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I recently published this article in Forbes. It has generated a lot of commentary on the Internet – so I thought I would cross-post it here. Also see Tim O’Reilly’s great response here.
No corner of modern American life is untouched by technology. And no technology is more transformative than the Internet. The simple reason for this is that the Internet is, at bottom, a communications network, and communication is the foundation of society, business and government. When you scale up communications, you change the world.
There are now at least 1.6 billions of us connected via computer and 3 billion mobile devices that touch the Internet. The rise of “social” technologies–such as wikis, blogs, Twitter, SMS and social networks–means that the barriers to participation across the planet (in terms of the cost, access and skills required) are rapidly approaching zero.
As ever more people get connected, we see an acceleration in the way the Internet is used to coordinate action and render services from human input. We are witnessing the rise of a social nervous system. Consider these three cases:
The Mumbai attacks showcased the use of Twitter as a real-time, peer-to-peer information service. Throughout the event, people twittered the movement of the attackers. The police were on the service admonishing people not to disclose their own movements. Though there was criticism of whether or not the details were accurate (the BBC was criticized for integrating Twitter into its reporting), the larger point is that this real-time communication system influenced the physical behavior on the ground in Mumbai. This is a key point about the social nervous system: It coordinates (and sometimes directs) physical activity in the world.
Coordinating Political Action The Obama campaign’s Houdini project on election day used real-time data from polling stations to adjust its “get out the vote” program. As one participant noted, poll observers “took the real-time results of who actually showed up at the polls and fed it back to the campaign so that they could adjust their GOTV calls and canvassing as the day wore on. Every time someone came in to vote, their names were entered into a computer system, and their names disappeared or escaped, Houdini-like, from the call and walk lists.”
Global Virus Forecasting As millions of users search for health information, Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ) uses the aggregate of these searches to estimate flu activity even in very localized regions. This information has been shown to estimate flu activity two weeks earlier (a life-age for influenza) than the CDC forecast methods.
Watch the news, and you will see daily evidence of how a system that connects billions of people is influencing the physical world–from recent protests in California against Proposition 8 organized by Facebook to the riots in my hometown of Oakland after several witnesses uploaded video taken from their mobile phones of a police shooting. New services such as Qik are now bringing live mobile camera feeds online (think Webcams for mobile phones). That will make what happened in Oakland a small foretaste of what is likely to come. I used Twitter during the Oakland riot to stay updated on local transit outages and plot a new route home from work.
It is easy to confuse this concept with the emerging field of machine learning such as the smart energy grid, traffic control using the sensor Web or the Planetary Skin Initiative recently announced by Nasa and Cisco (nasdaq: CSCO – news – people ). Machine optimization is useful but hardly social: Human beings do not contribute the data, share it or act upon it. And the implications of a social nervous system are far more profound than simply a “smart” grid.
The social nervous system makes us aware of a broader context of relationship with humanity. My immediate relationships–with my family, my city and state–begin to span the globe. We can leverage the ubiquity of communications to coordinate real world activity–and just about anyone can do it. Even a kid with a mobile phone can capture a revolution.
Using a social nervous system, we are finding solutions to some big problems such as controlling disease or responding to emergencies. Most important, we are creating a feedback mechanism that exposes the actions of a powerful few to the many–and the trivial day-to-day life of the many to the whole of humanity.
It is no coincidence that “transparency” is a catch phrase in government and business these days. It is a natural byproduct of this emerging social nervous system. The social nervous system engenders a healthier balance of power in society and helps to connect our individual actions into a larger context in a clear way.
Another outcome of the social nervous system is that we see the shift away from privacy as an inalienable right to an individual responsibility. In a social nervous system there will be increasing pressure to be connected 24/7 to the hive mind that is Facebook, Twitter and so on. Those who do not connect, share and collaborate will have a hard time in business and in social life.
Older generations expect that digital natives will one day wish to erase all their indiscreet photos online. But I don’t believe this nonstop exposure will go away as the digital natives mature. Our lives are increasingly being logged on the Internet. It is part of the trade. Given the complexity and precarious position of the modern world, getting people to genuinely reach out and touch their neighbors is a good thing but it will come at the price of reshaping our identities as part of a larger, interconnected whole.
I just appeared on an NBC affiliate in San Jose along with Guy Kawasaki and Dave McClure. The Green Room and studio experience with those two was worth the price of admission. The cameras are mounted on robotic bases and controlled somewhere else. This makes the whole scene oddly reminiscent of Silent Running. The entire sequence is available here. My portion appears below:
The last time I saw Charlene Li was in the speaker’s lounge of the Web 2.0 conference. It was March 2008 and her defining book on social technologies, Groundswell, (co-authored with Josh Bernoff) was just being released. There have been tectonic shifts in our economy (and Charlene has moved from Forrester to found the Altimeter group) since then so I wanted to get her sense of the state of social media today.
