Archives for the month of: May, 2009

The share of people who say they are “independent” — that is, they don’t affiliate with a political party — has climbed to its highest point in 70 years, according to a new survey by the Pew Center for People And The Press.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents self-identified as independents, compared with 33 percent who considered themselves Democrats and 22 percent who identified as Republicans.

Fleeing The Ruins by Flickr User Ed Bierman

"Fleeing The Ruins" by Flickr User Ed Bierman

Of those independents, a third (33 percent) say they are conservative, which is also an increase.

I was recently among a group of people who covered the political spectrum. Out of fifteen or so, perhaps five said they were independents — and of these, three or so said they were really Republicans but did not want to say so.

Is that what’s happening? Or are people really abandoning the parties?

Friends, I am delighted to release a report that captures lessons learned by a handful of professional organizations as they work to engage the public.

I am releasing the report only through my email list. In order to download the report from this page, you need a password that I will email to you. (Sign up for my list here to get the password.)

This report is based on a joint learning agreement with the Kettering Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan research organization. I thank them for allowing me to publish this work.

It’s called:

Working Well With Others:
Five Things Organizations Learn When Engaging The Public

From the executive summary:

More and more organizations say it’s difficult for them to fulfill their missions working on their own. These organizations say they need to work in a complementary way with others. In many cases, the “others” are the public.

This approach is being taken by a striking variety of professional organizations and associations, some that are ordinarily seen as quite hard-nosed.

For these organizations, this isn’t a luxury or a change of heart that is impelling them to some new civic duty. It is a very practical response to a very practical problem. We can’t get our work done as well as we would like, say these organizations, so we are looking at ways of going about it with the public.

This report highlights five themes that emerge when nonprofits start to engage the public:

  1. Working with the public — rather than seeing them as consumers or sources of input — can make an organization’s work “more real and credible.”
  2. Working with the public is, for some organizations, an effective response to setbacks and challenges.
  3. Some organizations learn to their dismay that simply engaging the public does not result in progress. The required structures, habits and norms are not there.
  4. Organizations who choose to work with the public go one of two ways — but sometimes both. They mount engagement projects, or they try to foster an internal sensibility of engagement.
  5. Organizations are learning the power of giving a “public name” and “frame” to issues.

This is my first experiment with this new method of releasing reports. I encourage people to share the report and pass it along, but I will be only giving out the password through my email list.

If you have a colleague whom you think would appreciate being on my list, just have them drop me a note or sign up at my web site. It’s easy and I only send one or two emails per week.

Last week, Honolulu completed what appears to be the first Internet-only election.

Honolulu Cityline by Flickr user Irargerich

"Honolulu Cityline" by Flickr user Irargerich

In the past, I have taken a very dim view of many election “reforms.” The fundamental idea — that we need to make it easier to vote because people are not taking the time to cast their ballots — seems flawed. People will take the time to do what is a priority for them. For many, voting ranks somewhere below getting the car washed.

To me, that’s wrong, and I do not think policies should be designed around devaluing the vote.

But there’s a point the article makes that makes me think Interent voting may be something whose time has come. Why? It’s cheaper.

Honolulu did not shift to Internet-only voting out of a sense of reformism or do-gooderism, but because they needed to save money:

[T]he Honolulu City Council cut the Neighborhood Commission’s election budget from $220,000 to $180,000. That prompted the agency to shift to all-digital voting for this year’s races. Preliminary calculations show Web voting may cost only $80,000, [a community relations specialist with the city Neighborhood Commission] said.

That’s a significant savings.

Strangling Statues by Flickr user victoriapeckham

"Strangling Statues" by Flickr user victoriapeckham

I was talking to a friend the other day about a family event he had to attend. For him, such events are not positive. His family is filled with bickering, infighting, recriminations.

At group events, he dreads the point that always comes, when one family members starts talking trash about another one, and demands some kind of response. You either agree, which allows you to avoid being yelled at for now — but the target of the trash talk gets upset. Or you don’t — in which case the target likes you but the person in your face talking the trash gets hot under the collar.

Over the years, he’s learned a few noncommittal comments that are basically neutral, convey no opinion whatsoever, but allow your conversation partner to believe you are agreeing with them. They are:

  • How about that?
  • I can see your point.
  • You may be right.
  • I’m sorry you feel that way.

I love these.

It got me thinking, though, about just how many people are basically negative. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to put a damper on things when they get going.

I would like to come up with some neutral comments that don’t reinforce the negativity but encourage the person to be a bit more positive.

