Village Green vs. Walled Garden
Working in the City of Walls gives a unique perspective on how fragmented a community can become - not so much because of trespassing - but just as much, if not more, because of the fear of it.
Still, walled gardens can, at least for me, make one think of serene - perhaps slightly overgrown green spaces, flanked by vine-covered ancient brick or bollard walls. Safe and secure.
But that harks back to an era before barbed wire and whatnot. Also, even under the shade of an old fig tree, as pleasant as it might be - if those walls are up, you're not likely to get much interaction let alone collaboration done.
This article sets out to deal with some of the implications of the above as applied to the virtual world.
We'll start with the walled gardens: Count your username/password collection. Each set is, when combined, a key to a walled garden somewhere. My expectation is that you have tens if not more than a hundred username/password sets. It took time to set each one up. It takes time to maintain each one.
Now, you don't want to share your banking or tax return with anybody I expect - these are examples of a barbed wire, barking dog type of walled gardens that should always stay that way.
Some walled gardens have their virtues in other words.
But what about e-mail and other types of electronic messaging? Well, again, you probably wouldn't want anybody to read everything in your inbox - yet, what if you could pick bits of information and share it with trusted colleagues and collaborators? Bit like sharing news on the village green.
You're probably already doing that if you're using LinkedIn (making it easier for people to find you, reconnect and recommend you) - You might even have taken the extra step of using one of the flurry of social networks out there such as Facebook or Orkut - and maybe even one of the new highly specialised networks like Reuters' new Carbon Market Community.
Facebook and Orkut are Horizontals - in the sense that they cover a large and broad community with a diverse set of interests - yet they both allow Vertical activity in the form of open and closed groups for specialised collaboration.
Put in a more everyday language - they're village greens with big and small tents and in this mini case study we'll specifically look at Facebook. Depending on who you encounter, which tent you enter, different levels of information is shared (depending on your privacy settings and those of the group).
The advantage of this model is that it helps create active and passive word of mouth:
- Active as in the example of a forthcoming Edge Foundation event with a superb theme (Ideas that can change the world...) that my past collaborator Steve Moore of Policy Unplugged fame is running in London - Well, I can't be there myself, but thanks to the infrastructure I could easily directly invite a number of relevant leaders who I know will be able to both add something to, and benefit from, the event.
- Passive as in the example of last night's Nordic Business Cross Country initiative which we've just kicked off: The friends of the people attending saw that there's something going on = We doubled our modest membership in one go and expect to see that reflected in turnout for the next event.
Combining the two you get real impact - Steve rounded up 470+ people in no time this way - who are now collaborating like never before, without the cost of a print let alone e-mail campaign to get it off the ground. Just a few well connected people to start with and the wildfire was off.
This, by the way, is also how Facebook Apps work - Like the ever successful TripAdvisor-developed Cities I've Visited app.
Even old institutions like the RSA, which harks back to 1754, are at it - Through the OpenRSA group I'm collaborating with people in the way that was intended by the RSA's expensively developed proprietary forum system - but because of it being a walled garden instead of a tent on a village green ... it never really managed to attract a consistently active user base for collaboration. Let's see though - through feedback from this group of fellows, improvements might be made that'll drive more people directly to the RSA site (for more than just the excellent podcasts, super library, the extensive archive and lecture listings).
It is not just horizontal social networks that can have vertical applications - it even applies to the traditional PC apps: Word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. Google, Zoho and a raft of others are rapidly entering this space making the days of big attachments let alone the headache of copy/paste consolidation of input from six different collaborators a thing of the past. Even my alma mater, which had otherwise admitted defeat in the desktop arena, has now entered the on-line office space with a new offering called Lotus Symphony (the name is actually a recycle from '92 but that's another story).
Does this mean that you can convert whole swathes to this way of getting things done in no time? Maybe not quite. Beth Kanter created a wordplay on it recently when she talked about Fear 2.0 (which in turn was sparked by the recent Fear of Web 2.0 article on Read/WriteWeb) - Here are two key paragraphs from Beth's article on what threatens uptake:
"While organizational adoption of social media tools for external communications strategies is becoming more common, not to mention lots of practical advice such as this recent white paper: The Revolution will be Socialized and the many how-to primers for nonprofits like this one. It appears that corporations believe that desktop applications and office documents should not have a social life. MacManus refers to the Google Apps vs Microsoft Office debate as evidence of this.
With the "I'm sticking with DOS" button analogy, I'm probably showing my age, but new technology emerges that has the potential to replace or improve upon an existing technology, people resist. There are people or even organizational cultures comfortable with using the existing tools and are slow to change, while early adopters and agile cultures keep learning and moving. In many cases, the slow to change eventually adopt or they no longer remain relevant to their constituents, donors, or lose their edge." - Full article
And this is an apt time to return to the city analogy - Merchants have since time immemorial realised that it doesn't help much to pitch up shop if there isn't anybody around. In fact, the best place to be is often in a tight cluster - surrounded by both collaborators, competitors and hopefully a client or two. That way you get economies of scale, passing trade and you can stay in tune with what's going on. You don't lose your edge in other words.
The key is to undestand that a City of Walls, whether virtual or real - cuts us off from interaction. Now I am by no means suggesting you don't lock your front door at night nor that you should switch off the firewall on your laptop. What I am advocating is that you sensibly think about the horizontals - the village greens - where you can collaborate for the benefit of others and of course yourself. The virtual village green comes with many tents - and you can choose and pick between them and create your own walls on the fly. Just like you can choose whether to engage in conversation with somebody sitting next to you on a bench or a bus - in both cases though, I would suggest you need to be open to the opportunity. Or, to quote the anthropologist Teresa P. Caldeira in the introduction to her book City of Walls: "...spatial segregation undermines the values of openess, accessibility, freedom of circulation, and equality..."
In conclusion - If you're:
- A traditional PC app user - give Google Docs or Zoho a try (see video below) and save time consolidating docs and sorting through five versions and accidentally deleting the wrong one
- A Facebooker, Orkut or maybe even a Reuters' Carbon Market Community user - Adjust your privacy settings so they match your needs and think about how best to use the community infrastructure for both active and passive word of mouth.
- A network organizer/community builder - think twice about growing your own. Go where people already are... that'll vastly improve your chances of success.
Further reading and viewing: