Category Archives: web 2.0

Kirsten Winkler interviews Christopher Grant (me!) about Sclipo

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of speaking with well-know educational blogger Kirsten Winkler as a part of her Edukwest series on online education. Our conversation covered a wide-range of subjects, from Sclipo‘s origens as a skills video portal to its current position as the leading social learning network on the web, delivering a complete toolbox for online teachers. Enjoy the video!

UOC, UNESCO & Sclipo “Fight the Digital Divide”

Fighting the Digital Divide through Education

UOC UNESCO Chair in E-Learning 5th International Seminar: Fighting the Digital Divide through Education

Sclipo is proudly providing open attendance to the UOC UNESCO Chair in E-Learning 5th International Seminar on “Fighting the Digital Divide through Education.” The conference began on Wednesday and if your interested there’s still one day left. Just follow the link above to the Live Web Classroom.

I can only help but feel that such a streaming collaboration is perfect for Sclipo, where are goal is no less than to ignite a social learning revolution (power to the people teachers!) As Gandhi said, “Be the change you seek…” so we are putting our bandwith where our mouths are (painful mixed metaphor, sorry) for a very worthy cause.

It’s also fitting that Sclipo can aid the bridging of the digital divide using our Live Web Classroom, a tool designed to make online education rich, interactive and rewarding for teachers and students alike by combining live webcam, documents, video and even an interactive whiteboard. Talkin’ about a revolution!

For those of you keeping score, this is the second major conference Sclipo’s provided digital access to, the second of hopefully many to come. Though between you and I, dear reader, let’s all hope that not many more conference’s on the digital divide will be needed. Let’s hope we can take advantage of the world’s post-Obama optimism to make real progress on this issue.

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Barcelona is Spain’s social start-up capital

Sclipo is featured in a recent article on social networking sites founded in Barcelona.

Sclipo is featured in a recent article on social networking sites founded in Barcelona. had a nice article this morning on how Barcelona has given birth to specialized social networking start-ups and Sclipo got a nice mention at the end. Read the article in Spanish or in machine-translated English.

It’s always nice when a serious news source confirms something you’ve been suspecting for a while: we lucky webby people are living in the city’s gold-age in terms of start-ups. Interesting projects are around every corner and the city itself has reached a level of branding as a great place to live and work that it’s actually starting to attract talent on its own. BCN has been a hot town for tourism for years (much to the detriment of many of her actual residents), but it has only recently become a hot bed of web talent, start-ups and entrepreneurship.

Don’t get me wrong, Madrid has it’s outstanding start-ups as well, but it still gives off that “corporate headquarters” vibe. The Spanish capital may have eBay, Microsoft et al but Catalonia has its plucky underdogs turn ideas into Internet gold. Come to think of it, the current status quo fits nicely into the overaching themes of Spanish history.

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The Making of Grupos v2.0

This post has been a long time in the making. In mid-May we decided to build a new version of Grupos Emagister, our new beta version social learning network. Construction lasted into early July and we launched on the 10th of that month.

It was a ton of work, lots of weekends and nights. Discussions, arguments, testing, testing, pizza and then more testing. In short, we had a blast. So much so that I decided to make a small “the making of” video to capture it for posterity. It will be a nice addition to the old digital scrapbook and will have the added benefit of showing all of those digital altruists using Grupos Emagister that we too believe in sacrificing for art’s and passion’s sake.

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BitTorrent web sites: hotbeds of digital altruism

If you’ve ever used one of the more popular BitTorrent sites (for the record I hear they are wonderful ways to enjoy free media, especially US TV shows you can’t get in countries like, say Spain. That’s what I hear at least.), it probably didn’t take long to realize that they are built on a deep foundation of digital altruism. Obviously those downloading the free files do so from self-interest, as well as the owners of the site who must generate millions of ad impressions per day. But at their heart these are sites built around the “kindness of strangers”: people willing to share for sharing’s sake.

If you stop and think about it, this is really quite remarkable. These digital altruists are willing and able to overcome some pretty significant entry barriers: specifically the time and processing power needed to successfully rip digital media as well as the means to encode the media into a “share-friendly” format. When you add to this the fact that there is always, even for uploaders in Togo, a looming legal threat, their behavior is all the more fascinating.

BitTorrent sites not only rely on digital altruism to generate value, their semi-illegal nature actually decreases some of the other basic motivations for contributing. Reciprocity is obviously not an issue, considering the vast difference between uploaders and downloaders, and the exclusive nature of some of the content (how can the guy that uploaded the leaked Oscar screening copy ever expect others to contribute in a similar way). Reputability is less of a factor, though building your rep within the P2P community itself, is obviously attractive. Still, the self-interest here is really limited to being semi-anonymously cool, since unlike an answers site or any other social learning site I can’t directly reference my contributions when looking for work or expect to be paid for them.

543 users from across the globe say "thank you" to the uploader.

543 users "say thanks" to the uploader of this torrent

Frankly, the more that I think about it, about the motivations of an uploader, the more they remind me of those of a scientist, inventor, blogger or journalist. The desire to be the first to get the scoop, or to achieve recognition for mastering some new kind of technology feels pretty far removed from the market system, coming closer to our basic needs to create to contribute to a bigger, better world. In fact, though the RIAA would never admit this, many uploaders actually display a kind of revolutionary zeal stemming from their belief in free content. What’s more, there is even less self-interest than in the fields mentioned above. Posting “Ocean’s 13” first won’t increase blog ad revenue, land you a job at a better newspaper or get you tenure. It will make you “cool” in the eyes of thousands.

