Today: the personals. Tomorrow: the world?

Since its founding in 1995, Craigslist has gained a devoted following in cities around the world. As filmmaker Michael Ferris Gibson showed in his recent documentary “24 Hours on Craigslist,” the online community board brings strangers together for all sorts of transactions and revelations. Now the website’s namesake foundation — whose raison d’être is strengthening community by supporting local nonprofits — is developing a new environmental network.

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Craigslist Foundation’s Environmental Non-Profit Network is still taking shape, but it will likely include both social and technological components. Its debut in Craigslist’s home base, the San Francisco Bay area, has already attracted the interest of hundreds of local organizations. The foundation’s executive director, Darian Heyman, says the network could eventually expand to play a national role.

Starting things off the old-school way, ENPN will sponsor a face-to-face event in San Francisco on June 1 as part of celebrations marking U.N. World Environment Day, which the city is hosting. Uber-activist Julia Butterfly Hill, an adviser to the nascent network, will be ENPN’s keynote speaker.

Steering committee members hope this event will be the beginning of big things to come. They envision giant-scale activism in the form of a 2006 Earth Day mass march; edutainment/theater that will stir the public to demand changes in public policy; and cell-phone technology that will put green-purchasing information at consumers’ fingertips.

Craigslist Foundation isn’t reinventing the wheel. But it is joining those who are helping a struggling movement get back on its feet. And it offers something that many other organizations just don’t have: international cachet — even hipness. As the new network unfolds, observers repeat a cautious mantra: Craigslist has the power to make this work.

A Vision in Green

The foundation is taking its cue from recent online developments in social, political, and technical networking, ripples of which have emerged through sites like Friendster and LinkedIn, and campaigns like MoveOn and Dean for America. But it is leaving the specifics up to the community.

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“This network does not belong to Craigslist Foundation,” said Heyman. “It belongs to the Bay Area environmental nonprofit community. We are merely a facilitator. We are trying to empower people to collectively and individually run this thing and tell us how we can help. We’re trying not to express an agenda beyond encouraging collaboration and decreasing duplication of effort.”

While most coalitions try to find common ground, that narrowing of focus can become a source of conflict. To avoid that fate, “we want to be extremely flexible,” said lead ENPN steering committee member Sudeep Motupalli Rao. “We know we have a progressive environmental vision. That’s it. That’s the only driver. It’s a sustainable environmental vision.”

“Everybody we talk to is really excited about this,” said William Ryan, president of the foundation’s board. “So we think we’re going down the right path.”

Hill, who founded the Oakland-based nonprofit Circle of Life, counts herself among the ranks of the excited. “We know so little about what all these groups are doing in the Bay Area, so spending the time to get together to know what each other’s skills and resources are, and then finding some strategic ways to work together, would actually leverage the power of who we are,” she said. “I’m passionate about … building the movement beyond what environmental activism has been — the coming together of social justice, environmental justice, and the larger sustainability movement.”

All Hands on Tech

So ENPN will work toward a sustainable future, and physical social gatherings will be part of that. But what will the technology look like?

The foundation surveyed the growing network’s members and found their wish list was no short order: searchable member profile and directory databases; a listserv for emailing members; an events calendar on which any member could post updates; a discussion forum; a blog; a donation processing tool; a file reserve library; the ability to push content from a moderator website to readers on other websites; and the ability to interconnect various organizations and individuals.

While all these technologies are commonplace, bringing them together in one bundled system is trickier, as is providing access to a wide range of players. For example, Yahoo! Groups, which has proven popular for collaborations, allows individuals to chat, post some files and events, and maintain a basic database, but its limited capacity doesn’t allow extended file sharing.

“We’re still exploring ideas,” said Ryan. “We’re taking opinions from all kinds of people. We’re looking at tools that are already out there, and companies that might want to donate tools to the foundation.”

Although Ryan wouldn’t say anything definite about the tool other than the foundation is “committed to exploring its feasibility,” he said he thought it could be a reality in one year. “Things are already out there, people have expressed interest in working on it, pieces are already built,” he said.

In the meantime, ENPN will rely on the technology of the moment. It will also keep a close eye on other similar efforts around the country.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Effective social, political, and technical networking has long been a concern of the nonprofit sector, and several organizations have been putting their considerable brainpower to this thorny subject for years.

“A lot of the ideas [Craigslist Foundation is] talking about are already under development by the nonprofit open-source community,” said Jon Stahl, program manager of ONE/Northwest, a nonprofit that provides technology and communications assistance to environmental groups in the Pacific Northwest. “But that community could certainly use more hands on deck.”

Martin Kearns, executive director of Green Media Toolshed — which provides communication tools to nearly 160 environmental organizations nationwide — expects network-centric political engagement to replace traditional group-driven advocacy. He believes Craigslist Foundation can put together the five key elements he says are required to support this type of network: strong social ties, common story, dense communication grid, shared network resource, and clarity of purpose.

The benefits of such networking, Kearns says, are that individuals act as part of a coordinated movement, leadership is decentralized, and participants can deploy quickly to tip policy debate. For example, they could take advantage of intense national attention on an oil spill to fight an offshore-drilling bill in Congress, or rapidly share the latest power-plant emissions data to rally public support for a court battle over the Clean Air Act’s new-source review rules.

Certainly, newfangled technology isn’t required to do this good work. Established groups like the Sierra Club and Rainforest Action Network and individuals are already working together effectively.

And Stahl points out that a lot can be accomplished with relatively simple technologies. “Since 1995, [ONE/Northwest has] hosted email discussion lists for the regional environmental community,” he said. “We’re currently hosting over 800 lists with more than 133,000 participants. We’re using off-the-shelf, open-source software to do that. That’s been very successful. It’s a much more limited tool set than Craigslist is talking about. But even very simple tools can have a lot of power.”

Still, as Kearns writes [PDF], “the potential for network-centric advocacy increases with each advancement in connectivity technology.” In other words, every little bit helps.

No matter how Craigslist Foundation’s technological project turns out, the value of its ability to connect people should not be underestimated. “Social capital is the most important asset that these efforts build,” Stahl said. “The most important part of it is building trust among the human beings involved.”

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