Using the Network for Business Success

I.  My, How Things Have Changed

When I came to Australia six years ago, to seek my fame and fortune, business communications had remained largely unchanged for nearly a century.  You could engage in face-to-face conversation – something humans have been doing since we learned to speak, countless thousands of years ago – or, if distance made that impossible, you could drop a letter into the post.  Australia Post is an excellent organization, and seems to get all of the mail delivered within a day or two – quite an accomplishment in a country as dispersed and diffuse as ours.

In the twentieth century, the telephone became the dominant form of business communication; Australia Post wired the nation up, and let us talk to one another.  Conversation, mediated by the telephone, became the dominant mode of communication.  About twenty years ago the facsimile machine dropped in price dramatically, and we could now send images over phone lines.

The facsimile translates images into data and back into images again.  That’s when the critical threshold was crossed: from that point on, our communications have always centered on data.  The Internet arrived in 1995, and broadband in 2001.  In the first years of Internet usage, electronic mail was both the ‘killer app’ and the thing that began to supplant the telephone for business correspondence.  Electronic mail is asynchronous – you can always pick it up later.  Email is non-local, particularly when used through a service such as Hotmail or Gmail – you can get it anywhere.  Until mobiles started to become pervasive for business uses, the telephone was always a hit-or-miss affair.  Electronic mail is a hit, every time.

Such was the business landscape when I arrived in Australia.  The Web had arrived, and businesses eagerly used it as a publishing medium – a cheap way of getting information to their clients and customers.  But the Web was changing.  It had taken nearly a decade of working with the Web, day-to-day, before we discovered that the Web could become a fully-fledged two-way medium: the Web could listen as well as talk.  That insight changed everything.  The Web morphed into a new beast, christened ‘Web 2.0’, and everywhere the Web invited us to interact, to share, to respond, to play, to become involved.  This transition has fundamentally changed business communication, and it’s my goal this morning to outline the dimensions of that transformation.

This transformation unfolds in several dimensions.  The first of these – and arguably the most noticeable – is how well-connected we are these days.  So long as we’re in range of a cellular radio signal, we can be reached.  The number of ways we can be reached is growing almost geometrically.  Five years ago we might have had a single email address.  Now we have several – certainly one for business, and one for personal use – together with an account on Facebook (nearly eight million of the 22 million Australians have Facebook accounts), perhaps another account on MySpace, another on Twitter, another on YouTube, another on Flickr.  We can get a message or maintain contact with someone through any of these connections.  Some individuals have migrated to Facebook for the majority of their communications – there’s no spam, and they’re assured the message will be delivered.  Among under-25s, electronic mail is seen as a technology of the ‘older generation’, something that one might use for work, but has no other practical value.  Text messaging and messaging-via-Facebook have replaced electronic mail.

This increased connectivity hasn’t come for free.  Each of us are now under a burden to maintain all of the various connections we’ve opened.  At the most basic level, we must at least monitor all of these channels for incoming messages.  That can easily get overwhelming, as each channel clamors for attention.

But wait.  We’ve dropped Facebook and Twitter into the conversation before I even explained what they are and how they work.  We just take them as a fact of life these days, but they’re brand new.  Facebook was unknown just three years ago, and Twitter didn’t zoom into prominence until eighteen months ago.  Let’s step back and take a look at what social networks are.  In a very real way, we’ve always known exactly what a social network is: since we were very small we’ve been reaching out to other people and establishing social relationships with them.  In the beginning that meant our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.  As we grew older that list might grow to include some of the kids in the neighborhood, or at pre-kindy, and then our school friends.  By the time we make it to university, that list of social relationships is actually quite long.  But our brains have limited space to store all those relationships – it’s actually the most difficult thing we do, the most cognitively all-encompassing task.  Forget physics – relationship are harder, and take more brainpower.

Nature has set a limit of about one hundred and fifty on the social relationships we can manage in our heads.  That’s not a static number – it’s not as though as soon as you reach 150, you’re done, full.  Rather, it’s a sign of how many relationships of importance you can manage at any one time.  None of us, not even the most socially adept, can go very much beyond that number.  We just don’t have the grey matter for it.

Hence, fifty years ago mankind invented the Rolodex – a way of keeping track of all the information we really should remember but can’t possibly begin to absorb.  A real, living Rolodex (and there are few of them, these days) are a wonder to behold, with notes scribbled in the margins, business cards stapled to the backs of the Rolodex cards, and a glorious mess of information, all alphabetically organized.  The Rolodex was mankind’s first real version of the modern, digital, social network.  But a Rolodex doesn’t think for itself; a Rolodex can not draw out the connections between the different cards.  A Rolodex does not make explicit what we know – we live in a very interconnected world, and many of our friends and associates are also friends and associates with our friends and associates.

That is precisely what Facebook gives us.  It makes those implicit connections explicit.  It allows those connections to become conduits for ever-greater-levels of connection.  Once those connections are made, once they become a regular feature of our life, we can grow beyond the natural limit of 150.  That doesn’t mean you can manage any of these relationships well – far from it.  But it does mean that you can keep the channels of communication open.  That’s really what all of these social networks are: turbocharged Rolodexes, which allow you to maintain far more relationships than ever before possible.

Once these relationships are established, something beings to happen quite naturally: people begin to share.  What they share is often driven by the nature of the relationship – though we’ve all seen examples where individuals ‘over-share’ inappropriately, confusing business and social channels of communication.  That sort of thing is very easy to do with social networks such as Facebook, because it doesn’t provide an easy method to send messages out to different groups of friends.  We might want a social network where business friends might get something very formal, while close friends might that that photo of you doing tequila shots at last weekend’s birthday party.  It’s a great idea, isn’t it?  But it can’t be done.  Not on Facebook, not on Twitter.  Your friends are all lumped together into one undifferentiated whole.  That’s one way that those social networks are very different from the ones inside our heads.  And it’s something to be constantly aware of when sharing through social networks.

