Hyper-Local Services For Navigating The Third Space: Where Social Media Meets Social

The services Foursquare and Gowalla, while not for everyone, point to a new and important dimension to our online activity: the ability to apply the power of the Internet to our immediate geographical neighbourhood.

We can find cafes, ATMs, cultural activities with just a quick look into an application such as Vicinity. But shopkeepers and stores can also find us. We can be offered all sorts of goodies such as sales offers, discounts in cafes, lunch du jours at nearby restaurants, notifications of special events that are happening soon and just around the corner. “Come along if you have few minutes spare, why not?”

With these hyper-local services we now have a street full of shop windows in our pocket. It will get easier, social media strategist Ted Vickey says:

“By using little bits of technology, even the smallest business in Galway, [Ireland] can compete with the big companies who are advertising to the same customers. So it’s making it more personal. It’s taking that online community and putting a face to it. And it’s allowing businesses to attract customers. And the customer really is in the core of the decision-making process to buy something.”

I should say here that it was while having a cup of tea and a flapjack in a cafe that I first saw an ad offering an aspect of his professional services while I was checking into Foursquare.

Very soon, the the term smart in smartphone will be made redundant as more and more phones will be able to manage apps and handle the Internet more efficiently. These phones will still allow us to access the great yonder that is the Internet, but they will help us navigate in our third space, the place where we spend our time when not at work or at home.

This third space is the physical space where we do most of our shopping and socialising and seek out entertainment and diversion. This physical space is now being augmented by cyberspace. This is a place where social media meets social.

Foursquare has been expecting to reach a million checkins by mid-June of 2010. Not bad for something a little over two years old which started out as a sort of a game, where one would collect badges and points for checking into various venues and places.

It has gone beyond that (I hope) to the point where it has become a navigation tool for some of the destinations I go to. Not in a map sense but in a points of interest sense. Its value is not in where I can find something but in who and what I can find.

This makes these sorts of applications very effective social media tools. Our online communities have moved from our desks or laptops to our pockets or purses. In some strange kind of meld, our virtual lives are mixing with our real lives.

Links And Notes From Today’s “Irish Debate”: Ireland Is In An Ideal Position To Recover From The Recession

Here are some links from today’s discussion on Irish Debate with yours truly. The topic was “Ireland Is In An Ideal Position To Recover From The Recession”. You can also watch the video recording at Irish Debate.

And here are my notes in preparation for the talk.

Thank you all very much for coming. In case I should forget at the end, I would like to take the opportunity to do my thank-yous up front.

First of all, thanks to Joe Garde for creating this space and making this conversation possible. When he called last week to see if I wanted to do it I was at first very reluctant, but then I realised that our new technological futures are about, if they are about anything at all, saying yes to new possibilities however they present themselves. So thank you for the opportunity Joe.

I am sitting in the offices of Social Bits using the 11 Mbps line that comes with this rather amazing Webworks building. Thanks to Ina O’Murchu and Mark Cahill for allowing me to use their rather impressive facilities.

Introduction. You can view my work history. I have Irish parentage and am a world citizen. I came here for personal reasons, every month or six weeks or so in 2009. Now I’m here for the summer commuting to London. Not knowing anybody and with a journalistic background, I became very curious about how things worked here. Latterly I’ve been involved as a contributor to Technology Voice. Technology Voice is about:

  • A positive view of the technological developments in the world around us.
  • A place where interested parties can contribute articles.
  • A provider of positive and useful ideas that readers in Ireland and elsewhere would find inspiring at some level.

The talk is entitled “Ireland is in the ideal position to recover from the recession very quickly and that the only thing holding things up is that Irish people can’t see it themselves”. It’s provocative, “link bait” perhaps, but actually it is what I really think. I am going to talk for about fifteen minutes and then again for about five minutes or so. Hopefully, we can have a good chat in between.

In the first part I am going to talk about the four things I believe put Ireland in the vanguard in the recovery from recession:

  • Stability
  • Education
  • Infrastructure
  • Technology

Stability.

