Enterprise 2.0: Stowe Boyd on Web Culture

Last session of the day before the cocktail party — always a difficult spot — but I’m fascinated by Stowe Boyd’s topic of web culture and the changing ethos of work. His work focuses on the “anthropology of the web” (although I think of it also as the sociology of the web).

Boyd’s presentation style is low-key and his slides are typically a single word with a simple graphic, but his message is compelling. We’re finding new ways to communicate on the web. This is bottom-up growth that we’re building for ourselves, without any blueprint or centralized control; in fact, no one really knows how many servers are even on the web. That’s not different, conceptually, from what’s happening inside enterprises as social applications take hold: it’s a grassroots revolution.

He talked about the disappearance of the “third space”; most people typically have three spaces that they inhabit: home, work, and a social location like a barbershop, a pub or even church. With the rise of both television and suburbia (see Clay Shirky’s recent Web 2.0 presentation for more about this), we started spending less time at our social location, a bit more time at work, and a lot more time at home watching TV. In order to fulfill that basic human needs for socializing, some of us started taking that socializing online, spending less time watching TV in favor of online social networking.

He harkened back to Henry Ford, who once fired someone for laughing while working in the assembly line, positing that anyone working for a large conservative corporation should keep their online identity discreet, quoting others who recommend blogging anonymously if you work for a big company. Many large enterprises are disturbed by the idea of their employees having any sort of public persona that doesn’t follow company guidelines, and social networking inside the enterprise is a huge stretch. These are the same companies who didn’t want to give employees internet access, IM, external email, or (in a long-ago world) a telephone on their desk because it might affect their productivity, without considering that it might actually increase their productivity as well as their creativity.

There’s a lot of power moving from the center to the edge: it’s happened with news reporting and media (the fact that you’re reading about the Enterprise 2.0 conference on the blog of an independent analyst is proof of that), but it’s also happening inside companies and in all walks of life. That doesn’t mean that things are chaotic, since often some sort of order will emerge in spite of the fact that there’s no centralized control. We create networks and pseudo-kinship with those who we socialize with online, where community and participation means more than titles and position. Old culture is disappearing due to these grassroots efforts and web culture: media, government, religion and other areas are shifting from centralized control to social collaboration. The tools are driving the group dynamic, e.g., group decision-making changes vastly when you collaboration using IM and other online tools rather than face-to-face.

Many of us “edglings” work in virtual environments: I have customers in countries other than my own, who I’ve never met face-to-face, yet with whom I collaborate effectively to complete projects. “Centroids”, on the other hand, tend to work in more structured authoritarian environments. Boyd ended the presentation with a table that’s reprinted from his blog post of a couple of years ago, Edglings: A Well-Ordered Humanism and the Future of Everything, comparing the centroid and edgling views: well worth checking out.

After spending a day in sessions where every second person has a laptop open, I’m struck by the fact that people are just as rude with their laptop sounds as they are with muting their cellphone ringtone. Hey people, the only one who wants to hear that cute squishy noise when you get an instant message is you. Please, find that mute volume control on your laptop.

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