2010 Top Stories and Trends: The Eight-Ball List

I’m not much for categorical top ten lists, but my inner pundit won’t let the year end without some kind of list – in this case stories/trends that stood out for me over the last year. I don’t have a top ten, only eight – the eight ball list.

(Here’s a bit about my year, which you can skip if you want to cut to the chase.) It was an busy, interesting, often slightly insane year for me: I had just spent three years in the for-profit and marketing worlds, leveraging my online community-focused Internet expertise to get a handle on social media strategy. My orignal thought was to work with nonprofit and academic organizatins, as had always been my preference, but I found myself getting drawn more into the world of for-profit marketing, which is where the term “social media” found resonance. (More about SM below.) At the end of 2009, I left the social web company I had cofounded and spent some time in a state of professional identity crisis – “what do you do now?” The answer was threefold: go back to web development, which had been my day job since leaving my last couple of jobs sunk with the dotcom bust in 2000-2001; commit more time to Plutopia Productions,the future-focused events company I cofounded; and spend more time writing. Progress? I’m doing a lot of web development, working with developer Selwyn Polit and designer Steve Bartolomeo (real gems to work with). Plutopia’s reputation is spreading, and we’re working hard on three aspects of the business: our signature event in March at SXSW Interactive; our media channel, Plutopia News Network, which I’m coproducing with Scoop Sweeney, and with David Whitman as managing editor; and our white label events production company. Not as much time for the writing, but I expect to do more writing and speaking in 2011 as I sort things out and find bits of time. (My personal kanban is always very full.)

One other thing I’m doing is leading a social media team for the Society of Participatory Medicine, where I was one of several cofounders. Participatory medicine is a hot topic, lots of interest; I could have done a top ten list on that subject alone… but I didn’t include items related to healthcare here. I expect to have more to say about it in the next couple of months.

Meanwhile, (drum roll…)

Jon L.’s 2010 Eight Ball List

Who says the web is dead? Drupal and WordPress are alive and well…
There’s a huge demand for website development; many individuals, nonprofits, and for-profits are rethinking their web presences, modernizing, moving to content management systems, integrating social media, etc. There are many great technologies, but I believe there’s no web development need that can’t be addressed by either WordPress or Drupal. They’re versatile and powerful open source tools, and they both scale pretty well. And they’ve really come into their own – both have high and growing adoption, and are increasingly sophisticated platforms. I’ve committed to these two platforms in web development, acknowledging that there are other great options (Joomla, Rails, Zope/Plone, et al.)

The Internet matures
I think “matures” is a very positive word for what we’re seeing – the network of networks is increasingly valuable, and there’s increasing demand for high bandwidth and rich services. Backbone providers (telcos like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast) are dominant providers of high-bandwidth connectivity. They want a bigger share of increasing value I mentioned, and they want clear ROI for the buildout of fatter pipes. One big issue: they’ve also become content providers, which could create a conflict of interest. That’s where net neutrality comes in – how free should the Internet be on both sides, delivery and consumption? Net neutrality approaches are seen as one way to preserve the neck of the golden gooses. There are many different perspectives and opinions on what IS happening and what SHOULD happen. By 2012, will we have definitive answers?

Social media, ugh.
“Social media” is a buzzword that’s cycling out. Many professionals don’t want to use the label, figuring it’s been sullied by the many amateur consultants who were hustling for work over the last couple of years. And there really wasn’t much of a market for consulting in this space – over a year ago, I saw even clueful social media consultants looking for Real Work, and acknowledging that they couldn’t find clients. My thought du jour is that to the extent that organizations are buying advice about social media, they’ll buy it either from communications consultants (PR/marketing firms, etc.) or from web experts. But the sense I’m getting from many conversations over the last couple of years is that organizations have other things they have to do with their money and their time – social media’s way down on the list, if it’s there at all. Does this mean that it isn’t important? Not at all – I think social media’s embedded in everyday life, we’re all using it. It’s like the telephone – we all use it, we all need it, but that doesn’t mean we have a lot of love, respect, or need for telemarketers.

