December 17, 2011

Private People, Public Parts – A Book Commentary in Brief

Posted in Book Review, Commentary, Internet, Social Media tagged , , , , , , at 9:35 pm by degyes

Public Parts, How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, by new media advocate and pundit Jeff Jarvis (@JeffJarvis), presents—in tones that are sometimes urgent—the case for protecting and preserving the internet as a completely open medium, unfettered by government regulation or corporate interference. As Public Parts has been reviewed widely and extensively from Amazon.com to the Wall Street Journal and beyond, I’ll forgo throwing yet another the full-length analysis into the ring, and instead offer a brief word on what I’m taking home as the key message, and my main gut response.

During it’s almost 20 year run as an open resource brought to masses of users via graphically driven web browsers, Jarvis acknowledges that the internet has transformed—not always necessarily for better—facets of life ranging from the economic, political, and corporate to the most intimate and personal. Yet Jarvis sets forth in often strident terms how the parameters of this transformation must be determined through a free flowing conversation amongst the very audience that the internet serves, that is, its public participants, i.e. the people.

While not always finding myself in agreement with Jarvis’ assertions (my inner jury is still out regarding the extent to which privacy is, or should be, truly dead), I believe his overall message (even if at times a bit crass) needs to be heard, and I congratulate him on articulating it rather eloquently and in a well-researched piece of work.

To whatever degree you live your life online, I would encourage reading Public Parts, as it is likely to widen and deepen your grasp of where this newfound openness is taking us as a global community, not only in the broad, virtual sense, but in ways that are most personal and real.

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August 29, 2011

The Big Switch, by Nicholas Carr

Posted in Book Review, Commentary, Future, technology tagged , , , at 2:42 pm by degyes

The following tweets summarize the main points of Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. Carr’s basic premise is that the migration of data storage and application hosting to “cloud” computing today is no less revolutionary than the construction of electrical grids in the late 19th century, and resultant provision of electricity to homes, businesses, and municipalities. The first third of the book tells the story of Edison, his contemporaries, and the impact of their innovations. The second third discusses the recent evolution of utility computing and its influence. The final third of the book is essentially a treatise on what we can expect from a future where the common individual has yielded any remaining semblance of privacy to governments, corporations, and various institutions.

[1/11] Finished reading The Big Switch, by Nicholas Carr. http://www.nicholasgcarr.com/bigswitch/ #TheBigSwitch #CloudComputing

[2/11] Informative and entertaining, though dark view of future of computers, networks, and connectivity. #TheBigSwitch #Internet

[3/11] Claims Internet puts disproportionate power in hands of gov’ts, corporations & institutions.  #TheBigSwitch #Internet

[4/11] Power no longer in hands of individual end-user. #TheBigSwitch #Internet

[5/11] Rejects notion that computer systems are technologies of emancipation. #TheBigSwitch #Internet

[6/11] Rather, computer systems are technologies of control. #TheBigSwitch #Internet

[7/11] Computer systems designed to monitor & influence human behavior. #TheBigSwitch #Internet

[8/11] The more we share into databases, social networks, & cloud storage, the more vulnerable we make ourselves. #TheBigSwitch #Internet

[9/11] Consumerism long ago replaced libertarianism as prevailing ideology of online world. #9heBigSwitch #Internet

[10/11] Claims Google founders predict direct link between #brain & #Internet by 2020, i.e. physical-neural interface. #TheBigSwitch

[11/11] I’m finished tweeting on #TheBigSwitch. Enjoyed the book & recommend it. 

May 16, 2011

What Would YOUgle Do?

Posted in Book Review, Disruptive Communication, Social Media, technology tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:33 pm by degyes

Our recent reading of Jeff Jarvis’(@JeffJarvis) 2009 critically acclaimed – and sometimes ridiculed – What Would Google Do (#WWGD) stimulated much thought with regard to the tectonic shifts taking place in business during the past fifteen years or so. There are many reviews out there of this book, laudatory as well as mocking. Go ahead and Google them. So why the need for yet another? We decided to present a review targeted toward technical communicators (TCs), a professional group impacted heavily by the Internet economy, and also well positioned—possibly better than any other profession—to exploit these shifts.

A Media Experiment

One of Jarvis’ stories that stood out powerfully for me was his retelling of a media experiment by Brian Lehrer in 2007. On Lehrer’s WNYC radio program, he prompted listeners to go to their local grocery stores and report on the price of milk and several other items. Hundreds responded, providing the station with data no single reporter could have gathered alone. WNYC plotted the data on Google Maps, demonstrating which neighborhoods were being gouged, and even being subjected to illegally high prices.

