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Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Echo Chamber (Bad) and the +1 Culture (Bad and Good)

Mercifully, readers, I didn't have time to post on specific topics this week.

But gathering up some high level responses to the ongoing rush of events, two stand out:


1. Struggling Against the Mirror Effect. Many pundits have warned that in setting up our social media environments using only our instincts and the technology as intended, we risk surrounding ourselves with people we already know well, or agree with, just deepening prejudice against modes of thinking outside our immediate circle. Guy Kawasaki's advice to "defocus" your Twitter relationship-building is a helpful antidote against this. "Defocus" means attempt to pick up some eclectic interests. On Twitter, I've tried this quite a bit, but talking to friends, I gather that many users can't see why they'd do that in the first place.

Anyway, I've allowed the voices of conservative commentators, nerds promoting obscure causes like walking trails on railway right-of-ways, aficionados of a specific mountain, and a variety of self-described famous digital divas who inevitably tweet about the egg yolk that just got into their hair, into my life. But after awhile, inevitably, you have to pare things down. You get so annoyed by some people, you give up on the defocus experiment and just unfollow the schmucks who seem a little too distant from your immediate concerns and tastes. I know that's what I tend to do, and I'm actually trying not to.

So on the whole, I do fear that our approaches to social media will lead to more and more strident debate in the public realm, and narcissism about personal tastes, and in the end, talking past one another.

2. The +1 Culture?

Speaking of dittoheads: Canadians like to pride themselves on independent thought vis-a-vis their gigantesque neighbo(u)r to the south. But you'd never know it from much of Canadian management culture.

In online forum parlance, "+1" is a cute, self-deprecating way of admitting that your post is just about to echo what the last person, or the thread-starter, just said. Through the gentle use of irony and shortening it down to two characters, you're at least cognizant of the fact that you could potentially be taking up more space than you're worth.

[Origination: According to Wikipedia, "A way of voting on mailing lists and forums, used by the Apache Software Foundation and other open source organizations. By extension, a way to signify "yes" or agreement (often with a quoted post) on internet forums and similar media." Hat tip to Jodi for pointing me towards the first meaning.]

Insofar as many Canadian executive positions - not least in the digital space - are merely tack-ons of a local nature managing the regional economy in a templated way on behalf of a large, impressive US-based company, long articles quoting the heads of these entities regurgitating what the firm's leadership and PR heads out of California or New York just said ... might usefully be shortened to the two-character "+1". We'd save some trees.

People (Canadian people) who are actually thread-starters - folks like the Flickr founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, and RIM co-founders Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis - are such curious creatures here, that's why at least some of us pay so much attention to them. That's not to say that as a whole, Canada particularly respects them or wants to foster them. If you want to be part of the "club," it's simply easier to join up with the +1's.

That being said: being part of a moderate, +1 culture has its benefits. Here we seem like mere +1's when it comes to joining up with American wars and causes, but in fact (as +1's to Obamamania), there are a few areas where moderation itself leads to advances. In the 17th century, Hobbes posited that avoidance of extremes -- less war, squabbling, haggling, and strife (bland consensus, even at the price of personal autonomy) -- was a necessary (if not sufficient) condition to build a nation's prosperity and commerce. Like the air we breathe, consensus is necessary to (if not sufficient for) survival. To quote one of Canada's most successful managers (namely, a political head of state known as former Ontario premier Bill Davis): "Bland works."

And sure enough, among other things, "bland" has created things like universal healthcare, the largest auto-parts supplier you'd never heard of, Magna International, and the prescient frameworks built by intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan. While there is much to be said for originating brilliant ideas and game-changing companies, there is economic value in the ability to observe, refine, perfect, and stay out of trouble in the process.

By reflecting on all this, I'm able to dampen my personal impatience with the +1's.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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