Things have been changing in the last eighteen months. There’ve been various points of failure: banks; government; police; church. The Irish have been abandoned and betrayed by the very institutions that are normally the places that we put our most trust in. It’s like Ireland has been under a year-long blitz. Every day we are being bombarded by more terrible news. But the people of Ireland are still here,

If I wanted to kill a country, I would undermine and destroy these institutions. The indicator of a failed state is the absence of these institutions. But despite this relentless fury Ireland goes on. Beaten and hobbling somewhat, but still going on. (Look at the figures regarding Ireland’s quality of life and stability index in the links above.)

What happened to Ireland would have destroyed most countries. So how did Ireland survive? Because the community of networks is stronger. Stronger than any institution. This means people can plan and look to the future. Why? Because Irish women are the strongest and most formidable group of people I have ever come across. It must not be taken for granted.

Education.

The educational density of Ireland is incomparable in Europe, again, see the links above regarding tertiary education. Ireland has nothing else to export except its brilliance. The Irish market isn’t big enough and knowledge has to be the main export. Stability and education are such great sales, but more importantly the resourcefulness I see all around me is startling compared to even the beginning of the year. Galway is the creative centre of Ireland but hardly anyone has ever really heard of it. (No more fucking Leprechauns!)

  • DERI, home of the next Web.
  • 091labs, home of innovators and developers.
  • Festivals every week it seems.
  • Flourishing arts.

All the ingredients for making San Francisco envious of Galway. Where there’s brains there is creativity. I am not saying any special programmes should be installed. I just recognizing what you have is the place to start.

Infastructure.

There’s no need to start from scratch. Factories are already built, empty and ready to start from scratch. Housing sucks and needs to be started again properly.

Technology.

Social Media is becoming distorted by advertising according to Martin Sorrell. He says that social media sites are “less commercial phenomena, they are more personal phenomena”, more similar to “writing letters to our mothers” than watching television. “Invading these [social] media with commercial messages might not be the right thing.” It is extremely important, with 1.8 billion users online, and 400 million plus of them on Facebook. Even Foursquare should be hitting 1 million checkins a day by mid-June.

But one of the most interesting bits of the phenomena is the adaptability of the medium to take advantage of every new technology that comes along. It’s hard to tell what is leading what. It’s not for me to point out opportunities in this talk, but there clearly are opportunities.

Social media is pervasive, adaptive, expanding, and Ireland is helping to lead the way. There are apparently only six properly-trained computer scientist/social media graduates in whole of Europe. By the end of the year, Ireland alone will have doubled that number. These are people with rigorous academic in-depth training. It is possible that a third of all genuine social media experts in Europe by the end of next year will be from Ireland.

Neuroscience is also relevant here. Along with this adaptability is the increasing knowledge of what we know about how our brains work. This is not incremental. We know our brains don’t learn best through the means by which we are educated. In fact, it is the worst possible way to learn anything. John Medina has produced his own set of rules for what we know really works for the brain. Sir Ken Robinson has also talked about what we know has to be done for education. See the links section again.

The opportunities for new thinking, new technologies and the combining and recombining of ideas facilitated my belief in the power of social media. Buckle up – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Corporations Must Embrace The Principles Of The Social Media Revolution To Evolve And Survive

Image via Best Design Options by Vector Portal.

We don’t build the tools first. We build with what we have, and out of that which is constructed, new tools become possible. The technologies enabled by the industrial revolution led to the creation of the technological age, which in turn led on to the information revolution, which segued into the digital age. We now have the social media revolution. Like the preceding ages and revolutions, social media is going to affect every aspect, if it is not already, of our lives – including the way we do business.

Corporations are instruments of commerce. For the times when they came to the fore, they were necessary entities which were needed to source, manufacture and distribute goods and commodities, and they did it very effectively. I say “for the times” because as the times will change, so will corporations. The will have to – if they want to survive.

Although existing as legal entities from the late 19th century, they came to the fore in the post-WW2 boom. This was because of the immense cadre of (pretty much all) men who came back from the war. Before the war, the US had a standing army of less than 140,000 personnel which expanded dramatically at the outbreak of hostilities. The educated new recruits were given the task as officers and NCOs to manage this huge expansion which took place in the framework of the ultimate command-and-control environment – the military.

