Activity Streams Will Change Your Business


Activity streams and data visualizations let us consume vast amounts of data in short periods of time.

Together, they may just be the magic bullet for business to realize the true value of the social web.

The problem, there are no interoperable standards for activity streaming and most companies hoard their data, says Google Open Web Advocate Chris Messina (@chrismessina) in this exclusive interview about how activity streams and infographics will revolutionize the way organizations conduct business, and how employees and project teams prioritize and manage work flows.

Today, we think of a Facebook news feed as an activity stream. But we've only just scratched the surface of how activity streams integrated into work flow processes will fundamentally change the way we collaborate.

Using Google Buzz, the open source community and Facebook's product development process as examples, Chris makes it easy to understand how and why activity streams are central to online collaboration, how they sharpen an organization's competitive edge and how they will ultimately result in better products and services.

Given the sheer volume of data that's out there now, information parsed in smaller, bite-size chunks is more valuable than gigs and gigs, because it's easier to digest in a shorter period of time.

Like status updates, activity streams make data easier to appreciate. Â We have learned to attenuate ourselves to dropping in and pulling out of streams to prolonged state of “ambient intimacy.”

Google Buzz is the search giant's first attempt at an activity streaming service, which is being used by project teams to collaborate on business projects. Social graphs are a byproduct of activity streams.

The are the collection of messages, relationships and interactions that occur in activity streams, and if you create infographics to better understand that data, the you can glean meaningful business intelligence from all the data. But currently, most organizations are not making their data available.

They're hoarding their it, depriving employees and customers from using it to better understand how they can improve their business processes.

This is a missed opportunity because data affords company's retrospective insight, intelligence about the nature of the way its employee's collaborate, and the ability to maintain a faster, more responsive, healthier organization. If organizations do get over the hoarding hurdle, they're still going to need to find a way to make their data useful, and that's where data visualization comes in.

Pictures are worth a thousand words, and realizing actionable business intelligence from raw data is significantly enhanced through infographics that make it easy to understand the meaning of the data.

Yet even Facebook, with all the data it has about its users, gives users very little in the way of insights to help us better manage our attention online. Â They hoard data as well.

Facebook could provide so much valuable intelligence about what motivates us online, but currently, they even struggle to present us with ads that are relevant to our interests. In all fairness, the same is true of Google.

In fact, as popular as Google Analytics is, it really tells us very little about human behavior because it doesn't allow us to correlate social signifiers against how people spending time on our websites.

Numerical statistics don't give us any social intelligence about what people think about our sites.

Search engines are still the dominant channel through which we find information online. But that may very well change.

Finding social interactions and websites through activity streams make a lot of sense. Google Buzz is designed to fill that niche. According to Chris Messina, the businesses who will do the best in this new streamy environment will be the one's who figure out how social interactions apply to the value proposition they deliver to their customers. Is It Getting Streamy In Here?

SHOW NOTES 02:08 — Research conducted by Leysia Palen at the University of Colorado at Boulder about how people exchanged information via social media on the day of the Virginia Tech massacre, where people predicted with 100% accuracy the names of 21 of the 22 fatally shot students.

03:53 — Within organizations, there is a need for information to flow more freely. But often there are peculiar, archetypal boundaries inside organizations that restrict those flows.

On the flip-side, in open source communities information flows much more transparently, making it easier for people to get their work done with fewer interruptions.

05:01 — There is a distinction between newsfeeds and activity streams. It is important to realize that channels such as Facebook messages, twitter direct messages and SMS, while part of the fabric of the social web, are point to point communications, like email, so they are invisible to most of us. E-mail was specifically designed as a point-to-point communication channel. You can add other people, but there's no way to send messages to everybody. That's is the problem that the social Web solves. Rather than force a message into everyones inbox, social media makes it possible for information to be discoverable, either through search or through modeling activity streams. Â Social media reduces the loss of fidelity and the friction associated with replicating information within organizations.

06:57 — What's been most interesting to Chris about working on Google Buzz is how the social networking service is being used within the enterprise to keep people on the same page. Unlike e-mail, which requires significant effort for newcomers to speed on what transpired before they were roped in, Google Buzz makes it easier to bring people into a conversation stream that's been going on for some time with a format that is more intuitive and chronological than an email grist.

