The infancy of social technologies

3 08 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Alex Pickering Transfer Company, early moving ...

Image via Wikipedia

The last 20 years saw knowledge workers adding a steady stream of tools to their repertoire: increasingly sophisticated office suite software, email, the Internet, instant messaging, voice over IP, Web conferences, and, in the last decade, a number of social technologies in the form of blogs, wikis, social networks, microblogging and others. Google+ is just the latest addition to the mix, introducing some interesting ideas to a space that seemed to be quite mature already. Nobody knows for sure if Google+ will ever dethrone Facebook and Twitter, but the buzz it created showed something already: our allegiance to any Social Platform in particular is as reliable as that of a mercenary just waiting for the highest bidder. Taking a step back, it becomes clear that we came a long way since the days where Wikipedia sounded like a misplaced hippie idea transplanted from the 60s. But make no mistake: we are still witnessing the infancy of social technologies, and there is much more to come.

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, stated in an interview to the Harvard Business Review magazine earlier this year (May 2011):

Peter Drucker said that the toughest job for knowledge workers is defining the work. A century ago, 80% of the world made and moved things. You worked as long as you could, and then you slept, and then you got up and worked again. You didn’t have to triage or make executive decisions. It’s harder to be productive today because the work has become much more complex.

I have no idea of how much that percentage changed since then, but I suspect that in much of world, a significant number of workers now “make and move” knowledge and information, as opposed to physical goods. Of course, this is no earth-shattering statement, but what is sometimes missed in this obvious assertion is that the same kind of inefficiencies and constraints that limited the production and distribution of “things” one hundred years ago can be observed in the way we deal with knowledge and information today. By visualizing information as a “thing” that can be produced, distributed and consumed, we can better understand how far we still are from an efficient knowledge marketplace.

While we spend countless hours debating if email is dead, if IM is a productivity booster or killer, and if Twitter and Facebook and Google+ will be here 5 years from now, the fact of the matter is that each new social technology brings new mechanisms trying to solve the same problem: reduce inefficiencies in the way we create, capture and move information. While MySpace has likely gone the way of the Dodo, like Geocities did before it, they both introduced some memes and patterns that are still alive today. Wikipedia, blogs, podcasts, Friendster, Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare all contributed to this mix, and social business platforms are continuously incorporating several of those concepts and making them available to knowledge workers.

FedEx, Amazon, and Walmart all created a very efficient ecosystem to move goods by reducing or eliminating obstacles to efficiency. They make the complex task of moving goods a painless experience–at least most of the time. For the non-physical goods, we’re not even close to that. Information flows are inefficient across the value chain. Compared to their counterparts in the physical world, our mechanisms to digitize information are precarious, the channels to distribute it are cumbersome, and our filters to screen it are primitive.

However, eliminating inefficiencies does not necessarily mean eliminating barriers altogether. Sticking to the physical goods metaphor, while there are items that you want to distribute to everybody, like water, food, sanitation, and medication, there are others that you need to control more selectively (flowers for your wife or Punjabi-language TV shows to a Punjabi-speaking population). Some of the problems we attribute to email or Facebook communications are simply a mismatch between the medium and the nature of the message, not an intrinsic failure of the tools themselves. The Google+ concept of circles and streams are a good start, but still very far from perfect. After spending a few minutes there, you will notice that you are still getting more information than you wanted in some cases, and not even a small percentage of what you need in others. That would be unacceptable today for physical goods: just imagine you receiving all sorts of unwanted books or groceries or clothes by your door everyday, but not having a way to just get the few things you need to live a good life.

Thus, before you get too carried away with the latest and greatest social technology darling, be it FourSquare, Tumblr, Quora, Zynga, or Google+, know that we still have a long way to go. If the knowledge mountain is the Everest and social technologies are the tools to climb it, we have not even got to Kathmandu yet.





The Age of Disinformation

2 08 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

My Room - Looks Like I've Got My Work Cut Out ...

Image by raider3_anime via Flickr

Coincidentally or not, after I covered the topic of Q & A services in my last Biznology post, I’ve heard complaints from three different acquaintances about the low quality of knowledge in Yahoo! Answers, one of them mockingly calling this world where everybody is an expert “the age of disinformation.” Another friend of mine has recently complained about getting mostly useless content–with zero editorial and zero user reviews–from reputable sites whenever he Googles “<non-mainstream product> review”. Has filter failure become so prevalent that, despite all the information available to us, we are no better off than we were 20 years ago, when content was scarce, difficult to produce and difficult to access?

Three months ago, my wife called me from the grocery store, asking if a product has the expiry date of “11 MA 10″, does that mean May 10, 2011 (which would be good, since it was still April), or March 10, 2011 (which would mean that the product was way past its “best before” date)?

Naturally, my first instinct was to Google it, and inevitably I ended up getting a bunch of entries in Yahoo! Answers. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom I found:

“March. May has no abbreviation””I think it means May 11. Unless it’s on something that lasts a long time, like toothpaste. Then it’s probably 2011″

“march” (wrong, the right answer, I found later, was “May 10, 2011″)

“most likely March cuz May is so short they can just put the full month”

“I believe it’s May… I think March would be Mar”

I finally started ignoring any result coming from Yahoo! and found the definitive right answer: the format NN AA NN is a Canadian thing–I live in Toronto–and it’s the doing of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. You can find the whole reference here. Apparently, to get to a month abbreviation that works both in English and French, that government agency decided to use “monthly bilingual symbols.” The problem is, if you don’t know the context, and if you are not accustomed to that convention, you might mistakenly assume that MA is March, JN is June, or that the two numbers at the beginning are the day, not the year. When it comes to food safety, relying on a standard that is easily subject to misinterpretation is something that you probably would like to avoid.

On the other side of this spectrum, the product reviews posted at Amazon are typically very reliable. Amazon reveals a lot of information about the reviewers, such as “real name,” their other reviews, the “verified purchase” stamp. Also, many filtering and ranking mechanisms are provided, such as the ability for other users to comment on reviews, vote for helpfulness, and say if a comment added to the discussion, or it’s abusive, or if a given reviewer should be ignored.

Unfortunately, Amazon is the exception, not the rule, one of the few sites out there where everybody knows when you are a dog. Twitter’s verified accounts seemed promising, but since they closed the program to the regular public, unless you are a celebrity, you are out-of-luck proving that you are not the person behind that account with your name and your photo. Of course, sometimes having a verified account may play against you, like Rep. Anthony Weiner found out in the last few weeks.

Reflecting over the low quality of information generally available, I concede that skeptics have reasons to not hop into the social media bandwagon mindlessly. But what we are really observing is just an amplification phenomenon, and a moment in time that many decades from now will be seen as the infancy of social technologies.

Since the first pieces of “persistent” content started being produced as rough drawings in some pre-historic cave thousands of years ago, the bad outnumbered the good by orders of magnitude. Creating good content is the exception, and social media amplifies all kinds of content. In part, there are lots of bad Yahoo! Answers because we always had a high degree of disinformation in the world. The only difference is that that disinformation can be easily spread, but that also applies to the good content.

On top of that, the same way natural ecosystems are in a constant state of imbalance but trend towards an equilibrium, information ecosystems will find themselves in apparent disarray from time to time. The original Yahoo! Search, editorialized by real people, once dominated the Internet. It soon became inefficient, and then the PageRank-driven Google search took over. It worked really well for several years, but it’s now also showing its age. Better filters will be developed to overcome the current deficiencies, and this battle will never end. The dynamic between quality of content and quality of filters will perpetually behave like a pendulum, as they always had.

Is this the age of disinformation? Yes, but no more than any other in the past. The fact that, by producing more content in general, we also increase the quantity of good content, should make us optimistic that we are better off today than we were yesterday. If the cost of coming up with one more Mozart is to produce thousands of Salieris, so be it: we may end up finding that Salieris are not that bad after all.





