Social media, reputation and immediacy

Reputation is critical for any person or business – we only have to look at the professional reputations of the James Hardie directors & managers in the news today.

Social media can be a great way for companies & individuals to build their reputations. But it also means that we need to manage reputation proactively. This is because social media harnesses the effects of network amplification, for both good and ill.

The great success stories show how it can be done effectively. For example, Tony Hsieh of Zappos (just sold to Amazon) has used social media – like blogs & Twitter – to share the corporate culture & to support both customer service and branding goals.

Also a number of people I know personally have obtained new jobs via social media – posting about their availability for work on their blogs, LinkedIn or Twitter.

But the other side (some might call it the dark side) works just as effectively. One friend of mine lost a job because of a seemingly innocent (but slightly derogatory) remark on Twitter. Or the very recent examples of:

The very thing that makes social media a powerful force for building online profiles so rapidly also enables the downside unfold just as quickly. The sheer velocity with which bad news can spread nowadays makes social media a sword that cuts both ways.

As Jeff Nolan points out:

“… there is no latency in communication today.”

Twitter, purpose and community

A while back Twitter was having some real problems with stability and scalability and it dawned on me that they, like many innovators,  had not realised what kind of invention they had made.  They talked about it as a ‘microblogging‘ platform, that is, as a very short message publishing service.  This is a very web 1.0 view of what this type of platform enabled.

Instead, what Twitter (and it’s competitors) enabled was conversations.  And conversations enable community. So, without realising it,  what they had actually created was a community building platform.

One place that this is really evident is in Australia, especially in Sydney.  About four years ago I recall complaining that there was no real tech community in Sydney even though there were lots of web development and hi-tech companies in town.  At the end of 2007, coincident with the beta of Twitter, a number of people got together and decided to do something about it.  This gave rise, or new life, to various groups.

All of this could have happened using email lists and online user groups, just as it had in the past.  But I’ve found that those groups are hard to maintain momentum with if you are only meeting once a week, month or similar.  What you need to build real community is a village.

This is because villages provide ambient contact on a regular basis that reinforces relationships and creates personal knowledge of each other as members of the community.  Luckily for us Twitter came along at just the right time to provide that kind of ambient community building contact.

One of the first shoots of this community in Sydney was the formation of the  Sydney Twitter Underground Brigade (a.k.a. @STUB & the guys at Happener deserve kudos for their support of @STUB over the years).

This was an important step in creation of a sense of community in the tech world in Sydney as it brought us together in real life on a regular basis.  And that real life contact was reinforced by ongoing conversations on Twitter. Now we know what each other look like in real life and maintain contact with each other, though geographically dispersed, via Twitter.  These days, if I walk into a web or tech conference in Sydney, there’s a lot of familiar faces.  And all this is due to the community building that Twitter has enabled.

Sure, while Twitter serves to keep us in contact regularly, the community is also supported by various blogs, wikis, Google Groups, and web pages.  But it is Twitter that we use to organise and publicise  a conference, or a picnic, or drinks at the pub (check out Silicon Beach drinks each Friday in Sydney).

Here’s some pictures from a recent family tweetup/picnic that was enabled by (a) the community built via Twitter (most of us met first on Twitter & then in real life); (b) the ability to send both broadcast and point-to-point messages via Twitter for logistics & planning; and (c) to remind me it was on – even though I had completely forgotten to diarise it.

Note re language
For some reason I don’t know, tweetups in Australia became focused around TUBs (or Twitter Underground Brigades) and most big cities have a ‘TUB’ (Perth PTUB; Melbourne MTUB; Brisbane BTUB; Canberra CTUB – if I’ve missed any please let me know).  The term ‘TUB’ has now become vernacular for tweetup around these part – hence there’s a fairly regular @girlTUB and a recent #familyTUB (see pics below).

Is social computing just increasing our anxiety?


Since the early days of the internet revolution and web 2.0 I’ve been watching & participating in various ways.

And over the past few years I’ve seen its powerful properties of network amplification working in practice. My friend and colleague Mark Pesce has recently discussed these properties in his Big Ideas talk.

But with all of this I’ve also observed how the internet has amplified our anxiety as well as amplifying goodness.

For example, on Twitter over the past 12 months, it has morphed from a casual communication and community platform into a sales and spruiking platform, with increasingly desperate multi level marketing or affiliate schemes.

It seems to me that much of what we do as humans merely seeks to assuage anxiety, and the internet is the latest place to manifest that anxiety.

So much of the activity that I see online now reeks of desperation and striving to sell, be successful and rich. But it seems that we have the opportunity to create a different kind of world with this technology and its ability to connect people beyond borders and barriers.

Never before have we had technology that supports openness, collaboration and sharing on such a broad scale.  We have the opportunity to use this technology to do good & creative things – like Action Aid’s Project TOTO that I’ve mentioned before, or the recent Live Local Challenge.

Perhaps one way to assuage this anxiety is to use up our personal energy (and use the technology) to change the world for the better in little, local ways every day?  We could choose openness over constriction, expansiveness over constraint, collaboration over competition, sustainability over wanton waste.

Project TOTO farewell gathering

For those who continue to think that Twitter is all about pimple faced geeks sitting alone in the dark at home tapping away on their computers here’s another real life event that shows differently.

Last Saturday a bunch of us gathered to farewell our friend Stilgherrian as he takes off on a trip for Action Aid Australia to Tanzania.

