The ideology of algorithms

I have written about this before, and no doubt will again as it is so important.

Fewer and fewer of us buy newspapers and I can't remember the last time I watched TV news or listened to the radio. My news comes to me through my various networks on Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook. I like that my news is now messily diverse. I have to work out the truth from a variety of sources. I need to take responsibility for keeping these networks as diverse as I can, avoiding the risk of echo chambers.

The risk of news being steered is not new. Newspapers, and TV in the US have always been funded by advertising. Newspaper moguls have always had vested interests and pushed particular views. Echo chambers are not new - do you choose The Guardian or The Telegraph?

At least now I can avoid my technology platforms using their algorithms to steer me to what they think is newsworthy (or to what gets them the most advertising revenue). I have to invest a bit of time and effort, but as least I can do it. I can create lists in Twitter and Facebook and steer the algorithms with my likes and shares. If any platform becomes too intrusive in its steering of my network I can leave it. I still maintain a set of RSS feeds of smart people, including many journalists, that get me to the good stuff outside of the walled gardens of Facebook or Twitter.

Kevin O'Keefe has picked up on an article by Emily Bell in The Guardian in which she expresses concern at technology platforms' lack of accountability in steering our news consumption. His response:

"But we ought not be looking to hold Facebook and Twitter accountable for news. We’re going to have to be accountable this time by carefully selecting those we follow and using these media enough to let their algorithms work for us."

Kevin thinks that we can take responsibility for our understanding of the world. I agree. This will not be easy, many will find it too onerous, and we still have to work out ways of paying for it all, but it does really matter!

Rigour

I had a conversation with my Dad about education this week. He is a fan of the changes made by Gove, and of the view that we need to return to "proper" fact based learning. He says thing like "we can't just look up everything on Google" and "Look at how much people on University Challenge know, we need more people like that". Not all such conversations with my Dad end well but we managed to keep this one on an even keel and stay friends.

But it left me wondering why such conversations get to me. Those "young folks nowadays" type of conversations that belittle new ways of looking at things and advocate a return to an older world of order and rigour. It's a bit like when Dennis Howlett gets all macho about "real business" and the need for tough business attitudes when he is having a rant about naive social enterprise bollocks.

They get to me because they are right. We need high standards and people who work hard to excel. We need rigour. I have been in high pressure operational jobs in broadcasting where you had to know complex engineering standards and stick to them. Keeping a lot of information in your head like that takes effort and matters.

They also get to me because they have the weight of convention behind them. It takes confidence to stick your neck out and break from the norm, to advocate new ideas and change the status quo. For most of us there is that nagging feeling that we might be wrong. Every time I write a post about the possibilities afforded by the web I think "Is this bollocks? Am I talking out my backside?"

We need both perspectives. We need order and repeatable processes but we also need flexibility and serendipity. We need structured and managed business data, but we also need messy and serendipitous online conversations. If we want innovation and change we can't cling to old ways of doing things out of nostalgia. If they are no longer effective we should stop doing them.

The trick is achieving balance and managing the transition between the old and the new. We will only do this if both "sides" listen to each other and respect and value the alternative perspective. Sometimes my Dad and I manage this!

Cluetrain at fifteen

Doc Searls has shared an interview done in 2000 about The Cluetrain Manifesto. Most of its theses are as as fresh and relevant now as they were fifteen years ago. Take this sample from the interview:

  1. Markets are conversations.

  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.

  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

  4. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

  5. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.

  6. Your product broke. Why? We'd like to ask the guy who made it. Your corporate strategy makes no sense. We'd like to have a chat with your CEO. What do you mean she's not in?

  7. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

When talking to folks in "digital" marketing agencies I mention Cluetrain. It's like a test. If I get a blank look I know what I am dealing with.

Follow the links in the article and take a look.

The written word

OK so I know that there's YouTube and podcasting but most of the Internet's power is still in the written word. It is text that conveys most of the important ideas and it is accessible at almost zero cost to all of us. And yet so few of us write. Most still consume, or at the most share other people's "content".

The same is true at work. You can spend thousands on a social enterprise platform but if people don't write nothing is going to happen. If only a small proportion of your staff write and the rest lurk you are not going achieve the savings and opportunities you seek. If all of your business's online activity is carried out by the marketing team you are never going to have the conversations with customers that can transform your business.

It is hard, this thing of putting our thoughts down "on paper". It takes effort and courage. Most of us still carry baggage from our school days about what it takes to write well and heads full of rules and judgements about good and bad writing. We are all too aware of "getting it wrong" and the risk of failure or of exposing ourselves to ridicule.

