Is Seth Godin Polluting A Powerful Space – Or Building A Tribe?

Seth Godin writes on the trap of social media :

If we put a number on it, people will try to make the number go up.

Now that everyone is a marketer, many people are looking for a louder megaphone, a chance to talk about their work, their career, their product… and social media looks like the ideal soapbox, a free opportunity to shout to the masses.

But first, we’re told to make that number go up. Increase the number of fans, friends and followers, so your shouts will be heard. (…)

This looks like winning (the numbers are going up!), but it’s actually a double-edged form of losing. First, you’re polluting a powerful space, turning signals into noise and bringing down the level of discourse for everyone. And second, you’re wasting your time when you could be building a tribe instead, could be earning permission, could be creating a channel where your voice is actually welcomed.

Leadership (even idea leadership) scares many people, because it requires you to own your words, to do work that matters. The alternative is to be a junk dealer.

The game theory pushes us into one of two directions: either be better at pump and dump than anyone else, get your numbers into the millions, outmass those that choose to use mass and always dance at the edge of spam (in which the number of those you offend or turn off forever keep increasing), or

Relentlessly focus. Prune your message and your list and build a reputation that’s worth owning and an audience that cares.

So, what I wondered when reading this, is this : is Seth Godin himself “polluting a powerful space” – or “building a tribe”? Who are cases of one or the other? What category does a Guy Kawasaki or Robert Scoble fall into? What case was Barack Obama’s use of social media? What case is Seth Godin?

I would have liked to ask Seth this on his blog, but his blog doesn’t allow comments, which I find smart, because it provokes me to write an entire blog post instead while I link back to his article, but somewhat paradoxical for someone who wants to build context, which is what I presume Seth Godin wants – and not as smart as allowing comments, which shows the ability and capability to listen as well as to “shout”.

It’s not that I am in complete disagreement with what Seth writes in the above, but I believe there is a bit more to the case. There is a thin thin line between ‘polluting a powerful space’ and ‘relentlessly focus’. Largely they depend on who is on the receiving end, what they expect from you and what they are looking for. And I do not see that they are so easily identifiable, except you know when there is a signal, and when there is noise. Thankfully, we all have the power to turn off noise and filter our incoming information streams ourselves. Increasingly, we rely less on the editorial filters of others, although we do rely a lot (too much, IMHO) on the information architectures built by others (especially when using social networks such as Facebook or Google+). The web that you describe and hope for, where we can focus relentlessly, is the same I want – but right now numbers are rewarded, and numbers are what makes the web (or large parts of it) a frantic race for PageRank, clicks and impressions. SEO, linkspam, noise, waste of time and waste of eyeballs. Lots of it comes from design faults of this space, which we can work to eradicate and improve upon. More so, than from the noise of any particular noisy individual ‘polluting’ our much-agreed-upon intensely ‘powerful space’.

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You can have your ice cream and eat it too!

This previous friday, March 20th, there was supposedly a demonstration taking place in 4 major Danish cities, against the court orders which demand ISP’s to block access for their customers to the Swedish website The Pirate Bay. For the technically savvy, a block which is easy to circumvent, and for the less savvy, easy to find a guide to circumvent using Google or with friends’ help. Still, it is clearly bad if private companies begin to police what websites we can visit and what sites we can’t. It’s not their job. Most ISP’s don’t seem to be too happy about it either, but most also lack the balls to stand up to the ridiculousness of this situation.

What happens next? Once established, that it is okay for ISP’s to block sites at the IFPI’s request, will they ask for stronger blocks? Will they ask for more sites to be blocked? Will they go country by country, using this strategy, until we are blocked out from half the internet, which allows us to find unauthorized copies of copyrighted material?

So, when invited to this demonstration via Facebook I said sure, I’ll come too. I will stand up to what I say and show up, to support an event which was no doubt difficult to get people involved in. On friday, I arrived at the city hall square here in Odense just before the appointed time. And I looked for the young activists, who would soon listen to passionate speeches, storm the barricades and revolt in justified anger. But there were no riots, no armoured policemen behind plastic shields – and no angry young men throwing stones at them. There were no heated speeches or masses of the politically discontent.

Instead, the city square looked like this and this. For a long while there was also a lone guy with a bicycle waiting for someone, and I later learnt this was the keynote speaker, (also) waiting for the demonstration which never came. Of course there were also tourists, old people occasionally crossing the square, people enjoying the sun on the benches with a beer or an ice cream. Like myself :

As it turns out, the political battles of the 21st century are not fought on barricades or with strong political slogans, yelt from city squares where the masses demonstrate their power against villains in office. Instead they are fought on ice cream.

