strategies, both personal and professional.  It will allow you to seamlessly integrate your personae and networks from a multitude of Social Networks into one coherent profile.  My question is: Is this entirely a good thing? 

What if I’m not fully integrated yet?

I maintain a personal and a professional blog.  Two.  They are entirely separate.  I also maintain a presence on some social networks that is more geared toward my personal persona than my professional persona, and vice versa.  There’s nothing remotely shady about my personal blog or SoNet personae, but I have enjoyed having two different spheres in which to express myself.

I know I’m not alone.

My question is, will OpenSocial eventually break down these protective walls between personae? 

I realize that I will still be able to choose which widgets come from where to live on my “container”  – my personal website where I can draw in my LinkedIn profile, my Twitters, my whatnot.  I realize that the power is still mine to determine what I say and how I say it online.  But my question is more of an observation of a trend – of which OpenSocial is only the most recent signpost.

There’s been a deepening trend toward personal transparency in the blogosphere over the last few years.  And I don’t mean the TMI kind of transparency that leads bloggers to disclose details about their dietary foibles, bedroom habits, and scatological histories.  These are all details that suddenly saw the light of day because of the supposed “anonymity” of the internet. 

I mean the kind of transparency that looks the reader in the eye, states my full name, rank, and serial number, and claims my thoughts and ideas as my own.  No pseudonyms, no fey anonymity.

I remember how shocked and impressed I was, years ago, when I first read Dooce and saw that she had emblazoned on her masthead “I’m Heather B. Armstrong.  This is my website.” 

Of course Dooce is famous for being one of the first well-publicized people to lose her job because of her blog.  She counsels people not to make the same mistake she did, even though it sort of brought her everlasting fame.  For years I heeded that advice.

But things have changed.  Bloggers no longer have to remain anonymous.  Employers encourage blogging, or at least tolerate it.  Yes, the same rules still hold that have always held for public discourse – don’t say something you wouldn’t want your mother – or your boss – to hear.  But blogging – and online presences – are more accepted now in the mainstream.  You’re less likely to get fired just because you blog.

In addition to the changing paradigm in the outside world, I am finding that my interior landscape has changed.  It is becoming more and more difficult to decide where I should post something – personal or professional?  What’s the difference?

For some this may not be news.  For many of us, it is earth-shattering.

I am extremely fortunate in that my professional life has naturally and organically come to reflect more and more my pre-existing, personal passions and preferences.  I – finally! – get to do what I love.

So why maintain a wall that no longer serves any purpose?

When I was in college, I lived in the most distant dorm to campus available.  I went to classes, then I came home.  I felt sorry for the students who could see the classroom buildings from their bedroom windows.  I dressed in certain clothes for work/classes and changed into “play clothes” when I came home.

Now I can feel the two wardrobes, the two spheres, becoming one.  I heard the first, faint strains of this approaching tune when I started reading about the OpenID movement – and I thought h’m.  Now that OpenSocial is on its way, I am h’mming even louder.