An Idea Worth Spreading: The Future is Networks
This weekend I experienced a snowcrash; a moment where the seemingly disparate pieces of information floating in my head came together. A synapse fired, a new connection was made, and I was brought to a new level of consciousness, a new way of seeing the world. In reading this over, it almost sounds obvious, but it took me a while to get here. I hope that by sharing with you, it’ll help you “get it” too. So let me take you on my thinking trail.
Insight #1: The Overview
The Future is Networks.
This idea has been buzzing in my head for a long time. The first time I wrote it down was over a year ago, not really understanding what that meant, but it was an “intuition.” As time has gone by, this has seemed more and more probable, but I wasn’t sure how it fit together.
The buzzing has been growing louder, and my mind was saying, ‘The future of Social Business is networks,’ ‘The future of education is networks,’ ‘The future of society is networks.’
What did this mean?
I know everyone is busy. Everyone is looking for some solution to how to make their situation better. If you will just bear with me, I’m going to expose you to what I found to be an incredibly powerful idea.
Insight #2: Where “we’re at” in History
We’re all aware that there’s something going on here. We’re not quite sure what, but it feels like we’re nearing a point where something must change if we’re to move forward.
I’ll be honest with you – I don’t comprehend politics. I find it baffling at the national level and I feel impotent to do anything about it at the local level. (I tried volunteering last year on a committee in my town to promote Zero Waste and green energy. Every meeting was just talking and arguing, instead of devising solutions and implementing them. I got bored and resigned.)
Economics also confuse me. I don’t understand why it’s set up so I paid over $14,000 towards my mortgage in 2009 in interest, and around $6 in principal. I also don’t understand how there was just a multi-billion dollar bailout of our financial industry, and yet Wall Street bonuses rose 17% to $20.3 billion last year. I don’t think of myself as an idiot, but my mind *literally* can’t conceive how those two things could happen at the same time. It seems like the wealth of the entire nation is being funneled right to a couple thousand fortunate people, and all of us are still working pretty damn hard to make ends meet, yet ultimately supporting that model.
Everything seems really bizarre and nonsensical, and it feels like it’s pointing to something. Lester Brown just wrote a really simple, relatively short, easy to digest post that lays out the situation better than I can – give it a read: A Civilizational Tipping Point.
Insight #3: The Underlying Forces At Work
While these things are unfolding at the surface level, something else has been going on underneath. Without really understanding the big picture, I’ve been trying to identify it. I wrote a post a few months ago, called Three Key Trends Shaping the Web and Society, where I tried to put my observation into words. The trends are:
I explained what each of those means in the post, and added some nice graphics too. If you’re not familiar with those concepts, you can go check it out. For the sake of flow, I’m going to keep moving here, but essentially it means that the world is now more interconnected than it’s ever been because of social technology.
Now, let’s call “social technology” anything that allows us to communicate information on a global level.
And let’s also frame it in these terms: EVERYTHING is information.
Not just these words on a screen, but also the physical objects we exchange; all the goods that keep the world going – food, furniture, clothing, toys, tchatchkis, all the “stuff.” It also includes the virtual objects – the services that we provide each other, the money we exchange, our voices talking to one another over Skype, and every other intangible thing.
Every one of these things is actually a type of communication, a representation for something.
A banana isn’t fruit, it’s nourishment. A couch isn’t furniture, it’s relaxation. A toy isn’t plastic from China, it’s fun. My Toyota isn’t a car, it’s transportation. My husband isn’t a man, he’s support, trust, and love. I could go on forever, but seriously take a look around you, and realize that you’re surrounded by stuff that means something else.
Think of it ALL as a type of information.
Now, if you can truly imagine every “thing” around you as information, and we’re now a globally interconnected world, all trading goods and services and knowledge, that’s A LOT of information.
It wasn’t that way when we lived in tribes or even villages or even Empires. It’s literally NEVER been fully globally connected, until now.
It’s so complex, that we literally don’t know how to handle it. When we talk about “information overload,” it doesn’t just refer to all these activity streams on the web – it refers to EVERYTHING.
So what do we do about it?
Luckily, complexity isn’t something that’s never happened before. It may not have happened before for humans as a global civilization, but it happens in Nature all the time.
An ant colony, the biosphere, the brain. All highly complex, yet functional.
If those systems “work,” shouldn’t we be able to imitate them in order for us to “work” too?
