What’s setting social alight in 2017?

It’s a year since I got out my crystal ball and made some predictions for social media in 2016. Was I right? Partially.

It was indeed a steady-as-she-goes kind of year on social, with brands focusing their resources on a smaller number of channels rather than experimenting with new ones. Meanwhile, the platforms themselves have evolved, driven particularly by a desire to compete with upstart mega-unicorn Snapchat. Chat and real-time interaction grew. But the financial services sector has been slower to move than I predicted, so my suggestion that banks would finally embrace Instagram and move mobile wallets to social wasn’t as accurate.

You don’t need to be Mystic Meg to see where social media is going; it’s becoming more visual, more creative, more interactive – and more commercial. But that’s balanced by growing demands for quality and veracity. So what’s going to set the social world alight in 2017?

Going live

The biggest new trend this year was live video, which burst on the scene in 2015, but really took off this year with Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Instagram Stories all trying to copy Snapchat. Live social video was at the centre of several big news events, and it quickly became a key tool in the news producer’s armoury.

Forward-thinking brands such as the FT are already on board with this. My guess is that the ‘mass market’ will follow suit soon, as a means of giving audiences a view behind the scenes while delivering engaging content quickly and cheaply. The platforms themselves are starting to roll out support for pro users (such as Periscope Producer) and by the end of 2017 brands should have live video as a central plank of their social media strategy.

Twitter: turn it off or turn it up

It’s been a tough year for Twitter with its share price dropping following failed takeover talks. But it’s responded to rumours of its demise by pivoting from a social network to a real-time news and entertainment company and embracing its place as a second screen in an attempt to regain lost audiences.

As a result brands will question the value of Twitter as a delivery mechanism for content and links to websites. Some will close their channels, but more switched-on communicators will up their Twitter game to capitalise on the strong relationship between Twitter and TV.

Twitter audiences are smaller but highly influential compared to those on other channels. 35% of Twitter users regularly share their opinions on people and brands; these people are a third more likely to actually convince people of their opinions. They have a discovery mindset and seek content that is live, open and shareable so they can influence and engage others in an informed way.

Top-performing social brands can leverage this by using their feeds to provide the “pub argument ammo” this influential group want. That means shareable visuals which inform and educate, plus key facts that help them back up an argument.

Twitter’s not dead, but it’s a very different beast to 2008 so brands need to revise how they use it to make the most of its current strengths.

Enabling self-expression

In this year’s Internet Trends Report Mary Meeker charted the evolution of social tools that enable people to express themselves by creating an artefact – beginning with simple emojis through to Bitstrips and, more recently, Snapchat, with its simple-to-use lenses.

This trend shows no sign of slowing down, with apps like playground phenomenon musical.ly  taking off this year. In 2017 brands will need to find new ways to enable their customers to be creative if they want to win the battle for eyeballs.

Hybrid public-enterprise social

Facebook’s now well established as a customer service channel, but the long-anticipated launch of Workplace, Facebook’s first foray into the enterprise market, creates new possibilities for conversation to flow in and out of organisations seamlessly.

So for example a customer could raise a query on the brand’s public Facebook page, a customer care team could pick it up and use Workplace to investigate and discuss it, before responding to the customer via Messenger. Workplace’s app platform could make it easy to track conversations flowing between public and closed social spaces in order to deliver better customer experiences.

Quality filters

With the rise of fake news, inaccurate polls and political attacks on experts, 2016 has been a challenging year for the concept of truth – and nowhere more so than on social media. The tech firms have already announced drives to clean up their newsfeed, but this is likely to be a race to stay ahead of the spammers.

The desire for quality could push users to seek out trusted names to help them filter, using humans rather than algorithms. So while some have declared the reign of the celebrity influencer to be over, the demand for content quality could create a new generation of influential ‘quality filterers’.

Facebook have released Signal for journalists to help them with the task of curating content to improve content quality, and I expect further moves from all the main platforms to rebuild trust in shared content.

Inside-out advocacy

The dawn of the post-truth era brings new challenges for organisations and brands, who need to find more creative ways of getting their messages through to an increasingly cynical public. This year’s Ipsos-Mori Veracity Index highlighted how little faith the public have in business leaders, politicians, economists and civil servants – yet trust in ‘the ordinary man in the street’ remains strong. Brands can take advantage of that trust by equipping and encouraging ordinary employees to share on their behalf.

There are a host of social amplification apps on the market which allow comms teams to upload content for their employees to share. But this has to be a voluntary process – the employee needs to choose to open the app, choose content and share it on.

Faced with the need to make content appealing enough to be both read and shared, companies who want to leverage their employees’ networks will be forced to up their content game. 2017 could be the year companies start giving employees content as compelling and engaging as that given to customers.

Chatbots take off

Customers increasingly expect prompt service via social channels, placing pressure on companies to resource real-time social customer care. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help manage that demand, in the form of chatbots – computer programs that you interact with by “chatting”, for example in threads in messaging apps. These are an important new human/machine interface, simulating intelligent conversation, answering queries and managing simple workflows, increasing the speed of engagement with customers.

