The Soul of Web 2.0

Introduction: In The Beginning

Back in the 1980s, when personal computers mostly meant IBM PCs running Lotus 1*2*3 and, perhaps, if you were a bit off-center, an Apple Macintosh running Aldus Pagemaker, the idea of a coherent and interconnected set of documents spanning the known human universe seemed fanciful.  But there have always been dreamers, among them such luminaries as Douglas Engelbart, who gave us the computer mouse, and Ted Nelson, who coined the word ‘hypertext’.  Engelbart demonstrated a fully-functional hypertext system in December 1968, the famous ‘Mother of all Demos’, which framed computing for the rest of the 20th century.  Before man had walked on the Moon, before there was an Internet, we had a prototype for the World Wide Web.  Nelson took this idea and ran with it, envisaging a globally interconnected hypertext system, which he named ‘Xanadu’ – after the poem by Coleridge – and which attracted a crowd of enthusiasts intent on making it real.  I was one of them.  From my garret in Providence, Rhode Island, I wrote a front end – a ‘browser’ if you will – to the soon-to-be-released Xanadu.  This was back in 1986, nearly five years before Tim Berners-Lee wrote a short paper outlining a universal protocol for hypermedia, the basis for the World Wide Web.

Xanadu was never released, but we got the Web.  It wasn’t as functional as Xanadu – copyright management was a solved problem with Xanadu, whereas on the Web it continues to bedevil us – and links were two-way affairs; you could follow the destination of a link back to its source.  But the Web was out there and working for thousand of people by the middle of 1993, while Xanadu, shuffled from benefactor to benefactor, faded and finally died.  The Web was good enough to get out there, to play with, to begin improving, while Xanadu – which had been in beta since the late 1980s – was never quite good enough to be released.  ‘The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good’, and nowhere is it clearer than in the sad story of Xanadu.

If Xanadu had been released in 1987, it would have been next to useless without an Internet to support it, and the Internet was still very tiny in the 1980s.  When I started using the Internet, in 1988, the main trunk line across the United States was just about to be upgraded from 9.6 kilobits to 56 kilobits.  That’s the line for all of the traffic heading from one coast to the other.  I suspect that today this cross-country bandwidth, in aggregate, would be measured in terabits – trillions of bits per second, a million-fold increase.  And it keeps on growing, without any end in sight.

Because of my experience with Xanadu, when I first played with NCSA Mosaic – the first publicly available Web browser – I immediately knew what I held in my mousing hand.  And I wasn’t impressed.  In July 1993 very little content existed for the Web – just a handful of sites, mostly academic.  Given that the Web was born to serve the global high-energy-physics community headquartered at CERN and Fermilab, this made sense.  I walked away from the computer that July afternoon wanting more.  Hypertext systems I’d seen before.  What I lusted after was a global system with a reach like Xanadu.

Three months later, when I’d acquired a SUN workstation for a programming project, I immediately downloaded and installed NCSA Mosaic, to find that the Web elves had been busy.  Instead of a handful of sites, there were now hundreds.  There was a master list of known sites, maintained at NCSA, and over the course of a week in October, I methodically visited every site in the list.  By Friday evening I was finished.  I had surfed the entire Web.  It was even possible to keep up the new sites as they were added to the bottom of the list, though the end of 1993.  Then things began to explode.

From October on I became a Web evangelist.  My conversion was complete, and my joy in life was to share my own experience with my friends, using my own technical skills to get them set up with Internet access and their own copies of NCSA Mosaic.  That made converts of them; they then began to work on their friends, and so by degrees of association, the word of the Web spread.

In mid-January 1994, I dragged that rather unwieldy SUN workstation across town to show it off at a house party / performance event known as ‘Anon Salon’, which featured an interesting cross-section of San Francisco’s arts and technology communities.  As someone familiar walked in the door at the Salon, I walked up to them and took them over to my computer.  “What’s something you’re interested in?” I’d ask.  They’d reply with something like “Gardening” or “Astronomy” or “Watersports of Mesoamerica” and I’d go to the newly-created category index of the Web, known as Yahoo!, and still running out of a small lab on the Stanford University campus, type in their interest, and up would come at least a few hits.  I’d click on one, watch the page load, and let them read.  “Wow!” they’d say.  “This is great!”

I never mentioned the Web or hypertext or the Internet as I gave these little demos.  All I did was hook people by their own interests.  This, in January 1994 in San Francisco, is what would happen throughout the world in January 1995 and January 1996, and still happening today, as the two-billion Internet-connected individuals sit down before their computers and ask themselves, “What am I passionate about?”

This is the essential starting point for any discussion of what the Web is, what it is becoming, and how it should be presented.  The individual, with their needs, their passions, their opinions, their desires and their goals is always paramount.  We tend to forget this, or overlook it, or just plain ignore it.  We design from a point of view which is about what we have to say, what we want to present, what we expect to communicate.  It’s not that that we should ignore these considerations, but they are always secondary.  The Web is a ground for being.  Individuals do not present themselves as receptacles to be filled.  They are souls looking to be fulfilled.  This is as true for children as for adults – perhaps more so – and for this reason the educational Web has to be about space and place for being, not merely the presentation of a good-looking set of data.

How we get there, how we create the space for being, is what we have collectively learned in the first seventeen years of the web.  I’ll now break these down some of these individually.

I: Sharing

Every morning when I sit down to work at my computer, I’m greeted with a flurry of correspondence and communication.  I often start off with the emails that have come in overnight from America and Europe, the various mailing lists which spit out their contents at 3 AM, late night missives from insomniac friends, that sort of thing.  As I move through them, I sort them: this one needs attention and a reply, this one can get trashed, and this one – for one reason or another – should be shared.  The sharing instinct is innate and immediate.  We know upon we hearing a joke, or seeing an image, or reading an article, when someone else will be interested in it.  We’ve always known this; it’s part of being a human, and for as long as we’ve been able to talk – both as children and as a species – we’ve babbled and shared with one another.  It’s a basic quality of humanity.

Who we share with is driven by the people we know, the hundred-and-fifty or so souls who make up our ‘Dunbar Number’, the close crowd of individuals we connect to by blood or by friendship, or as co-workers, or neighbors, or co-religionists, or fellow enthusiasts in pursuit of sport or hobby.  Everyone carries that hundred and fifty around inside of them.  Most of the time we’re unaware of it, until that moment when we spy something, and immediately know who we want to share it with.  It’s automatic, requires no thought.  We just do it.

Once things began to move online, and we could use the ‘Forward’ button on our email clients, we started to see an acceleration and broadening of this sharing.  Everyone has a friend or two who forwards along every bad joke they come across, or every cute photo of a kitten.  We’ve all grown used to this, very tolerant of the high level of randomness and noise, because the flip side of that is a new and incredibly rapid distribution medium for the things which matter to us.  It’s been truly said that ‘If news is important, it will find me,’ because once some bit of information enters our densely hyperconnected networks, it gets passed hither-and-yon until it arrives in front of the people who most care about it.

