Archive for the ‘social software’ category

The texture, sound and smell of the digital world – a tribute to @littlehigh

In season 1, episode 8, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer “I, Robot, You Jane”, Giles, the librarian comments to Jenny Calendar, the computer science teacher that what he doesn’t like about computers is the smell.

“What do you mean, computers don’t smell”

she says. Giles replies

“Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell… musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is… it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um… smelly.”

I first met Paul Reynolds of McGovern Online (or @littlehigh as he became known on Flickr, Twitter and other social networks), at the National Digital Forum conference in 2007. The NDF is a “a coalition of museums, archives, art galleries, libraries and government departments working together to enhance electronic access to New Zealand’s culture and heritage”, something which I learned was very dear to Paul’s heart.

I had seen Paul on TV once or twice before, and admired his insightful and engaging style. We bumped into each other once or twice a year at conferences, or walking along Lambton Quay. I regularly listened to podcasts of his ‘Virtual World’ discussions with Jim Mora on Radio New Zealand.

Many of us in the Internet, open government, and open data space spent much of our formative years in the digital world. Playing video games as kids and teenagers, hacking on early home computers, and reading cyberpunk novels. The digital world had colour, and sound, but it was garish, tinny, maybe even a bit sterile.

What I loved about Paul Reynolds was the way he brought texture and richness to the digital world. He had a unique way of connecting the beautiful, tactile, physical, and even musty nature of art galleries, museums, and libraries with the expression of knowledge in digital environments. He seemed to understand the innately human aspects of both, and bridge them in a way no one else could.

He understood the relationship between content, people, and place in the physical world, and effortlessly applied that understanding to technology, the web, and social media. He did so in a way that was wry, amusing, and both pragmatic and visionary. He explained new things in ways that were easy to understand, often simultaneously with the excitement of a 7 year old boy, and the wisdom of a 70 year old man.

Paul, with your beautiful lilting accent, your expansive mind, and your love for literature, art, culture and technology, you gave the digital world texture, smell and sound. You shall be missed.

Why Twitter is like, and not like, living in an intentional community

My attitude to Twitter and the concept of microblogging has changed dramatically in the last 18 months. I’ve gone from “that’s stupid, why would anyone use that” to “I would find living without Twitter very difficult indeed”.

In the last month or so, I’ve started noticing some similarities between using Twitter, and living in an intentional community. There are also some marked differences. I tweeted these thoughts today, but here they are in an expanded form.

First, a definition of intentional community. Wikipedia defines it as:

An intentional community is a planned residential community designed to have a much higher degree of teamwork than other communities. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and are often part of the alternative society. They typically also share responsibilities and resources. Intentional communities include cohousing communities, residential land trusts, ecovillages, communes, survivalist retreats, kibbutzim, ashrams and housing cooperatives. Typically, new members of an intentional community are selected by the community’s existing membership, rather than by real-estate agents or land owners (if the land is not owned collectively by the community). Though intentional communities do not claim to be utopias in the sense of perfect places, many do attempt to live a different and better sort of society, and as such many draw on historical utopian experiments, and ideas in utopian fiction.

For my purposes intentional community also includes families cohabiting, and sharing a flat or house with others. I’ve not personally lived in intentional communities outside of family, flatting, and annual week long residential retreats. I have however talked with a number of people who have lived in various forms of long term residential communes/settlements/intentional communities.

Here are what I see as the similarities, i.e. why why Twitter is like living in an intentional community:

  1. You know what time people get up, and what time they go to bed
  2. You  know what a number of people in your community people ate for breakfast and dinner
  3. Most of your news about the world comes via your social network
  4. You overhear lots of conversations between people you know
  5. People repeat to you what they’ve heard others saying
  6. You can choose to participate or not participate in social interaction at any one time, by entering or leaving the shared social space

Here are what I see as the differences, i.e. why why Twitter is NOT like living in an intentional community:

  1. There is no assumption of shared property
  2. When people repeat what they’ve heard others saying, they do so accurately (i.e. they normally retweet your text exactly)
  3. You can remove someone from your community without having to leave it yourself
  4. You add someone to your community without having to have anyone’s agreement (except theirs if they are protecting their tweets)
  5. You can have private conversations without any chance of anyone noticing
  6. You spend little or no time negotiating social norms or dealing with conflict

A lot of the second group are related to the differences between a single cohesive community, and a social network. Twitter, as a social network, seems to be giving us a lot of the benefits that come with living in a single community (the awareness of others daily activities, opportunities for serendipitous conversation, efficient filtering of news and content based on reputation and trust), without a lot of the downsides.

