Steven Berlin Johnson: good ideas

On October 20, I caught Steven Johnson’s talk at Book People in Austin. I’ve known Steven since the 90s – we met when he was operating Feed Magazine, one of the early web content sites. After Feed, Steven created a second content site, actually more of a web forum, called

Starting with Interface Culture, Steven has mostly written books, and is generally thought of as a science writer, though I think of him as a writer about culture as well. His book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software was a major influence for those of us who were into social software and the percolation of “Web 2.0.” I related it to my earlier “nodal politics” thinking, and it influenced the collaborative paper created by Joi Ito et al., called “Emergent Democracy.” Steven wrote an analysis of the Howard Dean Presidential Campaign for the book I edited with Mitch Ratcliffe, Extreme Democracy.

When Steven wrote The Ghost Map, he came to realize that the story breaking the cholera epidemic in London in 1854 was more complicated than he had realized. John Snow is credited with identifying the source of the cholera (in water, not airborne as many thought), but he wasn’t working in a vacuum. Among others, Reverend Henry Whitehead assisted him, and it was Whitehead that located the index patient or “patient zero” for the outbreak, a baby in the Lewis House at 40 Broad Street. Ultimately the discovery that cholera was water-borne, and that the 1854 outbreak was associated with a specific water pump in London, was collaborative, a network affair. Realizing this, Steven wanted to know more about the origin of great ideas and the spaces that make them possible in both human and natural systems.

Before he got to his current book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven looked at the history of ecosystem science and found himself studying and writing about the life of Joseph Priestley, and publishing The Invention of Air. Ostensibly about Priestley, his discovery that plants produce oxygen, and his other contributions to science and nascent American democracy, the book is also about the conditions that contribute to innovation in science and elsewhere, including, per a review in New Yorker, “the availability of coffee and the unfettered circulation of information through social networks.”

These books form a trilogy about worldchanging ideas and the environments that make them possible. From what Steven learned in researching and writing them, he’s ready to dismantle the idea of the single scientist or thinker reversing or disrupting common paradigms with a eureka moment or flash of insight. That flash of light is the culmination of a longer process, 10-20 years of fragments of ideas, hunches that percolate and collide with other hunches. And there’s usually no thought of the impact of an idea. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t set out to create the World Wide Web, he was just scratching his own itch.

Good or great ideas emerge from what Steven calls “liquid networks,” clusters of people hanging out and talking, sharing thoughts in informal settings, often in coffee houses. The people who innovate and produce good ideas tend to be eclectic in their associations – they don’t hang out with people who are just like them, they’re exposed to diverse thinking.

This aligns with my own thinking that we should have idea factories that bring these diverse sets of people together… this is what I’ve seen as the real promise of coworking facilities and various other ways of bringing creative mixes of people to rub their brains together and produce sparks.

Here are three stray thoughts expressed that I really liked, that came up in Q&A:

  1. Error and noise are important parts of the process of discovery. You can’t advance without ’em.
  2. A startup is a search algorithm for a business model.
  3. There’s a thin line between saturation/overload and productive collision.

Photo by Jesús Gorriti

The Internet is not (just) a marketing platform

Fading Coke sign by Jenny Solis S..

Increasingly I’m finding that, as a consultant about effective Internet communication, I have to talk about marketing, how to market to, for, and with communities and social networks.

Marketing is, always has been, an important part of the media mix, and it’s important to understand how the transformation and evolution of media – the emerging world of “social media” or “new media” or “digital media” – will change how we think about marketing and how it works.

To say what I want to say here, I have to devote a few paragraphs to my background. Over twenty years ago my life took a turn when I discovered a technology that connects people to people. Since then I’ve followed a career path that’s all about computer networks and social networks, and how the former mediates the latter to ever greater effect.

In the 1990s my focus was on cyberculture and Internet policy via the Electronic Frontier Foundation and related tribes, including EFF-Austin, and on Internet-mediated community + commerce and web publishing via FringeWare, Inc. and Whole Foods Market. At Whole Foods, I learned so much about building web sites that, when the dotcom bust ended the ecommmerce projects I was working on, I started a web development company, Polycot Consulting. Polycot was a cutting-edge, standards-based, open source web company, a partnership with two brilliant developers, Matt Sanders and Jeff Kramer. Part of my role in the company was based on what I’d always done, surf the edges of web trends and understand what technology patterns we should recommend and build for our clients. Because of my focus on community, I was particularly focused on the evolution of the social web. Because of my focus on publishing, I was particularly interested in the trend away from professional to personal content – the blog. Because I hung out at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conferences and SXSW Interactive here in Austin, and because I had so many connections within ‘net culture, I was spending time with many of the best and brightest thinkers about the direction of the web. I was in conversations about trends that came to be labeled “web 2.0,” and the evolution of social networks, social media, social web.

So I was drawn into the “social media” conversation when it started within the last 3-4 years. I had been building a consulting methodology focused on helping people understand and leverage their relevant social networks to accomplish their personal or organizational goals. As a consulting practice, it worked well. When we heard people talking about social media, we thought there might be a conceptual link to what we were doing. I started paying attention, and thought I would consult in that space – really a matter of effective communication in the new world of participatory, omnidirectional, Internet-based communication. It was the sort of consulting I was ideally suited to do.

