Tag Archives: social media

Is the Message “Medium”?

“Medium is a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends. It’s designed for little stories that make your day better and manifestos that change the world.”

In the past couple of days, I’ve come across a few comments about Medium on Twitter and Facebook. I may have read some posts on it, as well. (Well, I have now. Several.)

I can’t quite work out what the offer is. It seems like yet another blogging platform, though perhaps one with some more social aspects. Building a circle of contacts – starting with Twitter followers and – or – Facebook friends, since you need to sign in with one or other of those.

Then you can add new Medium accounts you read – like following on WordPress, it would seem.

I began blogging on LiveJournal, which was a highly social space, but also public, too (if you cared to show your posts publicly; you can control who sees which posts). Since LJ was the place I first tried blogging, it set the standard, and in many ways its social features were way ahead of other platforms I looked at, such as Blogger, Blogspot – and WordPress. For instance, LJ had bested comments from the start of my experience with it, and when, a couple of years later, I wanted a more professional home for my blog, I couldn’t believe that comments couldn’t be relied to and nested. (WordPress brought that in a year or so later.)

Other platforms came along with similar ideas – like the now dead Posterous. But Facebook came to dominate the social side of posting, with the result that LJ has become a backwater, with little activity. It had started in California, I think, but has been sold on a couple times and is now owned by a Russian firm, I think.

Medium certainly looks good – LJ hasn’t changed much in the past few years, and looks dated (but since there are a huge number of user options and themes – just like WordPress – that may be my fault for not changing my layout). It is clean, smart – like a magazine. Actually, what it really remind me on is the social aggregator Flip, which looked great and was a joy to use – but did nothing that I needed it to do; it was just an extra space to log into.

So I can’t see what the killer function in Medium is. I’m sure I’ll be proved wrong and it will become apparent. Maybe the social drive to write and share in such a space will win through and resonate, in the same way LJ did, though it will be fighting the behemoth of Facebook there (though Medium seems to be about long form writing and collaboration rather than just sharing stuff. Maybe that’s just me.)

Still, a new space to keep an eye on.


“Anarchists in the Boardroom”: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

I read Anarchists in the Boardroom towards the end of last year, and I have been trying to get my head around writing about it.

First, a disclosure. I know Liam Barrington-Bush, and we have had lots of conversations about the ideas in his book; he shared some early drafts of a couple of chapters with me. I know many of the people he has spoken to in researching this book, and have been involved in some of the very many stories he tells.

It comes as no surprise, then, that I agree with many of the ideas he has about the power of social media to change organisations, and the way people relate to them.

That said, though, I have some problems with this. Worse still, I think their problem is – ME. That hurts…

Let’s take a step back. Liam comes from a not-for-profit background, and his focus is on changing the not-profit sector. Specifically, he wants to stop the damage he sees done in the name of “professionalism”, which he feels stops organisations being more like people. (He calls his social media campaign #morelikepeople. I am not sure I completely agree with his thesis around this – lots of people do bad things; making organisations more like people doesn’t mean they’ll behave more responsibly. Even sociopaths are people…)

I come from twenty five years working within or for corporates – I’m part of the professional management class at which Liam lays the blame. I have professional qualifications and a business degree. So it’s not surprising that…

What I didn’t like about the book was that it wasn’t – professional! It has a chatty, informal style which, for me, obscured the benefit of the experiences Liam describes, and how others could use them and harness social media (together with flatter structures, open communication, autonomy, and emergent and contingent change) to be more effective.

I think the audience – and impact – of this book could be wider than the not-for-profits Liam is targeting. But to reach deeper into the corporate world, you need to talk their language, and I am not certain that those in (or who aspire to in) the corporate boardroom will pick up this book. The things that has driven Liam to write it – the desire for organisations to me “more like people” – to have a human feel, about communication rather than data – will stop them

This is of course a paradox: to access those able to bring about change (top down or – preferably – bottom up), one needs to become more like them – exactly what Liam is trying to get away from.

Many organisations and the professionals within them actively resist change. One of the powerful things about organisation culture – “the way we do things” – is that it acts as homeostat, bringing the organisation back to its core and, sometimes, preventing change. Culture acts to keep the organisation on course. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of an organisation’s culture – it is all the below the surface stuff that is so obvious to those within it that they are oblivious.