We gathered at Kelly’s on King Street in Newtown for a few beverages and a tasty pub meal. Sure there was some dancing, some singing along with the jukebox, and some lively debates about politics, technology, religion and philosophy. But behind it was the serious reality of Stilgherrian’s trip. Tanzania is really different and a bit more dangerous than Newtown.

What’s happening here is that a well known Twitter personality & Crikey correspondent, in the form of @stilgherrian, is participating in a “groundbreaking attempt to bring the causes of poverty closer to the Australian public”.

It’s a one of the many good causes we can support. Check out the Action Aid website to see the different ways you can help out.

Stilgherrian takes off on his trip later this week – you can track his adventures via his blog.  There’s also some more pictures from the farewell gathering on Flickr.

Social networking & your career

I had the pleasure of speaking, along with Karen Ganschow from Telstra, at the FITT CeBIT lunch today in Sydney.  We had a great turnout and there were even a few men in attendance.

It’s FITT’s 20th anniversary this year – a big milestone for a volunteer based organisation that was working to encourage women into ICT careers before it was trendy.

Here are the slides from the presentation …

Social networking in the office

We had interesting discussions about many things last night at the ACS meeting in Wollongong. But one discussion in particular – about the use of social networking platforms in the office – really helped to clarify my position.

I am getting heartily sick of the debate about whether ‘young’ folks should be allowed to access and use social networks (like Facebook or Twitter) at work during business hours. The argument usually goes thus:

At work they are supposed to be doing work, not talking to their friends. They will just abuse the privilege and chat to their mates all day long. What will happen to productivity? We’ll all be ruined! And besides I don’t use social networks therefore nobody else in the world needs to either.

Fact: Because I am older I have heard all this before. When I was an office junior my boss and another manager stood next to my desk debating if they should put a telephone my desk. As they stood there they used the precise argument outlined above. I got the phone, did not abuse it, no business was ruined & now there is no debate if a staff member gets a phone on their desk.

Roll on a few years, the same debate was had about email & by that time I was a manager. Again, the debate went precisely as outlined above. In the end everyone got email & business could hardly manage without it today.

I’m seeing a pattern here. The debate over use of social network usage is simply the latest incarnation of this old debate. There were probably similar debates about the introduction of papyrus in ancient Egypt. The issue of misuse of technology is a management issue. If people are not doing their job removing a technology will not alter that fact. If they don’t want to do their work they will find other ways of not doing when we remove Facebook access.

Over the years, as a manager, I’ve had a few staff members abuse technology to which they’ve had access. I dealt with it on a case by case basis & generally there was some rational cause of the behaviour. Never did I respond by blocking access to the technology for all staff.

In one case a contractor was phoning home every night (to India) from his desk phone. Turned out he was desperately homesick while working unpaid overtime late at night. When I raised the issue he was horrified to see the costs associated with his calls – he immediately agreed to reimburse the firm & to use a phone card in future. Problem solved.

Another case where a person was using Facebook way too much. After discussion it became clear that she hated her job & we had never realised because all earlier avoidance activity was offline. Facebook actually gave us visibility of the problem. The supervisor of this person had never realised how unhappy she was in her job because she was highly productive, doing the work in a very short time & then using the internet to amuse herself. Again, a failure of management. We had been totally under-utilizing the abilities of the ‘evil’ Facebook abuser. Solution: promote the person to a job better suited to their abilities & see their Facebook usage drop back to completely acceptable levels.

And then there was the guy who was abusing his internet access (which was being monitored across the company with full prior staff knowledge). Upon investigation it turned out that he was also abusing his corporate credit card, not performing well in his role and he was eventually terminated.

These kind of experiences are why I am totally opposed to blocking access to new communications technology for staff. Businesses need to manage staff on the quality and timeliness of their output, not upon time served in the office. And, just like email has become an essential business tool, we need to discover how to use social networks for business advantage. Again, this is why I am in favour of defining rules of engagement in social media and social computing for staff to help them to use this new technology in ways that support the business.

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

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

Is Social Media Still Serious Business? Part 3

In the business arena social media will continue to enable the agile enterprise. Social media provides businesses with the ability to build relationships. This will continue, with many organisations using social media to assist in the area of new product development – crowdsourcing new features as with recent examples by Dell, Asus, and Pepsi.

Businesses need to take the time to understand how technology can benefit their organisation and to partner with genuine experts rather than seeking out generalist agencies that often do not have a broad understand of the technology milieu. 2009 will see business continue to blur the distinction between online and offline marketing as they focus more on customer segmentation, saliency and laser focused delivery.

There has been no significant improvement in how we interact with devices since the mouse or touch screen. Over the next few years we will see a move away from textual interfaces and towards newer kinds of interfaces, such as Microsoft Surface. We could see the replacement of the traditional keyboard and mouse to innovative designs that allow for greater freedom and flexibility.

A key enabler of this innovation includes increased use of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), which offer cross platform interoperability across PC, TV and mobile devices. This includes traditional AJAX approaches to development, but also increasingly use of products like Adobe AIR, Microsoft Silverlight, and Sun JavaFX. The focus will be on increased ease of use and cross platform operability. An important challenge that will need to be addressed is data portability, and several industry initiatives are already under way.

Social media does have a future, and it is moving us towards shared experiences online via many different devices. It is going to change the way we watch television or shop. We live in a connected society now and we are moving towards a hyperconnected society enabled by social computing.