In an interview given to Robert Scoble, John Gotts, the founder of Connect GOP, talks about how social media can politicians communicate with their constituencies they represent. This could be an unappealing story, one of those that you glance over while rushing to the next exciting news, if it wasn’t for the some very interesting remarks John made about how the technology can transform the political process.
First of all the magnitude of this project commands attention, because if it succeeds, it will transform the political process. Connect GOP is building a database of as many voters as possible and help their representatives use that data to get a pulse of what is going on and communicate their political messages. Here is the interesting bit: Connect GOP wants to store the experience of all campaigns and sift through the data to learn from past mistakes and successes informing the new campaigns to do better. But this is not your typical analytical tool. The system will be designed to provide the representatives with a real-time process that takes the simple political message and morphs it based on the past experience in a message communicated through multiple social media platforms and traditional forms of communication such as email. This has some massive repercussions. The big TV ad campaigns will become much less relevant. The true campaign will be almost invisible to the public eye, and become a stealth operation reaching with much better precision the same audience if not larger with targeted and personalised messages.
Secondly, John’s remark about how many intermediate jobs that exist in the current process will disappear thanks to automation and data analysis. Like office operators in the 70s and 80s, the media staff will be threatened by systems such as Connect GOP. Forget about the days where the communiques where custom crafted on each occasion in each district based on the experience of individuals and the local history. Now the big data will inform a few professionals about what are the best models to be used in various circumstances. John calls this “contextual politics”.
Another interesting thing about this is the issue of trust when it comes to supporting competitors. If you support the team A, you cannot pretend you will help team B in an absolutely neutral fashion. John talks about Votizen and National Builder and how they had an issue of trust because the suspicion that data from one party could be made available to the other side. Through extension, this raises the issue of trust large social network enterprises in the context where their leaders take political positions. As soon as this happens, their members have legitimate reasons to ask of whether their trust should be reconsidered. See my previous post When Social Networks are not Social which touches on the issue of trust in the context of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In campaign.
Finally, the nature of the politics seems to be in for a big change. In the past political machine has been revolving around a broad ideological framework and big personalities. The memory of a party has been passed from generation to generation in form of stories, books, speeches and long history. Now, a political party is extending this memory with large networks and cloud data in which past events, voters information, economic data, and campaigns are stored for processing with complex algorithms. This machinery will play and increased role in the future in the way political platforms are defined and in the way the representatives communicate with their constituencies. Maybe the accountability will be improved through transparency. Rogue politicians will find it more difficult to hide, but in the same time, political heroes will find it harder to make bold moves by themselves. They need data and the help of professional experts.
A sharp article, “Pompon girl for feminism“, by Maureen Dowd from New York Times about Sheryl Sandberg’s social campaign draws some interesting observations about social networks and marketing. I am not going to dwell on the merits or otherwise of Sheryl’s agenda. However, I have an interest in the way she runs her campaign for world domination because she is such a powerful figure at Facebook.
Imagine Mark Zuckerberg initiating a movement to support a cause that involves a large number of people. Suddenly, many Facebook member would become nervous or uneasy. In a perfect world where there is no ulterior motive, this would mean nothing, but in our world when someone with access to the data generated by a social graph with one billion people has direct plans for a large group in our society, that makes a different story.
Sheryl Sandberg wants to create a large community made up of circles of 12 peers who meet monthly to discuss education modules. It is not clear how this community will be built although we know that heavy advertising is planned in the months ahead, but there is a Facebook question in there. Are they going to network outside Facebook, are they going to be initiated, discovered, marketed in a separate environment? Will the Facebook Search Graph going to be used? We will have to wait and see. In the long run, if she is successful this project will make her position at Facebook difficult. Perhaps this is an indication that she has plans beyond the social network giant.
People with high levels of energy who are using their authority to demand others to follow their way, will inevitably be attracted to the idea of applying pressure from the top down to “convince” the group members to adopt the prescribed practices. The philosophy of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is based on ad-hoc connections and individual laissez-faire. In contrast, the Lean In Circles requires rigorous discipline with unforgiving rules designed filter out the “flakes”.
