Virtual Strength: How the Internet Fosters Community

People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. Wh...

People are more mobile than ever; communities and jobs are more fluid, and relationships are taking on new shapes. While we are more globally connected, we are feeling ever more alienated and desperate for rootedness, connection, and community. For those of us in the expanding Zeitgeist of virtual communities, a number of questions require consideration

  • How do people retain both their deep connections and the casual ones that enable the migration of ideas?
  • How do virtual communities affect our humanity and relationships?
  • Is commitment to physical place important?
  • What do we gain and what do we lose through so much mobility?

I’ve spent most of the past fourteen years living in Israel and working for American educational institutions. At both Camp Ramah in Wisconsin (as founding co-director of its Northwoods Kollel) and at Mechon Hadar (as director of alumni affairs and recruitment), the essence of my position was intellectually and pastorally oriented community organizing. With the emergence of the Internet as the culture’s central information medium and hub for social organization, I found myself operating on new terrain – working in many places and nowhere. Yeshivat Hadar, for example, may be housed in New York, but the community it serves and represents – Jews interested in rigorous, literate, communal Torah life in egalitarian contexts – spans a far greater distance. While that might foster a network of kindred spirits, does it create community?

Spoiler alert: yes and no. We have an opportunity and challenge today to maximize the ways in which virtual organizations enhance community life while doing some serious, creative, adaptive thinking about how to nurture physical, local communities without smothering mobility.

In some ways, the kinds of fellowship and intimacy forged and nurtured virtually tend to be richer than those found exclusively in face-to-face contexts. And virtual communities are more democratic and inclusive and, consequently, more substantive.

Conversations in threads and wall posts on Facebook and other social media circulate information and perspectives more efficiently and inclusively than messaging that takes place solely on the ground. There are several structural reasons for this:

  • We can maintain the feel of a conversation’s urgency in real time and yet we can respond slowly — with more time to think and digest before speaking;
  • We can eliminate barriers that preclude shy people from sharing their insights;
  • We can include individuals who are socially isolated because of geography, economics, homebound caretaking responsibilities (e.g., parents of young children), or restrictions on their freedom of movement by others;
  • We can limit or block the voices of aggressive interlocutors who too easily dominate social settings in person.

Moreover, virtual communities sustain relationships when they need to grow the most but are at most risk of dissolving – when individuals move away and discover new insights ready to circulate and prevent communities from becoming intellectual silos. Take a biblical example: When they first meet, Moshe and Yitro are drawn together as strangers and kindred spirits. But only later, when they reunite and see one another, could Yitro learn of God’s ways with Israel and Moshe learn about Yitro’s community organization wisdom. The reuniting was essential to community growth, but difficult to achieve; too often, by the time it happens, if ever, people have lost the social rhythms needed to unlock and share their new knowledge. Today, many of our face-to-face relationships are immeasurably enhanced because connections that enable getting back together are better maintained while we are apart.

Virtual communities also enable the retention of our more creative members. During my tenure at Camp Ramah, I would encourage our brightest counselors not to return every summer. I felt it would raise the camp’s creative bar when veterans would eventually return with new perspectives gleaned from a broader array of experiences. This was usually met with resistance: “Once they’re gone, how will we get them back?” High net, low roof. Maybe they were right at that time. Today, though, an organization that loses contact with its members that quickly is simply not trying.

When the community is mindfully organized, it will have even more substantive and creative interactions during opportunities to meet face-to-face. Most of the catching up has already happened. “What have you been up to these five years?” can give way to: “I wanted to talk to you more about that post the other day.” Goodbye, reunions; hello, laboratories. Social media enable human relationships to be thicker, wiser, and more stable.

On the other hand, the malaise that many digitized people feel is real, and I suspect that it strikes the hardest when a virtual community is replacing, rather than supplementing a physical community of stable, face-to-face relationships. Intimacy is often accessible only when built on a foundation of interaction.

Further, geographically dispersed but like-minded individuals talking to one another can also become an echo chamber, deaf to the insights of those of different ages, politics, and lifestyles, and blind to the nuances of received wisdom and local custom. Our celebration of diversity doesn’t look so impressive if we forget how to listen to all the grandparents in our midst.

It is no surprise that the remarkable burst of Jewish innovation in the past fifteen years coincided with the emergence of a digitized generation or that the innovation took a quantum leap forward when social media became the norm. This decade’s big story will be the attempt of that generation to put down roots and establish a stable infrastructure without losing the creative soul of their flexible and mobile origins.

Rootedness in physical space is important, often crucially so: People crave the mutual understanding and dependability that come through long-term relationships. Truly buoyant physical communities today, though, will be those that recognize the ways in which digital community organization reinforces their natural strengths so they can be more democratic and inclusive and better retain their members. Accordingly, those who have discovered the humanity remarkably enabled via social media will go deepest with these relationships when they set down roots and commit to physical community.

