Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Unlocking Human Potential Through Social Networking

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An absolutely must-read paper has been published by Headshift, a company devoted to research and development of innovative online applications that provide key pragmatical uses through the development of effective online social interaction facilities and tools.

Lee Bryant has authored a uniquely valuable document that provides a comprehensive vision and a good explanation about the development and appearance of social software tools.

Though such tools have not just emerged in the last few months, but have been growing and spreading for a few years now, a greater understanding of their potential and role in global communication processes taking now place, is of essence to anyone who wants to see beyond her nose.

The paper entitled "Smarter, Simpler, Social - An introduction to online social software methodology" is an absolutely brilliant and well referenced resource to understand and appreciate the forces at work in our communication efforts.

No matter if you work for a large international organization or if you are an independent professional, the ideas and concepts presented here are of outmost importance and value to those among us wanting the surf the wave of interconnected communication rather than wait to discover how to fit into it.

Here, I have taken permission to excerpt for you some critical points from Lee Bryant's paper which can give you a good idea of the significance of the issues under discussion.

This Headshift paper is one of few comprehensive reports aiming at providing a clear overview of what is being called 'social software' or 'online social applications. The paer well examines the roots of this penomenon in online community thinking and properly identifies some of its underlying features.

In it you will also find an effective report about the emerging perspectives on social networks and online behaviour that might help you understand how to develop
a) better means and tools to support networked interconnectedness,
b) social networking applications and new methodologies
to create effective online networks of like-minded people peacefully working at realizing, in harmony with others, their personal interests.

Here a few excerpts that I found extremely effective:

Lee Bryant writes: from Headshift (original paper here)

"In most cases, the answer is not necessarily to continue building bigger and more centralised software systems, but to support smaller, simpler distributed networks of people, content and services that are more adaptable and responsive to changing needs and goals.

Continuing to build bigger and more complicated systems is actually the opposite of what is needed to unlock the human potential such systems were designed to tap.

Indeed, as we shall see, the concept of enterprise software itself is grounded in out-dated process thinking and does not sit well with our current understanding of organisations as living systems.

Whilst the first wave of online applications was characterised by large, centralised top-down implementations driven by a command-and-control mentality, the outlines of an alternative approach that is informed by new thinking about social networks and online behaviour is coming into focus.

This approach is driven not by major IT vendors, but by rapid innovation occurring in the wild, where free or almost free online social applications are achieving usage levels and a depth of user engagement that enterprise software purchasers can only dream about.

It is smarter, simpler and social.

So far, a relatively small number of people are experimenting with what this means and what it can do, but already it has had an unpredictable impact on dialogue, association and transmission of ideas within blogging communities.

Howard Rheingold and his thesis in Smart Mobs is essentially that mobile communication devices, pervasive computing and new networked communication technologies have the potential to amplify human talents for cooperation; this creates the conditions for smart mob behaviour where, under certain conditions, people can exhibit signs of collective intelligence as they swarm or flock together.

The behaviour of smart mobs, and in some respects online blogging communities, exhibit many of the features of what scientists call complex systems: they are emergent, highly connected with intricate inter-relationships, self-organising and simple on the micro level but create effects that appear complex and unpredictable on the macro level; plus, they tend to evolve through rapid collaboration or feedback loops.

In the physical world, such systems (arguably human evolution is one example) are not necessarily the most efficient, but they are highly adaptive to changing conditions and they generally get the job done.

The classic pop-science example that illustrates the point is the way in which ants forage for food. Ants display a kind of collective intelligence (described by some as a hive mind) that is based on apparently dumb rules, repetitively followed by thousands of individual insects. Each ant forages for food in an apparently random manner, but when it finds food it marks a pheromone trail back to its colony. Trails fade over time, but positive feedback means that well-travelled paths will attract more and more ants until the particular food source is exhausted.

The system works because there are enough ants each following the same rules to ensure comprehensive coverage of any given area.

This technique, whereby simple drone-like behaviour can create a physical piece of shared knowledge, has been referred to as generative psychogeography.


Complexity theory shows us that from the seeds of such small inter-connected actions, large trees of system behaviour can grow.

These physical phenomena are reflected online as well, where the emergence of the Wiki movement and the growing cult of Google both display a simple form of collective intelligence. Wiki web sites named after the Hawaiian word for quick open themselves up to editing by anybody who cares to contribute, albeit in many cases with some moderation, such as the surprisingly good Wiki encyclopaedia.

