Framing culture as a choice – using the “X over Y” formula

Recently I finished reading “Whiplash – how to survive our faster future” by Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab and Jeff Howe – who coined the phrase crowd-sourcing. Media Lab has a reputation for innovative, highly experimental projects that push at the boundaries between art, technology, learning and society. “Whiplash” discusses 9 core principles that operate at Media Lab – and why they might be relevant more broadly where innovation is found.

"Whiplash" by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

“Whiplash” by Jeff Ito and Jeff Howe

Continue reading

Moving beyond rigidity and chaos in communities – some thoughts on integration

One of the keynote talks at the Mindful Leadership Summit that I attended in early November was by neuroscientist Dan Siegel. Siegel is particularly interested in the subject of integration, a topic I’d like to explore a little here.

Integration is a healthy state within a system where there is neither too much rigidity, nor chaos. Take for example a choir (and example Siegel also uses in his books). There may be multiple different voices in the choir, and different notes being sung at any given moment – so there’s differentiation within the group rather than a homogeneous mass of identical components. But the contributions of each member of the group are coordinated – they understand where one note relates to the note that another is singing (rather than rigidly sounding out their own melody in isolation). And so the result is a pleasant song rather than a clashing, dissonant jumble.

Which got me thinking about online communities. In talking with with many folks recently about what they use as the definition of a community, lots of them said some variant of “a group with common interests, or a shared goal”. So is integration within a community when the members feel as though they are aligned with the goals and interests? In this context, rigidity might be opposing one another’s opinions and suggestions or perhaps refusing to evolve with the changing environment in which the community exists (refusing new members, not adopting new tools etc). The opposite of this, chaos, may be a community that has not yet settled on a shared purpose or set of interests and perhaps is trying to cover too many topics, or not sharing information about activities in a way that members feel they are able to understand and participate consistently.

To what extent does a community manager play the role of “integrator” – helping each individual to make sense of the overall community, perhaps like a choirmaster or a conductor might do in a musical context? And to what extent do other members take on this role? How do the technical features of the online community promote or inhibit integration – for example, if a newsfeed algorithm is showing different activities to different members of a community, do they end up with such contrasting perspectives about the community that that don’t feel integrated with it?

I’d be curious to hear how you’ve handled this in the communities that you belong to and work with. How do you enable individuals to feel differentiated (and valuable in their own right) while also being aware of others around them and striving to interact with others in a meaningful way?

Thinking about leadership – what values are key for a good leader?

Last week, I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit which was an interesting few days of talks and workshops about what it means to be a leader today. Topics discussed ranged from the challenges of leadership in startup scenarios, to the specific issues facing women. There were also sessions on local politics, inclusion and presence under pressure.

In addition to the main conference, I also attended a one-day workshop, “Finding the Space to Lead” – hosted by Janice Marturano, author of a book of the same name. During the various workshop exercises, we considered which characteristics define good leadership, converging on a definition of what makes a good leader (also in Janice’s book):

Leaders are able to:

  1. Connect – to themselves, to others, to the wider community
  2. Skilfully initiate or guide change by:

being responsive

being able to hold ambiguity

being collaborative

being respectful

being creative

It struck me that not only are these good leadership skills, but they’re also the skills of good community managers.

In the workshop, it was also emphasised that these two core skills are very deliberately in the order listed – it’s important to connect first before trying to implement change. Which means listening, learning and understanding the people and environment in which you’re working, before precociously heading for a prescribed solution.

What do you think? Are there any skills missing here – or any that often go unrecognised or are harder to develop?

The role of gratitude in creating communities

Recently, I listened to an interesting podcast interview about gratitude. Something that really resonated with me in terms of community-building was a discussion of how gratitude creates a sense of belonging – a key element in communities. The interviewee mentioned the classic example of a Buddhist giving thanks for an item of food and realising how many different people went into bringing that item from the field to the kitchen table. In a global, interconnected world none of us can say we’re truly independent – we belong to a complex network of many other people.

But aside from making you realise that you didn’t achieve or obtain a certain thing entirely on your own and that you’re part of a wider ecosystem, I think there are two other points relevant to community-building:

  1. Gratitude as a concept for me had gotten somewhat lost in the word “sharing” which perhaps gets overused when talking about online exchanges. Yet if we unpack the action of healthy sharing within a community, it’s both the offering of a skill, piece of information etc and the giving of thanks for it. And if you’re thanked for your offering, you’re more likely to feel appreciated and you’ll probably contribute again in the future. Gratitude also signals that your behaviour was appropriate for the community – which helps to clarify belonging.
  2. The exchange between the donor and the recipient builds a specific, two-way interaction between two community members. i.e. giving thanks makes the interaction bi-directional, and therefore stronger than if it had been a uni-directional gift-giving. You feel like you belong because you have an actual reciprocated tie to another person.

How does this translate into practical actions to take? It could be that you always acknowledge contributions to your community/group – even if that’s just a thank you for leaving a comment. It could be publicly thanking by name members who have contributed content of value in the past week. Or it could be specifically “rewarding” members who contribute more than most with badges, a Q&A with them about their role, or some other way of deliberately increasing their social capital.

What role(s) does gratitude play in the communities that you belong to?

Bigger bytes of multi-media

I put together a weekly round-up of interesting links called URLs of wisdom, but over the past few months, I’ve also enjoyed some podcasts too. Here are some of my favourites:

Startup podcast

Startup was recommended to me by a friend who’s running a startup of his own. The first season of this podcast series traces Alex Blumberg’s path from deciding to set up his own podcast business (yes, meta!) to finding his business partner Matt Lieber, through to naming the business and creating the first of a new set of shows.