Most of all, culture is rarely questionned. What social media can do is create the space to open up communications. Liam gives several examples where senior executives have taken to Twitter (by its nature it facilitates conversations) and the effect it has had on them – by allowing their staff and customers direct access. Just using a medium like Twitter allows the informal organisation to change – and can subvert the culture. That’s one way it has the potential to change organisations.

Liam’s book covers all this; my main issue with it is that it probably won’t reach the people who I think need to read it.

“More Like People”?

My working life has been spent with organisations, in one way or another. (And of course my life before that: schools and universities are organisations too…) I love exploring the way organisations work – what makes them tick. That is why, believe it or not, I loved auditing: auditors dig into organisations, discovering the real processes and structures that enable to them to function. (Clue: it isn’t what managers tell you. And it doesn’t have anything to do with shareholders!)

When talking about organisations – something I do often – I repeatedly find myself describing them as dysfunctional. I don’t think that I have come across or worked in an organisation that couldn’t work better in one way or another, from multinational banks to small, two-man operations. I have long wondered why this is. It isn’t that people in the organisation don’t know this: one thing consultants learn very quickly is that what they tell their clients is very rarely news: organisations know what’s wrong, even if they need someone from outside to help them articulate it.

Their processes could be better, their communications could (almost always) be improved, their structures changed to help the business. Hierarchy and structures get in the way rather than enable, and people in organisations know the work arounds – big and small – to get things done.

(A caveat: “could be better” is a value statement: the corollary has to be “better for whom?” Customers? Employees? Managers? Owners? The wider population? The environment? These groups may not be exclusive, but better for one may very well not be better for all.)

Organisations could be – well, better organised. They are dysfunctional.

I have only one answer. Organisations are made up of people, not processes; people make the organisation work. And people are dysfunctional.

Despite the idea that organisations are separate from people, it is people that are the organisation. We pretend they aren’t. We even pretend that organisations are people!

The thing is that whilst some organisations behave as if they were psychotic, most large organisations’ dysfunctionality works in peculiarly non-human ways. (Small organisations’ dysfunctionality is just like the people behind the organisation!) The veil of incorporation lets everyone in an organisation hide behind the processes, hierarchy and bureaucracy that lets the organisation continue to believe they are “rational”.

Liam Barrington-Bush started a campaign to counter this and humanise organisations, “#morelikepeople“, and he’s developed some of his ideas into a book, “Anarchists in the Boardroom“. (I should declare an interest: I’ve known Liam for quite a while, we’ve discussed his ideas many times, I was involved in focus groups around his book, and I read early drafts of a couple of chapters; he and I agree on much, and probably disagree on more!)

Liam’s focus is on not-for-profits and social enterprises, but I think his ideas are relevant to all organisations. Broadly, Liam reckons (amongst other things) that new media – particularly social media – can act as a counter to the rigid hierarchies and management processes that twentieth century industrialisation created. This is a topic has interested me for a long while – Benjamin Ellis covered it particularly well in a one day conference at Cass Business School three years ago.

Using collaborative tools to develop self-organising structures and flatter structures would clearly have an impact on the nature of work and business; if large organisations were able to embrace them, they might become flexible and responsive.

More likely, I feel, is that small organisations – already more flexible than large, and often unencumbered by rigid structures and processes – that are likely to adapt faster to social media, perhaps becoming more openly networked rather than hierachical.

(Liam is using crowd sourcing to publish his book – itself an interesting example of the changing nature of business in a new, social and collaborative world; he is still looking for supporters.)

This Happened Edinburgh and Creative Edinburgh

Four years ago, I spent an evening at the first This Happened Edinburgh – an interesting, collaborative event where technical and creative people discussed some of their innovative projects. (I thought I had blogged about it at the time, but clearly I failed to do so!)

After a four year gap (whilst I was down in London – where there is also a regular “This Happened” but where I found it impossible to get a ticket, such was demand!), I went to This Happened Edinburgh #9 last week.

This Happened Edinburgh #1 was the first event like that I had been to: four creators discussing their projects; this time, I knew what to expect. First time around, it was in a crowded upstairs room of a pub; now it was in the much more salubrious surroundings of Edinburgh University’s Inspace gallery, a white space which may well have been designed for events such as this. Much techier, much smoother, much cooler – but much less “funky”, too, and more deliberate and knowing.

