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Over the coming days I will cross post my series, “The Question Concerning Social Technology” which appeared all week on Radar. I advise readers to head over to these posts and read the comments — they were rich and thoughtful.
I am an evangelist of social media and an active participant: on Linked In (business), MySpace (music) and Facebook (increasingly my online identity), I blog on several sites and I am a daily user of Twitter. I also make my living speaking to companies about the value and operating principles of these more open, participatory technologies.
So over the course of the next few days I will post a series of questions on the value and function of social media (a.k.a. social technologies). I will not be arguing that social technologies are a bane or should be stopped. I don’t believe the former is true and I believe the latter is impossible… I will not be arguing against technology. Rather, I will raise questions about the potential abuse of social technologies and the steps we might take to remedy them. The more discussion this prompts within the Radar community the better. I will also be leading a webcast on May 27 at 10AM Pacific to discuss these topics in detail.
This is the first of these posts:
The Evangelist Fallacy, Social Media and The New Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment swept through Europe in the eighteenth century, upending the notion of a divine right (religious and monarchic) to rule over the population. Its tenets centered upon the idea that humans were capable of reason and could seek governance that accorded individuals liberty and some semblance of equality. Western society still embraces principles and speaks the language of “freedom,” “democracy,” and civil rights born during The Enlightenment.
There is another side of the historical record. While the public dialogue of The Enlightenment was centered on freedom, equality and human progress, institutions of the age were rapidly developing sophisticated means of control over individual movement and action; from highly structured factory work and military regimentation (the true birthplace of modern management theory), to isolating deviant segments of society (the birth of prisons, debtor’s prisons and asylums) and an emphasis on police surveillance and the “dossier” to track behavior. In fact many of the same political and social theorists of Enlightenment (Montesquieu, Bentham etc.) were the architects of detailed studies on how to subject individuals to institutional control. These tactical manuevers were often cloaked in the more lofty rhetoric of The Englightement.
This is not an isolated reading of history. Knowledge is almost always being produced in service of power – not as a liberating force from it and there is always a gap between what a society proclaims about it’s goals and aims – and the functional outcomes of its institutional policies and procedures (the “War on Drugs” being a quintessential modern example).
The idea of social technologies as a liberating force echoes the Enlightenment language and, just as with the original, there are good reasons to view this discourse with some skepticism. This knowledge about the value and meaning of social technologies comes from industry champions (Cisco’s Human Network), industry analysts and corporate consultants. This discourse is good for business – I know because I speak regularly on the topic in boardrooms and at conferences. Proponents have a personal stake in seeing the positive side of the equation (and there is a positive side) and encourage participation as a means of personal empowerment (“the customer is now in charge” “the end of command and control hierarchy” etc.).
Social media is cloaked in this language of liberation while the corporate sponsors (Facebook, Google et al ) are progressing towards ever more refined and effective means of manipulating individual behavior (behavioral targeting of ads, recommendation systems, reputation management systems etc.). As with the enlightenment the tactics of control are shielded by a rhetoric of emancipation. Let’s not forget that the output of all of this social participation is massive dossiers on individual behavior (your social network profiles, photos, location, status updates, searches etc.) and social activity.
How do these corporations intend to use these vast records of our behavior? The next post, Captivity of the Commons will explore the risks associated with personal data being collected at the behest of corporations whose main motivation is not in service of “customer empowerment” but on the traditional goals of manipulating behavior to grow their share of wallet.
Social Filtering has been going on forever – the people you use in your life as sources of trusted information; people who help you make decisions (the maven on baking when you get stuck with a recipe, your friend’s cousin who is a walking consumer reports and gives you vital information on that camera etc.). These same options have been applied online for some time now (ratings and reviews, recommendation sites like Yelp etc.). The next phase of social filtering is occurring with Twitter – where you can selectively follow people (some you know, some you come to know by their association or the quality of their content). These people pass along valuable information in the form of sharing links, recommendations, insights. These people are serving as filters for what I should be reading and paying attention to right now. In my previous post I discussed how I now follow people, not publications – that is, I use people as my filter on what information I should be reading.
The operating premise for all social filtering is simple; we trust the opinions of people more than companies. We build relationships with individuals (people) more easily than with companies. It is easier to be loyal to a person than a company. So when it comes to needing information people will more readily turn to people. This Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious (BGO) reinforces why companies need to continue to move towards a social model of business and a culture that empowers more employees to build relationships with the outside world. In a networked world communication choke points are lost opportunities.
