A cultural revolution

Had a great time at the London Twestival last Thursday but – like most others – strangely didn’t spend the night blogging, tweeting or texting about it (though I did manage to take some pics).

Luckily The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss recorded some voxpops so even if you weren’t there, you can get a flavour of the evening.

My fave quote has to be from Alex Hoye, CEO of digital agency, Latitude, talking about getting used to using Twitter:

“One of the first struggles I had was that my work persona, my home persona and my family persona all had to be one and the same and initially that meant some filtering – and there is some filtering in there – but on the other hand it means that you’re actually more natural in all three now which is a real cultural revolution in some ways.”

Social convergence in action – love it!


CEOs faceless on Facebook

“All these work-related conversations are taking place on Facebook, and the CEOs are missing out!”

Sofia Quintero almost spits out her coffee with impatience. She’s been studying for an MA in media and communications at London Metropolitan University and has just handed in her dissertation – on Facebook at work.

For the paper, she interviewed five CEOs from different sectors – and uncovered this disconnect:

“They allow their employees to use Facebook, but they see it as ‘oh, something that the kids do’. They won’t ‘friend’ or be ‘friended’ by the people they work with. They keep their profiles separate. But what’s the point of that?”

We’re sitting in the new Tinderbox cafe, in Angel, North London, on a chilly Friday afternoon at the tail end of January. All around us, people have got their laptops, Blackberries and i-phones out, hooked up to the wifi, working, social networking and generally communicating.

“Social convergence is a reality – why don’t they see it?”

I’ve never thought about the term “social convergence” in the simplistic context of public/private before, but I like it. The faster we work, the more we need simplicity.

Blogger Rob Vanasco put his finger on the problem in a recent post:

“People want more and more to bring their data together to one central, easy to use place. However, people also want to be able to separate their data for their friends, family, co-workers, potential employers, and online acquaintances.”

And Rob goes on to give a good example:

“Someone heavy into the tech industry who uses Twitter, or a service like it, might not want their Twitter post automatically updating their Facebook feed. Their family and friends might not want to be inundated with post after post about what article they are reading, up to the date tech news, or what sites they’ve just bookmarked or added to their RSS feed. This could potentially turn their friends/family off to reading their updates, and could be a good way to lose friends on social networks. “

He adds that “contacts on Linkedin don’t need to see “party pictures” or your latest mobile uploads of your child’s first haircut.”

But as home-working, flexi-working and other work/life hybrids become the norm, surely the hard and fast division of work/social personas is increasingly irrelevant?

We’ve already seen this happen: post the dotcom crash of 2000/1, there was an explosion in laptop use in coffee bars – back then it seemed to signify you were either a student who’d been thrown out of the library or someone who’d just been made redundant (from your hi-tech start-up) and was filling out applications online. Now laptop, coffee/green tea and jeans looks positively modern and industrious. The fact you’re not wearing a suit is neither here nor there. But it’s taken a while for that to change.

I’m convinced that the same will happen with the traditional “line you cross at your peril” that defines the employee/boss relationship.

Like Sofia, I think we’re going to see an increasing number of bosses lowering their defences on Facebook – even if it involves taking up multiple profiles.

Metanoia Openness

Things can only get louder!

NESTA’s shiny glass and chrome offices on the edge of the City of London are rather swanky. It’s a bit like finding yourself in an uber-stylish wedding, one of Anouska Hempel’s boutique hotels or, possibly, the latest series of Battlestar Galactica.

Black Arne Jacobsen chairs are set off by white walls, white drapes and white orchids. Plush grey carpets muffle your feet (although no need as everyone’s in trainers). You can almost hear the doors swish as you step out of the lifts. The meeting rooms for break-outs have round walls and are known as ‘pods’.

Needless to say, the 160 guests who’ve just arrived seem to take to this 21st century environment like proverbial ducks to water. The auditorium is a sea of gently humming i-phones, laptops and digital cameras as people blog, tweet, message and record each other with all the earnestness of a roomful of children writing notes for Santa.