Well, actually, yes.
One of two things happens when a process reaches a certain level of complexity, and we can and have observed this. Over. And over. And over.
a. it compresses into simple patterns
b. it expands into chaos
So we’re kind of all struggling with avoiding chaos right now. We all still go about our day, go to work, entertain ourselves, have sex. We’re getting by. But we’re also wondering, somewhere in the back of our heads, how much longer things can go on like this, with all this uncertainty. Hopefully someone figures this out so we can go on with our lives and feel secure again about the future.
Enter accelerating change.
We don’t think about this part, because the idea of it doesn’t fit with the way we experience reality. We only live for so many years, and things feel like they unfold at approximately the same pace they always did.
Let’s use “technology” as an example.
Let’s first talk about technology as if that means just electronic technology.
OK, we went from telegraph to radio to phone to TV to cell phone to computer to smartphone within about a hundred years, but that feels like it happened at a pretty natural pace, because we’ve lived in it as it happened, and we experience time on a linear scale.
BUT, if you plot those changes on a graph, it actually doesn’t move in a slightly tilted line moving upwards at all.
It swoops like the letter J. It gets faster at a faster rate.
Now if you quickly back up, and understand that ‘technology’ isn’t actually just digital, but that technology includes all things that humans have used to simplify things when complexity increases, things begin to make A LOT of sense.
Every tool man has made, from the flint arrows to the wheel to civilization to systems of governance have ALL been in response to complexity.
Tribes got bigger and more complex and needed to hunt down food more effectively to feed more people, and they realized they needed more than a club. They needed an arrow. This worked.
They got bigger still and couldn’t be chasing after food all the time, so they domesticated animals and developed agriculture. This worked.
They got more complex and different people started doing different things, making stuff, and wanted to trade their stuff for other people’s stuff. The developed a barter system. This worked.
They got more complex and this had to be organized into some kind of structure, so systems of governance were implemented. Different versions emerged all over the world, but they all had something in common: There was a scarcity of resources, and so the systems were competition-based. They had to be, because Nation 1 wanted to retain more resources than Nation 2. It wanted to protect or control its own interests, its physical resources, the intellectual capital of its society. This ultimately exploited a ton of people in order to work, but it worked. At least for the folks on top.
Then it got more complex, more interrelated and interdependent. This brings us to the present.
It’s now become so incredibly complex and enmeshed, that each of us now has access to EVERY SINGLE PERSON ON THE PLANET in less than 6 steps. Even with billions of people on the planet, we can reach literally anyone in 6 steps. That means we can access anyone’s resources in 6 steps. Their skills, their knowledge, their capital, their influence. Any resource.
What does this mean?
We’ve transitioned past the point of scarcity.
Take a second to let that soak in.
There is no longer such thing as scarcity.
There are only misallocated resources.
It happened right under our noses while we’ve been trying to solve problems that are not just past the point of fixing, but irrelevant.
The only thing we have left is the scarcity mentality. Any actual problem that needs to be addressed is already possible, right now.
The Final Insight: The Future is Networks
If you’ve made it this far, either this
a.) doesn’t make sense to you,
b.) is something you already knew,
c. ) your heart is racing because you’re getting it
Let me share the final pieces that clicked this into place for me:
I never really understood what it meant when people said, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
I never really understood what the point of going to a ‘business mixer event’ and “networking” meant.
It all seemed not only intimidating, but damn near impossible. How do you meet people? How do you make a business connection? How do you build trust with strangers so that you’re not strangers anymore, but might help each other. (And help is anything from lending your neighbor a hammer, to making a referral to help someone maybe land a job, to emailing or tweeting a link online to information you think someone might find useful.) Help comes in all shapes and sizes.
I tried getting a job the old-fashioned way, sending out applications and crossing my fingers, hoping somehow my worth would be reflected on that dreaded piece of paper we call the resume.
(Oh, and by the way, I’m not just a recent college grad with no work experience. I used to have a six-figure income as a corporate executive. I quit because it was soul-deadening.)
My other prerequisite for a job was it had to be interesting and meaningful and fulfilling. Tall order. Nothing panned out.
So I started to experiment online. I had this feeling inside that “I’m worth it, and I want people to know.”
But what is it exactly that I’m worth? What is it that I “do”? Where does the value lie? What am I actually trying to convey?
