Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

RIP: Worldchanging.com

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Dearly beloved, please join me in a moment of silence to honor the life and untimely passing of another member of our media family. On Monday, November 29, one of the most important websites of the past decade, Worldchanging.com, announced that it will close up shop by the end of 2010. The main reason? The non-profit organization never was able to achieve financial sustainability without editor Alex Steffen maintaining an insane schedule of speaking gigs (more than 400 in the past 5 years). I’m proud to have been involved with Worldchanging, as a fan, contributor, employee and friend. I will miss it dearly.

In its seven-year run, Worldchanging has been an important intellectual watering hole for people interested in the intersection of sustainability and innovation. Under the banner of “tools, models and ideas for building a better future” the site has produced an impressive archive of nearly 12,000 articles on a broad range of subjects, from architecture to agriculture, climate science to microfinance, nanotech to urban design. Fortunately, that archive will live on, says the announcement: “It is our goal to see the archive of work here maintained, though the form of that archive is still uncertain.” Also, a revised and updated edition of the bestselling 2006 book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century is due out in March 2011.

Worldchanging served as both a launchpad for important new voices — like Cameron Sinclair, Dawn Danby, Sarah Rich, David Zaks and Anna Lappé, among many others — and a new platform for some venerable old hands — like Gil Friend, Terry Tempest Williams, Joel Makower, Jon Lebkowsky and Jay Walljasper. The list of contributors to the site and its eponymous book reads like a who’s who of some of the most respected thinkers and doers in sustainability circles. Worldchanging’s contribution to the public conversation about our common future is undeniable.

I first learned about Worldchanging shortly after its launch in 2003. The site quickly became my favorite source for story ideas about emerging trends in technology and social innovation during my last few years as a writer and editor at Utne Reader. I loved the focus on solutions that co-founders Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio and their team brought to a range of subjects I care about deeply, which they nicely captured with the optimistic catchphrase “bright green.”

I went to work for Worldchanging in late 2006, when I left Utne Reader and moved to Seattle. I joined the team as Publisher, alongside Steffen as Editor (Cascio had left early that year), just before the launch of one of the organization’s crowning achievements, the 600-page book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, a compendium of ideas and solutions in the spirit of the old Whole Earth Catalog. The book would become a bestseller and was translated into French, German and several other languages.

We were trying to leverage the attention generated by the book, and the momentum from a major grant from the folks at TED, to grow the site from its origins as a group blog into a professional, multi-channel idea factory. And we wanted to do it our own way, bootstrapping our growth through a variety of diverse revenue streams without having to rely on the largesse of foundations or large donors (and avoiding the inevitable strings attached). We created a series of local blogs covering the green innovation scenes in places like LA, Chicago, Austin, New York, Minneapolis and Canada. And we had big dreams of launching audio and video podcasts, conferences, book series, and turning the contributor team into a speakers bureau and consulting team. My job was to focus on building new revenue streams — initially reader donations, content sponsorships, and ads — to facilitate that growth and ease the pressure on Alex to bring in speaking fees.

Our efforts saw modest success, though nothing anywhere near what we had hoped. I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely ready for the role. I had some successful experience in both software sales and nonprofit fundraising. But I had no training or experience in media sales. I had agreed to unrealistically high revenue goals and had to learn on the job while setting up a sales operation entirely from scratch with no budget. There were other challenges inherent to the site’s content and the business model we were pursuing in an ad-driven media landscape, which I’ll elaborate on below.

In March of 2007, six months after I started, I left the staff mainly for personal reasons — my wife and I had moved to Guatemala to foster the baby boy we adopted later that year. In the three years since then, Worldchanging has continued to produce some of the best, most important content available, despite its continued financial struggles.

In the end, I believe Worldchanging’s demise was due in large part to the organization’s inability to craft a business model that could surmount several challenges endemic to the current ad-driven media ecosystem. (Again, I haven’t been privy to the inner workings of the organization for the past three years. So my analysis could be way off base, or at least out of date):

