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My community team has had a problem lately trying to convince the product manager that certain features proposed to enhance communication and community should be placed earlier in the development schedule. But in defining the term “groundswell,” Li and Bernoff give a simple litmus test that may show which proposed features to prioritize. “The groundswell” they say, “is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations” (Groundswell, 9). Whenever our scrum team prioritizes new feature requests to see which ones we’ll develop first, we need to ask ourselves of each feature “How helpful will this feature be in helping users get what they want from each other?”

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This morning I spent one hour on the bus and a half hour in the office reading sections of two books, trying to learn new paradigms and find something that will help me make my Web 2.0 team’s efforts more scalable. The two books were a couple I’ve been reading lately — William Becker’s How to OD [organizational design] and Live to Tell About It, and David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined: a Unified Theory of the Web. This morning, Small Pieces was just too philosophical for me: Sure, I could take one of the great abstract thoughts I marked in the book and figure out some way to transform it into an epiphany of how I should change my site’s strategy, but boy, the work it would take was just too much. And while Becker’s organizational design book applies directly to a division reorganization in which I am participating as a planner, what it was telling me to do to get other managers aligned and ready for change again felt like an enormous amount of work that nobody really asked me to do. I guess I’m just tired this morning.

Then, clearing my desktop bookshelf of items I rarely read so I could put these books there, I came across an American Library Association journal whose cover read “Shaping the Future with Student Interns.” I’d been grabbing the stack of ALA mags to put them in a closed overhead bin, and ironically, my morning paradigm shift had come from this six-word headline I was about to archive. Student interns. Read: No-cost, temporary employees burning to prove their mettle. We’ve got ’em in a university nearby that acts like a feeder school to our corporation. I’ve used them before. They were great, and their effectiveness, semester by semester, has grown as the needs of our customers became clearer and our Website matured. And for some silly reason, as I struggled recently to determine ways to get more volunteers writing on our site, I completely overlooked them.

But interns — especially those from our feeder school — really know our content. They use it all the time. They understand how our library’s materials are organized and accessed. They’re young college students, so they understand Web 2.0. Most have a Facebook account; shop on Amazon, Ebay, and Craigslist; and participate in online forums. Many can write well. Each wants an internship whose assignments are measurable so that calculating success, or a grade, will be easy. Many would like to work for our department because they have declared a major (family history) which corresponds with what our department does.

So it’s no big revelation that an intern adds value to our project. The big question is why we don’t have them all the time, why we’re not always trying to get more, and why I didn’t immediately think of them when trying to figure out how to engage more contributors on our Website. And I suppose the reason for all these failures stems from two issues: First, the tour of duty for an unpaid intern is a bit shorter than the duration of a semester. We have them for only about three months, really. And the ones we get are required to work — hours. That’s a lot of turnover, and it takes effort to show an intern the ropes, train them how to use the system, provide follow-up coaching, design a project that’s big enough to keep them busy, and oversee their progress in that project. But judging from the content we’ve gotten from some of our interns, it’s all well worth it if you get the right interns and don’t just accept anybody who applies.

If interns are well worth the time they take to manage, then what’s holding us back from using several interns continually? Organization, really. We have nobody assigned to recruit, train, and direct interns each semester. It feels like a worthwhile assignment to make. Inasmuch as most of this workgroup’s employees are centered around developing a community of contributors around a knowledge domain, it feels like maybe each of them should be in charge of an intern each quarter. Having one person assigned to recruit interns for the whole team feels wrong, somehow — it feels smarter to have each community coordinator select and recruit their own intern so they can get the right person for the job.

The ALA journal’s article about interns yields something important to remember: That interns are there to learn. “The student who only does clerical tasks or low-priority activities during fieldwork may come away with a distorted view of the librarian’s role and reduced interest in remaining in the profession.” In other words, we probably shouldn’t employ interns only to write content. They should become involved with our product development scrums, design portal pages for a knowledge domain, get other sites to link to the content they create, monitor Web analytics for their domain, and survey users on what parts of their designs do and do not work. They could even design and create within their domain the reference-interview system I described in yesterday’s blog entry which helps beginners get the help they need without having to know genealogical lingo or research methodology.

