The other night (5/3/10) I went to a meeting of Maui Upcountry Sustainability group and got caught up in discussion of how such a volunteer group can be more effective and efficient. This is an issue for many groups – maker/hacker spaces being another type. People come to a meeting, talk about ideas, get excited, perhaps volunteer to do something but after the meeting the effort dies. Why?
- One reason may be people over commit them selves in the excitement, and later realize they cant follow through – or just plain forget in their overcommitted minds.
- Another, perhaps related reason, is communication failures. Volunteer groups often rely on independent communications like phone calls and emails. The messages go out 1:1 (phone) or within a small private distribution group (email). Phone calls may go to message machine and get lost. Emails might get lost in spam or perhaps people Reply instead of Reply-All and so the discussion drops back to 1:1.
Some solutions were mentioned on the motivational side – keeping people interested/excited. Accountability and recognition were mentioned. Accountability means saying “Jon volunteered to do X” in some public venue, so Jon and others see he committed to do something. Perhaps the public statement is enough pressure to get Jon to follow through. Recognition is praising people for doing their part – completing that task they volunteered to do.
I noted the communications issue and stated there are some tech solutions… and promptly got volunteered to write those up – which is the origin of this post. I am not an expert in this, and have only a few months of working with group (i.e. CrashSpace) communications in early 21st century. The rest of this post will hopefully summarize my observations and perhaps provide some suggestions.
There are a plethora of ways the Internet provides for groups to communicate. Social Media sites like Facebook. Blog sites like WordPress. Twitter. Hosted web sites, Google Groups, etc. Some groups avail themselves of all of these. For example Crashspace has at least a blog, a Google Group mail list, a Google events calandar, a Wiki, a Twitter feed and a Flicker photo pool. These serve different needs and sometimes can merge (wiki embedding of google calendars, etc), but sometimes there may be too many ways to share and the messages gets lost.
Lets look at a couple of these in a bit more depth, and with reflection on how the might be used for Maui Makers, and/or volunteer groups like Upcountry Sustainability. Many web hosting services (like HostMonster that serves MauiMakers.com) offer a wide range of services for a very small monthly fee. Here I am currently only using the blog, but email lists, forums, wiki, etc are available – and in time I hope to utilize them.
Basic Web Site: The simplest technique is to create a basic web site. Tools are common, fairly easy to use, and results can be up and running quickly. Themes and design can be tweaked up to look very good. The down side is that basic web sites are not that dynamic. Adding and changing pages often requires one person (web master) to do the editing. This can be the kiss of death for a volunteer group. The web master gets overloaded and other members get frustrated when their changes (or ones they are waiting to read) get postponed. Or worse, the web master goes away, and no one can update the web site.
Wiki: a wiki is a web site that supports easy creation and editing of interlinked pages using online tools, either in a simple markup language or with a WYSIWYG editor. The ease of page creation, and cross linking makes a wiki very attractive for community projects. Members can quickly add new pages that link into the existing structure. There is no requirement that the changes go through a web master, but it is highly desirable to ‘garden’ the wiki occasionally. Members often create pages without knowing about similar pages already existing elsewhere (or perhaps not wanting to edit someone else’s page). Gardening the wiki means going back and pruning or at least cross linking similar pages. The software also usually provides a history mechanism, so you can check the changes made, revert to older pages, etc. As with other collaborative methods, wiki’s are subject to spam and malicious editing. Many wiki require users to be registered to gain editing privileges. That doesnt stop spam/hacking but may reduce it.
Blog : (contraction of web log) online journal website where the author(s) post commentary, ramblings, etc. The postings are generally shown chronologically and might be tagged with keywords to quickly find related entries. They can contain links, pictures, etc. depending on the supporting software and author’s desires. People who read the blog entries are often able to comment on them, sharing their views on the topic with more links, etc. Blogs are most useful for announcements & summaries of events, and of course musings on topics. Blog entries are generally restricted to a select group or one person, but comments on blog posts are allowed. General readers (registered or perhaps not) can add their views on the particular topic. Using a captcha or other security on comments is important – blogs are common targets for spam and link-bots (posting supportive comment in hopes of getting approval, which shows their web address in post – getting them link-backs to enhance their site’s search engine spot).
Email lists – provide a way for community to post messages on a variety of topics and often the display software allows them to be displayed as ‘threads’. Email lists utilize conventional email for distribution. The author sends a message to the mail list address, and software there re-distributes it to all subscribers. Mail lists often have an archive web site that makes past postings available for search and browse. The GNU MailMan software is a classic mail list package. Other packages offer advanced features such as form based inputs, RSVP receipts, etc.
Forums are a web based mail list, where authors go to the site, find or create a topic of interest and post missives. Some forum software (like Google Groups and Yahoo Groups) provides for users to send and receive postings via email along with their web interface. The main advantage of such forum software over mail lists is the web interface. Its even easier with Google/Yahoo Groups as someone else is doing the hosting, configuration, etc.
Forums and and mail lists can restrict the mail creation to administrators, registered users, or anyone. Admin-only mail lists are useful for announcements (meeting date/times, etc), which makes them more like a Blog. Wide open lists are prone to spam attacks, but some mail/forum software allows moderators to check mail before it goes out to the entire list. Such moderated and registered user mail lists are VERY helpful in creating a community.
My experience is the web site works well as a hub for a community but needs a wiki component allowing for group documentation. The blog can be a good way for one way communication to members. The mail list/forum is probably the best way to build up community participation. The key is to allow easy member contributions. Wiki and mail lists work best for this, but need to be open to at least registered members.
Following my own advice, I have created a google group for MauiMakers: http://groups.google.com/group/mauimakers