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Can Social Software Change the World? Loomio Just Might

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, February 18 2013

The Loomio mascot

Let's face it. After nearly fifty years of development and roughly twenty years of mass adoption, the Internet hasn't created many truly useful tools for groups. We may live in the age of "ridiculously easy group formation," but if you've spent any time as part of a group, you know that all the most popular internet tools --email, list-servs, blogs, chats, and wikis --basically suck at group coordination. None of these tools are built to make it easy for large groups to make decisions together.

It's not a coincidence, I think, that most of us rarely, or never, experience working in a group where everyone actually gets a meaningful chance to participate in the decisions that group makes. Or, to look at it from the converse, most of us belong to groups where we actually don't have that much of a say in what the group does. Our most popular technological tools (see sidebar, below) generally have the effect of making this situation worse.

This isn't to say that big groups never manage to make coherent decisions using the tools we have. Reddit.com is constantly spawning all kinds of collective actions, like online fundraisers for people who need expensive medical operations or flash-mobs around media moments. One impassioned Redditor's rant about the supposed death of net neutrality led to the formation of a bona-fide political action committee, as my colleague Nick Judd documented back in 2010 ("Are Net-Neutrality-Advocating Redditors About to Start a PAC?"). Groups make do with what they have and members put up with communication annoyances constantly (or, as many organizers know, they drift away because ongoing communications can be a drag).

But as the saying goes, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If tools like email are bad for hammering out consensus among disparate views, maybe it's no wonder the Internet seems to be much better at mobilizing "stop" energy than at galvanizing "go" energy. It's much easier to rally around an obvious consensus that may already be shared--"Stop X" from happening--than it is to use the internet to build a new shared agreement, even among a group of people who already may think they have a lot in common. And while our brains' wiring and our cultural inheritances may explain a lot of this problem, at least part of it is also due to bad tools.

Ten or eleven years ago, there was a burst of interest in "social software," but there hasn't been a game-changing innovation in that arena since the launch of Twitter, seven years ago. A handful of group ideation tools, like Ideascale, AllOurIdeas, and Google Moderator, can be useful when a small group of people wants to solicit ideas from a larger group, but that's not the same thing as involving everyone in making group decisions.

But interestingly enough, the experience of large-scale, real-time, open-to-all consensus decision-making that many people went through a little more than a year ago when the Occupy Wall Street movement swept across much of the world appears to have fueled a dedicated drive to develop a software tool that could enable a similar approach to decision-making across any number of social situations. And it's starting in a place that's about as far away from the center of the world's tech hubs as you can imagine, New Zealand, with a social cooperative that's building a tool called "Loomio."

Why Can't We All Get Along?
At its heart, Loomio does just two things. First, it makes it easy for anyone in a Loomio group to initiate a topic for conversation. And second, it makes it easy for any group member to offer a proposal up for a vote. You can vote yes, no, abstain, or block. The software puts the vote results into a pie-chart, so at any point in the conversation about a decision, members of the group can see what the group as a whole is thinking. That's it. It's also easy for a group member to form a sub-group, like a committee that works on a narrower topic area.

"The key," says Benjamin Knight, one of the members of the core team developing Loomio, "is building shared understanding before a decision is reached by the group." He adds, "That means that when you get to the outcome, it's not that everyone has to agree to the outcome, they just have to agree that its the best outcome the group can reach at that time."

Loomio Demo 1 from Enspiral on Vimeo.

Early reviews from users suggest that Loomio is hitting a sweet spot between individual voice and collective decision. And in no small way that is because Loomio was born in the fertile ashes of New Zealand's Occupy movement.

Why Today's Tools Don't Help Groups

Email list-servs may be great for letting everyone have the opportunity to speak, and they may be useful for basic information sharing, any attempt to make a decision using a list-serv is bound to consume hours of everyone's time and risks creating confusion, or, almost inevitably, flame-wars.

