4chan and anonymity

Marc Savlov interviewed me for this article in the Austin Chronicle, generally about anonymity on the Internet and specifically about 4chan. I hope I made the point that anonymity is a wicked problem (what is identity, anyway?), and that it’s sometimes a solution (as in police states, viva Tor). Coincidentally I had interviewed the phenomenal Tom Jennings yesterday for Plutopia News Network, and when he saw the Chronicle article, he sent this link to to a paper he’d written about 4chan. “The effect of the code mechanisms chosen by 4chan encloses a robust
and stable culture of a form and shape not possible in more finely
controlled environments, and that code is deceptively simple.” Christopher Poole, aka Moot, creator of 4chan, will deliver a keynote at 2pm Sunday, March 13, at SXSW Interactive.

HelpAttack!

My friend Sarah Vela launched a new company called Help Attack! in August, and it’s proving to be a cool way for nonprofits to raise money, and a clever way for donors to commit money by pledging to give some amount of money for every tweet they post in a month. Sez Sarah, Sez Sarah, “This new way to donate is easy, fun and offers a layer of social responsibility to online activities. We invite all nonprofit organizations seeking new ways to collect funding through year-end campaigns to visit the site, add themselves if they’re not already listed, and share this new way of giving with their supporters.” In addition to the money they’re raising, the nonprofits get more social media visibility via the Twitter connection. Callie Langford, Communications Manager of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), says HelpAttack! raised awareness of her organization and provided “a no-fuss way for us to receive additional donations, engage with new and old donors, and share details about our upcoming events.” [Link to HelpAttack!]

The Social Network

The David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin film collaboration called “The Social Network” is not about technology, though there are scenes that suggest how code is produced through focused work (which actually looks boring when you’re watching it “IRL” (in real life), without Fincher’s hyperactive perspective – but is so engaging you can lose yourself totally in the process when you’re the one actually producing the code).  The film is more about the entrepreneurial spirit, what it takes to have a vision and see it through. The real visionary in the film, Mark Zuckerberg, appears far less intense IRL than Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation would suggest, but his drive and work ethic are undeniable. It’s not an accident that a guy in his twenties produced a billion-dollar platform; he could have been derailed if he’d lacked the persistence of vision and intent that the film shows so clearly. And, of course, he was kind of a jerk, probably without meaning to be. That kind of focus and drive tends to override comfortable social graces, kind of ironic when you’re building a social platform.

Larry Lessig complains that Sorkin’s ignorance of Internet technology caused him to miss the real story here, that Facebook exists because the Internet is free and open and presents few barriers to innovation. But I don’t think Sorkin wanted to write that story – he found drama in the Zuckerberg vs world conflict and wrote the story he had to write, acknowledging that he made no attempt to be true-to-fact.  He does pick up on the IP issue, and the fact that Zuckerberg shouldn’t have been forced to pay the Winkelvoss twins (there’s a line in the film where Zuckerberg says a guy who builds a better chair shouldn’t have to share his profits with anybody else who’s thought about building a chair before he got to it). In the film, he’s clearly having to pay because his grating personality and arrogance make him unattractive, not on the merit of the facts of the case. Eduardo Saverin seems in the film to have been screwed over, though one could argue that dilution of his shares was justifiable owing to a lack of commitment to the enterprise. More here.

After seeing the film, and reading and thinking some more about the creation and evolution of Facebook, I find that I have more respect for Zuckerberg’s genius and his drive… but like many I’m concerned about his apparent lack of social and ethical depth, especially since Facebook is how so many people today experience the Internet. Working on a talk about the future of the Internet, I’m finding that one plausible scenario is that Facebook replaces the web as a kind of operating system/interface. What are the implications?

All government is local 2.0: manor.govfresh

Manor, a small town in Texas a few miles from Austin, has become an unlikely star player in the new world of “Government 2.0.” This week Manor and GovFresh, an organization that provides news and information about technology innovation in government, joined forces to host a conference on “big ideas for local America.” The conference highlighted the work Manor, nearby DeLeon, and other small governments in the U.S. are doing to incorporate social media and open data approaches to provide better information and services to citizens, and to engage them more effectively. This is part of an open government trend that’s been brewing since the 1990s, but is catching fire with pervasive Internet adoption and digital convergence.