The four projects were as interesting as those four years ago – I was particularly taken with Shenando Stals examination of the emotional geography of walkers’ Edinburgh – how our emotional sense of a city is created and alters our everyday experience of place – and Gianluca Zaffiro’s description of a project involving the users of social networks managing their own data (rather than the firms running the social networks).

The mantle for the funkier side of things has been taken up by Creative Edinburgh who, amongst the other things they do, have been organising a series of irregular events called “Glug” (part of a broader programme of Glug around the UK – I do like the subtitle “Notworking”: for all the self-unemployed out there…) where entrepreneurs and artists give short talks about their projects. Loosely curated around a theme – the first one I went to was on “collectives” (from I learned that collectives come in all shapes, sizes and ideologies – and it is the people not the idea that make it work! And I meant, and failed, to write about that at the time, too); the last one, in December, was on “materials matter“, though I’m not sure the case was proven: it was the creativity and the ideas that came through for me, the materials just being the medium.

Creative Edinburgh’s Glug evenings are more entrepreneurial and less academic than This Happened; maybe a bit more social, too. Not necessarily better – just a different focus. Both present a series of fascinating, engaging talks, and I look forward to more.

“I Am Seeing Things”. Or not.

I have had many conversations over the past few years about “the internet of things” – giving any object an ability to communicate, a specific URL and putting it online – particularly with Tony Hall and Martha LaGess; their interest lay in particular in what the internet of things might mean for cities and society – a kind of “quantified self” for buildings and social structures.

I don’t get it. (Actually, I get neither the internet of things nor the quantified self!) But that makes it interesting. So when I learned about I Am Seeing Things a few weeks ago, I signed up.

It was an interesting day, though in some ways it didn’t live up to expectations: the papers were not as focused on the internet of things as I had expected, and there was a fair bit of academic dissociation from reality. (But hey, it was a symposium held in a university – clearly my expectations were off-kilter!) There was a lovely moment when one of the organisers described playing with augmented reality apps on his phone in the park; he turned to his companion, expecting her to react like ecstatic characters in a Vodafone ad – but instead she said, “You’re a sad little man!”, demonstrating the gap between virtual and physical reality!

I think that gap is crucial. There are some neat tricks one can do – or experience – by connecting everything to the internet: the ToTEM project allows people to record their stories about objects, linked by a QR code, for instance – every object could have a narrative, adding to the way one experiences the object. But fundamentally I think most people respond with a huge “so what”, and get on with their lives.

There is also something a bit too exclusive about it all – a bit too “clever-clever”: partly this is down to the use of QR codes, which I feel is currently limiting – users have to be pretty interested already to use QR codes, and you are excluding anyone who frankly can’t be bothered to download an app or find out what the pretty chessboard patterns actually mean. (As an example of how bizarrely dissociated from reality people that use this stuff – mainly marketeers, I guess – can be, I saw an advert in last week’s “The Economist” for IMD. It contained a QR code – and they want you to download an IMD-specific app to your phone, then scan the code and see what happens. Because that is so much easier than just, say, providing a URL. I mean, FFS! It’s not just me that thinks so, either.)

You are also adding to the work people have to do to get at your object, story, information or other experience – in effect pushing them away, rather than bringing them in. (As you probably noticed, I don’t really get QR codes…)

There were several interesting presentations, though some seemed only tangentally connected to the internet of things.

My reaction to Mark Shepard‘s vision for the Sentient City veered from “so what” to out and out paranoia as the ability to track things through the physical world (the internet of things apparently started up as a way to better manage logistics, using items tagged with RFID transmitters) turns into a Orwellian surveillance nightmare. The smart city could seem more like a prison than we would care to admit.

