Stowe Boyd is something of a celebrity in social media circles. He describes his role as “Front Man for The /Messengers” and, with his confident smile, trademark beret and goatee beard, you could be forgiven for mistaking him for an ageing rock star. Stowe clearly loves the ambiguous play on all this.
“The /Messengers is not a band, although it sounds like one,” he writes on his website. “It’s just is the name I dreamed up for my consulting business back in 2007…I am often asked to bring in other consultants or organizations, which I do gladly and eagerly…I consider myself the front man of a constantly shifting collaborative network, a band of doers and thinkers, designers and developers. Sometimes it’s a solo act, sometimes a duo, and when needed a combo.”
Stowe is, first and foremost, a writer and his blog /Message has around 100,000 RSS subscribers. /Message is Stowe’s fourth blog. His previous blogs were hosted by Blogger, Corante and (the now defunct) Convey. He launched his first back in 1999, before the word ‘blog’ was even familiar to most people.
Sadly, all the content this original blog, Message From Edge City, was lost forever when the host company unexpectedly closed. But another piece of Stowe’s writing from 1999 lives on.
While putting together a newsletter item on a piece of chat software, Stowe unknowingly hit on a phrase that described what would grow to become a whole new class of app: that phrase, “social tools” is now common parlance in the online world.
“It [Abuzz Beehive, subsequently acquired by the New York Times] was a great product,” remembers Stowe. “A Twitter-style chat app using email – way before its time. It was a business tool, but it wasn’t about efficiency or number-crunching. It was about allowing a culture to emerge around sharing. That’s why I coined the term – to describe this new type of approach.”
We’re sitting in the Community Lounge at the Web 2.0 Expo Europe. All around us, MacBooks are humming and bloggers are tapping away. To the right, Frogpond aka Martin Koser is chatting on Jaiku and Twitter; to the left, information architect Johannes Kleske holds court (offline and no doubt on as well) with likeminded geeks.
Take a glimpse at any screen and you can see a whole range of social tools being used – Tweetdeck, Delicious, Dopplr and Xing are just some of the applications on display.
Thinking on this, I ask Stowe about Workstreamr, the start-up he recently founded with two other partners:
“It’s all about the notion of taking ideas of lifestreaming [broadcasting your life 24 hours a day – via either video or real-time updates of blogging, posting, tagging and any other online activity] and putting them into a work context.”
“Snackr, Twhirl, FriendFeed, Flickr, FeedMeme, Digg – this is why I say I need a 30” monitor, to watch all these different streams.”
I get this image of Stowe standing, like Tom Cruise out of Minority Report, in front of a giant screen of activity, furiously touching the surface to locate and pull down items as he needs them.
The sharp economic downturn has halted angel funding but Stowe hopes that the Workstreamr venture will be up and running again soon. Either way, he has plenty of other projects to keep himself occupied. One new piece of work is /ground – a new blog looking at how the web can solve global problems.
“At Reboot in June [where Stowe expressed concern about unfettered economic growth, rising populations and impending ecological catastrophe] I felt like Cassandra. My argument was that we can’t look to the people who’ve led us to the brink to get us out of this. The only tools we have are on the web. We have to look to web culture.”
I push him on what exactly he means by this – what are the implications are for business?
“I believe a new world order is coming. Businesses need to be more open, more porous, more transparent. They need to operate in a way that’s inspired by the web. Businesses need to be more deeply involved with the communities in which they find themselves. That’s a new imperative.
“The other side of this is that consumers will start voting with their feet. It [social media marketing] is so new that people don’t really know what to think of it. Are our business and political leaders really as ‘transparent’ as they make out? For example, the General Motors blog [GM FastLane – where GM executives write about GM products and services] doesn’t talk about real issues at all.
“Another example is John Edwards [the US presidential candidate who came third to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the recent democratic nominations]. He used Twitter, but when his campaign was over, and he’d lost, he didn’t even say ‘goodbye’ to his hundreds of followers.
“People like this are just using these active communities of people as a way to broadcast their message. It’s insincere at best and at worst, totally cynical and exploitative.”
Stowe firmly believes that, ultimately, people will realise that working together for the common good is way more satisfying than individual gain. In fact, he has come up with a name for this phenomenon – Boyd’s Law:
“People are decreasing their involvement in personal productivity. If people give up personal gain for just one moment – even just a minute of their personal time – the network as a whole is more productive. Look at the network effect of one person having a willingness to help.”
I presume by this Stowe means the increased value of a Flickr photo someone has tagged and is then found and used by a high school student, or of a Wikipedia article read and corrected by an expert, to give just two examples.
“We’re moving away from a money-driven, hard capital mindset to a gift-driven, social capital mindset,” says Stowe, and he nods his head in the direction of the geeks and bloggers around us, typing away at their keyboards.
“The people here will always trade personal productivity for network connectivity. Above all, they want to remain connected with the people who are important to them.”
With that, it’s time to get going to the bar – where networking will indeed trump personal productivity and the wily Stowe Boyd will, yet again, be proven right.