Tag Archive | "ecosystem"

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Happy Birthday, Dear…Somebody

I use Facebook a lot for networking these days.  There’s over 100 million users, which means a lot of old friends, new friends, work contacts, local acquaintances, and more are on there posting information about what they’re doing and where.

It’s certainly impossible to keep track of what all your contacts are doing. Just on Facebook, I have about 2,000 “friends.” But there’s a bunch of people you don’t talk to very much that are still very important from time to time…if you’re on their radar.

One “trick” I use is to scan the list of who’s having a birthday every morning. If there are people having a birthday whose names I recognize, but haven’t talked to in a while, I definitely go to their Wall and post a “Happy Birthday” and maybe add a little extra. Seems small, but a little bit of meaningful interaction is better than zero. And who’s going to complain??

Everyone wants to see who wished them a happy birthday. Use it as a small gesture to keep the small pieces of your social graph loosely joined.

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Make a Meaningful List and Take a Stand

There are so many lists.  Top 100 this, top 50 that, top 150 must-read blogs in this sector.  How can there be this many people that I “must” pay attention to?  Truth is, there aren’t.

People are so afraid to take a stand, to have a strong opinion, to leave someone “important” out, that they put anyone and everyone on their lists.  And large organizations are afraid, too.  For example, some blogs on the AdAge Power 150 are pathetic choices – they are frequently off topic, or have no real influence (of course, they are mainly designated without human interference, automatically).  I’ll consider them important when the pigs eat my brother (thanks, Brando).  Or how about the Foreign Policy’s Twitterati 100?  I cannot sum this one up better than NYU professor Jay Rosen“The 100 most famous foreign policy names we could find who have [Twitter] accounts.” It’s frankly amazing that well-respected brands put their reputations behind such pathetic lists.

Here’s one good, haphazardly chosen example.  I hate to critique just one person making one list, but this one was on my radar, and this isn’t an academic study.  It is a new list of “Top 50 PR Professionals You Should Be Following on Twitter.”  Let’s break this down.  First, some of them are simply not PR professionals (interesting though they may be), or if they are, the definition has been fairly diluted.  Second, on Twitter, many of the actual PR professionals are tweeting very similar things, so it’s complete overkill if one follows all 50.  Third, many of the people on the list are obvious follows (so having them on the list adds nothing), and many have such bland descriptions of why you should follow them as to be useless (so having them on the list adds nothing). And finally, blog comments like this and this suggest that some very obvious people were far down the list, or entirely left off [a list of 50], and it’s not clear why that reasoning was, either.

Moreover, perhaps the most important point is that all the (1) obvious and (2) bland choices serve to drown out anyone on the list who may be truly undiscovered and interesting!  I know they exist to some degree, but more lists of “Top 10 People You’re Not Watching” would be very useful, in all topics of interest.

I’m really happy for everyone living in the Web 2.0 world who thinks that they can make sloppy lists and do incomplete research for blog articles and that everything will just get “sorted out” in the comments section (the author of the above Top 50 list suggested that there were so many comments after the post that she might make a Top 500 list! Thanks!).  Thoughtful comments are nice, but are they nice enough to reward sloppy writing with the hopes of getting thoughtful comments to round out their own incomplete thought process?  I don’t think so.  I write everything pretending that there will be no comments.  Then, if there are useful comments, it’s a pleasant surprise – not a recipe for completeness.

When I made a list of the 10 most “influential” people using Twitter in Washington, DC, I kept it simple.  I used somewhat unique criteria. I listed 10 people and explained in detail why I chose each of them. And largely, they were different than people on similar lists. So different, in fact, that NationalJournal.com ran a story about how my list differed from others in the LA Times and other publications, with a Twitalyzer quantification chart. Turns out my list has certain qualities, and theirs had certain other qualities – mine was unique if you were looking for this sort of thing, and theirs for a different sort of thing. Great, we can all reasonably coexist. It’s not about right or wrong – It’s about having a strong opinion, arguing for it, and sticking with it.

If you’re going to make a list, of anything, make it short and to the point. Make it stand out from other similar lists. Have some reasons for choosing what is on your list. Have some guts. Be willing to be different. And take a stand when people disagree. Otherwise your list is meaningless – to you, and to anyone that comes across it.