It will be interesting to see how this medium evolves, and what social needs it begins to meet.

IM Trends 3 – Enterprise Social Computing

I’m an early adopter. I started Christchurch’s first web design company in 1995. I’m onto my 3rd iPhone. But when I first saw Twitter I didn’t get it. I thought it was stupid. Now I couldn’t live without it.

During the 80s and early-mid 90s advances in computer software and networking were largely the domain of the business sector. Business got the best tools first, because they were expensive. Since the late 90s however, it’s the consumer sector that has driven innovation in software tools that connect people.

Why else would it be that it’s easier to find content on the web than documents within the corporate firewall? Why else is it that it’s easier to find and connect with people on Facebook than it is to find the right people to talk to if you’re working inside a large organisation? This is because the development of those tools has happened at Internet scale and speed, far outstripping the ability of commercial enterprise software providers to keep up (both in terms of innovation, and in time to market). New tools get tested by millions of real users, in real time. Everything on the Web is in beta (well, at least until Google recently took Gmail out of beta).

Users’ expectations are now set by Google for search, Twitter for microblogging, and Facebook for social networking. Users in corporates have to wait (often a long time) for their organisations to implement the technologies they can use for free on the Web.

As a term ‘social computing’ could conceptually include everything from email, to document collaboration, to blogging, to wikis, to social network services. For the purposes of this blog post however, I’ll restrict its scope to just talking about social network like services. Blogs and wikis are often referred to as ‘Web 2.0′ technologies, and I’ll leave them there, outside of this discussion. Blogs and wikis are starting to see reasonable adoption in large organisations, even though there is a long way to go. Enterprise use of social networking style tools however is only in its very early stages. I’m picking though that it will be a major trend.

There’s the need here to distinguish between four kinds of uses of social networking tools by organisations:

  1. Outward market research – using tools such as Facebook, Twitter and the business services and analytics springing up around these in order to find out what the general public is saying about your organisation/brand/products
  2. Outward customer engagement – using Facebook, Twitter and other such tools to actively engage in conversations with your customers (by having a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account for your company etc)
  3. Outward employee professional networking - staff using tools like LinkedIn and Plaxo to communicate with their professional networks to ask questions, get help, or recruit new employees
  4. Inward communication/collaboration - using microblogging, social networking and similar tools inside your organisation to facilitate staff communicating with each other (as distinct from with customers)

People like Jenny Williams from Ideagarden have fantastic insights into the first two, including some insightful horror stories in her brilliant talk at the Alfresco Asia Pacific conference. While I’m intrigued by marketing and customer engagement, it’s not my area of expertise, and the third use is fairly well understood, so in this post I focus on the fourth use, inward communication/collaboration.

The tools that have been used in collaboration and sharing of information in the last decade include email, discussion forums, intranets, document management systems, collaborative workspaces, and instant messaging. All of these have their strengths and weaknesses. They are useful, but often fail to achieve what they set out to from a knowledge sharing perspective. This is caused, I argue, by the fact that their boundaries and structures are defined by the managerial, functional, or project structures in organisations, not on the way that humans evolved to communicate. Humans evolved communicating in relationships and networks of mutual trust, using narrative to convey and create meaning. It’s how our brains are wired.

Social computing emulates this, using explicitly defined trust relationships between participants. The ‘friend’ relationship in Facebook, and the follow/follower relationships in Twitter allow us to control who hears and sees what we have to say. It’s non hierarchical and the links are controlled by each individual, not by managers or a top down imposed corporate structure.

The promise of social computing applied to inward communication may well overcome many of the failings of knowledge management initiatives. It will do this by making it easier to find out who knows what, who’s doing what, and who’s working with whom. It shifts knowledge sharing from a ‘collect and codify just in case’ paradigm, to a ‘connect and communicate just in time’ one. Knowledge is captured naturally as a part of work, rather than forcibly through management edict.