Google's page rank systems works by using link popularity as a major measure of relevance, which means that user behaviour contributes to the selection of search results. The popularity of weblogs (measured in site traffic) is perhaps even closer to the ants model than Google. Examination of site statistics shows that a tiny minority of sites get the vast majority of blog traffic because of the nature of the positive feedback loop created by the interconnections between blogs. This is similar to the ants' pheromone trails, where some trails rapidly emerge as dominant as others fade to almost nothing. This phenomenon has been described in terms of power laws, and some bloggers have responded to the analysis by recoiling from what they see as the anti-democratic conclusions of the research, seeking to find a way to equalise traffic in some way.

Complexity theory is a type of so-called "systems thinking" applied to the natural world. Systems thinking essentially involves treating a system (e.g. a large organisation) as a unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, rather than reducing it down to its component parts and analysing each in isolation.

Pioneered by the Santa Fe Institute, these days complexity theory is an important part of how we understand the behaviour of organisations and social systems, and the subject of a major research initiative of the European Commission.

The case for applying systems thinking to organisational behaviour was made most famously by Peter Senge in "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization" first published in 1990. In his book, Senge sets out five disciplines - Systems Thinking, Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision and Team Learning that underpin "learning organizations" with the capacity to meet the challenge of doing business in complex, dynamic, and globally competitive markets. According to Senge, systems thinking is the fifth and overarching leadership discipline because it integrates the others into a holistic body of theory and practice.

The application of systems thinking can help explain why some small changes to a system can have a huge impact, whilst in other cases apparently major change can have almost no influence on existing system or organisational behaviour.

For example, Peter Fryer, a consultant specialising in the application of complexity theory to companies and public bodies, uses the term Trojan Mice to describe actions taken to affect change that are “small enough to be understood and owned by all concerned but their effects can be far-reaching.” He poses these as a counterpoint to large, highly-conspicuous events (Trojan Horses) that organisations often set up to force through change, but which are soon forgotten and ignored.

This analogy will certainly resonate with anybody who has tried to affect top-down change within a large organisation.

Highly connected social networks behave much like complex systems if the right conditions exist, and the rise of ubiquitous computing and networked communications is taking us further in this direction.

Among companies and governments alike there is a sense that the old "command and control" system of top-down management is not working.

In both cases, there is a growing fear of asymmetric threats - a sense that large, hierarchical systems are vulnerable to external threats such as, for example, terrorism in the case of governments and anti-corporate culture-jamming and hand-to-brand activism in the case of consumer brands.

For many organisations, the problem is a lot more mundane: they are throwing huge resources at enterprise software, intranets and other systems that are attempting to affect organisational change with very little to show in terms of results; meanwhile, they watch frustrated as their employees, customers and stakeholders flock to cheap, simple web sites that engage them directly and retain their interest.

If we recognise that organisations and communities are not simply reducible to their component parts – if they behave like complex systems – then surely the applications we use to connect people must reflect this?

Some of these emerging theoretical approaches to the analysis of online social networks and behaviour can potentially help us build better, more social online applications for real, existing groups of people."

Please, print and read the full paper Smarter, Simpler, Social - An introduction to online social software methodology.

About the author:

Lee Bryant is an on-line communication and community specialist with a focus on knowledge development. Lee has a strong belief in the empowering potential of the Internet, and a commitment to the development of an international knowledge-based society that can transcend cultural and economic barriers.

Prior to becoming involved with the Internet, Lee wrote and researched in the field of International Relations, focusing on the role of international organisations in political crisis, specialising in the former Yugoslavia.

It was his experience of running a highly responsive international information network which first stimulated Lee's interest in using internet and other communication technologies to achieve horizontal communication flows that put people and organisations in control of their own self-representation.

He has been playing with words and computers since the age of 10 and published his first code aged 11.

Find here below a set of direct links to the different sections of this great paper:


Software becoming bigger, more stupid.

Networked individuals and personal publishing

Supporting emergent networked behaviour

Mapping social networks

Knowledge Sharing and Social Capital

Towards a social methodology


Headshift works with companies and public organisations to:

Research and analyse the behaviour of existing online communication systems and help restructure them where necessary.

Develop strategies for online communication, using tactics that place the needs of people before technology.

Promote cultural transformation using knowledge sharing, self-managed learning, and inclusive stakeholder communication techniques.

Conceive, build and manage online social applications that create value by providing meaningful user experiences.

A company vision to look up to.

Heads up for!

