You Are Not a Gadget, a collection of essays by Jaron Lanier, offers insightful criticism of the prevailing wisdom of the technology industry: People are not computers, computers don’t think like people do, and information doesn’t want to be free (or want anything else, for that matter).
Brynn Evans pointed me to an intriguing piece of future gazing from Chris Messina and Jyri Engeström – The Web at a New crossroads. In it, they describe the evolution of the internet from a document-centric content sharing mechanism, through to the way we see it today – with the emergence of people-centric media solutions like Facebook and Twitter increasingly taking a prominent role.
It’s a well thought out and innately resonant concept – we are currently at a stage in the web’s development where people are sufficiently acclimatized to the technology, and the technologists are realizing what personal elements are required to bring people into the web – offering elements that are innately social and vital to the way that humans behave. As Clay Shirky puts it, “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Hence the dawn of what Messina and Engeström are calling “The people-centric Web”.
Among my circle of friends, there are few who aren’t on Facebook. And those few who aren’t, are missing out on the conversations, the lame jokes, the cat pictures, and all the stuff that goes on in social circles– for whatever reason, they’re not at the party. If there’s one thing that people fear, it’s being left out – solitary confinement is the single worst kind of punishment dealt out by the human race. As the web becomes more and more socially interesting, it seems likely that the kinds of pressures that we impose on ourselves as a society – pressure to be seen, to contribute value, and to achieve will continue to manifest more and more as part of the social web.
Work is different from play. In recreational social circles, the social objects –the things we’re talking about – often take a back seat to the fact that people are talking about them. A Facebook conversation about, say, Keyboard Cat, provides a mechanism for the conversation participants to engage and jest – the content itself is not of particular importance. Social systems grow based on the actions of the contributors, not on the artifacts or information that catalyzes their existence.
In a work setting, the conversation happens exactly the same way – it is, after all, the only way people know how to interact, but the social object tends to have a lot more value. In fact, in days of old, content management systems placed all the value on the content – often not providing any way to allow social interaction or discussion about the important documents, plans and policies that are the artifacts produced by people in work environments. With the dawn of Enterprise 2.0 (the people-centric web for work), we realize that we need to bring more social approaches to the way people work, and to design workflows that mirror the ways people interact with their friends.
Say Messina and Engeström: “We want a web where people are as important to the architecture of the system as documents.”
While I applaud the sentiment, I think it’s more than just a case of bringing people up to the level of documents in terms of importance. They way we manage content has to change in order to allow these conversations to take place. There needs to be more accessibility, more transparency, and clear ownership of content. With the current web, people are clearly indicating to systems architects exactly how they want to work with social objects. We need to take the Content Management tools of old and ensure that they meet these social needs first.
“Ask not what you can do for your Content, but what your Content can do for you”