Facebook, The Social Network, my newfound respect for Zuckerberg.
The film “The Social Network” was an acknowledged fiction, but it showed enough about Mark Zuckerberg’s thought processes and work ethic to convince me that I had radically underestimated him. I’m convinced now that he really does have genius, a vision, and he’s a hard worker. Facebook is a force of nature, however you might feel about it – for more and more people, it’s how they experience the Internet. As for the film, it was smart and powerful, but its down side was that it wasn’t really smart about the Internet. Aaron Sorkin admits that he knows little about it. I think that was a missed opportunity.

It’s the stupid economy
Nobody seems to know what’s up with the economy, and I’m no economist – I certainly don’t want to add more fog. I agree with Doug Rushkoff that too many people are living off float, finance charges, related services, layers of bureaucracy, etc. – therefore not creating and sharing tangible value. I’m not sure what the answer is. Clearly crooks, liars, and economic errors helped crash the economy, and ordinary people have been screwed by opportunists who have managed to hang onto their money, and make more, as others are struggling hard to pay their monthly dues. We should be pissed off, but we’re too confused. I recall the line when Clinton successfully opposed Bush – “It’s the economy, stupid.” Turn that around – “It’s the stupid economy.” I’d like to see what a smart economy looks like. I grew up in an era of balance between progressive liberal and grounded liberal thinking, and it seemed to work – maybe that’s what makes an economy smart, that balance.

Obama under attack
Barack Obama, who seems to be a very good president strugging with almost insurmountable problems, most of which he inherited from predecessors, has been savagely attacked in a complete breakdown of domestic statesmanship on the right. The level of disrespect is rather amazing and the degree of polarization is disheartening. What happened to respectful, balanced, moderate Republicans? They seem to have lost their political party, and I wonder where they’ll go from here. As an independent, I have an issue with Democrats, too, and with political parties in general. Partisan thinking brings out the worst in people – and when times are rough, it behooves us to get on the same page more often.

Rethinking journalism
Journalism is not dead, but it’s harder to fund, especially deep investigative journalism. I’ve been hanging out with journalists lately, talking about the fate and future of the endeavor, and many are into interesting and fruitful experiments with new technologies, forms, and business models. One great model: Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization that’s forming partnerships with other nonprofits as well as for-profits (like the New York Times). I won’t say a lot about this here, but I helped coordinate a journalism track at SXSW Interactive that should include lively discussions about news innovation.

Wikileaks raises questions about transparency.
Everybody’s been weighing in on this one, and I’ve made several posts about it. I should just summarize what I think: governments do need to be able to have confidential discussions, not everything should be public – I get that. However governments are accountable to citizens, and should be as transparent as possible. Journalists (the fourth estate) should mediate transparency by digging out the sort of information information Wikileaks revealed, analyzing it, and reporting the facts, using judgement, keeping secret what should be secret and needn’t be revealed. Something like Wikileaks exists partly because news organizations are failing, because the effective business model for hard news is unclear, because nobody’s paying journalists sufficiently well for sufficiently long to dig that stuff out. Real journalists shouldn’t be asked to churn PR pieces and write infotainment articles. They should be asked to dig out the kind of information Wikileaks has been publishing, and to do the analysis to build real, effective news stories.

The manifesto that made my day

Earlier today I listened to a Buddhist Geeks talk with Stephen Batchelor, who said he was pretty sure there is no god… but then Chris Carfi sent a link to an email list we’re on that aligned so completely with where my life has been going that I thumbed my nose at Batchelor. There clearly is a god, and he made sure that I saw Maureen Johnson’s manifesto today: I AM NOT A BRAND. Have you read it? If not, stop now, go read it, then come back and we’ll talk.

“We can, if we group together, fight off the weenuses and hosebags who want to turn the Internet into a giant commercial…”

The rest of this is about me, and who cares? But I do want to download a bit and make a point.

