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#Occupy clustering and coping

Micah Sifry writes that “Rapid growth is going to stress the #OWS [Occupy Wall Street] movement,” and he talks about similar stresses on the Students for a Democratic Society in the 60s. He notes that core bonds of trust weren’t sustained as the movement grew. He says “social media may save #OWS from that fate, or just produce other, equally challenging problems of growing a movement to scale while keeping its core ethos.”

Steven Johnson, writing about the Howard Dean campaign, writes about two aspects of emergent political movements, clustering and coping. Steve says

Some simpler emergent systems are good at forming crowds; other, more complex ones, are good at regulating the overall state of the system, adapting to new challenges, evolving in response to opportunities. Sometimes, I suspect, it’s helpful to blur the distinctions between clustering and coping for simplicity’s sake. But when you subject them to the intense scrutiny and pressure of a national political campaign, the fault lines inevitably appear. Right now, emergent politics is brilliant at clustering, but clustering is not enough to get a national candidate elected. In fact, without the right coping mechanisms in place, clustering can sometimes work against your interests. You need crowds to get elected to public office, but without more complex forms of self-regulation, crowds can quickly turn into riots. And riots don’t win elections.

Johnson’s analysis was about a national presidential campaign, but I think it’s applicable to a potential movement like #OccupyWallStreet (or #OccupyWherever). So far, Occupy is about clustering, but to be really effective it should evolve as an organized movement. Does it have, or will it have, the right coping mechanisms in place? Johnson talks about two essentials of coping: “a relatively complex semiotic code to communicate between agents” and “metainformation about the state of the collective.” Those two mechanisms sound very much like what you could achieve through the use of social media for coordination. The so-far sophisticated and effective use of social media by Occupy may be the right sauce.

Photo by Adrian Kinloch

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Fires, storms, and the crisis of authority

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Smoke from the Bastrop Fires

Of course we’ve been tracking the fires in the Austin area, especially the massive complex fire in Bastrop, and I’ve been thinking how to make sense of the disaster. Marsha and I drove toward Bastrop, Texas Monday to get a better look, not expecting to get very close (we didn’t want to be in the way). We drove within ten miles – not close, but close enough to capture photos of the massive tower of smoke: http://www.flickr.com/photos/weblogsky/sets/72157627607062626/ Jasmina Tesanovic was there the same day, and posted her thoughts here.

The whole area is a tinderbox after an unprecedented drought, and a great, now dangerous, feature of the Austin area is that cities and suburbs here have pervasive greenspaces, and we’ve built residences and other structures close to, and surrounded by, foliage that is now potentially explosive.

The current disasterous fires have a climate change signature; they’re products of the record Texas drought – at least exacerbated by, if not caused by, global warming. They were fanned by strong, oddly dry, winds from tropical storm Lee, and while no single storm is specifically related to global warming, their increasing number and severity may be related. While I’m not looking for a climate change debate here, it’s frustrating that the issue has been politicized on both left and right, and leaders have ignored scientific consensus for so long that prevention is no longer an option. We should be thinking about adaptation, but that’s not happening, either.

In fact, we’re not prepared for disaster. Marsha and Jasmina returned to Bastrop Tuesday hoping to volunteer, and Marsha spent much of Wednesday as a volunteer at one of the evacuee shelters. So much is happening so quickly, it’s hard to manage – and there’s no clear leadership or structure. The fire has destroyed 1,386 homes, and it’s still burning. Much of the attention and energy is focused on core concerns. On the periphery of the disaster, there are too few leaders or managers and too many details to manage.

This is a metaphor for global crisis. Economies are challenged and systems are breaking down; at the same time, we have real crises of authority. At a time that demands great leadership, we have no great leaders. Politicians left and right are stumbling. In Texas, which has needed great insightful leadership for some time now, the governor dismisses science and leads rallies to pray for rain.

In difficult times past, great leaders have emerged. Where are they now?

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Technology, politics, and balance

When Mitch Ratcliffe and I published Extreme Democracy in 2005, the question came up whether the discussion of politics and social technology was technoutopian. Without getting into the specifics of the book (which included diverse articles, some more positive than others about the potential role of what we now call social media in our political life), I can say that I rejected the “technoutopian” label as a rather shallow dismissal of a complex question: does a technology that gives everyone the potential to have more of a voice bring us closer to a democratic ideal? Or does it turn up the noise and overwhelm the signal? Or could it do both?