We’re here for Amplified08, the brainchild of Toby Moores and Mike Atherton. Bouyed up by the confidence around social media in London, and un-deterred (in fact, positively spurred on) all the talk of credit crunch Christmas and looming recession, Toby and Mike have decided we’re in a ‘perfect storm’ for change.

Toby estimates that around 2,000 people in London, maybe 10,000 across the UK believe that social media has the potential to create a positive difference in people’s lives. Amplified08 aims to harness that conviction by holding a series of ‘unconferences’ across the country – visiting a different UK city every three months, and culminating in a massive event in Summer 2010.

As Toby says: “If we, quarter by quarter, region by region, build it, we’re going to be able to change the way things are done.”

Most of the delegates seem to enjoy the spirit of evangelical optimism, others mumble about “hippy rubbish”. It’s possible we’ve become part of a cult, but then no-one has parted with a large amount of money or disowned their family…yet.

The way unconferences work is that it’s up to the audience to decide the agenda and put on the sessions (which works great if you’re not paying, not so well if you are). Half the fun is outside of the sessions where you’re meant to network like crazy, preferably with people you don’t know (difficult in social media settings as its always the same hard core who show up).

Amplified08 has the additional twist in that we’re urged to go to sessions we wouldn’t normally go to. I start off with #15: Dynamic practice interfaces for local government (business case), followed by #23 Young People and Social Media and #06 Bretton Woods II (okay I admit that last one excites me, but it’s getting late).

In the boardroom, @stephendale is talking about knowledge management in local government. His take on existing KM systems? “Knowledge being captured in a web repository is where knowledge goes to die”. Steve’s efforts to build a workable wiki for best practice across the UK’s 400 odd local councils are admirable. As always with these things, the real issue will be not so much the technology per se but getting people to actually interact fruitfully with the thing once it’s up and running. Calling it an ‘efficiency library’ (though I like the term) may not be the way forward.

Over in the Faraday pod, chairing the session on youth, @digitalmaverick (aka Drew Buddie) tells us he’s recently had “an epiphany” through using Twitter. Drew teaches ICT at a comprehensive in Hertfordshire and has nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter. Making contact with hundreds of people across the world, whether it’s to discuss technology or share recipes, seems to re-affirm his belief in the general good of human nature.

Inspired by Dave Eggers’ legendary TEDtalk, Drew wants to do something for children using social media that really engages them and produces positive results. All around the room, there are general gripes and moans about the way the education system (in the UK at least) doesn’t address social media properly or, indeed, seem to take it seriously.

Drew mentions that, despite the stereotype of young people revealing everything about themselves online, sometimes anonymity is preferred. He produced a collaborative play where pupils of all ages contributed lines and characters. When he offered to throw a party so all the cast could meet each other in person, the pupils refused – they liked the fact that a grade 11 was working alongside a grade 6 but completely unaware of the fact – that anonymity actually enhanced the creative process because there were no pre-conceptions about what each party was capable of.

@simonperry is concerned about children growing up online and being unaware of the “digital shadow” they leave. I’ve never heard this term before but google it and find out it was coined in an EMC report earlier this year and refers to the data you unintentionally leave about yourself as you browse, make purchases or are filmed on security cameras. The shadow makes up a part of your digital footprint – the mass of digital information there is about you, including email, social-networking, blog posts etc.

@antoniogould points out that personal information you actively leave eg in social networks can be just as damaging as unintentional information. He recalls the story told by Danah Boyd of a young black man who passed the Oxbridge entrance exams but was rejected because of the derogatory anguage he used on his MySpace profile.

@philoakley thinks it’s ridiculous that Microsoft’s hold on schools (as the main supplier of software) means that issues such as open source simply don’t get taught or discussed. Why are kids being taught to use pc-based Word and Excel, he asks, when open source and cloud computing is more important to the future of the web?

Another contributor whose name I failed to get refers to the web as “the eternal memory of our indiscretions”, which turns out to be a nice term used by academics Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross (Carnegie Mellon University) to describe the nature of social networks.