That said, this social sharing has become an incredibly potent force.  More videos are uploaded to YouTube every day than all television networks all over the world produce in a year.  It may not be material of the same quality, but that doesn’t matter – most of those videos are only meant to be seen among a small group of family or friends.  We send pictures around, we send links around, we send music around (though that’s been cause for a bit of trouble), we share things because we care about them, and because we care about the people we’re sharing with.  Every act of sharing, business or personal, brings the sharer and the recipient closer together.  It truly is better to give than receive.  On the other hand, we’re also drowning in shared material.  There’s so much, coming from every corner, through every one of these social networks, there’s no possible way to keep up.  So, most of us don’t.  We cherry-pick, listening to our closest friends and associates: the things they share with us are the most meaningful.  We filter the noise and hope that we’re not missing anything very important.  (We usually are.)

In certain very specific situations, sharing can produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  A community can get together and decide to pool what it knows about a particular domain of knowledge, can ‘wise up’ by sharing freely.  This idea of ‘collective intelligence’ producing a shared storehouse of knowledge is the engine that drives sites like Wikipedia.  We all know Wikipedia, we all know how it works – anyone can edit anything in any article within it – but the wonder of Wikipedia is that it works so well.  It’s not perfectly accurate – nothing ever is  – but it is good enough to be useful nearly all the time.  Here’s the thing: you can come to Wikipedia ignorant and leave it knowing something.  You can put that knowledge to work to make better decisions than you would have in your state of ignorance.  Wikipedia can help you wise up.

Wikipedia isn’t the only example of shared knowledge.  A decade ago a site named TeacherRatings.com went online, inviting university students to provide ratings of their professors, lecturers and instructors.  Today it’s named RateMyProfessor.com, is owned by MTV Networks, and has over ten million ratings of one million instructors.  This font of shared knowledge has become so potent that students regularly consult the site before deciding which classes they’ll take next semester at university.  Universities can no longer saddle student with poor teachers (who may also be fantastic researchers).  There are bidding wars taking place for the lecturers who get the highest ratings on the site.  This sharing of knowledge has reversed the power relationship between a university and its students which stretches back nearly a thousand years.

Substitute the word ‘business’ for university and ‘customers’ for students and you see why this is so significant.  In an era where we’re hyperconnected, where people share, and share knowledge, things are going to work a lot differently than they did before.  These all-important relationships between businesses and their customers (potential and actual) have been completely rewritten.  Let’s talk about that.

II.  Breaking In

The most important thing you need to know about the new relationship between yourselves and your customers is that your customers are constantly engaging in a conversation about you.  At this point, you don’t know where those customers are, and what they’re saying.  They could be saying something via a text message, or a Facebook post, or an email, or on Twitter.  Any and all of these conversations about you are going on right now.  But you don’t know, so there’s no way you can participate in them.

I’ll give you an example I used my column in NETT magazine.  My mate John Allsopp (a big-time Web developer, working on the next generation of Web technologies) travels a lot for business.  Back in June, on a trip the US, he decided to give VAustralia’s Premium Economy class a try.  He was so pleased about the service – and the sleep he got – he immediately sent out a tweet: “At LAX waiting for flight to Denver. Best flight ever on VAustralia Premium Economy. Fantastic seat, service, and sleep. Hooked.”  That message went out to twelve hundred of John’s Twitter followers – many of whom are Australians.  It was quickly answered by a tweet from Cheryl Gledhill: “isn’t VAustralia the bomb!! My favourite airline at the moment… so roomy, and great entertainment, nice hosties, etc.”  That message went to Cheryl’s 250 followers.  I chimed in, too: “Precisely how I felt after my VA flights last month: hooked. Got 7 hours sleep each way. Worth the price.”  That message went out to fifty-two hundred of my followers – who are disproportionately Australian.

Just between the three of us, we might have reached as many as seven thousand people – individuals who are like ourselves – because like connects to like in social networks.  That means these are individuals who are likely to take advantage of VAustralia the next time they fly the transpacific route.  But here’s the sad thing: VAustralia had no idea this wonderful and loving conversation about their product was going on.  No idea at all.  You know what they were involved in?  An ad-agency dreamed-up ‘4320SYD’ campaign, which flew four mates to Los Angeles for three days, promising them free round-the-world flights on the various Virgin airlines if they sent at least two thousand tweets during their trip.  VAustralia – or rather, VAustralia’s ad agency – presumed that people with busy lives would spend some of their precious time and attention following four blokes spewing out line after line of inane chatter.  Naturally, the campaign disappeared without a trace.

If VAustralia had asked its agency to monitor Twitter, to keep its finger to the pulse of what was being said online, things could have turned out very differently.  Perhaps a VAustralia rep would have contacted John Allsopp directly, thanked him for his kind words, and offered him a $100 coupon for his next flight on V Australia Premium Economy.  VAustralia would have made a customer for life – and for a lot less than they spent on the ‘4320SYD’ campaign.

Marketers and agencies are still thinking in terms of mass markets and mass media.  While both do still exist, they don’t shape perception as they did a generation ago.  Instead, we turn to the hyperconnections we have with one another.  I can instantly ask Twitter for a review of a restaurant, a gadget, or a movie, and I do.  So do millions of others.  This is the new market, and this is the place where marketing – at least as we’ve known it – can not penetrate.

That’s one problem.  There’s another, and larger problem: what happens when you have an angry customer?  Let me tell you a story about my friend Kate Carruthers, who will be speaking with you later this morning.  On a recent trip to Queensland, she 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 sensitive – only to find her card declined once again.

As it turned out, AMEX had cut her 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 AMEX to discuss the 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”

Kate is both a prolific user of Twitter and a very well connected individual.  There are over seven thousand individuals reading her tweets.  Seven thousand people who saw Kate ‘go nuclear’ over her bad treatment at the hands of AMEX.  Seven thousand people who will now think twice when an AMEX offer comes in the post, or when they pass by the tables that are ubiquitously in every airport and mall.  Everyone one of them will remember the ordeal Kate suffered – almost as if Kate were a close friend.

