Category Archives: Articles

Suicide Prevention

Suicide: A Global, Local Crisis

This post is part of a month-long series on suicide, written by friends of Sam Fiorella, and dedicated to his son Lucas, who was lost to suicide earlier this year. You can read his story here.

The reality and pain of suicide (or severe depression) is something most everyone will encounter at some point in their lives. It can take the media by storm, when it involves a celebrity or famous person. But more often it’s the childhood friend who never made it to graduation. Or the colleague whose inner pain was too much to bear, despite the cheerful smile around the office. Or perhaps it hits closer to home — a family member or relative you thought you understood a bit better than you did. Suicide is all too common.

IT’S A GLOBAL ISSUE THAT STRIKES LOCALLY

The World Health Organization has published some staggering data on the global suicide problem:

It Strikes Often
Every 40 seconds, somebody dies by suicide somewhere in the world (source: WHO Suicide Prevention Report, 2014).

It’s a Global Concern
Globally, suicide accounts for 1.4% of all deaths, making it the 15th leading cause of death worldwide, ahead of SIDS, Cancer (of the liver, stomach or colon), and Alzheimer’s disease (Source: World Health Report, WHO, 2003 and Disease and Mortality Estimates, WHO, 2012 [xls]).

That Strikes Locally
Suicide is the 2nd most common cause of death among 15-29yr olds (source: Suicide Prevention Overview, WHO, 2014), and when it strikes (at any age), the impact on a family or community can be devastating.

We might like to think that in the US and Canada we’re a bit insulated, as 75% of all suicides occur in low- and middle-income nations. But we aren’t. We rank 33rd and 34th respectively on the global map.

Our suicide rates are higher – in some cases over 10x higher – than over half the world’s nations, including Germany, United Kingdom, Cuba, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Argentina, Australia, Spain, Italy, Venezuela, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (source: Business Insider repub of WHO Suicide Map, 2014).

World Health Organization Suicide Map, 2014

World Health Organization Suicide Map, 2014

WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE

I’ve lost that close childhood friend. I’ve seen the toll suicide can take on a family. And I’ve wondered aloud what could’ve been done to help that colleague that none of us realized needed help.

But I’ve never been through anything like the loss of a child. It’s unimaginable. It’s frightening. And yet it’s real. It forces us to rethink, and question, what we know about suicide. Thinking we know all the answers, or that it will never happen to us, may make us feel better but it doesn’t even begin to solve the problem.

My own kids range from the early teens to the twenties. I’d like to think I understand everything they are going through, and that they’d come to me with their problems and concerns. But as a parent, I know that’s not always going to be the case. But we can help. For me personally, that means starting (but certainly not stopping) with these steps:

1. Actively Listen
Research shows that many if not most suicide attempts include a cry for help. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it can be nothing more than a whisper or a subtle change in behavior. Listening isn’t always passive. By actively listening, by engaging, interacting and questioning, we can hear and see things we wouldn’t have otherwise. And it doesn’t stop with the person we feel is at risk – talk to their friends, look at their behavior and the behavior of those around them (our friends often react to or amplify our own actions and feelings). Don’t wait for somebody to bring their problem to you, be there when you believe they have a problem.

2. Understand the Crisis
Understanding comes from knowledge. There are many good resources out there designed to help people in need, as well as family members and friends of those in need. Know what factors might put a person at risk. Learn to recognize the warning signs. Be comfortable with the steps you may need to take to help that person in need. The more we know about the causes and cures of depression (and there is no shortage of myths around the topic of suicide), the better prepared we will all be to spot the warning signs before it’s too late.

3. Adapt
Depression and suicide may be personal, but it often takes a larger group effort to understand and deal with the problem, especially when underlying issues can be difficult to spot, let alone accept. There are many varied factors that shape depression, including stress, genetics, mood disorders, substance abuse and biochemical imbalances. We must all be willing to change our own behavior to help those in need. Rather than pointing them in the right direction, walk with them, at their pace, and arrive together.