Mark Zuckerberg opened the Facebook Messenger Platform to third party chatbots in April, and in the months since more than 30,000 have been built.

2017 will be a year of conversation, with customers talking to brands on Messenger, WhatsApp or Slack. Bots will enable that growth as they become more realistic and more human.

Chatbots are able to bridge the gap between services designed for humans (like text message) and those designed for machines, by breaking complex transactions into conversations. And these conversational interfaces will open up digital engagement to groups who have previously struggled to use online services, by making them more human in design.

Conclusion: convergence creating complexity

The most notable trend for 2016 has been the race for each of the main platforms to ape one another. Snapchat copied Facebook by adding Memories. Instagram encouraged users to share Snapchat-like content by adding Stories. Facebook is testing Snapchat-like disappearing messages and added Twitter-like trending topics.

This creates more complexity for users – and for brands, who now have to plan for multiple different content types within each of their channels. In the short term this gives communicators the option to experiment with different, visual content types to see what works. But by the end of 2017 I expect most will have worked out where they get the most bang for their buck and will settle into a more regular publishing pattern that’s more focused in order to reach the right audience with the right content.

What the 2016 Meeker report means for the digital workplace

Each spring analyst Mary Meeker releases one of the most hotly anticipated slide decks of the year (arguably, the only hotly-anticipated slide deck…). Packed with stats on adoption and use of internet technologies, over the past decade it’s become the most comprehensive analysis of the State of the Internet around.

Her 2016 report was released a few days ago (1 June), and I’ve had a chance to pick out some trends which I think may create demands on digital workplace professionals in the coming years.

Arise, the Snapchat generation

In last year’s report Meeker noted Millennials were no longer an opportunity or threat to prepare for, but now the majority in the workplace.

This year she talks for the first time about Generation Z – a group she describes as “tech innate”, using five screens at once. While Gen Z aren’t yet making themselves known in the workplace, they’re only a few short years away from doing so.

Gen Z, Meeker notes, have a notable preference for image-based platforms such as Snapchat over text-based ones. In my last blog post I warned against lazy generational generalisations – and that’s borne out by the report too.  While Snapchat use has ballooned amongst younger people, use of it and similar image-based tools is growing (albeit not as fast) among all age groups.

That’s because images work; they impact us both cognitively and emotionally, which makes them able to tell a story in the blink of an eye. By embracing the power of images and design we can make digital internal communication more effective. But at the same time this creates challenges; image-based communication is difficult (often impossible) to index for search, and problematic for accessibility. Proceed with care.

Messaging is massive

There are now an astounding three billion messages sent daily on Snapchat, Facebook (inc FB Messenger), Instagram and WhatsApp.

And a significant proportion of messenger-based conversation will be about work. Most DW practitioners will admit that WhatsApp has become the Swiss Army Knife of enterprise collaboration. With employees now carrying more advanced and more usable technology in their pockets than they’re given by corporate IT, they’ve voted with their feet and opted for shadow IT on an unprecedented scale, particularly tools like WhatsApp and Slack.

Too many corporate IT teams have their heads still firmly in the sand on this one. It’s particularly challenging for those in regulated industries to admit their employees are eschewing corporate channels for untrackable personal tools – but it’s now far too widespread to ignore.

Beyond conversation

With Facebook now over a decade old, people have become more sophisticated in their use of social tools, which they now see as delivering far more than simply messaging with friends. The growth of business-focused conversation is driven in particular by Asian IM2.0 apps WeChat, Line and Kakao.

People aren’t content to be passive consumers of information anymore; SnapChat is simply the latest in a long line of tools which enable self-expression and creativity.

Corporate communicators need to consider ways to embed and leverage this innate need to create and converse in their communication processes and tools. Lengthy news stories haven’t cut it for a long time, and they’re unlikely to win in a battle for attention with a sponsored Snapchat filter.

Messaging apps are fast becoming platforms for commerce, and it follows they will soon expect to be able to transact in a similar way using their enterprise tools. Smart companies need to start thinking now how they can use things like Slack integrations to deliver this.

People have become adept at filtering out unnecessary information, demonstrated by the explosion in use of adblockers that Meeker notes. 81% of people will mute video ads – and chances are they’ll do the same with your dull corporate internal comms video too.

But good content still works, if it’s relevant. People have come to expect hyper-targeting, and they expect something of value in exchange for their attention. This requires corporate communicators to have a radical rethink of the way they create and share information – an app or mobile intranet isn’t likely to do the job.

You talkin’ to me?

One of the most talked-about stats in this year’s report was a prediction, from Baidu’s chief scientist Andrew Ng, that 50% of searches would be via voice or image search by 2020

Voice recognition accuracy has come on leaps and bounds, averaging around 90% accuracy – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by users. Already 65% of American smartphone owners use voice commands.

The growth of voice interfaces has a huge commercial and productivity benefits; the average human speaks at 150 words per minute, but can only type at 40 words a minute. Moreover, freeing people from keyboards makes connectivity vastly more convenient when on the move, and opens up greater possibilities for information to be more targeted and contextual.

If voice interfaces and voice search goes mainstream as predicted, people will quickly expect the same from their enterprise tools and systems. How can your digital workplace adapt to a switch in primary interface from keyboard to microphone?

