Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Wednesday, April 7, 2004

How Working Groups Can Further Connect Without Adding More Technology: Good Interviews Ross Mayfield

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"We are social animals for whom networked software is creating a new kind of habitat. Social software can be defined as whatever supports our actual human interaction as we colonize the virtual realm. The category includes familiar things such as groupware and knowledge management, and extends to the new breed of relationship power tools that have brought the venture capitalists out of hibernation...

Computer-mediated communication is the lifeblood of social software. When we use e-mail, instant messaging, Weblogs, and wikis, we're potentially free to interact with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But there's a trade off. Our social protocols map poorly to TCP/IP. Whether the goal is to help individuals create and share knowledge or to enrich the relationship networks that support sales, collaboration, and recruiting, the various kinds of enterprise social software aim to restore some of the context that's lost when we move our interaction into the virtual realm." Source: Jon Udell - Infoworld

"These are tools that take more explicit approaches to building relationships, where connection comes before content. They raise different privacy and transparency issues than tools that encourage people to opt-in to conversations and participation in different ways."Source: Ross Mayfield - Socialtext

It is indeed a bit of an honour for me to host on these pages someone like Ross Mayfield, who until a few months I had only regarded as a person outside my reach.

But it is the very technologies that he and I research, study and evangelize so much about, that have generously and very discretely faclitated the road to our encounter, while making the journey smoother and faster than I could ever thought possible.


No, it was not some social networking system like Ryze, Orkut, Linkedin nor any other pre-packaged technology-powered solution. It was traditional reaching out and passionate desire to extend our personal interests that helped us find the way to meet.

Through its SocialText technology we did the rest as if taking a shower.

Ross created a SocialText space for MasterNewMedia and I posted there some info for him and a set of interview questions. The system notified him by email and then he went up to edit the same page and adding his interview answers in between my original questions.

He added links to my initial info by adding references to his photos and to an official bio of his. Both me and him did all this without ever touching a piece of HTML code, or using nothing more than an Edit and Save function clearly available on the wiki space he created.

I guess that for the generation that grew liking the Mac more than Windows machines, and with some good reason, using a wiki is something that makes sense right away. Like the Mac it is not meant for "stupid" people. It is meant for people who don't enjoy wasting time after technology but who are rather pretty determined at getting things done.

So, here he is, Ross Mayfield, relaxedly sitting here, just across the other of this infinite network, interacting and engaging himself with me and with some of my curious questions about how these new collaboration technologies are going to supports the decision to further connect and to facilitate the effective recording of group achievements, conversations and online interactions in total harmony with our spontaneous social workflow.

Robin Good: We have been seeing new interesting collaborative spaces and technologies become available in recent years, but we have also seen adoption of these tools, like wikis, by a very restricted number of end users, most of them being early adopters or technologists. What have been the greatest resistance factors to these useful and cost-effective technologies?

Ross Mayfield: Users simply are not used having so much control. Being able to edit any page within a space they participate in.
Being able to create their own navigation.
Being able to link concepts freely.

Its less resistance, but something so unexpected because of the tyranny of tool designers who previously made these choices for them I have actually been surprised at the amount of pragmatists we serve so early in our evolution.

But when a pragmatist wants to get something done and you show them how they can do it, without false constraints, they adopt in a heartbeat.

Robin Good: Many people have heard about wikis, but few of them have yet realized what these tools are really designed for. As for blogs, some of the early applications have determined much of the initial perception of what these tools can do. Can you share your personal definition of wikis and what they are best used for?

Ross Mayfield: A wiki is the simplest way for a group to create a website without having to have technical expertise.

Just as blogs simplified personal publishing to bring out individual voices, a wiki uniquely fosters group voice and trust.

Wikis have long been used in product development for technical organizations, a lightweight web-native method for collaborating on projects and constructing documentation.

At Socialtext we are adapting them for broader business use.

You are right that the early application of blogs has shaped perception of their purpose.

When people think of blogs in organizations, unfortunately they think of individuals blogging their observations as a side activity. Sally who blogs about her cat most days is unlikely to be sharing an idea tha bubbles up to the top of the organization and saves the company.

But the real use of blogs is communicating about projects, getting something done while contributing to the group memory and emergent process.

Its important to note that we provide an integrated solution for blogs, wikis and email.

Consumer blog tools have limited publishing and communication applications. Wikis alone serve collaboration. Its the combination of these modalities that broadens participation, making patterns of project communication more efficient.

Robin Good: Ross, your company, SocialText, specializes in providing collaborative spaces to large enterprises and Fortune 500 companies among others. What are the key benefits these companies see in adopting your technologies?

Ross Mayfield:

  • Saving people time doing work together,
  • accelerating project cycles,
  • saving time searching for information and
  • developing a group memory.

    Robin Good: It appears to me as if the drive to better and more effective communications inside large organizations creates some tangible resistance from the IT people, who apparently resent of having less control on the technologies that are being deployed. What do you say to these IT managers?

    Ross Mayfield: We either work without them for small deployments or with them for large ones.

