Live blogging #ISOJ

I was actively live tweeting the International Sympsium on Online Journalism when I hit Twitter’s limit of 1000 posts within 24 hours. (I’m finding it a little hard to believe I posted that much, but that’s what Twitter’s algorithm is saying, I suppose).

I’ll do some live blogging here instead, offering this brief post by way of explanation – if you find this interesting, see the @jonl posts for #isoj and #isoj12. I’ll look for a chance to storify some of those tweets later.

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.

Gary Chapman

Hearing via Twitter that my friend Gary Chapman of the LBJ School has died. News of his death was posted by Isadora Vail of the Austin American Statesman. No details yet. I had just emailed Gary today asking for his support in putting together an Austin Wikileaks Summit. [Update: Statesman article by Vail reporting that Gary died of an apparent heart attack.]

Gary was a visionary thinker, always exploring the edge of emerging technologies… and he was a fine guy and a good friend. I interviewed him for the Austin Chronicle in 1999. [Link]

I think that a lot of people in the technology policy community feel there’s a kind of vacuum with respect to crafting a vision for why the United States should invest in science and technology in the future. That’s seen as a liability in forming consensus about what we should be investing in, but also an opportunity for helping craft a new vision.

The last organizing principle of technology policy was the Cold War, and that lasted for 50 years. But that’s pretty much over, and now we need a new organizing principle. It’s not clear what that’s going to be. There’s been a de facto consensus around global economic competitiveness, but that doesn’t really seem to have the same kind of glue that the Cold War rationale had. So I think there’s still work to be done on crafting the vision, and I think there’s certain pieces that have to go into it:

(1) Sustainability, that is, its relationship to the natural environment and our ability to build an economic system that doesn’t deplete the earth’s resources.

(2) Global commerce that is not solely competitive, but cooperative in nature as well.

(3) Social justice and equity issues, so that we don’t end up with technology policy that just favors the wealthy. That would have to take into account vast disparities in education and literacy and access to economic resources.

(4) A technology policy that’s democratic, and that offers the opportunity for people who are not scientific and technological experts to help craft it.

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.

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.

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.

Keep it simple

Just learned via Twitter from someone who reads my blog that text instances of the Sociable social bookmarking links were piled up at the end of each of my posts as displayed in Google Reader. That’s nust not very poetic. Does anybody ever actually click through one of those bookmarking icons or links? I’m not convinced.

I turned all of that stuff off, as well as the Zemanta tracking pixel added to my posts via Scribefire. The web’s complicated enough; I’m making my presence as simple as possible and focusing on producing great content.

(If you’re reading this on Google Reader or some other news aggregator, and you still see something wonky, just let me know.)

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.

Rethink “marketing”

Dave Peck’s written a blog post where he says his clients are questioning whether they want to use Twitter as part of a social media mix. The arguments he quotes suggest that his clients have an experience similar to the experience we have when we go to a “networking event,” and find that everybody in the room is hoping to sell, and nobody’s looking to buy. Dave asks “can somebody really get clients from Twitter? Is Twitter Overrated and Overhyped?”

A few responses to his post, including mine, make a point I would think is obvious: if you think of Twitter as a platform where you “get clients,” you’ve already stumbled, fallen, can’t get up. I use an old media example that we all still use, the telephone. All companies have telephones, but not all companies do telemarketing. Many people place themselves on a “do not call list” because they specifically do NOT want to be interrupted by sales calls from strangers, and in general telemarketers are regarded as a lower life form. You don’t want that for your company, right? But the telephone is still a valuable tool for authentic voice communication, and it can be business critical even if it’s not about “getting clients.”

If you set up a Twitter or other “social media” account for your company to “get clients,” you’re not understanding the new world of bottom-up personal media. That’s okay, nobody expects you to shift paradigms overnight, it takes a while to sink in – broadcast media is losing mindshare to personal media, what we’ve been calling social media, where everybody can be both producer and consumer, in contexts where they can control we all have increasingly more control over which messages we receive. It’s Darwinian: people are selecting environments where they can exclude or skip interruptions from strangers coming in from outside their preferred focus of attention – i.e. the broadcast television/radio approach doesn’t work, because the captive audience has been liberated by technology.

So much of our thoughts and attitudes about marketing and selling were developed within the context of mass marketing, because that’s where we lived, but it was really a blip in the evolution of media. “Markets are conversations.” In the past, we had real conversations with the people who sold us products and services – this was before the “mass” phase created a sense of abstraction both ways – customers were numbers, and the actual sellers were ghosts somewhere beyond the actual touchpoints, unseen, only imagined. In the future, we’ll have real conversations again, this time mediated by technology. How this scales is still a big question, part of the bigger question of how we reorganize around the robust, data-intensive, increasingly mobile communication technologies we’re evolving in the 21st century.

But you have to rethink the whole client acquisition thing. It’s more like “how can I build and sustain relationships that are relevant to my business (or nonprofit, or cause, etc.)”

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.

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!)