Have you read this year’s Meeker report? (If you haven’t, here’s the slideshare). What were they most interesting – or controversial – points for you?

Social media in financial services: six trends for 2016

Last week I had the pleasure of debating the role of social media in banking and finance with Nick Jones (Head of Digital Communications at Visa Europe) and Keith Lewis (Social Media Manager at Zurich) in the latest CIPR C-Suite podcast. Podcast host Russell Goldsmith has blogged about it here, and you can listen to the podcast on iTunes.

Social has transformed the way businesses engage with their customers and potential customers, and that’s as true in financial services as any other industry. Despite the three of us coming from quite different parts of financial services, we all felt that this is an exciting time for social in the sector.

Digital is now the primary way most of us access our banking services – I haven’t been in a branch or even phoned my bank in years – and social is a central part of that experience. So what lies ahead for social in the financial services sector? Let me jump on that year-end bandwagon and predict some trends for 2016…

Consolidating rather than innovating on platforms

As Nick commented on our podcast, when we were first getting into social four or five years ago, new channels would come along and everyone was happy to experiment for a month or two before disposing of it. Platforms would rise within weeks – and fall away even more quickly (who remembers Ello now?).

Social has grown up, and as it gains the attention of the c-suite there’s more demand to focus attention – and spend – on platforms that already have established audiences, ensuring these deliver tangible returns. Tolerance for experimentation will fall.

Fighting for attention on Facebook

Facebook recently rolled out its Instant Articles feature – which means users are served a version of content from Facebook’s servers, rather than directed to publishers’ own sites. Early indications show this could be a huge change to the way the internet giant directs traffic to websites outside of its own ‘walled garden’.

Commentators are widely predicting that Facebook’s algorithms will prioritise Instant Articles over links to websites. And while it’s traditional media publishers who are being courted to publish direct to Facebook now, brand publishers are the next logical extension. Expect to have to pay Facebook to get eyeballs on your blog content before long.

Banks finally embrace Instagram

2014-15 saw many brands dive into Instagram, but financial services firms have been slow to follow suit. Financial products are necessarily complicated – as are the regulatory demands to explain these in detail, which has led the sector to focus on long-form content.

But people find finances complicated – scary, even – and snackable content provides a means by which we can demystify what we do. A few are starting to dip their toes in the water, most notably Capital One and American Express. In the coming year more banks, insurers and payment providers will switch to visual formats in order to make their products simpler and more appealing, particularly for millennials – learning from media and other industries how to boil down messaging for the format.

Making conversation to conversion seamless

The growth in mobile wallets means that in a couple of years payment has gone from being the most annoying part of any e-commerce experience, to being simple.

Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram have introduced buy buttons, making social and mobile commerce integrated. App developers have monetisation front of mind, so that conversation leads seamlessly to conversion. FinServs are likely to get in on the game this year, using social to collect leads directly from apps.

Mobile wallets get social

Taking that one step further, mobile wallets are becoming even more integrated into IM 3.0 apps. This innovation has been driven from the East, with Chinese banks offering payment services within WeChat as long ago as 2013.

WeChat has continued to build more financial products into its offering, from merchant payments (a bit like Shopify) to a nascent Private Bank called WeBank.

This trend continues to spread across emerging markets – where people are less likely to have traditional bank accounts – with WeChat-powered payments breaking through in Africa.

This innovation could spread to mature (Western) markets in 2016, as tech firms become bigger players in the finance space. Millennials, in particular, don’t just expect to talk to their bank on social – but expect to be able to transact there too.

Keeping it real(time)

While the integration of transactional and lead generation features into a wide range of social platforms could allow financial firms to generate tangible income from social, at the same time it places greater demands on those managing social channels. Customers expect 24/7 presence for customer services, and the growth of channels like Periscope require community managers to be more responsive to spot and respond to issues.

2016 looks set to be a demanding year for social media managers in finance, with increased demands from both consumers – to respond and provide better and more integrated services – and from those in the boardroom to show value. But if we rise to the challenge, the year ahead could be when social grows up and becomes a transformational force in finance.

What do you think of my predictions? What do you think we’ll see in 2016? Let me know in the comments below.

 

The email-free future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

It’s over five years since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg predicted email is probably going away, and yet I returned from holiday this week to a bulging inbox. So what went wrong?

Here I explain why email alternatives haven’t yet made the breakthrough – and what needs to happen to really see an end to inefficient email culture.

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Underestimated the need for culture change

Cultural barriers in moving from email to enterprise social have been wildly underestimated. Email has had a long (20 year +) period of dominance, and has found its way into a vast range of tasks (many of which it’s inappropriate for, but nonetheless). Old habits die hard, and email is quite some habit – taking up 28% of employee time. Intranet expert Sam Marshall once commented that only two things will survive a nuclear winter – cockroaches, and email.

Email, for all its faults, offers privacy, preservation of silos and hierarchy, and the hoarding of knowledge – all things which fit with traditional ways of managing business. For enterprise social networks to really make a difference they need to form part of a massive change management programme – one that sees the ESN as a small part of a change to make the organisation fit for the future.