When Obama was President-Elect, Gary Chapman at the LBJ School in Austin spoke to a local community media summit and told how the Obama Transition Team had been working with the LBJ School on government transparency, with Open Government as the new administrations highest priority. Beth Noveck, Assistant to the White House CTO, was in Manor affirming that priority – the Obama Administration is providing leadership from the top.

In the last 5 years or so, as we’ve seen an acceleration of digital convergence and increasingly pervasive use of smart digital devices to access all sorts of information, we’ve seen a disruptive democratization of knowledge and information and demand for all sorts of data to be opened up via application programming interfaces. The world’s information is increasingly sorted, sifted, and combined in various useful and creative ways. This is transforming the worlds of journalism, healthcare, energy, and law as well as politics and government. The Manor gathering was an acknowledgement and update. Janet Gilmore of the Texas Department of Information Resources noted that there’s an open data movement within governments – and governments have all sorts of data sets they can expose – about weather, wildlife, real estate, income flows, resource locations, etc.

There’s also a huge potential for government at all levels to use social media to engage citizens – not just to get the word out about what government is doing, but listening to citizen input on what government should be doing. The message I heard in Manor is that people don’t want to talk about doing cool and innovative stuff with emerging technologies, they want to stop talking and start doing. And there’s so many easy ways to start doing: WordPress sites, 311 systems, Facebook and Twitter presences, QR codes, mobile applications… a list as long as crowdsourced minds can make it. Manor is soliciting ideas and conceiving new ways to incorporate technologies via its Labs, in partnership with Stanford Univeresity’s Peace Dot Program and others.

There are many challenges to opening up government, not the least of which is culture. Someone at the Manor gathering commented that “the technology is easy, but the people are hard.” That speaks to all sorts of challenges – training and adoption, privacy issues, culture change, apathy, control. But we’re on kind of a roll here, and picking up momentum and energy.

On January 28th and 29th, there will be a Texas Government 2.0 Barcamp at the Eastview Campus of Austin Community College. Watch this space for more information.

Blogging’s not dead

Social media-savvy medical advocate Regina Holliday pointed out a clueful post at Health is Social, a blog “about integrating social and digital media into healthcare.”

The post’s subject is “Healthcare Blogging: Wide Open Opportunities,” but the post itself is not just abou9t healthcare blogging. It’s a more general explanation why blogging is NOT dead, contrary to the opinion, expressed by some supposed social media experts, that “blogging wasn’t worth the effort and that nobody reads blogs.” Of course, “experts” who are totally focused on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube argue that those platforms are “all that’s needed anymore and that … websites [including blogs] were basically useless.”

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, among other social apps, are indeed important to consider in creating an organizational media strategy; many businesses truly don’t understand how to use them effectively. Anyone hoping to create a vital and productive Internet presence should go where the conversations are, generally Twitter and Facebook.

Note that there’s a lot of confusion and questioning about the future of the Internet. John Battelle posts about points of control, and Tim O’Reilly has posted a map to highlight the point that we’re seeing platform wars from which the Internet of the future will emerge. [Link to complete map.] Blogs are nowhere on that map, probably because blogs will be everywhere in that world, like trees spewing oxygen into the ecosystem.

So blogs and web sites will continue to be critical points of presence for individuals and organizations, where they will develop more static core content, and dynamic emerging content via blogs, to show expertise, articulate new ideas, publish news about relevant organizations or projects, etc.

Some history: Blogs catalyzed the mainstreaming of social technology by making it easy for anyone to publish online. This meant more writers and more readers, a more robust social ecosystem online, which spiraled ever greater adoption. As more people were communicating in more ways over the web, social network platforms and messaging systems other than blogs appeared and evolved – the platforms on the O’Reilly/Battelle map. The growth of interest in social connection and persistent short messaging made Twitter a hot phenomenon, and as Facebook incorporated its own form of short messaging and activity streaming, it grew like wildfire and became the mainstream platform of choice for all sorts of social activity.

