May 23

Social Media Systems (3)

(Update – Swapped Sam’s live UStream with Michael’s recorded YouTube)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). The first article concentrated on the overview, the next article introduces the Soft Systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with this example application.

But what is it good for?

Over the 30 minutes or so after my talk at Brrism, we worked mainly on the systems description using the CATWOE acronym. As with all systems descriptions and discussions, there were several views, forcefully put.

However, by the end of the very short session we’d arrived at a pretty good consensus opinion. There’s still some work to be done refining the description and it needs to be circulated widely within the Brrism community to gather feedback.

For me the breakthrough came when we agreed that the fundamental transformation that Brrism brings about is multiple ideas / perspectives into calls for collective action. That took quite a bit of work as we didn’t think that Brrism itself was about lobbying for social change, or making B2B connections, or promoting ‘best practice’; however the Brrism community might well do a bit of that after meeting and exchanging ideas!

The next task will be to convert the CATWOE into some rich pictures; but that’s for another day.

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.

May 23

Social Media Systems (2)

(Update – swapped Sam’s live UStream with Michael’s recorded YouTube)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). The first article in this mini-series concentrated on the overview, this article will introduce to a particular systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with an example application.

Soft Systems

Humans are particularly complex systems, free will, determinism, etc mean we need some modifications to the above general approach to describing a system that specifically includes humans. This is where Peter Checkland comes in. He was a chemical engineer who realised that many of his industrial chemical systems weren’t behaving as designed, not because the design of the engineering processes were wrong, but because of the people in the system. Unlike previous engineers, who tried to design people out of their systems, Checkland tried to understand how people influenced and interacted as part of the systems. And thus, Soft System as an analytical methodology was born.

Open University, module T552

The first thing that Checkland realised was that the very neat, formal diagrams that were generally used in systems analysis didn’t allow for the messy human element. Rich Pictures are an approach that describes the system with the human elements included.

Rich pictures have the same basic features of any systems diagram (boundary, components, inputs, outputs, transformations, environment) but with some additions.

The first addition is that of Actors, not a wandering group of minstrels, but the people within the system. You can give them names, but its usually helpful to use functional descriptions. The second addition are Clients, the people that benefit from the system. Of course the clients may in large part be the actors, but usually there is a specific group of people that are beneficiaries that aren’t part of the system.

The third addition is that of the Owner. This is often an individual but could be a group, organisation, but is whatever has the authority to abolish or fundamentally change the system. Most online social systems make substantial use of free (as in beer) software, and thus have at least two owner groups; the people that set them up and run/coordinate and the people that provide the free online resources.

The final major addition needed for a rich picture is a description of the perspective being adopted by the people drawing the rich picture itself. Checkland referred to this as Weltanschauung (World View). Is the social system about generating shareholder value, individual self-actualisation, mutual support, environmental salvation…

The role of the Environment in soft systems is more important than just “stuff that’s outside the boundary”. What’s going on in the environment can directly impact the system. A good example might be the launch of annotations for twitter; we don’t know how the new feature will impact the various social systems using twitter, but it probably will.

All of which gives rise to the slightly clumsy acronym: CATWOE (Clients, Actors, Transformations, Weltanschauung, Owner, Environment).

But what is it good for? More >>

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.

May 23

Social Media Systems (1)

(Update – swapped Sam’s live UStream embed for Michael’s recorded YouTube embed)
This is an expansion on my Brrism talk on Systems Theory and how it can be applied to social media (systems).

There are a couple of benefits of using something like systems theory when designing a social media system, plus a couple of drawbacks. Perhaps most importantly, it helps with the big picture before worrying about API calls, jscript vs php, etc. The main drawback is that is won’t tell you how to make your social media system actually grow and thrive.

If you’re interested in the history of systems theory, General Systems Theory, Bertalanffy, et al, then my previous post touched on that, plus there are good wikipedia pages to read (linked to in this sentence). This article will concentrate on the overview, the next article will introduce to a particular systems approach and I’ll conclude this mini-series with an example application.

What is a System?

The word ‘system’ has become somewhat diluted and it’s meaning confused. However, systems are relatively easy to spot and describe.

Patrick Coin, Feb 1996

Firstly a system has components. A ruler is not a measurement system, it’s just a straight bit of metal or plastic with some marks on it. A feather is not a flight system, it’s very well adapted to direct airflow, perhaps with display markings, certainly helps with insulation, but it’s not a system.

All those components are contained within a boundary. Sometimes that boundary is fairly obvious, like the Yellow-Bellied Sap-Sucker. Sometimes the boundaries are more arbitrary, this website might be considered a system but there’s no physical boundary. Ultimately, the boundary is where you want it to be, but should be relevant to the system you’re looking at. But remember, the wider the system the more complex, too tight and you might not have a system at all!

There is a theoretical construct called the closed system, in reality all systems are open. This means there are inputs and outputs that cross the boundary. What this stuff is that crosses the boundary will depend on the system. You might have information, raw materials, written articles, even abstract concepts like trust. The point is that stuff crosses the boundary and you can describe it.

