Tonight, I had the pleasure of participating on the Titans of Tech panel during the ElephantJournal.com‘s Walk The Talk Show.
Here is the scene: Brad, Jeffrey and me sitting at a table with Hosea (winner of the Top Chef competition and Head Chef at Jax…whew thats a long name drop!) surrounded by 400 people who participate in the yoga lifestyle (Still not sure 100% what that is).
Here is how it went (at least how my muddled brain remembers it):
Waylon: “Hey Micah, do you do anything good for the world? Does technology?”
Micah: “OMG WTF LOL!”
Waylon: “Hey Micah, in yoga language, what makes technology important?”
Micah: “Namaste. Yoga butt.”
Waylon: “Hey Micah, are you going to let other people talk?”
Micah: “There are other people?”
Ok, I kid. In truth, we had a very interesting, albeit short discussion around technology and its effect on the world. Here are the highlights:
The tech community, is a community first. People seem to forget that. Because the majority of the tech community is made up of Nerds and Geeks, who by definition tended to be loners, are extremely accepting of anyone that is interested in being a part of the community. There is no committment to being part of the community, other than being accepting of people.
Boulder is a weird place that loves weird people. Weird people love weird places. Entrepreneurs tend to be weird, so Boulder tends to be a great fit.
Technology is just a tool. It is no different than a yoga mat (or so I assume). If you can see it as a tool to facilitate communication and information, then the tech community becomes what it is: just a community.
At the end of the short group conversation, what I thought most interesting is this: Who said this? One of the people on our panel, or John Friend, local yoga master?
People create false barriers that create “different” communities. At the end of the day, we are one community with sub-groups that have different interests. Imagine that, one world, one community, with different people adding value in different ways.
Yeah, we arent so different after all.
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I have spent the last several weeks thinking, talking, testing and speaking on measuring influence, trust and expertise online. Its a subject that I find wildly interesting (and entertaining based on responses), and luckily dovetails nicely with my work at Lijit.
Here is my last deck from WordCamp Denver (which I did while fighting a bad back and after taking some Vicodin. I cant wait for the video…):
In it, I spend some time talking about HOW to increase influence (which I probably should put in a blog post somewhere).
Here is the presentation in three easy points:
1) Influence is a combination of expertise, brand and trust.
2) Influence is a single action by one person, which affects, positively (or negatively) a single action of another single person.
3) Influence is truly a 1:1 relationship. Reach allows that 1:1 relationship to occur rapidly and appear to be one:many (even though its a bunch of one:one interactions).
Ok, so we all agree, right? (If not, lets discuss in the comments, and pretend we all agree so the rest of my post doesnt go to hell.)
So, how does influence manifest in a community? What is its place/value within a community?
Certainly an influential member of a community can help shape the character of a community. Look at Andrew Hyde in Boulder. The events he has spearhead (StartupWeekend, StartupDrinks and IgniteBoulder) have all contributed to the startup character of Boulder; of Boulder being a place for young entrepreneurs to cut their teeth on the tech startup game. (It has also help validate us old people, and our work with startups…) Andrew’s effect on Boulder has always been something that I have respected and admired.
But what if the influence of that community member doesnt extend beyond the community itself?
Or what if there is no community to start with?
I suppose before we can continue, there has to be a definition of community.
If we ask Google (define:community), we get:
- a group of people living in a particular local area; “the team is drawn from all parts of the community”
- common ownership; “they shared a community of possessions”
- a group of nations having common interests; “they hoped to join the NATO community”
- agreement as to goals; “the preachers and the bootleggers found they had a community of interests”
- residential district: a district where people live; occupied primarily by private residences
- (ecology) a group of interdependent organisms inhabiting the same region and interacting with each other
Is all community is, a group of people that live near each other? I actually believe that community is a couple of these things. It is proximity (online that would be around a site) AND “agreement as to goals.” (which I would extend to “common goals and/or intent”).
Take my current favorite community, Threadless. 900,000 designers and art lovers all interacting around art.
