We Need Bubble Popping Bridges – Highlights from the Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar

As a new Knight Foundation grantee, we were excited to get started with the lesson sharing portion of our Inclusive Community Engagement Online grant. Part of our strategy is to leverage Knight’s amazing work with community foundations on news, information, and engagement. We specifically sought to plant seeds of interest in our upcoming training webinars (fall 2012) via this week’s Media Learning Seminar.

The conference had a number of top notch speakers and here are two keynotes that struck at the heart of our ongoing online engagement work.

First is Eli Pariser’s speech on the “Filter Bubble”:

Second is Ethan Zuckerman’s speech about building digital bridges among people who often self-segregate online:


Ethan and I had a chat the evening before. When he mentioned raising the voices of the Somali community in Minneapolis as an example in his speech, it provided an opportunity for me to comment about the power of connecting diverse communities locally online. Thanks Ethan!

Throughout the conference, this place-based inspired crowd (some 400 folks, mostly from community foundations) were in my view looking to add greater engagement to their four years of work with local news and information. While some foundations were attending MLS for the first time, many were now arriving at the intersection of place, information, and the desire for bridge building civil engagement online (and off). Our “shop” sits at this intersection along with others in the Locals Online field.

As I met many people for first time at the conference, I would say, “We connect neighbors online to build community and raise diverse voices.”

I’d mention our new “Be Neighbors” campaign and our goal to reach 10,000 participants in St. Paul. I’d say getting to 10,00o will not mean much if our numbers and crucially the voices heard do not reflect the great diversity of that city (44% people of color, 17% foreign born, etc.). From a social value point of view, while it is “nice” that middle upper income neighborhoods with high home ownership with relatively high levels of existing social capital are getting e-connected, the change the world opportunity is to work with (not for) neighborhoods of all kinds particularly diverse, lower income areas that are not being served or at worst avoided by the “hyperlocal” .com world online.

Then I’d get asked, when did you start this work? And when I said 17 years ago, their jaws would drop.

And here is how this connects to my call for “bubble popping bridges.” It is back to the future time.

My response was something like this (the long version):

Waaaay back in 1994 we created the world’s first election information website. We were listed as one of the first “Politics” sites on this web page hosted in some dorm at Stanford called Yahoo. Well, when the election was over, people kept talking on our MN-Politics e-mail forum … it was kind of like the first Facebook Page about democracy tied to place … we even used real names years before Facebook. What we discovered by accident was that it was our role to be a trusted neutral host of online dialogue among people who disagree. In ’98 we went local with the online townhall in Minneapolis and found that more women participated, more elected officials, more journalists, and crucially someone would post and then at an in-person community meeting someone would say, “Hey, I read your post.”

Then in 2005 we were discovered by the UK government and they gave us our first major funding so we could share our model in England. While there remains a huge market failure with the city-wide online civic participation, in Oxford and Bristol they wanted to try forums at the “neighbourhood level.” What we found was that local elected officials engaged the spaces directly – why? These were their real voters and our real names and strict “no naming calling” rules made these spaces just safe enough for them to avoid the virtual quicksand they perceive in more political chest beating spaces online (or insanely nasty anonymous online news commenting).

When we brought the neighborhood model back to Minnesota (I volunteered in my own neighborhood), we decided to open up the model informed by the far broader community life exchange we saw on neighborhood YahooGroups in the DC area in the 1990s and parent forums in Brooklyn, etc. We also crucially said let’s do this for all kinds of neighborhoods and invest scarce grant resources into lower income, highly diverse, high immigrant neighborhoods. While volunteers did almost all of the work in our non-funded areas, we bolstered our peer to peer support among volunteer Forum Managers from each of the now 50 community areas that we serve across 16 communities in three countries.

I’d then say, “Let me show you our secret technology.”  And then pull out my clipboard with our St. Paul Neighbors Forum sign-up sheet on it and say, without signing people on paper at diverse community events from Rondo Days in St. Paul to the Hmong arts festival there is no way we’d have the starter point diversity we have today. In fact, my sense is that when we give out 1,000 fliers we get maybe 10 new people.

Sometimes I would mention that our biggest competition is the question “Why not just use Facebook?” To which my reply was that we leverage Facebook by piping forum excerpts into Facebook Pages and subject lines into the Twitter, but that while Facebook Groups are pretty much just like e-mail lists, the fact that people can join add their “friends” without their permission, that you can’t share attachments, and crucially that your only orientation option with new members is to delete (AKA censor) our civility/local scope rule posts rather than lightly pre-moderate new users (or spammer) is a real problem. But overall, the use of any commercial third party social media tool that you can’t customize properly means paper sign-up sheets are out and the real inclusion that comes from that appropriate technology is dead.

I’d conclude and say, thanks to the just announced three year grant from Knight and additional funding will seek to serve areas outside of St. Paul with deeply inclusive outreach, we are in a position to share lessons widely (and learn from others too) via the 300+ Locals Online community practice that we host and via webinars and training in the fall (request info). We were also going to offer fee-based intensive assistance to other communities wanting to adapt our lessons deeply in their community and if they really wanted to have their community become part of our network (rather than roll their own site/project) we’d love to explore how we can make that happen (request info).

At least a dozen foundations and many of the non-profits mixed into the audience expressed interest in our future webinars on this topic (planned for fall 2012, subscribe to our blog via e-mail or join Locals Online) and two community foundations asked us how they might join our network and in particular tap our inclusive outreach work. I noted that inclusive takes real resources, so assuming volunteer capacity at the core for each community/neighborhood forum serving in that crucial Forum Manager role, the cost is tied to how many people they want to recruit, how reflective do they want that to be of income, race, education, etc. in the community (meaning not just the folks who already show up to meetings), and do they want resource more intentional “bubble popping, bridge building” engagement via the forum. A key lesson is that getting diverse communities in the virtual room is only the first step. The forums need to be relevant to those communities in terms of the information shared and topics discussed. In some neighborhoods, it will “just work” and in others we pro-actively work publicly as well as behind the scenes to generate forum exchanges that reflect the diversity in the room.

So as Eli spoke about the bubble and how Google search and your Facebook news stream is personalized to show you more of what you want (e.g. ice cream) and less of what you might need (vegetables), I thought about how our lack of resources thankfully kept us in the many-to-many e-mail list/web forum centric space as blogging, then social networking put either an editor or you in the center.

As Ethan spoke about how “guides” help share Global Voices with the world online, I thought about how we might work with our participants to open up windows into our diverse communities where we live near each other but don’t really access the same physical gathering spaces.

Serendipity is at the center of our model. We’ve found that if you get local enough, the relevancy of place in the “common interest” can trump most people’s tendency (now further amplified by computers) to filter out and avoid stuff we would not click on. Meaning, at the neighborhood level we can have a shared community information stream with conversations that cut across all the silos of public service and community and cultural groups around us. In three of our neighborhoods we now reach over 20% of households everyday. My own neighbors forum is now approach 1,000 members not including the many visitors who come to the open to world (in Google) website. When we compare this to the 1% of households willing to show up on our mostly politics city-wide forums, reaching 20% of people – everyday people – is a watershed for our work.

Whew, that was a long blog post. What are your reactions to these speeches or the many other sessions in their video archive?

P.S. If you have actually read all of this you’ll probably find our Neighbors Forums slide presentation interesting and, heck if you have an hour to kill watch the webinar version:

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