March 2010 Archives


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A good (but too brief!) post by Mahendra about the importance of relevance. Mahendra is spot on to say that relevance is more important than big numbers and way more important than real-time. This is true not just in public-facing social media applications - it's not just Facebook that wins because it's relevant - but in Enterprise 2.0 too. Slapping up some social tools because it seems like a good idea will not get you as much traction as providing people with tools and information relevant to their needs. If I juggle a lot of incoming information on a day to day basis, I need help filtering that information and so something like social bookmarking becomes relevant. If I'm organising meetings, I need something that can help me cut down on repetitive tedious tasks like agenda writing like a wiki.

Relevance. It should underpin every social media project we do.

Telecommuting: Just do it!

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I've worked for a lot of remote clients over the years, reaching back to when I was a web designer during the Dot Com era. From the company in California for whom I designed and built a website during the late 90s, to the start-up in Montreal that I worked with last year, my professional engagements have been as often remote as on-site. I've been freelance one way or another for over ten years so working from home is second nature.

In the last decade, many of the problems with remote working have been solved. It is now trivial to do video conferencing: All you need is a decent internet connection and Skype. Transferring large files is easy using services like DropBox or DropSend. IRC (internet relay chat), which was once a staple communications channel, has been replaced by instant messenger and Yammer. The emailing round of documents for discussion has been replaced by wikis like Socialtext or PBWorks. If you're willing to be inventive, working remotely isn't technically difficult.

This certainly seems to be experience that the editorial staff of had when they decided to all work from home whilst putting together the most recent issue. Technologically, telecommuting is pretty simple and there's no reason why more companies couldn't just decide to get on with it. The social aspects of distributed working are a little bit thornier: it suits some personalities more than others and you do have to think very hard about how your emotional needs get met. I've always been pretty happy being on my own all day and getting my social fix online, or at meetings and evening events, but some people need a bit more face-to-face interaction to be happy. But homeworking needn't be all or nothing. There's no reason why more people can't do two or three days at home and the rest of the week in the office.

The benefits may well outweigh the downside too. gathered these stats from Kate Lister from the Telework Research Network, who asked what the numbers would be if 40% of the American workforce worked from home half the time:

  • $200 billion: productivity gains by American companies
  • $190 billion: savings from reduced real estate expenses, electricity bills, absenteeism, and employee turnover
  • 100 hours: per person not spent commuting
  • 50 million tons; of greenhouse gas emissions cut
  • 276 million barrels: of oil saved, or roughly 32 percent of oil imports from the Middle East
  • 1,500 lives: not lost in car accidents
  • $700 billion: total estimated savings to American businesses

The social enterprise isn't just about helping people realise the benefits of social media in the workplace, but is also about the vast possibilities in flexible working that social tools offer. And from what has experienced, it seems that there's no reason not to dive in and give it a go.

Can problems be solved by blogging?

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Davide Castelvecchi writes for the Scientific American about how mathematician Timothy Gowers from the University of Cambridge used his blog to crack a complex Naughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe) problem. In an experiment to see if "spontaneous online collaborations could crack hard mathematical problems," Gowers and commenters on his blog looked for a simpler proof for the density Hales-Jewett problem, (which asks, in a more complicated way than I am about to, how many squares can be removed from a naughts and crosses grid in N dimensions to make the game unwinnable).

It won't be surprising to anyone familiar with social media that the answer turned out to be yes, you can crack complicated problems through discussion in a blog post's comments. In this case, the new proof was derived in six weeks through hundreds of comments and was written up into a paper authored by the collective entity DHJ Polymath.

The methodology will be familiar to many bloggers too:

When trying to solve a problem, mathematicians usually make many failed attempts, in which they try lines of reasoning that can turn out to be "blind alleys," after weeks or months of work. Often those lines of reasoning that seem promising to one expert look obviously fruitless to another. So when every attempt is exposed to public feedback, the process can become much faster.

Although not groundbreaking, what this experiment does do is throw up an interesting thought about the nature of problems. Castelvecchi draws a distinction at the top of the article between problems like the density Hales-Jewett problem which cannot be solved by breaking work up into smaller tasks, and those that can. In the distributed problem solving world, Galaxy Zoo is a great example, bringing together thousands of people to successfully classify millions of images of galaxies (and that's just the start of their success!).

But the density Hales-Jewett problem also has key property that makes it amenable to collaborative solving which Castelvecchi doesn't mention: It is possible to know when you have answered it. That means that there's a specific end-point to which all participants are heading. Many problems that we seek to solve do not have such a neat solution, but the process of attempting to answer parts of the problem is valuable in and of itself. Wikipedia, for example, attempts to solve the problem of collating and verifying information and although it will never be "finished", the process results in a very valuable information set. Some problems are even "wicked problems" which change their nature as we try to solve them. Wicked problems, and other problems with no solution, may yet still benefit from exploration.

So, we end up with this handy matrix:

Problem Matrix

Social media or specialised collaborative platforms can be used to in all instances to help find a solution to the problem, if it is possible to do so. Otherwise, it can at least provide an opportunity to discuss the problem which in itself is a valuable exercise. The only thing that surprises me is that more companies don't turn to social media, internally or externally, to help them define, discuss and possibly solve business problems.