That’s easy enough to do with emails, but how does that work with creations that may be Web-based, or similarly constrained?  We’ve seen the ‘share’ button show up on a lot of websites, but that’s not the entire matter.  You have to do more than request sharing.  You have to think through the entire goal of sharing, from the user’s perspective.  Are they sharing this because it’s interesting?  Are they sharing this because they want company?  Are they sharing this because it’s a competition or a contest or collaborative?  Or are they only sharing this because you’ve asked them to?

Here we come back – as we will, several more times – to the basic position of the user’s experience as central to the design of any Web project.  What is it about the design of your work that excites them to share it with others?  Have you made sharing a necessary component – as it might be in a multi-player game, or a collaborative and crowdsourced knowledge project – or is it something that is nice but not essential?  In other words, is there space only for one, or is there room to spread the word?  Why would anyone want to share your work?  You need to be able to answer this: definitively, immediately, and conclusively, because the answer to that question leads to the next question.  How will your work be shared?

Your works do not exist in isolation.  They are part of a continuum of other works?  Where does your work fit into that continuum?  How do the instructor and student approach that work?  Is it a top-down mandate?  Or is it something that filters up from below as word-of-mouth spreads?  How does that word-of-mouth spread?

Now you have to step back and think about the users of your work, and how they’re connected.  Is it simply via email – do all the students have email addresses?  Do they know the email addresses of their friends?  Or do you want your work shared via SMS?  A QRCode, perhaps?  Or Facebook or Twitter or, well, who knows?  And how do you get a class of year 3 students, who probably don’t have access to any of these tools, sharing your work?

You do want them to share, right?

This idea of sharing is foundational to everything we do on the Web today.  It becomes painfully obvious when it’s been overlooked.  For example, the iPad version of The Australian had all of the articles of the print version, but you couldn’t share an article with a friend.  There was simply no way to do that.  (I don’t know if this has changed recently.)  That made the iPad version of The Australian significantly less functional than its website version – because there I could at least past a URL into an email.

The more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes.  The more students use your work, the more indispensable you become to the curriculum, and the more likely your services will be needed, year after year, to improve and extend your present efforts.  Sharing isn’t just good design, it’s good business.

II: Connecting

Within the space for being created by the Web, there is room for a crowd.  Sometimes these crowds can be vast and anonymous – Wikipedia is a fine example of this.  Everyone’s there, but no one is wholly aware of anyone else’s presence.  You might see an edit to a page, or a new post on the discussion for a particular topic, but that’s as close as people come to one another.  Most of the connecting for the Wikipedians – the folks who behind-the-scenes make Wikipedia work – is performed by that old reliable friend, email.

There are other websites which make connecting the explicit central point of their purpose.  These are the social networks: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and so on.  In essence they take the Dunbar Number written into each of our minds and make it explicit, digital and a medium for communication.  But it doesn’t end there; one can add countless other contacts from all corners of life, until the ‘social graph’ – that set of connections – becomes so broad it is essentially meaningless.  Every additional contact makes the others less meaningful, if only because there’s only so much of you to go around.

That’s one type of connecting.  There is another type, as typified by Twitter, in which connections are weaker – generally falling outside the Dunbar Number – but have a curious resilience that presents unexpected strengths.  Where you can poll your friends on Facebook, on Twitter you can poll a planet.  How do I solve this problem?  Where should I eat dinner tonight?  What’s going on over there?  These loose but far-flung connections provide a kind of ‘hive mind’, which is less precise, and knows less about you, but knows a lot more about everything else.

These are not mutually exclusive principles.  It’s is not Facebook-versus-Twitter; it is not tight connections versus loose connections.  It’s a bit of both.  Where does your work benefit from a tight collective of connected individuals?  Is it some sort of group problem-solving?  A creative activity that really comes into its own when a whole band of people play together?  Or simply something which benefits from having a ‘lifeline’ to your comrades-in-arms?  When you constantly think of friends, that’s the sort of task that benefits from close connectivity.

On the other hand, when you’re collaborating on a big task – building up a model or a database or an encyclopedia or a catalog or playing a massive, rich, detailed and unpredictable game, or just trying to get a sense of what is going on ‘out there’, that’s the kind of task which benefits from loose connectivity.  Not every project will need both kinds of connecting, but almost every one will benefit from one or the other.  We are much smarter together than individually, much wiser, much more sensible, and less likely to be distracted, distraught or depressed.  (We are also more likely to reinforce each others’ prejudices and preconceptions, but that’s another matter of longstanding which technology can not help but amplify.)  Life is meaningful because we, together, give it meaning.  Life is bearable because we, together, bear the load for one another.  Human life is human connection.

The Web today is all about connecting.  That’s its single most important feature, the one which is serving as an organizing principle for nearly all activity on it.  So how do your projects allow your users to connect?  Does your work leave them alone, helpless, friendless, and lonely?  Does it crowd them together into too-close quarters, so that everyone feels a bit claustrophobic?  Or does it allow them to reach out and forge the bonds that will carry them through?

III: Contributing, Regulating, Iterating

In January of 2002, when I had my first demo of Wikipedia, the site had barely 14,000 articles – many copied from the 1911 out-of-copyright edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.  That’s enough content for a child’s encyclopedia, perhaps even for a primary school educator, but not really enough to be useful for adults, who might be interested in almost anything under the Sun.  It took the dedicated efforts of thousands of contributors for several years to get Wikipedia to the size of Britannica (250,000 articles), an effort which continues today.

Explicit to the design of Wikipedia is the idea that individuals should contribute.  There is an ‘edit’ button at the top of nearly every page, and making changes to Wikipedia is both quick and easy.  (This leaves the door open a certain amount of childish vandalism, but that is easily reversed or corrected precisely because it is so easy to edit anything within the site.)  By now everyone knows that Wikipedia is the collaboratively created encyclopedia, representing the best of all of what its contributors have to offer.  For the next hundred years academics and social scientists will debate the validity of crowdsourced knowledge creation, but what no one can deny is that Wikipedia has become an essential touchstone, our common cultural workbook.  This is less because of Wikipedia-as-a-resource than it is because we all share a sense of pride-in-ownership of Wikipedia.  Probably most of you have made some small change to Wikipedia; a few of you may have authored entire articles.  Every time any of us adds our own voice to Wikipedia, we become part of it, and it becomes part of us.  This is a powerful logic, an attraction which transcends the rational.  People cling to Wikipedia – right or wrong – because it is their own.

