Community—the soul of the machine

Community as a market strategy, as a channel and in some cases a business model, is the personal bias of my career.

It’s my way of understanding the world.

Truthfully, it’s always been somewhat ineffable and perplexingly inchoate. You can arrange the pieces in perfect order with invariably powerful results when it works, but it is as well, always unpredictable.

This is changing.

Community as an entity is becoming on one hand more critical for commerce, on the other, more deterministic, and more tangibly coupled to the networks they spring from.

And while the networks that wire our world become fewer, more powerful and data smart, community where human touch and collective engagement gather, becomes more critical as an after effect.

Networks today while some lament their impact on privacy and their monopolistic power, are the necessary counterpoints, in fact the subset of each community we participate in.

The dynamic between the networks we frequent and the communities we engage with define in many ways who we are as people and inevitably, whether the companies we work for and the causes we hold dear are successful.

It’s in this pairing of networks and communities where I start my work, with a handful of basic truths that regardless of the uniqueness of the community, invariably hold true.

The more I adhere to these ideas as starting points, invariably the better the results.

Networks are the strings that tie our world together, but communities are what gives them meaning.

Networks are a common factor, while horizontal communities are by definition unique and invariably-vertically focused. Maybe it’s a cause or a belief or a shared obsession, but communities are formed around common interest, not around friendships or place.

Saying that a network has an identity is a stretch; having a community without one is neigh impossible.

Network infrastructure is where technology shows itself at its best, but communities are where emotion and empathy, self organization, action and engagement happen.

Networks get continually smarter but this intelligence at its core is about driving the human connections to aggregate behaviors and beliefs than can form communities where the real work gets done.

The smarter the networks, the more extensive connections can surface. The more possibilities that in the end game communities can be formed.

Networks are the tangible things we can leverage, communities are the aspirational goals we set for them when they capture the imagination of a market.

The world’s population is already platformed on the social nets. The objective is discovering the hooks to surface and tie people together from this massive strata of humanity.

When we scratch this out on whiteboards and intersperse all these elements, leadership is something that surfaces as the key focus to channel enthusiasm into action, beliefs into organizations based on a collective drive. Discover the leaders and the language they use to tell their stories and you have a strong place to start.

Neither networks nor communities are tied to place as much as they are grounded in time.

Where people are matters of course and we need to understand the dynamics of speaking to people where they are, platform by platform.

But community, the aggregate of connection around a singular topic or belief, happens cross them all.

In time, not really in a place.

In some instances (though more rarely), communities exist at an address like your URl. On a bar stool at your neighborhood wine bar, but more and more, community is less and less like a club, more and more like an impromptu gathering regardless of location.

Platforming communities may indeed be a myth.

Community simply happens. Often in spite of the poverty of the infrastructure.

I want to believe in a platform that will enable every brand to manage its own community but I simply can’t discover it nor for all my attempts. Can’t seem to build it either. Trust me I’ve tried.

We certainly use vertical single-function solutions like Kickstarter to transact around a common community goal, but the community is not in one place, it is spread out across the web.

It lives everywhere but there.

This is a perfect wave.

Sometimes things just stack up and point to a new future.

Usually the pendulum swings in art, culture and technology, with emphasis on one extreme over another. One movement in reaction historically to what preceded it.

I believe that we are seeing a merging of opposites to a common goal.

It’s not data collection that matters, its interpretation. It’s not networks with increasing strong AI that matters, its where the smarts of the networks ends up coalescing around the human connections of the people in community groups.

A digital world driving an analog value.

There are few times where the science of data collection is at one with the needs of human expression.

It is happening right now.

Thanksgiving Day

There’s a mellowness that comes with the Winter light.

That enveloping cold you wander through wrapped in coats and scarves and hats.

That hunkering down for a journey towards Spring.

Thanksgiving is always the start of this for me.

I’m always back East for for the holiday.

And while I’m heading out to Jersey this winter morning, this year’s palpably (and painfully) different for me as it’s the first holiday since my mom’s passing in July.

It hit me hard then. It’s still difficult for me now.

As time passes for all of us, childhood fades in memory and our parents become more and more something to hold on to. My mom was all of that and more.

My brothers and I were better sons to my mom than brothers to each other through the years. We are close but these holidays are when we talk and get caught up. I don’t know any of their numbers by heart.