A couple of points from our conversation stand out to me.
Social technologies (blogs, wikis, social networks and Twitter) are being utilized by more companies. We are seeing these tools begin to go mainstream in the enterprise.
When it comes to social media it is not about getting it right all the time. It about the leadership and how they deal with failure.
Salespeople natively understand how to work from relationships – Marketing departments don’t. ( see Listening beats Talking on this point). The real question now is how do we move those skills towards the center of the organization.
In trying to allay the fears that come with employing social technologies Charlene performs a classic risk mitigation technique: What are five or ten worst-case scenarios? Are they realistic? How might they be mitigated? You can usually mitigate risks once you identify them.
Thanks to the good people at FastFoward for producing these videos during the FastForward 09 conference.
Stimuluswatch.org allows citizens to see local government requests for stimulus-spending projects, add details, vote projects up or down and generally discuss the merit of each. It is a great example of how the Internet lowers the cost of developing software and allows citizens to collaborate in government. Anyone from an Enterprise can learn a lot from Stimuluswatch about
1. How complex software does not need to cost millions (your intranet, your website etc.)
2. How quickly projects can now get off the ground (weeks not months)
3. How people outside your company can contribute their talent to get things done (Open beats Closed)
For those of you less inclined to read, here is a screencast that covers most of these details
A bit of history. Stimuluswatch began with this blog request from Jerry Brito,
Who can help me take the database on the Conference of Mayors site and turn each project into a wiki-page or other mechanism where local citizens can comment on whether the project is actually needed or whether it’s a boondoggle? How can we create an app that will let citizens separate the wheat from the pork and then sort for Congress and the new administration the project in descending order or relevancy?
I got in touch with two of the developers who responded to Brito’s blog request, Peter Snyder and Kevin Dwyer, to get details on their collaboration. The final site included all of the functionality (and more) that Brito had asked for was launched after only two weeks of work conducted over seven weeks including the holidays (for more technical detail on how they achieved this, see my Radar post here).
None of these people knew each other previously. They were brought together by blog post into a common effort. They used open source tools in rapid development. They plugged in off the shelf social technologies (Disqus as a tool to enable forums and commenting on projects, Tumblr as a blog and publishing platform for updates from Jerry and Mediawiki as a tool to allow citizens to collaborate together on building a common definition around each project – much like wikipedia allows users to collaborate on defining the meaning of a concept). They achieved this in a matter of weeks.
Results so far? One week after launch Stimuluswatch had 20,000 unique visitors. These visitors were actively voting, discussing and even cleaning up mistakes in the mayor’s original data. Total cost of the effort? $40 per month for hosting.
I am not sure that Stimuluswatch is the right set of tools for citizen engagement in public works. That remains to be seen. It does demonstrate the power of the Internet to radically reduce the time it takes to create powerful software and lower the barriers to group collaboration. If you are a business being faced with a million dollar software price tag from a big consulting firm you should think long and hard about whether or not your money is being wisely spent.
Roughly one year ago I was in conversation with the CEO of one of the largest online portals for Human Resources. My pitch: Human Resources should be leading the charge in helping businesses understand the possibilities and implications of social technologies such as blogs, wikis, social networks etc. CEO’s response: Human Resources is full of backwards people who are always behind the curve. Don’t waste your (read “my”) time. This is not an exaggerated paraphrasing.
While Human Resources is still trying to grasp the “what” and “why” of social technologies, they are missing an enormous opportunity to lead on “how” these tools are successfully employed in the enterprise. It is high time that they lead.
Ask anyone engaged in bringing social technologies into the workplace and you will hear the same thing; “it’s the people stupid.” (what I call “The Harder Stuff”) The primary resistance to the new operating principles at work in social technologies lies with the mindset, culture and leadership of today’s workplace. So if Human Resources’ expertise is people, change and transformation (after all this is where our leadership, training, communications and change management groups are housed) why aren’t they leading the charge? The market is quickly moving beyond the “what” (what are social technologies?) and the “why” (why are they important to my business strategy?) and engaging the deeper question of “how” (How do I employ them in my business? How do they threaten business-as-usual? How do I manage the transition?).
Would your organization hire someone today in marketing that didn’t understand how social networks change marketing outreach and customer insight?
Would your organization hire someone today in R&D that didn’t understand the role of online communities and customer led innovation?
Would your organization hire anyone in Human Resources that had no understanding of how social networks are being used for talent management and employee retention?
The answer is likely no. Yet the employees that most organizations have working for them today do not possess the skills the organization needs for tomorrow.
