25 , 2004
| Blogging, collaborative
work tools and the drawbacks of social software took center stage
at this year's Supernova.
The third annual tech-in-the-workspace conference
"Where the decentralized future comes together!"
drew more than 150 technology thought leaders, software startup
CEOs and other heavy hitters (alas, fewer than 20 of them women)
to the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, Calif., on June 24-25.
"Decentralization continues to be an explosive force in tech-driven
industries," said Supernova organizer Kevin Werbach, who has just
accepted a faculty position at Penn's Wharton School. "Intelligence
is moving out to the edges, with powerful connected devices empowering
users. Challenges such as voice-over-IP and peer-to-peer networks
pose both threats and opportunities to established industries."
Werbach prides himself on stressing interactivity,
and so Supernova set up a conference weblog, moblog, wiki, Web conferencing,
LinkedIn network, IRC discussion space and live audio streaming.
It wouldn't be a tech conference without technical difficulties,
however, with the wi-fi connection down for most of the day due
to heavy usage. (Note to network gearheads: wireless laptops are
as common at these affairs as wristwatches.)
Thomas W. Malone, professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management
and author of the new book "The Future of Work," gave an opening
presentation on the fast-changing evolution of the corporate workspace.
"I think we are now in the early stages in an increase in human
freedom in business that may be in the long run as important for
business as the shift to democracy was for governments," he said.
"New technologies are making it possible for the first time in human
history to have both the economic benefits of large organizations
while retaining the human benefits of small ones, such as freedom,
motivation, flexibility and creativity."
Freedom and scale are the twin drivers of the new business order.
He cited examples such as Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia
that allows anyone on the planet to make changes or additions. Though
anyone can be an editor, frequent contributors monitor changes and
maintain a high level of quality. Since it launched in 2001, Wikipedia
has drawn 220,000 articles from experts on almost every subject
under the sun, and its scale has given it an authoritativeness that
makes it "the first stop for a lot of journalists."
For businesses, Malone said, information technologies such as the
Web, e-mail, and cheap long distance are reducing the cost of information
to near zero, giving people at all levels of an organization the
power to become self-informed without having to rely on people at
higher and lower levels of a hierarchy for direction. That self-sufficiency
will usher in a new major stage in the way companies are organized,
but the changes will come slowly, over the course of decades.
Still, the changes are real, and he told this crowd of innovators
about emerging business markets for groupware, social software,
audio conferencing, and other applications that put decision-making
tools into the hands of people at all levels of an organization.
Ray Ozzie, co-developer of Lotus Notes and now CEO of Groove Networks,
gave a short talk on "The Future of Cooperative Work in a Connected
World," showing how people at the edges
rather than outside vendors or central management
proved instrumental in several endeavors. In Iraq, the coalition
forces' Humanitarian Operations Center created a bottom-up, collaborative
workspace for charting humanitarian inventories using the Internet,
members' laptops, and Groove, a darknet or private online space.
Making a tool specific to a given task will increase its value
exponentially. "Most people will collaborate only if they see something
in it for themselves," Ozzie said. The resulting collaboration and
transparency threaten people "who spend their careers brokering
information. Resistance [to that] isn't futile, it's important."
During a morning panel session on social networks, Esther Dyson,
now editor at large at CNET, said new social software tools (such
as Orkut, LinkedIn, Tribe, Ryze and Spoke) are "sometimes tools
for communication, and sometimes tools for obfuscation." We often
feel uncomfortable with the explicit nature of the still-immature
software, she said. "Are you my friend? Are you my best friend?
. People don't like to rank their friends. It quantifies things
but it can be powerful and dangerous."
In an age of info overload, Dyson suggested, the problem isn't
finding new friends, it's sorting the ones you may already have.
"Instead of finding information, we need to filter it. Who don't
I want to deal with? With 1,000 emails, I'll ignore 500. Now, which
10 do I want to engage with?" She polled the audience on how many
people had more than 100 unaccepted invitations to social networks.