RESOURCES

Depression and suicide are global crisis that strike locally. Take a moment to think about how you listen for signs that a friend, a colleague or a family member might be at risk. Do you know the real warning signs? Or where to even look? And how will you change your behavior to help them overcome their pain? It’s worth a moment of thought. Perhaps even two. Here are some resources to may help you stay informed and ahead of this crisis. They are a starting point.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US)
SAMSA leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation.
http://www.samhsa.gov/suicide-prevention

Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative (published by the WHO, 2014) [pdf]
An official World Health Organization report outlining the global suicide crisis.
http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/131056/1/9789241564779_eng.pdf

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
http: //www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

Suicide Prevention Resource Center
SPRC is the nation’s only federally supported resource center devoted to advancing the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.
http://sprc.org

Mayo Clinic Guide to Teen Depression
An in-depth resource to help guide teens and their families through the issue of depression.
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/teen-depression/basics/definition/con-20035222

U.S. Surgeon Generals Report: 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention [pdf]
A report of the U.S. Surgeon General and of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention
http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/reports/national-strategy-suicide-prevention/full_report-rev.pdf

Myths about Suicide
A look at the realities of suicide.
http://www.suicide.org/suicide-myths.html

Health.com
15 Myths and Facts about Suicide and Depression
http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20507781,00.html

7 Myths about Suicide and 11 Warning Signs of Depression
Savvy Psychologist, Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/mental-health/7-myths-about-suicide
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/prevention/medical-conditions/11-little-known-signs-of-depression

Myths and Misconceptions of Teen Suicide
End Teen Suicide, a Colorado-based program to assist teens in need.
http://www.endteensuicide.org/prevent.html

Features Image “Suicide Safety” courtesy Dark Cloud Silver Moon [original

crme13

5 Thoughts from CRM Evolution 2013

I spent some at CRM Evolution 2013 last week doing something I really enjoy – getting out and talking to people. If you want to find out what’s going, you have to talk to people who are living it. This was a solid show, with SpeechTEK, CRM Evolution, and Customer Service Experience all sharing the same venue (attracting a rich base of attendees and providing a rich perspective on the Customer Experience – #CX – market).  Here are some quick take-aways from my conversations with vendors, users, investors and even the occasional analyst at the event. Continue reading

1900_sears_roebuck1

Kickstarter: The long-tail of short attention spans?

We live in a world of short attention spans. Our food is fast, our entertainment on-demand and the phrase “interrupt-driven” dominates everything. 

The world of media and entertainment is no different from any other. We consume in bites, when we want, as we want. My kids don’t watch a TV show every week for a season, they watch a season of episodes in a week.

On-demand. Continue reading

Long Beach Brands and Broken Narratives

Of Brands and Broken Narratives

An organization’s brand is defined by the totality of everything they do and say. Enduring brands are built on solid corporate narratives that serve as a beacon of trust and yield positive public perception.


This article was originally published on “Sensei Blogs – A Business Blog with a Point of View” and is reprinted here with permission.

A colleague recently asked me to take a quick look at a firm he had run across. Let’s call them BizCo. They had been around for years, many of them as a strong market leader. But they now faced a fundamentally different market than they had previously, and they were struggling. New competitors, technologies and pervasive media were also rapidly redefining their market and consumer needs.

Long Beach Brands and Broken Narratives

A COMPELLING ORIGIN

BizCo had both history and a compelling story. Their origins came out of a very basic human need, and the founder’s goal to help enrich the lives of others came through very clear in every aspect of the firm.  This “essence” had helped shape a strong corporate narrative. Or at least it once did.

A BROKEN NARRATIVE

A firm’s corporate narrative is the totality of everything they do and say, all their actions in both analog and digital worlds. This includes marketing, public relations, customer relations, and even their corporate actions, human resources, products and services. All are individual messages of a sort that when combined form a greater narrative that tells the story of the firm.

Unfortunately for BizCo, their individual messages now appeared disjointed, opportunistic and somewhat less than compelling. They were mostly advertising products in a one-off fashion with limited continuity that rarely hinted at the original ideals that shaped its founders vision. Their outward message was wandering, and their corporate narrative broken. Fixable, but broken.