A new breed of consultants emerged who were not especially active on the Internet before Twitter and Facebook came along. I would argue that these consultants have blinders on; because of their limited experience, they don’t have a deep understanding of the Internet and the broader set of potentials inherent in its still-evolving ecosystem. Much of what you hear about “social media” is noise generated by folks who’re smart enough, but have limited experience and constrained vision. Considering that, confusion around “platform wars,” anxiety over economic instability, persistent growing deluges of unfiltered information, it’s great to see a breath of fresh air like the post at “Health is Social.” In fact, I’m finding that empowered patients and their advocates are as clear as anybody about the current and potential uses of social media in their world. They’re in the middle of a revolution that depends on the Internet, democracy of information, and robust social knowledge-sharing environments (patient communities).

I have more to say another day about the importance of deep, sustained conversation, not really supported by Twitter/Facebook short messaging/activity streaming strategies.

Five questions you should ask about marketing, PR, and social media

Big flash recently, as someone said “social media is not the same as social media marketing.” Of course, that’s true. In fact, social media is one of those complex phenomena about which our thinking is often insufficiently complex – we think of it as one thing because there’s this one label, but infact the term “social media” is plural, and the concept overlays many communication contexts, personal and professional.

Where to start? Perhaps with marketing and PR.

Seeing that mindshare is moving online, and in the digitally convergent online ecosystem, channels have been multiplying like crazy, some of us assumed that marketing people were seeing the handwriting on the wall, realizing that they will have increasingly more trouble building attention, and were focusing on social media hoping to get a handle on the space. When we would bring up these issues and they didn’t like it, we assumed that the resistance was a manifestation of informed anxiety, that they understood their predicament.

However, I now wonder whether marketing pros didn’t believe their world was changing that much, and considered us naive to think so. It seemed obvious to me that mindshare is increasingly fragmented across many channels, and marketing products across media will be increasingly challenging and labor-intensive. Could this be hard to see? Or could I be wrong?

And how about metrics for social media marketing?

I have been known to say that any metrics connecting social media messages to actual responses or conversions would be suspect. It seems obvious to me that it would be hard to connect a purchase or conversion to some specific conversation or event within social media. Drivers for conversion can be complex and scattered across many channels. What did you do that worked? How do you know that you’re having any effect at all? Howe meaningful is it that a million people “like” you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter? Engaging may be more important than measuring hits, but engagement can be expensive and labor-intensive to scale, and again, the metrics can be hard. I assumed marketing pros were looking for some sort of metrics, a dashboard that shows aggregate numbers, whether accurate or not – they’re in a world that runs on numbers, accurate or not. What’s the discipline if you can’t quantify your success (or lack of success)?

My smarter colleagues, like Dave Evans, didn’t try to pull marketing professionals into the world of social media and get them to see it for what it is. Rather, they kept their advice closer to business as usual, showing enough of what’s changed to be useful, but offering a sense of security – people are people and the world hasn’t changed that much. I no longer have an argument here: I realize that people need to believe the ground beneath their feet is somewhat solid.

And it could be that, if you’re a marketing professional, the social media are just a new set of channels that you work like any others. It’s just a mashup of television, radio, and newspapers, all differently distributed. You’ll still be able to have an effect on a relatively large audience (and the need to do so may bias development over time in favor of a more broadcast approach to Internet programming, something that has made seasoned Internet pros like me shudder whenever it’s come up. If the Internet becomes television, its power as an engine of creativity and innovation diminishes. Many voices are drowned out by a few, effectively “marketed.”)

To summarize that last point, If you’re in marketing and you don’t think your world is changing radically, social media won’t mean much to you. When you hear an Internet maven talk about challenges to your world, you don’t feel anxiety – rather, you tell yourself that Internet people are crazy idealists that don’t understand how the world works.

I’m just speculating, since I don’t have a marketing background. As a writer and sometimes journalist, and as an Internet professional, I have more affinity with the world of public relations. Marketing is about consumers, demand, and sales. Public relations is about relationships, conflict resolution, cooperation and collaboration. From a professional perspective, social media is just another set of tools for the PR person, and if you’re selling yourself as a social media consultant, you might as well say you’re in public relations (but you’d better be armed with an understanding of all that entails).

