Saying goodbye to Computer Weekly’s Social Enterprise blog

Last week, my discussions with Computer Weekly’s new editor ground to a halt and the decision was made to close the blog. This was my last blog post there.

I’m sad to say that this will be my last post here on Computer Weekly’s Social Enterprise. The sums, apparently, no longer add up, so I’m afraid I must bid you farewell. I don’t know what’s going to happen here, whether someone else will take over or whether the archives will be preserved in aspic. But I do know that I’m sad to see the blog go and will miss it.

It’s been a really great time writing here. I’ve read a lot, learnt a lot, written a lot, and met some lovely people. So thank you for reading, for being a part of this experience with me. If you want to carry on reading my stuff, I’ll now go back to writing regularly on my own blog, Strange Attractor so please do feel free to join myself and co-author Kevin Anderson over there. And if any of you fancy hiring me, feel free to get in touch.

There’s more to say about all this, particularly as it pertains to wider industry trends, but I’ll leave that for another blog post.

Luckily for you, oh Strange Attractor reader, this does now mean that I’ll be back blogging here much more often. Kev will be pleased! (I think he’s been feeling a little lonely here the last few months…!)

links for 2010-05-27

Life is not a marathon, it’s a series of sprints

If you can get past the slightly rambling intro, this conversation between Jonathan Fields and Tony Schwartz is a fascinating look at what’s wrong with the way we currently tend to work. It really starts to get interesting about 8 minutes in.

Although very focused on American business and culture, pretty much everything they say relates to British and European work culture.
One important idea they discuss, and something I’ve found essential myself, is the idea of pulsing or sprinting when working: to focus for a while and then relax for a bit. This idea is common in athletics, where it’s called the work-rest ratio: “It’s as important to renew energy as it is to spend energy if [you] want to be a consistently great [athletics] performer.”
We forget too easily that the brain is an organ that requires periods of replenishment as much as muscles do. If you work your muscles too hard, they ache, so we learn very early on not to overdo it. Yet we expect our brain to perform at maximum capacity, consistently, throughout our workday. It’s just not possible, yet we don’t allow for this fact in the way that we work.
Schwartz also says, “It’s not the number of hours people work that matters, it’s the value they produce during the hours they work, so stop worrying about how many hours that person spends at their desk, and start figuring out, What can I do to help this person design his life so that when he’s working or she’s working, she’s really working?”
To me this is the essence of what social media is in business is all about. We, as humans, work better when we are socially connected. It fulfils a fundamental human need to be part of a group whose whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Social media also provides ways to communicate and collaborate more effectively and more easily, to benefit from the wisdom in the crowd. As we become more enmeshed in our community, so our ability to solve problems by drawing upon the resources of that community increases.
Social media is, at the moment, only doing a fraction of what it could for business. It’s an area full of potential and as we start to marry technology, psychology, business and human nature together, we are beginning to find ways to unlock our potential, not just as individuals but as members of a huge social gestalt.
Most businesses using social media at the moment are dabbling, going for the easy, obvious wins like marketing or some internal Wikipedia clone. We need more business executives to be brave, to think about their business as a multi-human organism that has its own needs and that isn’t being properly fed by current business practices and cultures.
When I look at what could be done, how we could use social media to really change our work environments in to something more effective, more enjoyable, I really do think we have a long, long road ahead of us. Change is often slow and incremental. We need some businesses to take a deep breath and leap, to remake their internal culture, to be more human, using social media as the agent of change.
But ultimately, I think what we’ll see is the old cultures dying off as new, nimble, socially aware businesses rise up in their stead. This new era of socially capable business is only just now dawning.

Conflict of interest: Success vs the user

I’m very wary of what sort of metrics and definitions of success are used to decide whether a project is working or not. To often, the wrong metrics and definitions are used, resulting in bad managerial decisions that are based on flawed assumptions.
A couple of good posts about how metrics and definitions of success (and, therefore, business models) can work against the user: OKCupid talks about why you should never pay for online dating, and Joshua Porter points out a paragraph in one of Mike Davidson’s posts which explains why companies’ iPhone/iPad apps are often better than their websites. In short, on a mobile app they don’t have the opportunity to finagle the user experience to artificially bump up their metrics.
In both cases, you have a situation where the metrics and definitions of success upon which the business model relies distort the user experience by forcing them to take actions which are not necessarily in their best interests. Indeed in these cases, a swift and satisfying experience for the user is damaging to the business providing it.
When you’re putting together a social media project, think first about what the most beneficial outcome for your users would be. Then figure out it can form the basis of a business model (hint: your income/ROI may be orthogonal to your desired user outcome) and then how that can be measured.
Do not start with a metric, build a business model on top of it, and then force the user to have a shoddy experience for the sake of your bottom line. And yes, this applies just as much to enterprise social media as any other sort. Don’t start thinking that ‘number of edits’ on a wiki is a definition of success, because that just means you’ll push people into more pointless editing and will take your focus of signs of real success, e.g. people being able to achieve their goals more quickly and more efficiently.