Models of authority

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When I talk about social media culture to people, I often wind up talking about models of authority, i.e. the different ways in which we view what makes someone a person worth taking notice of. As I see it, there are four main models of authority:

  1. Claimed authority: "You must respect me because I say so"
  2. Institutional authority: "Respect me because of my affiliation"
  3. Historical authority: "Respect me because I've been doing this a long time"
  4. Earnt authority: "I have been consistently reliable on this topic"

When I look at how people react to these different modes, the only one I see gaining any traction in social media circles is the last: earnt authority. If you are consistently helpful, reliable or accurate you will be given kudos for that. Furthermore, anyone can earn respect and authority online, if they are willing to put the legwork in.

Claimed authority is particularly reviled, and you can see this in the sceptical way people deal with journalists who claim to knowledge of something but can't back it up with actual facts. The internet is rife with blogs debunking rubbish journalism of all stripes, whether in the mainstream or fringe media.

Institutional authority gets ignored or challenged. Just because you're affiliated to a big brand doesn't mean that you get a free pass. If you're boring or predictable, you'll wind up just talking to yourself. If you screw up, you'll be held to account.

And historical authority - whether of the "Est. 1723" or "I've been on the internetz longer than you have so nyer" sort - doesn't really wash either. You may have been doing what you do for ever, but if you're rubbish at it people will notice.

Clearly there are other cultural issues at work here too. Speaking in generalities, America is much more open to new people coming into a space and showing what they are made of, whereas in the UK there's a lot more of a "Who the hell do you think you are?" attitude, with appeals to traditional models of authority much more common.

But where I think this is important is in understanding why some social media projects fail - whether they are internal or external. There are many, many people who are well versed in social media culture and who have a very solid set of expectations, often informed by books such as the Cluetrain Manifesto. And because this culture revolves around individuals exchanging value with each other as equals, they are very keep to preserve a dynamic that they see as beneficial to both themselves and their wider community.

When people steeped in traditional behaviour sets, more focused on extracting value than exchanging it, start dipping their toes into social media, they do so with the wrong models of authority in mind. They think that they'll be successful because of who they are, how long they've been around or simply because they just believe it should be so. That, of course, doesn't happen.

Instead, businesses need to enter social media humbly, with the assumption that they are going to have to earn respect by consistently being a good and valuable participant in a wider community. And I'm not just talking about how to do social media marketing, but also about internal use. There's no point just chucking up blogs or a wiki and saying to people, "Right, use these. It'll be good for you." You have to understand that social media is about an exchange and ask yourself, what are our people getting out of this?

"Users will scroll" says Nielsen

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Jakob Nielsen, once an opponent of scrolling, has now said that users will scroll, but only if there's something worth scrolling to. This totally fits in the "No shit, Sherlock" category, but I suppose it's good to have one's experiences backed up by the evidence.

What's disappointing about Nielsen's column is that he doesn't appear to have taken different types of content and behaviour into account. So there's no sign that he adjusted for interestingness of the content, its relevance to the test subject, or whether the site already prioritised key information at the top of the page. Nor does he say whether he adjusted for content that provokes seeking behaviour or what I shall call here 'absorbed' behaviour, e.g. reading an interesting blog post.

All three of Nielsen's examples are sites where I would expect to see seeking behaviour, i.e. the user glances through the content until they find what they want. If the sites are well designed, then the user should find that information quickly, at the top of the page. It is thus not necessarily surprising that he found participants spent 80.3% of their time above the fold (i.e. the point on your screen where you'd need to scroll to see more), and 19.7% below, and that people's attention flicked down the page until it settled on something interesting.

If Nielsen had used websites that provoke absorbed behaviour, such as well-written blogs or news sites, I would have expected to see a more evenly distributed eye-tracking trace. The third example, a FAQ, is starting to move towards that territory, but FAQs aren't known for being fascinating. If a blog post or news article is interesting, I will read to the bottom without even realising I am scrolling. If it's dull, on the other hand, I'll either give up quite quickly or I'll skip to the end to see if there's anything juicy down there, i.e. the low quality of the content flips me from absorbed behaviour to seeking behaviour as I look for something more interesting.

Overall, I find this research, as presented in this column, rather lacking. You can't just separate out user behaviour from content type and quality because the content has a huge impact on the user's behaviour.

Nevertheless, Nielsen's recommendations are sensible, even if they are also somewhat obvious:

The implications are clear: the material that's the most important for the users' goals or your business goals should be above the fold. Users do look below the fold, but not nearly as much as they look above the fold.

People will look very far down a page if (a) the layout encourages scanning, and (b) the initially viewable information makes them believe that it will be worth their time to scroll.

Finally, while placing the most important stuff on top, don't forget to put a nice morsel at the very bottom.

And for those of you who made it this far, here's your nice morsel (of cute):

Grabbity and Mewton

Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating women in tech

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Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology, science and engineering. Now in it's second year, the day is going very well indeed with hundreds of people talking about women that they admire. You can see people's contributions on our map or in list format.

If you haven't joined up already, please take a moment today to write a blog post about a women in tech that you admire and add it to the ALD10 mash-up. The hashtag #ald10 is already trending on Twitter in the UK and we're hoping that the noise will encourage more people to join in!

My own Ada Lovelace Day entry, over on Chocolate and Vodka, was about legendary Tomorrow's World host, Maggie Philbin. Who's your heroine?