I have a client, a NZ University, who’s recently rolled out Yammer. Yammer is a cloud computing based service for in-company social computing. It uses the organisation’s email domain as the filter to keep each company’s social network restricted to that company. It provides Facebook style profiles and Twitter style microblogging. In my client’s case, it took off like wildfire, as staff invited their colleagues. Where the organisation has had to use top down change management to get staff to adopt things like document management, and the intranet, this system promoted itself. Yammer seems intent on further integrating into the enterprise, with their release of an Outlook plugin.

Ning, SocialCast, and SocialText Signals are other examples of cloud solutions that let you set up your own social networks. Cloud based solutions will be interesting to some organisations, others I think we’ll see implement social computing behind their firewall. It wouldn’t surprise me if Sharepoint 2010 includes more of this type of functionality. Vendors like ConnectBeam and products like Lotus Connections, SocialText Signals Social Software Appliance and Vignette Social Media are already providing this.

Young people now entering the workforce have spent their teen and university years using social networking tools to relate to each other and manage their lives. They will want access to the same kind of tools in the workplace.

So, my prediction, enterprise social computing is going to be big in NZ, in the 2010/11 timeframe.

Acknowledgements of ideas that influenced this post:

  • Jenny Williams for her thinking on the comparison of KM to Social Computing (slide 33 in this presentation)
  • Dave Snowden for his many recent podcasts about social computing

This is the third in a set of posts on NZ information management trends:

  1. OpenSource ECM
  2. CMIS will save us
  3. Enterprise Social Networking
  4. Doing Sharepoint wrong, and right
  5. Structured Data
  6. Toes in the mist

Next up, Sharepoint.

Blogstorming, Wikipolishing and simultaneous emergence?

I’ve been listening of late to Dave Snowden’s podcasts (mostly keynotes from various KM conferences around the world). In the last year he’s added a strong focus on social computing, as, in inimitable Dave style, he’s in the last three years leaped head first, experientially, into the world of blogging, editing the Wikipedia pages on KM, Welsh Rugby and other topics, and into Facebook and Twitter.

In his recent podcasts Dave poses the argument that social computing is bring the 3rd wave of change in management science, the first two being Taylorism (scientific management based on functions), and Business Process Re-engineering (horizontal integration/optimisation of processes across and between functional silos). He explains this in the context of his work on narrative, using the cognitive rather than social sciences, and in relation to the many methods he has developed for sense making in complexity.

He also suggests the use of a new double loop iteration method using blogs and wikis to develop policies, strategies, and other plans in organisations.

I was fascinated therefore, to hear Australian Senator Kate Lundy explaining her use of exactly the same method in her PublicSphere events for consultation with citizenry on public policy issues.

Had Kate been listening to Dave? After her talk last week, I asked her whether she was familiar with Dave’s work, as he has been in Australia frequently, but she hadn’t. I asked Pia Waugh, Kate’s advisor on such things, and she too had not heard of Dave’s work. Pia had simply taken and adapted such methods from the open source community.

So, unless Dave had seen and copied Pia & Kate’s methods, which seems unlikely as Dave was podcasting about this before Kate launched her first PublicSpheres, I think we’re seeing the separate emergence of nearly identical approaches, perhaps based on fairly similar starting conditions.

First, I’ll look at the methods, then explore the starting conditions, then I’ll ask Dave, Kate and Pia to challenge any of my assumptions and hypotheses.

Dave, in a number of podcasts, describes the traditional method for collaborative document authorship. People meet, discuss an issue, someone takes notes then goes away and writes up a draft in Microsoft Word. They then email it to others and request feedback, using tracked changes. The initial author then struggles with the mire of integrating the suggested changes into a document, the group meetings in person again, and around we go.