How offline social networking works

This is a great video explaining how the ‘Widower effect’ works, and how it applies to all offline social networks. In short, what you do and what happens to you is affected by more than just the people around you, but also the people around them… and the people around them.

This is essential information for anyone working on the adoption of social media in business.
Hat tip to Adam Tinworth.

Google to add Blogger to Google Apps

Google have announced that they are adding a raft of tools to Google Apps, including Blogger. Perhaps it’s a sign that Blogger is growing up, although they’ll need to develop it much further for it to really compete with WordPress, but it is certainly better than an awful lot of so-called enterprise blogging systems.

The addition of Blogger to the Google Apps infrastructure will make it trivially easy to create and maintain internal blogs for businesses who are not interested in running their own intranet servers. This makes the social media intranet much easier for all types of business and could be an important move for the wider adoption of blogs in business.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Kaiser Kuo on China

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible?

Google’s announcement in January that it would shut down rather than continue to submit to censorship in China. It created a lot of column inches about foreign businesses operating in China and also about cybersecurity.

Kaiser believes that focusing on censorship and The Great Firewall in China is actually crippling our ability to deal with China. It’s a too convenient narrative. He used the image of Sergey Brin standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen? Square. The Chinese internet is very robust and interesting and deserves attention in its own right. Quoting a Chinese scholar, he says that The Great Firewall is being seen as the Iron Curtain 2.0. The US government is sending very clear messages by referring to this The Great Firewall as another Iron Curtain.

We have this image of Chinese netizens as a group of skinny patriotic hackers or cosmopolitan aspiring democrats. Often, he says that the reality is somewhere in between. Chinese rarely go outside of China to see content. They very rarely bump into The Great Firewall, although Twitter, YouTube and other western sites are blocked. He finds that regrettable. They often bump into self-discipline censorship. Any site whatsoever will receive from any number of ministries what the provisos on content. They will redact words or ask you to close accounts. If companies don’t comply, they can face penalties all the way up to being shut down.

However, the focus on censorship obscures the development of technology and the internet in China. There are 404m internet users in China, more users than people in the US. There are 800m mobile handset subscribers in China. There are companies such as the instant messaging service QQ, which has 80% of all internet users. The number of accounts, because of multiple accounts by individuals, dwarfs the number of internet users in China.

The internet in China can be described more as an entertainment super-highway rather than an information super-highway. In the last two or three years, internet censorship has become more draconian in China. More sites have been blocked, and the restrictions on domestic sites has become more onerous. At the same time, in recent years, the internet has emerged as a full fledged public sphere in Chinese life, something that has never existed in China.

There is discussion about issues that are assumed to be off limits, but there is a great level of creativity to conduct these discussions. Officials at all levels of government are constantly taking the temperature of online opinion. You see policy decisions changing in response to online public opinion. A picture was taken and posted online of an official wearing a watch and smoking a cigarette “clearly out of his pay grade”. The official was jailed.

A woman was accosted by a couple of men and one was a party official. She stabbed the men and killed them, but there was such an outcry online that she wasn’t prosecuted. We are seeing a real development of a public sphere in China. When we focus solely on censorship, then we miss this phenomenon.

Everyone here wants to advance internet freedom in China, and Kaiser is quick to say that he supports it. But when the US government that it is dedicating millions of dollars to support internet censorship circumvention technologies, many people changed their minds about the official party line. Some liberal Chinese users came to accept the view that the internet was being used for imperialism. Planting the American flag on this operation might have backfired.

The development of the Chinese internet will eventually overwhelm censors. These freedoms should be taken from within. They cannot be granted from without.

He applauds private organisations and companies working to help create that change, but to paraphrase Kaiser, government involvement brings baggage.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible?.

Juliana Rotich spoke about Ushahidi, the crowdsourced crisis reporting platform. I’ve written about Ushahidi before, and I have written about Swift River last year. During a rapidly developing event, how do you manage that torrent of information, Juliana said. You have to create an ‘information slider’, she said to help evaluate information. How do you separate signal from noise, wheat from chaff? They wanted to know how to deal with a “hot flash” event:

It was that crisis that started two members of the Ushahidi dev community (Chris Blow and Kaushal Jhalla) thinking about what needs to be done when you have massive amounts of information flying around. We’re at that point where the barriers for any ordinary person sharing valuable tactical and strategic information openly is at hand. How do you ferret the good data from the bad??

