the role of formerly known ‘opinion leaders’ in the new world

One of the fundamental thrusts behind new forms of organizing, that is radically de-centered, pluralistic, and dynamic, is the reduction of communication and information search cost due to the use of digital information technologies. The use of these technologies has changed the relationship between the consumers and producers as it has reduced the information asymmetry between them. We see consumers become more informed and educated. More informed and educated consumer then directly participate in the production of various forms of contents for peer consumption. Such phenomenon have been observed in books like Wikinomics, the Startfish and the Spider, the Future of Work, the Wealth of Networks or Democratizing Innovations. In most cases, these books are focusing on the new roles that consumers (or employees) take in shaping these very different form of organizing. Stories about Orange Revolution, Korean Presidential Election in 2002, the peaceful demonstration in Philippine in 2002, and many other similar political movements all shows how the use of SMS and other information technologies have enabled ordinary individuals to mobilize massive collective actions. We hear how open source communities work. In all of these stories, the focus is often how to mobilize seemingly unlimited reservoir of intelligence from so-called Smart Mobs.

What is not being discussed as often as it should is what are the roles of those who are previously known as ‘producers’, ‘opinion leaders’, and ‘gatekeepers’ in this new era of Smart Mobs? How should professional producers of various forms of contents (politics, economic activities, education, culture, etc) react to this massive sea change and re-establish their roles? In the classroom of students who have ready access to Google with the latest breaking news and stock price, I confront this issue all the times. Before I finish my sentence, many of my students often race to their laptop and fire up Google to verify what I just said and often add / modify / correct what I just said.

Various news organizations are experimenting with new digital technologies like Blogs, User Created Contents, and Web 2.0 sites (like CBS is publishing their contents on YouTube). Others engage in furious legal fights in order to protect their turfs and rights. They are argue that this type of new forms of organizing is nothing but the rule by the mob in the digital world. They worry about the degrading quality and accuracy of contents when it is not carefully guarded by the gatekeepers (Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica). The participations by ‘consumers’ in these processes are not new at all. We always had some level of feedback from those who consume these various forms of social contents. What is new here is the massive increase in their volume relatively to what they were before. In some sense, this can be nothing short of a civil war with different ideas about the future. It is a competition of ideas about who has a better idea about the future. Yet, it does not have to be a war. There are so many issues that need to be sorted. Different types of social institutions need to be created. Old institutions need to be repaired. New social and technical infrastructures need to be designed. These are the roles of current generation gatekeepers and opinion leaders. They should set the stage for others to produce. They succeed when they recede into the institutional background. They can still participate in the production. Of course, they will have more privileged voices and authorities than others for some time to come. They will have to participate in the competitions with Smart Mobs.

The same discussion needs to take place inside organizations who want to adopt this type of new technologies. The leaders of those organizations must realize that when they introduce these new technologies, they are introducing more than technologies. They are introducing new organizing logic that can be potentially at odds with the current dominant organizing logic. And they will soon find that they cannot get the full benefit of these technologies unless they start they own revolution inside the organization. That means, they will need to give up their monopoly of control. That will be pretty hard to swallow for many of them.

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How do we know it will be better this time

Yesterday in my class, I showed the video on globalization and technology. One student wondered if people in 1900 might have similar optimism about the future and how they would use technology for the betterment of human race. This is a great point that made me think.

The modernistic utopian view of technology that came out from the industrial revolution was shattered by two world wars, atomic bombs, Cold War, pollution, new disease, urban slums, and most recently global warming. Such realization led to the rise of post-modern philosophy and much more cautious (if not critical) approaches to technology to solve our problems.

The reality is that, whether we like it or not, there are people who keep pushing the edge of the technology. And, with the continuing development of digital technologies, we now have the second chance (not the Second Life). Efforts like Massive Change by Bruce Mau, Collective Intelligence at MIT, and We Are Smarter than Me are some of the examples where we are trying to get it right this time around.

What’s different now? There is a much wider recognition that informed collectives can make better decisions than a small group of smart individuals who have monopolistic access to information. Radical reduction of communication cost through the use of modern information technology have made it much less costly to share information among many and to coordinate among those informed individuals. Whereas the modernistic organizations used technology to empower the small elite in organizations, these new attempts are to inform distributed many.

Second, such distributed intelligence enabled by large scale information technology will allow us to envision new organizing forms that can address the needs that arise from the Long Tail Phenomenon. Whereas the modernistic organizations used technology to support organizing forms for mass production, these new attempts are to support extreme niche markets.

Finally the rapid digitization of physical world obliterate the traditional boundaries across the industries. Digitized information can be stored, transformed, decoupled, and re-coupled in many different ways. Whereas modernistic organizations attempt to use technology in order to separate the real world from the virtual world and technology world from social world, these attempts are to mix them to create a new forms of world that are neither real nor virtual, social nor technical.

So the question is, how are we going to use these new resources for a better future? How can we promote new forms of organizing that are more desirable through design, experiments, and education? How can we put these new resources into work to save the earth, remove poverty and reinvent the cities? What can we do differently so that the future with new technologies will not be the repeat of what we did in the last century? To me, that is a design question that is worthy of one’s whole carrier.