True or false: It takes a network

Last week I suggested that the top-down style of Senator Clinton’s primary campaign may have hindered her effectiveness in competing against Obama’s more networked approach. I wrote that this may be a sign of a new type of leadership — possibly one that can use burgeoning digital networks to lead us out of the dark, scary, physically isolating forest of modern digital life.

This forest is exemplified by the findings in the book Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. It is also placed into stark contrast by Senator Clinton’s ideal, as outlined in her book, It Takes a Village. The subtext in the African phrase “It takes a village to raise a child” is that no one or two people can raise a well-balanced and fully engaged citizen. At the very least, the task requires an extended family. Ideally there is a whole community at work.

The fear that a network cannot replace a village is — I think — a major source of anxiety about our newly wired world.

Of Televisions and Suburbs

Some would say Putnam (in Bowling Alone) didn’t chart the trend toward physical sprawl and fragmentation far enough. If he had, he might have found its earlier origins. He seems to place the apogee of American social capital somewhere between the administrations of FDR and Jimmy Carter. Before and after that, according to Putnam’s statistics, are the steep sides of a bell curve.

But looked at farther back, this bell might possibly be a blip.

If you look at its root causes, community disintegration might have actually started (silently, unmeasured), much closer to the time of Abe Lincoln. Consider the first game-changing technologies our young country was handed: The steam locomotive and the telegraph.

At the time, they were of huge significance. And these technologies were just the first gateway drugs for our current wanderlust.

After we gained the ability to settle across this country, our urge to strike out was further abetted by the automobile, and then the passenger jet. Nuclear families — and the neighborhoods supporting them — both suffered, as we were granted license by technology. Each successive device seemed to give us further permission to gather in smaller groups, and watch over narrower concerns.

So don’t be quick to heap all of the blame on what is, after all, merely the newest shady character in the police line-up. Networks and portable digital communication are the least familiar technologies, and therefore the most scary. But many others before them have been implicated in our decline. For example, before the web there was the “vast wasteland” of television.

Networks: A Cause Or Effect?

It may even be that networks can be a big part of “the way out of the forest.” Something has been telling me that the situation is more complicated than a steady march toward alienatation. I’m not the first to post these arguments. In his 2007 paper, David Koepsell suggests the following:

The web could well be, and in many ways still is, a highly alienating technology, encouraging a one-to-one relationship with a machine that even TV does not encourage. That is to say, television can be watched in groups, and often is, leading to a form of community interaction that the web typically does not.

However, the emergence of social networking through the web has brought about new methods for otherwise alienated and occasionally isolated people to overcome that isolation, to build new modes of affiliation, and form new communities in both virtual and physical spaces.

Koepsell suggests that no technology is embraced unless it meets some fundamental human needs. But do the latest technologies go far enough to begin restoring some of our society’s waning social capital?

My money is on Yes. But it is hard to see how this will happen, because we have lived with this type of networked world for so little time. Although it’s possible society has a terminal illness that no amount of networked leadership can reverse, it’s equally possible in my mind that our diminished social capital is a symptom of growing pains.

Could it be that, as a society, we’re just at that awkward age?

A Study of Semantics

Rereading this entry, I see the metaphors come hot and heavy. That’s not surprising. And it’s important to understand how desperate we all are for something to grab onto (yes, another metaphor!).

I’m reminded of something Al Gore said, when he was being interviewed on a chartered jet during his 2000 Presidential run. He was talking about his love of learning, and the courses he had recently taken on a number of important topics. When he was asked what he would likely pursue next, given everything a potential president should know, he said semantics.

Gore went on to say that technology and society are changing so fast, our language is straining to keep up. Here’s an excerpt, from the July 31, 2000, New Yorker article:

“Often the word ‘metaphor’ is simply a shorthand description for a very common, run-of-the-mill intellectual tool that all of us use.

“I became interested in more complex metaphors and their explanatory power when I was writing Earth in the Balance. In particular, in my effort to try to understand the origins of our modern world view, and its curious reliance on specialization and ever-narrower slices of the world around us into categories that are then themselves dissected, in an ongoing process of separation, into parts and subparts — a process that sometimes obliterates the connection to the whole and the appreciation for context and the deeper meanings that can’t really be found in the atomized parts of the whole — and in exploring the roots of that way of looking at the world, I found a lot of metaphors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that came directly from the scientific revolution into the world of politics and culture and sociology. And many of those metaphors are still with us.”

Such as?