If you want innovation, let people do it on their own

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Mitch Anthony links to a post form PsyBlog about how groups redefine 'creativity' as 'behaviour that conforms to group norms':

When groups are asked to think creatively the reason they frequently fail is because implicit norms constrain them in the most explicit ways. This is clearly demonstrated in a recent study carried out by Adarves-Yorno et al. (2006). They asked two groups of participants to create posters and subtly gave each group a norm about either using more words on the poster or more images.

Afterwards when they judged each others' work, participants equated creativity with following the group norm; the 'words' group rated posters with more words as more creative and the 'images' group rated posters with more images as more creative. The unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.

In another part of the same experiment these results were reversed when people's individuality rather than their group membership was emphasised. Creativity became all about being different from others and being inconsistent with group norms. When freed from the almost invisible shackles of the group, then, people suddenly remembered the dictionary definition of creativity: to transcend the orthodox.

If you want people to innovate, you need to give them the room to work things out for themselves. I have always thought that innovation works better when the innovator is tackling a problem that affects them on a regular basis, an itch that they just have to scratch. Certainly in web innovation it seems to work best that way.

How do we best enable individuals to innovate? Simply being able to think through their problems and propose solutions might be a good starting point. Innovation isn't, after all, about massive step changes - although they do happen they are really quite rare - but about incremental improvements. If one person saves his or her department of 12 people just half an hour a week, that's still going to add up: to 44.5 person-days per year, to be precise. Now, if you extend that to a company of 10,000 people, each saving just half an hour a week, that's 37,000+ person-days per year.

Social media can probably achieve that simply by shifting some types of email to more appropriate platforms. Think of a what a concerted drive to help people make life easier - aka innovate - for themselves in their day to day life might achieve.

Seven harsh realities in social media

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Never a truer word said in a slide deck: Via Neil Perkin.

The Blogger/Evangelist Lifecycle

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For years I've been talking about the Blogger Lifecycle - the way in which business bloggers react to the act of business blogging. Last week this topic featured in a workshop I was running so I finally drew the graph that has been in my head for the last several years.

Blogger/Evangelist lifecycle

Based loosely on the Gartner Hype Cycle, it tracks the emotional response of business bloggers and social media evangelists as they develop their online presence. In reality, people's response to the act of blogging (or other social media activity) varies depending on a number of factors, including:

  • The evangelist's personality
  • Amount and quality of reader feedback they get, e.g. comments
  • Quality of feedback from peers/managers
  • Time pressure
  • Success of venture as they perceive it

In my experience, evangelists tend to start at either:

1. Scepticism/Uncertainty: They are unsure of themselves and/or of the value of social media.


2. Enthusiasm: They are keen to engage with social media.

As the social media project progresses, the novelty wears off and the evangelist is faced with the reality that:

  • Social media takes time and effort
  • It can be hard to get comments and feedback
  • It can be hard to become a part of the wider community
  • Enthusiasm doesn't always result in action

That last point is a broad one: It's not just the enthusiasm of the blogger we're talking about, but of their readers, colleagues and managers too. Although the blogger might be getting enthusiastic responses from readers, if those responses don't result in an action, e.g. discussion in the comments or even sales calls, it can still be demoralising. And if enthusiasm by colleagues and managers isn't matched by relevant actions on their part, e.g. helping promote the blog, that can also damage the blogger's sense of how things are going.

Lack of comments/feedback can make the evangelist feel isolated and unappreciated, undermining their enthusiasm. Even as an experienced blogger, I still suffer from this. Starting a new blog these days is really very hard and if you get no feedback or, worse, negative comments it's easy to feel disillusioned. And at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment is when a blogger or social media evangelist is most likely to quit.

This is the point at which the good social media manager steps in and supports the blogger/evangelist, encouraging them to carry on, helping them refine their blogging style and giving them tips on how to promote it. Evangelists whose work is appreciated internally, who are supported by peers and management, and who feel that they are producing something of value are more likely to persist with their social media work during these difficult periods.

Evangelists are subject to the same time pressures as anyone else and if they are are not completely committed to their social media work they will find it too easy to sideline it. Successful evangelists find ways to embed their social media activities into their work day and create new habits that support those activities.

If I were running an evangelist programme, I'd create internal communities of practice and encourage evangelists to support one another, share best practice, and sense-check each other's reactions to difficult situations. This kind of peer support has proved very helpful in some of the projects I've worked on, and often it's so useful that it springs up all by itself as the evangelists naturally start to help each other. Giving them a place to talk right from the beginning jumpstarts that process.

Now, you might wonder why all this matters. So what if someone starts a blog or a LinkedIn Group and doesn't carry it on? Blogs die all the time... Well, frankly, I think that abandoned blogs, Twitter streams, LinkedIn or Facebook Groups do not reflect well on the company. If I turn up at a Twittter page or a blog and see that it's hasn't been updated in months, it tells me that the company just doesn't care about communicating with its customers, which I interpret to mean that it's not going to care about me either.

Even in a professional context, using social media is an experience that involves human emotions. It's easy to lapse into the 'we're all professionals here, emotions are irrelevant' attitude, but that's clearly nonsense. Business is made of people and people are emotional. Pretending we aren't doesn't get us anywhere useful. Acknowledging that we all have ups and downs, that social media is a long term investment requiring long term emotional investment, and supporting that investment are essential to the ultimate success of any social media project. Company ignore the emotional at their peril.

