Community and social computing
I picked up the latest Harvard Business Review first to read what their Avatar-based Marketing article was all about (more on this later) but also came across a few other articles which I thought were very useful. The first was an interview with Richard Saul Wurman on making events meaningful or useful (requires subscription).
Wurman has put on many events and conferences before but is best known for this Technology, Entertainment, and Design conferences. For an event-holder, his view is that the conference business sucks up huge amounts of marketing dollars, and is an enormous waste of the time of both participants and businesses. It is a fixture of the industry (and certainly the IT/Software industry).
However, his main issue is that most people go to these gatherings only to network and play golf. They don't really listen to the CEOs who can't really talk about all their vision. Marketers have to beg and plead exhibit-goers to take a look at their products, and pnael discussions are usually uncoordinated unrelated speeches. No one gets inspiration and overall nothing sticks.
Amusingly, I see a different view of what Wurman considers negative: "the networking". The term usually implies some sort of negative: the sleazy businessman trying to kiss up to their customers/bosses/etc. However, whether they know it or not, that is what most community forums are. An opportunity not just to learn more and ask questions, but to find that right person who may be able to help you. The way to do it is "networking". Or you could simply sit in a room where everyone is talking for long enough, and eventually someone might say something that can help you. Either way, this implies that some people need to be in the same venue to discuss topics. Others may participate or just listen in.
The venue is the issue. A physical forum like a conference is usually by far a better way to meet others, but obviously there are cons such as cost to travel and participate, time, etc. Virtual forums like discussion groups can provide many of the similar effects but it is more natural human behavior to want to meet others in person. Most real conferences are variances on different settings for in-person meetings.
The mode of how the forum occurs can also affect the benefits or usefulness of a forum. For example, an online group chatroom gives a more immediate interaction point, although if too many people are in the room, it makes for haphazard communications unless you have some sort of moderation/chat leader. A different mode is the bullentin board system that most of us just call plain old "discussion forums", that allows people to come whenvever they want, say their piece, have it recorded as part of their group, and then leave, only to return later to check for responses. This is much more asynchronous a mode of discussion.
The online chatroom is closer to the format of a physical conference than the discussion forum/bulletin board format (synchronous vs asynchronous mode). However, most chatrooms suffer from being in a text-only mode (with minimal graphic smileys), thus the impact is not quite the same as in a real conference, and almost will never be because there is a lot of social cues just simply missing when you cannot see another person. There are certainly new ones that you can notice in text-form, but humans are very visual animals, and we consciously or unconciously rely a lot on how we see others react.
This is one reason why I find 3D worlds like SecondLife and other MMO environments compelling venues. They can provide the synchronous mode feel, with actual visual representation, without the forced geolocation that live conferences require of us. SL for example, still requires a lot of the user to make it a universal tool, not just in terms of your computer's ability, but also in terms of behavior, tool controls/usage, and environment support, to overcome the substantial inertia that people have to new things (something for a future blog), but it is a solution to expensive live conferences. FYI: There have been a number of separate events (meetings, conferences, awards ceremonies, etc.) already held on SL. I wish they were all documented somewhere (by Linden Labs) to analyze the social behavior, issues, and successes or failures of these SL events, because it is these kind of events that can draw big crowds and more new subscribers.
Anyway, back on Wurman: his view is that rather than large conferences with many exhibits, sessions, etc., he would rather than one large meeting by invitation to all the people that the organizer feels wouold be interesting and active participants on the main or multiple topics at the event. This does away with the many failings that he sees and focuses entirely on enabling the exchange of ideas and facilitating discussions, rather than doing presentations and sales pitches.
He may be right in some sense. I'm a veteran of more than a decade of trade shows from every angle: hoster, promoter, attendee, booth bunny (I prefer "rabbit"), exec, press, and now more the "floater"/researcher. While seeing the range of products is nice, it's the constant shilling of products/services that makes it a drag, whether on the exhibit floor or session room. I prefer the conversations that are "in between", during the event but not necessarily part of it. This seems to me what Wurman is pointing out as his ideal.