“The clockwork universe. The idea that all the world is a machine of moving parts that will eventually be completely understood by means of looking carefully at all the different gears and cogs in the wheels and then …” He trailed off; he seemed to be searching for an exact phrase, and as he did this he turned his head in profile, squeezed his eyes shut, and made a pointing gesture with his hand. Then, when the words came, he turned his head back to me and smiled engagingly. “When I compared the absolute number of new scientific insights that came in the first flush of the scientific revolution to the incredible flood of scientific insights that now pour out of every single discipline, every single day, it’s astonishing. There’s no comparison. And yet the migration of those explanatory metaphors, from the narrow niches of science into the broader public dialogue about how we live our lives and how we understand the human experience and how we can better solve the social problems that become more pressing with each passing decade — that migration is, has been, reduced to the barest trickle.”

Gore seems to be saying here that we need fresh metaphors to properly share and debate developments in this new, digital landscape. We need to build a new linguistic toolkit — especially to deal with a world that is, on its surface, purely conceptual.

I agree.

If we can keep talking — and especially if we seek to understand — we’ll be on our way to a better world. I frankly don’t see an alternative. So as unworthy as I am to contribute, I’m glad that in a small way I can add to the dialog.

I’m certainly no expert in such matters. So I polled several who were as I prepared this set of posts. My favorite feedback came from youth and technology authority danah boyd, in a brief but much-appreciated email. To my concerns about our trajectory deeper into a “bowling alone world,” she provided some qualified reassurances (and a little research guidance).

What are your thoughts on this important matter? How are you taking action as an individual to create new and sustainable communities?

Does giving away your book, ala DRM-free music, make business sense?

When avant-garde rock band Radiohead posted their latest album online, they invited fans to pay whatever price they thought was appropriate — or even pay nothing at all. More recently, bluesy Brit Joss Stone went on record as saying she thought “piracy” of her music was just dandy. She implies that the freely shared music is growing box office sales of her live shows. These and other examples from the recording industry suggest a business model where your chief intellectual product can be given away — or shared at a huge discount — to the overall benefit of your bottom line. One could even go so far as suggest that digital rights management (DRM) protection does more economic harm than good.

Okay, but does this model hold water if you’re a niche business writer, speaker and consultant?

Kevin HillstromMy blogging friend Kevin Hillstrom reports that it seems to, if viewed holistically. And especially since his book is called Multichannel Secrets, you’d better believe Kevin views things holistically!

Joss Stone more or less admitted in her interview that, taken as a single tactic (my word, not hers), giving away music helps create buzz. It doesn’t help pay the bills. But this buzz is supporting her live shows. She is, in essence, a multi-channel business, and one channel is benefiting from the loss-leader status of the other.

Similarly, Kevin — who is the president of MineThatData — mentions in his blog that his pre-release book giveaway was not a profitable move. He reports at one point that he gave away twice as many books as he sold. But he emphasizes that as a “‘micro-channel’ strategy to running my business,” the giveaway concept makes good economic sense.

If you’re a self-publisher, you’ve probably already considered the strategy of giving out free advance copies. But Kevin can still help you, with his well-framed case for emulating Radiohead. Rock on, Kevin!

Quantifying community standards one Google search at a time

A Florida lawyer has found a novel use for search engine data in presenting a court case. Defending his client from obscenity charges, Lawrence Walters seeks to show that the “community standards” in Pensacola aren’t as lofty as some might expect. The New York Times lays out his defense tactic in “What’s Obscene? Google could have an answer“:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. [Walters] is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

I’m reminded of an old Tom T. Hall song about another southern community. In “Harper Valley PTA,” a single mother is accused by her school group of being unfit to raise her middle school daughter. She “wears tight skirts,” and has a drink or two in public — with men, no less! The song has our protagonist defending herself:

Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath, you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
Then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites

Of course the song ends with her accusers chastened and her “fitness” as a mother confirmed. Relatively speaking, of course, taking into account the prevailing Harper Valley community standards.

It will be interesting to see if a more high-tech version of this shaming defense wins the case. I have no affection for the industry that’s being defended, but if a jury of non-technologists can find the data presented reasonable and compelling, it will be a sign of just how quickly “John Q. Public” is coming around to viewing behavioral data as a yardstick of social attitudes.

True networked leadership builds communities that change the world

There is change afoot at This is a blogging site / portal that I’ve watched with great interest since I first decided to research the health of Community in this digital era. has a bold name and a mission to match. That’s a lot of pressure. So a few weeks ago, the organization announced the hiring of a new associate editor, Joshua Levy.

Levy will lead — for lack of a better word — dozens of bloggers who can pool their knowledge and opinions to inspire and facilitate change. Says a Wired piece on the hire (the link is immediately above), “The project [asks] a large number of busy people to contribute small chunks of time to volunteer — just as Wikipedia does.” I found the announcement heartening because it implied a new type of leadership.

That announcement coincided with Barack Obama achieving presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee status, a development that some say signals the death of top-down leadership in national political campaigns. Senator Obama’s campaign followed a horizontal, networked organization, while Senator Clinton’s used a more traditional hierarchical leadership style.

Both developments — as signs of a greater tend — give me hope.