From the batcomputer to Quora: the quest for the perfect answering machine

1 08 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

When Quora announced earlier this month that they were eliminating their policy against self-promoting questions and answers, some analysts wondered if that was opening the gates for spammers to dominate the conversation. The reality is that the whole evolution of Q&A services is not much different from what Google and other search engines have been experiencing throughout the years. It’s a battle to separate the wheat from the chaff, where the chaff keeps finding creative ways to look like the wheat. Keep reading, and you’ll find why developing the perfect Q&A engine should not be our real objective here.

As a kid, I spent my fair number of hours watching re-runs of camp TV shows, including the classic Batman TV series from the 60′s. I remember how the batcomputer was able to answer any question you asked it, no matter how weird or convoluted they were. For those of you who never had the privilege (?) to see the precursor of IBM’s Watson, here it is, courtesy of YouTube (it’s a long video, so you may want to jump directly to the 2:20 mark):

Yes, you saw it right. The bat-computer was fed a bunch of alphabet soup letters and gave the dynamic duo the answer they were looking for, where they should go next to complete their mission. However, as a sign of things to come, Batman then tries to go extreme and feeds the bat-computer with the Yellow Pages directory book, but—oh the horror—the batcomputer fails miserably trying to get them a more precise answer for their subsequent question.

More than 40 years later, our quest for the infallible computer has not changed much. Watson could easily answer Jeopardy! questions about song lyrics and book topics, but choked when facing more nuanced themes. That was not very different from the 18th century “Mechanical Turk”, which was capable of winning chess games, solving puzzles, conversing in English, French and German and even answering questions about people’s age and marital status, but had its fair share of defeats.

I concede that services like Wolfram Alpha, ChaCha and Quora raised the bar compared to early players such as Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers, but they all come short to address complex, subtle or fringe questions.

If you don’t believe me, just try yourself. Use your favorite online Q&A service to ask a question that you can’t easily find in Wikipedia or via a quick Google search and let me know if you get anything meaningful back.

Quora gave many of us the hope that we would be finally getting a high-quality, well-curated Q&A service. It’s becoming increasingly clear now that, albeit a step forward, Quora is not the know-all oracle that we were looking for.

Are we going to ever find the perfect Q&A service, where more nuanced questions will get satisfactory responses? My guess is “no”, but not even Adam West’s noodle-eating batcomputer would know the answer for that.

In fact, at the end of the day, that answer is not relevant at all. As we make strides in the information technology journey, our fundamental objective is not to replace people with machines. Our real target is to free us all from as many mundane and “automatable” tasks as possible, so that we can focus our efforts and energy more and more on the tasks that only humans can do. Having increasingly smarter systems that can answer most of our trivial questions are not a sign of our defeat to “our new computer overlords.” It’s rather a great opportunity to re-define what being human actually means.





Data lust, tacit knowledge, and social media

27 07 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Data Center Lobby

Data Center Lobby by WarzauWynn via Flickr

We are all witnessing the dawn of a new information technology era, the hyper-digitization of the world around us. While the physical world is being captured and monitored via smart sensors, human interactions in both personal and business domains are making their way to the binary realm via social media. Did we finally find the treasury map that will lead us to the Holy Grail of information nirvana? Is the elusive tacit knowledge finally within the reach of this generation? Those are questions that not even Watson can answer, but I would dare to say that we are still very far from getting anywhere close to that.

The Internet has come a long way since its early days of consumerization in the 1990s, and we’re often amazed by how disrupting it has been—and still is—in several aspects of our personal and business lives. The more people and information get connected, the more value is derived—and we often hear that there’s much more to come. This is nothing new, of course: the lure of the new has led us to believe that technology will eventually solve all our problems ever since the days when “techne” was more art, skill and craft, than space travel, jeopardy-champion computers, and nuclear science. In the last few years, as our ability to digitize the world around us improved, our data lust was awakened, and we are currently seeing an explosion of information moving from the offline world to bits
and bytes.

The expectations are high. A recent article at Mashable stated:

Do you think there’s a lot of data on the Internet? Imagine how much there is in the offline world: 510 million square kilometers of land, 6.79 billion people, 18 million kilometers of paved roads, and countless objects inhabit the Earth. The most exciting thing about all this data? Technologists are now starting to chart and index the offline world, down to street signs and basketball hoops.

Tragedies like the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear plant combo in Japan are powerful reminders that data alone won’t save us. Digitizing information is an important first step, but it’s the easy one. A good proxy to understand the difference between collecting the data and changing the world is the human genome sequencing effort: once we finished that big effort, the question morphed from “how fast can we do it?” to “what’s next?” We got the book, but it’s written in an unknown language that will take generations to decipher.

Raising the stakes even further, the promise of finally getting the keys to tacit knowledge—defined as “knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalising it” (Wikipedia) or, more broadly, “the accumulated knowledge that is stored in our heads and in our immediate personal surroundings” (PwC article)—has often been used as a carrot to justify social media investments in the corporate world. The same PwC article says:

Tacit knowledge can be unleashed and shared as never before by connecting people ubiquitously through social networking and its closely related partner, collaboration. In large and small companies alike, tacit knowledge is stored in the heads and personal information collections of thousands of employees of all levels, not to mention their clients’ personal stores of information. Up until now, tacit knowledge has scarcely been captured in conventional computer-based databases because it has not been easy to “tap,” summarize, save, and use in day-to-day business.

After years of observing companies aiming for that moving target, it became clear to me that most of the tacit knowledge will remain out-of-bounds to us for the time being. This is not supposed to be a blow to the importance of social media in the enterprise. In the long term, having reasonable expectations will only help us all. If you use the Wikipedia definition, it actually turns out to be an easy and obvious conclusion: if tacit knowledge is the one difficult to write down or verbalize, it is clearly not a good candidate for digitization.

The actual low hanging fruit of social media in corporations is not tacit knowledge. Using the widespread iceberg metaphor, the tip of the iceberg is the so-called explicit knowledge, i.e., “knowledge that is codified and conveyed to others through dialog, demonstration, or media such as books, drawings, and documents”. Much of that information is already digitized in e-mails, bookmarks, documents and IM conversations, but often inaccessible to those who need it when they need it. Moving conversations away from those traditional channels to more shareable and “spreadable” media, and improving the filtering and distribution mechanisms will enable us to harvest the early fruits from our corporate social media efforts.

What about the tacit knowledge? This four-year-old article provides a good analysis of it. Much of it will remain for years in the “can’t be recorded” or “too many resources required to record” buckets. Social media can help by uncovering the hooks hinting that some of that knowledge exists, and suggesting the individuals or groups most likely to possess it, but the technology and processes to fully discover and digitize them are not here yet. Even if you are an avid user of Twitter or Facebook or Social Business Platforms and operating in hyper-sharing mode, how much of your knowledge is actually available there? Very little, I would guess.

So, before declaring that you are about to unleash the tacit knowledge in your company, take a deep breath and a step back. That iceberg might be much bigger than you thought. Data lust can be inebriating, but reality will soon take over.





Twitter and Politics

14 12 2010
Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931 

Image by National Library NZ on The Commons via Flickr

As previously seen on Biznology on Nov 9, 2010:

Back in the summer, I wrote a pair of posts about Social Media and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and Mike Moran talked about reaching your audience during that big event. Well, one can argue that elections and politics can generate passionate discussions that rival or even surpass those by soccer fans, and last much longer than the 30 days of the popular tournament. Following a Twitter list of World Cup players is entertaining, but a list of actual head of states can give us a unique glimpse on how diplomacy is shaping up in the Social Media space. If you want to know which heads of state are using Twitter, how active they are and their following/follower patterns, you came to the right place.

