BarCamp, Community & New Ways

Having recently seen the film, I’m now reading the comic novel Watchmen. It is the kind of fiction that really gets you thinking about many things. A great quote from the book is:

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking … The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If I had only known, I should have become a watchmaker. – Albert Einstein

It picks up on some themes that have arisen in a number of ways since the GFC. Primary among these is a desire for community and new ways of doing business that are rooted in humanity and authenticity.

We are seeing the moral, intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the old ways of doing business. We no longer want a business world where crazy virtual assets can be created and drive the entire world to the brink of economic ruin. We are amazed that private companies (like AIG) can accept government hand-outs to stave off complete collapse and still pay millions of dollars in bonuses to the very people who’ve brought us to this crisis point & victimise other workers who did their jobs.

In essence we are seeing a complete failure of leadership, where business managers consider only short term gains and apply short term incentives.  And because of this short term focus the triple bottom line is often just a joke or a box to tick as a matter of form. Thus important issues like the future of humankind and our planet are not seen as the proper province of business. Business is seen as only responsible for delivering short term gains to shareholders.

And, just as Einstein said, the solution to this problem lies “at the heart of mankind” and it is because our world has changed but our “way of thinking” has not changed with it. One of the problems with the Wall Street bail-out is that we are still desperately trying to hold on to the old world that is passing. Organisations and institutions that are no longer viable need to be allowed to fail.

But I see signs of hope in many places in spite of the gloom. A great example of this was Bar Camp Canberra #2. It was a collaborative gathering of diverse people who are interested in technology.

It was a bunch of really smart people ranging from mid-teens to over-40s and beyond. It was a gathering where people questioned the way we’ve done business and technology up until now.

Above all it was a gathering of hopeful and optimistic people who are working to build new things in new ways. If there’s a BarCamp near you I recommend dropping in – you can find out about them at barcamp.org. Some other interesting artifacts from BarCamp Canberra are:

Ada Lovelace Day

March 24 is Ada Lovelace Day – and many will ask who was Ada?

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Ada Lovelace, 1838

Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She was born in 1815, the year of Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo.

Ada wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine which though described on paper, was never actually built. She also wrote the first description of a computer and software.

Her achievements are all the more remarkable because they were done in a time when women were still considered to be chattels with few rights as separate individuals apart from men (fathers, husbands, brothers).  These times are well described by Florence Fenwick Miller (1854-1935), one of the first women to qualify in medicine, in a speech to the National Liberal Club:

“Under exclusively man-made laws women have been reduced to the most abject condition of legal slavery in which it is possible for human beings to be held…under the arbitrary domination of another’s will, and dependent for decent treatment exclusively on the goodness of heart of the individual master.”

At the time when Ada was born and grew up it was most unusual for a woman to be educated in anything more than needlework, let alone in mathematics or science.  In fact, it was only in reaction to her father’s wild romanticism that her mother insisted on an education for her daughter. And it was only due to her privileged position amongst the aristocracy in Britain that was even possible. Ada died in 1852 at the age of 36.

It is interesting to note that a number of male writers and historians minimise Ada’s achievements and term her as merely Babbage’s “muse” or as “assistant” (e.g. here).  But I tend to take that view of her with a grain of salt as, even today,  men so often minimise the contributions of women to scientific endeavour.

One of the amazing things about our current generation of women is that we have the internet and access to learn whatever we want.  In western society there are few explicit barriers to women having successful careers in technology. Women have this freedom today because, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, we have achieved all this  “… by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”.  And by giants I mean the pioneers like:

Today is a good day to remember and give thanks for these remarkable women and how they forged a way for the women who followed them.

Online social network revolution

I’m not sure that most people have realised yet, but social networks are creating a revolutionary change in the way we interact with other people. And they are revolutionary in that they also change how we do things and our expectations of how things work.

Non-localised proximity Once we needed to be physically proximate to people to create and maintain social relationships, but now online social networks enable us to do this in spite of physical or geographical distance.

Loose Ties over Time In the past we met people in various circumstances in real life and then we moved on, losing contact with those acquaintances. Now we are seeing the first generation of young people who have maintained loose contact with many of their former daily contacts. Now our acquaintances and friends are linked to us by means of various social networks – e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Xing, Twitter, etc – and we may never lose them.

Fewer degrees of separation Previously studies indicated that there were approximately six degrees of separation between any two people on the planet.  But with online social networks we are seeing an amplification of that and a reduction of degrees of separation to as few as one degree between people.  Twitter is a great example of this phenomenon, here’s a recent example.