FROM WELCOME TO DISTRESS

Messages that are random, disjointed or unclear can easily be misinterpreted either individually or collectively if they lack context or order.  In an age of pervasive media, even well planned messages can fall victim. We may hear individual concepts, but not be able to put them together in a meaningful way. We get confused. And confusion is never good for a brand.

With BizCo, individual messages were targeted but did not reflect the essence of the firm. The result was not a welcoming message as intended but rather a perceived message of disorganization or distress. And from a consumer perspective, messages of distress are often perceived as warnings: Stay away.

WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE

As your business evolves over time it’s only natural for the narrative to change along with product and customer needs. But if you only write random chapters, or chapters that simply don’t fit, you’re not enriching or extending your narrative. What you think may be positive steps could translate into a message of distress, and very few people are willing to buy from a firm in distress.

Is your message one of welcome or one of distress and danger?

When you look at your own company, are you writing a long-term story, or a series of short-form articles? Are you letting your inner essence focus your business decisions, or are you looking for opportunistic quick hits? Do your various messages across different mediums have a consistent theme, and are they true to the vision of your firm?

If you are unsure of your answers, take a moment to reflect and reconnect with your inner essence. Your corporate narrative will thank you.

Image “Long Beach 1933” by California Watch, Licensed under Creative Commons

Competitive Lens

12 Most Basic Strategies to Know Your Competition

[Originally posted on 12Most.com] We live in a world where competition is part of the fabric of life. Survival of the fittest, and all that stuff. The business world is no different. Being about to not only know your competition, but to outsmart them, is just another aspect of the game.

Here are some relatively basic steps you can take to win the competition game. Are they a bit difficult to pull off? Some of them. But if you can get your hands around even a few, you’ll find yourself in a better competitive position:

1. Know yourself better than anybody else
If you really want to evaluate your competition, you have to first understand what YOU have to offer. This will help you define WHO your competition is. If you do this right — and look at your core competencies, you might find that your ultimate competition isn’t exactly who you think it is.

2. Execute your business first
Going back to point 1, if your business isn’t being executed to its fullest, you may like to think that you are competing against top-tier companies, but the reality is that you may be competing against the middle of the pack, and trying to best “the best” is simply never going to work.

3. Listen to their financial calls
You’d be amazed at the information that comes out of financial calls from public companies. And no, you don’t need to be a financial analyst to participate. Sure, you can read about their call the next day, but short of being in the room with them, listening can give you a sense of excitement or tension that you might not get in print.

4. Read voraciously
From public SEC filings to blogs to articles (and even support forums), the amount of information out there that can prove valuable is immense. How are they perceived? What are their customers openly complaining about? Where is YOUR opportunity?

5. Talk to their customers
If you are not talking to your competition’s customers, you might as well pretend you’re in a business that has no competition. Not only can you gain a good bit of information about your competition, but also about their sales cycles, new products that have been promised — even who their sales reps are (rep churn is very valuable information). Who knows, you may even land a customer yourself.

6. Follow their customers on social media
Customers say the most amazing things on social media. Sure, some of it may be slightly anonymous, or a bit questionable. But when you see a trend of #FAIL hashtags at the end of messages about a competitor’s new product, it’s probably worth looking into. And please, don’t just stop there. Some clever searching can reveal a great bit of information about former customers as well (and open up new prospects at the same time).

7. Talk to (or follow) their suppliers
By our very nature, we tend to look forward — to be customer focused. But what about the people supplying product to your competitors? Did they have a good quarter? Did they have a bad quarter? Could it be that their shipment levels (or margins) are tied to your competitor? Absolutely.

8. Follow their employees on social media
Gaining insight into customer sentiment is incredibly valuable. But gaining insight in employee sentiment is even better. When a social media user’s profile states “I work for XYZ Corp, but my posts are my own”, remember that is usually not the case. People talk, and they talk about work. How busy they are, how late they had to stay at work, how high/low their job satisfaction level is… get my point?

9. Visit Q&A sites
With sites like Focus.com, Quora.com, G+ (no, not the Google version) and LinkedIn Answers, it is becoming increasingly easy to find out what questions users are asking about your competitors products, and the type of responses they are getting to their questions. Are they asking about how to configure a product (perhaps a sign of poor technical support)? Are they asking for alternative products (displeasure with their existing product)? Or are they asking the best places to buy a competitor’s product (a sign of positive sentiment)?