As Maureen Dowd observed: “People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself”. This is a great point. The difference between a social network and an organisation is determined by its social vector representing the diffusion of influence. If the social vector goes top down and if it has a goal drafted by their leaders, then we are dealing with a vertical organisation. If it goes from bottom to the top and it has no pre-planned agenda, then the formation is a horizontal organisation. Lacking hierarchies, self-organising around emerging patterns, needs and motivations, such structures describe what we loosely define social networks.
A smartphone today has more computational power than Apollo 13. The computerised devices around us are increasingly smarter and they multiply at high speed changing the ecosystem in which we live. Some of us may feel suffocated by this change and with all the software code we use every day it seems human emotion is valued less and less.
One of the changes becoming more visible by the passing of each day is the invasion of data in the way we think. The digital replaces the analogue. Every move is broken down into small components and expressed into a binary form. Time is digital, distance is digital, the images are digital and the sounds are digital. The last two frontiers resisting to conversion are the tactile and the smell sense, but it is just a matter of time before they capitulate.
Has the technology made us less human?
It all started with “let’s improve our lives”. The cars have better controls, the phones are more convenient and helpful and the digital cameras are so good in capturing personal memories. At a personal level, this is a welcome upgrade. We like that.
But then, gradually, as these devices kept crunching numbers and generating more data than ever, a new development has grown out of the science labs into the daily life of the average person. This new wave of change is incessant and unforgiving. We were comfortable with the introduction of computing units at the beginning because the adoption process was so familiar: it was industrial, it was large and remote. The Univac, the IBM mainframes and the likes fit our industrial model of the world. There was a kind of order we were used to and we liked: punching cards required scheduling and approval from authority; the computer rooms had managers who made decisions after careful and lengthy considerations. In the old James Bond movies the computer labs are static, inflexible and secretive.
Digital change comes in waves
The first wave was about the macro-economy. Large data bits helped the modelling (through accidental and implicit development or by design) national economies and world trade in new ways leading to globalisation. The abundance of data changes the way nations trade among themselves, how populations live and how big infrastructure projects are built. One example in which this change had an impact on the human expression is tourism. Kevin Kelly (in “Pre-Globalization”) remarked how we lost in one swoop access to great historical and human treasures hidden in distant corners of the world. “Now every village gets visitors every now and then. Just as you get electricity, you get visitors. Multiplied by millions every year, the exchange produces a subtle leavening, a quiet education; a silent bridging that may in the end be as powerful as electricity and roads”.
The second wave brought change at home, at school, at work at individual level. You could call this the BYOD wave. It’s all about personal stuff. Maybe this started in the 90s when the PC started slowly to make its way into our lives with CD-ROMs, games and word processors. It is still happening at much accelerated pace: smartphones, tablets, heart monitors, digital cameras, etc.
The third wave, which started about 10 years ago, is about big data. Amazon was probably the first to recognise the value of customer data and monetise it successfully. Large networks received bits of information generated by our interaction with the electronic medium and make sense of what happens by reading behavioural patterns. All these innocent and cute devices that we love to have are in fact little Trojan horses opening the doors to a scary guy called Big Data. This guy is demanding now that we do things differently, forget about our old ‘human’ ways and learn new rational tricks.
Take this as an example: Progressive Insurance offers an insurance plan 30% less expensive if you agree to install a black box called Snapshot on your car. This device counts how often your slam you breaks, how many miles you drive and how often you drive between midnight and 4am. This a classic behavioural learning scheme based on stimuli and response. We are like lab rats.
Skills from out-of-body experience
The most unsettling aspect of the way big data influences our lives is that it diminished the value of knowledge accumulated through direct personal experience. As an individual we need to get good skills at learning about global knowledge and understand the large patterns. Intuition and emotion are very important, but it is essential to get better at bypassing emotional impulses based on individual experience in favour of “emotional” data patterns based on the experience of large groups. We need to develop antennas that capture large social digital signals.
So, are we less human?
