Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Smart-Talk Trap in the Era of Social Media (and What to Do About It)

I just came across an excellent piece in the Harvard Business Review thanks to my colleague Larry Pixa. Published in 1999 by Stanford professors Pfeffer and Sutton, “The Smart-Talk Trap” (PDF) is even more pertinent in today’s new media world where user-generated content is ubiquitous.  The key to success is action but the authors warn that we are increasingly “rewarded for talking—and the longer, louder, and more confusingly, the better.” This dynamic, which substitutes talk for action, is responsible for what Pfeffer and Sutton call the knowing-doing gap. The purpose of this blog post is to assess this gap in the context of social media and to offer potential solutions.

“When confronted with a problem, people act as if discussing it, formulating decisions, and hashing out plans for action are the same as actually fixing it. It’s an understandable response, after all, talk, unlike action, carries little risk. But it can paralyze a company.” In particular, the authors found that a distinct kind of talk is “an especially insidious inhibitor of organizational action: ‘smart talk.'”

The elements of “smart talk” include “sounding confident, articulate and eloquent; having interesting information and ideas; and possessing a good vocabulary.” But there’s also a dark side to smart talk: “first, it focuses on the negative, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). In other words, people engage in smart talk to spout criticisms and complexities. Unfortunately, such talk has an uncanny way of stopping action in it’s cracks.” This realization is in part what drove me to write this blog post last year On Technology and Learning, Or Why the Wright Brothers Did Not Create the 747.

Pfeffer and Sutton find that “because management today revolves around meetings, teams and consensus building, the more a person says, the more valuable he or she appears.” Studies of contemporary organizations show that “people who talk frequently are more likely to be judged by others as influential and important—they’re considered leaders.” People compete in the “conversational marketplace” where quantity is often confused for quality. Some scholarly studies on leadership called this the “blabbermouth theory of leadership,” which states that “people who talk more often and longer—regardless of the quality of their comments—are more likely to emerge as leaders of new groups […].” And so, “people who want to get ahead in organizations [or communities of practice] learn that talking a lot helps them reach their goal more reliably than taking action or inspiring others to act does.”

The Stanford professors also note that “the fact that people get hired, promoted, and assigned to coveted jobs based on their ability to sound intelligent, and not necessarily on their ability to act that way, is well known in most organizations.” I would add getting funding to this list, by the way. It gets wore though. The studies carried out by Pfeffer and Sutton revealed that “junior executives made a point—especially in meetings with their bosses present—of trashing the ideas of their peers. Every time someone dared to offer an idea, everyone around the table would leap in with reasons why it was nothing short of idiotic.” This particular dynamic is amplified several fold with the very public nature of social media. It can take some tough skin to offer new ideas in a blog post or via a Tweet when some users of social media actively use these same communication technologies to publicly criticize and humiliate others.

This evidence is not just anecdotal. Citing an earlier Harvard study called “Brilliant but Cruel,” the authors relay that “people who wrote negative book reviews were perceived by others as being less likable but more intelligent, competent and expert than people who wrote positive reviews of the same books.” In summary, “Only pessimism sounds profound. Optimism sounds superficial.” This has a direct connection to the knowing-doing gap. “If those with courage to propose something concrete have been devastated in the process, they’ll either leave or learn to be smart-talkers themselves. As a result, a company will end up being filled with clever put-down artists. It will end up paralyzed by the fear and silence those people spawn.” Incidentally, “people will try to sound smart not only by being critical but also by using trendy, pretentious, or overblown language.” This describes so well some tweets and blog post comments that I come across. Some people have actually managed to make a career out of this by leveraging social media to magnify their smart talk.

The authors note that using complex language and concepts can also make one sound smart. Indeed, “rare is the manager who stands before his or her peers to present a new strategy with a single slide and an idea that can be summarized in a sentence or two. Instead, managers congratulate themselves and one another when they come up with ideas that are so elaborate and convoluted they require two hours of multipart, multicolored slides and a liberal sprinkling of the latest buzzwords.” Now, the authors are “not claiming that complex language and concepts never add value to an organization.” They are simply suggesting that such language “brings a lot less value than most executives realize.” In the context of social media like Twitter, however, I have seen people simplify or summarize a concept to the extreme in order to trash someone else’s point of view.

