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.

“A good sketch is better than a long speech”

According to this Harvard Business blog, posted by John Sviokla, the headline is a quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. Below is a sample of a “sketch” that illustrates his premise that there are three strong reasons to pay attention to data visualization when tackling business problems.

The graphic shows a big section of Iowa and a little of the surrounding states, depicting potential demand in the market by darker colors. We gathered this information from external sources and matched it down to localities by state. This "layer" depicts the market potential. The next layer adds the performance of the agencies, shown with different-colored markers
Skiovla writes that the graphic above "shows a big section of Iowa and a little of the surrounding states, depicting potential demand in the market by darker colors. We gathered this information from external sources and matched it down to localities by state. This 'layer' depicts the market potential. The next layer adds the performance of the agencies, shown with different-colored markers."

I came across this through Holy Kaw! from Alltop. Sviokla’s three reasons to provide data visualization are actually questions to ask yourself when you face a problem, or process improvement challenge:

  1. Is there a simple map or maps of information that could make my life easier?
  2. Do we have the ability to take the myriad data and synthesize it into these new forms?
  3. How much time does the organization waste arguing about the facts instead of deepening understanding or crafting solutions?

The take-away: It doesn’t always work, but there are times where you can best solve a problem — and win consensus for that solution — by giving the data over to your graphing software. (My personal favorite way to show data online is Google’s free charts API).

Make a REAL difference this holiday in helping those in need: Here’s a Head Start!

Milwaukee has been hit hard by this tough economy. We’ve all felt it. But this recession has hit those most vulnerable in our community the hardest of anyone.

Holiday GigglesTwelve months ago I and a small group of friends decided to get off our butts to provide help to those least served in Milwaukee, in ways we could really see and share. Here’s that post about the extraordinary 2008 Head Start Holiday Celebration. In order to qualify for Head Start support, a family of three cannot have an annual household income of more than roughly $18,000!

We’re doing it again this year and we need your help. We’re not with Head Start, but we’re volunteers helping Head Start throw a holiday celebration that will last for weeks to come.

Please read this post on my personal blog site. Then consider a donation of $20 — or whatever you can afford — to make this event even better than the last.

donate_100_postIt all comes together on Thursday, December 17, 2009. Please read about it, and contribute today!

Meet me Dec. 10 for breakfast and truthiness

Stephen Colbert of The Colbert ReportTruthiness indeed. The occasion is Milwaukee’s next Social Media Breakfast, on Thursday, December 10. This just in: The snow storm has led to the cancellation of that breakfast meeting. The updated information is here, and the discussion will be on January 21, 2010. I’ll be one of four panelists discussing, Your Typical Social Media Consultant: Snake Oil Salesman or Expert? It reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s hilarious pairings of contradictory messages.

Me? I plan to open remarks by pronouncing that, on average, only one-out-of-four “social media experts” is really worth listening to — and since that’s all I have to say on the matter, everyone can go home.

Or maybe I won’t. You just have to attend to find out. Joining me will be the following:

Matthew Olson @_Signalfire_ – Owner and Creative Director of Signalfire, LLC

Sue Spaight @SueSpaight – VP of Account Management and Digital Strategy at Meyer & Wallis

Kim Nielson @Knmu – Communications Project Manager at University School of Milwaukee

Here are the details:

December 10, 2009 – 7:30 am to 9:30 am
The Moct – 240 E. Pittsburgh Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin
WiFi and Light Breakfast Provided

Twitter Hashtag: #SMBMke

Register today!