Social media can protect systems


Three recent posts have shared a common theme: systems failure.

In The Inevitable Collapse of Systems, failure comes about from adding increasing layers of complexity. To begin with, introducing more advanced capabilities can lead to dramatic improvements in a system. But those advanced capabilities then enable you to do more… and more… and more. And then you start stretching the system beyond its natural limits. Any financial organisation – be it a bank or a government – that spends more than it receives on the basis of predicted future earnings are increasing their risk of collapse. When the predictions are made on top of other predictions, the risk rises exponentially.

In Institutions will always resist change, failure comes from trying to prevent a system from changing.The media industry is the current most obvious example. Few people have the luxury of being paid a recurring license for their work. The carpenter is not entitled to a fee every time someone sits on the chair, let alone when they resell it on eBay. For a moment in time, it was possible to control distribution of popular music. An industry arose and profited well from those conditions. Now the conditions have changed.

In The best person in the job? people are beginning to question whether or not we need more diversity at the top of systems, where the decisions get made. The UK government is facing an election. Just before parliament was dissolved to begin the election process, a bunch of new legislations were rushed through and approved, without proper debate and many of the 300 MPs – the people doing the voting on behalf of 60 million people who will be affected by the legislation – saying they don’t understand the content of what they are voting on. That is not a good sign.

Systems collapse when you either try to stretch them beyond their natural boundaries, or you try to create artificial boundaries to contain them and bend them to your will. History shows either strategy carries a high risk of catastrophic failure. History also shows it tends to be a small group of people making the decisions that affect so many others.

Enter social media.

…it’s astonishing that the Twitter data is so basic but powerful compared to the teeming complexity of the HSX prediction market; there, bettors typically rely on lots of variables, such as Hollywood’s voluminous exit polls and focus group results, and intuitions about past performance, which the market then aggregates.

That quote is from a recent article on about how simply tracking the words thousands of people are using on Twitter can help predict the success of a film as accurately as a complicated algorithm developed a few experts.

…you don’t need a hit to survive. ¬†There is a place in the middle, that is not very far away from the tail, where you can at least make a living. That mid-way haven is called 1,000 True Fans. It is an alternate destination for an artist to aim for.

That quote is from Kevin Kelly’s 1’000 True Fans. Whilst it focuses on The Long Tail economic model that applies to most forms of media, it talks about the dirty little secret the Music Publishing Industry doesn’t want to discuss. That artists can make a good enough living if they are good at what they are do, just like everyone else, without needing a recording deal. (Hat tip to Ian Blyth for tipping me off about this statistic whilst sharing a fine bottle of wine ūüôā )

Anyone can propose a particular bill or piece of legislation. If enough signatories are gathered, it is automatically put to an online vote, and if carried, parliament is compelled to discuss it. There is no obligation for MPs to vote for or against the motion, but they are compelled to discuss and vote on the subject, guaranteeing that an issue that is popular cannot be ignored.

That quote is from the January edition of Wired UK – Let’s Reboot Britain – which discussed various suggestions for improving the country’s prospects. The quote is from an article by Jamie Murray Wells who proposed four ideas for making government a little more democratic, as opposed to just being democratically elected.

All three quotes are from ideas involving social media.

The power of social media is that people are finding their voices, regardless of status.¬†That diverse range of thought and opinion can be connected and tapped into in ways that were inconceivable barely a decade ago. Systems that learn how to leverage social media when making fundamental decisions will be far better protected from failure than those that don’t.

Institutions will always resist change

This is a follow on to the previous post: The Inevitable Collapse of Systems. Clay Shirky recently quoted (posted by Kevin Kelly but without a link, naughty Kevin!):

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

This is along the same lines as the great quote by Nicholas Machiavelli back in the 16th Century:

There is nothing more perilous to conduct, more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in introducing a new order of things, because the innovator will have for enemies all who have done well under the old conditions, and only lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

The trouble with challenging institutions is the power they wield to help protect and maintain their position, and the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) they will generate about anything new that threatens their comfortable existence. As being ably demonstrated by the music publishing industry. Those who profited from the old conditions would have everyone believe music creativity is dying because of new conditions created by the Internet (i.e. illegal downloads). Watching the recent music awards on TV (US and UK), there are no such signs. People were creating and performing music long before publishing industry came along and will continue to do so no matter what the financial rewards. It is not creativity that is dying, it is the ability to generate money that is being challenged. And here we are in the UK, facing a hastily written Digital Economy bill aimed at protecting an industry’s distorted revenue model.

It is not the fittest or the strongest of species that survive but the one most adaptable to change. – Darwin

When institutions are able to persuade governments to try and protect their status at any cost, they are using their strength to delay the need to adapt. And that presents a huge risk for everyone, because creating legislation or spending tax to prevent change shows all the signs of an economic system heading towards collapse.

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. – W. Edwards Deming

Why do we need music albums? We don’t and we never did. They were invented by the music publishing industry because it is easier to make profits from selling albums than singles. That was possible under the old conditions. It isn’t so easy under the new. But with change brings opportunity. If you are selling albums, you only need to support a few performers and are only interested in the ones that generate easy album sales. Now that I buy mostly singles, I purchase from a far more diverse range of performers, often discovered from hearing or watching them online. Well done iTunes, Spotify and YouTube! No surprise that none were the invention of a music publishing company.

