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From community to technology ... and back again

Andy Havens   /   /  Comments: 0  /  Rating: 
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“[People] are connecting, forming networked communities that allow them to rapidly share information and self-organize into powerful interest groups. Companies will have to be more responsive to customer needs and demands if they want to survive.”
From The Connected Company, by Dave Gray

Communities exist to further the common objectives of their members. And many of the most transformative innovations in history have focused on network technologies that connect communities in new and constructive ways. Highways, railroads, planes, telegraph and telephone service, radio, television and the Internet: all examples of networks enabled by new technology. All of which expand or improve the ability of communities to communicate more easily and achieve shared goals.

What is explicit in any idea of a network is its connections. And in every case, the more connections there are, the more useful a network becomes. This is commonly known as “the network effect.” A social network’s value, for example, scales exponentially, because you can have groups of many different sizes as well as more individual participants.

While many networks give us the means to connect more effectively, none has changed how we live, learn, work and play more quickly—and some say, more profoundly—than the Web. This is partly because it has collapsed so many different media into one source, letting us read, listen, watch, play, talk, sell, buy, work, publish and broadcast all in the same space. But, even more importantly, it is because the Web lets us create and nurture our own networked communities, rather than simply relying on the ones provided by governments, utilities and corporations.

The tools now widely available on the Internet allow us to create and maintain connections that can be both personal and global, and touch on every level in between. This allows groups to define the ways in which they can interact—and succeed—more than ever before. On the Internet, data about a group’s resources, combined with information about the interactions between members, can drive technological change. Networks have grown from technologies that enable stronger communities to technologies that are strengthened by community. This creates a virtuous cycle, amplifying both the usefulness of shared network services and the role that community can play in their development.

Networked communities: moving from push to pull

In the book, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, authors John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison point out that turning passion into success requires what they call pull. They define this as “the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges … to harness the forces of attraction, influence and serendipity.”

In a Harvard Business Review blog post about the release of the book, the authors summed up this point nicely, saying simply, “Companies need to refocus technology innovation on providing tools to amplify the efforts of communities of practice to drive performance improvement.”

“Pull” is excellent shorthand for the ability of communities to create networks around the ideas and objectives they share. Rather than waiting for a centralized technology to come along—think of railroads, highways, radio and TV—groups can reach out and take advantage of services and resources that allow them more freedom, more flexibility, more connections, more ways to configure their networks.

This makes sense, given that in order to “pull” together resources, a group will always prefer more flexible resources that fit within its needs and means. Building a successful community is hard enough work without having to engage in work-arounds and someone else’s rigid requirements. There hasn’t been much of a choice, though, until the last decade or so, because technology itself defined what a community could accomplish with it.

A good (and fairly stark) example is the difference between how video was shared prior to the Web and the “pull” resources available now. Go back before the early ’90s, and you had one option if you wanted to share a piece of video footage with a large community: television. You either had to own a TV station or convince one to air your piece—both very tricky and resource-intensive options. In the absence of those choices, you could possibly mail videos to your members. Either way, unless you could get your whole group together in one room to watch something, sharing video required complex, expensive and top-down network technologies.

Now, though, sharing video can be essentially free, painless and instantaneous. And the resources can be pulled together in a variety of ways: on a YouTube channel, via e-mail, on a file-sharing service such as Dropbox, on Facebook, directly from phone to phone. From a community-building standpoint, this means that “video” has gone from a network technology outside the reach of most groups to a tool that can be easily worked into a variety of applications, environments, events and resources.

That philosophy, though, is something that requires more than just a set of easily configurable hardware and software tools. The authors go on to say:

“... equating [pull] with technology misses some significant elements. ... Scalable pull platforms depend on the definition and adoption of standards and protocols for interaction, [some of which] simply focus on helping people and companies connect more flexibly when the need arises. ... At the center of pull, remember, are people.”

This means we need to think differently not just about how networks can impact our communities, but how our community efforts may change the technology we’re using. A look at the growth of the most successful companies on the Web today provides some insight into the platforms on which this new environment is being built.

Moving beyond services

In May 2011 at the D9 Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, USA, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt commented that a “Gang of Four” is ruling technology today: Google itself, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. He said that these four companies are “exploiting platform strategies” to create enormous value for both shareholders and consumers.

In his book, The Age of the Platform, Phil Simon describes the value of a modern platform as follows:

“[Platforms] bring together like-minded individuals who often share surprisingly similar goals. Together these individuals make up the most powerful component of any open project: the community.”

The focus for these companies is no longer on creating services and features based on specific tasks. Instead, people are given tools, opportunities and incentives to connect around shared goals and create networks that make sense for them. This allows any company, government organization, academic disciplines—any group, really—to achieve new and surprising results.

