Monday, February 13, 2012

Game Changer: Nancy Koehn, Leadership

A friend (and former student of the speaker at HBS) shared this video with me this morning and I thought her points to be so salient and piercing, I had to post Nancy Koehn's video without (much) comment.  Ethos, anchors, listening more than you speak--- her study of human leadership and living a fundamentally principle driven life, are so incredibly in-line with things I've said and thought, I am in awe. 

Thanks, Elena... and Nancy

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

An Amateur Anthropologist's View: Tag-Along vs. Contrarian Social Graphs

As I walked out of yet another tech event last night, a young man asked a few questions about me and proceeded to tell me about his start-up.  We strolled down the block, and a sense of deja vu ran through me as he explained the same business model I feel like I've heard a thousand times in the past six months.  Anyone in start-up environs has undoubtedly heard the same thing and it almost always includes omniscient words like "purchasing" and  "social graph".   At it's core, the business model uses Facebook, most often, to help people engage with 'friends' and gets them to purchase or join something because of the 'friendship'--- I call it 'tag-along theory'.  I smiled and nodded as we talked about the marketplace and his competitors on a superficial level.  And then we parted ways. 

This brief exchange has been running through my mind over the course of the day, not because it was unique, but more because it was anything but, after all I've coined a phrase for it.  I sometimes worry if I have somehow become a little too cynical and dismissive.  No doubt many of these ideas I'm sure will take off, raise a round or two and garner some level of PR and success.  But I find myself frustrated with these doe-eyed founders who don't analyze beyond the buzz words of the moment.  These are the entrepreneurial equivalent of 'the empty suit', with no individual sniff test for reasonableness.  They believe in 'tag-along theory' because they actually live it. 
'Monsters are due on Maple Street', Twilight Zone

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I would consider myself an amateur anthropologist.  Sit in a Starbucks for an hour or survey some comments at the top of your Facebook feed as if you are an alien, objectively reporting back to your mothership about this life form called "human" and you will be too.  And if there is only one thing I have learned it is that words carry weight and influence behavior.  For instance, the word 'friend' is defined as someone with whom you have a "mutual bond of affection". 

Think about most people in your facebook social graph and I'm sure that definition would not apply, say, the ex-girlfriend who cheated on you, a random person you met at a social function, your high school bully.  A friend is someone with whom you would share intimate details of your life, good or bad.  A friend is the person who actually cares to see travel pictures and the baby's first crawl.  A friend will know about the steps and missteps you're taking to improve your life, not just the milestones posted on a wall. Yet, every "Facebook friend", gets private snapshots, not because var facebookFriend == var realFriend, but because we've all confused the definitions.
Friend = "a pal && a confidante"
Friends make referrals, that is, realFriends.  These referrals are often solicited, trusted, and followed--- the same can't be said for relative acquaintances or strangers, as studies have now shown.  Hence, Facebook and facebookFriends are not about 'social' behaviors where 'monkey see, monkey do', but rather it is fed, almost entirely, by competitive and more aggressive instincts where 'monkey see, monkey out-do'. 

Facebook has had so much success because they realized this early on.  Their business model is based upon status competition, not social connectivity. These unspoken more primitive behaviors are what encourage people to keep adding content and allowing more and more people to see it.  As we all saw with the Isabel Behncke Izqueirdo's TED video last year, Bonobo apes share and play with their inner circle. But stranger Bonobos have been found to become aggressive when competing for resources, particularly when being observed.  Facebook is competition masquarading as play.

Since the very nature of the social network environment and the Millenial generation is fundamentally individualistic, particularly as it relates to people for whom you have no real bonds of affection, everyone is looking to show how they are special. And special does not mean that you purchase what everyone else in your online social graph is purchasing---  it probably means you will go out of your way to purchase something different in order to compete.  This is what I like to call 'contrarian theory'.  Whether I like it or not, capitalizing on these competitive instincts, in my humble opinion, is the only way to harness the influence of the social network. Just look at Zynga.

Contrarian behaviors can be positive.  Imagine the competition is not harnessed for sheer consumption but instead for social good--- less consumption even.  It could become a 'race to the top', so to speak.  Competitive drive could become an extraordinarily powerful force for good and Facebook could be at the center of it. Facebook--- good--- never thought I'd use those two words in the same sentence.

But back to my doe-eyed 'tag along' founder.  I whole-heartedly wish him much success, he seemed like a nice enough kid, smart, hard-working--- maybe a bit of a braggadacio--- but I guess we have our social network to thank for that, in more ways than one.

Full Disclosure: I've just worked on CleanGPA, a CleanWeb app started at a hackathon.  CleanGPA, in part, uses competition with your social graph to conquer energy apathy and reduce energy usage.  Additionally, I have worked in the past and will work in the future on other social ventures potentially harnessing contrarian behaviors within the social graph for good.