Family was more a core to move on from rather than a structure that we carried with us.

So I wonder about today.

I’ll do my thing.

Bring the wine and host an informal tasting. Introducing Etna, Manchuela, a bit of the Loire Valley and this year a sparkling mead from Quebec to this Jersey gathering.

Thanksgiving was never a magnet for my son and I.

We are very tight. But we have other connections, other celebration points that make this holiday is neither important nor necessary.

For my traditional family though, this was it—this and my Mom’s birthday–were the undeniable magnets that through my mom’s 70s and into he mid 90s, drew everyone together.

It was always less that she was the center of attention and more that she was the reason for being there.

We don’t obviously chose our families, but we do choose to make them important to us.

I’m learning as I get older that life is all in the greyness of these connections. The comforts we have from the multiplicity of friends, connections, communities and people we rub up against.

We play all these roles—employer, advisor, mentor, father, brother, uncle, significant other, lover, friend.

We connect with all of them in different ways. A large variable messy fabric of people that define our world.

Some through beliefs and work. Some through activities or faces at the gym or the wine shop. Some through history.

And then there’s family.

For me it’s not quite true that this is where I act myself or am the most comfortable, but its undeniably something that feels right.

That’s the health of it and maybe as inchoate as it sounds, that’s the strength.

Small talk that extends over so many years. Connections over a lifetime.

In some ways, a map of our lives.

At least a point on a timeline of where it begins. Or breadcrumbs on how it progresses.

I’m looking forward to the celebration around the dining room table.

A memorial to my mom absolutely, but maybe something more.

Food and wine and people with bonds. Some that have been here forever. Some just beginning.

It pays back if you let it. It works without much reason.

In the face of this really hard year especially for all of us as a nation. For me personally as a son loosing his last parent.

In the harsh reality of not having the matriarch at the table, I think it is even more important to insure that the bonds hold and find new momentum.

I’m feeling good about this.

It’s the time of life to build on what we have. I intend to do just that.

Have a great Thanksgiving all!

Rethinking the food chain

This one is personal for me. For all of us.

Not just a significant opportunity but the most broken, most important layer of our lives that is ripe for change.

I can think of little that will have a greater impact on our health, on our crippled health system, on our economy, on the way we live than rethinking the supply chain that is behind what we eat and drink.

This is a tough one to crack assuredly.

It’s not a tech platform solution, though tech will be part of it.

Not simply a cultural change, though that plays a major part.

We are short on education and research, heavy on governmental controls. On the production side this is a contaminated industrial system laboring under FDA rules and regulations that are cumbersome, expensive and compromised.

On the retail side, the number of outlets themselves with brand integrity has shrunk to a few.

They are by the financial rigors of the retail distribution model, driving back through the chain, all the way to the farmers, a razor thin business that by its very essence challenges innovation through the grinding challenges of keeping margin above the line.

This we all know.

There are many good people and companies, large and small within the system, acting with heartfelt intent trying to solve this problem. But the system itself, by its very financial structures makes it hard to serve a common end.

It is damn hard to make and get to market products that are healthy at a profit.

So how does this happen? How do we do this?

There are four questions worth exploring.

Is local the answer?

If you are affluent enough to live in NY, shop the green markets, frequent the huge variety of healthy, delicious, accountable restaurants and buy in outlets like Whole Foods, you can indeed eat and live healthy and support a local ecosystem.

Dense vertical centers of population, markets as distribution points for the artisans selling without storage or retail costs, does support back to the farm pieces of the puzzle in a microcosm.

If you can strip away the need to process for longer shelf life, distribution and retail systems that add crippling cost, it works.

This is a greenhouse experiment of course.

But I believe that unless you can find a way to break the stranglehold of global brand domination that impact how things are made and how much they cost based on the systems needs, we won’t evolve this system.

Where does technology play in to this?

The food industry from the producer side is a big brand play. No networks effects, just straightforward brand and distribution.

Tech is focused on logistics. On very cool and well-intentioned programs like Wholes Foods demanding accountability by the boat for fished goods.

But for the most part, technology today plays into the current system of making food remain unspoiled longer to work at retail in ever larger geographical area.

Got to wonder whether with innovation in a local paradigm this can change.

In a thread recently, the idea of using advances in indoor climate technology developed for the marijuana industry, buying old defunct stores and applying hydroponics to solve the local food chain surfaced as a possible answer.

