Social venture

Comments on The future of citizen media

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I got some comments on my latest blog. I have mostly gotten positive feedback. However some critical voices have been raised though, who summarized say: “It will never work out. This is just a gimmick.”

My opinion: It will, it should and it must.

I will elaborate shortly on the comments I have gotten over the phone, in emails, on IM and in person. (Especially since one of my closest friends believe I blog too long entries. :) )

Challenge 1: The good guy never wins in wars, because they are naïve.
Does that really mean it is not worth fighting for goodness? We should always jump right into the action. Everyone who knows me knows that is only a matter of time before I bring up the water drops on the stone will always make a hole. I use it to keep the faith that there is a solution.

Challenge 2: Journalists are already able to give this personal view of events.
How many are the journalists and how many are the rest of the world? I know, I know. This is really an unfair comparison. The biggest advantage to use citizens is however that they are everywhere. There is a big need for the news organization to participate in presenting the news as they can via their professional presentation provide it with the credibility needed.

Challenge 3: Seeing the uncensored, unfiltered and unedited view will probably just stir up emotions and is not a force towards peace.
Darn right it will. It should. However, when we see these “reports” whether they are broadcasted on BBC, CNN or on the blog by a private person, we should always start to question what we see, why we see it. Is it the truth? Thinking critical is a responsibility for each citizen. I cannot make it enough clear that the traditional media has a crucial role to play here. They can help the new media learn it lessons, and learn from it.

Before continuing I would like to kill one myth that has come up during my time here at Stanford and my various discussions with different people. Just because a citizen “reports” something does not necessary mean that it is newsworthy. Most of what is written only has news value for you friends and family. There are cases where big things have been brought to the attention by the blogosphere and the new media initiatives. Many of these examples are brought up in the book “We The Media” by Dan Gillmor.

Going on.

Showing pictures of dying wounded, starving and/or suffering people are never fun and seeing the misery will initially stir up more emotions. However the first step towards any change is to understand, and for that you will have to see. See the human perspective, in some form. I guess that she has never heard of the Swedish saying: “After the storm there is always peace and calmness”. Storms will come one after the other, but understanding the storms will help us protect us against it. Another example is found in our human ancient past. Before us as human beings knew how to handle fire, we fought, and feared it. Then we learned that it could be our friend. Now it is an essential part of our life and has played an important part of our society’s development.

We should the possibilities, working towards changing this world to a better place. Obviously there are so many people out there, who are against seeing the pain, who wants to cover it up and against openness. One of my favorite quotes is one by a certain Mr Kierkegaard: “To dare is to loose control for awhile, not to dare is to loose yourself”.

We should remember this. It is easier to hold on to the past than to go on. The path is usually rocky, unclear, narrow and long. But hey I like roller-coasters, thanks to someone really special to me…

The future of the new improved media

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I have been interviewed by a number of newspapers and news channels lately. The main focus of the interviews has been the future of citizen media or as I prefer to look at it, The New Improved Media. I will try to give my view on the future of it and why it will work.

Parts of the intro-text to the main site are:

“… Delivering unfiltered, uncontrolled and as free news as possible is a crucial part of any work towards and/or to sustain democracy. Making people trust the news media and to enable them to feel part of the news making is equally important. … Imagine people being able to report back from events such as the London bombings, the riots in Paris and the recent events in Belarus or maybe just report from your neighborhood about any crimes or other problems.”

Looking at the on-going conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, the need for citizen journalism is as high as ever. We see a lot of reports on sites such as YouTube, and the discussions inside communities such as MySpace are more intense than ever.

Looking forward: What can we learn? What is the future? What can traditional media do? What can we as individuals do?

I believe some of challenges for the future in citizen media are:

  • Empowering all citizens of this world
  • Credibility and authenticity of the delivered content
  • Friendship between persons regardless of citizenship, ethnicity, race, religion and so forth
  • Solving the connectivity problem

People in regions such as the Middle East are frustrated – frustrated of embargos, tired of war and in many ways frustrated that their voices are not heard. The new media could solve this in many ways. The professional journalist is giving the professional, objective and thought-out version of the story, as does the professional photographer. By giving the working tools for the people on the ground, where event are taking place, people will be able to share their personal stories, the way they see in – in shaky, fuzzy pictures and videos from their digital cameras, their texts from cell phones and shaky voices in audio clips.

They will start to believe that there is someone listening to them, and that they are not alone. Exaggerated, all of a sudden common people will start to feel and believe that there are people listening to them, other than the fundamental religious groups. The concept is known and for the unbelievers I recommend that you read the book: “Naked blogging” by Scoble/Israel.

Unfortunately, just providing them with the proper channel is not enough. You will also need the credibility of the traditional media to make this channel legitimate in the eyes of both the people in the troubled areas and the audience in the rest of the world. Today, many websites such as YouTube suffer from the fact that the authenticity cannot be validated. I do not blame these sites for this, but nevertheless, in order to make the citizen contributions valid, there is a crucial need to create an organization that addresses the authenticity of the citizen reports. The problem is found in both the policy (makers) as so partly in the technology. If the traditional media would get involved the situation would definitely change.