Does AMEX know that Kate went nuclear?  Almost certainly not.  They didn’t make any attempt to contact her after her outburst, so it’s fairly certain that this flew well underneath their radar.  But the damage to AMEX’s reputation is quantifiable: Kate is simply too hyperconnected to be ignored, or mistreated.  And that’s the world we’re all heading into.  As we all grow more and more connected, as we each individually reach thousands of others, slights against any one of us have a way of amplifying into enormous events, the kinds of mistakes that could, if repeated, bring a business to its knees.  AMEX, in its ignorant bliss, has no idea that it has shot itself in the foot.

While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with AMEX, 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.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  AMEX builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it.  Just like VAustralia.  Perhaps that’s simply the way Big Business is going to play the social media revolution – like complete idiots.  You have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

There is a whole world out there engaging in conversation about you.  You need to be able to recognize that.  There are tools out there – like PeopleBrowsr – which make it easy for you to monitor those conversations.  You’ll need to think through a strategy which allows you to recognize and promote those positive conversations, while – perhaps more importantly – keeping an eye on the negative conversations.  An upset customer should be serviced before they go nuclear; these kinds of accidents don’t need to happen.  But you’ll need to be proactive in your listening.  Customers will no longer come to you to talk about you or your business.

III.  Breaking Out

The first step in any social media strategy for business is to embrace the medium.  Many business ban social media from their corporate networks, seeing them as a drain of time and attention.  Which is, in essence, saying that you don’t trust your own employees.  That you’re willing to infantilize them by blocking their network access.  This won’t work.  ‘Smartphones’ – that is, mobiles which have big screens, broadband connections, and full web browsers – have become increasingly popular in Australia.  Perhaps one third of all mobile handsets now qualify as smartphones.  Apple’s iPhone is simply the most visible of these devices, but they’re sold by many manufacturers, and, within a few years, they’ll be entirely pervasive: every mobile will be a smartphone.  A smartphone can access a social network just as easily – often more easily – than a desktop web browser.  Your employees have access to social networks all day long, unless you ask them to leave their mobiles at the front desk.

Just as we expect that employees won’t spend their days sending text messages to the friends, so an employer can expect that employees are sensible enough to regulate their own net usage.  A ‘net nanny’ is not required.  Mutual respect is.  Yes, the network is a powerful thing – it can be used to spread rumor and innuendo, can be used to promote or undermine – but employees understand this.  We all use the network at home.  We know what it’s good for.  Bringing it into the office requires some common sense, and perhaps a few guidelines.  The ABC recently released their own guidelines for social media, and they’re a brilliant example of the parsimony and common sense which need to underwrite all of our business efforts online.  Here they are:

•                do not mix professional and personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute,

•                do not undermine your effectiveness at work,

•                do not imply ABC endorsement of personal views, and,

•                do not disclose confidential information obtained at work.

There’s nothing hard about this list – for either employer or employee – yet it tells everyone exactly where they stand and what’s expected of them.  Employers are expected to trust their employees.  Employees are expected to reciprocate that trust by acting responsibly.  All in all, a very adult relationship.

Once that adult relationship has been established around social media, you have a unique opportunity to let your employees become your eyes and ears online.  Most small to medium-sized businesses have neither the staff nor the resources to dedicate a specific individual to social media issues.  In fact, that’s not actually a good idea.  When things ‘hot up’ for your business, any single individual charged with handling all things social media will quickly overload, with too much coming in through too many channels simultaneously.  That means something will get overlooked.  Something will get dropped.  And a potential nuclear event – something that could be defused or forestalled if responded to in a timely manner – will slip through the cracks.

Social media isn’t a one-person job.  It’s a job for the entire organization.  You need to give your employees permission to be out there on Facebook, on Twitter, on the blogs and in the net’s weirder corners – wherever their searches might lead them.  You need to charge them with the responsibility of being proactive, to go out there and hunt down those conversations of importance to your and your business.  Of course, they should be polite, and only offer help where it is needed, but, if they can do that, you will increase your reach and your presence immeasurably.  And you will have done it without spending a dime.

Those of you with a background in marketing have just broken out in cold sweat.  This is nothing like what they taught you at university, nothing like what you learned on the job.  That’s the truth of it.  But what you learned on the job is what VAustralia and AMEX are now up to – that is, complete and utter failure.  But, you’re thinking, what about message discipline?  How can we have that many people speaking for the organization?  Won’t it be chaos?

The answer, in short, is yes.  It will be chaos.  But not in a bad way.  You’ll have your own army out there, working for you.  Employees will know enough to know when they can speak for the organization, and when they should be silent.  (If they don’t know, they’ll learn quickly.)  Will it be messy?  Probably.  But the world of social media is not neat.  It is not based on image and marketing and presentation.  It is based on authenticity, on relationships that are established and which develop through time.  It is not something that can be bought or sold like an ad campaign.  It is, instead, something more akin to friendship – requiring time and tending and more than a little bit of love.

This means that employees will need some time to spend online, probably a few minutes, several times a day, to keep an eye on things.  To keep watch.  To make sure a simmering pot doesn’t suddenly boil over.

That’s the half of it.  The other half is how you use social media to reach out.  Many companies set up Twitter and Facebook accounts and use them to send useless spam-like messages to anyone who cares to listen.  Please don’t do this. Social media is not about advertising.  In fact, it’s anti-advertising.  Social media is an opportunity to connect.  If you’re a furniture maker, for example, perhaps you’d like to have a public conversation with designers and homeowners about the art and business of making furniture.  Social media is precisely where you get to show off the expertise which keeps you in business – whatever that might be.  Lawyers can talk about law, accountants about accounting, and printers about printing.  Business, especially small business, is all about passion, and social media is a passion amplifier.  Let your passions show and people will respond.  Some of them will become customers.

So please, when you leave here today, setup those Facebook and Twitter accounts.  But when you’ve done that, step back and have a think.  Ask yourself, “How can I represent my business in a way that invites conversation?”  Once you’ve answered that, you’ve also answered the other important question – how do you translate that conversation into business.  Without the conversation you’ve got nothing.  But, once that conversation has begun, you have everything you need.