Peace came and suddenly American big business was blessed with tens and tens of thousands of highly trained men extremely well versed in the system of top-down management. Their talents and skills were immediately put to work, and because of who they were, the circumstances of their learning and the lessons they derived, the modern corporation came into being. It worked well in contrast to what was before and it worked well for fifty or sixty odd years.

Since most of us have grown up in a world of corporations, we tend to think of the corporate entity as a permanent fixture in our lives. In fact, it is a very recent addition to the field of human activity and there is no reason at all to assume that it will last another fifty years. And it won’t, because with the advent of social media, everything is going to change and is in fact already doing so. Consider the following principles – transparency, trust and engagement – these are the three foundations of the social media world.

  • Transparency: Companies can no longer close their glass doors on the world. Even without access to privileged information, one can have a very good sense of what a company is about just from its online presence – but just as importantly, from the online presence of its customers and those with a passing interest.
  • Trust: One of the major features of a command-and-control mentality is that communication flows in only one constricted way – downwards through channels. Any variance from this narrow path brings up permission issues: who can talk to who about what. It may have worked from a structural point of view, but the cost in alienation, isolation and disempowerment of the individuals in the ‘chain’ doesn’t compensate for the gains anymore. The ensuing culture of micro-management is the exact opposite of trust creation.
  • Engagement: The great joy of social media is the immense ability it gives you to engage with people and groups as you please to whatever level you please. Again a corporation with one monolithic image or brand with which it portrays itself to the world is automatically demanding that a person should subsume their own ideas and thoughts to the company message. With such an inauthentic starting point it is going to be impossible for people to make genuine connections with other people.

A young person growing up now in a social media environment and who knows nothing else is going to take one look at the corporate world and genuinely wonder: “Is this for me?” A very accurate observation they will be entitled to make is: “I can’t be open, because I am not trusted to engage with people as I see fit.” Corporations are not going to get the best talent from the next generation because – as they stand at the moment with an opaque, paranoid, control freak style of human transaction – they are clearly a very unappealing proposition.

If corporations want to survive they will have to change nearly everything about the way they deal with the people who work for them and because it will be a social media world that we are coming into – everybody else too. They will have to trust their employees more to make all sorts of decisions. If a person on one team is needed on another team and he or she okays it with the folks in their present team, then what is to stop them from walking down the corridor to be where they are most needed. This doesn’t happen now, but imagine the savings in energy and time by foregoing all the meetings and paperwork and politicking just to make this one decision which goes on now. We all know it does. That’s just one example.

The irony is that if corporations do choose survival, they will survive as something entirely different from what they are today.

Mainstream Media Must Change, Because Face Time Is NOT All That Matters

Most of the discussion around the decline of mainstream media (MSM) news has been in the context of the upsurge in competition from the Internet and the subsequent loss of advertising revenue. Coping with the reduced income has resulted in the closure of many outlets and drastic cutbacks at those enterprises that have somehow kept going. On top of this, getting rid of seasoned professionals has resulted not in an overlap between the old and new, but in a knowledge gap in the handover process that appears more like an abyss of ignorance. Young journalists are having to reinvent the wheel in the absence of generative guidance.

Times change and the transition from the old to the new has to have a cost, but it did not have to be like this. While it is easy to blame the more difficult changes and the subsequent hardships as something wrought by the advent of social media and that was therefore somehow inevitable, there is some culpability that lies with the old guard too.

During a talk to staff at a very large MSM outlet last year, the president of the company said something along the lines of production values don’t count, no one cares about slick or professionally-produced packages, all that matters is face time. The woeful aspiration to mediocrity implied by these sentiments speaks of a leadership that has no idea about what is going to happen in the short, medium or long-term future. But then again – nor does anyone else.

What is different is that all the companies that are making headway in the new digital world do so by continuously experimenting, trying out new ideas as they present themselves and accepting that there is a certain amount of failure inherent in the process. Either that or they die. They can do this by being structurally loose enough to adapt to change and take on new ideas.

In contrast to the rigidity of most corporate thinking a defining feature of social media has been the the way people come together to achieve the things they want to achieve and then go to collaborate with others on other projects as the needs and moods suit. Twestival is probably the prime example in the Twittersphere, but countless examples exist across all social media formats.

