We naturally associate criminal activity with secrecy, with conspiracies hatched in alleyways or back rooms. Today, though, foolish as it may be in practice, street gangs have adopted a level of transparency that might impress even the most fervent Silicon Valley futurist. Every day on Facebook and Twitter, on Instagram and YouTube, you can find unabashed teens flashing hand signs, brandishing guns, splaying out drugs and wads of cash. If we live in an era of openness, no segment of the population is more surprisingly open than 21st-century gang members, as they simultaneously document and roil the streets of America’s toughest neighborhoods.
There’s a term sometimes used for a gangbanger who stirs up trouble online: Facebook driller. He rolls out of bed in the morning, rubs his eyes, picks up his phone. Then he gets on Facebook and starts insulting some person he barely knows, someone in a rival crew. It’s so much easier to do online than face-to-face. Soon someone else takes a screenshot of the post and starts passing it around. It’s one thing to get cursed out in front of four or five guys, but online the whole neighborhood can see it—the whole city, even. So the target has to retaliate just to save face. And at that point, the quarrel might be with not just the Facebook driller a few blocks away but also haters 10 miles north or west who responded to the post. What started as a provocation online winds up with someone getting drilled in real life.
So these gang members really don’t give a second thought to public / private, to secrecy as part of what they do. In a horrible way they are arguably being “radically transparent”. interesting to thing about Clay Shirky’s examples of online social networks defeating organised crime in Here Comes Everybody. So, do we here have organised crime adopting open, loosely coupled networks to pursue their agenda?
Well they are definitely networked, but possibly not that organised in the way we would usually think about criminal organisations…
Harold Pollack, codirector of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, says that in every talk he gives about gangs, someone inevitably asks him about The Wire—wanting to know who is, say, the Stringer Bell of Chicago. But The Wire, based in part on David Simon’s Baltimore crime reporting in the 1980s and ’90s, is now very dated in its depiction of gangs as organized crime syndicates. For one thing, Stringer Bell would never let his underlings advertise their criminal activities, as a Central Florida crew did this spring when it posted on its public Facebook page that two of its members had violated their parole and been arrested for posing with guns on their personal Facebook pages.
Something here connects to a link that Will McInnes tweeted – about “open source warfare“, a post by John Robb, author of Brave New War. These gang factions are becoming less centralised, more open, less geographically defined (as the main gang war in the Wired article escalated, across the mid-West, as social followers of the tweeting, rapping gangsters enacted small proxy battles in their own neighbourhoods).
Conflict and crime, like every other area of human life is being disrupted, re-imagined, is re-emerging in new forms.
One of the insights which tickled me, was the idea that increasing amounts of information and complexity could make us more reliant on social networks than ever before.
When we are uncertain about what to do, we turn to others to help us make a decision…. In a world of exponentially increasing information, decisions will be harder because our capacity for memory will remain the same. With exponentially increasing information, and limited capacity for memory, we will increasingly turn to others to help us decide.
We are becoming hyper-connected: we are using online networks to stay in touch with more people. These may be more people who are on the periphery for us, but we are connected all the same.
These networks, along with the wider increase in available content that the web brings, means there is more noise out there. More choices, and more complexity in trying to make decisions.
Accord to Paul Adams, author of Grouped, this means that we will rely on our social networks to help us make those decisions. We do this a lot of the time anyway, but with more choices and more complexity we will do it more so.
Which means the complexity which is revealed and created by our living in bigger networks, will in turn make us more reliant on those networks.
I’m going for a lie down in a dark, un-networked room now. But it is an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it?
In Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, he talks about the phenomenon of simultaneous invention. What tends to happen throughout the history of technological innovation is that several inventors, rather than one, get the same idea or breakthrough at the same time.
Networks became a focus for me about seven years ago, as I began to look at the effect that social networks and the web were having on the industries I was working in, marketing communications and media. The more I learned about networks, the more it seemed to me that they were incredibly important in re-thinking how our business worked – the business of attracting attention, essentially – and that they were important both as the cause and context of disruption we were experiencing (and would continue to experience for some years to come).
When it came to media and marketing, channels were being replaced (displaced, disrupted) by networks as the dominant model. The implications were profound for industries that had been built on building big channels, for big audiences with big advertisements and big budgets attached.
At iCrossing, the digital agency which gave me a home and let me develop a social media and content practice, we started re-designing the whole process of brand communications, from research through to measurement, with three principles
Understand your networks
Be useful to your networks
Be present in your networks
It became clear very quickly, that once you started to adapt your customer communications to the new reality of networks, you started to look at the rest of the business very differently and that the impact of networks, the need to adapt to the age of networks, was going to be felt throughout the organisation. Networks were disrupting the existing media and communications models so much that soon politics, commerce, culture and society as a whole would begin to feel its effects.