Those are the basics.  Everything else you’ll learn as you go along.  Social media isn’t difficult, though it takes time to master.  Just like any relationship, you’ll get out of it what you put into it.  And it isn’t going away.  It’s not a fad.  It’s the new way of doing business.  The efforts you make today will, in short order, reward you a hundred-fold.  That’s the promise of network: it will bring you success.

Sharing Power (Global Edition)

My keynote for the Personal Democracy Forum, in New York.

Introduction: War is Over (if you want it)

Over the last year we have lived through a profound and perhaps epochal shift in the distribution of power. A year ago all the talk was about how to mobilize Facebook users to turn out on election day. Today we bear witness to a ‘green’ revolution, coordinated via Twitter, and participate as the Guardian UK crowdsources the engines of investigative journalism and democratic oversight to uncover the unpleasant little secrets buried in the MPs expenses scandal – secrets which the British government has done everything in its power to withhold.

We’ve turned a corner. We’re on the downward slope. It was a long, hard slog to the top – a point we obviously reached on 4 November 2008 – but now the journey is all about acceleration into a future that looks almost nothing like the past. The configuration of power has changed: its distribution, its creation, its application. The trouble with circumstances of acceleration is that they go hand-in-hand with a loss of control. At a certain point our entire global culture is liable to start hydroplaning, or worse, will go airborne. As the well-oiled wheels of culture leave the roadbed of civilization behind, we can spin the steering wheel all we want. Nothing will happen. Acceleration has its own rationale, and responds neither to reason nor desire. Force will meet force. Force is already meeting force.

What happens now, as things speed up, is a bit like what happens in the guts of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Different polities and institutions will smash and reveal their inner workings, like parts sprung from crashed cars. We can learn a lot – if we’re clever enough to watch these collisions as they happen. Some of these particles-in-collision will recognizably be governments or quasi-governmental organizations. Some will look nothing like them. But before we glory, Ballard-like, in the terrible beauty of the crash, we should remember that these institutions are, first and foremost, the domain of people, individuals ill-prepared for whiplash or a sudden impact with the windshield. No one is wearing a safety belt, even as things slip noticeably beyond control. Someone’s going to get hurt. That much is already clear.

What we urgently need, and do not yet have, is a political science for the 21st century. We need to understand the autopoietic formation of polities, which has been so accelerated and amplified in this era of hyperconnectivity. We need to understand the mechanisms of knowledge sharing among these polities, and how they lead to hyperintelligence. We need to understand how hyperintelligence transforms into action, and how this action spreads and replicates itself through hypermimesis. We have the words – or some of them – but we lack even an informal understanding of the ways and means. As long as this remains the case, we are subject to terrible accidents we can neither predict nor control. We can end the war between ourselves and our times. But first we must watch carefully. The collisions are mounting, and they have already revealed much. We have enough data to begin to draw a map of this wholly new territory.

I: The First Casualty of War

Last month saw an interesting and unexpected collision. Wikipedia, the encyclopedia created by and for the people, decreed that certain individuals and a certain range of IP addresses belonging to the Church of Scientology would hereafter be banned from the capability to edit Wikipedia. This directive came from the Arbitration Committee of Wikipedia, which sounds innocuous, but is in actuality the equivalent the Supreme Court in the Wikipediaverse.

It seems that for some period of time – probably stretching into years – there have been any number of ‘edit wars’ (where edits are made and reverted, then un-reverted and re-reverted, ad infinitum) around articles concerning about the Church of Scientology and certain of the personages in the Church. These pages have been subject to fierce edit wars between Church of Scientology members on one side, critics of the Church on the other, and, in the middle, Wikipedians, who attempted to referee the dispute, seeking, above all, to preserve the Neutral Point-of-View (NPOV) that the encyclopedia aspires to in every article. When this became impossible – when the Church of Scientology and its members refused to leave things alone – a consensus gradually formed within the tangled adhocracy of Wikipedia, finalized in last month’s ruling from the Arbitration Committee. For at least six months, several Church of Scientology members are banned by name, and all Church computers are banned from making edits to Wikipedia.

That would seem to be that. But it’s not. The Church of Scientology has been diligent in ensuring that the mainstream media (make no mistake, Wikipedia is now a mainstream medium) do not portray characterizations of Scientology which are unflattering to the Church. There’s no reason to believe that things will simply rest as they are now, that everyone will go off and skulk in their respective corners for six months, like children given a time-out. Indeed, the Chairman of Scientology, David Miscavidge, quickly issued a press release comparing the Wikipedians to Nazis, asking, “What’s next, will Scientologists have to wear yellow, six-pointed stars on our clothing?”

How this skirmish plays out in the months and years to come will be driven by the structure and nature of these two wildly different organizations. The Church of Scientology is the very model of a modern religious hierarchy; all power and control flows down from Chairman David Miscavidge through to the various levels of Scientology. With Wikipedia, no one can be said to be in charge. (Jimmy Wales is not in charge of Wikipedia.) The whole things chugs along as an agreement, a social contract between the parties participating in the creation and maintenance of Wikipedia. Power flows in Wikipedia are driven by participation: the more you participate, the more power you’ll have. Power is distributed laterally: every individual who edits Wikipedia has some ultimate authority.

What happens when these two organizations, so fundamentally mismatched in their structures and power flows, attempt to interact? The Church of Scientology uses lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits as a coercive technique. But Wikipedia has thus far proven immune to lawsuits. Although there is a non-profit entity behind Wikipedia, running its servers and paying for its bandwidth, that is not Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not the machines, it is not the bandwidth, it is not even the full database of articles. Wikipedia is a social agreement. It is an agreement to share what we know, for the greater good of all. How does the Church of Scientology control that? This is the question that confronts every hierarchical organization when it collides with an adhocracy. Adhocracies present no control surfaces; they are at once both entirely transparent and completely smooth.