The final session on Bretton Woods is the liveliest. Taking his cue from World Bank President Robert Zoellick’s suggestion that we need “a Facebook for multilateral economic diplomacy“, @paulmassey wants to know if any of us have a new perspective on solving the global financial crisis.

Comments veer from the indignant (“Governments are pushing immense amounts of money into these very ill patients…the market is saying ‘this is dead!’) through the reflective (“The idea of a social stock exchange is interesting…”) to the blatantly optimistic (“If we had a few top notch developers and a few lawyers we could develop something great and hand it to the UN!).

No firm conclusions are reached but everyone agrees the conversation is worth continuing – the hashtag #bw2 is born.

With that, we all break for wine and olives. It feels a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

Randomness, connectivity, serendipity…these are all themes of Amplified08. I met a lot of good people and learnt interesting things. The sharing and openness is great (although yes, that could all change once big money is involved), but for now the momentum seems positive. Roll on Amplified09!


The novelty has worn off, we’re now in a period of consolidation

Richard Sambrook is sitting in his office on the first floor of Bush House, television blaring. It’s 6th November, the day after the US election result has been declared and the BBC’s World News channel is going into overdrive, broadcasting minute by minute reports of President-elect Barack Obama’s every move – or so it seems.

This is the sort of character-filled room that you imagine should be featured in The Observer magazine’s My Space series. Cartoon caricatures mix with modern art on the walls. A large comfy maroon sofa sprawls at one end of the office, a relatively-contained network of high tech communications (plasma screen, laptop, TV monitor, fax) at the other.

Richard himself seems pretty relaxed, given that the last few days must have been hectic. As Director of the BBC’s Global News division, Richard is in charge of all the BBC’s international news services, across radio, television and digital media. Guiding and monitoring the US presidential election coverage in 32 different languages can’t be easy.

Before we meet, I check Richard’s blog to see how things have been going. Maybe not surprisingly, there’s been a bit of a lull – the most recent post is 29th October, over a week ago. 

Richard readily admits he’s not posting quite as frequently as he was when his first internal blog launched in 2004. Back then, he was the first senior manager at the BBC to do such a thing. 

“I’d moved into my new role and I thought it would be an interesting communications tool. The BBC can be very insular and inward-looking. It’s not just about journalism. I wanted to communicate with the new staff. After about three months I was getting 6,000 unique visitors each month. People I didn’t know would stop me and talk to me in the corridor, just because they’d read something of interest on the blog.”

“Part of it was learning about digital media and social media. Blogging is a way of getting to understand the dynamics, how it all works.”

Richard is refreshingly honest about the four things that bothered him at the outset. His editor’s head identified drawbacks from the start: 

  1. Am I going to be taken to task for something I write?
  2. Am I going to offend a specific constituency or community?
  3. Is anyone going to be interested?
  4. Can I do it?

While he found the blog relatively easy to write, he was concerned about the way his audience would react:

“Being a journalist, the actual writing wasn’t a problem. Finding a personal tone was. As well as issues like transparency, honesty and frankness. If you take all the contentious stuff out, will it be interesting?”

So far, the most awkward moment was during a dispute between the BBC and the unions:

“I said the only way through is negotation. And then found out the official BBC position is not to negotiate.”

Hmm. So would he extol the virtues of blogging to all senior managers?

“I wouldn’t say everyone should do it. It only works for some people. You need to get the right mix of informality and openness. Otherwise it won’t work. It’s good to have a very clear purpose, to see if you can open discussion and dialogue that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

“For example, last year I talked about advertising on the BBC World Service website (outside the UK). A small number of staff felt strongly about it and voiced their opinions on the blog – I wouldn’t have found out otherwise.”

When Richard went to his bosses with the idea of setting up a blog, they must have thought they were relatively safe. After all, to use an old cliché, Richard is a BBC man through and through – he joined the organisation in 1980 as a sub-editor in the radio newsroom (after training as  journalist with Thomson Regional Newspapers) and worked his way up the ranks, becoming News Editor and head of newsgathering, then Director, BBC News, before moving onto his current role. Plus, they must have hoped Richard’s editorial experience should create some kind of Pavlov’s dog-type reaction if he ever thought about writing anything too close to the edge.

