Wisdom 2.0: In search of a platform

The Wisdom 2.0 conference was an energizing event (see my synopses here and here). Not only did it remind me that I had allowed the digital world to hijack my deeper connections with the real world, but it allowed me to meet and reconnect with many inspiring and amazing people (@CDEgger, @alizasherman, @kanter, @sh0wn and @SorenG to name a few). It revealed a hunger for something deeper than bits and bytes in the world, while recognizing that our digital attachments enrich us, and present us with previously unimagined opportunities.

Coming out of the conference, and watching the flood of intense, positive reactions in the Twitter stream devoted to the conference, it seemed to me that it might be good to establish a more permanent venue for ongoing conversation and resources.

But where?

A few platforms exist for community, but each has its strengths and weaknesses. At first, it seemed like an easy choice, but as I explored the different options, things became more complicated. What kind of features and functionality did the platforms provide? Could I pull data from other external sources? Would the barrier to entry be low enough for people to engage?

The way forward? A survey…

After seeing the plethora of options available, I realized that I don’t want to make a decision that could negatively impact the growth of such a positive community. It makes sense to learn a bit more about what people would want, and what service would best match that community need, before putting something in place. And so, I’ve created a simple survey to see what people think and want. Please let me know. I will collect and colate all feedback, consult with Soren Gordhamer (creator of Wisdom 2.0), and find the path with heart that allows us to move forward with creating a vibrant community.



Appendix: The reasoning that brought me here…

Account creation: The highest barrier to entry
People are already overloaded with accounts on different social networks, services and platforms. Why sign up for yet another social network? It seemed like it would be great to find a social networking platform that supported something like federated identity (e.g., OpenID) or at least delegated API access (e.g., Facebook Connect or Twitter OAuth). In my first pass, I couldn’t find any robust community platforms that supported this kind of authentication.

Twitter feeds
Twitter seemed to be at least one primary stream for conversation related to Wisdom 2.0. Any platform should have the ability to insert widgets with a Twitter stream with the appropriate hashtag(s) (e.g., #wisdom2conf).

If we’re going to bet on a platform, how stable does it look? Will it support community for the long term, or is it likely to flame out in the near future?

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the premiere community platform (Ning) just changed its business model from Freemium (i.e., free baseline service with paid extensions) to pure subscription (pay for everything, with tiers). Other platforms like Wiser Earth don’t charge, but their functionality seems more restricted.

Social media: Trust is not enough

Trust is critical for companies (and some individuals) trying to engage in social media, but it’s only part of the equation when it comes to messages in social media related to products or services.

This morning, I came across a Twitter message from a social media author whom I both follow and respect. He was sending out a message about his new book (which I already own), encouraging people who were out and about to go to their local bookstore. I’ve seen a few other authors send out similar messages about their latest books. Writing a book is hard work, and the people I’m referring to do great stuff, so I totally understand their desire to promote their efforts. They also have a product (their ideas) worth paying for.

At the same time, my gut reaction to these (repeated) messages has been mixed, because it feels like advertising unintentionally masquerading as a more personal attempt at connection. It also feels like the way these authors encourage brands to engage, rather than push messages, is somewhat at odds with their own practices. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, which makes me examine my reactions to their book promotions.

As I thought about it, a few questions seemed relevant to me when looking at how a message about a good or product can be received:

  • What’s the difference between simple sharing, self-promotion, and push advertising?
  • Does it matter whether the messages come from individuals (“personal brands”) or faceless corporate brands?
  • Is the cost of the good being promoted relevant?

In all of the following discussion, I’ll use the term message to mean “product-oriented message” (as opposed to something that’s purely conversational or informational). I’ll also assume that engagement and trust are somewhat synonymous (i.e., let’s assume that the engagement is the kind that fosters trust).

Sharing, self-promotion and advertising

Intent, content and delivery style will all impact how a message is perceived along this spectrum:

  • Intent relates to whether the message is shared for personal or external benefit. The less someone benefits from the message they deliver, the more it seems like sharing. Advertising presents a more nuanced challenge, because it’s often perceived as unwanted “push” messaging that’s more about selling product as opposed to providing real value.
  • Content is the actual substance of the message (independent of how it’s rendered or delivered). Language matters, and two different approaches for the same underlying message can be received completely differently (e.g., “Buy my book! It rocks!” vs. “After 6 months, our book is finally done…We think you’ll find some ideas to help your business thrive. Thanks for any feedback!”)
  • Delivery style is how the message appears (i.e., its visual style and the medium in which it appears). The same message delivered in Twitter (text only) might be received differently than a print or online ad with typographic treatment, images and color. While style definitely matters, it’s not enough to trump substance and intent.

