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So consumers are taking over control of information and brands from revered institutions? I guess this is an anarchist’s dream. Although I would hardly call Groundswell the business world’s new manifesto du-jour, I think Groundswell brings to light the inevitable trend fostered by the changing face of ICT. Accenture, my former employer, was one of the largest “consumers” of HBS press business books. For whatever reason, they loved giving their employees the latest and most “buzz-worthy” texts swirling around in the consulting space. Hence, I was a little skeptical about Groundswell. “Another dumb coffee table business book that I can use as my coaster,” I lamented. Accenture has built its expertise in helping organizations better execute their enterprise, to improve their overall standing in the market. But I never really considered the things that Charlene Li mentioned.

Marketers tell us they define and manage their brand…Bull…Your brand is whatever your customers say it is. (Page 78)

Wow. That’s a pretty bold claim. I can’t imagine Ford being told what there brand is by my Facebook friends and me. Now, I don’t need to be convinced that there is something greater already brewing and rearranging the landscape of how we interact and express ourselves. But I never put it into the context of the free market –

With so many products trying to gets people’s attention, shouting at them isn’t nearly as effective as it used to be. (Page 102)

The key to succeeding in social networks is to help people spread your message and to measure results. (Page 106)

Markets are oversaturated. I never really though about what that meant until I stopped and looked around for a moment. I soon realized how bombarded I was with information from multiple sources every day – information from billboards, TV advertisers, school, signs, etc. The crowd is just too loud. I filter these results through the use of my peers. I trust my peers. I am similar to my peers. Hence, I indirectly abdicate some of my internal review to my peers. Social networking is the perfect conduit to go underneath the shouting arenas of traditional media and surprise me from the ground. I sort of envision myself in Times Square, befuddled by all of the flashy billboards and signs, while Bugs Bunny borrows through the ground beneath me and pops-up with the latest recommendation. I guess this is where the title “Groundswell” comes from?

But isn’t this all a bit insidious? I mean, going with this idea of how networks can spread information very effectively, are we really in more control over the advertisers if they instead manipulate the network, and no longer a demographic? If Groundswell properly evangelizes these trends – as I’m sure they already have – does this taint the purity of these social networks? One final quote allayed my concerns –

A community is a like a marriage; it requires constant adjustment to grow and become more rewarding. And if you’re not in it for the long haul, well, maybe you should think about the ugly endings you’ve seen to marriages that lacked the long-term effort. (Page 149)

I trust that communities of social networks are dynamic and evanescent enough to adapt and to respond to attempts to be manipulated.

Reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar reminded me of this other book that I really enjoyed called The Starfish and the Spider.  The former is a management book highlighting the benefit of leader-less organizations and advocates for decentralization as a driver for innovation. As a neophyte fan of organizational theory, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the two books. First, I should shamefully confess my nerdish background and admit upfront that I’ve used Linux for several undergraduate engineering projects. One of the things that always fascinated me about Linux was the vibrant, if not evangelic, community fostering its growth. It was completely organic, without a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates at the helm. Nevertheless, there was troubleshooting, support and rapid advances in the OS that rivaled their coordinated “cathedral” counterparts.

The Starfish and the Spider suggests that these decentralized and networked organizations are nearly impossible to cut-down by traditional means. The Cathedral and the Bazaar hints at this, as evident by the cult like following and success of Linux. I guess one of the advantages of Linux is that Windows and Apple can’t phase out Linux out of their market-share as I’m sure they would like to do. An open and free “bazaar” of ideas offers a fertile ground for innovation that make a coordinated effort very difficult to quell.  The bazaar cultivates a sense of ownership over the code, in which incentivized “bugs” trade ideas. Going with this analogy, a cathedral is where you are evangelized to from the pulpit, from the top-down. Exchanging who preaches from the pulpit is relatively easy compared to stopping the exchange of ideas, as is the case with Linux.

Starfish organizations are leaderless and are decentralized. They are held together by ideology. In essence, the values are the organization. As is the case for Linux, or many of the other Web 2.0 phenomena we’ve seen so far, the individual centered experience shifts the incentive structure. Phenomena where institutions matter less and people are more-or-less equal, a sense of purpose is a very difficult driver to both control and stop. Nevertheless, excellent software is developed.

We must abdicate control to the crowd-source in order for successful and useful code to be written. That’s not to say it’s completely invincible. Any open system is always susceptible to poor solutions that might infect the rest of the system. As quickly many of these phenomena come to pass, they can just as easily vanish. Moreover, for every quality piece of code and add-on script out there, there are even more pieces of absolute rubbish.

Nevertheless, I believe there is something to this bazaar approach. Ideally, I guess the most optimal solution is to integrate both irreconcilable approaches. Software that is both open-sourced, but ultimately vetted by some kind of respected and trusted institution. A hybrid approach is not intuitive and difficult to think of in terms of implementation.  My general feeling is that this sort of theme is creeping up again and again in this socio-technological space. I think the starfishand the bazaar are here to stay.