If an organisation is serious about embracing openness, meritocracy, flexibility and collaborative working, as a means of making itself more agile and innovative, and engaging its people, then an ESN will enable that. But the organisation needs to lead that change – the tool is merely a means of delivery, and can’t be seen as the culture change itself.

Few organisations have done this successfully yet. Most have barely started. But as hardly a day now passes without another news story about how traditional industries and business models are being disrupted by smaller, newer players – firms who are already embracing those values and working in open, collaborative and innovative ways – big business has to adapt or die. That culture change isn’t a nice to have: it’s existential.

The tools sucked

Back in 2010, the tools to go email-free just weren’t widespread enough; few enterprises had rolled them out, and where they had they were found wanting. Let’s be blunt here: they sucked compared to what was available on the web.

Enterprise social tools lacked powerful enough functionality to make people ditch their long-held habits. They were typically rolled out organically, which meant they relied heavily on enthusiasts and failed to gain critical mass.

All that has changed, though. Social intranet products such as Sharepoint, Jive and IBM Connections have continued to grow and evolve their functionality. At the same time, products like Salesforce, Oracle and SAP have moved on from token inclusion of social functionality to offering fully social systems. And a host of new entrants like Slack have come along to shake the whole enterprise collaboration market up, forcing everyone to raise their game.

The current crop of enterprise social tools now offer substantial and realistic alternatives to email with functionality and usability that are as good as anything offered to consumers.

The challenge, then, is ensuring the organisation has the right tool or set of tools. And that means focusing on user needs…

Lacked understanding of user needs

Too many intranet projects are conceived and designed from the corporate centre, designed without a detailed understanding of how, when and why people work – so that social fits the way people work, rather than expecting people to change the way they work to use social tools.

In this (old) blogpost, Andrew McAfee suggests that the continued use of email when superior alternatives are available is an example of the 9x problem. That is, that people are generally averse to change, so they overvalue what they have by a factor of three, and undervalue alternatives by 3x. So something needs to not just be better than the alternative for people to be convinced to change, but it needs to be 9x better.

The number one driver of adoption is utility. Intranet and digital workplace professionals need first to understand what people do and how they work – and why they use email – then select and configure tools so they provide a compelling alternative – one that users perceive as genuinely useful enough to be worth investing their time in learning.

Poor integration

All too often social intranets are yet another in the plethora of workplace portals, presenting users with a hot mess of interfaces and user experiences. It’s no surprise that people reached for the comfort blanket of Microsoft Outlook.

Email dominates because it’s familiar, and it’s made its way into almost everything we do at work. Email doesn’t force people to think about what tool to use – and nor should your digital workplace. The current generation of enterprise social tools are easy and cheap to integrate with each other, and with other systems. Crack that and present a coherent, integrated digital workplace that doesn’t require users to think, and you reduce the barriers to change.

Too inward looking

Finally, they didn’t extend beyond the firewall, forcing people to go back to email if they want to collaborate with anyone outside of the organisation. In this day and age collaboration can’t just be inward-looking; it will necessarily involve third parties like agencies – and ideally customers too.

With most vendors offering robust cloud-based solutions, there’s no longer a need to limit collaboration to inside the firewall, nor to force people to go back to email to collaborate externally.

The future

These five factors can explain why predictions about the imminent demise of email have failed to come true. While the tools have improved markedly, implementations must focus on user needs so that users feel social tools are substantial and realistic alternatives to email.

As William Gibson commented, the future is here… it’s just not evenly distributed yet. While the tools now exist to deliver on Sheryl Sandberg’s prediction of an email-free future, without significant investment in culture change email will persist.

Photo credit: Daniel Voyager

 

Crafting the gemeinschaft: the case for grassroots approaches to enterprise community management

A LinkedIn invitation lands in my inbox. Ian’s added me. I don’t think we’ve ever met. Says he’s a friend.

If I’m such a good friend, can I borrow a fiver?

That distance between a friend and a ‘friend’ is a good illustration of the difference between a network and a community online, and the extent to which communities and friends have lost their meaning in an age of constant connectedness.

My social network allows me to maintain connections with people with whom I’d otherwise have lost touch years ago, and to create connections with others I may never meet. But this comes at a cost – the depth of those relationships.

My friend Richard, who I spoke to pretty much every day in the late 90s, says he doesn’t even need to call me anymore as he only needs to look at Twitter to see what I’m up to. He’s not alone; recent research found that the more up to date we are with our friends’ lives on Facebook, the less likely we are to call or meet up with them in real life, leading to increased feelings of loneliness.

This is all a long way from early analyses of the web (in the McLuhan tradition) which posit that where technology bridges the hindrance of physical connection in order to facilitate real-time communicative activity, social circles expand and thrive to create a “global village”.

The very openness of the web can, the theory goes, allow people to create communities of interest and interact with others who share their interests, regardless of their physical location. But this is rarely borne out by the reality of Facebook, which is a reflection of our own narrow interests, and a series of tiny, posed glimpses into the lives of people with whom we share a degree of connection.

It’s not, in the true sense, a community.

