September 22, 2010

Mobile community: The holy grail of m4d?

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Where are the best sites for people to stimulate debate around mobile technology?

kiwanjaThe other week I wrote a post on the difficulties of running a “mobile for development” – or m4d – project. I tried to make it challenging, and was hoping to stir up some discussion around the merits of mobile-initiated development projects versus development-initiated mobile projects.

Unless you’re one of the bigger technology blogs – Mashable, TechCrunch, Scobleizer and so on – it’s hit-and-miss whether or not a post will get the traction you’re looking for. Apart from a couple of dozen tweets and a dozen or so comments, the post didn’t generate as much debate as I’d have liked. But it did get me thinking – if these kinds of discussion weren’t taking place here, then where were they taking place?

I’m regularly asked at conferences for hints on the best sites for people to post questions and stimulate debate around mobile technology, and I always struggle to give an answer. It seems crazy that, for a discipline that began to fully emerge probably about seven or eight years ago, there still isn’t a genuinely active, engaging, open online community for people to join and interact with each other.

In order to get a sense of which communities exist, I recently sent out a message to a number of ICT4D and mobile email lists I subscribe to, and posted the odd message on Twitter. Very few people could suggest anything. A few people mentioned email lists that dealt specifically with sectoral issues, such as health, but not specifically with mobile (although mobile was a regular thread in many discussions). Only MobileActive suggested MobileActive, which was a surprise considering its positioning as a global mobile community with over 16,000 “active” members.

What makes a community open and active?

Finding nothing was only part of it – many people clearly had different ideas of what made up community, too (I’d put this down to a challenge of definition). When I pushed out my call for sites, I specifically asked for those which were “open, active, collaborative and engaging”, things that I thought would be prerequisites for anything worth being a member of.

According to Maddie Grant, a strategist at SocialFish, a consulting firm that helps associations build community on the social web:

“What makes a community open is when there’s “a lot more outside the login than inside,” so most of a community’s content must be at least viewable and shareable without logging in. To be active, most of a community’s content must be member (user) generated, not owner-generated, and must have some degree of conversation which includes comments, discussions and reviews.”

Going by these criteria, I don’t believe we yet have a truly active, engaging, open mobile community. This seems a little strange when you consider the attention the technology has been getting over the past few years.

On the flip side, though, it might not be so strange after all. As Jonathan Donner put it to me in a recent email, “Why should m4d have its own groups and community sites? Can’t we – or should we – just mainstream ourselves into ICT4D?”.

This discussion clearly has a long way to go. I just wonder where that discussion will take place.Ken Banks is founder of kiwanja.net, a site that helps nonprofits use mobile technology to serve their communities’ information needs. See his profile page, visit his blog, contact Ken or leave a comment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @kiwanja.

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  • David_Nixon

    The museum sector obsesses about mobile technology : follow @nancyproctor for links to mobile thinkers & content

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