One of the more influential technology conferences of the year took place two weeks ago in Silicon Valley, but you saw hardly a word about it in the mainstream media.
Perhaps that’s because it lacked the sizzle of newly-rich entrepreneurs and venture capitalist king-makers — but what it lacked in glitter it made up for in world-changing potential.
NetSquared was a gathering of some 370 philanthropists, nonprofit and non-governmental organizations, humanitarian services and charities—along with technology companies and assorted digerati — discussing how the much-touted Web 2.0 technology could be harnessed for social change.
Web 2.0 is the term Web maven Tim O’Reilly gave to the collection of user-oriented technologies (tagging, ranking, pointing, self-publishing and so on) that have spawned sites like MySpace, Digg, YouTube and countless competitors.
Yet even as some of these sites grow enormous, doubts have emerged in the venture capital community as to whether many of these ideas can actually turn into long-term, profitable businesses.
Compounding the difficulty is that building a Web 2.0 site is both easy and cheap, reducing the “barriers to entry” that usually keep competitors away. Some VCs now say that using Web 2.0 in your funding pitch is the quickest way to get thrown out of the office.
But in the not-for-profit world, Web 2.0 tools look like the biggest boost since the invention of the personal computer itself. “Information technology,” says NetSquared founder Daniel Ben-Horin, “is moving away from what nonprofits have the least of (money) and toward what we have the most of (people and community). Web 2.0 is a buzzword that may not last, but the social Web will, and what we’re seeing now is just the beginning.”
And Ben-Horin knows the territory: nearly 20 years ago the former journalist launched an organization called CompuMentor, aimed at helping other non-profits adopt computers. Now, the organization has 120 staffers, a $13.5 million annual budget and through its subsidiary TechSoup has distributed free or low-cost hardware and software to more than 50,000 nonprofits, saving that sector more than $400 million.
Registered nonprofits can work through TechSoup to get donated products from Adobe, Microsoft, Symantec, Cisco and other companies for remarkable discounts: Office 2003 for $20, for example, or Dreamweaver for $25. And TechSoup also offers extensive online support as well as consulting services. (MSNBC.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC News.)
A year ago, Ben-Horin and his team broadened their focus from packaged software to the new Web-based tools that organizations and communities can use to self-organize.
“We imagined the same kind of energy that has been mobilized for Wikipedia being mobilized to fight AIDS or hunger or homelessness,” he says. “We don’t know how that will happen, but we think it can happen.”
In search of the “how,” CompuMentor launched a site called NetSquared.org , subtitled “Remixing the Web for Social Change.” They equipped it with various community tools, and started organizing the actual conference in as Web 2.0 a fashion as possible.
The result — hosted by Cisco in their new Santa Clara conference center — was as inclusive as the topic demands. The attendees were an international roster of groups, from established names like Amnesty International, the Kiwanis Club and the American Cancer Society to newer organizations such as Blogher, the Genocide Intervention Network and One Laptop Per Child. And thus the two days included dozens of examples of how the Web can organize: from the Katrina PeopleFinder site (created almost overnight by dozens of volunteers around the country) to the MySpace pages that helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of generally apolitical young people for the March immigration protests.
The examples also included information gathering. Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, provided an interesting perspective on how the social Web can amplify citizen journalism:
“The citizen witness with a camera is not new — consider the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination. But imagine what would have happened if there had been a thousand cameras at Dealey Plaza that day, and they were all hooked to the Internet. Overnight, we’d have had 3D renderings of exactly what took place.”
On an international level, Ethan Zuckerman’s Global Voices Online aggregates (and often translates) blogs from around the world.
“Africa, for example, has a thriving blogosphere," he says. “What we try to do isn’t to speak, but to point. It’s getting easier and easier to let people speak for themselves.”
But the Web 2.0 tools that can potentially liberate people in western democracies can do just the opposite in totalitarian societies. Zuckerman, for example, helps produce handbooks that teach bloggers how to disguise their online identities, although even that’s not always enough: two of his Global Voices bloggers are currently behind bars in their countries.
Patrick Ball of Benetech has created software for human rights abuse workers that automatically encrypts their evidence-gathering and sends it out of the country onto servers for safekeeping.
Dan McQuillan, from Amnesty International, points out that “the way we’re tying up so much of our information online could have unintended surveillance consequences.” Already, he says, MSN, Yahoo and Google aren’t complying with human rights guidelines. “The way you build technology has human rights implications that must be considered right at the start.”
Paul Saffo from the Institute for the Future struck a similar cautionary note. “It’s never a safe bet that technology will serve our best dreams.” He offered an example: in the years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, optimists predicted that since people couldn’t see national borders from aircraft, nationalism would disappear. World War I, of course, proved that aircraft would do nothing of the sort. “In the early 50’s,” Saffo added, “writers predicted that television would be a powerful source for social good, but in 1962, Newt Minow gave his ‘vast wasteland’ speech. The danger now is that all this potential on the Web will just become a vaster wasteland.”
And that’s certainly a real fear. “Kids automatically teach each other how to use technology,” says Howard Rheingold, author of the influential Smart Mobs and long-time Web observer, “but they’re not going to teach each other about the history of democracy, or the importance of taking their voices into the public sphere to create social change.”
But education and organization is exactly what the NetSquared attendees hope to achieve with the new tools — and reaching a younger audience may prove to be one of the most important pieces.
“We have an aging, Western-based demographic,” says McQuillan of Amnesty International. “This is our opportunity to build a true global architecture of participation.”
Or as Rheingold says: “While it’s important to be realistic about utopian hopes in new technology, this is definitely one time to be very optimistic.”