Post-Internet Google+ Beta Madness

I’ve been researching, thinking about, and presenting on the future of the Internet, and this week I’m preparing to propose a SXSW panel and getting ready for a presentation next week at Bootstrap Interactive in Austin. At the moment I’m thinking we’re in a “post-Internet” era. The collaborative, peer to peer network of networks has been co-opted and overlaid by a very few large corporations, and as was the case with earlier information technologies (film, radio, television) monopolies (or duopolies) are forming for network access, hardware, and information services, and the advertising model originated by David Sarnoff et al. for radio is pervasive on an Internet thick with ads – increasingly sites you visit throw an obnoxious full-screen ad in your face as you land. I’m hearing more and more conversations about building a new alternative Internet (and, for that matter, alternative economies and forms of governance).

As I was thinking hard about this, and digging deeper, Google + launched, and the geekiest cohort among my friends started showing up for the limited beta. Plus is YAAS (“yet another activity stream”), probably better-engineered and more social than Facebook’s. No real marketing vibe so far, just a lot of people hanging out (often literally, using G+’s “Hangout” feature, a high-quality form of videoconferencing that’s very cool but crashy).

Google + is the Next Big Rockit. People who are (or wannabe) paid to think about social media are filling many buckets with bits of speculative and often redundant information about the system, which doesn’t strike me as particularly new and innovative in the patterns it’s aggregated. But it is a welcome change from the other high-adoption social environments du jour, namely Facebook and Twitter. Unlike Twitter, it allows longer-form posts and inline media-sharing. Unlike Facebook, it has functional management of relationships (via Circles) and better handling of both transparency and privacy…

And did you mention Diaspora? Their launch has been so constrained as to be a mere whisper, next to the great swooshing sound of the Google+ launch.

I saw Robert Scoble post that he likes it because he can share videos and articles with everybody, and I assume that his emphasis was not on the ability to share (because we’ve been sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed et al), but on the idea of sharing “with everybody.” Google + is structured so that you can see and reach more people, and when you’re selective about what you see it’s your choice, not a selection by algorithm as you have in Facebook’s “Top Stories.” At Google + you can drop people into “circles” according to whatever categorization scheme fits your DNA, and that’s really the only operational filter at this point.

But, back to my point about the post-Internet world, what’s been cool about Google+ so far has been the absence of that overlay of commercial messaging that has fogged other sites. It’s been a relatively spam-free zone, reminding me what fired me up about online social spaces from the 80s onward. How long the beta period will last I don’t know, but it’s been a nice reminder of what we could potentially have, if we could turn down the volume the advertising and marketing blasts that seem so much pervasive online lately than even on television or radio.

Back to thinking hard about the future of the Internet.

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?

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.

Information spill?

We’ve all zeroed in on a set of established platforms for interaction, primarily Facebook and Twitter. Icons linking to Facebook and Twitter pages are standard on many web sites now – suggesting a consensus about where people are hanging out. Many experience the Internet through one or both of these platforms, and a few scattered others (.e.g YouTube, Yelp, blogs etc.). Increasingly we see world-views based on shared content and hyperlinks. As it becomes the new normal, social media is just media, no need to make the distinction. We can end the obsession with tools and forms on the production side, and focus on content. On the consumption or demand side, we have a problem of abundance, of having more quality content than we can track and manage. Filters are crucial, but imperfect. Maybe we still need some work here.

How do we characterize the flow of media? In this context, we invoke the words “push” and “pull.” John Hagel describes pull as ” creating platforms that help people to reach out, find and access appropriate resources when the need arises.” This morning I met with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune, and he used the opposite word, talking about pushing media to readers where they are, rather than expecting them to come to you – “web site as destination” is obsolete in the world of social media.

I think they’re both correct. Is this a 21st Century media koan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Whatever the case, I don’t think we have a handle on the evolving flow of information online, any more than BP has a handle on the flow of oil from the MC252 spill (if you can call a explosive hemorrhage of oil a “spill”) in the Gulf of Mexico.