07:52 — Activity streams are a better method of representing conversations because unlike with search, where the information you are get is based on a keyword you come up with, activity streams give you the opportunity to experience information serendipitously. And activity streams also give us the ability to monitor popular behavior and make decisions based on trends. So the notions of discoverability and trend watching are made possible by the activity stream format.

In a B2B context, employees might use their activity stream to keep abreast of deadlines and stay on top of priorities by monitoring the actions of their colleagues.

09:06 — Sourceforge, a website where open source developers collaborate to share and improve code, sets a good example of how organizations might use the social Web to improve their processes. is a newer alternative to Sourceforge that revolves around an activity stream. “So you can go in and follow different people's activities. Watch a repository of projects. For example, if Audacity was on Github, I could go in and I could watch it.

If things were added to that repository, they would show up in my stream,” says Chris Messina.

“Watching is a way of tuning in or listening to updates that happen in that context.” On the flip-side, if you subscribe to the edit history of Wikipedia page you can keep abreast of the changes, but there's no way to participate in an RSS feed.

10:35 — In a B2B context, organizations could use activity streams to improve workflows. For example, if you were working on a project with others, project dependencies and milestones could trigger status updates to inform you that the project is ready for your contribution.

You might have software agents looking for certain types of activities or patterns that trigger responses or alerts and make workflow processes more efficient. Or even on a much more basic level, if someone is out sick, rather than send an e-mail to their manager, they could post a status update to the company's activity feed and notify the enterprise instead of the old chain of command, the archetypal model, which is not necessarily the most efficient.

11:10 — “The Starfish and The Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckman, which compares top-down, militaristic organizational hierarchies which define the industrial age to decentralized systems, which have the capacity to reproduce and self heal.

The metaphor is that if you crush the head of a spider, its legs are useless. But if you cut off the leg of a starfish, it will regenerate into a new starfish.

“So from an organizational perspective, if you can design your team's to be regenerative in that way, then your organization, as things change — as people move jobs, as they quit — will be able to respond much more quickly, and that much less cost,” says Chris.

“What that requires is for you to punish much more responsibility and control down to the edges of the network as opposed to centralizing power at the top. And that's how you wind up with the much faster moving organization.”

13:05 — “For example, at Facebook — and I know this because I have friends there — everyone has access to live running code. They all build stuff off of the live database. There is no secondary, replicated database that they work off, because there's so much data, it just wouldn't make sense. It would take two weeks just copy it.

So instead, they build apps, and they have certain ways of testing it so it's not going to break stuff, but they are working with live data. That means that every single engineer and developer has equal access and can build really compelling, interesting things and can then push it back up the stack to become part of the Facebook product within a week. And, in fact, they do weekly pushes. And what that means is that, let's say last week I worked on a new feature that does something fairly simple. I don't have to wait six months to see that feature go into production,” says Chris. “Instead, it's more organic. It's like growing a new layer of skin every year. It takes a long time to do that, but it's done, cell by cell.

So from an organizational architecture standpoint I think that activity streams are somewhat the gel that binds all these different things together.”

14:47 — “Given how much data is being produced, there's also a need to chunk the data in much smaller, bite-sized pieces so that you're organizing your day around the ability to consume information whenever you have a moment. If I tried to go back and read last week's tweets over the weekend, like you used to do with last week's addition of the Sunday New York Times, it would probably take me a year because I'm following 1,500 people and they're producing things every second of the day. So there's no way that I can keep up. So instead, you learn to sort of attenuate yourself to dropping into the stream and then pulling out,” says Chris. “It's what we call ambient intimacy.”

17:24 — Activity streams and social objects are actually quite different if you think about how we relate to them. In the case of an activity stream, I might be following an individual or group chronologically. On the other hand, social objects like photographs, video or PowerPoint presentation, while they may appear chronologically in an activity stream, also have archival value through search as a research reference, and this lifespan is more asynchronous than that of an activity stream. Â In order to make activity streams useful inside organizations, it's important to make it easy for employees to tune in and out of different streams easily so they can manage their attention, rather than like a curated stream from the New York Times, where editors decide what's most important.