Consumption on demand Until very recently we consumed media as and when the media outlet or creator decided we should.  Now – with the rise of broadband access and easy to use tools like iPods, YouTube, or BitTorrent – people are starting to consume media on their own terms.  No more waiting until Thursday at 7.30 pm to watch a favourite show, just download it while you’re at work and watch it over dinner, or even watch it on your mobile phone while in transit.

Co-creation & co-design In the past design and creation of online artifacts was the province of experts.  Now anyone with a computer or mobile phone and a broadband connection can design and create digital artifacts.  YouTube, Facebook and MySpace have created spaces where millions of ordinary people create, share or repurpose other people’s digital artifacts.

Technology as a utility We are now seeing the emergence of technology as a utility. And, if it is a utility then, just like the way we use a light switch, we expect technology to work and we don’t expect to need any specialised technical knowledge to make it work.  This means that creation of the base technology still requires specialist skills and knowledge, but that user interfaces and operation must be easy for non-technical people. This ease of use is not merely a desire any longer, it is a demand – and technology that does not meet that demand will be dumped unceremoniously.

Why does any of this matter? All of these things are creating new expectations of how things work in the minds of ordinary people.  They also create feedback loops and mutually reinforce each other.  But for me some of the most interesting features of social networks and social computing are:

  • creation of many loose links between people – and they don’t ever have to meet in real life to create bonds
  • enabling connections between people who might not have ever met in real life (e.g. think about how hard it was for a Goth stamp collector in a small town to meet like-minded individuals pre-internet)
  • ability to create applications and content and to share these easily
  • crashing of the degrees of separation between individuals – also making it easy to find relevant people via search and newer semantic approaches
  • ability to seek out answers to questions and to form coalitions easily without big overheads of effort or cost

Nick Hodge, me & Ada Lovelace Day

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day on 24 March 2009, Nick Hodge has kindly invited me to participate in his show. More details over at Nick’s blog.

Lord knows what we’re going to talk about – but you can guarantee that between the two of us it will be eclectic and perhaps a bit geeky! Perhaps even a LOLcat will be referenced?

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Ada Lovelace

Broadcasting at 8:30pm AEST, Tuesday 24th March 2009. There will be themed music on the stream from 7:30pm to get into the mood.

Keep this link handy: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/-undercam. Also @dekrazee1 will be Nick’s meta-backchannel producer.

Hypertext to hyperconnectivity

The invention of hypertext and its implementation in the form of the World Wide Web was a revolution akin to the creation of the modern printing press. We are still seeing the reverberations of this revolution in many spheres of life.

With the implementation of the Gutenberg printing press back in the mid-1400s it was possible to *democratize information. Society was able too move away from oral traditions and formalize knowledge into books. It also enabled knowledge to be easily transported from place to place without losing the sense of the argument.

Books and reading fuelled both the Reformation and growth of democracy in the western world. The ability to read gave ordinary people access to ideas and information that did not exist in their everyday lives.

However, a constraint with books is that it is hard to combine ideas from many books unless you write another book. It can be difficult to reference from a particular idea in one book to another idea within another book. In fact, doing this on a large scale requires big investments in time, effort, space and money.

But with the revolution of hypertext it became easy to link different texts and thus to link particular ideas together in ways that had previously been challenging. It also became possible to link other media together using the same techniques.

Then with web 2.0 the notion of hypertext was transformed and used to create links between people by means of online social networks. People are now being connected with each other (hyperconnected as argued by some) and this is revolutionising social relations in ways similar to the changes wrought by hypertext.

Also with web 2.0 the ability to create and transform online media was democratized. Previously (in the web 1.0 world) specialist technical knowledge was required to manipulate text and other online media. With the development of user generated content capabilities in web 2.0 the need for technical skills greatly reduced and thus creation and co-creation were democratized.

* By “democratization” in this context I mean that the ability to create texts or hypertexts moves from the specialist technical community (book publishers or software programmers) to ordinary people who do not have any particular specialist skills

The Real Generation Gap

Many authors and commentators have been talking about the notion of generations in terms of age cohorts – baby boomers, generation X, generation Y, etc. For example, Mark McCrindle is a well known Australian researcher who has written extensively on this topic.

But I am not convinced that analysing people simply on the basis of their date of birth is particularly relevant. Logic indicates that within each age cohort is a bell curve that can describe the members in terms of all the psychographic and other analytical approaches that we’ve used in marketing for generations. Thus each age cohort will have its share of early adopters or laggards with regards to change and new product adoption.

