Creating the infrastructure for the trusted networks

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I had lunch earlier this week with Stuart Henshall in San Francisco, and we had a delightful wide-ranging discussion on topics of common interest. We’ve known each other for a good few years through scenario planning, and have a similar vision for the future of personal online networks. Stuart focuses on—among many other very interesting issues including consumer rights—trust in building networks. His vision is of a world in which everyone has their profile online, and shares both their profile and their personal connections selectively with trusted contacts. Sixdegrees.com was the first major online player in this space. I intended to write about it in Living Networks, but it went the way of all things in January 2001. The current top players in this space are Ryze.com and ecademy. However effective trust systems are essential for these public online networks to work. In the first instance we need to be able to create layers around how much of the information about our personal contacts we want to share. Intermediating software can help, for example by identifying in a secure system the contacts we share. For example, Stuart and I estimated we would share 20-30 people in our email address books, but we don’t know who all of those people are. On the next level, if we can create software that enables people to draw on their personal contacts’ perception of others’ trustworthiness, this will enable us to more readily expand our own personal networks in useful ways. These kinds of systems can be implemented either in a global context, or inside or across organisations.

One of the key issues which comes up for me is how we are going to get there. Creating a highly functional system that enables us to see and expand our global personal networks is a fabulous vision, which I dearly hope will come to fruition, but it is likely to take a long time and there is a risk it will never happen. In the first instance, as I write in Living Networks, people need to build evolutionary business models, that can make money in creating the first steps of this vision, and easily morph into new models as the context moves on. The other key issue is standards. As in many domains, whoever “controls” this extraordinarly valuable space of personal connections can create—and extract—enormous value, and thus there will be plenty of competition to be the winner. If there are standard information definitions and interfaces between competing systems, this fragmentation can be avoided. Ultimately, if the vision is realized, it will most likely be driven by an open source initiative, which means there is usually less commercial value to be extracted. There’s a long way to go yet in creating a system that will allow everyone to see exactly how they are connected in the global networks. I’ll try keep you posted along the way.

Social Network Analysis and alliances

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I recently shared the platform with David Ewbank, head of knowledge management and alliance management at pharma giant Aventis, at the European Business Information Conference in Paris. I spoke on the living networks, while David spoke about how Aventis is using social network analysis to undertand better how knowledge is flowing within its R&D team, and its joint R&D projects with other pharma companies—these topics tied together very well. Social Network Analysis (SNA) is not new, but it has seen an immense surge of interest in the last 6-12 months. As society and work processes become increasingly interconnected, gaining insight into the dynamics of personal networks becomes critical. However it is often not evident what “interventions” in shifting organizational structure or personal behaviors will enhance performance. We are now in a phase of experimenting with how to bring out the positive network characteristics of organizations, with Aventis doing some very interesting work in this area.

Since I believe that the the next decade and more of management will be dominated by working in a world of increasingly blurred organizational boundaries, I’m delighted by David’s dual role. The Wall Street Journal commented on this in an article on how knowledge executives are reinventing their roles. The juncture of knowledge and alliances (which to my mind includes client and supplier relationships) is an immensely important domain that will see far greater attention in coming years. One of the themes in my keynotes and work that has attracted particular interest over the last months is that of “information policies”. Organizations are subject to opposing forces. On the one hand, there is an imperative to share information and knowledge actively with key clients, suppliers, and partners. However there are still limits on what can and should be shared. The challenge is to create a culture and policies that enable effective sharing within appropriate boundaries. Extranets are now standard practice, helping to bring this issue to a head. More on this later.

Terrorism, technology, and an open society

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Having just returned from a quick five-continent round-world trip, I am frequently asked about the mood around the world. Wherever you are, it is characterised by uncertainty. The focus is very short-term; people find it hard to think beyond a few months ahead. If we do stretch our minds a little further, there are compelling issues that will shape our future as humans. Terrorism is in the forefront of people’s minds, and the nature of technological development and the flow of information is such that ever-more frightening tools are becoming broadly available. Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy harkens a world in which “how-to” guides to create deadly self-replicating viruses are freely available on the Internet. Joy himself has suggested that research be stopped or constrained in potentially dangerous fields. Others—especially governments—want to watch us all very, very closely, leaving privacy as a historical concept. One of the key choices the human race faces is how to respond to these challenges. A recent article in Salon.com provides an insightful perspective. To try to constrain knowledge will lead to a far more divided society. What has created the most pressing problems on the planet today is division—of wealth, opportunity, and access. If we turn our backs on an open society, if we have a future, it will be deeply unhappy. We can only respond to the risks if we know what they are. There is certainly a balance to strike, but if we err, it should be towards more rather than less openness.