The very problems the MSMs have are all the virtues that make the modern digital world such an exciting place to be:

  • Speed: Events, meetings, socialising, brainstorming can all be arranged or take place in real-time. Breaking news, which the MSM controlled until just a few years ago is now owned by Twitter. No one else comes close, and with so many formats, each containing status updates, it is probably Twitter’s biggest selling point.
  • Flexibility: If something does not work it is very, very obvious very quickly and the solution for something that does not work is to stop doing it. Commitments are in the context of what produces a successful outcome in a given scenario rather than the fulfilment of arbitrary decrees from above.
  • Engagement: This is probably the most important. There are people in my life that I have meaningful conversations with – both productive and personal – that simply would not be there if it were not for social media and the other new digital processes. Where once there were a given range of options there now seem to be myriad possibilities.
  • Openness: The only barriers to reaching out are the ones you put up yourself.

Plus it is all very easy.

Contrast this with the traditional way of doing things. Committees, meetings and the endless seeking of permissions take up vast amounts of time and serve no purpose but to reinforce the positions of those in more powerful positions. Speed and flexibility are anathema to empire building strategies. Engagement and openness are usually only available to the customer and client-facing individuals in an organisation, and communication tends to be loaded with agenda points if not completely scripted. The opportunity for developing authentic human relationships is limited.

Mainstream media was the first in line to weather the storm of Web 2.0 technology. (Web 3.0 is on the horizon and pilot waves are already lapping on the shore, with more changes coming more quickly.) But it was not just the accessibility of information that has led to major organisations having such a hard time.

The weakness lies in their traditionally organised top-down setups. As social media spreads, more and more companies are going to have to revisit the validity of their command and control hierarchies, and many will have to come to the conclusion that they will have to change the way they do business internally – to become as fast as they are being forced to do business externally. This of course is a great opportunity for those so placed to help them do so.

One thing is for sure: any company that thinks they can hold on to the old way of doing things while performing cosmetic changes that seem to match the times and that aspires to being anything less than excellent is assuredly doomed.

A Recent Q&A On Online Business And The Digital Landscape

I was a panellist at an event held in UCD in March titled Digital Landscapes, where along with fellow panelists Damien Mulley, Kim Majerus and Dylan Collins, we discussed current and future trends in the online world. In preparation for the event, the panel chair, Damien McLoughlin, emailed a number of questions which I am reproducing below along with my answers.

When we talk about exploiting new technology: what technology are we talking about? What opportunities do they present? What are these emerging technologies that everyone is talking about?

New technology could be anything – augmented reality, 3-D video, WiMax, the Semantic Web, real-time information streams – and they all become relevant in a world where technologies are becoming increasing integrated in our everyday lives – phones are not just used for phoning and texting, but for e-mailing, browsing the Web, setting one’s PVR, controlling devices around the home, retrieving context-specific information, e.g. by geolocation, time, social connectivity, etc.

What impact will digital technology have on our lives now and in the future?

If you look back at what has happened in the past 15 years, you can get some sense of how much our lives have changed since the advent of the Web. We can now turn on our phones, search for a service in a particular location, ring them up, and then go there in a matter of minutes – compare that with trying to find an unknown phone number from an unknown business name in a certain vicinity, and it’s just amazing how used we’ve become to instant information. We now see systems like Siri, the personal assistant for iPhones, allowing us to speak in a request and get an answer back – we’re going to become more used to automated ways for getting to the context-relevant information – through speech requests (show me flights from DUB to SFO tomorrow, what are the movie times near here, etc.), automatic suggestions of relevant (yes, really relevant!) content based on geotemporal information – and we will become used to accessing our asynchronous or real-time content through various interfaces (PC, TV, mobile, in-car systems, etc.).

Can you tell us how a company can get ready for new ways of doing business in a world permeated by digital networks and devices and social media?

Look at reports on emerging technologies, to be aware of what’s out there, e.g. the Horizon Report. It’s also worth looking at past reports to see what did and didn’t take off.

Rather than looking at what your competitors are doing, look to what your consumers / customers need, and imagine how the various technologies they use can help them to do whatever it is they need. It sounds obvious, because it is! Don’t just go on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube without imaging what an end-consumer will get from your social media presence or content.

