For this week's bloggerview, we caught up with Michael Gilbert, who writes the Nonprofit Online News, which is not only the oldest nonprofit-oriented blog, but one of the oldest blogs altogether. Michael shared some insights into his writing discipline and practice, content filtering approaches, and observations of blogging by and about nonprofits.
Q: When did you start publishing? Why? How did you get started?
Nonprofit Online News is tied with Scripting News (Dave Winer's blog) as the oldest weblog still being published, period. As you probably know, Dave has been in the center of the blogging revolution, whereas I am over here in the nonprofit sector, so the histories of blogging never mention Nonprofit Online News. So yes, I have been blogging since before the term was invented.
I think of the origin of
Nonprofit Online News as one of those sweet Internet accidents,
something that always reminds me that networks are infrastructures of
natural abundance. Let me explain by telling
the story of how it got started.
During 1995 and 1996 I
found myself in the position of being the person best informed about
the Internet in my professional nonprofit circles. The growth of the
web and mailing lists was explosive and I
was very interested in remaining well informed. So I developed some information consumption tools and habits that would scale well with the rapidly increasing volume of new material coming my way everyday. On the side, by personal email I was sharing interesting links, articles, and conversations with people who I thought might be interested.
Then someone (I really don't remember who) suggested that I go ahead and publish those interesting bits on the web. I was already very interested in automation at this point and built a small content management system for the purpose of publishing those bits. (Yes, I think this was well before the term Content Management was around as well.) And then, in April 1997, I became a blogger.
The reason I think this is a classic Internet story is that 90% of the ongoing cost of publishing that blog is my own cost of staying informed and reflecting on what I learn. That was a cost I was already paying and would always be willing to pay. As I see it, staying informed and reflection are part of my job. The incremental cost of sharing the results with anyone with a browser is very small.
If I had had to publish by
paper this would never have happened.
Since Online Nonprofit News was the first to populate the "nonprofit blogging space" -- what changes have you seen over the last few years in 501c3 blogland?
I will admit that I continue to be baffled by how long it's taken to catch on. In 1998, I was teaching web strategy workshops in which I described a number of strategies for failure on the web. The main correction that I offered was for nonprofits to adopt a news page format, with reverse chronological entries linking to deeper content on site and elsewhere online. So, I guess the only change I have seen
in the last few years is that some people are paying attention to it.
In my communication workshops, I still find that nearly every nonprofit organization is rather afraid of the idea of blogging. It's threatening to them to have their staff blogging, it's too much work to have their leaders blogging, and it seems irrelevant to have their stakeholders blogging. Obviously, I support all three of these blogging strategies and I think that together they represent a resurgence of a community based form of organizing, whether in support of social service or social change. But I think the vast majority of the sector isn't there yet.
The people who are paying attention are the techies. That does represent an important change. A few years ago at conferences I started asking my colleagues in the nonprofit technology field if they had a weblog. I guess I thought it was time, but people looked at me strangely, so I stopped asking. Sometime in the year or two after that, they started blogging. This is really rewarding for me personally, because among this wave of bloggers are people like yourself who take a systems perspective to nonprofit technology. The online conversations that are starting around those issues are very exciting.
Let me share with you what I hope will happen in the coming years and how blogging fits in. I believe that the nonprofit sector is too professionalized, too specialized, and too atomized. This stifles both innovation and movement building. The contemporary organization is the wrong model for civil society, the corporate structure in particular is dysfunctional, and human beings fit more naturally and are more empowered in communities, movements, and networks.
I see blogging as both metaphor for a different kind of sector and one of the means to achieve it. Other pieces of that transformation include the work by grantmakers to reduce the role of programmatic silos of funding and the growing emphasis on collaboration, both between grantmakers and between grantees. Blogging can help to break down some of the barriers that are preventing projects from scaling and individuals from being as successful as they might be if the full power of connectivity were pursued.
Q: You have an impressive record of regularly postings, was there ever a time when you stopped posting (outside of vacation)? Why? What keeps you motivated?
I'm coming up on 6000 posts at this point, so I suspect it's a little hard to tell where I might have slowed down, but there have been times when I did. In fact, there are entire months with less than half a dozen entries. The biggest reason for those slow spells was a sense of disconnection. I will elaborate on that.
My blogging is deeply connected to every other aspect of my work.
Most importantly, it remains a tool for staying informed and for reflection. It hones my thinking. It feeds into a variety of publications that I offer, some for free and some for sale. It builds connections with clients and collaborators. It serves as a public test bed for new ideas, at least among those people who listen to me.
So to answer your question, when these connections have been weakest, that's when my blogging has flagged. Sometimes it's happened because of poor planning on my part, such as when I have embarked on new ventures that don't leverage Nonprofit Online News. There were periods during my Social Ecology years like that. And I'm sure it will happen again, since my reach constantly exceeds my grasp.
Sometimes I have felt disconnected when I have not found the support that I had expected for new ideas. I go through cycles with that, where I am disheartened and a little alienated. I think we all deal with that from time to time.
So obviously, it's the sense of connection that keeps me motivated. I experience that connection most when I see that my work has been of value to others, when I see them applying it in their own work, and when people let me know that I have been relevant.
Q: Approximately, how
many sources do you read regularly?