Mike Philips talked about using sensors or “ecoids” – Arduino-like systems – within the environment, detecting and managing dynamic systems: pollution, for instance, or the internal environment within a building. Such systems interact with people already – the nature of a building depends on the people using it – and tying in active monitors allows greater control and management. Including biological data from personal sensors – an extension of the “quantified self” extends the person into the environment: we are already part of the environment, not separate from it (and as Philips pointed out, we are ourselves environments for significant number of organisms – we contain more cells of bacterial than human origin!), and becoming part of the internet itself is perhaps the next step. Perhaps…

“Things” can take on a different meaning when they are connected. Chris Speed discussed how attaching stories to objects changes them. Using QR codes and the internet so that any object has its own URL, meaning can be stored in a readable database: objects can be tagged with meaning, and they can tell their own stories. (But they don’t: the stories are stored in a database; we put them there, we retrieve them; the objects are and always will be inanimate. It is our stories and our meaning we associate with them.) He reckoned this changes the value in objects – though of course this has been the case for valuable objects forever: a painting with known provenance is more valuable than one without. Most things don’t have stories attached to them – they are purely utility – and I’ll admit to remaining pretty sceptical of this.

Maria Burke and Irene Ng both took a business-view of value (a broad term!) and the internet of things: what it means for the value chain. This was a fascinating, hard-headed take on TIoT: what difference it could actually make in the way people do business. Value depends on context (as Speed had pointed out): connecting things to the internet changes both the value proposition and the relationship to the object. Value becomes more of the moment – an digitised object may have no intrinsic value until it is used, pushing value down the value chain. With the proliferation of mobile services, value becomes “on demand”.

Mike Crang took this one step further by following objects through their life to destruction and salvage. This was fascinating – the way objects become incorporated into others, attract meaning and stories (“social biographies”), and change and are destroyed. The meaning remains – “ghost stories” (or as Craig put it, “the afterlife of things”). Despite being the most functional of processes, there was real poetry here. Some people don’t want their objects to have stories or history – in the market for second hand clothes, one doesn’t normally want to know the history of the bra you’re wearing (unless it was worn by Madonna or Monroe!). But at the end of their lives, even waste materials can attract value from thoses who have been part of their history: naval vessels being scrapped attract souvenir hunters, often those who have sailed in them. Almost any removeable part can have value.

Throughout the day, inanimate objects on the internet of things seemed to develop their own identities and personalities: we anthropomorphise our objects in relation to ourselves. When discussing the internet of things, people talk about the objects tweeting, for instance. They’re not: a computer sensor, programmed to respond (still anthropomorhising…) in specific ways to particular conditions or data is doing just that. It is possible to have “Death” of an object is part of an natural (re-)cycle. But on the internet of things, the dead objects survive as digital ghosts.

Addendum: Tony Hall has directed me to this download on the internet of things: a critique [pdf] – which looks interesting!

(I also liked the artworks demonstrated by Torsten Lauschmann and Geoff Mann – but it was hard to see how they fitted into the internet of things: rather, they struck me as being digital art. I missed the connection. But here are a couple of works I enjoyed:

Personal Learning Systems?

At a recent Everything Unplugged session (the Wednesday morning London meetup I went to), we discussed what systems and processes we use for learning. This struck me as being a bit too structured for me: I am not sure that my learning works like that. When I need to know something – a specific piece of knowledge for a bit of work, for example – I will either Google it (and start a trail of links, maybe making paper or digital notes as I go along) or ask someone (either face to face, on the phone, by email, Twitter or text message – indeed, whatever medium is the most appropriate for the person or the information).

Most of my learning, though, is adventitious and informal – accidental or serendipitous: things I come across in conversation or on the web, via Twitter or one of the many blogs I read. I may or more likely not record this learning: I don’t keep a record of what I read, although I do keep a pile of links I want to follow up on Twitter by favouriting (is that a verb? ‘Tis now…) others’ tweets. I also use Diigo for links I come across (and its mobile app, PowerNote) – and one can add tags and notes to Diigo (a real limit for Twitter, I think).

(Some definitions of learning require the setting of learning goals – most common in formal education and training. I don’t that on my own account: it is much more informal than that.)

I also use Evernote to write down ideas and lists of books and other things I want to follow up. (Evernote has distinct advantages to Diigo, I think – it is usable when one is not connected to the internet, and has much better text handling capabilities, I think – but Diigo is much better at bookmarking and tagging.)

I go to formal talks and lectures (the RSA has been a boon for this whilst I have been in London – I will be taking advantage of their live streaming and video channels in my new home) and have informal conversations at, say, Tuttle or Everything Unplugged which are nevertheless full of learning (and frequently more challenging than formal talks, since there is more feedback and exploration through questionning). I often blog about lectures, talks and conversations – one way I record and explore what what I have have learned – like this!

