Coming to San Francisco

I’m going to be in San Francisco between 15th and 23rd April, although up in Sebastopol for the weekend. I have two projects running at the moment that I’d like to explore with anyone who’s interested.

The future of the social web
What might the future of the social web look like? What trends and developments in technology, demographics, etc. might influence how things could change? If you had to ask “What if…?”, which “if” would you ask?

Books and publishing
How do you write? What are the challenges to finishing a long-form piece? If you’re an agent or a publisher, what are the missing pieces in your publishing puzzle? What tasks or processes are clunky and awkward?

If you want to meet up with me to talk about either the social web or books, let me know.

And if you just want to meet up for a chinwag, then I’m holding a bit of a do on the evening of Tuesday 21st. I’ve tried to do an event thingy on Facebook, but again, ping me by email or @suw me on Twitter if you fancy coming. The location is to be decided – please leave a comment if you have any suggestions for somewhere nice and relatively quiet (big noisy venues aren’t my style; I like to be able to hold a conversation without shouting).

Journalism and Fact Checking: Follow the links

Stephen Colbert explains 'truthiness'

Stephen Colbert introducing the word 'truthiness'

I was writing a post for the Guardian US Politics blog today using the excellent FactCheck site to cut through the spin, mis-representations and some might argue lies emanating from the Republican Convention speakers. Before someone accuses me of bias, both parties spin, and it’s the job of journalists to counter the spin regardless of the party. FactCheck is a brilliant non-partisan service from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and I will stress non-partisan. They examined Democrats’ claims last week during their convention, and took the Obama campaign to task for airing an ad airing in Michigan that misrepresents John McCain’s current stance on low-cost loans to beleaguered American automakers. Politics is played by representing the facts in such a way as to support one’s world view, but there is truth and then there is ‘truthiness‘.

FactCheck does an excellent job of documenting its sources that allow people to evaluate the source material in total and also see the source immediately. It’s a bit of old school footnotes and new school linking, but it’s an excellent exercise in transparency. Even before clicking through the link, a reader can clearly see that some of FactCheck’s quotes come directly from press releases from Office of Senator John McCain.

I compare this to an AP story on the Huffington Post, on Google and Yahoo News that does the same fact checking job as but doesn’t have any links. I know that this is syndicated content. But why not include links in the syndicated content? Come on, it’s not that technically difficult. I think that the Associated Press is leaving itself open to charges of bias by not providing links to the source material, and the AP has had to circulate talking points combating charges of bias from and others against its Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier because he considered taking a position with John McCain in 2006. And now that McCain strategist Steve Schmidt has all but declared war against the media, it would be wise to increase the transparency.

As an internet reader, I’m increasingly suspicious of journalists who don’t link. Yes, if they quote an official that gives me a sense of the source. But why not link to original source material? It also allows me to dig more deeply into the story if I want without having to turn to Google.

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 says that it is a waste of resources to throw away all of the research that journalists do, and linking is not important simply in terms of transparency:

…understanding the value of links, and how they connect content, ideas, and people, is fundamental to understanding the value of the web. And understanding the value of the web is the key to unlocking the new business models that journalism needs to survive and thrive in the digital age.

Confessing a dirty little secret

In January’s Fast Company was an article by Clive Thompson, Is The Tipping Point Toast? I read it with interest and made a mental note to at least add it to our feed. But over the last two months it has just been gnawing away at the back of my head and I find myself compelled to think about it in a bit more detail.

In the article, Clive discusses the work of Yahoo!’s principal research scientist, Duncan Watts, who is challenging the idea that a small number of highly influential people are the ones who start new trends. The concept is central to books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and is repeated over and over again in all sorts of contexts. In fact, it is so embedded in the way that we view how ideas are transferred and propagated between people that it feels almost like heresy to question it.

But Duncan Watts has questioned it, and his research seems to show that new trends can start anywhere, and that not only do you not have to be influential to start a trend, being influential doesn’t guarantee that you are also a trendsetter.

In the past few years, Watts–a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo –has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

“It just doesn’t work,” Watts says, when I meet him at his gray cubicle at Yahoo Research in midtown Manhattan, which is unadorned except for a whiteboard crammed with equations. “A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.”

This is a conclusion that’s going to get up the nose of many a marketeer, but how does it affect social media consultants?

My work is focused mainly on how to persuade people in business to change their behaviour: how to replace bad working habits with good ones, and how to change unhealthy business cultures into positive, constructive ones. How do I help people wean themselves off their dependence on email, and learn how to collaborate and communicate in healthier, more effective ways?

The opportunities that social tools present to business are frequently missed because no one thought hard enough about how to introduce them to people. Most businesses fail to to understand why these tools are useful and why the old tools are so seductive. My job is to counter that, and is much more about psychology than technology (although the tech clearly does play a part).

Piloting social tools in business is relatively easy. You’re working with a small group who have probably been picked because someone within that group is already enthusiastic. I can sit down and work face-to-face with these people, finding out how they work and then explaining how the new tools will help them. We can figure out specific tasks to shift onto the new tools, I can advise on how that shift should happen and I can support them through the change.

But rolling social media out to the rest of a large company takes a different way of working. I can probably work directly with tens, or maybe even over a hundred people – if the project has the time and budget – but no one person can sit down with thousands or tens of thousands of people in one company to make sure that they understand how the new tools could improve their working life. It would be a Sisyphean task.

Instead, we have to treat tool adoption as a meme, and rely on people propagating it through the company, person to person. In this sense, we are doing what marketeers are doing: Trying to create a self-sustaining trend. We want the social tool to go viral.

As anyone with real world experience of viral marketing will tell you, that’s far easier said than done. The concept of an influential elite, a minority who have the majority of the power to influence, is a deeply attractive prospect. If it were true, it would mean that I could sit down with the 50 most influential people in any one company and bring them up to speed, and they would go on to do my work for me. I could change the culture of a business from closed to open, from distrustful to trusting, from competitive to collaborative, in merely a few weeks.

That is a seductive idea. And I must confess to you all now, I have been seduced by it. I have talked with clients about the concept of networks and nodes and bridges, and I have propagated the tipping point meme. I’ve never read Gladwell’s book. I haven’t had to – I’ve absorbed the concepts over time without really questioning them, without examining them in the cold light of day.

But deep down, I never really believed the idea of an elite group of influencers, and that disbelief has grown over the last couple of years as I’ve had more and more hands-on experience in business, introducing new tools to a suspicious workforce. I have asked businesses if they know who their influencers are, and they all claimed that they did, but I didn’t really see any evidence either that I was actually talking to influencers, or that the people they thought were influencers made any real difference to the widespread adoption of a tool.

That is my dirty little secret. I propagated a meme that I hadn’t critically examined and didn’t believe in. For that, I apologise.

Yet, for me at least, the idea that ‘influencers’ aren’t as influential as we’ve been lead to believe is good news. And for my clients too. I’ve always been worried that trying to tap into a network of influential staff was a pointless waste of time, because it’s very hard to know who actually has influence and who’s just got a big mouth. Identifying the influencers is a task inextricably bound up in status and position in the org chart, yet these three things do not correlate simply. A bad manager who’s high up in the food chain may believe himself to have status, but is actually widely ignored by his subordinates because they can recognise a bad manager when they see one.

If you’ve read my social software adoption strategy, you’ll see there’s nothing in it about ‘reaching the influencers’. I’m way too pragmatic, and the problem of influencer identification has always put me off recommending it as a tactic. Instead, I focus on how you identify ‘low hanging fruit’ – people who are already chomping at the bit to work differently, or people who are doing tasks that are just perfect for a transition onto a social platform. Those are doable tasks. They don’t require any special magic, they just require the ability to ask the right questions and listen to the answers.

