Saturday, March 08, 2003

South by Southwest 2003 VII

Jon Lebkowsky, Adina Levin, and Nancy White: Effective Social Networks

White is founder of Full Circle Associates and has been researching and practicing online facilitation since 1996. Levin is in charge of strategic marketing and product planning for SocialText. Lebkowsky, founder of Polycot Consulting, has been involved in online communities since 1990. Here is a rough transcript of the panel discussion:

Lebkowsky: The thing with online communities is that they work really well for conversation and exchanging knowledge to some extent, but when it comes to actually getting something done, it's a little more difficult. One of the things we've been doing is giving some thought to how these things work, what their real value is, and whether you can transcend geography. Traditionally we've said that the real value of online communities in business is that you can bring people together online. It's a different way of working together. It's more agile. You can add layers of connectivity. You're building networks that are big and multi-dimensional.

However, this can bring challenges. The one we're probably most familiar with is the control challenge. It's not hierarchical. Everything goes flat.

White: I see networks as a container. It's moveable and squishy. It kid of floats out there. If I had to play charades and give a physical representation of a network, I would be stumped. There's some point of gravity in a network that's a node where things can happen and groups can form. When I look at a network as a group, there's a whole. But when I look at it as a whole, it gets squishy.

One of the amazing things about networks is their ability to contain and facilitate reciprocity. Everything can be flowing in the same direction, or everything can be flowing in different directions. I want to share with you what happened to me in Central Asia. I got an email from a guy who'd seen something I'd written on my Web site. He told me that he'd been given the job to build online communities in post-Soviet Union republics.

We entered into a dialog and came up with a plan to look at the power of the network. We introduced what online interaction can do. The next phase of our our work was to set up a face-to-face interaction. Two of the guys involved were using Hotmail to arrange informal prisoner exchanges. They legitimized the relationships that they had online.

There was no network before. We pulled the people together to create the network. Recognizing that this medium allowed them to cross the physical boundaries that they weren't allowed to cross helped them realize that this medium had potential. Some people were catalysts and were willing to take leadership. The Internet can have power even in a highly disconnected community.

They didn't really trust the aysnchronous tools at first. But the synchronous tools like instant messaging gave them the sense that they weren't alone when they really needed help. It hasn't supplanted face to face, but it's really expanded what they can do in their countries.

Levin: You said something interesting when we were preparing about how the people used the network in a way that was consistent with the hierarchical nature of how they worked otherwise.

White: This medium allows power to spread out to members of the network. One of the things we started with was building groups through networking. Then we moved into facilitating.

We were very severely limited by bandwidth. We tried to move people outside of email to make visible the work of the group. Email is very one to one. We used WebCrossing and IM, and we let people use any language they were comfortable using. Helping people move their ideas about processes from offline to online was really useful. We need to make our patterns explicit so we can move them online.

Lebkowsky: Adina has been working with her own company SocialText to build their network.

Levin: Nancy talked a little bit apologetically about the simplicity about the tools that the teams were working with. Part of the tradition of groupware is to build a complicated set of tools. If you look at what people have used over the years, even in the orgs that have a lot of money, people use email more than anything else. The simple tools often work the best.

I also want to talk about the idea of how groups form out of a network. SocialText grew out of a group of people who met through a quasi-professional network. That group is a networking group that doesn't have any particular goal or purpose. But a member sent a message to the group about a business opportunity that involved using blogs within corporations. Blogs are the simplest way for an individual to publish online. We also looked at how people could use Wikis. Wikis are one of the simplest way to collaborate online. We run SocialText using the tools that we're researching for our clients.

The place I worked before, Vignette, was a very whiteboard-centric culture. People would take turns writing on the wall, and by the end of the meeting, we'd have made a decision, and the writing would be on the wall. The Wiki enables us to collaborate on just-in-time documents wherever we might be. We're also able to have a living library of what we're working on.

Part of the point here isn't one specific tool but that there's a set of processes you can use for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration.

We see a set of concentric circles around SocialText. There are the employees. We have a board of advisors. Then there's a broader community with which we use the SocialText Workspace to keep in touch with people. That broader network is extremely valuable. Your closest network you already know -- and already know what they're thinking. If you want new ideas, you need to look at the broader network.

Lebkowsky: There's not so much competition as there is collaboration.

White: When you all work in the same building, you get to think the same way. When your organization lives in network, there's more creative abrasion.

Lebkowsky: Clay Shirky wrote a piece in which he talked about the A list of bloggers. What's going to happen? Is there going to be a group of bloggers that everyone reads and the others sink to the bottom?

White: Bloggers for president!

Lebkowsky: Joichi Ito also wrote a paper about emergent democracy to start talking about how bloggers relate to each other. At some point, there was going to be a teleconference, a telephone call. I don't really get excited about teleconferences. You get the audio cues, but I want to type at people. What Adina's people came up with was a Happening, a multimodal event that was a combination of the teleconference, a chat space, and a voting or polling tool involving green, yellow, and red cards.

A lot of times, you never have a sense of whether people are there or paying attention. We knew just was going on. If someone stopped doing their cards, you got the sense that they were paying attention to something else. We also established a Wiki, where we could plant things and store things after the fact. I even transcribed the telephone call because I'd taped it.

We also used QuickTopic. QuickTopic is a very cool little tool that allows you to start a little discussion thread ad hoc. It also involves a document review tool. You can post documents, and people can comment on them. It was almost more effective than the Wiki because it was easier to keep track of comments.

The Emergent Democracy paper was written. It's in version 1.2. But we haven't continued to work. There's not much activity on the mailing list. People have gotten distracted. And there's the question about emergent leadership. Joi was kind of the emergent leadership, but he turned his attention elsewhere.

White: We haven't quite figured out how to take that vision and translate worker bee energy online. There's a thing we struggle with offline, and when we put it online, the warts become apparent.

Lebkowsky: If we're only going to have a democracy of clueful intelligent people who communicate well online, that's not going to work.

White: It depends on how you define heirarchy. There's a question of consistent standards. Are we attracted to this environment because we want to take ownership of our work and other people don't?

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