Message source

Who’s delivering the message? Is it a faceless corporate brand? A stay-at-home Mom with three kids? An independent consultant whom I’ve met before? A friend who likes something and wants to recommend it to me? It’s not so much the source that matters. What matters is whether or not they are engaged with you and trusted, and the degree to which they stand to benefit from telling you something.

For example, if a good friend recommends a book to you, does it matter that they get a kickback from the author for every book they sell? What if an independent reviewer (whom you don’t know and who stands to gain nothing) gives you the same message? In this context, trust and benefit are highly correlated, because the more someone stands to benefit from something, the less we tend to trust that their message comes from the goodness of their hearts for our benefit.

Cost of good being promoted

In most cases, I’d venture this is secondary to the benefit received by the person promoting the good. If the source isn’t trusted, then any cost more than “free” is going to be met with skepticism. Conversely, if a source is highly trusted and engaged, then as long as the receiver of a message feels like the benefit outweighs the cost, the message will be more well-received. Of course, as cost becomes prohibitive, this whole calculus breaks down and cost becomes the deciding factor.

Engagement vs. Benefit: A model for messaging

Based on everything put forward above, I’m going to propose a two-dimensional model for how product messages are received.

Stive for both engagement and mutual benefits in your social media messaging

In a nutshell, the less engaged and less trusted the source, the more we care about the degree to which they benefit from the message they’re putting forward. The more engaged and trusted the messenger, the more people will look at how they benefit relative to the messenger, assuming good will if it seems to be of mutual benefit. In other words, we will tend to assume the source is more virtuous if they are more engaged and trusted, even if the message (and benefits) are exactly the same to us.

Let’s go back to what started this whole thing: a social media author suggests that you stop by the bookstore for their latest offering. Clearly, this falls into the mixed feelings zone for messaging. They stand to benefit significantly (i.e., if I buy their book), whereas my return on the expenditure depends on the content of the book. I’m engaged with them to the extent that I follow them on Twitter and know people who know them, but they aren’t my friends, and I’ve never really talked with them. And so I wind up feeling confused, unsure which way the benefit scale tips (i.e., book sale vs. book value to me) relative to my trust in their message.

Balance the forces of trust and benefit

Whether you’re a brand or an individual, when it comes to social media, it’s important to consider your level of engagement with your audience, and how much you stand to benefit from the (product) messages you deliver relative to your audience. If you’re not engaged (and maybe even if you are), you better be sharing more than you stand to benefit. Conversely, if you’re engaged with your audiences, but you benefit most from your messages, consider how that might come across and affect perceptions over time.

Balance the forces of trust and mutual benefit and everyone wins.

NOTE: Don’t mistake the title of this post or its content as a criticism of Brogan and Smith’s Trust Agents, a seminal work in the expanding field of social media. Read their stuff, it’s great.

In search of a label for social media

When it comes to labels, social media is a forest with lots of trees

The term “social media” continues to rise in usage and popularity, but what do people mean when they say it? Is it misleading? And who needs a label, anyway?

Both Aliza Sherman and Olivier Blanchard have taken on this topic recently, each with similar conclusions (i.e., “social media” is not the best term, it’s hard to come up with a better one, but we should probably try). They suggest “social web” and “social communications” as possible alternatives, each of which has its appeal. At the same time, neither term seems to get its arms all the way around the paradigm shift that’s taking place.

It all started with Web2.0, when people tried to stick a label on this really big thing that was happening that no one quite understood. The term was coined for the O’Reilly media conference in 2004, and sparked quite a debate. People argued about what “it” meant, as if you could point at something and say whether or not it was “Web2.0.” It was a vague umbrella term used to cover a wide array of related concepts, but in the end, it stuck.

“Social media” as a term suffers from the same problem. It’s an umbrella used to cover a huge array of practices, technologies and philosophies about digital content and engagement (as Aliza Sherman illustrates). It reflects another paradigm shift, in the same way “Web2.0” did.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on Google Trends to see how search behavior related to some of these umbrella terms has evolved since 2004.