I also talk about converting users into trainers by giving them the materials and confidence to introduce their own colleagues to new tools. Centralised training can only fail when you’re trying to introduce optional software to a huge workforce. The only way to reach large numbers of people is for a ripple effect to take over: users become trainers and train their colleagues who become users and then trainers who spread the virus throughout the company.

This doesn’t require influence, it requires utility. If the tool is useful, it can succeed, given the right support. It’s not, “Oh, look at this! It’s so cool!”; it’s, “Oh, look at this! It’s going to make my life so much easier!”

I’m far happier with the idea that anyone can start a trend, and that the concept of influencers is at least less important than previously stated, or possibly even a complete red herring. It leaves the door open for much more sensible, reliable and workable strategies. Admittedly, they may take more time and effort, but at least the outcome will be more predictable. Focusing on what people need, instead of their status, can only be a good thing.

Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody at RSA

This is a paraphrase of Clay’s talk at the Royal Society of Arts.

Clay Shirky, here comes everybody: the power of organising without organisations.

It was chaired by Nico Macdonald, a principal of Spy.

You can find a biography of Clay a and wikipedia, Clay interjects. “Wikipedia has done a better job,” he said.

We have reached an age when this stuff is technologically boring enough to be socially interesting.

It’s not about gee-whiz adoption that we can do x. The book in one bullet point:

Group action just got a lot easier.

HSBC last year decided a great way to recruit new students is with interest-free overdrafts. Accountants called them back said it wasn’t such a good idea. HSBC counted on switching is hard, and however mad the individuals are, there will not be any kind of serious response.

They hadn’t counted on Facebook. To HSBC’s horror, thousands of people joined. Out of no financial information, the students began sharing information. They wrote up incredibly detailed instructions. If you want to switch to Barclay, here is how to do it.

This got the attention of the newspapers. The organisaitonal advantage that HSBC had is now ended. The students co-ordinated a real world protest.

HSBC: We didn’t know you would be upset. Obvioiusly, we’re a customer service agency.

This didn’t happen because the customers were upset. This happened that customers were upset and they were co-ordinated. They could talk to each other. They recruited the students when they were at school and changed the terms in July when they are dispersed. They knew exactly what they were doing. This would have worked in 2005.

Increasingly, publishing is for acting. Once you put people in touch with each other, you create social value on top of that media value. Now customers have ability to leverage high organisation.

Everyone remembers flashmobs. It was the pole sitting of 2003. Toronto pillow fight. New York, go to Central Park, and join together and all make pigeon noises. Bill, the creator of flashmobs, was making a critique of hipster culture.

In 2006, a developer created a page on Live Journal in Belarus. Let’s all go to central square and eat ice cream. But black clad security appeared and grabbed them. It was illegal to carry out group action in October Square. They hit on flash mob as way to co-ordinate despite the govenment-stated goal of preventing this from happening. This is media leading to collective action. They didn’t just bring ice cream. They also brought their cameras. They documented.

Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream

In high-freedom environments, these things are deployed for frivollous reasons. Time-wasting. Twitter, this is mainly banal. Egyptian activisits experimented with Twitter to pass along information on who was in custody. Tools, (such as) flash-mobs as a hipster thing have a very differet flavour in Belarus.

One of most frustrating things about publishing, you deliver manuscript and it takes the company six months to hit print. There are s many stories he wanted to include. His last example was such a story. In Palermo in 2004, stuck up stickers that said (rough paraphrase) ‘an entire people who pay money to the mafia (pizzo) is a people without dignity’. People say what else can we do. The problem here isn’t just the mafia is pulling money out of the Palermo economy. Everyone knew that. The problem was the difficulty and danger in opposing the mafia.

They allowed business to stand up together. If you were a single business people standing up, it would be dangerous. When entire group stands up, then harder to target. Much better chance to stand up if they do it as a group. The people are really suffered. If you only want to patronise businesses, customers can anonymously check on businesses not doing business with mafia via a website. They took businesses and average people leverage against the mafia.

