Sunday, July 09, 2006

Anita Borg, BlogHer, and mir tesen

There's a Russian saying "Mir tesen, a sloi tonkii," which roughly translates to "It's a small world," but the Russian version more subtly suggests that the world is small because the social 'layers' in which one inevitably operates in is a narrow thin one. It was always true when I was working in Russia that there were a limited number of competent public officials, and regardless of who ended up being appointed finance or economics or even Prime minister, the same public officials usually showed up in the technical slots.

Now I find it's true in my own little space of technology, social impact, and scalable solutions. Here's the story.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to serve on the jury panel for the Anita Borg Social Impact award to be given out at the Grace Hopper celebration of women in computing, coming up this October. It's the second time I've served on this jury, and it's the second time I've not subscribed to the majority view. Here'

I reviewed 12 applicants this year, and in my view it was no contest. There was no question in my mind that BlogHer was the only possible winner. I had never heard of the site until I reviewed the proposals, but it dinstinguished itself among the 10 or so other qualified applicants--all of them really fantastic women who were science or technology professionals in their own right who clearly had had to overcome obstacles to get where they are today. And they were all engaged in some sort of mentoring or other development programs for girls and young women either at school or in the workplace, and in many cases had devoted years of their life outside of work and family to make them happen. What inclined me so strongly to the BlogHer submission was that it was a radically different approach. It did not seek to create a structured program for anybody, but created an enabling environment, filled with active, passionate, intelligent women that invited women, but especially young women, to come and join them on an equal footing. It was not yet another "mentoring" project, but a platform that clearly met young people where in fact they are perceived to have an advantage (expressing themselves online) and gave them a really wide range of role models to choose from.

The fresh subversion of that approach--as well as its potential scalability and startup status--was exactly what I thought should be encouraged. In other words, from all I had heard about Anita Borg (and I am sorry I never knew her in person), I think she would have celebrated and supported such an approach, and in fact I feel that awarding Elisa Camahort the prize would be like supporting the young Anita when she herself was young and bucking trends. It is, I think, far more valuable to recognize potential (and risk the possibility that the initiative might never pan out) than to award a prize to something tried and tested--but not particularly earthshattering in its consequences. It takes more courage to risk to fail, but it also takes more courage to attempt to deliver higher social impact in the midst of that risk. I felt that's what Anita would have inclined toward, were she in my place.

So that's where I got my little spike of loyalty for BlogHer as the underdog in the competition. Imagine my surprise when my colleague Sombit Mishra got up at a staff meeting, and explained that he had met someone at TechSoup in Second Life who decided to interview him and post the interview on a BlogHer post. And I was vindicated in my preference for BlogHer for the award when I discovered that this interview was the first natural result now for "Sombit Mishra."

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the world is small indeed. But I also wanted to register my thoughts as I served on the Anita Borg award panel, and to give kudos to Sombit for getting himself featured in what I thought was a really really cool site.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Long Tail

At GlobalGiving, we spend a considerable amount of energy trying to find out what donors like, and how to help them find what they like. We also try to find out why certain projects appeal to donors. I’ve seen them as two sides of the same coin, and I’ve never questioned the value of following up on those lines of inquiry.

I just read another article about the long tail in the New Yorker—and as the article itself attests, this is hardly the first time we’ve heard about the long tail. In essence, it argues that technology has drastically reduced the cost of offering more choices to people so that niche markets are much better served today than before, whether the market for obscure art house movies on Netflix, low-print editions on Amazon, or obscure collectables on eBay.

What struck me today though, was that while it may still make sense to try and find out what donors like, and how best to help them find what they like, maybe we shouldn’t concern ourselves with why certain projects appeal to donors. Cast in the light of this article, it sounds like trying to discover why some (very few, I suspect) like to watch the early Soviet era movie “Man with a movie camera.” Frankly, I suspect Netflix doesn’t care why, it just cares to know that some people want it, and the cost of stocking a very few copies of “Man with a Movie Camera,” is minimal compared to the loyalty they can get from those few consumers who really care about that movie (and probably other obscure movies). What’s different today from 15 years go is that Blockbuster, given its business model, couldn’t deliver obscure movies to most of its customers, but Netflix can, making both Netflix and lovers of art movies happier today than they were 15 years ago.

So the analogy for us may be—with two important caveats below—to stock as many and as varied projects as possible and just note whether they attract donations or not. We shouldn’t care to know why.

Caveat 1 is that movies, books, and even collectables are all more common currency than development projects. What this means is that they exist in an ecosystem where movies, books, and music are discussed in traditional and non-traditional media, and that helps people decide whether they think they might want to see/read/listen to it or not. Or in our internal GlobalGiving language, they have a lot of "choice helpers". Plus it’s a lot easier to design a search for things that are talked about. So if we put up a whole bunch of projects on GlobalGiving, people may find it harder than ever to find the project they like.

Caveat 2 is that books, movies, and collectables aren’t time bound the way projects on GlobalGiving are. Projects happen in a certain place at a certain time, and frequently will not make sense later, or the cost of letting an init languish is measured in human welfare, not in foregone royalties. It’s not always easy to “let the market decide” in this context.
What keeps us going though, on this marketplace centered approach, is our conviction that it is better to have a market than not to the extent that this opens up a new avenue of support for social entrepreneurs worldwide. And it certainly gives the average donor more choices than they had before. And that’s got to be better than a world without a market for international philanthropy. Which sums up, I think, my attitude going into this conference on social investment markets where I will be meeting up with some old friends from DonorsChoose, Modest Needs, GiveIndia, PCNC, Keystone, Greater Good South Africa, HelpArgentina, and the Omidyar Network, as well as new market friends I hope from Brazil and South Korea.