What about the friendship part?
This is according to me the most important part. If anyone wonders why, I thought I would give you an analogy to see the simplicity. When you buy a new TV, you usually ask your friends and family for advice to see what they think and what they have bought. Likewise you do when you trying to digest matters such as the crisis in the Middle East. How can this madness continue? Who is to blame? What can I do? You are asking your friends and family. Sitting at cafés, bars, around the dinner tables and talking about the problem. Trying to understand.

Wouldn’t it be better to also ask and/or listen someone with first hand information? Someone with a human face. Someone to relate to. Someone that will give you the unfiltered, unbiased(?) and uncensored truth.

– Come on, Erik. That does not exist!
– You are so right my friend, but it should!

Why will this work? The philosophy behind the UN and the European Union is to build friendships and relations between countries to prevent them from getting into arguments /disputes that end up in wars. It is a known fact that you don’t, hopefully, attack your friend. (At least my friends don’t.) What is so cool today is that modern technology enables borderless and “blind” communication between all individuals, especially when you enable wireless posting via cell phones such as SMS and MMS. You can speak to anyone, anywhere at anytime. Why not use it? The New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman writes about it in his book “The World is Flat” even though I think that the conclusion is even broader than he concludes in his book.

Wow! Why hasn’t it been done before? Actually it has, but the obvious potential was not seen for some reason. Today in the troubled and/or rural area of this world, there often is no internet, no high-speed connectivity, and no DSL connection. Still their voices must be heard, should be heard and must be heard. As cell phones today are almost ubiquitous there they become the obvious choice.

The “right” solution therefore relies on the facts:

  • Cell phones today transmit audio, video, graphics, photographs and text.
  • When combined with the proper web application, cell phones enable any citizen in any country of any background to publish information and share it with the world.
  • Citizen journalism (or grassroot journalism), coupled with traditional journalism, results in better, more informed and credible news reports.

My project here at Stanford takes advantage of all of the above and I have created a way for anyone to blog to your blog, your photo gallery, your video gallery with their own cell phone. The only thing needed is a cell phone and some quick setup screens online. Soon setup via SMS will be enabled.

Cool, but if a person cannot write? Anyone can take a picture, a video or even tell their story via a simple phone call (see the cool technology by PodTech, Typepad/Skype) or audio clip. A picture tells you more than a thousand words and a video even more. User experience research has shown that the keypad of the cell phone can be replaced by symbols thus enabling illiterate people to send in messages.

The technology is here. Are we?

I am as a friend told me today, hopelessly optimistic about this. I however am not naïve. We will need to give it some time, but we will get there! I believe in humanity and the good of the people. The good guys always win. At least in my world. :)

Is a for-profit social venture impossible?

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I am collaborating with the Graduate School of Business here at Stanford, and usual working with students is always an intriguing and fruitful experience, which I usually cherish a lot. We did touch a quite interesting matter of what a social venture really is during a discussion on the project. Do all social ventures include a non-profit approach or can you have social ventures based on a ‘purely’ for-profit model? Can a commercialised approach ever do any good?

I am fully confident that you can and in some sense we really should pursue it, especially to obtain financial sustainability and decrease the dependence of external funding. Funnily that would mean that you have a wider manoeuvre space, and thus you have better control over your social venture.

What is really a social venture? Much simplified and according to me, a social venture is any venture in which you also value a (good) social outcome of the same. The very abstract word ‘social outcome’ could be discussed in length (which I will not), but refer to literature on measuring success in social venture. It is very much an interesting matter in itself. Personally and of course much simplified, I think we could consider a good social outcome as anything that makes the life or the earth itself to become a better place to live. Let’s keep this simple and leave it as that.

What amazes me is that so many people think that a (good) social outcome never can be married to the thought of a commercial activity. This puzzles me. Why? I see no reason why a good social outcome is inconsistent with a for-profit approach. I especially remember speaking to one of the last year fellows on this matter. He told me that an outcome of a project might even be better when people have to pay for the project. This is a very interesting thought, which has stayed with me since that date.

What is it in us that make us feel that it is better to pay something, even though extremely small? I think it is quite simple. The sense of ownership is still quite strong in us, but also the need to give back to someone that helps us. When someone offers you a hand you normally want to give back something. Probably it is as simple as keeping your self-respect. The more you feel like you are dependent on another person, the less self-esteem you usually have. I think you get it.

However, I think it is important to remember that there is a narrow path to walk on here. Having an approach that is for-profit can quite easily be turned in to an exploiting approach, where any good social outcome will be shadowed. Here the management of and leadership in these projects become increasingly important. The need for good managers and leaders become ever so high in those ventures, but we have all those people out there.

Hybrid business models, corporate social responsibility and industrial anthropology are some examples why I believe the trend is really towards such business models instead of the traditional highly fund-dependent ones. There will of course exist ventures where this approach is impossible, but for all other cases I think it is really a good idea to look at such business models.

Thus, I think it is important to keep an open mind about this and realise that for-profit is not by definition evil or bad.