First, Getting Rid of the Gatekeeper

Photo by Mikey G I want to write about online collaboration software and Twitter and Jott and how we're toying with all of those things in our tiny org. But when I think about social media and it's principles, I think back to the most fundamental shift we made in our org in terms of the Internet. Probably most of you who are reading this are way past this stage, but I am not sure I can talk about other internal innovations without starting here. It started several years ago when I arrived here. The website was static, updated by an "accidental techie" who was the only person who knew how to update the website. It was brochure-ware, broadcasting info about our programs. If someone needed to update a web page, she had to rely on the tech to get it done. Our org is tiny and "flat." That doesn't mean we run the org by consensus. There are clear lines of supervision and authority. But we all have areas of expertise, and we defer somewhat to each other in these areas. What this has always meant is that we design projects and make decisions with a lot (sometimes too much) conversation. Conversation and collaboration, online, are major principles of Web 2.0. What's exciting about it to me is the decentralization of certain kinds of power. The power to put images and ideas on the web used to be tightly controlled. Messages came from the top down and were put online by highly skilled techies. Now anyone with Internet access and some basic skills can speak up on Facebook or her own blog. Anyone can post pictures to Flickr or video to YouTube. This is a significant power shift. For me, that power shift began in the workplace. I started my career in non-profit tech as an "accidental techie." I was intimidated at first by techie jargon. For some reason, I was fascinated enough with the web to learn in spite of my fear. But I've never forgotten that fear. It's all too easy to slip into total jargon Tweeting about Friendfeed and other social media tools. (You can tell you're talking in jargon whenever someone's eyes glaze over and/or they look uncomfortable.  I try to look for this when I am yammering on about the Interwebs, but I am not always successful at catching myself.) So, internally, my fundamental goal became clear: de-mystify the tools. With some limits for quality control purposes, I wanted anyone and everyone on our staff to be able to post information to our website. I wanted others to be able to send out emails to our lists. I wanted them to be comfortable with the Internet as much as possible, without having to be "experts" in it. Luckily for us, others were thinking this way, too. We started using Democracy in Action to send out mass emails, which had a user interface that someone with basic web skills could easily use. I had been building websites for years, but open-source content management systems (CMS) like Joomla and Drupal were suddenly very accessible. I was able to re-build our website in a CMS so that, again, anyone on our staff with basic web surfing and word processing skills could post content to our site. Yes, there were (and are) vetting processes to control the content that goes up on our site and out in our emails. But, from a tech perspective, when we made these changes, I was no longer the gatekeeper to emailing to our constituents and posting content on our website. Everyone knows at least a few HTML tags, including a couple of our staff members who are over the age of 60. Our staff could prepare web content in a hands-on way, which contributed greatly to their feeling of ownership of our site and to their learning about the web. Today, I almost never post content to our site or send out an email. I can go on vacation and our news and blog roll on without me.  I keep the infrastructure healthy--I answer questions about Drupal quirks, fix problems and make improvements--but I have time now to think about tech strategy. To think and plan and dream about how to use new tech tools and social media to do our work better. Our staff understands the Internet and its tools better because they use them every day, and that helps them think about how to integrate them into our work, too. Even though I was once the techie gatekeeper with the keys to the website, I love this loss of control and am inspired thinking about the new places it will take us. I wonder a lot about how other orgs work. Who controls the posting power in your org? Who controls the content? How else is your org present on the web? Is it tightly controlled? If so, is that changing at all?