Thursday, July 16, 2009

Overheard: Everything

Listening always beats asking. Asking questions demands and shapes response.

And people, good, kind, back-scratching people, will often tell you what you want to hear.

Taken to extremes you get your LinkedIn recommendations. (Compare that to what your colleagues may say if you're out of the room...)

Less dramatically, ask people and you guide their thoughts.

Market Research companies are painfully aware of this skew. No question is entirely without motive. None comes without an agenda - an agenda proposed by the questioner.

But listening, passive listening, can teach you much.

Wise orgs and brands are doing more of this. It's often a bit of a revelation for them that they can do it relatively easily online.

But anything I publish on any open forum, blog, tweet, is recorded, is searchable, is discoverable. As is anything you say. Or your friends. And their friends ad infinitum.

Right now and for the mid-term (I'm assuming) we feel what we hear is pure, unsullied, honest, unskewed people saying what they really mean to their peers. With caveats around axe grinders and power relationships, of course.

But could it be we will begin to change what we say on the assumption that brands are listening? Will it lead to a layer of artifice?

I guess it's a little like CCTV surveillance. Britains 'know' they are the most filmed people on Earth. The emergence of hoodie culture - hiding your face from the prying eyes - is the most visible change to behaviour.

For the most part we act as if the cameras aren't there. (image courtesy)

But perhaps this is because the implications haven't sunk in yet?

And with the notion that brands and orgs can pick up on our every digital utterance still very new, who knows how this fact will end up modifying our online behaviour as we become more familiar with it.

Will we update our notions of privacy and private space as we embrace the digital?

Will we find greater value in expressing ourselves freely because that expression can connect us with others trying to solve the same problems we are (communities of purpose)?

Or will silos around our private lives remain strictly maintained?

Will we feel the need for them in a world in which you can be overheard by anyone else.

And what happens when those doing the surveillance speak back - in real time. I recall the experiment in which CCTV operators added a speaker to their cameras and started berating people they spotted dropping litter. Out loud and in public. That shocked.

So if a representative of a brand responds to your complaint in real time on Twitter (for example) are you shocked? Angered? Or pleased?

I'm guessing pleased? You aren't being told off. You are being helped at just the point at which you expressed the need for help.

Generally we are so starved of human contact with large orgs that we're left beaming by an encounter that takes us beyond the corporate artifice to the humans inside.

Does knowing they are there (lurking/ready to help depending on your pov) make a difference? Do we change if they start openly responding?

Are we thinking outloud to impress the infinite unknown audience?

What I publish is not only shared right now with those who directly choose to receive it, it is here for all time, for all people. Ever.

Dr Mike Wesch talks about the moment of context collapse we face when staring into a webcam to share on the web - that we know not to whom we are speaking.

The same must be true of any kind of utterance which can for ever be discoverable.

When you realise just how long and loud your voice may echo through the ages does it make you want to shout a little louder. Or clam up?

The dilemma is one that has always faced publishers. We're all publishers now - with greater reach than ever before - it faces us all.

It has the potential to change the meaning and value of everything we share online.
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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?