Could a local social change site knock off Facebook for the social networking Webby?

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Change Everything - the site we built for Vancity Credit Union - never seems to run short on surprises.

Shortly after it launched in 2006, a self-organized drive delivered more than 70 big bags of warm clothing to homeless shelters in Vancouver's downtown east side. Not long after, a Change Everything member called EnviroWoman captured our imaginations (and those of folks like WorldChanging and The Guardian) with her tales of living plastic-free for a year.

So what does a community like that do for an encore? It becomes a finalist for the social networking Webby Award - the Webbys are pretty much the biggest online awards out there - putting it head-to-head with huge communities like Bebo and, oh yes, a little site you may have heard of named Facebook (as well as with a lovely open-source browser named Flock.)

Exactly what is going on here? What puts a 3,000-member community into the same league as a 70-million-member behemoth like Facebook?

I've been talking about it with Alex. And here are five reasons we think the Change Everything community should win that Webby:

    • It's a community committed to social change. As someone who scours the Internet Movie Database obsessively, I'm the last person to complain that so much of the web is devoted to the trivial and inconsequential. But when a site weighs in with a substantive mission and becomes a real success, it encourages others to follow suit, pursuing real-world results and for those of us convinced of the social web's potential as a tool for social change, that's powerful stuff.
    • It embraces the open-source spirit. Change Everything is built on the Drupal content management system in a sector (financial institutitons) where closed-source software is the near-universal rule. And yet, in contrast to its closed-source Webby competition (with the notable exception of open-source browser Flock), Change Everything isn't just built on Drupal it regularly contributes back to the development community (most recently releasing the Nudge module).

      What's to stop another credit union or (gasp) bank from using Nudge as part of a site designed to steal Change Everything's thunder? Not a thing... and the fact that Vancity isn't letting that fear stop them is a clear sign they've embraced the community ethos that underlies the open-source movement.

    • It's a Vancity project... but not the Vancity project. Social networking may not be your business, the way it's Facebook's business, but it's not Vancity's business either and that's why Change Everything is such a success. What Vancity does know is how to serve the needs of its members: not just their banking needs, but their needs for a vibrant, sustainable community. If you're part of an organization with a distinct social mandate, approach and values, your social smarts are needed in the social networking world.
    • It's small and focused. How can Change Everything's 3000 users hope to beat Facebook's 70 million? In sheer numbers, they can't. But there's a quality to be had in a small, focused community: intimacy, shared interest, and perhaps a little more willingness to trust a fellow community member. (Not to mention the fact that you're much less likely to be tracked down by people you've been trying to avoid since grade four.)

      There's room online for both the online giants and the nimble niche or hyper-local communities; each serves a different purpose. But it's about time we started paying a little more attention to those niche communities while the Facebooks and MySpaces of the web may provide utility, it's the niche communities that are more likely to capture users' passion.

    • The content, in all modesty, kicks ass. Feeling a little tired of pokes, vampire bites and which of your friends is the hottest-looking? Change Everything can give you the often-hilarious story of EnviroWoman, who went a year trying to live plastic-free (and mostly succeeding) told with wit and humility. It can give you posts like Alex's on plastics and BPA, posted nearly a full year before the media started really taking notice and the Canadian government announced a ban. And it can give you stories like this one, about the difference a simple bicycle ambulance design is making in Malawi and Namibia.

      Have a look at Change Everything - and then, if the mood strikes you, I know they'd love your support. You can give it here.