Is geography redundant? What does digital business mean for business and Ireland Inc.?

I think that it depends on the product or service. Trust is a big issue for many still on the Web, and being local engenders a certain amount of trust, especially for high-quality / high-priced items. If the service is not local, trust can be boosted by having a sufficient amount of positive endorsements, where some of these are verifiable through examining the accounts that created them. However, cost is another issue, and if the amount of trust required for a certain investment by the customer is low but the cost is also low, then the risk may be enough to go with someone who is not local. For us in Ireland, where our population is low and we need to attract customers outside of the country, we need to look at how we can increase that trust, e.g. we could build on our social networking capabilities, linking to the diaspora outside the country, getting their support and recommendations so that we can compete with those countries that have the advantage of large populations and local trust.

(See also the question on future trends and my answer below regarding how we can use semantics to compete with other countries.)

What impact has digital had on what you offer your customers or clients, how you interact with them, and, perhaps most critically, how you lead and manage yourselves?

In terms of my experience with boards.ie, we’ve been a digitally-oriented business from the get-go, so having a means to interact with customers, get feedback / new ideas, put new functionality proposals out there and get a feeling for potential user acceptance, posting announcements, etc., has been part of our framework all along. However, I think it is good to maintain a balanced relationship with your customer base: take ideas on board, implement the sensible ones, give constructive feedback or at least a reason for not adopting others, and don’t wait for everyone to agree on a plan before implementing it, otherwise you’ll never get it done. You often have to gauge a response to a particular proposal and determine if the negative comments are sufficiently prohibitive towards this being a success. Another important thing to keep in mind is that you have to be flexible to change. If we hadn’t done that in boards.ie, we’d still be a gaming forum oriented towards geeks. Not that there’s anything wrong with geeks but we wouldn’t have had the broad-ranging impact if we’d said “no, that’s outside our remit”.

What type of company policy is needed for a company to embrace a digital strategy?

I think it has to be from both the grassroots and the top. If the grassroots are pushing digital acceptance, they will only get so far before encountering push back. There has to be some vision from the leaders that this could be (even if not “certainly will be”) a good idea, and a certain amount of enthusiasm to try something out. Of course, it’s often the people on the ground who know what the potential benefits of this could be, so for this to be accepted, some research into similar successes (even if in different domains) should be carried out for presentation to the boss!

What do you think of the “smart economy”, and its dependence on broadband connectivity?

The state of broadband in Ireland is still, years later, many campaigns and phone companies appearing later, a crying shame. I can’t get mobile broadband in the country, I can’t get cable or wireless services, I am totally dependent on my phone provider with hyped-up charges and low-maximum speeds. How can we encourage entrepreneurs to come here as opposed to other countries or imagine new media services being enabled over broadband if things keep crawling as they are? For the smart economy, we need to be wary of the environment (including infrastructure) as well as the incentives: disregarding pay / tax / grants, is this a good place to live for someone who wishes to contribute to our smart economy?

Tell us more about what you see as the next five online trends in the years ahead?

  1. Social networks become more integrated into the fabric of the Web. We begin to think less about Web 2.0 and the Social Web / social networks or the Semantic Web, and more about just the Web (thanks to Alex for this quote). We have the option to share what belongs to us wherever we want on the Web, not just in “walled gardens”, if we so choose (many may not want to).
  2. Real-time search becomes increasingly relevant as people ignore stale content from weeks or months ago. This content becomes available and more context-sensitive based on wherever you are.
  3. As the move to the bite-size culture increases, having relevant descriptions / content titles / metadata extracts becomes increasingly important for attracting that all-important click through from microcontent to full content.
  4. New interaction methods become more acceptable: voice control / questions, new interaction mechanisms à la Wiimote / Natal / touch surfaces (e.g. on TVs, cameras, etc.).
  5. Practical augmented reality applications become available, e.g. for property search, price comparisons and nearby product suggestions, event recommendations, etc. In particular, I like the applications like aircraft maintenance where the need to switch from the task at hand to a book of instructions is removed.
  6. There’s a move towards getting more people connected who just couldn’t / wouldn’t connect before now, e.g. kids and the elderly through iPad-like devices, instead of systems like Eldy on PCs.