This could all get much worse. The Church of Scientology could ‘declare war’ on Wikipedia. A general in such a conflict might work to poison the social contract which powers Wikipedia, sewing mistrust, discontent and the presumption of malice within a community that thrives on trust, consensus-building and adherence to a common vision. Striking at the root of the social contract which is the whole of Wikipedia could possibly disrupt its internal networks and dissipate the human energy which drives the project.

Were we on the other side of the conflict, running a defensive strategy, we would seek to reinforce Wikipedia’s natural strength – the social agreement. The stronger the social agreement, the less effective any organized attack will be. A strong social agreement implies a depth of social resources which can be deployed to prevent or rapidly ameliorate damage.

Although this conflict between the Church of Scientology and Wikipedia may never explode into a full-blown conflict, at some point in the future, some other organization or institution will collide with Wikipedia, and battle lines will be drawn. The whole of this quarter of the 21st century looks like an accelerating series of run-ins between hierarchical organizations and adhocracies. What happens when the hierarchies find that their usual tools of war are entirely mismatched to their opponent?

II: War is Hell

Even the collision between friendly parties, when thus mismatched, can be devastating. Rasmus Klies Nielsen, a PhD student in Columbia’s Communications program, wrote an interesting study a few months ago in which he looked at “communication overload”, which he identifies as a persistent feature of online activism. Nielsen specifically studied the 2008 Democratic Primary campaign in New York, and learned that some of the best-practices of the Obama campaign failed utterly when they encountered an energized and empowered public.

The Obama campaign encouraged voters to communicate through its website, both with one another and with the campaign’s New York staff. Although New York had been written off by the campaign (Hilary Clinton was sure to win her home state), the state still housed many very strong and vocal Obama supporters (apocryphally, all from Manhattan’s Upper West Side). These supporters flooded into the Obama campaign website for New York, drowning out the campaign itself. As election day loomed, campaign staffers retreated to “older” communication techniques – that is, mobile phones – while Obama’s supporters continued the conversation through the website. A complete disconnection between campaign and supporters occurred, even though the parties had the same goals.

Political campaigns may be chaotic, but they are also very hierarchically structured. There is an orderly flow of power from top (candidate) to bottom (voter). Each has an assigned role. When that structure is short-circuited and replaced by an adhocracy, the instrumentality of the hierarchy overloads. We haven’t yet seen the hybrid beast which can function hierarchically yet interaction with an adhocracy. At this point when the two touch, the hierarchy simply shorts out.

Another example from the Obama general election campaign illustrates this tendency for hierarchies to short out when interacting with friendly adhocracies. Project Houdini was touted as a vast, distributed GOTV program which would allow tens of thousands of field workers to keep track of who had voted and who hadn’t. Project Houdini was among the most ambitious of the online efforts of the Obama campaign, and was thoroughly tested in the days leading up to the general election. But, once election day came, Project Houdini went down almost immediately under the volley of information coming in from every quadrant of the nation, from fieldworkers thoroughly empowered to gather and report GOTV data to the campaign. A patchwork backup plan allowed the campaign to tame the torrent of data, channeling it through field offices. But the great vision of the Obama campaign, to empower the individuals with the capability to gather and report GOTV data, came crashing down, because the system simply couldn’t handle the crush of the empowered field workers.

Both of these collisions happened in ‘friendly fire’ situations, where everyone’s eyes were set on achieving the same goal. But these two systems of organization are so foreign to one another that we still haven’t seen any successful attempt to span the chasm that separates them. Instead, we see collisions and failures. The political campaigns of the future must learn how to cross that gulf. While some may wish to turn the clock back to an earlier time when campaigns respected carefully-wrought hierarchies, the electorates of the 21st century, empowered in their own right, have already come to expect that their candidate’s campaigns will meet them in that empowerment. The next decade is going to be completely hellish for politicians and campaign workers of every party as new rules and systems are worked out. There are no successful examples – yet. But circumstances are about to force a search for solutions.

III: War is Peace

As governments release the vast amounts of data held and generated by them, communities of interest are rising up to work with that data. As these communities become more knowledgeable, more intelligent – hyperintelligent – via this exposure, this hyperintelligence will translate into action: hyperempowerment. This is all well and good so long as the aims of the state are the same as the aims of the community. A community of hyperempowered citizens can achieve lofty goals in partnership with the state. But even here, the hyperempowered community faces a mismatch with the mechanisms of the state. The adhocracy by which the community thrives has no easy way to match its own mechanisms with those of the state. Even with the best intentions, every time the two touch there is the risk of catastrophic collapse. The failures of Project Houdini will be repeated, and this might lead some to argue that the opening up itself was a mistake. In fact, these catastrophes are the first sign of success. Connection is being made.

In order to avoid catastrophe, the state – and any institution which attempts to treat with a hyperintelligence – must radically reform its own mechanisms of communication. Top-down hierarchies which order power precisely can not share power with hyperintelligence. The hierarchy must open itself to a more chaotic and fundamentally less structured relationship with the hyperintelligence it has helped to foster. This is the crux of the problem, asking the leopard to change its spots. Only in transformation can hierarchy find its way into a successful relationship with hyperintelligence. But can any hierarchy change without losing its essence? Can the state – or any institution – become more flexible, fluid and dynamic while maintaining its essential qualities?

And this is the good case, the happy outcome, where everyone is pulling in the same direction. What happens when aims differ, when some hyperintelligence for some reason decides that it is antithetical to the interests of an institution or a state? We’ve seen the beginnings of this in the weird, slow war between the Church of Scientology and ANONYMOUS, a shadowy organization which coordinates its operations through a wiki. In recent weeks ANONYMOUS has also taken on the Basidj paramilitaries in Iran, and China’s internet censors. ANONYMOUS pools its information, builds hyperintelligence, and translates that hyperintelligence into hyperempowerment. Of course, they don’t use these words. ANONYMOUS is simply a creature of its times, born in an era of hyperconnectivity.