Illegal music downloads are wrong. But focusing on piracy and trying to claim it is damaging creativity when what it is really damaging is abnormal wealth that was only possible under the old conditions is FUD that diverts attention away from the industry’s resistance to change.

[Update: 08 Apr 10] Too funny to not include as an update. Just days after rushing through the Digital Economy Bill without proper debate, the two main political parties are both accused of copyright infringement for not asking permission before using images from a TV series as part of their election posters: Labour and Conservative parties accused of copyright infringement


Related blog posts

You cannot walk in another’s shoes

There’s an abundance of great new talks up on the TED web site, following the most recent conference in February 2010. One gem was delivered by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner in behavioural economics.

The riddle of experience vs memory

Early in the talk, an example is given to demonstrate the difference between what we experience and what we choose to remember:

A man described how he had been listening to a glorious symphony. At the very end, there was a dreadful screeching sound – “It ruined the whole experience”. But it hadn’t. What it had ruined was the memory of the experience.

The talk centres on the difference between what we remember and what we actually experienced, and it’s impact on our happiness. Six years ago, Dan Gilbert, author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ delivered a very similar talk. His approach came from the other side – what we expect to experience versus what we actually do experience. He challenged the¬†the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want or things don’t go as planned.

Why are we happy?

A powerful example from this talk:

Given a choice between winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic within the next 12 months, which would make you happy? When we simulate this, the choice seems obvious. The reality, taken from real-world data, is that both lottery winners and paraplegics are happy. Winning or losing in any situation have far less impact than people expect them to have…

Whilst both talks focus on self, our flawed assumptions about happiness can have worse consequences when we apply our assumptions to somebody else. We think we can imagine life in another’s shoes. Both talks above demonstrate that we cannot.

Hidden Project Requirements…

Back in 2003 I was presenting to the SharePoint product group, providing customer feedback from beta testing of what was to become SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (SPS 2003). The first version of SharePoint (SPS 2001) had plenty of shortcomings that led to a massive re-write. But re-writing involved eliminating a number of features completely and they were parked for later release (some have still yet to reappear…) One of my slides went along the following lines:

“Last year, customers were complaining how bad the workflow is in SPS 2001 ¬†…Now that you’ve removed it, they’re saying it’s great and want it back”

People didn’t hate workflow, they loved the idea of it (the simulation) and hated how it worked (the actual experience) to the point nobody had a good word to say about it. But removing the feature completely caused all sorts of headaches at the time (the memory was suddenly a lot rosier).

The type of projects I work on usually involve introducing technology that will change the way people work. But change goes in both directions. People’s behaviour will influence how effective (or not) the technology is. Hence the interest in behavioural economics. At the start of a project I’ll often hear comments like: ‘Users will never use this feature’, ‘They won’t work that way’ or ‘They don’t need to know…’ But we never know for certain what will happen until people actually start using the technology.¬†It’s why I prefer to get organisations to prototype ideas before going for full-scale project implementations. After the initial statements about what users do and don’t do and will and won’t like, projects often head down the road of ‘Now that I see it, it isn’t what I want’ or ‘Didn’t know it could do that…’ or ‘Never thought that would be useful…’ Prototypes offer a glimpse into the actual experience – you wear the shoes instead of remembering the worn out pair or trying to imagine what a different pair would feel like to walk in.

You’ll melt your brain

Another re:post worth sharing. Cultural Offering covers yet another article claiming computers and the Internet are ruining our brains – You’ll melt your brain.

The post includes a couple of great quotes:

“Will Twitter make us communicate in 140 characters or less? Not a bad idea, now that I ponder it”

I’ve written about these concerns before. Baroness Susan Greenfield is particularly vocal about how terrible the Internet is for our brains. See Do Books Matter? and Misleading Analogies. What frustrates me the most is that she is supposed to be a professional academic. Instead of predicting doom and gloom for our brains and spouting off opinions about people who use technology (in a recent interview, she dismissed people who use Twitter as the sort of person who likes to tell their mommy they’ve changed their socks, in an old interview she assumed teenagers flirting over the Internet are averse to human contact “eewww fluids”), come up with some unbiased evidence and fact-based research. In Do Books Matter? I questioned how someone like Baroness Susan Greenfield would have reacted to the invention of writing. Cultural Offering goes one better and comes up with a quote to show this is not the first time in history experts have reacted negatively to new technology:

“…he [Plato] says that if we depend on writing, we will lose the ability to remember”

Click Here to read the full post.


Web 2.0 will thrive but not yet a while

When economies started to collapse in the second half of this year, many blog posts cropped up heralding the death of Web 2.0. I think Web 2.0 will thrive in this economic downturn. Just not yet.

The sort of start-up that has a wafer-thin business model overly dependent on advertising will struggle and many will disappear (and quite a few won’t be missed). Investment in new ideas will become much harder to secure. But Web 2.0 is about more than creating a widget, tagging a picture or poking a friend.