Dyson and perhaps eight other people raised their hands.
Mena Trott, co-founder of MovableType and TypePad, said she never
accepts invitations to join a social network. "It's like back on
the playground. I don't want to say, no, you're not my friend. I
don't accept or reject them." "
I don't know the purpose of them," she added. On her personal blog,
"I've gone from wanting a readership of tens of thousands to wanting
a readership of 10. The trick is reaching the right 10."
An estimated 150 million camera phones will be sold this year,
Werbach pointed out, with half a billion camera phones expected
to be sold annually by 2007 or 2008. (On cue, both Werbach and Dyson
held up their camera-enabled Treos.) Venture capitalist Christopher
Allen suggested such a trend portends both benefits
perhaps a reduction in road rage in an age of gotcha cameras
as well as risks to privacy.
During a session on syndication, Kevin Marks, principal engineer
at Technorati, cited the company's latest stats. On Wednesday the
real-time search engine for blogs tracked a total of 2.8 million
weblogs, 270,000 new postings, and 14,000 brand new blogs.
The deep knowledge posed by experts in a given subject can sometimes
pose a problem, said Technorati CEO David Sifry. "The desire for
fame, ego boosting or recognition can be a tremendous motivator"
for those outside an organization. But employees inside a company
may refrain from sharing their knowledge. "Once they're recognized
as experts, they can't get their jobs done."
At one point, an audience member challenged the notion that the
most high-profile weblogs are the ones that matter most. "Just because
it's not on Scoble or Instapundit doesn't mean it's not affecting
people," said Elizabeth Lane Lawley, assistant professor at Rochester
Institute of Technology. "The interesting stuff is not at the top
of the power blog hierarchy. What's interesting is what in the middle.
It's nonsense to say that the Craigslist juju is what we all want.
A lot of people don't want a big audience. They want a conversation,
not an audience."
Later on, consultant Amy Wohl sounded a similar note. "I know a
private blog with five members, but they're all medical researchers.
Perhaps they'll discover a cure for cancer some day. Who's to say
that blog isn't infinitely more valuable than one with 10,000 readers?"
Pushback from the "former audience" continued to be a theme throughout
the day. At one point, Danah Boyd, a doctorate candidate at the
University of California, Berkeley, berated panelists for not addressing
the needs of the younger generation. Among her peers, she said,
"e-mail is dying out. Young people overwhelmingly prefer instant
messaging. You're creating a conversation gap between generations."
At a later session on e-mail and spam, moderator Stowe Boyd of
Corante took up a similar chant. "E-mail is just bad. We've grown
used to it over 20 years. We think of it as a conversation medium
when in fact it is not. It's based upon a nonconversational model.
. We should move away from e-mail as fast as we can." He said instant
messaging, RSS, group blogging, wikis and SMS will eventually diminish
our reliance on e-mail. Already, 75 to 87 percent of young people
say they prefer IM as their communication medium of choice.
From the audience, blogger John Patrick, former Internet technology
chief of IBM, defended e-mail, saying it has been one of the greatest
communications advances in modern times, letting parents and grandparents
communicate with their children across continents. His comments
were met with applause. Temperatures cooled when panelist Karl Jacob,
CEO of anti-spam outfit Cloudmark, said, "E-mail isn't dead. It's
just got to get better. It's changed our world, and the fact that
anyone in the world can send anyone an e-mail is both its best feature
and worst feature." His company's network, with 1 million members
and 1,000 people joining each day, has seen spam drop to nearly
zero through collaborative filtering.
Jacob predicted a system where an authentication process is applied
to e-mail delivery will help. "It will take three to four years,
but I think we'll get to the point where if you don't have some
sort of authentication when you're sending e-mail, most people won't
Lasica is a veteran journalist who writes frequently about
the impact of emerging technologies on our culture. He is currently
working on a book about the clash between entertainment companies
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