Tag Archive | "metaphor"

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Don’t Understand New Media? Maybe You’re Not Old-Fashioned Enough


Yesterday I wrote a post contrasting Twitter with the ancient honeybee “waggle dance” that is used by a single forager bee to signal where food resources are located to the hive. It was my little metaphor to explain the larger point that the instinct to tell a group of people that a cafe you got to first doesn’t have wi-fi, or that the line at the nightclub is too long so we should rendezvous somewhere else is an ancient as, well, humans. Sure, cavemen applied it differently (probably more like bees – “Big. Animals. There.”) but it’s the same instinct.

Well, a newcomer to the Government 2.0 space, Strategic Social (who I am an advisor to as they are “leveraging the social web for national security”), is actually studying this notion more formally. In a recent post on their website, they outline a new project in which they will study online “tribes” of people in combination with anthropology studies in South America and Africa. I wholeheartedly believe in their approach:

“The key to understanding the power of Web 2.0 communication tools is the application of an anthropological approach. Strategic Social firmly believes that social media represents just one more arena in which we can conduct field research.”

New media is not about “new” and not really about “media” either (see Gary Vaynerchuk’s vlog on the latter point here). It’s about behavioral communications, instincts that pre-date man. As a behavioral neurogeneticist I studied some genes that are very similar in insects and man, and indeed virtually all animals, that similarly affect behavior instincts. This stuff is old-fashioned.

What is new is the shiny objects in the so-called “TGIF Revolution” (Twitter, Google, Internet, Facebook). Yes, the tools are new. They are exciting. But what we do with them is not.

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Animal Behavior: How Microsharing is Like the Honeybee Waggle Dance


Some of my readers may know that my background is in scientific research, and more specifically on the neurogenetics of animal behavior. One of the projects I was fortunate to be involved with was the International Honeybee Genome Project, within which I analyzed a family of proteins that likely underlies some of the social instincts that species exhibits. One behavior that honeybees perform is the “waggle dance,” in which a forgaging bee leaves the hive in search of a food resource, finds it, and then returns to the hive to report the good news via dancing. The speed of the dance is inversely related to the distance to the food, and the angle at which the dance is performed is directly related to the placement of the food in relation to the sun’s place in the sky (amazing, right?). Honeybees have been doing this for a long time, long before humans invented these “new” social media tools. Twitter and similar microsharing services like Identi.ca perform the same basic function. Twitter caught fire at the SXSW conference, where people would report that a certain afterparty was awesome, or too crowded, and attract or repel others to/from the location with the “resources” (free booze). Is this really so different from a waggle dance?

I had an interesting discussion about digital communication today at the international marketing and communications firm Fleishman-Hillard (thanks Rachelle Lacroix!) today, and one thing we discussed was why so many people seemingly still know very little about social media, generally speaking. Related to that, I’m fascinated by people’s fascination with the fact that I’m a scientist who’s gotten interested in social media and Government 2.0 – to me it just makes sense. It’s just one big animal behavior problem.

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Negative Conversations With Your Attackers


I saw an interesting quotation this morning from a Social Media Club event in DC that focused on crisis communications: “Every negative attack is the start of a conversation.“  I’m not sure I agree.

“Conversation” is perhaps the hottest buzzword of Web 2.0 – your customers are having conversations, companies should participate in conversations, new media marketing is a conversation, if you’re not part of the conversation it’s happening without you, and so forth. Entire books have been written on the topic. Even I’m guilty of promoting this idea in the government space.

And conversations are fine. But is every negative attack truly the beginning of a conversation? Does every frown have the potential to be turned upside down? (And how does that scale?)

Having a conversation about some one’s negative reaction to your brand, company, government office, situation etc. is a nice strategy, but the concept of negative attacks leading to positive conversations is based on the assumption that people will always engage in rational discussions with you.

They don’t. Naivety, ideology, and stupidity are all common in society’s discourses. People make emotionally-fueled arguments all the time (this Fox News “discussion” about views on abortion and the President receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame isn’t a bad example). People often cling to strongly-held beliefs, even in the face of contradictory information, or data that oppose their views. Many conversations are irrational, or at best only partly rational. I would go so far as to say that partly rational discussions are the norm.

