A while ago David Brooks came across a collection of autobiographies written by the Yale class of 1942 for their 1950 reunion. He was fascinated by their stories, and I was fascinated by his discoveries. It feels as if you have the privilege of being a very close confidant for all these people. Being the professional journalist par excellence he did not stop at just enjoying the reading experience. He tried to extract common themes and find patterns from which he can analyse and use in his other role as a social scientist. For instance, he finds the common regret shared by many of the respondents, the one of working for their entire life at the same company. Another interesting observation is that many other people would have loved to take risks and take a different road in life. He found joys and tragedies, he found satisfaction and bitterness.
While thinking about all these stories he found in the collection of autobiographies, David Brooks got this idea: what about if I ask my readers to send me their life stories? So he asked his readers who are over 70 years old to send him “life reports” in which they would write the story of their life divided into five categories (career, family, faith, community and self-knowledge) and give themselves a grade.
What an idea! During this time he published the readers’ content on his NYT column, David Brooks managed to “skip” his duties for a while by publishing the life reports on his column instead of his own writing. I am sure he didn’t stay idle. He received thousands of stories in response to his call and he needed to do some serious reading and evaluation of all that “user-generated content”.
This is an interesting social experiment. The content is interesting and a researcher would have enough material there to stay busy for a year.
But I think this experiment is more than interesting. David Brooks may just have made an experiment that could lead to a novel form of crowd writing. He has content sent by individuals who don’t know each other but responded to the same call. They don’t collaborate to write a shared text, but they contribute to generate a big picture around a central theme. The result is a fascinating read. Several aspects are worth noting here:
Why did they respond? One of the readers said “I believe that my life story is well worth noting and sharing” (Noah Inbody, November 11, 2011). This is such a powerful statement. My life is well worth noting and sharing! Don’t we all have a story that we want to share? This is about identity; this is about what really drives people in social networks to contribute. David Klement said “Thank you for asking. Not many do. After a certain age, probably mid-60s, I have felt like the invisible man. Having a hearing loss which limits my ability to understand – and participate in – certain group conversations leaves me further on the fringe than most my age“. Communication is probably one of the most important desires that motivate us in a social setting. It is selfish and altruistic in the same time. Yes, it is about the secret desire for achieving fame, but it is also about reaching out. Each personal account was offered openly to anyone else to have a look at it and if possible, offer a valuable idea. Each person who authored a life report agreed to have their name published so they are verifiable, and while they have the opportunity to have their name published in one of the most prestigious papers in the world, the genuine emotion that transcends their writing is undeniable.
Freedom of Expression
The initial request was for each author to divide their lives into five categories and grade themselves. That didn’t work. After the first week everybody ignored that request and just sent their story the way they saw it. The reports are clearly emotional. Putting a structure on them would have made them look like they were doing a job. That’s work. Who wants it that way? David Brooks was smart enough to go with the flow and adjust to the public tune.
The reports are so authentic and so well written. Have a look at this fragment from Gilda Zein‘s report (she lost her husband): “The loneliness will never disappear. The intensity ebbs as the years go by. To take care of the cold, empty nights, I have substituted an electric mattress warmer and a large pillow to hug and push into, to take the place of my beloved. As the years go by, I have come to understand that death is a part of life. … Who am I? I am that until I am not“. There is so much talent hidden out there that we don’t know. There is so much potential embedded in our society that yearns to be exposed. This experiment triggered a creative response which otherwise could have stayed there dormant in the minds of these people perhaps never to come out. How much are we missing, no, let me put this in affirmative terms, how much creativity can the social collaboration tools unleash? The term “collaboration tools” cause a grimace of my face. We need a better term to describe a way in which people genuinely participate as someone they really are, not as someone who plays a role restricted by artificial social or business norms.
Better Social Policies
This can lead to ways in which the policy makers can do something to improve our society. Maybe many contributions like these may reveal aspects of our society that we have never had the chance to discuss openly. There might be some brilliant research studies lost somewhere deep into specialised academic journals only a handful of people read, but because of the seclusion in their ivory towers nothing happens, they cause no action, they are of no consequence. Crowd writing can trigger a snowball effect and cause a huge public reaction which governing bodies cannot ignore.