It’s difficult to imagine a time will come when Wikipedia will be complete.  If nothing else, events continue to occur, history is made, and all of this must be recorded somewhere in Wikipedia.  Yet Wikipedia, in its English-language edition, is growing more slowly in 2010 than in 2005.  With nearly 3.5 million articles in English, it’s reasonably comprehensive, at least by its own lights.  Certain material is considered inappropriate for Wikipedia – homespun scientific theories, or the biographies of less-than-remarkable individuals – and this has placed limits on its growth.  It’s possible that within a few years we will regard Wikipedia as essentially complete – which is, when you reflect upon it, an utterly awesome thought.  It will mean that we have captured the better part of human knowledge in a form accessible to all.  That we can all carry the learned experience of the species around in our pockets.

Wikipedia points to something else, quite as important and nearly as profound: the Web is not ‘complete’.  It is a work-in-progress.  Google understands this and releases interminable beta versions of every product.  More than this, it means that nothing needs to offer all the answers.  I would suggest that nothing should offer all the answers.  Leaving that space for the users to add what they know – or are willing to learn – to the overall mix creates a much more powerful relationship with the user, and – counterintuitively – with less work from you.  It is up to you to provide the framework for individuals to contribute within, but it is not up to you to populate that framework with every possibility.  There’s a ‘sweet spot’, somewhere between nothing and too much, which shows users the value of contributions but allows them enough space to make their own.

User contributions tend to become examples in their own right, showing other users how it’s done.  This creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ of contributions leading to contributions leading to still more contributions – which can produce the explosive creativity of a Wikipedia or TripAdvisor or an eBay or a RateMyProfessors.com.

In each of these websites it needs to be noted that there is a possibility for ‘bad data’ to work its way into system.   The biggest problem Wikipedia faces is not vandalism but the more pernicious types of contributions which look factual but are wholly made up.  TripAdvisor is facing a class-action lawsuit from hoteliers who have been damaged by anonymous negative ratings of their establishments.  RateMyProfessors.com is the holy terror of the academy in the United States.  Each of these websites has had to design systems which allow for users to self-regulate peer contributions.  In some cases – such as on a blog – it’s no more than a ‘report this post’ button, which flags it for later moderation.  Wikipedia promulgated a directive that strongly encouraged contributors to provide a footnote linking to supporting material.  TripAdvisor gives anonymous reviewers a lower ranking.  eBay forces both buyers and sellers to rate each transaction, building a database of interactions which can be used to guide others when they come to trade.  Each of these are social solutions to social problems.

Web2.0 is not a technology.  It is a suite of social techniques, and each technique must be combined with a social strategy for deployment, considering how the user will behave: neither wholly good nor entirely evil.  It is possible to design systems and interfaces which engage the better angels of nature, possible to develop wholly open systems which self-regulate and require little moderator intervention.  Yet it is not easy to do so, because it is not easy to know in advance how any social technique can be abused by those who employ it.

This means that aWeb2.0 concept that should guide you in your design work is iteration.  Nothing is ever complete, nor ever perfect.  The perfect is the enemy of the good, so if you wait for perfection, you will never release.  Instead, watch your users, see if they struggle to work within the place you have created for then, or whether they immediately grasp hold and begin to work.  In their more uncharitable moments, do they abuse the freedoms you have given them?  If so, how can you redesign your work, and ‘nudge’ them into better behavior?  It may be as simple as a different set of default behaviors, or as complex as a set of rules governing a social ecosystem.  And although Moses came down from Mount Sinai with all ten commandments, you can not and should not expect to get it right on a first pass.  Instead, release, observe, adapt, and re-release.  All releases are soft releases, everything is provisional, and nothing is quite perfect.  That’s as it should be.

IV: Opening

Two of the biggest Web2.0 services are Facebook and Twitter.  Although they seem to be similar, they couldn’t be more different.  Facebook is ‘greedy’, hoarding all of the data provided by its users, all of their photographs and conversations, keeping them entirely for itself.  If you want to have access to that data, you need to work with Facebook’s tools, and you need to build an application that works within Facebook – literally within the web page.  Facebook has control over everything you do, and can arbitrarily choose to limit what you do, even shut you down your application if they don’t like it, or perceive it as somehow competitive with Facebook.  Facebook is entirely in control, and Facebook holds onto all of the data your application needs to use.

Twitter has taken an entirely different approach.  From the very beginning, anyone could get access to the Twitter feed – whether for a single individual (if their stream of Tweets had been made public), or for all of Twitter’s users.  Anyone could do anything they wanted with these Tweets – though Twitter places restrictions on commercial re-use of their data.  Twitter provided very clear (and remarkably straightforward) instruction on how to access their data, and threw the gates open wide.

Although Facebook has half a billion users, Twitter is actually more broadly used, in more situations, because it has been incredibly easy for people to adapt Twitter to their tasks.  People have developed computer programs that send Tweets when the program is about to crash, created vast art projects which allow the public to participate from anywhere around the world, or even a little belt worn by a pregnant woman which sends out a Tweet every time the baby kicks!  It’s this flexibility which has made Twitter a sort of messaging ‘glue’ on the Internet of 2010, and that’s something Facebook just can’t do, because it’s too closed in upon itself.  Twitter has become a building block: when you write a program which needs to send a message, you use Twitter.  Facebook isn’t a building block.  It’s a monolith.

How do you build for openness?  Consider: another position the user might occupy is someone trying to use your work as a building block within their own project.  Have you created space for your work to be re-used, to be incorporated, to be pieced apart and put back together again?  Or is it opaque, seamless, and closed?  What about the data you collect, data the user has generated?  Where does that live?  Can it be exported and put to work in another application, or on another website?  Are you a brick or are you a brick wall?

When you think about your design – both technically and from the user’s experience – you must consider how open you want to be, and weigh the price of openness (extra work, unpredictability) against the price of being closed (less useful).  The highest praise you can receive for your work is when someone wants to use it in their own. For this to happen, you have to leave the door open for them.  If you publish the APIs to access the data you collect; if you build your work modularly, with clearly defined interfaces; if you use standards such as RSS and REST where appropriate, you will create something that others can re-use.

One of my favorite lines comes from science fiction author William Gibson, who wrote, ‘The street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturer never imagined.’  You can’t know how valuable your work will be to someone else, what they’ll see in it that you never could, and how they’ll use it to solve a problem.

All of these techniques – sharing, connecting, contributing, regulating, iterating and opening – share a common thread: they regard the user’s experience as paramount and design as something that serves the user.  These are not precisely the same Web2.0 domains others might identify.  That’s because Web2.0 has become a very ill-defined term.  It can mean whatever we want it to mean.  But it always comes back to experience, something that recognizes the importance and agency of the user, and makes that the center of the work.