Economics is perhaps the field of study most heavily influenced by the finding that people behave irrationally. Traditional assumptions about economic behavior included participants in financial markets having perfect information and making rational choices related to adding value (i.e., obtaining money). But more recent research has shown that this is often not the case, and that this irrationality can spawn larger effects through complex systems.

Perhaps also with the field of communications. As hip as the concept of “communications as conversations” is, sometimes it’s best to not touch your detractors with a ten-foot pole. When peoples’ comments are irrational, when their views ignore available facts, when they’re too busy or too dumb or too angry to care what you have to say, a negative attack isn’t the start of a conversation. It’s the end of a relationship.

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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 Adds ‘Poking’ Feature to Spite Facebook


San Fransisco, CA – Twitter CEO Evan Williams announced today that Twitter will add a ‘poking’ feature to its popular micromessaging service, enabling people to communicate using even less effort than before.

Williams, or ev as he is AKA’d on Twitter, broke the news via a 140-character ‘tweet’ to his more than 500,000 followers around the world. He then gave the inaugural Twitter-poke to dating columnist and New York-based social climber Julia Allison, who immediately gushed on her lifecasting blog NonSociety, “That’s hot.”

“People have been complaining for some time now that 140 characters is just too long to convey some thoughts,” William said in a later interview with Sarah Lacy of BusinessWeek (AKA saracuda). “People’s tweet streams have long been clogged with brief quips like ‘Thanks!’ and ‘OMG ROFL’ – we decided to offer our users the opportunity to replace words of questionable value with a poke. We strongly believe that this new feature will grow to be loved.”

For social media mavens, poking has been a controversial feature of social network Facebook for quite some time. There, people can see friends’ profiles that often include contact information, photos, events, and other personal information. But people also had the ability to electronically ‘poke’ people they weren’t friends with, expanding their networks in unanticipated directions.

A source inside Facebook who spoke with us on condition of anonymity shared internal research showing that 14,478 relationships – of varying length and girth – and as many as 125 marriages have resulted from pokes.  Nevertheless, ‘poking overload’ has resulted in many extremely attractive people blocking people from poking them, continuing the co-evolutionary battle of the sexes.

A discussion about poking quickly took place on Twitter, although influencer Robert Scoble (AKA the scobleizer) chose to debate complete strangers on FriendFeed (which doesn’t allow poking, incidentally). In one highly retweeted tweet, lethally generous industry analyst Jememiah Owyang commented, “because poking is free, Twitter users are likely to abuse the new feature.” In response, Williams tweeted, “We’re all about loving our users and giving them a platform to love each other, not about making money. Oh, and I heart Zappos.”

In a 5,352-word article posted today on his website, NYU professor and new media guru Clay Shirky commented that, “The problem isn’t poking overload, it’s filter failure.”

Not unlike Blair and Serena scheming for optimal prom dates, Twitter and Facebook have been mindfucking for quite some time. Facebook, holding a beautiful bouquet of red roses, politely asked to buy Twitter, but gold-digger Evan totally dissed Mark. Mark, feeling hurt, then did what any fresh-faced, innocent young man would do in this situation – visit Oprah. And then my friend Jenny told me that she overheard Mark totally say to Oprah that he’s copying Twitter, so he doesn’t need it anymore.

In the drama of adding poking to his site, and indeed, visiting Oprah himself last week, Evan could now be turning the tables on Mark. But what if the new Twitter feature backfires with massive overpoking? And what if Mark and Evan have adjoining VIP tables at Mighty??

Celebrities have differing viewpoints on poking. Ashton Kutcher (AKA aplusk – get it?), a major adopter of Twitter and yet another Oprah BFF, had no immediate comment – but his fans did. “I’m going to poke the shit out of him,” shrieked a tweenager wearing a Gossip Girl t-shirt. “He’s so hot and I want to let him know it.”