  • Too General-Interest for Advertisers: In an era when sponsors insist on carving audiences into ever-smaller and more specialized niches, Worldchanging was never quite niche enough. The site was simply too broad, too eclectic, too general-interest for advertisers to fit into their ultra-narrow targeting algorithms. This is not a problem with the content, but with the advertising model. More financially successful sites in the green space focused heavily on a marketable niche, like product reviews (Treehugger), business (GreenBiz.com), architecture and design (Inhabitat) or green news and politics (Grist, which also had major foundation support and a 5-year headstart). We were also reluctant to go after most big corporate brands with large marketing budgets. We didn’t want to help them greenwash their images. And most of the cool green companies were too small and were spending all of their meager ad dollars on search engine ads. This is one of the great tragedies of the modern media ecosystem: general-interest publications, whether online or in print, simply can’t compete. It’s the shadow side of narrowcasting.
  • Not Enough Traffic: Online, as in print, there basically are two ways to attract advertisers — scale and targeting. With enough traffic, you can overcome the niche problem. But we were never big enough to do that. And a couple months into my tenure at Worldchanging, after implementing several stats programs, we learned that our real traffic was significantly smaller than what our raw server logs were telling us. With more time and capital we might have successfully carved out a clearer niche in advertisers’ minds.
  • The “Blog” Problem: Even with some of the brightest minds in the field writing for the site, and despite our efforts to reposition it as an online magazine, advertisers were reluctant to sponsor what they saw as a “blog” where most of the content came from volunteers with no editorial calendar or strong professional editorial filter. Advertisers crave predictability.
  • Focus on Ideas: The site also suffered from its focus on ideas rather than products — something Utne Reader always struggled with as well. In the name of editorial integrity (to his credit), Alex steadfastly refused to add features like green product reviews — the sort of content advertisers will pay top dollar to sponsor. In 2007-08 there was a valiant attempt to appeal more to sponsors while maintaining editorial independence by introducing a stable of weekly columns, with writers paid to cover certain beats. I was gone by then and don’t know the details of the impact the move had, but obviously the new editorial model did not succeed in turning the Worldchanging ship around.
  • Progressive Funders Reluctant to Fund Media: As my friend Bill Weaver says, media makers are the modern sorcerers. Changing the stories we tell can change the way people think. Yet foundations and investors interested in social change have never seemed to get the need to support media. Conservative foundations and corporations supporting the status quo got this long ago, which is why we’ve been outgunned for a generation by the right-wing media and punditocracy.
  • The Economy: It sounds cliche now, but unfortunately it’s true. The cruelest irony of the Great Recession is that so many of the organizations that are rethinking our social, political and economic systems are entirely dependent on funding derived from the existing, unsustainable, consumption-driven economy. And those sources of funding are drying up on every front, whether it’s dwindling consumer spending, shrinking ad budgets, or cutbacks in foundation grants because of the downturn on Wall St.

I’m sad to have to write these words. Though just as sadly, I’m not surprised. Worldchanging changed my world in so many ways. My hat’s off to Alex, Jamais and all of the incredible visionaries who had a hand in this project over the past seven years. Thank you, thank you, and again, thank you. I look forward to seeing what we all created together live on in some form, and I wish you all success in whatever comes next.

Written by leifutne

December 3, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Getting to Know Deanna (An excerpt from the book Share This!)

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[Cross-posted, with minor edits, from the Zanby blog. -LU]

My good friend, co-conspirator, social media maven, and all-round diva of awesomeness Deanna Zandt has a new book out. And it mentions Zanby! Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking (Berrett-Koehler) is chock-full of anecdotes and case studies drawn from her own life as a social activist, artist, and media maker. Deanna illustrates the many ways social media improves our relationships and enables new forms of political and social expression that are changing the world for the better.

One of those anecdotes recounts how Deanna and I met up in Brooklyn two years ago. (And it gives a nice plug for Zanby.) We barely knew each other before that, having met in passing at a conference. But, thanks mainly to Twitter and Facebook, we were able to connect, build trust, and grow a friendship with a depth and speed that would have been virtually impossible just a few short years earlier, considering that she lives in Brooklyn, I live in Seattle, and we see each other once a year, if we’re lucky.

Here, with Deanna’s permission, is an excerpt from pages 41-43 of Share This! where she tells our story:

Your Life Makes History

Now that relationships and trust influence how we receive and manage digital information, we’re becoming more connected, and thus we have the capacity to be more empathetic. That trust-created empathy will lead us away from the isolation and resulting apathy that we’ve experienced as a culture, arising from the 20th century’s focus on mass communications and market demographics.

Here’s a story about how building trust through social networks has worked for me. A couple of years ago, I spoke at a conference in northern California. After my song and dance, Leif Utne, the vice president of community development for the software company Zanby, came up to introduce himself. He was working on a project that he wanted to get my employer, Jim Hightower, involved with. We exchanged contact info and became Facebook friends; later we started following each other on Twitter.

About a year and a half later, Leif messaged me to say that he was coming to Brooklyn for a visit and wanted to know if I’d like to get coffee. Sure! Of course! When we sat down a few days later, I asked him how the baby was–he and his wife had spent a long time adopting a baby from Guatemala, and Leif had even lived there for ten months. He lit up and showed me recent photos, and then asked how my dog, Izzy, was adjusting to life in Brooklyn. I had adopted her from a rescue organization, and we laughed at how the processes for adopting dogs and children were eerily similar.