A key differentiator of platforms, continues Simon, is that they allow organizations to connect to other networks. “Platform thinking,” he explained in an interview with NextSpace, “is different because other platforms evolve in unexpected directions. It’s less about having an intractable five-year plan and more about seeing what happens.”

Looking at how the “Gang of Four” developed their strategies provides a good start in understanding how today’s technology can promote networking and creative community. In each case, what started as a centralized “push“ service evolved into a set of modular tools and resources that any community can use to “pull together” a network of their own:

Google began life as a search engine. One of many, it’s worth noting. For its first few years, Google was entirely unprofitable and many wondered how it would find the revenue to succeed … or even survive. When it began offering paid search advertising, Google took the first step toward allowing users to create their own networks. Instead of offering case-by-case banner advertising (the norm for the Web up until then), Google allowed its users to assume almost all roles of the advertising workflow. Based on usage accumulated over billions of searches, advertisers could set their own budgets and prices, choose the search terms that most interested them, and even put Google ads on other websites—a strategy almost unheard of until then. At the same time, Google began offering other end-user services such as Gmail and Google Docs in order to help end users succeed in a Web-based environment (and stay in range of Google ads). From there, Google moved into becoming a publishing partner for blogs (Blogger), videos (YouTube), maps and eventually apps (the Android Market). In the academic sphere, the Google Books and Google Scholar services provided more refined tools for researchers and students. All of these services allowed end users to connect to buyers, partners, co-workers and audiences in ways defined by their goals.

Apple began its recent renaissance with something most brands only dream of: an absolutely fervent and dedicated community of users. But for many years, its products and services were the antithesis of platform thinking, as Apple steadfastly refused to work with outside partners. Though its fans loved Apple products for their design, there were many fewer ways for others to “pull” Apple into their lives and workflows. This kept Apple’s market share relatively low when compared with the widely distributed networks of Microsoft-compatible systems. With the birth of the iPod and iTunes, Apple began to reach out to new partners, specifically music producers. The trend continued as the iPod Touch and iPhone brought app developers and wireless carriers into the fold, leading Apple to quick dominance in the smartphone market. By treating the iPod and iPhone as platforms for development and content delivery, Apple leveraged the goodwill and zeal of its community into a global technology powerhouse.

Facebook began as a network for connecting students at specific universities. Over time, it not only became “the social network” for anyone, regardless of educational affiliation or age, but a place to create, monitor and promote community activities. Fan, interest group, company and cause pages all grew up as Facebook’s features expanded to include scheduling, file sharing, photo and video updates and ubiquitous sign-in for other services. In addition, Facebook opened itself to be a development platform for apps and games, and also provided its own apps for other sites and networks to use. The most important of these may be the Facebook sign-on service, which allows people to authenticate themselves on any other site, blog or service using their Facebook identity.

Amazon may exemplify the transformative aspects of this new strategy more than any other company. At each step of its growth, Amazon took its existing services and externalized them in ways that allowed its customers and partners to build their own networks. In order to be a great online bookseller—its original service—Amazon needed great, online retail resources. Once it had built those for its own use, it turned around and sold them to anyone who wanted to build a Web store. It then did the same for its affiliate, publishing and enterprise computing (cloud) programs. Amazon also exemplifies the power of specific data to provide positive network effects to the community when looped back into services. Every search and purchase doesn’t just improve Amazon’s process for the individual buyer—it fuels the analytics behind “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” and “Frequently Bought Together” links. Participation on the network ends up improving the technology itself.

By making resources and tools widely available, these companies encourage users to create their own networks, connecting communities around the processes, data and people that make the most sense for them. The genius of this strategy is that it recognizes and leverages the chief difference of the Internet when compared to earlier technological innovations—that there is no center of the network. Or, rather, there are as many centers as there are users willing to define new hubs around which to aggregate the resources and relationships most important to them.

These giants of the Web succeeded by balancing the centralization of resources and data with flexible tools that allowed their users to “pull” features and benefits into their own networks. While acting as nodes on the networks of these technology giants, communities function as the hubs for their own members. This allows the driving forces of any group or community to provide network effects on several levels. When any local member has the tools it needs to succeed, that reinforces the value of the community for all participants, driving additional usage. And when the network itself is used more, it delivers value up to the larger hubs, making them more useful for the members of many communities.

Your Personal Networks

Networks no longer have to be centralized around technology, but can aggregate based on community. And, as networks expand, they can connect many communities and multiple networks as well. While connecting the work and resources of one community, a network can also become a node from which other networks can draw value.

Unlike earlier communications and transportation technologies, there is no need for users to work within the constraints of a top-down system of distribution, publishing or broadcasting. In fact, the large “gravitational hubs,” as Lorcan Dempsey, OCLC Vice President & Chief Strategist, calls them, succeed precisely by externalizing many aspects of their features, data and communities. This allows other communities, groups and individuals to achieve network effects without having to build or maintain the infrastructure itself.

