links for 2010-01-30

Are you T-shaped?

I recently discovered Keith Sawyer’s blog, Creativity & Innovation. Keith is a professor of psychology, an expert on creativity and well worth a read. In his post about cross understanding in teams he discusses the observation that teams including people with the ability to understand another’s perspective do better than teams that don’t:

[…] cross understanding can help us to explain several apparently contradictory findings in group collaboration research:

1. Diversity often has a negative impact on team performance, and this is sometimes explained by the “social categorization bias” that people have towards similar people. But in some groups, diversity does not result in reduced performance; the authors argue that this will happen when cross understanding is high.

2. In some groups, strong sub-groups can interfere with effective collaboration. But if cross understanding is high, this problem can be reduced.

Related to this is the idea of ‘T-shaped people’ who have one particular area of deep expertise which makes up the shaft of the T, but then also have knowledge and skills in other areas (the crossbar).

It strikes me that most of the social media and tech people that I admire look T-shaped to me: Leisa Reichelt, Stephanie Booth, Stephanie Troeth, David Weinberger, Euan Semple, Lloyd Davis… the list goes on. I wonder if being empathic, able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, curious about the world around it and other people’s experiences, and able to recognise patterns across disciplines is really what marks out a social media natural.

Some people really do just ‘get it’, almost without trying, whereas others just can’t wrap their heads around even basic concepts no matter how often or how clearly they are explained. I have never been able to spot a correlation between age, online experience, social media experience, activity in communities and that ability to comprehend what makes social media different to other forms of communications. Hm, that could be an interesting area of research!

links for 2010-01-29

  • Kevin: Michael Skoler writes at the Reynolds Journalism Institute blog about the iPad. "To be a game changer for news, the iPad would have to do one of two things. It would have to convince people who don’t now consume news to start consuming it. Or it would have to convince advertisers that their ads on the large, bright iPad screen are more valuable, so they would be willing to pay higher rates or shift more advertising to news sites. Doubly doubtful." Well worth a read.

The iPad is a content strategy

As a geek and a journalist who often covers technology, I pay attention to the gigabytes and gigahertz that most people don’t. To be honest, in the era of giga-computing, the average user can’t really tell the different between a dual-core computer running at 2.3Ghz or 3.2Ghz. It does whatever they need it to.

The tech spec arguments have now moved on to netbooks and mobile phones, devices where a beefier processor can mean the difference between a smooth experience and a jerky, frustrating one. The spec counters have come out in force to denounce the Apple iPad: A 1Ghz chip sounds pretty weak. No USB. No expansion slot. 3G as an option.

As they do so often, spec counters and feature fanatics miss the point. There are phones on the market that do more than the iPhone but few do those things so well. When you’ve got a device that doesn’t have the almost limitless power of today’s desktop computers, you have to make choices.

However, with the iPad, that’s actually beside the point. The iPad is first and foremost a consumer electronics device. Do you worry about the processor in your cable box? No. The set-top box is merely an electronic gateway to content, and that’s what Apple is hoping to create with the iPad.

Yes, there are other media slates out there. Just look at the nearly dozen slates that NVidia was plugging at CES. HP will release a tablet later this year, and Amazon is going to beef up the Kindle. However, none of those devices has iBooks or the apps, games, music, movies and television available from the iTunes store. No other device offers this kind of content. I’ll agree with Joshua Benton at the Nieman Lab that the iPad is focused on ‘reinventing content, not tablets‘. iTunes and its effortless integration with the iPod helped differentiate it from the crowded market of MP3 players, and the content is what Apple is hoping will ensure the success of a new type of device, the iPad.

Consumers still have to render their verdict on the iPad, but the stakes for Apple aren’t just about the success of a single device but really about a much broader digital media strategy.

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The iPad – a social computer?

I’ve been ignoring all the build-up to this year’s Apple produce announcement, mainly because I just didn’t want to get my hopes up. But it turns out that I’m actually quite excited about the iPad, Apple’s tablet computer.

I had a very spirited discussion with my husband on the train last night as we were catching up on the announcements made whilst we were in a plane. My thought is that there will be two reactions to the iPad: the spec-geeks who will pour over the physical specification and find it wanting in comparison to their own laptop or desktop. People who look at the iPad the same way they looked at the Air, as a smaller version of their existing laptop will be disappointed, as many of them were with the Air, because the iPad is not as powerful or as fast as a laptop.

Then there’ll be people who come at it having used an iPhone or iPod Touch. For them, the iPad is a different proposition. It will give them a bigger and better browsing experience. Reading ebooks will be easier, videos will be bigger, email more readable. For people who want a better sofa experience, who want to be entertained and kept busy on a long journey, or who want a less conspicuous machine to take meeting notes, it looks like a goer. It’s not going to be a MacBook replacement, but a machine to sit between the iPhone/iPod Touch and the MacBook.

Obviously I see sociability in everything, so I think the iPad is going to be great for social media. I find the iPhone too small to write a blog post on, yet I have most of my blog post ideas whilst I’m out and about. Would an iPad encourage me to write more?

