Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.

Is there any point to blogging anymore?

I enjoy blogging so much that I maintain several of them, but I have to wonder if there is a point. To be honest, it often feels like I am shouting into the void only for the privilege of hearing my own voice.

Many web tools have arisen that do certain jobs better that I originally used a blog for since I started blogging. For instance, the purpose of the first blog I started was to keep notes and recipes while I taught myself to cook. Now I use Cookbooker to organize my cookbooks and to make notes on the recipes I have tried. Not only does Cookbooker maintain a searchable database of cookbooks and recipes, but it allows me to connect to other people who own the same cookbooks I do and see what they think of recipes I haven’t tried yet. I can’t do this with my blog.

I also originally started a book journaling blog to keep track of what I had been reading and post book reviews. Now I belong to LibraryThing, which maintains a searchable database of all the books in my library with my book reviews plus lots of other useful information. And it makes recommendations for other books I might like based on what I read. My blog can’t do that.

An original purpose of blogs was to share links, and I often do that on all my blogs, especially this one. But let’s be honest: There are more effective ways to share and organize links, such as Twitter, StumbleUpon and Delicious, all of which I use heavily.

So why do I keep up my blogs? I will admit I don’t post as frequently as I used to, but I try to post something on each blog at least once a week. The blog is still best for long-form writing, especially the kind of writing I’m doing now, when I’m just spewing random thoughts onto the blank page to help me sort them and reflect on them. And the blog really excels at functioning as a kind of electronic notebook, organizing everything in one place: links, random thoughts, longer essays, even media like photos and videos.

So I probably will keep posting to my blogs, even if it feels a little like masturbation from time to time. But I will keep on using those other tools, too, where I do feel like I more genuinely connect to other people, because — let’s face it — more people are on those sites than are visiting my humble little blogs. My blogs will probably continue to be my catch-alls from those other sites as well as a handy place to post my original thoughts that can’t really go anywhere else.

And that’s really what the blog is best at: a place for original thoughts. I need a place like that.

Is social networking learning?

My social Network on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter...
Image by luc legay via Flickr

A colleague of mine recently asked this question, which sparked an interesting discussion on our Yammer network: Is social networking learning? Especially in the context of organizations, how can social networking be used for learning?

I certainly use social networking tools like Twitter and blogs for informal, personal learning every day. What I like most about using social networking tools this way is how serendipitous it can be. Sure, I can ask questions or search for knowledge on a subject I know I want to learn about, but more often, it seems, I learn things I didn’t know I needed to learn. This happens when people in my network share what they are learning or thinking about or reading or writing about. That, for me, is where the real learning potential of social networking tools kicks in. I don’t think you can reproduce that quality with formal learning tools, because it is so ephemeral and unplanned.

Here are some other good points made in the conversation:

  • “I learn far more about what’s news and relevant to my work from my ‘network of trust and interest’ than I do from common denominator mass media.”
  • “Between spontaneous learning and network-of-trust filtering, you get a new level of just-in-time (JIT) learning: ‘before I knew I needed it’ learning.”
  • “Not everyone is going to succeed using social learning.  Many of those that can already use it.  Some of the rest just need permission.  But if you aren’t really interested in your work, if you don’t think it is cool, how much is unstructured, social learning going to work for you. “

Someone also made this point: “There seems to be a tension … among the openness of informal learning, risk management and message control.” I think that tension is always there when there is also fear over loss of control. I have found, though, that in successful learning networks, people tend to police themselves. The organization must let go and trust its people, or people just won’t use the network sanctioned by the organization. If they are really passionate about learning and connecting with peers, they will find ways to do so outside of the organization’s control and without the organization’s blessing. So why not extend that trust and see what happens? The organization can only benefit from engaged employees actively learning about their fields.

We are just sharing already

Recently, I posted a link to this article: Planning to Share Versus Just Sharing. The post struck a chord with me, because I have been involved in so many initiatives in my organization to plan how to share. We are a nonprofit with a large contingent of academic staff; we believe in sharing, theoretically. We are an international nonprofit with field offices and remote workers around the world, largely working independently; we see the value of sharing, theoretically. So why, in the 7 years that I have worked there, has sharing always been such a struggle?

The article I linked to lays out a lot of the reasons why, so I won’t go into those. But I do want to talk about the lightbulb moment I had after I read this, something I should have already known from participating in various forms of social networking. The key is not to plan to share; the key is to just start sharing and see what happens. The serendipity that occurs is something that cannot be planned.

