Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My latest projects

This blog is obviously a bit out-of-date. My latest efforts are all on: 2People.org and the Greater Seattle Climate Dialogues.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Reef in beta

Reef -- the social software that's a core part of 2People -- has been in beta since early December. I originally released it thinking that it would be only for testing, but then it was stable enough that I started adding real content. Seeing it start to look real is very satisfying.

The thing I'm most pleased about is that I finally understand what it really is. It looks a lot like a custom web app designed to help people collaborate on footprint reduction. And it is that ... but actually it's much more general-purpose than that. It's a tool for creating and sharing content, and creating and sharing different views of that content.

The "creating and sharing content" is what any wiki or CMS does for you. Reef adds some features (page types, especially) that make it especially suited for our collective work on sustainability: todo lists, footprint graphs, etc. This much is pretty cool.

But the "creating and sharing different views of that content" is what is really different about Reef. If you think about online communities that get large, the limiting factor is our inability to stay in touch with more than a tiny slice of it. This limits our ability to really constitute one community. A place like Tribe.net is really a whole lot of smaller communities contained in one web site. I wanted Reef to support staying in touch with the community as a whole. And what's come out of that desire is a tool that lets users slice and dice the content on the site in every possible way. These "slices" are themselves just wiki pages, so they can be created and shared like any other page -- but they constitute different views of the community. Of course, there's no community to view yet, but eventually you'll be able to construct a whole new interface to 2People that's specific to your interests ... say, solar energy in the Southwest. This may sound like narrowing, but it's fundamentally different than the narrowing that happens on Tribe. There, you go inside the walls of your group, and you're cut off from anything else. In Reef, there are no walls. Solar energy in the Southwest isn't a group, it's just a particular view of the whole community.

Catching up ... Imagine Cascadia

Has it really been two months since my last post?! I can't believe it... so much has been happening, but I guess I kept waiting for the dust to settle,... and it never seems to. So, my apologies for suddenly dumping a whole series of posts into the end-of-year bin. And thanks to Paul Bain for the nudge...

My last post was about attending the inaugural meeting of a large bioregional sustainability effort. Since then, I've become involved in the core planning team that's hosting the conversations that we hope will lead to some kind of ongoing "movement" -- though what exactly that looks like depends a lot on who you talk to.

This group is pretty interesting -- there's a desire not to merely repeat what's been tried before, but find a new way to catalyze connection among people and groups to create a new dynamic.

There's a lot of wisdom in this group, but the pace of action is frustrating to me. It's been two months since the first big meeting, and I don't feel we have a lot to show for that time -- though I'm sure that others would strenuously disagree. It's a deep lesson that even among people who find themselves on the core team of an effort such as this we can be so far apart. Nonetheless, we're moving forward, and will hold another plenary meeting (with several hundred attendees) in late January.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Making connections in Seattle

One of the first things I did here in Seattle was volunteer to give a little talk about 2People at the monthly Planetwork meeting. Planetwork is a "convening organization" that aims to bring people together who are interested in applying networking (web, internet) technology to create large-scale global change. Pretty good fit for what we're doing, eh? They have monthly meetings in a number of cities, but not in Boston, so this was my first opportunity. The meeting was small, and my allotted time brief. To me it felt surprisingly superficial -- a quick little talk, a brief discussion, and then on to a smorgasbord of other (random) topics. I guess I have to get used to the idea of a kind of sampler plate approach to networking. But just to attest to the power of this approach, I did connect with a woman there with deep ties to Indymedia, who the very next day invited me to be part of a large, brainstorming meeting convened by some amazing folks at Seattle Biotech Legacy Foundation.

About 100 of us spent 4 hours together, in various structured and unstructured processes, getting to know each other and beginning to brainstorm about visions of a sustainable future and how to get there. As you'd expect, nothing specific came out of this first meeting. But I'm totally jazzed that we were there and that there's an opening created to bring this group of people together. So many resonances with 2People, and what we're working on -- I kept hearing people looking for ways to build community. A fine start to my stay in Seattle...

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Seattle and beyond...

I'm in Seattle, living with my brother and working full-time on the project. It's going great -- will have a demo done pretty soon. Next week I'll give a talk at the Seattle branch of Planetwork.

Three different friends told me to get in touch with the Great Transition Initative (at Tellus Institute), and I finally did. Had a great chat with Orion Kriegman, who has agreed to join the advisory group, and invited me to participate in GTI. GTI is a brain trust of sustainability scholars and activists mapping out a vision for the transition to sustainability. Their approach is more top-down than I prefer, but it's a great opportunity to connect with many smart people from all over the globe.

Two new advisors join our distinguished group: Orion Kriegman and Dave Miller. Great to have their totally distinctive skills and vision on board!

Orion Kriegman: Organizer and researcher at Tellus Institute's Great Transition Initative. Orion is a graduate of the Harvard's Kennedy School, where he specialised in community participation in the sustainable development of urban neighborhoods. He coordinated the creation of the Urban Ecovillage Network (UEN) and was the Project Officer for the Reflecting on Peace Practice Project (RPP), a practitioner's learning network gathering lessons learned about various peacebuilding efforts in internal armed conflicts.

Dave Miller: Seasoned entrepreneur, angel investor, and clean energy advocate. In his former life, Dave started and sold a successful tech company, then helped run a venture fund at Lucent. He's currently getting his Ph.D. at MIT's lab for Energy and the Environment, and is active at the intersection of energy, business, and environmentalism.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Do hierarchical classification systems always suck?

