I spent today at the 2010 UTeach Conference here in Austin. UTeach is an acclaimed teacher prep program at the University of Texas. Attendees were mostly K-12 teachers and university professors from across the U.S. I heard about UTeach’s STEM focus (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), New Technology High Schools in Napa and Manor, project-based learning, Knowing and Learning in Math and Science, etc. I was primarily interested in the possibility of collaborative projects and learning involving multiple classrooms and disciplines, mediated by social technology. I was live tweeting the event. There were multiple sessions per time slot, so I only got a slice of it. (I also missed the events on Tuesday, and probably can’t make it tomorrow – so much more to learn about learning.)

“Managing relationships, not each other”

I’ve become a fan, adherent, and hopefully participant in Project VRM – Vendor Relationship Management – a practical extension of the Cluetrain Manifesto coordinated by Doc Searls as fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. I have a lot more to say about Project VRM in future posts – essentially it’s about establishing (restoring?) a symmetrical relationship between customers and vendors. Doc describes this in a post following last week’s Internet Identity Workshop as “managing relationships, not each other.” I wanted to post that link asap. Here’s the opening paragraph, which gives you an idea why this is important thinking:

During the Industrial Age, the power asymmetry between vendor and customer got so steep that vendors got to talking about customers as if the latter were cattle or slaves. Customers became “targets” that vendors “captured,” “acquired,” “locked in” and “managed.” As the Information Age dawned, however, customers gradually became more independent. So, midway into the second decade of the new millennium, customers were no longer the ones being managed. Nor, however, were vendors. Instead, relationship itself was managed by both parties.

This gets to my issue about broadcast media, which includes broadcast strategies deployed in “social media” contexts, which we see often enough to know that the cluetrain hasn’t quite left the station. Marketing culture doesn’t warm to symmetrical, interactive customer engagement – for many marketing professionals, a VRM approach feels inefficient and cedes too much control to the customer (though VRM is about finding technologies that make the interactions more efficient). I’m building my practice around facilitating relationships (businesses/customers, ngos/constituents – I’m especially interested in the latter, working with mission-driven organizations).

Out of time for now, but more to come.

Times are changing: foraging, simplicity, Shirky-smart, etc.

Two of the best ideas I heard this week were curated or catalyzed by Clay Shirky.

One is the mathematical concept of the Lévy flight, which I already wrote about in my last post.

The other is in a link e-Patient Dave sent me. I ran across it again in a discussion of models for connectivity (“freedom to connect”). In a post called “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” Clay discusses Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies, applying Tainter’s thinking to the web and digital media. Tainter says that societies that become increasingly sophisticated will tend to collapse, not despite their sophistication, but because of it.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

He then goes on to explain the evolution of complex and entrenched procedures within sophisticated, high quality media production, and how these are now trumped by the popularity of (commitment of mindshare to) simple, “good enough” media. Clay’s closing paragraph:

When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Interesting to note that there are no comments on this post, only pingbacks (links to it by others). It’s an important, already influential piece.

The first point, about foraging, is that people don’t necessarily sustain adoption of something, even if they really really like it. In the early days of blogging, I made this point in talking about links and hits from blogrolls and RSS feeds. Someone finds your blog, they really like it, so they add the link to their news aggregator. Everytime the news aggregator updates, the link to your blog produces hits, but those hits are questionable, because a common behavior is to add an RSS feed, read it for a while if at all, then move on to something else. People don’t get the web delivered every morning as a newspaper, or monthly as a magazine. It’s not push, it’s pull, and they’re surfing based on criteria other than loyalty. We have to adjust our thinking accordingly.

The second point is that complexity reaches a point of diminishing return, costs escalate beyond what we’re willing to pay, and whole systems break as a result. With media, it’s not just that it’s simpler to make something that is compelling and gets mindshare. It’s that simpler access to “good enough” media (via the web) trumps more complex (or costly) access via movies or television. Consider the traffic in torrents of lower def but “good enough” copies of movies, television shows, record albums, etc. Or think of simpler paid access to slightly more lossy music/video via iTunes, or Hulu.

There’s more to talk about, like the social thing – we’re committing mindshare to online conversations that, before, we might have commmitted to passive consumption of television programming. But you get the drift – behaviors are changing online. And low-cost/free/good-enough is as entrenched in online culture as expensive/complex/high quality is entrenched in old media culture.