It took us the better part of a decade to get to Web2.0; although pieces started showing up in the late 1990s, it wasn’t until the early 21st century that we really felt confident with the Web as an experience, and could use that experience to guide us into designs that left room for us to explore, to play and to learn from one another.  In this decade we need to bring everything we’ve learned to everything we create, to avoid the blind traps and dead ends of a design which ignores the vital reality of the people who work with what we create.  We need to make room for them.  If we don’t, they will make other rooms, where they can be themselves, where they can share what they’ve found, connect with the ones they care about, collaborate and contribute and create.

Blue Skies

I: Cloud People

I want to open this afternoon’s talk with a story about my friend Kate Carruthers.  Kate is a business strategist, currently working at Hyro, over in Surry Hills.  In November, while on a business trip to Far North Queensland, Kate pulled out her American Express credit card to pay for a taxi fare.  Her card was declined.  Kate paid with another card and thought little of it until the next time she tried to use the card – this time to pay for something rather pricier, and more important – and found her card declined once again.

As it turned out, American Express had cut Kate’s credit line in half, but hadn’t bothered to inform her of this until perhaps a day or two before, via post.  So here’s Kate, far away from home, with a crook credit card.  Thank goodness she had another card with her, or it could have been quite a problem.  When she contacted American Express to discuss that credit line change – on a Friday evening – she discovered that this ‘consumer’ company kept banker’s hours in its credit division.  That, for Kate, was the last straw.  She began to post a series of messages to Twitter:

“I can’t believe how rude Amex have been to me; cut credit limit by 50% without notice; declined my card while in QLD even though acct paid”

“since Amex just treated me like total sh*t I just posted a chq for the balance of my account & will close acct on Monday”

“Amex is hardly accepted anywhere anyhow so I hardly use it now & after their recent treatment I’m outta there”

“luckily for me I have more than enough to just pay the sucker out & never use Amex again”

“have both a gold credit card & gold charge card with amex until monday when I plan to close both after their crap behaviour”

One after another, Kate sent this stream of messages out to her Twitter followers.  All of her Twitter followers.  Kate’s been on Twitter for a long time – well over three years – and she’s accumulated a lot of followers.  Currently, she has over 8300 followers, although at the time she had her American Express meltdown, the number was closer to 7500.

Let’s step back and examine this for a moment.  Kate is, in most respects, a perfectly ordinary (though whip-smart) human being.  Yet she now has this ‘cloud’ of connections, all around her, all the time, through Twitter.  These 8300 people are at least vaguely aware of whatever she chooses to share in her tweets.  They care enough to listen, even if they are not always listening very closely.  A smaller number of individuals (perhaps a few hundred, people like me) listen more closely.  Nearly all the time we’re near a computer or a mobile, we keep an eye on Kate.  (Not that she needs it.  She’s thoroughly grown up.  But if she ever got into a spot of trouble or needed a bit of help, we’d be on it immediately.)

This kind of connectivity is unprecedented in human history.  We came from villages where perhaps a hundred of us lived close enough together that there were no secrets.  We moved to cities where the power of numbers gave us all a degree of anonymity, but atomized us into disconnected individuals, lacking the social support of a community.  Now we come full circle.  This is the realization of the ‘Global Village’ that Marshall McLuhan talked about fifty years ago.  At the time McLuhan though of television as a retribalizing force.  It wasn’t.  But Facebook and Twitter and the mobiles each of us carry with us during all our waking hours?  These are the new retribalizing forces, because they keep us continuously connected with one another, allowing us to manage connections in every-greater numbers.

Anything Kate says, no matter how mundane, is now widely known.  But it’s more than that.  Twitter is text, but it is also links that can point to images, or videos, or songs, or whatever you can digitize and upload to the Web.  Kate need simply drop a URL into a tweet and suddenly nearly ten thousand people are aware of it.  If they like it, they will send it along (‘re-tweet’ is the technical term), and it will spread out quickly, like waves on a pond.

But Twitter isn’t a one-way street.  Kate is ‘following’ 7250 individuals; that is, she’s receiving tweets from them.  That sounds like a nearly impossible task: how can you pay attention to what that many people have to say?  It’d be like trying to listen to every conversation at Central Station (or Flinders Street Station) at peak hour.  Madness.  And yet, it is possible.  Tools have been created that allow you to keep a pulse on the madness, to stick a toe into the raging torrent of commentary.

Why would you want to do this?  It’s not something that you need to do (or even want to do) all the time, but there are particular moments – crisis times – when Twitter becomes something else altogether.  After an earthquake or other great natural disaster, after some pivotal (or trivial) political event, after some stunning discovery.  The 5650 people I follow are my connection to all of that.  My connection is broad enough that someone, somewhere in my network is nearly always nearly the first to know something, among the first to share what they know.  Which means that I too, if I am paying attention, am among the first to know.

Businesses have been built on this kind of access.  An entire sector of the financial services industry, from DowJones to Bloomberg, has thrived because it provides subscribers with information before others have it – information that can be used on a trading floor.  This kind of information freely comes to the very well-connected.  This kind of information can be put to work to make you more successful as an individual, in your business, or in whatever hobbies you might pursue.  And it’s always there.  All you need do is plug into it.

When you do plug into it, once you’ve gotten over the initial confusion, and you’ve dedicated the proper time and tending to your network, so that it grows organically and enthusiastically, you will find yourself with something amazingly flexible and powerful.  Case in point: in December I found myself in Canberra for a few days.  Where to eat dinner in a town that shuts down at 5 pm?  I asked Twitter, and forty-five minutes later I was enjoying some of the best seafood laksa I’ve had in Australia.  A few days later, in the Barossa, I asked Twitter which wineries I should visit – and the top five recommendations were very good indeed.  These may seem like trivial instances – though they’re the difference between a good holiday and a lackluster one – but what they demonstrate is that Twitter has allowed me to plug into all of the expertise of all of the thousands of people I am connected to.  Human brainpower, multiplied by 5650 makes me smarter, faster, and much, much more effective.  Why would I want to live any other way?  Twitter can be inane, it can be annoying, it can be profane and confusing and chaotic, but I can’t imagine life without it, just as I can’t imagine life without the Web or without my mobile.  The idea that I am continuously connected and listening to a vast number of other people – even as they listen to me – has gone from shocking to comfortable in just over three years.

Kate and I are just the leading edge.  Where we have gone, all of the rest of you will soon follow.  We are all building up our networks, one person at a time.  A child born in 2010 will spend their lifetime building up a social network.  They’ll never lose track of any individual they meet and establish a connection with.  That connection will persist unless purposely destroyed.  Think of the number of people you meet throughout your lives, who you establish some connection with, even if only for a few hours.  That number would easily reach into the thousands for every one of us.  Kate and I are not freaks, we’re simply using the bleeding edge of a technology that will be almost invisible and not really worth mentioning by 2020.

