The first ever VRM Workshop conference just wrapped up, filled with smart discussion, great ideas, and forward momentum. One topic quickly gaining traction is the Relbutton, an early-stage VRM tool in the works that allows customers and vendors to visually declare their willingness to relate to one another on equal terms. "Relate" here means a wide variety of potential communications, transactions and intentions that might flow between a customer and vendor. "On equal terms" means that the responsibility for initiating, sharing and storing interactions rests equally on the two parties.
It might seem odd that such a distinction of equality is necessary here, but in our current economic reality, the responsibility for customer-vendor relationships lies almost entirely with the vendor. Historically, this hasn't always been the case. For at least a century, customers have subtlety and perhaps unwittingly handed over to vendors increasing responsibility for initiating and supporting their market relationships.
Customers once shopped primarily at marketplaces and bazaars, purchasing directly from individual sellers. Now customers interact with vendors in very different ways, relating with larger and more formally-structured organizations. In a bazaar, you might have set the price along with the seller. Nowadays, this price is generally dictated in advance. You might have located a product in the market by asking around or actively seeking out merchants on your own. Now, vendors take on the responsibility of finding and informing customers through their well-honed marketing, selling, and advertising push machines.
These advancements aren't designed to be nefarious. Customers often benefit from this shift in responsibility. For one, it's less work for us, and many enjoy simply choosing from among the product options marched before them. Additionally, I suspect vendors are initially unwilling to take on this added responsibility. Like all responsibilities, it means more work and increased risk. The first vendors forced to publically declare their prices in a market probably did so begrudgingly. And I don't know about you, but nothing sounds like more fun than implementing a corporate-wide CRM system. Good times.
This shift from shared responsibility to primarily vendor-owned has occurred for two reasons. First, relationships with vendors have gotten significantly more complex. As sellers morphed into more stable, meaningful and larger organizations, they found themselves with new needs – product development, brand management, enduring customer service, and shareholder accountability – all demanding excellence in order to compete. Addressing these needs required more and deeper relationships with customers, and the emergence of information technologies made managing these relationships possible. Good vendors now touch the customer at virtually every step of their value chain and tools like CRM systems helped feed the flames.
The second reason for vendors taking the relationship responsibility is that customers didn't step up and do it themselves. Individuals have been too distributed and independent to take on any sort of enlightened responsibility. It's hardly surprising that vendors picked up the ball. However, the Cluetrain Manifesto has taught us that the Internet holds the power to change this dynamic. Distributed connectivity has enabled a new set of communications and transaction environments to support individually-driven marketplace activity like customer price setting, product finding, and product reviews.
But these new internet offerings constitute proprietary destinations that are formal vendor organizations in their own right. What VRM is championing with the relbutton is a new type of distributed tool set that does not belong to any one company, that is vendor-agnostic, and that is mutually-beneficial for both customers and vendors. With the relbutton, individuals can begin to once again share in the responsibility of initiating and maintaining relationships, for example, by proactively communicating their needs in a more open and uncontrolled way. Shared responsibility is an important factor in all healthy relationships, and as VRM tools gain adoption, this paves the way for a more natural and authentic way of doing business.
Last month I had the opportunity to play expert on a conference discussion panel along with the likes of Henry Jenkins (well, at least virtually).
Providing comic relief, I jammed a 1/2 hour presentation into 6 minutes. The thrust of my presentation was to ask that people first consider building online traffic and enagement before trying to implement monetization (is it OK to base a presentation on a pet peeve?). Oh, I snuck in some edge comments later that were a little less snarky. It was fun, and a big thanks to the Center for Social Media for giving me the opportunity to speak. Below is a writeup they did up on my contribution.
Keith Hopper, Product Manager at Public Interactive, advised media makers to focus on getting more online users and building user interaction—such as product downloads, references in blogs and social networks, and participation in online discussions. "User interaction is the new currency," he said, noting that Google and Yahoo give away most of their content for free in order to build users. "This buys you significant leverage with partners and underwriters," he said, adding that currently, "Most public media doesn’t have enough user interaction to monetize."
Ned Gulley and Karim R. Lakhani presented The Dynamics of Collaborative Innovation (description, audio/video) last week at the Berkman Luncheon series. I had previously recorded and blogged Karim's similar, less detailed Open Innovation presentation back in May for the Berkman@10 Conference. Karim and Ned have been measuring various aspects of collaborative innovation around a programming contest that seems ideally suited for this purpose. I suspect that few real-world environments have such a good built-in mechanism for objectively measuring the strength of innovative contributions.
