30 November 02008

Social media old and new: two contrasting networks

tuttle.jpgIt's a year since I did a 'compare and contrast' blog post about two initiatives to build networking activity. To recap briefly, the RSA is a 254-year-old membership organisation devoted to art, design, business and the environment, currently with around 28,000 'fellows', which launched a Networks initiative on 22 November 02007 (I didn't go). The Social Media Café (a.k.a. Tuttle Club, named after Harry Tuttle), on the other hand, had its very first meeting on 21 November last year, and I did go. It aims to create spaces where people interested in social media can connect, socially and for business. So far, that has involved a series of weekly café sessions, which are 'prototypes' for something that may be more far-reaching. (The picture on the right shows, Lloyd Davis, Tuttle Club prime mover, making a brief announcement at the first birthday meeting nine days ago.)

One year on, how are they each doing? Where do they converge and diverge?

Let me see if I can build up some dramatic tension here, to make it into a good story. Is the Tuttle Club the 21st century analogue of coffee house meetings that led to the formation of the RSA in 01754? Will the RSA be shown up as a lumbering beast of the 18th century, unable to move quickly or be flexible because of all its baggage, so that the Tuttlers can run rings round it? Or will the Tuttle Club turn out to be a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon, supported by an initial wave of enthusiasm and attention but zero revenue, and at risk from the capricious mood of its freelance participants, who will lose interest when stronger commitments are required of them, or when they (errr, we) finally have to resort to getting proper jobs?

Now let me deflate that tension straight away. In both cases, it's far too soon to say. And anyway, there's no competition here. A small number of us happily frequent both spaces, and symbiotic co-evolution would be an ideal outcome for both initiatives. (Yeah, OK, I know: wouldn't it always?)

So having told you the punchline, here are a few 'compare and contrast' notes to record a snapshot of where things are at the end of the first year. This is a subjective, largely impressionistic and annoyingly London-centric account. I haven't gone back and re-read everything that's been produced — which in the case of RSA is about 40 times what has been written about Tuttle — though I have recently made my way through most of the NESTA-commissioned evalution of the RSA Networks project. To disclose my interests and affiliations, I am a fellow of the RSA and have no official status with the Tuttle Club (but then neither does anyone much). In terms of participation, in both cases I would say I am on the dividing line between centre and periphery, but leaning towards the periphery, as is my wont.

