Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
— E.M. Forster, Howards End
I. Welcome to the Social
At 2:30 PM, Monday 12 May 2008, a huge earthquake struck the Sichuan province of China. In some places, the ground trembled for as long as three minutes. When the shaking stopped, those with computers turned to them to find out what had happened, and to share their own experiences. Just last month China passed the United States as the nation with the largest Internet-connected population: over 221 million Chinese go online nearly every day.
We all do the same sorts of things online: the utilitarian tasks, like electronic banking and flight reservations; the work-related tasks, answering queries from colleagues; and all of us, everywhere, use the Internet to expand and deepen our social lives.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Internet, we are told, will eventually turn the planet into the equivalent of the nerdy uni drop-out, living a hermit’s life in some poor parent’s basement. We’re turning within, abandoning contact with the cruel world.
In reality, something very different is taking place. We are reaching out, through the wire, first to our families, then our friends, our colleagues, and – just now – we’re touching people we’ve never met. And likely will never meet.
We touch all these individuals with acts of communication. To our families, we send love and kisses. To our friends, a favorite joke. To colleagues, a relevant link to an online report. And, for everyone else – well, we’ll come to that.
Every time we reach out, we reinforce and strengthen the bonds that tie us to other people. And this isn’t a new thing, or even something that’s unique to humans: gorillas and chimpanzees do it. This reaching out, to share something – something that we know, or something we stumbled upon, or something we feel – is a basic part of every one of us. Sharing makes the world go round.
Suddenly we’ve gotten very, very good at it.
Just in the last four years – less time than I’ve been in Australia – we’ve seen the phenomenal rise of the technologies of sharing. Flickr – which allows you to post your photos in one spot, where everyone else can view them. YouTube – now the third most trafficked site on the Web. And now there’s Twitter – which allows you to share bite-sited bits of text – called ‘tweets’ – with a select group of “followers”.
I call Twitter a “Social Messaging Service” – yes, another SMS – because it allows me to communicate much the same sorts things I would with a text message – but, rather than going to just one other person, I can send that message to over 530 of my followers. Many of these people are known to me – in person, or by reputation – but some follow me simply because they’re interested in what I have to say. Though most of the chatter on Twitter is inane – like the world’s weirdest cocktail party – some of it is incredibly immediate, vital and important.
As, for example, last Monday. Just before I left the house for the evening, I received a few tweets talking about the earthquake in China. What earthquake? I wondered – there’d been nothing about it on the telly, or on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, or the New York Times, or BBC News. Even the Associate Press hadn’t burped up an initial report. But I have one follower (whom I follow in return), Dedric Lam, who lives just outside Shanghai. Everyone in Shanghai felt the shaking, and, as they connected with one another, they all knew that everyone else in Shanghai had felt it, too. As they received tweets from places further away, they knew the shaking had been felt in Beijing – and quickly realized that Sichuan had gone dark. No tweets, no websites, no phone service. All of this flew by on Twitter a full thirty minutes before the first reports made their way onto the wire. When I met up with friends that night, I asked them if they had any news about the earthquake in China. They said, “What earthquake?”
Twitter, connecting people across boundaries of politics, culture and language through its social messaging service, has – quite accidentally – become a human early-warning system. One tweet might not have the ring of truth, unless it comes from a particularly well-trusted source. A thousand tweets, all saying more-or-less the same thing, possess enormous authenticity.
By the time I got back to my flat on Monday evening, the Twittersphere was alive with tweets from people in China, passing along the latest news reports, video segments and photos from the front lines of the rescue effort. On Tuesday, Dedric Lam posted perhaps a hundred tweets, the best of which I “re-tweeted”, forwarding them along to my own followers. This “human network” of connections gave all of us more insight into the tragedy unfolding in Sichuan than anything available from any news broadcaster or publisher. The mainstream news sources, playing catch-up, tried to send reporters into an area where no cars or planes or trains could travel, while, from deep within the earthquake zone, messages made their way out into the Human Network, via text messages, or email, or Twitter, and, forwarded along through this dense maze of connections, reached everyone interested in learning the ‘ground truth’ of the disaster. Some of the stories were uplifting – people saved from beneath collapsed concrete and brick buildings. Others tore at your heart.
We now have so many ways to stay connected, we’ve crossed the boundary from “well-connected” into “hyperconnected”. Our ability to reach out and touch or be touched by someone else, over matters trivial or life-and-death has grown so suddenly and so comprehensively, it’s changing the way we think, and the way we work. The social message service isn’t just a fun way to while the way the time, or a great new way to stay informed: it’s the way we’ll do business in the 21st century.
