Thursday, July 28, 2005

discourse and the quality of democracy

I just wanted to add a comment to Chris' question about where Zanby fits into the edemocracy spectrum. I believe that strong social interaction outside the specifics of overtly political events is incredibly important to maintaining a robust democracy.

Former state Senator Roger Moe was on the local public radio station today. One of the questions he discussed was if the reporting of politics as a "sports event", with a mandatory winner and a mandatory looser, was contributing to the decline of the ability of our elected officials to actually achieve workable solutions.

He pointed out that over the last 20 years, there has been a marked decline in the "socialization" events that are avaliable to our representatives. By "socialization" events, he didn't mean partisan mixers, or lobying opportunities. He meant opportunities for all representatives to begin to meet and learn about each other's backgrounds, opinions, ways of thinking, and so on.

His basic point is that the more opportunities we have to actually sit down face to face with people and learn about them, the more likely we are to be able to find a working solution with them. This socialization comes from repeated, individual contact: whether hashing out some knotty problem or simply discussing the weather or what the first job was they had. To my way of thinking, the social interactions are probably the most valuable ways to learn and grow.

Of course, there are plenty of wing-nuts and whack-jobs where one personal contact is one contact too many. But most of the time, you can learn something new by sitting down and chatting with someone else.

Without this contact, the person across the table is easily reduced to cliches, to simple sound bytes. In our low-contact, high media environment, it becomes easy to provide these sound bytes, easy to pre-bias one group against another. Without social contact, these biases quickly become perceived truth, a barrier around which the individual rarely looks. These barriers become the foundation of a profound distrust of everything "Them". The higher these barriers, the harder it is to come together to find solutions to our truly difficult problems. If we don't trust the other side, we can't effectively work with them.

The more people actually meet and work with and understand their neighbors, the less power soundbytes and cliches will have. This is why I think Zanby has such value as a true democracy-supporting and sustaining tool. We are facilitating formal and informal gatherings of people with interests ranging from vintage baseball to bettering their local school district. What makes systems like Gatheroo so interesting and valuable is that they are able to bring people together across much larger "neighborhoods" -- the group of vintage baseball fans may discover another group across the country, and gather with them.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

e-Democracy and Zanby

I attended a global e-Democracy Conference this week at the Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis. I attended to inform folks about the depth and breadth of Zanby, to talk with visionaries in the e-Democracy and e-Gov fields, and to explore other avenues of technology activism. It was produced by Steven Clift, the founder of e-democracy.org.

I am not sure where Zanby fits in the scope of deliberative technologies. A few of the panelists and participants felt that e-democracy was very narrowly focused on facilitating decision making processes. In other words, if citizens could use the Internet, or a phone, or a billboard, or anything that is e-enabled to shape governmmental decisions then it qualifies as e-democracy. Yet many of the presentations were about the delivery of Government services and community building software.

As we create and empower communities of interest AND function - I believe we will empower participation. It may be best described as the a kind of back to the future effect. We were once bound by and vested in our communities. Now our communnities are significantly larger and more complex. By using technology as a complexity-filter, we can manage our lifestyles in a way that allows us to take advantage of the many things our rich, global, wired community offers...while keeping our sanity.

This morning we met with MN Secratary of State, Mary Kiffemeyer, who demoed the state of Minnesota's electoral tabulating tools. Though I have often disagreed with Madame Secretary's ideology and the way she has carried out her duties, I salute her on the implementation of these technologies. It's impressive, and unique in the country.

We also heard presentations from the City of St. Paul, which is running some very nice newsletter campaigns, and a killer presentation from Andrew Haig of MPR who has created a Budget Balancer. That's right-- create your own state budget and email it to your reps.

Friend and co-blogger, Chuck Olsen might have some video of the conference up later at MN Stories.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Zanby welcomes the Kossacks

Kos posted about the creation of Zanby on late Monday night. He duly notes that we will likely not be alone in our endeavor. However, we are in a unique position to build a vision. Gatheroo is in the fortunate postion of being created by an outstanding software development company and informed by one of the premier MeetUp organizers in the country. We also have a great partner in CivicSpace.