Networked Leadership

Call me an optimist. When I was in my 20s, one of my favorite magazines was Utne Reader. Often called the Reader’s Digest of the alternative press, the Utne not only reported on positive social change but devoted precious resources to encouraging it. Significantly, it reported on the digital revolution, but also took a leadership position in exploring how networks can be used to revolutionize both print and activism. The publication’s prized, four-character ( domain name length is evidence of their early and enthusiastic arrival to the web.

The Utne also recognized the problems that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone (the title comes from his observation that nearly every form of civic organization has fallen in membership and participation — whereas more people are bowling than 40 years ago, fewer are bowling in leagues).

The magazine’s response was to encourage neighborhood salons, constructed around the then-burgeoning communitarian movement. Utne realized that our nation’s social capital was shrinking, and attempted a crude (and alas, unsustainable) mail-and-fax infrastructure to support these grassroots salons.

I’m an optimist, but experience has taught me to temper it with realism.

Take the experience of watching the Utne-driven salon movement wither and die. Of course, this was before everyone and his brother seems to have clamored online. Perhaps a “real” network will provide the instant connections (not hindered by the U.S. Postal Mail) that were lacking two decades ago. Evidence of this is the vitality of sites like, and other online social networks that strive to do more with its membership than exchange banalities and wage Mob Warfare.

Exploring The Social Power of Networks

Earlier this month The Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) held its annual conference. Speakers debated, described and otherwise explored an aspect of a community voice that the PDF’s manifesto asserts is growing. Here is an excerpt of that manifesto (emphasis is at the end is mine):

Democracy in America is changing.

A new force, rooted in new tools and practices built on and around the Internet, is rising alongside the old system of capital-intensive broadcast politics.

Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader.

If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread.

The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero.

Networked voices are reviving the civic conversation.

By some measures PDF is correct. New York Times editorial writer Nicholas Kristof, in his opinion piece Saving the World in Study Hall, provides some impressive anecdotal evidence that there is hope for us in the Millennial generation (those who were born in the 1980s and ’90s). And I do not doubt that there are individuals and small groups doing amazing things to make this world a better place.

But can this be “scaled?”

There’s a lot of work to be done, and my concern is online efforts are too little and too late.

Also, can this work be quantified, in the same, nearly irrefutable way that Bowling Alone quantified social capital’s depressing decline?

I’d welcome your thoughts.

In the meantime, I do think I have an answer for Bernard Sifry, father of PDF conference co-chair Micah Sifry. His parting question at the event: “How do we build leadership on the internet?” You find leaders who follow Lao Tzu’s advice in his famous Tao Te Ching:

The greatest leaders are never seen, their presence is never felt
Lesser rulers are loved and praised
Lesser still are hated, and obeyed through fear
And the least are despised and ignored

If you would lead people, trust them to do the right thing
When a leader accomplishes something using the tao
He steps back, moves on to something else
And lets the people praise themselves

Why the debate about in-house SEM vs outsourced work clouds an important issue

This morning, MediaPost featured “The Great (And Completely Ridiculous) ‘In-house vs. Outsourced SEM’ Debate,” by Dave Pasternack (registration to MediaPost is required). The piece begins with Pasternack asserting that in his 10 years in the business, “I’ve never, not once, seen a search campaign created by an in-house team outperform one crafted by a competent SEM [search engine marketing] agency.”

I trust that what he says is his experience, although at least one other in the comments reports differing results. Also in the comments, David Berkowitz found some of Dave’s arguments to be as “spurious” as the premise itself (Hark! Do I hear you composing your own post on the subject, David?).

I’m letting that discussion continue without adding to the din.

But my opinion is that the debate itself — in-house versus outsourced SEM — clouds the true secret to optimum ROI: Working together, in-house and agency pros are more likely to get a campaign that really hits one out of the park.

No one understands the subject domain as well as those who live and breathe it. And successful SEM requires content that uses this knowledge. Customer-focused internal SEM pros can add a level of richness to an SEM campaign that no outside agency can match.

SEM Is More Similar Than Different Across Industries

So what’s the problem with most “pure-play” internal SEM work? It’s a question of experience. When someone is handling multiple campaigns for many different types of clients, the similarities and synergies become apparent. Knowledge has a way of “cross-pollinating” between campaigns and clients. That’s a huge advantage. Also, this level of activity forces a heightened level of process that is just too difficult to match in an internal campaign.

As with most black-and-white debates, this one distracts from the benefits of a middle ground.

In every industry, and in every business category, there are those brands that lead the way in SEM. For the majority of these market leaders, I would be shocked if there wasn’t a smart blend of internal and outsourced efforts and expertise at work.

Both sides of the desk have something superior to bring to an SEM campaign. I suggest we SEM agencies work harder to remember this, and to promote this important truth.