  • A network is a set of relationships, personal interactions and connections (in social network analysis terms, sets of nodes and links), with linkages and information flows between them.
  • A community, on the other hand, has a sense of shared identity, one which – however tacit and distributed – has a shared sense of purpose.

Over time the term community is increasingly being used to describe what are really networks. When people talk about the “investor community” or the “open data community”, they’re talking about people with common interests, not a shared sense of identity or belonging.

Like most debates the internet throws up, this one has a history that predates Berners-Lee. Sociologists have long sought to define different types of group identity and social bonds, most famously in the work of Ferdinand Tönnies, who proposed two dichotomous social groupings, called (in German) gemeinschaft and gesselschaft.

According to this model, social ties can be categorised, on one hand, as belonging to personal social interactions, and the roles, values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gemeinschaft, commonly translated as “community” ), or on the other hand as belonging to indirect interactions, impersonal roles, formal values, and beliefs based on such interactions (Gesellschaft, commonly translated as “society” or “association”) [wikipedia]

Gemeinshaft is characterised by:

  • Emphasis on the needs and interests of the group
  • The group being more important than the members
  • Strong communal relations and a “unity of will”
  • Shared moral values and beliefs
  • Weaker division of labour, with less task or role specialisation

Examples of gemeinshaft social groups include families, sports teams, rural villages and tribes

Gesellschaft is characterised by:

  • Individualism overriding community
  • Contractual relationships over informal ones
  • Stronger division of labour and greater specialisation
  • Diverse social mores

Examples of gesellschaft social groups include corporations, companies, countries, social clubs or universities.

Tönnies proposed these as ideal types; he argued a social group isn’t purely gemeinshaft or gesellschaft, but rather both types will be at work at varying strengths or in different parts of the group.

Nonetheless, Tönnies’ theory provides a useful lens through which to view enterprise social networks (ESNs). The aim of many ESNs is to build engagement, to connect people with common purpose, to build and strengthen relationships between individuals and with the group and to achieve buy-in to the organisation’s brand and purpose – in other words, to build a gemeinshaft. Yet ESNs exist within large organisations and corporations, characterised by individualism, contractual relations and deep division of labour – an almost ideal-type gesellschaft. That dichotomy could explain the failure to gain much of the promised value from such networks.

As any social network – on or offline – scales, there’s a shift from gemeinshaft to gesselschaft, as community size begins to demand the need for governance, rules and specialised roles. This process happens less frequently in reverse, where members seek a return to the days where networks were smaller, purer and characterised by personal relationships. And therein lies the challenge for community managers.

Establishing an ESN

ESNs are typically established in one of two ways: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down networks are conceived and rolled out with senior management support; they typically have strong governance, rules and formal community management from the start – and so exhibit more gesselschaft-type features. This contrasts with the bottom-up approach used by freemium ESN products, where networks can be created by groups of employees themselves, existing as gemeinschaft-type groups before being adopted and scaled by management, where governance, roles and rules are imposed.

The latter approach has – for good reason – fallen out of favour in the digital workplace world, replaced by models which focus on identifying and delivering replicable use cases for social and collaboration. But that’s been at the cost of the strength of group identity and purpose, leading to a failure to realise wider engagement benefits.

Successful social networks outside of the firewall have long since recognised the need to cater for both weak and strong social ties and groupings. Facebook, for example, allows you to restore gemeinshaft by delineating between friends and acquaintances, or by creating your own closed and secret communities which can turn a blind eye to their terms of service.

For global organisations in particular, collaboration and communication tools are fast becoming essential.They enable communication to scale, and for big companies to feel smaller and more personal. But enterprises succeed when they foster and deepen personal, collaborative relationships – albeit ones which operate and speed and scale, across distance, thanks to technology – to create a common sense of identity and purpose. In other words, they thrive when they function as both networks and collections of functioning communities.

A shift in approach

To drive greater value from an ESNs, companies need to take a similar approach to Facebook and create the conditions for more gemeinshaft-type communities to exist, characterised by close social ties and shared purpose, within the wider network.

This approach requires a shift in mindset in the use case approach to ESN rollout. Here are three ways in which standard adoption models could be adapted to allow for more grassroots growth, in order to create groups with stronger social bonds and shared purpose:

1. Find existing strong communities and give them the tools to deepen those bonds

When rolling out any tool, the temptation is to focus on fixing problems in collaboration between existing (dis)functional teams. By shifting this focus to groups who are already working and collaborating successfully and allowing them to build on that success, we can create advocates for the network and identify ways in which it can add value.

This contrasts with one of the stated aims of social within the enterprise – that of ‘breaking down silos’. But such as approach presupposes that silos are entirely bad; in many instances what can be seen as a ‘silo’ is in fact a well-functioning group. The aim should instead be to grow or replicate the success of that group rather than destroying it.

2. Create a beachhead

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoff Moore recommends establishing a small, narrow “beachhead” to scale up from early adopters and “cross the chasm” to the mass market. This beachhead is a small slice of the mass market – a gemeinshaft community. By identifying and taking over this thin edge of the wedge, you establish a basis on which to grow adoption and use.

