Collective memory and the social web

The singular dna of the web is connections.

Call it community if you wish. Consider it a flash occurrence or an ongoing event. Define it as a gesture or a comment, a wall utterance or a full-blown blog community.

The one thing that the web does so powerfully is to engage others while we experience life ourselves. And to create a dynamic collective memory of a shared experience.

As powerful as this is, it is also quite new.

The comment string of my post on 9/11 was full of outbursts of ‘where I was’ and ‘do you remember’. It was clear that as recently as a decade ago, before the social web existed, we experienced this attack without broad community support, and it left many of us isolated in our thoughts and memories.

If this happened in the last five years, our memories would have been shared, our feelings commemorated in countless posts and photos. The sense of understanding greater, more widespread because of the community around it with the web as our platform.

Every day now, with Facebook, Twitter and blog communities, experience around most every public event, from the horrors of mass shootings to the media shares around Breaking Bad have their platform and a shared memorial to the event.

This is the status quo for all of us today.  We live in the dailies of our own life movies. This is nothing but positive, nothing if not a giant evolutionary step forward.

I’ve always believed the web’s greatest value was in the connections that it enables and the new memories it creates. I first started thinking about this around my mom’s birthday a few years ago. I wrote a post back then about how her generation had missed the great upside of connecting and making new friendships as age, mobility and ennui closed the door on the future for them

Memory is the encapsulation of conjoined events in time.

Individually they affirm our past actions to ourselves but they also isolate and freeze time rather than making it a step to something more.

Collectively, memories meld people together, build a base of shared reality to create ties for the future.

Community is, in many ways, that entity that keeps layering on intersections of instances in time, engendering trust and understanding and building steam for future connections as the group broadens and deepens.

I believe this will be a large part of the web’s legacy.

Collective memory as an idea is also a powerful filter for those of us building products or communications platforms, communities or networks.

What we realize about the social web especially, is that once we stop flagellating around like adolescents and start thinking about shared events or ideas as connectors, questions like why our customers or friends should care or share come into focus. We stop counting KPIs and start thinking about the why of connecting with people.

Once we internalize that community happens on the street witnessing an event, online around a discussion, or in a connection around a homeless pet for adoption, we are understanding that inclusiveness, even around the most divisive topics builds bonds, community and social memory.

We talk community. We lionize context as the pinnacle of design. We equate platforms to places and the ease of creating friendship to the new norm that the web somehow makes possible.

All are true.

Facebook works because it gives collective voice to being part of an event or an emotion, a decision or a memory. If it is about anything, it is about collective affirmation.

When I look at closed groups on the web, they are striving towards the same, dragging connections and re-forming them to collectively discuss or commemorate.

In many ways, network effects is just that, at an atomic level. Connecting, experiencing and memorializing. Repeat infinitely and you have not only a key cultural and behavioral truth behind network effect but of virality itself.

Tech pundits say that Twitter, Facebook and Linked In have sucked the social oxygen for innovation out of the web.  I’m thinking just the opposite. These platforms are the railroads before the roads, the express trains before there was a need for the local stop.

Our social memory on the web is just hardly a generation old. The things that billions of people do daily barely had names five years ago. We are at the most nascent stage of social evolution.

Today, for the most part, local and neighborhood are web empty. Extended intersecting communities that leapfrog off the big nets are just being defined. And marketplaces building on the transactionless nature of the big social nets are just starting to pop up everywhere.

Technology has been the core driver of change and innovation for the last two decades. No longer.

My sense is that evolving behaviors, shifting cultures, new ways of consuming, decentralized communities and flash events are the catalyst and the direction for what’s coming next.


    Flash community as the new normal

    For a long time, community online was really an aspiration for a communal place to hang out.  Virtual worlds were just that. You went there, avatar firmly on your head, milled around and bumped into others.

    Social nets like Facebook were built on that premise as well.

    You go there and run into friends. You get call backs to engage through email and text. You are encouraged to post then nudged to reengage when Liked or commented on. Facebook is all about its place as the center of the web, even the world.

    This idea of a centralized online world, url-specific, will end up in a museum alongside dioramas of Pleistocene era cave dwellers and the Dodo bird. Evolutionary end points are happening right in front of us.

    The change may take some time, but it will happen.

    The premise that place online matters at all is just not grounded in reality. Offline, no question, but the metaphor of the online world mirroring offline is a legacy myth that is fraying at the edges.

    The social web is not about platforms, not about places you go, not even at a core level about groups. It’s about you and me experiencing it in real time.

    Community happens on the web because each of us is given the biggest chair in the room, the microphone for the planet to listen to our views. Because of the predominance of each of us as individuals.