“Initially their attitude [the bosses] was, ‘that’s novel’. But I think they were generally very happy for someone like me to do it.”

In 2006, two years after launching the internal blog, Richard moved his ideas into the public domain with the launch of Sacred Facts on Typepad. The site now averages around 2,000 visitors a month.

“Because I’d already done it inside and they [the bosses] had seen my blog, it was okay. They clearly thought that I, more than anyone, should know the risks.”

Richard was Director, BBC News, in May 2003 when BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ran a report claiming that the British Government had knowingly exaggerated claims over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in a dossier published in 2002. The government’s vehement rebuking of the accusations levied by the report led to a British judicial inquiry, chaired by Lord Hutton, and eventual resignations of the BBC’s Chairman and Director-General.

“Part of my experience of going through the weapons of mass destruction incident motivated me. If I’d been blogging at that time, it would have been an opportunity to say something, to speak out against the spin – although the corporate line would have been tight.”

I ask him what he thinks about the current storm raging over the BBC – the whole furore around the – some would say cheeky, others offensive – telephone calls made by Russell Brand and Johnathan Ross to actor, Andrew Sachs.

Admittedly entertainment is not Richard’s milieu, and he won’t be drawn, saying, diplomatically: “I’d only want to say something that adds value”.

Sacred Facts has clearly given Richard a great feel for social media. As all of you out there will know, BBC News has an impressive presence across digital media, and Richard is looking for the next big thing to develop.

“The novelty [of social media] has worn off; we’re now in a period of consolidation. 2006 was the year of Facebook. Now, I’m on Twitter more than anything else. But it’s not so much professional. It’s more a back-channel to a group of friends who are interested in the same stuff. Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Seesmic, Threads, 12seconds, Qik – all have a BBC presence. It’s all experimentation, all extending our journalistic reach. We don’t get a huge amount of feedback.”

So, go on – he works hard – make Richard’s day and give him a comment!


Like water finds its level

There’s no doubt Horsesmouth is going to be a success. First, it’s a great idea. Second, founder MT Rainey has run a few businesses, and won enough awards, in her time.

After studying psychology at Glasgow University, MT (short for Mary Teresa) took an MSc, then worked in advertising in the late 70s, moving to LA to work for the seminal agency Chiat/Day.

She made her mark planning the launch of the world’s first Apple Mac in 1984. And moved up the ranks before being asked to set up Chiat/Day London in 1989. She was voted UK Advertising’s Woman of The Year the following year.

In 1993, she founded her own agency, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, which soon secured top name clients such as Virgin Group, Land Rover and M&S. In 1999, the company was acquired by WPP and merged with Young & Rubicam. MT stayed as joint CEO of RKCR/ Y&R for four years, and then became chair.

In 2005, she left to set up her first social enterprise – Horsesmouth.

And this is where we are now. Sitting in a large, comfortably-furnished room in the Horsesmouth offices, tucked under the eaves of an eighteenth century building in Soho’s Golden Square, on a darkening, chilly November afternoon.

“I became very excited about the power of social media while everyone else was preoccupied with the dotcom boom of Web 2.0,” says MT. “I knew it had great potential…if I’ve learnt anything in life, it’s that everything communicates. There’s a frustration when communication is blocked – social media finds a way.”

The comment makes me think of water. And its ubiquitous, essential, life-bearing properties.

If there’s one thing Horsesmouth enables, it’s hearts-on-sleeves, in-your-face communication. Horsesmouth is a mentoring site – a giant, interactive agony column, helping people share knowledge about life, love, work, whatever else concerns them.

Anyone can register, everyone is anonymous, and the idea is that while you may sign up to get advice, your own life experience can enable you, in turn, to help others.

It’s a virtuous circle, and one which, in true Web 2.0 fashion, makes use of network effects – becoming more useful, more relevant, as the number of users grows.

“On Horsesmouth people bare their souls but it’s not attached to their identity,” says MT. “I can be more authentic if my identity is private. We see people coming across as very liberated on the site – because they can’t be judged.”