I still remember an ill-fated venture I was involved with at my organization to organize communities of practice. Communities of practice, if you are not familiar with this knowledge management term, are groups of people working in the same area who share their learnings and best practices with one another. It’s a good concept and one that everyone expressed a lot of interest in fostering at our organization. But the initiative just bombed. Why? Because we spent all our time planning, making rules, forming hierarchies, having meetings, deciding who was in charge and who could join, and we didn’t spend any time just doing it. I knew at the time that informal networks could not be structured but had to just emerge, but I had no idea how to encourage that or even where to start.

More recently, our smaller team has been struggling with how to share with one another. We are distributed over many countries, but we are tech-savvy. We are a fairly good representation of 21st century knowledge workers. We spent some time discussing video conferencing and team mailing lists and regularly sharing status reports, but nothing really seemed to take off.

Then one team member tried out a social networking tool called Yammer and invited other team members to join. Pretty soon, sharing was going on, organically, no planning required. We generally share in two ways: by broadcasting to the group what we are working on at any one time, and by throwing out open questions to the group. It works remarkably well to keep us connected and abreast of what we’re all doing, and it’s a lot more efficient than our old standby, email. Granted, not everyone on the team is using it yet, especially not all of our field workers, but we have to start somewhere. The key is to just start.

What is exciting is that other members of our organization are also coming in and participating. This adds a new dimension and level of connectivity that our isolated team–particularly we remote workers–have not previously had.

Yammer is fairly similar to Twitter, except the network is closed only to people in the same domain (with the same organizational email address). It has a desktop application and a web interface. It is a decent tool–there are things I like about it, and things I don’t–and I am sure there are plenty of others that could also do the job. This just happened to be the first one we tried, and in true social networking tradition, it was good enough so we stuck with it.

One thing I do like about Yammer is that it collects on the web interface all the links, files and images posted by the network for later reference. It also supports tagging on the fly and makes it easy to find all posts under a single tag. Some features, such as groups, could use some improvement, and there are no presence indicators, which makes it hard if you are trying to reach someone in particular. Yammer won’t replace IM and email just yet, but it comes close.

I am even happier that our team is sharing, dynamically, organically, instinctively, without need for structure or rules. It has already improved my remote work experience. I look forward to seeing how it evolves.

Can social networking hurt your job prospects? Or help them?

Over the weekend, I saw yet another non-story on the morning talk shows about how careful you should be about what you post online because it may come back to bite you. The story was filled with warnings about how everything you put on the Internet is permanent, and all potential employers are spending their days combing Facebook searching for stupid photos of you.

These stories pop up periodically like mushrooms, but I think they are largely overblown. If you are foolish enough to post drunken, naked pictures of yourself or blog about how much you hate your boss and the company you work for, then you’re only doing potential employers a favor. They deserve to know about your lack of judgment and common sense before they hire you.

But as social networking tools become more ubiquitous — and as decision makers become more comfortable with using them — the bar for acceptable online behavior will get lower and lower. Stupid stuff you did in high school and college will be forgiven; we all did stupid stuff in high school and college. In some industries, foolish photos may not only be okay, but even expected.

What might hurt you even more when job hunting is not being online at all. The resume is a terrible way to learn about a job applicant. I hope resumes become entirely obsolete in 21st century business, replaced by the URL. As a potential employer, I can learn much more about you from reading  your blog posts or checking out your LinkedIn profile or browsing your photos on Flickr. Or all of the above.

The morning news shows shouldn’t be spending time telling us what not to post online. Instead, they should be telling us how to manage our online reputations and use our presence on the web to sell ourselves to employers. Here are a few links that can help with that:

How to get started in the Web 2.0 world

Web 2.0

Image by Daniel F. Pigatto via Flickr

I have a colleague who’s interested in bringing some of our organization’s knowledge management efforts into the Web 2.0 world, and she wanted to know how to get started. My advice was, before getting an organizational blog or setting up a wiki or something like that, that she — or ideally everyone on her team — get involved on a personal level. Because I don’t think you can get Web 2.0 — and therefore your organization can’t get Web 2.0 — unless you’re doing it. It’s all about participation and collaboration, and that means you have to dive in.

So here are my suggestions for the steps you should take before you even think about setting up an organizational blog or wiki or anything like that.

