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