Do not despair, however, as Pfeffer and Sutton have found five characteristics that describe organizations that have managed to avoid the smart-talk trap. All of these characteristics are applicable in the era of social media. In fact, social media can perhaps even amplify these characteristics when leveraged carefully. Here’s a summary of the five characteristics and some preliminary thoughts on their intersection with social media—please do share any ideas you may have:

1. “They have leaders who know and do the work.” “Leaders who do the work, rather than just talk about it, help prevent the knowing-doing gap from opening in the first place.” For me, this means avoiding blog and twitter wars—you know, the endless back-and-forth with smart-talk experts. The only way to win, like in the movie War Games, is not to play. Otherwise, you’ll get pulled into an endless debate instead of doing the real work that actually matters. Doing the work also increases the chances that people who respect you will blog and tweet about your concrete actions.

2. “They have a bias for plain language and a simple concepts. Companies that avoid the knowing-doing gap are often masters of the mundane. […] They consider ‘common sense’ a compliment rather than an insult.” Keep it simple. Blogging has actually helped me refine some of my ideas since blog posts are generally expected to be on the shorter side. Thus keeping a blog gives you an incentive to really think through the core elements of your new idea and prevents you from writing endlessly without a point. Also, bloggers generally want a wider readership so avoiding jargon and industry terms is a good idea (when possible). In terms of branding and marketing, this means focusing on creating a simple message about what your product, what you do and how that matters.

3. “They frame the questions by asking ‘how,’ not just ‘why’.” “In other words, the conversation focuses not on faults but on overcoming them.” I like this idea a lot and it can be imported into the social media space. Instead of shooting down someone else’s idea with a tweet reply “why in the world would you ever want to do that?!” invite them to explain how they’d implement their idea. The same tactic may help prevent blog wars.

4. “They have strong mechanisms for closing the loop.” “The companies in our study that bridged the gap […] had effective mechanisms in place to make sure decisions didn’t just end on paper but actually got implemented.” “Closing the loop—following up to make sure something actually happens after it has been decided on—isn’t a very complicated idea. But it is a potent means for preventing talk from being the only thing that occurs.” Social media leaves a digital trace, which may help you be more accountable to yourself and your organization. There are parallels with the Quantified Self movement here. If you blog and tweet about planning to launch a new and exciting project, then people may ask what happened if you don’t follow through with more blog posts on the topic. Another idea would be to use Basecamp and tie to-do’s and milestones (that are not confidential) to your twitter account, especially if your donor follows you online.

5. “They believe that experience is the best teacher ever.” “They make the process of doing into an opportunity to learn.” One company “had ‘No Whining’ patches sewn on everyone’s uniform and explained that complaining about something without trying to do anything about it was not acceptable.” I like this idea as well. Don’t be afraid to try something new and iterate. “Fail fast and fail forward,” some software developers like to say. Share your experience with others via blogs and tweets and invite them to propose solutions to address your challenges. Make the smart-talkers around you part of the solution when possible and publicly invite them to act constructively. If they don’t and continue with their slander, they’ll continue to lose credibility while you focus on concrete action, which is the key to success.

How Egyptian Activists Kept Their Ushahidi Project Alive Under Mubarak

This is my second blog post on the U-Shahid project in Egypt. The first one analyzed 2,000+ reports mapped on the Ushahidi platform during the country’s recent Parliamentary Elections. Egypt is one of my dissertation case studies and in this blog post I summarize some initial findings based on a series of interviews I had several Egyptian activists who were part of the U-Shahid project.

The Egyptian government began asking questions about U-Shahid well before the project was even launched. They found out about the project by tapping phone lines and emails. Once the project was launched, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior continued to shadow the project in several ways. They requested copies of all meeting agendas and a list of names for everyone who was trained on the Ushahidi platform, for example.