19:19 — Organizations hoard data. Rather than make information available to everyone inside the organization so they can learn from it, company's see their data as proprietary and confidential. The opportunities data presents includes retrospective analysis, collaborative analysis and, if the data is streamed is it's collected, the ability to help the organization respond to quicker to change.

20:59 — With more and more information out there for us to keep up with, it is become more and more challenging for us to allocate our attention efficiently. Because of this, shorter, easier to digest chunks of information are more valuable, than a comprehensive brain dump reports, for the same reason short emails tend to get a quicker response than longer, drawn out ones.

A picture is worth 1000 words, and similarly, infographics are worth 1000 status updates. “I can sit there and read the Twitter newsfeed all day long, and I might get some kind of gestalt of what's going on. But information graphics that are able to synthesize information over a much longer period of time than I could get over one sitting or viewing, I think is where this goes.

So, the fact that you can actually see significant changes in this guy's behavior over a year's period of time is what's interesting about those reports. The fact that I can't go to Facebook, and get a similar kind of report about my relationships with people, or about the things that I've interacted with, the types of information that's relevant to me. Why are the Facebook ads still so bad?

They have so much information about me. I even give them information about my preferences. There are great opportunities to improve business processes by providing these kinds of self reflexive experiences and visualizations so that people can actually consume vast amounts of information in a short amount of time,” says Chris.

23:05 — While the ability to crunch numbers remains significantly important in the development of technology, Chris says the hot job of tomorrow may not be statistician or rather behavioral psychologist or social interaction designer because we're using data deficient resources to try and understand human behavior.

Right now, Web statistics use IP addresses and paths in session time to infer the ROI of human behavior. But imagine if that data were replaced by activity streams, where a visitor to your website could subscribe to your feed and you had data of how they use that information, how their friends use that information and what actions resulted.

If you think about activity stream analysis, or you could look at how people use your information instead of just how they consume it passively, imagine how much better your understanding of the value of your online communications efforts would be.

What we need to be looking at is what's motivating people, and what behaviors are engaging in, not what page they go to on your website and how long they stay there.For example, if you're using a spike in traffic to your website as an indicator of what type of content you're audience or customers want, it could actually be because they disliked that content, so straight consumption is not always an effective indicator of what works or doesn't work.

Correlating comments through activity strain gives you a much better gauge of how people reacted to the content.

24:39 — “Even Google Analytics doesn't provide you with a great way of correlating social signifiers and signals with where people are spending their time and what they're doing,” says Chris.

“If you're not thinking about this holistically from a behavioral perspective, and you're not thinking about things like I presented with the activity theory, then you're missing the big picture, and you're also missing the nuance of what could drive people to do things more intelligent way in the future.”

26:04 — The reason Facebook is killing everyone online is that most websites today still look like they did when Netscape was invented. These websites are simply not interactive, offers zero opportunity for engagement, and are simply less interesting and compelling than a website where you can interact with others.

Even the New York Times website fails to structure the news in a way that's relevant to me based on my interests and my social networks. From the same perspective, businesses should be thinking about how social interaction applies to the value proposition they deliver to their customers.

It could be to determine the strengths and weaknesses of their product and services or to make it easier for people to learn about them through their online social networks. The company's who do well in this type of environment are the ones who will succeed. “Put the user first, and everything else will follow,” says Chris. “Facebook, by its design and nature has done something very similar and they've seen the same sort of thing in terms of viral growth and improvement of the service over time.”

29:00 — “There will be a lot more competition for the smartest and brightest people in the future, and those companies that treat their employees with respect and give them a fairly well articulated space in which to operate with a good feeling of self-direction — with enough structure so that someone can succeed — will be a much more successful company overall, and will be a much better place to work for everybody, as opposed to one that tries to really regiment their work force and, for example, shuts down Facebook and things like that.

There's a balance to the mix for sure. Â But finding the right way to let people do what they do well, and to socialize in a way that supports their work, I think is going to critically important,” says Chris, who added that the future of search is being able to find not just webpages, but interactions as well.

30:15 —Leysia Palen‘s research on the VT shootings is a perfect example of how social networks augment our ability to collaborate.

The command and control collaboration style of management practiced by the university communications department was unable to move as quickly as the online community when it came to determining and reporting the names of the slain students.

31:34 — End 

Photo by Brian Solis

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