Networks are a model for managing complexity
Some of the topics and themes addressed in the talk include…
Scales from individual, to team, to division to team…
Understand networks (& then your networks)
Develop organisational and personal networks literacy
Networks thinking: design for networks
Beginning to lay down principles
As well as understanding… your networks… principles…
Presence first, process second: more important to be in play and prepared…
Quote: “CEOs see a large gap between the level of complexity coming at them and their confidence that their enterprises are equipped to deal with it.” Capitalizing on Complexity, IBM Global CEO Study 2010
“We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.” Caroline Webb, Partner at McKinsey & Co.
Following on from my last post, where I mentioned the brilliant “For Your Information” episode of Peter Day’s BBC series In Business in the context of advertising business models, I’d like to look at the other strand of the personal information theme in the programme.
Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co, was introduced to discuss issues about information overload and its impact of personal productivity and executive teams, following on from the article she and Derek Dean wrote for McKinsey Quarterly, Recovering from Information Overload (free registration required):
In my talk at TEDx Brighton on the skills we need to develop to use the web effectively, I started from the point of view that information overload and distraction were two symptoms of a syndrome of inefficiency and mis-use of the web in our work. We need to make sure the web is working for us, and to do that we need to develop an understanding of networks, better habits of sharing, a sense of when to use our focus and attention in different ways and design more effective work-flows that took advantage of the way the web works.
McKinsey’s raising of this issue adds authority to a meme that’s been growing for some time, with posts like Declaring Email Bankruptcy etc.
In fact it puts me in mind of hopeful posts like E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago from BusinessWeek in 2005, when web 2.0 was just becoming an idea with real currency. It reminds us that the a yet unrealised hope for the social web was to help us work smarter, not just generate new opportunities for advertising.
In 2011, email isn’t dead – in fact it is still the centre of many people’s working days – and a range of other messaging options from Twitter to Basecamp updates can all add to rather solve the problems of overload and distraction. It isn’t even a case of us vs. the machines, it is a case that the culture we have evolved in using these things is corrosive and unproductive.
When Caroline Webb talks about an executive sending an email to a wide team and everyone leaping to reply on their BlackBerrys, whatever the hour, whether they are on holiday or in the car, the image that I can’t get out of my head is animals in cages reacting to a bell.
Like Pavlov’s dog we’ve allowed our reward centres and anxieties to be tuned to make us jump at the sound of a smartphone vibrating. The smartest, highest trained people we can get to run our companies are reduced to nervous monkeys.
Here’s a collection of insights from the BBC programme and from the McKinsey Quarterly article:
“Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” You know this if you have worked in these cultures – it is literally impossible to do your best work when you’re reacting to round robins and erratic requests at all hours.
“All the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation. These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.”
“[executives] disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them.” This is reactive, piecemeal work, dictated by the flow of communications, not the needs of the organisation, the situation, or the opportunities.
“Leaders need to change how they feel good about themselves…” People feel good because via email they get instant responses, can be hands-on on a project the moment they think about it (micro-management, as it was once known). On the flip-side, people feel good because they have a reputation for being ultra-responsive, available all hours.
Just as with Caroline’s quote at the head of this article stating that we fool ourselves into thinking we are thinking faster, “One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true.”
The strategy you need to get out of this state of affairs is a combination of personal and systems.”It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.”
And, it seems, none of this is really new – Peter Drucker was talking about how knowledge workers and executives needed to behave in the 1960s: “some fairly basic strategies that aren’t very different in spirit from the ones Drucker described more than 40 years ago: some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting.”
Lastly there are three steps that are required to start to put this right, according to McKinsey:
We need to acknowledge and challenge the mind-sets and current patterns of behaviour.
Leaders need to delegate and resist the temptation to interfere…
Leaders need to work with their teams to “redesign working norms”.
Naturally, as boardrooms tend to be McKinsey’s clients they are focusing on leaders and executive teams in this analysis, but in my experience these things apply to knowledge workers, in fact anyone who uses email, at every level in every type of organisation.
One insight we have now, though, after all these years of social web tools spreading, is that it is just important to think about the culture of working with the web and electronic communications as the tools themselves. As Dan McQuillan said at CityCamp Brighton about – and I echoed in a way – digital tools and networks can be used to loosen clogged bureaucracies and ways of working. But if we don’t think about how they are being used, don’t challenge unproductive and corrosive ways of working, they will establish new workplace tyrannies and inefficiencies…
When change comes (and it will come) it will need to come simultaneously in changes to how we work and how we think about organisations, how hierarchies and networks work together.
