Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew, just go right along and you’ll start happening too.”
— Dr. Seuss

As the Organizational Change Practitioner’s group on LinkedIn is about to reach 10.000 members, it’s time for me to look back and wonder how on earth the group got this big so fast? Sure enough, it is tempting to think that it’s all about me. But ego-centered games usually don’t last so long and don’t get so big.

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

I am sure you have come across these terms already. They are used to describe the division between generations who are connecting digitally and those who don’t. Unfortunately, most us think this is a generational gap. It isn’t. Today I saw a presentation indicating that the gap can even be split according to year of birth: 1980 seems to be the year of birth that indicates the great divide.

But age is irrelevant. Rather than talking about a generation gap, there is another difference: those who create, contribute and communicate digitally and those who don’t. In short: we are all digital natives once we decide to contribute digitally.

Trust Agents

“The stupidest possible creative act is a still a creative act.” says Clay Shirky, the most cited thinker on new media and digital economy. The thresholds for participating digitally have never been so low and not participating is no longer a matter of being too old or not being computer literate. Shirky underscores that the greatest difference between digital natives and digital immigrants is the difference between doing anything and doing nothing at all.

Chris Brogan, another icon of the digital age published a book in 2009, co-authored by Julien Smith, titled Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust
The authors hand out practical advice for social media etiquette. And they make it all very tangible through the analogy of a cocktail party. They conclude that the internet and all of its tribes and communities is ultimately human because it rewards social behavior and punishes anti-social behavior.

The Bank Account

So the good old metaphor of the emotional bank account that is often used by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People still stands. It’s like a financial bank account into which you can make deposits and take withdrawals.

The most important of all deposits into the emotional bank account of trust is empathy – and that is no different in the world of bits than it is in the world of atoms.

Covey defines empathy as:

“listening to another person within his or her frame of reference. Empathy tells you what the important deposits are to that person.” `

And that is even more true on the internet.

The Platform

Of course, there are some principles you need to change in order to make things work in the digital age. That’s where Jeff Jarvis’ advice comes in. In his book What Would Google Do?
Jarvis explains some principles that would even make sense if we would also apply them in the non-digital world.

The first is to be a platform for other people to express their uniqueness instead of a big-hit-final-destination. Second, the insight that you don’t create a community but provide  elegant organization and then the community will let you help them (if you are lucky). You don’t own the community, so getting out of the way is a strength.

The Long Tail

Jarvis’ advice becomes clearer once you have a look at the dynamics and the mechanics underpinning the digital economy. In his book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson does a very good job at explaining these dynamics in depth.

In short, there are three forces shaping the digital economy and they are bullwhipping the most fundamental laws of economics:

  1. The means of production are available to anyone in the digital economy;
  2. Transaction costs and shelf-space costs are close to 0 in this digital economy;
  3. Wisdom of crowds“: your brand is no longer a logo or a slogan: it is the story your customers tell about your product.

This means we need to review our basic understanding of transaction costs, distribution, shelf space and (above all) scarcity.

Is the Internet Making us Stupid?

The next question is the dumb-and-dumber question: is the internet sucking every bit of intelligence, education and sociability out of us? Again, looking at the generation Y‘s and how they are most of the time behind a computer screen or any other device, it is tempting to say they are dumb and anti-social.

Think again, because what they are tapping into is way more intelligent, social and human than you can imagine. Here are three reasons why I think the internet is making us MORE INTELLIGENT:

1. Multiple Intelligence

First, in 2000 (!) John Seely Brown noted that the internet is the first medium to honor multiple intelligences. He invites us to have another look at literacy. In our narrow view of the world literacy involves only text, but there is also image and screen literacy. The ability to “read” multimedia texts and to feel comfortable with new, multiple-media genres is important.

According to Seely Brown, the new literacy, beyond text and image, is one of information navigation. My ability to watch TV does not exclude my reading abilities, just as my ability to tweet does not exclude my ability to have a decent conversation at the dinner table. They are all new layers of literacy that add up in out multiple intelligence. No need to be afraid of unlearning any skill.

As Seely Brown concludes: “Navigation” may well be the main form of literacy for the 21st century. In my humble opinion, this ‘navigation literacy‘ is being topped by  a new literacy: Collaboration Literacy.

Oh the Places You'll Go COLOR

2. The Medium Shapes the Message

Socrates worried about how writing affected the way ideas would be conveyed as opposed to speaking and conversation. Nietsche worried about how a typewriter would affect how his ideas would be conveyed as opposed to handwriting. A 2008 article of The Atlantic explains that the same is true for the internet:

“Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.”

The internet as a medium shapes the message differently than offline. That much is true. But it does not make the connection poorer, nor does it make the participants dumber. The medium merely opened another can of possibilities.

3. Cognitive Surplus

In the below TED talk Clay Shirky takes the example of the platform Ushahidi to explain what he calls Cognitive surplus. In short: “Cognitive surplus = human generosity + digital tools”

Since the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 the Ushahidi Platform has grown into a large open-source project impacting a number of communities around the world. It was deployed in the DR Congo to monitor unrest; Al Jazeera used it to track violence in Gaza; It was used to help monitor the 2009 Indian Elections; And to help gather reports globally about the recent Swine Flu outbreak.

Anybody can contribute information. Whether itʼs a simple text message from a SMS-capable phone, a photo or video from a smartphone, or a report submitted online, Ushahidi can gather information from any device with a digital data connection.

To me this platform proves that the internet can really make us more intelligent, because intelligence is the ability to interact and make new understanding. A platform that can do the powerful math of “1+1=3” is a social platform.

The Places You’ll Go

“Online” is a different literacy and even puts an extra layer on off-line communications. I became aware of this when I discovered some new things about friends and family by interacting with them via Facebook (which I restrict to family and friends). Some of them I know for more than 20 years and still I discover things I would otherwise not have known about them.

Is that a sign of bad communication during my pre-internet years? No. Now we just have more than one channel to resonate and each channel shapes a different aspect of my friends and family.

And there is so much more to discover… Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”
— Dr. Seuss