He then proposes a different approach. First, get a group of say twenty staff with an interest in the issue to blog about it once a day, for two weeks. If people are unfamiliar with blogging, get an IT person to sit down with them at 4pm each day and help them write their blog, teaching them new blogging concepts and features as they go. Once this process is complete, employ a technical writer to synthesise all the raw material from the blogs into a cohesive draft document and put it on a wiki. Using a technical writer enhances the quality of the first draft, and more importantly removes the issue of ownership of the draft by a staff member. Where strong ownership of a draft by a single person exists, they will be resistant to having it changed, and others will be reluctant to contribute. Once the wiki is up, give the people two weeks to edit the wiki until a final version is agreed upon. For training in wiki editing Dave suggests getting staff to spend a couple of months editing pages on the Wikipedia as that has highly developed coaching and mentoring systems, along with robust methods for disciplinary action against those to transgress the rules and established cultural norms.

Kate Lundy’s PublicSpheres work in a very similar way. So far they’ve done three, on High Speed Bandwidth, Government 2.0 and Australian ICT & Creative Industries Development. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. People are first asked to post comments, links to papers, case studies and ideas to the relevant PublicSphere blog post comments, and to blog themselves using the tag ‘publicsphere’ and Twitter with #publicsphere. All of this is then summarised and presented at an in person workshop, where there are face to face discussions, presentations, live streaming of the event to those who can’t be physically present, and ongoing blogging and twittering. The content is then synthesised onto a wiki, and the public are given two weeks to edit it. It is then closed off, and turned into a nicely presented PDF, and submitted to relevant Government Ministers as a briefing paper. The most recent PublicSphere had 1100 tweets, 100 in person participants and 400 remote participants on the workshop day.

So, if these two, very similar approaches emerged separately, what were the starting conditions that enabled this? I suggest the following:

  • An experiential rather than theoretical understanding of the utility of, and differences between, blogs and wikis
  • An understanding of the importance of multiple iterations in a sense making process (Dave from complex systems theory and the non-interventionist facilitation practices he’s developed, and Pia from the open source community’s ‘release early and often’ practice)
  • A belief that the authentic opinions of individual participants can be abstracted up into a cohesive whole, without the biased intervention of ‘expert’ consultants or policy analysts
  • A lack of fear that people might say the ‘wrong’ thing
  • A belief, not in the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (individuals making decisions in isolation from each other, with the correct answer being the median), but in the collective intelligence of a complex system (one in which the system lightly constrains the participants, and the participants’ actions affect each other and the system itself).

Am I right? We’ll see what they say.

Action over words – combining electronic and analogue facilitation

At the Open Government Data Barcamp this Saturday I was asked to facilitate the closing session. The purpose of the session was to come up with a shortlist of projects to be worked on the next day at the hackfest. Nat Torkington, while not physically present at the event had been looking over our shoulder virtually on Twitter, and had beseech-ed us to leave the weekend with some real things built. How on earth was I going to pull this off?

There were 160 people at the Barcamp, and three rooms, a large auditorium, a medium sized room, and a cafeteria. Earlier in the day I’d facilitated a session on environmental data management in the medium sized room, with about 40 people. That was about capacity for that room, so I really had to use the auditorium. The challenge with facilitating in an auditorium style setting is that it’s very hard to get people up and moving to do Post-it note clustering exercises, and small group work is impossible. I only had 45 minutes to get suggestions brainstormed and short listed, and I wanted to involve everyone in the process.
During the day the 60% or so of people with Internet connected devices (iPhones, laptops and netbooks) had been twittering the event using the #opengovt tag. I’d been keeping an eye on all the tweets using Twitterfall.

So I decided to experiment with a hybrid electronic/analogue approach. I got the people with Internet connected devices to sit in the middle of the rows, and those without to sit at the edges. I then got a couple of people to hand out Post-it notes and pens to those without devices, and asked them to write suggestions for projects to work on tomorrow, one per Post-it. I also asked those with devices to tweet the suggestions using the #opengovt tag.
I then had the Twitterfall projected onto the large screen so everyone could see the suggestions rolling in. There was one every 30 seconds or so for a good 15 or 20 minutes. Dan Randow and Jonathan Hunt were on stage with laptops summarising the suggestions on the wiki.

Once people had finished writing suggestions on the Post-it notes I got those on the edges of each of the rows up on stage, and got them to put the Post-its on a wall I’d covered with large sheets of paper. I gave them the standard instruction to ‘put like with like’ and keep moving the Post-its until they had stabilised into categories. Two of the people were given vivid markers and asked to draw circles around the groups of Post-its and give each group a title.

