Social Work: Friend or FOE?

When I get into scuffles with the business side of the EContent publishing venture over issues I feel might compromise the integrity of the magazine, things get personal. Many times over the years I've said, "This magazine is my face. It is a reflection of me and my reputation."

Certainly, the magazine is an object that any reader realizes is produced by a publishing company, not a lone egocentric editor. Yet almost any reader who has followed my work will know that I am personally invested in EContent magazine. I don't think this is at all unusual. There are many publications that readers associate with the "voice" (if not the face) of their editors. Best known cases include Chris Anderson at Wired, Anna Wintour of Vogue, and Tina Brown while at the helm of Vanity Fair or The New Yorker. Of course, this level of personal investment is not limited to celebrity journalists.

In fact, journalism is not a business to get into for fame; it is one of dedication to information and the well-formed phrase, and our work speaks for itself (and says a lot about us). That said, Tara Hunt is on to something when, in her book The Whuffie Factor, she says that today Andy Warhol's saying "everyone will be famous for 15 minutes" has changed to "everyone will be famous to 15 people."

It is an interesting phenomenon online that a great many web-native publications-from massively popular sites like The Huffington Post to Joe's Blog are personally branded. The upfront connection between the writer and what is written, the way the site is presented, and all associated revenue certainly increases the level of personal accountability for this generation of content producers.

Reading The Whuffie Factor (albeit a bit late; the book has been out since April 2009) has really brought home for me the personal nature of the web. I think it is easy to forget how community-based our activities online are-given that computers and phones intermediate these interactions. This isn't machine-to-machine communication. Online, things are personal.

In case you, like I, are slow to the Whuffie party, Wikipedia defines it as "the ephemeral, reputation-based currency of Cory Doctorow's science fiction novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. This book describes a post-scarcity economy: All the necessities (and most of the luxuries) of life are free for the taking. A person's current Whuffie is instantly viewable to anyone ..." and it is the only currency of value.

Hunt and others have since extended the idea to encompass social capital online. Essentially, my opinions, insights, responses, comments, feedback, and interactions with my network all add up to my "currency," which I can "spend" to obtain things I desire, such as introductions to others, answers to questions, participation in projects, etc.

I recently had a splendid conversation with Brynn Evans and Will Evans (no relation). Amazingly enough, the three of us were in the same place at the same time-because they were doing me the favor of filling in for a last-minute conference cancelation at my Enterprise Search Summit West event. These two have Whuffie galore, continually contributing to discourse online and off, and it was a pleasure to discuss their idea about the difficulty of bringing social currency inside the enterprise.

The challenge they've identified is FOE: fear of embarrassment. While online we can often rely on pseudonyms or anonymity to express opinions we might not have fully formed, in inter-office web-based communities we are always on the record. At work our reputation means everything. It may well have taken decades to build up, so we're not willing to jeopardize it casually be "part of the conversation." As Will put it, "Do I really want to risk asking my professional network a stupid question?"

While we might be willing to whisper an inquiry to a colleague at the water cooler to get informal feedback, we're not likely to risk rambling at a board meeting. At work, our reputations are what keep us employed and advancing.

So as we rush to try to bring social networking, ratings, and community tools inside our organizations, we need to be thinking about ways to make this risk worthwhile-by offering rewards that merit it. We need to construct real value propositions in which an employee's willingness to go on the record with stream of consciousness idea musing doesn't carry de-incentivizing criticism and, rather, provide the foundation for the sort of constructive brainstorming going on in public web communities, blog, and Twitter conversations every day.

My 5-year-old asked me about the book I was reading and mistook the title for The Whuffie Factory. I started to laugh and then realized that her "mistake" was actually a great idea: We need to think about our internal networks as providing a way to build reputation in order to produce not only more Whuffie, but the kind of innovation only risk can generate.