(Oh, that’s six, oops!)

Who is the new customer in digital business? Discuss the issue of customer segmentation – is traditional segmentation dead?

Anyone potentially – through real-time search, serendipitous discovery of content, or friend recommendations – can be that customer. You may attract a customer in someone who didn’t even realise that such a product / service existed. That doesn’t mean that everyone is a customer, but just that there’s a larger potential customer base than would have been possible before the Web.

It’s similar to what’s happened for niche interests. Often, people would join a club, get a magazine, find some meetup in a letters page, and go to the event. But even after all that, there may have been no opportunity to meet with those really interested in one sub-topic (e.g. at an astronomy meeting, maybe no one is interested in 60’s spacecraft). With the Web, you can very quickly tap into a very specific niche group of interest. Some of the largest groups on the Web have very non-Web related interests: knitting patterns, woodcraft, cooking clubs, where sharing some aspect of the activity online complements the offline activity (boards.ie is a case in point: we had various gamers coming onto a forum to discuss the game itself and various online / offline events – this then grew as people started to talk about other activities outside gaming, and various new forums were created to facilitate this).

What are the revenue streams for a digital business – who is going to pay for it?

Subscriptions to additional services and advertising are the two main methods that work online, and these aren’t suited to every business.

You combine your entrepreneurial activity with an active programme of academic research – what does the future of the digital business environment look like? What are the future trends which people might have heard of but which they are likely to be grappling with in three to five years’ time?

The Semantic Web is the obvious one from my perspective. I don’t think that most people will ever need to get into the technical details of the Semantic Web – it’s simply enough to know that it’s a machine-readable version of the Web that allows computers to use extra information (or metadata) about the things described in web pages: people, blog posts, recipes, etc. So, as an example, search results at the moment are starting to change a little. Before now, it was just titles, short page extracts and hyperlinks. Now we’re starting to see additional bits of data about the web page or content of the web page being embedded in search results: ratings from reviews, number of comments on forum posts from boards.ie, etc. – and this can come from semantic metadata supplied by the site owner. It can be done automatically – people are automatically adding this metadata to much of the content they create on the Web or Social Web – it’s just a matter of making it available in standard form for reuse. Google and Yahoo now have guides showing webmasters how to do this (here’s some related slides I presented recently in DCU).

For example, Best Buy, a large electronics store in the US, reported a 30% increase in traffic to their pages after adding semantic metadata to their product descriptions.

We should be looking to solutions like this to help us compete in a global Web economy. If we can enhance our product listings with third-party reviews and ratings, all tagged with metadata for reuse by search engines, we can help with clickthroughs to our services and thereby compete with international players.

In NUI Galway, one of the de-facto standards we’ve created will be part of the next Drupal content management system, a publishing platform that is used by hundreds of thousands of organisations ranging from the White House to Warner Bros Records – when this version comes out in the summer, anyone who installs or upgrades their Drupal installation will join the Semantic Web, and will potentially publish additional metadata that can enhance search result listings.

We’ll also become more used to collaborating with others or getting access to our stuff from the Cloud. A lot of the apps we use now are in the Cloud: Gmail, social media content serving, backups, etc. We expect to be able to access the same content from any device, e.g. as Evernote allows us to interface to our notes from the Web, the desktop or mobiles, we will see more services migrate to this model – from home videos to health records to voicemails. I’ve a bit more on this here.

How should we understand the customer in the digital space and can we manage them? When we talk about digital business there appears to be many contradictions. On the one hand, we have the idea that the fundamentals of business are the same, market segmentation, pricing, product management, with the sole provision that the only thing that is different is that consumers have more information and thus power. Then we have this new power that consumers wield, unleashing hell in categories like music, newspaper publishing and book retailing.

First of all, I’m not sure if the fundamentals are the same. Segmentation doesn’t make sense – certainly, targetting products or services towards those you expect will want them makes sense still, but you can still publish your wares for all to see in case the friend or cousin or acquaintance of someone else who is interested in your wares is kind enough to send on that information to that someone else, even if they themselves are not interested in it. And as mentioned earlier, if you “don’t know that you don’t know” something, you maybe happy to find out about something that you didn’t know about and consider it for yourself. For pricing, again, different models apply online as I understand it – through radio / TV-to-web campaigns, you may treat that differently to a direct clickthrough campaign.