We need to start small, to take baby steps. Even the practise of keeping a paper journal is immensely powerful. We often don't know what we think until we write it down. Jotting down ideas and impressions gets us in the habit of thinking about what we think and better at expressing it. As we get more confident we can share some of our insights online. Whether by blogging or updating Facebook we can put things out there, see what reactions we get, learn from the responses. Rinse and repeat.

Yes I still believe that the internet gives us the power to change our world but I am becoming more and more convinced that it is in this first basic building block of learning to write well and in public that people need help. The big picture, philosophical, world changing stuff can come later. Unless more of us are willing to put our words and thoughts out there in public, and to get better at doing so, none of the rest is going to happen.

Making new friends

The use of the word friend to classify online connections has been problematic since Flickr first used it way back in the mists of internet time. It still jars on Facebook where my connections now extend way beyond those who would feel comfortable with me calling them my friend.

However...

I now get the sort of interactions in Facebook around posts that I used to get blogging. In fact I now see myself as blogging in parallel in Facebook. In the early days of blogging we would reach out to people who looked interesting and said smart things. I am now doing that in Facebook. Based on Facebook recommendations of people with more than 30 shared connections, I will take a look, and if they look like they post interesting stuff, request a friend connection.

Hope some of them say yes!

Learning to look away

Right from the start the internet has enabled us to share images. Even before the web the voyeuristic appeal of alt.misc.binaries exercised a strong pull on even the most vigilant attention. I remember stumbling across grainy images of Chinese executions involving gradual dismemberment of the victims and being haunted for days by the images. I still regret having seen them.

In time we learn which bits of the internet to avoid if we don't want to be subjected to grotesque images but with the advent of social tools this is harder. It is not in our control what other people choose to share and horrific images can appear without warning in our news streams. We have to learn to look away. With the awful events in Gaza and the recent murder of James Foley, I am primed to react if people in my network share images I would rather not see.

Is this an attempt to hide from ugly truths? I don't think so. I don't need to see those images to understand human suffering. Reading about the holocaust and trying to understand the enormity of the horror is important, seeking out endless images of human degradation isn't. Maybe it is a question of degree. Maybe it is a question of intent.

What is most upsetting to me about our ability to witness the last moments of another person is the loss of human dignity. Even state sanctioned capital punishment has always had a particular horror for me in it's degrading ignominy. Nowadays this visceral reaction is not just to the event itself but to the fact that I could watch it happening in almost real time.

Roman circuses were a symptom of the decline of their empire and a loss of civilisation. We should remember that.

Social tools and the filter problem

I just saw someone comment that "Twitter would be improved by better list functionality". For years my only experience of Twitter has been through a list of about a hundred people who I trust to add more signal than noise. I have also been adjusting my Facebook lists, after watching Robert Scoble's enthusiasm for adopting that technique, to raise the level of stories I see and reduce the number of pictures of cats.

As soon as we get "improved" information systems we are exposed to too much information, feel swamped, and feel the need to improve signal and reduce noise. We are then faced with the problem of classification. Do I classify someone as a person whose views I value on technology, a friend, someone who spots quirky stories, or all of the above? If I put them in a technology news list that I improve by "liking" technology related posts, what do I do when they then post a heart warming human interest story that I also want to like? The people I follow aren't one dimensional. The appeal of social tools is that we get to see more than just one aspect of the people we connect to.

It's the same old issue that was meant to be sorted by portals and executive dashboards. As soon as I think I have reduced noise in my system I begin to worry that I am missing out.

The solution is partly to use different tools for different purposes. This is why I prefer an ecology of diverse tools in a business environment rather than the all encompassing enterprise social tools that are the current fashion. It's a bit like "real life". We expect to meet different people in different physical contexts and manage our expectations of different conversations in this way.

The problem at the moment is that in the competition between Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and the others for our time and attention, they are all beginning to look and feel the same!

Be the change

There is much busyness in business around change. Change theories, change consultants, change strategies, and lots of pretty diagrams. Don't you know "change is the new constant"!? 

Most of this is displacement activity to avoid actually having to change. It's all about changing things outside our selves: structure; processes; or, more commonly, other people!

But real change doesn't happen until you do it. Until YOU do it. Until you think differently, speak differently, act differently. Until you have different conversations with your colleagues, with your boss, with your clients, with your customers. 

Why not start now?

Learning to say no

One of the attractions of our mobile online world is that we can do pretty much anything, anywhere, any time. This is also one of the biggest challenges.

If we are not careful we can end up working all the time. The boundaries between work and home, or work and play, are getting increasingly blurred, and it is us who are having to manage those boundaries.

It used to be that work stopped when you left the office and the speed of your incoming work was constrained by how fast the office postman could walk. But now we have to find our own limits and exercise them. We are going to have to get better at saying no to more people more of the time, including ourselves.