1. Start bookmarking. You are soon going to be touring all over the web, and you need a way to remember the best blogs, videos and other stuff you find. You can use your browser’s bookmarks feature, but the Web 2.0 way is to share. So I suggest getting an account on a social bookmarking site. I recommend Delicious because it is so clean and easy to use, but StumbleUpon is also a good option. Both provide toolbar buttons so you can bookmark as you surf. Get in the habit of bookmarking the sites that interest you and tagging them in meaningful ways.

2. Read some blogs. Blogs are the heart of the social web. Somewhere out there, someone is writing about something you’re interested in or working on. Use Google’s blog search to find 5-10 blogs on those subjects and start reading them. Take a look at their blogrolls or the blogs they cite often, and start reading them too. Of course, there’s an upper limit to the number of blogs you can read, but you do want to be keeping up with at least 20, probably more if you can handle it.

RSS feed readers make it a lot easier to keep up with all those blogs, because they deliver new content to you, instead of you having to go out on the web to get it. I like Google Reader myself, but there are many  other choices. Both Firefox and Internet Explorer have RSS feed readers built in, as well. To find the feed, look for the orange RSS feed icon and click on it: RSS feed icon

The most important thing, though, when reading blogs is to comment on what you read and like. Web 2.0 is all about participation, and commenting is one of the main ways to join in. Once you start commenting on blogs in your niche, you’ll meet the bloggers and other commenters and begin getting to know the community that you’re joining.

3. Jump into Twitter. It’s time to up the interaction a notch, and Twitter is a good way to do it. You can start out small and build up as your confidence increases. Find a few people to follow; first check the blogs you’re reading, as bloggers are typically on Twitter too. See who they are following and follow any of those people who seem interesting, as well. There are plenty of Twitter applications that make following tweets easier.

Why are you on Twitter? You will get in the habit of sharing: what you’re working on, what you’re reading, links, whatever. And you will have a ready-made community to ask questions and get feedback from. What’s more, it’s fun.

4. Get a blog. It’s now time to join the conversation. And I don’t mean starting an organizational blog. That should come later. First, you should start your own personal blog where you can write in your own voice. You may choose to write about your work or about some other passion. What matters is that you’re adding your voice to the conversation.

Starting a blog is easy and takes less than five minutes. I recommend WordPress.com as the best free blogging platform, because even if you don’t know the software, it’s easy to learn and get started on right away. If you’re intimidated by having a full-fledged blog or don’t have the time, you can start a “micro-blog” on Tumblr and share interesting links, video, quotes and other short snippets. Remember to keep commenting on other blogs and leave a link to your blog when you do. You’ll soon find that folks who read your comments are stopping by your blog and commenting on what you’re writing.

And before you know it, you’re part of Web 2.0.

If you follow these steps, more or less, and get involved in the online community on a personal level, you’ll probably find it much easier to think of creative and worthwhile ways your organization can get involved.

The social media bandwagon…

With blogs and online communities sweeping the web, every organization wants to jump on the social media bandwagon. While I think social media tools can provide easy ways for organizations to get their message out and connect with people, they shouldn’t be too quick to dive in–not before they know what they’re getting into.

Here is a brief definition of social media from Wikipedia (a social media tool):

Social media use the “wisdom of crowds” to connect information in a collaborative manner. Social media can take many different forms, including Internet forums, message boards, weblogs, wikis, podcasts, pictures and video.

The popularity of “Web 2.0″ destinations like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter, plus the explosion of blogs, has taken off for a few simple reasons:

  • People find them fun and are willing to spend a lot of free time on these sites.
  • People are using them to connect with others like them, fulfilling a basic human need (and putting the “social” into social media).
  • These tools are relatively easy to start using, with very little help and training, even for non-techies.

Once organizations–whether companies, nonprofits or other self promoters–start getting into the act, it’s too easy for the fun and social parts to be taken out of the equation. Organizations like to control their message and their content, whereas social media tools thrive on openness. And organizations have a vested interest in promoting themselves rather than having fun with the tools. Once commercialization or PR efforts are suspected, it’s probably a big turnoff for many participants.

I would advise any organization wanting to take advantage of the popularity, ease of use and low cost of social media tools to tread carefully. It’s important that the employees assigned to this are already using these tools personally and are very familiar with the communities and their (often) unwritten rules of interaction. The organization needs to provide something of value to the community, something that the intended audience will naturally respond to and want to participate in; blatant commercialism or self promotion must be avoided. Finally, these efforts take time. It’s best to lurk, listen and learn before diving in.

Here are some good resources for organizations that are looking to capitalize on the social media phenomenon: