Insurgencies as Markets

Fascinating post in Danger Room about a new War College research paper explains that insurgencies aren’t even a species of conventional warfare, but very different. Definitely check out the post, but here’s an interesting tidbit:

…the dynamics of contemporary insurgency are more like a violent and competitive market than war in the traditional sense where clear and discrete combatants seek strategic victory.

So here’s an interesting syllogism: If Markets are Conversations, and Insurgencies are Markets, then are Insurgencies = Conversations?

From what the report says, it might be the best way to think of them. The report essentially recommends playing neutral mediator — even if you think one side is better than the other.

This makes me wonder if anybody involved in dealing with Iraq ever paid attention back in the 80s when Hill Street Blues was on. When I was a kid, I remember thinking how strange it was to see cops in a room with “bad guy” gang leaders, negotiating things like truces. I thought: “The bad guys are right there, why don’t you arrest them??” But I realized soon enough that they’d only be replaced by more bad-guy leaders, and that until they brought a modicum of peace between the gangs, they would never manage to reduce violent crime in the city.

Of course, that’s the somewhat idealized TV version, which is much less messy than real life. But isn’t it still a great idea that often works? Or at least, isn’t it an idea that should be tried first, before you just try crushing the bad guys?

Community architectures for good or ill

Austin Govella puts a question to me in his post here: Does Comcast have the DNA to compete in a 2.0 world? at Thinking and Making

Context of the post: Austin is wondering about this story from WSJ, “Cable Giant Comcast Tries to Channel Web TV” — specifically Jeremy Allaire’s comments doubting Comcast’s ability to compete in a “Web 2.0” environment.

At the end of his post, Austin says:

And the more important question, for every organization, how do you best change your DNA to adapt to new ages? Is it as simple as adjusting your organization’s architecture to enable more participation from good DNA? What happens if your internal conversations propagate bad DNA?
This is my question for Andrew: how do you architect community spaces to engender good DNA and fight infections of bad DNA?

My answer: I don’t know. I think this is something everybody is trying to figure out at once. It’s why Clay Shirky is obsessing over it. It’s why Tim O’Reilly and others are talking about Codes of Conduct.

So, when it comes to specifics, I don’t know that we have a lot of templates that we can say work most of the time… it’s so dependent on the kind of community, culture, etc.

However, in general, I think moderation tools that allow the organism to tend to itself are the best way to go. By that I mean “karma” functions that allow users to rate, comment, and police one another to a degree.

That, plus giving users the opportunity to create rich profiles that they come to identify with. Any geeks out there like me know what it’s like to create a quickie D&D character just to play with for the day — you can do whatever you want with it and it doesn’t matter. But one that you’ve invested time in, and developed over many sessions of gaming, is much more important to you. I think people invest themselves in their online ‘avatars’ (if you consider, for example, a MySpace profile to be an avatar — I do), and they’re generally careful about them, if they can be tied to the identity in a real way (i.e. it isn’t just an anonymous ‘alt’).

In short, a few simple rules can create the right structure for healthy complexity.

As for Comcast, I suspect that the company’s image is generally perceived to be a lumbering last-century-media leviathan. So it’s easy for people like Allaire to make these assumptions. I think I might have made similar assumptions, if I didn’t personally know some of the talented people who work at Comcast now!

What Allaire doesn’t come right out and say (maybe he doesn’t understand it?) is that the Web 2.0 video space isn’t so much about delivering video as about providing the social platform for people to engage one another around the content. Like Cory Doctorow said (and yes, I’m quoting it for like the 100th time), content isn’t king, “conversation is king; content is just something to talk about.”

Having the content isn’t good enough. Having the pipes and the captive audience isn’t good enough either. From what I’ve seen, of Ziddio and the like, Comcast is aware of this.

But it’s weird that the story in WSJ only mentions the social web as a kind of afterthought: “Competitors also are adding social networking and other features to their sites to distinguish them from traditional television.” As if social networking is just an added feature, like cup holders in cars. Obviously, WSJ isn’t quite clued in to where the generative power of Web 2.0 really lives. Maybe it’s because they’re stuck in an old-media mindset? Talk about DNA!

Lethem's "Ecstasy of Influence"

I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem. And I hadn’t gotten round to reading all of his essay in Harper’s until just lately. Here’s a slice. And yes, the writing is this sharp and elegant all the way through:

“The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism” by Jonathan Lethem (Harper’s Magazine)

For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks?

It strikes me that his argument about art and influence is applicable to communities of practice as well. That we all borrow and re-contextualize our tools, ideas, methods.

It also strikes me that language itself works this way. What if, at some point early in civilized human development, as soon as one primitive came up with a name for something, nobody else was allowed to use that very name for that thing, without paying a fee of some kind? The very reason we have a rich language is that it can be fluid — it can grow, morph, and brawl its way through history — and because of that, we have civilization itself.

Summit 07 Accomplished: Pres File Available

I managed to finish my presentation for this year’s IA Summit, and present it in under 50 minutes. Huzzah!

As promised, I’m posting the whole thing with notes here on the blog. If you want the PDF of the presentation (16MB), go here:

And if you want to see the “blog post of record” about the presentation — with extra reference and research information & links — then check out the post here:

Thanks to everyone who attended the presentation and asked such terrific questions!

"Dealing with NYC" as a Community of Practice domain.

I was delighted to see Antonella posting something again: Of the kindness of strangers (in NYC) |

She starts with the observation that New Yorkers aren’t rude at all, in her experience (she just started working at Google in Manhattan a couple of months ago). That, in fact, they seem to function very well together:

New Yorkers practice an efficiency-driven solidarity I haven’t experienced in any other place. They act as a collective “Getting started” manual for a city that it’s not always easy to use for newbies. Perhaps it’s because so many people are new to NYC. Perhaps it’s because of the many traumatic experiences who have taught New Yorkers how important is to rely on each other. Whatever it is, it makes you feel like you belong and people care.

And I can’t help but think of this in terms of Communities of Practice (since I’m obsessed with it right now, especially in getting ready for my IA Summit presentation).

It really is amazing how a gigantic network of people can function as a community at just ‘living’ and the skills needed for a new place. I imagine there are millions of NYC transplants who remember what it was like to “learn the ropes” of the city, and can recognize the posture, the panic and confusion, in other “newbies.”

I like that phrase, “learn the ropes.” It references the technical knowhow a new sailor would need for working on a sailboat crew. There’s an intimacy involved in that kind of activity — a community of necessity, that has to somehow transcend being a mere ‘team’ and evolve into being much more of a community of learning, teaching and doing together.

I guess once you start getting your head into a new idea, you start seeing it everywhere. Which can be a problem. But I’m enjoying the thought for now.

And I’m glad Antonella’s ok. And eating well at the office 😉