Other celebrities such as Juliet Landau, perhaps most famous for playing Drusilla on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer from 1997-2003, are reportedly expecting a poke-driven positive surge of renewed interest.

Williams for his part says there are no immediate plans for poking safety features like blocking, either, because the poke was made available as a ‘beta’ product.

“Perpetual beta is common in the Web 2.0 world,” commented Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable, one of the most popular sites for news on social networking technology. Personally, he enjoys poking a lot: “Poking helps me connect with a whole new group of people who have nothing whatsoever to say to me, but still want to get in touch. And developing and nurturing these kinds of relationships is the cornerstone of social platforms like Twitter.”

Williams hopes to monetize just these relationships. Cashmore: “Any small edge that a company like Twitter can get could make a difference in this competitive market. Poking is a feature of necessity for Twitter to create economies of scale for global gossip networks.”  A skeptical viewpoint was expressed by Pulitzer Prize-winning “long form” writer Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, however. “Why did they reinvent a poke with a poke? Just more evidence that all the really creative people on Earth live in Manhattan between Grand Street and 23rd.”

An employee of Twitter familiar with the company’s financial situation told us that Twitter had a good chance of being profitable by 2014. When asked if poking was part of a move towards a more concrete business model for the company, he looked right into our eyes and answered with complete seriousness, “Absolutely.”

Yammer and Present.ly, competitors in the Enterprise 2.0 microsharing niche, did not immediately respond to questions about whether they would provide poking to their corporate clients.

This satire was originally published at the emerging news and opinion site True/SlantSubscribe to my True/Slant RSS feed here!

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Why Hide the Twenty Dollar Bill?


Recently, I was in a fast food restaurant, paying for a meal that cost less than $10. Although I usually use a credit card for these kinds of transactions, in this case I handed the employee a twenty dollar bill. Out of habit, and policy no doubt, she put my $20 under the plastic cash tray inside the register, and then gave me my change.

Why?

Once upon a time, probably long before most people reading this became active shoppers, people put $20 and larger bills in ’secret’ locations for security – if someone tried to rob you, they might just take the contents of the top cash drawer and make a run for it, not noticing that the $20, $50, and $100 bills were stashed elsewhere.

But isn’t this habit a little quaint? We have security guards, video cameras, and other security features. And, more importantly, the perps know about the old ‘hide the high denominations’ trick. Co-evolution between thieves and victims in the last couple of decades has rendered this behavior useless – yet it’s rampant.

Sticking to legacy processes like hiding $20 bills under the register isn’t just seen in the fast food industry. We see it in large companies and other organizations like the government as well. Managers often cling to legacy processes for stability, and to avoid rocking the proverbial boat. What if one fast food franchise started bucking the rules? That might look bad for the owner – he might look like a ‘maverick’ or someone who’s ‘not a team player’ – and most people don’t want those monikers attached to them.

Legacy processes are often silly but relatively harmless.  Perhaps the time and energy invested in hiding a $20 bill is negligible. But is everything as harmless?

Some legacy behaviors actually become harmful when they get in the way of doing a good job at whatever it is that you do. Perhaps your harmful legacy process is doing the same analysis with slight variations on multiple government computer systems, because you report to three different masters within a huge bureaucracy. It’s harder to find your information, it wastes your personal time, it costs government money, and most crucial, it’s inefficient.

Secretary Gates is currently proposing the end of, or alteration to, some legacy military systems and processes within the Department of Defense – and he has quite a battle ahead of him. There are always entrenched interests battling for the status quo.

Whatever the situation, a true leader has to take a stand against legacy processes that don’t work. They have to put their individual gratification and advancement (possibly) at risk for the betterment of the organizational group. And it does happen. Sometimes they crash and burn, but when their ideas work these people are celebrated as visionaries. Few and far between, such mavericks are truly the agents of change.

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SXSW? Forget About It


You’re more forgetful than you might think.

Almost every bit of data you encounter daily is forgotten. You forget the exact number of dishes you left in your sink, you forget the number of paces you walked from your bed to your bathroom, you forget the car licence plates you see as you drive to work, you forget most of the words you read at work, and you forget precisely what everyone ordered at the office happy hour.

