Ideas and the Fire Hose

Today the connected citizen is drinking from a fire hose of information which is an experience of our own making. In our eagerness to engage online we created more new data in 2009 than had been generated in history to date. But clip_image002where do all these new ideas and conversations come from to create such a torrent?

Begin at the beginning

Here is my question, if conversations are markets then who starts them? Who starts the idea that starts the conversation? Who said that yellow stuff looks really nice – why don’t we give it a certain prestige in our culture and make it important to own? Even in today’s internet world a small group of people need to hit on the idea to get the ball rolling.

Today using new tools and approaches we can see who starts these conversations quite clearly. Furthermore we can also engage with these online citizens in conversations that build and strengthen ideas, and ultimately aid the dispersion of ideas to wider audiences who have purchasing power, authority or influence.

Defining online conversations and engagement

From our experience in working with HP and other technology businesses we see that people actively participating in conversations within the digital ecosystem can be identified as having certain qualities and characteristics based on their style of online engagement, level of contribution and informed discussions.

These communication characteristics can be divided and define five main categories that form the digital conversation model and its participants. The categories are termed: ‘idea starters’, ‘amplifiers’, ‘adapters’, ‘commentators’ and ‘viewers’. The characteristics of each group are diverse but that is not to suggest that one person cannot occupy more than one role at anytime. We can further understand the digital conversation model, culture and etiquette through the ‘Topology of Influence’ diagram below.

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By analysing the online conversation culture and engagement etiquette of idea starters, it is apparent that these individuals often form less than one percent of those engaged within an online conversation. Even amplifiers will only usually form between five to ten percent of the online crowd. These two groups are often referred to as ‘influencers’. However, this term is misleading as both engagement etiquettes are driven less by the need to ‘influence’ than the desire to share, educate, inform and entertain within a conversation. The traditional notion of seeking to set an objective and influence the world implied by the term ‘influencer’ misses the point of successful engagement – it renders images of one-way brashness, shouting and persuasion, not the two-way, open dialogue engagement should be. We therefore prefer to see these groups as ‘influentials’ within the process of engagement. This is exactly why understanding the culture and etiquette of individuals participating in online conversations is valuable so we can clearly identify the individual’s role within a conversation and quickly determine their intention, purpose and potential.

‘Adapters and commentators’ are a very important ingredient in the online engagement model as they bring a broader context, scope and refinement to the conversation. Adapters are usually people who read what is going on outside of their traditional sphere of knowledge and take the opinions of others and reform them so that they are tailored to their niche group. Commentators do not usually create new content but instead read the views and opinions of others and take part in the conversation by adding comments. Each forms between 10-20 percent of those engaged online. Although as conversations get bigger and evolve, it is usually the adapters who hold a larger proportion of the conversation.

The final group are the ‘viewers’ who are the majority group with 40 percent and over. These individuals do not create any online content but tend to be a vociferous consumer of information of which they read, learn and share with their peers in the offline world. Although they do not have the same reach as the amplifier, their views are trusted and they are able to promote these ideas in an alternative method. Viewers are not completely passive online; they participate in search engine and Google activity but essentially they do not declare themselves in this type. This characteristic is behavioural as a reader will often remain silent even in an online conversation where they could be an adapter or even an idea starter. A large proportion of viewers are accidentals who Google into a conversation by accident, irregularly or take note and leave. Viewers are often harder to identify as they do not necessarily leave a digital footprint but they are nevertheless important.

Who are idea starters?

An idea starter tends to be an individual who is highly engaged with digital and social media. They use social media as a platform to gather ideas and consume vast amounts of data. As a result they have an intricate network of online relationships but this is not necessarily a mass communications platform; the quality of relationships is at least, if not more important than the individual’s quantity of relationships. An idea starter is not necessarily the individual who has the ‘bright idea’ but they are the one who starts a conversational meme within the online topics of discussion. Just like planting a seed in the best possible environment, the meme experiences germination and growth within the community which reacts through engagement. Increasingly this happens around formalised but not walled communities. The idea is generally started via a blog, ezine or contribution to a forum.

In Jeremiah Owyang’s Dow Jones White Paper on ‘Tracking the Influence of Conversation’, a meme was defined as: “an idea or discussion that grows and spreads from individual to individual into a lengthy commentary.