Making the global brain – à la Google

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I believe one of the most important themes for our future is collaborative filtering – I will keep on coming back to and developing this theme on these pages. This is fundamental to the formation of what we can think of as a “global brain”. As I describe in Living Networks, one of the most important functions of the human nervous system is to filter the massive sensory input it receives so that we are not overwhelmed. Similarly, in a world of massive and increasing information overload, we need mechanisms that make what is useful obvious, and what isn’t useful invisible. By collaborating on this task, each of us can benefit from the perceptions and judgments of us all. (Read the book sampler on “free downloads” page for more info.) Those that help create a higher level of collaborative filtering will add massive value – and with the right business models can extract part of that value. Discrete examples include Amazon.com’s book recommendation system, the Movie Lens film recommendation service, and Media Unbound music personalization system, used by Pressplay and mentioned in my book.

Which takes us to the much-discussed Google acquisition of Blogger. Steven Johnson has written an extremely interesting article on this for Slate. In short, he suggests that Google can pick up how people navigate the web in order to draw meaning for themselves and others. The analogy with the brain is that our repeated trains of thought are not only remembered more easily, but are also the very foundation of our neural pathways and thinking. I’d go further than Johnson to suggest that applying these approaches on a global scale could be critical in creating an information architecture that is far closer to that of a brain, providing highly effective filtering and the early stages of sense-making.

One of the key issues that emerges from this is that whoever monitors our information usage patterns to create useful tools, holds intensely personal information about us. Who will we trust to do this? Google-Watch for one doesn’t trust Google.

How many degrees of separation?

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Microsoft is about to release a beta of software for peer-to-peer social groups, called Threedegrees. Here is the CNET article. (The Threedegrees website currently is only taking email addresses to notify when the beta will be out.) The intention is to extend the functionality of instant messaging, and to create trusted communities. Users can form groups of up to just 10 people, with whom they can instant message, share photos, send animations called “Winks”, and playback (but not share) music. Users can join multiple groups, but the idea is to create more intimate fora for interaction than the usual free-for-all chat groups.

I believe strongly that technology has the potential to bring people together, and that is what people want to use it for. I’ll be very interested to see the software when it comes out – if it’s good I think it could do very well. The “killer apps” are increasingly social in nature. As readers of Living Networks or my blog will know, I see the famed “six degrees” of separation shrinking dramatically. The inner city area of major cities can now largely be spanned by three degrees of separation. These sorts of tools will shrink this further.

Proximity dating is HOT!

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I’ve just been involved in a media campaign to promote Living Networks in Australia. It is fascinating to see what topics get taken up. My press release for mainstream media was titled “Living in Zero Degrees of Separation”, and mentioned many of the social implications of a hyper-connected world. Almost every TV and radio interview I’ve had has honed in on the idea of “proximity dating”, that I cover in Chapter 2. This is a location-based service for mobile/ cell phone users. You program in your profile and that of the person you’d like to meet, and when you’re within say 200m of someone with a matching profile your phones alert you. You can then speak, exchange photos, or even videoconference, and decide if you want to meet immediately in a local coffee shop. This is currently happening in Japan and Iceland. A similar “buddy finder” service can show a map with the locations of your friends, so you can see who’s nearby if you want to grab lunch or coffee. Japan’s Imahima is providing the enabling software to mobile providers in Japan, Switzerland, and other countries.