All of this means that the network is even more alluring than it was a few years ago, and will become ever more alluring with the explosive growth in social networks.  We are just at the beginning of learning how to use these new social networks.  First we kept track of friends and family.  Then we moved on to business associates.  Now we’re using them to learn, to train ourselves and train others, to explore, to explain, to help and to ask for help.  They are becoming a new social fabric which will knit us together into an unfamiliar closeness.  This is already creating some interesting frictions for us.  We like being connected, but we also treasure the moments when we disconnect, when we can’t be reached, when our time and our thoughts are our own.  We preach focus to our children, but find our time and attention increasing divided by devices that demand service: email, Web, phone calls, texts, Twitter, Facebook, all of it brand new, and all of it seemingly so important that if we ignore any of them we immediately feel the cost.  I love getting away from it all.  I hate the backlog of email that greets me when I return.  Connecting comes with a cost.  But it’s becoming increasingly impossible to imagine life without it.

II: Eyjafjallajökull

I recently read a most interesting blog postChase Saunders, a software architect and entrepreneur in Maine (not too far from where I was born) had a bit of a brainwave and decided to share it with the rest of the world.  But you may not like it.  Saunders begins with: “For me to get really mad at a company, it takes more than a lousy product or service: it’s the powerlessness I feel when customer service won’t even try to make things right.  This happens to me about once a year.”  Given the number of businesses we all interact with in any given year – both as consumers and as client businesses – this figure is far from unusual.  There will be times when we get poor value for money, or poor service, or a poor response time, or what have you.  The world is a cruel place.  It’s what happens after that cruelty which is important: how does the business deal with an upset customer?  If they fail the upset customer, that’s when problems can really get out of control.

In times past, an upset customer could cancel their account, taking their business elsewhere.  Bad, but recoverable.  These days, however, customers have more capability, precisely because of their connectivity.  And this is where things start to go decidedly pear-shaped.  Saunders gets to the core of his idea:

Let’s say you buy a defective part from ACME Widgets, Inc. and they refuse to refund or replace it.  You’re mad, and you want the world to know about this awful widget.  So you pop over to AdRevenge and you pay them a small amount. Say $3.  If the company is handing out bad widgets, maybe some other people have already done this… we’ll suppose that before you got there, one guy donated $1 and another lady also donated $1.  So now we have 3 people who have paid a total of $5 to warn other potential customers about this sketchy company…the 3 vengeful donations will go to the purchase of negative search engine advertising.  The ads are automatically booked and purchased by the website…

And there it is.  Your customers – your angry customers – have found an effective way to band together and warn every other potential customer just how badly you suck, and will do it every time your name gets typed into a search engine box.  And they’ll do it whether or not their complaints are justified.  In fact, your competitors could even game the system, stuffing it up with lots of false complaints.  It will quickly become complete, ugly chaos.

You’re probably all donning your legal hats, and thinking about words like ‘libel’ and ‘defamation’.  Put all of that out of your mind.  The Internet is extraterritorial, it and effectively ungovernable, despite all of the neat attempts of governments from China to Iran to Australia to stuff it back into some sort of box.  Ban AdRevenge somewhere, it pops up somewhere else – just as long as there’s a demand for it.  Other countries – perhaps Iceland or Sweden, and certainly the United States – don’t have the same libel laws as Australia, yet their bits freely enter the nation over the Internet.  There is no way to stop AdRevenge or something very much like AdRevenge from happening.  No way at all.  Resign yourself to this, and embrace it, because until you do you won’t be able to move on, into a new type of relationship with your customers.

Which brings us back to our beginning, and a very angry Kate Carruthers.  Here she is, on a Friday night in Far North Queensland, spilling quite a bit of bile out onto Twitter.  Everyone one of the 7500 people who read her tweets will bear her experience in mind the next time they decide whether they will do any business with American Express.  This is damage, probably great damage to the reputation of American Express, damage that could have been avoided, or at least remediated before Kate ‘went nuclear’.

But where was American Express when all of this was going on?  While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with American Express, its own marketing arm was busily cooking up a scheme to harness Twitter.  It’s Open Forum Pulse website shows you tweets from small businesses around the world.  Ironic, isn’t it? American Express builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it.  So the fire rages, uncontrolled, while American Express fiddles.

There are other examples.  On Twitter, one of my friends lauded the new VAustralia Premium Economy service to the skies, while VAustralia ran some silly marketing campaign that had four blokes sending three thousand tweets over two days in Los Angeles.  Sure, I want to tune into that stream of dreck and drivel.  That’s exactly what I’m looking for in the age of information overload: more crap.

This is it, the fundamental disconnect, the very heart of the matter.  We all need to do a whole lot less talking, and a whole lot more listening.  That’s true for each of us as individuals: we’re so well-connected now that by the time we do grow into a few thousand connections we’d be wiser listening than speaking, most of the time.  But this is particularly true for businesses, which make their living dealing with customers.  The relationship between businesses and their customers has historically been characterized by a ‘throw it over the wall’ attitude.  There is no wall, anywhere.  The customer is sitting right beside you, with a megaphone pointed squarely into your ear.

If we were military planners, we’d call this ‘asymmetric warfare’.  Instead, we should just give it the name it rightfully deserves: 21st-century business.  It’s a battlefield out there, but if you come prepared for a 20th-century conflict – massive armies and big guns – you’ll be overrun by the fleet-footed and omnipresent guerilla warfare your customers will wage against you – if you don’t listen to them.  Like volcanic ash, it may not present a solid wall to prevent your progress.  But it will jam up your engines, and stop you from getting off the ground.

Listening is not a job.  There will be no ‘Chief Listening Officer’, charged with keeping their ear down to the ground, wondering if the natives are becoming restless, ready to sound the alarm when a situation threatens to go nuclear.  There is simply too much to listen to, happening everywhere, all at once.  Any single point which presumed to do the listening for an entire organization – whether an individual or a department – will simply be overwhelmed, drowning in the flow of data.  Listening is not a job: it is an attitude.  Every employee from the most recently hired through to the Chief Executive must learn to listen.  Listen to what is being said internally (therein lies the path to true business success) and learn to listen to what others, outside the boundaries of the organization, are saying about you.