In the past month, I had the unusual experience of being in Brazil during the first round of the general elections (October 3), then back to Toronto during the mayoral election (October 25) and the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections (October 31). On top of that, the US midterm elections were a hot topic around the globe last week, making it almost impossible for me to ignore politics for the last 6 weeks or so. Naturally, politics is a hot topic, and not one that I’m particularly keen in discussing in this blog. Having said that, I find fascinating to analyze the social media layer that is permeating the political scene globally.

Inspired by a TechCrunch article on Twitter diplomacy prior to the G20 meeting in Seoul this week, I used the @davos/g20 list curated by the World Economic Forum as a starting point to visualize how the heads of state are using Twitter. Being from Latin America, I supplemented that list with a few other verified accounts to have a better view of regional politics as well.

I tend to write long and convoluted posts, but in this particular case, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words. So, instead of a navigating the troubled waters of political analysis, I’ll just leave you with a number of visualizations covering different aspects of the Twitter social networking dynamics among this very select group, courtesy of my niece, Gabriela Passos, who’s visiting me this month.

Some points to consider when looking at these charts:

  • They don’t show a complete picture: there might be more heads of state using Twitter, but I preferred to use a curated list from a reliable source as my main reference
  • The number of people followed by these accounts is relevant in at least one subtle, but important way: you can only send direct Twitter messages to people who follow you. By following a large number of Twitter users, these leaders open a private channel that may reveal interesting insights that they would not have access to otherwise.
  • The number of Tweets shown below is a historical cumulative total as of this writing, a metric that favors early adopters. A more interesting metric would be the frequency of tweets over time, but this would be too time consuming for me to get. I bet there will be some online tools covering that aspect some time soon.

The first infographic shows how active each of these head of state Twitter accounts are. It’s interesting to note that @whitehouse (1.8 million followers), @PresidenciaMX (150 thousand followers) and @Laura_Ch (11 thousand followers), despite being order of magnitudes apart in the attention they get, all tweet a lot. On the other side, @JuliaGillard, Prime Minister of Australia, only has 166 tweets, but a considerable number of followers.

Number of Tweets
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

The second set of charts reveals the followers / following pattern. France and Turkey tie on the low end, both of them not following anybody at all, while @Number10gov and @BarackObama follow over half a million people.

Legend for Twitter charts below
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

North America (Canada, U.S. and Mexico)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010


Central and South America (Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Europe (UK, France, Russia, Turkey)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Oceania (Australia), Africa (South Africa), Asia (South Korea)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Finally, the last diagram shows that, even among the head of states, you following your peer is not always reciprocated in kind. Cristina Kirchner, president of Argentina, follows a considerable number of her Latin American colleagues, but only two of them follow her back.


Cristina Kirchner follows / followers
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

One interesting side note: Seeing my niece creating all these infographics by hand, it became painfully clear to me that, despite all the efforts to develop better Social Networking visualization tools (Mashable has a good list here), we still have a long way to go to get the most from the information hidden under the surface in Twitter and elsewhere in the social media landscape.

After seeing the finished product, you can’t help but conclude that politics is but one more area where social media (and Twitter in particular) has become the place for activity that would have happened elsewhere, and has spawned activity that would not have happened at all.





On Leaks, Privacy and Social Media

13 12 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks

Image via Wikipedia

As previously seen on Biznology:

Last week, we learned more about world leaders and diplomacy than some of us would care to know – with revelations about Gaddafi and his nurse being the front-runner candidate for the most TMZ-like material made available, courtesy of Wikileaks. All the buzz and panic that ensued following the release of the US Embassy diplomatic cables motivated a colleague of mine to ask me: are social media’s mantras of transparency, information sharing and digitization of conversations, relationships and activities saving us or are they dooming us all?

Even though Wikileaks have been called “social media journalism” by some, the seeds that enabled their model were planted much before the age of Twitter or Facebook. Clay Shirky had already stated in his book Here Comes Everybody:

(…) in an age of inifinite perfect copyability to many people at once, the very act of writing and sending an e-mail can be a kind of publishing, because once an e-mail is sent, it is almost impossible to destroy all the copies, and anyone who has a copy can broadcast it to the world at will, and with ease. Now, and presumably from now on, the act of creating and circulating evidence of wrongdoing to more than a few people, even if they all work together, will be seen as a delayed but public act.

A clever Venn diagram was circulated over the Internet in late October, suggesting that nothing in the Internet is actually private. The picture below was based on that diagram:

“A helpful Venn diagram” – derivation work

I would argue that the Internet is not the culprit either. I still remember a good friend of mine saying in the early 1990s: “the only things that are really private are the ones you never shared with anybody”. Thus, a Venn diagram depicting privacy vs. the Internet would look more like this:

A relatively recent case of private information leaking to the general public corroborates that point-of-view: Tiger Woods’ challenging year started with verbal accounts of marital infidelity and a phone voice message. No email, no tweets, no Facebook status updates took any part in it. In fact, the now number 2 golfer in the world has finally turned on his Twitter account, seemingly to restore his public image. Ironically enough, by checking the Wikipedia entry on this subject, I learned that Woods and his former wife own a 155-foot yacht called Privacy!

Any concern that by adopting social media practices a company or person will be more vulnerable to this kind of exposure is not well supported by actual evidence. By adding transparency to conversations, relationships and activities, the use of social media may actually contribute to reduce opportunities for doing the wrong or the hidden thing in the first place. Furthermore, it puts you on the driver seat – the remaining question being how much of a good driver you are.

Perhaps we are taking ourselves too seriously here. To keep all this in perspective and also for a good laugh, I highly recommend you to read Julien Smith’s post, All social media experts “are actually the same person,” Wikileaks documents reveal. Here’s a sneak preview:

“Paul from Miami,” as he is identified in Wikileaks documents, appears to be the source of an entire industry of Twitter experts who seemingly give the same advice and yet somehow all have over 20,000 Twitter followers each. (…) Meanwhile, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange suggested more bombshells might be on the way. Speculation was rampant that “SEO experts” and “marketing gurus” might also all be sourced from a single individual, or worse, be “Paul from Miami” as well. Paranoia is on the rise.

Anyway, this is Aaron from Toronto, who I promise is not the same person as Paul from Miami, but on the Internet, I guess you would never know.

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Unskewing the Web: Curators as filters

11 12 2010
Sieves (40/365) 

Image by prettyflower via Flickr

As previously seen on Biznology:

This is my final post on the skewed Web. In the early days of Web 2.0 awareness, much was said about the new —now old—Web being all about participation: in the age of User-Generated Content, everybody and their mother became a publisher, leveling the playing field. An independent blogger could potentially be more influential than a New York Times columnist, and the role of editors in identifying and promoting relevant content would be seeing their last days. What was unclear back then was that social media was not only lowering the barriers for content creators: it would eventually enable a new breed of editors, the social media curators.

In my previous post, I cited Clay Shirky’s assertion that the Internet did not bring us an information overload problem: we just needed better filters. However, the wholesale online sieves, like Google Search and Digg, created a different kind of problem, a giant global echo chamber, where we all were becoming collectively dumber. An online world dominated by page rank and skewed crowdsourcing had the potential to dethrone TV as the ultimate idiot box.

As some of you may know, my academic background is in Biology–thus my frequent comparisons between life sciences and social media in my posts. Conservation Biology advocates that Biodiversity “is essential for the maintenance of vital ecosystem services, and ultimately for human survival”, and that we all need to focus on the conservation of all species, not only the cute ones. E.O. Wilson, renowned biologist and Harvard Professor, stated in his book “The Creation”:

“The pauperization of Earth’s fauna and flora was an acceptable price until recent centuries, when Nature seemed all but infinite, and an enemy to explorers and pioneers. (…) History now teaches a different lesson, but only to those who will listen. (…) The homogenization of the biosphere is painful and costly to our own species and will become more so.”