It turns out that this is true of most any animal. For example, since the early 1970s, fruit fly researchers have been using sophisticated behavioral, genetic, molecular, and neurobiological methods to dissect the brain’s mechanisms of the acquisition, storage, retrieval, decay, and yes, extinction of memories.

But why does our brain kill memories? Because, simply, if you remembered everything you’d quickly have information overload.

At the popular South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas this week, information overload is happening not only in real life but also online. As journalist Daniel Terdiman points out at CNET News, while Twitter has been useful for finding friends and event sessions and parties at SXSW in the past, the growth of both SXSW and Twitter has resulted in so many people using it at SXSW 2009 that it is hard to keep up with all the…information.

More information doesn’t mean better knowledge. Thus, as Clay Shirky famously quipped, “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.”

We’re surrounded by information and filters. Colleges are filters for knowledge. Libraries are filters for books. Supermarkets are filters for food. Movie theatres are filters for films. NBC Nightly News is a filter for the mainstream headlines. RSS feeds are a filter for blogs.

Twitter is experiencing huge growth that shows no sign of abating soon. And as far back as two years ago there were international Twitter ‘clones’ – now there are many more. Yet, filter technology is lagging far behind microsharing technology.

Perhaps even more important is that while attending events people tend to filter on-the-go using mobile devices like Apple’s relatively powerful iPhone. But no one can keep up with over 1,000 tweets per hour while consciously attending an event in real life. So, when developing filter technologies, both the power user measuring public sentiment on an office computer and the mobile enthusiast on the road are important clients to keep in mind.

You can safely forget most of what happened at SXSW 2009. But how do you find the things worth remembering?

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Business Adaptation and the Biology of Failure


I’m not a professor, but here’s my business school metaphor for adaptation and survival: Wear a business suit and act calm at all times; evade local detectives, the FBI, and Mexican gangsters while you assassinate a heavily guarded Asian badguy inside a nightclub blasting Paul Oakenfold (in Korean, no less); do this while you hold your own chauffeur hostage;  catch flight home at LAX. But most businesses are far more complacent than the adaptive, erudite character Tom Cruise portrays in Collateral.

Traditional newspapers in major U.S. cities are filing for bankruptcy under selection pressure from the changing environment they failed to adapt to: increased media outlets, more online readers, and less advertising revenue.  Jeff Jarvis recently noted the stark differences between a modern company like Google and a failing one like the San Francisco Chronicle in a blog post he aptly named “Time Travel”.

As economist Paul Ormerod points out in his excellent book, Why Most Things Fail, patterns of business extinction and species extinction are very similar, with long periods of stability interrupted by large spikes of failure (a.k.a. “punctuated equilibrium“). One of Omerod’s theses is that while the future can be quite difficult to predict, experimentation in the present can help adapt to an uncertain future.  The benefits of genetic diversity in living organisms operate on the same theory, and are useful in practice.

Just the opposite of experimenting, media coverage of newspaper failure focuses on giant office buildings filled with cubicles and landline phones, lists of addresses where employees hand deliver products daily, and disruptions of pension plans and workplace friendships. But in biology and business, the nimble, innovative, and adaptive do well in turbulent times. Somewhat ironically, this line from Citizen Kane sums it up: “I don’t know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher, I just try everything I can think of.”

Unfortunately, most things fail. Nearly all of the species that have ever existed are currently extinct. The Rocky Mountain News was published for nearly 150 years, making people sentimental about its demise. Past success is irrelevant to survival, however. Dinosaurs roamed for millions of years, but their extinction made the rise of mammals possible. So too will new companies fill niches abandoned by failed ones.

Students should ask why business schools offer so many courses on economic theory, operations management, and accounting principles that teach about “doing” business, but don’t offer many courses about “thinking” business. Here are some of my suggested topics: (a) ecological niche theory, (b) coevolution, cooperation, and competition, (c) genetic diversity and adaptation in fluctuating environments, (d) network science and emergent behaviors of complex systems. Does your business school make Darwin required reading?

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