Small well organised core versus a large dispered population. The batttle before this has been very unequal. We’re at the beginning of experimenting with the imbalance of power. The ability to share with others is remaking the world. We know this. Collective action where the fate of the group affects the individuals as a whole.

This effort forms the experimental wing of political philosophy.

Is large action best taken on by the state? Communism is the extreme answer to that question. Is it best taken by individual action? Libertarianism is the extreme answer to that question. What is the best instituion? The answer is not instituion but platform. If people can co-ordinate themselves, then people can organise themselves.

Media is moving from a source of information to a site of action. In US Constitution, freedom of speech and freedom of gathering are separate freedoms.

All of these developments are not entirely good. This is not a revolution that will lead us entirely well off.

I used to be a cyber-utopian. I remember the moment I stopped thinking about that. A student of his came and talked to me. She was the community manger of YM, and she was managing the online bulletin boards. Shut down health and beauty boards. We couldn’t get pro-anorexic girls to shut up. If you find yourself feeling hungry, clean up. They shut down their boards, and the girls moved elsewhere.

This isn’t a side effect. This is the internet. This is a case where it’s not an improvement to society, it’s also a challenge. We will have new negatives as well as new positives. The internet lowers the cost of failure. We can fail more and learn more. How can we pull out the good stuff and learn to react to the bad stuff?

Nico: What are the historical parallels?

Clay: All of these examples, it is being used by people who want to stop happening as opposed to people who want new things to happen. The places where real social scale things happening are often short-term, ad hoc and single issue. Anyone who has been in a consumer society can feel this anger bubbling up when we’re given a chance to respond. This is a light-weight structure for people to decide that they want to be identified as a group.

Creative Commons dismantle the goals of copyright by using the tools of copyright. We need to do this with respect to corporations. If we allow people to come together in socially more stable ways that don’t require institutional models, then we’ll see longer term social engagement. We can get past the protest phase.

Nico: Are we trying to re-define political problems in terms of this social and IT tools?

Clay: I do agree with premise. When you find anything that works well, you want to apply it to everything. That is what our way of trying out things.

Sourceforge. 75% of these projects are failures. Zero downloads. Success for most of the rest modest. Then far end, millions of downloads. This is the open source model.

You sprinkle failure on everything and see what works.

Wikitorial and LATimes. Editorial product of individual voice. You need to make sure that failure is public. Open source is very easy to see what doesn’t work. The paper doesn’t cover failure well.

Failure can be a benefit as long as we can all learn from them.

Anytime you lower the cost of doing something, you lower the cost of trying something and lowers the cost of the number of meetings you need to have. In a world where you don’t have to get permission of anyone to try new stuff.

Nico: Campaign is now Zucker-mail where in my day stood on a corner with CND badge and argued with people.

Question from audience: Facebook and HSBC, there are a lot of different tools. What are the next big tools?

Clay: Email. Boring-est answer. The thing to bet on. It’s not a revolution not when behaviour adopts new tools but new behaviors. It’s not about novelty but ubiquity. If you are looking for social scale change, it’s adoption.

What is going on in Flickr is crazy because now your mom is using it.

Dan McQuillan : Wael Abbas shut down account. Commercial inerest of current platforms. (Notes from me: The human rights activism community responded to this quite strongly, and YouTube restored his account. But he had to re-upload the videos.)

Clay: Certainly, worst collision, Yahoo betraying Chinese dissidents. French sued for selling Nazi memorabilia. Yahoo said it was a US company, but when Chinese gov’t came, they said we’re a Chinese company.

Berkman (Center for Internet and Society at Harvard) has done work on how to go to non-commercial platforms.

Roland from NESTA: Is pain in change and opportunity greatest in public or private space?