All I’ve wanted to do for the last couple of decades is help people have meaningful conversations and solve problems together, i.e. build communities and organize effective collaborations. I’ve been in conversatoins about this with all sorts of people, including conversations in the early 2000s about social software and online social networks and how the web that was evolving – conversations captured to some extent in the collaborative paper “Emergent Democracy” that I had worked on with Joi Ito and others, and the post by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Daugherty that described “web 2.0.” I spent a lot of time thinking about political uses of the technology, with the Howard Dean campaign as a laboratory, and co-edited a book about social technology and politics called Extreme Democracy. About four years ago I was working on a consulting methodology that would help people leverage their physical and online social networks more effectively, and while I was working on this people started talking about social media. Specifically social media marketing.

I understand social technology and I get why the social web is attractive and compelling and starting to get all the mindshare we formerly committed to television. Clay Shirky talks about this in Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age: maybe we really wanted, needed, to have two way conversations all along, and broadcast television was just an alternative we had to accept until we got the technology we have now.

Television has confused us, it makes us think that media is (are?_ a vehicle for commercial messages, and without ads and persistent selling, a medium is broken. (This makes me remmber Lance Rose’s contention more than a decade ago that THE INTERNET IS NOT A MEDIUM, it’s an environment, and that’s probably another conversation we should be having.)

I’ve tried to establish my social media cred, but in a world where social media, as a profession, is supposed to be about marketing and selling, I don’t completely fit. It’s not that I’m against selling, but it’s not really what my life’s about, and I’ve never been attracted to the world of sales and marketing, even less so when I found myself in the middle of it.

But I love the idea of building relationships – that businesses can build symmetrical relationships with their customers, and vice versa. Is that the new marketing? Time will tell. I was raving supporter of the ideas in The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition, and I’ve been edging my way into a conversation started by one of its authors, Doc Searls, labeled Project VRM. Doc recently posted a piece called “Manage relationships, not each other,” that makes the point:

During the Industrial Age, the power asymmetry between vendor and customer got so steep that vendors got to talking about customers as if the latter were cattle or slaves. Customers became “targets” that vendors “captured,” “acquired,” “locked in” and “managed.” As the Information Age dawned, however, customers gradually became more independent. So, midway into the second decade of the new millennium, customers were no longer the ones being managed. Nor, however, were vendors. Instead, relationship itself was managed by both parties.

This perspective lines up pretty well with Maureen Johnson’s manifest. “I am not a target” is not unlike “I am not a brand.”

Every person I meet is a universe of experience and intelligence and spectacular complexity. I’m learning to appreciate this point, I can no longer easily and readily reduce someone to a statistic or a line of text or a bald concept bouncing around in my brain… there’s too much. We need more respect and reverence in our lives, and less of the reduction and dehumanization that we’ve somehow fallen into, no doubt driven by old media and mass marketing conceptual shorthand.

So this is where I have to quote, in full, the “I am not a brand” manifesto:

The Internet is made of people. People matter. This includes you. Stop trying to sell everything about yourself to everyone. Don’t just hammer away and repeat and talk at people -— talk TO people. It’s organic. Make stuff for the Internet that matters to you, even if it seems stupid. Do it because it’s good and feels important. Put up more cat pictures. Make more songs. Show your doodles. Give things away and take things that are free. Look at what other people are doing, not to compete, imitate, or compare . . . but because you enjoy looking at the things other people make. Don’t shove yourself into that tiny, airless box called a brand -— tiny, airless boxes are for trinkets and dead people.

The Internet is not (just) a marketing platform

Fading Coke sign by Jenny Solis S..

Increasingly I’m finding that, as a consultant about effective Internet communication, I have to talk about marketing, how to market to, for, and with communities and social networks.

Marketing is, always has been, an important part of the media mix, and it’s important to understand how the transformation and evolution of media – the emerging world of “social media” or “new media” or “digital media” – will change how we think about marketing and how it works.

To say what I want to say here, I have to devote a few paragraphs to my background. Over twenty years ago my life took a turn when I discovered a technology that connects people to people. Since then I’ve followed a career path that’s all about computer networks and social networks, and how the former mediates the latter to ever greater effect.

