The Nuclear Option

I.

One of the things I find the most exhilarating about Australia is the relative shallowness of its social networks. Where we’re accustomed to hearing about the “six degrees of separation” which connect any two individuals on Earth, in Australia we live with social networks which are, in general, about two levels deep. If I don’t know someone, I know someone who knows that someone.

While this may be slightly less true across the population as a whole (I may not know a random individual living in Kalgoorlie, and might not know someone who knows them) it is specifically quite true within any particular professional domain. After four years living in Sydney, attending and speaking at conferences throughout the nation, I’ve met most everyone involved in the so-called “new” media, and a great majority of the individuals involved in film and television production.

The most consequential of these connections sit in my address book, my endless trail of email, and my ever-growing list of Facebook friends. These connections evolve into relationships as we bat messages back and forth: emails and text messages, and links to the various interesting tidbits we find, filter and forward to those we imagine will gain the most from this informational hunting & gathering. Each transmission reinforces the bond between us – or, if I’ve badly misjudged you, ruptures that bond. The more we share with each other, the stronger the bond becomes. It becomes a covert network; invisible to the casual observer, but resilient and increasingly important to each of us. This is the network that carries gossip – Australians are great gossipers – as well as insights, opportunities, and news of the most personal sort.

In a small country, even one as geographically dispersed as Australia, this means that news travels fast. This is interesting to watch, and terrifying to participate in, because someone’s outrageous behavior is shared very quickly through these networks. Consider Roy Greenslade’s comments about Andrew Jaspan, at Friday’s “Future of Journalism” conference, which made their way throughout the nation in just a few minutes, via “live” blogs and texts, getting star billing in Friday’s Crikey. While Greenslade damned Jaspan, I was trapped in studio 21 at ABC Ultimo, shooting The New Inventors, yet I found out about his comments almost the moment I walked off set. Indeed, connected as I am to individuals such as Margaret Simmons and Rosanne Bersten (both of whom were at the conference) it would have been more surprising if I hadn’t learned about it.

All of this means that we Australians are under tremendous pressure to play nice – at least in public. Bad behavior (or, in this case, a terrifyingly honest assessment of a colleague’s qualifications) so excites the network of connections that it propagates immediately. And, within our tight little professional social networks, we’re so well connected that it propagates ubiquitously. Everyone to whom Greenslade’s comments were salient heard about them within a few minutes after he uttered them. There was a perfect meeting between the message and its intended audience.

That is a new thing.

II.

Over the past few months, I have grown increasingly enamoured with one of the newest of the “Web2.0” toys, a site known as “Twitter”. Twitter originally billed itself as a “micro-blogging” site: you can post messages (“tweets”, in Twitter parlance) of no more than 140 characters to Twitter, and these tweets are distributed to a list of “followers”. Conversely, you are sent the tweets created by all of the individuals whom you “follow”. One of the beauties of Twitter is that it is multi-modal; you can send a tweet via text message, through a web page, or from an ever-growing range of third-party applications. Twitter makes it very easy for a bright young programmer to access Twitter’s servers – which means people are now doing all sorts of interesting things with Twitter.

At the moment, Twitter is still in the domain of the early-adopters. Worldwide, there are only about a million Twitter users, with about 200,000 active in any week – and these folks are sending an average of three million tweets a day. That may not sound like many people, but these 200,000 “Twitteratti” are among the thought-leaders in new media. Their influence is disproportionate. They may not include the CIOs of the largest institutions in the world, but they do include the folks whom those CIOs turn to for advice. And whom do these thought-leaders turn to for advice? Twitter.

A simple example: When I sat down to write this, I had no idea how many Twitter users there are at present, so I posted the following tweet:

Question: Does anyone know how many Twitter users (roughly) there are at present? Thanks!

Within a few minutes, Stilgherrian (who writes for Crikey) responded with the following:

There are 1M+ Twitter users, with 200,000 active in any week.

Stilgherrian also passed along a link to his blog where he discusses Twitter’s statistics, and muses upon his increasing reliance on the service.

Before I asked the Twitteratti my question, I did the logical thing: I searched Google. But Google didn’t have any reasonably recent results – the most recent dated from about a year ago. No love from Google. Instead, I turned to my 250-or-so Twitter followers, and asked them. Given my own connectedness in the new media community in Australia, I have, through Twitter, access to an enormous reservoir of expertise. If I don’t know the answer to a question – and I can’t find an answer online – I do know someone, somewhere, who has an answer.

