A World Wide Web of Ideas
Reading Stephen Fry's excellent post “Is this the greatest living Englishman?”, I find it incredible that it was as recent as 1990 that Tim Berners-Lee first cooked up the hypertext transfer protocol (http) and the complete architecture for the web. It's probably made the biggest change to our lives since the invention of the printing press... completely transforming commerce and the way we communicate.
To me, his gift was not http (someone, somewhere would surely have invented something similar), but his decision to make his invention free for all. There were no patent dues, no royalties and no restrictions: it was an open book. His dream was a free interchange of information, and he stood by his principles.
It's others -- the Googles and Yahoos of this world, and a million more, that have built their fortunes on the back of his work. Meanwhile Sir Tim still works away today, as modest and as unassuming as ever, heading the WC3 Consortium towards an open, free and wholly public web from his base at MIT. Still driving around in his beat up old VW, I believe.
But lets just consider for a moment the difference he has made. Ten years ago money was synonymous with power. Brands, both political and commercial, got build through mass media advertising campaign -- TV, newspapers, magazines. Not any more. How much have Starbucks or Amazon spend on advertising? Word of mouth now rules. Or, perhaps more accurately, the hyperlinked word.
PageRank (now one of the main leading indicators of influence) is based on the number and quality of inbound links. But how many people do you think link to Proctor and Gamble, BMW, Intel or any mainstream corporate site? Would you, as a blogger, every have reason to link there? Probably not. Corporate sites have a hell of a job attracting links directly, because what attracts interest is rarely the products or the companies themselves, but the experiences and stories that people tell about them.
The upshot of this is that if someone writes an informative or revelationary piece about their experience (good or bad) with a company's products or service, that piece will quite easily hit the front page of search results for that company. Let's not miss the significance of this: An interesting and authentic article written by you can have a bigger impact and more immediate effect than the entire marketing budget and efforts of a global organisation.
Now THAT is influence. And although the potential of weblogs may not be fully appreciated by bloggers themselves, it's certainly not lost on many a head honcho in industry, marketing, PR and big media who are bricking themselves right now.
But, at least to me, it's not the power to disrupt the status quo that's most interesting or significant. It's the ability to allow good ideas to fly. Blogs, being frictionless, can be catalysts for quantum leaps in our understanding. This opens up completely new opportunities... particularly in the way we work together, organise ourselves and create things.
People talk about Enterprise 2.0 being the democratisation of the work place and the replacement for the old hierarchies and control models, but I don't think it's about democracy. It's far better than that. It's a new meritocracy. And not a meritocracy of people but of ideas.
When ideas can come from anywhere we let go of our dependency on leaders and experts. Without the pressure on a few to deliver for the many, everyone benefits. We all become responsible; and people get valued for what they bring to the table now, not their resume or position.
An enterprise is the sum of its people and, like all living systems, it thrives on energy. This energy is the flow of ideas, of inspiration and also of love. This flow is the life blood of any organisation. As we learn at school, energy cannot be created or destroyed, it's always there. We don't do anything to make energy flow - it does that already. What we need 'do' is simply remove the barriers -- the systems, the doors and policies that cause the friction... and then get out of the way. Living systems thrive, adapt and self-heal when they become self aware -- when the connections are open and free.
NOTE: You may have to click through from some feed readers to see the video
I've recently been playing with social network to learn what all the fuss is about. As yet, they don't really do it for me. Some of them feel like thinly veiled attempts for someone else to establish a power base. I also get the feeling that in the rush to try out the latest shiny new 2.whatever toys we forget the power of leverage that the web bestows on worthy ideas that are reasonably well expressed. But I do think we can improve blogs by making them more social.
Here's a few things that would probably make them more useful:
- It's not easy to groc the whole 'conversation' that a post inspires when it's spread across a number of blogs. A visitor to my blog can read what I have to say but they can't see behind any inbound links to see what other people have picked up on and are posting. It would be a much better reading experience if the conversation wasn't fragmented in this way, and we could read whole thing in one place.
- If we find someone with similar interests, as well as reading their blog wouldn't it also be good if we could see what other content they had created -- comments on other blogs in particular. There is already a movement towards this so with services such as FriendFeed.
- I've touched on this previously I know. Dialogue has been our principle method of organisation since we first banded together as gatherer-hunters, and still serves us admirably when we trust the process. What we haven't yet figured out is how implement a conversational style of organisation on the web. We have weblogs which are great for dialogue and we have separate project management tools (which often feel unnatural to use). Weblogs would become incredibly useful if, as in the real world, the talking and doing could be one process.
In short, there's probably just a couple of little evolutionary steps that would give weblogs both the sociality of the likes of FaceBook, and make them a powerful tool for getting things done together. [As an aside, this is something I am working on right now... and ideas are always appreciated. :-)]
Ideas that are shared grow stronger... and now that we have a platform that allows us speak the truth as we find it to the whole world, there's little to hold us back. We also have the ability to scale relationship beyond a close circle of friends and colleagues. -- what better way to heal our prejudices? What an incredibly powerful tool we have in our hands. Stephen King in his book 'On Writing' says this about our approach to the written word:
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair -- the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
I'm not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I'm not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humour (please God you have one). This isn't a popularity contest, it's not the moral Olympics, and it's not church. But it's writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner."
But writing a weblog is writing on steroids. You and I are in the surreal but incredibly fortunate situation that we have already got the green light from the publisher. When we click the save button on our blog editor, our article is going to get published no matter what... no questions asked.
So, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, all that's left to decide is this: What are we going to do with all that power?
This is not a someday-maybe question, it's a question that's only really relevant now, because permission has already been given. To put off deciding is like saving sex for when we are old. It makes no sense at all. Unless, of course, you end up here.
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