I thought about this after reading Cory Doctorow’s piece about the general question of technology optimism vs pessimism. Cory says that he’s a techno-optimist, but note that his position embodies both optimism and pessimism: ” the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.” He has a great example:

To understand techno-optimism, it’s useful to look at the free software movement, whose ideology and activism gave rise to the GNU/Linux operating system, the Android mobile operating system, the Firefox and Chrome browsers, the BSD Unix that lives underneath Mac OS X, the Apache web-server and many other web- and e-mail-servers and innumerable other technologies. Free software is technology that is intended to be understood, modified, improved, and distributed by its users. There are many motivations for contributing to free/open software, but the movement’s roots are in this two-sided optimism/pessimism: pessimistic enough to believe that closed, proprietary technology will win the approval of users who don’t appreciate the dangers down the line (such as lock-in, loss of privacy, and losing work when proprietary technologies are orphaned); optimistic enough to believe that a core of programmers and users can both create polished alternatives and win over support for them by demonstrating their superiority and by helping people understand the risks of closed systems.

On the question of democracy, I feel an optimism that we can have better transparency and more participation through the Internet-based technologies we’ve created, and are still evolving. Certainly more people are engaged in conversations about politics and the ideas that inform political action. However I have worrisome concerns. One is that too many voices in the mix, too much commitment to consensus, can stall or prevent effective action in governance, and we have too many critical problems to be stalled.

I’m also concerned that “the will of the majority” is not necessarily guided by intelligence, and that it can be manipulated by effective propaganda, such as self-serving well-orchestrated astroturf email and blog campaigns founded on a memetics of fear, uncertainy, and doubt – the “birther” phenomenon is an example of this.

In my last post I mentioned the possibility of an Open Source party that leverages the kind of thinking about organization and action that has emerged from projects based on what Benkler calls commons-based peer production, “in which the creative energy of large numbers of people is coordinated (usually with the aid of the Internet) into large, meaningful projects mostly without traditional hierarchical organization (and often, but not always, without, or with decentralized, financial compensation).” I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about this idea; will be exploring it further… I’m clearly pessimistic that the current direction of politics is sustainable, so it’s time for new ideas and experimentation.

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Stewardship

I’ve been thinking a lot about stewardship as the requisite basis for action in an era of greed and confusion. Stewardship can be defined several ways, but the general sense I get is that it means taking responsibility for something that you don’t “own.” Ownership also needs definition for the sake of clarity, and as a Buddhist I’ve cultivated some depth around the concept of “I” or “self” and the concept of “own.” If the self is an illusion, then ownership is part of that illusion.

But we have to live in the world, and accept consensual hallucinations like the concept of “self.” I can also think of “I” as a bounded awareness, and stewardship as taking responsibility for something beyond that boundary.

The case that came up most recently for me was that of technology stewardship, which I just spent two weeks discussing on the WELL with Nancy White and John D. Smith, authors of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities. We were talking about how people with a community of practice who have relative clue about technology take responsibility for assessing, selecting, and sustaining technology platforms for the community to use, primarily for communication and collaboration. Communities are complex, technology can be complex as well, so there’s much to be discussed in this context. Check out the discussion and the book if you’re interested, but I’m more interested in how the act of stewardship works, especially the attitude behind it.

While stewardship may or may not be through some role that is compensated, it should be inherently unselfish. To effectively take responsibility for something beyond yourself, you have to be prepared to put your “self” aside and think in terms of the best interests relevant to the stewardship role. In technology stewardship for a community, you’re selecting the technology that best serves the interests and capabilities of the community, not necessarily the technologies you would prefer or be most comfortable with.

We also talk about stewardship in the context of The Austin Equation, where I’m involved as a resource on community development, especially online. For that project, a group of volunteers have been defining and mapping scenes local to Austin, with the idea that they will take a stewardship role with the scenes they’ve selected, i.e. help build coherence and effectiveness into a community where the only glue, at the beginning, may be affinity and marginal awareness. How do you step into a community, in a role that the community itself didn’t define or originate, and provide effective stewardship? That’s an issue I keep considering – somehow you have to engage the community and convey the value of your stewardship.

These are some initial thoughts about stewardship; I’d like to have a larger conversation, especially about how to inspire an attitude of stewardship more broadly so that people are generally more focused on helping than “getting.”

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Digital Habitats/technology stewardship discussion

Digital HabitatsNancy White, John D. Smith, and Etienne Wenger have written a thorough, clear and compelling overview of the emerging role of technology stewardship for communities of practice (CoPs). They’re leaders in thinking about CoPs, they’re smart, and they’re great communicators. Their book is Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities, and it’s a must-read if you’re involved with any kind of organization that uses technology for collaboration and knowledge management. And who isn’t?

It’s my privilege to lead a discussion with Nancy, John, and Etienne over the next two weeks at the WELL. The WELL, a seminal online community (where Nancy and I cohost discussions about virtual communities), is a great fit for this conversation. You don’t have to be a member of the WELL to ask questions or comment – just send an email to inkwell at well.com.

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Reworking meetings?

I downloaded a sample of the new Jason Fried/David Heinemeier Hansson book, Rework, which will doubtless find its way onto my reading pile – seems like good pithy bits of advice we can all use. However I zeroed in on the “meetings are toxic” section, and tweeted something about how that view suggests someone who doesn’t know how to have meetings. But it really suggests the frustration of someone who’s been victimized by others who don’t know how to have meetings. And even people who know how will sometimes screw up – I’ve subverted a few of my own meetings, for instance.

It’s useless to rail against meetings as toxic, just try to have better meetings. In fact, the authors acknowledge that point, but only after venting. Examples:

“They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things.” But life is like that, no? When we’re not doing zazen, we stumble into conceptual states of mind, samsara, and everybody’s weaving a bit of that web, and you don’t cut through it by pretending it isn’t there. The meeting should be the knife that slices through the fog and finds reality and clarity. If you don’t know how to do that, your meetings might be unproductive, if not toxic, but that’s a problem of organization, not a problem with meetings per se.

“They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.” Yes indeed – this frustrates me, too… meetings where the people in the room are saying the same thing over and over. Department of Redundancy Department. But I had a flash of insight while sitting in one of these – there were people in the room who needed that redundancy for knowledge they were acquiring to sink in. Meetings can be slow because some participants need them to be slow. Quick thinkers may be frustrated, but there’s where a commitment to group process takes priority.

“They drift off- subject easier than a Chicago cab in a snowstorm.” That’s true, if the meeting doesn’t have an effective leader to keep things on track. The solution for this problem is implicit.

“They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.” So you shouldn’t have meetings because they require preparation? That seems out of kilter to me. If nobody needs the meeting, then the preparation is a waste of time. But if people need the meeting in order to synchronize their efforts or get clarity about something, do you really want to blow if off because preparation’s a hassle?

“They frequently have agendas so vague that nobody is really sure of the goal.” So write a clear agenda, no?

There’s a couple more, but you get the point. It’s easy to complain about meetings, because they do have failings, but the better move is to say how to make them effective and productive.

In fact, Fried and Hansson do have some recommendations – set a timer and end meetings whether everyone’s done or not is one. So if the people in the room haven’t quite worked it out, and the timer goes off, they’re SOL.

Invite as few people as possible is another, and I totally agree. Why invite anybody who doesn’t need to be there? Have a clear agenda, start with a specific problem, both good. Meeting at the site of the problem is a recommendation that might not be practical. End with a solution and assigned responsibility, also good. Action items.

One that’s surprisingly missing, that I learned many years ago: don’t call the meeting unless there’s a reason. (Standing meetings for checkins can be an exception, and monthly organizational meetings where there’s always something to address).

My bottom line is that meetings are not inherently toxic. And you gotta have ’em. I think I would’ve reworked that section of Rework. (Bet the rest of the book is great!)

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Community vs Crowdsourcing

My report on the SXSW session The Era of Crowdsourcing: General Principles, featuring Scott Belsky of Behance and Jeffrey Kalmikoff of Digg.

This session talked about sourcing intelligence from communities vs crowds. The crowd/community or audience/community distinction is something I’ve thought and talked about quite a bit. In the world of “social media,” I don’t think we’ve made the distinction or found it important enough. “Social media” is a marketing term, and much of that thinking has come from marketing professionals who are trying to understand how to do post-broadcast marketing, in a world where media and mindshare are decentralized and diverse, fragmented. In marketing, the coherence of media or communication environments is not an issue, so long as messages can be communicated effectively in a context to drive conversions or purchases. Random drive-by messaging in environments like Twitter and Facebook don’t have to have coherence to work as “social media” in this sense, however I’m more interested in building sustained conversations and collaborations, or “community.”

You can “crowdsource” wherever a crowd is gathered. The crowd itself needn’t be “wise” on the whole; but it’s useful to assemble a crowd that has within it sources of relevant intelligence. What do the members of a crowd have in common? A physical crowd can have no more than proximity, but our sense of the virtual crowd is that they share something more. A crowd that shares only membership at Twitter could be random, but when we crowdsource via Twitter, we’re usually addressing our particular slice of the crowd, which has affinity if only through their relationship to us as individuals, as part of our network.

Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, as a riff on the term “outsourcing.” Crowdsourcing was defined as taking a job traditionally performed by some designated agent, usually an employee or contractor, and assigning it instead to a crowd or collective. Trendwatching defines the term as “customer made.” I found an article at the site that deepens the definition in a business context:

Next year, says Reinier Evers of Amsterdam’s Trendwatching.com, will see the re-emergence of group decision-making power as organisations of all kinds try to harness the wisdom of crowds. But if 2006 was the year in which DIY or home-made internet content triumphed over all its competitors in sites such as YouTube, 2007, says Evers, will see talented amateurs on the net demand payment for the stuff they produce. Expect, he says, more and more user-generated content sites and ventures to move to a paid or revenue-sharing model in the next 12 months. An example of this crowdsourcing is the software company Cambrian House (cambrianhouse.com), which works by inviting huge numbers of people into the production process and then paying them royalties if their contribution makes any money. Even Lego wants its customers to make money. The toy company now lets online visitors (at factory.lego.com) design Lego models and upload them to a gallery to show off their skills. It recently organised a contest in which the winning 10 models were sold as Lego models, with the creators earning 5% of the revenues. The company is keen to expand the initiative.

According to Belsky and Kalmikoff, the crowdsourcing definition needs to evolve, especially beyond the common misconception that crowdsourcing means access only to free labor. They mention three business models:

1) Crowdsource wisdom (or knowledge/expertise/skill), as with Wikipedia.
2) Crowdsource labor, as with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or traditional spec contests.
3) Crowdsource both wisdom and labor, as with Digg or Threadless. Keep the community active in the business.

To the question of crowds vs communities… a crowd is definable through a common purpose or set of emotions. Where crowds are concerned, sourcing exists in sprints.

In communities, intent, beliefs, risks, etc. may be present in common, affecting identity and cohesiveness. Sustainability exists inherently in the organic, adaptive nature of communities. They talked about various risks and the need to ensure the means to have a true collaboration with others and produce a result that’s relevant. One risk that particularly resonated with me: careless engagement – apathy, where one or more participants don’t care enough to withhold something that’s crappy.

Another issue: where money is the sole incentive to perform, you’ll work just as hard as required to reach the monetary goal, and no harder. As Daniel Pink has noted, money is a poor motivator for quality work.

Another risk: wasted neurons, where people spend an inordinate amount of time working on stuff the majority of which is never used. In a managed environment, the role of the manager is partly to ensure the efficiency of effort. In self-organized crowdsourced operations, how do you avoid wrong turns?

Does crowdsourcing foster the emergence of community? Yes, where there’s incentive for conversation and learning, and where there’s real engagement. I think this depends on context and coordination.

Does it really tap collective wisdom? Does it nurture participants? It can benefit reputation, result in building new relationships. The best case is where resources are not wasted, and the terms and facts are crystal clear.

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The impact of “social” on organizations

Austin’s Dachis Group talks about social business design, defined as “the intentional creation of dynamic and socially calibrated systems, process, and culture. The goal: improving value exchange among constituents.” I find the Dachis overview (pdf) interesting, if a bit scattered. David Armistead and I at Social Web Strategies had been having conceptually similar conversations for the last couple of years, looking at the potential culture change associated with social technology and new media (with Craig Clark), the need for business process re-engineering (with Charles Knickerbocker), and the power of value networks. This morning while sitting on my zafu, I had a flash of insight that I quickly wrote down as five thoughts that came to me pretty much at once…

  1. Organizations are already using software internally and have been for some time – email lists, groupware and internal forums, various Sharepoint constructions, aspects of Basecamp, internal wikis and blogs, etc. What’s changed? I think a key difference is high adoption outside work – more and more of the employees of a company or nonprofit are having lifestyle experiences with Facebook Twitter, YouTube, Flickr et al. The way we’re using social media changes as more of us use it (network effect) and our uses become more diverse.
  2. Organizations see knowledge management as storage, basically, but we can see the potential to capture and use knowledge in new and innovative ways, e.g. using multimodal systems (Google Wave, for example) to capture and sort knowledge as it’s created, with annotations and some sense of the creative process stored with its product – knowing more about how knowledge is produced improves our sense of its applicability. (It’s exciting to be a librarian/information specialist these days.)
  3. Organizations will increasingly have to consider the balance of competition and cooperation with internal teams. I’ve seen firsthand how a culture of competition can stifle creativity by creating a disincentive to share knowledge. I’m thinking we’ll see more “coopetition.”
  4. Who are the internal champions within an organization? There will be more interest at the C-level as social technology is better understood and success stories emerge from early adopters. It would be interesting to know what current champions of social media are seeing and what they’re saying. Also – how much of the move toward “social” will come from the bottom up, and how will that flow of new thinking occur?
  5. How does the new world of social business (design) relate to marketing? Operations? Human resources? To what extent to the lines between departments blur? How will the blurring of the lines and potential cross pollination transform business disciplines?

A final thought: all the minds in your organization have a perspective on your business, and each perspective is potentially valuable. How do you capture that value? Do you have a culture that can support a real alignment of minds/perspectives/intentions?