Times are changing. And I’m out of time, for the moment.

Foraging and surfing

I’ve often said that we don’t know enough about how peope behave online – e.g. how they read blogs or other web sites. Do we visit the same sites over and over again? Or do we surf, following links we stumble across as we wander, and now with pervasive social media, those that are posted on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.? More likely both – we have some sites we visit regularly, but we also bounce around a lot.

Behaviors are probably more complex than we think. Seth Godin writes that he learned, from Clay Shirky, of something called a Lévy flight: Example: “an animal that forages will hang out in a small area, looking for nuts or berries, then will realize it has used up all the likely sources in this spot. It will then head off in a random direction, walk many paces, and start foraging again.” The online version:

Someone discovers your site. They poke and prod and join and return and return again. Then they feel as though there’s no more benefit and they move on, surfing until they find another place to forage.

Godin calls this “a much more nuanced representation of consumer behavior than solely thinking about the ideas of brand loyalty or random web surfing.” But I’m enough of a nimrod to want to substitute the word human for consumer.

Happy Birthday to the WELL

The seminal online community, Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, better known as the WELL, is celebrating its 25th birthday. Here’s the birthday message I posted there:

Happy Birthday, WELL.

I can’t imagine what my life would have been had I not found my way here. The WELL connected me as a writer, thinker, and doer, brought be to the Internet as a far earlier adopter than I might have been, broadened my horizons toward infinity.

I often use the WELL as the example of virtual community – everything I learned about meeting, coordinating, and collaborating online I learned here, and principles I learned here still hold true. People who think the social Internet started with Facebook and Twitter are astonished when they hear what we were doing here from the late eighties onward. And that we’re still here, still jamming, after two decades.

Put “social” before “media”

Todd Defren, guest-blogging on David Armano’s blog, says

When every single person with an Internet connection is empowered to publish content that can be promoted, shared, and indexed forever, it changes the game from “merchandizing” to “people pleasing.” It was always supposed to be that way, of course, but the myriad layers that existed between the brand and the masses called for more quantifiable processes: “how many visits to the website” trumped “are we making people happy?”

I can’t think of a clearer way to make that point. He goes on to make the point I’ve been trying to make for the last four years, since I started writing, thinking, and talking about what’s come to be called “social media” – it’s more about the social, less about the media. Businesses at every scale have to learn to enable, manage, and nurture relationships – with peers, with employees and contractors, and especially with customers. We have technologies that support and sustain those relationships, so everything is disintermediated, we can be more direct with everybody, we can make amazing and fulfilling connections every day… but we have to get past the abstract thinking that characterized broadcast thinking, mass marketing. (Thinking how, several years ago, I pissed off a potential client who kept talking about the role of the consumer on the “web 2.0” site he wanted to build. I finally wrote the word consumer on the board, drew a circle around it, and a line through the circle. There is no consumer, I told him. These are people, and you’ll have to build relationships with them… the consumer abstraction will get in the way. Ouch. He didn’t like that at all…) [Link]

Standing in line for democracy

This is odd – e-democracy.org’s 125-member United States issues forum, is described as “a civil, more deliberative discussion of national public policy issues and politics in the United States among people with diverse political perspectives.” I joined, and was having an interesting and potentially productive discussion with an intelligent, seemingly reasonable Tea Party conservative. However my last post in that discussion was blocked – the list limits members to one post per twelve hours. “We limit the number of posts any one person can send within a set time frame to increase the number of voices heard and keep overall e-mail volume in check. Please try posting again later.” The implication is interesting: democracy is not about enabling discussions, but restricting them. From their perspective, I suppose the idea is that an unrestricted list will be dominated by a few voices. Savvy online communitarians know that every forum will have a few vocal members, though, and many more observers who rarely if ever speak.

A restriction like this just seems tone deaf to me, especially on a list that espouses deliberative discussion. The restriction leaves the list inherently stilted.

SXSW 2010 Notes: Universities in the Era of Free

I think what’s happening with universities today reflects what’s happening in other fields – journalism, other forms of publishing including the music industry, energy, manufacturing, retail, the old doctom era, etc. Things are just changing everywhere. Old business models aren’t working.