(This might be the worst chart in social media.)
Here is what that image is saying. The circles are influencers. Most influencers have overlapping spheres of influence. A single influencer attempts to exert influence.
He is only successful if he influences another influencer, who must also influence another influencer and so on…
Each influencer than has some influence internally to the community, but also externally to the community, which attracts new members to the community. Thereby, increasing the community itself, and bringing in new resources (and potentially future influencers, who will–probably–always be influenced at some level by the original influencer). Whew.
For a single member of a community to truly have an influence on the community itself, she must first have the ability to influence other influencers. As she is able to apply more influence over the community, the more she is seen as an influencer and her sphere of influence grows, requiring less other influencers.
Now, if I was an advertiser, I would be interested in not just the influencers themselves, but the of influencer of the influencers, the Influencer Patient Zero of a specific community, if you will…(but I digress)
Influence’s place within a community then has three distinct functions:
1) Self-policing. Interestingly, I would imagine that the influencers in a community have influence, in part because they feel extreme passion about the shared goals and focus of the community (super users), and its in their own self-interest to ensure that those goals/focus dont change (to ensure no loss of influence).
ICanHasCheezburger is a great example where the community itself polices comments and other aspects of the content to ensure it lives up to the standards set by the community.
2) Attraction of new resources and people to the community.
With Threadless, the vast majority of their community members start by submitting a tshirt design. The influential members of the community (those that have been printed, for example) are attracting other designers to submit designs. They attract a certain “type” of community member, who is quickly taught the rules (see point #1).
3) Drive the community’s character.
Andrew, with StartupWeekend and Ignite Boulder. David Cohen with Techstars. Brad Feld through his blog. All of these members of the Boulder community really influence the character of the community. The character of the community helps to also define who can apply influence (a vicious circle!) and ultimately attract people and resources to the community, who are people who share the community’s character (ah! its an infinite loop!).
Influence and influencers, serve the primary purpose of fostering community, by both attracting people and resources (growing the community), and policing (protecting the community).
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The room was pretty full, probably 600-800 people, and there was clearly a line drawn between those for CrowdSpring and those for Threadless.
“Lets lay out some ground rules for this highly emotional debate…” Jeff Howe of Wired began.
Threadless is an interesting company. Its truly a retail/ecommerce site driven by a community of designers (about 900,000 members).
The members of the Threadless community seem to break into three groups: The Designers, the Interactors, and Purchasers. Sometimes, a member will be part of multiple groups, but there are many that purchase without ever submitting or critiquing a design (like me) or vice versa, some that never buy, but interact consistently within the community.
Truthfully, it makes sense. Jake, Jacob and Jeffrey are all designers. They started and built the company as designers. I would almost be willing to guess that if those three werent as intelligent and saavy as they are, the business would have never gone far, because for designers, design always trumps business.
If you were to order the three parts of Threadless (the business, the community and the designers), I would bet that internally, its viewed as: The community –> the designers –> the business.
CrowdSpring is not a company. It is a marketplace, and marketplaces have a distinct operational makeup.
Competition reigns. Price points are driven by buyer demand and competitive sellers. The success of the marketplace rests on having the right number of buyers and sellers to ensure that the equilibrium pricing structure is exactly right to grow the marketplace (attract sellers and buyers) and provide enough in fees to the “marketplace manager” (in this case, CrowdSpring).
Does community matter for a marketplace? In its most basic form (such as a forum), yes. Low levels of collaboration create a false sense of traditional community and have the potential for increasing the value of the seller’s product. Which, helps drive up price points (and increases fees collected). Additionally, in order to have a thriving marketplace, sellers must either not directly compete or be driven by competition.(Basically, the best type of designer for CrowdSpring is a competitive one.)
Think of a farmers market. Or a busy street market. Vendors tend to either be different enough to exist side-by-side effectively, or they understand the importance of healthy competition to survive. In some cases, where the competiting vendors are selling a widely available product (like design work–yes, not GOOD design), competition can effectively drive one (or both) vendor(s) out of business.
