Posts Tagged ‘Habitat for Humanity’

Building a community: Does a community have to be diverse to be successful?

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Last year, Wikipedia made headlines when a survey commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation discovered only 13% of Wikipedia’s writers and editors are women.  Among people who read but don’t write or edit for Wikipedia, 69% are men and 31% are women.  The same survey found that Wikipedians were much more highly educated than the rest of the population, with 19% saying they have a Master’s degree and 4.4% saying they have a Ph.D.

Facebook and MySpace have similarly gotten press for news that the demographics of the social networks’ members vary across race, class, and education.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these sites, or any other sites, would be more popular among certain demographic groups.

All communities, online or off, tend to reflect their founders and the worlds they come from.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg while he was at Harvard.  Facebook ended up more popular with Ivy League students.  Wikipedia was founded using wiki technology and principles from the open source software movement.  Wikipedians, not surprisingly, are “mostly male computer geeks,” as described by founder Jimmy Wales.  Yelp started in San Francisco, and the irreverent, young tone echoes the tone of many Silicon Valley start-ups, attracting irreverent, young people.  It’s not just that the sites’ founders attract people who are like them.  They set the tone, based on values they hold, that tend to be shared by people similar to them.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia

Even as sites grow and expand beyond the first adopters, communities can develop cultures that are more attractive to certain groups than others.

Women are allegedly more active than men on Facebook, whereas the opposite is true on Twitter. 

Although both sites involve sharing information, the mechanisms are quite different.

I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why women are more drawn to Facebook or why men are more drawn to Twitter.  I do think it’s funny when writers forget their personal preferences might not be universal.  This writer, this writer, and this writer, who agree Twitter is much better than Facebook — all men.

Martha Stewart

Here’s one prominent exception, Martha Stewart, who says,

First of all, you don’t have to spend any time on it, and, second of all, you reach a lot more people. And I don’t have to ‘befriend’ and do all that other dippy stuff that they do on Facebook.

Which sounds like a stereotypically male sort of thing to say.

But it is worth noting that certain ways of interacting are more appealing to some groups than others, even when sites are not being marketed specifically to one group or another.

Why does it matter?  A successful community is not necessarily a diverse one.

A forum for breast cancer patients won’t measure the health of its community by the number of men on it.

One of the most attractive things about the Internet is its ability to concentrate people with esoteric interests.

However, for communities with more universal goals, diversity is an important issue.

It makes sense that Wikipedia has publicly been working on making its community of writers and editors more diverse.  If Wikipedia’s goal is to create “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge,” it has to include the knowledge and perspective of people other than male computer geeks.  (I can’t say for sure, but I would bet there were a couple of male computer geeks involved in the writing of this rather literal exposition of the “sanitary napkin.”)

As part of that plan, Wikipedia is rolling out a redesign, which they hope will encourage more people to contribute their knowledge.

Whether or not the redesign drastically affects Wikipedia’s numbers, the plan will likely involve a delicate balancing act.

Wikipedia needs to attract new members without alienating the original members of its community.

If the old interface was intimidating to some people, it was probably equally attractive to others.  Those who didn’t find it intimidating could identify as part of a hard-core, committed group, an identity that can be crucial for energizing early members of a community.

It’s the problem of any community that wants to grow – how do you grow without destroying the sense of community that helped it start in the first place?

Large organizations have traditionally tried to maintain a sense of community with local chapters.

The Sierra Club and Habitat for Humanity International are both built on a network of local affiliates that have a certain amount of autonomy.  The Catholic Church and other religious organizations operate using a similar organizational structure, though with varying degrees of centralized control.

Online, the examples are fewer.

In fact, the only example of a community in our study that’s grown obviously beyond the boundaries of the original group is Facebook, and as I’ve discussed earlier, it’s an outlier.

It contains communities but is not actually a community in and of itself.  Despite the demographic differences between Facebook and MySpace, Facebook has arguably grown so big, those differences have become negligible.  It almost doesn’t matter if Facebook is somewhat more popular among certain groups when it has 400 million active users.  At the same time, though, each Facebook user’s experience of Facebook is filtered through is or her friends.  Even though the dilemma of whether to accept a friend request from a parent has become a common joke, most people on Facebook haven’t directly experienced how quickly Facebook has expanded.

This may be why Facebook has managed to transcend its origins so quickly as an online social network for Harvard students.  The feeling of intimacy and connection hasn’t changed for the average user.  It’s questionable whether Facebook can maintain that sense of localized community with the various changes it’s made to how user information is shared, but Facebook is gambling that it can.

The meaning of membership

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

BSA Member Card, Focht, Flickr/Creative Commons License Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works

We’ve been talking about a “datatrust” for awhile now, why we think we need one, how we envision it as a long-lasting institution, what kind of technologies we might employ for it to provide measurable guarantees around privacy.

