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The network is the ...

January 10 2008 | Jim's Blog,
by Jim

I'm not going to hide the fact I'm a geek. I've been hanging out in tech for the last two decades.

I'm a geek.

In this post I'll connect those dots... to Surfrider.

Back in 1984 Sun Microsystems chief researcher, John Gage, muttered the visionary words "the network is the computer". It took me a solid decade to understand that statement, it really wasn't until mid-nineties that I started to understand the potential intelligence and power in the internet. Today, the power of computing, search, commerce and creativity resides on the web... on the network. It's about the collective activity at the end-points, or nodes, and how they inter-relate with one another.

That is... power.

That is the network effect.

That is Surfrider.

Surfrider Foundation is an idea just as the internet is an idea. Both of these ideas are fueled by network health, growth, applied power and shared intelligence.

Surfrider isn't the only organization with it's eyes on coastal conservation. But Surfrider's interpolation and execution of that idea is different than other organizations with similar ideas. Our headquarters isn't within Washington D.C.s beltway, we're not a government lobbying agency, we're not a large staff, we have two lawyers on staff... we're a highly distributed global grassroots network.

Surfrider's competitive advantage and strength is in our network of 80 chapters and affiliates across the globe. We support those global needs with a vibrant web of subject-matter experts and activists. Taking that down another level the strength comes in the form of the distributed activist operating under the umbrella of those chapters and affiliates. Taking that down another level the strength comes in the entire body of coastal dwellers that are influenced by our work, our campaigns, our messaging and our influence.

We are as decentralized of an organization as may be possible. We have a staff at our headquarters that is smaller than your local Starbucks.... yet along the edges of our global network we have hundreds of thousands of supporters and thousands of activists and volunteers operating under our the Surfrider flag.

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One could draw a parallel to the global (internet) network;
  • Regional web server farms = chapters and affiliates
  • Online applications such as Google, Myspace and YouTube = campaign plans, national messaging, etc
  • Individual blogs or web posts = activist-driven initiatives.

Now, before you think I've gone off the deep end... this matters because we need to optimize our understanding related to scaling and prioritizing network investments. Ex. Which provides a greater return on our mission, adding a ecosystem-based-management expert or another field-based coordinator? How do we nurture the network to propagate an ethos of coastal conservation deep into the nooks and crannies of their local towns? How do we do this so we are acting proactively (changing mindsets and habits) and simultaneously acting reactively (taking on damaging issues and projects)?

In my mind the world has shifted in the last 20 years, today it is full of networks (interconnected entities with information, resources and commerce flowing unidirectionally). Look at the political race in the US; there is over a billion dollars being invested in honing and expanding the respective candidates networks. Existing forces such as the NRA and ACLU have been doing the same thing for decades... yet today things are more connected than ever. Today the toolsets are enabling things that weren't even being dreamed about a decade ago.

So, the network is the computer.

If that's too tweaked for you...

The network is the brain, the muscle and the mouthpiece.

If you look at our Strategic Plan and spend time with our top-tier goals you'll identify where we need to invest, what we need to hone... the fact that we must continually optimize our global network.

We need to invest with our eye on the real, understandable returns. Our vision statement is super-crisp; 150 coastal wins by 2010. As of 12/31/07 we're at 64 wins. That is a clean, understandable return on our network investments. Our network investment can further be seen by our push to have the highest ratio of field-located staff to HQ staff, today that ratio is as positive (more people located in field locations) as it's ever been.

If you want to know what my vision for Surfrider is... think of the most dynamic, highly distributed network you can imagine. Think of a network that is dynamically updated. Our three hemisphere pulp-mill fight is an example of this, we're coordinating strategies and assets in fights in Australia, Chile and the US.

Maybe I am being a bit too geeked out with the phrase "the network is the computer" as... we're not aspiring to become a computer. I realize that, it's a metaphor. A computer is an engine, it's a repository of intellectual property, it's corporate memory, it's applied learning algorithms, it's processing power. I clearly see our network as all those things... so, for me, the shorthand version of that is... the network is the computer.
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