Employees already regularly check into their various social networks.  Right now we think of that as ‘slacking off’, not something that we classify as work.  But if we stretch the definition just a bit, and begin to recognize that the organization we work for is, itself, part of our social network, things become clearer.  Someone can legitimately spend time on Facebook, looking for and responding to issues as they arise.  Someone can be plugged into Twitter, giving it continuous partial attention all day long, monitoring and soothing customer relationships.  And not just someone.  Everyone.  This is a shared responsibility.  Working for the organization means being involved with and connected to the organization’s customers, past, present and future.  Without that connection, problems will inevitably arise, will inevitably amplify, will inevitably result in ‘nuclear events’.  Any organization (or government, or religion) can only withstand so many nuclear events before it begins to disintegrate.  So this isn’t a matter of choice.  This is a basic defensive posture.  An insurance policy, of sorts, protecting you against those you have no choice but to do business with.

Yet this is not all about defense.  Listening creates opportunity.  I get some of my best ideas – such as that AdRevenge article – because I am constantly listening to others’ good ideas.  Your customers might grumble, but they also praise you for a job well done.  That positive relationship should be honored – and reinforced.  As you reinforce the positive, you create a virtuous cycle of interactions which becomes terrifically difficult to disrupt.  When that’s gone on long enough, and broadly enough, you have effectively raised up your own army – in the post-modern, guerilla sense of the word – who will go out there and fight for you and your brand when the haters and trolls and chaos-makers bear down upon you.  These people are connected to you, and will connect to one another because of the passion they share around your products and your business.  This is another network, an important network, an offensive network, and you need both defensive and offensive strategies to succeed on this playing field.

Just as we as individuals are growing into hyperconnectivity, so our businesses must inevitably follow.  Hyperconnected individuals working with disconnected businesses is a perfect recipe for confusion and disaster.  Like must meet with like before the real business of the 21st-century can begin.

III: Services With a Smile

Moving from the abstract to the concrete, let’s consider the types of products and services required in our densely hyperconnected world.  First and foremost, we are growing into a pressing, almost fanatical need for continuous connectivity.  Wherever we are – even in airplanes – we must be connected.  The quality of that connection – its speed, reliability, and cost – are important co-factors to consider, and it is not always the cheapest connection which serves the customer best.  I pay a premium for my broadband connection because I can send the CEO of my ISP a text any time my link goes down – and my trouble tickets are sorted very rapidly!  Conversely, I went with a lower-cost carrier for my mobile service, and I am paying the price, with missed calls, failed data connections, and crashes on my iPhone.

As connectivity becomes more important, reliability crowds out other factors.  You can offer a premium quality service at a premium price and people will adopt it, for the same reason they will pay more for a reliable car, or for electricity from a reliable supplier, or for food that they’re sure will be wholesome.  Connectivity has become too vital to threaten.  This means there’s room for healthy competition, as providers offer different levels of service at different price points, competing on quality, so that everyone gets the level of service they can afford.  But uptime always will be paramount.

What service, exactly is on offer?  Connectivity comes in at least two flavors: mobile and broadband.  These are not mutually exclusive.  When we’re stationary we use broadband; when we’re in motion we use mobile services.  The transition between these two networks should be invisible and seamless as possible – as pioneered by Apple’s iPhone.

At home, in the office, at the café or library, in fact, in almost any structure, customers should have access to wireless broadband.  This is one area where Australia noticeably trails the rest of the world.  The tariff structure for Internet traffic has led Australians to be unusually conservative with their bits, because there is a specific cost incurred for each bit sent or received.  While this means that ISPs should always have the funding to build out their networks to handle increases in capacity, it has also meant that users protect their networks from use in order to keep costs down.  This fundamental dilemma has subjected wireless broadband in Australia to a subtle strangulation.  We do not have the ubiquitous free wireless access that many other countries – in particular, the United States – have on offer, and this consequently alters our imagination of the possibilities for ubiquitous networking.

Tariffs are now low enough that customers ought to be encouraged to offer wireless networking to the broader public.  There are some security concerns that need to be addressed to make this safe for all parties, but these are easily dealt with.  There is no fundamental barrier to pervasive wireless broadband.  It does not compete with mobile data services.  Rather, as wireless broadband becomes more ubiquitous, people come to rely on continuous connectivity ever more.  Mobile data demand will grow in lockstep as more wireless broadband is offered.  Investment in wireless broadband is the best way to ensure that mobile data services continue to grow.

Mobile data services are best characterized principally by speed and availability.  Beyond a certain point – perhaps a megabit per second – speed is not an overwhelming lure on a mobile handset.  It’s nice but not necessary.  At that point, it’s much more about provisioning: how will my carrier handle peak hour in Flinders Street Station (or Central Station)?  Will my calls drop?  Will I be able to access my cloud-based calendar so that I can grab a map and a phone number to make dinner reservations?  If a customer finds themselves continually frustrated in these activities, one of two things will happen: either the mobile will go back into the pocket, more or less permanently, or the customer will change carriers.  Since the customer’s family, friends and business associates will not be putting their own mobiles back into their pockets, it is unlikely that any customer will do so for any length of time, irrespective of the quality of their mobile service.  If the carrier will not provision, the customers must go elsewhere.

Provisioning is expensive.  But it is also the only sure way to retain your customers.  A customer will put up with poor customer service if they know they have reliable service.  A customer will put up with a higher monthly spend if they have a service they know they can depend upon in all circumstances.  And a customer will quickly leave a carrier who can not be relied upon.  I’ve learned that lesson myself.  Expect it to be repeated, millions of times over, in the years to come, as carriers, regrettably and avoidably, find that their provisioning is inadequate to support their customers.

Wireless is wonderful, and we think of it as a maintenance-free technology, at least from the customer’s point of view.  Yet this is rarely so.  Last month I listened to a talk by Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Lead Anthropologist at the chipmaker.  Her job is to spend time in the field – across Europe and the developing world – observing  how people really use technology when it escapes into the wild.  Several years ago she spent some time in Singapore, studying how pervasive wireless broadband works in the dense urban landscape of the city-state.  In any of Singapore’s apartment towers – which are everywhere – nearly everyone has access to very high speed wired broadband (perhaps 50 megabits per second) – which is then connected to a wireless router to distribute the broadband throughout the apartment.  But wireless is no great respecter of walls.  Even in my own flat in Surry Hills I can see nine wireless networks from my laptop, including my own.  In a Singapore tower block, the number is probably nearer to twenty or thirty.

Genevieve visited a family who had recently purchased a wireless printer.  They were dissatisfied with it, pronouncing it ‘possessed’.  What do you mean? she inquired.  Well, they explained, it doesn’t print what they tell it to print.  But it does print other things.  Things they never asked for.  The family called for a grandfather to come over and practice his arts of feng shui, hoping to rid the printer of its evil spirits.  The printer, now repositioned to a more auspicious spot, still misbehaved.  A few days later, a knock came on the door.  Outside stood a neighbor, a sheaf of paper in his hands, saying, “I believe these are yours…?”