    They appreciate solutions with low administrative overhead, low total cost of ownership and support for open standards.

    Despite popular conception, they appreciate simple solutions that let them focus on better value-adds.

    It also helps to have a valuable tool for their own IT project management needs.

    Robin Good: Most of what can be done in a wiki can be also realized through other technologies that have been available for quite some time: forums, discussion boards, shared virtual spaces. Are there some unique advantages in using a wiki compared to one of these well known and reliable technologies?

    Ross Mayfield: Most of these solutions are reliable wastes of time and lead to occupational spam.

    The pull model of attention management is more efficient.

    They also lack the social incentives we see with the rise of blog and wiki use in recent years.

    Robin Good: Many people ask me why one should pay for a professional blog or wiki instead if getting an open source solution like the many ones available out there. What are your suggestions in this respect?

    Ross Mayfield: We have an open source version of our product for people who want to choose this path and who have the time and skills to manage it.

    Socialtext Workspace offers superior enterprise features, greater ease of use, lower administrative overhead and total cost of ownership.

    Robin Good: How can such direct-publishing tools empower also the small companies and schools who are trying to get an edge over the larger players in their industries?

    Ross Mayfield: Our solution works for organizations of all sizes and provides different values at different scales.

    We also have academic and non-profit pricing to ensure that we are serving and giving back to the community.

    Small organizations are terribly underserved by systems both because of cost and complexity.

    Better communication internally can be extended externally to participate in new markets.

    Robin Good: Where and how does RSS cross your products and services? Do your wikis and blogs generate RSS feeds by default?

    Ross Mayfield: Yes, default feeds for Recent Changes within a wiki and for each weblog in each space.

    People can create a new space or blog with a single click.

    Robin Good: Are you considering the opportunity of further leveraging RSS as an instrument for further facilitating knowledge extraction and filtering inside your tools?

    Ross Mayfield: Absolutely. And especially for working with other tools. We will soon offer support for Atom, which offers new possibilities.

    Robin Good: Do you see asynchronous collaborative spaces converge and meet with real-time collaboration tools? How?

    Ross Mayfield: For our Eventspace product for workshops, conferences and events we offer web-based chat as an option (some call Chat + Wiki = Chiki). We also have loosely coupled integration with IRC. Signs of things to come.

    Robin Good: If you were to change or drastically improve your wiki technology what would you add, edit, improve in it?

    Ross Mayfield: More great people behind it making it better.

    Robin Good: In terms of individuals ability to effectively colaborate online where do you see us headed? What are going to be the driving forces in the next 12-18 months?

    Ross Mayfield: Over 90% of collaboration exists in email today.

    Providing an alternative to the email-centric and document-centric paradigms is a great opportunity.

    The largest trend after the boom and bust is people using the Web for social means.

    Look for new developments that put people at the center, give them control and how emergent value is realized.

    Robin Good: If you were to showcase one or two great applications of the collaborative technologies you promote which examples would you have us look up to?

    Ross Mayfield: How a division of Kodak is using us to run product development. Or for an example of how the past is prologue, look to how the Dean Campaign had four hundred users collectively engaged in decentralized news analysis.

    Robin Good: What are the key traits of the companies best set to leverage the potential made available by these new tools?

    Ross Mayfield: Both began with a smaller group solving a simple need. Then they exposed the service to others and the business case grew.

    Ross Mayfield is one of the brightest intellectual minds leading the revolutionary changes in communication, publishing and online collaboration generated by the advent of grass roots user-centered communication solutions like blogs and wikis.

    Ross regularly publishes his thoughts and reflections on these topics on his personal blog and on Corante's Many to Many section, along some other great voices like Clay Shirky, S├ębastien Paquet and David Weinberger.

    Ross Mayfield is a skilled analyst, writer, researcher and entrepreneur. He harmoniously juggles an interest to serve the overall good while keeping a strong eye on the bottom line of his company. He has no problem serving Fortune 500 companies but does not disdain giving very special rates to non-profits and educational orgs. In some or other you could call him a social entrepreneur.

    Ross is also the CEO and co-founder of Socialtext and a long-time serial entrepreneur, with over 10 years of startup executive management experience and a strong focus on helping people and companies communicate effectively.

    Ross Mayfield co-founded and served as President of RateXchange (AMEX:RTX), the leading B2B commodity exchange for telecom and has served several other prestigious positions in other major companies.

    He also served as the Marketing Director of the largest privately held telecommunications group in Eastern Europe, also as alead manager of their Initial Public Offering. He also founded an ISP, a web-design company and has served on a number of Advisory Boards of high tech startups. Mr. Mayfield is also former advisor to the Office of the President of Estonia and began his career in the non-profit sector.

    Ross Mayfield holds a BA in Political Science from the University of California at Los Angeles and completed the Management Development for Entrepreneurs (MDE) program of the Anderson School of Business.

    He resides in his hometown of Palo Alto with his wife and two children.

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    posted by Robin Good on Wednesday, April 7 2004, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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