And then there are filed emails, my calendar, my (paper) diary and notebooks. (Paper has a lot of advantages for me over digital note taking: it helps me make connections and remember things better. I often make mindmaps, and those only work for me on paper; and in a lecture or a talk, using a device more sophisticated than a pen and paper distracts me from the talk itself! I can see that tablet devices – without a screen to get in between me and the speaker – might solve this; but pen and paper works just fine! I am not one of those people who can type faster than they write…)

So, not so much a system, more a random group of methods that seem to work for me in an unstructured, somewhat haphazard fashion.

Others in the Everything Unplugged group had a much more rigorous approach – indeed, Neil had come along to try out some of his ideas for developing a personal learning portfolio on us, which got us into the conversation. Using online and offline resources, for instance, one of the group has a structured workflow to manage his learning, including using Delicious as a bookmarking tool (similar to Diigo – I started to use bookmarking when the future of Delicious looked in doubt, though it now seems assured; someone mentioned a specific bookmarking service for learning, XTlearn, though I’ve not explored it) and TiddlyWiki as a note-taking tool. (TiddlyWiki looks great but I have failed to get it working properly on any of my devices – though I’m pretty sure that’s me and not the programme! Maybe I should give it another go.)

Creating a learning portfolio means that one would have a record of all relevant learning; someone reckoned that this – a summary of our learning – could be used in place of a standard CV – the summary of our experiences. Neil feels it will be able to identify matches for new roles and to examine knowledge, learning or skills gaps, which one could then plan to fill.

My main criticism was that such a record of learning shows neither the impact that something has had nor what we think of it. One may learn things which have absolutely no influence at all; other ideas may be highly influential and change the way one behaves. Simply recording what we’ve read, watched – learned – doesn’t differentiate. Maybe that is why people use CVs instead of a learning portfolio.

There are clearly some benefits to having a more structured approach to learning – not least being able to retrieve what one has learned. For long form research – writing a book, say – one would need to record all the references. But for every day, informal learning, an unstructured approach works for me: trying to codify it might make it more like work and less like fun.

The Future. Now…

I went to the London Bloggers meetup the other day, which had a panel scheduled to talk about the future of blogging – of much interest to everyone gathered there. It was a good evening – thanks due to Fishburn Hedges for hosting (and the excellent confectionary-based goodie-bags!) and the collective conversation of the meetup (and for Andy for organising this regular bash!) – but I didn’t feel that the panel really addressed their topic: they spoke about what their blogs were doing now and what their next steps would be, but next week isn’t really the future.

But whilst such criticism is fine, it did make me I should put my money where my mouth is. What do I think the future of blogging is?

I have absolutely no qualifications for making any predictions whatsoever: which makes me as qualified as most of the people who make predicitions (the others must work in strategy, technology and futurology, and they would have data to support their views. I don’t…). And of course I will be wrong. This seems very presumptuous. But hey…

So here goes…

  • blogging becomes even more mainstream: everyone’s on Facebook; schoolkids use blogs as portfolios of their schoolwork – at least in the west. It can only get bigger, frankly – so normal that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Of course, this means it stops being something specific – no more blogging – but somewhere to put online, digital stuff, and maybe a bit of writing
  • blogging becomes more open: I must thank Lloyd Davis for this one, because we were chatting about this over coffee this morning (indeed, maybe that prompted this whole post – thanks, Lloyd!) – but as blogging becomes ever more mainstream, we will want to own everything: no more beholden to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon or whoever, we will move from platform to platform. This may mean the rise of social aggregators. Or not. (Lloyd pointed me to this excellent, challenging post by JP Rangaswami; he may be saying I’m completely wrong, at least about my next point…)
  • the resurrection of walled gardens: of course, the providers of services will want just the opposite: the value of the networks they create increases with the number of users, so they will do what they can to keep us – and our data – on their platform: sites will work to become more sticky
  • someone will come up with a new, shiny, must-go social network. That does everything. Until the next one comes along
  • changing views of privacy – and with it, perhaps, culture: or vice versa; but as billions more people around the world come online (particularly in Asia and Africa), online – and blogging – will change
  • everything everywhere – not the UK mobile firm, but mobile: the difference between mobile and non-mobile – static? – access will change and become seamless, or change and become completely differentiated, depending on the use. People have been saying the future is mobile for years, so they’re probably right…

I could play this game for ages, and probably will, but that will do for now…

“Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere”: Paul Mason on the social media, revolt and the connected self… #RSAmason

Paul Mason, talking at the RSA on his new book “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, supplied the bits that I had felt missing from the recent RSA Job’s Summit: he explained why the great and good – the economists and politicians with whom we entrust management of our economic and social government – don’t (and won’t – can’t) get it. (You can here a recording of his talk here.)