If that's the case, I guess I'd agree with Wurman on that part. At the same time, I'm still looking around for alternatives in my purview and some of these MMOs are good possibilities.
PS: The HBR issue this month (June) has at least 4-5 articles that I found relevant which was worth the high $17 retail price for a copy.
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Ian Hughes talked about that the idea relating to Amazon's Mechanical Turk as I mentioned last week. While having lunch with my wife today, and reading an article in the previous issue of BusinessWeek, I found a connection to the Simple PC/Community PC idea popularized by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT.
Say you have thousands of people with such low-cost PCs, even shared insome netcafe, if must be. Then take the idea of wetware/human grids todo processing to analyze data. Add a payment mechanism per itemprocessed. This'd be a solution looking for a problem.
How is this for a problem:
Millions of hours of video and similar numbers of photos are takenevery day at security checkpoints such as banks, the motor vehicles/IDcard department, airports, ports, etc. This already happens widely inthe US for example. Now take a security issue like the Top Ten wantedcriminals with photos provided of each of them. How about sending allthat data soon after they are gathered to process in a wetware grid totry to identify potential suspect-matches. People are usually better atmatching faces than computers, even if it is not a perfect method. Paythe grid members a small amount per photo processed (2 to 5 centsperhaps) and ask them for sets of e.g., 100 photos to look over in asingle session; and pay a big bonus ($1000?) if an identificationeventually leads to the criminal's apprehension.
People living in many first world countries may say that $5 for aboutmaybe 1-2 hours work is simply not worth the time. But again this goesback to the "PC for the People" idea: make computing cheap for themasses in nations where $5 is a lot of money for some and $1000 is anunbelievable sum. Take a 1000 or 10,000 people in this wetware grid andyou have parallel processing of photos on a large and stillcost-effective scale.
Obviously there's a lot to be thought out here but it is the seed of an idea that could help:
PS: You might also want to read this month's Wired article on Crowdsourcing.
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The HBR June issue has an article(requires subscription) by John Gourville which is one of the firstI've read to explain so clearly the issues behind the psychology ofadopting new products. I take this to mean not just products but alsoservices from any organization.
In summary, the idea was raised by the Nobel-prize winning psychologistDaniel Kahneman that explores why people deviate from rational economicbehavior. This combined with other work, on how individuals valuechoices in the marketplace, define the basis on how people handle theintroduction of a new product or service.
The four behaviors that arise are: people evaluate new product asalternatives, based on perceived value rather than subjective value;they consider new products relative to points of reference to existingones; they view such references as benefits/gains orshortcomings/losses; and finally, the most important behavior, losses have a far greater impact than gains.
This leads to the endowment effect whichthe author reports as the behavior where people hold things theyalready have in much greater value than those they don't. In fact, itleads to a multiplying effect in the market where consumers value theirexisting holdings as three times more valuable, while organizationswith new ideas/products value their own holdings as three times asvaluable. Thus, to convince consumers to change from the old to the newproduct may require up to nine timesthe improvements over the older product. As the author explains, AndyGrove of Intel has held the belief that an innovaion that can transformthe industry rapidly needs to offer a 10x improvement over existingalternatives. (I know my Sharp Aquos HDTV doesn't quite reach thathigh, but I still like the switch over from my 25" inch Sony tuber :)
The author continues by giving several categories of probability: the Sure Failure, the Easy Sell, the Long Hauls, and the Smash Hits. AnEasy Sell indicates limited (small) changes to the existing product andlimited changes to the behavior necessary. A Smal Hit has significantchanges to the product but only limited changes to the behavior.
I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of the HBR to understand the full extent of this article.
