Community Consultancy

I'm looking for a research intern to help me develop Mindapples and other Sociability projects, so I wanted to know where I should post the opportunity to attract a bright, enthusiastic graduate (if you know anyone, please let me know). Rather than trawl the web looking for good sites and hunting out advice in forums and social enterprise communities, I twittered the question to see what my friends and contacts would suggest. Almost immediately, here's what I got back:

tomstafford@gandy could do you a shout out if you'd like

adamrothwell@gandy W4MP works really rather well for us, even though we're not (err) an MP...

tomnixon@gandy Brighton and Sussex unis would both be v. happy to talk to you and help you find a graduate

noelitoRT @gandy looking for a bright, enthusiastic graduate to be my research intern on @Mindapples and other projects.

And because my Twitter is linked to my Facebook status too, I also got these responses through Facebook:

Aly Ripoarts jobs Imran Khanw4mp? Anthony

Great stuff - thanks to everyone for providing such valuable advice and offering to help, you've solved my problem perfectly.

So what's just happened there? It's the sort of knowledge that isn't quite worth paying a consultant for, but which is still incredibly important when building an organisation. Traditionally you might get it from peers, mentors and other people in similar situations; you could also get it from Yahoo Answers, LinkedIn Q&As or potentially School of Everything. But Twitter is simpler and quicker than talking offline, more personal than the normal online solutions and well-suited to the tiny drip-feed of questions that comes with running a business. It's not a replacement for these other tools, or for mentoring, training or consultancy. It's something new, or rather a scalable version of something old: a peergroup of fellow professional supporting each other.

I have around 500 followers, plus various overlapping Facebook friends - not many in the grand scheme of things but they're generally quality people who know their stuff and with whom I have genuine relationships. They didn't cost me anything to acquire except time in being friendly and creating valuable content, and now they provide me with free consultancy that is worth a huge amount to me and my projects. In return I help people out and the whole 'economy' seems healthy and mutually beneficial.

The point is, there's far more to Twitter (and Facebook) than brand awareness and self-promotion. In engaging with a community of peers, I gain not just a media channel but an educational resource too. Much like a guild or professional association, Twitter allows me to build my own network of specialists with whom I share knowledge and swap industry insights. It allows me to build my own personal "guild" directed entirely to the skills and industries that interest me. They can teach me how to do my job better, whatever my job happens to be today.

So the next question is, how can you put a value on that? And the question after that is, why on earth isn't your business on Twitter?

Tools I Wish Existed, Part 1: Placebook

I've been playing with Platial this week to see if it can give me the functionality I've been wanting for the past year, for geographic bookmarking. I've been playing around with this concept of "Placebook" for some months now, which would be a Facebook app to allow me to bookmark places I want to remember (via my mobile), tag them with metadata like "quiet drink" and "business meeting", share them with only my Facebook friends (or keep them entirely private), and recall them on my mobile when I'm wandering around trying to remember "where that great little bar was that thingy took me to that time when we had the fish. You know?" I'm very happy to say that Platial looks pretty neat and doesn't get bogged down in shackling my places to "official information" such as Google local or UGC venue data - which means I can actually call things "My house" and "The tree where I had my first kiss" and so on. Great news for all you psychogeographers (or "neogeographers") out there. It's also a good interface and seems sufficiently playful, despite some slight clunkiness with the categories and geo-location stuff. (I haven't yet checked what they're using for location data, but I'm really hoping it's the lovely Geonames.)

The bad news though is that, like all these sites, they insist on sharing. I've been saying for a while now that there are some commodities that don't follow the usual rules of the social web, specifically all those which are limited in quantity, such as physical space, or trendspotting. I've been rather ponderously calling this the esoteric web, which simply means any information which needs to be kept secret from the many and shared amongst the few. Put simply, if you tell everyone about your favourite restaurant, the next week you can't get a table. And I definitely don't want to tell everyone else where I live, or where I had my first kiss. Social sites like Trusted Places tend to be full of places we like, but rarely places we love.

So please, dear Platial, here's what I want for Christmas:

  • let me add private bookmarks that only I, or selected loved ones, can see the places that are important to me;
  • plug yourselves into the Facebook/Open Social thang so I can use my existing networks to control my sharing, rather than creating yet more blasted online "buddies"; and
  • give me a nice neat mobile app so I can bookmark places on the move, and find them again quickly when I'm lost in Soho again and my date is shouting at me.

Come on, you know it makes sense. Please don't make me have to build it myself, I've got too much to do already.

The Future 500

I'm in the Observer today, as one of the Future 500 "rising stars" to watch for the future. Well, strictly speaking I'm in the "next 400" (under Science and Innovation) for those who didn't get a full biog in the main supplement, but it's still very flattering to be part of a list that includes such impressive names as Geoff Mulgan, Joanna Shields, Richard Reed and Seedcamp's own Ryan Notz. My mum is very proud of me, and I'd like to thank the Academy etc. etc.

Interestingly, inclusion in the Future 500 comes with access to a network website where I can interact with other "ones to watch" online, meet, swap ideas and plot world domination together. The "exclusive network" is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon these days, and something which I'm increasingly being asked about as a consultant. Harnessing the power of a community to take action and solve problems is becoming a key theme in my work. But it also prompts me to ask: in an age of endless networking and connectivity, are these "gated communities" now more valuable than the open networks?

The work I've been doing for the RSA also raised this issue of "openness", which is a particularly thorny issue for a members club intent on fostering innovation. My natural inclination is towards being open and collaborative because I believe that is where new ideas are born, so is joining a members' club a betrayal of those principles? And how does money fit into all this?

There is undeniable value in being part of something that is only for a privileged few. In an age where much information is freely available, people invest huge amounts of time and money on getting the latest, up-to-the-minute, exclusive information on everything from new music to financial news. In fact, being the first person to circulate something new has become so integral to our social self-expression that marketeers are tapping into it to sell chocolate. But in the midst of all these overlapping networks and communities, are new forms of social exclusion being created?

So, how can the internet retain the open, collaborative spirit which made it great, whilst still tapping into the power and possibilities of the esoteric web? And is who you know, and what they can tell you (before it hits the mainstream), actually the new social currency? Are we all cultural insider traders now?

I'll ask the Future 500. And then, if you're good, I might tell you...