I found their insights into the differences between novel, game-changing submissions and incremental improvements particularly interesting. Within this programming contest, each individual user submission is objectively measured for performance against a desired outcome (e.g. algorithmic best fit), and the current best performing code submission is highlighted for all to see. This structure may create a problem in that innovative new approaches often do not immediately yield the best result as compared to an incremental code improvement. The social reward of being highlighted as the current best may encourage incremental improvements over novel approaches, potentially having the overall innovation outcome stuck in a local max.
Assuming that introducing novel ideas increases the chance of an eventual best outcome, then innovation environments like this might benefit from better incentives to reward novelty. Additionally, this contest environment has no inherent mechanism for identifying novel and potentially useful knowledge. Ned and Karim highlighted a specific example where a novel, under-performing programmatic approach introduced early was eventually adopted later in a programming contest and provided the conceptual foundation for the winning and final submission. Had this novel approach been overlooked, it is unlikely that the winning code would have performed as well.
I would argue that incentives designed to encourage the introduction and eventual sharing of novel information would prove useful, especially considering our human tendency towards only exchanging shared knowledge and withholding unique (and potentially important) knowledge in many social circumstances. Cass Sunstein explores this hidden profiles phenomenon at length in his book Infotopia.
Here are some thoughts I've put together in preparation for a Beyond Broadcast panel discussion that I'll be participating on entitled "Mapping the Money."
Briefly share some observations and suggestions on funding streams/structures for public media. [The idea here is that traditional public media is trying to find its place on the Internet, and in so doing, needs to find a sustainable funding model.]
I probably approach this from a different perspective than those who are actively allocating funds towards this problem or are trying to generate revenue for broadcasters (I help generate community for public broadcasters through our community engagement platform, Public Action). They are seeking a sustainable monetization scheme first and foremost. While I think there are some untested funding models based on Public Media's existing online presence that have promise, I have a slightly different approach to building sustainability online.
In the online world, community and user participation is, in and of itself an asset to be cultivated and social production and interaction are, in a sense, the new online currency. There's a reason that Google and Yahoo! give away their content and applications for free. They are trying to attract people.
This is not a new idea for "Web 2.0" companies who often don't initially try to monetize. They concentrate first on building up a base of users. For these new web applications and services, there is real value - sometimes in the millions or even billions of dollars - in merely getting users to interact with your product or media in some way. The objective here is to connect and relate to more people in a positive way, whether this means more downloads, more registered users, more redistribution of content, more comments about your product on Twitter, etc.
One of the reasons for focusing on users is the network effect that results from attracting a critical mass of individuals. If your product benefits from more users, which most do at least on the word-of-mouth sharing level, then more users means a better chance of attracting even MORE users. In essence, there is a cascade effect. With this increased number of participants, you ultimately have more choices in how you might eventually choose to monetize things. You certainly have more leverage in working with other organizations and potential partners.
Additionally, individuals have an increasing amount of control over your products, your visibility, your brand perception, and ultimately even how you make money. Traditionally, you made money only by being a centralized business entity - you invested in a means of production and then controlled the revenue stream. This is changing. Distributed individuals now can dictate not only if you succeed, but even how and why - in fact, the public media monetization scheme of the future may be entirely created and controlled by the public. Ultimately, the organizational entities that we know and love today may play little to no role in how public media is funded. An argument for attracting participation might be if only to position ourselves better and be more literate in this for this future.
It is important that public media institutions try to build their online user base before aggressively monetizing their media and services. The best chance of generating meaningful dollars is through increasing our visibility, reach, interactions and relationships. We must figure out how to relate positively to more people online - something that we're notoriously bad at doing. Success will increasingly be dictated by the number of users on the Internet, their opinions, their participation, their goodwill, their willingness to share – none of which are in our control, and the more we try to control, the worse off we'll be.
The problem with an initial focus on monetization is that issues arise when users are seen as something to be mined for cash. This is where you get into trouble. If monetization is an initial goal, it will create an unwelcome environment for engagement and deter the participation that is needed in the first place.
We need to be extremely cautious about monetizing public media – the competition here might just be free and open production, whether organized in a structured gift economy in places like Wikipedia, or truly distributed across blogs and bittorrent. If, like the New York Times, we try to enclose our assets to make money, we will be effectively losing out to those providers who chose to be open and free.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, Public Interactive worked with public broadcasters to better understand how to effectively engage audiences online. We gathered experience directly from 24 stations and programs such as KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and Car Talk® using our online community engagement tool. Additional stations, programs and networks have also thoughtfully shared their experiences using a variety of tools and platforms.