In the 1990s my focus was on cyberculture and Internet policy via the Electronic Frontier Foundation and related tribes, including EFF-Austin, and on Internet-mediated community + commerce and web publishing via FringeWare, Inc. and Whole Foods Market. At Whole Foods, I learned so much about building web sites that, when the dotcom bust ended the ecommmerce projects I was working on, I started a web development company, Polycot Consulting. Polycot was a cutting-edge, standards-based, open source web company, a partnership with two brilliant developers, Matt Sanders and Jeff Kramer. Part of my role in the company was based on what I’d always done, surf the edges of web trends and understand what technology patterns we should recommend and build for our clients. Because of my focus on community, I was particularly focused on the evolution of the social web. Because of my focus on publishing, I was particularly interested in the trend away from professional to personal content – the blog. Because I hung out at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conferences and SXSW Interactive here in Austin, and because I had so many connections within ‘net culture, I was spending time with many of the best and brightest thinkers about the direction of the web. I was in conversations about trends that came to be labeled “web 2.0,” and the evolution of social networks, social media, social web.

So I was drawn into the “social media” conversation when it started within the last 3-4 years. I had been building a consulting methodology focused on helping people understand and leverage their relevant social networks to accomplish their personal or organizational goals. As a consulting practice, it worked well. When we heard people talking about social media, we thought there might be a conceptual link to what we were doing. I started paying attention, and thought I would consult in that space – really a matter of effective communication in the new world of participatory, omnidirectional, Internet-based communication. It was the sort of consulting I was ideally suited to do.

I’m presenting all of this background to make it clear that I’m not just talking to hear my head rattle. The Internet, the web, and what we’ve come to call “social media” and “social business,” the social web, is my career and my life, what I live and breathe, something I feel passionate about. A digital culture has been emerging for two decades. It’s opened up a world where anyone can produce and publish content; it’s a powerful and disruptive context for human energy, intelligence, and innovation. On the Internet we can mash up our personal and professional lives and selves and effectively channel creative impulses we never knew we had.

My life online led me into a company called Plutopia Productions the name of which derives from “pluralist” + “utopias.” The Plutopia krew has evolved a vision of a DIY world where everyone can build to a unique, personal set of specs – configurable homes, configurable scenes, all mediated by pervasive technologies… the realization of the cyborganic vision many of us were talking about in the 90s.

So here’s the drum roll, and the point I’ve been working toward in this post:

The Internet is not a marketing platform.

Obviously marketing is a powerful part of the mix of many things we all do online. Increasingly I find myself consulting about effective marketing communications using social media, and I know how important that can be for some people. The Internet is also an effective platform for getting customer feedback into both product marketing and operations.

For some, there’s a temptation to want to structure the Internet as an environment for sales and marketing, where those activities can be as dominant as they became with television when it emerged as pervasive media in the fifties and sixties. Marketing was such an obvious use for the medium, which was saturated over time with commercial messages. Over decades in a world of persistent, pervasive commercials, audiences started shutting down, became marketing resistant.

As this was happening, the Internet emerged, lowered the barriers to media production, and now anyone can produce as well as consume media. We are empowered, and we feel that we don’t have to follow marketing messages at all – we ignore them, even suppress them. If Facebook decides to become less of a social engine and more of a marketing engine, someone else will build an open alternative that isn’t about selling, and Facebook might just be doomed to beocme the 21st Century AOL.

We do see an emerging Internet marketing discipline, an approach that can be summed up in a word: spam, which has come to be used as a term for any unsolicited commercial message delivered online.

However there’s another approach that is lighter and more consistent with digital culture. When I give talks about social media, which is often, my message is that you have to forget manipulative or interruptive marketing and selling and build authentic relationships with your customers/clients/constituents instead. That’s hard to do and it doesn’t scale very well. Traditional marketing people are often uncomfortable going there, and that’s not unreasonable – they have efficient processes geared to mass marketing and advertising, and those do scale, and they do seem to have an effect. But mass media’s fading if not evaporating, mindshare is fragmented, and in a social network/digital media context, mass marketing feels like, or is, spam.