The takeaway from this six-word journal headline that happily took over my morning: My team will have a meeting Monday. We’ll discuss the things each employee is doing that could benefit from an extra set of (intern) hands. If the list is sufficient to keep some interns busy with mind-growing assignments, employees will be assigned to recruit and engage some interns. If it works — if the ROI is indeed worthwhile, recruiting and managing interns will become a regular assignment for employees each quarter.

In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie quotes Bernard Shaw as saying “If you teach a man anything, he will never learn.” Carnegie, a master teacher, goes on to say “Shaw was right. Learning is an active process. We learn by doing.” That got me to thinking about how I’ve been approaching a lesson on our wiki and forums that I’m going to give at a conference next week. Although the wiki’s bounce rate — the measure of users who visit a page on the site and bounce away to another site without so much as clicking a link or doing a search — is currently at about 40%, the midrange of what Web 2.0 sites usually are, I’ve had a lot of trouble picking out pages that would make my conference students say “Wow, I gotta visit that site!” Basically, I think my problem is that I’ve been listening too much to the marketing and instructional development folks at work who keep saying our wiki isn’t ready for prime time, that it really isn’t useful for beginner genealogists to find useful information.

Maybe they’re missing the point. A Web 2.0 site of a specific field like genealogy, I’m guessing, takes a long time to reach the point where it resonates with beginners. Genealogy is a skill. When people start out, they don’t know the lingo. What’s a probate record? They also don’t know which records will yield the information they desire about their ancestors. And as it turns out, creating the pages that will lead them from what they know (I want to find my ancestor’s parents) to what they need to do (search census, land, vital, and probate records of a specific jurisdiction) takes a long time. To get them from point A to point B you need to conduct a reference interview where you ask them at least three questions: their research objective (ancestor’s parents), the place (where the ancestor grew up), and the time period (when the ancestor lived). Each level of this question-and-answer tree represents a lot of possible answers your system must anticipate in order to guide the customer to the next step. With millions of places (record jurisdictions) in the world, it’s clear that a system that’ll help a beginner will take a lot of work to build. So if we content specialists listen to our marketing and instructional development colleagues and don’t let this site go prime-time until after we build something suitable to beginners, we may literally never get it built.

But as I said, worrying about the beginner segment of our market is missing the point. The point is that Web 2.0 sites’ bounce rate is 30%-50%, and our site is at 40% now. The site also averages above 600 unique visitors a day. Some market segment already finds the site interesting. Our top contributors — who have only been active for 6 months — have over 2,000 edits apiece, so they clearly think the site is worthwhile.

The people who find the site useful are intermediate and advanced genealogists — people who already know the lingo and have some clue what types of records will yield the information they seek. They use the site to find out where to find those records — and the site is positively rich with such information. Intermediate and advanced researchers don’t need millions of “reference interview” pages to guide them from a research objective to a type of record because they already know a few types of records they can use. They just need to know where to find these records, and that’s the thing our wiki does well.

As I’ve thought about what I should teach at this conference full of genealogists next week, I’ve been tempted to spruce up a bunch of pages on the site so I can show them some truly compelling content that they’d crawl through broken glass to access. Really, “spruce up” isn’t the right term. “Overhaul,” “remodel,” or “grow like a mustard seed” is more like it. To make these example pages have the effect I’d want would take enormous amounts of work. I’d work so hard on the content that I wouldn’t have time to prepare the lesson.

But when I reflect upon Carnegie’s words about teaching and doing, I’m reminded that although our site teaches how to edit pages, we haven’t yet really directed contributors in what we’d like them to do. We haven’t sold them on an idea that the site needs a certain flavor of page fleshed out and developed to its full potential, and that we really need them to engage in adding this specific information.