The contribution of the participants would have not taken place if it wasn’t for David Brooks to initiate it. The participants trusted him and The New York Times and felt attracted to the idea of sharing. The issue of trust and perception of quality is important. The brand power matters. I very much doubt that if I issue a similar request people will rush to send me their stories. Actually I am certain that would not happen. You would not get a similar response on large social networks either because of perceived lack of potential recognition or because of lack of engagement quality. At New York Times the prize is valuable. David Brooks is a well-known journalist, political and social commentator. The contributors felt they are engaged in a conversation with a person who knows and being mentioned by him in a prestigious publication and read by its large audience is something worth trying.
Arguably, this may become a hybrid model for the traditional media. We have to remember that David Brooks reviewed the life reports before deciding which ones are worth mentioning. This is typical to traditional media where a few in privileged positions make decisions for the many, but the fact is that curation is becoming fast a critical component needed to make sense in the deluge of content that is made available on the Internet each second. Maybe publications like The New York Times could open the gates to the public to contribute on selected topics and have a team of experts weaving in their expert content and skills engaging with the public to promote the best quality material. This model can borrow a few lessons from the new media by letting the public add their views on what is quality and what is not. As an example, the books review system at Amazon works extremely well and it has become the de facto benchmark for book reviews.
Learning Life Skills
Then there is this thing called LIFE. We think too often in terms of activities, tasks, job and money. But when you look at the entire package, the whole thing is wow, so different. We don’t get to think about that until is too late. The serenity of an old person is because life suddenly has value in a social context in which people have meaningful relationships with other people. We need more of this. Is it possible to bring this message down a few generations so that we get to understand or at least get a glimpse of this when we are 20? Maybe young parents could get classes by the time they are 30, so that they can see their life unravelling in slow motion and get to understand there is no need to hurry and miss the good things in life.
This experiment must continue.
The “social network” is the buzzword of the day. Omnipresent in the social media, on TV and printed magazines, it is the darling of researchers around the world. Collaborative participation makes the social network, probably the biggest innovation since Internet, a positive phenomenon. Bringing people together to collaborate on solving problems releases a huge amount of creative energy on a global scale. Social network is a mystery as well: why are people so attracted to social networks?
In the past few years, a huge wave of websites built around the core concept of social network has been quietly gathering momentum. These systems link people, information and things through social relationships and essentially they try to solve a resource allocation efficiency problem by creating superfast links that have the effect of eliminating a real or an imaginary middle-man. If you think about it, the social network as it is understood today is the in fact another expression of the intrinsic social network that is the Internet.
To use terminology borrowed from psychology, the social networks (like Facebook) are conscious social systems, while the Internet is the massive subconscious domain that no-one can ever measure or fully understand its inner workings. When we look at social networks we only see a tiny little tip of the iceberg as what really drives us is way down below the surface. In this post I am looking at behaviour towards consumption mediated through social networks.
At its core the social network is a way of trading ideas between participants. If you abstract the social network to a system where parts exchange things through the use of an agreed currency, the social network is really an equalizer that moves things from one part to another in an attempt to restore equilibrium. If there is no external input, with time the system would reach that point. But as it happens, the social systems are far from being close and events keep triggering new imbalances and social networks busy: there is always something to talk about and share.
In its first iteration as a digital network, the web was a system that united resources using hyperlinks. Later with the rise in computing power, the hyperlinks started to be used to bring people together through more sophisticated interactions. Merely accessing documents (resources or things) across network was not enough to establish equilibrium. Discussions needed to occur to solve more complex problems, hence the need to facilitate communication between people using the very same network. People became extensions of things and things became extensions of people.
The social networks have generated a boom in communication. Not only has the communication gone up but the number of social networks has gone up, which leads to even more communication needed to trade and reconcile different ideas. You can hardly find a more powerful addictive cycle than this.
There are three distinct phases in the history of social networks on the Internet (so far): linking resources, linking people and linking services. The first phase was marked by the invention of the HTML, the second was marked by the rise of Facebook and the third is underway right now. This is about linking services in its many forms. Think ZipCar, Foodspotting, DriveMyCar, TaskRabitt, AirBnB and many similar applications that link people and services and things matching demand and supply at a scale, transparency and affordability that was never possible before Internet. The third form is social networked consumption, because in addition to performing the functions of the previous two forms it plays direct roles in the consumption supply chain (for example marketing and distribution).
The underlying phenomenon is the collaborative sharing that occurs in many ways from simple posts to feedback and rating and from questions and answers to actions that end up in economic transactions. Why are so many people suddenly ready to share things for free or pay a small fee for using someone else’s asset or mini-service?