Why should this be surprising and what’s special about it? Haven’t consumers banded together for ages already, supporting the businesses, products, and services they like, while spurning those they don’t? Yes, but not with such rapidity, ease, and perhaps boldness. Could this experiment have succeeded without Google Maps? Maybe. But the point is that the Internet and a (free) Google product make the collaboration effort much easier and much faster. Furthermore, if it could happen in a few shops in several New York City neighborhoods, could this experience be scaled to a whole state, country, or industry?

Riding the Cluetrain

Jarvis is clearly a proponent of the Cluetrain Manifesto, as he refers to it with some frequency. Furthermore, his main message is very much in alignment with Cluetrain’s principles, as well as its tone. Written in 1999, Cluetrain lists 95 statements (“theses”?) on how the Internet has changed, and is continuing to change, the way the world does business. Namely, it describes how the consumer is empowered through a vast network of people sharing their stories about products and services. Marketing departments and many of the techniques they’ve employed, Jarvis says, are becoming irrelevant and are outmoded. Companies had better tune into the conversations taking place “out there” among consumers and other interested parties that could lead to potential business.

Though written in a somewhat smug tone, Cluetrain contains truths that we ought to internalize. Specifically, what are the key lessons of Cluetrain, as exemplified by Google’s success story? What can we learn here? The take-home message is that product vendors, service providers, and professional people in general—anyone wishing to remain relevant in the public sphere—must place listening to customers and responding respectfully to their input at the foundation of their organizational culture.

You’re Tweeting? So? Are You Listening?

Taking it a step further, Jarvis’ urges avoiding the delusion that having a Web site or being on Facebook or Twitter makes you customer-oriented if your basic behavioral pattern hasn’t changed. Talking down to your public is not only passé, but destructive to your business. Listening goes beyond claiming to have a customer service culture or exuding warmth in your PR campaign. What it does mean is that the products you sell and the services you provide reflect the needs, expectations, and input of your public.

On rare occasion, a product, service, or platform will come along presenting a quantitative shift in the way we do things. It could be argued, justifiably so, that revolutionary changes—mass produced automobiles, telephones, Internet, Web 2.0 applications—were so innovative that they couldn’t possibly have been invented only in response to consumer surveys. On the contrary, these innovations were truly ground-shifting, imaginative, and bold. They’re also quite rare. As consumers, we’ll know one when we see one. In the meantime, just listen.

So What’s the Message for Technical Communicators?

Why do we as TCs need to pay attention to Jarvis’ message? Why can we not afford to ignore the communication frameworks—and the documentation models—emerging as a result of the Internet economy?

The top-down approach to documentation is rapidly becoming outmoded; many would say it’s already gone. Instead, we need to be thinking in collaborative, grassroots, “distributed,” ways. According to Jarvis’ Google Rules for media companies, “thinking distributed” means regarding your readership—i.e. your customers—not as mere consumers of your output, but as content sources themselves. This is already happening across countless support forums—Nokia, Microsoft, Adobe, travel tip sites, are just a few that come to mind. If it hasn’t reached you by now, bet that it will soon. Open up and listen.

What does this mean for us? What do we need to do? Get involved in what’s happening on the ground level. Participate in these conversations. Read what’s being written. Be open. Be responsive (not reactive). Lead discussions. Harvest the knowledge that grows from these interactions. Tag it. Curate it. Repackage and productize it. This is your documentation. This is your product, and your portfolio.

Me? Blog?

Why do people blog? Perhaps the better question is why do professionals blog? Why is it important for us to place ourselves out there before the public? Because, if done well, it conveys that message that we care and that we’re eager to engage our audience and customers face to face.

We believe this message applies to all types of social media, including—but not limited to—blogs. As such, a well-thought social media image addresses the following questions:

  • What is our contribution to the “gift economy”?
  • What is our value proposition?
  • How do we differentiate—i.e. brand—ourselves?

Oh, and if you have to explain your value, it’s probably not as great as you think.

Old Media, New Media

According to Jarvis, Yahoo is the last “old media” company. That is, Yahoo is a portal, a Grand Central Station of online resources. Thus, Yahoo is a manifestation of what Jarvis calls the content economy, which is outmoded. Google, on the other hand, is—claims Jarvis—the first post-media company. Meaning, Google is a platform (not a portal), a network, and is decentralized and distributed. Google trusts and respects people, or at least (says Jarvis) manages to project that attitude. Google exploits the wisdom of the crowd. And what’s more, Google opens up endless choices and possibilities via search, SEO, and AdSense. Whereas Yahoo is a remaining manifestation of the content economy, Google leads the link economy.

The link economy demands that we—companies, groups, and individuals—produce unique content with clear value. Beyond that, we need to remain open so that Google can find us. That is, we’re to let Google exploit—through advertising and promotion—the links and audience that we acquire. Furthermore, we have to use those links to create new efficiencies (“do what you do best and link to the rest”), and find opportunities to create value atop our link layer. This means curate the best content, enable your links to be found, and help content creators monetize—or otherwise promote—links, and in turn, attract traffic.