This approach forms part of the recommended use case-focused ESN rollout plan recommended by many vendors – but taken alone providing ‘cookie cutter’ models of group types, that can be deployed multiple times across the organisation, can add to feelings that the ESN seeks to reduce people to interchangeable resources. The beachhead strategy could reduce those feelings of atomisation.

3. Let communities grow from the bottom up

Finally, there is a need to recognise the value of groups that emerge from a company’s grassroots. These often have stronger group bonds and a clearer sense of purpose than models imposed from the centre. In this qualitative study of one large organisation, employees saw the ESN as a “tool full of possibilities”.

But it’s only when users begin to understand and use a tool or information system that they begin to place it in the context of their own work and understand how they might use it within their own group context – what the researchers called “interpretive flexibility”. That is, for systems to be adopted, people need to begin to use them, interpret them, and finally place them in their own context, tweaking as necessary.

Adoption of Enterprise Social Collaboration, the paper notes, benefits from users finding their own affordances for the tool in the context of their own work and relationships, which helps to build networks effects (what we’d call viral take-up).

Affordances depend not just on what a person perceives they can do with an object or system, but all of their goals, plans, values, beliefs and past experiences (what sociologists called “sociomateriality”). People look at systems or objects and think of their uses in the context of other tools they’re familiar with – in the case of an ESN, they might think about its potential by considering what they do with networks such as LinkedIn, and sites on the external web, but also their experiences with self-service HR systems.

To allow people to understand the possibilities and affordances the ESN provides, we need to give people the space to experiment, and in doing so enable them to understand the potential uses and affordances, and to contextualise them.

This requires taking a different approach to rules and governance – an acceptance, for example, that a grassroots-up community has very different ideas about brand guidelines than those at the corporate centre – but creates the conditions for groups that have a strong sense of purpose and engagement to emerge and thrive.

By taking a different approach to establishing and rolling out an ESN that allows for – and builds upon – the existence of strong social groups and ties, we can allow them to function as both networks and successful communities, enabling our organisations gain greater value from their investment in social tools.

On finding solace in sharing

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen while travelling around Asia in recent weeks who seem to put more effort into recording and sharing things than actually enjoying them.

Walking around Angkor over Christmas, for example, I was amazed at the number of people who walked around filming the place on the phone rather than looking at it with their eyes. Most baffling of all was a young couple who set up their GoPro to film the sunset – then sat back playing Pokemon on a retro Game Boy rather than experiencing the magnificent sight happening right in front of them.

In my last blog post I wrote about why I tweet, based on George Orwell’s motivations for writing. Chief amongst these was historical impulse, what Orwell described as the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

As I said then, by sharing with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

And yet it was this same impulse to record and make sense which motivated engineer Jordi Mir to post online a video of policeman Ahmed Merabet being murdered on the streets of Paris last week – a move that was criticised by the Merebet family, and which he now bitterly regrets.

Mr Mir told The Associated Press he posted the video out of fear and a “stupid reflex” fostered by years on social media. At first he didn’t know what he was seeing, so he recorded it. And then he didn’t know what to do, or how to make sense of something so inexplicable.

“I had to speak to someone,” Mir said. “I was alone in my flat. I put the video on Facebook. That was my error.”

An error, absolutely, but Mr Mir is hardly alone in being at a loss to explain why he filmed – still less shared – the chilling video.

“There’s no answer,” he said, blaming it on a decade of social networking which has trained him to share whatever he saw.

“I take a photo a cat and I put it on Facebook. It was the same stupid reflex,” he said.

Recording and sharing has simply become a habit – we share to show off (like the Angkor sunset pair), but we also record when we simply don’t know what else to do, or we don’t know how to respond to what we have seen, like Mr Mir’s footage from Paris.

Has the urge to record and share become uncontrollable? Perhaps. In the past decade sharing details of our lives online has grown from niche hobby to hourly habit, reaching epidemic stage in 2014 as overshare was named Chambers Dictionary’s word of the year.

As Keith Porter wrote on the Live Simple blog, we all need to learn to put the phone down and be present – to soak up the atmosphere and truly experience what’s happening right in front of us. It’s easy to criticise something as patently ludicrous as going to a concert and experiencing it through a screen, or filming a sunset rather than looking at it.

But while many have lined up to condemn Jordi Mir for sharing a video of the brutal murder, his response is more comprehensible. When reality is simply too awful to look at or understand, sharing it can help us to seek reassurance, or help, or simply to process what is happening. When sharing is a habit that we use to make sense of the world, the urge to do so in the darkest of times is completely understandable.

Why I Tweet

Last week I spoke about 300 Seconds at #digitalcswomen, a workshop introducing women from the Senior Civil Service to social media. Organised by Sarah Baskerville – best known as tweeting civil servant Baskers – it opened with an introduction from Emer Coleman on the many benefits social media has bought her in her career. Chief amongst these was the ability to build a network which you can then use to find answers, and to learn from.

Twitter, and social media in general, remarked Emer, exists because of sharing – people sharing their thoughts and ideas, but also sharing their knowledge. Adding contributions to the debate, but more importantly by passing on tidbits they’ve found along the way that may be of value to others.