Twitter, gossipy, noisy, inane and frequently meaningless, acts as my 21st-century brain trust. With Twitter I have immediate access to a broad range of very intelligent people, whose interests and capabilities overlap mine enough that we can have an interesting conversation, but not so completely that we have nothing to share with one another. Twitter extends my native capability by giving me a high degree of continuous connectivity with individuals who complement those capabilities.

That’s a new thing, too.

William Gibson, the science fiction author and keen social observer, once wrote, “The street finds its own use for things, uses the manufacturers never intended.” The true test of the value of any technology is, “Does the street care?” In the case of Twitter, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”. This personal capacity enhancement – or, as I phrase it, “hyperempowerment” – is not at all what Twitter was designed to do. It was designed to facilitate the posting of short, factual messages. The harvesting of the expertise of my oh-so-expert social network is a behavior that grew out of my continued interactions with Twitter. It wasn’t planned for, either by Twitter’s creators, or by me. It just happened. And not every Twitter user puts Twitter to this use. But some people, who see what I’m doing, will copy my behavior (which probably didn’t originate with me, though I experienced a penny-drop moment when I realized I could harvest expertise from my social network using Twitter), because it is successful. This behavior will quickly replicate, until it’s a bog-standard expectation of all Twitter users.

III.

On Monday morning, before I sat down to write, I checked the morning’s email. Several had come in from individuals in the US, including one from my friend GregoryP, who spent the last week sweating through the creation of a presentation on the value of social media. As many of you know, companies often hire outside consultants, like GregoryP, when the boss needs to hear something that his or her underlings are too afraid say themselves. Such was the situation that GregoryP walked into, with sadly familiar results. From his blog:

As for that “secret” company – it seems fairly certain to me that I won’t be working for any dot-com pure plays in the near future. As I touched on in my Twitter account, my presentation went well but the response to it was something more than awful. As far as I could tell, the generally-absent Director of the Company wasn’t briefed on who I was or why I was there, exactly – she took the opportunity to impugn my credibility and credentials and more or less acted as if I’d tried to rip her company off.

I immediately read GregoryP’s Twitter stream, to find that he had been used, abused and insulted by the MD in question.

Which was a big, big mistake.

GregoryP is not very well connected on Twitter. He’s only just started using it. A fun little website, TweetWheel, shows all nine of his connections. But two of his connections – to Raven Zachary and myself – open into a much, much wider world of Twitteratti. Raven has over 600 people following his tweets, and I have over 250 followers. Both of us are widely-known, well-connected individuals. Both of us are good friends with GregoryP. And both of us are really upset at bad treatment he received.

Here’s how GregoryP finished off that blog post:

Let’s just say it’ll be a cold day in hell before I offer any help, friendly advice or contacts to these people. I’d be more specific about who they are but I wouldn’t want to give them any more promotion than I already have.

What’s odd here – and a sign that the penny hasn’t really dropped – is that GregoryP doesn’t really understand that “promotion” isn’t so much a beneficial influence as a chilling threat to lay waste to this company’s business prospects. This MD saw GregoryP standing before her, alone and defenseless, bearing a message that she was of no mind to receive, despite the fact that her own staff set this meeting up, for her own edification.

What this unfortunate MD did not see – because she does not “get” social media – was Raven and myself, directly connected to GregoryP. Nor does she see the hundreds of people we connect directly to, nor the tens of thousands connected directly to them. She thought she was throwing her weight around. She was wrong. She was making an ass out of herself, behaving very badly in a world where bad behavior is very, very hard to hide.

All GregoryP need do, to deliver the coup de grace, is reveal the name of the company in question. As word spread – that is, nearly instantaneously – that company would find it increasingly difficult to recruit good technology consultants, programmers, and technology marketers, because we all share our experiences. Sharing our experiences improves our effectiveness, and prevents us from making bad decisions. Such as working with this as-yet-unnamed company.

The MD walked into this meeting believing she held all the cards; in fact, GregoryP is the one with his finger poised over the launch button. With just a word, he could completely ruin her business. This utter transformation in power politics – “hyperconnectivity” leading to hyperempowerment – is another brand new thing. This brand new thing is going to change everything it touches, every institution and every relationship any individual brings to those institutions. Many of those institutions will not survive, because their reputations will not be able to withstand the glare of hyperconnectivity backed by the force of hyperempowerment.

The question before us today is not, “Who is the audience?”, but rather, “Is there anyone who isn’t in the audience?” As you can now see, a single individual – anywhere – is the entire audience. Every single person is now so well-connected that anything which happens to them or in front of them reaches everyone it needs to reach, almost instantaneously.

This newest of new things has only just started to rise up and flex its muscles. The street, ever watchful, will find new uses for it, uses that corporations, governments and institutions of every stripe will find incredibly distasteful, chaotic, and impossible to manage.