Today I am enjoying the 2018 edition of the State of the Net conference, in Italy. Organised by Beniamino Pagliaro, Paolo Valdemarin and Sergio Maistrello.

Beniamino Pagliaro opening the conference this morning

This morning I provided a key note on Networked Agency, where I talked about rediscovering our ability to act. As networked groups, in real and meaningful contexts as the unit of agency. For that to be possible our tools, both technologies and methods, need to work for groups, be much easier to access. They also need to work both as a local instance as well as federated across contexts. From it striking power (classic agency) flows, agility to use and leverage the useful things coming at us over the networks, and resilience to mitigate the negative consequences that come at us over those same networks.

The slides are below.

The videos of State of the Net are online, including the video of my talk.


(Disclosure) Paolo is a long time friend and I had the privilege of contributing to previous editions in 2012 (Trieste) and 2015 (Milano). I’m also a member of the conference’s steering committee.

8 reactions on “Networked Agency, At State of the Net 2018

  1. Yesterday at State of the Net I showed some of the work I did with the great Frysklab team, letting a school class find power in creating their own solutions. We had a I think very nicely working triade of talks in our session, Hossein Derakshan first, me in the middle, and followed by Dave Snowden. In his talk, Dave referenced my preceding one, saying it needed scaling for the projects I showed to alter anything. Although I know Dave Snowden didn’t mean his call for scale that way, often when I hear it, it is rooted in the demand-for-ever-more-growth type of systems we know cannot be sustained in a closed world system like earth’s. The small world syndrom, as I named it at Shift 2010, will come biting.
    It so often also assumes there needs to be one person or entity doing the scaling, a scaler. Distributed networks don’t need a scaler per se.
    The internet was not created that way, nor was the Web. Who scaled RSS? Some people moved it forwards more than others, for certain, but unconnected people, just people recognising a possibility to fruitfully build on others for something they felt personally needed. Dave Winer spread it with Userland, made it more useful, and added the possibility of having the payload be something else than just text, have it be podcasts. We owe him a lot for the actual existence of this basic piece of web plumbing. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and Ben and Mena Trott of Movable Type helped it forward by adding RSS to their blogging tools, so people like me could use it ‘out of the box’. But it actually scaled because bloggers like me wanted to connect. We recognised the value of making it easy for others to follow us, and for us to follow the writings of others. So I and others created our own templates, starting from copying something someone else already made and figuring out how to use RSS. It is still how I adopt most of my tools. Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.
    That’s why I fully agree with Chris Hardie that in the open web, all the tools you create need to have the potentiality of the network effect built in. Of course, when something is too difficult for most to copy or adapt, then there won’t be this network effect. Which is why most of the services we see currently dominating online experiences, the ones that shocked Hossein upon returning from his awful forced absence, are centralised services made very easy to use. Where someone was purposefully aiming for scale, because their business depended on it once they recognised their service had the potential to scale.
    Dave Winer yesterday suggested the blogosphere is likely bigger now than when it was so dominantly visible in the ‘00s, when your blogpost of today could be Google’s top hit for a specific topic, when I could be found just on my first name. But it is so much less visible than before, precisely because it is not centralised, and the extravagant centralised silos stand out so much. The blogosphere diminished itself as well however, Dave Winer responded to Hossein Derakshan’s talk yesterday.
    People still blog, more people blog than before, but we no longer build the same amount of connections across blogs. Connections we were so in awe of when our writing first proved to have the power to create them. Me and many others, bloggers all, suckered ourselves into feeling blog posts needed to be more like reporting, essays, and took our conversations to the comments on Facebook. Facebook, which, as Hossein Derakshan pointed out, make such a travesty of what web links are by allowing them only as separate from the text you write on Facebook. It treats all links as references to articles, not allowing embedding them in the text, or allowing more than one link to be presented meaningfully. That further reinforced the blog-posts-as-articles notions. That further killed the link as weaving a web of distributed conversations, a potential source of meaning. Turned the web, turned your timeline, into TV, as Hossein phrased it.
    Hoder on ‘book-internet’ (blogs) and ‘tv-internet’ (FB et al) Tweet by Anna Masera
    I switched off my tv ages ago. And switched off my FB tv-reincarnate nine months ago. In favour of allowing myself more time to write as thinking out loud, to have conversations.
    Adriana Lukas and I after the conference, as we sat there enjoying an Italian late Friday afternoon over drinks, talked about the Salons of old. How we both have created through the years settings like that, Quantified Self meetings, BlogWalks, Birthday Unconferences, and how we approached online sharing like that too. To just add some of my and your ramblings to the mix. Starting somewhere in the middle, following a few threads of thought and intuitions, adding a few links (as ambient humanity), and ending without conclusions. Open ended. Just leaving it here.