    Social animals that we are, we have the natural drive to couple into groups, but it all starts with each of us singularly first. We as individuals, not the group, are the atomic element of community.

    I’ve been mulling about this for a while and I keep coming back t0 two core premises:

    -That community lives exactly wherever we are at the moment, cross platform and network.

    -That time not place is the matrix for connection. That all communities are in a way, flash occurrences in time.

    Community exists because each of us is a superset of all of our connections across all of our networks. We rise to the top of them as they self organize themselves under us.

    Attempts to aggregate them will simply not work. (See You can’t airlift community). Attempts to force people to join a common intergroup to participate fall flat. (My blog discussion around 9/11 was happening at the same time on four different networks with me as the only point of common reference.)

    The social nets don’t provide any real context. We populate them with friends and colleagues, different mixes in different places. Some are heavier in tech, some in wine, some in something else. But any of them could be the best source of information for just about any topic. Serendipity happens regardless of how well we choose our connections, not because of it.

    The belief that the antidote to the signal/noise conundrum on the web is curation is temporary at best. The true answer to found value and the most natural direction for discovery is community. Flash community that is formed cross network, around each of us, at any time wherever we are.

    I’ve been kicking around the idea of Flash Communities for a long time.  Three years ago I wrote a post about the idea of communities cropping up around media driven events. Events today are simply wherever we are, with our interactions an event in its own right, pulling our networks along with us.

    Today, when I put out a post that catches the market’s attention, it surfaces on Twitter, crosses to Facebook, back to my blog, populates my inbox with messages. I’ll be asked at my next in person meeting perhaps. The pundits will call this successful content marketing. They are wrong.

    This is community, pure and simple, grounded in an event, based in time.

    Why does Kickstarter work when there is no community? It works because a project touches someone who shares it, creating flash communities and connections from one side of the web to another, to your dinner table and to discussions with friends at the wine bar.

    Why does the web, for all its oceanic storms of movement and over abundance of content, feel calm and easy to navigate today?  The dynamics we’ve created on various networks have created a social gravity of sorts, around each of us that cuts through proprietary protocols, cuts through all of these groups, and coalesces in instances around needs and ideas.

    How does this relate to how we build products and companies? How we act on the web?

    Not so simple.

    We will continue to create apps and websites for specific associations or context-rich connections around common bounds. That is how people think and how human magnetism drives groupings and attractions, conscious or not.

    But the connecting loops need to be cross platform, cross the web, cross our online and offline lives. With community in mind as the purest filter for context and each person as the moving center of their own self sorting world of interconnections.

    It’s not all that clear how to do this.

    For myself, I start with a focus on inclusion as the organic dna of communities. I avoid exclusion as a poise, as closed structures invariably fall flat and inevitably stifle growth. The web seems to embrace openness and rankles at discriminating behaviors in both action and design.

    I focus on how ideas interlock with value and drive their own communities of interest based on singular events. I don’t think  about places but about time and attention as currency, and the dynamic that drives connections. And how connections bring others, to one topic, at one time, in a communal exchange.

    This is community food for thought.

    I admit, its easy to see that change is happening. It is way harder and more interesting figuring out where this plays out for how we use, build and capitalize on this changing community nature of the web. This is my first shot at it.


      September 11th…stopping to remember

      Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 6.35.13 AM

      All day yesterday working on my schedule, whenever I noticed the date, my concentration ground to a halt.

      I kept thinking back to that Tuesday, 12 years ago, being stranded in San Francisco on business with the country’s air space shut down. Sitting in bars, watching the news with strangers and having the reality of what happened burned into memory by the incessant replaying of the events on network news.

      Talking on the cell to friends in New York, every one of them, shell-shocked. Many of them seeing the plane hit the second tower. Watching the buildings crumble and a very different world appear as the dust settled.

      I came back on the first flight out, the Saturday night redeye, circling into JFK over the smoking debris.  I remember walking to the intersection of West Broadway and Canal, staring at the barricades on the South side of Canal Street. The surrealistic image of a Schwarzenegger movie billboard that was coming out with him fighting terrorists somewhere. In smug contrast with the real grim reality on the streets.

      I’m not going to recap. We all have our memories and have dealt with them. Many moved out of town. Many took years to come to grips. Everyone moved on.

      This was a pre iPhone camera world. A pre Facebook and Twitter reality where real-time sharing and connections were absent. Rather than post, you walked around seeing scores of make shift memorials with flowers and pictures of people. Telephone numbers scrawled on papers to call if you saw or heard of someone.

      In retrospect, it feels like a black and white photograph of a different time. Frozen yet wrapped in very real memories. My memories as I was there.

