I’ll see your conundrum and raise you a paradox

December 16, 2007

Context: I yesterday post a near-rant in my MozDawg blog; “Silo by any other name would be as …

Give 1000 people 100 communications channels and everybody may have a whole lotta fun but, really, you aren’t goint to get anything done. That ain’t rocket science.

Blogspot (multiple blogs), WordPress (multiple blogs), LiveJournal (2 accounts), FaceBook, MySpace (also 2 accounts), LinkedIn, ITtoolbox, and of course Twitter … I’m registered at more but those are the systems I used most often. What I see is a cloud of activity, 95% of which is buzz … fun, perhaps, and entertaining, to some degree, but basically it’s mostly dissipation.

How many blog comments are some variation on “That’s really good?” and nothing more. I’m bothered by this chaos not because it’s meaningless (It’s chaotic, not random, i.e. it truly is “information rich” rather than being just noise.) but precisely because it’s straining to be meaningful. The success of sites like Digg shows how folk really want to contribute something even if it’s only a vote.

A lovely little post by Charles Arthur at The Guardian presents some very interesting data: “What is the 1% rule?” reads in part,

“It’s an emerging rule of thumb that suggests that if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it.[In stats from WikiPedia] 50% of all Wikipedia article edits are done by 0.7% of users, and more than 70% of all articles have been written by just 1.8% of all users.

Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo [in “Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers”] points out that [in Yahoo Groups] the discussion lists, “1% of the user population might start a group; 10% of the user population might participate actively”.

Arthur ends on what I think a key point: Not just “you shouldn’t expect too much online.” but more: “to echo Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. The trouble, as in real life, is finding the builders.”

Dynamically stable systems go through chaotic phases after having been perturbed beyond their limits. In my own words, when a system loses its ordering principle then it will come apart and the information it contains will become indecipherable.

Hundreds of millions of people active in tens of thousands of forums and mail lists and blogs … millions of hours of creative time … producing blinding clouds of data and information.

How to order all this without driving out the vitality that makes it valuable? *shrug* I talk about discourse. Maybe someone will actually hear.

My bottom line? If you bring a group of people together and sit them down in a clump, likely you’ll need something like a facilitator to get something going. As Robertson puts it:

“Left unmanaged, this will inevitably lead to the proliferation of hundreds or thousands of collaboration spaces each containing a small subset of corporate content. […] This fragmentation makes it hard to find information published by other areas.”

But take that same group and sit them down around a camp-fire and (Caveman TV rulz!) things seem to sort themselves out.

See also Wisdom of Crowds is Cowardice” at CentralDesktop; “Collaboration Tools – Are Information Silos a Problem?” and “Enterprise 2.0 Letting Hypertext out of its Box” at Traction Software; a think piece by Danah Boyd: “Choose Your Own Ethnography: In Search of (Un)Mediated Life“; “Social Media Meets the Corporation” at ConferenzaBlog; “Collaboration tools are anti knowledge sharing?” by James Robertson; “Putting Enterprise 2.0 In Perspective” by Mike Gotta; Ross Mayfield’s blog

An afterthought: perhaps the web’s churn would be more evident except for the fact that so much of the contents is actually in-formed along a single vector: sales and marketing. If you want to see how it’s running on the IT equivalent of flat tires, try to use it for problem solving!