Social media gives people a voice

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I have laryngitis. Whilst yesterday I sounded a bit like Ferdy (Ricky Gervais) in Stardust after his voice has been turned into that of a seagull, but today I have nary a squeak. Yet because the vast majority of my daily interactions are via social tools such as Twitter, IM, wikis and blogs, most people won't even realise that I have no voice.

That's a good reminder that social media gives voice to the voiceless, sometimes quite literally. It enables conversations that couldn't otherwise happen and builds relationships and trust between colleagues and strangers alike. Sometimes these technologies may seem frivolous, but they can also be incredibly powerful and empowering. It's important we not lose sight of that bigger picture in our search for ROI, metrics and business cases.

Report: Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society

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Last year I wrote a report for the Carnegie UK Trust's Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. Called Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society, it's now available for download. Although focused primarily on the use of social media by the charitable sector, there's still a lot of interesting stuff in it for business, I think, not least future scenarios that try to imagine what the world might be like in 2025 and pose some questions for organisations about their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Please do take a look and let me know what you think!

What does it mean to be busy?

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I don't think I can put it better than Scott Berkun does in The cult of busy:

The person who gets a job done in one hour will seem less busy than the guy who can only do it in five. How busy a person seems is not necessarily indicative of the quality of their results. Someone who is better at something might very well seem less busy, because they are more effective. Results matter more than the time spent to achieve them.

Great post from Scott, and definitely worth reading the rest of it.

How do you stop yourself getting busy? For me, the biggest challenge has been how to learn to say No to stuff, as there's always the fear that if you say no once, you may never be asked again. Accurately judging how long something will take so that you don't take on more work than you can manage is another key trick. But I'm still doing battle with the insidious culture of overwork that insinuates itself into even the most logical brains: Finishing my day's work early means I'm effective, not lazy!

What does a social media consultant do anyway?

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Quite a while ago I stumbled on this blog post, I am not a social media guru, by Jon Swanson. I think I know what Jon is trying to say, that it's a mistake to focus on social tools rather than the goals you want to use social tools to achieve. But I think there's a thread of misunderstanding rippling through the post that I'd like to unpick. Jon says:

[...] I am not a social media guru.

I'm not talking about the self-identified kind, the person who is selling themselves by proclaiming their expertise while not using technology. No, I'm talking about people who have made a discipline of knowing how to use social media effectively regardless of the message. I love them. I read them. But I'm not one of them.

When it comes to social media, I'm a social media chaplain. When I'm doing what I love to do, social media is a tool, not a subject. It's the method, not the goal.

Genuine social media experts do not focus on the tools but on what the tools can achieve. When someone comes to me and says, "I want Facebook for my intranet", my first question is always, "What are you trying to achieve?" Hopefully, that will lead us into an interesting conversation wherein I unpick what they need from what they want. That involves understanding where they are right now, where they want to be and whether social tools can help them get there.

Only after they have answered these questions to my satisfaction will I tell them Facebook-for-their-intranet is not what they actually need and we'll start discussing more sensible possibilities. But every discussion about tools has to be preceded by a conversation about goals.

(This leads me to an aside: As a social media consultant, my job is not to know how every last little bit of social software works, or each and every last little bit of functionality that's available. If I tried to amass that sort of knowledge with the vast array of tools - and versions of tools - currently available I'd go mad pretty quickly. Tools change faster than I can keep up, and it's more important that I know that the best-of-breed blogging platform is Wordpress, rather than the name of every last plug-in available on Wordpress. That's what Google is for.)

Knowing how to use social media effectively means understanding how to use the tools to achieve goals, it doesn't mean focusing only on the tools. There are valuable conversations to be had about the tools, of course. With clients, once we've discussed goals we'll discuss strategy, which includes which tools to use and when. Then we need to think about how we're going to implement that strategy so that's when we'll talk in real depth about tools and how best to use them.

With other social media people, the conversation about tools is more about learning from other people's experiences, trying to keep abreast of what's new and good, what works, what problems we've faced and how we've solved them (if we've solved them!). So the conversation between social media people can on occasion get quite tools-y, when it's not being strategy-y of course!

This division of conversation, this talking differently to clients than to colleagues, is no different in social media than any other profession. When you're talking to other practitioners, you geek out a little bit.

But I think that there's an underlying tension to Jon's post that ripples through the comments and which I have seen in the wider social media world for years. Social media is supposed to be about egalitarianism. We are all equal, we all have an equal voice and our opinions are all equally valid. Under this model of social media, the guru or expert, is stepping outside of the egalitarian frame and taking on the mantle of superiority which is not supposed to exist.

The truth is that some people do know more than others. Specialisation is a fundamental aspect of human community, enabled by agriculture and now essential to a functioning society. The fact that I have spent six years working as a social media consultant and eight years blogging gives me an edge over people who've been doing this for six months. We accept this in every other walk of life, yet for some reason it makes people queasy when such separations being to emerge in social media.

We should not do people down because they have learnt more than others about a particular topic. Equally, we should not engage in false modesty by denying our expertise in social media. Experts are useful and being - or becoming - an expert in something is a laudable thing, not a mark of shame.

U-shaped development in social media

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I had a conversation on Twitter a few days ago with Roland Harwood in which I think I inadvertently hit on something:

@rolandharwood: Innovation is u-shaped. great fun at the start and great value at the end but you need to cross the valley of frustration and uncertainty

@Suw: @rolandharwood i like that analogy. reminds me of children's linguistic dev: do well at first because they mimic, then they....