Although we’ve been dealing with a lot of Web 2.0 phenomena so far in class – particularly blogging and micro-blogging – but I can’t help myself from jumping a bit a head in the syllabus and talk about the crowdsourcing technique used by The Guardian. I always found it reassuring that crowdsourcing somewhat undermines this notion that meaningful work only comes from a meaningful wallet. Juxtaposed to this slightly rosier first impression of crowdsourcing, I do find this idea of crowdsourcing to be a bit “lazy” on the part of The Guardian, at least in the traditional “you couldn’t just do it yourselves?” sort of way. But I guess what ultimately worked for me as a kid to get me to do my chore also applies to crowdsourcers – make a chore into a game, or at least something enjoyable with manageable tasks and rewards.

The power of the collective as a cheap, and surprisingly effective, model is really intriguing. I’ve decided to blog a bit more about my professional background and interests. For a short time, I used to work for an IT consultancy. Although a lowly analyst, I was always impressed the way the firm employed “Web 2.0 inspired” approaches to effectively manage its most important resource – knowledge. For instance, we employed an internal document management system that resembled the basic idea behind crowdsourcing in that it leveraged employees to sort through and categorize thousands of files. They used short, and fun, games to interface with the sorting script, so the “chore” was more like a game, at least ostensibly. However, unlike The Guardian, the pool of crowdsourcers is relatively homogeneous – consultants – and the pool of crowdsourcers were being paid for their services. I do take issue with my later point because my firm was client billable, that is to say your hours worked came from specific client projects and rarely internal tasks. My coworkers crowdsourced, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Much like The Guardian case, it was a skill and you were rewarded as you went along, without requiring to a monetary payoff. It gave a sense of accomplishment, a series of incremental victories to pat the ego.

I often wonder if this sense of accomplishment is what drives this phenomenon. Granted, these tasks can be mind-numbing if you spend enough hours in front of a computer, diluting this sense of accomplishment if there were no real engagement or struggle. However, I think there’s something bigger going on here that goes beyond games and rewards. Projecting how current technologies or techniques will pan-out in the future is always a message business. I doubt The Guardian had a sense that this technique would level the playing field with its competitors. Nevertheless, this incentive based structure could potentially alter how we do work. Could we potentially even rethink our entire incentive structure?  The Guardian took full advantage of this. I wonder how, or even if,  we will? How about we crowdsource the answer and find out?

Who wrote the first blog? Justin Hall’s self-indulged portal? Dave Weiner who developed Scripting News? This question is a bit difficult to answer, but it isn’t the proper question to be asking. Of course, there were a few noteworthy characters and events. Of course, as with any Web 2.0 tale, there is a tinge of some Silicon Valley venture capital money involved in its nascent stages. Nevertheless, Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything offers something a bit subtler to the story of the blog. Rosenberg’s account is a traditional, yet slightly ubiquitous,  “How did X techno/media platform came to be?” narrative. However, Say Everything presents the weblog as an outgrowth of our natural tendencies to share “ourselves” with others. In fact, Rosenberg highlights that early proto-blogs were autobiographies that heavily relied on links.

I argue that the notion of a blog, divorced from its digital form, is nothing really new.  We’ve been blogging for quite some time now, just not in 1s and 0s.  Would Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pass for a blog if I added a dot com at the end and saved it as a PDF?  I don’t claim that political blogging during the 2000 election, in the way I’m arguing to define it, was as virulent as it was during the first presidential election (although I’m sure that since George Washington was appointed, and never elected, it would have made for a great posting). However, Thomas Paine had been a  relatively obscure player in the early days of the Republic before Common Sense. Paine expressing his views and sharing these views with fellow colonists captures Say Everything’s notion of a blog.

If the notion of a blog is nothing really new, then the question must shift from who wrote the first blog to what conditions engendered its success in digital form. Hence, Say Everything asks who and what established the norms that eventually shaped what we consider to be blogging today. Although to some extent an historical narrative, Say Everything is not about the harrowing tale of the blog. This is largely because the story of blogs lacks the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates or the Mark Zukerberg of Apple, Microsoft or Facebook, respectively. Moreover, most upheavals in what is established start with a single idea, granted eternal life among academic circles for the sake of creating more neologisms and PhD dissertations. However, Rosenberg’s story of blogging also lacks a groundbreaking, radical maximum for the masses.  Newton, Einstein, and Keynes largely drove each of their respective paradigm shifts. I find it hard to equate Hall posting nude photos of himself on his blog, among other hyper-personal revelations, as the basis for inciting a revolution in thought.

The story of the blog is not a linear story, with clearly defined heroes and villains. Launching blogging from the “technological ghetto” among a handful of early adopters in San Francisco to main street “ICP” is a success story of the individual. The norms established by the countless bloggers now dotting the growing landscape continue to evolve. Therefore, I claim “Who wrote the first blog” is no where as nearly an interesting question as “What will the next one be about?

