Conversation, discovery and reputation: tools for navigating the age of abundance


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.

Correlating internet access and democracy by Jacob Groshek

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.

Music discovery through visualisation, from the jazz age to the present

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 dispersal of influence-“Egypt Influence Network” by Kovas Boguta

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”.

Conversation and Reputation as tools to navigate an age of abundance

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….

14 thoughts on “Conversation, discovery and reputation: tools for navigating the age of abundance

  1. Great recap, Patsy. Thorough and filled with some real content. You must be a planner/strategist as opposed to a surface skimmer like myself 😉 Two best quotes: 1. “What conversations are your customers having without you that are helping them synchronize their views of your brand-and co-ordinate action?” This is a huge them and suggests that we need to create the “gift of community,” as in not sell, talk, or even connect people back to our brands, but instead to each other. Creating a community worth scaling and leveraging the network effect. Not to mention creating a way to listen. 2. “We systematically overestimate the value of access to information & underestimate the value of access to each other.” This became apparent to me in every session from Shirky, to Jennifer Preston’s conversation about the Middle East, to why Smule apps are so popular, to the need to connect consumers to each other and to cargo containers. Will post more on that topic as well. In fact, just made a client presentation this am where I recommended connecting customers to each other (not on a Facebook page sort of way) in a manner that would create true value and learning for all. Good stuff.

  2. Thanks Edward. Agree that connecting consumers to each other is extraordinarily powerful and it’s something I’d been starting to dismiss slightly in brand communication, figuring that people already had all the ways they needed to communicate. But part of the reputation theme for me is the idea of building quality connections-helping users with shared interests and passions pick each other out of the crowd and take action together. In a way, what SXSW is all about…

  3. well done! thanks for the thinking and I love your 6 questions. a great lens for brand planners and digital strategists alike to re-frame the way they look at strategy, the role of brand “comms” and how social listening can play a bigger role in understanding (not just counting – aka volume) the behavior of people.

    one thought for planners is to delve deeper beyond their macro-anthropological point of view and understand sociological exchanges..looking at the world through your 6 questions. then find patterns and “currencies” that facilitate exchanges amongst people. put brands in this context. and they become more meaningful, part of the dialogue and more useful?

    brands always were meant to be means to exchange value with people… now they simply need to make it work on conversational terms. start shifting brand “values” to well timed gestures, knowledge, usefulness, empathy, sociability, support and simply being human 😉

    1. Thanks Andy-I really like your idea of brands translating their values into conversational behaviours, in terms of gestures, empathy, etc. A great checklist for being human…

  4. That’s a really nice roundup Pats, thanks for being the eyes for those that didn’t make it there.

    Clay Shirky was bang on in terms of relevance of conversational freedom. It’s being put to quite the test in Egypt, and now Libya. I’d highly recommend a read of The Net Delusion if you haven’t already though. It’s a very stern wake up call to reminds us that the Internet isn’t going to liberate people from tyranny, it’s only going to make liberation a wee bit easier (something that’s being unfortunately proven in Libya).

    I also think #tapworthy seemed real nice. Do you, by any chance, have a slideshare for that session?

  5. Thanks Aayush. Shirky is always fantastic-I haven’t read The Net Delusion but it sounds well worth a read. I don’t have a slideshare to hand on #tapworthy but I’ll have a look around. It was a great, very practical session as you’ve spotted!

  6. While reading through this post one concept that coming to mind and sparking my curiosity, the Dunbar Number – its relevance, evolution, and relation to the digitally redefined “community”, or lack there of.

    Shirky’s social media talk addressed that collaborative thinking with simple connection allows revolutionary movement in a way that had never happened before. One of the best pieces of this is that many or most of these people didn’t know each other and they didn’t need to. Does the idea that we can only process, remember, and remain connected with a magical number of 150 people carryover into the digital sphere? Does it even matter anymore? We’ve built, curated, and indulged in massive communities where coming together in a community now doesn’t necessarily require a personal relationship.

    I’m sitting here following hundreds of people, clicking through links but yet until now, like with many other blogs, I had remained a lurker. Why is that? Seems with data and communities the number is much smaller. Even with iTunes, do we miss that % or so of songs because we can only remember 150 at time?

    Now I’m just ranting but I will try and steer back into direction. It’s interesting to think about this magic 150 when it comes to customer communities and what brands people choose to interact with, and why. What makes that brands community worth connecting with, putting in my Dunbar Number of brands? Is a personal relationship necessary, is that personal relationship with the brand community or with the product?

    Our relationship with data, visualization, and information seems unpredictable. Although, all do require some form of generosity, which I believe to be the culprit of an age of cheapness (may be good just as much a bad thing).

    I guess I should just write a post… but I don’t want to just cut and paste, resulting in deleting this comment. Your post sparked my curiosity.

  7. Re: point # 2 – How could brands join the conversations their consumers have without them? Then they could build their own reputations.

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