Any person or community can now go from simply using service-based network technology to establishing their own networks of interest, with their goals and values at the center. And as certain network tools, features and tactics prove more (or less) successful, those data provide a strategic asset for the community itself: actionable knowledge.

We have met the networks, and they are us

What we’re beginning to see on the Internet now is the facilitation of new, community-specific networks that support unique goals. They are accomplishing this through “pull” resources, using services provided both by major Internet hubs and other partners. Unlike the “Gang of Four,” these new networks aren’t companies selling or leveraging their own technology, but communities that concentrate use and data around interests, goals and values.

How do you create a network that maintains a balance between the specific goals and values of your community while embracing as many open, connected platforms as possible? Looking at the most successful network hubs provides some suggestions:

  • Be intuitive. Describing “The Gang of Four,” Phil Simon says that “ … their products and services are extremely intuitive … Simplicity, elegance, and ease of use spur the adoption of products at the individual level. This, in turn, drives network effects.” The ability of any member of a community to feel as if he or she is contributing to its overall success is extremely important. Being intuitive also means being able to connect to the networks your users are already employing on behalf of their communities. If a group is already using a platform service that you can connect to your network, it makes it much easier for them to engage with you, too.

  • Be data-driven. Lorcan Dempsey says that, “A major attribute of both Google and Amazon is how they squeeze as much value as they can from the data they have, and the value of that activity increases with the volume of data.” His shorthand for this attribute is simply, “make the data work harder.” This means championing standards, helping to provide ways to translate between data formats and connecting appropriate sources of authority back to the network. Dempsey goes on to say that data must also be used to “configure the network,” influencing services and analytics, such as those we saw in the example of Amazon’s “More Like This” features.

  • Be human. In many cases, as the authors of The Power of Pull pointed out, strategy isn’t just about technology. Opportunities to expand a community’s network often rely on personal relationships and real-world partnerships. The technology and data may carry the burden of the actual work—but a handshake may pave the way more effectively than hundreds of hours of programming and development.

These qualities aren’t meant to be exhaustive or proscriptive, but directional. In each case, though, they point out that a successful network needs to provide ways to multiply the activities and assets of individual contributors at every stage. It can’t just be an amalgamation of resources. The “net work” done by the community must be greater than the sum of its parts. And, as much as possible, work done on the network should be reused to improve the data, results and analysis of future iterations.

Libraries at the center of knowledge networks

“A truly useful, transformative platform creates opportunities for people to form networks around common goals.”

So says David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know and Everything is Miscellaneous, and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. “A platform view for libraries,” he continues, “provides a better starting point for rethinking the role of libraries in a connected age.”

In a September 2012 article for Library Journal, Weinberger spelled out some of the ways in which a platform strategy makes sense for a library seeking to form networks around useful goals. In a follow-up conversation with NextSpace, Weinberger added, “Traditionally, libraries have been seen as portals for access to materials and services. Which is crucial, of course. Where platforms differ from portals, though, is in the opportunity for emergence.

“By opening up as many connections as possible,” he continues, “platforms encourage the creation of unpredictable yet important results. New art, ideas, inventions, realizations … all kinds of things … are both created on the platform, and then fed back into it for others to use.”

Phil Simon points out that libraries are already creating networks in ways that are extremely valuable outside the traditional realm of library service. “A library’s physical presence alone—having places for study and meetings and lectures—gives it access to an asset that 99 percent of online companies don’t. Connecting in some way with those who share similar goals provides a wealth of opportunities to develop a strong library platform.”

Libraries have been—and still are—centers of knowledge and resources for tens of thousands of communities. They are the hubs across which networks of learning connect millions of users and all kinds of scholarly activities. But on the Web, more groups than ever before share this trait: the ability to concentrate resources around specific goals. While still excellent examples of self-reinforcing, virtuous networks, libraries now co-exist with many other networks—ones that are providing ever more “pullable” services in ways that provide flexible benefits to various communities of learning.

In the second part of our story, “Libraries at the center,” we’ll explore the ways in which libraries are concentrating data from many sources and providing the foundation for Web services and networks. And we’ll examine the next step in this evolution: how libraries, by working together, can create more opportunities for “pull.”

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About the Author

  • Andy Havens

    Andy Havens

    Andy Havens is OCLC’s Manager of Branding and Creative Services. He is Managing Editor of OCLC’s NextSpace magazine, leads the OCLC Cooperative Blog team and is “head tweeter” for the @OCLC Twitter account. He frequently works on the writing, editing, design and production of OCLC Membership Reports, white papers and symposium materials.