Clay Shirky, writing about Belarus protesters, who used flash mobs in 2006 to show their discontent with the regime :

In May someone posting under the name by_mob used LiveJournal, a piece of blogging software, to propose a flash mob for the fifteenth of that month. (…) the idea was simply that people would show up in Oktyabrskaya Square and eat ice cream. The results were one part ridiculous and three parts depressing; police were waiting in the square and hauled away several of the ice cream eaters, all while being documented in the now-standard pattern as other participants took digital pictures and uploaded them to Flickr, LiveJorunal, and other online outlets. These pictures in turn recirculated by bloggers like Andy Carvin and Ethan Zuckerman, political bloggers who cover the use of technology as a tool for social change. Images of a repressive Belarus thus spread far beyond the borders of Minsk. Nothing says “police state” like detaining kids for eating ice cream. (Here Comes Everybody, p. 166-167)

There were other flash mobs held, one where participants were encouraged to read aloud pieces of banned writers, and another where people were incited to nothing more than “walk around Oktyabrskaya smiling at one another”.

This action produced the same reaction from the state; attendees reported that the police were using the presence of a pocketknife to try one of the smilers with weapons possession.

The police weren’t reacting to the ice cream eating, reading or smiling itself. The chosen behaviour was intentionally innocuous, because the real message lay not in the behaviour but in the collective action.

What is dangerous to the Belarus regime, is the way protesters make it possible for others to know about what is going on. Protesting is an information sharing business. It is about getting your message out, so that more people will know. And if more people know, more will take action to change things. When photos and videos of what’s going on circulate globally, it makes it much more difficult for the people in power to control the message. It creates a shared awareness. Clay Shirky again :

The military often talks about “shared awareness”, which is the ability of many different people and groups to understand a situation, and to understand who else has the same understanding. If I see a fire break out, and I see that you see it as well, we may more easily coordinate our actions – you call 911, I grab a fire extinguisher – than if I have to call your attention to the fire, or if I am in some confusion about how you will react to the a fire. Shared awareness allows otherwise uncoordinated groups to begin to work together more quickly and effectively.

This kind of social awareness has three levels: when everybody knows something, when everybody knows that everybody knows, and when everybody knows that everybody knows that everybody knows. (p. 163)

The battles of the digital frontiers have always been about controlling what message gets out, controlling what story is told. From the “Piracy is theft!” slogans of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST) in the 1980′es to the law suits of the 1990′es against teenagers for sharing files using the internet. The story told now is one about child pornography, and since we should all condemn and be afraid of that, it’s suddenly okay to call the quits on everything called free speech and make ISP’s block particular web sites. All we need to do is shout “piracy”. No?

A bunch of clever scandinavians claimed back the concept of “piracy” and began to describe themselves as “pirates”. Their torrent index site began to attract the attention of a global pool of users, and with them the attention of global media. And the story began to sound a little different. What had been demonized and called foul names and made people bow their heads in fear for decades now took another meaning. What was previously unthinkable to be uttered aloud in good company, could suddenly mean something else. In fact the meaning attributed by the copyright industries to the concept of piracy is undermined, when ordinary (primarily young) people start using it as something that describe themselves and of which they are proud. It makes it much harder to control the message.

But that doesn’t mean this stops here. I think protest organizers and participants of this struggle need to educate themselves and think deeply about how to organize in new ways, reach each other and create that “shared awareness”, which is necessary for us to act in any coordinated way. It means embracing new services, free software tools, share information effectively with wikis, use social messaging in the Twitter sense, plan and execute flash mobs of the Belarus sort, which create awareness not because there are a lot of people there, but because the images from the happenings reach a lot of people, or reach the right people. It means connecting with others in insightful ways.

So what do I mean by that curious title? It means that digital goods can be copied. Events can be captured and communicated. Among other things, it means we can use digital information more than once, on more different platforms, to reach more different people. It means there are no real limits as to what we can do to create a deeper shared awareness, which makes it easier for say, protesters to recognize each other as protesters on a city square in a town like Odense.

Someone may claim that a video of someone eating ice cream is not real ice cream, it is simply, like Magritte would say, an image of an ice cream. Or in the terms of our times, a copy of an ice cream. Which is true enough. But it can have a great effect, nonetheless.