      People need memorials of horrible events to place them. I light a candle for the passing of my father and grandfather and it helps ground my thoughts. The fiasco of  building the new Freedom Tower and the passage of time has squandered the memory of this event somewhat. Even today, more than a decade later, the memorial is not really complete, surrounded by a fence and a construction site.

      The reality of 9/11 was that we felt attacked where we lived. As you went further from the physical event, even uptown, it became less real, less yours and less somehow immediate.

      In the years following, when I worked in LA, I tried mostly in vain at my companies to make the day mean something. Invariably it always fizzled. It meant as little to many on the west coast as to many people I work with today in their 20′s. They aren’t insensitive, but, to them, it’s a historical event, not an experience that shaped any part of who they are. That distance is the difference.

      I’m not a romantic about this. And I didn’t lose any friends or family. And while sensitive and a downtowner, I don’t gush over this often or have loose emotional ends.

      But it’s important, because if I don’t make it so, it will indeed go away. If the only reminder is of the skyline view in pre-9/11 movies or photos with the towers in them, this is indeed a waste.

      When I posted something about this on Facebook yesterday, a friend responded that the  9/11 light sculpture that they erect every year is her favorite.

      The light sculpture is indeed amazing but it’s more art than memorial to most unless we personalize it.

      The connection between the fact that crazies who truly hated us navigated hijacked planes using Broadway as their map to the towers, is somehow below the surface. The family from New Jersey who I met in Union Square that brought their then young children into town to experience the community side of this nightmare, is absent somehow in those beams of light till I talk about them.

      This post is my nudge to myself to spend a few moments thinking about it. Connecting the dots so that they stay real.

      I’m all about moving on. I’m a hardass generally. For this particular memory, making my own little memorial of it on my blog seems like the right thing to do.


        The future may be just-in-time

        A good chunk of the new economy is looking just-in-time, by design.

        Friends refer to it as the Sharing Economy. Others think of it as peer-to-peer commerce. Neither phrase captures the broader shift in market culture. The  tipping point is tied to changing customer behavior, not the business model.

        Examples are everywhere.

        ZipCar–Just-in-time commerce with each of us is in a perpetual queue moving around, reserving a car with a click wherever we might be. Use and return.

        Airbnb–just-in-time for a bed to sleep in. Book someone’s empty room with a click.

        CitiBike–new kid on the just-in-time economy block. Playing musical bike docks. So behaviorally right on, it’s breaking with over use yet a few months old.

        Sure, one is about cars owned by Avis, one about beds owned by individuals and one, short hop bikes. But the core connection is cultural. None of these would have been possible 20 years ago, technology aside.

        A behavioral change in how the mass market consumes goods is in full tilt.  Matching more than shopping, bumping into what they want more than searching it out.

        Online, this is everywhere. Different medium, same behavior. Want to hear a song, watch a movie or share a file? Streaming has replaced storage, rental replaced ownership.

        I’ve vacillated over whether this idea is just a twist on ‘Always On’. But they are very different.  ‘Always On’ is platform think. Just-in-time is a consumer and market perspective.

        Think about customers going through their day bumping into impulses. This is transforming how we sell and market.

        Trending cultural change terms like authenticity, customer centric, social engagement are not useful when it comes to sitting down and figuring out how to intersect with your market.

        As sellers of goods we’ve become pretty sophisticated at embedding transactions in objects. This is just-in-time selling through social objects distributed by the consumers themselves.

        As marketers, much less so.

        Brands for the most part are employing push marketing disguised as conversations. Sales disguised as customer support. And humbleness disguised as authenticity. The social web is employed as a prop.

        It is a very tough problem.

        Gazillions of customers milling around on Facebook, and your brand trying to leverage a soft sell connected to some social cause or some goodness that benefits the company by association.

        Most brand efforts seem more like cosmetic repackaging, faux interest wrapped as a humane slide to a transaction. It’s just a hybridization of old-school marketing. Every brand wants to be Liked (and counts them) but invariably, their quotient for value and success is how being Liked drive sales.

        Two directions, more than solutions,  seem to be surfacing.

        For Sales

        Network specific behaviors drive models naturally.

        Facebook and Twitter are pure media platforms, push advertising vehicles with a social twist. To plan on commerce on either is a false start. As advertisiing channels, possibly. These platforms are the new broadcast networks without a late night Crazy Eddie sales underbelly.

        Pinterest is a natural sales channel. It understands that we buy images as fashion object for most consumables. Instagram and Tumblr are more complex, but at their core, more focused brand marketing than sales.

        Understanding each network’s unique dynamics and how your product plays there is always the place to start.

        For Marketing

        Brand marketing on the web is really in its infancy.

        The more we consider markets as communities, the closer we get to a natural poise between company and customers. And the more we look to the skills of community managers, the more marketing on the social nets is finding its pulse.