The presenters here, Glenn Platt and Peg Faimon, note that the university has been an enduring institution but it’s resting on its laurels and has to think about changing. They described an image, taken from Daniel Quinn but we’ve all seen it, of a peddling flying machine attempting a takeoff over a cliff, having that momentary sensation of flying but actually falling. Higher education is facing unparalleled crisis, tectonic changes. Universities are in a state of collapse. Some entrepreneurs are doing well in this space, but the traditional universities are crumbling.

The speakers went on to convey some lists…

What are universities for?
1) Convey knowledge
2) Create knowledge (research)
3) Develop the (well-rounded, not just professional) person.
4) Contribute to society, at levels both local and global.
5) Have a “signal ability” – higher education as a signaling model, signaling the quality of a person coming out of the institution. This is a validation: “I’m smart because I have a degree.”
6) Seed innovation, working with industry.

But the system’s breaking down:
1) Costs are too high. Tuition is becoming too expensive for common enrollment, the University’s out of reach for some, yet schools are still in the red. I.e. they can’t charge enough to sustain their activities.
2) “You have to go to the mountain” and prostrate yourself to the guru in order to get single-centered knowledge.
3) There’s no control over the clock. You have to do it over the university’s timetable (~6 yrs.) and schedule.
4) The experts are local. You can only access the teachers on your campus. Expertise lies in networks – higher education finds that disturbing.
5) Universities change “one funeral at a time.” Because of tenure, professors aren’t judged by productivity. There’s no sense of market pressures. Change management is difficult.
6) Faculties hire people just like themselves.

What’s driving the breakdown? Tectonic change:
1) Change in learning styles. People learn differently now. They way they manifest themselves has changed.
2) Collapse of disciplinary structure: “know more and more about less and less until they know nothing” – against the tendency today to be broad AND deep.
3) Acceleration of K-12, where people are learning things previously taught in college. “Senior to sophomore” – seniors are testing out of the freshman year at collage, starting with a full year of credit. This has a negative impact on some curricula that depend on that first year to lay a foundation.
4) Networking technologies are flattening hierarchies.
5) Students and parents as consumers – there’s more of a consumer mind set in determining about schools to attend and what to study.
6) Employers are more active in developing curricula, companies have more influence. There’s more of a market focus, but universities don’t do this well.
7) Location independence.
8) The Internet.

Entrepreneurs stepping in – disruptions:
1) Open Courseware, various online learning opportunities including those at MIT, Itunes University, LectureFox, NPR Forum Network, TED, Open Culture, Research Channel, etc.
2) Textbooks more accessible online, via Google Books, Flat World, Textbook Revolution, Course Smart, etc. There’s also Cramster.com, GradeGuru.com, ShareNotes.com, etc. And there’s University of the People, a tuition-free online university. Also OpenUniversity in the UK. And the University of Phoenix currently has 150,000 MBA students.

How does the traditional university evolve? The professor of the future is….
1) Experience designer.
2) Project manager.
3) Angel investor – identify resources and solve problems, map the road to success.
4) Curator – find and make sense of the wealth of free information online. What’s more and less valuable?
5) Resource allocator.
6) Life coach.
7) Validator (as with the signaling model)

Where to begin. These recommendations are about bigger picture thinking, more holistic approaches, working across disciplines, being grounded in the “real” world, etc.  Internet/social  technology is an enabler.
1) Experiential learning. Interdisciplinary, project-based courses. Resume builders that also teach how to deal with ambiguity.
2) Multi-institutional collaborations. Need to engage with one another, think globally, maximize resources of each institution. Study-abroad programs are included here. Branch campuses.
3) Train PhDs to think more contextually. PhD’s are thoroughly trained in their specific subjects, but there are no classes that teach PhDs how to teach, or how to be contextual. (I assume what they mean by “be contextual” is look at, think about, and present facts in context, rather than divorced from context).
4) Strategic industry and non-profit partnerships: “we all need each other.”
5) Get rid of tenure. (This is evidently a big issue for Platt.)
6) Student-driven inquiry.
7) Facilitate collaboration.
8) De-privilege institutional content – the Creative Commons/Science Commons idea of making data and other content shareable and usable  across institutions.
9) Reward failure. Get rid of the doctrine of “publish or perish.” Allow time to fail and innovate.
10) Get rid of Departments and focus on Questions. Bennington is  doing this, according to the speakers, and I found this idea particularly intriguing and challenging. This would drive multidisciplinary approaches. Teaches students how to ask and answer questions – presumably how to find the right questions, too. Kevin Leahy would like this (http://knowledgeadvocate.com).
11) Think like an entrepreneur.
12) Give more than you get.
13) Hire people that think this way.

