Recovery 2.0: The swarm ethic

Out of all the good efforts to use the internet to help Katrina’s victims, I’ve been thinking about the ethic of the swarm.

One thing the internet does well is bring people together around shared interests, needs, functions, and lines of communication. We swarm around standards and make them standard. We swarm around tags on Flickr or so we can find each other’s stuff. We swarm around applications — BitTorrent, IMs of various flavors, and so on — so we can all use them together. We swarm around news and decide what matters.

And when people don’t respect the swarm, others will bring them in line: If you go into a support forum and ask a question that’s in the FAQ, you’ll quickly be directed there because other people had the same question and we all shasre the answer.

The swarm is useful. It’s efficient. It’s good citizenship.

So I wonder whether we should discuss the swarm ethic in relation to recovery 2.0 efforts. Try this:

If you see a need, first look to see whether someone else is already trying to meet that need and doing it well. Then you have a three choices:
1. You can decide that incumbent efforts are lacking in some way that you can fix and you do so.
2. Or you can decide to throw your support — your work, your promotion, your links — behind that effort.
3. Or you can decide to work separately but around shared standards to allow you to work together.
And in any case, it would be a courtesy to communicate with the incumbent.

In the case of the missing boards after Katrina, it was quickly obvious that people could miss connections because there were so many separate repositories of names. One option is to swarm around just one, but I’m not saying that’s what should happen; that’s the 1.0 way to work, it’s antithetical to the distributed nature of the internet and to people’s inclination to gather around their own communities (some people will look for each other around their churches, for example).

That’s why we have efforts to compile the names in one place (the Katrina peoplefinder project), to search the names across where they are (see Yahoo’s search), and to create standards for tagging the names (the people finder interchange format).

These are efforts to help us swarm. Swarming is the way we capture not just the wisdom but also the work of the crowd.

This is one of the things I hope we discuss at the Recovery 2.0 meeting in San Francisco. I think all we really want to accomplish is to provide ways — wikis, email, blogs, you tell me — for people to more readily communicate their needs and solutions. We need help swarming.

  • Jeff

    I heard you first on that topic yesterday on ‘On the Media’.

    I agree with you that users and makers of technology should use the power of the network to find new solutions before the next crisis.

    A day after the 4th anniversary of September 11, i cannot help but feel that we can all contribute by doing good not just being self-absorbed and thinking only about making money and more money.


  • Matt


    I think Recovery 2.0 is a great idea — except that it sounds awfully self-congratulatory. Why not pick a more modest name? A lot of stuff around it screams ‘Look At Us And How Clever And Compassionate We Are Because Of Our Intarweb Wizardry’ — and I think that’s the wrong tone to take around this crisis. I understand that you need to do some promotion to be effective, but I cringe everytime I see ‘Recovery 2.0’

    For one, Recovery 1.0 contains a lot of really hardworking AND effective people, such as Red Cross volunteers. The name makes it sound like the people in the trenches– the ones who are actually dropping off water, making rescues, and pulling out bodies–have been improved upon by a group of people who sit in a comfy hotel conference room and talk about expensive flashy electronics.

    I know you mean well–but consider how this looks from the outside and try to add a little humility to your efforts.

  • Actually that is the interesting thing that I realized myself. The best systems aren’t those that are perfect and rigid but those that are flexible, scalable, and adaptable. Therefore while my initial plan was to work on this project from a relief and recovery standpoint, I soon realized that this is only a small fraction of the potential of such a system. If built properly (i.e. flexible, scalable, and adaptable enough), it should be able to be utilized by anyone and for anything. I strongly believe that the more we make this system rigid and controlled, the less successful it will be. We need to continually look at the greatest attributes of the Internet/Web and keep those in mind when developing this system.

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