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The Efficiency of Celebrity Obituaries

Are celebrities dying at a higher velocity these days, or am I just discovering information about their deaths more efficiently?

I think the latter. This is information I didn’t know I needed to know, until I found out about it. With online software platforms like social bookmarking and microsharing increasing in popularity, you no longer have to spend lots of time finding information – the information finds you.

Obituaries are interesting, because  they are generally sudden, unanticipated news events. You could not possibly be looking to see if your average celebrity has passed away the minute before it happens. Today director John Hughes is being reported as deceased, and I was not thinking about this before this afternoon.

One could think of real-time celebrity obituaries as a metaphor for natural disasters or other sudden events of large impact – so-called Black Swans, in Taleb’s terminology. These are events that impact many people that cannot be anticipated or forecasted with much certainty, if any. The social web makes this information known to you in nearly real-time, however, which is about the best you can expect.

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Government 2.0 Expo Showcase: Women By the Numbers

While I was traveling the last few days, a minor controversy seemed to flame up about a lack of women in some of the Gov 2.0 events being planned by Tim O’Reilly and associated crew.   They’re welcome to comment below, but I see no reason to call out individual people and their various comments.   Here, I want to  personally comment on an event I’ve been involved with planning for Tim during the last few months, and how women have intersected with it in interesting ways.

I’m a scientist and I tend to deal with quantifying data as a mechanism for seeing patterns, and that’s what I intend to do in this brief post.  As many of you know I’m the program committee co-chair for the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase that is happening the day before the Gov 2.0 Summit (everyone, men and women, are able to register, incidentally).  Anyone could submit any proposal for a five minute talk for the Showcase, and on Monday, July 20, we chose 25 fantastic proposals to become talks (as I write, notices are being sent out by O’Reilly Media).  I believe this data, previously not publicly known, bears on some of the issues being discussed.

We received 189 valid proposals for talks at Expo Showcase.  A few people, men and women, submitted two proposals, but the vast majority submitted just one.  Of these 189, only 41 (or 22% of the total) were from women, with 147 proposals submitted by men.  I have no reason in particular to offer for this. Perhaps women would like to comment on this blog about why a two month open call for proposals for anyone with a good idea for a five minute talk about Government 2.0 was dominated by 78% men.  Whatever the explanation, I don’t think it had very much to do with the organizers of the event, who did quite a lot of outreach to tell people about what was happening.

Nevertheless, despite a minority of women submitting talk ideas, those relatively few ideas generally fared well as the program committee voted and discussed the agenda for Expo Showcase.  Of the 25 talks chosen, 8 of them, or 32% of the total, were submitted by women, and the remaining 17 were from men.  Note that, perhaps counter-intuitively to those protesting the lack of women presenters at events like this, the percent of women being accepted for talks is higher than the percent of women who submitted.  I think that few women would have a problem with this outcome.

Further, this means that the “rate of success” for a female proposal to Expo Showcase was approximately twice as high as a male proposal (20% chance of being chosen if female vs. 11% if male).   Now, I should point out that at no time am I aware of gender being explicitly discussed, in particular on the final conference call where we decided the 25 talks.  We talked about the merits of the projects, the proposals, and the speakers.  So, we didn’t choose women at twice the rate because they were women, but rather on average twice as many female proposals (vs. male) tended to rate extremely well by our criteria.  Bravo.

Singling out Tim O’Reilly for critique is a bit narrow, and approaches what I’d call a low blow.  I should point out that the Expo Showcase program committee is 38% women, and while Tim certainly knows what we’re up to, he didn’t directly play a role in deciding which proposals became talks.  It is also worth noting that my co-chair for the Showcase is Laurel Ruma, a woman.  It is additionally noteworthy that the event chiefs for O’Reilly Media and TechWeb that head up planning for the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase and Summit are Gina Blaber and Jen Pahlka, both women.  There are lots of women involved at all points in the decisionmaking process with these events, so if shotgun-style critics want to “blame” people for perceived problems, they may as well accuse the entire crew of people, men and women. Not that I necessarily think anyone should be “blamed.”