Human Resources is uniquely positioned to lead the inevitable move to incorporate social technologies into the enterprise in the form of:
Skills training: organizing workshops to help employees grasp the operating instructions (what, why, how) for using social technologies.
Leadership development: helping leaders understand how social technologies prompt a new type of leadership
Talent Management: how social networks can be used in recruiting and retention strategies.
Who better to address this than HR? As lower skill responsibilities such as payroll get outsourced I am hoping that HR takes a strategic leadership position in the organization. Anyone reading this that knows someone in HR – please forward this post. Anyone in HR reading this – please add to the comments or contact me. Let’s get HR into the game.
I spent much of last week on assignment in Las Vegas at the FastForward ’09 conference. FastForward is devoted to Search (more on that in the next post – along with a mindbending, Minority Report style video on the future of search). One of the highlights of the conference was this interview with Clay Shirky. He is one of the most incisive and articulate thinkers regarding the impacts that technology is having on society and business.
Here are some of the items that we cover (The annotations below were provided by Faheyr on his blog, Talkin’ Bout a Revolution. I have made slight modifications to them).
Clay’s essential thesis is that “Group Action Just Got Much Easier”. Humans are inherently social, but historically there has been a significant hassle factor/transaction cost in grouping together. The Internet/Mobile technologies provides lots of new ways to lower this burden and efficiently coordinate group action. The speed of communication and dramatically falling cost are creating massive disruptions for businesses.
The traditional model for most businesses (and governments) is to “service the demand” e.g. Government creating services in response to citizen request. The alternative that new collaboration makes possible is to make it easier for people to service themselves (i.e. by making information open and easy to consume). Examples include Apps for Democracy, Show us a better way, Fedspending.org.
Businesses often ask the wrong questions when responding to disruption. Typically the question is “how do we preserve our profession and the way it’s currently constituted?” Thinking we can preserve the existing status quo (e.g. in Publishing) is unrealistic. The transition will be achieved by those with the lowest cost of experimentation with the highest value e.g. theguardian. Additionally the solutions that each business finds will result in a wide variety of different businesses emerging from the same pond (publishers that survive will evolve into radically different looking businesses in 10 years)
The winners and losers will be separated by who is learning and adapting the fastest through continuous experimentation.
Information overload has been the normal case for literate citizens since the 1500s i.e. since there were more books than a person could read in a lifetime. Information has been expanding continuously for 500 years. Information overload is caused by a lack of effective filters. When someone says they’re experiencing Information overload (a normal life experience), what they are saying is, “there is a great business opportunity for someone to build a better filter through which I can find meaningful content.”
As a rule the traditional organization has very few people dedicated to listening (Customer research) and a whole lot of people dedicated to talking (Marketing, Advertisting, PR, the communications dept., Events etc.). What’s worse, the feedback loop from listening to taking action is glacial (consider that a typical customer research cycle takes three to six months to complete). This was supportable in an age where customers had very little means to connect with companies and, more specifically, with each other. No longer. The Internet (shorthand for the Internetwork) has reconfigured power relations by empowering everyone(sic) with their own broadcast tower. In this new reality organizations need to adapt to the laws of the network.
Why? Because our information economy is being subsumed into the network economy; because we now live in the network. 1. Send is Receive
In the network each node is a sensor capable of receiving and processing information in real time. If every business unit in your company isn’t listening (to each other – to the outside world) it isn’t learning at the same rate as its competition. (see Listening beats Talking). 2. Small is Big
In the network all things begin small (the individual, the faint signal, the single message) and roll up through collective action (the viral pass along, the “Digg“) into a swarm of biblical proportion (Obama’s donor list of 13 million). If you don’t understand this Network Law — you are in trouble. And, If you can’t build reach into this world – you will soon be in a world of hurt. 3. Hard is Soft
In the network “soft” power is the power that persuades. It is a power of influence and attraction, and a call to leadership to the swarm. If you are still issuing decrees from on-high you are going to find yourself increasingly ineffective in the as a business leader. 4. Vertical is Horizontal
The network is rhizomatic in it’s growth and structure; flat and situational. Hierarchy and information flow is still important – it’s just that it now flows in all directions. Each business unit needs to be more rhizomatic, and promiscuous in its connectivity with other units (see also, Moments of Truth: We Are All Marketers Now). 5. The Center is the Edge
“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” — Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems
Where in the old world, the center of power and influence, of productivity and expertise emanated from within the walls of the organization, in the world of networked relationships these properties are in more abundance at the edge. (see Open beats Closed). Companies that work the edge win.
My first home/life insurance agent was an Allstate rep named Paul.