Likewise, the health and long-term viability of our knowledge ecosystems is dependent on diversity of ideas and opinions. Online content curators are playing an increasingly crucial role preserving that diversity beyond mainstream. But despite all the talk around online content curation, there’s still a long way to go.

Online content creators are well-served today. Gone are the GeoCities and “home page” days, where you pretty much had to build everything from scratch or rely on professional help to generate content. You can go fancy and rely on a Content Management System, or just open a Twitter account and go crazy, 140 characters at a time.

Online content curators, on the other side, are still poorly served. Robert Scoble has recently compiled a list of “The Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators”. One of my favourite online content curators, Bernie Michalik, uses a variety of social media channels to highlight interesting things he finds daily both in the core and in the fringes of the online world. However, very few of us are keen enough to write elaborated blog posts or to create neat websites about fringe subject matters. Most of us tend to only go for the quick and dirty: a quick retweet, or a shortened URL or a Facebook link, resulting in somewhat cryptic, hard-to-consume messages like this one:


Every time my wife sees my Twitter stream, full of messages like that, she says that it looks geeky and uninteresting. And she is right. Thankfully, a number of websites and apps are starting to make the online content curators’ life easier, the same way it happened to online content creators several years ago. Even Twitter and Facebook have recently made efforts to add a layer of translation, rendering links to photos and videos to more attractive thumbnails or embedded players.

The iPad app Flipboard give us a glimpse of what is coming. This is a snapshot of how the tweet above is rendered in Flipboard:


The newspaper format and the rendering of the actual content (as opposed to just showing a shortened URL) goes a long way to make tweets more consumable.

Social Media tools play a crucial role in lowering barriers to entry, allowing more people to become online content curators, and enabling diverse content to be easily absorbed and propagated. By avoiding the extinction of diverse ideas, content curator tools will increasingly become instrumental in preserving our global online knowledge ecosystem, a.k.a. our collective intelligence.

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A Skewed Web: Innovation is in the outskirts of social media

15 09 2010
Honeybees with a nice juicy drone

Image by dni777 via Flickr

As previously seen in Biznology:

As I discussed in my post last month, it’s a skewed Web out there. A multitude of online social filters were developed over the last 15 years to address our perennial information overload curse. From Google’s page rank, we went all the way to tag clouds, social bookmarking, Twitter trending topics and Gmail’s Priority Inbox, trying to find ways to make what matters float to the top. However, most of these social filters are based on some variation of a “majority rules” algorithm. While they all contributed to keep information input manageable, they also skewed the stream of information getting to us to something more uniform. Will crowdsourcing make us all well-informed drones? Ultimately, it may depend on where you’re looking at, the center or the fringe of the beehive.

Almost two years ago, Clay Shirky boldly stated that information overload was not a problem, or at least not a new one. It was just a fact of life at least as old as the Alexandria library. According to Shirky, the actual issue we faced in this Internet age would be that of a filter failure: our mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff were just not good enough. Here is an excerpt from his interview at CJR:

The reason we think that there’s not an information overload problem in a Barnes and Noble or a library is that we’re actually used to the cataloging system. On the Web, we’re just not used to the filters yet, and so it seems like “Oh, there’s so much more information.” But, in fact, from the 1500s on, that’s been the normal case. So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody. One of the reasons you see this enormous move towards social filters, as with Digg, as with del.icio.us, as with Google Reader, in a way, is simply that the scale of the problem has exceeded what professional catalogers can do.

While some still beg to differ about information overload not being an issue – after all, our email inboxes, RSS readers and Facebook and Twitter streams never cease to overwhelm us–we tend to welcome every step in the evolution of smarter filters.

The whole lineage of social filters, from Google’s page rank, passing through Digg and Delicious, culminating with Twitter’s trending topics, mitigated one problem–information overload–but exacerbated another one: we were all getting individually smarter, but collectively dumber. By letting the majority or the loud mouths dictate what was relevant, we ended up with a giant global echo chamber.

We were all watching Charlie biting Harry’s finger, and Justin Bieber trying to convince (or threaten) us that we will never, ever, ever be apart. That Ludacris video surpassed 300 million views in seven months in YouTube alone, taking their all-time #1 spot. An unverified claim about Bieber using 3% of Twitter’s infrastructure being passed as news by traditional media outlets is just the last example of how far we went down the madness of crowds road.

br />This of course is not a new problem. Back in the early 1980s, MTV was running Michael Jackson’s 14-minute “Thriller” video twice an hour. The trouble here is just the magnitude of it. A potential downside of this mass-media-on-steroids uniformity is that a homogeneous environment is not the best place for innovation to flourish. Borrowing from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: transformation is rare in the large, stable central populations. Evolution is more likely to happen in the tiny populations living in the geographic corners: “major genetic reorganizations almost always take place in the small, peripherally isolated populations that form new species.”

If you are looking for the next big thing, or trying to “think different,” or to be creative and innovative, you need to look beyond the center. The core will tell you what’s up, so that you’ll be “in the know.” The fringe will show you what’s coming next. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is peripherally distributed.

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A Skewed Web: Are you an outlier?

14 09 2010

70/365 - It. Was. Amazing.

Image by BLW Photography via Flickr

As previously seen at Biznology:

Relying solely on social news or social bookmarking services such as Digg, Reddit, Fark, Slashdot, and Delicious might leave you with a very peculiar version of the world. A glance at the Twitter hot topics or Google Trends suggests that our collective Web brain is that of a tween. It’s a skewed Web out there, and sometimes you might just feel like you don’t belong. But is that real, or just a distorted view of the social media world?

If you believe that Google’s Zeitgeist is a good proxy for “the spirit of times” as its name claims, last year we apparently cared more about Jon and Kate and Twilight’s New Moon than about the presidential inauguration, and there was also a quite unusual interest in paranormal activity:

Google Zeitgeist (US) – 2009 News – Fastest Rising
Google Zeitgeist (US) – 2009 News – Overview

Also, a quick glimpse at the current Twitter trending topics, or the top 50 topics of all time (which, in social media terms, means since September 2008) may also leave you wondering about how wise the crowds really are:

Twitter Trending Stats (Source: TweetStats.com, Aug 7, 2010, 12:07 AM)
Twitter Trending Stats – “All time”: Sep 24, 2008 to Aug 7, 2010 (Source: TweetStats.com)

Collectively, our social media activity seems to be closer to People Magazine and Sports Illustrated than to The New York Times or National Geographic. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is what it is—and I’m as guilty of taking the occasional look at TMZ as the next person.

Is this definitive proof that users of social media are more interested in celebrities, athletes and gadgets than in politics, science and, you know, “serious stuff”? Well, not necessarily. Both Google Zeitgeist and Twitter Trending Topics show “deltas” of interest, subjects that for one reason or another are suddenly becoming popular. A quick look at Google Trends show that, for all its popularity in 2009, “New Moon” doesn’t hold a candle to other popular terms:

Google Trends snapshot (taken on Aug 7, 2010)

Furthermore, people obviously search for things they don’t know where to find. Sites you visit often are likely already bookmarked or just get resolved by your browser when you start typing related keywords in the navigation box.

So, before you lose all faith in humanity, or at least in the online portion of it, take a deep breath and think again. There is a social Web out there that is much more diverse than what is revealed byTwitter or Google trending topics. If you are an outlier, rest assured that you are in good company ;-)

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World Cup Fever and Social Media

9 06 2010

As previously seen at Biznology:

Fans celebrating the upcoming 2010 FIFA World ...

Image via Wikipedia

The upcoming 2010 World Cup in South Africa is being touted by FIFA and Twitter representatives as the event to slash all previous records in social media traffic. That’s a tall order, considering the US elections, the Beijing Olympics, the Oscars and even the Lost series finale were nothing to sneeze at in terms of frantic online real-time activity. Regardless of whether or not that bold prediction will be realized, the next 30 days of soccer madness will certainly bring a new way of experiencing the most widely-viewed sporting event in the world.