Are You Drinking Google Juice?

Google juice is what we want. It gives us better ranks, more ads. It will, according to Jarvis, net us more money. To get Google Juice, you’ve got to be Googlified. Googlification of a trade or profession requires its practitioners be open and transparent. Are you Googlified? If you want to remain relevant, Jarvis says you’d better be. However, we would ask the question whether this maxim necessarily applies to all types of business.

No More Depth Thinking? Could Have Fooled Us!

Naturally, as TCs, we value our ability to communicate in an articulate way. If this means writing in long form, we appreciate having a format permitting that. Consequently, those still uninitiated into social media might resent being “forced” to fold a message into the limited space afforded by many Web applications (like micro-blogs) which might seem extreme.

Jarvis says that although it may appear that writing in short blog bursts, as opposed to lengthier articles, leads to rushed, haphazard, shallow communication, in fact, the opposite could be argued. Namely, an idea could be thought out and articulated over the span of multiple posts [even Tweets?], and take shape over the course of time. What’s more, these ideas percolate with input, challenge, and argument from many blog readers and consumers. Furthermore, ideas that don’t work, i.e. those not meriting response from the readership, get dropped. Thus, Jarvis argues that blogs provide a new and efficient means of both collaboration and peer review, which he claims “is the key product and skill of the Google age.”

The Internet might not make us more creative. But it does provide a platform enabling what we create to be “seen, heard, and used,” i.e. shared. In particular, the Internet enables every creator to “find a public, the [one] s/he merits.” What’s more, it levels the playing field of creativity. As Jarvis puts it, in the Google age, to “stand out, one must rise on worth—as defined by the public, rather than the priests, [where] the reward is attention.”

Us Worry?

What will coalesce in place of the institutions losing influence as a result of the Internet and Google? Or, as we’d put it, those failing to adapt and respond strategically to these forces. According to Jarvis, this applies not only to media organizations, businesses and individuals, but to governments and even religions (though there’s still some speculation as to how that would work).

Disaggregation

Will we have anarchy or a new form of organization? The Internet, says Jarvis, is disaggregating the elements that have historically defined us humans. These definitions—liberal, conservative, libertarian—are breaking apart to form new expressions that are more nuanced. As a result, new loyalties are forming from the grassroots, replacing traditional allegiances.

Generation G

Advertising execs, public relations folk, and social media pundits like invoking Generation X (ambitious and family centered) and Generation Y (independent, expecting instant gratification) as supposedly well-understood demographic groups. In WWGD, Jarvis introduces us to Generation G, that is, the Google generation. Gen G has not only grown up in the computer age, but came of age by the time Google was already synonymous with Internet search. Beyond being characterized as independent, Gen G is possessed of a strong individualism, which could end up manifesting as empowerment [good], or as entitlement [bad].

Watch Gen G. Listen to Gen G. Understand how Gen G thinks, works, shops, [and we would add, reads]. Only thus can we have any hope of surviving, let alone thriving, over the coming decades.

Where Do We Take it Now?

Some critical reviews of WWGD urge that we disregard Jarvis’ prescription for Google-age success based on the assertion that Jarvis rambles on in an arrogant tone, doing little more than smugly dropping names and making scary generalizations. While we could agree that Jarvis presents himself as erudite and professorial, this hardly presents justification for rejecting what he prescribes, especially if his basic position is valid (and we believe it is).

What’s the upshot for TCs? We’re told that we need to not only innovate, but make innovation part of the culture where we work. What does that mean practically speaking? For one thing, we need to unlearn many of the practices that have taken us thus far in life and in our careers.

We need to Googlifiy ourselves. Googlification of our profession requires us to be open and transparent. While most of us are “out there” on a social network somewhere, many of us either aren’t ready to exploit the full potential of those networks, or worse, refuse (usually on “privacy” grounds) to participate. Concerning privacy, Vint Cerf, acclaimed as one of the fathers of the Internet, has written “There isn’t any privacy. Get over it.” Jarvis adds clarity to this statement by asserting that privacy is no longer the issue, control is. We do in fact have the right to control our personal information, whether it’s made public, and to whom. So decide upon a security policy that meets your needs, and get yourself out there.

There’s also the issue of intimacy. Participating in a social or business network does not mean laying it all bare for the world to see. Actually, showing us parts of your life to which we’d rather not be exposed would not win you the attention you should be seeking. But we do need to acclimate ourselves to what Leisa Reichelt calls “ambient intimacy.” This refers to the sense of closeness you have with folks as a result of social media; folks with whom you’d otherwise not have nearly as close a relationship, maybe even not know at all.

