Lessons from Northern Voice 2008

Atrium at NV08
This past weekend I attended Northern Voice, the annual Canadian social networking forum in Vancouver. As with most conferences, the most valuable conversations and learnings emerged in the corridors, or more specifically in the Atrium of the UBC campus, a wonderful open space (picture above) in the middle of the (still theatre style, alas) presentation rooms. Or they emerged in the pubs, on the hiking paths, in the airline terminals, in the virtual spaces, or on the stopovers and places of reflection where you digest, consciously and unconsciously, what you’ve heard and seen.

In no particular order, here are the 10 most important things I learned this weekend:

  1. Moving from collection to connection: Many young content providers and content architects are still trying to fight an uphill battle against security-obsessed IT departments and possessive content owners, and trying to make content sharing more effective in organizations. The real opportunity is to improve connectivity in these organizations: providing simple, ubiquitous, real-time tools (like IM, virtual presence/desktop video, and virtual learning tools) that help people find the people (not the stuff) they need to learn from and work with, and connect and collaborate with those people more effectively.
  2. The end of e-mail: Generation Millennium is catching on to what our grandparents understood: most asynchronous messaging systems (notably voice-mail and e-mail) create more work and reduce productivity, and allow and encourage people to message instead of doing real work. If it’s important, the caller (if properly ‘trained’ not to expect replies to v/e-mail messages) will keep trying until they can arrange a real-time conversation. If we could develop an effective system for scheduling such conversations, one that callers could use to book recipients’ time in time periods alloted for that purpose by the recipients in advance, we could (a) engender more such conversations, (b) convey knowledge more effectively, and (c) possibly eliminate v-mail and e-mail messages (and rid ourselves of dreaded ‘in-boxes’) entirely.
  3. Don’t try any of this alone: Too many people are still trying to develop too many social networking solutions independently. The best ideas and solutions come from collaborations of teams of diverse, passionate people with a shared purpose, experimenting together to hone in on qualified, innovative approaches to coping with real problems, and drawing on the Wisdom of Crowds.
  4. We need more laboratories, exploratoriums. Places with the people, resources and collaboration tools to do experiments and share what works and what doesn’t. With no requirement for a tightly-focused short-term ROI. Play spaces where people who care about something can sketch, make stuff up, try it out.
  5. Know yourself: We need to know our Gift, our Passion, our Purpose, and what we know and don’t know and need, in order to be effective collaborators, innovators and problem solvers. World Cafes & Open Space only work well if the groups know what they need, what they can offer, and bring some diversity of perspective but focus of passion — on a few shared problems.
  6. Imagine that: We need more imagination of what’s possible. Too much of what passes for innovation in social networking (and everywhere else) is incremental change (usually adding more features and complexity) to existing tools which are themselves copies of poor designs. Before you have great design you need to have great inspiration, which stems from great imagination, something no one ever thought about, in a way no one ever thought about it before, applied to a real need.
  7. Gravitational communities: My brother Alan coined this term as something less than an intentional community but more than an accidental one. It’s the perfect explanation of how people find and make community in complex environments. You can’t plan it — there are no reliable ways to systematically search for and find just the right people to build community with. But it’s not accidental either — finding the right people is not a random activity. It’s evolutionary. You send out signals, explicitly and tacitly, and so do others, and you pick up on them, sometimes consciously but often sub-consciously or unconsciously. You end up in community, not with random strangers or the ‘people you were meant to be with’, but something in between, a collective self-selection, in constant flux.
  8. Support groups as intentional communities: Three times this weekend I got into discussions about support groups — people who are helping each other out, not with a shared passion or shared purpose, exactly, but more a shared personal problem. Something with a sense of urgency. The problem with most intentional communities is it’s too easy to walk away from them when something more urgent comes up, or minor obstacles arise. When you’re all suffering or dying from something in common, you’ll stick with a possible source of resolution, even it’s not easy or fun. Pollard’s Law again.
  9. Hope for disaster: I’m not a neo-survivalist hoping for the end of the world, or the Rhapsody, but I am learning that personal crisis seems to be very helpful in getting individuals to realize their need to Let-Themselves-Change, to discover what they were meant to do with their lives, and with whom, and to shake them out of their complacency in useful ways that can change their worldview, their understanding of the world and of themselves, and what they need to do. If you’re restless and unhappy but not sure what to do, maybe the problem is that you’re not unhappy enough. Thanks to my friend Wendy Farmer-O’Neill for this insight.
  10. Can somebody please translate this into language I can understand?: Last Thursday I was on a panel at a Social Networking workshop in Toronto for business executives. Once again I learned that most executives do not understand what social networking is or how it could be useful in business. On the weekend in Vancouver, I was surrounded by a much younger crowd who knew exactly what social networking is, and is becoming. But they had almost no experience or understanding of business (that was true even of the consultants there, who claimed to know something about business), so they had no idea how social networking could be useful in business either. Until (or perhaps unless) someone (other than Nancy White and I) can explain what’s possible (and useful) to those who can write cheques for it, social networking will remain a marginal discipline, a geek crusade.

Most interesting observations at the event? The full parity of women among the young cohort of attendees — this was the most gender-equal event of any kind I have ever attended. And I also noticed there were more cameras at the event than laptops — and some of the cameras were bigger than some of the laptops.

Thanks to the event organizers and all those who said such kind things about my ‘reading’ at the opening party.

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4 Responses to Lessons from Northern Voice 2008

  1. I thought of you Dave, when I finished reading _The Art of Learning_ by . He’s the inspiration for _Searching for Bobby Fisher_. After the film came out, and his chess career ended he became a world champion martial artist.His description of meditation practice as a way of learning to recover, was spot on.

  2. donna says:

    I remember a few years ago when the mail network went down at the company I was working for, and people were sitting aorund doing nothing, claiming they couldn’t get anything done because email and the network were down. I said, “Well, you can go to someone’s office and talk to them, that’s what I’ve been doing.”Blank stares.

  3. Mariella says:

    The edge number of this month is very interesting about social networkshttp://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge238.html

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