Contemplating the extraordinary wealth of ideas and inspiration coming out of this year’s South by South West Interactive, it struck me that while they initially seemed disparate (visualizing music libraries, social media and revolution, the path to better crowdsourcing), many of the panels and ideas that excited me most had certain key themes in common.
Fundamentally, they all addressed the emerging challenge of our time-how to successfully navigate the age of abundance-an age where there is more information, more content and more connectivity that we could possibly have imagined even a decade ago.
The power of conversation
Unsurprisingly, Clay Shirky was first up to tackle this theme, with a characteristically barnstorming take on social media and revolution. His start point was that abundance is a profoundly powerful and disruptive political force-the power of abundance to disrupt is a recurring Shirky preoccupation. Abundant media, in this case, escapes the control of regimes. (And organizations. And more prosaically, brands). As he demonstrated, there is no history of a regime becoming more authoritative post internet access and a strong correlation between internet access and democratization.
His over-arching point however was around the power of conversation and the idea that freedom of information is much less important than freedom of conversation. It is through conversation that individuals synchronise opinions and co-ordinate action. As Shirky more eloquently put it:
“We systematically overestimate the value of access to information & underestimate the value of access to each other.”
So, to extrapolate a little, conversation (or social context) is a powerful tool in helping us navigate a world of abundance.
Discovery through visualization
There are other tools of course too. Paul Lamere posed the fantastic question of how data visualization can enable discovery in a world of infinite abundance. Apparently 65% of the tracks users own are never listened to, suggesting we’re not able to adequately surface and discover the music we already own, never mind find more artists we might like. He showcased beautiful, hand-drawn visualizations from the jazz era and demo-ed extraordinary new approaches to surfacing and showcasing playlists, from artists’ connections to his own mind-blowing system based on acoustic similarity.
Of course, most of us don’t have the coding skills to create breathtaking new interfaces. And these interfaces are unlikely (yet) to respond in real time to the vast quantities of new content generated every day. So conversation will remain, for many, a key method of discovery.
But how do we know who we’re talking to, and who we can trust? In his excellent summary of the themes of the festival, Edward Boches references another visualisation showing the dispersal of social influence. As Edward puts it
“The image compared sources of content (influence) from the Iran green movement in 2009 with the recent uprising in Eqypt.
In Iran there were four or five central nodes of influence: key people whose content was read, re-tweeted and then spread. But a look at the same chart regarding Eqypt shows a proliferation in nodes of influence, suggesting that today, there are many more individuals whose content is followed and that large communities are comprised not just of individuals but of sub-communities”
The visualisation below is a different pass at the same data, but you get the overall idea, particularly when compared to these Iran visualisations.
The Reputation Economy
This is where the question of reputation comes in. This was, for me, the dominant theme of the conference. I’ve been mulling the question of reputation over since I came across this Fast Company article on the rise of generosity. It really caught fire in my imagination though in conversation with the remarkable (and generous) John Winsor, CEO of Victor and Spoils.
John was asked about the challenge inherent in evaluating the thousands of submissions they get in response to a live creative brief and how technology can help. He mentioned reputation rankings and curation tools and talked about the challenges, and opportunities, in developing reputation algorithms that rewarded the kinds of behaviours the V & S community needs to flourish.
It struck me that as individual reputation (versus corporate) becomes more and more important-in navigating content referrals and in deciding who to share with, buy from or partner with- designing these algorithms is an extraordinary opportunity to design for the kinds of behaviours we want to see as a society or a company-not just excellence, but generosity, engagement, willingness to build, willingness to learn. We all have informal reputation rankings of a kind today-who follows us, who follows them, what our connections look like-some have seller or reviewer ratings. In the future, however, as influence, commerce and content distribution continues to disperse-as we enter a reputation economy- we may need these rankings to become a more formal and widespread mechanic. They are, perhaps, the next step in building a truly smart social algorithm. It’s interesting to note that Facebook recently patented the idea of “Curated search”.
Either way, we’ll need our super smart devices to learn when to be quiet. The final presentation worth referencing here was the excellent-and irreverent-Genevieve Bell of Intel. Genevieve, a cultural anthroplogist with decades of experience in understanding digital and mobile behaviours posited that privacy is less and less of an issue for users today-in part because of diminished expectations-but that reputation remains critical. Users baulk at connecting their TVs or their smartphones to their Facebook profiles not because of privacy concerns but because our devices have not yet learned to protect our reputations-to claim we’re watching something more edifying than we are or that we’re out when we’re not.
Of course, this emphasis on reputation is at odds with Christoper Poole of 4Chan’s celebration of the “authenticity of anonymity”. Of course, there will be times when anonymity remains powerful culturally and politically. There will be occasions when anonymised, aggregrated data has a more compelling role than individual endorsements. And there are challenges with an attempt to formalize reputation further-the spectre of gamification rears its head and challenges the instrinsic impulses to share and connect that drive so much of the social referral and social commerce we see happening. It’s interesting, as Tim Malbon does here, to compare Quora, a system founded on some quite formal reputation ranking mechanics to Instagram, a system allowing simple, joyous ways to enhance our reputations as curators, image makers and interesting commentators.
So there are undoubtedly real challenges to tackle and I hope to have more on reputation and more on other South by South West inspirations to follow, but to close, some questions to consider:
- How is your brand facilitating conversations?
- What conversations are your customers having without you that are helping them synchronize their views of your brand-and co-ordinate action?
- How are you using visualization techniques to help both your customers and your organization discover new things in the melee of abundance?
- How are you helping your customers manage their reputations in age of increased transparency and connectivity?
- How is your organization set up to compete in an age where influence and distribution are dispersed and individual (not corporate) reputations are critical currency?
- How do we design systems that encourage good, reputation building behaviours while preserving intrinsic motivations?
As I say, more to follow when the jet lag wears off….for now, coffee….