One final note: the best torrent sites are definitely aware of the power of the digital altruism embedded in their sites. Sites like Mininova actively encourage it with their wonderfully elegant “thank the uploader” feature and their easily posted, easily accessed comment sections. These features fan uploaders digital altruism and have the added benefit of allowing users to easily find the best copies of files as well as spot fakes from a mile off.

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Digital altruism and the riddle of anonymous online samaritans

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Joshua Porter’s presentation on The Psychology of Social Design at last year’s User Experience Week. (I know that was a year ago, but I’ve been busy changing diapers 😉 ). Anyway, August heat has me flashing back to DC and thinking specifically about Porter’s belief that “Personal Value Precedes Network (Social) Value” and that most people aren’t “selfish” but self-interested. Though it may seem obvious, this maxim is incredibly important and is one of the first things we forget when building a new social networking site or even feature.

I like to apply this simple test: if only one user uses this feature, will it still offer value? If I upload my pictures of my vacation to Flickr and then send the link to family and friends, if I get zero traffic from Flickr itself or any of its networking features, it is still an excellent way to get my pictures on the web and easier than building even the simplest of personal photo galleries. Obviously once I start tagging my pictures, writing appropriate titles, joining groups, etc. the experience becomes even richer and my pictures are seen by even more people. But the core value of an online photo management tool remains the same. Flickr is aware of this, in fact it’s the first point of their mission statement.

Ok, everything is pretty straightforward up to this point. People like to look out for number one. Got it. Porter goes onto to talk about how to make the jump to social features once individual value has been met, and he summarizes Kollock’s Motivations for Contributing, which are also tied up with individual needs like reciprocity and the need to be a part of a group.

Again, sounds good but here’s the thing: if you, dear reader, followed the link above you’ll have seen a nice little site called Wikipedia. Nice right? Joking aside, try as I might I can’t seem take all of the self-interest inherent to the above theories and make it jive with a site like Wikipedia. My first thought that it was simply a question of volume, volume, volume: just as Porter says, most people are self-interested but “most” means that there are some people that aren’t self-interested. So then maybe it’s just a question of volume, volume, volume. I mean get a few million visitors per day and you’re bound to find a few kind souls who will add contribute without the promise of reciprocity. This also jives with research pointed out by Jakob Nielsen and Eduardo ManchonPDF Document which talks about a ratio of 1 content creator for every 100 content browsers.

The thing is that unless you buy great amounts of traffic or artificially motivate (prizes, money, etc.) the 1:100 ratio will only work once you have lots of users and lots of traffic. Yet at some point Wikipedia like all sites was small and as far as I know (if anyone else has more info please, please leave a comment to this post) they’ve always worked as an non-profit and have never paid to create content. That means that just like with the big bang there had to be some special initial spark to set off all of this exponential growth. And in the case of Wikipedia where anonymous sources are the norm, the spark couldn’t have been just ego or reciprocity. It had to be something altruistic, some need beyond our basic self-interest. Something noble and necessary that may not touch everyone, but touches enough people to get the ball rolling.

This deep need is what I define as digital altruism. Altruism because it’s all about the self-interest defying need to move outside of the market space that dominates more and more of our lives, to do something that feels big and important and doesn’t just serve ourselves, our employers and the system. Digital because thanks to the combination of new technologies that facilitate easy, delocalized communication and new sites which make contributing easy, fun and rewarding (I see what I’ve contributed) I can be altruistic from anywhere, at anytime, thus allowing me to balance my altruistic needs with my self-interest (work, family, leisure).

Digital altruism is a real need and it is at a heart of any successful social learning web site. Once you are aware of it’s existence, it’s easy to come up with a number of specific ways to use it in social web sites:

  • Focus first on digital altruism, mo matter how much money you have to potentially go after users’ self-interest (cash, prizes, etc.).
    Ask yourself “How does this site allow users to contribute to the greater good?” There are many ways to contribute, it could be by entertaining people, teaching them, advising or even just sharing beauty.
  • Find ways to combine other needs like reciprocity and recognition/reputation with digital altruism.
    Digital altruism can exist in an anonymous setting, but it doesn’t have to. Combining noble aspirations with the “ego needs” of your users is just fine. Just make sure never to let the self eclipse the good. You could end up with a whole lot of primadona users, each more self-centered than the next.
  • Altruism must be more than just a slogan on your site, it must be part of your mission as well.
    We can’t all start foundations and we want to make money as companies and as professionals. But if we incorporate altruism into our own companies mission and it’s a core value for our team, it will show up on the web site itself. No one wants to feel like they are working for free for some company, but if they detect shared altruism then, even if it’s unconscious, they will feel more comfortable.But be careful, users are not stupid and eventually the blogosphere reveals all. Don’t try and fake altruism, users will be able to smell it and you will eventually pay a price.

As you’ve no doubt seen in the title of this blog, dear reader, digital altruism is a concept that I plan on discussing even more in detail. This has been a basic introduction using some well-known web examples. So… there will be more. Stay tuned!


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