Humanizing our networks

In the aftermath of the election, I keep waking up thinking “What do I do now?”

What can each of us individually do to impact the status quo?

For the last decade, we have turned to the social nets for this very activity.

For information. For engagement. For solace and support in the communities we form there.

This no longer appears to be working.

Possibly through the painful discordance of this year, the divisiveness of the conversations themselves, we are now more aware of the foibles of the social nets and their innate points of failure.

Their flatness. Their structural lack of nuance. The actuality that the analog/digital divide we herald so often as vestigial, is indeed not gone at all.

An interview with Albert Wegner on the ethical challenges of the networks, inspired me to approach the topic from a different point of view.

Understanding that while certainly the social nets are a digital reflection of our analog world, they are not a true mirror of it.

That we need to fess up to the fact that the very platforms we live on have a built-in numbness. A structural insensitivity that has left us somewhat churning as a culture.

On one hand, the nets are packed with rich media today,  real-time broadcast infrastructures.

But they are really black and white, monotone, even tone deaf by nature.

When our limited gestures become the nature of language, then thought is constricted by the primitiveness of the medium itself. And maybe indeed this flatness is why the messages now sound so shrill and hard edged.

When you think of it, our nets are simply an amplifier. Simply a transport system.

No filters. No carryover of human poise. No innate values.

Just a marble shoot of weightless data, where volume is the quotient for fact.

It took this year, for me at least, to come to grips with this.

It took the ongoing in-your-face political Facebook ads. The endless, real-time push attacks and retorts that made both sides appear tasteless, grating and wrong.

An unpleasant and unproductive shit storm. A context gone wild. A medium unsuited to the very debate that brought us there.

I’ve blogged on how different 9/11 would have been in a wired world.

But in the aftermath of it 15 years ago, I spent every day in Union Square with large circles of people—expressing ourselves, arguing, hugging and working out a new gestalt of community in that unprecedented circumstance.

It helped in a way that many seem unable to find today.

And with all this connectivity at our fingertips, all these communities ready to be formed, the nets have really not worked to societies benefit this year. Rather than a medium for conversation and connection, they’ve become a platform for dispute and divisiveness.

I’m a tech geek by trade. A community builder. A populist for a better future infused with the reach and power of a connected world.

But I need to say that both the apologists for Trump and postings on my news feeds from good friends warning of a doomed world, equally sound wrong and off to me.

We all agree that these are very challenging times, but the very nature of the medium itself feels not up to the job at hand. Or in the least, not flexible enough to handle the nuance of debate that this requires.

It feels like good intent squished into some Twilight Zone plot making everything appear a bit sideways and wrong. A shouting match. Barkers on the street corners and bullies in the halls.

I find myself pining for longer-form blogs and podcasts. Gobbling up the New Yorker. Searching for nuance and banter between people.

Hanging out at Racines, my local winebar, often with friends. Talking and listening. Looking into peoples faces.

Not necessarily finding an actionable answer to the question–What do I do now?  But experiencing the grounding effect of human touch.

We all know that it is so easy, almost tempting at times, to be a complete ass online. While in person, most of us are invariably emotionally correct even when politically we are on different sides of an idea.

And that emotional civility and correctness is a large step toward change that at some core level is absent on the networks today.

This post is a challenge to myself and my community to think this through.

We are certainly not going to abandon the social nets. Nor is face-to-face a scalable solution on its own.

We need to reinvigorate our social nets to be more human in scale. To be useful for debate.  To connect more naturally to the real world.

To be more emotionally correct.

To be aware of the connections between who we are and what we think, and the very platforms we use to express ourselves.

I firmly believe that for most things of importance, the medium is inseparable from the message.

This medium sorely needs humanizing as it is surely not as good as we are as people, and that is simply not good enough.

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.

Context more than content is why networks matter

A core anomaly of online engagement is that discussions that drive the most interesting conversations are invariably a collective answer to a common question.

Yet Q & A as a model works very poorly, if at all.

The idea that we gather around specific topics is actually less true than that we group ourselves first around people we know or want to know, communities that breed trust and the networks we inhabit. What we discuss is important, but less so than the people we discuss it with.

It’s a powerful distinction that engagement, at its core, is less topical than it is contextual.

Andrew Kennedy, CEO of Vintage141, linked me this piece from the New York Times comparing Jelly, the Biz Stone Q & A app, with Need, an under-the-radar competitor.

A perfect case-in-point of how context and content interplay.

I put the apps through their paces with four questions: need a contractor, help with a tech question, best mobile app for wine buying, and searching for a specific niche expert.

A simple test drive.

A few responses popped up, though nothing new and interesting. The respondents were mostly people I knew, and had answered similar questions when I posted on the open web.

I’m not denigrating the apps (although both are seriously impossible to find in the app store). They are inspired and very brand new with uncertain UXs. And besides their differences, neither has figured out what engagement means. Jelly is lighter, more ambitious, image focused, driving short gestures more often. Need felt more conversant, leaner, less arbitrary, with community managers weighing in to juice the search.

The gist of this though is less about the apps and which will win (if either does)–and more about the interplay of context and content.

These Q & A apps are, by design, parasitic to our personal networks.

They don’t build communities, they simply aggregate ours around their single function ask and receive. Their premise is that asking simple questions is a singular behavior and a driver cross new groups.

I’m not a believer.

If I loaded all of my networks with all of my good will and connections, and so did 100,000 others, these apps would certainly have some depth.

People would then friend me within the app, and the molecular magic of extended connections would become viral. This is the end game by design for these apps.

But why would I want to do this?

Does an encapsulated question add anything at all to simply tweeting or posting a need?

I don’t think so.

Life is all about questions and answers, sharing and bantering. The question may be the handshake, but the networks are the participants and the connections, by default, the gestures of approval. It’s not a separate need.

The experiment was interesting though.

We all live intra network and cross community. Across the big ones like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and our blog communities. Niche groupings. Offline clubs. Work and play.

Groups and flash communities are always forming and reforming, brought together by occasion or need. They are time–not location– based, topical in intent, and contextual as they cut across our networks and recombine in all new groupings.

These apps are premised on the question being the nexus of connection.

I think the key piece that creates structural gravity is never the question or the content, it is each of us as the center of our own gaggle of networks. In this case, it’s the singer more than the song that sets the rhythm.

When we need something, or simply want to share online, it bounces around our interconnected world, down handshakes of connections and into other ecosystems and other’s networks.

A few years ago, this post would have ended with a statement that there was a growing trend to create more niche communities of interest and an organic interconnection of communities connected by something like Disqus.

This feels less right now.

Especially as our attentions gets focused smaller on our mobile screens and more individualistic on what we, as individuals, need at the moment to make our offline lives better.

We all know that the more individual freedom there is within a community, the stronger it becomes as a whole.

My sense is that the more there are tools that let me exercise the same freedom and control, cross network and cross community, in an instant, the broader those connections themselves will become and the more empowered each of us will be as the center of them.



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.