Talkin' N2Y2 Blues

gunner's picture

So it's been a long road to this long blog post; I've had lots of good discussions about this year's Net2 program with lots of great folks, including my fine friends at CompuMentor. And now I want to share my concerns with the Net2 community and hear what others think about the structure of the N2Y2 agenda.

I have nothing but love and respect for the whole CompuMentor posse. Marnie, I often name you and Jon Stahl as the two "sensei's" whose shared insights have been most formative in my journey to understand the nonprofit technology space. Daniel, you're arguably the most successful entrepreneur in the nonprofit tech sector, with 20+ years of success stories, millions a year in revenue, and a thriving array of programs, projects and products. And Billy, you're one of my best new buds, a man after my own heart who keeps it real, always wants to hear the truth, and sees yourself in service to the sector. Plus CompuMentor has partnered on and sponsored Aspiration events, so we're operationally grateful to boot.

And I totally appreciate the goal of this year's N2Y2 endeavor: to shine the spotlight on promising projects, connect them with resources and create greater benefit to the nonprofit tech sector. I so love that vision, and I've definitely benefited in no small way.

But in a nutshell, I find myself "triggered" and otherwise agitated by the design of the N2Y2 agenda, and I've spent a lot of cycles trying to unpack that and figure out why I'm not comfortable being a Net2 featured project competing in real time for cash prizes. I'm fearful of coming off as an ungrateful beneficiary or a whiny lefty, but there are some thoughts in my head that I just have to get out into circulation.

For starters, let me own my circumstances: I got myself in this situation plain and simple. I'm Executive Director of a small nonprofit with limited resources. The Net2 contest offered money for something we were already doing, and I knew my board and my partners expected us to enter Social Source Commons (SSC). I really don't like contests (more on that below), but by the time I threw our hat in the ring, there were 150 other hats already there, and I figured we'd enjoy a bump in traffic, get SSC on a few more radars, and happily continue on our quest towards building a compelling value proposition for our users. I was honestly caught off guard when we were named a featured project, grateful and honored but bemused and confused.

And let me say that the Net2 exposure has been nothing but good for business. We've seen our SSC site traffic double, correlated to the exact days of the contest and subsequent announcements. We've enjoyed corresponding jumps in new accounts and user-contributed content, and more folks are reaching out to us for partnership opportunities. And the process of answering the N2Y2 contest questions made for excellent introspection and self-assessment. Net2 has already realized its goals for SSC.

So then what's my problem?

It's in reflecting on the N2Y2 agenda as a mirror for the nonprofit tech sector as a whole that I really get sad. Funding for nonprofit tech is tough all over; putting an American Idol-style veneer on the process may be innovative on the funder side, but it sure doesn't feel that way on my side of that line.

The Net2 tagline is "Remixing the Web for Social Change", but an agenda model that pits 21 promising projects against one another in public doesn't seem to me the most likely strategy to engender more innovative mashups, interoperability or content sharing between those 21 projects or the sector as a whole. I'd be much more excited to see efforts that reward collaboration among projects instead of competition between them. The N2Y2 agenda format puts me in a veritable Prisoner's Dilemma: do I stand in solidarity with like-minded projects in my field as I have tried to do for years, striving to interoperate, collaborate and blur organizational and informational boundaries for collective sector benefit, or do I make calculated decisions to maximize return to my organization at the effective expense of others? I tag that conundrum with "yikes" and "no-win".

The N2Y2 approach is based on scarcity model (i.e., a fixed $100,000 pie where we fight for the bigger slices) rather than an abundance model (a broad pool of potential collaborators and funders with no set bounds on collective benefit). While the latter is arguably embedded in the former with the N2Y2 agenda, it's a matter of focus and primary paradigm. Michelle Martin recently did an excellent blog post on how "scarcity thinking" potentially affects content sharing in the nonprofit sector, and Michelle Murrain elaborated with her inimitable clarity on parallels in open source software and technology for nonprofits; I take their points and echo them in an open question: is the N2Y2 agenda model moving innovators in the nonprofit tech sector towards abundance thinking or scarcity thinking?

And it's not just the competition component of the N2Y2 agenda I lament. Those who know me and my work know I have no shortage of opinions on agenda design for nonprofit events. The notion that a great majority of 350 brilliant people will be in sit-and-listen-mode for the better part of 2 days represents a real opportunity cost to me; an event that aims to remix the web for social change should arguably remix the agenda for social interaction :^) I also question to what degree the agenda's competition component favors those demographics who are most comfortable speaking in English to large crowds; will the innovation and potential of those presenters who are shy or non-native English speakers really be borne out in this format? Does ability to pitch a room really equate to ability to best impact the sector and change the world?

(Agenda side note: I'm really grateful for Net2's willingness to let me facilitate a pre-event collaborative session among the featured projects in response to my concerns, but I continue to worry whether any collaborative ethos we establish on Monday afternoon will crash like a wave on the beach come Tuesday morning.)

And I wonder aloud how the N2Y2 contest processes (both pre-event and at-event) reflect the values of "content from the edge" that is so often said to characterize this era of internet innovation? It's pretty web 1.0 to let a community vote in a prescribed process; it's much more au courant to let the community design the process. Wikipedia was a total failure before it was a total success, Del.icio.us took years to become usable; they succeeded when they enabled the users to drive the whole process. Looking to the future, I heartily encourage the Net2 team to consider how it would work to engage the community at the outset of the Net2 process design, not just once the rules have been cast.

The internet has catalyzed many "flattenings" in the information economies; blogging has allowed myriad citizens to become de facto journalists, Wikipedia has surfaced an unprecedentedly large community of domain experts who previously would not have been so recognized, and YouTube has fundamentally shifted video production values from expensive sound stages to lo-fi domiciles. Peer-networked economies are taking the best of what many have to contribute and mixing them into wholes that are greater than the sum of the respective parts. But an N2Y2 agenda that puts 21 projects in lonely spotlights and invites them to speak across a conceptual moat to funders, appointed experts and invite-only voters profoundly reinforces old-school dichotomies of power and control, not new-school memes of movement as network.

A phrase that has always held profound resonance for me is "be the change". As such I've struggled my entire adult life, trying to evolve from the ethic of competition that was drilled into me in school to an ethic of collaboration that puts collective benefit ahead of individual achievement. This is to me not so much a matter of self-righteous do-gooderness, but instead a matter of pragmatism. With 25 years as a teacher, corporate software engineer, dotcom exec, and nonprofit director under my belt, my empirical data all points in one direction: to take on global challenges ranging from climate change to loss of civil liberties to hunger to human rights, we have to more effectively pool and coordinate our efforts, not fragment them through competition.

Some may say "competition is a natural state of the world" and "competition breeds innovation"; having had the privilege of a 10-year run in Silicon Valley, I would concur. But in the context of N2Y2, such thinking begs the question of the ultimate goal: is it to fund the coolest tools, or realize the best possible world? I would argue those are not synonymous goals by any means, and that a contest predicated on individual project gain can not possibly yield maximal collective benefit. I realize those are fighting words, but I'm ready to stand my ground. Peacefully :^)

So in a nutshell, stepping on stage at N2Y2 will make me feel immensely conflicted. That's my problem, and nobody else's, but as I've struggled to cast words to convey my mental wrangling, I've felt the need to share the same, and seek feedback and insight from the wisdom of this crowd.

Again, thank you Net2: you've challenged me to be better, you've grown my audience, and you've forced me to analyze in rich detail why I do what I do. I salute your efforts to innovate in the funding of promising social change technologies and I know that your intentions are nothing but righteous.

I look forward to the learnings that a community of comments will yield.

thanks & peace,

gunner