These slides and the accompanying text are my presentation from the PubCamp events in Sydney and Melbourne. Enjoy!
If you’re listening in, apologies for how fast I talk. I was on the clock!
Through the Looking Glass
So, the Internet’s a teenager now – 16 years old and quite the rebel. As it hit puberty, we all started taking real notice of how it was behaving. Not all that notice was good. Traditional media – television and newspapers – have made a point of highlighting that the ‘net is apparently full to the brim of pedophiles after your kids and scammers trying to expatriate your hard earned dollars to Nigeria.
But really, if we take a long, hard gaze into Alice’s looking glass, what we see is neither a meadow full of flowers nor a dark wood full of impending danger. What we do see is a tool, perhaps more powerful than we have ever had before, for connecting people and leveraging the almost infinite power of those connections. . The power of, as my friend Mark Pesce puts it, hyperconnectivity.
Let’s first wind the clock back a little for some perspective. Just five years ago, most of the social networking tools I rely on in my business today didn’t even exist – LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, Twitter, Dopplr, Slideshare. Just five years ago, pretty much all I had was web browsing and email.
Now, the web and email were pretty powerful tools, but not nearly as powerful as the social networking tools I now use all day, every day. One of the very greatest benefits these new tools have afforded me is to be able to connect with a vastly greater number of people who think like me, do work like me, like the same things I like, than I ever could before. The thing is now, that group I connect to – that I used to have to attend a monthly meeting of eight or a dozen of the same people every time and ultimately get bored by… That group is now spread over the entire planet. Despite that geographic dispersion, I get the distinct privilege (and frankly, enjoyment) of working, collaborating and just gossiping with them every day of the week using social networking tools like Twitter.
Humans, ever since the earliest of us could communicate with each other, have banded together in social networks. It’s not a new phenomenon by any means. But now we have, literally at our fingertips, a network that truly makes our village global. With no more difficulty than stepping next door to my neighbor’s house, I can connect with people that share interests with me – professional or personal – no matter where they are in the world. And I do.
Now, with a lot of those people, my connection is pretty loose. This type of connection is known as a weak tie and was initially described way back before the Internet, in 1973, by Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter. What Granovetter was describing is a loosely connected network, bridged by two or more people who know each other mostly in passing, rather than intimately. At first blush, this doesn’t look like something that can induce an “a-ha” moment. But if you look a little deeper at weak ties, you discover something a little earth shattering. And it’s something we should all be paying attention to, particularly in the context of the businesses we work in.
Weak ties have a special superpower, you see. Because what happens when people that come together based on weak ties – a project team from across a company, for example – is pretty special. Those weakly tied individuals act as bridges between the various strongly tied networks each individual represents. These bridges perform a number of functions – they import new ideas, they foster innovation through diverse opinion, they solve problems. Much more so than strongly tied networks, which tend to homogeneity – a death knell for innovation.
The thing about weak ties, as opposed to strong ties, is they take very little effort to maintain. Consequently, there’s no reason to not make a lot of weakly tied connections with people. Social networks make this weak tied connection incredibly easy to do. The cognitive hurdle imposed by the Dunbar Number that limits your ability to maintain strong ties is mediated by your ability in a social network to maintain weak, but easily accessible ties to potentially hundreds, or even thousands of people that might be able to help you solve a problem (or you solve theirs) at any moment.
What you’re doing at a time like this, is engaging in what’s termed participatory culture. Participatory culture is a break from the Taylorist Industrial Age model many of us have become used to in our complacency – a culture where value is derived from what you’ve already produced, endlessly re-produce like a factory widget and are carefully protecting, hiding and resting upon in the vainglorious hope that others will continue to perceive your value based on your past.
This is not participatory culture.
What participatory culture is – whether at work or in our social, non-work lives – is based upon not only what we have established our reputations on given our ability to produce, and more importantly openly share in the past, but what our reputation in this new economy builds expectation for us as yet to produce. The economy of participatory culture is based on sharing, on distribution of expertise and knowledge and on social capital, traded amongst the geographically and informationally dispersed members of our communities as we exploit the power of our weak ties to solve problems, innovate and drive quantum leaps in knowledge.
It’s a fact that the past few years have seen a marked drop off in the number of hours each week people are listening to the radio and watching television. Just a few weeks ago, NYU professor, Clay Shirky, described the past 50 years of Western humanity’s passive consumption of media as an enormous “cognitive heatsink“. I couldn’t agree more.
