Tag Archives: web 2.0

Twitter is my Newspaper: explaining twitter to newbies

I’m frequently asked about technology, the internet and web 2.0 and in the course of the discussion the subject of Twitter inevitably arises. People are frequently curious, often judgmental, and almost always bewildered by the service. This isn’t surprising, Twitter is poorly understood despite its relative success (and its success is still small in the grand scheme of internet related things). Part of this is because people (even early adopters) are still figuring twitter out, and part of this is because those frequently explaining it don’t understand it themselves (I’m looking at you newspaper columnists).

Most often I sense people misunderstand Twitter because they compare it to a text based internet tool they do know: e-mail. This reference point shapes their assumptions about Twitters purpose and leads them to ask questions like: how can you read all those tweets? or how can you “follow” 250 people? If the unsaid assumption is that twitter creates 2000 new emails a day to read – well no surprise they’re running for the hills! This is doubly true if you believe the myth that all people tweet about (and thus read) is their breakfast menu, or what they are doing in a given moment.

Twitter is not email and while it has many (evolving) uses I’ve found the best metaphor for explaining how my friends and I use it is a much simpler technology: the newspaper.

Few people read every (or even most) articles in a newspaper – indeed most of us just scan the headlines when we see a newspaper. Likewise, very few people read all their tweets. Indeed, many of us go days (guilt free) without ever looking at the newspaper – same with Twitter, many people go days without looking at their twitter feed. The difference is that your newspaper’s headlines only change once a day and it is awkward to carry the thing around with you. Twitter’s headlines are always changing, and its located on your blackberry or iphone.

Now the difference from email becomes more clear. There is no obligation – or even expectation – of readership with Twitter. Emails you have to (or are supposed to) read and, let’s face it, are often a chore to get through. Newspaper articles you choose to read, often for pleasure or consumption.

Indeed, as Taylor and I outlined in Missing the Link, Twitter is better than a newspaper in many ways since you get to choose the columnists whose headlines you’ll scanning. Whereas a newspaper brings together articles, ideas and information someone else thinks you should care about Twitter brings together the ideas, articles and information by people you care about. I follow a number of “thought leaders” people like Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen, Andrew Potter, Tim O’Reilly, David Weinberger, etc… along with some friends and colleagues. While they occasionally say short pithy things, they are usually linking to articles that they find interesting. In short, some of the smartest people I know, and some I don’t, are essentially creating a vetted reading list for me. This virtual community is my news editor.

Better still, I don’t always have a newspaper on me. But an endless stream of articles vetted by smart people is always just a click away so whenever I have a spare moment – on the bus, in line at the grocery store, or waiting for a taxi – I can pull up some interesting reading material I would otherwise never have read.

I don’t claim this is Twitter’s only use, so it’s not complete, comprehensive explanation, but I’ve found this explanation has helped a number of my non-web savvy friends to “get” Twitter.

Emergent Systems in Government: Let's put the horse before the cart

Yesterday Paul McDowall, Knowledge Management Advisor at the Government’s School of the Public Service and chairperson of the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum, wrote the following comment in response to a blog post from several months ago entitled “How GCPEDIA will save the public service.”

I’ve posted his comment – feel free to read it or skip it and go straight to my analysis below. In summary, what makes McDowall’s comments interesting isn’t just the argument (or its reactionary nature) but the underlying perspective/assumptions that drives it. It serves as a wonderful example of the tension between how the traditional hierarchical nature of the public service and some evolving emergent models that challenging this approach.

So first, McDowall:

Will GCPEDIA save the public service, or capture all the tacit knowledge that will walk out the door? No, of course not! To suggest otherwise is, frankly, naive hyperbole.

As great and as promising as GCPEDIA and other Web 2.0 tools are, tools will never save the public service. People are the public service and only people have the capacity to save the public service, and it will take a whole lot more to improve the weak areas of the public service than a tool. Things like leadership play a pretty important role in organizational effectiveness. There are many good Organizational Excellence models (I have researched this area) and they all include people and leadership as two elements, but funny enough, tools aren’t included. Why? Because it is not so much a tool issue as it is a craftsman issue.

