More on bandwidth: light and darkness

My friend Robert Steele emailed me in response to my last post, saying there’s more to consider, and I agree. He mentions Open Spectrum.

I’m feeling cynical. Here’s how I responded:

I’m aware of open spectrum… I’m in other conversations with various wonks & engineers who’re discussing bandwidth, spectrum, etc. Of course we could have a much different scene if we weren’t constrained by markets and politics. People how can see one sense of the obvious often miss another, which is that the world we’re in is not an ideal world, and the ideals we can conceive are not necessarily easy or even possible to implement. I pay less attention to the “next net” list we’re both on because so much of it is fantasy and masturbation.

I own a nice home in rural Texas but I can’t live there because I can’t even get 500kbps. I thought it was amusing that Vint is arguing for gigabit bandwidth when most of the U.S. is dark and there’s too little monetary incentive to bring light to the darkness. Of course I think we need a public initiative to make it happen, but in this era “public” is a dirty word. I halfway expect to see all roads become toll roads; a world where only the elite can travel, and only the elite will have broadband access. Though aging, I’m struggling to remain part of the elite… *8^)

Look like a winner

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend an informative talk about effective communication by my friend and colleague Kevin Leahy, aka Knowledge Advocate. One point among many in Kevin’s talk: the content of a communication doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. Kevin, an attorney, said that post-trial conversations with jurors finds that they often recall little about what was said, but much about how they felt about witnesses, based quite a bit on their perception of body language. Coincidentally this morning I find an article about research, conducted by MIT political scientists, that shows how the appearances of politicians strongly influence voters, that people around the world have similar ideas about what a good politician looks like. [Link to the paper “Looking Like a Winner”  (pdf)] 

Sounds like you can take this to the bank: how you LOOK is important, and your BODY LANGUAGE is also important. What you think and what you say? Not such a big deal.

Another point, reading between the lines of the MIT Study: you’re better off if how you look is congruent with people’s perception of your role – there are definite stereotypes. If you don’t look like a politician but you have political ambitions, it’s better to work behind the scenes. (I think politicians already know this).

Arianna Huffington – interviewed by Evan Smith

Wrote this in May and saved it as a draft. Timing’s good for publication: I’ve been thinking a lot about the Huffington Post as a model for network journalism that combines the work of professionals with contributions from a broader set of bloggers. In this interview, Huffington showed that she was savvy about the contemporary Internet and the future of journalism.

May 4, 2010 – As part of the Texas Monthly Talks series, Evan Smith interviewed Arianna Huffington, in town to speak at a benefit for the Texas Freedom Network. Huffington’s flight arrived late, so the talk was abbreviated. Much of the discussion was about the current state of journalism and Huffington Post’s (HuffPo’s) success as new media hybrid journalism – a combination of user-generated and professional content.

Huffington led with the observation that people want contgent, but they also want engagement – they want “to be part of the story of our time.” That’s the essence of participatory journalism. She said that self-experssion has become the new entertainment. Evan: “It all counts.”

Huffington Post has been successful, has a readership apporaching that of the New York Times, and leaving other major online publishing venues in the dust. She says part of the secret of HuffPo’s success is that “we’re not just talking to people who agree with us.”

HuffPo has a thriving community and “human moderators” that maintain the civility of the conversations – “we don’t want it to be the Glenn Beck Show.” When Rick Perry shot the coyote and it was reported at HuffPo, there was an immediate surge of interst – 1,000 comments within a day. In addition to moderators, the Post’s readers police the site – they wouldn’t be able to manage the conversations without help from the community.

Evan: “What happened to journalism?” Why is for-profit legacy journalism failing? Have they lost sight of their mission, or is it that new media approaches are more compelling. “Are they down, or are you up?”

Huffington responds that they just didn’t get it. When HuffPo launched, legacy media were still skeptical of new approaches (participatory media/social media), but now they’re moving online, moving toward a hybrid model. Pay walls haven’t worked – worked for Wall Street Journal initially, but their subscriptions are down. In this context, she mentioned that traditional tenets of journalism should prevail – meaning that fundamental journalistic ethics and standards will necessarily be maintained in new media. [I’ve been thinking about this, and want to be involved in training news bloggers and citizen journalists. Matt Glazer of Burnt Orange Report and I have been instigating a conference for this purpose.]

Digital natives consume all their news online. We can’t go back to old ways of doing journalism – can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The Internet has a culture of free content that can be monetized [she didn’t specify how, but I suspect she was thinking of advertising and some other mix of revenues associated with brand].

You have to be prepared to take your content to the readers, rather than expecting them to come to you. [This is a 101 new media concept, but always worth repeating.] Evan notes that this implies a “disintermediation of content from the source.” Arianna: “ubiquity is the new exclusivity.”

