Life in a Networked Age

John Robb, who brought us the term “open source warfare,” wallops the concerns of governance of our increasingly global network:

A global network is too large and complex for a bureaucracy to manage.  It would be too slow, expensive, and inefficient to be of value.  Further, even if one could be built, it would be impossible to apply market dyanmics [sic] (via democratic elections) to selecting the leaders of that bureaucracy.  The diversity in the views of the 7 billion of us on this planet are too vast.

8 Simple Steps to Personal Networking

Erich's Email Network

Here are some simple steps you can take to start easy, and create a habit of expanding the value of your network by bridging gaps.

  1. Make a list of everyone you have exchanged email with in the past month [gmail search]
  2. Add to your list some personal notes: what they do for a living, their likes, hobbies, etc.
  3. Re-read through your list so it is fresh in your mind
  4. Start at the top of your list, and think of one other person that person could benefit from knowing
  5. If there is no immediate need for the two to know each other, find some bit of information particular to the two of them based on their job, interests, hobbies etc.
  6. Send the info to both of them at the same time, and ask a question you want to know the answer to.  Don’t forget to tell them why you’re asking both of them. Dear Scuba experts, my brother-in-law is looking for a new XYZ, what is your experience with this model… If you can’t think of a question you genuinely want to know, just send the info and the reason why you think they’d both find it useful.
  7. Under each person in your notes, record you have connected the two of them, when it was, and what the topic was.
  8. Done with your list?  Great!  Add another month’s email to your list, and repeat.

Continue reading “8 Simple Steps to Personal Networking”

Demographics Fail

We forget, now that our reach is wide, that all purchasing is done by individuals.  Since we don’t know the individuals, and locating and selling to each and every one of them (us) is too expensive, we developed marketing to help us select the people, the individuals, most likely to purchase whatever we are selling.  We do that by carving up the population into demographic segments.  We do that by creating images and messages our testing tells us will appeal to those demographics.  As you noted, I am using the word “demographics” loosely – as it can just as easily mean single white 18-24 year-old men when selling video games, as it can mean general practitioners in the rural parts of beef exporting states when selling Lipitor.

759460300_63ca1caac9_mBut, why is this important?  Demographics provide us with statistically probable individuals.  Using these expected values are a great way for describing groups, but the value breaks down when talking about individuals.  We all know the story about the man who drowns crossing the river that is, on average, six inches deep.

The second failing in demographics is the pure focus on the individuals.  If the goal of sales and marketing is to convince individuals to take action (purchase, vote, visit, etc.), demographics alone does not provide the context under which we, as social animals, make decisions.

The number one factor that we as consumers use in making purchase decisions in consumer packaged goods, automotive, everything is our peers.  The younger we are, the better demographics reflect our peers, but that starts to break down rapidly once we leave school and enter the work force.

One place where we, as marketers, do a great job taking peer context into account is children’s toys.  Think about how they are advertised.  Is the latest and greatest StarBot 7000 action figure advertised with a static image of the figure with a voiceover talking about the high durability injection molded plastic construction and the die cast elbows capable of withstanding 30,000 hours of continuous play in -40°C conditions?  No, they show bunch of kids running around having a great time with the StarBot.  Children do not have long-standing deep networks of peers, so advertisers create a potential peer group in the advertisements.  Even as children get older, more media savvy, and create deeper relationships with their peers, all parents will recognize the plaintive cry of, “But, Billy has one!” Continue reading “Demographics Fail”

Bailouts: Understanding Risk in a Networked Economy

Individual power increases network risk. When the power goes, so does the network.

But, this risk can also mobilize everyone else to buoy up the network by supporting the powerful (AIG rescue) or group cooperation (bailout lobbying).  When a power fails, there will be painful redistribution of wealth (Lehman Brothers) and the market as new relationships are established.  The market redistribution remains to be seen, but JPMorgan’s buying up relationships (the network) left and right.

Recommendations to the survivors. It’s easier to buy existing relationships through M&A than to create them from scratch, so think specific geographies and buy local; that’s where you’ll find the majority of relationships. For all those new customers you acquire reach out to them early and often.  Build the relationships that kept them with your acquiring company.

Network risk is inherent to trading, and traders will never willingly open their books. The bulk of a trader’s value is in his judgment, not the actual trading.  If you knew what they were buying and selling, you could duplicate their portfolio without paying their fees.  But, there’s an opportunity for a new Moody’s: grade trading funds on network risk.

Response: How Does the Web Define Authority?

The real questions are: whom do we trust, why, and under what conditions is trust transferable?

Chris Brogran asks: How does the web define authority?

First is an important matter of language.  There is a large difference between authority and an authority.  Authority is power formally granted by a position or role.  An authority is some who has power or influence; it’s a matter of trust by others for a given context.  E.g. I trust my doctor to diagnose an illness, but have no reason to trust him on gardening.

There are many reasons we (dis-) trust others, including: shared opinions; length, frequency, and consistency of interactions; and how our peers feel about the individual the given context.  These are all correlated, but frequency and peer opinion have the biggest impact on transferability of trust.

