Friday, December 6, 2019

Uninformed bellowing into a cacophony

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

Last week Kent published "Group Hugs and Stating the Obvious" and while it just barely scratches the surface of what is I'm sure to come, there was a lot in there worth reacting to.

Quotations and Musings
"In 2010 I attended an event variously called GOC3/Collaborative Culture Camp and Collaborative Management Camp. This was back in the halcyon days of our youth when events had tweet walls, displaying the inner workings of the hivemind ... At one point, the tweet wall showed someone’s assessment that the event was “So far, mostly group hugs and stating the obvious.”

... Which serves today as a launching point for thinking about that community, how it has changed, and where we are today. (Crowdsourced timeline here: ..."
I was one of the organizers of the event, I can't recall how many folks were involved but it definitely included the myriad of (at the time) usual suspects with whom I've a lot of great memories -- back when as Kent mentioned, the community was largely knowable.

The event was premised on the notion that public servants needed to understand how to collaborate before they could understand how openly accessible, web based technology can help (or hinder) that collaboration. It arose primarily as contrasting approach to the Government Technology Exhibition Conference (GTEC) which was heavily focused on enterprise wide technologies. I recall at the time trying to brand it as the 'anti-GTEC' and even at one point suggested we hold it on the same day in order to make a point. I was young and rebellious back then but luckily ultimately cooler, more experienced heads prevailed. We held it in and around GTEC but didn't in fact go head to head on the dates.

My fondest memories of the event was (1) Peter Stoyko's presentation which was entirely egg themed and culminated with him throwing one into the air while at the podium (showmanship!) and (2) playing a time lapse of the GCPEDIA wiki page that we used to organize the event. The video perfectly embodied the collaboration required to pull the event together while underscoring how simple open collaborative technologies can make organizing and documenting. It just felt like the right way to end the program.

Ironically, the next year GTEC swallowed GOC3 by integrating its focus, programming, and a selection of community members into its own. Kent himself wound up later being quite involved with GTEC himself and I started attending the event. C'est la vie, I suppose. In retrospect, while GOC3 attracted some new faces it was as much of a celebration / coming out party for the community as it was an event genuinely aimed at helping others build or augment their capacity for collaboration. There was a lot of youthful enthusiasm and great fun was had by (hopefully) all.

If you are interested in a deeper trip down memory lane, I suggest you read The Gentrification of W2P. GOC3 was a watershed moment for public servants online, but there's a lot that happened well before and after that that's worth noting if you want the full context. Anyone who's come into government recently may not have an appreciation for how new, novel, or risky their current -- seemingly natural -- online behaviors once were. Early movers faced a lot of criticism, skepticism, and even punishment for things that would generally go unnoticed in today's more (to channel Kent) 'cacophonous environment'. In fairness, this is something many of us predicted happening given that tight oversight of online communications doesn't scale well to a national organization of 250,000 people because trust -- not oversight -- is the only thing that scales (post circa 2012).
"At one point in 2006, there were zero public servants on Twitter – because there was no Twitter. By 2010 it was probably in the scant hundreds; you could reach the end of the community, so why not follow everyone? We could figure out the “why” out later..." 
These were exciting times. Full of meetups (tweetups really), energy, information sharing, and informal problem solving. We mapped which departments were blocking access to social media and discussed the merits its use for official communications and less official policy analysis. While social media opened new channels of communication the universe was -- again as Kent said -- still knowable, manageable, and one could log off at the end of the day feeling they had a good understanding of the 'public servants on Twitter' online discourse of the day.
"That was before the era of information overload and much need for Twitter hiatuses or culling who you follow ... The community matured, grew, and one of the driving common problems – bringing government into the social media era – started looking like a solv-ed/able problem. So people started subdividing into more niche and specialized sub-elements ...

... the other increasingly plausible lens was that additional voices were as likely to just be uninformed bellowing into a cacophony. My standards for what I posted about and why went up."
The community of public servants online now -- if such a boundary even exists -- is unknowable, and every follow, retweet, or click is a potential rabbit hole in the making. On this I have many thoughts but mostly they always come in a way that makes me look like an old man shaking my first at the sky. In short, I'll simply say, I don't subscribe to the hype nearly as much as I did when I was younger. I'm far more likely to be skeptical than I am to be excited by new technologies, or more specifically what people are purporting to do with them. The worst of the cacophony is a self serving mix of branding, bias, and well worn stereotypical tropes about culture change. Rich coming from me I know, perhaps it's audacious to bite my thumb at what I was actively engaged in for years. I recall a friend of mine characterizing (jokingly, I hope) my early zeal for the microphone (in real life) or megaphone (on the internet) as "a willingness to speak at the opening of a window". Maybe that's too harsh a characterization of the current state of affairs. After all, the best of the cacophony is replete with honesty, introspection, and unique, meaningful insights.

The challenge is that both the bad and the good are all swimming in the same soup and can require a careful, resource intensive, sifting that can undermine the value one would otherwise derive from wading in at all. My solution, often, is -- if I'm being honest with you -- to no longer try. Things change, people change, as do the equations that determine the value they bring or don't bring to you. Often we think things are more valuable then they are. I wonder how much of online activity is actually the sunk cost fallacy masquerading as nostalgia for simpler times. I'd much rather have a real, in person conversation with someone I know is thoughtful, than go searching for thoughtful thoughts in the perpetual noise machine that is the internet.
"... So now, in a cacophonous environment characterized by information overload, Nick and I have both returned to posting at around the same time, and again for some of the same reasons. A little bit more professional and personal space, but at the same time, I think there are some useful things to discuss about the cacophony. One of my strongest conclusions from a year of interviewing people about digital-era governance was how warped our discourse can be about technology and change. Talking points can enjoy years of repetition before critical voices and evidence emerge to correct them – and even then likely don’t stand a chance against the ingrained memes."
There's a certain palpable irony in coming back at yourself through the years with a critical lens. I haven't had the time to go back through the post history like Kent did to see what stands up. I'm sure there's at least a metric tonne of fluff and off target remarks, hindsight being 20/20 and all that. Maybe I'll peel back the the layers of that onion at another time.