Supernova and the decentralized future

Blogging, collaborative work tools and the drawbacks of social software took center stage at this year’s Supernova.

The third annual tech-in-the-workspace conference — “Where the decentralized future comes together!” — drew more than 150 technology thought leaders, software startup CEOs and other heavy hitters (alas, fewer than 20 of them women) to the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, Calif., on June 24-25, 2004.

“Decentralization continues to be an explosive force in tech-driven industries,” said Supernova organizer Kevin Werbach, who has just accepted a faculty position at Penn’s Wharton School. “Intelligence is moving out to the edges, with powerful connected devices empowering users. Challenges such as voice-over-IP and peer-to-peer networks pose both threats and opportunities to established industries.”

Werbach prides himself on stressing interactivity, and so Supernova set up a conference weblog, moblog, wiki, Web conferencing, LinkedIn network, IRC discussion space and live audio streaming. It wouldn’t be a tech conference without technical difficulties, however, with the wi-fi connection down for most of the day due to heavy usage. (Note to network gearheads: wireless laptops are as common at these affairs as wristwatches.)

Some conference highlights

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Thomas W. Malone

Thomas W. Malone, professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and author of the new book “The Future of Work,” gave an opening presentation on the fast-changing evolution of the corporate workspace.

“I think we are now in the early stages in an increase in human freedom in business that may be in the long run as important for business as the shift to democracy was for governments,” he said. “New technologies are making it possible for the first time in human history to have both the economic benefits of large organizations while retaining the human benefits of small ones, such as freedom, motivation, flexibility and creativity.”

Freedom and scale are the twin drivers of the new business order. He cited examples such as Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia that allows anyone on the planet to make changes or additions. Though anyone can be an editor, frequent contributors monitor changes and maintain a high level of quality. Since it launched in 2001, Wikipedia has drawn 220,000 articles from experts on almost every subject under the sun, and its scale has given it an authoritativeness that makes it “the first stop for a lot of journalists.”

For businesses, Malone said, information technologies such as the Web, e-mail, and cheap long distance are reducing the cost of information to near zero, giving people at all levels of an organization the power to become self-informed without having to rely on people at higher and lower levels of a hierarchy for direction. That self-sufficiency will usher in a new major stage in the way companies are organized, but the changes will come slowly, over the course of decades.

Still, the changes are real, and he told this crowd of innovators about emerging business markets for groupware, social software, audio conferencing, and other applications that put decision-making tools into the hands of people at all levels of an organization.

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Ray Ozzie

Ray Ozzie, co-developer of Lotus Notes and now CEO of Groove Networks, gave a short talk on “The Future of Cooperative Work in a Connected World,” showing how people at the edges — rather than outside vendors or central management — proved instrumental in several endeavors. In Iraq, the coalition forces’ Humanitarian Operations Center created a bottom-up, collaborative workspace for charting humanitarian inventories using the Internet, members’ laptops, and Groove, a darknet or private online space.

Making a tool specific to a given task will increase its value exponentially. “Most people will collaborate only if they see something in it for themselves,” Ozzie said. The resulting collaboration and transparency threaten people “who spend their careers brokering information. Resistance [to that] isn’t futile, it’s important.”

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Esther Dyson

During a morning panel session on social networks, Esther Dyson, now editor at large at CNET, said new social software tools (such as Orkut, LinkedIn, Tribe, Ryze and Spoke) are “sometimes tools for communication, and sometimes tools for obfuscation.” We often feel uncomfortable with the explicit nature of the still-immature software, she said. “Are you my friend? Are you my best friend? . People don’t like to rank their friends. It quantifies things but it can be powerful and dangerous.”

In an age of info overload, Dyson suggested, the problem isn’t finding new friends, it’s sorting the ones you may already have. “Instead of finding information, we need to filter it. Who don’t I want to deal with? With 1,000 emails, I’ll ignore 500. Now, which 10 do I want to engage with?” She polled the audience on how many people had more than 100 unaccepted invitations to social networks. Dyson and perhaps eight other people raised their hands.

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Mena Trott

Mena Trott, co-founder of MovableType and TypePad, said she never accepts invitations to join a social network. “It’s like back on the playground. I don’t want to say, no, you’re not my friend. I don’t accept or reject them.” ”

I don’t know the purpose of them,” she added. On her personal blog, “I’ve gone from wanting a readership of tens of thousands to wanting a readership of 10. The trick is reaching the right 10.”

An estimated 150 million camera phones will be sold this year, Werbach pointed out, with half a billion camera phones expected to be sold annually by 2007 or 2008. (On cue, both Werbach and Dyson held up their camera-enabled Treos.) Venture capitalist Christopher Allen suggested such a trend portends both benefits — perhaps a reduction in road rage in an age of gotcha cameras as well as risks to privacy.

During a session on syndication, Kevin Marks, principal engineer at Technorati, cited the company’s latest stats. On Wednesday the real-time search engine for blogs tracked a total of 2.8 million weblogs, 270,000 new postings, and 14,000 brand new blogs.

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David Sifry

The deep knowledge posed by experts in a given subject can sometimes pose a problem, said Technorati CEO David Sifry. “The desire for fame, ego boosting or recognition can be a tremendous motivator” for those outside an organization. But employees inside a company may refrain from sharing their knowledge. “Once they’re recognized as experts, they can’t get their jobs done.”

At one point, an audience member challenged the notion that the most high-profile weblogs are the ones that matter most. “Just because it’s not on Scoble or Instapundit doesn’t mean it’s not affecting people,” said Elizabeth Lane Lawley, assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. “The interesting stuff is not at the top of the power blog hierarchy. What’s interesting is what in the middle. It’s nonsense to say that the Craigslist juju is what we all want. A lot of people don’t want a big audience. They want a conversation, not an audience.”

Later on, consultant Amy Wohl sounded a similar note. “I know a private blog with five members, but they’re all medical researchers. Perhaps they’ll discover a cure for cancer some day. Who’s to say that blog isn’t infinitely more valuable than one with 10,000 readers?”

Pushback from the “former audience” continued to be a theme throughout the day. At one point, Danah Boyd, a doctorate candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, berated panelists for not addressing the needs of the younger generation. Among her peers, she said, “e-mail is dying out. Young people overwhelmingly prefer instant messaging. You’re creating a conversation gap between generations.”

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Stowe Boyd

At a later session on e-mail and spam, moderator Stowe Boyd of Corante took up a similar chant. “E-mail is just bad. We’ve grown used to it over 20 years. We think of it as a conversation medium when in fact it is not. It’s based upon a nonconversational model. . We should move away from e-mail as fast as we can.” He said instant messaging, RSS, group blogging, wikis and SMS will eventually diminish our reliance on e-mail. Already, 75 to 87 percent of young people say they prefer IM as their communication medium of choice.

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Karl Jacob

From the audience, blogger John Patrick, former Internet technology chief of IBM, defended e-mail, saying it has been one of the greatest communications advances in modern times, letting parents and grandparents communicate with their children across continents. His comments were met with applause. Temperatures cooled when panelist Karl Jacob, CEO of anti-spam outfit Cloudmark, said, “E-mail isn’t dead. It’s just got to get better. It’s changed our world, and the fact that anyone in the world can send anyone an e-mail is both its best feature and worst feature.” His company’s network, with 1 million members and 1,000 people joining each day, has seen spam drop to nearly zero through collaborative filtering.

Jacob predicted a system where an authentication process is applied to e-mail delivery will help. “It will take three to four years, but I think we’ll get to the point where if you don’t have some sort of authentication when you’re sending e-mail, most people won’t accept it.”

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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