The introduction to a blog post by Charlie Beckett about the US State Department’s dilemmas and dealings with the Wikileaks affair more or less articulates something I’ve been mulling recently: how can organisations respond to some of the more extreme effects of the web:
Authority hates uncertainty. Big business and government feel safest when life is predictable and stable. Change implies a risk that your grip on power will be weakened. And unexpected change is the worst kind of all. But if uncertainty is permanent, can systems adapt?
A state department official, speaking at Polis under Chatham House rules, described the impact of Wikileaks on the delicate art of diplomacy:
The State Department official told us that Wikileaks reveals the brittleness of the balance between necessary secrecy of government and the freedom of the press. He said, memorably, that WikiLeaks was like ‘a cartoon grand piano dropped down upon that arrangement’. A lot of noise and not a little chaos.
The post moves on to make some excellent points about networks and the implications of a networks world…
The Internet is more powerful at amplifying political forces because it connects personal, mass and economic communication networks to one connected communications system – the Internet. This makes these networks more powerful but also more complex, vulnerable and unstable. Whether its WikiLeaks or Wael Ghnomin on Facebook, The Internet is the Uncertainty Principle in Global Relations.
The disruptive effects of the web – the revealed complexity of networks, the speed things spread, that edge ideas move to the mainstream, the altered balances of knowledge and power between individuals and groups – are being seen first in international relations and politics, but it is coming to commercial life too (just ask Bank of America).
Wikileaks may be the prime agent of disruption at the US State Department right now, but it is a manifestation of bigger trend, or set of trends – transparency, web-enabled activist networks, distrust of politicians – rather than the whole story in and of itself. There are other organisations like WIkileaks, they just haven’t made the headlines yet. As for the tools to be able to do what Wikileaks has done – well they are available to anyone.
Privacy and private information – be it your own, or your organisations – is effectively at the mercy of anyone who cares to consider hacking it and making it available. Many people see a public interest case in shining a light on US diplomacy.
Many will see the same case for exposing the workings of large corporations. But how about smaller ones? How about NGOs? How about every single company and local government department? How about patient records? How about your own personal email, social network and bank accounts?
Well, there’s a whole other set of blog posts to be made about the forces that unleashed Wikileaks being taken to their logical conclusions, but what is to be done in preparation? The case studies that are discussed around crisis communications and social media for instance are the often told instances customer revolt and revolting employees. Maybe communicators should be stretching themselves a little and thinking through the implications of when Wikileaks comes to their town.
Immediately we cannot guarantee a secret, the issue becomes about how we do openness, how we do business. The Uncertainty Principle sounds ironically like an organising principle for communications, brand and indeed wider business strategy. Going back to Charlie Beckett’s post, we have to wean our organisations off of certainties if they are to adapt to the complexity of the modern world.
The SuperSkills idea was one which I was airing for the first time, and am continuing to work on. The notes and links are all in the post – TEDx Brighton notes on my talk – I put up on the day. If you have any feedback at all I’d be immensely grateful…
And just so you can see what the slides are like with the fonts in beautiful Gotham – here they are again…
Two blog posts – one notes for a Newsnight feature that never got made, the other an academic paper – made a deep impression on me when I read them last week, and have stayed with me since. I’ve recommended them on Twitter and to anyone whose will listen. For me they together mark a turning point in the development of the social web and the way it affects society and politics. They, and the events they analyse have implications for business, our personal lives and just about everything else as well.
I’m still digesting their implications, and the implications of the past few weeks in Egypt and Tunisia. This blog post comprises my notes on both pieces.
The two blog posts
First of all, if you haven’t read them yet, I cannot recommend highly enough taking some time to read these two blog posts (and many of the comments on the former):
Paul Mason’s post pulls together social, economic and technology factors that have led to what seems to be a global wave of street protests, activism and unrest…
At the heart of it all are young people, obviously; students; westernised; secularised. They use social media – as the mainstream media has now woken up to – but this obsession with reporting “they use twitter” is missing the point of what they use it for.
Some insights I took from his post were:
This isn’t all about technology, but technology’s effect have created the context for the revolutions in progress: “Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.”
Networks erode hard ideologies: He talks about the protest movements globally having at their heart the “graduate with no future” who is not prone to “traditional and endemic ideologies”. From Islamism to socialism, structured ideologies ultimately end up in movements becoming sclerotic as the forces of bureaucracy and internal power struggles take place. I’d say that this rule may hold true for corporations and other organisations ultimately.