Launched in January 2008, the site now has 13,000 registered users and gets 100,000 unique page views a month. Each person lists three topics they can help with, so in theory 40,000 topics are possible.

Horsesmouth is growing slowly, organically by word of mouth (none of your Facebook-esque ‘invite friends’ tactics here). MT wants people to sign up because they’re motivated, not simply because an invite from someone they know has landed in their inbox.

“10,000 was a critical mass for coming up with a result on any search term – now we can do that,” she says, with pride.

The site provides an interesting mirror on society. Since September, they’ve noticed a change in the big themes: ‘Enterprise’, ‘debt’ and ‘relationship stress’ now represent the most popular key words, according to MT.

Working with visionaries such as Steve Jobs and Jay Chiat, and as an excellent strategic planner herself, MT is clearly happiest a few steps ahead of the curve. So, what’s her advice to businesses considering social media as a tool?

“Businesses think it’s happening ‘out there’, that it’s social, that it’s not meaningful. They see it as outside mainstream commerce, but it isn’t.”

“One of the challenges with so much chatter is that you have to sift through it. There’s too much information. Take Tesco Club Cards, for example. You get a negative spiral of irrelevance. Just because I bought nappies doesn’t mean I’m going to buy soup. Companies shouldn’t worry about all that. The web is universal ubiquity combined with pinpoint relevance.”

Above all, she stresses it’s important to accommodate – not ignore – the conversations taking place:

“If people make a negative comment online, then at least it’s out there and everyone can deal with it…Social media can demonise and victimise but that can be dealt with. It isn’t primarily bad or unsafe. Good leaders will be competent. They’ll deal with it.”


It’s like changing tyres on a car going 60 miles an hour!

One of my favourite texts at A level was Howards End. A key theme of the book is the pastoral versus the mechanistic. In E.M Forster’s Britain, 100 years ago, the industrial age was at its peak.

By the end of the nineteeth century, an extensive rail network had been built across Britain (interestingly, the expansion of the network caused popular protest not dissimilar to that provoked by the expansion of the UK’s airport terminals today). The first flight in an aeroplane by the Wright Brothers had taken place in 1903. And the large scale manufacturing of motor cars had begun with the introduction of production lines for the Oldsmobile in 1902.

But the ability to travel at high speed was still an anathema to many. People needed to be taught how to look out of the carriages of trains. And, right up until the end of the century, cars were not even permitted on the roads in the UK unless someone walked a few feet ahead of them, waving a red flag.

The sense of unease is reflected in the feelings of Forster’s Howards End’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel, who sees cars and motoring as symbolic of all that is brash and insensitive in a new, more prosaic world. Forster uses typical irony to show Margaret’s distaste as she’s forced to travel in a car:

 “She looked at the scenery. It heaved and merged like porridge. Presently it congealed. They had arrived.” (p.199)

Fast forward 100 years and the theme of nature versus machine is increasingly pertinent – but in ways that Forster and his fellow Edwardians could hardly have imagined.

Three of the world’s biggest car companies, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, face potential bankruptcy. Market capitalisations and profits have collapsed in the last few months as sales have hit a dramatic low.

The high price of oil, coupled with environmental concerns, has caused a sudden slump in demand for the large, ‘gas guzzling’ cars which the American ‘Big 3’ have excelled in producing. The banking crisis means credit – for companies as well as consumers – is increasingly hard to come by.

It’s 13 November 2008, and I’m reading through recent headlines; the outlook is bleak:

100 days to save the American car industry (Guardian)

Ford and Chrysler resort to new model price cuts (Financial Times)

The end of Detroit: Shape up or ship out (Economist)

US motor industry: the great breakdown (Independent)

Detroit’s big three near the brink (Time)

At Ford, Scott Monty may not be able to save the US car industry single-handedly by using social media, but he’s sure as hell trying.

A few months ago Scott was one of four at Crayon, a tiny (but reputable) digital marketing agency. Now he’s filing a newly-created role at Ford where he’s essentially responsible for the communications behaviour of over 4,000 people.

