Bring Different Innovation to Washington

A few weeks ago, I received a call from my friend Robert Neelbauer at about 11 pm. He wanted to talk about innovation and technology startups in DC. For those who live around here, you know there’s not a lot of them. Mostly project-type things that entrepreneurs who work day jobs have cooking. And of course, even though DC is home to Launchbox Digital an accelerator program in the order of Techstars or Ycombinator, there remains a dearth of Silicon Valley style startups.

This call got me thinking about the landscape in DC. It is, as it always has been, a center of government. Those of us who live here joke about the difference between Washington, the center of government, and the District, a wider culture of arts, nightlife and activity outside of government. The reality is, however, that the two are inexorably fused at the hip. Spending Friday nights enjoying nightlife inevitably means spending time among people connected in Washington, on Capitol Hill or other parts of government. It is difficult to live in this city without being part of the Washington-culture somehow. More after the jump.

3531416607_3e8e066127Today, with the Obama administration and its embrace of internet culture, the advent of “Government 2.0″ has come about. Government 2.0, a term describing the second generation of government using the faux-fashionable way of versioning, describes an embrace of web technologies and culture to advance the mission of government. Without getting into my feelings on Government 2.0 as a whole (my thoughts are well-documented), it’s difficult to escape the reality of enterprise in DC.

DC is not a city lent to Silicon Valley-style innovation. We will never house the next Twitter and Google only exists here as a lobbying arm of the Mountain View, California search giant. It is a city dedicated to practical innovation. We will never have the sex appeal to attract the innovators in California here. It’s not our style.

What we do have is an opportunity for innovation as it pertains to agency mission. We do have the opportunity to develop products that meet the needs of elected government, established government and citizens in a time of economic uncertainty. We do have the ability to build products and services that meet the needs of Washington, but as long as we try to meet the needs of the country and the world, we run the risk of barking up the wrong tree.

Yahoo made a massive move last week, announcing a search deal with Microsoft. Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo, suggested that Yahoo could not compete with Google anymore in search and the deal would allow Yahoo to focus and innovate in the areas they could compete. If you haven’t been paying attention to me since 2007, then you would have missed my thoughts on this. Yahoo came to grips with the realization that they couldn’t compete with Google but they could own another niche. This is the same realization that DC has to come to for itself. We can’t (nor should we) compete with Silicon Valley. Besides the fact that they are dwindling in relevancy as the spotlight shifts to other cities and reasons, we have something they can never have.

And while Silicon Valley warlords aimlessly try to find their relevancy and foothold in Washington, we have the ability to use our real connections, our real knowledge of the inside-the-beltway world, and our real grassroots abilities that we displayed in getting our President elected to bring new and relevant innovation to government.

By the way, the first person who suggests government agencies need wikis and Twitter to be relevant, is banished back to California.

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It's Not Necessarily Who You Know

In the world of social media, there has been a dramatic shift in how business ideas and implementations get done. David Armano touches on it today where he suggests that knowing the influencers will get you much farther in your effort.

In that case, it’s up to all of us to find them. Perhaps take a look at something like the Power 150 and start the list backwards (or maybe get out of the marketing echo chamber all together).  If you yourself have become the new breed of “gatekeeper”””ask yourself “is it who I know, or what they know?”. Ideally, its both””but up to us individually to strike the right balance.

Armano and I proceeded to have a lively discussion on Twitter over this idea. I agreed with his assessment  that the current landscape of the social web does cater to the idea of knowing people being more important than having a good idea. I disagreed on his conclusion that people should seek to extend their influence by knowing more of the top people on the web.

On principle, the “top people on the web” is a bit elitist and self serving. Both Armano and I enjoy being “top people on the web”, yet, I know my ability to scale is small compared to the ideas and conversations being pushed around. The web is bigger than me. It’s bigger than Armano. We both enjoy large networks of people that we know, and I don’t mean six degree of separation type stuff. We both can show you 10,000 or more collected business cards from over the years. At least I can. I presume it is the same for him.