The collapse of command and control communications as an instrument of authoritarianism: Because of social media “truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable”. This reminds me of something I learned early in PR about crisis communications – gossip and misinformation often moves faster than facts because it is illicit and has perceived value in human social networks. You pass on rumours and urban myths and spam because of this (“KFC has no chicken in it”, “New Facebook app lets you see who has viewed your profile”). In places where the media and government are spreading the lies and misinformation the hunger is for truth and the value in the social network comes from spreading. If truth is illict, it spread faster?
Transparency, and effect of the social web’s pressures on organisations, reveals not just information but how systems work: As Paul writes:
People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”.
One point which Paul makes links his notes to Dan McQuillan’s paper/post:
oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.
This paper argues that this use of pre-digital technologies to form the kinds of infrastructure afforded by modern social technologies is evidence of a radical change in people’s perceptions of their world and its connectedness. Social media has constituted a real change that goes beyond specific technologies. This flies in the face of many sceptical critics who argue that new technologies only reinforce old practices and social structures.
This is an insight which is very valuable beyond the protests also. To put it pithily, using social media changes how we expect the world to work. It changes what we expect from relationships, how we find out about things, talk about things, organise things.
Dan also puts a certain bit of unhelpful misreporting/social media hype to rest when he discusses the “Thank You Facebook” image which featured in a lot of Western media. It’s a mis-translation at best…
The mis-translation of a protester’s sign from Tahrir Square encapsulates the argument about the impact of social media. The photo that shows a middle-aged protestor in Tahrir square holding a handwritten sign in Arabic. The only English word on his sign is ‘FACEBOOK’, in large red letters carfeully highlighted in black. Many western blog and media outlets published versions of this with the slogan translated as ‘Thank you Facebook’. In fact, as I have verified with correspondents in the Egyptian diaspora, the correct translation is ‘Thank you, Egypt’s Facebook youth’. The gulf between these sentiments is huge; the wrong translation elevates the technology, whereas the real one identifies the youth as agents of change. But in labelling them ‘Egypt’s Facebook youth’ it also recognises that they’re acting differently to what came before, that their post-deferential dynamism reflects the character of their favoured tool.
Acting differently doesn’t just mean using Facebook, Twitter et al:
My contention is that social media is neither the cause of major change, nor irrelevant to it; but that it’s impact is most powerful in cementing new ways of thinking and acting based on connectedness.
Dan walks us through a timeline of the cutting off of the internet in Egypt and discusses the range of “pre-Web” technologies people used to keep the networks working. “Older” tech like ham radio, modems and telephones came into play, along with tech like Tor started to be used:
The Tor project reported on January 30th that “Over the last three days, 120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software”. The Tor project was a platform for participatory solidarity as word spread across the social web of the need for people to run Tor relays and bridges on their computers, and graphs on the Tor blog show the dramatic rise in the number of bridges around the world after 25th January.
I like as well, the clear way Dan dismisses the whole discussion about whether “it was Social Media wot won it”:
Arguments over whether a particular social change would have happened in the absence of social media are somewhat sterile; there is no experimentally controlled comparison where we can re-run a revolution without Twitter. But more importantly those arguments fail to go to the core of the impact i.e. that social media has changed the global sense of entitlement to real-time peer-to-peer communication within fluid networks of association.
He goes on to say “social media has changed the global sense of entitlement” toward being able to have these kind of communications, connections, relationships… That sense of entitlement means cutting off the internet is
The strands of thought in these two posts, and the context that they bring isn’t a case of Western democracy and freedom prevailing. Democracy as it is currently practiced is also under pressure – witness Wikileaks and the friction between the US State Department and Twitter. Those promises and ideals that Google and its ilk had about protecting our personal information from intrusive state authorities? They are being tested now and will be tested more so in the coming months and years.
Businesses too will be tested by these forces. Transparency is one they need to consider, but also changed expectations of customers, employees, of everyone about how they work. All organisations, not just corrupt and authoritarian governments may well experience challenges from networks, from new ideas about what they should do, how they should be organised.
: : As an aside, how great blogging is still as a form for getting these thoughts out. Before blogs i might never have read Dan’s analysls outside of an acdemic paper months later. Instead I get his analysis the moment it is finished. The notes Peter made for the Newsnight feature would have stayed in a notebook once the piece for the programme was dropped. Instead he was able to not waste that intellectual effort but share it and reach a huge audience (I don’t know what the traffic is, but the number of comments and re-tweets of the article suggest it was significant.