I realized we all have skills that we learn, expertise that we develop, a trade, a craft, an art. Those things are different for all of us, and they develop and grow over time as we learn through experience. But underneath that we have strengths.
Strengths are something we’re born with, and they get better over time too, just like our skills, but strengths “come naturally.” It’s the stuff that makes us us. Maybe your strength is that you’re super generous and empathetic, or you’re assertive and strategic, or you’re a good storyteller, or a network weaver, or you know what people really mean when they say something, or you can anticipate what people want.
I hope you know what I’m talking about, because we all have these core strengths.
If you have any connection with your strengths, if you have acknowledged and pursued developing them, it’s probably reflected in what you do for a living. For instance, if you’re the generous empathetic type you might work in customer service or a non-profit, if you’re strategic you might be an exec or an entrepreneur, if you’re a storyteller you might be doing video or journalism or painting or music, if you’re a network weaver you might be in sales. If you’re not in touch with your underlying strengths, and therefore not applying them, you’re probably doing a job that’s making you really, really unhappy.
My strength is the ability to see patterns.
It’s what enabled me to write this post. People call me “insightful.” I have the ability to see stuff that other people don’t see, even when it’s staring them right in the face. (I’ve been calling this process “metathinking,” and I’m going to try to explain how it works for me in upcoming posts.)
So I figured out my strength and ventured online to share it, because it clearly wasn’t being appreciated in the “real world.” I had no idea how ‘seeing patterns’ would be an asset that would bring me any type of opportunity, because I’d never been appreciated for it before. Well, maybe I’d been appreciated for it in small ways throughout life, but our memories are short, our egos are weak, and we need constant positive reinforcement to feel any kind of worth in this society. And society isn’t really set up to give it to us, so we all feel kind of impotent most of the time.
Feeling impotent isn’t just depressing, it also makes us frustrated, angry, and fearful, because we feel like we have absolutely no control over what’s happening to us in our lives. Kind of like how we feel when we’re sitting in dead-stop traffic and have someplace to be, or when a corporation exploits us and there’s no one who will punish them for it, or when the government isn’t able to provide us adequate education or healthcare, even though we bust our tails and pay our taxes.
We have no trust in any of it anymore, and we’re angry.
But all of that seems really big and overwhelming, so I just ventured online to see what I can do about it for me. I can’t single-handedly change the system, I can only change my own situation. So I started this blog. I started writing about the patterns I was seeing. Explaining trends I was seeing in simple language, distilling down big concepts into words that people could “get.”
(By the way, I made the commitment to try this little experiment in September. It’s March now. It’s been just around six months.)
Along with the blog, I started a Twitter account. I opened the account the week that Twitter Lists was introduced. That was in October. I didn’t use Twitter before that for the same reason I don’t attend ‘networking events’: I had absolutely no idea who I’d want to interact with, or how. No one ever taught me “networking.”
The reason that Lists changed everything is because it allows you to identify who people are following in a way that is contextually meaningful. People organize people into categories that are useful for them; either by geographic location (“NY-friends”), by profession (“design-thinking”, “community-managers”, “social-crm”), by power (“most-influential-in-tech”), by intelligence (“thought-leaders”, “best-mindcasters-i-know”), and any other number of categories that they see fit.
Whether they realize they’ve done it or not, they’ve provided you with a free resource. They’re publicly exposing you to their network.
It’s now up to you to determine that person’s credibility and reputation, and how much weight you put in their categories. (If they come across like a moron to you, but have a list called ‘thought-leaders,’ you might not find their opinion of a thought leader useful. Or maybe it’s really useful, and you’re the moron. That’s for you to figure out. )
So what do you need to do?
Well, it takes a little homework. What I did was go to Listorious.com. I looked at all the Top Lists that were interesting to me, and started following every single person who I thought I could learn from. That means I looked through their tweetstream to see if it was filled with potentially useful links to info, and I also clicked through to their personal website.
(On every Twitter bio page the user can link to their website. This is really important. Everyone should have a website. It doesn’t have to be professionally designed, it can be a simple free blog, but you need to have a place where you show off your work, whatever your work may be. And not just a link to your LinkedIn resume. That’s just an assertion of who you are – you telling everyone who you work for and the tasks you do there. That IS NOT who you are. You need to have some kind of site that SHOWS who you really are. Otherwise, it’s a lot harder to get a feel for what you’re all about just by looking at your tweetstream.)