In order to remain operational, the Egyptian activists spearheading the U-Shahid project said that they “stressed the technical aspect of the project, and remained fully open and transparent about our work. We gave Egyptian National Security a dedicated username and password [to access the Ushahidi platform], one that we could control and monitor [their actions]. This gave them a false sense of control, we could restore anything they deleted.” That said, one activist recounted how “there were attempts by the government to overload our website with many fake reports […] but we were on it and we were able to delete them. This happened a minute or two every three hours or so, attacks, overload, but eventually they gave up.”

When asked why the regime had not shut down the platform given the potential threat that U-Shahid represented, one blogger explained that “many of the activists who began using Ushahidi had many followers on Facebook and Twitter, they also had the attention of the international media, which could create unwanted attention on the regime’s actions.” This same blogger also noted that many of the activists who collaborated on the U-Shahid project were “connected with people in the US Congress, directors of international human rights NGOs, and so on.” Perhaps the Mubarak Regime was concerned that cracking down on the U-Shahid project would backfire.

In any case, the activists “did a lot of scenario building, considered many ‘what if’ situations. The fact that we were so well prepared is why they [the regime] could not touch us. We tried to connect all the data on Facebook and Twitter so that if they closed our Ushahidi map, we would move to a new domain name and let all our followers know. We also had a large database of SMS numbers, which would allow us to text our followers with information on the new website. Finally, we had a fully trained team in Lebanon ready to take over the project if we were completely shut down.”

“We were well prepared,” added another blogger, “we knew they could not arrest all of us on the day of the election, and just in case, we trained a group in Lebanon who could take over all operations if we were stopped.” According to one activist, “using this mapping technology provided a way to collect and recruit a lot of activists, and not just any activists, but more effective ones. This actually created a headache for the regime because a growing number of digital activists became interested in using the Ushahidi platform.” Another interviewee added that the technology acted as a “magnet” for activists. One activist also remarked that “they [the government] don’t understand how we work; we can learn very fast but the government has many rules and processes, they have to write up reports, submit them for approval, and allocate funding to acquire technology. But for us, we don’t need permission. If we want to use Tor, we simply use Tor.”

Another explained that their project’s credibility came from the realization by many that they were simply focused on “getting the facts out without agenda. We were both transparent and moderate, with no political or party affiliation, and we emphasized that our goal was to try and make the election process transparent.” In sum, said another activist, “we let people decide for themselves whether the content mapped on Ushahidi was good or not.” Another activist argued that the use of the Ushahidi platform “created more transparency around the elections, allowing easier access than in any previous election.” More specifically, “in previous elections and before the existence of Ushahidi, many NGOs made reports of election irregularities, but these were rarely shared publicly with policy maker or even with other NGOs. And even after the elections had taken place, it was very difficult to access these repots. But the Ushahidi [platform] is open and online, allowing anyone to access any of the information mapped in near real-time.”

Still it is really challenging to fully assess the potential political impact (if any) the U-Shahid project had–something the activists are very aware of. One can only investigate so much for so long. One activist noted that “next time we use the Ushahidi platform, this year for the presidential elections, we will be sure to track the reports submitted to the judicial courts and compare them with those we collect. We also plan to better advertise our project with lawyers and political candidates so that they can use our reports including videos and photos in court and for trials.”

What I’m particularly pleased about in addition all the learning that has taken place is the fact that the U-Shahid project spawned off a number of *copy cats during the elections and new maps are being launched almost every other month in Egypt now. The project also increased the number of Egyptian who participated in directly monitoring their own elections. Lastly, I’m excited that the Egyptians who spearheaded the U-Shahid project are now training activists in Tunisia and other Arab countries. They have acquired a wealth of practical knowledge and experience in using the platform in authoritarian environments, and now they’re sharing all this hard-won expertise.

There’s a lot more to share from the interviews, and I hope to do so in future posts. I also plan to blog about the findings from my case study of the Sudan.