The consumer has a greater range of options, but they will still tend towards the options that they trust: those backed by a big name, recommended by friends, in a certain locality, etc. The three areas that you’ve highlighted are probably still quite related because they refer to media items that are quited suited to distribution by digital means. You could also say the same about comics or DIY magazines – they just attract less attention than books, music or papers which were more omnipresent in the past (similarly, blogs and podcasting have received widespread attention in the media in the past as being the death of papers and radio; forums escaped comparisons to the death of town-hall meetings or club meetups!). But then there’s activities / products / services that don’t translate to the digital space: stamp collecting (can be augmented by the Internet, but the Internet can’t replace it), live concerts (nothing can replace the experience), or hair transplants (well, maybe a “you’ll then look like this” would be handy). Some stuff translates almost completely, some stuff can be augmented by the Internet, and some stuff may not match very well at all.

Is it possible to build a digital business of scale? One of the biggest challenges facing start-ups is that of scaling. How can start-ups in the digital space build first the relevance then the credibility needed to drive scale?

You can only grow a presence from scratch through interacting with others, providing new content or links to existing content that you think will be relevant to those in your community, and by interacting not just with those who interact with you but with like-minded others who may be happy to spread your word to others: think induction and homophily in online social networks (the first refers to others using terms of those in their network, the second refers to the tendency to associate with like-minded others).

If you’re selling bicycles, set up a social media presence that shows you not only sell stuff but are interested in the greater community of bike fans – posting news snippets, community updates, responding to questions on bikes by other people, linking news / feed readers to your social media accounts for posting interesting links / photos / articles, etc. Send out calls for suggestions for your shop and its online presence, make the customers feel like they are influencing your choices (and let them influence some of them if they make sense!). Social media can be used to augment (if not replace) the promotion mechanisms of various organisations, from promotion of the research and development of new technologies to highlighting a computer sale in a particular geographic region.

Regarding building an Irish digital business industry – as we crawl out the crisis, one of the shocking things is that we have relatively few globally competitive indigenous firms capable of growth and keeping the financial benefits in Ireland. Am I wrong to think that we should be looking at ways to encourage entrepreneurs to keep their business? How is funding different in the digital sector?

Digital assets are somewhat different from other types of assets, but they should also be valued appropriately. It’s important to attach correct importance to one’s virtual assets: one’s internet brand, one’s community and one’s data in a digital business. This is something that conjurs vague and inconsistent formulas of worth, but it is important and something that has really just become important in the past 10-15 years. Purchasing such assets is difficult to justify in a bank loan, so some guidelines to help those in Ireland with evaluating virtual assets in the digital sector would be helpful.

As regards helping entrepreneurs to keep their business, if you mean, keep it in Ireland, again, I’d look beyond the tax benefits and towards something highlighted at another event (the Dublin Web Summit) recently: how cool is it to be in Ireland? If I had to pick a place to live, it wouldn’t be based on tax or the cost of living (unless it was prohibitive): it’d be based on the coolness factor, because it’s not just for you, but the people you’ll employ / work with – and of course, it’s hard to measure cool, but it’d include facilities for transport, broadband, entertainment, dining, socialising, etc.

Some videos from the Digital Landscapes event are linked below. Tom Murphy has also written a nice piece emerging from John Herlihy’s comments at the event.

Thinking Creatively To Make Original Ideas

Over the last year or so I have have attended a number of meetups, conferences, camps, seminars and a tweetup or two in the UK, Ireland and the US. All of them have been concerned, one way or another, with developments in the Internet world and how to take advantage of them.

As one would hope and expect, all this discussion led to people taking action and embarking on projects of their own. However, nearly all the projects (there have been honourable exceptions) have pretty much looked and sounded like things that existed before. Lack of originality would be the most apt characterisation of all this ‘creative’ activity.

I am not alone in this observation. In an excellent and well-sourced article titled “The Big Idea: How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution” in the Harvard Business Review, the very first injunction from the author Daniel J. Isenberg is to “Stop Emulating Silicon Valley”.