One important lesson, particularly for those new to online engagement, is that it takes creativity and persistence to engage individuals and get their participation. Stations and shows often seek tips on how to attract contributions. From what we've learned, here are eight ways to help build online participation:
1. Be Genuine
Seek participation around something you understand and care about. Ask for relevant, meaningful input in an area that is true to your values and aligned with your existing communications. If you're format is music, don't ask for input on local zoning laws. If you deliver unbiased news, seeking opinions might be perceived as disingenuous.
2. Be Compelling
Ask yourself why anyone would bother participating. What topics compel your broadcast audience today? How will you use their contributions, or what will you offer in return? Individuals are often motivated to take the role of expert and share their unique insights and experience. You might initiate a project to construct something meaningful together.
3. Reach Out, Invite In
Who will show up to your party if no one sees your invitation? Leverage email lists, reach out to relevant organizations, and integrate highly visible promotions into your website. Invite specific contributions from subject-matter experts and bloggers, cultivate traffic partners who see the benefits of aligning with broadcasters, and post appropriately in social networks and discussion groups.
4. Make it Easy
Clearly state what you're looking for from individuals and how they should contribute. Guidelines, rules and expectations should be conspicuous. Provide a variety of ways to engage and contribute. Require users to sign up only where registration delivers obvious benefits.
5. Get Involved
Demonstrate that participation is important by doing it yourself. Use your real names. Involve producers, editors, and directors. Make it clear that the lights are on and someone’s home by responding to users (without being reactionary), and by enforcing your own rules.
6. Release Control
Online, the role of passive audience gives way to that of partner, co-creator, and contributor. It is misguided to think of "us" creating something for "them." Use your hand only to guide, stimulate, and monitor. As participation grows, give up more control. Individuals should have a sense of ownership over the community, where together you set direction and create value. If you've created an environment where everyone benefits, it becomes that much easier to promote.
A common mistake is to create twenty disparate ways to engage instead of one great one. Focus allows both you and your participants to concentrate your time and energy.
In the world of online interactivity, there is an expectation of change, iteration, and improvement based on feedback and results. Plan for many tests, and assume ongoing effort will be necessary. Measure and monitor your progress. Communicate what you are learning and changing. Learn from others' successes.
Much has been said about the remix, but riffing on ideas - specifically internet memes, is a slightly different beast. An original idea that resonates might just inspire someone to put a spin on it, extending or enhancing the idea. This is perhaps more common than is generally recognized, and I would argue, a growing trend.
For example, I was recently directed to a clever image that poked fun at Twitter culture on a day that Twitter was suffering performance issues. This image resonated with me because I TOO was affected by these issues and was inspired to attach my own meaning and create a different image that poked fun. This, in turn, inspired a friend to create more, clever interpretations of the idea...
(from Mykl Roventine)
(From Keith Hopper)
(from Andy Carvin)
This is only one example of an expressive idea train, where each of us saw different meaning and chose to share that meaning in a slightly different way. Based on how a specific idea might inspire you (and towards what ends), modification and republishing of a meme might manifest as a remix, knockoff, spinout, or analog of the original idea, described as follows:
Remix: Taking a single idea and modifying the orginal content. For example, you might take a funny image and give it a soundtrack, or mash it up with a video, making it funny in a new context.
Knockoff: Same idea, different name. Generally done by someone who perhaps wants to suggest they originated it.
Spinout: Different idea, but with a common source of inspiration, such as a topic - like different jokes based on the same high-profile cultural event.
Some of you Twitter fans may have noticed that Twitter couldn't handle the load today. Here was the pleasant image that was provided on the site as scalability suffered: I couldn't help but think this image is a little misleading. I don't know about you, but I do not feel as though I am being flown through the air, gently carried by a fleet of doves, eyes closed in near-ecstasy. Here is, perhaps, an alternative notification that more accurately communicates my feelings: (inspired by another alternative here)
The social technology for non-profits superstar Beth Kanter asked on twitter today for thoughts around social process for wiki projects.
While I think there's a distinct possibility she DM'd me by accident(she didn't), this did not stop me from responding. The response got long enough that I decided to blog it. Aside from the impulsive wikipedia edit, I have experience noodling on a couple different wikis. There always seems to be a lot of social process in wiki communities, but it's all organic and mostly undocumented. Keep in mind that WikipediaIsNotTypical. Here's a couple thoughts that pop to mind:
- Biggest challenge, as with all social media projects, is getting participation. Social process, whether formally declared or emergent, should address this as the primary objective.