Community vs Crowdsourcing

My report on the SXSW session The Era of Crowdsourcing: General Principles, featuring Scott Belsky of Behance and Jeffrey Kalmikoff of Digg.

This session talked about sourcing intelligence from communities vs crowds. The crowd/community or audience/community distinction is something I’ve thought and talked about quite a bit. In the world of “social media,” I don’t think we’ve made the distinction or found it important enough. “Social media” is a marketing term, and much of that thinking has come from marketing professionals who are trying to understand how to do post-broadcast marketing, in a world where media and mindshare are decentralized and diverse, fragmented. In marketing, the coherence of media or communication environments is not an issue, so long as messages can be communicated effectively in a context to drive conversions or purchases. Random drive-by messaging in environments like Twitter and Facebook don’t have to have coherence to work as “social media” in this sense, however I’m more interested in building sustained conversations and collaborations, or “community.”

You can “crowdsource” wherever a crowd is gathered. The crowd itself needn’t be “wise” on the whole; but it’s useful to assemble a crowd that has within it sources of relevant intelligence. What do the members of a crowd have in common? A physical crowd can have no more than proximity, but our sense of the virtual crowd is that they share something more. A crowd that shares only membership at Twitter could be random, but when we crowdsource via Twitter, we’re usually addressing our particular slice of the crowd, which has affinity if only through their relationship to us as individuals, as part of our network.

Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, as a riff on the term “outsourcing.” Crowdsourcing was defined as taking a job traditionally performed by some designated agent, usually an employee or contractor, and assigning it instead to a crowd or collective. Trendwatching defines the term as “customer made.” I found an article at the site that deepens the definition in a business context:

Next year, says Reinier Evers of Amsterdam’s Trendwatching.com, will see the re-emergence of group decision-making power as organisations of all kinds try to harness the wisdom of crowds. But if 2006 was the year in which DIY or home-made internet content triumphed over all its competitors in sites such as YouTube, 2007, says Evers, will see talented amateurs on the net demand payment for the stuff they produce. Expect, he says, more and more user-generated content sites and ventures to move to a paid or revenue-sharing model in the next 12 months. An example of this crowdsourcing is the software company Cambrian House (cambrianhouse.com), which works by inviting huge numbers of people into the production process and then paying them royalties if their contribution makes any money. Even Lego wants its customers to make money. The toy company now lets online visitors (at factory.lego.com) design Lego models and upload them to a gallery to show off their skills. It recently organised a contest in which the winning 10 models were sold as Lego models, with the creators earning 5% of the revenues. The company is keen to expand the initiative.

According to Belsky and Kalmikoff, the crowdsourcing definition needs to evolve, especially beyond the common misconception that crowdsourcing means access only to free labor. They mention three business models:

1) Crowdsource wisdom (or knowledge/expertise/skill), as with Wikipedia.
2) Crowdsource labor, as with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or traditional spec contests.
3) Crowdsource both wisdom and labor, as with Digg or Threadless. Keep the community active in the business.

To the question of crowds vs communities… a crowd is definable through a common purpose or set of emotions. Where crowds are concerned, sourcing exists in sprints.

In communities, intent, beliefs, risks, etc. may be present in common, affecting identity and cohesiveness. Sustainability exists inherently in the organic, adaptive nature of communities. They talked about various risks and the need to ensure the means to have a true collaboration with others and produce a result that’s relevant. One risk that particularly resonated with me: careless engagement – apathy, where one or more participants don’t care enough to withhold something that’s crappy.

Another issue: where money is the sole incentive to perform, you’ll work just as hard as required to reach the monetary goal, and no harder. As Daniel Pink has noted, money is a poor motivator for quality work.

Another risk: wasted neurons, where people spend an inordinate amount of time working on stuff the majority of which is never used. In a managed environment, the role of the manager is partly to ensure the efficiency of effort. In self-organized crowdsourced operations, how do you avoid wrong turns?

Does crowdsourcing foster the emergence of community? Yes, where there’s incentive for conversation and learning, and where there’s real engagement. I think this depends on context and coordination.

Does it really tap collective wisdom? Does it nurture participants? It can benefit reputation, result in building new relationships. The best case is where resources are not wasted, and the terms and facts are crystal clear.