How use doth breed a habit in a man! — William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona

Frequency can be no surprise, it’s the underpinning of blanket marketing.  Familiarity bred through repetition.  Ever wonder why you stop on a TV show you dislike while flipping through the channels?  Of course, that could be me making excuses for lousy taste.

Peer consideration is the tricky bit.  There is a lot of research going into this, but there are some great seminal works that are written for non-academics covering the spread of innovation and adoption of scientific principles.

When our peers already have some experience or opinion on a topic or an authority, then our own opinions are strongly colored by these existing opinions.  In fact, as odd as it may sound, given a pattern of relationships where the opinion of all but one individual is known, we can predictably estimate both what the opinion is, and how strong the opinion is, of the unknown person.

But how about when we something brand new to us and our peers?  Frequency plays a big role here too.  If lots of people, even people we know nothing about, say XYZ is a good idea, we’re likely to give it the benefit of the doubt, trusting the wisdom of the crowd.

So, strictly speaking, is (dis-) trust transferable?  Depends.  If trust already exists in our network of peers, yes, and predictably so.  If the context is brand new to you and your peers, there is no trust to transfer, but we use frequency as a proxy in our decisions.

So what does this all mean?  Let’s look at an example: you’re trying to decide whether you agree (trust) what I have written.

I am new to writing about this, and I’m not particularly active in social media, so chances are we don’t have peers in common.  You can google for what others have said about me, but you’re not going to find much relevant to trusting me in this context.  Ultimately, because I don’t have a track record (frequency & consistency) for participation (peers) in this context, I am at the mercy of how similar our outlooks are, and any opinions that may develop in comments.

How Would You Promote Education through Social Networks?

I was recently asked to put together some thoughts about the potential impact Social Networks could have on education by a really savvy M.D. over at Cerner, and I thought this audience might be interested too.  I have not seen too much about this topic, and would really like to hear your thoughts.

Peer Learning & Diabetes
Peer Learning & Diabetes

Social Networking sites simplify conversations by lowering the cost to communicate to large groups, both for the speaker and the recipient.  Accomplished by enforcing small messages, recipients can easily consume or ignore the content with trivial effort.  This in itself has some pretty interesting impact on one’s social network.  But, the messages are also semi-permanent,  consumed at leisure, and are often open to any interested peers, not just the intended recipient.

Open recorded dialog offers a unique value in communication:  the conversation doesn’t end just because it has stopped.  This persistence and openness in the dialog has some interesting conceivable implications for education:

  1. Participants can join into the conversation, well after it’s stopped. This is a biggie.  This open availability allows individuals to pick up the conversation where it left off, taking it in new directions their own context brings with them.  It is this factor that not only contributes to many new ideas, but also helps drive quality by squeezing the most out of existing ones..
  2. Discuss once, available to all.  The SN creates a naturally accumulating body of knowledge, available to all with thanks to your favorite search engine.
  3. Record the process, not just the answer. Following along with a conversation, you can actually learn with the participants, not just gain from their answers.  Further, many times the conversation is not going to answer your specific question, but you can gain insight from the ideas already discussed, and get pointers to more places to look.
  4. Don’t have to know conversation partners in advance.  In conjunction with (1), you can put a question out to your peers, and see who responds.  Find experts, even when you don’t know where to look.

Much of the above is available to any generic SN, from MySpace to any online forum.  But, what SNs offer over and above online forums, is trust.  The who you are carrying on conversations with, you know.  You know whether the respondent is knowledgeable or guessing, and can more likely read into the subtlety of their responses. Couple this trust with focused goals, as SERMO has for the medical community, and you open the pool even wider for advice.

You’ve noticed that the language I am using is around conversation, dialog, and advice.  Because of the short-form messaging, SNs are much more suited to peer-based education than seminars.  I have yet to see anyone artfully present more than maybe 1,000 words on the Internet; it’s no substitute for medical journals.  It is, however, an excellent place to discuss the journal contents, grind out all the last subtleties, and come up with ideas for your next article.

It is the pressure of our peers, after all, that gives us the support to try things we otherwise wouldn’t have.  — BILL TREASURER, Right Risk

In addition to these benefits, there are the possible benefits of all of this being a social venture: cultural norms.  If you, the educator, control a network, there’s a lot you can do to build group behaviors to reinforce whatever you are trying to teach them: group rewards if 90% of the class does their homework, peer pressure to go outside and exercise for asthmatics, peer support in the middle of the night not to give in to that nicotine craving, or even just introducing icebreakers prior to a convention.

Each of these has been around long well before the prevalence of SNs.  But today, SNs now provide an easy platform that automates much of the hard work, and create a reason for pools of trusted colleagues to come together spanning many timezones.  From your colleagues, and from their colleagues, ideas and new perspectives arise.  It requires motivation on your part, but this is prime time for peer education.

So, how have you used SNs for education?  Constructively used peer pressure in an educational setting?  What’s your example of peer pressure helping you?