[UPDATE: 2012-07-02 - fixed and added photolinks]

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Communicating Problems, Visions and Solutions

After posting my article on the anatomy of Kaplak Stream I found this brilliant video featuring Dan “back of the napkin” Roam. Incredibly insightful stuff, about something we all can learn from and be a lot better at : visualizing and communicating our problems, visions and solutions. Please enjoy :

You can support Kaplak and buy Dan’s book here if you are going to buy it anyway. I know I am.

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Who reads Kaplak.com?

If Kaplak is to succeed in ‘making the world’s ends meet’, we need to get in touch with potential customers globally. This is a daunting task, to say the least, and not something you do from one day to the other. Kaplak’s product may depend on technology, yet we can build the best solution in the world technology-wise, but if noone uses it or knows about it, it doesn’t matter. This is where this website, and this blog in particular, comes into the picture.

We need to connect niche producers with new markets, document that we are able to do this, and that our efforts pay off. What’s more important is that we have to do this simultanously with our product development, not after we’ve spent millions building the product, only to find out things didn’t look exactly the way we imagined.

In this respect, it is interesting to take a small peek at some of the traffic data we’ve collected so far.

This model shows an early tendency which is very reassuring. After the last two months of this website’s uptime, there’s a clear indication already, that Kaplak will not simply remain an obscure Danish project. We’re capable of reaching out and building a larger global base. The important question to ask at this point is why this is possible?

The model illustrates the effect of something I find incredibly important for the Kaplak Project, but which is often difficult to describe and communicate even to people involved in the project. This is why I wanted to show it here.

We have thought and contemplated Kaplak in a Danish context, in one particular local spot of the world. We’ve performed no marketing efforts at all, besides spreading the word through our local off- and online networks. Our initial traffic therefore consists mostly of our friends and colleagues, and their friends and colleages. But it may very well be, that our best, most motivated first customers are in Buenos Aires or in Koala Lumpur, and not in our local spot. We don’t know yet.

But we do know, that the only thing which have made it possible for us to attract visitors from as far away places as Uruguay, Viet Nam or Ireland until now is a mixture of hyperlinks pointing to our site and of texts, images and links, which makes it possible for search engines to index our site appropriately. This is why I make such a great fuss out of cultivating as much activity on the blog (among other things), as we possibly can, including real case studies with real answers from real people and companies, who feel what life is about on the slim end of the long tail. Because every time someone searches for terms in a unique way which matches the way our site has been indexed, we gain contact with someone who may share the aches, challenges and opportunities we describe.

The model also shows, how much more work we still need to do in order to accomplish what we’ve set out to do. It’s an uphill struggle for each blog entry, each reference, each visitor, each comment, each link which may connect us with someone, who really feels the niche producer’s ache.

We don’t need or want massive amounts of traffic for our website, at least not for the time being, but we’re very interested to see a healthy growth and composition of our traffic evolve over time, which makes it possible for us eventually to reach someone who is motivated enough to single our site out of the millions, and sign up for our mailing list, if he or she is interested in Kaplak.

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The freelancer

Thomas Magnussen is a British-Danish actor with a voice talent. His first job was a minor part in Tom Hanks’ tv-series Band of Brothers (2001), and since then his work has been a mix of theatrical plays, voice work and a number of roles in film and television. He has done a few international commercials. On his website, Thomas uses this video to introduce himself :

Thomas was kind enough to send me a quicktime file of the film, which I uploaded to YouTube (whose true merits we discussed briefly here), because I think it is important to show the video here as well. When you expressly put a text, an image or a video (like in this case) into a new context, it makes it stand out in a new way and helps create new meaning. And create meaning is what we want to do, because this creates value for this particular spot on the internet. I’m surprised, with Thomas’ resume, that I couldn’t find him on YouTube or in other places, because this kind of activity helps build traffic for his website, and it doesn’t cost anything.

Kaplak : Can you tell us a little about yourself and your niche business? How did you get involved with your line of work?
Thomas Magnussen (TM) : I am an actor, trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, working freelance in both theatre and films. I have several years of experience in doing various voicework such as: Documentary speaks, cartoon dubbing, voiceovers and commercial speaks. As I am bi-lingual English-Danish I’m equally skilled in both languages, and therefore work in both.

Kaplak : What kind of digital product do you produce (if any)?
TM : The digital products I produce are primarily the above mentioned voice related works, but I would be open to any idea which could involve acting related jobs, such as e-learning products for instance.

Kaplak : What constitute the greatest opportunity for your business on the internet?
TM : The greatest opportunity the internet offers me is that I can reach out to potentiel clients/employers in every part of the world by simply being visible via my website.