- Mentor/guide program. I find the best wiki communities provide only initial documented guidance with lots of emphasis on 'be bold'. The critical period is the first few weeks that a noob pokes out of lurk and publicly expresses interest in contributing. At this point, it's hugely valuable to have a guide swoop in and attach themselves to this person for a bit... send them emails, be willing to publicly encourage and correct them where others shouldn't or won't, etc.
- Agree on objectives. Revisit frequently. Lots of projects go awry here over subtleties in what people thought they were trying to accomplish.
- Marry conversation with "page building". Media wiki isn't very good at conversation, but conversation is great for getting participation and working through theories - especially if you have a relatively small group. Both wikis I've been involved in spend a lot of time on trying to encourage effective page building through social process.
- Probably the most documented topic on wikis that I hang around in is around how technology and design work in tandem with social process - how they reinforce each other - how good tools are simple but use affordances to leverage human social tendencies and behavior towards desired outcomes. E.g. point systems and leader boards.
Von Hippel and Lakhani focused on internet-driven collaboration in user-led innovation communities. They point to some specific research examples including kite surfing, PostgreSQL, and the MATLAB collaborative programming contest
Over the last several years, these two (amongst others) have radically challenged the conventional thinking on who innovates and how it's done. Our understanding of the innovation process is at an interesting juncture, where open sharing and online collaboration has helped highlight the growth of user-led, community-driven solution design. This notion first gained popularity in 2005 when Von Hippel published a book on his research, inspiring me to first blog about democratizing innovation.
Description from Berkman:
Internet and the widespread availability of sophisticated digital design tools are radically changing best practice in product and service development. What was until recently a process concentrated within producer firms is now becoming democratized and widely distributed. This fundamental change has widespread consequences. What is the impact of these developments on innovation processes, business models, and government policies?
It was great fun introducing Physical Computing to so many software developers. There was tons of interest with standing room only in our room. Even helped 4-5 people to stick around and build blinkys on their own Arduinos.
Last night's "Food for Thought" dinner at the Berkman@10 conference was a real treat. It also could easily have become a game of who-coined-that-famous-term. Our group of 13 or so included Tim Wu (coined 'net neutrality'), Dave Weinberger ('small pieces loosely joined') and Doc Searls ('markets are conversations'). We tried to discuss the small, humble problem of 'how to save the Internet'. Considering the dinner immediately followed a 2-hour open bar and we were dining on a rowdy roof deck, it's a miracle we got through introductions. The big takeaway for me was learning of some great initiatives from JP Rangaswami, who is innovating British Telecom from the inside-out and Joshua Kauffman from REGIONAL, redesigning the tools of democracy around the world from the bottom-up. Finally, props to Cole Camplese from Penn State, who, aside from manging the digital download chaos of 100,000 students, clued me into how to how to tunnel out of university firewalls in order to get access to my SMTP services. Thanks, man.
Derek Hoffend, sound artist and teacher at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts presented tonight at Boston's monthly Dorkbot get-together. He showcased video of four very cool art installations he created that can be found in his online portfolio.
Listen to his full presentation below. If you're following along at home, you might want to walk through his portfolio videos on his website.
Derek presented the following projects, in this order:
- Untitled Arrangement for Steel and Feedback II
- ...and an outdoor project in Union Square that I can't find on his site.
Derek's projects allow participants to interact directly with his physical installations to produce and control manufactured, complex soundscapes. To create and manipulate sound, he uses a combination of transducers, mics, analog and digital circuits, and Max/MSP software (depending on the project). Above is a picture of his Haptigenic sound circuit, using pressure sensors connected to manipulatable latex sculptures to control a rich audio experience.
Passing around new ideas has gotten more complex. The proliferation of social networks, instant messaging, and texting has helped spread memes better and faster than word of mouth alone. This in turn has triggered newly formed cultural and social norms that discourage the sharing of certain types of information, such as containing obvious, redundant, biased, dubious, long-winded, or overtly commercial information. Instead, we gravitate towards sharing novel, meaningful, surprising, bite-sized discoveries.
People seem to have an irresistible urge to pass these sorts of discoveries along. The signal that an idea or product has hit this sweet spot is when it is mentioned at least three times in one day (usually through different channels). I call this the 3x/1-Day rule.