10. Listen to their corporate or customer support social feeds
You’d be surprised how much information you can gather my monitoring a company’s “support” feed on Twitter or Facebook (and soon Google+). Sure, they try to move the customer support issues offline as quickly as possible, but there is still enough activity to gain some insight (and social media is fast becoming a way to quickly spot trends in advance of mainstream awareness).

11. Understand their/your market
In a world where change is now measured in days or months, not years or decades, keeping apace of emerging market trends is just as important as understanding your competition and their products/services. Learn to anticipate what changes will disrupt their (or potentially your) business and be aggressive/proactive. Don’t let them dictate your move, rather seek to influence theirs!

12. Buy one of their products
Unless you are talking about a product made from unobtainium (or a service), it is probably worth getting your hands on one of their products. Buy it used. Buy it damaged. Just get it, and figure out how it works and what it is really capable of performing. You’d be surprised how often that slick-looking data sheet doesn’t quite match up to the real deal. And even if the product is a year old, it can still yield some interesting insights into their design process. To be fair, I’m not advocating you break or even bend any laws or copy any intellectual property (be very careful here – designers should be locked in a different room!). But nothing beats actually having something in front of you to figure out how it works and how you can sell against it.

So there you have it — just a few ways that you can get a leg up on your competition. But remember, it all starts with items 1 and 2 — getting your house in order first.


Featured image courtesy of claudiaveja via Creative Commons.

peoples_oil

Why being frictionless is good business

Being social takes work. Communicating across any social network brings with it a level of overhead, both in terms of time and learning. It doesn’t matter if that social network involves flying across the country to meet with somebody or sending out an “I’ve arrived” ping on FourSquare when you land half a world away. They all have overhead. You need to learn how to use the medium efficiently. And you need to learn how to deal with the increased number of social contacts that increased “efficiency” will bring with it.

While social communications channels can greatly expand our ability to reach an ever-increasing number of people, they can also, through their added overhead, bring with them the wrong type of friction and limit the number of networks that we can actually leverage to our advantage. In fact, it can become a very limiting factor in the number of social communications channels that we participate in at any given time.

OVERHEAD EQUALS FRICTION

Consider this. If I use a single social channel to regularly interact with 5 people (assuming they don’t know each other), the level of “channel” overhead is relatively low. I learn how to use the channel and I communicate.

But if those 5 people are all on different communications channels, I have to learn – and keep up with – 5 different channels to keep up with them. That’s overhead – especially if each of those 5 different communications channels has their own social conventions, unique “media-rich” value or medium-based communications limitations.

At the end of the day, the more social communications channels that I utilize (and I’ll toss in email, SMS, my mobile phone and even that occasional hand-written letter – yes, I still write those), the fewer true intimate and personal relationships I can maintain. Overhead equates to unwanted friction.

FRICTION CAN BECOME MORE FRICTIONLESS

As social communications channels grow in number and user adoption (yes, I know, I’m avoiding using the phrase “social media” because this isn’t about “social media”), my ability to reach an ever-expanding number of diverse people increases. And I consider this a good thing.

With reduced friction, I can reach out more fluidly

to a larger number of people

But to make it a great thing, I must overcome the learning curve of a new communications channel and decrease its overhead. Less overhead means the channel becomes increasingly frictionless. With reduced friction, I can reach out more fluidly to a larger number of people. Reducing friction requires one of two things: a user experience that is fundamentally intuitive (with an equally compelling/intuitive use case) or time to figure out how a system works. I prefer the former, but usually settle for the latter. I’m willing to do that because the more I can make a communications channel frictionless, the more likely I am to use it to explore the worlds around me.

FRICTIONLESS COMMUNICATIONS OPENS NEW WORLDS

As I reach out to a larger number of people, the number of diverse perspectives I have access to is amazing. With each perspective comes a unique experience and story. And with each unique story comes a new world of ideas and concepts upon which I can build, and expand, my own world. Over time, my world begins to look a lot less like my world, and a lot more like a melding of those that I touch. In return, the worlds that I touch begin to look a bit like me.