On June 11, the ball starts rolling at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, marking the first time the World Cup is held on the African continent. It’s also the first time the popular tournament will be testing the open waters of Facebook and Twitter. Zuckerberg’s social networking service opened to the general public only in September 2006, and most people had never heard about Twitter when France’s Zinadine Zidane infamously headbutted Italy’s Materazzi in the finals four years ago. Social media was already pervasive back then, but mainly in the form of blogs, wikis, podcasts and video sharing.

Thus, most of the online impressions around that play developed not instantly, but minutes, hours, and days after it happened, and they were particularly prominent in YouTube, the big social media star at the time. My favorites–but perhaps NSFW–are the Coup de Boule song and this compilation of 114 parodies of the unusual, err, interaction.

Furthermore, most of us were still passive small screen spectators of the games, with mainstream media being the intermediaries between the athletes and the public. Now, several players have their own Twitter accounts, and are already commenting on what’s going on in the last days before the kick-off. I compiled a Twitter list of players—including some of the stars left out–in case you want to take a peek at their thoughts before and during the competition. Some teams, such as England and Spain, already banned the use of Twitter and Facebook, but others like Brazil and The Netherlands are ok with it.

Perhaps the most interesting bits won’t come from the players themselves, but from the people close to them. Shortly after the game where Real Madrid was eliminated from the UEFA Champions League on March 10, Kaká’s wife retweeted a post by one of his advisers calling Madrid’s coach a “coward”. Social media guidelines are not easy to enforce outside team boundaries.

If you are into social media, but not into soccer, you must be asking by now: why do I care about all this World Cup nonsense? You should care for at least two reasons. First, it will provide all of us a better opportunity to understand the reach and importance of Facebook and Twitter outside North America. Some reports indicate that nearly 50% of Twitter accounts and one quarter of Facebook users hail from outside the US. All the previous events driving high traffic in Twitter and Facebook were wildly popular with Americans and Canadians. As both the US and Canada have traditionally not been major soccer markets, we can for the first time observe the extent to what the rest of the world embraces the two services. Furthermore, the instantaneous nature of the play-by-play reactions and the unprecedented volumes will allow a much closer reading of regional differences in the use of social media, something that the Oscars or Lost can only give us a glimpse of. The “world game” has never been this worldly.





Felipe Machado and Andrew Keen: Thinking outside the social media echo chamber

7 02 2010

Back in November, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Felipe Machado, multimedia editor for one of the largest newspapers in Brazil, and a former business partner in a short-lived Internet venture in the mid-nineties. The get-together was brokered by Daniel Dystyler, the consummate connector in the Gladwell-esque sense of the word.


Felipe Machado and Daniel Dystyler

Felipe is an accomplished journalist, book author and musician, and I deeply respect his ability to connect the dots between the old and new media. I actually often disagree with him: I tend to analyze the world through a logical framework, and Felipe relies on intuition and passion. That’s exactly why I savour every opportunity to talk to him. If you understand Portuguese, you may want to check his participation in “Manhattan Connection” (Rede Globo, 4th largest TV network in the world), talking about the future of media:

During our lunch conversation, Felipe mentioned Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur”, as a book that broke away from the sameness of social media authors. Coincidentally, I had read an article about that book the day before, so I bit the bait and borrowed the book from the local library the first week I came back from Brazil.

This may come as a surprise to anybody who knows me, but if you work in anything related to new media, social media, Web 2.0 and emerging Internet technologies, I highly recommend you read Keen’s book. Make no mistake: the book deserves all criticism it got – you can start with Lawrence Lessig’s blog post for a particularly heated discussion on the limitations of Keen’s arguments. “The Cult of the Amateur” is ironically a concrete proof that having editors and a publisher behind a book does not necessarily make it any better than, say, a blog post.

The reason I recommend a not-so-good book is this: Andrew Keen represents a large contingent of people in your circle of friends, co-workers, clients and audience – people who hear your social media message and deeply disagree with you. They may well be the vast majority that does not blog, does not use Twitter and couldn’t care less about what you had for dinner last night. They often don’t say it out loud, to not be perceived as luddites, but are not convinced that social media is making things any better, or Web 2.0 is something inevitable.

Those are the folks you should pay attention to. No matter how much you admire the work by Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky, Jeff Howe and others social media luminaries, you are probably just hearing the echo of your own voice there. You need to understand the concerns, the points of view and the anxiety of the Andrew Keens of the world toward the so-called social media revolution. Failing to do that will prevent you from crossing the chasm between early adopters and everybody else.

Reaching out to the members of our social network who are not in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can go a long way for us all to realize that the real world is MUCH BIGGER than Web 2.0 and Social Media (as I learned from Jean-François Barsoum long time ago).





The joke, the circus and the soap-opera

14 12 2009

A few people who saw my Enterprise 2.0 Anti-patterns presentation at SlideShare asked what I meant by “the joke, the circus and the soap-opera”. That came from a post I wrote for Biznology a long time ago, on Sep 15, 2008. It’s old news now, but for the sake of completeness I’m republishing it here. I updated some of the broken links and also moved the “I work for” disclaimer from IBM to RBC :-)

What role do timing and duration play in your Web 2.0 strategy? Marketing experts have long emphasized the importance of media selection and scheduling decisions, but seeing how traditional companies have been exploiting the Internet over the last few years shows that there are still lessons to be learned in that arena.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it doesn’t always pay off when it comes to your online marketing strategy. All the hype around Web 2.0 and User Generated Content a couple of years ago initially led to some embarrassing attempts of letting regular folks to create ads. The Chevy Tahoe Apprentice challenge in 2006 is probably the most prominent example of how to not do it: even after GM wiped out ChevyApprentice.com, a search in YouTube for “Chevy Tahoe Apprentice” brings plenty of ads that should have never been created in the first place, a sobering reminder that having an exit strategy established up front is a must in your Internet experiments. Eventually marketing teams got it right, and the success of the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl competition in early 2007 led to several others companies to jump onto the UGC bandwagon, with varying, but mostly diminishing, levels of returns.

Another case in point was the creation of online places for your customer base to hang around and discuss subjects that take a front seat in their lives. HSBC’s Your Point of View was launched in October 2005 and generated a lot of buzz for quite some time. However, three years later, it has lost its freshness and novelty, giving the casual observer the impression of a failed experiment, when it could have been considered one of the most successful stories of a traditional company building a site based on the architecture of participation. Vancity’s “community powered” Change Everything, launched in September 2006, suffered from a similar problem, but had a longer shelf life, and people still contribute with comments to this day. One of the major differences between the two services that may explain the varying longevity of two similar offerings is that the Vancity experiment established itself as a social networking site, while the HSBC one stayed away from forming an online community and keeping user profiles. Change Everything is currently announcing a complete revamp of the service, so I’m curious to see what’s coming next.

What’s clear in the examples above is that timing and duration play a crucial role in the success of your online initiatives. This might sound obvious, but it’s often ignored in many of the initiatives we see online. Being too early might prevent you from understanding the dynamics of a new approach, but being too late can just position your company as a me-too player. The sweet spot, of course, is hard to determine, but recognizing these patterns can help you to sniff the right moment. Or you might be better prepared to fail gracefully from the get-go, not as an after-thought.

Influenced by a conversation I had with my colleague Bernie Michalik, I started thinking about three metaphors that highlight the importance of duration in your online strategy. Some initiatives work very well when applied exactly once, as it was the case with the Doritos Super Bowl commercial. Like telling a joke, the second time around people get bored and disengaged.