A top-down email list, by contrast, doesn't really give its members the ability to make decisions together: at best, the list's owners may do regular surveys of membership opinion; at worst, the list's owners do A/B testing to optimize the response rate on a choice that list members have no say in generating. (This is why some of us are wringing our hands, by the way, about the spread of data-driven organizing; while it may be a more efficient way to mobilize people, it is also deeply manipulative. If "the revolution is going to be A/B tested," is it a democratic revolution, or just the replacement of one set of elites by another?)

A blog, either written by an individual or a group of contributors, may be a great way for a few people to project their vision and rally a community, but blogs aren't designed to be democratic decision-making tools, they're always the vehicle of their authors.

A chat room (like IRC) might work for a small group of intimates who are used to working with each other, but IRC doesn't scale well, either for groups of people who know each other or strangers. The same is true for Facebook chat threads or your run-of-the-mill Twitter hashtag confab.

Wikis can be great places for groups to share ideas in common, and they even allow everyone to contribute on an equal playing field, but many people find wikis hard to edit, except for the hard-working nerds who keep many wikis going. Take Wikipedia. It is a wonderful example of large-scale group collaboration around knowledge-sharing, but consider the process Wikipedia went through when its US branch "decided" to go dark in protest of the SOPA/PIPA bills. The "Jimbo Wales talk page" that acted as the village square for the community discussion on the proposed action gathered roughly 2000 individual comments and stretched across roughly 50 screen-scrolls. If you had tried to print it out to read it it would have been at least 25 feet long. When a group needs to make a decision, no one says, "Let's use a wiki to hammer out how we feel."

Finally, there are the many specialized tools that groups may use to help with handling complex tasks, ranging from the free ones like meeting schedulers WhenIsGood.com, to the cheap ones like Meetup.com, to sophisticated (and somewhat more expensive) collaboration platforms like Basecamp and Campfire, from 37Signals. They're nifty and helpful, but they're basically project management tools, not group decision-making tools.

Oh, before I forget, we could try to have a conference call to hash out our differences and make a decision. Anybody want to do that? ;>)

Before Occupy reached New Zealand in mid-October 2011 (by people watching videos of the "general assemblies" that had sprouted in New York and elsewhere and deciding to adopt the same process), Knight had been involved in some community organizing and social justice projects. Before that, he had been working on a Ph.D. on cumulative cultural evolution, doing field work in Texas teaching chimps to use touchscreens. "It was an interesting research topic," he told me, "but it felt irresponsible to stay in a system where the pace of translating that knowledge into real action was painful, when I could look around and see how much was going wrong in the world."

When Occupy happened, "I got really sucked in," he recalled. "A bunch of us in Wellington were involved in the solidarity movement with Occupy Wall Street and occupied the town square here. It was the first time I was exposed to collective decision-making on a large scale."

To Knight, the "general assembly" process was initially exhilarating: "In a way where everyone feels heard, empowered, equal to everyone else, in a public setting where people don't know each other, I've never seen anything like that."

But he also learned quickly that direct democracy and consensus decision-making was really hard to sustain: "The dark side of that is that meetings last 5 hours, the process breaks down, and everyone can walk away feeling disempowered and pissed off."

"So, we had 300 people in the square, but that should have numbered in the tens of thousands," Knight reflected. The answer, he felt, might lie in harnessing online tools to make it easier for people to join in without making them camp in the square. "The way to get them to participate is to break down the practical barriers of time and geography. Needing everyone to be in the same place at the same time limits the accessibility of the process."

Knight and his fellow organizers reached out to a local network of social enterprises called Enspiral, and asked them if they could build a tool that would enable general assemblies to run better. Instead, he recalled, "They said we should build it for them, so their businesses could run better."

Starting last January, the Loomio team, which had turned itself into a worker's cooperative, got a desk at Enspiral's office and started working, with three core developers doing the coding and Knight and others working on the effort's social enterprise model, its legal structure, and soon, the many local and international clients interested in using it.

It Still Takes Work
Loomio doesn't eliminate the need for smart community moderation; groups using the tool still need to have shared norms about their purpose and practices. And unlike many social software projects that start out offering random people a place to congregate and then invariably fail, Loomio is taking a smarter development path.