The neighbor had also recently purchased a wireless printer, and it seems that these two printers had automatically registered themselves on each other’s networks.  Automatic configuration makes wireless networks a pleasure to use, but it also makes for botched configurations and flaky communication.  Most of this is so far outside the skill set of the average consumer that these problems will never be properly remedied.  The customer might make a support call, and maybe – just maybe the problem will be solved.  Or, the problem will persist, and the customer will simply give up.  Even with a support call, wireless networks are often so complex that the problem can’t be wholly solved.

As wireless networks grow more pervasive, Genevieve Bell recommends that providers offer a high-quality hand-holding and diagnostic service to their customers.  They need to offer a ‘tune up’ service that will travel to the customer once a year to make sure everything is running well.  Consumers need to be educated that wireless networks do not come for free.  Like anything else, they require maintenance, and the consumer should come to expect that it will cost them something, every year, to keep it all up and running.  In this, a wireless network is no different than a swimming pool or a lawn.  There is a future for this kind of service: if you don’t offer it, your competitors soon will.

Finally, let me close with what the world looks like when all of these services are working perfectly.  Lately, I’ve become a big fan of Foursquare, a ‘location-based social network’.  Using the GPS on my iPhone, Foursquare allows me to ‘check in’ when I go to a restaurant, a store, or almost anywhere else.  Once I’ve checked in, I can make a recommendation – a ‘tip’ in Foursquare lingo – or simply look through the tips provided by those who have been there before me.  This list of tips is quickly growing longer, more substantial, and more useful.  I can walk into a bar that I’ve never been to before and know exactly which cocktail I want to order.  I know which table at the restaurant offers the quietest corner for a romantic date.  I know which salesperson to talk to for a good deal on that mobile handset.  And so on.  I have immediate and continuous information in depth, and I put that information to work, right now, to make my life better.

The world of hyperconnectivity isn’t some hypothetical place we’ll never see.  We are living in it now.  The seeds of the future are planted in the present.  But the shape of the future is determined by our actions today.  It is possible to blunt and slow Australia’s progress into this world with bad decisions and bad services.  But it is also possible to thrust the nation into global leadership if we can embrace the inevitable trend toward hyperconnectivity, and harness it.  It has already transformed our lives.  It will transform our businesses, our schools, and our government.  You are the carriers of that change.  Your actions will bring this new world into being.

Collisions & Smash Repairs

My brief keynote to the ICT Roundtable of the TAFE Sydney Institute. Recorded on Wednesday, 13 August 2008. Many thanks to Trish James and Stephan Ridgway for arranging the audio recording!

Engaging Conversation

I.

Everybody talks about the weather. It happens in Singapore, where the weather never changes much, and in Melbourne, where four seasons unfold over the course of an afternoon. Why? It comes down to trust. Conversations with strangers are among the most difficult tasks humans manage: without any mental model of another human being’s behavior, peccadilloes and preferences, common ground is the safest place to begin. A few lines about the rain (or snow or humidity or wind) reveal the inner workings of another person’s mind. Face-to-face, we watch the other person intently, reading the body language, while we listen to the words being said. In the first moments of conversation, sweeping judgments about this stranger are made and welded into place. Their behavior finds a best fit with some other person whose behavior and habits we are already familiar with. A conversation about the weather isn’t idle banter; it’s the rapid-fire exchange of the human protocol.

Should the stranger turn out to be truly strange – prattling on about how aliens from Zeta Reticuli are secretly using their energy beams to melt the icecaps, fooling us into believing in anthropogenic global warming – we’d likely disengage ourselves from that conversation very quickly (and probably very politely), breathing a sigh of relief under our breath. Of course, we might share their belief in Grey Alien conspiracies, in which case the conversation would shift to an entirely different level. Talk about the weather is an opening parley, an invitation to a deeper involvement.

Some individuals are incredibly adept in conversational forms; some much less so. Some give you everything up front, others are more mysterious. In each case it’s a trial by fire, a strategic assessment: are you sufficiently like me that we can communicate? Extroverts can talk themselves into loneliness, consistently denying to others the openings they need to introduce themselves, while introverts will hang back from that opening until the moment has passed. The middle approach is best, a mixture of forwardness and reticence, but this is a difficult balance to achieve, because all of the human neuroses of rejection (at a biological level, a rejected human faces an uphill battle passing his genes along to subsequent generations) are amplified during the first moments of conversation. There are so many ways a first conversation can run off the rails – a misinterpreted word, an inappropriate joke, a whopper of a prejudice. Children, unformed and blissfully ignorant, have an easier time of it, for they haven’t learned what to reject. As we grow older, and into a better sense of our likes and dislikes, conversation becomes a minefield. It’s amazing that adults make any friends at all, but then, as adults we tend to seek the company of the like-minded for precisely this reason. We know we won’t like everyone we meet.

II.

Beginnings are delicate times. In the social sphere this is most true in those first few words exchanged in conversation, when everything is at risk. In the online world, these risks are modulated, both amplified and attenuated. Over a decade ago, psychologist Sherry Turkle noted that the ability to redefine one’s self online could bring out profoundly extroverted qualities across a wide range of otherwise “introverted” individuals. Students who would never raise their hand in a classroom often become prolific contributors to class discussions when given the opportunity to submit their comments electronically. In a given set of students, some will be more verbal, while others will be more discursive, needing time to think through a response before presenting it to an instructor or peers. The classroom environment is not anonymous, unlike the wilder corners of the Internet, so any contribution carries with it the risk of embarrassment and failure. Yet, allowing individuals to define themselves through expository practices, instead of relying solely on verbal expression, has helped a broader range of students participate in the educational process, bolstering self-confidence, and increasing participation.

The amplifications associated with electronically-mediated conversation are not wholly positive. When the mediation is complete – that is, when there is no real-world embodiment accompanying the electronic communication – individuals have tendency to project their own preconceptions onto the words of others. This is a classic quality of a low-resolution medium, as first defined by Marshal McLuhan in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Words are a very low-resolution medium, so the mind of the reader fills in all the missing details, ascribing all sorts of motivations to the author which may not be true. We enjoy an novelist’s words when they grow into a world inside our minds, but online, in the absence of the embodied experience that grows out of a face-to-face meeting of minds, we work overtime to fill the gaps in our understanding with stereotypes, assumptions, and emotions.

From the earliest days of USENET, the original Internet-wide bulletin-board system, “flame wars” have erupted in every thread, on nearly every conceivable topic – from atheism to dog care – precisely because individuals assumed too much about the other parties to the conversation. Too quick to attack the perceived indiscretions of others, and too slow to see their own faults, online conversationalists have a tendency to amplify the worst qualities of human communication. Some of this comes from the novelty of the situation: we’ve only had the Internet-as-conversational-space for half a generation. The normative behaviors which govern our conduct in the embodied world are being rewritten to encompass life online. At the best of times, this is a trial-and-error process conducted by individuals full of good will. There are numerous other occasions when individuals, fully aware of the disruptive potential of the Internet as amplifier, set out to deliberately poison the conversation. These efforts are frequently effective, particularly when the conversation is in its opening stages, and trust relationships between the participants are still being established. As a general rule of thumb, the longer a conversation has been going on, the more resistant it is to these sorts of attacks; the trust built up by the continuing interaction between all parties to a conversation provides an increasingly effective firewall.