Leif asked if he could show me a new online service that he’d taken a job with, one that would give groups a way to connect their memberships. Absolutely, I said. We did a run-through, and he talked about some of his company’s successes. I started thinking of clients who could really use something like this tool and offered to put him in touch with them.

My online friendship with Leif is significant for several reasons. Social media enabled a kind of “identity authentication” between us. I was aware of Leif’s family’s work with the Utne Reader before I met him, but being connected via social media gave me insight into some of his values and interests. And vice versa. More important, though, it allowed us to collect seemingly unrelated fragments of information about one another over time, and to create a wide-angled picture of the other person with those fragments. Technology writer Clive Thompson calls this phenomenon “ambient awareness” of the people around us.

It doesn’t impact my life at all to know that Leif is heading to the airport, and he probably doesn’t care that I spent an extra 30 minutes with my dog in the park this morning. But over time, we are able to see a portrait of one another’s lives take shape and feel connected. While Leif’s trip to the airport doesn’t affect my daily life, if he misses his plane, I feel bad for him. There’s the empathy, simply by being aware of another person’s “mundane” activities. Our portraits of one another facilitated an in-person conversation that otherwise would have been stilted and awkward:

“So, you, uh, have kids?”

“No, you?”

“Yeah, one. A little boy.”

“Uh-huh.”

Instead, we were able to tap into what we care about pretty quickly, and the landing into the “business” end of the meeting was much smoother.

Admittedly, experimenting with what it means to share different parts of our lives can sometimes be uncomfortable. Chip Conley, the CEO of a family of boutique hotels in northern California called Joie de Vivre, offers a case in point. In 2009, he wrote about the fallout from photos he posted to Facebook from his latest Burning Man trip. Some workers were surprised to see Conley in a tutu and a sarong. The complicated part wasn’t that he didn’t want them online, or that his investors or board members didn’t want them online; it was that some employees struggled with seeing their fearless leader show a carefree side of himself that didn’t “fit” with the standard work environment. We’re all still determining what we each individually consider acceptable amounts of information, as well as what we’ll tolerate organizationally and culturally.

Thanks to the alienating effect of mass communications, our ability to converse directly with one another, and to engage with the larger culture in a meaningful way, has withered. While no one has figured out a precise formula for what amount or mix of sharing creates empathy, presenting real pictures of real lives indisputably frees us from our pigeonholes. Social networks give us the opportunity to reengage with one another.

Order Share This! at your favorite bookstore, or online at Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

Written by leifutne

September 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

“Exclusion” – my essay from the free ebook “Thrivability: A Collaborative Sketch”

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Last month at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, I had the honor of helping my friend Jean Russell launch an exciting new ebook called Thrivability: A Collaborative Sketch.

Inspired by Seth Godin’s collaborative ebook What Matters Now?, the book contains short essays and images by 63 big thinkers, each focusing on a word or short phrase that has to do with creating a more thrivable world. Contributors include some of my favorite thinkers, such as Clay Shirky, Beth Kanter, John Hagel, Kaliya Hamlin and Tony Deifell.

The book is available online as a slideshow, a PDF, and a website. Please give it a read. Share it via Twitter, Facebook, etc. And join the conversation.

Here is my own contribution, a meditation on the word “exclusion.” It appears on page 30 of the book. I’d love to hear your feedback.

Exclusion

Leif Utne, Zanby.com – Bainbridge Island, WA, USA

Ouch! Exclusion is such a harsh word. What place could it possibly have in a world that’s open, inclusive, and thrivable?

Like a hammer, exclusion is merely a tool. In its unhealthy forms, exclusion is used to oppress, to avoid accountability, circumvent democracy, and maintain established economic and political order. It brings to mind secret societies, smoky back rooms, nativism, and dehumanizing the “other.”

But exclusion can also be healthy and life-affirming. For individuals, that may mean choosing your conversations more wisely, lightening your load, de-cluttering your mental and physical space, eliminating distractions and focusing on what matters most. It means making space for solitude, contemplation, attention to yourself, to your breath, to nature, to being fully present.

Exclusion is not a choice of whether to exclude, or not, it is a choice of what to exclude.

For groups, healthy exclusion means creating safe containers in which to share and collaborate more deeply. It means being intentional about who and how many you want to share space with. It’s about creating and protecting sacred space. A good host has a talent for appropriate exclusion. It’s the social artistry of choosing who you want at the party, and who you don’t.

Every marketer knows that exclusion is a powerful tool. Done well, limiting access to a place, a group or a product makes it cool. Anyone who has launched a new online community can tell you that early on exclusion is vital — to set the tone and model the kind of interaction you want. It’s a way of establishing a new culture intentionally.

