Collective Effervescence and Mass (networked) Synchronicity

Why was Generosity Day such a success?

Sure the message was “sticky”, but there’s more going on here.  I’m beginning to understand in a deeper way how people desire to participate in collective opportunities to create something positive, and our increased ability to create these opportunities.

Throughout the first day of speakers at TED2011, I’m seeing a pattern emerge in a number of talks that touch on the power of the internet to allow us engage in global, connected experiences – sometimes simultaneous in real time (like Generosity Day), and sometimes made simultaneous by the curator.

Eric Whitacre today shared a video that I found deeply touching.  Eric, who is a musician and composer, shared sheet music for a composition he’d written and asked people to record videos of themselves singing one part of the music.  185 people from around the world made usable submissions.  They were, of course, singing asynchronously, but Eric and some friends stitched everything together digitally to create a virtual choir.  What’s so amazing (in addition to the sheer beauty and wonder of the video itself) is the sense of connection the participants felt to each other and to the collective experience.  That, as much as the final product itself, is what Eric created.

Aaron Koblin is also combining mass participation in novel ways, whether through having people sketch parts of massive drawings of sheep, or having Jonny Cash fans from around the world create individual sketches that, when played at eight frames per second, create a powerful, fan-generated tribute to this musical legend.

Tony Salvador is an anthropologist who has studied and experienced numerous mass religious pilgrimages, and he’s found that as people come together, it is impossible to avoid getting caught up in the feeling of “collective effervescence” – impossible not to feel joy and connection just from being in the presence of throngs of people who are having joyous experiences.

There is an increasing power and a potential to use the web to create opportunities for collective experience and collective action, and more than ever there is an opportunity to initiate and curate these experiences in a way that taps into a deep sense of connectedness and being part of something bigger.

People are longing for this sense of connection, and maybe, just maybe, the web gives us the power to make this kind of connection happen in very real ways in the very real world.

Here’s Eric’s beautiful virtual choir.  Enjoy.

TED2010 – Wednesday

A long, exciting day that I won’t try to capture in full.  Some quick notes, after hearing loads of great talks.

First, and of course, stories, stories, stories, every time.  This is how we process information, this is how we stay engaged as an audience, this is how we connect.

But what I saw more of today than I expected was that nearly all the speakers who connected with the audience used either humor or poignancy, with humor winning out as the most common and effective way to connect (probably because poignancy is harder to create).  I want to spend more time thinking about humor, how to use it the right way, and how and whether anyone who wants to be a good public speaker can learn from stand-up comics.

My list of memorable people/talks from today:

  • Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, got a deserved standing ovation for his fabulous talk about a fish farm in southern Spain that is the future of sustainable food.
  • Jamie Oliver, another chef, made a hugely compelling case for the urgency of fighting obesity, and his TED2010 wish is to attack this problem (one stat: 10% of US healthcare spending is on obesity-related illness – $150 billion / year)
  • Jake Shimabukuro wowed everyone with his virtuoso ukulele playing (Sheryl Crow was incredible too, but it’s not like that’s some big discovery I’m sharing)
  • William Li gave us all hope about the power of angiogenesis (blood supply to cancerous tumors) as the future for fighting cancer (and gave a list of foods with antiangiogenic foods we should all eat more of)
  • And Tom Wujec cracked me up with his data that shows that for a design challenge involving dried pasta and a marshmallow – with the goal of building the highest tower – recent MBA grads fare the worst, and do much more poorly than kindergartners (I can’t find the link)

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Which side of the table?

Which side of the table do you want to be on?  If you are in any sort of client-facing, relationship-driven, or advisory role, you can orient yourself one of two ways: “across the table” or on the “same side of the table.”

The “across the table” strategy is the purview of the expert, and is adeptly practiced by many (but definitely not all) management consulting firms, bankers, expert witnesses and gurus.  Its hallmarks are complex financial models and the use of terminology and frameworks and abbreviations that demonstrate domain expertise and separation.   The examples the expert cites are hallmark successes to illustrate the broader theory, and the desired result is to affirm her client’s fears while leaving him with a vague, warm sense that the expert knows what she’s talking about and that he’s in good hands.  The strategy is working when meetings give the sense that the expert cannot be easily replaced, and as a result she is hired for the next job.  This strategy works best with clients with limited time and experience, in politicized environments, and where managing risk and covering your bases is important.

The “same side of the table” strategy dispenses with most of the bells and whistles of the expert.  The adviser establishes credibility by laying her cards on the table, explaining her motives and her desired outcomes.  In the pitch, failures are cited as often as successes, and the advisor wants, literally and figuratively, to find herself on the same side of the table as the person being advised.  Terminology is simple, there are lots of appeals to common sense and shared experience, and the advisor’s aim is to share the tools she uses with the client, to make herself dispensable.  This too, importantly, can often result in the adviser being hired again.

The first strategy is the dominant one, and it can be hugely effective because we’ve been trained over the years (starting in kindergarten and moving on from there) that someone out there knows more than we do and that we can buy expertise from others, because their expertise outweighs the fact that they understand our situation far less well than we do.  And, from the expert’s seat, it’s accepted that a little slight of hand and obfuscation is a small price to pay for the overall betterment of the client’s situation.

Switching to the “same side of the table” takes years of unlearning the burned-in, rewarded traits of low-level smokescreen, dressed-up financial models and frameworks, and the intellectual laziness that complexity can paper over.  But pulling this off is, among other things, the difference between your average conference presentation and a TED talk (transcendence comes when a marine biologist explains the fastest appendage in the world in a way that millions can understand it).

Crossing this chasm is worth the leap, but make no mistake that it is a leap, and in the transition you’ll often stumble and find yourself get caught in the middle.  That’s OK, it’s a sign of progress.


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