Sometimes, for the very best of reasons, online conversations can turn ugly. From 1990 through 1994, I was a reader of and occasional contributor to sci.virtual-worlds, the USENET group for discussion about all things relating to virtual reality and computer simulation. At the time, I was deeply engaged in the engineering and development of virtual reality systems, so I considered sci.virtual-worlds an indispensable resource, a place where I could ask others about their own experiences, answer questions in areas where I possessed expertise, and share in the growing recognition that VR enjoyed in the early 1990s.

On a Saturday afternoon late in 1992 I read a post on sci.virtual-worlds which greatly excited me. An individual was claiming that he’d made a mathematical breakthrough in the computation of real-time computer graphics – the sorts of imagery you see in every video game – that would speed it up by a factor of ten to a hundred times. He posted his almost unbelievable results, and asked for expressions of interest in his work. I quickly wrote back, introduced myself, stated my credentials, listed my needs, and set up a meeting with this bright lad.

A few hours later, an expert in computer graphics – an individual who’d been working in the field for a decade or more – posted a lengthy rebuttal to these supposed “results,” giving a half a dozen reasons why these claims were absolutely impossible, ending with a wry suspicion that someone had left their computer logged in over the weekend, and that this post had simply been sent out as a prank to excite the more gullible readers of sci.virtual-worlds. This person, speaking from the undeniable authority of his position as a respected academic and researcher, essentially shut down all consideration, on sci.virtual-worlds, of this breakthrough in computer graphics.

As it turned out, the researcher was wrong. This innovation, known today as “software rendering,” became the cornerstone for almost all the computer graphics in use today. I took my meeting with the inventor (who quietly laughed at the ignorance of this famous researcher), saw the results of his efforts for myself, and knew the truth of the matter. Because I had no pre-conceptions (or rather, less prejudices than this expert) I was open to this startling, unexpected discovery. I got there first, and used that technology to create the very first VRML browser – over a year before anyone else was putting the technology to work for them.

Expertise is not enough to carry a conversation. Reputation may open the door, but conversations are not lectures. Trust emerges over time, and that which is believed to be true – rightly or wrongly – emerges from trust. The many parties to a conversation are constantly reinforcing their trust relationships with every message they read, and every word they post. Pronouncements made Ex Cathedra do not have any great effect on the conversation – unless the individual making the pronouncement is greatly trusted, and is willing to engage in conversation. This places experts at a disadvantage, because expertise carries only modest weight within a conversation, and assertion of expertise, in advance of trust, sours the conversation. Humility is the only successful long-term strategy.

III.

Institutions do not have conversations. It is a capability only given to individuals. The voice of the institution is never conversational; it can be pedantic or persuasive, but it is never engaged, because there is no singular human to engage. Institutions aggregate individuals in order to maximize their institutional effectiveness, but that aggregation is not without its costs. (Nor do institutions maximize the effectiveness of the individuals thus aggregated, except as an afterthought.) The trepidation with which institutions treat bloggers within their own ranks is a reflection of institutional inability to winnow itself down to a single voice, engaged in conversation. The pieces do not match up. The blogger can not speak for the institution, but neither can the institution converse with an individual. This was of modest consequence in a era, only recently past, when our ability to conduct these conversations was restricted by proximity and synchrony.

With the advent of hyperconnectivity – the ability of every human being to effectively communicate with every other human being on the planet at little or no cost to themselves – the individual is hyperempowered in conversational abilities, relative to the institution. Individuals can (and regularly do) have conversations that confound institutions, because these conversations lie beyond any institutional zone of control. In a hyperconnected era, each conversation is a Temporary Autonomous Zone, where individuals can quickly form trust relationships (ad hoc social networks) around any topic of interest, exchange opinions, share information, and develop strategies. These are not the necessary outcomes of any conversational moment (there is a pure joy in conversation which frees it from any utilitarian requirements) but they are the potentials of any conversation. These potentials are inherently dangerous to all institutions.

The institution finds itself caught in a paradox: aggregation makes it powerful, but takes away its voice. When power was important, the institution prospered. Now that the cultural balance is shifting toward hyperempowered individuals engaging in conversation, the institution is under threat. It is being disempowered in a way that it can not adapt to without a fundamental restructuring of its organizational behavior. This is something that governments are only slowly coming to recognize, but educators (and, in particular, educational administrators) are already well aware that their students are more empowered than the educational institutions they attend. The desynchronization between the scope of institutional power and the chaos of unconstrained and unconstrainable conversational hyperempowerment presents a challenge that will transform the institution – or kill it.

Some institutions will be entirely unable to adapt to the new selection forces of hyperconnectivity and hyperempowerment. They will trudge along, facing a growing set of roadblocks, until, exhausted, they collapse. Some others will change by degrees, reacting to the changes of the environment, but always with some delay, and therefore consistently missing opportunities for advantage, as they change just enough to satisfy the requirements of the moment’s pressures.

The smartest institutions will embrace conversation wholeheartedly, and mutate into new forms of organization which favor transparency and the free flow of information in highly decentralized forms. Instead of a hierarchy, these institutions will look more like a highly-reinforced social network of experts, banded together in common pursuit of a goal, utilizing all the tools of communication and conversation to amplify their effectiveness both within the institution, and beyond these newly permeable institutional boundaries, to other individuals. This kind of institution can participate within a conversation, because individuals have not be aggregated, but rather, use their institutional/social network to become more expert individuals. They speak for themselves, but from the expertise of the network which supports them.

How does an institution manage this transition? How does it restructure itself into a network of highly empowered individuals? How does it avoid being drowned out in an a noisy cacophony of ever-more-vital conversations? Once again, humility is the only successful long-term strategy. The institution must recognize its disempowered state, and embrace the opportunity to relearn, revision and redirect its organizational energies.

This is not easy, nor do I make any claims to a simple five-step program which might produce a seamless transition from the aggregated institutional form to the social-network model. But consider this: The individuals who make up institutions are already hyperempowered in the conversations they have outside the institutional form. There is, at least, a place to begin. Without humility none of this will happen. We must be honest enough to acknowledge that institutions and individuals rarely surrender their own power. Yet the exercise of power inevitably breeds that which is capable of resisting power. This has now happened – across all human institutions. Humility is the only viable option.