links for 2008-04-30

The importance of pigheadedness

I just read an essay by Clay Shirky, Gin, Television and Social Surplus, about how the industrial revolution has resulted, after a brief period of societal gin-soaking, in a surplus of time and productive capacity which has been mopped up by TV sitcoms. Now, however, this social surplus is being put to use in things like Wikipedia, World of Warcraft and blogging. People are taking their spare time and energy and they’re doing something with it.

It’s a great essay, and I strongly recommend that you pop over and read it, right now, all the way through, because it articulates something that many of us know is happening, but which a particularly large chunk of the media hasn’t cottoned on to yet. It’s not the content of Clay’s essay that I want to further discuss, but one little line that has much broader ramifications:

The normal case of social software is still failure; most of these experiments don’t pan out.

Every now and again I’ll be talking to a client or a journalist or some random person at a conference, and they’ll ask me if I think that social software is a fad. Invariably they’ll have anecdotal evidence of some company, somewhere, who tried to start up blogs or a wiki inside their business, and it failed. That, they say, is proof that social software has nothing to offer business, and that if we give it a few more years it will just go away. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The problem with this interpretation is that these failures – which are common, but largely unexamined and unpublished because no one likes to admit they failed – are part and parcel of the process of negotiating how we can use these new tools in business. They are inevitable and, were they discussed in public, I’d even call them necessary as they would allow us to learn what does and doesn’t work. Sadly, we don’t often get a glimpse inside failed projects so we end up making the same mistakes over and over until someone, somewhere sees enough bits of the jigsaw to start putting them together.

There is a lot of failure in the use of social software in business, on the web, in civic society, but we need to see this as a part of the cycle, a step along on the learning curve. We can’t afford to stop experimenting, just because something failed once, or because it didn’t work out for someone else. And we can’t afford to take part in the Great Race To Be Second, either, because if you’re waiting to see how other businesses succeed (or fail) before you leave the starting line, you’re not going to be second, you’re going to be last.

From a business point of view, the nice thing about social software is that a lot of is is free or ridiculously cheap, so the monetary cost of failure is low and made up mainly of the cost of people’s time. There is no need to judge a social software project based on the same criteria as, say, a massive software deployment from a megacorp vendor that cost millions and took three years, yet these are the terms by which many businesses are judging their blog, wiki, or social networking experiments. And because the tech is so cheap, businesses can afford to run many small experiments to find out what works before they deploy tools more widely; indeed, they cannot afford not to.

But we also need to recognise that the biggest speed bump in social software projects is invariably going to be the social, not the software. The technology is improving every month, mainly because it’s being developed by small, nimble vendors who use the software they create and want it to be the very best it can be. But the tech is only a fraction of the battle. The rest, like Soylent Green, is made of people.

And this is where the problem with failure comes in. Generally speaking, people don’t much like change. They don’t even like choice all that much, although they’ll tell you that they do. They certainly don’t like failure, or anything that looks even remotely like it. (Especially in the UK, although I think that the US is a bit more tolerant.) And they don’t like trying again when things do go a bit wobbly.

Failure, real or perceived, is inextricably entwined with status and, frequently, if a project looks like it’s about to go bottom up, instead of figuring out how to save it, people figure out how to distance themselves enough to save face. In a business culture where rewards and punishments are focused on the individual, the teamwork and collaboration required to make a social software project a success can become too much of a risk. But if you’ve got the right skills and personality, you can turn that around.

To be successful at social software implementations in business you need firstly to have a solid understanding of how people work and relate to computers, tools, and each other. You need to understand how to introduce tools in a way that is non-threatening and which emphasises utility and benefits. You need to understand the political climate within your business, and know how to route around anyone who’s threatening to be obstructive.

Secondly, you need to be really pigheaded. If one team doesn’t take to a wiki, try working with another. If one blog fails, try to figure out why and then start another. Iterate. Change things. Experiment. Try again. After all, it’s only failure if you give up.

links for 2008-04-28

Shovelware 2.0

When I started in online journalism, we struggled with aspirations that far out-stripped our resources. We were small teams passionate about creating a new medium but still dependent and subservient to legacy media – newspapers and radio and television stations. We yearned to do original journalism but often had to settle for ‘re-purposing’ other journalist’s content. We did as much as we could that treated the internet as its own medium, that developed multi-media story telling methods that simply weren’t possibly in print or in linear, broadcast radio and television. But most of it was simply shovelware: TV and radio scripts transcribed and thrown up online and print stories chucked on the internet. Or as says:

Shovelware is content taken from any source and put on the Web as fast as possible with little regard for appearance and usability.

It’s sad to see that so-called integration sometimes isn’t really about integration at all. It’s about a maintenance of organisational and internal political status quo. It’s about maintaining the dominance of print and broadcast and the subservient, derivative position of the internet. It continues to miss or ignore the opportunities the internet provides for journalists, which now isn’t defensible in terms of audience numbers, advertising revenue or future prospects for growth. And as my friend and former colleague at the BBC, Alf Hermida, says, it just doesn’t work. The BBC is advertising for a “web conversion producer”. I wonder if this is a position to produce web-literate producers from television and radio journalists. But seriously, Alf says:

This is a flawed concept and risks undermining the reputation for excellent online journalism that the BBC News website has built over the past 10 years. In any case, we tried in the early days of the site when I was a daily news editor, and it didn’t work.

It also implies that online is an after-thought, picking up the scraps off the broadcast table, rather than considered an equal.

Now, I’m not arguing for internet primacy over other media. This is not a zero-sum game. The legacy media still make most of the profits in real money terms, despite the double digit growth rates in online revenue for the past few years. Just as I say that the internet and on demand digital medium need to be understood on the basis of their own strengths, television, radio and print still have unique strengths. As Steve Yelvington says, the internet is one of the centers for a successful media business. He adds:

My rule of thumb is a simple one: Use the right tool for the right job. The Internet’s strength is collaborative interaction; print’s strengths are linearity, focus and serendipitous discovery.

But as news organisations struggle, some for survival, they will fail if, due to organisational in-fighting, they repeat the same mistakes of the late 1990s. Those few of us in online journalism who survived the crash have seen this before. Unfortunately, while we have a decade or more of experience, we digital natives still don’t have the political capital when we go head-to-head with the powers that be in our own organisations. If media bosses want to engage in Shovelware 2.0, they can use that shovel to bury their own businesses.

links for 2008-04-25

  • Kevin: News organisations need to pay attention to this. Google’s app engine, Amazon’s S3 and EC2 and open source software are driving down the cost of start-up and innovation experimentation. Too many companies suffer from the ‘not invented here’ complex
  • Kevin: Steve Yelvington: “Context creates value. And another way: Loyalty accrues to the place that helps you find things, not necessarily the place that produces things.”
  • Kevin: Yahoo has been building a nice stable of Web 2.0 properties, but they haven’t really done much to connect those dots until now. Yahoo’s embrace of open standards is finally making that possible. Another important lesson in being part of the network
    (tags: web2.0 yahoo API)

Suw on Live Interviews Online

I’m usually rubbish at pimping myself, but I spent a couple of hours yesterday online, writing up answers to Dave Witzel’s questions over at Live Interviews Online. It was fun to talk about what I do for a living, how I got into speaking Welsh, and to just start to tickle around the edges of ideas about business culture that I’ve been having lately. Even if I do say so myself, the interview has come out rather well, so do pop over and take a look!

links for 2008-04-23