Exclusion can be about useful constraints, which spur creativity, whether you’re answering an essay question on a test or innovating new products. Imagine, for example, a candle. What is a candle without a wick? Without light? Without heat? Without wax? Such a thought experiment can help you identify which properties are intrinsic to something, and think creatively about novel ways to reproduce them.

Exclusion is part of evolution, particularly the conscious evolution we are living through now. It’s about casting off outmoded, destructive ways of thinking and being. And it’s absolutely essential to a thrivable future.

I’ve already gotten some great comments on this piece. One friend suggested “discernment” as an alternative to exclusion. I like that. It has much less of a negative charge to it. But that charge is part of why I find the term exclusion provocative. I like re-framing terms in ways that shift their charge.

Another friend suggested a different frame: pruning. For a tree to thrive, it takes pruning, which means making healthy choices about where to cut back so you can channel its growth in positive directions.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Van Jones for Green Jobs Czar?

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powershift-09-van-jonesI’ve been sitting on this story for two weeks, but the green blogs are suddenly abuzz with the rumor that Van Jones may be appointed the White House’s new “Green Jobs Czar.” (See here, there, there, and elsewhere.) So I guess I’ll add what I know.

A close mutual friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me that Jones has passed the requisite FBI background check, and is set to assume the new post of “White House Special Adviser for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation” on March 16. Jones would be in charge of doling out the half-billion dollars in the recent economic stimulus package that is destined for areas like conservation, energy efficiency and clean tech development. He would also be an influential voice in the debate over how the $80 billion for clean energy in the stimulus package is spent.

[UPDATE: Kate Sheppard at Grist quotes an anonymous source close to Jones who says that “‘green jobs czar’ is an overstatement.”]

I can’t imagine a more appropriate pick for this job than the author of the recent book The Green Collar Economy and president of the Oakland-based group Green for All, whose slogan, “building a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty,” should be adopted by Obama himself. And it’s a fitting trajectory for someone who has been beating the green jobs drum for four years. (I interviewed Van for Utne Reader in June 2005 during the UN Green Cities Summit, when he was taking the “green-collar jobs” meme out for an early road-test.)

Hopefully government work won’t require Jones to tone down his fiery rhetorical style. His ability to cast his environmental justice mission in stark moral terms — “do we want eco-apartheid or eco-equity?” — should be seen as an asset by the White House, even if it makes some of the suits on Capitol Hill squirm. And he has an amazing gift for connecting with audiences that might not agree with him on everything. He reportedly had a crowd of evangelical Christians in L.A. so fired up about their religious duty to protect God’s creation they were practically writhing on the floor speaking in green tongues.

Some cynics are questioning whether Jones should take the job, suggesting that he might be more effective on the outside than in government. That thought had crossed my mind, too. But despite his rock-star status among progressive enviros, he’s not yet a household name like Al Gore, who I honestly believe really is more effective where he sits now than he would be in the White House. (An Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize wouldn’t hurt, either.) Would conservative leaders like Paul Wolfowitz or John Bolton have been more effective at advancing their agendas during the Bush years if they had stayed on the sidelines, speaking at conferences and pumping out policy papers for think-tanks? I think not. Government is exactly where Van Jones should be.

The optimist in me has to wonder, too, if Jones’s appointment isn’t a sign that president Obama may be backing away from his support for so-called “clean” coal. In his keynote speech at the PowerShift ’09 conference (see video below), which brought 12,000 young climate activists to DC to lobby Congress for green jobs and clean energy, Jones said: “There is no such thing as the tooth fairy. There is no such thing as unicorns. And there is no such thing as ‘clean’ coal.” (download audio)

Van, the world’s been waiting a long time for you.

Written by leifutne

March 9, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Video: Van Jones Goes to Washington

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One of my personal heroes, Van Jones, president of Green for All and author of The Green Collar Economy, testified last week before Congress on the importance of focusing on green jobs in the economic stimulus package. Jones tells the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming that this Congress has a historic opportunity to solve the two greatest challenges facing the US — the economic meltdown and the climate crisis.

Written by leifutne

January 18, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Vicki Robin on the new “Your Money or Your Life”

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A short video I produced for my good friend Vicki Robin, co-author of the bestseller “Your Money or Your Life.”  The new revised and updated edition of this great book hit stores December 10, 2008. For more on the YMOYL program for financial independence, to order your copy of the book, or to see if the book tour is visiting a city near you, visit http://www.yourmoneyoryourlife.info.

Written by leifutne

January 5, 2009 at 7:11 pm