Community and social computing
I keep running into Chris Anderson's activities lately. First, I'm listening to his dW podcast interview on our site this week, and next we had an internal meeting for book authors that Chris came to talk to us about. The main discussion in the call was more about how to approach book writing and some ideas that he found successful for his own bestseller, The Long Tail (see my book list). Some of it rang so true but is still missed by so many authors.
For one, he talked about blogging from the very beginning on the book as he did on his research, and carrying the conversation on regularly and for a long time. Chris started blogging from the beginning. It helped in shape his ideas, but also helped quite a bit when it came time to launch the book; he gave away a thousand copies of the book to all the bloggers who interacted with him on his blog. This, I think, really helped to spread the popularity of his book.
Blogging is certainly popular but to many book authors it is still a new phenomenon, even in the tech industry. With that in mind, many authors think that they should start blogging when their book is nearer completion that from the beginning. I think there are two parts to this: a) in general, for a blog to become even barely known takes a long-time of ongoing and active effort; b) blogging about your book helps to build awareness. In other words, if you already have (a) going for you, then (b) should be easier. However, back to my point on blogging still being new with many authors points to the fact that many of them don't even have (a) going for them.
To give my example, I am working on a book and many of the ideas that I have talked about are spread all around this blog of mine. However, I don't think I ever stated that intention. For me, the ideas are more significant--and even more than that discussion of the ideas--than the point that its for a book. But perhaps I should state that intention right away and define the premise more openly. I'll save it for a different post so as not to distract from Chris' point here.
Another interesting point and one that is dear to his heart apparently--he just launched a new startup BookTour.com on it--is about authors engaging others in live events, book tours, presentations, speaking engagements, etc. I think it's a great idea and fits my philosophy: most people need help on learning how to generate a community around an idea or even themselves. What live or virtual appearances and activities do is help to build that community and reinforce the significance of the work. By Chris' own admission speaking engagements can have a better ROI than book sales, even if they go hand in hand; and I don't disagree with that in terms of getting paid for day-long appearnaces versus spending months on a book. This means that as an author you need to spend the time and effort to actively promote your book and not just rely on the publisher's marketing team. The argument I always hear on this is that most people have full time jobs and do not have the time to do so. This is where I think an idea like BookTour can come in really helpful.
Let's take an online parallel: we at developerWorks are about to launch a new aspect called Expert spaces amongst other features. This allows a person to create a community around their own activities using different social software tools not unlike what groups of folks are doing with our community topic spaces now. Like our spaces now, you can start a blog of your own to talk about your project, link in resources your find useful. If you want to go a step beyond, you could even write parts of your book in a wiki online and ellicit comments about the contents you share.
For our own team, this means that we will now need to help these experts get going on communicating in this new way. BookTour focuses on the specific activity of bookwriting; we have a much wider focus on building awareness about any technical expert. We do that now to some degree, but there is a lot more that we could learn.
With the school semester back in session, I now have three battodo (swordfighting) classes a week, two of which I have to teach. They basically span all levels now. There's the regular class that my sensei--who has recently been promoted to shihan (master) after 25 or more years practicing and teaching hundreds of students (possibly over a thousand) in a number of different martial arts--on Saturday's at our headquarter dojo that I attend primarily for practice. It's students of all skill levels but all adult. On Friday's I have the class at the Univ of Arizona for college students. Finally, there's a middle-school/high-school level class to teach, full of students from 12 to 17 years of age and of many ranks.
The college class is really more a club and it just started again this Friday, with the addition of three new students. We're lucky in that the university has a very good recreational/sports center with plenty of rooms (with beautiful polished wood floors). We currently use the racketball courts since they are the easiest to reserve ahead of time, but my sempais (senior students) are looking to getting one of the larger rooms which also have the padded mats to work on.
The mats are great but I was surprised just how much they cost (up to $500 for a 5' x 10' section). They're also kinda heavy and not easy to move around, so it's best to have them available in one room permanently. We can use the mats for doing rolls, and kneeling work.
The high-school class has yet to start but I have been the assistant teacher for several years, and each semester we get about ten to twenty students. Some of the students have been with us for years. In fact, two of my college students spent 4 years or more learning at the high-school level and eventually became black belts before they even started college. There is another batch which are nearly approaching that level as well.
What I've seen over the years is that most people either really like the sport, or they give it a shot for a few weeks and then quit. The ones that practice for a long time but leave are usually adults with busy lives. The high-school class certainly helps capture their interest at a young age, which is when they are most able to grow mentally and physically into the sport. We've had many an aimless and largely distracted individual that finds their focus through the practice.
We're also going to return to cutting targets on a bi-weekly basis on the weekends outside of the class which is the real fun part. It takes some time of practice to get to that level but it's something that is in the reach of most people. The cutting practice however, takes several hours of time even for a small group of a dozen people, especially when most of them don't have their own swords and have to share the class one. After years of use and without sharpening my primary katana is getting pretty dull. I need to work on it, or send it for sharpening (which is almost as costly as buying a new starter cutting sword).
For me, three times a week will certainly help me get back in shape, although I have to make sure I practice as well as teach. It's not easy to do a hard and fast sport, while talking and teaching simultaneously. Even when you build up stamina and breathing pace, to get real practice you have to push beyond your own limits.
