Last Thursday evening, I had the great pleasure of participating in a panel discussion about Web 2.0 at the Demos thinktank. We had about 40 people, and the discussion was lively, both among the panelists and with the audience. I enjoyed meeting my fellow panelists Livio Hughes of Headshift and Tom Steinberg of MySociety.org, and the conversations both before and after the event with both of them, and moderator Paul Miller were very interesting.
I don't usually prepare remarks ahead of time when I speak, but I am doing it a bit more frequently these days, as I want to be precise about my thoughts and, in this case, I didn't want to use a PowerPoint presentation. The risk of doing that is to sound like you are reading vs. speaking. I hope I did a good job overcoming that. The benefit is that I can easily make the remarks available to you. You'll find them below. I didn't follow them exactly, but you'll get the general drift. I spoke primarily about persuasion and transparency. Apologies for not adding all the links and references...I'll try to do so later.
Albrycht Demos Speech
What is Web 2.0? That is, in fact, a difficult question to answer, as it is a catch-all phrase that is still developing in meaning by the people who are creating tools for it, who are using it, and who are commenting on it. Net net it is tools that enable collaboration and information sharing. The aspect of Web 2.0 I want to talk about briefly tonite is that of the new relationship it enables between an organization and its audiences. At the core of this new relationship is a power shift: from organizational-directed control to collaborative power sharing among stakeholders.
It used to be that power was gained by the hording of knowledge. That forced people to beg for an audience in front of the throne, and scramble after the crumbs offered while professing undying gratitude (and of course, seeking to gain that same power behind the scenes). Hording of knowledge or information was a guaranteed path to power because the production and sharing of information was expensive, therefore held in the hands of the few.
In the past few years, however, we have seen a dramatic shift in the economics of knowledge production and information dissemination. It has become so cheap that anyone can do it. And the technologies that make it possible – the internet, the web, blogs, podcasts, rss etc – are powerful amplifiers of knowledge connectivity itself, creating positive feedback cycle.
This means that there is another good route to power: from hording the information to providing the best paths towards the information. Or to put it more simply – the best recommendations.
And those recommendations are increasingly not coming from trusted organizations – in fact, study after study shows that trust in organizations is declining across the western world – the recommendations are coming from “people like ourselves”. Our peers.
And herein lies the danger for companies, government organizations and the like: the people are pissed off. They are cynical. They are tired of being manipulated. They are no longer passive, but actively seeking what they want. And they are telling everyone about what they find along the way.
Seeing this companies are terrified of the growth of blogs, podcasts and wikis, not to mention web 2.0. In every speech I give, one of the first questions asked is “how do I control it.” The answer is: You can't. You can only engage in the conversation.
Entering the conversation requires some new ways of thinking about the practice of communications. Tonite I am going to focus on a couple of topics I find intriguing and promising for helping organizations to form collaborative partnerships with their stakeholders they will need to be successful in the future.
The first thing I want to talk about is persuasion. The second is transparency.
Studies have shown that there are three pillars of persuasion: competence (qualification, expertness, intelligence, authoritativeness), trustworthiness (character, sagacity, safety, honesty) and goodwill/intent toward receiver. I have written that the first two factors of persuasion, competence and trustworthiness, are arguably covered adequately by traditional marketing/communications techniques and tools. However, brochures, ads and press releases are not tools for handling the third factor: goodwill. The latter is handled much better via participatory tools like blogs, both because they tend to be written in a first person human voice, but also because built into those tools are mechanisms for communicating understanding, empathy and responsiveness, like comments and trackbacks.
So why is goodwill important? Because it is a "means of opening communication channels more widely" and is a significant factor in believability/likeability overall. (I am relying here on McCroskey & Teven's article on goodwill.)
According to them, there are three elements of goodwill: understanding ("When we see someone exhibiting behaviors which tell us they understand our concerns, we feel closer to them."); empathy ("This involves behaviors indicating that one person not only understands the other's views but accepts them as valid views, even if he or she does not agree with those views.") and responsiveness ("Responsiveness is judged by how quickly one person reacts to the communication of another, how attentive they are to the other, and the degree to which they appear to listen to the other. We tend to see people who behave responsively toward us as caring about us.").
