* * Updated: I have posted the video at the foot of this post * *
These are the notes and links to accompany the talk I gave just now at TEDxBrighton (I will add the video to this post once it is available).The opportunity to give this kind of a talk was one I was really excited about, because it gave me the excuse to focus on a subject I’d been thinking about for a while and develop some ideas.When we talk about the web as a distraction, about information overload, about fears and doubts we are not alone. But rather than blame the web, or tools like Facebook, Google or Twitter, we should think about how we can learn the skills, habits and self-discipline required to tap into the web?s power to help us to do things faster, better and with greater impact.
To gain the most from using the web we need to think about how it is best used. This applies to everyday life, especially to knowledge work, or the knowledge-based elements of our working lives.
There are three sets of skills/knowledge/literacy that it will be useful to develop in ourselves and our friends and family:
- Networks: An understanding of how networks work, how to build and care for our personal networks and the ability to bring the resources and knowledge of networks to bear in our daily work.
- Sharing: Comfortably, instinctively sharing our knowledge, efforts, thoughts and needs with our networks.
- Focus and flow: Using our attention in different ways at the right times and designing workflows which take and put back into our online networks at the right moments.
Through the web we effectively have access to the sum of human knowledge and almost two billion minds. It arrived in our lives comparatively recently and we are still figuring out the ways in which it can be used.
The opportunity is almost too big, the web is almost too big. In fact it unsettles us, stirs up feelings of fear, doubt and uncertainty. My work has often involved helping people to get a grip on the scale of change they are facing in their company/industry/profession. This has sometimes involved experiencing the downside of the whole messenger shooting thing.
Emotional reactions are very understandable. Maybe it is a kind of grieving for the world we knew, grew up, created our success in, and like grief you have to expect shock, anger, denial, bargaining etc. Maybe it is a kind of shock of the now, a discomfort with how quickly things are moving with technology and its effects on society.
The other problem we have is we fixate on platforms, like Facebook, Google or Twitter and use them as proxies for the complexity of the web.
It would be better to recognise that these are access points to the vast network of networks that is the web, the web that is connecting up all of humanity, all of our knowledge, increasingly all of our objects.
There are many, many tools to access our human social networks and the machine network of stored knowledge and content.
That Facebook map…
I’ve been a bit infatuated with the map of 10 million pairs of connections on Facebook recently. I blogged about it recently and refer to the image three times during the presentation. Do read the original post on the Facebook blog – interesting in all sorts of ways…
Learning to read Twitter & digital literacy
Looking at my own use of Twitter, I realised that using Twitter was a complex skill that I had learned over 40 hours spread over about 18 months. It was a bit like learning to drive, or play a musical instrument. It took time, it took experience. I talked about this in Learning to Read Twitter and a WOMMA webinar called Do you speak social? (you can see the slides and hear the audio by following this link).
The idea that learning to use the web well would require a whole different set of skills was one that I was introduced to by a mentor whom I have never met or even spoken to, Howard Rheingold, a pioneer in the web and education.
Howard talks about five ?digital literacies, including “crap detection” and “attention literacy“. You can watch him give a longer overview of this idea in a video of Howard talking at Reboot Britain. You can see some of the writing and videos from Howard I’ve found useful in my Diigo library tagged howardrheingold .
What are the superskills we need to make the most of the web
“Social media” is a misleading term in some ways, as it makes us focus on the medium and not the network, not the potential to use the network as a way of doing things more effectively.
John Hagel eloquently explains in his brilliant book The Power of Pull and in this O’Reilly video interview (if you want the short version), Twitter is a “serendipity engine” – it allows you to access implicit knowledge, information with perspective and context that people have in their heads.
Twitter – like many social web tools – allows us to do the things that make us human only more so. We can build and manage larger social networks, be in the company and minds of friends and contacts regardless of geography, so we can hear when they need help, when they might want to offer it, when they know about an opportunity that would be just the thing for us…
In layman’s terms, when you use it right, the social web makes you lucky. You find the right knowledge, the right people, the right conversations, the right deals, the right products, faster.
Superskill #1: Networks
The first thing we need to learn, the first superskill we need to learn is networks. I should say ?networking?, but in the UK that carries some slightly negative, grubby connotations.
We need to understand some things about networks and we need to be able to do some things with networks.
Christakis and Fowler, in their book Connected, have a very useful set of five rules about networks. They explain how networks are affected by you, you are affected by networks, and by bits of networks you can?t see. They also explain how networks seem to have a mind of their own, they act like a swarm, as a?superorganism.
It is hard to get your head around, it feels almost mystical, but it is a useful insight to grasp, that you both have freewill, make choices that affect others and are also swayed in ways you don’t understand by the network, which is doing its own thing.