It might be more profitable to ask what happens when some group, working the data supplied at Recovery.gov or Data.gov or you-name-it.gov, learns of something that they’re opposed to, then goes to work blocking the government’s activities. In some sense, this is good old-fashioned activism, but it is amplified by the technologies now at hand. That amplification could be seen as a threat by the state; such activism could even be labeled terrorism. Even when this activism is well-intentioned, the mismatch and collision between the power of the state and any hyperempowered polities means that such mistakes will be very easy to make.

We will need to engage in a close examination of the intersection between the state and the various hyperempowered actors which rising up over next few years. Fortunately, the Obama administration, in its drive to make government data more transparent and more accessible (and thereby more likely to generate hyperintelligence around it) has provided the perfect laboratory to watch these hyperintelligences as they emerge and spread their wings. Although communication’s PhD candidates undoubtedly will be watching and taking notes, public policy-makers also should closely observe everything that happens. Since the rules of the game are changing, observation is the first most necessary step toward a rational future. Examining the pushback caused by these newly emerging communities will give us our first workable snapshot of a political science for the 21st century.

The 21st century will continue to see the emergence of powerful and hyperempowered communities. Sometimes these will challenge hierarchical organizations, such as with Wikipedia and the Church of Scientology; sometimes they will work with hierarchical organizations, as with Project Houdini; and sometimes it will be very hard to tell what the intended outcomes are. In each case the hierarchy – be it a state or an institution – will have to adapt itself into a new power role, a new sharing of power. In the past, like paired with like: states shared power with states, institutions with institutions, hierarchies with hierarchies. We are leaving this comfortable and familiar time behind, headed into a world where actors of every shape and description find themselves sufficiently hyperempowered to challenge any hierarchy. Even when they seek to work with a state or institution, they present challenges. Peace is war. In either direction, the same paradox confronts us: power must surrender power, or be overwhelmed by it. Sharing power is not an ideal of some utopian future; it’s the ground truth of our hyperconnected world.

Sharing Power (Aussie Rules)

I: Family Affairs

In the US state of North Carolina, the New York Times reports, an interesting experiment has been in progress since the first of February. The “Birds and Bees Text Line” invites teenagers with any questions relating to sex or the mysteries of dating to SMS their question to a phone number. That number connects these teenagers to an on-duty adult at the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign. Within 24 hours, the teenager gets a reply to their text. The questions range from the run-of-the-mill – “When is a person not a virgin anymore?” – and the unusual – “If you have sex underwater do u need a condom?” – to the utterly heart-rending – “Hey, I’m preg and don’t know how 2 tell my parents. Can you help?”

The Birds and Bees Text Line is a response to the slow rise in the number of teenage pregnancies in North Carolina, which reached its lowest ebb in 2003. Teenagers – who are given state-mandated abstinence-only sex education in school – now have access to another resource, unmediated by teachers or parents, to prevent another generation of teenage pregnancies. Although it’s early days yet, the response to the program has been positive. Teenagers are using the Birds and Bees Text Line.

It is precisely because the Birds and Bees Text Line is unmediated by parental control that it has earned the ire of the more conservative elements in North Carolina. Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a conservative group, complained to the Times about the lack of oversight. “If I couldn’t control access to this service, I’d turn off the texting service. When it comes to the Internet, parents are advised to put blockers on their computer and keep it in a central place in the home. But kids can have access to this on their cell phones when they’re away from parental influence – and it can’t be controlled.”

If I’d stuffed words into a straw man’s mouth, I couldn’t have come up with a better summation of the situation we’re all in right now: young and old, rich and poor, liberal and conservative. There are certain points where it becomes particularly obvious, such as with the Birds and Bees Text Line, but this example simply amplifies our sense of the present as a very strange place, an undiscovered country that we’ve all suddenly been thrust into. Conservatives naturally react conservatively, seeking to preserve what has worked in the past; Bill Brooks speaks for a large cohort of people who feel increasingly lost in this bewildering present.

Let us assume, for a moment, that conservatism was in the ascendant (though this is clearly not the case in the United States, one could make a good argument that the Rudd Government is, in many ways, more conservative than its predecessor). Let us presume that Bill Brooks and the people for whom he speaks could have the Birds and Bees Text Line shut down. Would that, then, be the end of it? Would we have stuffed the genie back into the bottle? The answer, unquestionably, is no.

Everyone who has used or even heard of the Birds and Bees Text Line would be familiar with what it does and how it works. Once demonstrated, it becomes much easier to reproduce. It would be relatively straightforward to take the same functions performed by the Birds and Bees Text Line and “crowdsource” them, sharing the load across any number of dedicated volunteers who might, through some clever software, automate most of the tasks needed to distribute messages throughout the “cloud” of volunteers. Even if it took a small amount of money to setup and get going, that kind of money would be available from donors who feel that teenage sexual education is a worthwhile thing.

In other words, the same sort of engine which powers Wikipedia can be put to work across a number of different “platforms”. The power of sharing allows individuals to come together in great “clouds” of activity, and allows them to focus their activity around a single task. It could be an encyclopedia, or it could be providing reliable and judgment-free information about sexuality to teenagers. The form matters not at all: what matters is that it’s happening, all around us, everywhere throughout the world.

The cloud, this new thing, this is really what has Bill Brooks scared, because it is, quite literally, ‘out of control’. It arises naturally out of the human condition of ‘hyperconnection’. We are so much better connected than we were even a decade ago, and this connectivity breeds new capabilities. The first of these capabilities are the pooling and sharing of knowledge – or ‘hyperintelligence’. Consider: everyone who reads Wikipedia is potentially as smart as the smartest person who’s written an article in Wikipedia. Wikipedia has effectively banished ignorance born of want of knowledge. The Birds and Bees Text Line is another form of hyperintelligence, connecting adults with knowledge to teenagers in desperate need of that knowledge.

