Tag Archives: Clive Thompson

Ambient awareness is to humans what coconut shells are to an octopus

Octopus using shells as toolsEleven months  to the day after David Pogue of the New York Times posted on being a newbie in the “Twitterverse,” I think his piece is still one of the best introductions to the platform. Here’s a sample:

I’ll admit that, for the longest time, I was exasperated by the Twitter hype. Like the world needs ANOTHER ego-massaging, social-networking time drain? Between e-mail and blogs and Web sites and Facebook and chat and text messages, who on earth has the bandwidth to keep interrupting the day to visit a Web site and type in, “I’m now having lunch”? And to read the same stuff being broadcast by a hundred other people?

Then my eyes were opened. A few months ago, I was one of 12 judges for a MacArthur grant program in Chicago. As we looked over one particular application, someone asked, “Hasn’t this project been tried before?”

Everyone looked blankly at each other.

Then the guy sitting next to me typed into the Twitter box. He posed the question to his followers. Within 30 seconds, two people replied, via Twitter, that it had been done before. And they provided links.

The fellow judge had just harnessed the wisdom of his followers in real time. No e-mail, chat, Web page, phone call or FedEx package could have achieved the same thing.

I was reminded of this again over lunch yesterday, when I was chatting with a couple of really smart tech types. My lunch companions were very Pogue-like in their misgivings about Twitter. One was even leery of Facebook. Both made points that sounded familiar to me.

I acknowledged that when Twitter first came out, I was the same way. This post from 30 months ago is an example of my ambivalence toward Twitter. I have since seen it work as a valuable way to connect and learn, for both me and many of my clients. Some business has come out of it as well.

I’m sold on Twitter. Besotted in fact. (See for yourself, at @TheLarch)

But its success could be fleeting. Twitter is white hot right now, but flash fires often burn out just as quickly.

Maybe I should revise my oath of undying love. Instead, how’s this? I’m sold on the emerging social dance called ambient awareness, a concept explained eloquently in this Clive Thompson article.

Pack up your coconuts and see the world

Ambient awareness is bigger than Twitter, and even bigger than Facebook (now at 350 million users worldwide). It’s like the coconut shells in the arms of an octopus. For those who didn’t see that story, here’s the gist: Biologists diving off the coasts of Indonesia have discovered a species of octopus that has evolved to use a novel tool. Scientific American describes the discovery:

The octopuses were found to occupy empty seashells, discarded coconut shell halves or manmade objects, and on several dives, the researchers saw them carrying coconut shell halves below their body and swimming away with them.

Sometimes, an octopus would carry two shell halves and then put them together to form a shelter, the scientists said…

“Using tools is something we think is very special about humans, but it also exists in other animal groups we’ve never considered before, a low life form, a relative of a snail. These octopuses, they’re not simple animals.”

I learned about that story through — what else? — Twitter. This platform, and the ambient awareness it harnesses, is literally a new tool for helping those who put it to use. It helps us work, play and generally be the social creatures that we are.

The new power to get in: Twitter

A decade ago Michael A. Boylan wrote a book on business to business (b-to-b) selling called The Power to Get In. It was publicized as “a step-by-step system to get in anyone’s door.” To reiterate the book’s promise of granting access, Boylan begins Chapter 1 with this pronouncement: “You’ve been frozen out.”

It’s a terrible feeling, and familiar to many who have something valuable to sell but cannot seem to get an audience with the proper buyers.

A case for Twitter for business

I’m not a sales coach, but I have personally seen that when you apply the Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) to Twitter, it can help you succeed. It may even help you regain that Power to Get In.

Here’s why people get “frozen out”: In the business world, we’re all overloaded with too many people who want a piece of us. This has a key driver behind the drop in responsiveness of these tried-and-tested lead-generation techniques:

  • Email open rates and click-throughs are falling
  • Direct mail is becoming more expensive and less effective
  • Phone calls, with their deadly voice mail phone screeners, aren’t being returned

Viewed 20 years ago, the solution would have been to learn to play golf. And that method is still viable today, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

But in the meantime, social media are providing quasi-business environments, most notably Facebook and Twitter. In both cases, these systems use a social phenomenon that’s come to be known as ambient awareness (here’s an excellent article on ambient awareness by Clive Thompson of The New York Times).

The growth of these seeming “distractions” (okay, real distractions), is two-fold.

1. Drinking from a fire hose

First, we are all overwhelmed. To use the famous metaphor, we are trying our best to drink from a fire hose of information. This was described wonderfully in the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. For those who are inclined to try it, Twitter (and Facebook “mini-feeds”) can be a way to control this information flow. It’s like creating our own private channel of friends and business associates, available in real-time whenever we’re ready to check it out.

2. Special access to a private gathering

These micro-blogs allow us to grant special access. Remember when only a handful of your best friends and business colleagues would get your email address? Well, now your many email addresses are teeming with responsibilities and requests. Even our most private email accounts can become another obligation to maintain.

Relative silence, plenty of fresh air, and interesting challenges

Most humans who have been working at their computers much of the time yearn to be surrounded by friends and interesting colleagues, with few distractions. At one time, it was joining a country club that scratched that itch. Twitter is starting to do the same.

And because it is attracting some significant decision-makers, it is taking on some of the same appeals, in terms of lead generation, that golf does.

Ostensibly, golf is a game. But playing with potential business partners offers surprising access, and an informal context for the discussion of mutually beneficial opportunities. So golf is no mere game. The ambient awareness mechanism of Twitter offers the same lead-generation potential — if it is used properly.

The three rules to using Twitter for business

Follow these three rules and you cannot go wrong:

  1. Like other networking, think about helping others before yourself. Look for chances to respond to other people’s queries or interests
  2. Find chances to meet face-to-face. Here’s the story of my awakening to the potential in a “Tweet-up.”
  3. Never or rarely directly promote what you’re selling

Sign up for a free account on Twitter. Follow me if you’d like; I’m at @TheLarch. And then begin exploring a surprisingly productive business time-waster. Perhaps even as productive a time-waster as golf!