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Food Alert Network Turns Two

If the phrase “Food Alert Network” means anything to you, it’s likely that you:

a) know the power of the internet, and
 b) work at Leo Burnett Chicago.

It was a little less than two years ago that Rachel Kraska, a colleague on our User Experience Design team, and I were at a group lunch. As we contemplated the leftovers from that meal, we noted that there were also regular leftovers from other meetings on the floor. There had to be a better way to learn what was available than sending out cumbersome emails to everyone.  It seemed to be a case of the ‘cobbler’s kids’ – we could have easily come up with solutions for our clients, but we rarely find time for ourselves.

But not that fateful day in December when the “Food Alert Network” was born.

Using Facebook’s closed groups, we created a place where if any of us saw leftover food from a catered meeting, we could post a notification to interested members. Soon we had a few on the floor acting as scavengers. Before long, for the handful of us on 31 it was a great gig that became reliable enough that we stopped buying or bringing a lunch to work.

As our group gradually started relocating to other floors, we found the same issue: Leftover, unattended food.  And though we were all now working on different projects, the FAN turned into both a functional and social tool.  (This is why we all probably have gained some pounds, but the cleaning crew must have lost a few.)

Today we are 600+ strong. The odds of being in an elevator with a member of FAN are great. At times it felt like a scene from “Fight Club” where we tried to encourage others not to talk about it, but the humor came in others telling us about whether we had heard of this exclusive “food club.”

So two years into this, we’ve noticed several interesting patterns:

1.Communities of similar interest are good at self-policing.
I won’t say there were posts that shouldn’t have happened (you know who you are), but the irony is that when ‘controversial’ posts and responses got out of control, they simply stopped.  Even more amusingly, it made the group more popular.  Several have suggested creating a protocol, but it flies in the face of what the group is, and two years later we still don’t have – or need – one. While I’ve stopped notifications of each new post, I still use it to see what’s available when I need it.

2.Online communities act as a new form of getting to know one another.
With more than 600 people in the FAN, I have come to know more about my coworkers than I ever could have a few years ago. Besides seeing who is active and interested in the network, it’s amazing to know people virtually before running into them at a meeting. I often mention the network to people I meet in orientation and usually see a smile that far exceeds anything I’ve taught about how we can help them in their project work.

  1. Innovation begets innovation.
In as innovative as Facebook was for allowing closed groups, it is interesting to see the FAN continually come up with ideas that extend this functionality – from suggesting a connection to the reception desk to know when food arrives, to trying to set up floor-based networks. We all seem to have become experience designers wanting to create solutions for things that are fun and emotional.

4.Communities are organic.
While the community is mediated by Facebook – and required at least two of us to be Facebook friends – the past two years have been an interesting adaptation of the network. This summer we saw people posting about nearby food trucks, a weekly ritual post about popcorn being made and bake sale announcements. It’s far from its original intent, but its adaptations remain in the spirit of the network.

It’s been great to see the network grow and evolve. No one ever said they wanted it before it existed, but now that is does, it fulfills more hunger pangs than we ever knew existed. Vendors and caterers: Be warned.

So if you’re already here and not yet on FAN, go to the (formerly) top secret URL or,  if you are not here yet, join us so you can see what FAN‘s all about.