Maybe that’s too much to ask. Maybe a better goal is to look at myself first, and just make sure I am not inadvertently contributing to general bad Karma.

telephone by Flickr user Paul Keleher

"telephone" by Flickr user Paul Keleher

I have been riveted by a book called America Calling: A Social History Of The Telephone To 1940 by Claude S. Fischer, a sociologist at my alma mater, UC Berkeley. The book is just what you think – a study of social responses to the rise of the telephone as it went from a new invention to being an everyday appliance. I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

You won’t be shocked to learn that the parallels with current reactions to social media have been uncanny. The book was written in 1992, well before the explosion of communication that typifies today’s world. So it’s not like the book is trying to make such parallels. But they are there everywhere you look.

Just as an example from the very first page of the book: In 1926 the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee discuss the topic “Do modern inventions help or mar character and health?” Among the specific questions the committee proposed were “Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?” [and] “Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?”

Just replace “telephone” with “MySpace” or “Facebook” and you see what I mean. The worries of people like Maureen Dowd are nothing new.

Rather than do a whole book report (I’d rather you just buy the book), I thought I would look a little more in detail at one particular facet: how the telephone was sold to America. It is illuminating.

Finding Uses

When it first began to be deployed (1890’s through the turn of the century), telephone companies faced a tough sell. They first had to explain to Americans what need the telephone might fulfill. They had to find uses for it.

From a 1909 Bell System ad:

[The Bell System] had to invent the business uses of the telephone and convince people that they were uses. It had no help along this line. As the uses were created it had to invent multiplied means of satisfying them. It built up the telephone habit in cities like New York and Chicago and then it had to cope satisfactorily with the business conditions it had created.

That reads like the history of Twitter circa 2007-2008. (That “coping” business makes me think of the #failwhale.)

An interesting element of this period was the need to educate users on how to use the telephone. Advertisements included instructions about where to place your mouth when you speak, how loudly to speak, how to place a call, and so forth. Just think, for a parallel, about the copious how-to’s that Facebook deployed when they rolled out their most recent changes.

The Business Case

The first uses imagined were business uses. The telephone would help you make and confirm appointments, save time, and make business more efficient. (Compare this with the early years of faxes and business email – designed to speed business communication.)

Even the personal uses were essentially related to the business of the home. Some ads pitched at wealthy women illustrated how easy it was to order groceries and, for men, how easy it was to call and say you’d be home late from the office.

Social Social Social

In keeping with the all-business vibe, a 1910 ad touted the telephone as a great way to make holiday celebration arrangements more efficiently – noticeably not mentioning anything about giving actual greetings over the phone. But as the decades wore on, things changed. Pretty soon, people were using phones socially. And the telephone companies were catching up.

In 1923, for instance, Southwestern Bell wrote that it had:

decided that it is selling something more vital than distance, speed or accuracy . . . [T]he telephone . . . almost brings [people] face to face. It is the next best thing to personal contact. So the fundamental purpose of the current advertising is to sell the company’s subscribers their voices at their true worth – to help them realize that “Your Voice is You,” . . . to make subscribers think of the telephone whenever they think of distant friends or relatives.

Wow. “Your Voice is You.” Think here about the care with which Facebook treats its users and how strongly they react to changes. “Your Profile is You” could be the new slogan.

Along with this new “sociable” use of the telephone came resistance and a backlash. Early on, people worried that “the telephone permitted inappropriate or dangerous discussions, such as illicit wooing.” (Think about Craigslist and South Carolina here.) Later on, etiquette guides suggested that visiting on the telephone should be “confined to a reasonably short duration of time.”

Noise, Noise, Noise

What may be an even stronger response was to the triviality of sociable telephone conversations and their incessant interruptions of more “reasonable” pursuits. “We are at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone . . . and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure the have the more active do they become in destroying ours,” wrote one professor.

That sounds like one’s uncle turning up his nose at Twitter, if you ask me.

Certainly, the parallels are not exact, but as I think about the arc that social media is following, I can see we are just about at that “sociability” stage. It’s happening gfaster than last century, of course, but people are people – their reaction to new connecting technologies seems quite predictable.


If that’s true, then eventually (like the telephone, the automobile and to a lesser extent email), social media will become transparent. We won’t be talking about “what to do with” social media, we will just use it — like we pick up and use the telephone without thinking about it. It’ll be a utility.

In fact, look further back and think about the electrification of America, or the advent of universal indoor plumbing. These novelties are taken for granted too. Utilities.

Go read the book. But first retweet this.