These people at the conference know about our site. We taught them about it during last year’s conference. Some, if not most, are already using it to access information. Most of them haven’t contributed. They think only an expert can contribute because a contribution must be a full-blown article. They don’t consider themselves experts, so they can’t envision themselves adding anything of value to the site. But each one has done some genealogical research, and in so doing, they’ve learned some hard lessons by experience. And if asked to help a friend or relative get started in genealogy, each one would probably convey that hard-won lesson to that relative. So really, all of them know snippets of information that would save someone else some time. Beyond that, they are also capable of performing a whole list of simple but useful enhancements to the site. Some can edit grammar or spelling. Others can create links between related pages. Others can link to archives, libraries, or digitized records already listed in an article. They can add headings to set off paragraphs, or add transitions between paragraphs. They can add pictures of places, or add information about genealogical news and events in their area.

So what these consumers of our site need to know is that they really have what it takes to contribute in simple but valuable ways. They also need a challenge to step forward and volunteer. They need a chance to commit themselves — to put their contact information on a piece of paper that says “Yes, I’ll help. Call me!” They need to feel safe — like they’ll get the help they need to get started. Whether this means I need to visit them at home, have them visit my office, or do a remote session via Adobe Connect where I can walk them through the processes of making simple enhancements to the site, that’s what I need to commit to do for them. If I do my job right, I won’t have to enhance the site before I teach at the conference. If I inspire them, show them they can make a huge impact by doing simple tasks, coach them in person so they can learn by doing, and then recognize their efforts, I’ll have a new team of people contributing targeted, strategic content to the site. I just need to quit wasting time writing site content and listening to Marketing and spend more time converting consumers to contributors and then guiding them in making the improvements consumers need. The takeaway?

  1. Show consumers how they can contribute and that it’s easy.
  2. Recruit consumers: Get a commitment.
  3. Coach consumers 1:1 so they can learn to contribute by doing it.
  4. Focus new contributors in providing content consumers want.

Tim O’Reilley’s What is Web 2.0 classifies the term “Web 2.0” as a meme (pronounced “meem”). It’s worthwhile to know what a meme is because the term smacks of democratization, crowdsourcing, and, at its core, the sort of environment-vs.-genetics, nurture-vs.-nature or choice-vs.-predestination connotations that are core to the Web’s direction. An understanding of the term evokes a warning to the owners of Web 2.0 sites.

According to Dictionary.com, a meme is “a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.” The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, who used it to define a popularized cultural practice which may supercede biological evolutionary processes of natural selection. A meme can either succeed by being used repetitively by a growing number of users or it can die because people don’t find it particularly useful. In a society, that means a meme which runs counter to natural selection can still succeed. So a cultural practice can actually select and even proliferate a trait that physically weakens the population.

This has implications for the Web itself, and for any Web 2.0 site. A Website evolves in one of three tracks:

  1. The site fails to evolve as its users demand and becomes unpopular and irrelevant;
  2. The site evolves at every whim of its members and becomes something that serves is popular to its members but that fails to fulfill its sponsors’ original mission.
  3. The site evolves in a limited way, serving many user needs but still fulfilling its sponsors’ intended mission.

At face value, the idea that a Web 2.0 site can grow into a monster its creator can’t control seems obvious. But what is less obvious is how to recognize where your own site rests on that slippery slope.

I’m a genealogist, which means I search for my ancestors. A common practice among top genealogists may be helpful in determining where on the slope to popularity-and-mission-loss your site might be. When a genealogist finds records of a person who may be the parent of an ancestor already on his family tree, he steps back and tries to disprove the potential link. Let’s say the genealogist already knows who his grandfather is, and finds records of someone who might be his great grandfather. Rather than just attaching great-grandad to his family tree, he steps back and tries to disprove that this candidate could really be the great grandfather. Did the grandfather and great-grandfather live in the same place, or were their residences distant? Was the great-grandfather candidate the right age to have sired the grandfather? Did the candidate die young in a war or epidemic which predated the birth of the grandfather? Are there other records that provide a definite link between the candidate and the grandfather, and if not, why? Sometimes this discipline — this willingness to say “Why shouldn’t these two people be linked?” — evokes questions which prevent big mistakes in one’s genealogical research.