Clay Shirky argued recently that "classification schemes are going to be largely displaced by tagging". He points to Amazon and Wikipedia as two examples of how classification systems suck, and it would be hard to disagree. Shirky is a smart guy, and having just implemented our own user-driven classification system in Reef, his essay made me stop and wonder whether ours was destined to suck, too.

More to the point, it seemed like a good time to stop and think about how our classification system will integrate with our tagging system (which we have, too). Right next to Shirky's post is an interesting post by Tom Coates on how tags behave when the things being tagged also inhabit a hierarchical system.

There's a basic point that Shirky is muddying: he conflates classification systems with rigid, top-down, professionally applied metadata. He should not be mentioning Amazon and Wikipedia in the same breath, because the former (rigid, top-down, etc) deserves to be junked, while the latter (flexible, user-driven) is simply an experiment that needs to be improved.

The reason classification in Wikipedia is lousy is not that it's too expensive or too hard, it's that most people don't care about it; it's not terribly useful, because you don't usually browse encylopedias. I use wikipedia all the time, but I go there with specific questions and search not browse is exactly what I need. This is precisely why I rarely (if ever) bookmark wikipedia pages -- and I never tag them. I don't need to tag them.

The situation in Reef is quite different, because there are all sorts of information types (discussion, events, articles, etc.) that flow past you in this system. There's a need to be able to flag and organize anything and everything in whatever way you want -- Reef works like del.icio.us: you bookmark something by tagging it.

At the same time, articles (and for now, only articles) live in a hierarchical page space. If you want to add a new article, you have to add it as the child of some other page, which means that every article has a place in the page hierarchy. This is different than a traditional wiki because we treat the link as a parent/child relationship and let you explicitly view and edit a page's "paths". That's what's turns this into a classification system rather than a link network. This hierarchy is user-created, user-modifiable, and more flexible than your file system because a page can have as many different parents and children as you want it to.

The reason I think it's imperative that Reef support classification is that for 2People browsing is essential. One of our prime use cases is: you don't know what action to take next. You need to be able to, say, go to the section on "green homes" and get an overview of what your options are.

The interesting question is, what's the relationship between the page hierarchy and the tagging system? In Tom Coates' example, they're using tags applied to songs to generate information about albums and artists. This implies a sort of "summation operator" for tags that lets you derive a tagset that could be applied to the "thing" (say, album) that represents the collection of tagged items. I don't think this model really applies in Reef. Let's say you take all the articles that are descendants of the "energy efficiency" article, and look at their tags. I don't see that there would be much benefit in "summing" the tagsets. The nature of this hierarchical relationship is different, and also the tags are different -- people tag songs with tags like "groovy" and "techno", but in Reef the tags are going to be more content-driven.

But there's another way to look at it. Tags form an implicit, hierarchical classification system that is derivable from tag co-occurrences. (Ask me about this, if you're interested in the algorithm.) So, in principle, we could generate alternate views of the page hierarchy based on tagsets. But for us, now, this is too complicated. In the meantime, it makes sense to think of integrating tag info into the page hierarchy -- perhaps by using tags to generate lists of "related" pages that can appear alongside each page's list of "child" pages.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Game Theory and Green Consumers

Joel Makower has a thoughtful piece on green consumers and why there's such a gap between green concern and actual buying habits. The gist of his answer is that green products are marketed wrong. I'm oversimplifying a bit, but basically Makower thinks that the average consumer won't make a product choice strictly on ecological concerns, and therefore marketers have to translate green choices into "healthier", "more efficient", or "higher quality" choices. In the political realm, this is the thinking of the Apollo Alliance -- their premise is (again, oversimplifying) that voters will never vote green, so we have to translate green into jobs and security.

As an activist, I think this is fundamentally wrong. It's not that I think Apollo is a bad idea, or that it would be terrible if people bought compact fluorescents just because they save money. But I do believe that we will not market our way to sustainability. If people don't actually "get it", then we will never make the enormous changes we need to make in the tiny amount of time we have to do it. That's why education is a cornerstone of 2People's strategy.

On his side, Makower can point to decades of evidence showing that people don't buy (or vote) green. But he omits some crucial factors in analyzing this evidence. We as consumers have lousy information. Is this product truly green, or is just hype? How much of a difference will product A make versus product B? Is anyone else buying it, or am I just a lone actor making an idealistic statement that no one hears? For heaven's sake, my neighbor asked me the other day if "organic food" was safe, because he heard that people got sick from the manure!

At the same time, we as consumers always have one signal that's crystal clear: how much does it cost? In the absence of good answers to the good questions, the rational thing to do is to pay more attention to the information we have that's most reliable. And that's what we do. And that's why we're in a race to the bottom. Better marketing is not going to create a race to the top; reliable signals about cause and effect will.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


As of Oct., I'll be working full-time on the 2People project. Yay! I just gave notice at Harvard, and I'll be moving in with my brother in Seattle to save expenses. My aim is to launch the site more or less by the end of the year.

I'm thrilled to announce that Carey McKinley has joined us as a development consultant and fundraiser. She and I will sit down next week and draft our first letters of inquiry to funders in search of seed money to support 2People while it's getting off the ground.