Every world that I look into won’t necessarily fit my perspective, or the rules which define it. There are many that don’t. But for each world that doesn’t mesh, I still learn a bit, and there are an almost endless (well, 7B and counting) number of perspectives that I can look at. And many of those will mesh, or connect, in some way with mine.

“The less friction there is to a communications channel into these worlds,

the greater the exchange of ideas”

The melding of perspectives, experiences, stories and ideas from these worlds is mutually beneficial. The less friction there is to a communications channel into these worlds, the greater the exchange of ideas. In fact, some of my best conversations are not only frictionless within a communications channel, they transcend multiple channels in a single conversation.

It’s not uncommon for a conversation to start with a text message, move to a call on my mobile, shift to a video session (with a few other people tossed in for fun), then shift from a continuous form of communications to a discontinuous form (such as email) only to revive up again on yet another channel. I often respond to a text message with a Skype message, which is frequently responded to by a Direct Message on Twitter which leads to a shared post on Facebook.

THE VALUE OF FRICTIONLESS

Let’s shift our perspective here just a bit. Nothing today is truly frictionless. Friction and overhead still exist, and there is, in fact, value in a certain amount of friction as a filtering mechanism. But friction caused by overhead is usually a negative. Now, let’s apply that to you, your business, your professional life. Have you eliminated unnecessary friction in your communications? Do you even have a strategy to become as close to a frictionless state as possible? Some key steps to consider:

  • Don’t be afraid to use a variety of social channels to meet new people or new customers. You can’t afford to ignore the chance to at least sample what new social channels have to offer.
  • Not only seek out channels with inherently low friction (overhead), but take the time to learn about, and respect, new communications channels, and find ways to deal with their overhead/friction. If the overhead friction is too high, take a step back and move on. If the friction doesn’t decrease on its own, it probably won’t be a viable channel for others either.
  • Open your world to others, in exchange for a view into their world. Remember to accept their ideas and needs as readily as you are willing to push your ideas and products to them – being frictionless in your sharing and communications is a two-way street.
  • Be willing to take the conversation, be it collaboration, sales or customer support, from one social channel to another, as your mutual relationship grows, or your need to communicate changes, and
  • Be willing to take the effort to move from relationships to friendships, from customers to trusted clients.

While we always need a bit of good friction in our lives, seeking to eliminate bad friction, and being as frictionless as possible – especially in our social communications – can be very rewarding.

Image “Peoples Special Motor Oil” by Steve Snodgrass, Licensed under Creative Commons

CopenhagenPlatform

Social Media: The community IS the platform

I’m going to get right to the point. Platforms don’t define communities, communities define platforms. And when platforms try to define a community, they almost always alienate the community, which, in turn, finds another venue on which to communicate. Simple? Yes. But, unfortunately, most social media “platforms” have yet to grasp this concept.

SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS AREN’T REALLY PLATFORMS

My colleague, Alan Berkson, recently wrote an excellent piece about Twitter and their disconnected view of themselves as a platform, questioning whether they really know what business there are in. He speculated that they don’t, and I tend to agree.

Twitter doesn’t understand the value of their own business. To paraphrase what Alan Berkson said in his post:

Sipping from the stream can be both enlightening and refreshing. But Twitter doesn’t have to own the entire stream.”

Rather than realize that they are an enabler at the epicenter of one of the greatest ecosystems ever (See Nigel Cameron’s 10 Amazing Facts about Twitter), Twitter has instead focused on dominating and owning the ecosystem that made them what they are today. In doing so, they’ve limited the choices of their user community and consistently restricted the availability/utility of some amazing 3rd party “interface” and “partner” applications – a move that may be beneficial in the short-term, but will prove to be limiting in the long-term.

If I’m a member of Twitter’s ecosystem, I’m seriously rethinking my reliance on Twitter for my bread-and-butter money.

YOU DON’T OWN COMMUNITIES… THEY MERELY RENT YOUR SPACE

What many social media businesses haven’t yet grasped is that it isn’t about their venue, it’s about the communities that support them. I live in many different social venues, covering a wide range of topics, such as global events, business trends, government and law, science and technology and social advocacy. These, and many other collective communities, not only define the platforms they exist on, they ultimately become the basis for applications and value to exist.