Readers' Comments    
2003-06-11 05:53:43

Luigi Bertuzzi


i've got to try and say something about *empathy* .. as an add on to this post:
reported also by: on June 10 .. and by: ... on June 6 -

so .. my Wiki *tinkering* of what i'd like to say and do .. regarding *this post of yours* .. on the Headshift draft paper .. has been sidetracked into another Wiki document: UnlockingHumanPotential Web Archive .. english draft first and italian catching up asap -

i dont know if what i've been trying to say so far makes any sense, yet :( -


2003-06-07 12:13:59

Luigi Bertuzzi

i'll start answering your questions in small chunks and in italian .. using the wiki page ProgettoWeblogDIntenti Web Archive

but let me anticipate that *complexity* has always been *the reason - or the excuse -* adopted by people i happend to try and involve in *collaborative relationships* which were not motivated by a *clearly defined business plan* ..

defining an initiative which aims to put in the foreground *concepts* like *learning from experience* makes prospective partners *chicken out* .. to say the least .. and exposes the proponent to the accusation of *philosophizing* (see a recent example in the Quicktopic discussion of World of Ends:

i'll be expanding my answer in the wiki page .. and my conclusion is going to be that what we are trying to achieve is indeed very close, provided we can integrate our views, skills and ... generation gap :)


2003-06-07 09:28:04

Robin Good


which kind of *complexity* are you referring to?
Can you bring it all the way down to simple terms now?

Of course you can be an excellent Communication Agent in Italian as well and start making waves among those open to listen in that group.

I need more clarification about what you intend as our initiatives needing to be coupled with "communication support" initiatives. What do you mean exactly there?

What prevents you from being able to start contributing in the direction you so clearly outline?

How do you see in practical terms the integration of Web services into your ideas?

I would be very willing to help and to see whether what we are trying to achieve is indeed very close.


2003-06-07 06:58:06

Luigi Bertuzzi


i fully appreciate *the waves* you point me to

the *crux of the matter* (as i perceive it) is *the complexity* which prevents me from being able to share my own understanding of these *communication agent waves* with a vast majority of people (or would-be-users)

i'm referring to people who have not (enjoyed yet) an opportunity to use *english as a working language* and (more important than english) to assimilate some of the *social concepts* which have been implemented in information tchnology long ago

the presently available *communication agent examples* (including yourself) should start being coupled with *communication support* initatives .. similar to extending *translation* from languages to (technical and social) organization complexity

i'd like to start contributing to one such initiative in an english-italian work-space by expanding progressively what i have just hinted at in italian ProgettoWeblogDIntenti Web Archive and in english ProjectWeblogOfIntent Web Archive with a firm commitment to make it *il piĆ¹ sagace, semplice e sociale* (as smarter, simpler, social) as it can possibly be made

to make my contribution *sustainable* i'm working as a freelance (english-italian) translator

can you see what i mean?


Luigi Bertuzzi

2003-06-06 17:12:27

Robin Good


thank you for your very appropriate comment.
I must agree with you that outside great concepts one must also show valuable examples.

Communication is not like radio and TV, and as such is Not always meant to be addressing everyone. So, there is also space for conceptual and rather intellectual musings to serve the conceptualization and refinements of new ideas before they are actually implemented.

This is healthy as well.

Anyway, going back to your point:
"i'm sure they would ask to experience what the above quoted closing sentence *means* in *practice*... at no risk for their precious time and business .. rather than reading a paper .."

I think the people at Headshift are referring to the kind of tools and patterns becoming available today and allowing the formation of effective social networks.

If you look at you can have a glimpse of one part of this universe.

If you look at,, you can some more of it.

If you look at what Joi Ito and is Emergent Democracy open paper ( about you start to see something at work.

If you look at Mincius Soda at you see how many ideas are already moving around Headshift ideas.

If you follow and read my humble initiative about Communication Agents, you will see a bit more of what these people are hinting at.

If you finally look at you can see how real this is and how many real life examples are already available to us.

They are all moving in the same direction.

They have stopped surfing, they are making waves.

Robin Good

2003-06-06 16:34:09

YAL (Yet Another Luigi)

i'm none of the subjects *headshift* works with .. however .. if one takes into account the closing sentence of *Towards a Social Methodology*

"If social software is to live up to its name, it must be borne out of a partnership between stakeholders, purchasers, developers and users, and this should ideally involve de-mystifying and making more accessible the design and development process."

i believe it may be (easily) shown that many *headshift services* would-be-users dont even dare reading all the way through this (good) draft paper ...

i'm sure they would ask to experience what the above quoted closing sentence *means* in *practice*... at no risk for their precious time and business .. rather than reading a paper ..

can we *demo* anything like that?

in the long gone days when computing was *just mainframes* somebody did it ... too bad weblogs did not exist, yet

cheers, Luigi

posted by Robin Good on Tuesday, May 6 2003, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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