Open innovation at PICNIC 2008
Three sunny days in September. Thousands of sunny people, including myself, gather for a three day event at the Westerpark in Amsterdam. PICNIC 2008 has started, with a promising program filled with famous speakers, writers, businessmen and women, leaders, and interesting geeks. People who made it in business, technology, world peace, or online. Great to listen to, and above all, inspirational. A pretty expensive type of inspiration I must say, with people paying over €1200 to get a three day pass.
Fortunately, I was able to attend a special track, called Enquiring Minds, for researchers or people with an special academic interest in a relevant field. Which could be anything, considering the wide range of topics covered by the conference. 25 of us academic researchers, scientists, or all-round investigators gathered that beautiful morning in an old but nicely renovated building on terrain of the (late) Westergasfabriek.
Each participant was asked to explain his/her research to the others in three minutes. Some interesting topics were covered, ranging from the (the future of) arts and media, internet security, gaming and education, social software, co-evolution of knowledge production and ICT, and many more.
I explained the others that my own research aims at trying to describe and model the relationship between contributions (in online networks; i.e. blog posts) and the contributor in terms of trust, quality, and expertise. Have a look at the illustration below. It tries to depict a person who is contributing content in an online network, possibly within an organization. People, both experts and non-experts, may use (read/visit) and evaluate (rate) this content. How do expertise of the users of this content, and the type and intensity of use, can be used to profile both the contributor as well as the contribution? Quite a BIG question, I know, maybe that's the reason I have not really started it yet (need some focus?!).
Unfortunately, I have not really been at talks of people really focusing on this topic (merely acknowledging the need for research, which is good), but there was a lot of action on social media, and success factors. In my job at a small software company (doing exactly the thing I intend to research), we create social software that empowers the user to contribute, the first and most essential step needed in order to measure the mentioned relationships (between "contribution-use/users-contributor"). It is therefore very important to know what makes software social, why people use it, when a social software project fails. So that's has been the red line of my conference, and the subject of this short record of the event.
So what makes social software really social, what is successful and what is not?
I read several publications about this subject, and was interested in how these theoretical elaborations correspond with the recommendations, issues, and notes mentioned by some speakers on the conference. Some of these people were researchers, some of them were entrepreneurs who experienced success themselves. They explained trends and explained how the Internet and relating technologies offer great opportunities for more open, transparent, innovative, more efficient, and distributed ways of innovation and collaboration. And how we are moving towards a more people centered online environment, where friends in common, proximity, shared taste and objects matter. In the following sections, I deal with this in putting forward
- criteria that concern the design of the platform or processes that empower people to contribute and make connections, but also to sustain innovation and collaboration; and
- some examples that have been successful and explaining the reasons of their success.
Criteria for designing the software and the processes
Software alone may be engaging and provide with incentives for people to share and connect, but some institutional mechanisms and process rules should be built in as well to sustain and improve collaboration. The last section, with examples, show how different initiatives have adopted these criteria;
- Recognition; people want recognition for their contributions. Recognition from peers is even a more powerful incentive and mechanisms must be built in to ensure this;
- Social object; without a social object that connects the users of the platform, you have a problem. This theme was recurrent and relates to having a shared purpose and focus;
- Processes and tools for contributing; there are numerous tools available that can empower people to connect, contribute, and share. Still, these should be designed and named such that it truly corresponds to the ideas, wishes, and incentives of the users. This means accommodating for different types of contexts and users, and their respective motivation;
- Different task sizes (contribute more or less), like in Open Source communities;
- Modularity of contributions allow you to connect and combine contributions to increase the aggregate value and let people built on top of each other´s contributions;
- Language that corresponds with the social context of the users: It has to be crystal clear what a service offers (like eBay website: Buy|Sell), what you can do on a platform, and what the added value is;
- Involve people differently, and in different stages of the process;
- Create different roles based on previous contributions and feedback by the community.
- Nodal points refer to the methods and intensity of interactions of the service and user: What should trigger interaction or intervention with the user? When should you send an update, and notification, or something else? It is important only to give information the user cares about. Nodal points are the filters that are used to put forward only the relevant stuff for every occasion.
- Policies and structures for making decisions prevent chaos, as can be seen at Wikipedia. This remains an extremely difficult challenge (Wikipedia is an ongoing design effort) for the future of collaboration.
Examples of social software
We have many examples of services where there is a very specific and clear social object that connects the users, including the relevant tools (and right language used) to incentivize contributions, sharing, and creation of more value. Dopplr (frequent travelers), Nikeplus (running), and MiMoA (modern architecture and traveling) are just a few of them.
Furthermore, there are numerous projects that not so much focus on a shared social object or purpose, but offer the tools for collaboration and intend to crowdsource their communities.
- Mechanical Turk is a service offered by Amazon to distribute tasks among a huge online community. The most important characteristic of the success of this service is the granularity of tasks, and the ability to combine tasks to make the whole larger than the sum of all parts.
- Nederland P is a Dutch initiative for user-generated videos, an advanced YouTube, that offers a distribution channel and support for people who contribute high-quality content. Additionally, they have different roles that are based on reputation, number of subscribers, etc.
- Aswarmofangels.com intends to create a movie for one million English pounds (1.8 million US dollars) by sourcing contributions (financial and in terms of decision-making) of a thousands of people worldwide. In this project, the focus is not on getting as many participants as possible, but slowing the participation down by focusing more on quality.
- Openad.net is a successful crowdsourcing advertisement project that allows anyone to really make money out of open and closed assignments. An interesting aspect is that it does not intend to replace the existing marketing industry, but it rather partners with it, changing the organizational structures and vision.
- Similarly, Sellaband.com is a successful startup in the music business that sources the musical creativity of anyone with a computer. Anyone can invest (community funding) in an artist or group in order to make this group successful and share in the revenues.
- Blurb.com is just a nice tool to create online books and portfolios, but it also keeps the creations for sale in their online shop, with all revenues going to the creators.
- Finally, Blender.org concerns a true open source project creating open source animation, and also advancing the open source tools and software to be able to create the animation. This reinforces each other, and the availability of support and tools contribute to the success of the initiative.