During my study of classical Chinese it would take hours of contemplation to really get to the root of a poem. That was the point. It was a meditation proposed by the poet for consideration by the reader. As with philosophy, poetry is a time-intensive practice that requires deep focus and concentration. Twitter, Friendfeed, Facebook and the host of real-time-web feed services belong on the opposite side of the spectrum. They are quintessentially distraction-based media; shallow on context and truncated into staccato bursts of conversation… These media play off of a very real psychological factor known as operant conditioning, the addictive need to return over and over in hopes of a reward (a great link from Scoble perhaps?)…
The dominant revenue model of the web today – the ad that urges a click - embeds distraction into interface design. The more clicks you take – the more Google makes in ad revenue (distraction pays). This is not to say that social media doesn’t have extraordinary value – it does – It is at the heart the emerging social nervous system. Yet, The ability to pay attention, focus and strategically disconnect will be a winning discipline of the next generation of business leaders. As the zen phrase says, “eat when you eat” meaning, give each thing you do all of your attention. You will be rewarded from it. Lately I have been getting back to pen and paper brainstorming. Away from the computer.
To quote the Cisco “Human Network” commercials that ran here in the states — “in the future people will subscribe to people – not magazines.” That day is here. I noticed yesterday that I never check my RSS feeds for news anymore. I have moved from RSS feeds to Twitter feeds, following what my favorite people are reading. Indeed, I now follow people not publications. I wonder what business models will emerge surrounding titanic content brokers like@scobleizer (85,000 followers ) and @timoreilly (300,000 followers and climbing). A single pointer from these individuals can direct a lot of traffic. And they are totally credible and trusted since everyone following made a considered choice before deciding to follow them…
After writing my last article in Forbes on why businesses need to understand the Social Web I decided to put up a graphic representing differences between a traditional business mindset and the social mindset. Full article follows the graphic and provides more context.
Cross-Post from Forbes:
Language, humanity’s primary enabling technology, evolves out of the crucible of collective agreement. The words that society chooses to use as signifiers of new concepts are not capricious. They have the power to reveal. There is a reason that the word “social” is being applied as a prefix everywhere–from social media, social computing and the social Web to social capital and the social enterprise. This planetary skin of networked communication that links us together is also reshaping the way business is conducted.
Why are we seeing the rise of all things “social”? Why are people so taken with poking one another, summarizing their experiences in 140 characters or becoming fans of Coca Cola ( KO – news – people )? (Don’t laugh–Coca Cola has 3.5 million fans on Facebook). The answer follows the old punch line to a crude joke–”Because it can.” Why is our society massively adopting social technologies? Because we can.
Human beings are innately social. We are designed to share and connect with others. Period. What’s more, we are born into cultures that provide a blueprint for how to communicate and organize. We know how to join a conversation at a party, meet new people and make decisions and organize in a social setting (with varying degrees of competence).
Because we can, our innate desire and capacity to socialize is migrating to a platform (the Internet) that has breathtaking scale. The observation that these activities are meaningless, time-wasting or trivial misses the point entirely. Much of our day is dedicated to these activities already (tipping your hat to the neighbor, sharing a small experience with a coworker, sharing pictures of your kids with the receptionist). If you are wondering why people spend their time poking their friends on Facebook–stop. You are just seeing previously confined social activity being exposed to a larger audience.
Trivializing so called “trivial” activities misses a deeper point: When these tools reach a tipping point, they reveal a utility never anticipated by their creators. Twitter is a case in point. Because we can, 6 million users (and growing rapidly) are sharing bite-size pieces (140 character limit) of their lives with friends and strangers. These messages, or “tweets,” may be largely trivial, yet Twitter is becoming a critical part of the social nervous system. (See “The Rise Of The Social Nervous System.”)
“What are you doing?” is Twitter’s default question, and normally, the answer is trivial. But when the context becomes an emergency–the dozens or hundreds of answers to that question arriving in real time become important news.
There is another implication for businesses in the term “social”: a recognition that we are moving increasingly toward a new model of engagement for businesses, that is, (you guessed it!) social. We have many years of refining a model of management that centers on routinization of work and highly constrained communications flow. We have extracted as much productivity as we are likely to get from these command-and-control techniques, and we have squelched enough employee value in the process.