Later in the event, we broke up into small groups to talk about getting started on social. Someone asked me why I tweet. I replied that it’s because I find the network I have built on Twitter really valuable to me, but the question’s gone round my head all week since. I’ve been on Twitter around six years (under my current persona for five), and have sent over 25,000 tweets in that time. But I’ve never really sat back and reflected on why I’ve done that.

Book cover

Back home, I flicked through my old copy of George Orwell’s essay on his journey to becoming a writer, Why I Write.

Like Orwell, at an early age I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Unlike Orwell, I soon disbursed myself of this notion when I realised I’m not a particularly good writer. (As it happens, I married one and live the life of a journalist vicariously through him instead.)

Orwell listed four great motives for writing – which, to my mind, could equally apply to tweeting. All of us who tweet are motivated by a balance of these four drivers, together with the desire to share that comes with media being social.

Sheer egotism

Orwell argues that a writer writes from a “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups in childhood, etc.”

Social media has opened up the prospect of being talked about  to anyone. Like most social media users, I am narcissistically self-aware of my online presence, carefully curating my tweets to show my ‘best self’ – me at my most interesting, clever and attractive (and not, as I am as I write this, nursing a mild hangover, still wearing some mis-matched pyjamas at lunchtime).

Aesthetic enthusiasm

“Perception of beauty in the external world,” as Orwell put it, adding that the writer takes pleasure in good prose itself. It’s true that I get a kick out of creating the perfect 140-character bon mot, generating a handful of retweets and emoji-heavy replies. But Twitter enables me to capture and share the ordinary, everyday beauty of the world around me. A rainbow after a storm. The sunset over the Thames on a summer’s evening. Faces in places.

Social media awakens the aesthete in us all, allowing us to capture and share beauty where we see it.

Historial impulse

The “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

This is probably my most regular motive for tweeting. The recording of things as they happen. By sharing them with others, we create a record for ourselves, too, and at the same time create a dialogue around what we share, reinforcing, challenging and shaping our worldview as we go.

Political purpose

Writers write out of a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after”. No book, notes Orwell, is genuinely free from political bias. Every tweet, I’d suggest, is political too. Every comment, every link we share, is a contribution to public discourse – an attempt to bring people round to our way of thinking.

In that respect, no tweet is an island. One tweet won’t change the world, but taken en masse, the volume and sentiment of what’s said and shared on our networks shapes public debate. This can be seen right now with the parallel social media war taking place alongside the conflict in Gaza. Both sides have their official propaganda, but social media allow us to see deeply inside the war zone, and the steady drip-drip of stories and images has led to a notable shift in public opinion. Stories become more real when shared in real-time by people we know and trust.

Israel/Palestine is a topic on which strong opinions are held – for many, views shaped by their own family and friends’ experiences of oppression, racism and diaspora.The writer’s subject matter, noted Orwell “will be determined by the age he lives in, but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape”.

Our tweets are shaped by our pre-existing opinions and beliefs, however much we might believe we are impartial. So, too,  are our networks – we each build filter bubbles around ourselves, which can mean social media reflects our own views back at us rather than opening us up to a wider spectrum of views.

For Orwell, the Spanish Civil War marked a turning point, from which he wrote in support of democratic socialism and against totalitarianism. “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias”, he added, “the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity”.

Tweeting is political with a small p. So it’s important we recognise the limitations of our own bias, and that of our networks, and actively look beyond them so we can see the world as it really is.

Reciprocal generosity

However, when Orwell wrote (and when he wrote Why I Write), writing and journalism were one-way processes, with prose crafted by writers and read by the masses. As a truly networked medium, social creates a fifth significant motivation for writing; the culture of sharing itself. I tweet because I want to share my knowledge, and in turn have others share theirs with me.

Building a network requires us to be generous with our knowledge – sharing our own ideas, but more importantly sharing links to things that we find interesting, in the expectations that others might find them of value too. In doing so, you position yourself as a valuable source of information on the areas you care about (in my case, intranets, digital comms, and the current status of the train service into Waterloo).

Once you’ve built a network of people you trust, you can draw on it. Social media is my go-to for answers on everything from digital best practice to how to upholster a chair.

Knowledge is power, and knowledge is more powerful when shared.

Concluding, Orwell said that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery”. He has a point. I tweet because it makes me look good. I tweet because I’m selfish; I’m a voracious collector of half-remembered knowledge, and by sharing what I have, I gain more than I give away. And I am lazy; why find the answer when the hive-mind can tell you in an instant?

I tweet because I’m a selfish, vain and lazy person who wants to change the world. And so are you.

#ukvotecamp: an update

attendees at the first ukvotecamp meetup

My last post, on the idea for an unconference aimed at increasing voter turnout, generated a lot of attention and conversation. It feels like there’s a groundswell of interest in, and concern about the impact of low voter turnout.

Around 15 people turned up to our first brainstorming/planning session (picture above); a mixture of digital democracy old hands and new faces. I was particularly pleased to see there were some actual young people joining the conversation (although it later turned out they were there by mistake, having turned up for MySociety’s regular hack night).