"Online deliberation is remarkably hard, and somewhere between difficult and impossible using lowest-common-denominator online tools like email, surveys, etc," comments Jon Stahl, a veteran online strategist who is the director of strategy at ActionSprout. "It's particularly bad in any sort of public governance process, where participation is open-to-the-public, and the participants have little prior history together and expect minimal future collaboration."

And left to their own devices, most groups don't have a clue how to govern themselves effectively. Says Billy Wimsatt, the founder of the League of Young Voters, "I've been a part of a handful of efforts to facilitate local self-organizing, and my sad conclusion is that when you encourage people to get together and form groups, you're essentially setting them up to get bogged down in process and power struggles that make people never want to be part of a movement again." He adds, "If there was some way to scale good group process, it could be very helpful in facilitating self-organizing."

Loomio has been in development for nearly a year now, and has more than 2,500 beta testers using it, in nearly 400 groups. Many are in New Zealand, and include local government entities, community groups, environmental organizations, and senior centers, but also a growing number of innovative and political organizations around the world. For example, the Wellington City Council is using it for a public consultation around developing a city-wide alcohol management strategy. The Playcentre Federation is using the tool to help manage its network of early childhood centers around the country.

"A large-scale student protest movement in Hungary (Hallgatoi Halozat) is using it," says Knight, "leading to a network of several hundred supportive Hungarian academics using it, followed by a network of democratically-organised high-school students, leading to a string of group requests from all over Hungary (from political parties to newspapers to OS projects to a festival organising committee to Occupy Hungary). 

Indeed, there is a long waiting list of organizations hoping to start getting access to the tool, "Everything from a contemporary rock band in Germany to an Open Business network in Bulgaria to Pirate Party movements in India and China to  the Five-Star movement in Italy to eco-villages in the UK to a retail services supplier to WalMart, to P2P lab networks in Greece, local government authorities all over NZ, a political party in Hungary, and everything in between," Knight reports.

Many of these instances are private, open only to invited group members. But some are public and viewable, even if you can't join in without an invite. Here, for example, you can look in on Timebanks Aotearoa New Zealand, a network of communities pursuing the spread of barter economies, as the group's initial members come to agreement on how to include new members in their Loomio group from each local timebank group. Or, you can eavesdrop on the workings of a community gallery made of 35 busy volunteers pooling their energies around a common space hosting dozen of local events. And the Loomio team eats its own dog food, using the tool to manage their own internal affairs.

Another lively example is the worldwide community of coders that is working on Diaspora, the user-centric alternative to Facebook that burst onto the tech scene three years ago with a popular Kickstarter campaign. It has struggled since then, hobbled by the suicide of one its co-founders. But now Sean Tilley, another of the original Diaspora coders, has been using Loomio to host a community of 150 people helping revive the project.

He told techPresident that they are using Loomio because "We needed a better way to communicate as a community and have a better way to illustrate how we felt about certain issues, policies, and solutions as a whole. We had mailing lists and GitHub issues in the past, but the barrier of entry was a little high for our non-technical users that still wanted to contribute ideas."

I asked Tilley if the Diaspora folks had considered using other decision-making tools. He said, "Apps like Bettermeans Tracker are more about assigning tasks in an issue tracker, whereas Loomio focuses more on decisions as a community. Loomio has this great idea of establishing a culture of rule by consensus. 

It's helped our community be very open and democratic, and we can get a lot of great perspectives from community members on how they feel about a policy or decision. It's great, because that approach helps us make more informed decisions than majority-rule voting.

Obviously, Loomio isn't all done and shiny yet. Basic helper text and tutorials aren't done, and many features, like how new users are brought on board, have yet to be automated. It isn't quite ready for the open web. But, says Diaspora's Tilley, "It's simple enough to use, and I'm confident that the team working hard on it will iterate on their design."

Knight says the Loomio team is hoping to move into open beta by this July. "The goal is to have about about 10,000 beta testers by then," he says. They're also working hard to grow the tool in a sustainable way.

"To get to scale we need resources. But we don't want ability to pay to be a barrier. Groups with budgets are paying a subscription fee of around $3 per person, per month. Which means we can give it away for free for groups without a budget."

"The core purpose is to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to participate in the decisions that affect them," he says.

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