Hyperconnectivity also means that we can carefully watch one another, and learn from one another’s behaviors at the speed of light. This new capability – ‘hypermimesis’ – means that new behaviors, such as the Birds and Bees Text Line, can be seen and copied very quickly. Finally, hypermimesis means that that communities of interest can form around particular behaviors, ‘clouds’ of potential. These communities range from the mundane to the arcane, and they are everywhere online. But only recently have they discovered that they can translate their community into doing, putting hyperintelligence to work for the benefit of the community. This is the methodology of the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign. This is the methodology of Wikipedia. This is the methodology of Wikileaks, which seeks to provide a safe place for whistle-blowers who want to share the goods on those who attempt to defraud or censor or suppress. This is the methodology of ANONYMOUS, which seeks to expose Scientology as a ridiculous cult. How many more examples need to be listed before we admit that the rules have changed, that the smooth functioning of power has been terrifically interrupted by these other forces, now powers in their own right?

II: Affairs of State

Don’t expect a revolution. We will not see masses of hyperconnected individuals, storming the Winter Palaces of power. This is not a proletarian revolt. It is, instead, rather more subtle and complex. The entire nature of power has changed, as have the burdens of power. Power has always carried with it the ‘burden of omniscience’ – that is, those at the top of the hierarchy have to possess a complete knowledge of everything of importance happening everywhere under their control. Where they lose grasp of that knowledge, that’s the space where coups, palace revolutions and popular revolts take place.

This new power that flows from the cloud of hyperconnectivity carries a different burden, the ‘burden of connection’. In order to maintain the cloud, and our presence within it, we are beholden to it. We must maintain each of the social relationships, each of the informational relationships, each of the knowledge relationships and each of the mimetic relationships within the cloud. Without that constant activity, the cloud dissipates, evaporating into nothing at all.

This is not a particularly new phenomenon; Dunbar’s Number demonstrates that we are beholden to the ‘tribe’ of our peers, the roughly 150 individuals who can find a place in our heads. In pre-civilization, the cloud was the tribe. Should the members of tribe interrupt the constant reinforcement of their social, informational, knowledge-based and mimetic relationships, the tribe would dissolve and disperse – as happens to a tribe when it grows beyond the confines of Dunbar’s Number.

In this hyperconnected era, we can pick and choose which of our human connections deserves reinforcement; the lines of that reinforcement shape the scope of our power. Studies of Japanese teenagers using mobiles and twenty-somethings on Facebook have shown that, most of the time, activity is directed toward a small circle of peers, perhaps six or seven others. This ‘co-presence’ is probably a modern echo of an ancient behavior, presumably related to the familial unit.

While we might desire to extend our power and capabilities through our networks of hyperconnections, the cost associated with such investments is very high. Time spent invested in a far-flung cloud is time that lost on networks closer to home. Yet individuals will nonetheless often dedicate themselves to some cause greater than themselves, despite the high price paid, drawn to some higher ideal.

The Obama campaign proved an interesting example of the price of connectivity. During the Democratic primary for the state of New York (which Hilary Clinton was expected to win easily), so many individuals contacted the campaign through its website that the campaign itself quickly became overloaded with the number of connections it was expected to maintain. By election day, the campaign staff in New York had retreated from the web, back to using mobiles. They had detached from the ‘cloud’ connectivity they used the web to foster, instead focusing their connectivity on the older model of the six or seven individuals in co-present connection. The enormous cloud of power which could have been put to work in New York lay dormant, unorganized, talking to itself through the Obama website, but effectively disconnected from the Obama campaign.

For each of us, connectivity carries a high price. For every organization which attempts to harness hyperconnectivity, the price is even higher. With very few exceptions, organizations are structured along hierarchical lines. Power flows from bottom to the top. Not only does this create the ‘burden of omniscience’ at the highest levels of the organization, it also fundamentally mismatches the flows of power in the cloud. When the hierarchy comes into contact with an energized cloud, the ‘discharge’ from the cloud to the hierarchy can completely overload the hierarchy. That’s the power of hyperconnectivity.

Another example from the Obama campaign demonstrates this power. Project Houdini was touted out by the Obama campaign as a system which would get the grassroots of the campaign to funnel their GOTV results into a centralized database, which could then be used to track down individuals who hadn’t voted, in order to offer them assistance in getting to their local polling station. The campaign grassroots received training in Project Houdini, when through a field test of the software and procedures, then waited for election day. On election day, Project Houdini lasted no more than 15 minutes before it crashed under the incredible number of empowered individuals who attempted to plug data into Project Houdini. Although months in the making, Project Houdini proved that a centralized and hierarchical system for campaign management couldn’t actually cope with the ‘cloud’ of grassroots organizers.

In the 21st century we now have two oppositional methods of organization: the hierarchy and the cloud. Each of them carry with them their own costs and their own strengths. Neither has yet proven to be wholly better than the other. One could make an argument that both have their own roles into the future, and that we’ll be spending a lot of time learning which works best in a given situation. What we have already learned is that these organizational types are mostly incompatible: unless very specific steps are taken, the cloud overpowers the hierarchy, or the hierarchy dissipates the cloud. We need to think about the interfaces that can connect one to the other. That’s the area that all organizations – and very specifically, non-profit organizations – will be working through in the coming years. Learning how to harness the power of the cloud will mark the difference between a modest success and overwhelming one. Yet working with the cloud will present organizational challenges of an unprecedented order. There is no way that any hierarchy can work with a cloud without becoming fundamentally changed by the experience.

III: Affair de Coeur

All organizations are now confronted with two utterly divergent methodologies for organizing their activities: the tower and the cloud. The tower seeks to organize everything in hierarchies, control information flows, and keep the power heading from bottom to top. The cloud isn’t formally organized, pools its information resources, and has no center of power. Despite all of its obvious weaknesses, the cloud can still transform itself into a formidable power, capable of overwhelming the tower. To push the metaphor a little further, the cloud can become a storm.

How does this happen? What is it that turns a cloud into a storm? Jimmy Wales has said that the success of any language-variant version of Wikipedia comes down to the dedicated efforts of five individuals. Once he spies those five individuals hard at work in Pashtun or Khazak or Xhosa, he knows that edition of Wikipedia will become a success. In other words, five people have to take the lead, leading everyone else in the cloud with their dedication, their selflessness, and their openness. This number probably holds true in a cloud of any sort – find five like-minded individuals, and the transformation from cloud to storm will begin.