        We manage communities as they need it, at their own pace. Just-in-time to the dynamics of the situation. My community-smart friends may balk at the term but indeed this is the pacing.

        Right now though, marketing on the social web is a mess. A pushmepullyou monstrosity of sorts. Noisy. Posey. Uncomfortable.

        I’m over simplifying of course.

        Selling is not all about the transaction, and marketing is not brand first with every breath. But what we have today ain’t working. All the misguided KPI to ROI charts in the world will not teach you how to talk to the people in front of you.

        It’s a big start to acknowledge that what is happening just doesn’t work.

        Remember the old saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Couldn’t be more true.

        It’s time to rethink.

        This concept of just-in-time as market metaphor for UX, as a handshake to the shopping cart and the sales funnel, with community as the model for marketing—is one way to get there.

        It’s what our customers want.  It’s just smart to be there when they want us.



          You can’t airlift community

          Community lives where engagement happens. Specific to place and time.

          We know this by just hanging out, bumping into serendipitous conversations or cruising for connections on whichever networks or blogs we frequent.

          Earlier this week, my buddy Charlie Crystle and I jumped on a Facebook string about this very topic.  On my request, we airlifted the conversation to my current blog, and it simply wilted away. It was false and stilted out of context. We reengaged later on the original string, where the dynamic was real for that topic at that time.

          This happens all the time.

          We want to force connection to our URLs as the center of our world. We want to push conversations to Disqus where interaction is just more natural.

          It just doesn’t work.

          We know this intuitively, but our misguided sense of centralized platform order is simply at odds with the messy synergy (and power) of community and the social web itself.

          Think across the networks you frequent: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Tumblr.

          Each is completely different. Groups and communities exist within them all. Different audiences in each, and, more important, different dna for what we personally want from each of them. Different ways that we want to digest information.

          When you dump info from Instagram to Facebook with hashtags embedded, you are just creating noise, spam actually, and polluting your stream.

          When you dump info from Tumblr to Facebook, the same.

          It’s somewhat irrelevant whether the same individuals are in different places. Not only do you want to take your message to your customers, you need to speak to them in the language of where they are.

          How I communicate in Tumblr, surfacing the graphic icon of the idea, even if it is a post or a quote, is key. It’s a graphic scrolling vernacular. But a tweet on your Facebook stream—Oy! A Facebook personal photo on your Twitter stream—you get the message.

          I sent a DM to a friend whose Twitter stream I really like, to let her know that it was polluted with ‘X posted a photo to her Facebook page” over and over again on her stream as an auto push from Facebook. Her response was that it’s too time intensive to work these nets one at a time.

          My response was that I unfollowed her. Really enjoy her thoughts, just don’t want bot-generated flotsam (or is it Jetsam?) on my feed.

          This is just community common sense.

          A huge Aha for me a few years back was looking at Kickstarter and realizing that there was no community there at all.

          Regardless of their adding ‘Follow’, they were a service to the broader world, handed off from individual to individual within different communities, across the web. A link in the shape of a baton, across every possible network. The idea that community needed to be onsite was irrelevant. The goal was to spread the word of things that touched you wherever you had conversations.  Contiguous network connections mattered not. This was more akin to pebbles dropped in the pond than a spider web of attachments.

          This relates back to my experience with Charlie above, and some thinking about Disqus.

          Disqus imagines a world where community exists between communities as well as within them. Intra-community glue in the form of their platform. Where having a central sign-on, the ability to ring tone others to join conversations and to follow commenters across conversations intimates that community exists within the connecting threads itself.

          I’m starting to question this as a concept.

          Questioning it because there will obviously never be just one platform. And because time and place trump platform protocol every time. As much as I want one language, one ramp, it’s not the natural state of the web.

          What Kickstarter showed is that the only thing that matters is what is shared. It will find conversation in every possible corner of the web. Therein lies its power.

          When a project touches me, I bring it to a network that would be interested, or I blog on it and share it that way. It’s the core idea, the call to action that transports and crosses the network chasm.

          Or maybe the network chasm is simply a mental fabrication. Some silly “Like” within Facebook stays there because it doesn’t matter anywhere else. Some Tumblr photo of the Statue of Liberty at first light easily pushes to Twitter, and inevitably ends up in other spots in different formats as well.

          We all get lazy and dump content. We think that community and connections are part of the platforms themselves.  We do this because the web is just there and it’s easy.

          It’s always a bad idea.

          Bad because stuff thrown against the wall is disrespectful to those you are communicating with. And bad, because community is specific—and unique– to where it lives and when you touch it. Random and spattered broadcasting is a function of TV, not of community and conversation.

          Some food for thought…