Complexity — It’s Complicated … to do Things Right (rather than simply quick + easy — including complex / “advanced” search + networking plans + projects)

The expression “it’s complicated” is perhaps the quintessential embodiment of the kind of insight we need more of now – more than ever. We need to say goodbye to “one right way” and we need to say hello to diversity, variations from norms and differentiation in algorithms.

Promoting Network Effects vs. Promoting Customization Services

Against the backdrop of the previous 2 interludes (addressing various aspects of the present-day consumer orientation towards media), I would now like to return to the issue of how to promote more participation in communities such as those engaged with the WordPress platform. As I noted in ”Inviting, Welcoming, Promoting More Participation”, the vast majority of the community interacting with the WordPress platform does so in a primarily disengaged manner, and the 2 interveneing interludes have underscored the consumer orientation towards ”free offer” mentality which hardly involves any participation, engagement, involvement, let alone ownership in the WordPress medium / platform.

This widespread aloofness and disengagement is – in my humble opinion – mainly attributable to a lack of economic motivations, but in part also due to a very narrow, limited self-centeredness throughout most civilizations today. People are generally unaware of how their own actions impact their environments – the most obvious case of this is probably the ”global warming” problem.

The groundwork for the economic disenfranchisement of the vast majority of the world’s population happened about 15 years ago, when Google decided to disregard (and/or ”completely devalue”) all comments made on the Internet (this came to be known as the ”nofollow” algorithm, and has since then been expanded to many media platforms, perhaps most significantly websites like Facebook and YouTube). Note that at the time Google made this decision, its repercussions were not widely understood (and indeed many people actually applauded this as a way to censor spam). In other words: it is not alone Google’s ”fault”, it was the widespread adoption (of ”nofollow”) among publishers that drove these nails into the coffin of community engagement.

Within a few years, all of the awe-inspiring widespread community engagement of early web-communities such as Digg had all but completely vanished. Today, the vast majority of websites are barren wastelands when it comes to user participation. The very few and very far between exceptions of so-called ”user-generated content (UGC)” firstly substantiate the rule, and secondly are of extremely dubious nature – since most of this content is outright pirated or in some other way fraudulent (e.g. ”fake news”).

It seems that apart from hoodlums selling suckers vast varieties of ”get rich quick” schemes, there is virtually no incentive whatsoever to be engaged in any way.

What might be good ways to incentivize more user participation?

One method very popular among “free market” thinkers is money. I would not rule this method out completely (see, e.g. this question about “paid content”), but there are some indications that money does not function well as incentive (or as motivator) for creative tasks. Also, money seems to have a way of dehumanizing activity and I find such dehumanization might be counter-productive when it comes to promoting participation, social cohesion and / or community engagement, etc.

My proposal to link together the WordPress community has by and large fallen on deaf ears. Apparently, just as very few people are motivated to actively engage with WordPress in general, so also very few people seem to care very much about the wider WordPress community. One visualiation might be to imagine someone like Carl Sagan describe the WordPress project as millions and millions (perhaps even as “billions and billions”) of isolated islands in a huge ocean (the Internet), not really connected in any way other than a common technology (much like a multitude of homes and other buildings built with similar [standardized] hammers, nails, etc.).

In order to promote collaboration among these individual buildings, isolated islands or self-oriented websites, the potential participants seem to need a clear indication of “what’s in it for me?”

I continue to believe that improvements in the functionality of the WordPress search engine’s capabilities could provide very significant benefits to all WordPress users. Likewise, functionalities to promote more efficient and more effective business networking capability among WordPress users ought to benefit every single WordPress user significantly. Indeed: such very powerful and very positive network effects seem obvious to me – I wonder why they do not seem as obvious to (or even to just so much as mildly resonate with) other members of the WordPress community. My hunch is that the vast majority of the WordPress developers believe that widespread adoption is unlikely. In fact, I wouldn’t even rule out that such a collaborative effort might even be unwanted, because developers might fear that such network effects might lead to a reduction in demand for their own lucrative customization services.

Interlude #2: “the first time an alliance that represents all sides of the media industry is forming”

While I was attending WordCamp Europe (WCEU) 2019 in Berlin, something else was going on at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. I learned about this later through the NoAgenda podcast (who also provided a detailed account of the setting for how + why this happened — see “Brand Safety“).

Although I believe I understand the impetus behind this decision, I feel as though the raison d’être is misguided. In order to explain my critique, let me step back and offer a quote from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA)’s website describing the proposed project:

An immediate focus will be to form and empower an inclusive working group charged with developing a set of initial ideas and prioritizing next steps. This is the first time an alliance that represents all sides of the media industry is forming, underpinned by a working group committed to meeting regularly and reporting back on its progress to members and the industry.

If this were an inclusive alliance “that represents all sides of the media industry”, then I would have been asked to join. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t. 😯

But that isn’t the reason why I believe the project is misguided. I believe the project is misguided because I believe the way advertising used to work is different than the way successful business / brand communications work now, and the way they will become increasingly successful in the future.