Social media is like a buffet. People don’t want to see the same food at every station.”

More importantly, communities often cross traditional “platforms” with ease. I belong to many groups who regularly communicate via multiple mediums, based on the type of discussions that are taking place. Part of the discussion may be held on Twitter, while other parts of it may take place on Facebook, Skype or Google Hangouts.  Each venue has its own value proposition, and none of them can emulate all others and still add targeted value.

DICTATE YOUR PLATFORM AND COMMUNITIES WILL MOVE ON

The beauty of social media is the variety it places in front of us. It can be a phenomenal research and discover tool, as well as a tremendous outreach, mobilization and engagement tool. But we always need to remember:

  • No single venue can offer a one-stop package (and I wouldn’t want there to ever be just one choice),
  • The best social media venues are those that recognize the value of the community, and match the technology to the community’s needs in a unique fashion, and
  • If you really want me to use your social venue, you need to demonstrate to me that you value the ecosystem around the venue you have built – after all, individuals users are just as much a part of that ecosystem as corporate partners. If you disrespect your partners, or are unwilling to accept their value, what does that say about the ecosystem role you are offering to me, and the members of my various communities?

Image (Kongelundsfortet Platform) courtesy of EuroMagic, licensed under Creative Commons

demrepDonkeyHotey

Have we created an online VETO button?

Obamacare, SCOTUS and the Online Veto Button: We all know the power of the “veto” – the ability to simply over-rule all others and say “no” to a particular situation. We see it in many aspects of our lives, from the United Nations Security Council (where it is often used as a political tool) to our own households (where it is often used as a parenting tool). Increasingly, however, we are witnessing a new form of veto in the online/social space, a result of two trends: the Proliferation of Pervasive Communications (#PervasiveComms) and the Rise of Online Activism.

POLITICS AS UNUSUAL

In early 2012, my colleague Alan Berkson and I wrote about the online anti-SOPA/PIPA protests (Stop Online Privacy Act & Protect Online IP bills). In that case, we witnessed a well orchestrated “grass roots” online campaign to stop (preemptively veto?) two pieces of legislation in the US Congress – legislation that very few in Congress had actually read (ironically, the overwhelming majority of the online protestors had not read the legislation either – they were following the lead of a few that they trusted, and ultimately the lead of the movement itself).

I had the opportunity again to dig into an online campaign issue, this time in the form of participating in a Huffington Post Live discussion addressing President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (affectionately known as Obamacare) and the pending decision by the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) on the Act’s constitutionality (primarily with regard to Interstate Commerce regulations and the Act’s individual health-insurance mandate).  While much of the debate about this issue is playing out in traditional media, a series of increasingly vocal debates and online communities have emerged to “rally the troops” in favor of, or against, the Act (side note, both political campaigns have “digital czars” in place).

Here’s the video:

What we are presently witnessing is the development of a massive series of online awareness campaigns designed to coalesce networks of online activists. The main difference today, in contrast to the SOPA/PIPA protests, is that it is two equally strong forces (Republican backers/Democratic backers) who are leading the charge.

While I believe that their ultimate goal is to shape the post-SCOTUS debate (leading up to the election), their message today is one of rallying people to shape the opinions of politicians (likely), the broader public (extremely likely) and the Court itself (incredibly unlikely).

THE VETO IN THE BUSINESS WORLD

In the business world, we’ve seen similar events, the issue of “Net-Neutrality” (that continues to play out in both the public forum and political back offices) being a good example of corporations trying to harness the power of the Web to rally support for their side of the argument.

We’ve also seen individual companies, such as Facebook, Google and BP, become the target of online activist/awareness campaigns – something increasingly being used to shape how, and where, a company does business, from the board-room to Wall Street and beyond.

Toss all this together, with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how to “mobilize” an online community and leverage the power of “conformity“, and you have the perfect recipe for a crowdsourced online VETO button. The power of the “social” masses to now change the course of politics and business is greater than it has ever been (and will only increase as both politics and business continue to shift from brick-and-mortar/in-person activities to online engagement).