I can brag about knowing over half of the Technorati Top 100 bloggers personally. I can point to the multitude of networking events that I attend (at least one major one every month) where I have a difficult time talking to everyone who wants to share their ideas and thoughts with me.

The problem is scale. The web is bigger than we are. You can put a gallon or five gallons or ten gallons of water in a sink, but if the drain is only an inch thick, you won’t be able to process more water out of that bin. You need a bigger drain to do that. In fact, it will take longer to drain that bin with increasingly more water. It’s physics.

Unlike Armano’s assessment that communicators, entrepreneurs, and brands should exploit the current landscape that values the personal connection over the business process (that is, good ideas can thrive on their own if they have merit), I see it as a hybrid. You must have a one-to-one network and you must have a one-to-many network, but your many-to-many network (the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th degree of separation) becomes fairly useless fairly quick. Good ideas cannot thrive in a vacuum.  However, simply knowing influencers aren’t going to make it fly either.

I can’t tell you the number of people who are friends, not just business network contacts, who have talked to me with great gusto and passion about an idea and I simply look at them blankly. They know me personally, but realistically, they have a sucky idea. It’s not going to fly and no amount of knowing the right people is going to make it fly.

On the flip side, having a great idea and knowing the right people can make all the difference in the world. This is a reflection of the truth that many of the worlds greatest idea people don’t have the communication prowess to “sell” that idea and make it work. Likewise some of the greatest communicators in the world have great bullhorns, but suck at innovating themselves. So we end up in a world where we all need each other for something.

This blend of traditional (networking) and innovation is really where we need to be. We’re getting there, but we ain’t there yet. Reinforcing an unscalable paradigm of who you know as the primary enforcer of innovation is a dangerous trend that really does need to be changed. Sometime. Hopefully soon.

Update: Armano chimes in in comments and corrects the record. He is recommending a balance, as am I. Different slants on the same issue.

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Changing the Currency of Influence via Search

There is no doubt that Google is the king of search but how did they become that way? In the old days (you know, before PageRank was dubbed irrelevant), the idea was that the number of links to a site, particularly by more “powerful” sites increased the relevance of an indexed page in the Google index. To this day, that philosophy holds, tho clearly the weight has shifted from “links of powerful sites” to “internal links”.

Google has not significantly adjusted how they determine the importance of an article, site or keyword in some time, tho they claim some 70+ algorithmic tweaks last year. And that’s fine. Google’s index is Google’s index. It has trained us how to search and what we expect when we search. It has taught us silently and we compare all other results to the Google results, despite the fact that Google results are in themselves arbitrary and based on their own determination via algorithm.

But I digress.

It’s interesting when new search engines or tools come out. It’s interesting to see the innovation as it takes place. One such tool that I discovered, almost by accident, does a good great job of building an index around links and pages passed around Twitter. This tool is Topsy, which combines Twitter Search with Google like results (in other words, the results are not tweets themselves).

For those of you not occupying your every waking moment on Twitter, it is by most objective measures, the new information aggregator – like RSS readers were supposed to be or portal sites try to be.

The currency of influence on Twitter can be summarized in two letters: RT (short for Retweet). Many bloggers are including the ability for stories to be “retweeted”, or redistributed on Twitter, and that is precisely what Topsy is measuring. (An example of retweeting capability on a blog can be seen on this blog – see that Retweet button at the end of the article?)

Much like Google set the currency of relevance based on links, an assumption that was valid at the time and still carries some level of validity today, Topsy has recognized that more influence is being distributed via Twitter and thus, a relevancy algorithm around this currency must be built.
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I don’t know if Topsy is a “Google killer” or even if they strive to be one. My guess is, it will never supplant Google in our lives. However, an ambitious approach to this new distribution of influence is an important, and enjoyable, thing to watch.

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