II. Instant Karma
On the first weekend of April, TechCrunch founder and widely-read blogger Michael Arrington faced frustrations at home. His broadband, provided by US cable giant Comcast, had gone dark. Despite every attempt to get his service restored – including a number of calls to Comcast’s repair center (receiving a different explanation for the outage every time he called), he spent the weekend stealing bandwidth from his neighbors’ WiFi connections. After thirty hours of putting up with crap from Comcast, Arrington let loose – on Twitter. Arrington has over 17,000 followers on Twitter, people who enjoy reading his insightful commentary on all things digital, individuals who are themselves well-connected and influential. So as Arrington vented his spleen, a large section of the technology community – all around the world – listened.
To Arrington’s immense surprise, within 20 minutes of his first tweet about Comcast, he received a call from a Comcast executive in Philadelphia – calling from the other side of the country, in the middle of a weekend. The executive offered his help getting Arrington’s service restored, and mentioned that he spent a lot of time monitoring Twitter and other social media services – trying to get a sense of what Comcast’s customers were saying online about their broadband service. The executive saw the discussion break out around Arrington’s tweets, and decided to swoop in and take action.
Although famous in technology circles, Arrington isn’t alone in getting such star treatment. Josh Lowenson, a self-professed “internet nobody”, was having some trouble installing software that had come with his Comcast cable modem, and fired off a few angry tweets about it. Within a few minutes, a Comcast employee tweeted back with a solution to his problems. Everyone was happy, and Lowenson wrote a blog post praising Comcast’s responsiveness to his needs. That kind of public display of affection is gold for any company working directly in the consumer marketplace.
A weapon with that kind of potency can be pointed both ways. Two weeks ago, a good friend of mine, a consultant who works with a range of companies, gave a presentation to the managing director of an up-and-coming web media firm. The presentation had been organized by the MD’s staff, who hired my friend to bring this out-of-touch MD up-to-speed. Now, we all know that consultants frequently get hired to deliver messages up the chain of command that the staff would present themselves, if they had the cojones. You can hire a consultant (and hide behind them) to break bad news or just difficult news with a degree of safety. We also know that some folks like to shoot the messenger.
That’s just what happened to my unlucky friend. After a successful presentation, he found himself peppered with insults and accusations from the MD – treatment that he reckoned he hadn’t earned. So, as soon as he left the meeting, he sent a tweet from his mobile – Twitter accepts text messages. I got the tweet and followed up on it, getting the whole horrid story.
That’s when I had a real penny-drop moment: although my friend has only a few Twitter followers, two of those followers, myself and Raven Zachary, have many hundreds. Both of us are well-known individuals, well-trusted in technology circles. If we spread the word about the nasty behavior of this particular MD, through our own hyperconnections, we could effectively bring that company to its knees. They’d be unable to hire any qualified technology types, because – for anyone who cared to look – the facts would be out there, the story plain for all to see. We could trigger the ‘nuclear option’, if we wanted to. And this stupid and mean MD would pay the price – in full – for her stupidity. It would all be over in just a few minutes.
Call it instant karma.
All of this means that we need new tools, more tools, better tools that can read the collective mind of the Internet, and – through whatever data sifting magic you care to use – present it as a comprehensible stream of meaningful tidbits. Everyone needs this, but big commercial firms need it desperately, because customers can now organize themselves against those firms at the press of a button. Rumors can destroy markets in an afternoon. And bad behavior can no longer be covered up.
But this is more than just a warning call; this is an opportunity. The same techniques of social sharing that we’re using in our day-to-day lives are almost never used inside companies. You got mail, and – if you’re very lucky – instant messaging. But the idea of giving employees a central line, where they can collectively gripe or muse or collaborate? That’s beyond the pale. Too much freedom, too much time spent doing “unproductive” tasks. Too much capability to foment an internal rebellion to corporate stupidity.
As if sharing your mind and building esprit de corps were unproductive.
There’s a disconnect between the way we do business and the way we live our lives. Right now, our lives outside the corporate cubicle are changing so rapidly it’s making us a bit dizzy. Down on the cube farm, things are pretty much same as it ever was. The longer this goes on, the more dangerous it becomes: for these companies, for their customers, for your job security. But, if you can build the tools that allow this sharing, if you can give everyone in your organization access to the collective capabilities of your organization, you can turbo-charge it. You can grasp the nettle, and turn all these potential negatives into game-changing positives.
Let’s look at how.
III. Empower Me
The Web is more than just words on a page, or a funny video embedded in a blog. The Web isn’t about content. Even though we constantly hear that ‘content is king’, it just ain’t so. Connection is king. Twelve years ago, sharing meant a cute page with an animated GIF background and bad MIDI music, accompanying four thousand digital snaps of your kitty cat. While that still goes on today, it’s become a sideshow. It’s not the main event. Sharing has evolved into something new, something more than just a way to unburden yourself.