Other initiatives work better when mimicking a circus pattern: you come, raise your tent, run your dog-and-pony show, and then leave after a week or a month. One or two years from now, you can do it again, but staying there on a continuous basis would never work. This is how RBC approached its Next Great Innovator site. In the first edition, back in 2006, they defined up-front that it would be a time-boxed experiment, so that when they were done a few months after, retiring the site was perceived as the conclusion of a successful experiment. Every year since they keep coming back with new features, but still positioning it as a time-limited event (full disclosure: I work for RBC).

The IBM jams are another good example of how the circus pattern can be efficiently used to your advantage. Besides helping clients to deliver jams, we eat our own dog food and use them as one of the tools in our innovation strategy. If you are wondering what the jam looks like, the next round begins on Sunday, October 5th at 6 pm EDT, and participation is open to IBM clients.

Over the last few years, many marketers have started using microsites to drive marketing campaigns, as opposed to relying on the main corporate site. One of the advantages here is that microsites can be changed—and retired, if necessary—more easily than the company’s main Web site.

Finally, some of your initiatives might actually work well as a place that’s always open for business, pretty much like a never ending daytime soap opera. This typically works well for services that drive a steady number of clients, or whose audience is recycled on a yearly basis, like college students or pre-teens. Procter & Gamble’s Connect + Develop site is a good example of that, as the site serves an audience that has a continuous relationship with them. I often see initiatives that would operate better following the joke or circus patterns defaulting to the soap opera mode. Despite their initial huge success, they become victims of not selecting the appropriate duration for their endeavor.

When devising your next online initiative make sure you think about which of those patterns best fits your offering. Timing and duration might end up being the key determinants in how that incredible new site you conceived will be perceived a few years down the road.





Twilight: New Moon – Interactive Displays in Brazil

7 12 2009

I started writing this post a month ago, but stopped as I did not have access to the Internet while in Brazil, so pardon the taste of yesterday’s news here.

Unlike Bernie, I don’t have a teenager daughter, so I have just a very fuzzy idea about what The Twilight Saga is all about. But it doesn’t take a Roger Ebert or Peter Travers to know that it’s at least as popular in Brazil as it is in Canada and the US: its second installment ranked as the top box office in Brazil this year. Taking the subway in São Paulo 2 weeks before the opening of New Moon, it was hard to miss this eye-catching, vending-machine-like, err, device:

Twilight Interactive Display in São Paulo

Here are some more pictures, in case Twilight is your thing:

The main feature was the embedded camera, that allowed you to take a picture of yourself and edit it to transform yourself into a werewolf or a vampire. Your picture then became part of the gallery for all to see. No, I did not try it, or at least that’s what I claim :-) . It actually looked a lot like a very big version of an iPhone app, except that you could not shake it to start over. You could also watch movie trailers and download an app to your cell via Bluetooth.

The company behind it was a Brazilian “digital interaction agency”, Ginga. I know the explanation above is as clear as mud, so here’s their own video showing how it works:

How effective is this new media outlet? Hard to tell. But they used a 1.0 version of their displays for the first movie of the series, back in December 2008, and Ginga claims the following:

This solution was integrated with the whole digital campaign: website, banners, and a strong community created for the fans in Brazil.

RESULTS

Over 4.5 million people reached by the subway campaign over a month.

One of the top 10 box-offices in 2008 in Brazil.

Over 180,000 content downloads via Bluetooth.

Not too shabby, eh? Here’s the video of their first version (which, by the way, looks much more impressive than the second one):

P.S.: If you see me blogging next time about Hannah Montana, it’s a sign that the end of the world is coming.





Aunt May 2.0

4 08 2009

A few years ago, during a visit to the Portuguese Language Museum in São Paulo, Brazil, I found that one of my favourite childhood characters, Cebolinha, was getting into blogging:

2004 is typically considered the year that blogs went mainstream, so no surprises there. It’s expected that a cartoon character would just follow the habits of his target demographics.

That notwithstanding, I had a good laugh getting my weekly dose of geeky fix in this sequence of Amazing Spider-Man #599:

So Aunt May is active in both Facebook and Twitter? Is this just a Marvel plot to get more people to follow them in Twitter? One would expect Johnny “Human Torch” Storm to be twittering (see below), but Aunt May, seriously?

If you believe in this comScore report and the referred Reuters blog post from a few months ago, Aunt May could in fact be as likely to be a Twitter user as Johnny Storm:
comScore blog – (…) 18-24 year olds, the traditional social media early adopters, are actually 12 percent less likely than average to visit Twitter (Index of 88). It is the 25-54 year old crowd that is actually driving this trend. More specifically, 45-54 year olds are 36 percent more likely than average to visit Twitter, making them the highest indexing age group, followed by 25-34 year olds, who are 30 percent more likely.

Reuters blog – Twitter may even be catching on among people who have a reached a post-business phase of their lives: Of the 4 million U.S. Twitter users in February, 5.2 percent were 65 or older.

To keep things in perspective, if you Google “Twitter demographics”, you’ll find all kinds of conflicting data, like this one by Quantcast or this other one by Pew Internet & American Life Project, so don’t start placing all your Twitter bets on the older segments of your target audience just yet. But keep in mind that the online landscape keeps changing at a fast pace: if you are still stuck in believing that Social Media is owned by generation Y, maybe it’s time to check if that latest Twitter follower you’ve got is not your grandma taking a break from all the World of Warcraft craziness.





Kiva.org and the future of philanthropy

28 07 2009

Two months ago, Bernie Michalik kindly set up a virtual card-blog for my IBM farewell, complete with a donation widget from ChipIn, raising $165 as a parting gift. After scratching our heads for a few weeks, we finally figured out how to cash that amount via PayPal (after paying quite a hefty fee).

Inspired by Jamie Alexander, of Pass It Along fame, I then decided to use the opportunity to try out Kiva.org. Kiva was recently featured at Time.com as one of “10 Great Ways To Spend Your Tax Refund”.

Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs around the globe.

I divided the amount among 5 entrepreneurs, and you can follow the progress of those loans here.

Conventional wisdom suggests that good deeds should be kept to oneself, but the more people know about services like Kiva and MicroPlace, the better. Kiva’s success led to an unusual supply-demand situation last year: having more money available to lend than people asking for it, according to this New York Times article. But just to keep things in perspective, take a look at some of the possible shortcomings too, so that you can make a conscious decision.

In the next few years, I expect more and more institutions who depend on public donations to follow Kiva’s “data-rich, transparent lending platform” model, showing exactly what happens to your contributions throughout the whole value chain. Donations are scarce resources, and being transparent goes a long way in gaining credibility and loyalty.





Enterprise 2.0: Jennifer Okimoto and Antipatterns

23 06 2009

Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t join the Social Media crowd at the Enterprise 2.0 conference being held in Boston this week. But luckily for those attending, Jennifer Okimoto kindly offered to present the Enterprise 2.0 Antipatterns session, scheduled for this upcoming Thursday. You can take a look at the core slides I used in the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco in SlideShare:

But even if you’ve seen me presenting it before, I highly recommend those attending the E2.0 event to see Jennifer’s take on it. She’s a great story teller, and her director’s cut will likely feel like a new presentation altogether. And if you can’t see her live there, make sure you follow her in Twitter for a daily dose of witty commentary and nuggets of wisdom 2.0.





Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009 Recap: Part 2

15 04 2009

This post is about 2 weeks late, which in this day and age is the web equivalent to yesteryear’s newspaper. On the bright side, most of the real-time info about the expo was already conveyed by the twitterers out there. Just see this entry as my attempt to seed the machine for future searches. In case you are wondering, Part 1 is here.

4. Robin Sloan (Current) and Zach Brand (NPR, Digital Media)
TV & Radio with an API: Stories from Current and NPR
Twitter tag: #w2api

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009

This session was a bit basic from a geek perspective, but very well done. Being able to convey boring or complex concepts in a clear manner is a rare talent, and both Sloan and Brand did well there. You may not know Sloan, but chances are you saw his cool video EPIC 2014.