Let’s assume this will go on and spread like wildfire in the next five years. One could say that this is a very efficient way of using resources which in the long run is good for the environment. People will learn how to live by consuming less and focus on social values. If we look into the future and extend this trend there will be a point where production would have to go down drastically because the use of the goods is so much more efficient through instant sharing.
This newly found frugality would see the auto manufacturers pulling their hair in desperation because instead of five families buying five cars they will buy maybe two cars and share them. Of course this is a totally theoretical speculation because in practice it is difficult to share assets to perfection in such a way that the usage level is constant but the number of resources is greatly diminished. This schedule is impossible. Nevertheless, the demand for expensive household products would have to come down if this model becomes a general life style choice.
The creativity born out of social sharing will find many ways in which the trading of personal ideas, goods and services through social networking will flourish. I wonder how much the financial crisis, the globalisation and the changes in the job market have contributed to the popularity of social network based services. The vast digital networks contribute to enhancing the capacity of countries and cross-border alliances to respond to crises. This made possible handling the GFC in a way that was not possible in 1929. During The Great Depression people suffered in isolation for a long period before the economies managed to restore the pre-crisis levels of prosperity. Imagine how different that era would have been if they had Internet.
If this trend continues, how would the world look like in five or ten years? I tend to believe the pendulum would have to swing the other way from diminished consumption to increased demand. There is a limit for how much you can share the same things. Reusability is not addressing the demand for novelty. But if the underlying motive is to buy more with less money, the downside is the cultivation of a society with an even bigger consumerist appetite.
Pay for use only is a convenient way to deal with immediate financial uncertainty and postpone expensive decisions, but it is also creates the illusion of more disposable cash. This will compensate for the initial drop in demand for expensive goods in form of full ownership by creating demand for other services that can be consumed frequently but require no big commitment, such as travel, entertainment and fashion. For instance, once the new pay for use system will become an establish business model, the number of cars on the road will keep growing through big businesses owning large car fleets and manage them with a sophisticated scheduling and mapping system that combines renting with other innovative related services.
In the end, what appears to be a cheap way of buying the pleasure with less effort, but no ownership, it may be a very expensive price to pay in the future. It is a deal that may haunt next generations of renters because it creates even more uncertainty. There will be fewer owners, but those who own these assets will amass fortunes by charging large number of renters a pay-per-use transaction fee. The next generation of renters will not be able to go back to full ownership because they will have acquired the taste of a pleasure driven life style and it will have no means to purchase outright the cars or other similar assets because they will be deemed to be too expensive to afford buying them.
A glitch in the future social system will cause a great deal of stress to people who have no plan B. It is very difficult to estimate the impact on the psyche of a population with limited or no ownership. Will it diminish the peoples’ sense of responsibility? Will it propagate a culture of superficial consumerism, work for immediate pleasure?
This superficial consumption practiced through cheering social networks may be a Faustian deal in which a temporary sense of security is purchased to avoiding the pain of long term commitment and the hardship it brings with it only to bring an irreconcilable regret later on.
The owners of the social networks will stand to benefit even more from those who make up the network. But this is another story.
The notion of sharing learning designs in schools is not new. It goes back to many, many years and it has been practiced in form of sharing teaching experience since the beginning of time. Thousands of years ago, in its simplest form, the transfer of learning design as “design knowledge” applied to a certain context, meant copying, mirroring others’ way of teaching students or trainees, meticulously keeping instruction details intact.
One of the oldest practice took place in the military. The learning design was shared by many instructors in an effort to discipline their soldiers. Closer to our times, generations of teachers learned the learning designs and applied them over generations helping student acquire simple knowledge that barely changed over time. Later, while the number of learning designs were quite reduced at the beginning of the industrial revolution, as the education system become more sophisticated, various disciplines started to form learning designs modelled around their history and cultural background differing more and more from one another.
It is only recently that we came up with the idea of learning design as a template that can be replicated as a step-by-step repeatable process and be used as a tool to support effectively the pedagogical practice. Why the need? Firstly, teachers have to deal with an increasingly complex curriculum and performance requirements. Secondly, the body of knowledge has grown so much, something needs to be done to help the teachers do administrative work faster so that they have more time to focus on interacting with students and perform higher order activities.
This is where the technology is both the culprit and the saviour. While it is widely recognised learning design implemented with technology can make things much easier to re-use, the actual sharing could be costly. There are technologies that offer improved solutions (LAMS International), but their patchy adoption prevents major productivity achievements. Education system need to adopt learning design systems across the entire organisation (meaning region, state, country) to make real progress in reaping the potential rewards.