This has direct impact on any new technology, a topic of constant focusfor us at dW. Every company wants the smash hit, but for many it ismore by accident than on purpose. However, often they focus onimprovements to products based on what they think is important, andduring the product development stage do not really consider the factorsof user adoption behavior because it is so hard to measure. I've comeacross so many cases where the technology is considered quite advancedby the technical team that develops, supported by surveys of groups ofthe bleeding edge customers who are already raring to use it; but, theyfall short when they call out to the general market which issignificantly slower to adopt the idea.
In fact, in some cases, the improvements are just not enough (per theabove marketing theory). In other cases, the perceived value of theproduct is just conveyed either adequately to the consumers, or by the right influencers who can change perception. Ittakes the right mix of technical know-how, eloquence, stubbornness,ingenuity, and charm to find the proper evangelists for a project. Butfirst you need to be able to find those who are fans of the idea in thefirst place (goes back to my other thought on building a fan-base); theevangelist themselves must be a convinced fan, or others willeventually consider them a sham.
This theory applies to the tens or hundreds of thousands of newprojects that start up on the internet. A product manager needs toconsider if the product falls into the win category of Smash Hit or will be a Long Haulsell as much as the innovation of the product itself. This meansunderstanding the user behavior and need for the product in the firstplace. The difficulty lies in quantifying the improvements.
In some cases, you can do it by this process:
The impact of the endowment effect is the old adage: people fear change.It's not fear per-se, but more inertia. To overcome the inertia, youneed to change perceptions. To grow customers and fans, you need tobuild the audience and community around the idea, to build up momentumof understanding and acceptance to overcome this inertia. (I mentionthat this is a crucial second step of the Open Source business model earlier)
As I mentioned previously, the HBR article, Avatar-based Marketing, talksa bit about how 3D worlds and online characters are becoming asubstantial population online. The author (a senior editor at HBR)mentions the big names like World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc. thathave millions of members focused in game-based environments, and theopportunity to market to this audience. He also mentions the otherenvironments that are more based on socializing such as SecondLife, Stagecoach Island, MyCoke/Coke Studios, There, etc.
The article has potential and certainly opens this topic up to a wholelot of others who would probably not be familiar with this newtechnology (i.e., HBR readers tend to be high-level business andmanagement folk). This is a hot topic obviously if it is starting toinvade such ranks.
However, the article seems to focus primarily on how to advertise in such environments as the marketing strategy, in subtle or obvious forms. This is a certainly of interest to the avant-garde advertisingand marketing firms. My interests lie elsewhere primarily in the newdomain of building online communities as not just an advertising basebut an actual loyal following of members.
The utility of the online world still seems to be lost on many people;instead they focus on existing strategies/mechanisms that they couldtranslate into an online setting, such as the advertising strategy.Advertising will always have a place in the world, but it is only thevery first stage of gaining a following.
In my view, there is actually a progression of "people interested in what you have": the uninitiated, the aware, the casual member, the customer (or user), and finally the fan (theeager customer). Advertising primarily focuses on driving the firstthree towards a vague hope of them becoming customers. Most companiesare happy when people become customers, even if some are reluctantcustomers. The real wins come from those who become fans.
The thought goes that the fans are the ones who assist in acquiringother new customers. This makes it easier on the organization's effortstowards growth. The fans are worth a whole lot more to an organizationthan just a regular customer. An easy example is Apple, which has asignificant number of fans compared to regular customers. This hashelped them not just stay in business but also in the lead as one ofthe most insipiring and innovative companies.
The honest truth is that it takes a lot to elevate customers towardsbecoming fans. This is based on not just the creation of innovativeideas technology but also on how these innovations are conveyed anddelivered. Then comes the on-going support of these fans, not just theproducts and services.
The million dollar question: How do you start and cultivate fans?
I'll give a hint, it's not a short-term process...
I'm not sure if I've posted this graphic before but I use this inslides quite often to familiarize those who new to community buildingbut have heard of Web 2.0.
