Saturday, May 28, 2011

How Well Do We Know Our Online Friends?

Online friendships are great to have. They stimulate online conversation, help you stay connected long distance, and reconnect with long-time friends from the past. You can and your friends can find new people to connect with through each others' friends, and you can gain deeper insight into your friends.

But let's face it; most of these friends are really acquaintances. That's not a problem; it's just that the word friend has a different meaning in the real world than it does in the virtual world. I understand why though. Which sounds better? Facebook Acquaintance or Facebook Friend? I get it. On LinkedIn, they're called Connections, which is a more apt term. (I mostly use FB, LI, & Twitter for examples here because I'm active on them and can speak directly to their use; this is not a research paper, so I'm not concerned with examining other social media.)

In the virtual world you can learn a lot more about your acquaintances fairly easily. From the discussions and Q&A sections in LinkedIn, to the wall posts in Facebook, there are a lot of insights into people sprinkled all over the web. Follow someone's Twitter feed (Tweets) for what they read, tweet, and retweet and you have a goldmine of insight available. If they have websites or blogs, you'll find those useful as well.

Here's a real example from my online acquaintances. I met one of the organizers of PodCamp at PodCamp2 Boston several years ago.  Later we connected on LinkedIn.  I follow this person's blog posts because I find value in the content; they're informative and helpful to my work and life.  In fact, I pull in his blog feed directly to my LI home page, along with the feeds of several other friends, so from one page I can quickly review what they're posting about and stay caught up with their activity regularly.  After a few years, I thought I knew him pretty well, as far as virtual acquaintanceships go.  Imagine my surprise when, last week, I was perusing some virtual thinking websites and found some art from this person.  I checked to make sure it was the same person; yes, it was.  That led me to Flickr, a site that lets you post photos and other images for sharing, where a lot of his art was shared.  This was a whole new dimension to my virtual friend that I never knew existed. 

Another online acquaintanceship develop in a similar manner.  We had some mutual friends in both the real and virtual worlds.  From reading her blogs (yes, she has more than one), I found that we share more than a passion for technology (which is how our acquaintanceship began); we share a spiritual and philosophical mindset that made me want to know this person even more -- to move an acquaintanceship into a friendship.

The neat thing is that you can convert acquaintanceships into real friendships over time. After all, we tend to develop strong friendships with people whom we respect. Whether that begins because we share some level of political or religious beliefs, because we care about ecology, enjoy gardening, read or watch sci fi--at some level we have a common bond that draws us closer together and we form a stronger-than-acquaintanceship relationship and become true friends.

Some might wonder why the virtual world is so popular as a place to connect with others.  My initial thinking on this, which is not scientific or deeply thought through, is that it provides more options than the typical places we meet people.  We work longer hours, limiting our opportunities to get out and meet others.   We want to meet people outside of bars, especially if we are not looking for dating relationships. And the virutal world breaks down geographic barriers for just getting to know others and see what they're all about.

Those are my thoughts this early Saturday morning.  Do you have any thoughts on this topic?  Use the comments to respond.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

What Goes Into A Punch

I just read this blog post by Chris Brogan and thought how timely it was for me. 

It's a short post, so I'll let you read it rather than trying to extract a lot from it here.  One paragraph is particularly important:
But with every success I’ve ever had, it started with work. I had to start somewhere. I had to accept that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and then I had to work harder and harder. 
Each program I run could be improved, even though they each are successful to some degree.  They can each be more successful if I accept that they aren't where I want them to be and work to get them where I think they should be.

I'm beginning to write a report on the recently-ended VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program I coordinate with the help of a small group of dedicated and talented volunteers, a lot of support from the IRS, and growing support from the Mass Dept. of Revenue.  We do a good job and we help a lot of people.  But we can serve more people if we improve some of our internal processes and find a way to fund my position for more hours each tax season and fund an Assistant Coordinator part-time for 3-4 months.  We need to begin earlier, but funding doesn't permit the extra time needed for me to take time away from the other programs I handle as early as needed. 

It's a problem I've tried to tackle with more effective procedures and tools, but they can only take you so far.  Now it's time to tackle the real roadblock - funding support at the right amount for the many hours necessary for self-training (I have to recertify each year), volunteer recruitment and training, and planning/preparation with other agencies so they actually help us with getting taxpayers informed and to us (or us to them). 

This is just one of several programs, but has quantifiable numbers and data from other VITA sites doing the same thing that can help me analyze our improvements.  It's always helpful if you can quantify your results.

Chris also speaks about delaying gratification while your work on your punch.  I agree with him.  We started out with a small program and made some improvements.  The next time, we had greater numbers and discovered we could improve even more.  In our 4th year, we increased our production by almost 70% over the previous year.  If we had tried to reach those numbers in the first year or two, we could have made a real mess of it and not served low-income taxpayers very well.  Instead, by building slowly and adding other services slowly, we are able to help people with their taxes, food stamps, and health insurance needs in one appointment.  The volunteers don't feel overwhelmed, as they have learned at a reasonable pace how to build this into their tasks.  And they have suggested some of the improvements that we now use, providing better buy-in that this is all very doable and makes sense.  It's pretty important that volunteers and staff feel as if what they are doing actually makes sense!

Our punch? 
  • More people served and served very well
  • Expanded tax offerings (post-season returns, past-year returns, and help with special situations)
  • Expanded non-tax offerings (health and nutrition applications and referrals for advocacy)
  • A growing set of data around taxpayer/client needs (for referrals to other agency services)
  • Better coordination with other agencies that serve the same taxpayers
  • Referrals from other agencies 
We're pretty happy with that punch, but we're not complacent.   We're always working to improve, be more agile, and better able to respond to changing issues or needs.  Practice, practice, practice; that's what it takes.