New opportunities for the third sector in the 'social web'

One of the most popular IT buzzwords in the last year or so is the so-called ‘web 2.0’ or ‘social web’. It seems like everybody is talking about it, even if most aren’t sure quite what it is! While it has all the hallmarks of a fad, web 2.0 is actually a game-changing phenomenon, the beginning of a new era in technology. And it’s one that promises to help third sector organisations operate more efficiently, generate more funding, and affect more lives.

There is no hard and fast definition of ‘web 2.0’, but in essence, it refers to new internet tools and technologies created around the idea that the people who consume media, access the internet, and use the web shouldn’t just passively absorb what’s available, but should be active contributors.

Web 2.0 has both technological and social foundations. On the technology side, it has emerged along with ubiquitous highspeed internet access, cheap online storage, and open standards which make it irrelevant what device (eg desktop, laptop or mobile device) or platform (eg Windows or Mac) you use. But this new social web depends just as much on cultural changes, like a shift from focusing on networking computers to using computers to network people, and an insistence on the audience becoming participants.

Web 2.0 has hit the entertainment industry and teen culture in a big way – music artists and independent film makers are increasingly bypassing the traditional ‘middlemen’ to relate directly to their audience through social networking sites – but more and more not-for-profit organisations are also realising the potential of social web tools to publish and disseminate information, to network and build community, to enable teams to connect and collaborate, and to raise awareness and funds.

Here are some examples of social web tools in action.

Blogs (a contraction of ‘web logs’) – online diaries which allow readers to leave comments – have become a useful way of organisations communicating informally with stakeholders and the public, gaining feedback and building online relationships.

Podcasts (‘iPod’ + ‘broadcast’) – digital audio or video files posted to the web for anyone to download and listen or view – have democratised the publication of media content. More people under the age of 30 tune into sites like YouTube than watch or listen to traditional broadcast media. There is a real potential here for third sector organisations to cover community issues ignored by big media as well as to mobilise their next generation of supporters.

Tags and social bookmarking – as represented by such sites as Delicious, Reddit and Digg – are a way of giving control to website users about how they categorise information. This grassroots ‘folksonomy’ turns on its head the classic hierarchical ‘taxonomy’ that librarians use to organise books and data. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and one which offers not-for-profit organisations a tremendous opportunity for sharing and enriching knowledge.

‘Wikis’ are mass authoring tools, websites that allow visitors themselves to easily add, remove, and otherwise edit available content. The classic example of this is that incredible community-built encyclopedia called Wikipedia, but organisations can also use wikis or other online authoring tools to collaborate on projects with their partners or stakeholders.

Social networking frameworks such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook are websites that allow users to post online profiles (including photos and information about themselves) and then connect to other users who share the same interests and experiences, using many of the other social web tools described above. But it’s not just teenagers posting profiles and networking online, as many national charities and other third sector organisations are creating their own minisites within the social networking frameworks, and using these to connect their supporters and promote their activities.

So before you decide to ban your staff’s use of social web tools on work time (which we have been asked to do for a few clients!), think about whether you can channel that interest into something productive for your organisation, and consider this thought from the London Advice Services Alliance, which supports advice centres across the UK:

“This new Live Web is about conversations, not top-down delivery of information or messages. Encourage and enable comments. Respond to them. Learn from them. Argue with them. Form relationships with the writers. Comment on their blogs. Network. These content relationships are powerful and full of potential. Those involved in your conversations may be able to help you fundraise or campaign (and you might be able to help them) but they may also be able to help you see or do things in a new way.”