He was trying to explain why around the world – most notably in the “Arab spring”, but also China, Russia, and the west too (with the Occupy movement) – there had been public uprisings of one sort or another. He painted it as a Shakespearean tragedy in which the common people – the “fools” – sounded philosophical and the powerful and elite sound like idiots.

His argument had three strands:

  1. economics
    The “global financial crisis” is not a crisis but the collapse of the neo-liberalism model: the expansion of free markets, deregulation and globalisation since the 1980s lead only to their collapse: the old idea of “get a job, get a house and save for your pension” won’t work any more. The young today will be poorer than their parents, because the nation-states themselves are bankrupt. The never-ending growth of the world economy cannot be sustained, and this is causing a massive rethink in the young. The trouble is that there is no alternative to neo-liberal economic model: religion hasn’t worked, communism hasn’t worked – where else are people going to turn?

    Society’s promises to the young have been broken. The neo-liberal model helped the rich elites to grab more power, but with rampant inflation people are grabbing some back – and it is a growing, disenfranchised middle class who have nothing to lose. Mason quoted Taine from 1879 – “don’t worry about the poor, worry about poor lawyers” – except now in a garrett there is a laptop…

  2. technology
    With easy access through mobile and broadband communications to social media, the elite no longer have control of information. Commodified technology makes anyone a publisher, and governments can’t control it. (Though I couldn’t help but recall Evgeny Morozov’s talk in which he discussed how governments can use these technological tools to manage and control information.)

    To Mason, these new technologies and tools reconfigure the dynamics of power. In Kenya, for instance, the spread of mobile communications is seen as the “same as democratic transition”. Social media allow collaboration and co-operation between tribes who would previously have fought each other – they can foster trust from a distance and highlight similarities.

    Knowledge is now distributed and instantly available, rather than being restricted and controlled.

    These new tools are non-hierarchical – but the power-structures in society, like political parties, unions and global institutions are rigidly hierarchic, and this is why Mason thinks they “don’t get it”: they cannot understand how decentralised, self-organising groups such as the demonstrators in Tahrir Square or Occupy Wall Street can function. They cannot conceive it – no beliefs but a will for massive change, no leaders and no command structure. The demonstrators can move more quickly and fluidly than the police – mediated by social media.

  3. lack of leadership
    Mason quoted Karl Rove describing the world’s leaders as those who create reality – ”when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities”. Now it is out of their hands: it is the those without formal power who create reality, and this is causing a parallel change in behaviour and thinking. Mason drew parallels with the changing perceptions early in the 20th century: a sea-change in society. (He attributed this view to Virginia Woolf – which someone else has verified – but I can’t find anything about Woolf expressing this.) Mason sees a new conception of the self – connected, networked and “leaky”. (Not sure if I really get this, but it is an interesting idea!)

Where does that leave us? In an increasingly uncertain world. Mason drew uncomfortable parallels with late 1920s and 1930s Europe, and we know how ell that ended. Nationalism is on the rise in southern Europe – and in Greece and Italy, elected governments have been replaced by unelected technocrats. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, is reaching scary heights. (This was the starting point for the RSA jobs summit, of course.)

There may be different outcomes in different parts of the world. And it is unknowable, perhaps. Mason questioned whether the nation state may be challenged by technology – but where would this leave the welfare state (the safety net for those unemployed, in the UK and parts of Europe at least)? Twin – and opposing – forces of localisation and globalisation may lead us to new models.

Perhaps we do indeed live in interesting times.

[Mason also gave a talk at the LSE – you can read a transcript here (pdf).]

#Tweetcamp: my takeaway lessons…

Last Saturday, I was one of maybe 150 people who made it to a rather shiny new school in the East End for Tweetcamp – a BarCamp-like unconference on Twitter. Since I like the unconference format (I’m off to another next week), I signed up and went along, and had a great day talking to old and new friends about Twitter, mostly, but also London, music, chocolate and many other things.