The idea starter (Who? When? Where? Why? How?)

This person is typically creative, forms opinions and articulates them well. They get inspiration for ideas from the information they consume from reading, observing conversations, and their own inner tensions. Crucially they have the ability to state a view at the right time and have a profound level of engagement within a community that will interact and respond to their idea. Some of the most engaged idea starters work both as individuals or part of a close team when initiating conversations. This requires a high level of transparency around who and what contributed to a new thought and the traditional respect for the important influences and data sources that were involved in forming the concept.

A good example of a popular idea starter is American blogger and television personality, Perez Hilton (@PerezHilton). Famous for turning his blogging passion into a career and creating a niche for single-handedly making and breaking celebrities in all types of media, Perez Hilton is an ultimate idea starter. clip_image002[7]

The nature of this engagement is important to the community which tends to see an idea starter as being very authentic on the subject area. This is more than adhering to transparency or having the right qualifications, but it instead relates to their role within the broader conversation topic and whether they have a paid or vested interest. Are they authentic enough to avoid received wisdom? How do they deal with platitudes? How deep is their topic expertise and experience? This is different from traditional journalist objectivity. Many idea starters are typically consultants or advisers within the area of conversation and are often not journalists or analysts. A key characteristic of an idea starter is their willingness to be transparent and contextualise their subjective influences. Their readership is not necessarily large but readers view the individual as trustworthy.

clip_image002[9]This is where Mashable’s Pete Cashmore (@Mashable) scores high on Edelman’s Tweet Level list, especially when it comes to ‘Trust’. With an average score of 93.6, @Mashable is viewed as a credible authority and a reliable source of information when it comes to getting the latest information on social media news. Mashable has a much lower level of engagement with big communities who follow its conversational topics which highlights just how well received and trusted the site is.

A key source of this authenticity is that idea starters often know how to do something as well as think or comment on it. They are in many ways true innovators sitting at the cross road of tacit and explicit knowledge – this is what gives them their edge and explains the depth of their engagement.

How do they change?

Idea starters who are very successful face certain challenges as technology evolves and new platforms begin to present complex obstacles. The fact that they become famous means they spend less time creating content, and more time communicating and managing relationships. Additionally they often grow beyond their initial subject expertise and this can erode their authenticity within their community. Furthermore new platforms and popularity encourage greater broadcasting of communication. At this stage idea starters tend to become more reminiscent of amplifiers.

Therefore, the lifecycle of an idea starter is not static. It is a phase that evolves over time in accordance to the demand and engagement of its listeners. It can be short lived but the position, power and status can be regained. It requires control, breadth and depth of thinking, specific expertise, and the ability to position ideas with the right audience at the right time.

Amplifiers (Who? How fast? How long? Where? Why? How?)

Amplifiers are people who thrive by sharing opinions and like nothing better than being the first to do so. They are trusted within their communities and have a large following and readership. They are a hosepipe of knowledge and data. Generally they do not synthesize data or generate new hypotheses for a conversational meme other than to collate and aggregate established thoughts (they create a lot of lists).

Often amplifiers are journalists and analysts as well as celebrities who have strong communication skills and an online presence. Industry commentators and specialists are just as prevalent and are often the most influential amplifiers (see Tweet Level list).

The level of engagement can vary enormously between amplifiers. clip_image002[11]Web based amplifiers such as Guy Malachi use digital platforms to solicit ideas from their communities and engage in micro conversations for instance. Again, as they grow more popular time becomes a challenge to maintain this level of engagement although many people show a remarkable capacity to keep to personalised communications.

This leads to a rare constituency of online conversations where people can act as both genuine idea starters and amplifiers. This group acts as a bridge between level of engagement where ideas start and the amplification of them into broader internet and real world conversations.

The Special Ones: Idea starters who amplify?

This special combination of engagement is crucial as they accelerate and build conversations with great momentum and they also link the clusters of idea starters to the more aggressive amplifiers. Idea starters tend to enjoy discrete conversations and authenticity above all else. As a result their conversations often live within micro communities and that is where their ideas can stay. When idea starters with the ability to amplify pick up on a meme it can break out of the micro channels to the macro conversations main stream media and word of mouth.

clip_image002[13]British actor, journalist and blogger, Stephen Fry (@StephenFry), is a good example of an idea starter who likes to amplify. His ability to amplify has grown alongside his fame and his ability to influence a mass audience.