Beyond that conceptual element of networks, it helps to have an understanding of how networks work from your perspective. It helps to have an idea of what yours looks like, while accepting that you can?t see all of it.
Your network is a superskill and an asset. You can?t control it but you can affect it. If you manipulate it cynically it will be less effective. If you don?t care for it at all it will be less effective.
What we realised for corporations and networks was that they had to understand, be present and be useful. Those principles hold true for people as well.
Ideas like karma, like paying it forward, like not being a selfish git, all come into play.
Think of your network like a garden. Think of social network tools as ways of doing more faster, keeping connected to a larger network of contacts, increasing your ability to connect with the right people at right time. But not the sole way of being connected of course.
Thinking about how to be useful in your network brings us the next super-skill…
Superskill #2: Sharing
Sharing is something we learn early on, we encourage it in our children, and then spend some time curtailing and disincentivising later on in life. We go from sharing everything to steadily enclosing more and more of our stuff, our knowledge and resources from everyone else.
In the business world I began my career in there was what I felt a fantasy of the value of your intellectual property. People copyrighted and trademarked and signed non-disclosure agreements for all sorts of nonsense that no one else could care less about.
What I realised later on was that most stuff we created in our daily work had more value being shared than being protected.
My favourite example of what happens when you share instead of “protecting” your ideas and?knowledge?with copyright or demanding an exchange of data (email addresses etc) before you can see something is the What is Social Media? e-book I wrote at iCrossing. See this post for the full story.
The more I thought about it the more I discovered things I was not sharing, or not sharing well.
The web means it is easy to share without creating a burden for others, to put stuff out there and let it be found by people it to whom it is useful.
Organisations and especially knowledge workers should develop the habit of sharing by default, of deciding what not to share rather than deciding what things they will share. This will make the web a richer place and will the release value of information and content that otherwise would remain forever unrealised.
Superskill #3: Focus & flow
Focus and flow are the business end of this set of superskills – they are about using the web to get more done, to get stuff done faster, to get it done better.
Focus is about using your attention well, knowing when to focus it tight in on a single task and when it is useful to be diffuse and open to your network.
Related themes and thoughts that are worth looking at if you are interested in this are when?Stowe Boyd talks about “flow” and Howard Rheingold talks about Attention Literacy.
You might be aware of the idea of flow in work or sport when someone reaches peak performance. You need to be able to focus to reach this, and when you do it is a wonderful thing.
The web can be distracting, though, distracting to scale of infiinity. It was one thing our scholar forbears had to put up with the distraction of fleeting thoughts or hunger, and our recent working ancestors and selves had t put up with the distraction of colleagues in open space offices and telephone calls. But what about when everything is the distraction? Poor us.
Two things I use are the Pomodoro technique and a really good to do list. The timer starts and anything else that occurs goes on the list.
Well we need to learn the skill of being able to focus rather than blaming the tools.
The flow I am talking about here is also “workflow”, something talked about most often by web designers and other technical folk, it is something we should think about in relation to our own work. In a networked world where is the value to be realised in writing a report, sharing an interesting article, creating a presentation?
I’ll use the example of writing a presentation as an example. As you will see though, you might apply the same approach to many forms of knowledge work, from writing a report or proposal to doing some research for a meeting.
The tool focused way of writing a presentation is what I used before. I would sit down and open Powerpoint, Keynote or whatever and start using the web tools (Google, Delicious etc.) to go looking for new information which I might include. Usually I wold be looking for data, images and examples to support my case.
It was a bit like cooking with a recipe, but without having shopped for all the ingredients and checking I had all the utensils in advance. Even though the shop is justa round the corner I?m going to incur ?task switching penalties? and slow everything down y working in this way.
It was kind of the same with presentations. I would embark on writing one and I could take – well, I could take as long as I would like. The focus was the delivery of the presentation to a room full of people and I could work slowly for days and nights and then desperately in the hours before the presentation.
It was wasteful in so many ways. My time, but also in terms of the attention from and usefulness to my network that it represented. I wrote about my own re-thinking of workflow around a presentation in a blog post recently.
What does it mean?
So there we have it. I’ve ranged from how the web is changing the world through to how to write Powerpoint slide decks. From the sublime to the ridiculously everyday.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? We need to understand and master both the high level and the mundane in order to really understand the revolution we are living through and make the most of it. Or we can leave it to our children and our grandchildren to work it out – your call.
We will learn these superskills eventually, as a species. But the choice all of us have now, is whether to let the web happen to us, or to take the initiative and the opportunity that lies in front of us.
Let’s focus on the tools insofar as we need to learn them but not lose sight of what is happening and what the opportunities are to get things done smarter and better.