@Suw: @rolandharwood ...crash & burn because they are trying to work out underlying rules, often failing, then rules are learnt & it's all easy.

The U-shaped development pattern is one that's well known and it applies not just to linguistics. This is how I've seen it play out in the social media realm:

  1. At first, people observe and mimic successful social media users. Because they limit their behaviour to just those actions that they see others doing, they initially look like they 'get it'.
  2. Once the individual (or company) becomes comfortable with their mimicry, they start to branch out on their own. Because the rules of social media are not readily apparent - they can't be easily intuited by people outside of the social media in-group - these new users push at what they perceive to be the boundaries, but instead of breaking new ground they just get it horribly wrong. They haven't yet truly understood the underlying structure of social media, i.e. the culture, so they accidentally transgress social media behavioural norms. Businesses tend then to duck out of social media all together, concluding that it's a fad, a waste of time or unsuitable for their sector, when really it was their implementation that was flawed.
  3. Those that persist and who learn their lessons, alter their behaviour to be more appropriate, and who pay attention to the culture slowly grasp how social media really works. They come to implicitly understand the underlying, unspoken rule-sets and absorb the cultural norms without necessarily being aware of what they are doing. They then, hopefully, inspire others to mimic their success and the cycle starts again.

I've certainly observed this journey that business users in particular seem to go on. Does it sound familiar to you?

How Twitter makes us more productive

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Brendan Koerner writes over at Wired about How Twitter and Facebook Make Us More Productive. He says:

Last year, Nucleus Research warned that Facebook shaves 1.5 percent off total office productivity; a Morse survey estimated that on-the-job social networking costs British companies $2.2 billion a year.

But for knowledge workers charged with transforming ideas into products -- whether gadgets, code, or even Wired articles -- goofing off isn't the enemy. In fact, regularly stepping back from the project at hand can be essential to success. And social networks are particularly well suited to stoking the creative mind.

Brendan makes the point that surveys like Nucleus Research's or Morse's, assume that all Twitter/Facebook activity is wasted, but in reality it is not. He then goes on to discuss the human creative process, highlighting the "need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform -- pressure that can lock us into a single mode of thinking."

Regular breaks, it turns out, are important for our brains to process information and the "conceptual collisions" that occur when we see nuggets of unrelated information can prompt us to make mental connections that we otherwise would not have. Twitter and Facebook are, of course, great at exposing us to unexpected information.

I'd add two more points to explain why Twitter, used well, isn't a de facto waste of time:

Firstly, Twitter is amenable to sporadic checking, which means that users can check Twitter in otherwise dead moments, e.g. waiting for a web page to load, a file to save or a phone to be answered. Quite often I check Twitter whilst I'm waiting for my computer to do something else. What else would I do with that time? Stare at my screen and wait. So net win on the time saving there.

Secondly, Twitter saves me time by connecting me to people who have answers to my questions, including some questions I didn't know I needed to ask. I get a lot of ideas for blog posts from links that my friends post to Twitter, for example. I also often get my answers from Twitter faster than Google can manage and those answers are often higher quality and contain insight Google just can't provide.

These productivity research companies really do need to get a clue when it comes to Twitter and produce something a bit more nuanced and less scaremongery!

Asshole driven development

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Scott Berkun has a great post entitled Asshole Driven Development, which expounds upon various software project management styles, including Cognitive Dissonance Development, Cover Your Ass Engineering and my favourite, Development By Denial. The eponymous management style is described as:

Asshole Driven development (ADD) - Any team where the biggest jerk makes all the big decisions is asshole driven development. All wisdom, logic or process goes out the window when Mr. Asshole is in the room, doing whatever idiotic, selfish thing he thinks is best. There may rules and processes, but Mr. A breaks them and people follow anyway.

Sound familiar? There are another couple of hundred management anti-patterns listed in the comments, from which I rather like Idiot MBA-Driven Development.

These aren't just specific to software development, though, but are general management anti-patterns. I recognise both Asshole Driven Management and Idiot MBA-Driven Management, for example, from personal experience. Not to mention a wonderful case of Management by Denial that was so point-blank it was almost convincing, but when someone says, "Oh, no, we don't have that problem here. We only hire smart people." you just know there's going to be trouble.

Do you have space for incubators?

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Robert Biswas-Diener, who studies the psychology of happiness, writes on about the difference between people who procrastinate and those who incubate:

Procrastinators may have a habit of putting off important work. They may not ever get to projects or leave projects half finished. Importantly, when they do complete projects, the quality might be mediocre as a result of their lack of engagement or inability to work well under pressure.


In a pilot study with 184 undergraduate university students, we were able to isolate specific items that distinguished incubators from the rest of the pack. Incubators were the only students who had superior-quality work but who also worked at the last moment, under pressure, motivated by a looming deadline.

This set them apart from the classic "good students," the planners who strategically start working long before assignments are due, and from the procrastinators, who wait until the last minute but then hand in shoddy work or hand it in late.

I can certainly relate to the concept of the incubator. Whilst I like to have a long run up on important projects, they almost always end up left until the last minute.