We should learn, Jarvis says, to think like kids, because once you’re thinking [too much] like an adult, you’re probably not innovating.

Special thank you to Jonny Gold for his input and thoughts.

May 13, 2011

Where Hip-Hop, Fashion, and Knowledge Sharing Intersect

Posted in Book Review, Business Development, Knowledge Management tagged , , , , at 2:28 pm by degyes

I often find that my deepest insights into life and work come from sources whom I least expect to impact my thinking. When an opportunity recently presented itself to obtain an e-copy of Daymond John’s Display of Power: How FUBU Changed a World of Fashion, Branding & Lifestyle, I followed my instincts and downloaded it, wondering if there was something in John’s story that would speak to me in an inspirational way. I ended up practically glued to this book for the next several days.

Display of Power provides an autobiographical sketch of how Hollis, Queens native Daymond John, along with a few trusted friends from the ‘hood (and a host of advisors and financial backers) launched FUBU (For Us, By Us), one of the premiere African American-owned fashion outfits in North America, and a globally recognized super-brand.

John advocates what I would call a true hands-on management style, based on keeping his ear constantly close to the ground. Essentially, this means listening actively and persistently, and showing no hubris towards one’s customers and critics. Listen not to your gaggle of yes-men, but to your harshest detractors.

Get out of your office. Party with your customers, even those who’ve left your brand. Show that you care about them and they’ll come back. Avoid ivory tower thinking and behavior. Don’t surround yourself with sycophants, lackeys and favor seekers who tell you only what you want to hear. Treat your employees like gold (if you don’t, they’ll anyway vent their resentment on your customers).

So what does this have to do with Knowledge Sharing (KS)? In a word: everything.

Display of Power intersects with KS at so many points. For starters, it provides an excellent example of how a successful business and global brand were built from the grassroots. I have found, almost without exception, that KS initiatives, in order to succeed, require tapping into the energies, talents, and enthusiasm of a cadre of experts who identify with your overall vision, and the goals you’ve established for a KS venture. Making it work can entail going at it day-to-day over the course of years. But it all starts with that groundswell of key supporters.

Some of John’s most strongly emphasized points include:

  • Community building and basing a brand on a communal identity;
  • Listening to consumer conversations and participating in those discussions as an equal partner;
  • Developing frameworks for exchanging usable information (in FUBU’s case, linking its business model to goings on in the hip-hop and rap scene);
  • Making success (at least on the manufacturing and distribution side) a series of repeatable and predictable processes;
  • Bringing about a coalescence of vision where beyond buying a product, people feel themselves participating in a venture greater than themselves;
  • Assembling a staff that’s amazingly talented and smart, takes initiative and works well together, and demonstrates a group identity that extends beyond “conditional” loyalty

In his chapter on hands-on management, John expresses his admiration for (now former) JetBlue CEO David Neeleman, who ran his airline in a way so contradictory to the “cold, impersonal” norm of the major US carriers. John tells how Neeleman made a point of riding at least one JetBlue flight per week. But don’t imagine that Needleman just went along for a joy ride, avoiding contact with fellow passengers. On the contrary, Neeleman, along with his (then) President and COO David Barger, would work the ticket counter, handle baggage, give out snacks, fluff pillows, and walk the aisles chatting with passengers. This “getting the hands dirty” goes almost unimaginably beyond the expectation of “ordinary” business leaders, putting JetBlue management in such close contact with their customers it would be very difficult to ever lose touch.

I enjoyed Display of Power because unlike so many books written by business founders this one was “unplugged,” in the sense that John pulls no punches when it comes to self-criticism and describing openly how he learned from his mistakes, on the business as well as personal level. You can have an ego, as long as you know when to efface it, reach into your heart, and eat some humble pie. I found this book filled with those lessons, told by John through his compelling and entertaining stories about his life and FUBU.

I also particularly liked John’s chapters on personnel management (you’ve got a two-week grace period from the time you hire someone to win their loyalty by showing your care about them), and his tips on running a company whose environment is quite multi-cultural (tells it straight, acknowledging the tensions, though mixing it with humor).

Some further business tips …

Constantly revitalize your brand and keep it contemporary, as doing so is essential to your business’ survival.

Look at how your kids are spending your money. When they’re putting it in someone else’s pocket, if that someone is operating in technologies and products related to your own, take that as a sign that there’s probably something you ought to be doing differently.

While John describes many frustrating—even despairing—moments, on the whole, he and his team seem to have a lot of fun in their careers at FUBU and derive great fulfillment doing what they do. While the kind of music video atmosphere and hip-hop party jaunts that John takes as a routine part of his work probably aren’t applicable to all of us, his overall message remains valid. Stay open and be in love with what you’re doing; and if you can’t, do something else.