Putting the social web into action against violence: an interview with Clare-Marie White of Never Again International

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Clare-Marie White is the communications coordinator of Never Again International, an international network that aims to alert the international community to both the causes and effects of genocide and facilitate the exchange of ideas between young people - those who have lived through genocide and those who wish to learn from them. (See their case study page on Net2)

This group is very innovative and is really trying to leverage new communication technologies - the main page of their web page is a wiki! Wikis are web sites that any authorized user can edit, where all previous versions are viewable and notification of changes can be subscribed to.

In the following interview I asked Clare-Marie White about Never Again's use of new tools and she emphasized that new users have to be introduced appropriately.

Marshall:

There are not a lot of nonprofit orgs that have a wiki for a website! Where did the idea come from?

Clare:

Nick Gerda (our USA communications coordinator) and I
met on Wikinews and were both very enthused by the
idea of wikis. I feel that they have the potential to
really widen the amount of 'voices' in the world. As
well as just liking wikis, we increasingly needed ways
to collaborate on documents around the world. Emailing
Word documents about was getting clumsy, so we decided
to try out the wiki for collaboration and also extend
it in order to widen participation in Never Again's
work.

It has to be said, though we hoped the wiki would be
our 'main' website, we are adding a more standard
redesigned website because we found that people were
looking for information that they found difficult to
find on the wiki - collaboration will hopefully come
afterwards.

Marshall:

Having used quite a few new media tools by now
(the wiki, a blog,
podcast and a tag stream) are there any things
you've learned that you
didn't expect when beginning that stand out the
most?

Clare:

I think the most important thing I've learnt is not
to assume anything. However easy any tool appears to
you, so many factors might prevent people from using
it from inability to connect to the internet enough to
explore to the simple lack of engagement in a tool
I've got very excited about. This results in the email
equivalent of blank stares. You really have to work
hard to draw people into tools that could be useful
and sometime realise that you might not be asking the
right questions. It's no good asking people why
they're not using a tool when they often don't even
understand what your words mean. 'Wiki' for example...

Marshall:

Are there particular strategies you've employed
that have helped
sustain participation in the building and
maintenance of the Never
Again site? Or has most of the responsibility
fallen on a small
number of shoulders? If that's the case, is it
still worth it to
employ the tools that you have?

Clare:

Many of our strategies are still developing so I
couldn't really tell you yet what has worked or is
likely to raise engagement. I am increasingly finding
that a mixture of communication is very important in
getting people to collaborate. I've been finding it
much more productive to make a quick call on Skype to
find out what someone in Rwanda thinks of a new
website design than to email out questions.
Maintenance does fall on the shoulders of a few, but
as one of the functions of our voluntary organisation,
we would expect that to be a role that just a few
people can take on. I hope we will raise participation
in the wiki in the future by using more mixed means to
spread the word, such as wiki workshops in internet
centres in Africa, seminars on the collaborative
essays we have there, podcasts that can work people
through tasks etc.

We have a very flexible attitude to our tools and it
is worth emphasising how much innovation is possible
because of the explosion of free tools that allow for
greater collaboration on the web, the newest useful
one being Google Spreadsheets. We were also lucky
enough that Erik Moeller offer to host our wiki for
free. We are a network of volunteers without any
significant core funding right now, so free tools mean
there is no divide between those who can afford to pay
subscriptions and those who can't. We now need to
bridge the divide between those who have free web
access at all and those who don't. It is impossible to
get to grips with any wiki or draft a blog post if you
can't afford enough time in a slow webcafe with a
limited computer or browser. With the vast majority of
our members in the Great Lakes of Africa, this is a
limiting factor.

It has been easy to get frustrated about the
differences in use of tools, when I think they have so
much potential. All our tools - and I would include
email - ultimately contribute to one of our core aim
which is to build links between youth around the
world. We need to work hard to make sure everyone can
participate in what they want to, but we also
shouldn't let different types of internet usage stifle
us - we aim to be creative and positive.

I would certainly say that even if there are problems
with some of the tools, they have definitely improved
the way we are able to collaborate globally in ways
that would have been unimaginable even 3 years ago. On
an individual level, I find tools such as del.icio.us
useful in my own work, so I feel less like I need to
always be persuading other people to use them, that is
enough. I'm very excited by the possibilities for
people to work together in new ways.

Marshall:

Time and time again, people say that it's the
fear of lost control
that slows the pace of adoption of new tools in most
organizations.
What is your perspective on that issue?

Clare:

The tools I like best are those which give people more
power and control to be a part of project making and
ideas generation. But there are perceptions that are
very different to mine and perhaps my empowerment is
another's exclusion. I think the key is to ensure that
your core activities and information are accessible to
as many people as it possibly can be, while you
gradually introduce new tools, perhaps in ways that
mean people become familiar with them without
necessarily being aware that they are using a new
tool. In an organisation like ours, it is vital that
we don't scare anybody off and I am learning that
tools can be as scary as they can be useful.