Media wants to be public

I just posted the following on Facebook, in a comment to Gary Chapman, who’s been discussing Facebook privacy…

I’ve always assumed there’s low expectation of privacy on systems like Facebook. While Facebook can do better if they’re clueful, really care, and realize how privacy issues can bite them in the ass – I think there’s also a general difficulty balancing the desire for privacy with the desire to have something called “social media.” Stewart Brand said “information wants to be free,” in this context we might say “media wants to be public.” He also said “information wants to be expensive” because it’s valuable. I suppose the new world of media wants privacy controls, because for so many that control is valuable. We’ll have to sort this out, there’s no going back.

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.

A couple of insights

The sort of things you just have to write down somewhere, like on your blog…

Got these via K. Marcus Hartsfield on Facebook…

“Directly it is said that not a single thing exists, and yet we see in the entire universe nothing has ever been hidden.” (Dharma Hall Discourse #53 from the Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record)   

He reports finding this one written on a bathroom wall at The Omega Institute in upstate New York:

“Satori. Don’t think it will be glorious; that momentary burst of radiance illumining all. Nonsense. It is more like losing your mother in a large department store. Forever.”

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Happy Birthday to the WELL

The seminal online community, Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, better known as the WELL, is celebrating its 25th birthday. Here’s the birthday message I posted there:

Happy Birthday, WELL.

I can’t imagine what my life would have been had I not found my way here. The WELL connected me as a writer, thinker, and doer, brought be to the Internet as a far earlier adopter than I might have been, broadened my horizons toward infinity.

I often use the WELL as the example of virtual community – everything I learned about meeting, coordinating, and collaborating online I learned here, and principles I learned here still hold true. People who think the social Internet started with Facebook and Twitter are astonished when they hear what we were doing here from the late eighties onward. And that we’re still here, still jamming, after two decades.

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.

Social networks, social markets

Interesting data (for November 2009) from marketingcharts.com:

In “social media” consulting, there’s a tendency to want to standardize on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn (not on this list), and possibly YouTube if you have an ability and/or desire to incorporate video as part of your presence. Why Twitter? Given its relatively low adoption, especially compared to Facebook, I find myself wondering why it’s such a big deal to the social media marketing crowd. I get why it’s included – though it doesn’t have huge adoption, it has a lot of influencers. It can also work as a feed source for Facebook. I include it myself, when I do social media consulting.

I think it’s a big deal to some people because it was their introduction to online social interaction, and made it interesting for them when it hadn’t been before, and was both web and mobile – a very “smart mobs” scene, early on used for coordination as much as interaction. There are quite a few people who came to online social networking through Twitter, and didn’t have any experience of older online communities, like the WELL or Usenet Newsgroups, or the first appearance of journals and blogs and wikis in the nineties, or the evolution of social network platforms from Six Degrees to Ryze to Friendster to Orkut to Myspace and Facebook. They think “real” online social interaction started much later, and they think some of those older systems are dead media (even though systems like the WELL and Usenet are still rocking on).

Twitter seems to be losing ground, and I think it’s because Facebook has done a good job of incorporating Twitter’s best features (short messaging, activity streaming) and making a more robust technology (embedded rich media, no cap on message length, etc.) I’m still using both, but my Twitter messages are all incorporated in my Facebook stream, and that’s where the conversations are happening.

Facebook is probably a better marketing platform via pages and groups. You can only go so far with marketing on Twitter before it feels like spam, and I’m not sure any of these platforms is ideal for making sales happen, despite the successes of Zappos and Dell. Those may be exceptions to a rule that says “I don’t want to hear marketing messages at all.” Dave Evans has a good point, which he’s made subtly by saying that marketing and operations need to have better, closer relationships. The advertising/messaging part of marketing is not terribly effective anywhere anymore – people resist it. You have to figure out how to do great things and make them visible without the overt sales pitch. This requires a whole different kind of creative thinking… I don’t think it’s completely clear how to message a product in the new and evolving world of digital media. (I’d love to hear thoughts about what works – leave a comment!)