I am writing this as we are about to leave for a family holiday in the USA. As a freelancer, with the luxury of using my own tools on my own devices, I am as able to do work on the road as I am at home. My mobile carrier now offers free roaming in the States. There is nothing to stop me taking work with me, except my own self discipline.

Wish me luck!

Life after death

Articles about the death of social media appear frequently these days. They have a bit of catching up to do though as articles about the death of blogging have been being written for at least the thirteen years I've been involved. I guess pundits have to write about something and they are either on the rise or fall of the wave they themselves create.

But these waves are just noise on the greater wave which is the impact of connected thinking and minimal cost distribution of ideas which the internet is enabling. That isn't going away. Fears about privacy may make us retire into echo chambers for a while, and the commercial machine will continue to trundle on to the next technology innovation, but it would take a concerted effort to unlearn what we now know - that we have the potential to find our voice and use it.

Right and wrong and our volume control on mob rule

I mentioned last week that my understanding of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was through my network and called on me to work out, from differing viewpoints, what I think on the matter.

I also finished listening to Game Of Thrones last week which constantly challenges our desire to work out right from wrong as several times the good guys turn into the bad guys, and sometimes back again!

Lastly I posted about celebrity and the way that our fascination with certain high profile individuals gives them disproportionate power and influence, whether they merit it or not.

All three topics raise the issue with which I began my book - we all need to grow up. Deciding right from wrong is hard work, we avoid doing it, we avoid thinking about it, we get others to do it for us. But when things start to change faster, become more unpredictable, and we learn as much or more from each other as we do from "experts", then we need to accept the responsibility that this places on us.

Whether we like it or not, in our use of social tools, we all have a volume control on mob rule (another chapter in the book). We get to choose what we link to or like, which flames we fan or douse. We need to think before we share horrendous images of suffering on our newsfeeds. Are they an effective way of sharing our righteous indignation - or are they just disaster porn?

None of this is easy, we used to allow other people to do it for us, but now we need to work it out - together.

A problem with celebrity

I have a problem with celebrity. The way we lionise certain individuals and develop a fascination for every aspect of their lives - whether meaningful or not. The media industry is a celebrity engine, feeding this fascination and pandering to our appetite for making certain people special.

Take Jimmy Saville, who was in many ways the first UK celebrity to be famous for being famous. His ability to rope people, from the Queen to the Pope to innocent members of the public, into his nightmare was staggering. Just by being famous he could get people to set aside their sense of judgement and allow him to influence them. There is a madness in making people so "special" that they think they are above normal checks and balances, and then letting them get away with it.

Part of my hope for the web and social media is that we overcome this focus on certain individuals and all feel able to find our voices and have influence. Whether in business, music, or public life generally we need to break down this divide between those who have huge impact, despite often having nothing interesting to offer, and those who have real talent or insights and ideas to share but don't do so because they don't feel "special enough".

Evolutionary thinking

Blogging doesn't get easier even after all these years. I still go through the "Who am I to say this?", "Who cares what I think?" cycle each time. I then wait nervously to see if anyone responds once I have published the post. I know that this is what I am asking people to do, not only on the internet (where somehow it feels easier) but at work, where what people think of them matters even more. Why should they?

Two reasons.

Firstly, I don't know what I really think until I write it down, and my guess is that many of you are the same. "What happened today that was worthy of note?"; "What do I really think about this topic?"; "What am I trying to say?"; "How can I get across my ideas as concisely and effectively as possible?".

Secondly, by sticking it out there magic happens. People either reinforce your idea, modify it, disagree with it or just take it in and mull it over. All of these are worthwhile. Just being seen to know things and be thoughtful about your work is good for your career. But beyond this your ideas get tested, they get expanded, you can adapt. This is a powerfully evolutionary idea. We get to test and improve our thinking in real time.

What's not to like about that?

Supping with the devil

I am sometimes asked to work with organisations whose activities give me cause for concern. I have on occasion said no. Most of the time I take the view that if I can help even one person in those organisations to wake up, find their voice, and stand up to be counted then that is a good thing.

Maybe they will find the courage to say "Is selling sub-prime mortgages really such a good idea?"; "Do we really need to add that dodgy additive to that food?"; "Isn't this patient record system taking too long and costing too much?".

If I can create enough "sleepers" then maybe, just maybe, when the time comes they will do the right thing and some of our worst corporate excesses might be avoided.

Someone has to care

Interesting reading this article on the low take up by staff of social platforms in business. It's the usual IT story of overselling and under-delivering. There is now an industry around ESNs (Enterprise Social Networks - even use of the name is a problem) and people are investing silly money in technology while being pretty clueless about why they are doing it.

