The participation train arrived – mind the gap when boarding!
Update: I’ve provided some clarification about the spirit of this article in the comments below! Please read and let me know your feedback!
This morning, I got disillusioned! — definitely not a good feeling for a Monday morning ;-)
No, it’s not the fact that TED didn’t endorse TEDChildren — disappointing as it was at first, I later realized that was just a symptom — but the realization that my ideas about a participatory world of engaged individuals are missing a key element!
The lesson I learned today? The participatory world doesn’t exist on its own, it is sprouting out from the existing money-driven economy, and the cost for its existence is paid by the consumers!
I am very passionate about platforms and got to think that only few have a key essence — I call it platformness — that sets apart the truly successful ones from all the others — the others that even though they’re designed to be platforms either never take off or remain to be used simply as versatile products. It is the essence that emerges when the platform and its users engage in a positive feedback loop that enables previously unimaginable uses to sprout out.
To me, such platforms are the key element for building a participatory world — without a platform, among other things, one has a very limited reach and can gain very little attention from the few people they can interact with!
If you read any of my articles in the past few months you’d know that I consider Twitter as a highly versatile communications platform, or TED as a truly open platform for sharing ideas and taking actions at both global and local level to implement those ideas.
The question that I had to ask myself today was — what makes the platforms like TED kick, financially? If I am benefiting from using them to engage in the participatory world and I am not paying anything for that, then someone else must bear the cost!
Let me pause and tell you the story of TEDChildren first!
My single-individual-driving-an-idea-and-trying-to-build-a-community-around-it efforts have been relatively fruitful since I originally blogged about the idea and created a Twitter account to attract like-minded people to lobby TED to endorse it. The @TEDChildren Twitter account (as originally named) attracted 120+ followers in less than two weeks and I’ve got quite a few positive thoughts of support from people all over the world. Until the idea finally got to TED.
I was ecstatic with the first contact and the initial response was quite reassuring: “We love what you are trying to do with your TEDChildren idea. It is in the spirit of what we are trying to do with TEDx events.”
Of course, there were concerns about someone like me associating themselves with TED, so I offered to completely hand over the account as I was genuinely not interested in personal gain — my passion for kids and the recognition that their untainted curiosity and inquiring minds may be the key to finding sustainable solutions for many of the problems risking our future is what made me push the idea forward!
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the message: “We appreciate your passion, but must be clear that you need to follow our guidelines.” In other words, I could get a license for a TEDx event, but TED embracing TEDChildren won’t happen!
It turned out TED as a brand is very valuable to the organization as it is representation of what people expect from the organization and what the platform provides for its community, so people outside the organization are not given access to it.
After the initial frustration — after all, I had to go and rename the Twitter account (see @World4Children) and tweet to the followers about it — it struck me! The platforms that enable the participatory world to live are bridging two realms — the first one is the old-fashioned, money-based economy fueled by consumerism, while the second one is the community engaging in attention-seeking and participatory activities. And the two do not fit well together, there’s a gap between them and bridging it is no little business!
My next realization was that if you’re building a platform to enable engagement in the participatory world, you’re likely not able to make a living, let alone support the cost for running that platform, by selling products on the side. Instead, you can play on the money market by enabling others that do have products to use your platform to run a consumerist outlet in the participatory world.
Of course, I am talking about advertising here and once I realized this I understood why brands are still important even in the participatory world — you need producers from the consumerist world to “see” the value of running such an outlet on your platform and you need the people engaging through your platform to “see” the apparent value of your platform and don’t mind the side effects of those consumerist outlets. It’s a happy marriage across two universes if you will ;-)
During the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, my interest was peeked by all the colors and symbols around town and I tried to think what they meant to the people in Vancouver as well as those pouring in the city from every imaginable place on this planet. I could see then that they served as visual emblems that light up our group identity neurons to give us a sense of belonging.
(Un)fortunately, that sense that helps us identify with a certain group remains with us, whether we operate in the money-driven consumerist world of the attention-seeking and engaging world of participation. Brands like TED, therefore, serve as symbols to boost our feeling of belonging to the community of TEDsters, while at the same time provide an opportunity to bridge the gap with the consumerist world and pay the bills!
I like the promise of the participatory world — it seems to be the path to sustainable happiness — and though I cringe when someone tries to sell me something while I am immersed in that world, I guess I have to accept that some incarnations of the consumerist world will crop up here and there. Of course, the other alternative is to start paying the cost for joining the participatory world — something we might all have to do at some point, but might limit the access to the participatory world at this point!
My experience with the two sides of TED doesn’t change my opinion of TED as a platform for sharing ideas and running actions! I will try to follow the guidelines this time! ;-) As a first step, I joined the TEDxUBC team in trying to gather a community to discuss the future of education, a topic very much of interest for World4Children. As for World4Children, I’ll keep trying to build a community and gather ideas and followers. Who knows, one day I may be able to turn that dream into a reality — even if I need to engage with other brands to bridge the gap for us! ;-)
Still, a part of me can’t settle for the intermediate stage where the two worlds are kept together with a duct tape. I wonder if a platform can provide access to the participatory world, while being open and free at the same time? Do the open source community, Wikipedia and alike have lessons for those building such platforms?
The article was not about TED, or brands, or the gap between the consumerist and participatory world! Instead, it was about inspiring questions — curious questions about the nature of the two worlds and what keeps them together or prevents them to drift apart, questions that may lead to ideas how to evolve the first into the second!
If you got inspired and have questions, fire away — I am listening!