Your question, about how may sources I read, gets at the heart of Nonprofit Online News and my own information consumption patterns. In other words, it could be a long answer and probably will be in a future article of mine. The short version is this:
One subsystem or another of my network pulls in about 50,000 messages a week. A message can derive from any of the following: an updated web site, a newsletter, a mailing list, an RSS item, a recommendation form, some personal email, newsgroups, and web based discussion groups. At any given time there are several thousand distinct sources or channels. The messages work their way through a series of filters.
These filters are shaped by my habits, such as what I read, what I post or forward, what I bookmark, along with some collective recommendation systems and a neat genetic algorithm of mine. In the end, I find that I personally skim about 400 to 2000 messages a week.
I would love to find a way to share this toolset and in fact I have talked to Jon Stahl about the idea. But I haven't followed through. I think perhaps the Social Ecology experience has made me cautious about tool promotion. I mean, RMS is still the most advanced relationship management platform out there, but that didn't make the company successful. And I know I would have to raise money for such a project and I'm weary of trying to convince funders of anything.
Q: When you say "a neat genetic algorithm of mine," do you mean your brain cells or an actual mathematical or AI formula?
Q: When you say "a neat genetic algorithm of mine," do you mean your brain cells or an actual mathematical or AI formula?
It's an evolving set of interconnected formulae for helping deliver news and information to me based upon a wide variety of factors including my past reading and posting behavior, along with some
provision for "mutation" and randomness.
Actually, Jon Stahl was very excited about this too. One of these days I need to find the resources to document this in a way that might be useful to other people.
(I wonder if it is something like I heard on NPR the other day?)
Q: I read your article about writing a book in a year and found it very inspiring. You recommend two things for personal accountability: maintaining a log book or journal of your writing discipline and a weekly process of reflection and decision making. Do you think blogging might serve this function?
I'm glad you liked the
article. I would be very interested in your critical feedback. I'm
developing a model for taking the ideas in there to scale, in the
form of online workshops and online support groups. If you have any
thoughts on the subject, I would love to hear them.
That raises a question: Are you working on a book? (BK: No, I'm not working on book, but thinking about it)
Yes, I absolutely think blogging can and often does play a role in supporting people's larger writing projects. There are lots of examples out there, but I like the specific question that you raise about writing discipline and blogging. Blogs can be a great journaling tool. They could easily be automated to track progress of various kinds, especially word counts. And when they are opened up to other readers, they become a tool for group accountability and reflection. I fully believe that there will be a blogging component to the online version of Keystrokes.
Q: The blog, To-Done, has a great set of tips
for being productive in daily writing.Do you have anything to add this?
That's an awesome list. The main thing I would add is just this:
Find every way you can to
integrate and relate your blogging to your other work and to other
people with whom you are or want to be connected. Derive blog
entries from other things you are reading, writing, or thinking
about. Derive other work from your blog entries. Write for other people's
blogs and have them write for yours. Collaborate. Find other
ways to connect with your readers. Make your blog relevant to the
people who are relevant to you.
I'm looking at the advice I just offered and realized that this theme of integration and connection permeates my work. But it's perpetually relevant. I think we actually put a lot of effort into isolating activities from each other, thinking that we make something more important by doing so, by setting it apart. While this is sometimes true, most often isolated activities (and this includes nonprofit programs and organizations) are not sustainable. As E.M. Forster said: "Only connect.... Live in fragments no longer."
Many "blogs" have a comments or
trackbacks section. I know that you started to blog before "blog"
software with these features was around. So, how do you integrate
reader feedback into your publishing
I get an enormous amount of reader feedback, largely as a result of most people reading Nonprofit Online News through one of two different email editions. I also receive recommended news items and other feedback through a form on the site. Some of that feedback I respond to personally. Some result in corrections. Some result in followup news items. All of them are kept as part of our resource database.
I have mixed opinions
about comments or trackback. They are both spam magnets and I have enough
trouble dealing with email spam as it is. Of the two, I think I have
a greater interest in trackback, but I
don't see the full payoff yet. From time to time, I do consider the value of connecting my readers with each other, which is where comments might play a role. But I think there are probably other models worth pursuing.
Have you seen some really
compelling outcomes of comments and trackbacks?
(Anwer from BK: As a writer, I like the fact that comments and trackbacks can connect you to readers and more bits of information that you might not otherwise come across. Recently, I commented on a Alexandra Samuel's blog who writing on tagging and social bookmarking I read regularly and it started an extended conversation that really deepen my own understanding of social bookmarking. This wouldn't have happened from just reading her and I don't know if I'd ever had a chance to meet her face-to-face ....)
Q: What do you see as the key benefit of "blogging" for a nonprofit organization? What about using social applications - specifically social bookmarking tools? What are the key barriers to the above?
There are a great many
different possible models for nonprofit blogging. Right now, I
think the highest payback for individual nonprofits is to use the
blog model as either the main or the most important organizing
paradigm for their web sites. But for some time now, I have been
advocating that nonprofits work to release authentic s in their
organizations by supporting individual blogging, starting with the
leadership. Authentic s of that nature will open all sorts of
possibilities for organizations who want to
mobilize and engage people, whether donors or activists or volunteers. But the long term implications are a more network centric nonprofit sector, rather than the organization centric system we have now. It's pretty threatening on a lot of levels.
As for social bookmarking, it's a great first step in the direction of emergent taxonomies. My main concern with social bookmarking right now is that there is really only one player -- del.icio.us -- and I don't like a collective resource like that being in private hands. I would be interested in social networking tools in support of communities of practice and in peer to peer approaches.
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