With respect to your comment about tacit knowledge and social capital (not the same things by the way), I think it may be helfpul to brush up on what tacit knowledge is, and what Knowledge Management is.

It is unquestionably true that the public service continues to face a potential impact from demographic changes that are both extremely significant and yet unquantified. It is also unquestionably true that most public service organizations haven’t truly understood or addressed these potential impacts, to say nothing of the potential of improving their effectiness right NOW from better Knowledge Management (productivity, innovation, etc).

These issues need to be addressed by public service leaders in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. Tools can and certainly should help but only when wielded by craftsmen and women. For too long vendors have made grandiose and unrealizable promises about their ‘solutions’. I thought we had learned our lessons from all that experience.
Let’s not get the cart before the horse, shall we?

Paul McDowall
Knowledge Management Advisor and chairperson of the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum

McDowall’s main concern appears to be that GCPEDIA doesn’t have a clear purpose and, more importantly, doesn’t serve a specific leadership objective. (If you are wondering how I gleaned that from the above, well, I cheated, I called McDowall to ask him more about his comment since the nature of his concern wasn’t clear to me). For those used to an era where IT projects were planned out from the beginning, everything was figured out in advance, and the needs of the leadership were the paramount priority, GCPEDIA would be disconcerting. Indeed, the very idea of unleashing people willy-nilly on a system would be an anathema. In short, when McDowall says, don’t put the horse before the cart, what he’s saying is, “you’ve rolled out a tool, and you don’t even know what you are going to use it for!”

This would appear to be rational concern. Except, many of the rules that underlay this type of thinking are disappearing. Indeed, had this type of thinking been adhered to, the web would not have developed.

First, The economics have changed. There was a time when IT projects necessarily costed tens of millions of dollars.  But GCPEDIA was built on a (free) open source platform using a handful of internal FTEs (making McDowell’s comments about vendors even more confusing). Indeed GCPEDIA has cost the public service virtually nothing to create. One invests in planning so as to avoid expensive or ineffective deployments. But if the costs of deployment are virtually zero and failure really isn’t that traumatic then… why waste time and years planning? Release, test, and adapt (or kill the project).

Second, with projects like this become cheap to deploy another important shift takes place. Users – not their bosses or a distant IT overlord – decide a) if they want to participate and b) co-develop and decide what is useful. This has powerful implications. It means that you had better serve a real (not perceived or mandated) need, and that, if successful, you’d better be prepared to evolve quickly. This, interestingly, is how that usefully little tool called the World Wide Web evolved. Read the original proposal to create the World Wide Web. IT departments of the world didn’t all collectively and suddenly decide that people should be made to use the web. No! It grew organically responding to demand. In addition, there is very little in it that talks about how we use the web today, users of the web (us!) have helped it evolve so that it serves us more effectively.

This is probably the biggest disconnect between McDowell and myself. He believes GCPEDIA is problematic (or at least won’t do the things I think it will do) because it doesn’t serve the leadership. I think it will work because it does something much better, it serves actual users – public servants (and thus, contrary to his argument, is very much about people). This includes, critically, capturing tacit knowledge and converting it into formal – HTML encoded – knowledge that helps build social capital (I do, actually, know the difference between the two).

Indeed, the last thing we need is a more leadership oriented public service, what we need is an employee centric public service. One that enables those who are actually doing the work to communicate, collaborate and work, more effectively. In this regard, I think GCPEDIA is demonstrating that it is effective (although it is still is very early days) with logarithmic growth, 8000+ users and 200 more signing up every week (all with virtually no promotional budget). Clearly some public servants are finding it to be at worst interesting, and at best, deeply enabling.

Mapping Government 2.0 against the Hype Curve

Last week Andrea DiMaio wrote an interesting post on how Government 2.0 may be approaching the peak of the hype cycle. I’d never seen the hype cycle before and it looked fun, so I thought it might be interesting to try to map where I believe some current Canadian government 2.0 projects, a few older technologies, and a few web 2.0 technologies in general, are against this chart from a government perspective.