While TV certainly has its place – and I’m no stranger to vegging out on the couch – there’s probably no argument that passive consumption of media – TV, radio, newspapers – is pretty unproductive.
Shirky’s prime example was Wikipedia. Recent research has established Wikipedia to be as or more accurate than the previous gold standard, the Encyclopedia Britannica. And, for the English language version, it’s estimated that around 100 million hours of human effort have gone into its production. While that seems like a lot, it’s actually equivalent to just the number of hours Americans spend each weekend watching ads.
Does that make you feel a little ill? Because it does me. Think about it for a moment… Humanity in North America alone, could be producing work of the value of Wikipedia every weekend, if people just participated on subject matter in their area of expertise during the ads!
Our kids get this. They expect to be able to participate. To interact. They don’t respond to pushed messages. They produce their own media and post it to YouTube for their friends to enjoy. They watch measurably fewer hours of television than many of us did at their age.
It doesn’t much matter if today your 15-year-old is playing a few hours of Grand Theft Auto a week, because he’s also probably contributing to and sharing in a vast pool of player knowledge about it that others also share and contribute to. In a few short years he and his classmates of both sexes will be in the workforce – and the kids ahead of them already are – and they’ll expect to share, to participate and contribute and to build social capital and recognition through their ability to do this.
If your organisation isn’t geared up to let this happen, sadly, you’ll be well behind the 8-ball. You need to make it happen now – break down silos, encourage open participation, treat staff like grown ups and stop using the firewall as a stick to block access to social networking tools. The fact is, if you don’t encourage participatory behaviours at work, you stifle innovation, reduce employee engagement and risk huge value in tacit knowledge walking out the door as valuable employees leave in search of clued up employers who do encourage participatory culture within and across their organisational walls.
So, I’ve been rattling on about participatory culture, and social networking and how much value I think there is in all of this, but where’s the real world story? Well, it’s here.
Just last week, I attended a major conference on Enterprise 2.0 in Boston, Massachusetts. The conference covered issues, success stories and tools that can be used in business to forge the types of communication and knowledge sharing that many of us are already doing in our personal lives by using social networking tools. The 1500 delegates shared four fairly intense days together – hearing stories, seeing demonstrations and doing face-to-face social networking.
One of the major benefits to me was the chance to meet in person over 50 people I’ve been collaborating and communicating with online for as much as the past two years. These people came from as far away as the Canary Islands, Germany, the UK and across the USA. I didn’t need to meet them in person to be able to continue to collaborate with them, but the chance to do so was too good to pass up. It really was an opportunity to crank the dial to 11.
So, how did I meet these people in the first place? The answer, as you’ve probably guessed, is social networking and participatory culture. There’s a constant pulse of conversation, collaboration and participation with the people I consider, in some cases, my extended family – as I’ve forged relationships with them as strong as any I have in my local circle of friends.
When I get up in the morning, the Aussies are all rising with me – I get to talk to Ali, Jodie, Jed, Mark and a bunch of others here on the east coast. But at the same time, I get to talk to the Americans who are close to the end of their day – Tara in San Francisco, Laura and Chris in Boston, Paull in New York and others and, as the day progresses, I begin to encounter the Europeans – Luis in the Canary Islands, Mark in Germany, Justin in London. And every day is like this! It’s almost a privilege to be involved with all these smart, engaged and engaging people.
We heard a bunch of amazing, real success stories from organisations as different as the CIA (I met two real life CIA analysts), Lockheed Martin, Goodwin Procter (a 1500 person full service legal firm) and others. All of these organisations are realising tangible benefits by encouraging an open, engaged corporate culture where use of social networking tools is encouraged – sometimes completely inside the wall, sometimes across corporate boundaries.
And in your personal and professional lives, too, there are great stories to be told. Stories of experiences, knowledge, adventure, relationships.
You all have the power to return tomorrow to your organisations and communities and encourage people to start working this way. To build relationships, to establish weak ties, to share and participate and to build your reputations based upon the next big thing you’re going to come up with, rather than that which you’re resting on today.
For our society to take the next big step, the power of participatory culture; a culture where everything is intertwingled, needs to be exploited. It’s not 2020 Summits that are going to fling us forward, it’s the power in the network of opportunity we immerse ourselves in.
Go forth and participate.