I've heard a number of comments from people within IBM and beyond thatthis makes sense, in terms of how think of the different "levels" ofpopulation in groups, starting from a General Population, moving intoan Audience (or specifically categorized population), to a SocialNetwork, and finally to a Community. The final level above is sort ofdisconnected and may start off in its own way: the Organization.
As you can see from the graphic, most of dW is currently at the levelof an audience. This is natural when you start with a magazine formatas we did. Most magazines have audiences but not social networks orcommunities; some do, especially when they have means for members tointeract with each other (in online forums, live events, conferences,webcasts, etc.) Building the interaction gives the first level ofsocial networking, but you can improve this in many ways to exposesocial network especially in online systems (e.g., social tagging,wikis, forums, comments, polls, etc.)
The distinguishing factor between social networks and communities isthe level of group identity. This is when people start associatingthemselves with a particular idea (an interest, a hobby, a belief, atechnology, a product, a company, etc.) and regularly return to thatgroup of people with the same interest.
Social networks may have this behavior, where people start buildingrelationships with each other, but it is when they start to organizearound the idea, is when you start building a community. It takes work,leadership and time to keep the group together and build a community.The rewards are that the communities tend to collaborate and create newresults of their own. If it is a strong and vibrant community, you evenget community members evangelizing their ideas to others. The morepeople behind the idea, the easier it is to accept or adopt the idea(unless it directly conflicts with yours of course).
Day 3 came and went quite quickly.
The interesting event of the day was Amazon's sessions on its Web services. Amazon Web Services is the software side of the company, sort of separate from the main sales/retail site that they are so well known for. The retail side uses some of these same Web services within the site, but they are also available to external customers as well. I listened to Jeff Barr from Amazon describe them some of which include:
and many more... You should go to aws.amazon.com to find out more.
Okay, it's really Day 3 but I'm posting on yesterday's events.
I took a bunch of photos. Unfortunately, they're all off a 5MP camera so I have to resize them each time. Maybe it's time for me to get one of those cellphones that can post photos directly to your blog. Anyway, I'll have photos back-posted soon.
The blogger meetup went well with some analysts, execs and tech folk all around. It was mostly a leisurely meet up with folks we work with but rarely see. We signed a big get well soon card for Grady that's being sent out today as I speak.
I spent part of the day manning the booth (okay only an hour or two compared to the other dW staff members) talking to different people as they come by. It feels like there are a lot of first-timers to the RSDC this year, and we had about 50-50 split on people familiar with dW and others not. I had an interesting conversation with a gent from Amazon Web services and there's a session later today on Mashing with Amazon Web Services that I intend to visit.
I'm heading back to the booth again for now.
I'm at the Rational Software Development Conference 2006, taking a break between sessions. If you haven't seen it already, there is a lot going on. You can start on our blog and podcast page for this event.
The first interesting session I found was on Building a Strong Software Business on Open Source, by Palle Pedersen, CTO of Black Duck Software. His company works on testing compliance in software products. In particular, they have taken a look at the issues around licensing, usage and behavior of teams who use open source software or incorporate them into products of their own.
Interesting factoid: there are now about 600 different variations of open source licenses. Can you imagine checking compliance of code/products that incorporates that kind of range/possibility of OS software?
More interesting to me is his point that there is a common best practice to how to incorporate OSS into your own line:
This is oversimplification of the whole thing but its step two of this business model that obviously catches my eye. In fact, there were a few questions about how to do Step 2. This is in fact exactly what our Community team in dW is tackling. I'm just glad that people are starting to recognize the importance of this as a required part of the open source business model.
We've known this for a while but many groups tend to just gloss over this. The assumption is that if you start a discussion group, you've satisfied that step. It's not as simple as that. In fact, there are many OS products with discussion groups but that still never take off as a success. What is needed is a more scientific way of performing this overall step (which is what I'm hoping would become the outcome of my current side-project to create a course for Community Management at the University of Arizona MIS dept. More on that later).
In any case, I think there's a story there in what Palle said around this OSS business model and community development to pursue.