I had an aha moment about this in New York recently, having dinner with my friend Doug Barnes, a technology-focused attorney. I described my research and focus of the last three years, and how I’d never been quite sure how to present it to potential clients. Hearing me describe how I started 3-4 years ago creating an approach for analyzing an organization’s social connections, building a model of the org’s social network, and working with them to determine how most effectively to address and leverage that network, Doug said “That’s public relations. Why don’t you just say that’s what you do?”

As a journalism student in the early 70s, I was drawn to public relations, but I didn’t make it my career at the time. Over the last two decades I’ve built my career on Internet expertise, focused mostly on community, engagement, relationships and communication. I’ve apparently come back, almost forty years after I first studied it, to public relations through that path. Thinking about this, I realize that I know other “social media consultants” who don’t see that they’re knocking on PR’s door – without necessarily the training or understanding of communication that a PR person should have.

Pure social media consulting turns out to be a difficult business. Naturally, organizations that need help with communication strategy are hiring PR companies, not social media companies, and the social media consultants who came through the Internet, especially those who came through specific platforms (the Twitterati), aren’t getting the jobs they dreamed they would get. Many companies, like the marketing pros I mentioned earlier, realize social media is important but don’t necessarily see it as a major change – rather, it’s a couple more media channels to address, Facebook and Twitter. How hard can it be to set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account? Hire a low-cost college graduate to do it, they’ll understand how that stuff works.

So while many of us are seeing a profound culture and communication change, with marketing and PR and social/community organization transformed, and traditional business models (especially for media) disrupted and made obsolete, this hasn’t necessarily sunk in with the business world, apart from some clueful early adopters. Zappos, for example. I read somewhere that Tony Hsieh’s board persistently pushed back on his innovative uses of social media because they just didn’t get it. It took one guy standing up for it to make Zappos a social media success, and I don’t think the board ever got it.

Why is all this important to consider? We all know that the Internet is transformational and is touching all aspects of our lives, and we know that social organization is increasingly computer-mediated. I don’t think we’re clear, however, how this plays out in business, where there’s enough trouble and anxiety in the normal day to day given the way way down economy – so who has time to think about social strategy, culture change, transformation, evolution, noosphere, etc?

But we have sufficient and significant adoption and innovation, so the transformation is happening, whether we acknowledge it or not. We can innovate in an innovative context and build what Jean Russell would call a thrivable future, or we can resist change, adhere to old ways in the new context, and at best lose opportunities, at worst create huge messes.

If I was involved in marketing, public relations, or media production, I think I would take a few days to step back, look at what’s happening, and do some strategic thinking, ask some questions. Here are five points to stimulate your thinking:

  • How are people using their time and their mindshare when it’s not engaged in work/survival? Clay Shirky refers to our cognitive surplus, time and mental energy that we can commmit at our discretion.
  • How do people take media, and how do they take messages within media? Are we seeing changes in consciousness/attention? To what extent can people screen out messages they don’t want to see/hear? How do you engage someone sufficiently that they want to be exposed to your message?
  • When people are otherwise engaged, how well do ambient messages get through? And what are the ethics regarding ambient or more direct messages mediated by technology as persistent parts of the environment (think “Minority Report.”)
  • How well can companies engage their customers, and how well does that scale – or how can it scale – in mass markets? (Governments have the same question re constituents.)
  • How do you measure the effectiveness of an approach or campaign in a context that is more social and conversational? And what should you be measuring – what are the ethics of measurement?

Vote for the future of journalism!

I’m part of an informal group of journalists who are focusing on the future of that profession, and more generally on the future of news discovery and delivery. We proposed a coordinated set of SXSW Interactive sessions on journalism via the panel picker, and we’re soliciting votes from any and all of you who are ready to see journalism re-imagined and re-invented in the context of what McLuhan referred to as the “new media matrix,” facilitated by the Internet and participatory media.

The informal group includes Evan Smith from Texas Tribune, Chris Tomlinson from Texas Observer, Matt Glazer of Burnt Orange Report, Dan Gillmor from the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Tom Stites from the Banyan Project, Burt Herman from Storify and Hacks/Hackers, Jennifer 8. Lee of the Knight News Challenge,, Jay Rosen of NYU, and Andrew Haeg of the American Public Media Public Insight Network.

