A Group of Empowered Individuals

by Chris Kenton on February 1, 2007

Stowe Boyd has a lot of interesting things to say about Social Media. He has one of the strongest–and loudest–voices on the web framing the way social media is understood, and if you’re not reading his blog you should. Most of the time, I agree with him, like when he says:

The power has shifted from the center to the edge, from the organization/group to the individual… And the centroids will have to realize that something profound has happened, over here, out at the edge, where the social applications are being invented.

Concise and accurate. When he’s describing the unfolding of significant trends, I think he sees the forest for the trees better than most. But when he’s peering into the future, or stumping for a frame that he likes, I think he can go off the rails.

In his last post, Boyd muses on Chris Shipley’s opening comments at Demo, where Shipley talks about the "Empowered Individual"– people who are leveraging their purchasing power to make greater demands for performance, ease of use and reliability. Shipley’s point is that even in the enterprise, where purchasing decisions are far more opaque than in consumer markets, the end users are driving decisions by "demanding better support, quicker response times, more reliable systems, all while fully addressing their specific business needs and their specific business styles."

Boyd agrees with the notion that it’s all about the individual, but doesn’t like "Empowered Individual". I agree, it’s clunky. But Boyd’s favored term is an indication of where I think he goes off the rails. Boyd is pushing for the term "Me First", as a way to concisely define the true nature of individual power. He gives some background on this idea in an insightful post about the diference between collaboration in the ’90s and today:

The basic model of 90′s era collaboration, a la Lotus Notes, is all about the group. Information was managed in group-based repositories, then passed around for review, or published to intranet portals via customized apps. Information era workflows where people are first and foremost occupiers of roles, not individuals, and the materials being created are more closely aligned with groups than individuals.

Web 2.0 social tools — largely — work around a different model. Social networks — explicit ones like MySpace and Facebook, or implicit ones in social media — are really organized around individuals and their networked self-expression. I am writing this blog post, and publishing it, personally. It is not the product of some workgroup. It is not an anonymous chunk of text on a corporate portal. My Facebook profile pulls traffic from my network of contacts, sources I find interesting, and the chance presence updates of my friends.

I don’t need to participate in groups to exist or to share — or to matter — in this world. 

That’s an interesting comment, considering the fact that he’s not writing in a paper notebook, but on a public blog with an RSS feed to distribute his ideas to a broad audience. But then, Boyd hates the idea of "audience", because to him it symbolizes the entrenched and predatory outlook of traditional media moguls, who long ago forgot that their audience is made of up real, live people.

Hayes and his ilk are unwilling to accept the notion that individuals are smart enought to know what’s important to them. Mass market media believes the individual is defined in terms of membership in an audience, an audience whose characteristics, wants and needs are defined by the media. And individuals have become canny enough to know that organizations like the London Times may not always have our best interests at heart, no matter how much they spew the dogma of impartial journalism, or wrap themselves in national or philosophical banners.

While I certainly agree with his sentiments about big media and their refined contempt for consumers, I don’t know why that naturally impugns the concept of "audience". I mean, audience also applies to a musician in a coffehouse, or a play on a stage, or a passionate blogger–it describes an important relationship of community as old as human history itself, and it does not inherently discount the value of the participants in that relationship.

Anyone who has written an email or a comment on a public blog or bulletin board knows the difference between writing in public, and writing in a notebook. At some point you begin to conceptualize the reader as you write, and it changes what you write. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad–especialy when the intent is to decieve or manipulate–but it is inevitable. It is the function of the desire to communicate ideas so that others may understand what you mean. It’s often called finding a voice. And the readers on the other end also at some point conceive of themselves, even if only in very vague ways, as part of a group. When I read the Wall Street Journal, or Boyd’s Blog, even if I’m doing it in total privacy, at some level I know by virtue of public access to the forum that others are also reading it, and that therefore I share some common experience with others, even unseen others. Beyond the interest and utility of participation, whatever it says to you that you are A Reader of the Wall Street Journal, or A Watcher of American Idol, is a function of your perception of the group, and again, it’s inevitable. It’s what media and marketing feeds on to sell you more products. But media and marketing didn’t invent this, they just figured out how to exploit the hell out of it to profit. And now that we are growing wise as consumers, knocking down exploitive marketing and media is good, but it doesn’t eliminate the dynamics of social communication, and it doesn’t eliminate the reality of audience.

Bringing it back around to Boyd’s formulation of "Me First". There is no question in my mind that Boyd is spot on when he says "The power has shifted from the center to the edge, from the organization/group to the individual." And I think he’s right to throw big rocks at the centroids on behalf of the edglings. But I don’t think groups and audiences have been annhilated. The beauty of a group and of an audience is its power to change the participants, both the speakers and the listeners–and often much of the change happens in the preparation of the individual to expose his or her ideas to an audience. If you make the group nothing more than a collection of individuals, there is no conversation.

"Me First" in my mind, discounts the value of the group, in the same way that controlling centroids discount the value of the individual. It’s a swinging of the pendulum a few points too far.

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