I only speak for myself and don’t want to discuss Gov 2.0 Summit and Web 2.0 Summit too deeply as I’ve been involved less with those events, but I think the notion that Tim O’Reilly and anyone else involved in planning these events is trying to do anything but find the best possible people and have influential events is silly.  Summits are high level events as Tim points out in his post here, and attendees want to see high level, influential people; many of them happen to be male.

Everyone can always strive to be better.  Intelligent suggestions are always welcome.  But the way in which some people approached lobbying for more women to be involved in these Gov 2.0 events was not only tasteless and somewhat misinformed, it may have been counterproductive.  No one likes being publicly blindsided with baseless accusations.

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Stop Social Microsharing With Strangers

As online sites like Twitter have garnered more users and gained in general popularity, people have (of course) tried to take advantage of this.  On an open system like Twitter, it’s easy.  So it is not surprising to see news reports about how cybercriminals are gaming Twitter to spam misleading links to sites about porn, drugs, and other enterprises.

But if you clicked on one of these links and feel somehow betrayed, it’s your fault. One hundred percent your fault. Do you know why? Because you are placing false trust in someone you don’t know. I guarantee that none of these links originated with someone you know well. You were following a Twitter account run by someone you don’t know and/or don’t trust, and they jerked you around.

Are you suprised?  This behavior is like trusting random people you meet on the streets of New York to hold your wallet and expecting to get it back 15 minutes later, except worse, because they can hide behind the Internet and you don’t even know where they’re located.

For now, anyway, Twitter doesn’t really verify accounts.  Sure, a few celebrities are “verified” (and some aren’t), but for the most part no one’s checking who owns what account.  This is very different from Facebook and LinkedIn, where people generally have to go through a bit of work to set up an account and generally have to associate with email domains, companies, and formal networks to effectively verify who they are.  Microblogging isn’t like that. It’s more like a chat room on steroids. It’s the wild west of Internet authenticity.

Don’t count on Twitter to help you. It’s in their best interest to gain as many accounts as possible to make it look like their user base is skyrocketing, even if a quarter of the accounts are crap, a quarter are fakes/parodies/duplicates/placeholders/squatters, and another quarter have users who never return (what Nielsen has called “Twitter Quitters”). But don’t hate on Twitter, Inc. for this – building up lists of users who don’t do anything and buying server space for them is just their business model. Find some self-responsibility and don’t interact with the 75% of accounts that are utter shit.

So if you feel plagued by Twitter spam, you need to get some self control. Stop talking with everyone just because they’re there. Stop following 6,829 accounts you’re unfamiliar with. Stop following everyone who follows you in the name of reciprocation and politeness. Stop enabling spam on Twitter. It’s your fault it’s there.

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Trend Preadaptation and Bandwagon Warfare

Life is a series of bandwagons, especially if you’re a successful person. Environments that you operate within change constantly, and if you don’t evolve with them you’ll probably go extinct. Working as an academic scientist for about a decade, I saw such environmental shifts all the time. Most professors, especially if they wanted spending money, worked on topics that they could obtain federal grant money to support.  Sure, other topics were important and interesting, but the realities of running an expensive laboratory cannot be forgotten. 

Trends in funding different topic areas come and go. Have you heard about research in “translational medicine” lately? That’s a hot topic. What about “functional MRI”? Sure, that’s hot too. Okay, how about “anatomy and physiology”? Yeah, thought so. It’s not that there aren’t any important questions left in anatomy and physiology, it’s just that it’s not perceived as cutting-edge anymore.

Some researchers follow these trends and evolve with them, and some don’t, with consequences to either choice. People who are great at exploiting trends in science funding often band together into collaborative packs, sharing data with each other, recommending others for panels at conferences, peer-reviewing each others’ work, and generally being collegial. It’s tribal behavior. It can certainly be hard to become part of a new tribe being the right person in the right place at the right time; but when you are it allows you to do more research than you could previously.

Meanwhile, have-nots without great research funding are noble loners without a powerful tribe. They’re doing equally good work perhaps, but feel overshadowed by more trendy researchers. And so often a good dose of spite separates these two sets of tribes. But why? The first group is mainly doing good science that Congress, the National Science Foundation, and so on feel is important now, and the latter group is sticking to their traditional topic and has maintained an academic freedom to pursue it. There really is no productive reason for warfare between these bandwagons. Yet it exists.

