“Us Now” is a provocative, but bit breathy, film on the connection between technology and community, and glosses lightly over some of the challenges of building community over the Internet. Nonetheless, it is still an interesting watch. The examples are heavily UK-based, perhaps because there has been more innovation in the tech-community space on that side of the Atlantic.
The film has a number of talking heads (including Clay Shirky) and highlights some interesting experiments in building community over the web, such as:
- The School of Everything: a UK website where would-be teachers on any topic can meet locals who want to learn. It’s like a virtual Center for Adult Education.
- Ebbsfleet United Football Club: a UK soccer club teach where 30,000 fans “own” the team and decide on what players should start various games and on various policies for the club. [The film shows them advancing to and winning the finals at Wembley.]
- Couchsurfing: a website where travelers can find someone in another town who is willing to let them sleep on a couch (or maybe an extra bed).
- Wikipedia: known to almost everyone, but a demonstration that millions of volunteers can create something arguably as strong as a commercial encyclopedia, and certainly more vibrant and up-to-date.
- Mumsnet: an Internet-based community of moms where they exchange advice, concerns, and sometimes friendship.
- Linux: open-source software that is generally less bug-ridden, produced faster and better performing than commercial software like Microsoft. And the software is all written by thousands of volunteers over the Internet.
- Zopa: like an ebay bank, Zopa enables individual-to-individual loans. Individuals note what their loans are for, like “funding driving lessons” or “buying a cow.” Those wishing to lend can bid on what interest rate they’ll charge. And a lender can wind up getting funding from scores or hundreds of individual funders for a project.
- Slice The Pie: Musicians can upload their tracks and have them rated by “slice the pie” participants. The top rated bands get showcased and the best get 15,000 pounds to make a record from the participating individuals, who share in the record’s proceeds.
- Governance: examples range from a participatory budgeting experience in Morcambe, to TheyWorkForYou.com, to The Point, to the Canadian Green Party developing their platform online through a collaborative wiki.
- Directionless: a number where cellphone users can call in the UK and get hooked up with a volunteer who is physically proximate who can answer their questions (where is a nearby ATM? What bars are open late? etc.)
The film raises important points about the potential of the internet: in increasing transparency and participation, in “disintermediating” (putting more individuals on the front-lines of decision making), in its ability to reach great scale through organizations with a small number of employees, in how it might change our attitudes towards trust, or our willingness to contribute to the gift economy (where we ultimately can gain a lot by giving a little), and in how the Internet is spreading an expectation of participation which may be irreversible, regardless of whether this typically leads to better outcomes.
Individual clips here.