I found it extremely compelling listening, bingeing on the entire first season in a matter of days. Part of the appeal, I think, is Blumberg’s use of “radical honesty” as a more personal marketing technique. He builds listener engagement with the narrative by sharing details that you might not expect to normally be revealed (such as how much advertisers are paying, the emotional roller coaster he went through on agreeing an equity split with his new business partner and even the burnout some of his staff faced after several overly busy months).

Favourite episodes

Episode 3: On how to broker the relationship with a new business partner (sort of like a romance!)

Episode 9: We made a mistake – how communications screw ups happen when you’re trying to do a lot with a small team (and the perils of native advertising)

Episode 12: Burnout – really compelling example of the difference between what you think you say and what you actually say in conversations with your colleagues – where they actually recorded the conversations!

Note: Season two of Startup has just finished, and now includes a new co-host, Lisa Chow. The second series follows a different business, online data site “The Dating Ring”. In addition, there’s the whole back catalogue of “Reply All” to try. Reply All is the first of the new shows that Blumberg’s business is producing and focuses on internet culture.

Interview with danah boyd

danah boyd, author of “It’s complicated” is particularly interested in how teens use the internet. In this interview with Krista Tippett of On Being, she reveals how her own teenage years drew her into the internet. She also talks about taking complete breaks from her online life in a pre-planned annual holiday where she goes completely offline. A nice interview revealing more of the personality behind someone whose work I’ve enjoyed reading.

Interview with Maria Popova (BrainPickings)

Maria Popova compiles the website BrainPickings which is the result of Popova’s voracious appetite for reading and self-exploration. In this interview, also with Krista Tippett of On Being, she talks about digital curation, passing on knowledge and the phenomenon of marginalia (scribbling notes in the margins of texts) and how it compares with online annotation.

The State of Community Management 2015

The Community Roundtable produces an annual report called “The State of Community Management”. This year’s report has just been made available (click through to the CR website to download your own copy)

The report’s compiled by surveying a range of community professionals – this year representing over 200 different communities.

Some findings include:

  • 45% of members of best in class communities are actively engaged in those communities (defined as being a collaborator, creator or contributor versus inactive or lurking users). Compare this to the 90:9:1% rule that’s often quoted for lack of active participation online (Page 27 of the report).
  • 90% of best in class communities have community guidelines which encourage good behaviour as well as prohibiting negative behaviour (Page 27).
  • Discussion forums are considered to be the most essential tool for engagement – in both internal and external-facing online communities (Page 35).
  • 88% of best in class communities have at least 1 full-time community manager (Page 43).

URLs of wisdom (30th May 2015)

URLs of wisdom is a weekly round-up of interesting links about topics at the intersection of people, science and technology. There’s been a bit of gap since the last post due to lots of work travel but things should pick up again from here 🙂

Social network analysis


  • Online discussion forums good for well-being – “Often we browse forums just hoping to find answers to our questions. In fact, as well as finding answers, our study showed users often discover that forums are a source of great support, especially those seeking information about more stigmatising conditions. Moreover, we found that users of both forum types who engaged more with other forum users showed a greater willingness to get involved in offline activities related to the forum, such as volunteering, donating or campaigning.”
  • Trust erodes over time in the online world – A look at the Couchsurfing website: The findings revealed, the researchers wrote, an interesting mechanism at the root of interpersonal trust: “The accumulation of ratings about users (whether guests or hosts) had a double-edged effect on trust and relationships: it made relationships easier to establish initially but it also weakened them after a certain threshold.”

Academia online 

Social media/networks/data sharing

  • A Facebook for science? Brett Buttliere describes how it might look: “I believe science would benefit from having one online platform for people to do basically all aspects of science in, including review. Such a system would probably involve: a user friendly profile, a feed of (science) stories based upon previous viewing behavior, the ability for users to like, comment, and interact with content (e.g., papers, datasets, materials) within the system, and some sort of impact metrics that quantify the individual’s contribution into the system; basically, something like a Facebook or Twitter for science.”
  • What should a modern scientific infrastructure look like? Bjoern Brembs describes his vision for the future: “As an author, I want my data to be taken care of by my institution: I want to install their client to make sure every piece of data I put on my ‘data’ drive will automatically be placed in a data repository with unique identifiers. The default setting for my repository may be open and a CC0 license, or set manually to any level of secrecy I’m allowed to or intend. The same ought to be a matter of course for the software we write. In today’s day and age, institutions should provide an infrastructure that makes version-controlled software development and publishing seamless and effortless.”
  • Citation boost or bad data? A closer look at a recent claim by that using the site causes a major boost in citations of papers uploaded there. – “Compared to a control group of papers, selected at random from the same journals and same years as the group, their analysis finds a positive association between free access and article citations that grows over time. This association should not be surprising, given a decade and a half of similarly reported results. What IS surprising about their findings was that having one’s paper freely available from other freely accessible locations only boosted a paper’s citations by just 3%.”
  • Which online tools do you use? A new survey to look at scientific workflows.
  • Maintaining relationships with readers as they cross affiliations“Researchers’ multiple and changing institutional affiliations create tangible challenges, both for the researchers themselves and for scholarly publishers as well. While an ideal solution may not be possible, it is worth contemplating a vision that would address these challenges.”

Outreach/public engagement


  • Does your online community feel like Twitter pre-2009? It should.  – “Six years ago, Twitter was a much more intimate place. In explaining it to people, I often used the “dinner party” analogy – “It’s like a dinner party – you go in and you may only know one person, but you talk to them and meet their friends, and your network begins to grow.”

Social media developments

  • Medium is not a publishing tool – Medium introduced shared highlights on posts. Interesting to see annotation as a kind of “social layer” on top of content (framed in this post as features that “create network value”).

Just for fun

Ask the emojis…