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February 6, 2012 / Ben Simon

The infrastructure for self-organizing

One of the more exciting tasks that I’m working on at Mozilla is figuring out the challenge of getting people around the world to participate in the project of going from using the web to making the web — building a generation of webmakers — but doing it together, at events. Briefly, the idea is to try and apply something akin to the offline, engagement organizing models normally used in successful grassroots political campaigns to our learning/webmaking initiatives.

Learning event!

Mozilla Japan Scratch/Hackasaurus Pop up. Photo from Mark Surman

Michelle Thorne has already done a bunch of thinking about how this maps across our events — her event menu is here — and I’m trying to think about what type of infrastructure we’ll need to set up to get people to organize these types of things on their own (with our support, or course).

There are some pretty clear functionalities that are needed, which Michelle has laid out elsewhere, beyond simple event creation & categorization — localization, data portability & access, good developer APIs, participant email capture, and more.

In addition to those, there are a couple that seem necessary to me to be reasonably effective:

Ability for event organizers to organize over time: This means an ability to create an event (on one or many days or several events in a series) and have the ability to directly communicate, over time (so both before and after the event) with the people who sign up to take part.

Most tools — even those with something like this — seem to lack either the ability to communicate with attendees at all, or, even if they have that, lack the ability to do so over time and across events. Example: I want to start a weekly meetup. Within the Mozilla event infrastructure, I should be able to create an event once and set it to happen every week at Time X. I should be able to change the event time of a given week. People should be able to sign up for one/all/some of those events. And I should be able to communicate with all the attendees (who have opted in to communications, of course) both before and after the events.

Groups: Part of this whole thing needs to be people easily finding and joining groups of people they’d want to talk to — that could be based on geography, ability, program, interest, whatever. These should be easy to search for, find, and join, and allow people to discuss things and move forward in their own way. This could be anything from glorified listservs to something more Facebook-y, but it’s definitely important for fostering an engaged core of people doing this stuff.

Now, there are examples of organizations doing things like this — or at least setting up infrastructure close to it — quite successfully. From Rebuild the Dream to Code Year to Tedx and a whole lot more, they’re out there, but generally there’s something making each not quite what we need, or not quite what would work in this context.

So the questions are as follows:

1) Is the description of needed functionality above correct? Are there gaping holes, or things that aren’t necessary?
2) How should we create that infrastructure?

There are platforms out there which meet some, but not all, needs. There’s Meetup Everywhere, but what’s really needed is a combo of Meetup Everywhere with the richer functionality you can have as an individual user of Meetup. 350.org is building its own tool in the open, which could potentially be forked for our needs — https://github.com/350org/localpower. There are tools that don’t yet exist (ex: http://www.controlshiftlabs.com/) and then there’s the better known tools from BSD to Action Kit to EventBrite to Lanyrd and more. BSD is what we use for other things, but their event tool unfortunately wouldn’t localize too well. Otherwise it would have almost everything else.

So, what say you, techies, organizers, people who care? Please chime in with thoughts on any of this — or thoughts on anyone else I should try and talk with — in comments. Thanks!

Also, many thanks to, among others, Jim Pugh & Nathan Woodhull for recent discussions that have helped crystallize my thinking enough to get to where I currently find it.

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