Web 2.0 has yet to scratch the surface of business processes. Whilst consumer habits have changed dramatically since 2000, most organisations internally still look the same. And so they will continue during most of 2009. Going into a recession, the instinctive reaction is to freeze. Stop doing anything and wait to see what happens. Few people would start a new project or reinvent how they do business at this moment in time. And those who would ought to think twice. However, once we are well and truly up to our necks in recession (what we see right now is just the beginning), then businesses will start to rethink the management and processes that led us down down this path. It is at that point that Web 2.0 has the potential to play a significant role.

In short, the next few months will undoubtedly bring more doom and gloom stories about Web 2.0 and related technologies (let alone everything else going on in the world). But the wise will use this time to get organised for when the shock of the recession eases and people start paying serious attention to what happens next.

Technorati tags: Web 2.0 | Enterprise 2.0

Intelligent Reaction

Adam Bosworth key note @ Conference, September 2005

The talk has been posted on the web and referenced in Adam Bosworth’s blog. Talking about new models for building software applications. This is the short version:

Old model

Create an n-year plan to build a platform, write APIs that partners can use to write applications on top of your platform. You decide what features will be provided to customers, in the future. Examples: Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, SAP

New model

No grand plan. Release the initial application and watch what customers do with it. Observe and tweak the system. Build APIs when customers demand more from the application. Customers decide what features they need, today. Examples: Google, eBay,, Amazon.

Intelligent Reaction vs. Intelligent Design

Intelligent reaction = reacting to, and building, what people need, rather than planning and designing what you think they will need. Solutions built this way won’t be perfect… nothing in the real world ever is. But these applications will keep evolving in real-time driven by market demands.

nb: Adam Bosworth used to work at Microsoft and now works at Google.


Filed in library under: Talks

Advanced Savers

I try to use trains a lot (even more so now, thanks to rising fuel prices) and there is one pattern in particular that really irritates me. Regardless of train operator, it appears all ticket collectors have been on the same ‘How to reduce your passenger levels’ training course.

The announcement overheard today went along the lines (the train was about to depart the station):

“If you have an Advanced Saver ticket, it must be for this train. The departure time will be printed on your ticket. If your ticket is for a different time it will not be valid. You will be required to purchase a new ticket for this journey if you choose to stay on the train.”

In other words, get off the damn train if you bought a cheap ticket and it wasn’t for this time.

Now, to be fair, the rules are pretty clear when you purchase Advanced Saver tickets. But here’s the irony. This train was the last one before rush hour started. There were all of 5 people in my carriage. Why oh why would the train operator want to throw people off an empty train? It creates the double-whammy of saving nothing (the reduced weight is unlikely to make a dent on the amount of fuel used to run the train) and potentially adding to over-crowding on the next train, exacerbated by a bunch of pissed off customers.

By all means, have the rule. But for goodness sake, allow the ticket collectors to use their brains. If the train is empty, turn a blind eye. Gently remind the passenger about the rules and make it clear that an exception can be made this time only because the train isn’t full. You have happy customers and more space available on the next train, which might be busier than yours. If the train is full, enforce the rule to the letter. That’s only fair to those who have paid for tickets specifically for this train.

I love what technology can do to make systems better. But oh so often, there are simple changes you can make to improve services, sales and profits. And they cost nothing at all.

Re-humanising organisations

The title of this post came whilst reading ‘We-Think‘ by Charles Leadbetter. There’s a rush of books out at the moment, describing how the Internet and related technologies are disrupting many systems by enabling people to form groups from the bottom-up and disrupt the traditional top-down hierarchy of order. Others include: ‘Here Come Everybody‘ by Clay Shirky, ‘Wikinomics‘ by Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams, and ‘Groundswell‘ by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff.

Working within organisations, large and small, you often see a curious phenomena. Some peers, when moved into management positions, would come back from their ‘management 101’ training with a whole new chip upgrade. They would talk about being part of the bigger picture, patiently explaining how time-consuming processes, previously intolerable, were actually a valuable performance management tool (aka manager’s time- and butt-saving device). At the extreme, some would actively disassociate themselves from their former peers. They now moved in higher circles… All quite hilarious when working in a knowledge-dependent environment. The car park usually requires more management than the team.

It’s the corporate version of military officer training, creating a command-and-control hierarchy.

Command-and-control involves treating those not in control as cannon fodder (literally, in the past). Officers plan, soldiers do. The business equivalent are managers and ‘human resources’. I have never understood why the Personnel department was renamed HR. It de-humanises the workplace. When you look at companies that have benefited from Web 2.0 trends and technologies, they share a common trait. A flatter networked organisation, giving everyone the opportunity to be involved and contribute. Individual talents are encouraged, not ignored because they don’t fit the standard job description. People have fun at work, including the boss! Management is still an essential requirement and skill. But the skill is in speeding up and directing the flow of information, not restricting it. Perhaps the best effect of ‘Enterprise 2.0’ will be to help re-humanise organisations.

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