Even though this is an imprecise way to get at what people are saying and talking about (since it only reflects search volume), I think it still shows a few interesting things:

  • Social media usage is rising exponentially, and has matched use of social networking as a term
  • Social networking usage continues to rise, but not as quickly as social media
  • Web 2.0 (two variants) are used a bit more frequently, but their use has declined dramatically since 2007

Labels are for forests, not trees

People in the business of understanding, explaining and advancing paradigm shifts like “Web2.0” and “social media” are passionate about what terms are used. Terminology matters to practitioners, and they use and evolve it for a few reasons:

  • To provide a reference point for discussions and debates
  • To improve understanding of the paradigm shifts that are occurring
  • To self-identify with others in their profession

For people who aren’t practitioners, it’s a different story. When it comes to labels like “Web2.0” and “Social media,” most people don’t care about the nuanced distinctions being made. In addition, I would argue that getting the label “just right” won’t help describe these paradigm shifts to non-practitioners. After all, many people don’t even know what a Web browser is (let alone the Internet).

Paradigm shifts and the labels stuck on them are about taking a look at the forest, and they’re just not that relevant to daily life. Most people only care about the trees of connecting with friends or watching cool videos on YouTube or sharing a picture of their kids. Labels are for practitioners and people trying to make sense of what’s happening.

Paradigm shifts are label proof

No one ever agreed on the meaning of the term Web 2.0, and it ultimately didn’t matter. I don’t think anyone will agree on the meaning of the term social media, either. Three years from now, its usage will probably die down, following in the footsteps of “Web 2.0.”

As much as we want to stick labels on these big paradigm shifts, they resist them. They reflect deep societal change and technological disruption, and no simple label is ever going to capture the richness of that change and its impact on humanity. It’s a fool’s errand to keep searching for the right term, but it’s probably a worthwhile one, because the debate itself is what matters.

The Invisible Mob

Things are getting a lot tougher for the jerks of the world. Irritate an articulate blogger with a modest Twitter following, and said jerk could find themselves ridiculed in a post whose flames are fanned by a hurricane of tweets. Pretty fun for everyone to watch; not so fun for the jerk. But they had it coming, right? Or did they?

There’s a perverse fascination in watching the public humiliation of people we think deserve it, a satisfying schadenfreude that runs deep into our reptilian brains. And it’s something we like to share with others, the pleasure magnified with increased participation. After all, what’s better than one pie in the face of a jerk? Why, two, of course.

This all came to mind recently as I watched people repeatedly retweeting a blog post titled “Please design a logo for me. With pie charts. For free.” The author (David Thorne) is purportedly sharing an email thread between himself and a technology entrepreneur named Simon Edhouse. In said exchange, Mr. Thorne appears to be the wronged creative, and Mr. Edhouse the egomaniacal business hack bent on extracting value with no intention of compensation. Thorne rakes him over the coals in an intensely creative way. His post is brilliant, scathing, very funny, and has a ring of truth in the way business people take advantage of creative talent. Through another lens, though, his post could also be seen as mean-spirited and sadistic.

When a few people on Twitter got a hold of this post, it spread like wildfire. As of this writing, the URL passed around has been clicked nearly 83,000 times (view up-to-date statistics). Twitter is a potent accelerant for this kind of fire because sharing links is so easy. Not only does the fire light easily, but it can have some staying power as links pass through different social graphs. In this case, everybody got in on the act, pie-throwers and kind people alike, maybe because it was funny and seemed justified.

I read the article, and had quite a laugh, but then it made me a bit uncomfortable. I felt kind of dirty. And then sad. Even if the story is true and Mr. Edhouse is a monumental jerk, does that justify the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve now had a chance to laugh at his expense?

Digital media will always spawn mobs, some good, some bad. This is nothing new and others have written about it (see Scoble’s piece on mob mentality for an example). On the positive side, I love seeing how Twitter and other social media can be used for good (e.g., ONE Drop, Movember, Tweetsgiving). On the negative side, social media tools can be perverted like other communication platforms. They can be used to support mis- and disinformation, corrupt and hateful thinking, bigotry, or just stupid behavior. I’d argue that this kind of stuff generates enough reactions, though, that people attempt to fight it, or at least engage in dialogue about it.

The thing I find different about the Edhouse roast is that no one even seemed to notice the mob, and it’s these invisible mobs that trouble me the most. They seem to fly under the radar, because it’s all just really poking fun, isn’t it? Maybe so, but it just shows how mediated experiences can inure us to what it’s like to physically participate in someone else’s humiliation. We seem to do it without a second thought, and tools like Twitter make it a bit too easy. Ultimately, as fun as it can be and however justified it is, I think joining these invisible mobs can be just as bad as joining the ones with fires and pitchforks.