What if we listened to the crowd? Not just what is popular, that might not be pertinent.

What if we listened to victims?

What about creating a crisis dashboard. They showed how to us Tweetdeck to curate information. Information can be filtered by crowd or by algorithms. Swift River is an “aggregator with entity extraction”.  By pulling together relevant feeds, they can then parse content, creating a rich database of people, places and organisations in real time. They can create a taxonomy to deal with the data. Swift can help determine the authority of sources with algorithms. The location data can help them figure out what is happening where.

They are trying to save time, identify and rate trusted sources, surface relevant content (suppress noise) and curate it all.

Jon Gossier of Appfrica, who I met last year, has been helping to move the Swift River project forward. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but Swift recently released a web service. This is definitely a project to watch.


Al Jazeera Unplugged: Twitter and the US State Department

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible.

William May, US State Department and the office of innovative engagement, talked about public diplomacy as government to people or people to people diplomacy. The end game of that is mutual understanding. What we have now is very different than what we had 10 years ago. Ten years ago, we had 40,000 people that we moved across borders, and we had broadcasting. We have two bookends, the exchange programmes and on the other end, broadcasting. In the middle, we have all this new stuff like Twitter and QQ. Quoting another person at the State Department (Judy Hale), “The new media will work in certain places, and we’ll use the right media to reach the right people.:

There are segmented audiences (you won’t reach 15 year old via a newspaper), and we are moving form monologue to dialogue to communities. Where are those conversations taking place? Where are those communities? Mobile is a huge game changer for us. They may have never touched a laptop or a computer but they have a mobile phone. Virtual worlds is another opportunity to us. Using the right tool is a huge opportunity for us.

  • 2007 they began using Second Life. They used chat and IRC for training.
  • 2008 ECA Social Network on Ning to engage not just people in exchange programmes but engaging the whole world. Their own video contest. Went from zero to 20,000 users in months. They created a mobile game called X-Life for English language learning. They created a digital outreach team. (6 writers in Arabic, 2 in person. They are transparent that they work for the State Department. They attempt to counter misinformation.)
  • 2009 They created the Office of Innovative Engagement. They created 23 Things and the FSI training (institutional things he said)
  • 2010 They created the American Center in Jakarta and implemented a metrics programme (using something called Crimson Hexagon a metrics and opinion analysis tool )

He provided some examples such as President Obama’s speech in Ghana. They wanted to increase the engagement. The embassies in Africa created hard copy press releases to traditional media asking for text message questions. They got 17,00 SMS messages from 85 countries. They filter the questions into five categories and created a podcast that they sent out to traditional media in Africa. (FM radio is to Africa what Satellite TV is to the Middle East, a transformative shift in media.)

Global versus local. Everything is local again. He gave the example of climate change. Do people want the global picture or how sea level will change where they live?

The Department of State has 180 Facebook pages, 50 Twitter accounts and also YouTube accounts.

They are bringing contacts they made in virtual worlds in Egypt to the US, bridging the virtual and real worlds.


Al Jazeera Unplugged: Robin Sloan of Twitter

Robin Sloan works for Twitter with their media partnerships. He started off with a few statistics.

  • Twitter has 105m users worldwide.
  • 30% of users are mobile.
  • Growing faster internationally than in the US.
  • 1bn SMS per day.
  • 60m tweets a day.

Robin said that inventors don’t always understand why their inventions work or how people use it. However, they do believe that there are some reasons why it does work.

We think that Twitter works because it’s an information network not a social network.

Many people are using it for ‘one-way’ relationships, such as following news organisations or TV shows. It is much like a traditional broadcast network.

They believe that Twitter works because there is “less friction”. They believe that this allows people to use Twitter in moments when they are waiting, interstitial time. What if news presented itself with no friction, without entering “news mode”. To read The New York Times or watch Al Jazeera, you have to enter this headspace, this focus, “news mode”. What happens if you could get information without entering “news mode”?

We just figured out websites, but he said: “Am I saying that news websites have too much information? Yes.” I think this is about presenting information in the flow of life without friction. This reminds me a lot like TV. In some ways, this becomes the new programme guide. They don’t look at the EPG; they look at Twitter.

Google just released Google TV this week. TV is still the world’s biggest medium. It has an audience of 4bn people. Google want to change the operating system of TV. Twitter and TV, these things really do go together.

How does this argument mean for news? How can you present information in context, in the interstitial moments in people’s lives. How can you make consuming news ridiculously simple? How can you present pure information, pure message? Real-time information happens when that friction approaches zero. This is the challenge. As a platform, as a medium, TV is behind in some ways. It’s ahead in many ways, TV needs no interface.

At Twitter, we still think that it’s way too complicated. There is too much friction.