He gives a number of very good reasons not to do so including pointing out that the tendency is for the Valley to nurture only experienced entrepreneurs who already have some kind of track record. That is some serious cutting of wheat from the chaff.

Away from the Valley it is easy to assume that the ideas and work that are coming out of there are somehow more cutting edge and more important than ideas coming out of elsewhere. This is a very distorted view. It ignores the how the Internet has eliminated time and distance barriers.

The Valley VCs know may know what they are doing, but there is a misleading assumption that they get it right everytime.  Physical proximity and access to venture capital can mean that otherwise dubious ideas get funded. From afar we see the pizzazz of success while not always catching the crash and burns which for some peculiar reason never get much play in the press releases.

Silicon Valley can afford the attrition; attrition is vital to the ecosystem – kill bad ideas quickly so good new ideas can flourish. It is a numbers game, but a very unpleasant one if you happen to have the wrong number. Outside the sandbox and across the sea, the impression is that new markets are being brought into being when in fact there is nothing but a room full of laptops and a stack of empty pizza boxes. Clearly emulating what we think is going on over there is not that smart. There is no need to anyway.

So what’s the alternative? Well, if you are not going to copy ideas (getting inspiration from ideas is fine, in fact, it is to be encouraged), you are going to have to create your own. If you want to partake in the accelerated evolution of technical development and the benefits derived, then come up with something original that is true for you.

This tallies with Isenberg’s second piece of advice which is to “Shape the Ecosystem Around Local Conditions”. He is an academic giving advice to governments so not everything in his article is applicable to the small startup, but he does have some vital gems. Just a paragraph or two later he states more concretely “that leaders can and must foster homegrown solutions”. (In case you are wondering, if you are trying to create something in this world then you are a leader too. Get used to it. You cannot create something without being inherently responsible for that creation. Responsibility is the cornerstone of leadership.)

Before researching this article I had not heard this Richard Feynman quote. “The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. […] No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

When confronted with some new and wonderful innovation or idea, instead of asking how can we do something like that, or how can we use something like that, perhaps it would be worth going after the problems you feel you can really solve. That can’t be hard as we are all surrounded by problems. And each problem regardless of its individual form is saying just one thing. Solve me, make me a non-problem, make me go away.

John Breslin, the editor of this site, suggests that a very good place to start is to switch off the computer for a week. Take yourself off the grid and have a really good solid look at the world around you. Don’t worry: Twitter and Facebook will still be there when you get back. I agree with him. Start with a blank sheet.

So maybe, just for this week of internet silence – I am suggesting something here, not giving advice – every time a problem comes up write it down. As Feynman says in the quote: “No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.” Of course, there are problems that will need the combined entire willpower of humanity to solve, but there are plenty of everyday things that will make your list that you can ponder over. How can I make this better? And, how can I make this go away? These would be two useful questions to ask yourself during the process.

If readers want, I can make some more suggestions on how to think creatively and originally in another article. Let us know and we will go and find out what we can about the current state of research and report back. If you have any suggestions of your own, even better.

But finding your problem to fix, deciding upon your subject or accessing your muse is not the interesting part. After all, if you can’t find any problems, just keep breathing long enough and they will come to you. The interesting bit is the creation of a solution. Assuming you have defined the issue correctly, it is then time to get out the tools. Know that your imagination is inexhaustible. Really it is. Know that you have experience and knowledge. And also know that is really easy to acquire more of them.

Don’t forget about that we have the internet, the collective mind of the world. That’s a formidable line-up. How can you lose?

Well, chances are you will. But the difference between being a number in someone else’s game and having your own original idea go down in flames is the nature of the learning experience and the lessons learned. Also, you will be so much stronger and more capable when like a phoenix you rise again.

As your project was your own original creation, you will have derived lessons from its lifespan, regardless of how brief that may have been, at so profound a level in a manner that would never been possible by any other means. And although successive projects may fail, it will be the hard-won accumulated knowledge that will eventually result in your success.

P.S. The reason I have written this article is that it was my original tweet with the link to the HBR article that had the greatest response I have ever had on twitter, by hundreds of percent. I know this isn’t for all the readers of Technology Voice but there does some seem to be significant amount of you who really care about this stuff.