Keeping it IRL

I had lunch recently with @SarahKennon, aka Sarah in real life (IRL). Twitter facilitated our introduction by opening doors that may not have been cracked otherwise. We saw some shared professional interests (social media, user-experience design) and found some overlap with other things (e.g., sustainability and green). So, lunch seemed like a good idea and we met. It wound up being a fun mind-meld at Umi in Potrero Hill, a long chat about our professional trajectories, where we want to go and the kinds of strategic and design problems we like solving.

While this digitally inspired crossover is pretty cool, it’s also becoming commonplace (and probably yawn-inspiring for people who spend lots of time with online social networks). What struck me about our lunch was just how important it is to keep things real when possible. Sure, mediated experiences offer a lot, and enable things and connections previously unheard of, but they don’t give us everything. At the end of the day, we are physical, and interacting with people face-to-face offers things no stream of bits and bytes will ever replicate.

So every once in awhile, do what you can to step out from behind the warm glow of your monitor or laptop. Pull things into the dirt world and go out for a Bento box with someone interesting. You’ll be happy you did.

The Emerald City of social media success

Follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City of social media success

Follow the yellow brick road...

Many companies are trying to figure out how to use social media effectively, and hordes of social media thinkers are eager to help (from those worth your time to the snake-oil salesmen). A quick Google search for social media success yields more than 500,000 hits as of this writing, with the top results mostly of the “Five easy steps” variety.

While simple recipes can offer some good advice, as many of these do, they can do a disservice to businesses by creating the illusion that (a) it’s simple to succeed with social media, and (b) there’s a one-size-fits-all solution.

Dorothy’s quest in Oz provides a pretty decent analogy. The recipe was simple for her: follow the yellow-brick road to The Emerald City. Seems easy enough, right? Until you realize there are haunted forests on the road. And monkeys. Don’t forget the flying monkeys.

The social media yellow-brick road

There are plenty of potholes in the social media road, lots of skidmarks, and a few smoldering wrecks. Many have already offered thoughtful examples of why companies have a hard time getting down this road:

Beyond all of these failings and flaws, I’ve seen a few more twists in the road that can lead companies astray (or keep them off it completely):

1. Limited resources keep focus away from social media
Given limited resources and budgets, companies tend to focus on their burning problems, rather than on the strategic things they can do to be more successful. Social media is often not perceived as being urgent (and in some cases, it may not be).

2. Cost and organizational implications limit efforts
Getting an empowered company evangelist onto Twitter is one thing. Migrating an old company web site onto a CMS that supports user-generated content and comments can run from difficult to impossible. Sometimes companies feel like they have to do it all, or become paralyzed with indecision, and so they do nothing (or very little).

3. The landscape changes faster than companies can
Companies are willing to put effort into it, but they don’t want to waste time and effort on things they worry might disappear in six months. As a result, many large companies are waiting to see what happens (or waiting for others to fail first).

Create your own Emerald City

If you add up all of these lists of failings and challenges and things companies must do to succeed, suddenly the simple recipe has become more like one from the French Laundry cookbook. Social media success isn’t an easily-defined place like The Emerald City, and there’s no single, easy road to get there (no shortcuts and no overnight successes, either).

Dorothy succeeded in her quest through determination and friendship, making mistakes along the way, and staying true to who she was. Companies should do the same: give up on magic formulas. Just be engaged and follow some yellow-brick road, and enjoy all its potholes, prizes, and flying monkeys.

If you’ve got experiences to share from your trip down the social media road, I’d love to hear them.

bits and bytes: Past and future

After years of maintaining a personal blog with professional bits scattered throughout, I finally decided to separate church and state, as it were, and this is the result. You’ll find my thoughts on digital strategy, web and mobile experience design, social media, and anything else that fires me up professionally here.

Dusty entries prior to September 2009 are from the technology category of that older (somewhat defunct) blog. Rereading them is like looking at old High School photos: a combination of nostalgia tinged with embarrassment. Some are quaint anachronisms. Some are snarky (and not in a good way). Some are just not that well-written. Most are too long. But, there you go. It’s all part of the journey, and I wanted them here for completeness.

And so, onwards, sideways, and hopefully upwards sometimes. Leave your thoughts on what I write, if you’re so inclined. I’d enjoy hearing them!



Bits I'm reading