After this was all done we had a set of suggestions, with an emerging set of priorities based on the categories of Post-its and the frequency of suggestion tweets on particular topics. I took photos of the Post-it clusters and emailed them to Mark Harris who later that evening summarised it all down to six projects for the Hackfest.

The projects were:

In the morning these were written up on big sheets of paper at the front of the room, and Mark asked for expressions of interest in working on each project. The project didn’t need any work currently, as it was waiting on software from the Sunlight Foundation to be ready to migrate to. The Transport project was seen as a bit difficult to achieve on the day, so the remaining four projects were selected, and a table assigned for each project. People got to work, and the results so far can be seen by following the links above.

For a much more comprehensive write up of the whole Barcamp, see Julie’s fantastic post on Idealog.

Universal control

Netvibes has upgraded and added some new social networking features. Hmm, I thought, just what I need. Yet another social networking service, friendship links to create and maintain, and content to post. Little did I know how good it was going to be. In going through the upgrade process I was confronted with this message:


Microblogging and the mitigation of Facebook schizophrenia

I’ve finally relented and signed up for Twitter. I’m seeing it as a temporary stay of my schizophrenia issues with Facebook. The feature I like best in Facebook is the status update. Twitter is a whole service just dedicated to this feature. In the Facebook status update I was loathed to make work related status updates that my personal friends wouldn’t understand. Twitter though is only being used by my work related friends, so there’s no audience confusion there yet.

So that I’d be able to see tweets as they came through I installed a Twitter widget into my Netvibes page. The first thing that struck me is how much it looks like an instant messaging (IM) client. Some peoples’ tweets are just interesting to read, but some I’d quite like to reply to. There’s of course then the potential for replies it to become threaded conversations like in IM. Unlike IM though all my tweets will be seen by everyone following me. Some of them won’t be following the person I’m having a discussion with. What will these one sided conversations look like to others? Will they annoy people? Will it make people stop following me on Twitter? I’ve seen a similar phenomenon on Bebo when people use public comments as a discussion, and you can only see the side of the person you’re connected to, not their friend.

Microblogging is certainly a powerful and useful new medium. It adds to email, email groups, blogging, social networks, txt messaging, and IM as another tool for communication and presence awareness, and provides something slightly different and complementary. The way it will impact on this growing ecosystem of tools and services remains to be seen. I’ll watch with interest as the way the crossover between microblogging and IM unfolds.


Yesterday I gave a talk on web2.0 and social networking systems to a group of scientists at a Crown Research Institute. There were about forty people in the room, and another six or so videoconferencing in from other sites. I asked for a show of hands on questions like “who’s heard of web2.0″ (about half), “who thinks they could attempt an explanation of what web2.0 is” (one person), “who reads blogs” (two thirds), “who has a blog” (none), “who has used a wiki” (five or so), and who has an account on Facebook (none). During my talk they asked a lot of very sensible questions about privacy, digital identity, using Web 2.0 and SNS tools in the enterprise, and their utility in distributed research collaborations.

Today I got a request from a colleague to join a new SNS/feed aggregator called FriendFeed. I almost screamed. Another web2.0 technology to learn, another user account to create, another set of social relationships to map, another thing to keep up to date? That’s the last thing I need!!!!! Given that I really trust the opinion of the person who recommended it, and that I have a professional interest in this area I went ahead anyway and created an account.

It made me think that there should be a word for being overwhelmed by all of the rapidly emerging new ways to collaborate and keep in touch with people. ‘Feedtigue’ seems like an appropriate term to me. It also made me think that if I’m feeling this, and I’m a passionate early adopter of such things, what must it be like for the scientists, and other non-IT people?

We’re in a space where the technology is developing so fast, it’s enabling a myriad of changes to the way we interact with people, the size of our social networks, the frequency of our communications. We can’t predict what will work, and what won’t. To me, the web2.0 boom is an evolutionary process. Many things will be tried and will fail. Some things will work and will stick. A lot of the “try everything and keep what works” has to be done by the early adopters, so the majority don’t have to expend the effort, and can wait until the really useful things stablise.