I don’t have a marketing background, but as a new media expert, I believe that, if you’re in marketing, you have to rethink all your strategies and processes and get your head around a media environment that enables symmetrical relationships with customers. In this context, your customer is your partner, not your “target.” Read The Cluetrain Manifesto (which I’ve been advocating since it appeared in the 90s). Get familiar with Project VRM. Marketing strategies that empower the customer are the new black. (Those that don’t are the new black and blue.)

If you want a good model for new thinking, check out Tara Hunt’s work. She strikes me as particularly clueful about 21st century marketing, viewed from an online marketing professional’s perspective, but also from an online community builder’s perspective. You can also contact me if you need help in thinking about how your business can be more effective with new media.

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?

Social software, social media… what’s happening

Three years ago I started thinking about how I might do consulting around my knowledge of online communities and collaboration, social networks, and general web strategy. I started meeting with David Swedlow, then Bill Anderson and Honoria Starbuck joined us. We were thinking how organizations could work through their social networks to build collaborative efforts. This could include viral marketing and collaboration with customers and clients. Bill and I had an engagement with an academic client that seemed to work as a proof of concept. I went on to form a partnership with David Armistead at Social Web Strategies, and as we worked through the construction of an ontology for our potential work, a couple of things happened. First, marketing communications professionals started seeing one point that we had been discussing – that mass aggregation of mindshare was becoming a thing of the past, that attention was fragmented and distributed among many niches and applications. Second, Twitter caught on with marketing professionals and they started thinking how they might use it, Facebook, and other social networking platforms to create presence for their clients. We started to see the label “social media,” and a few people who sort of knew marketing and sort of knew social software started building buzz for a new discipline, hoping they could sell consulting hours based on their (more or less limited) knowledge. However, well-established large consultancies started adding social media expertise, and selling social media consulting as just another of many services. Also, just incidentally, the economy crashed and money stopped flowing. (We started thinking about low barrier to entry/low cost of production as a social software plus, and we also started thinking hard about the impact of low transactional costs – thinking how we could consult on the uses of social software for coordination and collaboration inside companies – what others later started calling social business).

So now I’m seeing that the enterprise will buy social media marketing expertise from the same large consultancies that they’ve always used, and the same will probably be true of social business expertise, as thinking about the impact of social media on internal operations evolves. Medium-sized companies seem to be hiring rather than outsourcing expertise, if they’re willing to spend money at all. Small companies are doing what they can on their own. As a consequence of all this, there’s not much of a market for small social media consultancies and freelancers – I keep hearing of “social media consultants” who’ve gone to work for larger companies doing community management or working with marketing groupss to help address social media channels.

At Social Web Strategies, we saw that our best option was to do corporate training. We’d been doing these workshops anyway, so it makes sense to build a business around them.  I changed my relationship to the company, giving up my partnership but staying on as a principal, partly because I didn’t want to be as focused on training, and partly because I wanted more time to think and write – hard to do when you’re charged with building and running a business.

I also think that we’ve lost “social” in social media like Twitter and Facebook, that are set up for drive-by posting but don’t facilitate real collaboration very well. I’ve been working (with Kevin Leahy of Knowledge Advocate) to become a Google Wave expert, because I think Wave really does support collaboration. I want to help people build true collaboration and true community, where connections become sustained relationships and lead to authentic experiences. I’m also interested in support for collaborative innovation, and how R&D works in an network environment (I’ll post more about this later).

Currently I’m freelancing, and planning to write more here and elsewhere. I’m also still working for Social Web Strategies, and will be co-presenting a training on social media for entrepreneurs in February, based on Dave Evans’ book Social Media Marketing an Hour a Day.

Just busy

Been working on a number of projects, especially getting Social Web Strategies launched and working on the Plutopia-produced EFF-Austin party, possibly the biggest party at SXSW this year. Also revived EFF-Austin, ramped up Austin350.org, created a new Bootstrap subgroup focused on community… I’ve been pretty busy. This is by way of apology for starving the blog. Getting back to it now, just days before SXSW Interactive kicks off. I’ve organized a panel called “Using the New Digital Social Media to Accelerate Sustainability.” I should be working on slides for that now, and not blogging.

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