At the end of that transformation there is still no hierarchy. There are, instead, concentric circles of involvement. At the innermost, those five or more incredibly dedicated individuals; then a larger circle of a greater number, who work with that inner five as time and opportunity allow; and so on, outward, at decreasing levels of involvement, until we reach those who simply contribute a word or a grammatical change, and have no real connection with the inner circle, except in commonality of purpose. This is the model for Wikipedia, for Wikileaks, and for ANONYMOUS. This is the cloud model, fully actualized as a storm. At this point the storm can challenge any tower.

But the storm doesn’t have things all its own way; to present a challenge to a tower is to invite the full presentation of its own power, which is very rude, very physical, and potentially very deadly. Wikipedians at work on the Farsi version of the encyclopedia face arrest and persecution by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and religious police. Just a few weeks ago, after the contents of the Australian government’s internet blacklist was posted to Wikileaks, the German government invaded the home of the man who owns the domain name for Wikileaks in Germany. The tower still controls most of the power apparatus in the world, and that power can be used to squeeze any potential competitors.

But what happens when you try to squeeze a cloud? Effectively, nothing at all. Wikipedia has no head to decapitate. Jimmy Wales is an effective cheerleader and face for the press, but his presence isn’t strictly necessary. There are over 2000 Wikipedians who handle the day-to-day work. Locking all of them away, while possible, would only encourage further development in the cloud, as other individuals moved to fill their places. Moreover, any attempt to disrupt the cloud only makes the cloud more resilient. This has been demonstrated conclusively from the evolution of ‘darknets’, private file-sharing networks, which grew up as the legal and widely available file-sharing networks, such as Napster, were shut down by the copyright owners. Attacks on the cloud only improve the networks within the cloud, only make the leaders more dedicated, only increase the information and knowledge sharing within the cloud. Trying to disperse a storm only intensifies it.

These are not idle speculations; the tower will seek to contain the storm by any means necessary. The 21st century will increasingly look like a series of collisions between towers and storms. Each time the storm emerges triumphant, the tower will become more radical and determined in its efforts to disperse the storm, which will only result in a more energized and intensified storm. This is not a game that the tower can win by fighting. Only by opening up and adjusting itself to the structure of the cloud can the tower find any way forward.

What, then, is leadership in the cloud? It is not like leadership in the tower. It is not a position wrought from power, but authority in its other, and more primary meaning, ‘to be the master of’. Authority in the cloud is drawn from dedication, or, to use rather more precise language, love. Love is what holds the cloud together. People are attracted to the cloud because they are in love with the aim of the cloud. The cloud truly is an affair of the heart, and these affairs of the heart will be the engines that drive 21st century business, politics and community.

Author and pundit Clay Shirky has stated, “The internet is better at stopping things than starting them.” I reckon he’s wrong there: the internet is very good at starting things that stop things. But it is very good at starting things. Making the jump from an amorphous cloud of potentiality to a forceful storm requires the love of just five people. That’s not much to ask. If you can’t get that many people in love with your cause, it may not be worth pursing.

Conclusion: Managing Your Affairs

All 21st century organizations need to recognize and adapt to the power of the cloud. It’s either that or face a death of a thousand cuts, the slow ebbing of power away from hierarchically-structured organizations as newer forms of organization supplant them. But it need not be this way. It need not be an either/or choice. It could be a future of and-and-and, where both forms continue to co-exist peacefully. But that will only come to pass if hierarchies recognize the power of the cloud.

This means you.

All of you have your own hierarchical organizations – because that’s how organizations have always been run. Yet each of you are surrounded by your own clouds: community organizations (both in the real world and online), bulletin boards, blogs, and all of the other Web2.0 supports for the sharing of connectivity, information, knowledge and power. You are already halfway invested in the cloud, whether or not you realize it. And that’s also true for people you serve, your customers and clients and interest groups. You can’t simply ignore the cloud.

How then should organizations proceed?

First recommendation: do not be scared of the cloud. It might be some time before you can come to love the cloud, or even trust it, but you must at least move to a place where you are not frightened by a constituency which uses the cloud to assert its own empowerment. Reacting out of fright will only lead to an arms race, a series of escalations where the your hierarchy attempts to contain the cloud, and the cloud – which is faster, smarter and more agile than you can ever hope to be – outwits you, again and again.

Second: like likes like. If you can permute your organization so that it looks more like the cloud, you’ll have an easier time working with the cloud. Case in point: because of ‘message discipline’, only a very few people are allowed to speak for an organization. Yet, because of the exponential growth in connectivity and Web2.0 technologies, everyone in your organization has more opportunities to speak for your organization than ever before. Can you release control over message discipline, and empower your organization to speak for itself, from any point of contact? Yes, this sounds dangerous, and yes, there are some dangers involved, but the cloud wants to be spoken to authentically, and authenticity has many competing voices, not a single monolithic tone.

Third, and finally, remember that we are all involved in a growth process. The cloud of last year is not the cloud of next year. The answers that satisfied a year ago are not the same answers that will satisfy a year from now. We are all booting up very quickly into an alternative form of social organization which is only just now spreading its wings and testing its worth. Beginnings are delicate times. The future will be shaped by actions in the present. This means there are enormous opportunities to extend the capabilities of existing organizations, simply by harnessing them to the changes underway. It also means that tragedies await those who fight the tide of times too single-mindedly. Our culture has already rounded the corner, and made the transition to the cloud. It remains to be seen which of our institutions and organizations can adapt themselves, and find their way forward into sharing power.

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.

The Inconvenience of Truth

During the April 2007 Education.AU tour of Australia’s capitol cities with Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), I opened the afternoon panel & workshop sessions with a brief talk about peer-produced knowledge – and how it doesn’t necessarily lead to the truth.

Here it is – with my slides, rather than video footage of me behind a podium (which would be rather dull in any case).