Mass Collaboration

We're finally catching on to the power of the Internet to enable mass collaboration. It is now home not just to straightforward Web sites, but to social networking services, blogs, wikis, shared video, instant messaging, and a whole host of other tools that allow people to connect to each other and create ideas in new ways. One of the most powerful ways of implementing green strategies with technology is by using these tools to innovate. In Wikinomics, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams refer to these tools as "weapons of mass collaboration." They claim that "new low-cost collaborative infrastructures— from free Internet telephony to open source software to global outsourcing platforms—allow thousands upon thousands of individual and small producers to co-create products, access markets, and delight customers in ways that only larger corporations could manage in the past."5 Here are a few favorite enablers of collaboration that have been especially influential for business and the environmental movement:

Social networking

Social networking tools build online communities of people who share common interests and activities, or are researching the interests and activities of others. Social networking Web sites, like Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Orkut, Twitter, and Cyworld have created powerful new ways to communicate and share information, and are being used regularly by millions of people. It now seems that social networking will be an enduring part of everyday life. The great news for environmentalists is that they can share information with a wide audience quickly and cheaply. Social networks also naturally stimulate communities of people to have a focused discussion around solving environmental problems.

Virtual worlds

Virtual worlds are three-dimensional social networking sites that allow the user to interact as an "avatar" or three-dimensional (3D) character in a modeled virtual universe. Examples include Second Life, Kaneva, and Entropia Universe. Although the 3D models are still a little rough, this hasn't stopped a number of companies from "buying islands" or virtual space in these worlds and using them for business purposes. Companies and organizations like Autodesk, Crown Plaza, McKinsey, Bain and Company, Harvard Law School, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are some of the many users. There is a short learning curve to use the software, which is more interactive and exploratory than traditional communication media. Organizations now use virtual worlds to educate, to communicate with their staff and shareholders, to host conferences, to try new products in a low-risk environment, and to brand their products and services in a new way. How are virtual worlds environmentally friendly?

• There is no need to travel to Boston to take a class at Harvard, to jet off to Tokyo for a business meeting, or even to go into the office at all. Your avatar walks into a virtual room and communicates with others in real time, and you do everything from your laptop.

• There is the potential to "model" products, buildings, games, and other 3D objects and to test them prior to investing physical resources. University of California-Irvine computer scientist Crista Lopes built a virtual model of a rapid-transit system called SkyTran in Second Life, with software to keep SkyTran's virtual cars from getting into virtual collisions. After the control software is ready in Second Life, she plans to transfer it to a real-world version of SkyTran, proposed by the Irvine-based transportation company Unimodal, Inc. Using virtual software like Second Life helped iron out issues that could only have been discovered by "experiencing" the design. One such issue, for example, was the alignment of the express track directly over the platform, which is technically safe, but was judged to feel unsafe by Second Life users. The second issue arose from the clear "glass" used in the Second Life pods. Unimodal officials responded that, if this material were used in a real-life SkyTran pod, it could expose passengers to a fast, repetitive pattern of SkyTran track components moving by, which could produce epileptic seizures in some people.6

Wiki technology

A wiki is a page or collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content using a simplified markup language. The collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia is one of the best-known examples. Wikis are used in business to provide Intranets and Knowledge Management systems. The power of this technology is onlyjust now being tapped into, but, given the complexity of environmental issues, tools like these will be critical to understanding issues and building consensus around solutions in the future. Some of the organizations exploring wiki technology are surprising:

• The United Nations (UN), notorious for endless deliberations, is looking to technology to help facilitate consensus. Its Global Compact Office, which promotes corporate social responsibility, has embraced the wiki in hopes that it will help staff in eighty countries share information and reach common understanding with less deliberation and more speed. This project intends to review and tag thousands of separately generated UN reports so that they are searchable and more easily accessible.

• IBM has used internal wikis since 2005, with the intention of selling the concept to its clients. IBM has incorporated the wiki and other collaborative software into its corporate products like Lotus Notes, a desktop software for accessing e-mail and other applications.

• Sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies have begun using a common wiki called Intellipedia, a government-run—and top-secret—information-sharing source that allows them to merge research and intelligence gathering.

• WikiCongress, powered by Rally Communications and founded by former U.S. congressional staffers, is slightly different from traditional wiki technology. It lets the public create petitions or propose new policies and then forwards the results to legislators. WikiCongress also includes a Facebook application so that petitions can be signed through Facebook.7

Mass-collaboration technologies like social networking and wikis are incredibly powerful in the sense that they enable many people to share ideas at the same time and self-correct information. This is particularly important given the enormous amount of environmentally related information being produced and the prevalence of greenwashing.

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