So, what does this means for persuasive communication using social media?
Are social media then the missing link for persuasive communications? It would seem so. Used in conjunction with traditional tools, they can quite possibly increase the persuasive impact of your campaigns. And let's remember, these new tools can also support the first two factors: competence and trustworthiness.
I would argue that in order to address the situation we are in with this large degree of lack of trust – you could also say a decline in social capital on the part of organizations – we need to encourage goodwill more than ever before.
Another topic related to trust and persuasion is transparency. This is, of course, one of the latest buzz words emerging from the blogosphere. Let's dig into it a little and examine what it might mean for corporate communications.
Wikipedia has a good working definition of transparency. Essentially, transparency is the opposite of privacy; an activity is transparent if all information about it is open and freely available." Now, you can't say that about truth, which drives home the difference between truth and transparency. Truth doesn't require that "all information…is open and freely available." It only requires that the information that is presented is honest and accurate.
As I have written in the past, “that gap between the information that is presented and making all information available is the one that PR practitioners have fallen into, tarred with the label of "unethical."
Before we get into how much information should be made available, let's look at another challenge for transparency: metaphor. There are some who take transparency to mean clear, accurate, factual information.
In today's rationalistic, empirical, objective business world, it seems we seek to arrange all knowledge in an Excel spreadsheet. If something cannot be measured, it doesn't exist or it doesn't have value. This is something we have struggled with in public relations, given we deal with the subjective every day, and know that it doesn't fit neatly on a chart. How do you quantify goodwill, for one? Can you map trust to bottom line sales? Not easily!
If we took transparency literally in this way, we would no longer use images of sex and wealth to sell cars. We wouldn't “just do it” anymore. We'd stop “lovin it” at McDonalds. You don't go to a pizzeria to buy a doughy crust covered with tomato sauce, meat and veggies cooked for 20 minutes in a wood-burning oven. You buy guilty yummy pleasure. And pizza is therefore advertised that way. And while some of us might welcome the disappearance of scantily clad girls draped over cars, the implied possibilities represented by those images are still effective in getting men to buy powerful red driving machines.
The use of imagery and metaphoric language to sell products and services is perhaps more problematic for the definition of truth (honest and accurate) than for the issue of transparency. The loaded examples I used notwithstanding, we as humans address our world through stories and metaphors. That is never going to change, nor should it. I think there is a better way of thinking about transparency, which is the definition I referenced before: an activity is transparent if all information about it is open and freely available.
Let's look at example where metaphoric imagery and transparency collided a few weeks ago, raising some eyebrows and chatter in the blogosphere. The United Nations office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ran an ad about racism, which included images of black puzzle pieces all put together and a red lego block to the right. This was quickly interpreted as a slam against Denmark, home of the company that sells Lego toys, and where the publication of cartoons in its nation's newspapers depicting Mohammed started riots worldwide. 24 hours later, the ad was removed, and denials that it meant what people thought were issued. However, people widely didn't believe that and blogged about it accordingly.
So what role could transparency have played here? In providing the information as to how the decision on the ad image was made. By shedding light on the process. And here we get back to the point I made before – the rules are changing about what information gets provided when.
People want to know the gory details of organizational decision making. They want to know the justifications, the debates that went up to the point of decision. They want to know who was involved and why. They want to look behind the scenes and judge for themselves if the decision made was the right one.
And it is easier than ever before for them to get that information from people on the inside who share it electronically, anonymously or not.
I want to take a quick side trip, into science, because there is something we can learn there. How does a scientific fact become a fact? French sociologist of science Bruno Latour has written several books on the subject, and I want to describe what he calls “circulating reference”. In its most simplified terms, this means that when a researcher is practicing “science” he or she formulates hypothesis, gathers data, makes experiments and so on, then reports results to peers for evaluation and eventually acceptance as “fact.”