Kaplak : What are the greatest challenge?
TM : The greatest challenge is to find out where to focus my attention and how to get people to find out that I exist.

As an actor, Thomas is a hired gun. He is primarily a freelancer. The main portion of his work is done for clients, i.e. other creative producers and companies. Even when hired by a theatre, jobs are per project and run for a limited time. In several respects, this makes him different from the hobby-oriented “just for fun” niche producer and the professional-level producer we’ve met earlier on this blog.

First, he doesn’t usually own the digital end products he helps create. There could be exceptions to this, and surely there’s a lot of convergence happening, where a one day freelancer may be a producer on his own terms the other day (I’ve worked like that myself for years). As a “classic” freelancer though, one doesn’t usually gain rights to the work produced, but more often has to give them up.

Second, Thomas’ primary problem is visibility. But not towards people who buy the end digitial product (still, we keep out all points about convergence for now), but towards his clients, the producers all over the world, who want the product he offers. In other words, to get in touch with the producers who will want to hire him, if they knew he existed.

To sum up, it’s not the visibility for “end customers”, transport of data og payments which are Thomas’ challenges. In this sense, at first glance, he’s not an obvious Kaplak customer. But still he’s a very attractive customer for Kaplak. Why? Because he has a website! And he has something to sell, besides his acting product.

Thomas’ website is right now not much more but a showcase of his previous work, a curriculum vitae and some contact information. But it is also (or could be) an entry point to Thomas’ fan base or network. These people are valuable customers for the products, which Thomas’ acting efforts help produce, and possibly also for other types of related products. Imagine, that Thomas could help sell one of his recent projects, i.e. James Barclay’s next feature film Aurum, via his website. Imagine that the entire cast on this film (most actors have their own webpages) could help sell the film via their websites. Not only would this be great marketing news for the producer, but could also help provide a little extra for each actor.

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Kaplak on Twitter

Last year I discovered Twitter, inspired by video blogger and online infopreneur Raymond M. Kristiansen. Raymond worked very hard during the national election last year to introduce Video Blogging as a serious campaigning tool for the candidates of Radikale Venstre, the Danish Social-Liberal Party, of which both Raymond and I are members. I met him briefly then, and was tremendously inspired by his rigourous online activities.


follow Kaplak at http://twitter.com

Twitter allows you to post short (below 140 characters) messages about anything, and to follow others who do the same thing. One can send and receive messages via mobile phone as well as directly via the web. What is this useful for? Well, I’m still investigating. The constraint and mobility creates interesting results. Twitter can be anything from an individual’s stream of consciousness, two people exchanging mood swings or girl trouble or interesting links, or a group brainstorming ideas and theories. Twitter is a funny little thing. I haven’t quite figured out yet what to use it for, but today an occasion arose, which makes sense.

I’m participating in Oplevelsesiværksætter, a course in project leadership and investor relations for startups in the experience economy. The course runs for the next 4 months and focuses (unsurprisingly) on project leadership and investor relations. I decided today to use Twitter to share notes and thoughts about the course in relation to Kaplak. It fits perfectly with the way I write notes. I usually write things down to learn them better and reflect about what I’m doing. I don’t throw my notes away after such a course, but I very rarely read them again. I may as well share some of these thoughts and ideas online, while I’m at it. It tells a much less filtered story about Kaplak, as it unfolds from my perspective as leader of this project, which could be interesting for other entrepreneurs. All the time, everyone reading (other Twitter users) has the opportunity to comment and engage in the process as we go along.

Using Twitter for this kind of intimate log is also an interesting method of providing value to our company. Why can this be? Answer : it helps drive relevant traffic to our site. In this case, we want to attract potential “first” customers for Kaplak who are visionary and adventurous enough to seek out information on how to meet their online distribution challenges. Or simply feels the financial pain of imprecise distribution methods much harder than anyone else, because their market is too thinly spread for traditional retail systems.

On a related note, I’ve never experienced something as hard to explain to people than this, the intimate relation between hyperlinks and value. For most people it somehow seems utterly incomprehensible, that a hyperlink can be worth something. But in the end, this is what we at Kaplak is going to create our product around. Links matter, and it matters where you find them. The context the hyperlink appears in makes meaning. I’ll be very happy for any inputs on how to illustrate this connection between a “simple” reference and value.

I also want to say a big thank you to all of you, who have linked to Kaplak.com. It really is a great deal and means a lot to us, if you link to Kaplak.com from your website, blog, forum or email signature, or from your Facebook account.

