Welcome to Society Matters

Society Matters is an online experiment to beatblog
the National Geographic Society
and crowdsource its future.

herecomeseverybody_and_text1This is what happens:

•  Three-year-old Harry and his baby brother Charlie become international stars of a homemade, 56-second video called “Charlie Bit My Finger, Again!” The clip has been viewed on YouTube more than 100 million times (not counting the remixes).

•  Public figures can bypass traditional media organizations and communicate directly with constituents. Exhibit A: President Barack Obama, who is on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Black Planet, Faithbase, Eons, Glee, MiGente, My Batanga, and Asian Ave. (If you prefer a filter, there’s always The New York Times.)

•  The little guy can (in theory) find a bigger crowd online than, say, CNN can: Christian Lander, an internet copy writer, launched his own blog in 2008 called Stuff White People Like. It now ranks #8 on Technorati’s Top 100 blogs. (CNN’s Political Ticker is #46.)

•  Anyone can now walk on stage and… umm… sound off. (Here’s the backstory.)

As this digitally-armed crowd flexes its new muscles, Old Media is imploding. Newspapers are dying, magazines are disappearing, and publishing on the web is wobbly because its advertising-based business model is broken. “The internet is not replacing advertising but shattering it,” says Professor Eric Clemons of The Wharton School. While a variety of innovative journalism projects have recently sprung up — including Spot.us, Voice of San Diego, and ProPublica — no one has yet created what might be journalism’s Holy Grail: an editorially independent, financially self-supporting, broad-based, web-centric, fully networked journalism community.

We believe such a community already exists, although in a dormant and atomized form. Add the right catalysts, though, and we think this latent society could awaken to create an innovative non-profit network — a social web of enormous value to the people who already belong to it, and to those who choose to join. (It also might provide a new business model for certain kinds of journalism.)

The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 for the “increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” By 1988 — the Society’s centennial — membership had peaked at more than 10 million people. Each one of those members paid annual dues that entitled them to a monthly copy of the Society’s official journal — National Geographic magazine. Today, though, fewer than five million people receive the Magazine in English — a dramatic drop in circulation that’s expected to continue. (National Geographic is now published in 31 local language editions which add another two million-plus people to the audience.) This nosedive is obviously bad news for the Society. But we also think it offers a fleeting opportunity….

Each month, almost five million people still pay attention to National Geographic. The opportunity to address such a huge crowd is rare — a gift, really — in a world buzzing with distractions. One person — NGM’s Editor in Chief — has the privilege and responsibility of addressing this enormous audience each month via his one-page Editor’s Note. From this virtual podium, strategically positioned at the front of the Magazine, he has the chance to inform, inspire, and lead. The question is: With almost five million people listening, what is he saying? What could he be saying? More to the point: What would you say?

What might five million people be able to accomplish together
as a networked community that they could never accomplish alone?

Quite a lot, we think. We have a few ideas, and we bet you do too. But time is short. The audience is slowly drifting away — and so is the decisive moment.

Society Matters has three goals:

Crowdsourcing cover

1. To crowdsource a future for the National Geographic Society: The word “crowdsourcing” was coined in 2006 by Jeff Howe, a contributing writer for Wired magazine and the author of Crowdsourcing: Why The Power of The Crowd Is Driving The Future of Business. (Jeff is a member of our Board of Advisers.) His thumbnail definition: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call. Society Matters is our open call for ideas to help the National Geographic Society. We’ll compile those ideas on our UserVoice Big Board; we’ll vote on which ones we like best; and we’ll serve them up, free of charge, to the Society.

We like to think of this as an online, real-time focus group. Or maybe as an ideastorm for an organization and an industry in transition.

2. To beatblog the National Geographic Society: To know where to go, it helps to know where you are and where you’ve been. Or, to put this in the Geographic vernacular: When traveling in an unfamiliar country, it’s smart to hire an experienced guide. This blog will be that guide. Society Matters will report on National Geographic — its past and present, its publications, projects, and people — with original reporting, videos, interviews, reviews, commentary, guest posts, links, music, and more. (We’re based in Bethesda, Maryland — just a short bike ride from National Geographic’s worldwide headquarters in downtown Washington, DC.)