Because the iPad taps into the existing App Store and is able to run apps either at iPhone definition or x2, without any interventions necessary, it comes ready to rock and roll. There’s already a WordPress iPhone App along with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and many others. Your social web is there, ready and waiting. App writers can, if they want, upgrade their apps to take advantage of the bigger screen, which means potentially more functionality and a richer experience.

And because of the form factor, might we see more people using an iPad in scenarios where you wouldn’t get a laptop out? I have long felt that opening a laptop, e.g. in a meeting, is a bad thing from a psychological point of view: Flipping up the screen puts up a barrier between you and the person you’re talking to, something I greatly dislike. Would an iPad be better in meetings or at social gatherings? Would they make the iPad user able to socialise both in person and online simultaneously without the people present feeling blocked out?

For my money, though, Apple has some changes to make to ensure the iPad’s success: Stop inhibiting innovation by placing strictures on what sort of apps are allowed in the App Store. By all means, have a QA process to ensure that malicious apps aren’t developed, but their current rules about not developing apps that conflict with Apple-provided apps is stupid and counter-productive. If I want to run a different browser than Safari, for example, a browser that integrates with Instapaper, Delicious, Twitter and other social tools, then I should be able to do so.

Equally, they need to rethink their age warnings. It is utterly absurd to see an age-related warning when you install a dictionary or an RSS reader just because it’s possible to see some naughty words in those sorts of applications. Apple needs to understand that it can’t expect to promulgate the values of conservative America (as opposed to the rest of America, which is much more sensible) around the world in a techno-cultural hegemony.

Apple are already coming under fire for being shills for DRM, and rightly so. Nate Anderson of Ars Technica wrote:

Members of the Free Software Foundation staged a small protest outside today’s Apple event in San Francisco, making the case against Apple’s use of DRM. The group’s four-foot signs were headed with the message “Entering Apple Restriction Zone” and laid out the tablet’s detriments:

* No free software

* No installing apps from the Web

* No sharing music or books

* We can remotely disable your apps & media

Much as I love the look of the iPad, Apple needs to deal with these issues and as a community we should bring to bear as much pressure as we can. This is the one thing that dulls my enthusiasm for the iPad. I was vehemently against Microsoft’s Vista and all the DRM and ‘phone home’ controls that it supported. Anyone who felt that Vista was an invasion of their privacy must apply the same logic to the iPad. We can’t just let Apple off the hook because their device and OS are prettier.

I’m confident, however, that people will take steps to route around the barriers that get in their way. It didn’t take long for someone to jailbreak the iPhone and we can expect the iPad to come under much more scrutiny. I never felt comfortable jailbreaking my primary communications device, but I’d be much happier to fiddle with an iPad in order to install the software that I want to use. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

I’ll leave you now with the iPad keynote for your delectation and delight:

Embrace your daydreams

Psychology Today has an article by Amy Fries on how daydreamers are also more intelligent:

Researchers using brain scanning technology found that the “default network,” the relatively new buzzword for the daydreaming state, was significantly more active in the “superior intelligence group” than the “average intelligence group.” According to the study, this suggests that the stronger connections displayed in the “functional integration of the default network might be related to individual intelligent performance.”

My nonscientific translation of this: while daydreaming, your thoughts are gliding and ricocheting all over the place–past, present, future–accessing all your stored knowledge, memories, experiences, etc. What the study seems to be saying is that these connections–the ricocheting thoughts if you will–appear to be stronger in smarter people. Maybe that’s why they can get more out of their daydreaming states of mind. They can dig deeper. This seems to fit nicely with other studies that say that people who can go deeper into daydreaming states are more likely to come away with worthwhile insights.

I’ve spoken before about daydreaming and it’s importance to my writing life. I also think that daydreaming is important in business, particularly if you’re in a creative or innovative role. Yet daydreaming is verboten in a professional context. We’re supposed to be heads-down, focused on our work all day every day. That’s not physically possible, of course, so people fake concentration by doing low-energy tasks, like cleaning out their inbox, to give their brains some time to spin freely.

When it comes to social media, I see this need to freewheel as even more important. I can type at over 90 words per minute, but it can still take me an hour to write even a short blog post because for much of that time I’m reading and mulling (a more acceptable word for daydreaming, perhaps). Blogging is, at its best, about people synthesising new ideas from the works of others. That sort of thought, where you’re taking in different strands of information and forming novel links between them, requires time, not to mention a good night’s sleep.

This is why bloggers need managerial support to be effective. Blogging at work can put serious pressure on the blogger, who may want to spend a day figuring a post out, but who feels that they are supposed to be banging out something quick. Acceptance from colleagues that blogging is a legitimate way for them to be spending their time is also important – there’s nothing like negative peer pressure to kill off a blogger’s enthusiasm. Without that support the blogger can wind up abandoning their writing or not fulfiling their potential, and everyone loses out.

The long and the short of it is that if you want your staff to be creative, innovative, thoughtful and to benefit fully from their intelligence, give them the time and space to cogitate, mull, consider and daydream.

links for 2010-01-26