In both my work and personal life I am seeing the development of a different kind of generation gap, and it is not one that is age based. Rather it is about the individual’s relationship to technology and their willingness or desire to become and to remain connected.

This phenomenon is what I tend to call the true digital divide. There is a continuum of connectedness. Where we see some people, from any of the age cohorts, who are embracing hyperconnectivity, and who feel strange when disconnected from the hive mind of their extended social networks. And we also see others who do not even want to use email or a mobile phone. Then there are people at any stage between these two extremes.

Thus we are seeing people who love being connected via their mobile phones and social networks like Twitter or Facebook from all age groups. We are also seeing young people rejecting technology. It’s not all about age, it’s about your relationship to technology, to privacy and openness, and to connections.

The real generation gap is not about age any more!

For more info check out Mark McCrindle’s report (opens pdf)

Social media rules of engagement

Back in the old days at GE (pre GFC) we were taught that all business ideas or problems should be considered from the “outside-in” or from the customer’s point of view. This was part of their Six Sigma approach using Voice of the Customer principles.  Now admittedly that was a few years ago, but the principle remains sound for business in general and also in relation to social media.

There are many voices articulating rules for social media engagement – from simple  ideas like ‘treat people the way you would a friend’ or ‘treat people the way you’d like to be treated’ to long lists of tips.

One thing that many of these approaches have in common is looking at things from the business perspective rather than that of the customer.

For example, hypothetically: I might treat friends (as I would like to be treated) by calling them a boofhead & punching them in the shoulder. Such interaction might simply annoy a customer who is a suburban mother of two.  Instead it might be better to find out how that customer actually wants to be dealt with.

Indeed it might even be worth understanding if there are different kinds of customers who’d like to be treated in different ways.  Perhaps football-watching beer-drinking men might like to be called a boofhead & punched in the shoulder?

One thing that social computing has enabled is for micro-segments to emerge.  Once we treated customers as a large block, dissected them up into fairly big chunks and called that segmentation.  But now we have the ability to mine data to a degree unimagined in the past. And this capability lets us understand the groups within our customers.  Data mining is a key capability powered by web 2.0 and social computing.  We are now in a position to obtain deep insights into our customers, their needs and their behaviours.

We have also seen classic examples of companies totally misreading their customer audience.  Motrin Moms was an amazing lesson for onlookers late in 2008.  Within hours really angry mothers online via Twitter had mobilised against the brand and Motrin backpedalled furiously to quiet the issue.  Jeremiah Owayang gave a good summary of this situation with Motrin Moms (as they came to be called).  He also offers some insights into testing and planning these kind of campaigns.

Social computing has brought about the democratisation of the means of communication.  In the past customers, like the Motrin Moms, did not have access to the means of protest.  But now within hours they can slam down a carefully planned and executed media strategy.  The sooner businesses come to terms with this democratisation of communication and the related shift from monologue to dialogue the easier life will be for all of us.

Social networking & social norms

New technology often seems to take a while for us to work out how to fit new cultural practices around it. I suspect that social networking fits the norm in that regard. Human beings have been networking in forest, fields, villages and cities for aeons – but it is only very recently that we have begun to do so mediated by computers and the internet.

There are usually strongly defined customs in most parts of the world about how to network socially in real life. It is a bit like dancing, the rules are well known and everybody in a group just knows and follows them. Another example of this are the websites that provide guidance on how to socialise in foreign lands when travelling on business.

However, with online social networking the definition of cultural norms is still a work in progress. And some of the cultural norms that are still evolving in relation to this include:

  • boundaries between public & private or between work & personal
  • how and when to initiate, accept or reject contact
  • how to terminate contact when relationships breakdown
  • assuring against negative behaviours like stalking and abuse

Some individuals are creating their own rules for online behaviour – one of my simple ones is not to say anything to someone online that I would not say to their face in real life. But the group norms are more of a challenge. For a start we are often talking about global communities with people from many different national cultures and races.

There are long standing examples of well self-regulated online communities – especially in the area of online games such as WoW.  And we are also seeing the evolution of new roles, such as community Moderators or Managers, to help coordinate community activities and relations.

We know that, as with all human activity,  group norms for social networking will emerge and be accepted (or rebelled against).  It is the interim period, in which there is lack of clarity, that we’ll see people losing their jobs because of things like photos on Facebook or comments on Twitter.

Here are some other interesting discussions on this topic:
The rules of social media engagement: All of them.
Why Must We Obey Social Media Rules?
What Are The Unspoken Rules of Social Networks?
The Unwritten Rules of Social Networking
Proposed Rules of Engagement for the Social Network