Following from my individualism-connection dichotomy from last week’s posting, I found this week’s readings a bit more disconcerting. This week’s readings painted Google as the gatekeeper of commerce, news and information. Accountable to its shareholders and driven by its algorithm, Google’s dominance in search is as much of a useful tool as it is a cause for concern. I think the Tennessee Williams quote is more than appropriate, “Success and failure are equally disastrous.” From the highway for small business to the purveyor of privacy and news, Google is a portal to limitless information traversing geographic, cultural and institutional divides.  Then again, that’s also the rub of Google: there’s only one of it. There aren’t really any “Googles” out there that can match Google’s success. There’s only one “Stargate” that ultimately decides how and what information is presented to you.  As The Search lamented, Google is mostly only accountable to its shareholders. But Google largely owns a monopoly on access to a global public good – information. Hence, to what extent should Google be held accountable by our government?

I found Moncrief’s analogy a good example of this issue of accountability.  Moncrief mentioned that once Google had changed its search algorithm, it was almost as though Georgia’s DofT removed the only highway to a remote strip-mall. At least with the DofT, I would assume, there’s some leverage Moncrief had with his elected officials to bring this issue to light. However, if Google uproots its cyberspace “highway,” there’s no elected official for Moncrief to reach out to, no one held accountable by him. A public good is only as useful as access to it. Moreover, what do you do with Google’s alleged slight-of-hand in the American Blinds case?  If Google had changed its search algorithm prior to the hearing, to what extent does Google’s authority legitimately have over these searches?  To what extent do you hold Google accountable?

Google’s control is a much broader issue than just e-Commerce disputes. Consider Google’s nebulous dealings with the PRC. Again, information, at least in my opinion, is becoming as much of a global public good as our atmosphere. The trend seems to be that information is becoming more universal and more accessible: non-excludable and non-rival.  I get the impression that Google’s “Do No Evil” mantra implies that Google understands information as a global public good. Even its M.O. to “organize the World’s information” hints at this assumption. If this is the case, then why did Google yield to the PRC Big Brother? Intent underpins Google’s search success. If I intend to search for independent international news sources while in China, my intent is undermined.

Ultimately, the success of Google will also be undermined. Google is a for-profit company. Its success is ostensibly based on profit. Nevertheless, Google’s social-responsibility as the purveyor of a global public good seems to be at odds with profit maximization. I don’t claim to know how to rectify this issue. I don’t think Google should denounce its for-profit status and become the next NGO on the international stage, safeguarding information for all. I believe profit-seeking firms spur innovation quite well. The issue is one of social-responsibility. Google’s success is a story of innovation. Google is a veritable fountain for potential innovation.  To find creative ways to manage social-responsibility with a for-profit maxim, Google need only to “google” itself.

Whether by coincidence or by design, I think there are a lot of parallels to be made between the startup success of Google, as told by The Search, and the success of the current Web 2.0 phenomenon. However, I’ll argue for the importance of the former (coincidence) than the later (design). Firstly, both Google’s startup story and Web 2.0 have a streak of rugged individualism running through their very core, either in the form of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, as is the case for Google, or Web 2.0’s user-centered approach to web design.  For example, consider Google’s humble start. It took two ordinary graduate students to develop what would become the goliath we now know as Google. There wasn’t a multimillion-dollar research lab funding their unfortunately named “BackRub” project in their Stanford dorms. Similarly, Web 2.0’s beauty, and enigma, is exemplified in how it levels barriers to entry: anyone can do it! Just like Google started in a dorm room and not in some NSF lab, consider how a velvet revolution took hold recently in Iran, with the cell-phone camera replacing the ballonet as the weapon of choice. Or consider how an obnoxious Nebraskan teenager is propelled to Hollywood superstardom without the backing of a powerhouse studio or a silver-tongued Ari Gold. However, in stark contrast to this rugged individualism, there’s also a theme of connection. For example, the ultimate success of Page and Brin was their extensive social networks within Stanford and the greater Silicon Valley. In fact, I would argue that, at least in their early days, the people in their social network were their most valuable asset, far more valuable than any discarded computer from the computer science department.  Likewise, Web 2.0 is as based on individual expression as it is based on sharing this individuality with others, as seen with the success of mySpace and Facebook.

Innovation was the main driver for the success of Google and remains the main driver behind Web 2.0. At least in my view, innovation is engendered by two extremes- individualism, which creates the idea, and connection, which fosters the idea. Innovation sprouts from an individual idea and is aggrandized through large-scale sharing and interaction. This “networked” framework seems to be a subtle, but very powerful, notion that Page and Brin picked up on as graduate students. The Search takes note of this when describing how Page was choosing his research focus. The World Wide Web as the largest network ever to come into existence, intrigued Page, at least ostensibly.  His focus on how web-pages linked to one another, both forward and backward, seems to hint at the true potential that was dormant within this new way of thinking, whether he realized it or not. To an extent, I would argue that what Page and Brin’s Google did for the Internet was what Silicon Valley did for them. Google would ultimately calcify the links between these networked nodes and hence, bring a dynamic structure to a nascent Internet. Similarly, Silicon Valley brought about the synergies and resources needed to grow Google from the dorm room to the world. Networks, I believe, will be a powerful motif revisited this semester.