Being a Thought Leader in a Time of Collective Intelligence

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a thought leader in a time where the tools to deliver thoughts globally are easier to use and more available than at any time in human history.

Blogs, podcasts, videos, voice over Internet solutions, free or cheap software for Web sites, forums and commerce, social networks are but a few of the tools available to anyone with a penchant for getting their opinions out into the world. Couple these Internet-centric methods with the more affordable and easy-to-use tools like camcorders, smartphones, audio creation software and hardware — and ever increasing bandwidth — and you have a perfect storm of communication methods that is perfect for thought leaders to deliver big thoughts and facilitate the conversation.

What’s missing? Aggregators of thought leaders coupled with community networks. Corante is one organization that has done a fine job of pulling together thought leaders into one core group around subject categories. Another fine one is ManyWorlds. These and others do not, however, facilitate the conversation in my opinion. They’re set as experts or thought leaders somehow above us who read them.

But here’s my problem: I don’t believe that experts exist. For the same reason unconferences (read Dave Winer’s take on them) have exploded on to the scene and are beginning to disrupt the conference-as-a-huge-revenue-generator,. Most conferences always purport to have ‘experts’ up pontificating about some subject to a passive audience…but we’re no longer passive and the best ideas come from conversation. By design, unconferences are all about participants and conversation…not so-called experts delivering yet another Powerpoint slide deck and joking about “I only have 400 slides” with a courtesy laugh from the audience.

Oliver Schwabe has one of the best posts about this topic I’ve read in some time entitled, The guru is dead. Long live the network:

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, humanity has looked to leaders and ‘gurus’ to provide ideas and direction. Even today, for example, elections revolve around the supposed qualities of the respective candidate’s personalities – looks, even – rather than around the more complex business of the policies they might be proposing.

He goes on to talk about aggregator networks that unleash the collective intelligence of the participants and that the network itself is the thought leader.

I agree with his perspective with this one “but”: some guidance, guardrails or collective policing needs to be in place or the network devolves into anarchy. Wikipedia has done a great job keeping the gaming-of-the-system to a minimum. Jay Adelson of the popular social news site, Digg has talked at length about the “arms race” with people gaming Digg and what it requires to stay ahead of them.

People argue this point with me all the time but I’ve experienced social and community anarchy for years offline. America’s founding fathers understood humans innate propensity to create mobs and set up a representative democracy to ensure stuff got done and kept anarchy at a minimum. If you’ve been involved in a project or company where “management by committee” is the buzz phrase somehow evoking team spirit — and you’ve realized that this simply doesn’t work — then you see why that inherent human condition is made worse by the ability to be anonymous on the Internet (people often muck up and sidetrack authentic online conversations on purpose because they can without anyone knowing who they really are).

Many have said to me, “Steve….it’s self-policing that works. The community itself will take care of the trolls.” I beg to differ since it’s NOT working well on many sites where oversight is at a minimum and these popular sites devolve into noise (which is one reason I rarely click on a Digg article). I look for signal and try to minimize noise. THAT is what will separate aggregators of thought leaders authentically engaging a community and facilitating conversation.

I still marvel at Slashdot as one example that works and where the community crushes trolls and has a fairly decent reputation system that minimizes gaming of it and tilts toward meaningful conversation. I’ve yet to develop my thinking on what the sweet spot is between control and anarchy and would be interested in your thoughts…

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  1. bex on May 15, 2007 at 8:14 pm

    Good points… but I still think “gurus” will exist, its just that their nature will change.

    They will probably be those with the ability to communicate: dive into an abstract subject, learn the buzzwords, then translate that into a language that novices can understand.

  2. Jay Neely on June 2, 2007 at 9:37 am

    Steve, I keep ending up disappointed in your posts. I feel like I start out reading them, start saying “I like where this is going…”, but it never goes there. It always goes somewhere else.

    In this post, for instance, you start out talking about thought leaders, and how thought leaders have the opportunity to stand out despite the proliferation of noise. You start talking about how aggregators of thought leaders stand a better chance of cutting through the noise than stand-alones, but that there needs to be more conversation, not just lecturing.

    But then you say that experts don’t exist, even as you said “experts or *thought leaders*”, which is presumably what your whole post is about, just above. It’s not that you’re writing an opinion I disagree with, it’s that you’ve invalidated everything you wrote above, and start going in a completely different direction about the benefits of completely equal many-to-many communication.

    *Then*, you digress into a discussion of the need for communication moderation and self-policing vs. oversight.

    I’m sure you know exactly how this all relates. But as a reader, I’m telling you it’s too many jumps, you’re digressing too much. Please, focus your writing, and deliver on what you promise in your title and first paragraphs.

    Jay Neely, Social Strategist

  3. Steve Borsch on June 2, 2007 at 10:15 am

    Jay — I just read your comment to my bride who is an English major, a writer (and non-ADD person) and she burst out laughing. “That is SO you” she said. You are absolutely right that I make cognitive leaps in logic often that others have a hard time following and for over 20 years she’s worked to get me to get to the essence of a topic and not go off tangentially since people can’t follow me.

    One of my strengths is ‘input’ and I absorb a daily amount of information that family, friends and colleagues have found staggering. My 12 year old son has even teased, “Dad…you have no social life” which actually isn’t true but he sees me in seek/learn mode all the time so there’s some validity to it. That strength is at the heart of my tangential wanderings since I see patterns and make associations that others don’t see. My connections and the themes I see are completely clear to me…but not to others.

    As such, I stand accused and guilty of doing a shorthand logic leaping in my writing. Your comment is *really* appreciated and I’ll slow down a bit and tie what seem like loose, digressing threads together and do a better job of fulfilling the promise of a post.


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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.