After having done quite a few interviews in Australia on this and the broader themes of Living Networks, yesterday Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published an article on proximity dating based on an interview with me. The rest of the media pounced on it, I’ve done several radio interviews off the back of it, and the story even appeared on the late news on national television. Both Telstra and Hutchison – which is about to launch 3G here – have got good mileage out of this, even though they’re just responding to media queries based on my press release, so they’re realizing the level of latent interest out there. All of this illustrates part of my thesis that technology has the potential to bring people together, rather than isolate us, and that these are the services that people will take up and use, not the much-vaunted idea of receiving a McDonald’s discount voucher on your cell phone as you walk by.

Let me know if you’d like to see the press release – I’ll stick it up on this website soon.

Blogs and collaborative development

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As a postscript to the previous story, have a look at this article on using blogs in software development. Among others, Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 fame is using blogs to get input not only from developers but also users. This is an example of the concept of distributed innovation I write about in Living Networks. One of my favorite illustrations of this is IBM’s alphaWorks unit, that makes early-development code fresh from its R&D labs available for all-comers in order to get their input into the development process. Both of these can be considered commercial variations on the open source software model. They provide a framework to allow varied and distributed input into the development process. Blogs are just one tool that can enable this kind of process.

More on the business of blogging…

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There’s a good article on the business of blogging in the Guardian. AOL will offer blogging to its users, which is just part of the process of making this truly mainstream. Every time I speak I ask how many people have heard of blogs. For most audiences – even ones that you think would be well familiar with the idea – it’s well less than half. I’m doing my bit in my media and speaking to spread the word. To repeat what I’ve written before, the single most important aspect of blogs is that they enable collaborative filtering, in which the most useful and relevant information emerges from the information universe in which we live.

The Guardian article also talks about how Andrew Sullivan scored $79,000…

…from his readers in his “pledge week”, and how BlogAds is enabling bloggers to make money from ads. This is too much like dot-com thinking. Only a handful will make more than enough to buy a round of beers.

Earlier in the week, when I was making an in-house presentation at a large financial services firm, someone asked whether blogs could be used for collaboration and knowledge sharing. Yes, indeed, K-logs (knowledge logs) are being used as a knowledge management tool by firms like Verizon. (see for example this list of K-log links and Business 2.0’s Blogging for Dollars). However the culture in the organization needs to be right for this to work. This would fall flat in its face in many companies; a knowledge culture would need to be reasonably well developed for k-logs to work well.

If you’ve read this far, love to get your thoughts, comments, or other links. Click on the “Post Comment” button at the bottom of this page and you’re away! Ross.

The changing world of librarians

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I’m at the Information Online conference in Sydney, where I gave a keynote this morning. The conference is primarily populated by librarians. In sitting in on some of the sessions and speaking to attendees, one of the interesting dynamics emerging is how the democratization of information searching – through Google and more – means librarians must shift up in how they add value. Many spend much of their time using specialist databases (with 110 exhibitors pusing their wares here), and clearly can play an important role in finding, filtering, and customising information, but they find it difficult to sell their importance to their senior business or government bosses.

Layoffs are rife in business libraries and information centers, with these kinds of services easy targets in cost-cutting. One of my key messages to this community was how they can and must contribute to creating a global information architecture that enables collaborative filtering. The vast majority of Internet users only look, and don’t contribute. If information professionals and others can make it easy for people to input what they find valuable, and for others to tap into that consolidated input, this will help support the emergence of the “global brain” in which we can draw on each others’ perspectives, rather than face the information jungle alone. Blogs are critical in the creation of this infrastructure. The simple act of providing a link changes the shape of the Internet, influences Google and Blogdex results, and allows others to find more easily what you think is worthwhile. We all must participate, not just observe.

Preserving the end-to-end networks

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Living Networks is about leadership in the networks. Lawrence Lessig is one of the true leaders today in realizing the true potential of the networks for all of us. In this article in the FT he gives a brief view of the underlying “end-to-end” architecture of the Internet, and why it must be preserved. He goes into this issue in far more depth in his book The Future of Ideas, a rich and marvellous exploration of how the architecture of the networks – in the broadest sense – will determine our ability to create by building on each others’ ideas. This is a good place to give another plug for Lessig’s fantastic Creative Commons project, which gives people access to customized licenses. It is the fluidity of intellectual property in all forms which will determine how fast innovation moves. Creative Commons specifically creates far more flexibility and fluidity in what is now a far-too-rigid intellectual property landscape