Monday, December 21, 2009

Coordinating Millions to Make Social Change

How do you coordinate the actions of millions of people in the world to make social change? Reid Hoffman, the angel investor and founder of LinkedIn, says you do it online, and this time in history is a great time to make such large-scale social action possible.

The future of cause movements, he says, will be the ability of small groups and corporations to boil up answers to social problems by crowdsourcing intelligence and new ideas from millions. “The Internet is more about people than it is about technology,” he told a Dec. 12 gathering of TEDx in Silicon Valley. “This is because everyone has a presence now. As you move to Web 2.0, you’re talking about movements, how real identities are beginning to interact with one another. It’s a large majority of people who care deeply about what impact they have in the world, so we’re in a period of time where bottom-up movements are just starting to be possible.”

Hoffman, who has been an investor in such startups as Facebook, Flickr, Digg, Nanosolar, Ning, Six Apart and Zynga, says that when he invests in a startup, he looks at three things: scalability, margins and the structure – the same attributes, he says, that make Web-based causes or philanthropic movements more effective. Hoffman cites,, and hybrid infrastructure organizations such as Mozilla and Creative Commons as examples of cause-wired organizations that use scale, margins and structure to make a difference.

He says what makes social-change dotcoms an interesting investment are their ability to leverage broad social networks at low cost to take concentrated action. Think social network creation such as, the marketplace for microfinance, which link up crowds to crowds. A second way dotcoms become an interesting investment, he says, is if they provide an infrastructure for distributed collaboration, like Drupal, which allows nonprofits to create cheap community Web sites to coordinate their communities. A third area for social Web investment these days, he says, is the corporate sector. Internet corporations, he says, deal with communities and have interactions with millions of people that can be made part of a cause or philanthropic initiative. “Using badges or other forms of identity, corporations can convey that they all share a particular cause.” Hoffman says all three “arcs” for investment and innovation are made possible because everyone in these arcs are connected by their identities as participants.

“Mass action is now sustainable online,” Hoffman said. But the challenge now, he says, is how to use the Net to mobilize people and “get it right.” “Entrepreneurship now is not just communication of ideas but how you set up institutions to have impact around those ideas,” he says. “It’s not a command-and –control structure. It’s not one person telling everybody now to do this or do that. Where entrepreneurship on the Web will come in is that we can create lots and lots of micro-groups – this one targeted at clean water, and this one targeted at hunger, and so forth – and people can organize themselves effectively.”

“The future of social enterprise will be sooner and stranger than you think,” Hoffman said. “The key thing is that it won’t be top-down; it will be a bottom-up boiling up of coordinated intelligence that suggests what needs attention and that tackles it.”

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