As I've mentioned before, the RSA is developing a site where its 27,000 members can work with each other on civic innovation projects, which comes down to Doing Good Things from tackling climate change to supporting prison learning, or encouraging greater participation in the arts. It's something the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce has been fostering for over 250 years and chief executive Matthew Taylor is determined to give these endeavours a big push using social media, collaborative working, development of collective intelligence and other fashionably 21st century approaches. It's pretty challenging.
One of the issues this raises is whether to do the traditional organisational thing and put these online activities behind a members-only login, or risk giving away some goodies (and exposing your work to worldwide attention) by joining other people on the Net. I think civic innovation can only work outside the login, because of the collaborations needed. On the other hand, if you are focussed on selling membership services a walled garden approach may be appropriate. Or you can have a mix of open-closed, public-private.
I was rehearsing these arguments with another RSA member the other day and she maintained quite strongly that while she saw the point I was making about collaborations, these depended on the development of shared understanding and trust. This could best take place within a community, and communities need some boundaries. That community might be an organisation, or people with a set of shared interests.
A few years back I might have agreed, but since then I've been blogging a lot, joining social networks, and have ended up with a lot of online relationships around issues of engagement, facilitation, organisational development and social media. From the work fellow bloggers put up in public, the conversations we have, and the endorsement of other people that I trust, I've got to the point where I would happily not only ask some of these new friends for their advice but also do a project together. It has already happened quite a bit.
If I walk into the bar of the RSA I know the other people are members or their guests ... but I don't know whether they would welcome me striking up a conversation, and whether they may turn out to be stimulating company or a bit of a bore. If I follow someone blogging I get a sense of their interests and values, not only from their own content but the comments of other people online that I may know. I feel more sense of community with my blogging friends than I do most RSA members because the possibility of relationship is more visible.
OK, I know here's nothing like a good face-to-face conversation to get to know someone, and the best connections come from a mix of online-offline, phone, texting and so-one. The RSA is exploring that mix and last year ran a terrific one-day open space event to kick the whole process off.
However, there is a danger that if you don't spend much time online and experience the potential of online networking, you may jump to a traditional bounded community solution and - perhaps as director of an organisation - instruct your web developers to put all the good stuff behind a login. You end up inluencing the open or closed, sharing or not sharing culture of your organisation by the architecture of your technology, probably without realising what you are doing. I hope Matthew Taylor doesn't do that; discussions are still under way.
What's needed, in my view, is a better way of understanding what it is to be an individual or organisation in many different places, using a mix of different media appropriate to the situation, and forming relationships that may be short-term of long-term. Belonging is becoming a rather complex business ... and so is community ... and so is membership. It's no longer one place, it is distributed.
Fortunately my friend Ed Mitchell is a not only a great online and workshop facilitator, he also spends the time needed to think all this through at both practical and theoretical level. He shares it on his blog, and recently wrote a couple of terrific posts on the issues. He's dealt with both three types of community (archive link) - centralised, de-centralise and distributed - and also the challenges of facilitating them (archive link). He writes:
With the advent of blogs and other personal tools, people don’t need to converge in centralised communities owned and maintained by publishers or associations or other bodies; they can build their own. Likewise, Social networking, focused around the individual rather than the community, has taken off and given individuals far more control over their public/private divide (although most social networking sites are still ‘walled gardens’).
Also, there has been a cultural move away from identifying oneself as part of a ‘community’ - it’s all about networks and enlightened self-interest at the moment. This will swing back in a while; a middle ground will be found once the community spaces have made their boundaries more porous and learnt to allow a bit more individualism, third party applications, and more gaming/social networking practices in.
I really urge you to read both posts, and watch out for more on this from Ed. I'm looking forward to working together on our project about Re-inventing membership.
Who will decide on "open" - and how? - on the OpenRSA blog
2008, here we come. Where next for RSA networks by Sophia Paker