HuffPo includes content contributed by unpaid bloggers, paying only editors and reporters. Is Huffington building an empire on the backs of unpaid contributors? Not at all – bloggers are leveraging HuffPo’s visibility, finding and building audiences, getting book deals, etc.

HuffPo aggregates content from other sites, too – is this leveraging others’ content? Huffington notes that they strictly follow fair use guidelines and have never been sued for infringement. Aggregation and curation of content are essential parts of an Internet information service. Curation means identify what’s important and elevate it, give it visibility. Put flesh and blood on data.

Evan: “Obama – how is it going?” Huffington says she is very glad he was elected, that he inherited a huge crisis. One problem: he’s surrounded himself with Clintonites like Larry Summers, and did everything humanly possible to save Wall Street, but nothing to save Main Street. Huffington is writing a book on the decline of the middle class, and is very concerned that there is no effort to reverse the decline, which has been going on for thirty years. So Obama’s administration should be doing dramatic things to save the middle class – though he may have done a lot already, he’s not necessarily taking the right approach, making bold moves that he should be making to support those in the middle. Some say he saved the economy, but he didn’t – he just saved Wall Street. We still have 25 million people out of work, and escalating foreclosures.

It also bothers her that no strings were attached to the salvation of Wall Street.

Otherwise, Obama is an extaordinary communicator and has improved U.S. standing in the world community – those are real pluses. “I will definitely vote for him again. What’s the alternative?” The “loyal opposition” is not talking today’s issues seriously. They treat governing like it was a debating club.

The administration’s attempts to be bipartisan are wasted effort, she says. She compares it to guys hitting non Ellen Degeneres “and not being told you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Blogchat and mutation

It’s hard to scale conversations beyond some manageable number of participants. Christopher Allen, in an excellent article on Dunbar’s number and other potential limits of social scale, argues that the optimimum limit is around 5-9 participants, possibly as many as 12.

In last night’s #blogchat on Twitter, I saw an example of attempted conversation beyond any reasonable scale, yet it did kind of work in that participants felt they were getting value from the conversation, and were excited and stimulated by the firehose of tweets and retweets.

I’m not sure “chat” is exactly the right word for this kind of conversational explosion where it’s difficult to track specific comments and ideas. In the Tweetchat application, a dozen or more comments would appear every few seconds. My experience was one of zeroing in a best I could, tracking only a fraction of the conversation. That’s the way Twitter generally works, anyway, as you scale up – you’ can’t hope to follow everything that’s said, so you dip in and out of the stream of expression. It’s nonlinear, chaotic; what I sometimes refer to as “drive-by conversation.” It feels very ADD. On the other hand, it’s stimulating, and I never fail to learn from these conversations, however disjointed they may seem.

I thought the experience would be more poweful as an asynchronous forum – that Twitter might not be the right tool for this kind of conversation. I posted so: “I wish we had this same group talking in an asynchronous forum to facilitate attention and focus.” Someone responded “That’s what the transcript is for – attention & focus.” So this is more like a blast of ideas, a group brainstorm, not quite a conversation, if you assume that conversation is sustained and coherent exchange of ideas, somewhat linear and trackable.

My concluding point is that we’re creating new ways of communicating that don’t necessarily acknowledge presumed limits of scale. We can say that meaningful conversation or teamwork has a limit of a dozen particpants, but we’re pushing that envelope hard. Same with Dunbar’s number, “a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships,” presumably 150. The Wikipedia article for Dunbar’s numbers says”this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size … the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.” Maybe we’ll see a neocortical mutation as we friend and follow many hundreds or thousands of people and attempt to manage ever larger numbers of “stable” relationships.

iPad for Breakfast

Yours truly with Bryan Person, iPad winner Charlie Nichols Browning, and Rob Quigley.

Yours truly with Bryan Person, iPad winner Charlie Nichols Browning, and Rob Quigley.

This morning (April 26, 2010), as part of the Social Media Breakfast series organized by Bryan Person and Maura Thomas, I led a discussion about the iPad. I don’t actually have an iPad myself, but I was eager to hear what the diverse SMB crowd would have to say about the impact and future of the device. Several who came had already bought iPads; we distributed them among the breakout sessions.

I framed the discussion by talking about the devices apparent strengths (light, mobile, easy to use) and limitations (hard to print, hard to interface with other systems, doesn’t have a built-in phone or camera). Then we had breakouts to discuss the iPad from various perspectives: what makes the iPad compelling; what is its impact on productivity, lifestyled, marketing, publishing, and social media; what can we expect from a world where we have connectivity like water – always on, everywhere. What had a great turnout, almost sixty people, and they were smart and vocal – so we had great conversations.

What were the conclusions? People felt that the iPad is more for lifestyle and entertainment, though there’s a potential for it to become a productivity tool. We heard that some hospitals are already incorporating it into their workflow, for instance.