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Kaplak on Squidoo

We now have a Squidoo page on Kaplak. It’s been interesting to play around with creating this page!

Services such as Squidoo and NING present great filtering opportunities for niche oriented projects such as Kaplak, and I’ll return with more in-depth analysis of these services.

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The Mainstream Problem

I’ve previously referred to a phenomena, which I’ve chosen to term the mainstream problem. The mainstream problem describes the effect that distribution of information and cultural expressions acquires “hitlist” characteristics, when subjected to limited space, time or attention.

Chris Anderson, spokesperson for the advantages of the online niche economy in his book The Long Tail, describes ‘mainstream’ as that which many people are moderately interested in, while ‘niche’ describes that which passionately interest few people.

In industrial mass media such as the publishing, newspaper or television industry the scarcity of ressources means that one produces the product which sells well enough to finance it’s production. Since most people collectively demand the mainstream product, this product sells best and is therefore the one produced. This does not imply, however, that the mainstream product is the best. But it is the best possible product given a specific set of economical conditions, borne by specific means of production, which are too expensive to fulfill the needs of the niches.

A limited space (such as a webpage, the frontpage of a newspaper, television air time or the size of a screen) leaves space for just some information, in place of other information. Given the economical constraints discussed above, this space will be distributed according to ‘most popular’ hitlist criteria, meaning that the mainstream information, i.e. the information which hits the most people moderately, but none passionately, takes up the space.

The effect of displaying information this way is often amplified, since more people will take a closer look at the contents of the frontpage and further strengthen the visibility of the mainstream information. On the web, social recommendations strengthens this hit economy, in what has been termed the Justin Timberlake effect. On websites such as YouTube it has the effect, that few videos have millions of views, while millions of videos count below one hundred views.

As the amount of information on the internet grows (millions of new websites are created every month globally) the mainstream problem becomes a greater and greater problem for our access to relevant information on the web. The information may well be accessible somewhere on the net, but it is no good, if noone sees it or is capable of finding it – or rather, if people who wants it doesn’t see it or is capable of finding it.

Even Google will have a problem showing search results which are more than just moderately interesting for the websurfer, unless he or she has the patience to trawl the search results for the results which are passionately interesting. A main component of Google’s PageRank-algoritm is how many incoming links a given website has. This makes Google vulnerable to the same problem. The more who link to a website, the more visible the site will be on Google, all other things equal. The more visible it becomes, the more people will likely link to the site.

What is interesting to us, is what happens, when the economics change. Because they have already changed, and they are changing fast. There are no expensive means of production, which justify the limitations imposed on cultural production. The means of cultural production today equals the costs of a computer and an internet connection. But it is only slowly dawning on us. We have become so accustomed to the economics of limitations, that it is difficult adjusting to the economics of abundance.

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Chris Anderson Talks About a Radical Price

Please enjoy this recent video with Chris Anderson, introducing the ideas of his forthcoming book FREE: The past and future of a radical price, at Nokia World 2007 in Amsterdam :

Thanks for the tip to Guy Kawasaki. You can find the video in a slightly better quality here (where you may be better able to pick out Anderson’s slides).

I venture to say, that the ideas of Anderson’s next book at a first glance seem a lot less radical than those of his first (The Long Tail (2006)). By giving something away for free, which is abundant, you can sell something else, which is scarce. This is not a new business model, but just one, which can help create interesting and astonishing things, when used cleverly in combination with the internet. According to Anderson, technology have opened this model up to a wide range of industries – this is what makes it interesting. Nokia and the rest of the mobile phone industry can give away their phones, because there’s money to be made on talk rates and services connected to the phones.

Anderson’s model on the scarcities of the economy on the internet seems, however, too simplistic. He divides these into four broad categories : time, money, attention and reputation, in which the attention and reputation (hyperlinks + PageRank) converts into traffic and money to be earned on advertisments. True, this is the ‘conversion mechanism’ used by Google and others today. But I’m not sure I buy that attention and reputation are really scarce ressources, independently of the technological architectures, which shape attention and reputation on the internet now or in the future.

The attention span of any individual may be limited, but then we may be attentive towards very different things. This is a central point of Anderson’s first book. And reputation may simply, also according to The Long Tail, be a question of technological architecture, of ‘bringing customers down the tail’, as Anderson puts it, in the way Amazon recommends titles ‘other users also bought’. Attention and reputation on the internet are artificial constructs. Our current architectures make something more visibile to someone, than something else. This is only a problem, in so far, that the someone wants the something else before the something.

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