Not everyone will follow you back. It’s ok. You’ll continue to follow them because what they provide you with is a curated source of information. One example that comes to mind, for me, is Maria Popova’s stream, under the username @brainpicker. I follow her, she doesn’t follow me back or engage with me in any way, but her tweets are consistently interesting, so I keep following. You’ll have some of that, and it’s fine, because it provides YOU with cool content to then tweet to the people who follow you. I follow almost 200 people who don’t follow me. No hard feelings.
How many people should I follow?
So now you’re starting to build up a network of interesting people to follow. Everyone has a different suggestion of how many people to follow, so it’ll be your call. But in order to be able to start spotting patterns, I’d recommend a minimum of 150. This will take time if you want to do it right. Just start with the most interesting people first.
See what those people are tweeting about and who they retweet. By seeing who they retweet, you start to understand who’s in their network. An excellent tool to aid in this process is mentionmap. You just enter in a username, and it shows you exactly who that person talks to the most, and who their closest connections are. I’m consistently surprised when I use this tool, because there is ALWAYS at least one person in a stranger’s network that is either also in my network, or I’ve at least seen their name go through my tweetstream. This is a constant reminder that all of us are connected in under 6 steps.
Then start tweeting.
Hopefully you’ve set up your blog or site where you update information about who you are and what you think about. Start tweeting a mix of retweets of interesting information you find from other people, and links to information about you. Oh. And when I say “information about you,” it HAS to be a gift.
What do I mean by ‘gift’?
It means you’re not selling anything or talking about the company you work for or wasting people’s time with something inane. People are busy, and won’t waste their attention on you if you’re not providing value.
This gift is something you give for free. That could mean a blog post you wrote that is filled with information someone might find useful, like a ‘how-to’, or an insight into something in your industry, or a tip that’s helped you be more productive, or a link that shows something you made if you’re an artist or artisan, or anything that shows off one of those inherent natural strengths of yours.
As you observe the people in your network more, and start talking to them, you realize that these are JUST PEOPLE on the other end.
This is going to be very bizarre and mindblowing at first, because we’re not really used to the idea that strangers could be potential allies that would help us. But it’ll get more comfortable over time. And you’ll start to get a feel for their personalities and their interests, and if you pay attention to who they are paying attention to, you get a feel for who they know. And again you’ll notice how closely we’re all connected.
But, there are always holes in networks, and spots where you can make an introduction that could lead to a discovery. You don’t even have to “know” the person you’re introducing. You might be following a person who tweets stuff similar to @brainpicker, but you notice they don’t follow her. So you just tweet to this person: “hey, you should check out @brainpicker, you might enjoy her tweets.” That’s all. That was a gift, a free offer of a connection.
You just earned a brownie point.
As you get better at this, you’ll start noticing that some people are working on similar projects or ideas, but they don’t know about each other. You realize that they could probably mutually benefit if they exchanged information. So you introduce them. (Again, you don’t have to “know” either party, all you have to know is that there’s a connection there to be made). I might notice a couple scattered people interested in social change, but realizing they could be more effective if they worked together, instead of repeating the same work in different locations, so I say “hey @CDEgger @HildyGottlieb meet @openworld @kengillgren @toughloveforX“. I’ve never met any of these people in real life, but I think they could benefit from knowing each other.
This takes effort and time. It’s work. And it’s unpaid.
So why on Earth would you waste your time doing this?
Because something interesting happens when you start sending people links to information that they can turn around and apply in the real world, and when you introduce people to each other which allows them to collaborate on projects or ideas in the real world.
It builds trust.
This was literally a revelation for me.
As I started interacting more with these real life humans in an online space, I couldn’t understand why people were being so nice to me and sharing information with me and providing me with resources.
It’s because I’m earning their trust.
This is the most fundamental, essential, critical thing we need in order to get ourselves out of this whole mess.
I now have a network of people, none of who I’ve ever met in real life (yet), with whom I exchange value with on a daily basis and build trust. In under six steps, I have access to anyone on the planet, and if I have access to the person, I have access to their resources. Resources like their expertise, their social connections, and their influence.
Do you know how this makes me feel?
Not powerful. Empowered.
Let me give you the book definition of empowerment:
“To equip or supply with an ability; enable.”