To be a beatblog, though, means this project should be two-way, and not just in the comments section, but in the content “above the fold.” Beatblogging is “editorial production, social media style,” writes Jay Rosen. Its “ultimate promise… is to bring lots more people, with their beat-specific knowledge, connections, interests and talents, into the production of good reporting, quality features, great posts: better stories!” And, we hope, a stronger Society.

3. To keep an extraordinary story alive: National Geographic is not a media company as much as a story in itself. You might call it: America and the West Meet the World. For more than 120 years, National Geographic magazine has been a mirror of the American experience — optimistic, outward looking, energetic, and hopeful. And while the Magazine explored the world’s cultural differences with curiosity and respect, it also projected a cultural confidence of its own. It helped make us aware that we weren’t just watching history, but creating it too. We were members of a Society and a society. We were, and still are, participant observers in a long-running drama that belongs to us all — and that’s not yet over.

What happens next? That’s up to you

The first NGM cover photo (July 1943)

July 1943: NGM's first cover photo

Crowdsourcing the future. Beatblogging the Geographic. Making history instead of just watching it. That sounds like a real adventure.

We hope you’ll join us.

  • Alan,

    Looks really cool !! I look forward to seeing more stuff.

    Jim Blair

    • Hi Jim,
      Thanks very much for checking in… and for the generous review. Lots more to come.
      See you @ the next lunch…

  • Alan,

    Looks really cool !! I look forward to seeing more stuff.

    Jim Blair

    • Hi Jim,
      Thanks very much for checking in… and for the generous review. Lots more to come.
      See you @ the next lunch…

  • Alan – This is a very impressive webpage! Keep up the great work. Bruce

    • You’re a good soul, Bruce. Thanks for looking in. And don’t worry: I haven’t forgotten about the coffee mug!

      • tomk

        Great job, Alan. Very impressive and very exciting!

  • Alan – This is a very impressive webpage! Keep up the great work. Bruce

    • You’re a good soul, Bruce. Thanks for looking in. And don’t worry: I haven’t forgotten about the coffee mug!

      • tomk

        Great job, Alan. Very impressive and very exciting!

  • Eileen Levitan

    Hi Alan,

    Great concept. I look forward to following your progress….!

    Eileen

    • Wonderful to read your voice, Eileen! Thanks for stopping by, and for leaving a message. It’s funny — I know lots of people at NGS care about what happens to the Society, but the corporate culture has never been big on open, free-wheeling discussions. Behind closed doors—sure, staffers have opinions they’re not afraid to share. But in a public venue? Everyone clams up. Not a huge surprise, I guess. But it’s not conducive to fixing what ails the place. … So, if you’re game, come back often & chime in. … Hope all is well with you. best, A

  • Eileen Levitan

    Hi Alan,

    Great concept. I look forward to following your progress….!

    Eileen

    • Wonderful to read your voice, Eileen! Thanks for stopping by, and for leaving a message. It’s funny — I know lots of people at NGS care about what happens to the Society, but the corporate culture has never been big on open, free-wheeling discussions. Behind closed doors—sure, staffers have opinions they’re not afraid to share. But in a public venue? Everyone clams up. Not a huge surprise, I guess. But it’s not conducive to fixing what ails the place. … So, if you’re game, come back often & chime in. … Hope all is well with you. best, A

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  • Gary Soucie

    Amen, bro. Good luck in your very worthy enterprise.

    • Thanks, Gary. It’s good to read your voice again after… what, almost 20 years? Hope all is well w/you… and that you’ll come back here & visit every so often. Like a good NGM story, Society Matters is for participatory observers. 🙂   … Keep in touch….. best, A

  • Danbloom

    great idea tell me more ……….Shutting off the media spigotShutting off the media spigotShutting off the media spigotShutting off the media spigotShutting off the media spigotShutting off the media spigot GREWAT IDEA tell me more by Alan Mairson on February 2, 2012
    Remember our idea that National Geographic should celebrate Earth Day by shutting down the Society’s TV channel and its website once a year on that special day (April 22)?By turning off its digital spigot for 24 hours, National Geographic would demonstrate to the world — in a public and powerful way — that our Society’s mission really is to inspire people to care about the planet rather than to inspire people to care about pictures of the planet. (As we’ve argued before, photographs can add to the media fog that prevents us from seeing the world — and each other — clearly.)Obviously, National Geographic hasn’t embraced our idea. But we still think it’s a worthy one, especially after listening to William Powers talk to Katie Couric about the benefits of pulling the digital plug:

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