The conversation covered a lot of ground. Everyone felt low youth turnout was problematic, but had widely varying opinions on what the reasons for this were, and what can be done about them.

One theme was a belief that one’s vote isn’t worth all that much. This is of course true, but as this clever app from the most recent parliament hack shows, collectively the votes of all the young people who don’t normally turn out could return a very different House of Commons. So there is a job to be done to convince the non-voting public of their collective theoretical power.

This is tempered by the voting system that we have – a vote in a swing seat is worth more than one in a marginal. But short of a revolution, to change the system you need first to engage with it, and that means voting – and then doing more than voting, but campaigning and helping to shape the policy agenda.

And that brings me neatly on to the next theme – that civic engagement is about more than turning up once every five years. The focus on elections alone is part of the problem, so efforts at voter engagement need to be sustainable, and aim to keep people informed and engaged about the ways they can participate in-between general elections.

The young people who attended talked about how they and their peers weren’t registered to vote – some because they weren’t sure how, and others because they believed registering would make them liable for council tax. With the introduction of individual voter registration from June this year, this could become even more confusing, so there’s work to be done to let people know why and how they should register. Because if you’re not registered, you can’t take part at all – it’s like a civic bouncer telling you “if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”.

And there’s simply a lack of excitement. Voting isn’t sexy, and nor are most of the candidates on offer. Unlike the older generation, none of us have lived through a time when democracy was ever under threat, and perhaps we take it for granted. So we need to find ways to make democracy interesting again.

That, however, is a big ask. There’s a lot more we need to understand about what would make participation more appealing.

I’ve since spoken with a handful of organisations about how we can take this work forward, and we’re busy putting together a plan for first a research phase (exploring the reasons why engagement is low) and a means of getting people together to identify and develop some solutions.

The next step is to take this idea to a bigger group of people. James, Alex and I will be holding a session at UKGovCamp this Saturday, 24 25 January where we’ll aim to make this a more solid plan. Come along, join the debate via Twitter or the live blogs, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Can we fix democracy? #ukvotecamp

Following the latest in a series of policy announcements which favour the old (who vote) over the young (who don’t), this morning I wondered: what we can do to engage non-voters? If the people who don’t currently vote turned out, how different would our policy choices be?

It’s clear many of us care about democracy and the need for mass participation, yet too many of us feel it’s just not delivering in its current form. Too many of us think it’s not worth us taking part, or aren’t sure what we can do to engage people with politics. So I asked:

The reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. It’s always best to strike while the iron’s hot, so I briefly caught up with James Cattell and Alex Blandford after work, and together we came up with a vague plan for UK Vote Camp – an initiative aimed at increasing participation in the 2015 General Election.

The idea, in a nutshell: We believe that by bringing policymakers, geeks and citizens together, we can better understand why democratic participation is low, and find ways we can use technology, online engagement and other strategies to engage people with the democratic process.

We’re proposing a series of unconference-type sessions in the year leading up to the 2015 general election, with the end goal of increasing turnout amongst those groups who generally don’t normally come out and vote.

So how do we do that?

I don’t know. That’s kind of the point. I care so much about voting that I honestly skipped down to the polling station to vote for the first time in the European Elections 1999. Yeah, really. But I’ll concede I’m atypical, and I can totally understand the reasons why someone might not turn out. Some of them are structural; in a constituency based system someone might legitimately feel their vote doesn’t count. Short of reforming the voting system, there not much I can do about that. But there are plenty of people who simply feel the current system could somehow be better. Plenty of people who feel that if they had something to vote for, or better understood why their vote mattered, then maybe they would. That, I think, we can do something about.

Can we help people understand the power of their own vote? Can we improve democracy? I reckon we can.

polling station sign

So let’s talk

First, we need to understand what it is that makes people think it’s not worth turning out. Some issues are to do with our voting system. Others are to do with improving understanding of what we vote for, when  and why. Data could help; insight into voter turnout could help people see the potential impact that those who previously didn’t vote could potentially have. Voter engagement matters, too. There’s plenty we can learn from successful peer engagement campaigns like Obama’s.

I’m proposing we kick off with a day to discuss why participation is low, and what we can do about it.

Then let’s make some stuff

Once we know why people don’t vote, let’s use our collective talents to try and bridge some of those gaps so voting becomes a more worthwhile proposition for more people. Not with a lets-bring-the-tech-we-already-built-to-show-it-off hack day, but by defining some requirements and working together to make one or more things – apps, sites, engagement programmes, whatever – that help people to understand why voting matters.

Once we’ve made stuff, let’s iterate it. Let’s use what we know, and what we hear from others, to make democracy better, meeting every few months to improve what we’ve done. We have over a year until the general election – that’s enough time to make a real difference.

No, I don’t think it’s the answer to all the reasons why voter turnout is low, but we have to start somewhere. And if that somewhere is bringing together clever people who give a shit to come up with some decent ideas that we can iterate from, then imho that’s an excellent place to start.

Interested? Good. Come to the MySociety open hack this Wednesday, 8 January, at MOZldn at 5.30pm and let’s talk ideas. If you can’t come then, give me a shout – you can find me all over the internets.

Photo credit: secretlondon123