The Role of Facebook in Disaster Response

I recently met up with some Facebook colleagues to discuss the role that they and their platform might play in disaster response. So I thought I’d share some thoughts that come up during the conversation seeing as I’ve been thinking about this topic with a number of other colleagues for a while. I’m also very interested to hear any ideas and suggestions that iRevolution readers may have on this.

There’s no doubt that Facebook can—and already does—play an important role in disaster response. In Haiti, a colleague used Facebook to recruit hundreds of Creole speaking volunteers to translate tens of thousands of text messages into English as part of our Ushahidi-Haiti crisis mapping efforts. When an earth-quake struck New Zealand earlier this year, thousands of students organized their response via a Facebook group and also used the platform’s check-in’s feature to alert others in their social network that they were alright.

But how else might Facebook be used? The Haiti example demonstrates that the ability to rapidly recruit large numbers of volunteers is really key. So Facebook could create a dedicated landing page when a crisis unfolds, much like Google does. This landing page could then be used to recruit thousands of new volunteers for live crisis mapping operations in support of humanitarian organizations (for example). The landing page could spotlight a number of major projects that new volunteers could join, such as the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) or perhaps highlight the deployment of an Ushahidi platform for a particular crisis.

The use of Facebook to recruit volunteers presents several advantages, the most important ones being identity and scale. When we recruited hundreds of new volunteers for the Libya Crisis Map in support of the UN’s humanitarian response, we had to vet and verify each and every single one of them twice to ensure they were who they really said they were. This took hours, which wouldn’t be the case using Facebook. If we could set up a way for Facebook users to sign into an Ushahidi platform directly from their Facebook account, this too would save many hours of tedious work—a nice idea that my colleague Jaroslav Valuch suggested. See Facebook Connect, for example.

Facebook also operates at a scale of more than half-a-billion people, which has major “Cognitive Surplus” potential. We could leverage Facebook’s ad services as well—a good point made one Facebook colleague (and also Jon Gosier in an earlier conversation). That way, Facebook users would receive targeted adds on how they could volunteer based on their existing profiles.

So there’s huge potential, but like much else in the ICT-for-you-name-it space, you first have to focus on people, then process and then the technology. In other words, what we need to do first is establish a relationship with Facebook and decide on the messaging and the process by which volunteers on Facebook would join a volunteer network like the Standby Volunteer Task Force and help out on an Ushahidi map, for example.

Absorbing several hundred or thousands of new volunteers is no easy task but as long as we have a simple and efficient micro-tasking system via Facebook, we should be able to absorb this surge. Perhaps our colleagues at Facebook could take the lead on that, i.e, create a a simple interface allowing groups like the Task Force to farm out all kinds of micro-tasks, much like Crowdflower, which already embeds micro-tasks in Facebook. Indeed, we worked with Crowdflower during the floods in Pakistan to create this micro-tasking app for volunteers.

As my colleague Jaroslav also noted, this Mechanical Turk approach would allow these organizations to evaluate the performance of their volunteers on particular tasks. I would add to this some gaming dynamics to provide incentives and rewards for volunteering, as I blogged about here. Having a public score board based on the number of tasks completed by each volunteer would be just one idea. One could add badges, stickers, banners, etc., to your Facebook profile page as you complete tasks. And yes, the next question would be: how do we create the Farmville of disaster response?

On the Ushahidi end, it would also be good to create a Facebook app for Ushahidi so that users could simply map from their own Facebook page rather than open up  another browser to map critical information. As one Facebook colleague also noted, friends could then easily invite others to help map a crisis via Facebook. Indeed, this social effect could be most powerful reason to develop an Ushahidi Facebook app. As you submit a report on a map, this could be shared as a status update, for example, inviting your friends to join the cause. This could help crisis mapping go viral across your own social network—an effect that was particularly important in launching the Ushahidi-Haiti project.

As a side note, there is an Ushahidi plugin for Facebook that allows content posted on a wall to be directly pushed to the Ushahidi backend for mapping. But perhaps our colleagues at Facebook could help us add more features to this existing plugin to make it even more useful, such add integrating Facebook Connect, as noted earlier.

In sum, there are some low hanging fruits and quick wins that a few weeks of collaboration with Facebook could yield. These quick wins could make a really significant impact even if they sound (and are) rather simple. For me, the most exciting of these is the development of a Facebook app for Ushahidi.

Harnessing Social Media Tools to Fight Corruption

I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed for this report on Harnessing Social Media Tools to Fight Corruption (PDF). The study was prepared by Dana Bekri, Brynne Dunn, Isik Oguzertem, Yan Su and Shivani Upreti as part of a final project for their degree from the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The report was prepared for Transparency International (TI).

As part of this project, the authors compiled a very useful database of projects that apply social tools to create greater transparency and accountability around corruption issues. The authors recommend that TI draw on this list of projects to catalyze an active network of civil society initiatives that challenge corruption. The report also includes an interesting section on Mobilizing Volunteers and considers the role of volunteer networks as important in the fight against corruption. The authors write that,

“As an essential expression of citizenship and democracy, the past 25 years have seen rapid growth in the practice of volunteering worldwide. One study reports approximately 20.8 million volunteers in 37 countries, contributing US$ 400 billion to the world economy. The increasing enthusiasm of individuals to serve a cause while improving their own skills complements key goals of civil society organisations to build a strong volunteer force.”

This of course relates directly to the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), so I’m always keen to learn more about lessons learned and best practices in catalyzing a thriving volunteer network.

Do let me know if you’d like to get in touch with the authors, I’d be happy to provide an introduction via email.

Discussing the Recommendations of the Disaster 2.0 Report

It’s been well over a month since the Disaster 2.0 Report was publicly launched and while some conversations on the report have figured on the Crisis Mappers Network list-serve and the Standby Task Force blog, much of this discussion has largely overlooked the report’s detailed recommendations. I had hoped by now that someone would have taken the lead on catalyzing a debate around these recommendations, but since that still hasn’t happened, I might as well start.

The report’s authors clearly state that, “the development of an interface between the Volunteer and Technical Communities (V&TCs) and formal humanitarian system is a design problem that must be left to the stakeholders.” In addition, they clarify that “the purpose of this document is not to set forth the final word on how to connect new information flows into the international humanitarian system; but to initiate a conversation about the design challenges involved with this endeavor.” This conversation has yet to happen.

While the humanitarian community has proposed some design ideas, V&TCs have not responded in any detail to these proposals—although to be fair, no deadline for feedback has been suggested either. In any case, the proposed designs are meant to create an interface between humanitarian organizations and V&TCs—the two main stakeholders discussed in the Disaster 2.0 Report. It would be unfortunate and probably defeat the purpose of the report if the final interface were operationalized before any V&TCs had the chance to explain what would work best for them in terms of interface. Indeed, without an open and pro-active conversation that includes both stakeholder groups, it is unlikely that the final interface design will gain buy-in from both groups, which would result in wasted funding.

So here’s an open and editable Google Doc that includes the report’s recommen-dations. I have already added some of my comments to the Google Doc and hope others will as well. On June 1st, I will publish a new blog post that will summarize all the feedback added to the Google Doc. I hope this summary will serve to move the conversations forward so we can co-develop an interface that will prove useful and effective to all those concerned.

Analyzing U-Shahid’s Election Monitoring Reports from Egypt

I’m excited to be nearing the completion of my dissertation research. As regular iRevolution readers will know, the second part of my dissertation is a qualitative and comparative analysis of the use of the Ushahidi platform in both Egypt and the Sudan. As part of this research, I am carrying out some content analysis of the reports mapped on U-Shahid and SudanVoteMonitor. The purpose of this blog post is to share my preliminary analysis of the 2,700 election monitoring reports published on U-Shahid during Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections in November & December 2010.

All of U-Shahid‘s reports are available in this Excel file. The reports were originally submitted in Arabic, so I’ve had them translated into English for my research. While I’ve spent a few hours combing through these reports, I’m sure that I didn’t pick up on all the interesting ones, so if any iRev readers do go through the data, I’d super grateful if you could let me know about any other interesting tid-bits you uncover.

Before I get to the content analysis, I should note that the Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC)—the Egyptian group based in Cairo that launched the U-Shahid project—used both crowdsourcing and “blogger-sourcing.” That is, the group trained some 130 bloggers and activists in five key cities around Egypt to monitor the elections and report their observations in real-time on the live map they set up. For the crowdsourced reports, DISC worked with a seasoned journalist from Thomson-Reuters to set up verification guidelines that allowed them to validate the vast majority of such reports.

My content analysis of the reports focused primarily on those that seemed to shed the most transparency on the elections and electoral campaigns. To this end, the analysis sought to pick up any trends or recurring patterns in the U-Shahid reports. The topics most frequently addressed in the reports included bribes for buying off votes, police closing off roads leading to polling centers, the destruction and falsification of election ballets, evidence of violence in specific locations, the closing of polling centers before the official time and blocking local election observers from entering polling centers.

What is perhaps most striking about the reports, however, are how specific they are and not only in terms of location, e.g., polling center. For example, reports that document the buying of votes often include the amount paid for the vote. This figure varied from 20 Egyptian Pounds (about $3) to 300 Egyptian Pounds (around $50). As to be expected, perhaps, the price increased through the election period, with one report citing that the bribe price at one location had gone from 40 Pounds to 100 over night.

Another report submitted on December 5, 2010 was even more specific: “Buying out votes in Al Manshiaya Province as following: 7:30[am] price of voter was 100 pound […]. At 12[pm] the price of voter was 250 pound, at 3 pm the price was 200 pound, at 5 pm the price was 300 pound for half an hour, and at 6 pm the price was 30 pound.” Another report revealed “bribe-fixing” by noting that votes ranged from 100-150 Pounds as a result of a “coalition between delegates to reduce the price in Ghirbal, Alexandria.” Other reports documented non-financial bribes, including mobile phones, food, gas and even “sex stimulators”, “Viagra” and “Tramadol tablets”.

Additional incidents mapped on the Ushahidi platform included reports of deliberate power cuts to prevent people from voting. As a result, one voter complained in “Al Saaida Zaniab election center: we could not find my name in voters lists, despite I voted in the same committee. Nobody helped to find my name on list because the electricity cut out.” In general, voters also complained about the lack of phosphoric ink for voting and the fact that they were not asked for their IDs to vote.

Reports also documented harassment and violence by thugs, often against Muslim Brotherhood candidates, the use of Quran verses in election speeches and the use of mini buses at polling centers to bus in people from the National Party. For example, one reported noted that “Oil Minister Samir Fahmy who is National nominee for Al Nassr City for Peoples Council uses his power to mobilize employees to vote for him. The employees used the companies buses carrying the nominee’ pictures to go to the election centers.” Several hundred reports included pictures and videos, some clearly documenting obvious election fraud. In contrast, however, there were also several reports that documented calm, “everything is ok” around certain voting centers.

In a future blog post, I’ll share the main findings from my interviews with the key Egyptian activists who were behind the U-Shahid project. In the meantime, if you choose to look through the election monitoring reports, please do let me know if you find anything else of interest, thank you!

Video: Changing the World, One Map at a Time

Hosted in the beautiful city of Berlin, Re:publica 2011 is Germany’s largest annual conference on blogs, new media and the digital society, drawing thousands of participants from across the world for three days of exciting conversations and presentations. The conference venue was truly a spectacular one and while conference presentations are typically limited to 10-20 minutes, the organizers gave us an hour to share our stories. So I’m posting the video of my presentation below for anyone interested in learning more about new media, crowdsourcing, crisis mapping, live maps, crisis response, civil resistance, digital activism and check-in’s. I draw on my experience with Ushahidi and the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) and share examples from Kenya, Haiti, Libya, Japan, the US and Egypt to illustrate how live maps can change the world. My slides are available on Slideshare here.