These idea starters who amplify often have similar personal and professional interests and have a thirst for knowledge as well as a desire to pre-empt or be kept in the loop about the next big thing. By driving micro conversations with a wide range of online communities and keeping abreast of potential industry related issues on a personal level, this can help keep them informed and enable them to feed thoughts into professionally related ideas that can help initiate business, drive opportunities or get a real world perspective.

How do they morph over time?

All roles have the potential to morph over time for a number of reasons:

  • • The challenge of time and the impact it has on engagement
  • • Dedication to an idea starter’s area of expertise. Whether they remain up-to-date and informed about industry changes and have the passion and enthusiasm to remain in the know
  • • Encountering new technologies and how engagement continues to evolve over time
  • • Maintaining a strong and familiar level of engagement
  • • Continuing to engage with relevant people or communities
  • • How effectively you find the right people to add to your network

What is the relationship between an idea starter and amplifier?

There is a relationship of reliance between idea starters and amplifiers. One would almost be meaningless without the other. Idea starters would get lost in the noise and amplifiers would not have the thought provoking ideas and content which they so like to share.

Both are renowned for their level of insight, engagement, timing and contacts which gives them a certain level of prestige and influence within their communities. They like recognition and being sought after or being in demand, and therefore feed off each other to make this happen.

This makes these groups the ‘influentials’ in the conversation but they are not the only groups as we shall see but before looking at these next groups a word of caution. Are we getting carried away with this idea of conversation and authenticity? Are we just kidding ourselves that it is not just about influencing after all – by seeking out idea starters are we not looking to further an objective?

We love this quote that highlights John C. Dvorak in PC Magazine view that ‘Cluetrain’ may be cultish. For example,

". . . the apparent faith in this odd vision of an idealistic human-oriented internetworked new world/new economy marches forward. I imagine all these folks holding hands in a large circle, rolling back and forth, with some in the middle of the circle, spinning and chanting and hugging, all naked. I’m betting that most of these folks go to Burning Man and all of them write blogs about it and how cool it was. They link to each others’ blogs and read what they say about each other—all highly complimentary."

It is exactly this notion of authenticity which so annoys Dvorak that makes idea starters so powerful in conversation. In part this means a level of naivety is necessary as Dame Gillian Beer observes, “babies are having new ideas all day long.” To respect this view of worId, to listen with intelligence and bring this understanding from idea starters into our own view of the conversation means that anyone can become an influential. This is what is so exciting for individuals, organisations, companies and governments – they can change their behaviour and become more successful.

Where do new ideas come from?

  • New ideas can emerge very slowly. It can be a gradual, ongoing process where new ways of thinking surface.
  • Ideas can come via a form of rupture through long walks, chance associations, baths, dreams, inner tensions, irrational situations
  • Past ideas can be reformulated in the present. A person may have already thought about an idea and then forgotten it, or they may have written it down. The same ideas can then come to them at a later date where they consider it to be a ‘new’ idea. A person “comes to attention” which is when the idea is ready.
  • Education and social surroundings can influence new ideas. You need to leave behind what you have learnt and redefine the way you think to get new ideas. New ideas jostle commonsense and question what you know.
  • Imagining a world not like your own world brings about new ideas caused by such paradigm shifts. Ideas do not exist until they are received by an audience. They need to be debated, attacked and rethought

The way ideas start, develop, grow and spread stems within an online community. Understanding the community who starts and amplifies the ideas is key. In building deeper relationships it is important to understand the idea starter and amplifier landscape. Here is a list of the top  idea starter influencers within the general technology conversation on Twitter. As is clear this typology is a new landscape which media (beyond a few high profile examples such as Mashable) hardly represent, while experts such as Chris Brogan dominate and even companies like Google are a major source of ideas. The challenge for the future is to build authentic ideas that allow deeper relationships with these extremely diverse communities.

Tweet Level’s top idea starter influencers within the general technology conversation