There is an important caveat to all this stuff crossing the boundary, there has to be a transformation between the input and output. Otherwise you’ve got a pipe! A pipe is not a system.

A communications system is a system because although part of the input (your message) is hopefully the same as the output (your message), there is a pile of associated data about the sender and receiver that is transformed in moving your message to your recipient. There are also internal transformations of the input message through encoders, compressions algorithms, decoders, etc.

Systems are also in a hierarchy of systems that form their environment. My little Sap-Sucker lives in the rainforest that is its ecosystem, that is part of a wider global system, and so on. It also has a digestive system, neural system, and so on down the scale. Systems within systems.

And lastly, but most importantly, systems display something called emergent properties. In social systems this is the law of unintended consequences. Behaviours that arise from the interaction between all the components and sub-systems, variations in inputs, changes in the environment. The point being that you can’t define them all when you analyse the system.

So far, so mechanistic. How do we apply this to social media? More >>

If you’re interested in what was actually said in my talk, the video is up on Facebook (sorry, not on an embeddable site, will have to talk to Michael about that). Sam Downie (@samdownie) was streaming on UStream and the slides are on Slideshare.

Mar 17

Blast from the Past

Unfortunately I can’t be at this months Brrism (sorry Micheal @kobb). However, one of the topics will be around ancient scrolls of wisdom (or anything over 5 years in Internet time).

Which got me thinking about what I was up to 10 years ago.

At the time I was a junior PhD researcher at the University of Plymouth. Bizarrely my old homepage is still live, though mercifully I’d updated it in 1999 with fewer flashing GIF’s and roll-over image maps, though the obligatory animated email gif is still there (the email isn’t live however).

A large part of my research (1997-2000) was looking at systems theory as it applied to ‘human activity systems’, so I’m going to cheat (slightly) and reference some work that wasn’t directly about Social Media (or even web-based technologies). Though I was based in the School of Computing, my background is in engineering and the research group was mostly engineers, economists and psychologists. We were interested in how systems theory could be applied to particular social groups (mostly engineering companies in this case) and in particular the processes that those social groups used to achieve certain aims (generally converting some specification into a manufactured product). However, I believe there is good reason to think that much of that research can be applied to social media application in other business endeavours.

Squared Circle Mosaic: Fibonacci Spiral with Hue Twist - Uploaded on January 27, 2005 by krazydad / jbum

Prof Peter Checkland (Lancaster University) is a Chemist that worked in industry on complex engineering problems and eventually moved to the most complex systems of all, those involving humans (unfortunately his seminal work is a book, 1981, not an online article).

Systems are generally recognised by some fundamental principles;

  • Boundaries – there’s a bunch of stuff that’s “inside” the system, and a bunch of stuff that’s “outside” the system (there will usually be an argument over where to draw the boundary but that almost defines the fact that you’ve got a system)
  • Inputs and outputs – stuff crosses the boundary, this can be physical or non-physical [you can have a ‘closed’ system but they’re generally rather boring and hypothetical]
  • There’s some transformation, i.e. difference, between the inputs and outputs
  • There are components within the system; a single component is not a system
  • Systems are nested; within large systems are smaller systems

and most importantly

  • Emergent Properties – you can’t describe the performance of the system just by analysing the component parts

Checkland is important because he was one of the first people to try and describe the messy company and organisational situations he was working within from a systems perspective (building on much of Bertalanffy‘s work between 1934 & 1969) . He identified boundaries and within those boundaries the sub-groups that actually made the company work. He identified information and flows of power within the organisation, and across those boundaries. He was able to sketch out the ‘actual’ human activity system, rather than the business or computer information system. It was the systems characteristic of emergent properties that led to them not performing as planned, and gave rise to the law of unintended consequences (previously identified in social sciences by Robert Merton (1936) but not explained).

But what does this mean for the social media strategist?

Well it means that, despite our shiny shiny toys, there is quite a bit of good research and clear thinking about how people work in groups and in particular how we can design such systems. No matter how carefully we design them, there will be emergent properties; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t design them in the first place.

There will always be boundaries, some stuff will be “inside”, some stuff will be “outside”. You don’t want everything to be “inside“; even planet earth isn’t a closed system.

Stuff needs to cross your system boundary, and it needs to be transformed en-route to becoming an output. I put my details into Facebook (as do 350m others) and a whole bunch of RSS feeds, and I get a ‘useful’ homepage about my ‘friends’. I can put photos, comments, stories, whatever in, and people can further transform them with additional comments, links to other people, etc. True, you can’t automagically get that data out of Facebook, but you can log in and read what’s there. And reading what’s there is one form of taking information out of the Facebook system, as are social networks, etc.

Of course there are lots of component software chunks and sub-systems within Facebook. Each casual game on Facebook is its own system, nested within Facebook. Each fan community is a nested system. Each discussion board is, potentially, a sub-system, nested within a fan page, nested within Facebook, nested within the Internet, etc. Depending on where you draw the boundary, everyone that’s on Facebook is also part of the system…

And of course there’s a ton of emergent behaviour that wasn’t predicted (or predicable).