A similar discipline can apply to the evolution of a Web 2.0 site. It’s easy for site sponsors to just let users evolve the site as they wish. After all, there are more users than sponsors, and the Type-A users are very outspoken, often reaching a level of influence with other users which is higher than that of sponsors. But undisciplined evolution of a site in all directions can bring a chaos that degrades the site’s usefulness. Mobocracy can lead to chaos. So when the user population wants the site to evolve in a certain direction, the wise sponsor might ask himself “What are some reasons why this change would be bad? How might this evolution change or undermine the site’s mission?”

There’s probably no better way to learn a subject than to write about it as you research. Groundswell authors Li and Bernoff used del.icio.us to categorize the sites they learned about during their research. Each time they found a site that taught them something new, they created a del.icio.us entry for it. They annotated the entry regarding what they learned from the site. Then they tagged the entry. These tags, like file cards a student uses to take notes for a research project, eventually became the organizational heirarchy of a book’s chapters and headings. Brilliant way to write a book one step at a time.
Del.icio.us has a brilliant feature on its site that would strengthen other sites and and give their users the feeling that there’s always something new there. Each day a Delicious member can post their newly tagged Internet favorites as a blog post with a series of links to each new site (Groundswell p.30). If a library’s Website put such a daily list in a highly-trafficked portal page, customers visiting the portals would get a strong feeling that A) this site is improving all the time and B) if it doesn’t have information I want today, it will tomorrow.

As I read We are Smarter than Me, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Wikinomics, Groundswell, and other books about the Web 2.0 paradigm, I’m excited by nearly every aspect of the movement. One aspect that unsettles me, though, is knowing who is providing my news.

Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I learned which media companies to believe and which ones were extremists. If you watch NBC, CBS, Fox, or other media stations, you get to know what to expect from them. Using a recognized media source makes it easier to know where to go to find a little republican news and a little democratic news to try to balance the messages you’re getting. I never wanted to grow up one of those people who think someone like Rush Limbaugh can be believed word for word.

With Web 2.0, it’s not so easy. If you get your news from Digg, for instance, you can’t be quite sure what kind of a wack-job is feeding you a story — what his bias is. I suppose there’s probably a way to follow specific Diggers who maybe aggregate stories on both sides of an idealogical fence, but something still feels unsettling. The most popular stories tend to be the ones that are most sensational — the site sometimes feels as if it’s an aggregate for National Enquirer stories.

One Digg favorite today was Internet celebrates 2 years of futility battling Pirate Bay. It led to a story that looks to have been written by Pirate Bay supporters. It gives some slanted details about a Swedish police raid on Pirate Bay offices to try to crack down on music piracy and copyright infringement. Writing the story — and managing to get it fronted on Digg — is a clever way for Pirate Bay to gain customers, but the story isn’t news in the sense that it doesn’t even attempt objectivity. And as I scan Digg, I find that to be true of a high percentage of the content. There’s not much in the way of centrist ideas here; it’s mostly sensational stuff.

So how does this apply to my community site, you ask? As long as you’re not delivering news you’re safe, right? Well, not really. My site, for instance, seeks to deliver free advice to people seeking to learn about their ancestors. A lot of the guidance written by the community contains subjective material. Opinions. And what I don’t want is the kind of site where zealots on the far right or left of an issue duke it out by offering ever-diverging opinions. So the takeaway here is How can I get my users to talk through their inevitable conflicts and come to the middle? What tools must I provide to enable them to do this?