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.


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  • April 16, 2008 - 12:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this David. Is there something wrong with your video camera or do I really look that old?! Seriously though, we are really excited about this approach. We are not where we thought we’d be when we started the co-design process here: back in January which just reinforces the value of opening up your ideas and getting them challenged and added to by others.

  • April 16, 2008 - 9:40 am | Permalink

    to quote from Simon’s comment:

    “…We are not where we thought we’d be when we started the co-design process…”

    That has just made my day! It tells me that ruralnet did perform *real* co-design process, instead of saying they were going to do one, and then dropping a system that they were always going to drop from on high and stuffing people into it.

    Well done ruralnet 🙂

  • April 17, 2008 - 8:31 am | Permalink

    Simon – this really has been an inspiration to all of us. I really like the detailed explanation you now have here

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