One group felt that the “what the hell is that thing” confusion was part of what made the iPad compelling – people are drawn to it to try to figure it out.

They also felt that the iPad is driving a shift to new standards – platforms that start instantly, are light and mobile, incorporate touch technology, and are accessible and easy to use.

The iPad is not exactly great for productivity, though it can have an impact on efficiency. In business, it’s a great sales tool and communication tool, but it’s not a laptop or PC replacement. However it will allow sales professionals to demo anywhere, and gather information on the spot.

Where marketing is concerned, the iPad integrates both push and pull technologies and is a promising platform for ad-based content and services. There are already effective news apps. It’s also a great tool for engagement – many apps that run on the iPad and iPhone are social technologies.

The group that discussed social media was split regarding the impact of the iPad. They felt the biggest impact of the iPad would be in bringing in new social media adopters and spreading awareness of social media. Because it’s easy, it might help older people who are not digital natives adopt social media. It’s also great for multitasking. (We didn’t get into the discussion whether multitasking is evil.)

In publishing, there’s a split between specialized apps and browser-based experiences; the iPad facilitates both. The iPad might evolve as a textbook replacement. It will have an impact on organizing and editing information. The group agreed that information is more important than the platform for its delivery. There were questions about the future of print media as it becomes digital. The move from legacy to digital environments has meant lower revenues.

The iPad can be great for mobile professionals – physicians, for example, who will find the iPad even more useful as more health data is digitized and accessible in electronic health records.

The various limitations of the platform. – printing limitations, connectivity limitations, lack of USB, display interaces, cameras, and the lack of tethering were all limitations of the iPad, but none of them insurmountable. The iPad just wasn’t built to do everything. And it’s evolving.

A thought about evolving social environments

I’ve been a member of the seminal online community, the WELL, for around two decades. I’ve been active on Facebook since it opened to non-students. Originally Facebook wasn’t conversational. Other former WELL members and I discussed how Facebook Groups didn’t seem to take off as conversational environments in quite the same way as the WELL’s conferences, many of which are still vibrant after 25 years. Facebook has changed since we had those discussions – now Wall posts and comments on Facebook are like topics and responses on the WELL. (We saw the same pattern in blogs with comments: someone posts a lead item, what we called the “zero post” on the WELL – a conversation starter. In blogs the emphasis was originally on publishing, then some blogs became more conversational, and posts followed by comments on those blogs were very much like topics within conferences on the WELL.)

One difference is that the WELL had a taxonomy: it was called a conferencing system, and was organized as conferences on subjects like Health, Media, Grateful Dead, Virtual Communities, Art, History, Design, etc. Topics were pretty free-ranging within the major subjects, but you knew where you would go to discuss a particular subject. On Facebook, there’s no organizing my subject. All kinds of conversations appear in Facebook’s news feed or activity stream – right now I see conversations about climate change and volcanoes, events, Texas politics, design, business, etc. – not organized in any particular way. A stream of comments some of which become conversations, many casual, some more active and compelling. This really seems to work, and the converations lately are not dissimilar from those I see on the WELL, despite structural differences between the WELL and Facebook.

I find myself drifting more and more into Facebook because there are real, sustained conversations there, unlike Twitter’s more drive-by posting – and because I don’t have to fiddle with a 140 character limit. Twitter feels very broadcast, compared to Facebook (or Wave, or other conversational systems). Not to diminish its importance – Twitter is a great place to share short bursts of information and links. But it’s less “social.”

This is me thinking aloud. Is there a business conclusion from all this?

I’ll close with this thought: I spoke to a group of Realtors last week, and told them not to expect miracles from social media. You’re not using social media because it’s somehow going to bring you more business than traditional media. You’re using it because it’s taking mindshare from traditional media. The audience is there – on the plus side, you can target more specifically the people who might be your customers or clients; on the minus side, they’re scattered over multiple platforms, you have to connect more directly than before, and they don’t often answer the door when salesmen come.

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.

Realtors are thinking about social media

I gave a social media talk to some realtors yesterday. They were attentive, energetic, and really seemed to get what I was telling them, which (briefly, but of course it’s more complicated) was to focus on relationship-building narrative. As I told Jay Drayer on Facebook, best question I had was from a woman who worked mostly with investors,
and was concerned how casual her online persona could be without
potentially turning investors off. We discussed the importance of
authenticity, and balancing professional with personal online. Broad agreement in the room that authenticity is important and it’s okay to reveal your “secret identity.”

Realtors are thinking about social media, and they totally get that overt advertising is inappropriate in a social media space. They’re social all day long, and they generally know how to expose their expertise without flashing the real estate banner. Their challenge is to find time to be social outside their business-focused conversations, building relationships that won’t necessarily lead directly to business. It takes time and exploration to build an authentic presence, a social life online, that’s also business-relevant.  Even experts in this space are still getting the hang of it, still learning.