It's interesting to note that the blurb about Zanby happened in the context of another discussion about whether or not vendors - particularly technology vendors - should be partisan.

The founders of Zanby are probably split on that. About half of us, me included, are almost full time activists for the Democrats here in Minnesota. Sometimes we walk a fine line between keeping food on the table and doing the world some good. The other half are motivated either by the potential profit or the fact that we are making one of the coolest pieces of software out there. I am overjoyed to be working at the nexus of all three.

While our motives in starting Zanby are squarely in the change-the-world camp, we have to make a profit or we won't be around very long. We don't have to make much of one, but we have to make one. That is the point of practicing enlightened capitalism. It is possible to provide goods and services that make the world a better place and generate enough profit to sustain the business and its employees.

In so doing, it is not possible to avoid providing goods and services to people who do not agree with my political views. It is not possible and it should not be possible. People of all political stripes will be welcome on Zanby, provided they don't advocate hate crimes. That being said, our target market is the progressive community. I don't expect to be buying ads on Town Hall anytime soon. You won't ever see a press release celebrating Zanby's new contract with the GOP. But the site itself will be open to all. That's the spirt of free enterprise and the spirit of open source.
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Friday, July 15, 2005

High Ideals ... And A Great Name! An 'Ivory Tower' Explanation of Zanby

Zanby is a high ideal given life by some good old-fashioned hard work, a strong dose of social conscience, and some fantastic team-based creativity. It's difficult to beat that combination! I tend to look at these kinds of developments from an ivory tower, so let me spill a high altitude excuse for what we made. The new American dream is like the two sides of a coin. On one is a growing need for everyday entrepreneurialism coupled with information technologies that maximize one's reach. And this now goes for the union member as well as the CEO. It's a new world and we need to take every advantage of it.

BUT that's not all there is. There's a flip side. Strong communities, social conscience, participation and dialogue can be the complimentary side of that dream. Technology and community should be mutually supportive, quality of life and innovation a partnership. Otherwise we'll find ourselves in a world worse than 1984 (the book, that is). We really have to make 'this' work.

In this sense, Zanby is our signature try at creating a small part of that kind of world. We packed some hard earned lessons about building businesses, developing technology, and nurturing participatory communities into an online meeting and community management service. Robert Putnam in his book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" decries the loss of our traditional community institutions. "We sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone". Bowling leagues and moose lodges once served a much broader purpose than just practicing strikes and spares or sharpening your card game. They were gatherings at which the affairs of the community were discussed and plans made, where close personal networks developed, which later were put to use in one’s professional and political life. That fifties world has passed. We look back nostalgically and wonder why, with all the technological advantages we have today, we can't do better than our parents and grandparents at this seemingly simple social task. Zanby’s answer is that we must, and in fact, we can do it better – at the speed of light!

During the last political season technology played its greatest role yet in bringing people together for a common purpose. Regular folks of all stripes were meeting in homes and coffee shops to discuss politics, to search for others like themselves, and to find a way to become involved. It was a promising example of the American model of democracy. We rediscovered community. Technology played the starring role. Meetings were organized online. Four or five would gather at a cafe here, fifty at a community center there. The catalyst for their coming together was online meeting organization technology, not an existing set of social relationships. Paradoxically, it was the new birthing the old. Community blossomed out of a search for others with common concerns and the tools to find them.

The technologies responsible for the rebirth have been of many varieties, from the ubiquitous listserv to email groups to common online calendars. Several companies sprang up specifically to facilitate the online arrangement of interest affinity meetings. Word spread about how to do it, coming first from groups with a political focus and moving to those interested in simple pleasures like collecting antiques or reading poetry. A spark was touched that increasingly married technology with community building. The successes drew the attention of both entrepreneurs and activists, leading them to both praise the paradigm as well as critique tools currently available for building and managing these communities.