Most media companies still don’t expose most of their content, so I bet this session was inspiring for many. I couldn’t find the slides available anywhere, but you may like this kind-of-related deck interesting.

Some lessons learned:

  • Use a “brand and release” strategy to increase your relevance
  • APIs allowed NPR to create partnerships that would not exist otherwise
  • A good quote: “API = how i stopped focusing on my own website and learned to love the whole internet” :-)

5. Kate Niederhoffer (Dachis Corporation), Marc Smith (Telligent Systems)
Beyond Buzz: On Measuring a Conversation
Twitter tag: #buzzzz

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the first half of this session. You can see the slideshare presentation embedded below, but a presentation is so much more than slides. Seeing what I missed teased my imagination about how much is hidden in social metrics. I would love to have Kate and Marc presenting in an IBM event in the future, as understanding the potential of social metrics is very relevant for us right now. One more item in my ever growing to-do list: check and play with NodeXL!

6. Sören Stamer (CoreMedia)
Darwinism on the Web: Surviving and Thriving in a Web 2.0 World
No Twitter tag, apparently :-(

I couldn’t get in the room for this session, and if you follow this blog you know that this one would be at the top of my list. Next time, I have to make sure I arrive early for sessions with cool titles. As a consolation prize, here’s a nice blog post by a person who was luckier than me and, of course, slideshare:

Considering that I failed miserably in writing part 2 when the info was fresh, I’m not promising Part 3 this time. In case you still have appetite for more Web 2.0 Expo, you can see all the keynotes here.





Is failure overrated?

2 04 2009


Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2008

As seen in Biznology (slightly modified to avoid overlapping with previous posts in this blog):

Is learning from failures overrated? When emphasizing the importance of learning from errors, are we actually creating a culture of losers? Read on to hear arguments on both sides of this discussion and make up your mind. Your company’s survival in the long term may depend on it.

I’m in San Francisco this week, speaking at and attending the Web 2.0 Expo at the Moscone West. In a number of sessions, the speakers emphasized that failure is an important part of the innovation game. Knowing that I also tend to subscribe to that theory, and commenting on the Charlie Brown comic strip I embedded in my previous blog entry, a colleague at IBM pointed me to an interesting piece written by Jason Fried, from 37signals, who challenges that whole concept: “Failure is overrated, a redux”. It’s a good post, and the comments are also worth reading. To have a complete picture of the discussion, I suggest you to also read the New York Times article Jason refers to, “Try, Try Again, or Maybe Not”.

As it’s often the case in heated discussions, I initially found that Jason was defending a completely different perspective toward failure and learning, but this comment of his on another related post made me think that the difference is mostly one of weight.

“Everything is a learning experience. It’s just that I’ve found learning from your successes to be more advantageous. (…) I’ve always found more value in learning from the things that work than the things that don’t.”

I definitely can live with that position. What I have more trouble with is the cited Harvard Business School working paper. Here are some excerpts from the NYT article:

“The data are absolutely clear,” says Paul A. Gompers, a professor of business administration at the school and one of the study’s authors. “Does failure breed new knowledge or experience that can be leveraged into performance the second time around?” he asks. In some cases, yes, but over all, he says, “We found there is no benefit in terms of performance.”

(…) first-time entrepreneurs who received venture capital funding had a 22 percent chance of success. Success was defined as going public or filing to go public; Professor Gompers says the results were similar when using other measures, like acquisition or merger.

Already-successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to succeed again: their success rate for later venture-backed companies was 34 percent. But entrepreneurs whose companies had been liquidated or gone bankrupt had almost the same follow-on success rate as the first-timers: 23 percent.

If the article is accurate – and that’s a big if, considering that this is still a working paper – it seems that the HBS research is not actually proving that “when it comes to venture-backed entrepreneurship, the only experience that counts is success”, as stated in the opening paragraph. It basically demonstrates that enterpreneurs who managed to go public or filed to go public are slightly more likely (going from 22% to 34%) to have a repeat, but isn’t that expected?

There are several factors that come into play when filing a venture to go public, and having done it once gives an entrepreneur some knowledge of what it takes to get there again. I actually find surprising that, even with that edge, the rate of failure is still very high. Another way to interpret the same data is: roughly two thirds of entrepreneurs who were successful the first time (and I’m using the same loose definition of success here) fail the second time. If anything, the data tells me that success is also overrated.

The “learning from failures” approach makes more sense when you take a granular approach to it. Every single initiative you undertake is composed of a vast number of small wins and losses. You definitely can learn from both outcomes, so regardless of which one will teach you the most, embrace successes AND failures. The fundamental message when advocating a culture that allows failure to occur from time to time is to avoid analysis paralysis, or even worse, denial by hiding what went wrong and exaggerating what went right.

The bottom line is that innovation entails good risk management and shares many features with the financial world. Low risk initiatives are likely to generate low returns, and don’t give you much of a competitive edge. Being bold may lead you to collect wins and losses along the way, but also can reward you more handsomely overall. Knowing that, it’s important that you balance your innovation initiatives the same way you handle a portfolio: diversify them and adjust the mix to your comfort level. During economic downturns like the one we are going through now, it’s easy to panic and stop innovating. Keep in mind that a solid and consistent long term approach to innovation may determine your ability to survive in good and bad times.





Five things I didn’t know about Darwin

28 02 2009

You should probably know by now that in 2009 we celebrate 200 years of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since “The Origin of Species” was first published. I’ve been feasting on all the information flooding in the media about him, and I learned quite a bit about the man and the book in the last few months. Here’s my top 5 list, in no particular order.

1. A dinasty of sorts
The last publication by Darwin, written just 2 weeks before he died, was about a tiny clam found on a beetle leg. Nothing particularly interesting there. The person sending Charles the specimen was Walter Drawbridge Crick, a shoemaker and amateur naturalist. Even less remarkable, one could say, until you learn that Walter would eventually have a grandson named Francis, of Watson & Crick’s double helix fame, arguably the second most important insight in Biology, and perhaps in all sciences (Source: National Geographic Magazine).

2. Evolution
The word “Evolution”, so associated with Darwin in our collective mind, never appears in “The Origin of Species”. The closest you get is the last word in the last sentence of the book, a poetic gem of scientific literature: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” You can check that yourself by downloading a PDF version of the book here (Source: Quirks and Quarks podcast, CBC).

3. Survival of the fittest
Even more puzzling is the fact that the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer in the book “The principles of biology” (1864), and only shows up in late editions of Origin, duly acknowledging Spencer’s authorship: “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.  But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”. (Sources: The Phrase Finder and Gutemberg project).

4. The destiny of species
Long before coming up with his theory about where the species came from, many of Charles’ objects of study ended up in his stomach. Darwin used to eat several of the animals he helped describing, including, but not limited to, water-hogs (capivaras for Brazilians, a REALLY big rat, in fact the largest rodent in the world), birds of prey like the caracara, and armadillos. I guess that to provide a comprehensive description of a species, behaviour and looks were not enough: the more information the better :-) . I learned about this bizarre piece of trivia while watching the excellent “Darwin’s Legacy” course by Stanford University, available in iTunes U., but you can find a very good description of Darwin’s culinary adventures here.