Looking back at HP, and their turmoil over the past year, I can easily see how many of their investors, distributors and consumers would have delighted in the ability to activate an online veto button over the actions of HP’s Board of Directors.

ARE THESE THE RIGHT QUESTIONS?

Some questions to consider:

  • Have we actually reached the state of an online VETO button? Is this a good or a bad thing?
  • Is it possible to tell the difference between a “manipulated” and “grass roots” information campaign? 
  • Should politicians and businesses be swayed by online campaigns that may be more “manipulated” than “grass roots”?
  • How can misinformation campaigns (that may attempt to influence by false or misleading, but seemingly true, information) be countered?

There are some serious issues that we face as we integrate our digital, online, lives deeper into our offline lives, and there are no easy answers to the questions above (are we even asking the right questions here?). More importantly, does online activism risk getting diluted by non-authentic conformity and a false sense of anonymity?

Image courtesy of DonkeyHotey Licensed via Creative Commons

starlings murmuration

Crowds, Individuals and Conformity

I’ve always been fascinated by crowds — how they form, why they form, what influences them, and what, in turn, they have the ability to influence. I’ve also always tried to differentiate between crowds and communities, the latter being a more “refined” version of a crowd. Communities have purpose, and common bonds that bind the individuals together. So when I came across a couple of choice documentaries recently, that explored the nature, and science, of crowd/community behavior (and what it means as an individual within a crowd or community) the questions started flying. Fast.

STARLINGS and MURMURATIONS

I came across a brilliant documentary by Marcus du Sautoy, part of the BBC’s “The Code” series, in which he mathematically explains the amazing”Black Sun” murmurations that starlings form every year on their annual migration. Watching tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, fly in seemingly random, yet fluid, ever-changing pattern was both amazing to watch, but it also begged the question “how”? It turns out, as Marcus, explains, that you can mathematically recreate a murmuration of starlings with three basic rules: all birds should fly at approximately the same speed, they should stay close to their neighbors, and they should avoid predators (danger).


If you follow these three simple rules, it turns out that each starling need only keep track of (be influenced by) their seven closest neighbors. And those seven neighbors are constantly changing as the murmuration morphs in flight.

Might not the same basic rules apply to human behavior and individuals within a community or crowd?

INDIVIDUALS and CONFORMITY

After watching the BBC documentary, I stumbled across a great show on the Discovery Channel – Head Games. In this particular episode, they were delving into the nature of human conformity – could they make people conform to a belief or behavior that they inherently knew was wrong or incorrect?

During their experiments, they were able to convince a group of individuals that a snake was sitting high up in a tree — so much so that these individuals went on to convince others that there was indeed a snake in the tree. They described its shape, its color, its movements. But there was no snake.

During a second test, they were able to get a group of people to follow a red line through a museum — even though the red line took them away from the main exhibits (at one point having them actually walk in a circle around a pole).

After digging a bit deeper, I came across a study referenced in Science Daily that demonstrated an innate predisposition in humans to need to conform, as well as a predisposition in certain people (based on the size of certain regions of the brain) to have a higher-than-normal tendency to need to conform. To belong. To be safe. In other words, to not stand out or put themselves at risk.

THE QUESTIONS

After viewing the videos, digging deeper into the “conformity predisposition” and tossing the ideas about, a series of questions began to take shape…

  • At what point, if ever, does a group of individuals become a crowd (with collective influence and behavior)?
  • Can a group influence you in the same way that an individual does? (Can they be one of your “7”)?
  • At what point does conformity override our individual opinions and actions?
  • At what point does a crowd attain the characteristics, and influence, of an individual (if ever)?
  • Does conformity result in a faster shift in our opinions? Or do we still focus on our closest friends to define our behavior?

If you have any answers, I’d love to hear them. Let’s compare some notes. I’m far from done with this subject.

Werner Heisenberg

Mr. Heisenberg meets #BigData?

1927 was a very good year for Werner Heisenberg, and, in an odd twist, those wrestling with Big Data and the identification of global events and trends that are shaping our future, a mere 85 years later.

Heisenberg was a brilliant physicist, yet his work on Quantum Theory and the Uncertainty Principle may help us shape how we look at many of the issues that we face today in the non-Brilliant-Scientist realm.