When Scott speaks to me on the phone from Detroit, he’s typically upbeat:

“The Ford way of doing things is putting our heads down and moving forward with our plans. Alan Mulally [Ford’s new CEO] spent a great deal of time pulling together a team and we’ll put together our plan with or without financial help from government. At the same time we’re also having to support existing projects, it’s like changing tyres on a car going at 60 miles an hour!”

Scott is tasked with creating a social media strategy which will then be a roadmap to help Ford become “a leader in digital communications four or five years from now”. In the meantime, he’s continuing to launch digital marketing campaigns/tools such as Mustang Stories and Ford’s new media relations site.

So, times are hard and cutbacks are inevitable, wasn’t there the slightest bit of resentment when you walked in the door?

“I was completely thrilled at how receptive people were to social media. It was like, wow, you’re finally here!”

In an email follow-up (there’s room for improvement in SkypeOut’s transatlantic connectivity), Scott agrees the current climate isn’t ideal:

“We’re fortunate that social media is not as heavy in production costs, but we’re also aware that we’re constrained by human capital. We’ll do our best to continue the efforts.”

And he suggests the sort of tools that Ford might be using:

“With the advent of many of these social sharing tools through mainstream technology such as Google Docs and wikis, I think there’s natural interest internally. And when you look at enterprise solutions like Microsoft’s Sharepoint, there are ways that more cohesive teamwork is being fostered right now.”

Back on the phone from Detroit, Scott clearly feels he has genuine support from the top of the organisation down:

“From everything I’ve witnessed Alan [Mulally] has social media in his DNA – even though he might not know what a blog is. The day he arrived at Ford, they said, ‘you’re going to need someone to deal with your email’ and he said, ‘yeah, me!’. That’s the sort of guy he is – incredibly hands on.

“There’s another example recently when Alan was sitting in a television studio with a reporter from Bloomberg who told him his mother in law was crazy about the Ford Focus. Alan was really insistent on getting the guy’s mother in law’s postal address so he could send her a handwritten note to say thank you.”

How about the rest of the board?

“[Chairman] Bill Ford’s major passion point is sustainability. He’s always enjoyed the wilderness, the outdoors, and has brought that in as a priority for Ford. You know, Henry Ford was using soya beans as part of the manufacturing process and recycling wooden crates. Our increasing environmental awareness is a return to those roots.”

Bill Ford seems a good figurehead then, at a time when Ford’s environmental responsiveness is being questioned. Such issues are tough to keep on top of in a digital world, but Scott echoes Clay ‘all businesses are media businesses’ Shirky in his approach:

“In corporate communications things move extremely fast. We think in terms of hours and minutes. We’re a news organisation, essentially.”

“In web 2.0, control is gone. Your message is no longer what you say it is. There are risks and opportunities in this. With social media, the message has to be given repeatedly, and in many places. We need an army of ambassadors. But there’s a pervasive attitude of fear – [Ford] employees can’t say what they like on blogs. But would you stay quiet at a dinner party if someone was disparaging your company and you knew them to be wrong?”

Scott is determined to help Ford turn the conversation outwards and not make the same mistakes as, for example, GM – with its essentially corporate, ‘on message’ blog.

It’s early days, but Scott already has strong ideas about the direction in which Ford needs to move. In his follow up email he speaks highly of a more collaborative approach:

“There’s been an amazing openness that’s been demonstrated in social media – the sharing of links, information and knowledge. And collectively, the social media industry is maturing because of it. In a traditional siloed business, knowledge is power; if we can demonstrate the rapid advance of the industry via these sharing platforms – not to mention the concept of Open Source – we can show how quickly such an entity can grow, adapt, and attract a strong fan base.

“It’s still early on in the evolution of the industry, but I think businesses are sincere in their desire to understand it and to communicate with customers in the way the customers want to be spoken to. Ultimately, I see social media being a more integrated part of the way a company communicates, much like email is today. It’s about more than just the tools – it’s a cultural shift in the way companies think.