5. Brazil according to Darwin
Charles, to put it mildly, didn’t enjoy much his time in Brazil, affirming at the end of his “Voyage of the Beagle” travelog: “On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.” I’m not sure if slavery in Brazil was worse than in other parts of the world, but being the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery suggests that the Brazilian society of the 18th century relied heavily on it, to the point that even today Brazil still has the second largest population of black origin in the world (after Nigeria). On the other side, Darwin was awed by the forests in Brazil: “Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail.  Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” Both quotes are a bit surprising given their quasi-spiritual tone. Finally, to conclude on a lighter note, this is Darwin’s account of Carnival folies in Salvador, Bahia, written on March 4th, 1832:

This day is the first of the Carnival, but Wickham, Sullivan & myself nothing undaunted were determined to face its dangers. — These dangers consist in being unmercifully pelted by wax balls full of water & being wet through by large tin squirts. — We found it very difficult to maintain our dignity whilst walking through the streets. — Charles the V has said that he was a brave man who could snuff a candle with his fingers without flinching; I say it is he who can walk at a steady pace, when buckets of water on each side are ready to be dashed over him. After an hours walking the gauntlet, we at length reached the country & there we were well determined to remain till it was dark. — We did so, & had some difficulty in finding the road back again, as we took care to coast along the outside of the town. — To complete our ludicrous miseries a heavy shower wet us to the skins, & at last gladly we reached the Beagle. — It was the first time Wickham had been on shore, & he vowed if he was here for six months it should be only one.

Watching Darwin braving the festive Carnival crowds in Salvador would have been priceless. If only we had Flickr and YouTube back then!





ROI 2.0, Part 3: We don’t need a Social Media ROI model

19 02 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, in his hilarious TED talk on spaghetti sauce, tells the story of Howard Moskowitz’s epiphany while looking for the perfect concentration of aspartame to use in the Diet Pepsi formulation:

Howard does the experiment, and he gets the data back, and he plots it on a curve, and all of a sudden he realizes it’s not a nice bell curve. In fact, the data doesn’t make any sense. It’s a mess. It’s all over the place. (…) Why could we not make sense of this experiment with Diet Pepsi? And one day, he was sitting in a diner in White Plains (…). And suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, the answer came to him. And that is, that when they analyzed the Diet Pepsi data, they were asking the wrong question. They were looking for the perfect Pepsi, and they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis.”

Tangent note: Most TED talks are a treat, but this one is particularly funny and thought-provoking. If you haven’t seen it yet, consider paying it a visit. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you may like the TED app too!

Over the last few years, many in the Social Media space have been on a quest to find the perfect ROI model for blogs, micro-blogs, wikis, social networking, social bookmarking and other animals in the ever growing Web 2.0 zoo. You’ll see opinions ranging from “we don’t need ROI for Social Media” to “Web 2.0 has to rely on a lagging ROI” to “ROI 2.0 comes from time savings”. In a way, they are all right and all wrong at the same time. Paraphrasing Doctor Moskowitz, there is no perfect Social Media ROI model, there are only perfect Social Media ROI models.

Since 2006, I’ve been talking to several senior executives in multiple industries and across geographies about the business value of Web 2.0, and have noticed a wide range of approaches when deciding whether or not (and how much) to invest in social computing. For companies in the forefront of the social media battleground, such as newspapers, book publishers and TV channels, investing heavily in new web technologies has often been a question of survival, and decision makers had significant leeway in trying new ways of delivering their products and services, with the full blessing of their stakeholders. On the other side of the spectrum, in sectors such as financial services, social media is not yet unanimously regarded as the way to go. I’ve heard from a number of banking and insurance clients that, if Social Media advocates don’t articulate clearly the returns they are expecting to achieve, they won’t get the funds to realize their vision.

Most players in Government were also very skeptical until the Obama effect took the world by storm, creating a sense of urgency that was not as prevalent before. Since then, government agencies around the globe seem to be a bit more forgiving with high level business cases for social computing initiatives inside and outside the firewall. However, to balance things out, in most of the other industries, investments in innovation are being subject to even more scrutiny than normal due to the tough current economic environment. So, having a few ROI models in your pocket does not hurt.

The following ROI models are emerging, and we can expect a few more to appear in the near future.

1. Lagging ROI

Last year, I spoke to the CIO of a global retail chain and he had an interesting approach towards strategic investments in emerging technologies. Instead of trying to develop a standard business case based on pie-in-the-sky ROI calculations, he managed to convince the board of directors to give him more flexibility to invest in a few projects his team deemed to be essential for the long-term survival of the company. For those, he would provide after-the-fact ROI metrics, so that decision makers could assess whether to keep investing or pull the plug. He also managed expectations by saying upfront that some of those projects would fail, but doing nothing was not an option. By setting aside an innovation bucket and establishing a portfolio of parallel innovation initiatives, you can hedge your bets and improve your overall success rate.

2. Efficiency gains or cost avoidance

Many of the early Social Media ROI models are based on how much time you save by relying on social media, converting that to monetary terms based on the cost of labour. While this is certainly a valid approach, it needs to be supplemented by other sources of business value. Unless you are capable of mapping the saved minutes with other measurable outcomes derived from having more time available, the most obvious way to realize the value of being more efficient is to reduce head count, as in theory the group can do the same work as before with less people. If that’s the core of your business case justification, it may fire back in the long term, as some people may feel that the more they use social computing, the more likely it is that their department will be downsized.

3. Proxy Metrics

Some of the ROI examples in the Groundswell book and blog rely on proxy marketing metrics, i.e., what would be the corresponding cost of a conventional marketing campaign to achieve the same level of reach or awareness. For example, when calculating the ROI of an executive blog, the authors measure value by calculating the cost of advertising, PR, SEO and word-of-mouth equivalents.

4. Product/Service/Process Innovation

The value of customer or employee insights that end up generating brand new products, services and processes or improvements to existing one needs to be taken into account. Measuring the number of new features is relatively straightforward. Over time, you may want to figure out the equivalent R&D cost to get the same results.

5. Improved Conversions

Back to the Groundswell book, one of the ROI examples there shows how ratings and reviews can improve conversion rates (i.e., from all people visiting your site, how many more buy products because they trust the input from other consumers, compared to typical conversion rates).

6. Digitalization of knowledge

By having employees blogging, contributing to wikis, commenting or rating content, creating videos and podcasts, companies are essentially enabling the digitalization of knowledge. Things that used to exist only in people’s heads are now being converted to text, audio and images that are searchable and discoverable. It’s the realization of the asset that Clay Shirky calls the cognitive surplus. That was an elusive resource that didn’t have much monetary value before the surge in user-generated content. Naturally, a fair portion of that digitalized knowledge has very little business value, so you need to find metrics to determine how much of that truckload of content is actually useful. You can infer that by using cross-links, comments, ratings or even number of visits.

7. Social capital and empowerment of the workforce

There is certainly business value in having a workforce composed of well connected, well informed and motivated employees. What metrics can be used to assess the degree of connectivity/knowledge/motivation of your human resources? Several social computing tools give you indirect metrics that provide a glimpse of the metrics you can exploit. Atlas for IBM Lotus Connections, for example, gives you the ability to see how your social network evolves quarterly, and can help determining how many people are associated with some hot skill (full disclosure: I work for IBM).

As you can see in several of the emerging models listed above, there are often three types of inputs to develop ROI calculations:

  • Quantitative metrics that can be obtained directly from the system data and log files
  • Qualitative metrics that are determined using surveys, questionnaires and polls
  • Dollar multipliers that attribute arbitrary monetary value to hard to assess items such as a blog comment or an extra contact in your social network

For the monetary value, I would suggest to adopt a sensitivity analysis approach, working with conservative, average and aggressive scenarios, and adjusting them over time. Just don’t go overboard. As I stated in a previous post, there’s an ROI for calculating ROI. ROI models should be easy to understand, as decision makers will often frown upon obscure calculations that require a PhD degree in financial modeling.

In summary: we don’t need one Social Media ROI model, we need many of them. None of the ones emerging now is perfect, none will ever be. You may need to have a few in your toolkit and develop a sense of which one to use in each case.

Previous ROI entries:

ROI 2.0, Part 1: Bean counters vs Innovators – The need for a real exchange of ideas
ROI 2.0, Part 2: Storytelling and Business Cases








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