[Photo credit: Chris Corrigan]

Innovation Thrives Under Constraint

This is not my usual topic, but I’ve done a lot of work looking at innovation, and the conditions under which it thrives.

Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, founders of Twitter, have talked often of the “constraints” that are built into the Twitter app. You can only post 140 characters in a single message, for example. And because Twitter didn’t have desktop client when it launched, a number of them were created and they are probably better than anything Twitter would have created. Same with the iPhone apps like Twinkle and Twitterific. A VC, Aug 2008

My interest started with looking at innovation levels and the social networks of the individuals involved; and Fred Wilson hit on something really important here: innovation thrives under constraint.

Ask any artist, there’s nothing more more terrifying than a naked canvas, blank sheet of paper, or unformed block of clay.  It is the constraints that give us to innovate something from.  They are the core of the idea that pushes us through writers/painters/coders block.

Robert Pirsig tells us about an experiment in writing.  Students were consistently having difficulty when asked to write about anything they wanted.  So he had them all write for an hour solely about the back of their thumb.  Lots of odd looks surely, but no one had any trouble finding something to say.

Constraints provide focus.  Focus allows execution.  If the goal is creating an external service (e.g. web service), focus also communicates what the service will and will not do — providing clear constraints to the next ring of innovators.

8 Requirements for a Perfect Contact Management System

I read about some new organization software over at LifeHacker, which got me thinking about what would be my ideal organization software.  I am beginning to embrace the implications of the uneven levels of attention I can pay to people I know, and the definite limit to which I can keep everyone in my head.  With this in mind, I have come up with 8 requirements which would greatly enhance my ability to maintain a wider and more useful network of contacts.  What software do you use, and what would you add to the list?

  1. Integration of Email, Contacts, Tasks, and Calendar. Supporting your network requires all of those, so a tool to help you manage it should too.  (I refer bellow to an entry in any one of these as an event.)  My favorite piece of integration is the automatic add of new contacts to my contact lists.
  2. Reminders for events relevant to your contacts. Any good calendar should do this.  Unfortunately, most require the calendar to be open to perform this.  Hosted calendars like Google’s and Yahoo’s, allow you to be reminded by email.  A handy function for those of us on the run.
  3. Reminders to reach out to your contacts. You can do this manually now through tasks or using your calendar, but this is ripe for automation.
  4. Provide context about each contact. This should be presented when you are reading or creating a task/email/meeting in your system.  How you know the person, and the last time you saw them, etc., are usually available through searching your contacts and calendar if you keep track of these, but again, ripe for automation.
  5. Provide context about each conversation. Latest emails, events, etc. each time you are creating a task/email/meeting in your system.
  6. Show tasks outstanding and recently completed for the individuals in each action.  A summary of the tasks you owe someone can help define a productive conversation.
  7. Show tasks outstanding and recently completed by the individuals in each action.  A summary of what you are owed, similarly can help define a productive conversation.
  8. Automatic tagging of actions and participants. With all of the natural language processing developments over the recent years, it would be relatively simple to pull themes from the content of each event and record those along with the participants.  When you create new events, the tag database could be polled as you are creating a new event to recommend people who may be interested, and other relevant topics.  Would be a helpful plugin for your word processor too.

Most of these are available today, but not in an automated fashion and often not available at the same time.  I primarily use GMail with a Firefox plugin called GTDInbox which together provide good integration of email, contacts, tasks, and calendar.

Google Calendar provides good reminders of events relevant to my contacts, but requires me to set them up.

The more recent version of GTDInbox provides an increasing level of context about the participants, and I hope they keep pushing in that direction.  The unfortunate thing today is that it does this by learning association of special labels it uses.  This is indeed helpful for labeling, but the more I communicate with someone, the less I need the context.  Since it’s a Firefox plugin, they could create a side panel, which would also allow showing the tasks owed and outstanding.

As for autotagging?  Please, this is a desperate cry for help…. If there are any creative programmers out there, take a look at OpenCalais, and make a pluggin for FireFox + GMail!

Newspapers: Don’t Give Up Yet!

Dan Gilmore:

Newspapers have at least two more huge opportunities.

First is to open the archives, with permalinks on every story in the database. Newspapers hold more of their communities’ histories and all other media put together, yet they hoard it behind a paywall that produces pathetic revenues and keeps people in the communities from using it — as they would all the time — as part of their current lives. The revenues would go up with targeted search and keyword-specific ads on those pages, I’m absolutely convinced. But an equally important result would be to strengthen local ties.

Second, expand the conversation with the community in the one place where it’s already taking place: the editorial pages. Invert them. Make the printed pages the best-of and guide to a conversation the community can and should be having with itself. The paper can’t set the agenda, at least not by itself (nor should it), but it can highlight what people care about and help the community have a conversation that is civil and useful.

What Gilmore is suggesting is to stop one step earlier in the editorial process.  Great editors are excellent at searching and coalescing the voice of the people.  Stop at the search, and promote the voices themselves; you have a local competitive advantage that is hard to top.

[via Doc Searls; Photo: Matt Callow]