If the last 100 years was about gaining efficiency and innovation through scale and tight control of resources and communications, the next 100 will be about finding more fluid, open models of collaboration and cooperation. Playing on this new field has different rules. It requires shifting our concept of business from a
legalistic model to a social one. Social contracts are very different from the business contracts that dominated the 20th century corporate mentality. In the business contract, the organizing metaphor is the binding, legal document, and the motivator that constrains bad behavior is the lawsuit.
By contrast, the organizing metaphor for the social Web is relationship, and the building blocks are trust, reciprocity and authenticity. The motivating force that constrains bad behavior is social pressure and cultural norms. This is not to say that we will see the disappearance of legal contracts–they remain necessary. But in a social world, your reputation is everything. Your word is your bond, and sometimes admitting a mistake or saying you’re sorry is the best method of keeping both.
Businesses that ignore the call to be “social”–that is, to abide by a social contract with their constituents (customers, partners, resellers, employees)–run the risk of appearing pathological. I see “social” business as an inherently healthy change. Social contracts generally involve listening and talking, give and take, and trust–built over time through honest engagement. In my experience leading O’Reilly Innovation Labs, the greatest difficulty companies have in making this shift lies in realizing that the change to a social model is transformational. It is about leadership, culture and organizing structure, and very little about technology. And why will society demand that businesses adhere to a social contract? Because now we can.
My last post talked about the shifting nature of learning in the age of network communications. It didn’t delve into any of the conflicts that this shift is creating. Here is an old but still instructive example:
Chris Avenir was a freshman at Ryerson College and did what any number of freshman do – he organized a study group. What’s different is that Chris was a freshman in 2008. So he organized his study group on Facebook. Next thing he knew he was facing 147 charges of academic misconduct; one for starting the group – the other 146 for each student that joined his group. After much brouhaha (including online organizing on Chris’ behalf – you can still buy your “Chris Didn’t Cheat” T-shirt), Ryerson dropped the charges.
The larger point in this story lies with the fact that our institutional policies are coming into direct conflict with the ability that new technologies give us to direct our own flow of communications. Communication is the bedrock of any institution – how does information flow? Who speaks to whom (in the language of the institution, who “reports” to whom)? Who gets to say what – and about what? Facebook is just one of a dozen social technologies that explode that notion – and Big corporations and academic institutions are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to harness the benefits of increased participation, while mitigating the risks.
In many cases legal departments are acting reflexively without any deeper consideration of the intent underlying the policy – the instinctive reaction is about enforcement. Chris’ story led me to wonder when using a calculator stopped being considered cheating.
I am constantly fascinated by the myriad “small” changes the Internet is causing in our lives and how these changes, when writ large across society, are totally transformational. This is one of the network laws I frame as “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). Here is another example. To get to this example, first take a moment to think through this exercise. You are back in junior high. You get a very unremarkable assignment: Write a paper on the three branches of U.S. government and highlight how the executive branch has changed over time. How do you complete this assignment? If you were like me – you would:
Head to the library and try and find a generic reference book
Look it up in your home encyclopedia – and get a two page (at best) summary.
Ask mom and dad for their “expertise” (mine, by the way, had none but they still helped out)
Call your smart friend on the telephone with a plea for help
All during this assignment you are copying sections from the encyclopedia in long hand – taking notes from mom or dad – and assembling your paper. Now consider the way this same assignment was completed last week by my friend’s son Jaime. Jaime is 13 years old. Jaime logged into Facebook and began an instant message chat with three friends working on the same assignment. Each was using Google to find excerpts from magazines, newspapers articles, historical archives, university websites etc. Each friend was sharing the choice links they found via the chat window. When Jaime found something useful he did a simple cut and paste into a Word Document that was open in another window. Now take a moment to think of how powerful this experience is – and how much it differs from how you and I spent our formative years learning how to learn. (1) Jaime is working collaboratively, with friends and (2) accessing a repository of documents that were completely out of our reach when we were in junior high. (3) He is multitasking across several programs and lines of communication at once. (4) Jaime simply uses cut and paste to begin organizing his draft – moving text from primary sources to his personal paper. All of this represents a radical acceleration in productivity, and shifts working time from mindless task (copy chunks of text in long hand) to creative and collaborative thinking (what does this text mean in relation to the assignment I am completing, what do my friends see as valuable). Small is Big: Imagine this shift multiplied across the hundreds of millions of students like Jaime that are working in a new way – both procedurally (computer based) and behaviorally (collaborating). This shift is occuring not only in our schools but also in our work and home life.
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.
About Joshua-Michéle Ross
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.