This hit me like an absolute ton of bricks.
All of this free giving and sharing actually does something tremendously valuable.
It enables us.
It gives us the capacity to access the resources we need to take an action in the world.
I went for a walk through NYC this weekend thinking about this, and I passed by a homeless man sitting on the street begging for change.
At that moment, I realized that I was looking at a man without a network.
I don’t know what happened to him along the way or how he got there, but at some point he lost access to the resources that would empower and enable him to act. He possessed strengths, somewhere inside, but he had absolutely no way to leverage them, develop them, or use them in a beneficial way. He was a lone node, or at the most, a node within a network that possessed no resources that they knew how to use to their benefit.
The answer is networks.
Networks solve the problem of complexity.
Since my blog/Twitter experiment started in September, the effort I’ve put in has helped me to begin forming a network of strong and weak ties. At first, I got a few retweets of my tweets; then more comments on my blog; then some people of greater influence started tweeting my posts, giving me more exposure; then a few people asked if I would do guest posts on their blogs; then I was asked to speak at a business conference here in NYC coming up in April; then I was hired by Duke University to teach a Futures course this July; and I literally am just waiting to see what happens next.
It feels like magic, but the process has been completely practical, and actually kind of felt like a game.
It turns out, life is EXACTLY like a game. If you can access the right resources, you can win.
Now here’s the kicker.
Everyone can win.
By definition, a complex system can only function with independently acting agents who collaborate. That means you still have your own personal interests that you’re serving, but in order to serve your interests, your actions have to indirectly serve the whole.
And this is not just theory, there’s proof.
You may not know the name Elinor Ostrom, but she just won the Nobel Prize for her work on cooperation in economics. Turns out she did research that showed that the “Tragedy of the Commons” wouldn’t be the necessary effect of a globally cooperative society, as we’ve assumed. She showed, in practice, that this could actually work.
So what does all this mean?
I’ve tried my best to take some incredibly complex topics and distill them down to something that makes sense. I hope the examples are painting the picture of what’s going on.
This whole online thing is essentially a simulation – it mimics the actual world. The relationships you build online and the networks you build online aren’t just made between screennames and avatars, they’re with real life people.
Turns out, we’re all actually in this together, all trying to figure out a way that we can all utilize our strengths, connect, collaborate, and survive. If helping each other and building trust is the way to make it work, let’s make it work.
All this time, I was thinking way too big, trying to understand how to change the world. I kept asking myself, “but how do we leverage networks?”
We ARE the network. Networks self-organize. We only have to leverage ourselves, and the infrastructure gets built.
Each one of us has to create our own ecosystem of relationships that will be beneficial to us personally. We’ll all have some relationships that overlap, but none of us will have the exact same set. The point is that we want to build trust so that when we need help we know who we can access to help us.
Now imagine, if you’re a entrepreneur, or an organization, or a non-profit, or a corporation, and you understand this message and spread it to each and every one of your employees. What happens when your entire organization of people, as a unit, is a network in itself, but each person also has their personal networks of relationships to draw on, which extend beyond the organization?
You then have an INCREDIBLE competitive advantage. (Yeah, there can still be ‘competition’ in a collaborative society, it’s just different, because it’s based on trust.)
Your organization becomes agile. It becomes a learning network, where every person has access to information that can be shared, interpreted, and implemented. You’ll be able to identify weak signals faster, come up with solutions faster, and adapt to change faster.
The world will keep moving. It’s accelerating at an accelerating rate. The ONLY WAY to deal with it is not to cling to the old hierarchies and silos and pride and egos. We have to understand that we can only deal with this as a fully connected system.
And the really crazy part is: we already have everything we need to make this happen. It’s already in place.
All that needs to change is the mindset.
Let me repeat:
All that needs to change is the mindset.
So how are we going to fix everything?
I have absolutely no idea. That’s kind of the point. None of us do, individually, or even as groups. The system needs to be interwoven first, and then we’ll collectively know how to figure it out. We’ll be flexible, adaptive, and intelligent, because we’ll be able to quickly and freely allocate resources where they’re needed in order to make change.
The first step is to build our networks.
This all hit me like a bolt of lightening, a pattern that emerged out of all the complex information.
It’s an option that seems not only possible, but preferable, and comes with a plan that’s implementable immediately.
I thought that made this an idea worth spreading.
If you think so too, pass it on.