This is problematic in a business context, where the slow-and-steady approach is the assumed default. Most project planning, for example, assumes that people will hit intermediary deadlines regularly throughout a project. Yet sometimes, particularly in areas where the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet such as in tech, this can be a really bad thing because work done and decisions made early in the project can be out of date by the end of the project, ensuring the final deliverables are themselves obsolete as soon as completed.

I do think that social media can help with this, letting incubators share their thoughts, their incubation process with their team and manager without having to hit artificial deadlines that ultimately have a negative impact on the final result. I did this myself with a big report that I wrote last year. We agreed that I would not provide a "first draft", but would instead put each section up on a wiki for the team to look at as it was completed. That meant that, come the "let's assess your progress" meeting, I didn't have anything much to show, but my final draft was something I was very proud of.

The major issue with that experience was that I was quite happy with the approach, it being one I am used to taking, but the people I was working with did not always seem to wrap their heads around it. Such an approach changes how the project should be managed, with ongoing communications the norm instead of sporadic, milestone-based catch-ups. If managers struggle with this different style, then they are unlikely to get the best out of incubator-type personalities.

Balancing blogging

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Joel Spolsky writes one of the best blogs for programmers that I, as a non-programmer, have ever read. Joel on Software is soon to be ten years old and has provided me with some real insight into how software companies work. One of my favourite essays of Joel's is Hitting the High Notes, which he wrote in 2005. I still refer back to it even now because it contains truths that apply not just to programming but to many other areas as well.

In his column, Joel takes a look at what makes a good business blogger. He says:

These days, it seems like just about every start-up founder has a blog, and 99 percent of these bloggers are doing it wrong. The problem? They make the blog about themselves, filling it with posts announcing new hires, touting new products, and sharing pictures from the company picnic. That's lovely, darling -- I'm sure your mom cares. Too bad nobody else does. Most company blogs have almost no readers, no traffic, and no impact on sales. Over time, the updates become few and far between (especially if responsibility for the blog is shared among several staff members), and the whole thing ceases to become an important source of leads or traffic.

I've never counted to know if 'most' company blogs are like this, but certainly too many are. It's something I come across over and again: The business whose social media presence is all about them.

Reading these blogs or Twitter streams or Facebook walls or LinkedIn Groups is like being trapped in a noisy restaurant with the worst date of your life who just cannot stop talking about how great he or she is, how well travelled they are, how fascinating their life. By dessert you're eyeing your spoon, trying to figure out just how blunt it is and just how hard self-disembowelment would be.

Joel goes on to paraphrase Kathy Sierra:

To really work, Sierra observed, an entrepreneur's blog has to be about something bigger than his or her company and his or her product. This sounds simple, but it isn't. It takes real discipline to not talk about yourself and your company. Blogging as a medium seems so personal, and often it is. But when you're using a blog to promote a business, that blog can't be about you, Sierra said. It has to be about your readers, who will, it's hoped, become your customers. It has to be about making them awesome.

Kathy is, of course, spot on. Blogging, along with other forms of social media, is not about blowing your own trumpet or bragging about you or your company's achievements, its about giving people something interesting, entertaining, useful or valuable. It's about having a conversation and listening as much as talking.

But where Joel surprises is in his announcement that he's quitting blogging, writing columns and public speaking:

So, having become an Internet celebrity in the narrow, niche world of programming, I've decided that it's time to retire from blogging. March 17, the 10th anniversary of Joel on Software, will mark my last major post. This also will be my last column for Inc. For the most part, I will also quit podcasting and public speaking. Twitter? "Awful, evil, must die, CB radio, sorry with only 140 chars I can't tell you why."

The truth is, as much as I've enjoyed it, blogging has become increasingly impossible to do the way I want to as Fog Creek has become a larger company. We now have 32 employees and at least six substantial product lines. We have so many customers that I can't always write freely without inadvertently insulting one of them. And my daily duties now take so much time that it has become a major effort to post something thoughtful even once or twice a month.

The best evidence also suggests that there are many other effective ways to market Fog Creek's products -- and that our historical overreliance on blogging as a marketing channel has meant that we've ignored them.

I think that's an understandable move, but for my money it's also an overreaction. Blogging alone is not a marketing plan. Social media doesn't stand isolated from other marketing techniques, but should instead be part of a wider strategy.

My advice to Joel would be:

  • Don't abandon your blogging and public speaking, just scale it back.
  • Look at your new markets, the ones you want to move into, and figure out what those people want to hear about.
  • Start a new blog aimed at your new market. Better yet, get someone else in your company who is already interested in these new markets to start it.
  • Do whatever other marketing you were planning on doing as well. Remember, this is an 'and' world, not an 'or' world.
One doesn't have to sacrifice a blog for traditional marketing - the two can coexist quite happily.

Information flow and attention

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danah boyd writes an insightful essay for UX Magazine, Streams of Content, Limited Attention, which examines the change from a broadcast information landscape to a networked one and its implications. She identifies four core issues:

  1. Democratization
  2. Stimulation
  3. Homophily
  4. Power

About democratisation, for example, she says:

Switching from a model of distribution to a model of attention is disruptive, but it is not inherently democratizing. This is a mistake we often make when talking about this shift. We may be democratizing certain types of access, but we're not democratizing attention. Just because we're moving towards a state where anyone has the ability to get information into the stream does not mean that attention will be divided equally. Opening up access to the structures of distribution is not democratizing when distribution is no longer the organizing function.