In an attempt to identify success factors the article refers to the success of GE's Colab and says "from the start encouraged employees to use Colab, telling them it would be a tool where they would find valuable content and interactions that would help them with their work." as if this was revelatory! Of course this is why you want these tools - and of course this is how you encourage people to get involved. But you have to really want that result and all that it entails.

Too often I see managers of various persuasions (marketing, comms, even IT) being coerced into leading major social projects that are approached like every other large scale IT project (of which historically something like 72% fail!) They do this with vague ideas of improving communication or collaboration but get sucked into worrying about the tools. Instead they should be focussing on helping staff make the significant cultural leap from process focussed caution to the open and mature dialogue that you really want if they are going to address and sort their real problems.

To bring about this shift someone has to care, they have to care a lot. They have to share their passion and give others a reason to invest their time and energy in a whole new way of working. This isn't about tinkering with existing processes and systems, it is a fundamentally different way of getting things done that, if you get it right, will lead to wide-scale upheaval in your business.

You have to really want this.

You have to really care.

The seeds of doubt

The seeds of doubt

When the kids were young there was a spate of stories in the tabloids of people being reported for taking photos of their kids naked in the bath. Without having heard those stories I would never have had a second thought about taking such photos. But having heard them there was a vague, and totally unjustified, feeling of concern at taking similar photos. Once the seeds of doubt are planted they are hard to get rid of.

This vague sense of unease and doubt is insidious and pervasive. Use of social tools at work is constrained for many by their concern at what others will think of them. Even if there is nothing to worry about, and even if sharing what they think could really benefit others, they prefer to play safe and keep quiet, just in case someone should disapprove.

Current stories about The NSA and GCHQ snooping on our online activities could so easily have the same effect, constraining our online confidence just as we are beginning to find it. Making us play safe and not say what we think - just in case.

As I said yesterday "Freedom is built one tweet, one blog post, one update at a time. Don’t squander the opportunity."

We need to worry less about privacy and more about creating a world in which it is OK to say what you think. To quiet that doubting, fearful voice in our heads that tells us that we shouldn't be thinking what we are thinking let alone sharing it in public. We need to be brave.

Marketing with intent

If marketing people ask me what they should do to be more successful at social media I respond "be interesting". Of course this rather depends on how you define successful. If you want lots of clicks and likes, and will do whatever it takes, "interesting" can incorporate bizarre, sensational, inflammatory etc. etc..

If you want to reach out and connect with people and make a difference to them, then you have to care what you are doing to them. Is what you are offering of genuine interest to them and likely to trigger a conversation? Are you improving their lives, however modestly?

It is not just "marketing people". We are all asking people to pay attention to us when we update on Facebook or publish a blog post. Thinking hard about what our intent is matters.

Real friends

I am looking forward to meeting up with my friend AKMA in Oxford this morning (a fortunate by-product of having to cancel London meetings to take my daughter to her first day of work experience at The Oxford English Dictionary). AKMA and I have been friends for thirteen years. I have no hesitation in counting him a friend, but we have only met face to face a couple of times in all those years.

My kids will occasionally rib me about only having internet friends and not having real friends. Yet when Halley Suitt, Doc Searls, Megan Murray or Paolo Valdemarin have been to stay they have ended up saying "You know Dad, your friends are really smart and really nice". To which I respond "Yep, it's just that my standards for friends are higher than yours and mine are further apart".

I know people struggle with the idea of real friends who don't meet, But increasingly physical proximity is not necessary to build real friendships. In some ways, I would argue, the exchanges we have through blogging reveal more about us than we are comfortable with in face to face exchanges, certainly with casual friends.

My kids know that look on my face when I am stuck at a social occasion, say with a parent from school, with whom I have nothing in common, being forced to listen to them droning on about their job or football, wishing I was on the internet having a real conversation with real friends!

One at a time

I have been working with lots of senior people from European industry this week, for many of whom active work engagement in social tools is still a pretty alien concept. Even though the events went well, and the participants were receptive and enthusiastic about the possibilities for their organisations, I know that most of them wont, yet, actively engage.

But then I chatted to one of the older dads at Mollie's pre-prom party last night and he said he wanted to start blogging. He is very involved as a governor in various schools, is passionate about education, and wants to share his insights more widely and build connections. I sent him off fired up and with a copy of my book under his arm.

Keeping my faith that everyone can ultimately benefit from more open and connected thinking can sometimes feel hard. But I still believe that it will happen. One person at a time, for their reasons not mine, over and over, everyone will realise that raising our game, thinking harder, sharing what we think, and working stuff out together is inevitable.

Joined up writing - joined up thinking.

"Web 2.0", "Social Media", "Enterprise 2.0", "Working out loud", isn't all just the same thing? Isn't it us working out how to write and think in connected ways, grappling with what that means? Sometimes the words help, sometimes they hinder, but it is still early days.