In my experience, people who exploit a changing environment successfully are often preadapted to it in some way. In science, people may have already been reading widely on the topic, interested in it for some other reason besides funding. Perhaps one lab fortuitously collected speculative preliminary results when a grad student rotated through the lab for three months, and those results proved critical to a later grant application. Rarely do I think a professor of physical chemistry wakes up in the morning, sits in front of his computer with a cup of coffee, sees new funding for breast cancer research, and starts carpetbagging on their turf. It just doesn’t work that way – you’ve “gotta have the chops” to go up against the competition.

Of course, none of this is limited to the practice of academic science. I would postulate it is unlimited because humans have banded together in tribes based around ideas for as long as recorded history. Lately, I’ve been writing a fair amount about the now-trendy topic of Government 2.0, or how emerging Web technologies are changing how government operates. And as this writing has garnered attention it’s also been implied that I’m carpetbagging the field rather than being a practitioner of its topic matter. In an interesting bit of co-evolution, even as an increasing number of people are finding my writing and public speaking useful, a bandwagon has formed to critique the bandwagon of people who have published “pop” writing about Gov 2.0 - and there has been a tiny bit of tribal bandwagon warfare.  

I don’t remember Gov 2.0 being a trendy topic in April 2008 when I started working on it. To the contrary, in my travels to Web 2.0 events of all kinds that started over a year ago, no one from government was there, and very few attendees at events outside the DC area knew anyone from the government, never mind someone who wanted to hear about their start-up company. My partial bridging of that gap led to writing some interesting articlesand allowed me to network with other thought leaders both inside and outside government who have certainly taught me a lot. Like the scientist with fortuitous preliminary data, I was preadapted to the new-found Gov 2.0 craze facilitated by an exciting presidential election season last fall.

This week, the hot topic around my office is pandemic flu. Why? Because it turns out that my research center distributed wildly successful pandemic flu preparedness posters in 2005 and a planning guide to operating a large organization during a pandemic in 2006.  A few months ago, I designed and printed a new poster that summarized the best of what we knew and made it more graphically palatable. Now, in the middle of a seemingly global swine flu outbreak, a lot of people suddenly want it. Am I again carpetbagging for personal gain, strategically moving from exploiting Gov 2.0 to exploiting pandemic flu? This hypothesis would be amusing if it weren’t so ridiculous.

The problem with bandwagon warfare is that it doesn’t help anyone. It annoys the trendy without affecting them, it satisfies the criticizers while effectively wasting their time, and it doesn’t do anything for the greater good; in the case of this article, that greater good involves citizens who want scientists conducting medical research, a military that puts an end to insurgencies, and a government that communicates better with them on health issues. Not unlike old arguments about the logic behind nuclear warfare, tribal bandwagon warfare is a useless stalemate that shouldn’t escalate. But when it is so easy to write something harmful online, what is the deterrent?

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Twitter is a PR Platform That Screens Your Calls

Nearly every day I get asked a version of the question: “Why do you like Twitter so much”?

The answer is complicated, and I have written about this in a number of different ways. But I’ve been trying to think of a great soundbite to sum up why I love Twitter.

Here it is: Twitter is a PR platform that screens your incoming calls.

What do I mean by that? Twitter is a versatile, powerful way to publicize things of interest to you. But it’s not just a push – it’s bidirectional. Just like a traditional press release will have a contact person and a phone number or email address at the bottom, a person on Twitter has a handle or nickname – and that is how people can get in touch with you and ask you questions.

Here’s the difference. When someone calls you, it’s immediate – you either answer within 10 seconds or you do not; and you probably have no information about the person on the other end. Email’s slightly better because incoming email goes into a holding bin – your inbox – but you still may know very little about the sender.

When someone tweets you, not only does the tweet effectively go into a holding bin, but their entire usage of Twitter is also public. You can quickly see their mini-biography, a link to their homepage, how many times they’ve tweeted, who they follow, and even mine the topic matter or other information about their tweets. You can know a lot about the persons you will deal with, before you actually have to deal with them.

So the very nature of Twitter makes it a de facto ‘call screener’ – you can monitor the conversation about your topic, scope out incoming traffic, and selectively join conversations on your terms. That’s a really powerful approach to public relations, and it has ramifications not just for individuals, but also for businesses and the government.

