Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Filters and Finding Things

[Part 3 of 5 on technology and philanthropy in the coming year. This week I'll be thinking out loud about the year ahead in technology and philanthropy.These short pieces will help me write the technology section of my annual industry forecast, Blueprint 2013, which will be available December 1. Please comment and suggest additions or corrections as what I learn here will inform the book. Thanks.]

Over the last few weeks I watched both the Republican and the Democratic National Conventions. As I tuned in and out of the televised coverage I also checked in on Twitter throughout the coverage. We're a country divided between the two political parties.  From the rhetoric of speakers on both stages, the difference between their approaches to the future is quite stark.

I wouldn't have known that from my Twitter stream. Furious one week, delighted the other week the thousands of people I follow on Twitter were of one mind during these two events. That's when I realized how much filtering I had done about who I follow. I had slowly but steadily curated a bunch of people with whom I agreed. That's who I was listening to and sharing links with. I know that there are people who disagree with me politically, but I had effectively (though not intentionally) silenced them.

We must manage our filters. We can diversify them deliberately or channel them into a group that passes around the same joke dozens of times in a matter of minutes.  If we're in the business of finding good ideas we need to manage those filters to help us, not limit us. Community organizers, activists, funders, and social innovators need to regulate the flow of info we contribute to and take advantage of, depending on what we're looking to accomplish. Narrow is good sometimes, broad is critical at others.

Political writing is, in Steven Berlin Johnson's phrase, right alongside tech reporting in the "old growth section" of the internet media forest. Philanthropy, social innovation and grantmaking, on the other hand, are much younger parts of that ecosystem. We are seeing lots of new sources of information that matter to our work (see EdSurge, for example, which tracks funding and innovation in education technology, an area of great interest to lots of philanthropists). We're seeing more foundations sharing information deliberately (Here's a good example from the Arnold Foundation). We're also seeing many wheels being re-created - do we really need 110+ online databases of giving opportunities (And here's the 111th, also from the Arnold Foundation) 

The information marketplace for giving and impact investing is still in its infancy - it's dynamic, redundant, and full of gaps. It's inefficient, incomplete, and in a time of transition.

We all need to stay light on our feet as we think about about where and how we get the philanthropic information we need - and dial our channels wider or more narrow depending on what we're looking for. Filtering noise and finding what and whom we're looking are daily practices.

**Bonus commentary on some new tech tools**

For about a year I've been completely uninterested in adding more tech tools to my daily regime of Twitter, Blogger, Email, Flipboard, and RSS Feeds. Google+ was the last network I joined and I don't use it anywhere near as much as Twitter. But an interesting change is happening in the tools that are available, and I've found myself experimenting with RebelMouse, Branch and ITFFF. These three sites are different from each other, but they have some interesting things in common. First, they assume I have online networks in place and they offer me ways to augment how I use them. Second, their geared toward visual interaction - whether it's the icons on IFTTT or the pinterest-esque layout of RebelMouse, they take my text-heavy world and make it easier to navigate. Three, they don't demand my attention the way earlier network tools did. I set something up on IFTTT once and that's it. I participate in a conversation on Branch and then I can move on. 

I sense an important change in this generation of network tools, they're complementary, simple, and assume pre-existing connections. The kind of interdependence these new sites have on pre-existing networks may not be reliable, given changes in companies' APIs and the business model demands for ad-driven sites, but from a user perspective the augmenting nature of them is really appealing.

[Please join me in discussion about this post and the rest of the series over at Branch] - 


Rick Cohen said...

Lucy: Speaking as an old growth political writer, I appreciate your comment about filters. Our sector spends way too much time talking not only to itself, but talking in narrow sluices. That's why I spend so much time reaching out to people who don't agree with me (well, that's a large proportion of the planet, but I mean generally don't agree with my political leanings) such as the crowd at the Hudson Institute or at programs organized by the Philanthropy Roundtable. It's not just to hear what they say about my ideas (which ranges from statements that I'm wrong to much worse), but to hear how they frame and phrase questions, how they look at the world. I guess that's my old growth perspective. Having been in politics in Northern New Jersey, I had to deal with people of all persuasions, sometimes people who themselves held multiple and contradictory opinions at the same time and didn't know it. Even though it's all but assured (I think) that President Obama will win reelection, we have to remember that something in the 40-50 percent range of voters will vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket. We filter them out at a cost to the nonprofit sector.

Lucy Bernholz said...


Love this - and completely agree. Reaching out to and listening to those with whom we disagree should be a key part of our filtering strategies.

As for this - "people who themselves held multiple and contradictory opinions at the same time and didn't know it" - I think we all fall into this category more often than we're willing to admit....(Smile)