The conversation is the thing. The morning was taken up answering some deceptively simple questions posed by the ever-present Benjamin Ellis (@BenjaminEllis and Farhan Rehman (@farhan) as we moved around tables. These simple questions led to some deep discussion about why and how we use Twitter.

The first question was “why do you use Twitter?” (I said they were deceptively simple questions!) Sitting around the table, there were a huge number of answers. The ones which resonated with me were: learning; sharing; communicating; discovery; and conversation – all big headline uses, undifferentiated – there is a lot more in there. Others came up with trolling and stalking (and I won’t be following her!); managing, advertising and sharing events; creating community; connecting; collaborating; news (reading and gathering); following celebrities; branding; finding work; dating.

My takeaway here: Twitter users use Twitter in many different ways, simultaneously – and most of the time we are probably not conscious of the way we are using it: it is simply a tool, integral to the way we use the internet, and we switch from one mode to another. I think we could have spent much of the day exploring the issues that came out that session – but we only had fifteen minutes or so before…

The next question was actually more interesting: “what DON’T you tweet about?” Some people in the group had very firm views – no real names (leading to a rich debate about persona and identity, privacy and anonymity), no food tweets (that rules outs #breakfastofchampions and #dinnertweet), no work tweets, no swearing, no locations, no cross posting between Twitter, Facebook or any other service, no relationships…

I realised that though there are things I rarely tweet about, there is little I would never tweet. I made a decision when I started using Twitter to use my real name, because I wanted to use it for work as well as socially, and I reckoned that running two accounts would just be confusing: the easiest way to solve my Twitter identity problem was simply to be myself. Clearly others strongly disagreed, keeping their offline identities separate from their online personas (and sometimes have more than one online identity).

Whilst I rarely swear on Twitter or tweet about food, neither is completely unknown. Similarly, I actively try to avoid giving away my location – and neither FourSquare nor other location based services have made sense to me – though I do tweet about events I attend (like #TweetCamp!), where Twitter creates a richer experience.

Someone said they used the “mum” test: don’t put anything on Twitter that you wouldn’t want your mother to read. I think I use a similar filter – don’t put anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want someone else to see, and which you wouldn’t like to be recorded – for ever: because once something is on the internet, it stays there, however hard you try to remove it, sitting on someone’s server, somewhere.

The last question of the morning was perhaps the easiest and hardest to answer: “Has Twitter changed relationships with others?” The easy answer is a resounding “yes!” Harder was working out in what ways. Twitter has brought people (and things – events, for instance) closer: it has made connections easier, facilitating online meeting across distances, and offline face-to-face social get-togethers. For me, it has made learning social (albeit undirected and serendipitous). Of course, as with the first two questions, everyone’s answer to this was different; and in the heat of the discussion, I didn’t take notes on what others said…

TweetCamp London 2011

photo: Benjamin Ellis, on flickr

The unconference sessions held a lot of interest – and a lot of clashes. My chosen schedule featured the use of social media in organisations, with discussions on connecting virtual teams, knowledge sharing and learning, and internal communications. There was much cross-fertilisation between these three sessions – many of the same ideas and attendees cropped up in each (creating a great spirit of camaraderie!). They also incorporated thoughts generated before lunch, too – the role of communication in organisations reflecting its place in society as whole. Through making connection easier, social media may facilitate flatter organisation structures and matrices. But they need to be included in the workflow – within the established processes.

Cultural issues – within organisations as well as societies – came to the fore, as did issues of power and control: do flat organisations use social media because their use makes the flat structure workable, or will their adoption by more hierarchical organisations result in them being flatter? A bit chicken and egg, perhaps, and the answer is most likely to be both; but rigid hierarchies dominated by managers control the way work is done seem unlikely to take to social media. The ability of social media to create networks across organisational silos seems to be very powerful and empowering.

In learning and knowledge management, we talked about knowledge-sharing and communities of interest, and how social media can mediate these processes, promoting “just in time learning”. We decided that there was a great difference between the impact of social media on learning as opposed to training – the former about discovery and community, the latter about tickbox and control, for instance. What social media can do is help develop peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing, maybe reducing the value of offline networks in which knowledge is power. The use of Twitter as a personal learning network – the whole network, that is, not just a select few within it – could be very useful.