So what can we do about/with it?

The first thing to note is that, from my experience, most people aren’t very good at meta-cognitive thinking about systems theory. That is, they are used to living within systems (social, organisational, leisure) but they don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about those systems, and even less thinking about how they are thinking about them.

This means that people will usually try to apply existing social behaviours and norms to on line systems, and if that doesn’t work they get frustrated/angry/disillusioned/etc. You either build your on-line social media system exactly like ‘real’ world (but then why would anyone be interested in your system?) or educate people  into the operating of the new system. That’s why all games have tutorial / training built in.

In order to develop a training programme you need to understand, and be able to communicate, the designed purpose and functioning of your system. One way to do this is draw a picture of it, not a UML diagram or a wireframe, but a human activity system diagram. You don’t need to use any ‘standardised’ modelling nomenclature, so long as you and your team understand it and it covers the basics above.

Michael, Rick Chapman, and I spent some time recently thinking about modelling social media systems. We tried to cover the basics, without employing a formal systems modelling methodology. Its not perfect but I think it’s a good start.

You should know where the boundaries are, what the expected information flows are going to be, the transformations and components that will do the transforming, and what the wider emergent property will be. That will all change once the system begins to operate but at least you’ll have a blueprint and can either take action to bring the system back into the original concept or decide to take things in a different direction.

We did quite a lot of this within my old research group, and its surprising how good a consensus you can arrive at for generic systems diagrams.

This early draft is far from ‘perfect’ but I think there is something of value if you’re building, or thinking about social media, to have a model similar to this in your toolbox to refer to.

Conclusion & Caveat

In conclusion, some thinking time about the network you’re trying to build is valuable. The tools you employ should come afterwards; twitter is not a social media strategy. There are lots of good, well established frameworks to think about social networks, systems of activity, etc. You don’t need to follow slavishly the minutia of their particular quirks and peculiarities but you should understand why they are there and why you are ignoring them.

The caveat: feedback loops are a feature of systems. The huge difference that digital technologies have brought is the near frictionless feedback loop. There is almost no transactional cost to publishing a comment and for that comment to then be republished to +350m people (it happens both automatically via services like posterous and twitter-bots, and through the retweet/comment feature in all social media services), and re-re-published endlessly. That is something that we haven’t modelled effectively yet. The good social media marketeers amongst us know how to achieve this, even if they don’t fully understand the why.

Oct 25

New Perspectives – Is the Leaning Tower of Pisa always inclined?

Recently I posted about an area of research I am interested in and mentioned that we were going to Pisa to present the results at the European Health Psychology Society Annual Conference.

I jokingly asked if Psychology could help the leaning tower and we concluded that the research I was offering up for scrutiny probably wouldn’t.

However the “Inclined Tower“, as a Swiss friend calls it, offers up an obvious, and visual, comparison with some of the benefits from attending conferences.

Its actually quite unusual to learn astounding new facts at academic conferences. Most of the formats involved are just too short and the programme too crowded to allow for a long and detailed examination of new research (that’s what Journal papers are really for). In Pisa there were nearly 1,300 separate pieces of research being presented, either in 15 min oral presentations, posters, symposia, or round table discussions. And all this over 4 days [programme in pdf format].

While you may not spend a lot of of time learning new material, you are forced to look at things from new angles and applying your thoughts and feelings in new ways.  In other words from a ‘New Perspective’!

You’re exposed to the work of people with very different, though equally valid, research philosophies.You can see how they tackled similar questions but from different perspectives (sometimes wildly different).

Studies in psychology provide and require multiple perspectives to be applied in order to understanding people as individuals and as individuals in a community. Research findings and implications about the mind and mental processes as well as studies of the development and behaviour, maintenance and change of socially significant behaviour are all of importance in understand and explaining (at least in part) the world we live in and how we situate ourselves within it.

p.s. John here, I sat in on some of the presentations and there were a couple of very interesting points. Traditionally the shift change in hospitals has been seen as a vulnerability and has resulted in a culture of long shifts. Some research indicated that safety might actually be improved with more shift changes, since they were more often catching problems than causing them. It was the act of explaining what was going on to someone new, a fresh pair of eyes, that caught these oversights. Equally, they sometimes gave people the impetus to make a decision. For a start up company that’s charging along eyes on the prize, taking time out occasionally to explain that bigger picture to an impartial observer, is a huge benefit.

It was also notable the lack of technology awareness in health care messages and communications. Not just the use of social media but viral gaming, mobile data capture & evaluation, and general webbiness. As I tweeted from the conference (I was in the minority having a mobile data device with me), online avatars working from fixed scripts do not make for very convincing ‘companions’. There is a lot this community could learn from places like the Pervasive Media Studio here in Bristol and the ecosystem around them.

For a technical civil engineering description of the tower and various attempts to ‘straighten’ it check out this page. 🙂