This is a really important essay, full of thought provoking nuggets. I don't really want to boil it down to a soundbite, because this is a complex subject and to give you a two sentence summary would be to do it and danah a disservice. I think, though, this is going to be one of those essays I'm going to have to read and reread until its implications - which are not always obvious - have fully sunken in.

Quick guide to open innovation

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David Simoes-Brown takes a look at open innovation over on the NESTA blog, and outlines five "traits of open innovation which often pass people by": Reading his post, I just kept thinking, "Yes. Yes. Of course." It's very easy when the open mindset is embedded in the way you prefer to work to forget that for many people, these tips are really quite counter-intuitive.

Many of these tips also fit social media too, with just a little tweaking:

1. Start at the end
Know what you want/need to achieve with your social media project, don't just chuck it up and hope for the best.

2. Listen to your customers
David had "Buy from your customers", on the basis that your customers know your brand better than you do. In a social media context, this morphs into listening rather than buying, but the main point still stands. You may think you know what your brand experience is, but it's your customers who actually have to live through it!

3. Show not tell
This tip from the writing fraternity is as important in social media project as it is in innovation. Pilots are a great way not just of testing the water but also of creating an experience for a small group that others will look at and (hopefully) want!

4. You will never spot a winner
Social media is changing all the time and whilst the basic tenets stay the same, tools come and go and tactics that work brilliantly for one company at one point in time may not work so well for another. Focus on your business needs, your employees' needs and your customers' needs, and don't try to predict the next big social media craze.

5. It's not who you know, it's who knows you
This is 'word of mouth' in a nutshell. You can spend a lot of time going broad with your social media strategy, trying to reach as many people as possible, but you can be much, much more effective if you let your fans carry your message for you. Quality over quantity every time.

Event: Show Me The Change

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Just stumbled across the Show Me The Change event in Melbourne, Australia, May 4 - 6, via Johnnie Moore. From one of the organisers:

Are you fascinated by human behaviour ... and do you spend at least some of your time trying to influence and change others? When you do this, are you asked to 'measure success' or report on outcomes?

If you are in any way involved in social media in your business, the answer to those questions will be yes. Social media is all about behaviour change and not simple, measurable behaviours at that. This event looks like it will take a complex topic and find ways to treat it as just that, rather than assuming it can be made simple. I wish I could go, but sadly my travel budget just doesn't extend that far.

Report: 'Digital Natives': A Myth?

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POLIS, the LSE and London College of Communications' journalism research and policy initiative, recently released a report into the concept of 'digital native', examining whether young people really are imbued with an innate, and by implication superior, understanding of technology.

I wrote about this last year and my review of the literature led me to the conclusion that the idea of the 'digital native' was no more than a construction, created primarily it seems to provoke a sense of difference between the generations and, from that, a moral panic around how technology is allegedly affecting younger people.

In the introduction to his report, co-authored with Ranjana Das, Charlie Beckett says:

Myths can be useful ways for societies to tell stories about themselves. They can help us preserve our values and cope with change. So the idea that young people are particularly, even naturally adept at using new media technologies is comforting and perhaps even exciting. Even if older adults find digital devices and processes challenging we can reassure ourselves that the next generation will take to them effortlessly and creatively. I regularly hear from middle aged digital enthusiasts as well as the technophobes how their teenage children can do amazing and/or disturbing things online. They blog, game and network on a variety of platforms, often multi-tasking, producing sophisticated and rich patterns of communication and expression. This is wonderful and quite often true. But as the evidence and analysis of this report shows, it is a myth that this kind of youthful dexterity and literacy is somehow inevitable or ubiquitous. And this matters. As Professor Livingstone says, if we don't understand the reality of young people's use of the Internet, then we won't realize how important it is to them and how vital it is to provide the skills and resources for them to make the myth a reality.

The fact is that young people experience the same opportunities and challenges as everyone else who uses digital technologies. The cultural and social barriers to conventional literacies appear to replicate themselves online. A young person who struggles to read a book will quite likely find online navigation difficult, too. There may be magical things that we can do online, but there is no miraculous power that changes intellectual frogs into digital princes. Those people growing up over the last decade or so may well be more familiar with a world of virtual and networked culture and communications. However, individual youths have not been endowed by some freakish evolutionary process with exceptional technological powers.

Furthering our understanding of how young people use, understand and relate to digital technology is essential to business. Too many times I have heard business people talk about how the 'Facebook Generation will demand social tools', when the anecdotal evidence I have is that the Facebook Generation doesn't much see a need to use social tools in the workplace and would see the use of Facebook by their employers as an invasion of their personal space.

The truth is that all generations show a distribution of technological aptitude, and I'd put money on it being a normal distribution at that. There may be a difference in the width of the central hump of the bell curve, due simply to the increase in opportunity to interact with technology, but there no generation is born with an innate ability to grok tech.

This should ring alarm bells in any business whose HR policy has focused on attracting young employees with the assumption that those people will be better at technology. If you're hoping that the youngsters will save your business from technological decline, you're very much mistaken. Such a policy also ignores the vast pool of older tech-literate people who have grown up with the technology and who understand it in their bones.