“One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.” ~ Werner Heisenberg

Heisenberg’s statement has been quoted, mis-quoted, adapted and modified to suit any number of ideas over the decades, so excuse me if I twist it myself to make a point.

In 1926 and 1927, when Heisenberg was laying the foundation for, and publishing, the Uncertainty Principle, we were in a world where Big Data didn’t exist as we know it today. We were also far from being globally hyper-connected, and the idea of Pervasive Communications was a dream of the future.

TAKE A QUANTUM LEAP

I was recently having an interesting, and ongoing, Twitter discussion about Big Data and the value of Curation with some friends (Alan Berkson, Colin Hope-Murray, Peter Bordes and Robert Moore). In response to a question about the value of too much data, or data that was too old, I tweeted “old info doesn’t die, it reveals long-term trends”.

As I looked at what I had written, Heisenberg (oddly, also part of the ongoing discussion) kept coming to mind, ultimately prompting the question “How do we determine the long-term value of an event or data point, and ultimately the value of a trend if it lacks the right context?” This question became all the more important as the different perspectives that frame “context” began to come to light. No two people see the same particle or event from exactly the same personal perspective.

THE RIGHT STUFF

It became increasingly apparent that our discussion of “too much” Big Data was really about having the “right data”. But how do you determine the right data? In many cases, you can’t. We’ve plugged ourselves into this giant fire-hose of Social Media and can’t digest it all.

In the end, most of us can only “sample” off the feed. But in sampling, we get a very accurate description of what is happening at that particular moment, but we can’t tell where what we are sampling fits into the bigger picture. Is this data “byte” the beginning of a trend? Is it supporting a trend that already exists? Or is it perhaps signaling the evolution, or end, of a trend? Is it possible that we can’t answer these questions unless we are continuously sampling from the buffet that is available courtesy of Pervasive Communications and our always-on data feed?

THE MEANING OF LIFE

As we talked a bit about this issue offline (if you consider a couple of hours on a Skype video call “offline”), I came back around to the tweet about the value of old data revealing trends. Perhaps we’re looking at Big Data and the online fire-hose in the wrong way. Too often we think we already know the questions, or we already know the trends, and we look at data points as a way to support our pre-existing notions (numerologists often have a particular knack for this – you can find anything if you look hard enough in the wrong direction).

So rather than always trying to consume information to answer questions, what if we just taste the data, and let it help us form the right questions, regardless of the sector, the market or even what the data was originally supposed to represent? Why not let information from the Transportation sector be co-mingled with information from Politics, or Economics, or Energy. By doing so, we’re helping to erase preconceived notions about the value of the data, and the answers we expect to get.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? As Alan pointed out in his recent post Big Data: Is The Answer 42?, answers are meaningless if you don’t understand the question, and with today’s glut of data, events and trends, figuring out the right question, and understanding why it’s the right question, is more difficult than ever.

FINDING THE INFLUENCE OF UNCERTAINTY

Heisenberg talked about particles, their position and their velocity. I’m talking about events, their impact and their influence (their ability to form trends). In either case, the more certain we are of something, the less certain we are of something else. To me, that raises the question of value in being uncertain, to an extent.

Knowing the present state of an event or data-point is extremely valuable, as is knowing the direction it is heading. But equally important is the value of knowing why it is where it is at a particular moment and why it is heading in a particular direction (what influenced it, what shaped it). Following that lead, it’s also important to know where it is heading and what it is going to hit (how will it influence something else).

“Why a trend exists is just as important a question as asking what impact will result from the trend. It’s all about context.”

As the data reveals more potential trends, so too does it raise more interesting questions:

  • What value do individual events have, either as singular events or as part of a larger data set?
  • How important are multiple layers of context and different perspectives?
  • How do you anticipate when or how trends may collide or intersect?

The next time you sift through the data, as you swim through the stream, try squinting your eyes a bit. Don’t focus so much on what you see, but rather let some uncertainty creep in, and see what patterns emerge when you see things just a bit “fuzzy”.

In the end, you might be surprised at what you do see, and the questions you start to ask.