Paul had a heavy body contoured from years of deskwork. He had a deep, rich voice and,true to his profession, Paul had a tendency to see the risk inherent in everything. I once told him approvingly about the wide, stone stairs to our house that I had retiled and Paul said, “that’s all well and good until you fall on those hard tiles and break your knee into 300 pieces…” Paul was an oddity in this world. He saw risk first…
Generally speaking human beings consider possibility first and risk second… As a consequence we design for possibility and then retrofit for risk (if we are lucky). Air travel is a good example; we built for the possibility of convenient, no-hassle travel. This was designed into the architecture of our airports. September 11 changed our relationship to travel by exposing some serious risk and we began the hard work of retrofitting.
Drew Bartkiewicz of The Hartford has been considering data security and privacy in the age of social networks; an age marked by the explosion of personally identifiable information (PII) uploaded by users on blogs, video sites, social networks etc. Having customers help you build unique data sets is a core proposition behind Web 2.0 (see here) Companies that want to engage the social web should absolutely design for possibility – but it is important to acknowledge risk and be clear about the types of data you are collecting and how you plan to use it. What’s more, companies should understand that they might have secondary liabilities (meaning, are you responsible for what someone else will do with the data that you have made available). To wit; eBay’s multiple law suits.
Drew sums up much of his thinking when he says, “Credit is to the financial markets what privacy and trust are to Web 2.0″ (you can’t have one without the other). Fittingly, we spoke in New York City the morning after Lehman Brothers went under.
Web 2.0 hinges upon the notion that online users add value through (1) explicit co-creation; think of Dell’s Ideastorm or Threadless, (2) their behavior; think Amazon’s recommendations “people like you also bought…” or (3) the meaning implicit in their actions; think of how Google uses your search behavior to improve each subsequent search result.
Web 2.0 businesses leverage user contribution to build valuable, unique data sets. The more users, the richer the data – The richer the data, the better the resulting good or service.
Security hinges upon the notion that users add risk and new technologies increase vulnerability. Where Web 2.0 puts a premium on open networks and user contribution, our models of security seek to create limits to both.
In many engagements the question comes down to finding a balance between the proponents of Web 2.0 (usually marketing or innovation officers) and the people (usually IT and legal) who are tasked with security. This is a healthy tension.
Here are some questions to ask in order to keep these in balance. Can we separate mission-critical data from potentially value-added data? Very often large company’s make no distinction between data that is usable/sharable vs. data that is not. An example, Mint.com takes financial information from its users (in aggregate) to help users make wise financial decisions. Meanwhile, Financial Services company’s would not dare to use this data (I know since I suggested it to an FS client years ago) – even as an anonymous, aggregated service. Opportunity Missed!
Can we gain more benefit from releasing “sacred” data than we get by withholding it? Barack Obama’s campaign decided to give away top secret voter lists to online volunteers to allow them to canvas and make calls directly. See Open Beats Closed on this point. Can we create guidelines that encourage our employees to join the Social Web without releasing sensitive information? HP, Cisco and Wells Fargo all have constructive (and instructive) policies encouraging employee participation while setting limits to how employees use social media.
In my experience just getting these groups talking (web 2.0 proponents and the guardians of security) usually resolves the problem. Legal and IT are there for a good reason — it’s just that usually that “reason” doesn’t mean you can’t get your Web 2.0 project going…
Imagine resellers, bloggers and trade press being able to host your videos, screencasts and demos on their own sites while you are measuring response (engagement and demand). Your company (especially those of you with reseller channels) should be syndicating your web content to reach a massive, global web audience beyond the reach of your own web site. The reason is simple; at any given moment online, there are more prospects and customers viewing sites other than yours. Content syndication using widgets (think of YouTube videos that you watch on a site other than YouTube etc.). allows you wider reach and more consistent messaging from channel partners. It also allows resellers, bloggers etc. to add valuable content to their own sites at no cost (win/win). Technically this is a simple operation but it requires leadership to drive this as a company-wide strategy. Widgets in the consumer space are relatively old news but larger companies are just starting to get the picture in terms of how to create an extended content syndication strategy. I have yet to see a major non-media company that is executing a strong off-domain strategy.
For more info and syndication resources check these out:
These companies all offer basic content syndication to the full range of social networks and blogs. Very consumer focused. No commerce or direct-response functionality apparent but that is the obvious direction.
Widgetbox (disclaimer – I have worked with Widgetbox before)
Consumer focused. ‘Source’ publisher offers content (common blog formats supported). ‘Distributor’ can design widget by selecting content, style and layout etc.
Example of taking Ben Smith’s blog from Politico.com and creating a widget for your own site here.
Premium platform gives more customization/control to the content owner.
I am a digital strategist focused on how technology opens new possibilities for social transformation and innovation within business. I am a Partner and Director of Digital, EMEA for Fleishman Hillard. I blog here, on O’Reilly Radar, and am a contributor for Forbes.com.