“Ultimately, it’s the companies that make the leap who will succeed, for in this day and age of more products choice and a flattening of supply chains, customer service will be the differentiating factor. And social media espouses a number of customer service principles.”

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, Ford and the other companies that dominate the US motor industry are particularly fascinating as, 100 years ago, they provided the cradle for the command-and-control type processes that wrought such change back then – but seem so outmoded today.

It’ll be what Ford does with the voices coming into its organisation that’ll be the most interesting. And from what Scott says, there is some evidence that the company is prepared to listen. Whether or not this may be too late, is another question.


The Grateful Read

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.


Blogs, wikis and automobiles

It’s lunchtime on the last day of the Web 2.0 Expo New York and I’m feeling a little deflated.

My fellow Brits aka the Digital Mission have vanished, leaving just some dog-eared Union Jack fliers and a few crumbs of shortbread.

All interview requests have either been fulfilled, ignored or postponed til everyone’s back in the real world (ie, on Skype) next week. The Microsoft lunch is the same grim fare as previous days, though today lacking the surprise factor.

Luckily, I have the lovely Johanna Cherry to keep me company, otherwise I would probably forego the afternoon sessions altogether and head back home on the ‘L’ to Greenpoint.

We’re reminising about our week and speculating what might have happened after we bailed out of Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine 2.0 party the previous night, when Shannon Paul comes up out of nowhere, sits down and says hello.

Shannon works in PR in Detroit, which, as it happens, turns out to be very interesting. Detroit, of course, is the home of the US motor industry, one of the developed world’s oldest and most traditional surviving industries. This sector was the cradle of Fordism and a propagator for Taylorism. How is it adapting to the challenges it’s facing now?

Shannon is the only person at her PR firm to specialise in social media and works hard with clients to get them up to speed. But new technologies and approaches can only be introduced in subtle ways. It’s a tough, steep learning curve.

She recommended I look at the blog written by Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, and also speak to Scott Monty, head of Social Media at Ford. I tweeted Scott Monty today. Hopefully he’ll get back to me.

Thanks for the leads Shannon!


Less is more

Christian Payne aka Documentally is a photographer and journalist now making a bit of a name for himself as a social media guru. When I first met Christian at the Tuttle Club a few weeks ago, everyone told me he was the one person I had to talk to.

We’ve arranged to meet at Tuttle again today…only, Christian’s dog walker can’t make it and he has to stay home to look after his Border Collie, so we’re talking long distance (London – Boondocks) over Skype.

Six years ago Christian ‘downsized’, leaving full-time employment at a newspaper London to live and work in a small village in Northamptonshire.

“The corporate world is designed to make money at the end of the day, not to make people happy. Authenticity and ethical trading doesn’t exist enough. Corporations still believe in the ‘acquisition of more’ when they should be developing the capacity to enjoy ‘less’.”

Christian urges me to read Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful to get the full take on the way he sees things. Twenty-five years on, it seems a kind of apt title for the niche-obsessed world of social media where, suddenly, the little things matter again.

So what finally drove Christian to follow his values and opt out of the London rat race?

“I spent years working within newspapers and the way we report news nowadays is really very lazy. As a photographer, I always had to go and visit the people behind the stories. Sit with them, chat to them. Find out how they were really feeling. You always get something deeper by sitting there talking to people face to face. I quickly lost faith in the newspaper industry. Journalists never go out to stories any more. They get all the information online, maybe make the odd phonecall. Everything you see in the newspaper is based around advertising. The story will be cut to fit with the ads. A fantastically touching product to begin with can be turned into pulp.”

And Christian has little praise for his old bosses:

“The leadership [in newspapers] is terrible. People sit there shouting like something out of a Spiderman movie. You’ve seen Spiderman, right? Well, the relationship Peter Parker has with his editors, who are always shouting at him – that’s a completely accurate representation. There’s no end of bullying.

“As a result you end up having no respect for either these people or the organisation that employs you. You just want to get back at them in whatever way you can. For example, when it came to expenses at the newspaper, people would calculate expenses to and from the office for every story, even though they would go direct from job to job. They could probably earn another £4K on top of their earnings annually through that. Most people did it, and the newspaper was completely unaware.