In the grand scheme of things, the answer is no. We will be just different. If you take a hard look at our past, we were not that human as we want us to believe. Let’s not forget that there was a time when we thought children are little monsters and their evil needed to be eliminated through pain. Beating was OK. Jonathan Swift even proposed poor parents eat their children to reduce their burden and for the benefit of the public.
To survive, the human race needed to adopt behaviours that while cruel from a modern perspective it made sense at the time. We are readier to understand this when we observe other species. We watch on TV how lions kill the cubs bestowed with the ‘wrong’ DNA and we listen thoughtfully the voice of the narrator that explains that this is just natural selection. If we were an alien sitting on a distant couch and watch us changing family values, adopt new social norms and promotion systems would we be surprised at all about our new adopted behaviours? Not likely.
Successful innovation is difficult because it is not enough to have a bright idea. Everybody has one, including me. What separates the boys from men is the implementation. The road to heaven is paved with hard work from the initial blueprint until the finalised product, and its successful adoption which requires team work, focus sustained over a long period and ability to execute and deliver.
The core team that innovates successfully is the equivalent of a queen bee starting a new colony: it produces ideas continuously while surrounding itself with a growing team that takes on tasks derived from those ideas, all of them orchestrated into a collective effort to build a long-lasting product enterprise.
At the beginning, there is no light around innovation, but just a faint white star shining in the distance. There is little information, no training classes and no user manuals. Could your normal team or business units do it? Not likely. They are not suitable for this kind of undertaking because there is no documented process or job description. You need a special team: a small community of practice whose members are innovators.
A community of practice is made of people who have frequent face-to-face meetings; they meet around the water cooler and talk and pick-up clues from little things to spark a creative chain of thoughts. The members of such community are highly skilled, they have knowledge far beyond what is required by the standard job description and they thrive on uncertainty.
Creative enterprises know this very well. Valve’s HR (blasphemy!) induction manual is an interesting case of encouraging teams to work as small communities of practice. It is all about having strong relationships that work, are creative, productive and fun.
Adoption however, although it still depends on communities of practice to figure out how to use the innovation, relies on large social networks to fire-up the spread of the idea.
In fact, the adoption works best if the network is a huge collection of groups linked through weak connections. This is because the networks of strong ties are usually small due to impossibility of individuals to maintain strong relationships beyond say 20 people. Great networkers may go up to 150, but for the average person, even maintaining 10 strong relationships is a struggle. This means that if a community of practice adopts your innovation, you shouldn’t rush to pop that bottle of Don Perignon yet. Settle for a Stella Artois and a barbecued shrimp for the time being.
Mark Granovetter coined the term ‘weak ties’ to describe lose connections in a social group. His research led him to the conclusion that these types of connections are actually the ones that make a personal network very effective. Christakis and Fowler demonstrate in Connected that weak-ties are great for finding fresh information, aka code for new habits.
So, if your Facebook is limited to close friends that think like you, you are missing on a great opportunity to learn something new and useful you and your close friends never thought of before. Better ‘like’ someone different soon!
Globalisation is the other side of localisation. They are like yin and yang, embracing each other.
Two consequences derive out of this:
- The local innovators need to have access to great networks to spread their ideas. If the innovators are not great communicators and if they don’t have network bridges, their innovation will be lost in anonymity and dry
- Innovators and adopters need to think alike as they need each other, but both need to influence a lot more people to get the network going. If the growth in adoption doesn’t keep growing to reach about 16%, they are doomed. They fall into the chasm, Moore’s chasm.
In a recently published book, The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti says that despite the popularity of the global social networks, the vast majority of the phone calls and web traffic is local. The most innovative cities and regions are based on small, tightly knight, and local communities. With other words, the secret of global success of Silicon Valley is local, very local.
This is also why the local economies’ prosperity depends so much on innovation and free trade.
One of the bloggers at Microsoft TechNet happily reported in 2010 that SharePoint is the leader of the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Horizontal Portals. Competing against IBM, Oracle and SAP, Microsoft was the clear winner in that race. At the time 70% of Gartner portal inquiries were directed at SharePoint.
As I explained in my previous post I believe SharePoint is representing a technology that it is slipping past its peak and into sustainable innovation mode; solid, useful, effective, but increasingly leaving some of its current customers and its non-customers with unanswered questions. It lacks emotional features which are so vital for social engagement.