RSA Tuttle Club (Social Media Cafe)
Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, has nailed his colours to the mast with the Networks project, one of the organisation's major initiatives since he took over two years ago. He's outlined his vision many times over in person and in writing (including, by coincidence, a blog post with exactly the same title as mine of a year ago, posted on the very same day). He's emphasised that this is a long-term commitment. When things are looking good for any group endeavour, everyone believes in collective responsibility; when delays or anxieties creep in, they look for a fall guy. Lloyd Davis kicked off the Social Media Café concept and remains the main man, with the support of a few volunteers. Lloyd maintains that the sessions so far have been 'prototypes'. He makes arrangements such as the one with the ICA and continues to explore possibilities for leasing some workspace in Central London for club members to use.
The RSA received £100,000 funding from NESTA, probably topped up from the RSA's own funds (particularly for staff salaries) for the Networks project (source). This includes free wine and snacks at several events, which I've enjoyed. £200 was raised for organisational development/incorporation (source). Apart from that there have been the costs of coffee, croissants and, until the club moved to the ICA a couple of months ago, pub room hire, paid for by sponsors or participants (about £300 per week).
A lot of time, money and effort has gone into building online infrastructure — the networks platform — to help incubate civic innovation projects, and enable fellows to contact and collaborate with each other. This started with some textbook prototyping and piloting with plenty of user involvement, but the danger of evolutionary systems is that they become hard to maintain. A re-engineered system has just been launched. The tech infrastructure is very lightweight. There is just a wiki for the Social Media Café, a blog, plus an infrequently used email list. All are free hosted services. There's still a Facebook group, though no one uses those any more, right?
Alongside the networks platform, there has been — since the initiative was first mooted and before it launched — a shadow space for commentary and discussion, comprising an unofficial blog, a wiki, an email list and a Facebook group. Each of these has gone for long periods with no action, but while some may have outlived their usefulness, others (the wiki and email list recently) spring back to life at times of activity or debate. A lot has been written by RSA fellows trying to tease out what it is that we want out of the initiative (and to what degree that's the same as what the RSA wants as an institution). You can never be sure that there aren't lots of conversations you're missing out on — especially as most take place on Twitter — but the Tuttle Club seems much less racked by anxieties about its identity. Participants talk about things it could do, for sure, but these discussions don't turn into soul-searching about who has the legitimacy to do what. In some ways, it's paradoxical that the organisation that's a year old has fewer identity issues than one that's a quarter of a millennium old, but that's baggage for you — and if the Tuttle Club ever has as much money to spend as the RSA, identity issues will surely surface.
There's an ongoing uncertainty about the constitution and ownership of the RSA Networks project [link requires registration]. This is most evident in the mutual perceptions of RSA staff and fellows. Whose job is it to initiate, whose to support and develop what has been initiated? In the face of confusion, each side may look suspiciously at the other… then it emerges that there are probably differences of opinion within each side, and little clusters of association emerge across the divide. The constitution of the Tuttle Club is a work in progress. In this case it's both transparent — read the ideas and the accounts — and a bit messy.
The scale of active participation in the two initiatives feels, subjectively, similar. (I only see those who are active online or at meetings in London, remember.) For the RSA that amounts to a tiny proportion of the fellowship — but that can't be construed as a sign of failure. We know that in any voluntaristic network complex dynamics are at play between a very small but active core, a mainly reactive minority, and a mainly passive majority. One of the interesting things is that, while the RSA fellowship includes many people in responsible positions in leading public and private sector organisations, the active core seems to comprise almost exclusively independent and freelance professionals like me — again, the ones without proper jobs. The number of people who've come to at least one Tuttle Club meeting is probably (high) three figures; the number who've come more than three times is (high?) two figures. As a percentage of social media professionals in and around London, those numbers may not be far off the RSA's participation rate. It's a truism to say it, but something like the Tuttle Club lives or dies by the quality and range of people it attracts. Lloyd Davis is not interested in growth for its own sake. Five years ago, I met some great people through the Ecademy network, but now I and all the people I'm still in touch with have abandoned it as it became swamped by life coaches, independent financial advisers and huckster entrepreneurs all pitching 'opportunities' at you. Lloyd writes of the "clueless opportunists [who] come looking for an easy opportunity, ironically there are a multitude of easy opportunities on offer, but they, being clueless, don't see the opportunities for what they are, they go away and leave us to get on with it." Long may this dynamic continue. There are a mix of shared values emerging. Yes, some might start talking about Brand Identity 2.0 at the Tuttle Club, but, if they do, I won't be the only one rolling my eyes (well, I'll be the only one rolling my eyes, but… you get what I mean).
Being a longstanding institution, and part of the Establishment, brings advantages as well as baggage. Powerful, or famous, or aspiring-to-be-powerful-and-famous people think it's the right place to be seen — or at least return calls. So do funding agencies. If you make a mess of things, you probably will get a second chance. Whereas a start-up like the Tuttle Club would be cast aside and replaced by someone else starting from scratch. The social capital may not be have much liquidity, but it's there. It's no wonder that progress seems to come in fits and starts, and will probably continue that way. My hunch is that the Tuttle Club is quite delicately poised right now. It has registered on the radar of more established organisations like the ICA and NESTA, but it's a sensitive moment when one of these beckons to a fresh, young, still-to-be-incorporated venture, "come, let us take you under our wing…" Thankfully they appear to have the good sense to avoid any explicit quid pro quo or other meddling

I told you my conclusion before I started writing these comparisons. The writing turned out longer than I expected: turning these points over hasn't fundamentally changed how I thing, though I've felt both warmth and frustration towards both. One penny that finally dropped was that I've made more good friendships with people in, and adjoining, my fields of interest over the past year than at any time since I moved to London — and all are involved in one or other or both of these networks. The enjoyable conversations I've had with them have informed almost all of what I've written, though I take responsibility for the quirky opinions and any misrepresentations (hoping that friends may correct me).

I hope the next year is as fertile and as much fun. I'll let you know.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Social Software on 30 November 02008 | TrackBack
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