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Do You Take Twitter Personally?

Ocassionally, I get notes from people I know only from Twitter. They’re along the lines of: Why are you following me now after so long? Why did you stop following me? Why don’t you follow everyone? And so on.

But my question for them is: Why do you take Twitter so personally?

People can do whatever they please with Twitter. Some people like to follow everyone to form a ‘Twitter mutuality’ and use the system as a multiplex instant message platform. Others like to follow only a few people that really influence them, regardless of how many followers they themselves have. Still others conduct experiments with Twitter, following new people in batches, seeing who may be interesting over the course of a week, and then unfollowing the rest.

Some people are also trying to balance their work and personal lives with their Twitter accounts, whether you know it or not. There may be constraints on who they can follow, or how often they can tweet. Who are you to judge? It’s as silly as looking at someone else’s cell phone minutes.

You can’t possibly keep track of what everyone on Twitter is doing! So don’t try. Focus on yourself and what you want to get out of it. Spending too much time thinking about why someone unfollowed you distracts from what should be much more important – saying interesting things.

Moreover, even if someone isn’t following you on Twitter, direct messaging isn’t your only option. People can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Plaxo, by email, and at real events. And if you can’t get ahold of them at any of those places, they probably don’t want to be found!

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Expand Your Twitter Base

If you use the popular microsharing site Twitter, you’re probably familiar with the idea that people are communicating in different ways than ever before. Twitter is purposely not well-defined, but it can be viewed as a massively multichannel instant messenger, a text talk radio channel, and a modern mobile CB radio.

Have you assessed your last 40 tweets lately? There’s no right nor wrong way to use Twitter per se, but many people would like more followers. However, if you use Twitter primarily as a broadcast IM tool that no one else is listening to, you may as well just use Yahoo Messenger, or text messaging, or talk on the phone. You’re not doing it ‘wrong’ but you’re also not maximizing the power of the microsharing platform – and to some extent you’re also wasting your effort.

Why pretend to broadcast when you’re really narrowcasting?

If you want to expand your base, provide value to people you’re not personally familiar with. This might mean linking to interesting material, using hashtags to create metadata within your tweets, or simply being funny or interesting enough for people to re-tweet you. Provide useful material that can be discovered by strangers.

Gaming the Twitter system to accumulate new followers is generally just a short-term strategy. What you really want to do is be true to yourself, and execute against your core set of beliefs, values, and interests. Then, you’ll be happy about what you’re writing about, and attract a group of followers in microniches of interest to you over the longer term.

You might be happy to use Twitter to chat with your friends, and that’s fine. But if you hope to expand your base for personal or professional reasons, and your last 40 tweets are 80% or more personal chatter, no one else is listening to you. So why would they ever be tempted to follow?

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Checkers or Chess? Effects of Cascades

The studious observer of news headlines can only conclude that many decision makers rarely think about the cascading effects of the actions they propose. Whether the topic matter is economics, foreign policy, or the environmental ecosystem, cascading effects two or three steps removed from a decision can make situations much worse.

We see this in the news every day. A presidential campaign promise to ban lobbyists from political appointments and to enforce higher vetting standards leaves an administration with many senior positions unfilled. This included the Secretary of the Treasury, who squeaked by a modest ethical controversy in the middle of a gigantic economic downturn. Having gained his office, he now has nary a single senior deputy to advise him as he tries to manage a financial problem of ungodly proportions.

Meanwhile, people are outraged about AIG bonuses being paid out while the company is being bailed out. But what about the single mother who’s an AIG executive assistant counting on her $50,000 annual bonus to make house payments? When she appears on the Today Show, crying, whose public relations problem is that? And while releasing the names of AIG persons who received bonuses might be within the letter of the law of transparent government, what if someone at AIG does get physically injured, as threats suggest – will Congressmen cry?

In the midst of all this, people are asking for the Secretary of the Treasury to resign from office. That may be a short term solution to a perceived problem, but who will take his place? Would it be better to have no one working on the country’s economic issues, at this moment?

People – decision makers, the media, and the average person – need to think 40 days ahead rather than four. They need to think 40 years ahead rather than four as well. There are always trade offs. Life is chess, not checkers.

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