The sessions:

We’d be thrilled to get your vote for each and every one of these sessions, or for any you have time to review!

Pay attention

I ran across A.O. Scott’s video review of Errol Morris’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” a documentary that weaves together interviews with four men who have an “endless, absorbing facination with what they do.” It’s clear that the four – a lion trainer, a topiary sculptor, a mole rat specialist, and a robot scientist – focus much, probably most of their concentration on their particular endeavor.

As so often happens with me, I was already thinking about attention when I found this particular data point that brought my thinking into focus. I had just been reading an article about Texas Tribune’s recent QRANK Live event, which I sadly missed – sadly because I’m a QRANK addict and was signed up intending to go. QRANK is a game you can play once a day via iPhone, iPad, or Facebook. It’s a quiz where you respond to fifteen out of twenty multiple choice questions that are presented. The questions are categorized (Entertainment, Science and Nature, Literature, History and Place, Life, Business and Government, Sports) but the categories are broad, so they’re all over the map. Successful players are eclectic, have read broadly, have heads full of random inconsistent facts. I’m often surprised at what people know (or know enough to guess correctly). I’m an average player, though a few years ago I would have been much better, but I’ve become more focused lately. I often say that “my head’s too full,” but I expose myself less often to facts I don’t seem to need and more on facts that are relevant to my work in specific areas.

The four guys in the Morris documentary probably would not have done well with QRANK. They’re also very focused on what they do, and that focus makes them very effective. But it also makes it less likely that they’re soaking up trivia.

You may think I’m going to say I think this narrow focus is better, that real genius involves focus and concentration on “just one thing.” But I’m actually concerned that a narrow focus constrains creativity. I find that when I do cast my net more widely, I find connections and synergies that I would miss if I was always narrowly focused. What’s important is balance: be focused on what you do but allow time for exploration.

Related to this is the problem of attention, and I think that’s where we really have an issue. I just spent 3-4 years studying and thinking about social media, which meant that I was also using social media more and more. Much of the activity so categorized is happening on Twitter, which I refer to as “drive by” conversation. Twitter conditions us to share and take small chunks or packets of diverse information. Thought many attempt conversation via Twitter, real conversatons via microblog form are fragmented and constrained. Facebook is similar – in its activity streams longer conversations do break out, and are still more coherent, but they’re still short bursts, all over the map, and we’re in and out of them quickly.

I find value in Twitter and Facebook conversations, and I appreciate the fact that I can sustain so many relationships, ranging from strong to weak connections, in those spaces. I’m a social media advocate and strategist, and I think we’re evolving a rather amazing environment for all sorts of productive communication and organization that were never possible before. I could go on about this at length.

But the point I’m getting to today is that we need balance. We need to work on our sustained attention and have places to go for sustained, coherent conversations. I’m personally working to manage my attention, be disciplined and focused, without losing the value of random online exploration and the power of serendipity.

Steve Ivy: The Voice in the Stream

My thinking’s focused on activity streams lately, thinking of them as lifestreams – increasingly people are putting their lives online through various social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Also via blogs or similar structures for holding longer form content.

I found this post by Steve Ivy. He’s talking specifically about the third person perspective in autoposts that record users’ actions, vs content that users posts. Interesting point about Twitter – it’s mostly comments rather than actions (aside from location app checkins, e.g. Foursquare and Gowalla).

Steve doesn’t like the third person for these reports, but I’m not clear there’s a better way. Imagine a string of “I did this” posts – it’s more efficient and clear to say that “Jon did this,” rather than “I” with a signature or an avatar.

Good point about how the Flickr UI makes the third person reports less prominent, stressing their ambience relative to actual comments.

How much of this stuff do we really want to know? I want to have conversations with people online, I don’t necessarily care as much what they like or unlike, what they added to their Netflix queue, where they last checked in, what they scored on QRANK, etc. Well, actually, I do care about the latter, if they scored less than I did.

I don’t necessarily want these third person reports to go away – they add to the sense of activity, the life of the system. But I can see where it makes sense to turn down the volume on those things and stress comments.

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.