Tag Archives: distributed

Ruralnet shows how to do distributed communities


A few months back my friends at Ruralnetonline started an experiment in re-inventing their business in the open, through a co-design process online and in workshops.

The highlight of last week’s Collaborate|2008 event was a demonstration of the results: a very smart network of linked blog sites for communities tackling climate change, with any amount of feeds from bookmarks, other news sources, photos, videos, maps … and Twitter. You will find the site here, and as you’ll see it acts as a sort of dashboard for the rest of the carbon neutral network. It’s a forerunner or a much wider network of organisations and communities.

I have to confess that I missed the presentation by Ruralnet chief executive Simon Berry and Paul Henderson, because conversation in the cybercafe was equally gripping, and I was shooting some video on my phone to upload to Qik. Paul Webster, Paul H and I were feeding stuff from our Nokia phones to an event site, as you can see here. Anyway, I was pretty sure I could get a replay.

Simon has uploaded the presentation here explaining how Ruralnetonline has developed over the past ten years, and how the new developments are a reversal of their earlier strategy of a subscription-based walled garden.


Simon and Paul then gave me a quick recap of the presentation that they did. The big question, of course, is how to make this pay, since items like the newsletter and other content are free. Rualnetonline is to offer some premium charged-for services like the highly-successful Experts Online, and I think there will be substantial demand for custom developments.
What I think is exciting is the ability to build a system using free or low-cost tools; to put the emphasis on bottom-up content; to embrace the idea of distributed communities which I wrote about over here; to give users so many options on how to engage, and to do this in an open way that allows content to be linked to other sites.

I should declare an interest here: I’ve known Simon and the team pretty much since they started online, and they are partners in the Membership Project where we are exploring what social media may mean to membership organisations, and the notion of organising without organisations. However, I think I’m fairly dispassionate in believing that they are now ahead of the UK nonprofit/social enterprise field in the range of online services that they can provide. Or does anyone have other innovative examples? The good thing is, I know the people at Ruralnet would be glad to collaborate.

Oh yes, they do non-rural projects too through Networksonline. Technical note: the blogs are built using WordPress MU, with Drupal providing some other services.

You don't need a website for online presence

Two stories illustrate why is may be more valuable to be in lots of different places online, than on a conventional web site. First BBC journalist and online community expert Robin Hamman recaps a meeting about taking TV content and discussion online:

The other day I met with some work colleagues to discuss their proposal for a new blog related to a weekly regional television programme. When the hour was over they left not with a well formed blog proposal but with a handful of vague ideas about how they might get production staff and journalists working on the programme to actually start using some social media tools, in particular del.icio.us, as part of their process.

The idea is simple: think closely about how you can use third party tools, content sharing services and social networks to create content out of existing processes.
So, for example, a journalist researching a story online is likely to want to bookmark anything they might want to revisit later. Using del.icio.us instead of saving these bookmarks locally in a browser or text file means those bookmarks are (or can later be) shared with others, thus creating content out of the research process with little, if any, additional effort.

Robin also explains how you can upload and tag images, audio and video on third party services like Flickr and YouTube, where people may be more likey to find them.
Robin also highlights a story from Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism blog. One of Paul’s students, Charlotte Dunkley, looked at the online usage patterns of her target audience of 15 to 30 year olds in Birmingham and found that having a web presence, and getting noticed online, requires having content, and participating, in the places where your audience is. Not necessarily in creating a place for that audience to come. They were in MySpace, Facebook an E-bay – so that was the place to go.
Paul explains why such an approach makes sense:

Charlotte had been worried about her technical limitations and the lack of a website. Instead, she quickly realised that this wasn’t important – it wasn’t about building a big solid brick house, but about taking a bunch of caravans on tour, to where her audience lived online.

The good news from this is that you don’t have to create conventional website – although a blog is useful. The challenge is then how to operate across distributed communities. Ed Mitchell reflects on what this means in terms of facilitation if, for example, you are trying to track and interact with conversations happening in many different places. Even as an individual it can become difficult, as you start to monitor feeds of content from different place. We may see a lifestreaming backlash.

One role of the socialreporter may be to help organisations and individuals make sense of what is happening in many places.