In my opinion, the old-fashioned myth that editorial content and advertising content are independent of one another is no longer viable — and the proposed “Global Alliance for Responsible Media” only underscores this increasingly clear fact.

In contrast, the new way forward ought not to be focused on safety (i.e., something like a blank canvas), but rather on appropriate contextualization. Obviously, what one advertiser feels is appropriate, may not be appropriate to another advertiser. This is, after all, what has led us to the very rich and varied media landscape we now have and cherish… an environment which is increasingly becoming more and more diverse by the day.

I believe the way forward for brands and brand owners must involve becoming more aware of the environments where they intend to be (and even to become more) actively engaged, not less. This will also involve more participation from (and engagement with) each brand’s potential customers. Disengagement, discord, distance, dissociation and the like are simply paths to disintegration.

I understand this may very well fly in the face of “creatives” and other media partners who have grown accustomed to economies of scale, mass production, and strong walls separating supposedly different classes of content. My hunch is that such old-fashioned approaches need to adapt to the changing environment, or perhaps proponents of such old-fashioned techniques and technologies will at some point simply have become extinct (or maybe just increasingly marginalized).

Inviting, Welcoming, Promoting More Participation

Creatives, designers, makers and developers of a so-called “platform” like WordPress are in the minority. Even the much larger group of merely supporting contributors are quite rare. There is a rule-of-thumb metric often called the 90-9-1 rule which identifies 3 broad categories of general populations (Charlene Li & Josh Bernoff vastly expounded on this idea in their analysis of participation / engagement titled “Groundswell”).

The wider, general population may use a platform like WordPress, but they generally do not themselves create it. From the vantage point of Say’s Law (economics), the provision of the WordPress platform creates demand for that platform. The very oversimplified depiction of the relationships and interactions between these groups and technologies I presented in “Linking together the WordPress community” can (and should) be much more refined. What I was attempting to do was to describe the general setting in very broad strokes.

Now I want to blur the lines a little.

To keep it simple, let’s start by saying there is no clear line separating products or services (WordPress technology) from the people involved (WordPress community). Neither is there a clear boundary or wall separating one group of people from another – and so it is completely feasible that such groups could interact and influence one another.

Let me explain this a little more with an example from another field – not far off, indeed in some ways quite closely related, but nonetheless distinct from the field WordPress is usually set in.

Today, calling someone illiterate seems tantamount to accusing them of being uncivilized. Note that this has not always been the case. It is actually only quite recently that the expectation of literacy has become more and more widespread. For most of human history, the vast majority of any population was illiterate. Even after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press – yes: for several centuries following its invention – most of the people throughout Europe (let alone for most of the rest of the world) were illiterate. Even in the fledgling United States, the common requirement for proof of literacy was merely the ability to sign one’s own name.

How did that change? Well, that’s a simple question. The answer? It’s complicated. Consider the fact that Martin Luther wrote an open letter to princes across Europe pleading them to establish schools and public libraries. Did that happen in his lifetime? No. Did it eventually happen? Yes. One thing that did happen in Luther’s lifetime is that the written language which is today known as German was invented. The reason why that happened in Luther’s lifetime is that Luther invented it … perhaps not exactly single-handedly, because as he himself acknowledged: he simply wrote down words the way other people spoke them. I don’t believe he asked for permission – after all: at the time, copyright was probably a completely unknown concept.

In my own life, some people have felt violated by my publishing ideas they have confided in me. I have never published confidential information in the sense that I would have ever “doxed” anyone, but still some people have accused me of doing something inappropriate when it seems like I have expressed ideas that went through their heads. I don’t know what to make of this. To me, it seems like my expressions are my own. Of course other can express whatever they feel like expressing – at least that’s the way I feel about it.

This is also the way I feel about language in general: no one owns it. It is shared by its community of users, and so when Luther wrote down words that other people used to talk he no more violated anyone’s privacy than I do when I express ideas that other people have told me about.

How is my situation any different than Martin Luther’s? I would say the main difference is a matter of how widespread literacy is. Yet I would also add the caveat that today, literacy probably needs to be redefined – or at least re-contextualized. For example: many people today think that when someone types a word into Google, that the company will give the “correct” definition of the term. I consider such people illiterate, because they apparently do no understand how Google works (indeed: they probably don’t even understand very much about how the Internet works).

Let me get back to the issue of participation. If literacy is widespread, then why do so few behave in a “literate” manner? Why do so few people publish their own ideas? If everyone has a voice, why do so few people choose to use it?

The answer I alluded to just above – namely, that literacy is in fact not widespread – is one possibility, but another possibility I feel also worth considering is that people are not sufficiently motivated to participate. My gut feeling tells me that a lack of participation is down to a combination of these reasons, in varying degrees.

Luckily, I do have some ideas concerning what I consider to be good ways to invite, welcome and promote more participation – to increase engagement and strengthen community, to empower individuals, to create more social cohesion and all that jazz. Want to read all about it? Then follow me and tune in next time (maybe tomorrow) to find out more! 😀