In order to test the potential fact constructed by the original researcher, other scientists perform the same experiments in an attempt to duplicate results, confirming the fact, indeed, exists. In order to to that, they must follow the same paths as the original researchers, provided by the latter through references, data translations, and so on.
I don't want to get into all the gory details here, but the basic idea is that the reason facts are credible is that they can be traced backwards to their origin, and re-constructed.
So, back to corporate communications. In order for our messages to be received with some degree of credibility and trust, in today's questioning, distrustful atmosphere, we need to move away from the message delivered as a fait accompli, but embrace communications as something to be tested, then provide the instructions and/or information needed to make those tests. You could even call this process a conversation.
So, what would transparent corporate communications look like? The questions we as professional communicators have to ask ourselves is what information do we need to provide so that others can reconstruct our decisions. Everything from minutes to meetings to interviews with the participants could be made available. They might not agree with the decision we took, but they will at least understand the reasoning, which might buy some goodwill, for one.
We also need to decide when to provide it and how to provide it. Is it only made available when a problem arises? Is it easily searchable on the website and available via a link? Or does the person inquiring have to jump through a variety of hoops?
At its most basic level, our job as professional communicators is to provide information so that people can make decisions. With the exponentially increasing number of sources of information, knowing what and whom to believe and what and whom to distrust is becoming a critical need among all audiences.
Learning how to make decisions in this environment is perhaps our number one need right now as consumers and citizens. Recognizing this difficulty, organizations should seek to help people make decisions by giving them the information they need to do so. It requires rethinking the old command-control relationship we have had with our consumers.
What I am proposing is a different way of practicing communications, which can transform it into a tool for consumer or citizen decision making. This type of decision making is not based not on one source or reputation, but is rather a product of many sources, a triangulation, if you will, of positions. Perhaps most importantly, it not not likely to be a final truth, but a flexible position. It also means that organizations need to enter into long-term conversations with a broad network of people connected to their organization, both tightly and loosely, in order to be successful in the coming cyberage.
So what is Web 2.0?
Wikipedia writes that Web 2.0 is a second generation of services available on the World Wide Web that lets people collaborate and share information online. What is most striking to me about lots of emerging Web 2.0 services is that the collaboration and sharing is happening in little bite-sized chunks, rather than longer narratives.
Arguably, blogs, for example, are really more web 1.0 technologies. They are big stand-alone narratives, for example. As such, they can serve as a platform for the ongoing conversation with customers.
Compare that to something like Flickr, YouTube or Digg.com, where people upload, vote and/or comment on pieces of content (photos, videos, news or blog articles, and so on). These are only little pieces of stories about a topic or organization, highly dispersed from the home page.
So, if you ask the question, “Is Web 2.0 a new way for companies to sell to consumers?” there is no easy answer.
Lots of the new Web 2.0 services won't serve as direct sales channels and their persuasive impact is still to be determined. It is important to monitor what is being said and what is going on, of course, but we are still waiting for the big corporate success story there.
Is Web. 20 an opportunity for consumers to take control of the corporate communications channel? I don't think this is the right question. The language of mass communication implied here and the old command/control model doesn't translate to Web 2.0. Rather I'd ask is there an opportunity for consumers to have a more collaborative relationship with organizations? In that case, I'd answer yes. There is no control on any side.
Is Web. 2.0 A metaphor for a new kind of democratic social interaction? I suppose you could claim that web 2.0 is indeed a metaphor for social interaction, but I think it will fail unless lessons learned in group formation and online communities over the past decades are applied.
Wide open, utopian, build it and they will come types of approaches here will simply not work. Leadership, rules, rewards, discipline and punishment are all needed. Otherwise all the same mistakes will be made again and the trolls, spammers and freeriders will destroy this commons as well.
Is Web 2.0 A tool that allows well-networked elites to increase their networking capabilities? Of course. But it also enables newcomers to enter the game far more easily than before.
In conclusion, I am heartened by the development of tools that enable us to collaborate and share information more easily. I am happy to see the old paternalistic power structures start to disintegrate. And, seeing all of you here, I am hopeful that we will figure out how to respect people's attention and practice ethical corporate communications in this new world. Thank you very much.