“In organisations like [the newspaper where I used to work] you simply don’t have that ‘let’s sit down and talk about this’ attitude that you should have. This is where social media has the chance to make a difference.”

Of course, not all places are bad. Christian tells me that the Open University (one of his clients) has a very progressive attitude. From the sound of it, Ian Roddis, the OU’s Head of Online Services, is more like a favourite, trendy uncle than a boss. Twitter is used as a type of intranet, while Roddis sends short video clips to his staff using Qik.

“The other day Ian sent a Tweet at lunchtime: ‘I’m working from home and having a beer, does that constitute drinking at work?’. The thing is, he’s not just talking to his employees but also to his clients and his sponsors. He’s communicable and being honest. That’s what’s so likeable.”

If an organisation uses Twitter in this way, feels Christian, it’s inevitable that workplace relationships will become more open (and that’s a good thing):

“Twitter is like a massive corporate meeting taking place 24/7 at all levels of management. But it’s a useful meeting. People can see directly what I’m doing at any point – for example, they can see if something’s my idea. That’s good, it gives me ownership. This is the kind of communication we need between people now. It’s almost too much communication. But YOU control your data. You control how much you want to share.

“You can lie, but then you have to make sure you tell the same lie everywhere. You can only really throw truth into that stream.”

Transparency, openness and – ultimately – efficiency. Who can argue with the benefits of that? And, the great thing is, it’s really difficult to SHOUT on the Internet.


The opaque face of leadership

It’s 1989 and I’m on my way to the VT library at Sky Television to pick up a rushes tape. Unit 5, Centaurs Business Park (Eurosport offices) is linked to Unit 6 (where the library is) by a long, carpeted corridor. There is glass running along one side, providing a view of the Sky staff car-park; the opposite wall is lined with portraits of benevolent, smiling Sky News presenters.

I recognise the man coming down the corridor towards me from photographs. He is short, wrinkled and bald. He is expensively dressed. I know he owns the firm I work for and is my ultimate boss. In contrast, he knows nothing of me and, until now, has been undisturbed by my very existence.

Wishing to make an impression, and overwhelmed by the ‘elevator pitch’ nature of the situation, I blurt out what I think might be a suitable opener, something along the lines of “Mr.Murdoch, isn’t it time we did some more high budget, quality programming?”

Silence as Rupert Murdoch walks quickly past me, wincing slightly, as if bothered by a fly.

I’m reminded of this now, sitting at an outdoor table in sunny Exmouth Market, chatting to Nic Price, ex BBC Learning & Development (now working with the equally talented Gerred Blythe at Lighthouse Experience).

We’re talking about managers we’ve known and loved, and how web 2.0 type stuff is enabling corporate communication on a whole different level.

Like many of his former colleagues, Nic is full of praise for the BBC’s Director of Global News, Richard Sambrook. Sambrook was encouraged to start up a blog some years ago by the BBC’s then Head of Knowledge Management, Euan Semple.

The blog is well-written, insightful and pertinent, read by a growing international audience, as well as BBC insiders.

But what’s been particularly interesting, according to Nic, is how the blog has acted as a kind of virtual ice-breaker between Sambrook and his colleagues:

“Suddenly, people [at the BBC] were reading his blog and then feeling it was okay to talk to him when they saw him walking down the corridor. They felt they knew something about him, about the way he saw the world. They felt they could start a conversation.”

Of course, not all company executives can write. As Nic says, there’s nothing worse than the ‘CEO diary’ which has been written by a PR person.

But they don’t have to blog, do they? Maybe they’d be more suited to a Youtube channel, or a Flickr page?

Or, as Nic says:

“They could just sit in the canteen on a Friday afternoon and buy people coffee. That’s participative. That’s web 2.0”

Sadly, none of this can help with the memory of my encounter with a stoney-faced Rupert Murdoch. Maybe if I’d been more familiar with his hobbies and interests, our meeting would have been different. Anyway, I guess Murdoch already has his blog. It’s called “The Times”.