But we’re now starting to get down to the nitty-gritty.  How will it actually work?  What will it mean to an actual researcher, nonprofit organization, policy-maker?  To you?

First and foremost, we imagine the datatrust as a member-based data bank where organizations and individuals can safely contribute personal information to inform research and public policy.

The member-based part is key.  We plan to be both non-partisan and absolutely transparent.  We have no particular academic or policy ax to grind. Our only goal is to maximize the quantity, quality and diversity of sensitive data that is made available to the public.  To ensure that decisions aren’t made even with an unconscious bias, we plan to build a decentralized structure that relies on the participation and contribution of members to build and sustain the datatrust.

But the word membership can mean a lot of different things.  When my local public radio station exhorts me to be a member, membership doesn’t seem to come with something more than a tote bag.  In contrast, if you’re a Wikipedian, it means you’ve actually written or edited an entry, and the more you participate, the more access and privileges you get, including the right to vote for members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board.

So for the past couple of months, I’ve been looking at member-based communities.  Not all of them would call themselves member-based communities, but they all have in common a structure that requires participation from a large group of people.  Some are nonprofits, some are businesses running social networks; most are online, a few are not.  Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to summarize how these communities work, what motivates the members, how the communities monitor themselves, and how diverse they are, because all of these issues will inform the decisions we make in creating our datatrust.

Here are the ten communities included in this study:

MySpace is one of the world’s largest social networks with about 125 million users, though Facebook has in the last year surpassed MySpace with the number of users and pageviews both in the U.S. and the rest of the world.  The look and feel of MySpace is very different from Facebook, since MySpace users are allowed to customize their pages.  There’s also been a lot of press about the demographic differences between MySpace and Facebook, but those differences are probably disappearing as Facebook simply grows and grows.  MySpace remains more popular than Facebook as a site for bands and music.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with about 400 million users.  Despite its popularity and recent news that it even surpassed Google in Internet traffic, it’s also been the center of controversy, particularly regarding user privacy and terms of use, with each major change made to the site.

Yelp is a social network-based user review site for local businesses in multiple cities in the U.S.  It’s growing much faster than older sites like Citysearch, and its spawned offline events where really avid reviewers meet and socialize.  It has also gotten controversy with accusations that it extorts businesses to take out ads in return for highlighting good reviews or pulling bad ones.  Although Yelp has denied these accusations, a class-action lawsuit was recently filed against Yelp.

Flickr is a popular social network-based photo-sharing site.  Unlike many photo-sharing sites like Kodak Gallery or Photobucket, Flickr has emphasized sharing photos with the general public and organization by crowdsourcing via tags. Although it does have some services for printing photos and mugs, its main service is photo-hosting and storage, particularly for bloggers and photographers.  In addition to hosting photos, Flickr also manages projects like “The Commons” with the Library of Congress and other institutions interested in putting their public domain photos in wider circulation.

Slashdot is a news aggregator for self-professed nerds with estimated traffic of 5.5 million users per month.  It shares news stories contributed by its users, who also comment on the stories and moderate the comments.  Useful contribution is rewarded with karma points, which increases the privileges each user gets.

Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.  The number of named accounts for writers and editors is at about 11 million; about 300,000 have edited Wikipedia more than ten times.  Despite early skepticism, Wikipedia has become one of the most trafficked sites online and has expanded into multiple countries around the world.  Wikipedia has clearly developed a community of avid and enthusiastic users who contribute without monetary compensation, but in its tenth year, it is evaluating the lack of diversity among Wikipedians (only 13% of contributors are women, for one) and what steps it should take to provide access to a free encyclopedia all over the world. Wikipedia has also instituted a number of changes over the years to deal with vandalism and inaccuracies.

Open Source Software – rather than look at one particular open source project, for this study, I focused on the book Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel, which describes how projects should work.  Obviously, actual projects will vary widely, but we decided this was an area worth looking at because the open source movement has spent years figuring out how to structure shared work.

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the U.S.  It has 1.3 million members, but because it is not a primarily online organization, it isn’t easy to evaluate the activities of its members online.  However, it recently created a series of social media sites for online networking among Sierra Club members and supporters and our report focuses primarily on this aspect of their member activities.

The Park Slope Food Coop is a local cooperative grocery store in Park Slope Brooklyn.  (DISCLAIMER: I’ve been a member since 2005, and my research on how it works is based on my experiences there.)  Unlike many coops, membership is predicated on work.  All of its approximately 150,000 members are required to work a two hour-45 minute shift every four weeks, which reduces labor costs and thus reduces prices.  Despite being a place many people love to hate, it continues to thrive and attract new members.

Habitat for Humanity International is a major nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness by building decent housing around the world.  (DISCLAIMER: I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in high school and college and participated in a fundraising bike trip in 1999.)  Like the Sierra Club, it is also an offline organization, but its website provided more detailed information on how its affiliates work and I drew on my personal experience in trying to understand how Habitat encourages and retains volunteers.


Get Adobe Flash player