Now Is the Time to Try Things Online
A dynamic cultural and public health environment means a sudden need for new types of digital services. A willingness to experiment thoughtfully in a time of need could help both your members and the public.
When it comes to technology, the operative phrase has long been “move fast and break things.” But breaking things usually brings change, which often meets with fear and resistance.
Enter the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the rules are basically being rewritten on the fly, and a lot of the things that might have held back your digital experiments in the past are off the table for now. Like it or not, this is digital’s time to shine—which changes the parameters of what can be done in your organization, and how.
A Library for Emergencies
One organization that pulled out the digital tightrope in a big way recently was the Internet Archive. Late last month, the nonprofit announced it would take its Open Library product, which allows users to borrow digital copies of books, and create the National Emergency Library. Multiple users can now borrow books simultaneously, without having to sign onto a waitlist.
The idea, which grew out of a need expressed by educators and universities, was intended to help keep information accessible at a time when huge numbers of students are learning from home. But the move generated objections from groups representing authors, publishers, and booksellers, who raised concerns about copyright protections. (For its part, the archive says the open library fits under fair use and that authors may opt out.)
But even with the controversy, the idea was well-intentioned as a public service, coming as libraries around the world are shuttered. It’s also consistent with the organization’s prior work focused on keeping information accessible. Sometimes, fast thinking means quick decisions to help the most people possible right now—and messes to clean up later.
Move Fast, Make Things
I can understand why you might read this anecdote and get nervous about the prospect of trying something new. But there are ways to take bold, decisive action with more nuance or with targeted goals. Here are a few suggestions for building experiments during these unusual times:
Focus on approaches that can be implemented quickly. When you’re experimenting, never bet the farm. Instead, make small investments in ideas that could prove themselves over time. You might find inspiration in the no-code movement, for example. Your traditional development process may be too slow, so consider taking a different route—say, a Squarespace site or even a social media page rather than a website developed at scale.
Leverage existing resources in new ways. One thing the Internet Archive did well was to take information that was already online and present it in a different way. This was subtle, but it was effective from a branding standpoint and helped it get something off the ground quickly. Your organization probably already has information or resources either buried on your website or in old content, or you may be able to gather such resources quickly from within your community. Take advantage of that now.
Don’t get mired in silos. It’s easy to default to traditional definitions of our functional teams when building new projects, but this may be one of those times when the traditional playbook needs to be cast aside. In an emergency, expediency and service to your members and the public need to take precedence. You may have to make some quick decisions when there’s an immediate need for a digital resource.
For example, you may have people in your field who are trying their hand at remote work for the first time or navigating a job market that suddenly looks nothing like what they’re accustomed to. They could use a targeted career resource.
It’s daunting, for sure. The upside for your organization is that others are trying to navigate this territory as well. You may be trying to figure this out, but so is everyone else. People will give you leeway as you adapt, because they’re adapting too.
It may feel like you’re moving mountains, but if you approach it with an experimenter’s spirit, you can come out of this on the other side—just like, hopefully, everyone else.
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