This is a busy week

I’ve been interacting with this year’s SXSW schedule, noticing how much programming there is, and how many speakers I don’t know, which is actually pretty great. In the world of social media, we’ve learned how many more great voices there are in the world than we can ever hope to track, so many more of them given the opportunity to reach some kind of following or audience as the barriers to publishing fall away. So much of my information life lately has been exploring to find the various pockets of compelling intelligence within the crowd. SXSW Interactive facilitates that by creating a way to crowdsource the schedule – actual attendees vote on panel suggestions. There’s down sides, if course – people game the system, and you get panels and presentations on compelling subjects by presenters that are inexperienced, or were smarter in their proposal than in their delivery. But overall it’s a great thing, and of course there’s also quite a bit happening on the periphery of the event.

Where am I speaking?

Tuesday night, actually not part of SXSW but a good lead-in, EFF-Austin and Plutopia Productions are sponsoring an event – a panel on the twentieth anniversary of the Secret Service raid at Steve Jackson Games, part of the “hacker crackdown.” I’ll be moderating a panel featuring Steve, Bruce Sterling, and attorney Pete Kennedy (who argued the case). The event, at Independence Brewing, is sold out, but we’ll hopefully be streaming, or at least have video online after the fact.

The day before SXSW starts, March 11, I’ll be giving a talk at “Sharing, Exchanging, Social Health,” an event that takes advantage of the presence in town of many participatory medicine/social health advocates, and gives them a place to hang out. It’s an unconference seeded with a few programmed talks.

With my Plutopia Productions colleagues, I’ll be introducing Plutopia 2010 on Monday the 15th. Gates open at 7pm at the Mexican American Cultural Center. Plutopia is a defining SXSW Interactive event, this year focusing on “The Science of Music,” and featuring Bruce Sterling, DJ Spooky, DJ Strangevibe, Black Pig Liberation Front, Xiao He. The schedule is here. We’ll also have the Edible Austin Food Fest featuring local food and distillers.

Tuesday, David Armistead has asked me to join his core conversation at SXSW Interactive, “Can Social Media Save Business So Business Can Save the Planet?” Here’s a description:

In the era of GM-like businesses, now just past, opaque layers of hierarchy were used to control the flow of information to create an effective coordination of action. But new communications and information technology, including the new social media, now drop the costs of coordination so low business has to adopt them to stay competitive. Except – these technologies drastically flatten the organization and flood everything with radical new transparency, and many firms resist these kinds of changes.

John Motloch from Ball State University will also join us. Should be a lively and worldchanging discussion.

Finally, at the end of the day Tuesday, I’m introducing Bruce Sterling’s talk. I don’t think either one of us has any idea what we’re going to say at this point, but Bruce’s talk is always a highlight of the event.

State of the World

Time for the 11th annual Bruce Sterling/Jon Lebkowsky State of the World conversation on the WELL. This year we have a lot to talk about, the world’s off-center and wobbly. We’re off to a good start…

Basically we’ve got an emergent, market-driven global financial system that was all about a faith-based market fundamentalism. It was deprived of oversight for three good reasons (a) it rapidly brought prosperity to billions (b) under globalization, money is inherently global while governance is inherently local (c) complete regulatory capture of the system — nobody but bankers understands how to bank. There’s no caste of regulators left anywhere who have the clout or even the knowledge to do anything usefully stabilizing. No, not even if you give them guns, lawyers, money and back issues of DAS KAPITAL.

Too big to fail. So, what can you do? Cross your fingers, basically. Make some reassuring noises. Cheerlead instead of reforming the infrastructure. And pawn what’s left of the credibility of government.

Twenty years ago, it seemed like this situation might lead to shareholder power, a kind of pension-fund ownership society. It kind of did, for a while. But over a longer term, the poor engineering told on the rickety, fungus-like structure of finance. The wealth and the executive capacity drifted into the hands of moguls. Not governments, big institutions, megacorporations, multinationals, but moguls, weird eccentrics, like Russian moguls. Madoff figures, Enron. Nobody was left to look. Even if they did look, all they could possibly see in Madoff and Enron was a genius, highly charitable head of the NASDAQ and the world’s most nimble and innovative energy company. It’s like looking at your SUV and seeing drowning polar bears. Just a minority viewpoint.