Here's a couple 3x/1-Day memes. I'll try to keep up - at least from my limited perspective.
April14, 2008 - Flip Video Camera (link)
May 13, 2008 - Groundswell Book/website (link)
June 26, 2008 - The Twebinar (link)
August 18, 2008 - Mangatars (link)
August 27, 2008 - Ubiquity (link)
September 3, 2008 - Google Chrome (link)
September 9, 2008 - Has the large hadron collider destroyed the world yet? (link)
September 23, 2008 - Twitter bots
Along with other Dorkbot members, I am presenting an introduction to physical computing with Arduino at this year's Barcamp Boston, May 17-18. An initial session that we're proposing for Saturday will cover the basics of the open source hardware/software platform Arduino. We'll also be demoing some projects to help demonstrate what's possible on this platform. My (not so secret) goal is to help software geeks build outside the PC and distribute creative new applications for open hardware platforms.
What is Physical Computing?
For hobbyists, physical computing refers to DIY projects that use sensors and microcontrollers (low-cost computer-on-a-chip) to translate input to a software system, and/or control electro-mechanical devices such as motors, lights, audio or other hardware. The Arduino is an open source hardware/software platform that greatly simplifies connecting a microcontroller to a PC, interfacing with analog and digital inputs and outputs, and loading your own code onto the device. Endless possibilities exist for projects that sense the environment and react/respond, collect data, or interact directly with other physical objects within range.
We're also hoping to do a follow-up hands-on workshop that would allow anyone to build their own projects with help from others. No prior experience necessary. We're trying to gauge interest in the workshop component, so let me know if you're interested.
(as found on TweetStats)
Designing Systems That Work
Decentralized peer production environments hold more promise in directing participatory systems towards collectively intelligent outcomes than the traditional approach of using centralized authority to drive individual behavior. The success of open source software development and wikis suggests that production environments based on autonomous individual action have the most potential for large-scale, enduring participation. These systems provide individual freedom and choice for interacting with resources and projects without any single authority dictating individual behavior or focus. It is precisely the individual's response to the freedom inherent in a decentralized system that triggers the desire to participate.
Words like “harness” or “leverage” used to describe value produced through individual participation signals a misguided perspective of centralized authority controlling participants. Seeing individuals as a ready resource to be wheedled and mined for value is, at best, a misunderstanding of how distributed production operates, and at worst, a setup to failure. Individually-motivated activity is the cornerstone of successful participatory environments, and presuming participation while undervaluing the individual causes contributions to evaporate. Cajoling effective production, dictating behavior, and exploiting contributions is inherently counter-productive to participatory environments. Empowering the individual creates beneficial outcomes and cultivates an environment where these contributions are most valuable. Since the best participatory environments exist to serve individuals and address their interests first and foremost, the heavy-handed, centralized actions or exploitation of participants corrupts an online collective environment irreparably. Ideally, participants develop a feeling of ownership over the environment, and providing such an atmosphere is indispensable to ensure the environment’s continuance.
Want more? Read the whole chapter Empowering Individuals Towards Collective Online Production, now freely available online.
Had a chat with Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of rapidly rising reddit yesterday at ROFLcon. Their buy-out by Conde Nast appears to be Y-Combinator's first big payoff. He said the Y-combinator experience was great and he would do it the same way again if given the chance (yeah, sign me up while you're at it - especially that buy-out bit at the end). He revealed that YC turned down their initial idea - ordering take out through txt messages. A call from Paul the next day encouraged them to come up something else. Think fast! He and Steve came up with the Reddit idea in a few hours on the train ride home.
In unrelatd news, Alexis gave up on trying to use his XO laptop and instead asked presenters at ROFLcon to sign it in order to raffle it off to, as he put it, "buy porn... I mean, give the proceeds to OLPC." I suppose OLPC could use the help.
Wikipedia eat your heart out... what a few hundred people can do in the audience backchannel at ROFLcon.
As projected up on the conference presentation screen:
I am a contributing author for the book Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace. Today, it arrived on my doorstep and finally feels real. My chapter is entitled Empowering Individuals Towards Collective Online Production, and focuses on the paradoxical role of individual motivation in effective online collaboration. Works from several of my heroes appear in this compendium, including Yochai Benkler, Doug Engelbart, Pierre Levy, Thomas Malone, Howard Rheingold, and David Weinberger. I feel incredibly fortunate and remarkably unworthy sharing a book jacket with the likes of these folks, but there it is.