My suspicion is that we haven’t even begun to dip into the Trough of Disillusionment with most true Web 2.0 government projects (GCPEDIA & GCConnex). However, I think governments have overcome their paranoia about facebook, but are still very wary… that said I’ve noticed some government ministries have started to use facebook as a communication tool with the public. Blogs however (which are perfectly okay for public servants to create internally) are still viewed with suspicion – internally they are almost never used. But then, heck, given the cluttered nature of most government website (and the fact that finding info is hard), I think it is clear that we are still working our way up the “Slope of Enlightenment” on this web 1.0 technology.

Gov 20 hype curve 3

Those who’ve seen me speak know I much I love Arthur Schopenhauer‘s three stages of truth:

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

So I’ve also included how I think the three stages map against this chart too.

So in sum… in  my view there is good news for Government 2.0 projects – visibility is still increasing. Unfortunately there is also some bad news: prepare for increased violent opposition…

Vancouver's Open Data Portal: Use it, or Lose it.

As some of you saw yesterday via Twitter, Vancouver has launched a beta version of its open data portal. This is a major milestone for Vancouver on several levels. It is a testament to our politicians, who had the vision and foresight to embrace this idea. It is a tribute to the city’s staff who have worked unbelievably hard to make this project come alive so quickly. It is a triumph for those of us who advocate and have been working with the city to move us towards open government and government as platform. Finally, it represents an enormous opportunity for coders and citizens alike, and it is to this group that I’d like to address this blog post.

The Data Portal represents an opportunity for citizens, especially citizen coders, to help create a City that Thinks Like the Web: a city that enables citizens to create and access collective knowledge and information to create new services, suggest new ideas, and identify critical bugs in the infrastructure and services, among other a million other possibilities.

But the open data is only the part of the puzzle. Yes, our data is now beginning to be set free. But we have to use it.

If not, we’ll risk losing it.

I wish I could say that the city will share data no matter what and that political support will continue forever. But the fact is, municipal resources are limited. While the potential of open data is enormous, we need more than potential; we need some wins. More importantly, we need an active and engaged community working to make Vancouver better, more efficient, and more interesting because of our open data. We need to show politicians and public servants in Vancouver, but also in Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Nanaimo, Moncton and other places across the country that citizens want access to data, and that if we get it, we will help their city (or province, or country) come alive in new and inventive ways.

Back in June, shortly after City Council passed Open3 (the nickname for the Open Motion), I gave this presentation to both City staff and at Open Web Vancouver. In it I described how “the bargain” Clay Shirky says exists on every successful web 2.0 site also exists in cities that want to think like the web.

In our case the bargain is simple: On one side, the city agrees to share as much data as it possibly can, in open formats, as quickly as it can. On the other side, the community – and in particular citizen coders – must make that data come alive in applications, websites and analysis. The city has taken the first step in fulfilling its side of the bargain. (And yes, we need to keep adding more data; there is work to be done.) Now it is time to activate the other half of the bargain. If we don’t, we put the deal at risk.

So what can you do?

First, you can code up an app, or find ways to help those who are. Indeed, there is going to be a Hackathon tomorrow evening at the Vancouver Archives to do just this. A number of projects are already underway that you can join – or start one yourself! I will be there myself, and I encourage you to swing by too.

Second, if you’d like to build an application, but the dataset you need is currently not available, then complete the city’s Open Data priority survey!

Third, come add ideas, resources and projects to the Vancouver Open Data Wiki.

I’m enormously excited to see what evolves next. As many of you know, I’ve been advising the Mayor’s Office on open data and open government for several months now – and through my work with them and with city staff, I’ve been deeply impressed by the energy and commitment that I’ve seen. As far as I know, only three major cities have created data portals such as this, and to do this in three months is incredible. Over the next few days I’m going to share some more thoughts on what the Open Data portal means for Vancouver. If you get a chance I hope you’ll send me your thoughts as well, or post some to your own blog if you have one.

Blogging: Dealing with difficult comments

Embedded below is an abridged version (10 minutes!) of my 2009 Northern Voice presentation on managing and engaging the community the develops around one’s blog. Specifically, one goals of this presentation was to pull in some of the thinking from the negotiation and conflict management space and see how it might apply to dealing with people who comment on your blog. Hopefully, people will find it interesting.