A web for introverts, privacy gradients and trust

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Adam Tinworth draws attention to a blog post on GigaOM about how the social web is great for extroverts but not so good for introverts, whether or not that introversion is a general mindset or specific to the internet. From Kevin Kelleher on GigaOM:

Much less noticeable is another trend: the rise of the web introvert. But while some web introverts might be introverted in the classic sense -- that is, uncomfortable in social settings -- many of them aren't shy at all. They are simply averse to having a public presence on the web. And in time, they are going to present a problem for social sites like Facebook and Twitter, whose potential growth will be limited unless they can successfully court them.

Web introversion isn't a question of technophobia or security concerns. Anyone who has tried to build out their online networks on Facebook knows that there are a lot of people they know in real life that they can't friend online. Many people who have been involved in technology for years -- or who are entirely comfortable shopping at Amazon, paying bills online, buying songs from iTunes -- will have nothing to do with social networks. Others see it as a chore necessary for their jobs. Still others have accounts languishing on all the major social networks.

Adam says:

Unless we can find a way to draw these people into the social web - and that probably means more thought around both privacy and data ownership - we're only ever going to get a subset of a subset of people involved. And that, in turn, will massively limit its potential.

The main issue here is privacy. Many social networks haven't really give that much thought to how people will emotionally respond to their progression through the site, i.e. along the privacy gradient.

The idea of a privacy gradient comes from architecture and refers to the way that public, common spaces are located by the entrance to a building and as you progress through the building the spaces become more private until you reach the most private 'inner sanctum'. If you think of a house, then the most public part would be the porch (in the UK, a fully or semi-enclosed space around the front door, in the US, it's often open or screened). The hallway is common space shared by everyone, and spaces like the kitchen and lounge are semi-private. As you progress deeper into the house you end up at the bedroom (and in some cases, the en-suite) which is the most private part of the house.

Understanding the privacy gradient is important, because when buildings ignore privacy gradients, they feel odd. Think about houses where there's a bedroom directly off the lounge and how uncomfortable that can make visitors feel. I once had a friend who lived in one of the old tenements near Kings Cross, now torn down. To get to his bedroom and the kitchen you had to walk through his flatmate's bedroom, a deeply uncomfortable act.

Websites work on the same principles, welcoming people via a publicly visible screen, and progressing into increasingly private spaces as the user's interactions become more personal. A well developed and carefully considered privacy gradient is essential to social sites - even incredibly simple sites/services like Twitter do it, with the public timeline being like the front porch and the direct message like the bedroom.

Facebook, on the other hand, has gone for a walled garden model, which provides an illusion of security for users: even before they set their own privacy levels, they feel they are in a private space, despite the fact that it is shared by several million others and that information can quite easily leak out of it. Facebook's recent changes to its privacy settings have made its walled garden a bit more like an old, knot-holed fence, letting people peek in through the holes and see glimpses of what goes on inside. This is problematic because it has exposed information that users used to think was private, blurring further the line between private and public.

The inability to see inside a walled garden can alienate people outside the system, who can't see what or who is inside and may feel that they are being made unwelcome. This brings to mind certain shops (some Abercrombie and Fitch stores do this), that obscure the windows and ensure that one cannot 'accidentally' see inside when the door is opened by creating a shield around the doorway. They also have a privacy gradient internally, with more open public areas at the front and fitting rooms at the back.

As one moves along a privacy gradient, one is also moving along a parallel trust gradient. As you invite me deeper into your house, so you are displaying increasing trust in me. If you only talk to me at your front door and don't invite me in, you're displaying (in certain circumstances) a lack of trust, or that I have yet to earn your trust. Letting people move up the trust gradient too quickly can cause all sorts of problems, perhaps resulting in a betrayal of that trust.

The same, again, is true on websites. The more we communicate, the stronger our relationship becomes, the more I trust you, the more of myself I am willing to reveal and share. Different people, of course, feel comfortable in different areas of the trust/privacy gradient, so some people prefer to keep things private and require a lot of communication and relationship building before they are willing to trust someone. Others are happy to plunge in at the deep end, revealing everything about themselves to everyone, newcomer and old friend alike.

Both extremes can have negative repercussions. The shy user may fail to realise full utility of social sites because they cut themselves off from helpful strangers. The extrovert may find themselves swamped with many shallow relationships that they can't maintain or strengthen and, sometimes, being hurt by people using their trusting nature against them.

What is key, though, is that people understand the repercussions of their behaviour and that their expectations of privacy and trust are met by the site they are using. When websites reveal items that were thought to be private, as Facebook and Twitter have both done, then people's trust in the site is violated and the social consequences for them as individuals could be dire. Equally, when a website makes people feel as if their interactions are private when they are not, they will fail to understand who can observe them and may make mistakes that they would have avoided if there was no implication of privacy.

What I see in this discussion about web introverts is a reflection of the fact that most social sites have been built for gregarious people, often by gregarious people. The privacy gradients aren't clear to the outsider, or simply haven't been thought through in enough detail. Twitter, for example, makes it very easy to accidentally respond to a direct message via SMS with a public message instead of a private direct message: That's a huge violation of privacy and potentially can be extremely embarrassing.

Until social sites get their act together and start to view the web from the point of view of the web-introvert, considering exactly how their sites embody the privacy gradient, shy people will just stay away. And every time companies like Google make mistakes of the magnitude of Buzz, trust in companies to respect our privacy is whittled away. Personally, I can't blame people for wanting to keep themselves to themselves. With the social web the way it is, I would never attempt to persuade someone to use it if they felt uncomfortable with it. It's much more important to respect their privacy.

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