Crazy?

I’m not so sure.

Does it have to be in store to work?

Direct to consumer for our daily food needs hasn’t found a behavioral connection.

We buy lots online. There are a number of delivery grocery services but for food, nothing beats shopping in the store with touch and taste and smell.

Many make the loop to their Green Market then back through Whole Foods. That’s food shopping to me and I personally like the touch and feel of it. Farmers in the market, broad array of staples in the stores.

Can this be changed or augmented online?

It has certainly for clothing through innovation in manufacturing, just great e-commerce and customer service as the core sales channel.

They said it couldn’t be done for jeans and underwear.

Can it be done for green beans, pickles and Kale?

How do we support innovation in the food business?

This is about funding outside the traditional model of VCs betting on a home run.

Is the only game the big win? For food, for a local solution I think we need a small business, artisan point of view.

We need an Etsy effect as well for perishable goods.

On one level this is working, though not widespread enough. Companies like Whole Foods, distributors as well do support local brands.

There is a built-in gotcha here.

Where is the capital for this when the endgame is not acquisition by a large brand?

It’s today serviced not by the banks well and not by the tech funding cycles.

This piece, I think, is where the nearest-term change can make the greatest impact.

This post is literally food for thought.

This is a collective challenge for all of us.

Artisans. Capital lenders. Tech and scientific entrepreneurs. Distribution and retail innovators big and small to give this attention, resources and priority.

It is timely and benefits all.

It may be as my friend Jeff Carter says, the only idea that everyone in this country can agree on that is good for all.

I am hopeful that he is right as we, collectively as a community of consumers and producers, are the only way to make this happen.

 

Nuance as a virtue

The social nets feel fatigued to me.

Cacophonous. Unfulfilling. A shouting match.

I’m find myself pining for the dirt under the fingernails of life.

Wanting that nuance and exhausting pensiveness that comes from spending your Saturdays deep into a book that has nothing—and everything—to do with life.

Replacing music in my gym time with podcasts, though less the endless palaver of syndicated startup talk, more the long-form conversations on random topics like just recently, the early intaglio work of William Blake or behaviorism of open spaces in smart cities.

Forsaking time-sucking sitcoms for the story of ideas, novellas of surprise and the deep ambiguity that only comes from focus, from work of the mind, from abandonment to the process of laying out complex ideas.

And realizing—for me at least—that I only truly find the subtlety and assurance of thought in these stories and posts, infrequently in the short fuse of tweets.

It’s a reaction to a need for conversation and discussion. A hiatus from posturing. And exhaustion with speed pitching.

Embracing the truth that engagement is not a measurement, it’s a connection and we are mistaking as a culture—certainly as marketers–the measure for the truth of what we are seeking.

A firm rejection that life or work or friendship or the dynamics of startups can be captured in a phrase.

They can’t.

The collars of character counts in Twitter, the unfriendliness of words in Instagram, the enforced triviality and poses of Facebook, are like glances in the mirror.

Like Zoolander’s Blue Steel.

We are entering the most empowered, the most possible, the smartest data-driven time period that I can remember in my career.

But we need to truly redefine listening as an action with purpose to take advantage of this.

We need fuel for detailed imagining. We need stories that weave through the vagaries of inspiration and the foresight that only come from truly letting go.

We need articulate points of view that are owned by people not afraid to be dramatically wrong.

We need to surround ourselves with studied conjecture. With a thermal blanket of long-form thoughts.

There’s an ebb and flow of excitement and reflections, blogs and microblogs, phrases and expositions in thought.

We bob on top of these cycles, riding the wave in and out of cultural highs and lows.

I think today we are churning in the mire of trivialized socialization.

And it is calling out for for something with more depth. For something that takes digging in, with more touch and purpose.

That’s where the opportunity lies.

Technologists will see this as an evolution of platform types. Behaviorists will see it as the stair step of new platformed behaviors and collective drives for different types of communications.

I think it’s a combination of both, not a rejection of either.

The power of the nets as the origin of community is obvious.

But the more wired we become, the more connectivity is the given, the more data serendipity and UX clarity becomes the norm, the more the need for stories that bind. And thoughts that fight against simplicity and too easy understanding.

I see this as a nudge to step outside the metaphors that are stale and unfulfilling cross our social nets.