What we felt was that there clearly is a better mousetrap and a critical mass of talent and vision to make it. And, if we were going to realize our dream of building community as rapidly as possible, we would have to give it away. Tough constraints. But we did it. The real purpose of Gatheroo is to go beyond simply organizing a meeting to building sustainable interest driven communities. Our design lessons come from the way we, as humans, have always built and managed gatherings of the likeminded. Three aspects of that natural dynamic inform what we believe are the keys to our success: favorable joining economics, sustainability, and capture of a critical mass clientele.


The Facts of Life


If we are active in a community, it's because we have a passionate interest, a desire for the company of others, or because we feel compelled to right a wrong. Pez dispensers brought Ebay into existence; social and economic disparities stimulated the emergence of political parties. We act on these issues by seeking out others and, in so doing, discover that we are not the only ones with that need, and that the need can be addressed more successfully by joining with those of similar interests. That's the demand side of the equation; why we act.

Why we do not act is another issue, however. Traditional, non-technological means of seeking and joining suffers from a relatively low rate of contact and sometimes high costs of entering into and managing group relationships. Regardless of passion, how would I know, for instance, that there were quite a number of Shitzu lovers in my town just by walking my dog in the park every other day? And even if I did, how much precious time and effort would I have to devote to getting us together? Would I take the time to collect addresses and write each a letter? Those were the costs a generation ago. And it brought the tradeoffs into clear relief: the higher the obstacles to building community the greater had to be the passion to create them. Our perspective suggests that if you lower these costs to the break out point, the possibilities fuel a sense of empowerment that also helps build additional passion (read, demand). A virtuous cycle of community building is the result.

But groups, as do companies, require a bit more than just contact and communication if they are to be sustainable. We were keenly aware of this and decided to confront two sustainability issues head on. The first is about revenue or 'the business model'; the second is about 'efficacious' participation or 'the community model'. The business model is important for the obvious reason. No Revenue, no Zanby. We realized this approach would have to be that of a business - can sustain itself without revenue. Hardware and software, salaries and vendors have to be paid with real money not goodwill. On the other hand, our concern with the vital role a low entry cost (of becoming a member and leading a group) plays in fostering a self-sustaining community, required us to adopt a policy that 'membership would forever be free'. Our business model addresses these requirements via ad revenue that pays the bills. Yep, we'll have ads. But you'll know what purpose they serve: yours!

Recent cost increases for online meeting organizing services have caused many large categories of users of these services to search for alternatives. For the very community-building reasons stated above, they are searching for higher value at lower cost. What they have expressed to us is a need for 'community management' services above and beyond the services offered by online meeting organizing services. We know this because several of us are the political activists and interest group leaders who have been using these kinds of facilities and growing communities all along. We are the 'subject matter experts', who know what these kinds of communities need and want. We attend them, lead the groups, and listen to the suggestions. We live the proverbial focus group in real time. Fortunately, we are also talented developers of relevant technology and grasp the connection between an expressed need and its technical implementation. This ability to build directly from the expressed needs of subject matter experts is the cornerstone of our 'the community model'. It ensures that every individual's participation is efficacious, that she does not confront an endless menagerie of obstacles to making her community work. Needed tools (e.g., file storage, job aids, etc.) are built in or added (economically) based on immediate feedback.

So, that's why I'm here. Join us and let's make the world we want tomorrow, today! Please drop by our site, http://Zanby.com and take a look at the features. We'll be up and running soon, so stay tuned and give us lots of feedback!
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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Sitemap review

We just did a sitemap review of phase I this morning. Zanby is going to be a seriously kick-ass site!

One of the many things we are making sure of is that Zanby is going to be a lot easier to use than Meetup. Fortunately, several members of the team have a lot of experience developing easy to use, very powerful web applications.
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