Friday, April 24, 2009

The "Digital Water Cooler"

If you haven't already done so, go to CSPSRenewal to read their latest column where they comment on the work of Andrew Keen and draw parallels with GCPEDIA. I believe it is one of their finest posts (at least on par with this other favourite of mine)... and I really liked the "digital water cooler" analogy!

I often laugh at some of the discussion that goes around the water cooler, because the people engaging in them seem to believe that they can solve the world's problems (or at least all the organization's problems!). Of course, rarely any action results from these chats. But what I find fascinating about the "digital water cooler" is that many conversations have actually turned into concrete actions!

That being said, there is some truth to Andrew Keen's controversial quote reported in the post:
“... we use the Web to confirm our own partisan views and link to others with the same ideologies. Bloggers today are forming aggregated communities of like-minded amateur journalists … where they congregate in self-congratulatory clusters. They are the digital equivalent of online gated communities where all the people have identical views and the whole conversation is mirrored in a way that is reassuringly familiar. It's a dangerous form of digital narcissism; the only conversations we want to hear are those with ourselves and those like us.”
Although I don’t like his statement, I must admit that I am guilty of "congregating in self-congratulatory clusters" (i.e. with my friends from CPSRenewal, GC20, etc.). Indeed, it can be construed in part as a form of narcissism. But it must be contrasted with its opposite (i.e. the absence of congregation) in order to be fully appreciated.

Novel ideas are seldom popular, especially if they challenge:
  • The status quo;
  • What has worked well for people in the past;
  • What brought these people success;
  • What characterized the environment that enabled them to succeed.
(For more on this, allow me to indulge in some "self-congratulatory behaviour" and refer you to this post.)

There’s no denying that the vocal minority of individuals upholding new ideas do enjoy sharing with like-minded people and actually need the interaction. But it is much more than simply navel-gazing, or merely a form of support group. I believe it is a necessary step to refine these novel ideas, give them strength, and craft the messaging around them so that they become accessible to and understood by the majority of people who don’t share them yet.

I am one of those individuals who is always looking for great “pieces of writing that will bolster my position”. This is exactly my intent with most of the links I share on this blog. For every great article I come across written by a like-minded blogger, I have reviewed at least 10 to 20 other posts that did not support my position, and I’m not even talking about all the articles that support exact opposite position. In other words, I’m 100% biased, and that is why I have a blog.

As David Eaves suggests, the beauty of blogs is that "they sift through the information that is out there and tease out what is important and what is relevant and write it up in a readable and accessible fashion." If you accept the inherent bias of blogs (and I am definitely not suggesting that blogs are more biased than newspapers or other media), blogs can be a goldmine of information and insight.

Blogging, like so many other editorial forms, filters the information to make it relevant for readers. Furthermore, blogs - just like books or any other media - offer something that readers are looking for: perspective. That's where bloggers offer a unique value: they provide a storyline, a rationale, a logical argument that articulates what people are feeling, a framework for thinking about complex issues. Most people don't run short of opinions; what they sometime lack though are the arguments that would give weight to their opinions and a narrative to tie these arguments together. The purpose of a blog is not to be objective, but to offer a point-of-view.

In that regard, there's no question that Web 2.0 levels the playing field between "amateurs" and "professionals". But no matter in which camp you fall, credibility remains a key currency. The democratizing power of the Web closes the credibility gap between professionals and amateurs. This can be worrisome for professionals whose status is at risk of losing ground. Let's now consider the federal public service and GCPEDIA.

The public service’s highly professional workforce is composed in large part of specialists: experts in their respective domain. Traditionally, it takes years before one can establish him or herself as an expert - approximately 10,000 hours as Malcom Gladwell and Geoff Colvin suggest. But while historically, one would get these 10,000 hours from their day job, the rules have changed and people can now develop their expertise on the corner of their desk or after-hours.

Enters GCPEDIA, and more broadly, the democratization of the Web. All of a sudden, the old rules no longer applied. The accomplished experts and specialists who, up until this point, pretty much decided what information and ideas would get filtered in or filtered out, no longer have a monopoly on knowledge and now face some competition of their own in the form of “amateur” experts and specialists, thanks to GCPEDIA and social networking websites in general. Anyone with a brain and a perspective can now have meaningful influence and develop and expertise.

Personally, GCPEDIA has been hugely beneficial in allowing me to share information, knowledge and perspectives that would otherwise (and in fact has been) filtered through the chain of command or by process gate-keepers. Now it is made accessible to anyone and everyone. Scary thought? You decide ;-)


Amanda Parr said...

The philosopher, Gadamer, said that all perspectives are biased. Who has a "God's eye POV"? But there is a difference between informed and uninformed biases. Gadamer proposes that better conversations occur when dialogue taking place leads to new shared insight. By insight he meant that the new awareness yielded by a mutual realization sheds light on much more than the specific topic of that particular conversation. He thought that the idea of trying to nail things down for all eternity prevented this sort of insight-producing dialogue and denied that there is always an element of bias. So the best solution is to be open-minded and put forth your ideas as ever tentative -- maybe even the best yet -- but never final. Gadamer would like the kind of dialogue that Web 2.0 enables.

Craig Sellars said...

Here is an interesting article:

"The Management Myth", The Atlantic June 2006
~Matthew Stewart

[M]anagement theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.