Steely Dan
Amy Winehouse
Gil Scott-Heron

The revolution will not be televised

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Seems like the Good Old Days are here again as Google+ invites continue to pile up in email. Email is that Y2K technology that jumped the shark in the middle of the decade, back when Twitter introduced realtime direct messages. How little has changed since then is why the blogs are still choked with Google+ analysis or as it can be called: the Scoble Delta. That’s the time between when Robert declares his complete absorption in a social media platform and or when he changes his mind.

Robert has a real problem with Google+. It’s early days so he can ignore the vast wasteland of discussion other than about the platform itself. Sure, there are lotsa pictures and maybe some videos and citations of interesting articles (actually not really on the citation front). But mostly the nonPlus conversation is tire kicking, pretending that there’s a real social graph on which to layer a matrix of valuable information.

Robert’s problem is that he’s bought into the idea of Circles without being totally sure that they’re something more than Twitter Lists. Already there are calls for ways of pulling Lists over from Twitter. I’ve never thought Lists were useful, certainly not given the time required to assemble them. Circles are easier to manage, at least so far, but I’ve made them as painless as possible by only using two of them, Family which I’ve filled up, and Friends which are everybody else. That’s on the outgoing side.

On the incoming side, Circles have been an annoyance more than anything. I can appreciate them as an organizing principle for others, putting people into bins where the signal to noise is tuned somewhat. But my experience of them ranges from PR broadcasting to so-called limited conversations that I can only guess at the participants. One of those came from a colleague at Salesforce where I could ascertain the first twenty or so names followed by a mysterious 109 others. Perhaps this is a result of using the iPad Safari and not the standard browser UI, but I still approach such an interchange with confusion.

In effect, the Circle, whose name I cannot see, is a group invitation to discuss a topic without understanding the purpose or rationale of its members. There is work just to get to that level of confusion. I have to rely on the judgement of my colleague (I do) but have no insight into some of whom else I’m presumably talking with. I am comfortable with a clear understanding of who I’m communicating with, which is why I write here, in private to my colleagues on Chatter, and more constrained in groups both open and private.

Open Chatter groups still let me know who’s joined, so there’s a sense of why people are there based on interest, job responsibility, and serendipity. But you can’t join a Circle, only create it or add people in the outgoing direction. At least I think so, which is about the same as being so. The net result is the lack of an understanding of the group’s dynamic, except at the level of those who overtly participate. Much is made of engagement in these media, but the role of the lurker is not clear in Plus.

None of this precludes the new platform from being successful; there are lots of people who look for these kinds of streams to do the work of synthesizing what’s going on at any one moment or day. In fact, there have and will be successes in the world of publishing for just that reason, as we’ve seen with Howard Stern on Sirius and cross-selling recommendations on Amazon. Transmitting social signals, brands develop. Receiving them, different story. Without a clear feedback loop, what are the consequences of communicating?

The Public setting has no such imbalance: I know that anybody can read it once they’re on the network. What I say lives in the context of that knowledge of the environment. Some think of this as limiting, diluting what is said to avoid mistakes in protocol or behavior. I think it’s freeing, navigating me toward communicating to a broad range of listeners with a multifaceted approach that splits the differences as effectively as possible. It’s an art not a science, and I certainly fail all too much of the time. But I’d rather fail at this goal than succeed at others.

I’m not alone in this equation. My Friends Circle is the latest, freshest update of the Art of Lurking. Not the stream, which continues to be a shadow of Twitter’s citation engine with few tools to push prioritized messages forward. I’m sure things will improve, but for now the main value is an up to date organic combination of my usual suspects and those who’ve signaled me. Since I’ve published almost nothing to this point, I attribute most of the Circlings to a cascading outward of mining the circles of those who expect something of value from me and my citations. This social graph has unique characteristics, even though right now I can only contribute to building it, not using it.

What I’m really closing in on here is not signal to noise but a third vector, the special context that comes from the missing feedback loop in Plus. To illustrate it, I’ll bring up a seeming wild card, Spotify, which I fell in love with over the weekend after receiving a complementary invite. I might have played with it in the freemium edition, but getting a chance to experience it full bore was a gift I much appreciate. In a few minutes I was diving into the past, like the swooping cable car of the last Harry Potter as I tumbled through my favorite haunts, in realtime, streaming, on demand, live.

I sampled records I only knew about, like the remixed stripped down version of John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy. It’s not that I could listen for free, or for a subscription price, but that I could choose to jump and return, compare and contrast, all without the notion of owning the material. Rather, experiencing it, exploring it. Like a time machine, jumping from early to late, from Steely Dan’s golden age to Donald Fagen’s solo trilogy. Sampling the third one, released 5 years ago and now in retrospect fitting in with the group’s comeback records and even the live one they produced while still “retired.”

This might not resonate for you, but to have this world that once meant so much suddenly returned for the price of a Netflix subscription is stunning in its implications. Not just because it offers the student and the scholar the opportunity to live inside these grooves, but because it implies the possibility to escape the confines of the atrophied and squandered music “business” of the last decades. The opportunity to inspire the material that lives in this new home, replete with Hangouts and conversation and turntable.fm and Track 9 and 3/4.

That’s what’s so important about Plus and Circles: the idea that this thing will live and expand, or whatever it does, not in a winner take all game but in a back and forth that will produce the best of us, the thing we call innovation, the thing we know when we see it or even when it just comes close. I can tell you what the landmarks will be, too. When Spotify gets AirPlay support or at least an explanation of how it could work reliably, or when iCloud does it itself. When G+ gets Track so we can assemble our own filtered Circles, which means Twitter will.

Robert’s problem is the one he loves to solve, where a group forms that can uniquely navigate in this powerful world of the cloud. That group, by the way, is us. When we delight ourselves, things have changed for the better. Plus in its early form seems on the cusp of greatness, as all networks appear when they find their voice. What will be more interesting is what it triggers around it as it grows, as we learn what it’s like once again to touch the sky.

Don’t let the fear mongers get you, that it’s not worth giving up your identity for a bunch of shiny objects. As the services absorb all our data, they make it all the more important to create the subtle signals that define who we are together. How thousands of birds fly in formation, swerving and diving and reversing direction. It can be hard to ignore such a suggestion of the existence of forces larger than we are, of the power of intuition, the structure of the expression encapsulated in a moment of an eyebrow, the economy of the laugh that makes you cry in relief. Stop thrilling us, we say but don’t mean.

Waking up, the news of Amy Winehouse chimed from Twitter and tormented the G+ newbies. Last night on the iPhone, I couldn’t figure out how to keep Spotify playing when I switched apps. But unlike G+ which is blocked on the iPad, I could run the iPhone version of Spotify and lo and behold it worked. I surfed the sad news and the glib commentary as she sang in the background. I’d never listened much before, but now that she was gone the tracks shimmered in the luck we have left of her talent.

It’s times like these I feel lucky to be born in this age of discovery. In the rush to codify the battles of the day, we miss the triumph of ingenuity of the lurker, the loser, the strip mining of the user if those notions are to be believed. Even in the most secure of streams, there is no post, comment, like, @mention, or citation that doesn’t represent a gift rather than a proffer to the customer. We learn by watching the river flow, missing the boat, daydreaming, shutting down for the night, slapping cold water on the needy. The revolution will not be televised. No, no, no.

Photo credit: Brad Elterman