In January 2001, when Jimmy Wales opened his failed encyclopedia project to all contributors, he had no idea that for the next two years, thousands of individuals would labor ceaselessly, adding article entries on every topic they could think of, correcting the grammatical and spelling mistakes in each other’s articles, and borrowing from the 1913 Encyclopedia Britannica where they lacked the expert knowledge themselves. When I first saw Wikipedia, in January 2002, it held nearly fifteen thousand articles on a broad range of subjects. Not bad, but hardly encyclopedic, though respectable enough after a year of thankless work on the part of many, many “Wikipedians”.
Even that was enough; word spread about Wikipedia. People dropped by to use it, adding something they knew, amending something they knew to be incorrect, and, each time, leaving something of themselves behind. With each contribution they made, they grew more fond of Wikipedia, returning to it more and more frequently, all the while telling their friends. This virtuous cycle – where contributions produce affection, and affection produces even more contributions – led to the exponential growth of Wikipedia, which, as of 19 May 2008, has two million three hundred and seventy six thousand articles in English. In just half a decade, Wikipedia has become the definitive reference in the English language, displacing the two hundred and fifty year-old Encyclopedia Britannica, which has just one-ninth the number articles.
Wikipedia is not perfect, but then, neither is Britannica. Both of them are, on average, equally accurate. But Wikipedia, available anywhere, at any time, through any connection to the Internet, has a reach and influence Britannica could never hope to achieve. As a child, I read through a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia, cover to cover, all twenty volumes digested over a year’s time; a child today could never hope to read all the articles in Wikipedia: new ones are created in such numbers that they’d always be falling behind.
In Wikipedia we have the standard factual reference in the English language. What has this given us? It all depends on how you use it. A secondary school student might use Wikipedia – against teacher’s strict instructions – to write a paper. Or we might settle a trivia dispute that arises at a dinner party.
If we were smart, we’d use the factual information in Wikipedia to make better decisions. In truth, we have such a wealth of knowledge available to us in Wikipedia that we should think of it as a part of our brains that sits just outside our heads. If we used it – consistently – as a reference, we’d make fewer mistakes, because, as the old saw (from Mark Twain) goes, “It’s not what you don’t know – it’s what you know that ain’t so!” For all of the factual questions of our lives, we have now have the answers. We just need to put those answers to work.
If we leverage the wealth of knowledge and expertise that once sat securely locked away in our heads, knowledge which we are now able to share with one another, we can increase our own intelligence. We can consistently make better decisions. We can improve our effectiveness, both as individuals and in groups.
This basic innovation – the most significant of the 21st century – has enormous implications for organizations of all sorts. Organizations thrive on information and knowledge. Every trade, from the most physical to the most abstract, relies upon the expertise of those who practice it. We apprentice young people so that this knowledge is passed along, or we send them to uni and post-graduate studies. We can accelerate and improve this transmission of knowledge with the technologies of sharing. Sometimes text is the best medium for sharing knowledge, but video or audio or animations or photographs often work far more effectively. You can go to Wikipedia to learn about the history of baking, but you have to go to YouTube if you want to learn how to bake a cake.
Consider the lesson of Wikipedia, and think about how it can apply to your own organization: can you improve the effectiveness of your organization’s ability to make decisions, to react quickly to a changing market, to innovate, to constantly re-invent itself? These are the challenges facing all organizations in the 21st century, in both the commercial and public sectors of the economy.
We now have proven tools that allow us to improve our effectiveness – to “hyperempower” the organization. First, you need to develop the tools which provide “hyperconnectivity” within these organizations. Once you’ve got that hyperconnectivity, you need to provide systems which allow these individuals to share their expertise and multiply their effectiveness.
It could be as simple as Twitter plus a Wiki. Just those two pieces, thrown together, can create a revolution in any organization. But, when you start adding rich media – capturing everything which can’t easily be expressed in text – you begin building up a reservoir of expertise which provides a foundation for excellence, a launchpad for a rocketship ride into hyperempowerment.
So today, as you learn about all the nifty things you can do, consider this: you already know how to put these tools to work. You use these tools every single day. They haven’t yet transformed the organization. But they will. Right now almost anything is possible. We’re at the cusp of an explosion in innovation, as we put the technologies of sharing to work. You have the tools, and your organizations need this to happen if they expect to be in business in a few years’ time. It’s up to you – all of you, here in this room today – to go down to the code mines, and make this revolution happen. You can lead the way. You can empower me. You can empower all of us.