Virtual Strength: How the Internet Fosters Community, July 22, 2014, eJP by Aryeh Bernstein

The Disconnect in Connecting the Workplace

There’s a lot of talk about the future of work… Technology is indeed connecting us in ways that imp...

There’s a lot of talk about the future of work…

Technology is indeed connecting us in ways that improve communication, discovery and connectivity. The world is becoming a much smaller place as a result. Chances are that you are connected in one network or another to people in at least 12 other countries. Although social networking and smartphones are relatively new as a staple in the everyday life of adults and kids, how we as consumers use these networks and devices is outpacing how we as employees use technology in the workplace. Over time, how we make decisions as consumers, what we come to expect from the companies that we do business with, and simply how we want to work with them is shifting the balance of power away from today’s business models to the connected masses.

Seems logical and almost commonsensical. The challenge however is that companies are anchored by decades or years of technology investments and the existing philosophies and processes that govern and support them today. But it doesn’t stop there. These connected customers though aren’t the only ones we need to understand, they also represent a growing percentage of our workforce.

Fighting Fire with Fire Will Only Burn Everything to the Ground

In my research, I’ve found that many executives are well aware of the onslaught of new technology. Many however, are unsure of how to solve the problem or even address what the problem really is for that matter. There are those in IT who are drafting new plans that alter long-established roadmaps to evaluate emergent social and mobile technologies. Some are bolting-on trendy technologies onto legacy systems to apply what will only prove to be a temporary fix. As my friend Stowe Boyd, a web anthropologist and futurist often says, “You can’t teach old tech new tricks.”

Either way, social and mobile threw a curveball. It wasn’t just because the technology overtook the world in a matter of a few short years, it’s that social media and mobile apps changed the behavior of people who use them. Suddenly businesses have to rethink…everything. Yet, how they’re structure today symbolizes an old guard of command and control approaches where employees use technology bestowed upon them because it was gospel. In today’s world though, all I can say is “good luck with that strategy.” More often than not, the technology we force onto people forces them to conform to a way of work dictated by technology and those who govern it within the organization rather than use technology as a seamless enabler to get work done, individually or collectively, the way that people organically use technology in their personal life.

Technology is most effective when it is invisible.

Throwing technology at the problem isn’t the answer. Technology is an enabler and we must see it for what it unlocks or facilitates. But that comes down to us not as information architects but as architects of collaboration and work to do something greater than what we accomplish today. With all of the hype, and fatigue, around new tech, it’s easy to get caught up in what’s hot and what’s next.

Technology is part of the solution but it’s also part of the problem.

In my research as a digital analyst and anthropologist, I explore the dynamics of human behavior from a bottom-up or escalation perspective. The conundrum facing IT and businesses overall, is that the philosophies and systems governing the way we work are traditionally designed from that of a top-down approach. Yet how we use technology in our real life is completely different than what we use or how we use it to get the job done.

Businesses can’t look at new tech as a solution until executives understand what it is they’re really trying to solve for or enable now and over time.

Intranets languish.

Knowledge sharing isn’t shared as much as businesses hoped.

Collaboration tools inhibit true collaboration.

Mobile access looks and feels nothing like the way our personal mobile apps feel and function.

So what’s the answer?

Social streams that allow people to feel like they’re tweeting inside their company?

Geo-location apps that allow them to check in to cafés or meeting rooms?

Facebook-like collaboration networks that allow employees to network and work with each other.

Shift to iOS and Android phones and tablets because you have to thanks to the momentum of employees + BYOD (bring your own device).

Cloud anything…because cloud!

Gamification rewards to incentivize people to use internal tech because they get points and there’s a leaderboard to show who’s winning?

It all sounds like it will work until of course, it doesn’t.

Why is that the case?

The answers are simple yet revealing…
When Technology Fails

When I study why technology fails to change behavior internally, the reasons always seem to surprise executives, but rarely do they shock employees.

  1. Older managers disagree philosophically with how younger employees work in general.
  2. Systems architects don’t get today’s employees.
  3. Technology is too painful to use and there’s a lot of it.
  4. Workflow is imposed rather than designed to emulate how people naturally use technology to communicate and connect.
  5. Legacy processes and reporting systems actively discourage people to adopt something new.
  6. Legacy philosophies protect those who work in dated paradigms rather than encourage aging workforces to gain new expertise through learning and collaboration.
  7. Management doesn’t actually reward cross-team collaboration as part of the day-to-day work.
  8. Incentives to change do not align with employee goals and aspirations.
  9. Leadership does not lead by example.
  10. A lack of vision as to why new technology will enable business goals and why employees should buy-in.
  11. BONUS: The culture of the organization is more rigid than adaptive, which inadvertently undermines any hope for innovation

Depending on the culture of the organization, this list only grows…often unwieldy like a weed. Pulling the weed out buys time, but it grows back. You have to get to the root of the problem and solve for it as it lines up with the ultimate vision of the company. And sometimes, because things are so different now with market and employee behavior, that vision may need to be renewed or completely revised to mean something, to be relevant now and in the future.

