Bottom-up phenomena has accelerated in recent years because of social software. A relatively simple decentralized pattern of enabling more connections and groups to form has complex results. These results (for example: open source, the long tail, heterarchical organization, emergent democracy, wikipedia and participatory media) hold great promise. Bottom-up production is driven by social incentives, comes at a lower cost, realizes economies of speed and enhances quality through diverse and greater participation. Despite these benefits, Bottom-up phenomena is perceived as a significant risk because the dynamic of control is uncertain. But every risk has its rewards and can be managed if known.
Where the bottom-up and top-down meet — middlespace — is the realm of policy, metrics, incentives, cooperation and sharing control. The practice and politics of this realm are best explored through new case studies.
When Friendster launched, users enjoyed relative freedom of expression and connection. Many used it as a platform to form their own communities, some got laid and some were even more creative. Fakesters, or fake profiles, proliferated in abundance and helped make the culture unique in ways designers didn’t anticipate.
Friendster tried to shut down the Fakesters because they were outside their design and encroached on their property. I once thought there was a certain logic to this because it disaffected network structures, as a Fakester was a node that collapsed the network, artificially shortening network horizons. As could be expected, the community reacted negatively and many abandoned the platform en mass.
While the burning man and urban hipster crowd moved on, the network grew in very different directions, dominated by asian cultures. Visit lengths have continued to be about 2 hours, a golden metric for advertisers, which led to their first generation business model.
What’s fascinating is the current business model is a reality TV show, complete with major accounts such as The Apprentice — with the ad property being endorsed Fakester profiles. This is a case of a hostile takeover of the the Bottom-up phenomena for Top-down gain.
This isn’t necessarily bad, but the business model doesn’t benefit from bottom-up economies. For example, if creation of Fakesters by the network was enabled it would not only unleash the creativity of the network, but provide another reason for “being there.” As people connect to Fakesters, its a perfect metric of emergent effects. Popular Fakesters that can be associated with commercial entities could be sold to advertisers to sponsor. Advertisers gain free creative work and the ability to invest in momentous word of mouth.
Final Four Journals
AOL Journals didn’t begin as a Bottom-up blog platform, which may explain relatively low levels of adoption, despite the advantage of resources and an existing community of users to tap. The September That Never Ended, never quite began. But as they cultivated their community they have executed some of the better moves in middlespace.
AOL Journals has a large segment of sports bloggers. To engage these users from the Top-down, they held a contest for tickets to the NCAA Final Four tournament for the best sports blogger. They didn’t determine it through editorial judgment, as that would mean little to anyone except the winner. They held rounds of voting from the community, which also sparked volumous conversations about sports blogging and the voices in their community. When they narrowed it down to the top blogs, they gave them full billing on the community homepage, driving enviable attention. It turned out that the winner was a housewife who blogged under a pseudonym (she revealed herself late in the contest).
What’s fascinating is that the contest could have only happened through top down means, but enabled bottom-up participation. The contest captured not just the attention of the community, but their imagination while discovering new talent.
The Wikipedia Community is in the process of bringing its encyclopedia to print with professional caliber editing. Mass quantities of peer practiced content, almost 400k articles, run through a group fact checking process and selection criteria prior to publication — will completely disrupt the publishing business.
Now they are voting on the creation of Wikinews. It similarly applies an editorial process to the end of a peer production practice. Beyond acceptance criteria, they may establish reputation for contributors — which should only be done as a side experiment as new as, well, news. If they apply explicit reputation, try it on process first, practice second. The metrics would be fantastic for managers, if that role was pre-ordained, but since it isn’t, messing with an emergent culture requires iteration with increasing scope.
Much has been written about the forces that are decentralizing the enterprise. Arguments put forth by Tom Malone and others show that decentralization of decision making is enabled by communication technologies enables greater satisfaction, lower costs and great innovation. More importantly, they show that decentralization enables this value while realizing economies of scale.
The organizational change of decentralization requires committed leadership as it changes the dynamics of control. One of the prospects of tools of change, such as wikis, is that they can bring a new level of transparency and foster a culture of working openly. At first, this is seen as a benefit for the rank and file, but there are equal if not greater benefits to managers. A similar pattern occurred when email entered the workplace, and now email is more heavily used by managers.
The greatest tool of organizational change remains IT. The strong signals to listen to are DIYIT by users and developers. Users and managers can acquire consumer technologies and ASP services to meet unfulfilled needs. Developers and IT staff will bring open source and open services in for low-cost experimentation Half of IT leadership is noticing what paths to pave, the other half is working with people to get it done.
The point of the above stories is that when rules are kept simple and incentives are provided from the Top-down, the energies of the Bottom can be realized for mutual gain. However, negotiating the sharing of control is both ripe with risk and opportunity.
Several mechanisms can be used to fuse the top and bottom. The Friendster case is an example of how the emergent property can be simply claimed by the top, but there is still the opportunity to share the property and take advantage of metrics and incentives. The AOL Journals case is a perfect example of using metrics and incentives. Wikinews adds editorial process to the result (at a moment in time) of emergent practice to produce a marketable good.
Experienced community managers recognize these examples as levers for fostering participation. Community Management itself is a renewing domain, with new tools and practices. This expertise should now be a core competency for most businesses — as customers change from consumers of what the Top produces to participants in productive networks.
Community management has been more of an art than a science, something that is going to have to change if for no other reason than managing risk. Take the well known case of Six Apart’s shift in pricing structure for a good that gained significant contributions from its community. Its hard to generate metrics to set incentives without data, so as a direct marketer would do, test on a subset and then iterate.