And in business, beyond the glorified, misguided tactics of growth hacking. Beyond the mania for simplification.

We need taglines, mission statements and clarity of course, but they are the tips of the iceberg, not the iceberg themselves.

The takeaway for me as I look into the new year, past the exhaustion and malaise of this political season and to the opportunities for work and culture, is in a commitment to understanding and listening.

And to me, this comes from immersive, multi-disciplinary thoughts and meditations. From allowing ourselves to discover the true story and forsaking the easy phrase.

I love a great tweet. They are simply not enough.

Who doesn’t love a pic that touches the imagination. We need more though.

We need thoughts that bind through our individualized understanding of them.

We need a process that understands that ambiguity and nuance are not a miss, but often the the only place where clarity can be found.

Solving local connections through global solutions

Ever since my return from Europe, I’ve been musing on whether we can only solve our real-time, local information needs through global platforms at scale.

Whether local—that space outside our doorsteps—is more effectively targeted from a top-down global view than a unique bottoms-up local one?

And whether is it really possible for anyone but the largest platform players to truly accomplish this?

This came from being in a different place every day when I traveled, navigating by phone as I wandered about, in and out of WiFi spots.

The truth is that I’ve been a passionate proponent of ground up, local solutions as the key to discovery and engagement for as long as I’ve been building communities

I’m seriously questioning my prejudices after this trip.

Realizing that the idea of a global local is not a phrase, but reality.

I loaded up my phone pre the trip with local apps. Not one of them was opened.

Platforms got used constantly.

Gmaps solved navigation. Uber worked as perfectly in the middle of the night in Porto as it does in LA. Sharing was Instagram and Facebook. Calls were WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime audio.

The net of this is that how we define local for certain, and possibly community, has shifted.

Local is no longer a secret ensconced in the cobblestones outside a quiet corner cafe, only unlockable through friendly strangers at the bar or a savvy concierge.

Local–wherever it may be—exists under our feet but is informed by the aggregate of our extended networks, parsed by the inclinations of friends and driven by the data that smart networks surface on demand

Case in point–I wanted to know the very best local natural wine bars in Paris, accessible by subway, great to go to by myself.

I simply asked–and the answers came back.

Some from friends, many from their network connections, and invariably with personal intros to proprietors or people behind the bar. Discovery was personalized to me in most every case.

Certainly the interfaces delivering this information are crude at best, but the smarts of these large platforms to surface community on demand is the secret sauce that only networks at scale seem to be able to provide.

You have to ask what is the relationship between these platforms and the communities that provide the information.

Is it only our tech or art communities that can truly guide us to local solutions? Do we need massive verticals to make this happen?

I’m doubting this.

We need experts of course, but more, we need reach and connections. We need platforms to insure that our questions get to the right people with the answers at the right time.

Someday—possibly—someone will discover the key to platforming community as an infrastructure.

But in actuality community simply happens at a flash around points of interest built on the core human drive to share what we know, what we care about.

A year ago on this blog, a commentor stated that I get away without the need for tools and vertical apps because my networks are so well developed. Per him, I’m an exception not the rule.

Not sure this is true any longer.

That one-to-one-to-one connections of the early days of Facebook are not the strength of the platform. In fact, I bet the phrase ‘social nets’ looses ‘social’ pretty soon.

What makes these platforms at scale work is the ability to surface memes, the innate data integrity to let questions drive aggregate communities of interest around an idea. Communities that are by definition, as broad as the interest of the topic itself, not the popularity of who asks the question.

As users, this is all goodness.

We trade our personal info and our privacy, we tolerate the platforms media-based business models, and we get a global, connected and responsive platform in return. One of true reach and personal empowerment.

As entrepreneurs and market builders, my thoughts are more nuanced.

How can we build brands that stand above the networks we live on? How can we build populations of users for local services when the idea of place is no longer lodged in the coordinates of the place itself?

Can the blockchain promise of decentralization of networks, disrupt this reality?  Possibly splintering it to create near-time opportunities for new community structures that are viable at smaller scale?

And, the most telling to me, whether what we do wherever we are is in many ways more germane to the identity of a place rather than the uniqueness of where it is.

That the idea of local, is what we bring to wherever we, is based on the sum total of our networks definition of it.

What a great trip this truly was.