Embrace complexity to find simplicity

If you really want to understand networks, complexity is the place to go. Once you understand a little, you see complex adaptive systems everywhere, from traffic to the weather, and especially – if you are in my line of work – when you look at human social networks.

So, people who really understand how complexity works, as it were, are really worth listening to. Eric Beinhocker, who applied complexity theory to economics in his book The Origin of Wealth, gave me my first taste of it and I have been hooked ever since.

Ecologists are, naturally, enough steeped in complexity theory, as their field is all about the intricate relationships between environments and the many organisms that inhabit them.

So this TED talk, by ecologist Eric Berlow, is a three-minute eye opener about one simple lesson he has learned. You have to be able to see the complexity around any given issue in order to   

In his words we have to “embrace complexity” rather than trying to oversimplify problems we are examining. Look hard enough at a complex system and the simple patterns and answers will begin to emerge.

If you see a complex system, be excited rather than afraid, says Berlow. It means that you will be able to find a better answer quicker.

Embrace complexity is a phrase i’ve used myself before, beginning with the Brands in Networks e-book I wrote at iCrossing in 2008. It’s a hard thing for brands and organisations to accept, but refusing to oversimplify the challenges they face, particularly in online networks, can be a virtue rather than a cause of confusion.

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Whitewalling: Teens create their own Facebook super log-off

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Here’s an interesting approach that Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd found a young person using to manage their Facebook privacy and presence:

Mikalah uses Facebook but when she goes to log out, she deactivates her Facebook account. She knows that this doesn’t delete the account – that’s the point. She knows that when she logs back in, she’ll be able to reactivate the account and have all of her friend connections back. But when she’s not logged in, no one can post messages on her wall or send her messages privately or browse her content. But when she’s logged in, they can do all of that. And she can delete anything that she doesn’t like. Michael Ducker calls this practice “super-logoff” when he noticed a group of gay male adults doing the exact same thing.

Mikalah is not trying to get rid of her data or piss of her friends. And she’s not. What she’s trying to do is minimize risk when she’s not present to actually address it.

It goes to show that despite a platform’s desire to push people into disclosure by default, users will find ways to make their own choices about how publicness works. Because for many young people not being on Facebook just isn’t an option.

I asked Shamika why she bothered with Facebook in the first place, given that she sent over 1200 text messages a day. Once again, she looked at me incredulously, pointing out that there’s no way that she’d give just anyone her cell phone number. Texting was for close friends that respected her while Facebook was necessary to be a part of her school social life. And besides, she liked being able to touch base with people from her former schools or reach out to someone from school that she didn’t know well. Facebook is a lighter touch communication structure and that’s really important to her. But it doesn’t need to be persistent to be useful.

In the comments and related Tweets to this post, we can see that this hacking of the way Facebook works to suit personal reputation / presence management is common. One Tweet from @Tremblebot says their students call it “Whitewalling” or “Whitewashing”, and that the practice requires an investment up front and then makes it easy to stay on top of what people are posting about in the way of comments, tags and photos.

Perhaps this is something I should add the second edition of Me and My Web Shadow in the workflow for managing reputation. Certainly, if Facebook were to take a leaf out of Twitter’s playbook it would think about adding this as an easier to use or more prevalent feature.

“Whitewalling” also looks like evidence for the notion that people, yes even digital natives, want to retain some control over their privacy and what the world sees and hears about them.

Complexity is everywhere, so try everything at once

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Image: It’s complicated (and adaptive)…

Thinking about complexity again, the strategy that the best players use in complex adaptive systems use is to hedge their bets.

In Brands in Networks I talked about that from the perspective of brands needing to hedge their communications, have different creative and even strategies running to give them the best chance of success.

In Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column I read about Rebecca Costa and her thinking about the increasing complexity in our personal life:

Any given solution won’t work, by definition: Costa defines complexity as when “there are many more wrong solutions than right ones”. Worse, they lull us into thinking we’re tackling the matter, so extinguishing the sense of urgency. (Are you eschewing plastic bags, imagining you’re “doing your bit” for the planet?) The only rational tactic may be trying everything at once – what Costa calls “parallel incrementalism” – in full knowledge that most methods will fail….

We need to think, Costa says, like venture capitalists, who make a fortune despite 80% of the businesses they invest in failing; they know that 20% won’t, but not which ones. For complex problems, trying one solution and getting upset when it fails is preposterous: any single solution is likely to fail. The mindset we need isn’t the positive-thinking mantra that failure is impossible; it’s that failures are inevitable, and for good reason. It’s an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion: we may never really understand how to get what we want, or stave off the very worst – yet we may manage it anyway.

I kind of like that approach…

Why is CSR silent in social media?

“I think Richard Dawkins was sent to test us. Like fossils. And facts.”

It’s not just religious fervour that facts can get in the way of – a good dose of facts and rational discussion is the best cure for disinformation and malicious rumours too. So why aren’t more CSR programmes using social media to fight negative perceptions of their organisations?

It strikes me that one of the richest sources of useful, interesting and inspiring information that organisations have is the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) work that they do. By that I mean in part, their charitable, social works, but also their ethics and principles and how these are put into practice

It’s not just about shouting about all the work you do for charity. CSR at its best (and I think of M&S Plan A first in this respect) is about explaining the principles and the ethics the organisation subscribes to.

In my student days i was lazily radical in my views about corporations. Twenty years later I will hold my hand up and admit my views on, say, McDonalds or Nike were informed by word of mouth, rarely backed up by evidence or data beyond that which was presented to me by campus activists. I think I got quite worked up about some of it, and I think a lot of it was nonsense.

There were and are two issues around responding constructively to anti-corporate criticism:

  1. Organisations aren’t individuals: The Corporation has a fascinating premise (essentially, if corporations were individuals they would be psychopaths) but it stops being useful when you try to understand how corporations or any large organisations behave. They aren’t individuals, they aren’t monoliths, they aren’t even machines in which their employees are all little cogs and moving parts. Large organisations are networks, complex adaptive ones at that – we deploy management and metaphors to control them, and direct them and shape them, but essentially they are human social networks.
  2. The issues are complex: My sense over the years is that corporate communications and issue management teams have been schooled in managing communications in mainstream media. That means control and simplification are the order of the day. Soundbites aren’t useful when you are trying to explain complex issues around, say, social responsibility, tax or regulation. Success is being in control of the news agenda, mindshare, even if most people don’t believe a word they are reading and just assume that because you are big company you are up to no good.

Actually, both these points are about complexity. The perfect place to share information, discuss it openly, link to evidence, discuss issues openly, share examples of doing good, are the social web.

Yet, according to a new report from the pretty thorough and credible guys at Social Media Influence:

fewer than half of nearly 300 North American and European companies currently communicate their corporate and social responsibility accomplishments. Just one quarter have a dedicated social media sustainability channel or advocate.

This compares to about 85% of the Social Media Sustainability Index Report  sample who are happily trying to promote their products and services through social media.

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