Source: Gartner, September 2010
I recognise that it is a long shot and that I don’t have the data to back it up, other than observations of one single product and a theory of social adoption of innovation, but I have a hunch that Gartner’s Magic Quadrant is old news. A leader in the quadrant is something that has already picked. The product or service must have gone already past the late majority in the adoption of innovation cycle on Roger’s diagram. From that point on a long sunset follows with a string of sustainable innovations which are very much about “perfecting” the product.
In the case of SharePoint, it is too difficult now to embed social networking features. It is much easier to start something new and maybe have that platform SharePoint-friendly. Maybe something that could come out from Microsoft’s so.cl?
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.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid giving a sense of political bias when writing about political events. Nevertheless, I will try, by preceding the observations that follow with a disclaimer: this is not a political post and I am as neutral as I can be. It is the social aspect of this political debate that interests me.
In his speech in South Carolina after the victory in SC GOP primary, Newt Gingrich made a very pertinent comment when referring to the strong reaction that people had to the news media. He said:
“I think there is something very fundamental that I wish that powers to be in the news media will take seriously. The American people feel that they have elites in Washington and New York who have been trying for half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system and in their action people completely misunderstood what’s going on. It’s not that I am good debater it is that I articulate the deepest felt values that the American people…”
There is a key element here that stands out. When Newt Gingrich talks about news media he means the big TV networks, the big newspapers, and the traditional media who are used to dominate the way the conversation goes about political events. He linked that media to the establishment in Washington and New York representing the political and financial powers and placed all of them against the “people”.
If you ignore the political context for a moment, and forget that it is Newt Gingrich we are talking about, you would have to agree that he is striking a chord here. The year of 2011 was the year of 1% versus 99%; it was the year of Occupy Wall Street, and the year of the “Facebook Revolution” in Middle East and North Africa. When he was asked about his past marital issues, his response drew a wave of sympathy from the voters who moved away from Mitt Romney simply because the public dislikes the “biased” traditional media and the establishment with which Mitt Romney is associated. He represents the big business end of the town and he has a large presence in the traditional media.
The distrust of the 99% in the financial and political establishment is so intense, that whoever manages to tap into this vein of emotional energy will get the “like” of many followers. More than ever, the American elections in November this year will see the influence of social media at an unprecedented level. But it would be a big mistake to believe that this happens thanks to the proliferation of social communication tools. It is more than that. We are going through a slow but profound transformation of our society which favours a different kind of engagement and socio-economic equity. After the GFC Wall Street and political establishment will never be the same.
There are two things that, I think will play a significant role not only in American elections but in other areas of high social sensitivity, where distribution of power is at stake. First of all, the media will be increasingly influenced by the collective opinions propagated through social networks. Secondly, there is a severe erosion of the capital of trust once owned by the dominant establishment. Governments around the world have lost the trust of people. Financial institutions can only dream of having the respect that banks had in the better days of the last century. There are very few people left that believe the government and large institutions will take care of them into the retirement.
A different kind of media is rising. They are inclusive, they are good listeners and they tap into the public opinion as it happens on the social networks. Instead of having professional journalists collecting the data through personal connections, they have the public bring the leads. Mashable, GigaOM, Huffington Post and the likes have strong communication links with the public at large and have them driving the news. They lead on matters that are important to the public, rather than by telling the public what the news is. Are these Web 2.0 outlets the media of the future? Probably not. Does this mean that the journalism is reduced to listening and second-guessing what others have to say? Does this mean the professionalism is dead? No, it just means that the way the news is sourced, discussed, prioritised and distributed changes. The New York Times of the future will be a newspaper – sorry I meant to say a newspad – much better connected to the public mind, and using more contribution from the public. The new professional journalism of the future is still under development.
This is not a trend limited to the news business. Staying connected through large social networks is key to staying relevant, informed and responsive to those who use and need your product. Collaborative consumption, networked consumption, however it is called, the idea that people with tiny contributions and opinions create something of importance in an aggregate form is too big to ignore.