I picked up Market-based Management by Dr. Roger Best (see my reading list), a textbook of the "traditional" approach to customer-centric marketing. I'm looking into the ideas on how companies look at customer focus, satisfaction, loyalty, and retention. The processes are probably very different but online communities of all forms also face some of these same issues and the existing ideas and metrics may give insight into similar metrics from the community view.
There are some very different views here though:
Still there are many parallel concepts that can be borrowed. A few of the many examples:
Beyond just the basic measurement of each community, there are the issues of measuring the effectiveness of your community program itself. The parallel is measuring the effectiveness of the marketing program or strategy separately of the end-results driven. This means understanding market share, awareness, availability, etc.
The reality is that even with the decades of having online communities we really have not reached a significant level of sophistication in measuring online communities. Perhaps things needed to happen to emphasize that such as the rise of social software and Web 2.0, the acknowledgment of the long-tail phenomenon, the improvement of web metrics collection tools, and the effects of influencers online.
I see this as something entirely different than the success of the online ad marketing, which everyone can see is a multi-billion dollar opportunity. With online ads, some of the traditional ideas and methods still work, and even some of the traditional metrics may apply. However, a community, where the value comes from the knowledge economy, is likely quite different than a currency-based economy.
With growing interest in online communities as basis of support for real-world products and offerings, business & technology development, market reach and awareness, I think this is a large field waiting to be explored.
I'm reading Mark Buchanan's excellent book on Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks, and came across the concepts of egalitarian and autocratic patterns in social networks. Before you jump to conclusions, let me say a few things about this book. To me it seems to focus on the mathematical origins of the theory of social networks, but takes a pleasant approach going through the history and background of how these ideas emerged. It also spans a wide range of disciplines in terms of where these patterns appear, from biology to watershed and geological studies.
First, it talks about Watts and Strogatz's truly innovative look that has eventually spread across the world as the meme: six degrees of separation. There's a lot more to it than the Kevin Bacon game, but I'd like to point out the particular elements here on egalitarian and autocratic networks. This is actually has little to do with policital systems like socialism versus monarchic or oligarchic communities. Instead if you look at it as a mathematical problem, what it describes is that there are often two varieties of patterns of connections in a system that emerge often.
The first is a basic heuristic that can be commonly seen in some biological systems like the brain: as a node (in a network system), you try to establish a fixed amount or ratio of connections to other nodes. The connections are not a random pattern, but neither is it based on a high degree of "purpose" or "intention". This proposes a very egalitarian and essentially a very simple rule to help build more complex systems as the overall network grows and evolves.
The other is the autocratic pattern, where the heuristic is to start with one node and grow from there. Essentially the key node itself starts growing in size or strength, while its immediate connections grows with it, and scaling down until you reach the end or leaf nodes which have only one connection to someone else. This easiest example is in terms of well known sites or articles on the Net that get linked from many sites, and in a very simplified description, the basis of the algorithm that Google's engine uses.
If you look at one example of each of these networks from a high level, the egalitarian network seems to be completely chaotic with no easily discernable pattern you can tell visually. On the other hand, the autocratic network looks strangely like one of those classic fractal diagrams. Yet, both serve different purposes and have different uses. You might almost say that they are the yin and yang that exist pervasively throughout the world. Okay, maybe that's too metaphysical for a Friday :)
Our technical briefings team is hosting a special event in September; actually two of them in the US, one in Raleigh, North Carolina, and another in Austin Texas. It's a free event, and the idea is to get a lot of thought going on around the topic of putting Web 2.0 into action in the workplace, in a more general way, beyond just startups and special projects.
Here's the info on the event:
Join us for a special event to learn how you can start bringing Web 2.0 into your organization, or as we say, 'Take Web 2.0 to Work.' During this day-long technology event from IBM, you'll see demos of the hottest technologies and participate in interactive breakout sessions - a large part of the content will be driven by you and the other attendees as we go along! The day will be full of live demos and true attendee participation!
You can register for this no cost conference today at: http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/offers/techbriefings/details/web20.html
Raleigh, NC (September 12, 2007)
Austin, TX (September 18, 2007)
During the day, you'll not only hear from IBM Execs like Rod Smith, IBM Software Group, VP of Emerging Technologies and David Barnes, Program Director, Emerging Internet Technologies, IBM Software Strategy based out of Austin, TX, but also rub shoulders with other developers in your community, IBM's key system architects, developers and researchers from our R&D labs and some of the lead developers that created Lotus Connections. There will be plenty of time to dive deep into several different topic areas in breakout sessions including:
Collaboration (Social Networking applied to the Enterprise)
Application Creation (join in the creation of mashups and wikis)
Information Technology (see new ways to unlock information using emerging technologies like "Many Eyes")
The day will be heavy with demos and conversation, not slideware. Please join us on our conference Wiki to give suggestions on what subjects you would like to see and hear about, prior to the event at: http://www-03.ibm.com/developerworks/wikis/display/web20work/
The day-long conference will close with a discussion focused on not only where we've been and where we're going, but also on what you can do to start bringing Web 2.0 into your organization.