I’m presenting all of this background to make it clear that I’m not just talking to hear my head rattle. The Internet, the web, and what we’ve come to call “social media” and “social business,” the social web, is my career and my life, what I live and breathe, something I feel passionate about. A digital culture has been emerging for two decades. It’s opened up a world where anyone can produce and publish content; it’s a powerful and disruptive context for human energy, intelligence, and innovation. On the Internet we can mash up our personal and professional lives and selves and effectively channel creative impulses we never knew we had.

My life online led me into a company called Plutopia Productions the name of which derives from “pluralist” + “utopias.” The Plutopia krew has evolved a vision of a DIY world where everyone can build to a unique, personal set of specs – configurable homes, configurable scenes, all mediated by pervasive technologies… the realization of the cyborganic vision many of us were talking about in the 90s.

So here’s the drum roll, and the point I’ve been working toward in this post:

The Internet is not a marketing platform.

Obviously marketing is a powerful part of the mix of many things we all do online. Increasingly I find myself consulting about effective marketing communications using social media, and I know how important that can be for some people. The Internet is also an effective platform for getting customer feedback into both product marketing and operations.

For some, there’s a temptation to want to structure the Internet as an environment for sales and marketing, where those activities can be as dominant as they became with television when it emerged as pervasive media in the fifties and sixties. Marketing was such an obvious use for the medium, which was saturated over time with commercial messages. Over decades in a world of persistent, pervasive commercials, audiences started shutting down, became marketing resistant.

As this was happening, the Internet emerged, lowered the barriers to media production, and now anyone can produce as well as consume media. We are empowered, and we feel that we don’t have to follow marketing messages at all – we ignore them, even suppress them. If Facebook decides to become less of a social engine and more of a marketing engine, someone else will build an open alternative that isn’t about selling, and Facebook might just be doomed to beocme the 21st Century AOL.

We do see an emerging Internet marketing discipline, an approach that can be summed up in a word: spam, which has come to be used as a term for any unsolicited commercial message delivered online.

However there’s another approach that is lighter and more consistent with digital culture. When I give talks about social media, which is often, my message is that you have to forget manipulative or interruptive marketing and selling and build authentic relationships with your customers/clients/constituents instead. That’s hard to do and it doesn’t scale very well. Traditional marketing people are often uncomfortable going there, and that’s not unreasonable – they have efficient processes geared to mass marketing and advertising, and those do scale, and they do seem to have an effect. But mass media’s fading if not evaporating, mindshare is fragmented, and in a social network/digital media context, mass marketing feels like, or is, spam.

I don’t have a marketing background, but as a new media expert, I believe that, if you’re in marketing, you have to rethink all your strategies and processes and get your head around a media environment that enables symmetrical relationships with customers. In this context, your customer is your partner, not your “target.” Read The Cluetrain Manifesto (which I’ve been advocating since it appeared in the 90s). Get familiar with Project VRM. Marketing strategies that empower the customer are the new black. (Those that don’t are the new black and blue.)

If you want a good model for new thinking, check out Tara Hunt’s work. She strikes me as particularly clueful about 21st century marketing, viewed from an online marketing professional’s perspective, but also from an online community builder’s perspective. You can also contact me if you need help in thinking about how your business can be more effective with new media.

John Mackey

The New Yorker has a good article about John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. I worked for WFM around the turn of the century, hired as “Internet Guy” (one of my titles, along with Online Community Director and, at the end, Director of Technology for It was an important transition for me – I went from being a self-educated web maven to a manager of various web development projects and interactive elements, wearing many hats along the way. John was already in my network, but we became better acquainted in the three or so years I was working on and It was an intense late-dotcom-era experience, and I was devastated when all the work we’d done evaporated following the dotcom bust. Associates told me I should write a book about my experiences, but I wasn’t sure what part of the story I would tell. It was mostly hard work and inevitable internal politics; none of it seemed as interesting to me at the time as the vision that hadn’t quite succeeded.

Based on what I know of John through personal experience and shared acquaintances, the article in the New Yorker is about as accurate as an article can be. Obviously you can’t capture the full complexity of any human being in a few thousand words, and that’s especially true of someone as complex as John. One thing I’ve always admired most about John is his honesty, and I think that comes through in the article. As I’ve noted in a conversation with an author masquerading as “Kat Herding” on Facebook, a person can be both honest and deluded; I wouldn’t agree with John on a lot of points – like his recently, controversially articulated position against healthcare reform – but in any conversation I’ve ever had with him, he was completely straight, sometimes brutally honest. Whether he’s “right,” or deluded, or coming more from ego than from a position of true self-awareness is another question. But that question pertains to all of us, no?

John is at his best in this exchange, from the article:

…is he at heart an entrepreneur, who discovered, in natural foods, a worthy vehicle for self-actualization and self-enrichment, or a missionary, who discovered in the grocery business a worldly vehicle for change?

“So that’s a very interesting question,” he said, leaning forward. “How are they opposed to one another? People think that they are, but why do you think they’re opposed?”

I said that I didn’t think they had to be.

“I don’t, either. In fact, I think they’re very connected together. This is a paradigm that has polarized our country and led to bad thinking. It’s holding the nation’s progress back. It’s as if there were a wall. And on one side of the wall is this belief that not-for-profits and government exist for public service, and that they’re fundamentally altruistic, that they have a deeper purpose, and they’re doing good in the world, and they have pure motives. On the other side of the wall are corporations. And they’re just selfish and greedy. They have no purpose other than to make money. They’re a bunch of psychopaths. And I’d like to tear that wall down. Human beings are obviously self-interested. We do look after ourselves, but we’re capable of love, empathy, and compassion, and I don’t see that business is any different.”