Clay: That’s such an interesting quesiton. You can see advantages of each. Public is already operating on subsidy model. Gov’ts and NGOs have historically defended themselves from public and constituents.

One of advantages of customer. Inaction. If stop going to store, the store cares. But if you stop voting, then the state doesn’t mind so much.

Native advantage is how public sector has taken to defend itself from the public.

Pat Kane: How is different from socialist philosophy? Leisure time facilitate this??

Clay: It’s about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Lots of these things are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The social goal is to increase the amount of time people have to give over to things they care about.

Digital divide has focused on wires. But biggest part of digital divide is permission for participation. Give people a sense of permission to participate (actually a reason to participate).

Another question from a person at RSA: As users become more sophisticated, what does it take for critical mass on virtual platform?

Clay: Back when I was a cyber-utopian and thought we’d all be float-y video heads in a video world in the 1990s, all friends were virtual friends because there were so few people on internet. Now, I realise the big reward of online relationships is real world meet ups.

Travel and communication are complements. If you want to support a virtual institution, have a real world meetup. IT guys asked what social tools they could deploy to get people talking: Plane tickets and beer. Start by catalysing groups. It will fertilise virtual collaboration.

Another question from a guy working on reputation mgmt system (Clay says growth industry). He set up a blog to complain about his botched kitchen install and got thousands of pounds in a refund, he says to the cheers in the audience. Are we in a world where everyone is single issue driven?

Clay: Single issue leverage. People are fantastically good at committing identity to groups. At high school, it became a group when you gave a name. It’s like with a girlfriend when you talk about relationship as if third person. Some structural need to support that kind of density and social leverage. Don’t think get out of special interest an single-issue motivation. Bring as many groups into conversation as possible and you will see larger and longer lived groups. interesting to see if see consumer group rising out of the HSBC student Facebook group.

Some of this is time and new institutional frameworks that reward long-term commitment.

Question from audience: Social exclusion. To the few much has been given. (Basically, it was a question on whether and how these tools can be used to counter social exclusion.)

JP who works for BT and writes the blog Confused of Calcutta : I was thinking about a mash up between what you are saying and what Kevin Kelly said in his answer to the Edge question: What have you changed your mind about? If you kept cost of repair as low as cost of dev then you avoid tragedy of commons. Wikipedia. Cost of repair to damage low. Before cost to repair high, Cost to damage low.

Clay: Tragedy of commons, sheep on commons. Everyone motivated to feed their sheep as much grass as possible and it destroyed the commons.

Openness creates value. Value creates incentive. Incentive has nothing to do with value. That encourages spammers.

Social software is the stuff that get spammed.

Bottom up is never enough in the long haul. Eventually, you run into the governance problem. You immediately run into the problem, who gets to guard the guardians. The tools are good enough that we’re not running into problems of technology but age old problems. Such as: Who guards the guardians?

You have to deal with constitutional crises. Almost no one is good at designing for groups.

Social exclusion question. That is the most depressing thread of social research. Duncan Watts and Robert Putnam are finding that social density gives access to social capital. It has so much to do with like-to-like cluster. Only a handful of individuals who bridge those gaps. If I address social exclusion, I wouldn’t address the bulk of groups. I would find people who are bridging. I would find people who know people who ive in council housing but also know someone who lives in Belgravia.

Every social system has imbalance in use of tools. Find natural bridges and strengthen them rather than building new bridges.

New business blogging survey

BlogOn and iUpload are doing a survey of business bloggers to find out more about how companies are using blogs. Preliminary results will be announced at BlogOn2005 Social Media Summit, 17-18 October at the Copacabana in New York.

As producer of BlogOn, and a chronic stats obsessive, I can only urge you to fill in the questionnaire – it’s fairly short, shouldn’t take you more than about three minutes – so that I have lots of data to play with. Word is we’ve already had a good number of respondents, which makes me deeply excited because I am just dying to find out what people really do with their business blogs.