A real fear in a marketplace is the concept of price colusion. While CrowdSpring clearly wants to attract a specific type of designer–one who is definately competitive by nature, and probably in need of work–it cannot have a community that agrees in private on what to charge for different types of products. This can drive artifical price inflation and drive off buyers. In order for CrowdSpring’s community to truly be effective for CrowdSpring, it has to be controlled (perhaps just monitored) to ensure that price collusion doesnt exist and that it fosters competition.
Finally, Ross Kimbarovsky and Mike Samson are business guys, not designers. They saw an inefficiency in the market, and decided to build a business around it. They are not community people (Ross is a former IP Lawyer and Mike is a former film producer), nor are they designers. If I were to bet how they view Crowdspring, I would guess its business –> buyers/sellers –> community.
Here is the basic argument (at least how I see it):
- CrowdSpring’s business model is spec work (defined as: “Short for “speculation.” Work done “on spec” is done for no guaranteed remuneration, in hope of winning the job, campaign or account in question.”
- Spec Work is Evil
- Therefore, CrowdSpring is Evil.
How does that make you feel?
Designers hate spec work. There are a million posts out there about how spec work is destroying the graphic and web design industry.
Spec work exists in all service-type industries: public relations, marketing, acting and others have some type of spec involved in the attraction and landing of a job.
Because spec work creates such an emotional response amougst the design community, the argument has shifted from the efficiacy of having a marketplace for designers and companies to the moral argument around spec work.
Ross and Mike have artfully made the argument an emotional one not an intellectual one.
What are designers arguing? The merits of spec work not the effect of a efficent marketplace on the design profession.
Sure CrowdSpring is associated with spec work, and therefore some of the negative feelings around spec work land on them, but the reality is that the emotions surrounding spec work DO NOT MATERIALLY EFFECT THEIR MARKETPLACE.
They could be a marketplace for scrap metal. It doesnt matter. The buyers are looking for low cost design, and the sellers (designers) are willing to do it, REGARDLESS OF WHAT ITS CALLED. All that matters to CrowdSpring is that there is deal flow in their marketplace to drive the exchange of money so that they can collect fees. Thats the business.
(During the panel, Mike said that CrowdSpring has “paid out” close to $1,000,000 to their sellers. The truth is, they arent “paying out.” CrowdSpring places the buyers money in escrow (basically in a bank account), and then provides the buyer’s money to the designer selected for the job (less 15%). Threadless, on the other hand, writes a check from the company to the designer who’s design is selected for printing. Its an important distinction, and a further example of the futile effort of debating a company vs. a marketplace.)
In this case, its clearly CrowdSpring.
1) They have obsficated the debate of the effect of an efficent marketplace on the design profession by getting designers to debate the merits of spec work (which in the greater scheme is a useless argument driven entirely by emotion).
2) They have been able to attach themselves to Threadless’ brand, and in many cases be spoken about equally.
Its no surprise that Ross, a former IP lawyer has skillfully driven the conversation away from where the discussion should be (that marketplaces often drive down prices and quality), and allows it to build around a emotional issue (guess who sponsored the Is Spec Work Evil panel? Not David Carson.)
For Threadless, or other designer driven communities, as long as the debate is focused on spec work, you’ve lost before you’ve started. Clearly, Threadless benefits designers. Clearly, CrowdSpring has shown that there was a hole in the market.
Its like debating Sam Flores vs. frozen fish.
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- Spec Work Analysis: Here To Stay – But Not For Everyone (web-strategist.com)
- Is Crowdsourcing Evil and Other Moot Questions … (crowdsourcing.typepad.com)
- SXSW 2009: building web communities, Threadless-style (downloadsquad.com)
- Twitterville Notebook: CrowdSPRING’s Ross Kimbarovsky (redcouch.typepad.com)
- Forbes calls designers snooty (davidairey.com)
- Kill All The Designers (learntoduck.com)