Finally, a key lesson that came to me while developing the presentation is that most blogs, social media projects, and online projects in general, really need a social contract – or as Skirky describes it, a bargain – that the organizer and the community agree to. Often such contracts (or bargains) are strongly implied, but I believe it is occasionally helpful to make them explicit – particularly on blogs or projects that deal with contentious (politics) or complicated (many open source projects) issues.

At 8:43 in the presentation I talk about what I believe is the implicit bargain on my site. I think about codifying it, especially as a I get more and more commentors. That said, the community that has developed around this blog – mostly of people I’ve never met –  is fantastic, so there hasn’t been an overwhelming need.

Finally thank you to Bruce Sharpe for posting a video of the presentation.

So, I hope this brief presentation is helpful to some of you.

(Notice how many people are coughing! You can tell it was winter time!)

The Fascinating Phenomenon that is Andrew Keen

So Andrew Keen oozed his way on to the Colbert Report the other night and I just caught the video off the website.

For those unfamiliar with Keen he is the author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture” a book in which he describes how the internet is making arts and media unprofitable. As innumerable blogs, and most notable, David Weinberger have documented, there are so many holes in Keen’s thesis it is hard to know where to start.

On the Colbert Report Keen cycled through some of his regulars. He correctly pointed out that certain types of media and arts are unprofitable because of the internet… and ignored how the internet has simultaneously given rise to a multitude of new ways for artist to earn a living. New business models are emerging. On the hilarious side, Keen briefly tried to argue that it was blogs and the internet – not American’s old media institutions such as CNN and FOX – that allowed the American public to be hoodwinked into believing there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. My god, blogs were the only place in the US where an honest discussion about Iraqi WMDs took place! I could go on… but why repeat what so many others have said.

What it interesting to me is that a phenomenon like Keen even exists. Why is it that we repeatedly listen to people who take a simple ideas and overextend it in illogical ways. Does anyone else remember the fear mongering 1994 book – The End of Work – about how “worldwide unemployment will increase as new computer-based and communications technologies eliminate tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors”? Keen’s book is similar in that it nicely capture our society’s paranoias and fears about change (this time wrought by “web 2.0”).

Interestingly I think Keen is a necessary and positive phenomenon. Indeed, Keen exists, is championed and raised up on a pedestal not because he is right, but because is so glamorously wrong. Societies need Keen so that his arguments can be publicly destroyed in a manner that satisfies even the strongest doubters. In this case, Keen’s book helps advance the larger narrative of how centralized authorities that offer the illusion of certainty are collapsing in the face of probabilistic networks that offer a reality of uncertainty. This narrative is hardly new – books that preceded “The Cult of the Amateur” like “The Long Tail” and “Free Culture” more than aptly dealt with Keen’s arguments, they just didn’t do it publicly enough. The publics’ appetite to understand and hear this debate is merely climaxing and has not yet been sated.

The San Francisco Chronicle is right to say “every good movement needs a contrarian. Web 2.0 has Andrew Keen.” Sometimes being contrarian is about offering a valuable insight and keeping the debate honest. And then, sometime its about encapsulating the worst fears, insecurities, and power dynamics of a dying era so that a society can exorcise it. I guess it’s a role someone has to play, and Keen will be well rewarded for it… as his book is reviewed and sold, online.

(NB: If you are looking for a good book on the internet, skip The Cult of the Amateur and consider David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined or Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder they are both excellent).

Social networking vs. Government Silos'

As some of you may remember, back in May I published an op-ed on Facebook and government bureaucracy in the Globe and Mail. The response to the article has been significant, including emails from public servants across the country and several speaking engagements. As a result, I’m in the process of turning the op-ed into a full blown policy article. With luck somewhere like Policy Options will be interested in it.

So… if anyone has any stories – personal or in the media- they think might be relevant please do send them along. For example Debbie C. recently sent me this story, about the establishment of A-Space, a social networking site for US intelligence analysts, that is proving to be a very interesting case study.