Things must change, but change begins with seeing and approaching this challenge cum opportunity differently…

This is a time for leadership…not the conventional management systems as we know them. Change doesn’t have to come from today’s executives or managers however. What’s important to understand is that change can come from anywhere within the organization. Anyone can assume the role of leader as long as they have vision for what’s possible, courage to break what isn’t yet fully broken, and passion to mobilize people to unite in transformation. This sense of conviction is contagious and when approached with a human and business focus, even executives can’t help but listen…and learn. I guess that’s what this is about. We have to learn to learn again and that will only help us lead.

The Disconnect in Connecting the Workplace, July 15, 2014, Brian Solis

Design A Better Dashboard

Take a look at any nonprofit dashboard and the most effective ones probably have an organizational process that lies ...

Take a look at any nonprofit dashboard and the most effective ones probably have an organizational process that lies beneath. Dashboard design is more than simply clarifying outcomes and key metrics. Dashboard design should also inspire buy-in and continuous improvement by using “human centered design” methods.

But shouldn’t dashboards be designed by data scientists and graphic designers? Yes they can be part of the team, but anyone can be a designer! These are methods for developing solutions (any type) in service of people. By applying this approach to any program development or strategy and even your organization’s dashboard, your nonprofit can more innovative and get more impactful results.

Many times dashboard design is focused on “getting it done efficiently” and graphs and does not address the human side – buy-in, learning from data, and consensus on metrics. A focus on the bar charts without taking the time to understand the challenges and open up creative thinking will not inspire organizational buy-in which is so important.

Here are two stories about two very different nonprofits and how they approached designing their dashboards with human-centered design techniques.

Tracking for Impact and Learning

Edutopia, a project of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, is an online web site that creates and curates content that is distributed through mobile, social media, video, and offline channels. They also have a robust online community. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of education. Their theory of change is about raising awareness of the issues and then inspiring, engaging and encouraging their audiences to take actions around this goal.

Their dashboard already did a great job at tracking impact metrics about the reach and size of their audience, but they wanted to go deeper in tracking engagement and taking action. With a large staff producing and marketing content, they also wanted a way to capture data for ongoing feedback to improve their content.

Again, using design-thinking facilitating methods, the process started with a presentation from the executive director on the strategy for the year and measurement. Staff were asked to use a technique called “Rose, Bud, Thorn” to identify strengths, challenges, and opportunities for change. They created a concept map of the different themes that emerged. While technical topics such data and measurement processes emerged, so did a lot culture change issues.

Next staff identified key impact metrics by creating a paper prototype of the dashboard on the wall, with sticky notes. Using a sticky dot voting process to identify metrics most important to senior management and the board and those most important to different staff departments, they were able to design different “views” – a high level for impact and more detailed version for “learning.”

What emerged from the conversation was a plan for impact reporting, but also a process for more intentional experimentation and learning linked to key metrics.

Metrics for Movements

GivingTuesday, a philanthropic movement to promote a national day of charitable giving that takes place the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, organized a convening of key stakeholders called “Measurepalooza.” The gathering followed on the heals of the “Best Practices Summit” where partners and participants came together to share and learn best practices and identified the need for the movement to also capture metrics beyond “dollars raised on the day” numbers.

In particular, they were interested in looking at transformational metrics such as donor engagement, building nonprofit capacity, and global reach.

As a movement, GivingTuesday needed to address and get consensus on two big measurement questions: What metrics should the movement as a whole measure? What should participants each measure for their individual campaigns?

The session started with setting context on the accomplishments of the past year’s campaign and a summary of what was learned during the best practices summit. This lead to a discussion about the need to capture both “transactional” and “transformational” metrics related to specific outcomes as well as what and how to effectively use both quantitative and qualitative data for both movement level learning and for participating partners.

Through a facilitated design thinking process, small groups of participants created a draft of the Giving Tuesday movement level and partner level metrics.  As a consensus building process, participants used “sticky dot” voting to identify the most important metrics (green for partners; red for the movement as a whole). This allowed everyone to see visually what the group consensus was and hone in what was most important.


Whether you are using data to inform a digital content strategy or to build a philanthropic movement, it is important to remember that effective measurement begins with people.

How has your organization achieved buy-in from staff or senior leaders about what data to collect for impact tracking?  What are the processes that your organization is using to help ensure that data is used for decision-making and learning and not ignored?

Design A Better Dashboard, July 18, 2014, Beth's Blog, by Beth Kanter