Once I had a look at FriendFeed I was quite impressed. Its main purpose seems to be to aggregate feeds from blogs, Flickr,, twitter, and to distribute them to your social network. It’s not so much another thing to keep up to date, but a way of gathering the existing things together to reduce the effort and friction. It’s a bit like Sxipper (a tool to manage identity and logins across many web sites), and Netvibes (a personal portal) in that it’s infrastructure that helps people glue a whole range of web.20 services together and make them easier to use. I’m hoping we’ll see more of this sort of thing in the future.

Digital Fabric

I was recently involved in a Digital Strategy refresh consultation meeting with a small group of people from agencies in the conservation and environment sector. During the discussions on the vision the term ‘fabric’ came up. It got me thinking about what a ‘digital fabric’ for New Zealand might mean.

The term fabric has been used in computing for a few years now, in the context of ‘storage fabric’ for virtualisation and storage area networks (SANs). That involves weaving together a number of storage resources into a single flexible layer or fabric that many systems can use.

Gartner has listed computing fabric as one or their top 10 trends for 2008 – “computing fabric involves treating memory, processors and I/O cards as a pooled resource instead of a fixed arrangement”. Again, it’s something flexible, dynamic, and shared.

It was the question of social fabric that really got me thinking though. Social fabric is a lot more than just the physical/financial infrastructure in society. It is enabled by that, but it’s more about the web of trust and human relationships that make a society strong. What does that mean in the digital world? Does it mean that the social fabric becomes more digitally mediated? Proponents of txt, Facebook, Bebo seem likely to think so. Does it mean the social fabric becomes less compartmentalized, less class or ethnically based? Does it mean the social fabric becomes more flexible, less rigid? Advocates of the long tail, e-democracy, and Second Life might agree.

What does this mean for the Digital Strategy 2.0? For me it means thinking about the strategy’s impact not just on having digitally skilled people accessing/contributing content over fast broadband, but also on the way that digital technologies will build relationships, will strengthen the social fabric. This applies equally across communities, business and government. E-government, e-commerce, business alliances are all about relationships. When a nation’s social fabric is strong, anything is possible. How might we benefit from a strong digital fabric, and what would it take to create it?

Email is for Old People

As a part of voluntary work that I do, I’ve just run a week long camp for twenty two 13-16 year olds. One of the sessions we ran was entitled “Does technology make your lives easier?”. Through that session, through subsequent discussions about what technologies they wanted to use to keep in touch after the camp, and through interacting with some of them online in the last few days, I’ve realised that email is for old people.

For these teenagers their preferred medium for messaging is 1. Txt, 2. Bebo, 3. Email. If you txt them you’ll normally get a response within a minute or two, if you send them a message through Bebo you’ll get a response within a day or two, and if you email you’ll get a response within a week, if at all.

If you think about it, it starts to make sense. These kids have never used a desktop email client. They’ve never ‘downloaded’ their email. They’ve only ever interacted with email through a browser, using Hotmail, YahooMail or Gmail. They never went through the ‘wow, this is brilliant, it’s way better than faxes’ epitome that made email the killer Internet app for our generation. Subsequently they’ve never formed the same emotional attachment to email that people over 20 have. Most of them got a mobile phone and started txting before they started using email.

Now look at Bebo (or Facebook, but most NZ teenagers I’ve met seem to use Bebo). I’d been trying to get a message through to one of the teenagers describing a post-camp task that needed to be done, with web links to some useful resources. I’d emailed it twice to her email address (Hotmail) and she hadn’t got it. She did manage to find another email from me in her spam folder. So I resorted to using the messaging system on Bebo. Once I started using it, it became obvious. Bebo has authentication, you have to mutually agree to be ‘friends’ before you can message each other. This means there’s no spam, and no false positives in spam filtering. Your messages and their replies are threaded together in one place. There’s a little picture of the sender beside each of the messages so you can quickly see which conversation was with who. It doesn’t have all the features email did, but it works really well.

It started to become clear to me that for these teenagers, email is just another messaging function that they access through a browser. They do some of their messaging in Bebo, and some in Hotmail/YahooMail/Gmail. For them, Bebo and txts are what they use to message their friends, and email is what they use begrudgingly when they have to message old people. When these young people start to come into the workplace the implications of this for corporate IT will be very interesting…

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Captain James Cook