The overriding theme of the last two sessions I went to, the first on the impact of social media on central government, the civil service and policy making, and the second on the adoption of public and private profiles, and how we might manage them, came back to issues of identity (at least for me!). Mediated by the online avatar of @Puffles2010, we discussed the impact of social media in breaking down the links between ministers, journalists and the public, such that structures of policy-making established in Whitehall for decades (if not centuries) are likely to fail. Social media cut out the middlemen – the civil servants whose main role may be seen to protect their ministers – and can illuminate the spin that ministers use in speeches as crowd-sourced fact-checkers can identify waffle and hypocrisy before the speech is even over. Just follow the #BBCQT hashtag to see how people on all sides of political debate challenge and engage with political and public figures. (The hashtag is much more interesting than the TV programme it responds to, in my view!)

Those same civil servants can also become targets of the media, as the oft-told tale of Baskers shows. Without an upfront policy on social media use – a vacuum that directly led to the creation of @Puffles2010 for a civil servant to participate anonymously in social media – indulging in social media can be risky.

Tweetcamp had a busy schedule. Much of what was discussed didn’t feel new to me – for instance, many of the organisational issues around social media were covered during last year’s ConnectingHR unconference – and I’ve had conversations around many of the topics discussed during the day, so I didn’t feel I learned as much from the day as I had expected. But then I had deliberately chosen to attend sessions in which I had an active interest, so that shouldn’t really surprise me.

And I wasn’t surprised either by the great warmth and degree of participation that everyone I spoke with –old friends and new – brought to the day. Just like Twitter, really…

Trying to value “social capital”…

Last month, Lloyd Davis gave two performances at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, telling stories from his recent trip – sorry, social art project to the States, “Please Look After this Englishman”.

Today, he set off on his next project: an unplanned, working journey around the UK, led by the contacts, leads and ideas generated from social media.

Lloyd’s performance was very enjoyable – he is a good storyteller – and thought-provoking. I meant to write about it, but my own social art project – sorry, trip up north got in the way, and I didn’t get around to it. Until now.

Lloyd Davis, telling tales

I won’t tell my own versions of Lloyd’s tales – you’ll have to see him for those – but some of issues he raised. Lloyd travelled from San Francisco to New York, guided by his social media contacts (with the proviso that he needed to stop off at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas). His contacts prompted his route, where and with whom he stayed, and even how (and by whom) he was entertained. We are clearly a perverse bunch: he was directed north from San Francisco to Seattle, west to Wisconsin and then south to Austin, before heading back north to Maine and finally New York. Not the most direct route – although that wasn’t really the point of the project.

Redrawing the map of the USA

His contacts – largely his online friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends – became his safety network. (It would be interesting to know how many degrees of separation this network extended, but of course anyone can become a one-degree of separation friend online with the click of a mouse.) They put him in touch with people and places, and occasionally the net broke: he found the extent of his network when it was overstretched and vague contacts wondered who the hell this guy was and what he wanted.

It seems to me that this was an exercise in realising “social capital” (a phrase Lloyd used, too) – but also it made me think what a bad term social capital is. It is of course a metaphor, a way of conceptualising the value of a social network as one might value the capital built up by an enterprise.

But a balance sheet or bank account isn’t the right model for this concept. Social capital is not spent: indeed, using social capital – as Lloyd did, by meeting and conversing with his many connections – actually creates more social capital, rather than depleting it. The highly intangible – and possibly volatile – nature of social capital mean it isn’t something that we can consciously build a stock of.

It is clearly something that is created through social interaction and social acts. Sharing something on Twitter, writing a blog post (perhaps even this…), meeting new people, introducing others – all these things (and more!) can create value within a network.

It isn’t a zero sum game – there isn’t a finite amount in an account in which we can measure the rise or fall as a result of our actions. Or inaction – I am sure that my social capital decreases when I have quiet periods on twitter or fail to post to this blog for a month or so (an all too frequent occurrence). It isn’t static.

I’m not sure where this gets us, aside from a belief that borrowing the metaphor from a financial concept is less than helpful. Is there a better term that more adequately explains the ephemeral nature of social capital? I’m not sure that I can think of one – at least, not yet.

(You can follow Lloyd’s progress around Britain on Twitter, @LloydDavis.)