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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The recent Supernova Conference in Palo Alto explored the theme of decentralization – of the networks, software, communications, and media. So many of the attendees were bloggers that it’s easy to get a good feel for the conference and content through what they wrote. As attendees reported, the clicking of keyboards throughout conference sessions testified to the live logging of ideas and impressions. The conference set up a group weblog, with another list of conference blogs here. Salon.com also had a good article. In many ways, the theme of decentralization is that of the living networks. Emergent behaviours come from the unstructured combination of many participants. Open source software, distributed innovation, and peer-to-peer content distribution are just some of the examples. One of the key issues discussed at the conference was the postulated emerging “end-to-end” nature of networks. Connectivity – the pipes provided by telcos – will be dumb, and the value-added activities provided at the ends. Web services can be applied not just in application integration, but to making everyone’s touchpoint to the networks encapsulate highly customized functionality.
Aaargh! Being on the road means I’m getting stimulated by lots of very interesting stuff, but it’s hard to find a moment free to blog it. I’ll try to get a few things down… Last week I got dragged in at the last moment as a pinch-hitter to speak at the KMWorld (Knowledge Management) conference, the largest in the field in the US, in San Jose. It was in the “ROI and Measuring Value” stream, which is not what I spent most of my time on, so I decided to title my talk “A Financial Markets Perspective on Intellectual Capital”. The KM crowd don’t tend to get exposed to finanial markets thinking much, so it’s worth giving some insight into how investors view non-financial or intangible indicators. The story in a nutshell is that it has become increasingly obvious that non-financial indicators are vital in getting an accurate picture of the value of a company. Employee turnover and changes in customer loyalty are just two examples of a myriad of things that investors would very likely want to know, but don’t get told.
Over the last 10 years many have attempted to build models that take into account these intangible indicators. After spending a lot of time several years ago looking closely at these issues, and talking with the top people in the field, I came to the conclusion that there was no simple answer. The heart of the issue is that investors use different valuation models—that is they assess the value of intangibles differently. That’s what makes a market. Steven Wallman, who was then SEC commissioner and now runs the very interesting customized mutual fund service foliofn, stated it clearly. Currently financial reports aggregate all of the vast amount of information inside a company. What is required is a shift to disaggregation of that information, so it is all available to everyone, who can then choose to aggregate it into the financial models of their choice. We have yet to see whether companies, large investors, or regulators will drive this shift, but 10 years is the sort of timeframe we have to expect for it to happen. What could help accelerate this dramatically is XBRL (eXtensible Business Reporting Language), which is an XML-based standard for financial reporting that I discuss in Living Networks. This makes it very easy for analysts to take financial information into their own models. A recent study showed that analysts accounted for stock options in reports more accurately if they were presented in XBRL format rather than in a PDF. The beauty of XBRL is that it is extensible, so it can easily be used to report on non-financial indicators as well as financial ones. XBRL offers the promise of disaggregating information flows in company reporting. Investors will be far better informed, and be able to make decisions based on what is actually happening in the company. Earlier this week I met the executives at the American Institute of CPAs who are driving XBRL. They believe it will be far harder for the Enrons of this world to get away with what they did in an XBRL world. Companies will be far more transparent. And a little further down the track, we will shift to real-time reporting, when you can see what is happening in a company as it happens rather than two months after the end of the quarter. It’s hard to exaggerate the potential impact on how business is done. I will post my slides from my KMWorld presentation in the next couple of weeks, with a link from this article.