Justice, Mishegas

Jewish Coaltion for Service Shoots, Misses with JSoN

The Jewish Coalition for Service’s new social networking application JSoN, The Jewish Service Online Network, soft-launched today. Sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation and created by Live Elements (the folks behind BBYO’s social networking site B-Linked, among other familiar projects), JSoN aims to provide online networking tools for alumni of Jewish service and social action projects, such as AJWS, Panim, and Leading Up North.

The site’s pretty barren currently — I think I might be among the first dozen or so people to have signed up. It’s also in beta, like everything else these days, so I don’t want to be too judgmental. Nonetheless, a precursory glance leaves me skeptical about the site’s value — and, I swear, not just because I’m working on a social networking project of my own.
As I stated in my post on “The Next Big Jewish Idea,”

Jewish institutions should invest in initiatives that give support to the widest array of individual communities possible. In that respect, rather than funding specific communities or initiatives, Jewish organizations should be spotting trends in various communities and developing resources that can be shared by individuals, communities and initiatives with overlapping interests.

Whereas it seeks to be of use to the greater Jewish service/social action community, JSoN is certainly a step in the right direction, and I commend them on taking the lead in this area — though they’re not the only organization to have done so. That said, even in the most basic areas, JSoN leaves much to be desired.
In a press release issued last month, The Jewish Coalition for Service proudly announced its intention to provide “easy access to cutting-edge features including social and career networking, job postings, blogs, chats, wikis, scrapbooks, interest groups, bulletin boards, and an ever-evolving menu of collaborative features.” While some of those functions are currently present at JSoN, I find them to be poorly implemented. For example:

  • You must update certain elements of your user profile on the homepage and others on your profile page itself.
  • You cannot see what your profile looks like to other users.
  • From the profile pages, you cannot click on the name of the service project in which a user has participated and see an index of the project’s other participants.
  • The member search and content search functions are disconnected.
  • There is no search bar at the top of the page and you can you only search for members from the homepage.
  • There is presently no link on a users’ profile page that allows you to email that user.
  • There is no function that allows users to post job opportunities.
  • While there is an ability for group members to upload documents, there are no means by which individuals can collaboratively create documents.

Some of these are rather basic functions that nearly every existing social networking platform with which I’m familiar, such as MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook, have as part of their default toolsets. In fact, for a project that I’ve been told cost the Schusterman’s $500,000, I cannot fathom why it contains less functionality than that which phpFox (an out of the box social networking solution) makes available for $300. A combined integration of WordPress (for content management) and phpFox could have cost them 1/10th the amount they allegedly invested and provided all the presently available functionality and then some.
Poor user interface (UI) design can kill an otherwise well-intentioned project, and on this front JSoN, I regret, gets failing grades.
In addition to JSoN’s flawed UI, JSoN also suffers from a basic violation of Web 2.0 principles — that which have ultimately made social networking software both useful and popular. “You” may be Time‘s Person of the Year for creating your own content and unique user experiences, but at JSoN, you are subject to a predefined user experience, available only to those with whom JSoN has negotiated access. Rather than allowing any member of any Jewish service project to jump in and enter information about their project (giving them the opportunity to seize upon their excitement about their project and take the initiative to get an online base of operations up and running in minutes), users can only select from a predefined list of accepted service projects and work within the constraints of a top-down content model that leaves little room for innovation. This exclusionary/gatekeeper access model is alienating — particularly to activists who have been bred upon a do-it-yourself ethic.
Yet of all things, JSoN’s greatest shortcoming is in its worthless approach to relationship management. What makes an in-house alumni network worthwhile? Or rather, what separates it from all the other social networking platforms online that provide similar features and of which we’re all already members? For an alumni network, more than anything else, it’s the user’s ability to access information about who, in their immediate circle of fellow alumni, is connected to organizations and individuals with whom they’d like to connect. Yet, as I note in my bullet list, at JSoN, when browsing a user’s profile, you cannot click on the name of the service project in which a user has participated and see an index of the project’s other participants. Nor can you find any meaningful information about that individual’s skills, their core competencies, nor valuable information about to whom they’re connected. This is an issue which only Facebook is currently attempting to address. In fact, at JSoN, you can just add someone as your friend without the other person having to approve of the connection. Thus the “Fakester” phenomenon is left to repeat itself, where we wind up with useless lists of friends-in-name-online-only. In that, I could get a more accurate and meaningful picture of who my fellow alumni are connected to on Facebook, and just as easily tap into those connections, while using an existing, and ultimately more functional preexisting service.

Facebook attempts to make meaning of our online connections.

In all this, yet still, I believe JSoN has potential, however, not in its social networking engine, but rather in its attempt to provide a resource center for Jewish activists. Unfortunately at this time, The Jewish Coalition for Services’ already-existing website seems to succeed more in this department than JSoN itself. JCS’s index of volunteer opportunities and volunteer matchmaking service are wonderful resources that deserve more exposure. However, they would be more useful if they were interactive, and, again, if they put more focus on user-generated content, rather than utilizing the present gatekeeper model which requires contacting and developing a relationship with JCS before your content will make it onto their site. The whole purpose of the web’s interactivity is to give you instant access and instant gratification. Why do I need to wait for someone sitting behind a desk checking their emails or answering their telephone to do what I can do on Craiglist at any hour of the day? Peer review-based moderation is more than sufficient and has become quite standard in insuring offending content does not make its way onto the site.
We don’t need another aggregator for social action-related content. SocialAction.com already does this more than sufficiently. We need tools that empower our social action activities, rather than those which bureaucratically approve of them. JSoN, I’m sorry to say, leaves that void yet unfilled.

8 thoughts on “Jewish Coaltion for Service Shoots, Misses with JSoN

  1. Its totally weak. I dont know where to start.
    Thanks for pointing me there Mob.
    To start with, and this is just one little peeve, the list of take action is silly. Itis a mixed up jumble of random groups, some having to do with jewishstuff and others not.
    Secondly, they have contracted with myjewishlearning, so may not be a DIVERSITY of opinions…Itseems they are a little, well how do we say, totally left of center?
    And last but not least. Json is a silly name.

  2. I have to agree that the site is pretty weak. It is trying to be something it’s not, and the site itself is a complete mess. I’m not quite comfortable sitting and shredding the site in detail – I’m sure they have a long list of things to fix. I do have to wonder how they have blatant mistakes all over the site – like “Jewish Online Service Network” in THE FIRST SENTENCE OF THE SITE!!! It’s pitiful that they’re probably paying buckets of money for something that takes months to be done wrong. I don’t know what kind of technology they’re using but it is really terrible stuff. I bet mobius or the guy that runs jrants could have done a much better job.

  3. Mobius, thanks for taking a “wait and see” approach. The site is for alumni of Jewish service programs to increase justice and enrich Jewish life. Possibly, it will not be all things to all people. See you online!

  4. Scott, the site is unfortunately trying to be everything to everyone and I’d ventrue to say will be no good to anyone because of it. I would love to know which moron advised them to run a JAVA application server. Fools, such fools.

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