  2. August 31st Elmine and I host the 4th Birthday Unconference and BBQ-Party in our home in Amersfoort. The unconference is titled “Smart Stuff that Matters”.
    So what is Smart, and what Matters?
    A year ago we moved to Amersfoort. A different house, a different neighbourhood, a different city. The city where our daughter will grow up.
    A new environment means lots of exploration. What makes a house a home? How can you smartly adapt your house to your needs? Who lives in the neighbourhood, how do you settle in it? What makes a city your city? Which existing initiatives appeal to you, and in what ways can you contribute to them?
    Whether it’s a new habit, a new device in your home, your contacts and networks, or your approach: what are smart ways to act and contribute to your residence and environment so it supports you and the others in it? In the context of much wider developments and global issues, that is. Both social and technological, at home, in your neighbourhood, your city. It’s important to approach things in ways that create meaning, enable the important things, both for you and others. Smart Stuff That Matters therefore.
    Our house, in the middle of our street
    A full day long we’ll explore ‘smart’ in all its facets.Smart homes (and around the home), smart neighbourhoods, smart cities.
    Socially, how do we learn, communicate, organise and share? How do we act, how do we contribute? How do we find the power of collaborative agency.
    And also technologically, which technologies help us, which only pretend to do so, and are these technologies sufficiently ours?
    We will have the Frysklab Team joining us again with their mobile FabLab, and have plenty of space to experiment with technology that way. Such as sensors, internet of things and programming. Or to build non-digital hacks for around the home.
    Frysklab’s truck parked at our old home in Enschede during the previous unconference
    Together we’ll explore what smart means to you and us.
    Bring your small and big experiences and skills, but above all bring your curiosity, and let yourself be surprised with what the others bring.
    Do you have ideas about what you’d like to show, discuss, present or do?
    Have ideas about what you would like to hear from others about? Let us know! We’ll build the program together!
    You’ll find all relevant information about the unconference on this site. You’re also welcome to join our Facebook group for the event.


  3. From the recent posting on Mastodon and it currently lacking a long tail, I want to highlight a specific notion, and that’s why I am posting it here separately. This is the notion that tool usage having a long tail is a measure of distribution, and as such a proxy for networked agency. [A long tail is defined as the bottom 80% of certain things making up over 50% of a ‘market’. The 80% least sold books in the world make up more than 50% of total book sales. The 80% smallest Mastodon instances on the other hand account for less than 15% of all Mastodon users, so it’s not a long tail].
    To me being able to deploy and control your own tools (both technology and methods), as a small group of connected individuals, is a source of agency, of empowerment. I call this Networked Agency, as opposed to individual agency. Networked also means that running your own tool is useful in itself, and even more useful when connected to other instances of the same tool. It is useful for me to have this blog even if I am its only reader, but my blog is even more useful to me because it creates conversations with other bloggers, it creates relationships. That ‘more useful when connected’ is why distributed technology is important. It allows you to do your own thing while being connected to the wider world, but you’re not dependent on that wider world to be able to do your own thing.
    Whether a technology or method supports a distributed mode, in other words is an important feature to look for when deciding to use it or not. Another aspect is the threshold to adoption of such a tool. If it is too high, it is unlikely that people will use it, and the actual distribution will be very low, even if in theory the tools support it. Looking at the distribution of usage of a tool is then a good measure of success of a tool. Are more people using it individually or in small groups, or are more people using it in a centralised way? That is what a long tail describes: at least 50% of usage takes place in the 80% of smallest occurrences.
    In June I spoke at State of the Net in Trieste, where I talked about Networked Agency. One of the issues raised there in response was about scale, as in “what you propose will never scale”. I interpreted that as a ‘centralist’ remark, and not a ‘distributed’ view, as it implied somebody specific would do the scaling. In response I wrote about the ‘invisible hand of networks‘:

    “Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.”

    In part it is a pun on the ‘invisible hand of markets’, but it is also a bit of hand waving, as I don’t actually had precise notions of how that would need to work at the time of writing. Thinking about the long tail that is missing in Mastodon, and thus Mastodon not yet building the distributed social networking experience that Mastodon is intended for, allows me to make the ‘invisible hand of networks’ a bit more visible I think.
    If we want to see distributed tools get more traction, that really should not come from a central entity doing the scaling. It will create counter-productive effects. Most of the Mastodon promotion comes from the first few moderators that as a consequence now run large de-facto centralised services, where 77% of all participants are housed on 0,7% (25 of over 3400) of servers. In networks smartness needs to be at the edges goes the adagium, and that means that promoting adoption needs to come from those edges, not the core, to extend the edges, to expand the frontier. In the case of Mastodon that means the outreach needs to come from the smallest instances towards their immediate environment.
    Long tail forming as an adoption pattern is a good way then to see if broad distribution is being achieved.
    Likely elements in promoting from the edge, that form the ‘invisible hand of networks’ doing the scaling are I suspect:

    Show and tell, how one instance of tool has value to you, how connected instances have more value
    Being able to explain core concepts (distribution, federation, agency) in contextually meaningful ways
    Being able to explain how you can discover others using the same tool, that you might want to connect to
    Lower thresholds of adoption (technically, financially, socially, intellectually)
    Reach out to groups and people close to you (geographically, socially, intellectually), that you think would derive value from adoption. Your contextual knowledge is key to adoption.
    Help those you reach out to set up their own tools, or if that is still too hard, ‘take them in’ and allow them the use of your own tools (so they at least can experience if it has value to them, building motivation to do it themselves)
    Document and share all you do. In Bruce Sterling’s words: it’s not experimenting if you’re not publishing about it.
    An adoption-inducing setting: Frank Meeuwsen explaining his steps in leaving online silos like Facebook, Twitter, and doing more on the open web. In our living room, during my wife’s birthday party.

  4. This page is a Hub page, providing an overview of everything about Networked Agency in this wiki-section, with links and references leading away from it.
    Networked Agency building blocks
    This is my take on agency, which is a networked agency. I formulated it in 2016 as a way to express what unifies all my work, basically since I started working.
    In our digital, globally networked and hence more complex age, we need a qualitatively different approach to agency.
    This means embracing the affordances digitisation and networks give us.
    This means designing our digital tools fully aligned with the core ideas behind interconnected networks (smart at the edges and within control of its users, can work alone yet (much better) locally or preferably globally connected).
    This means taking complexity as a given, where experiences, probing, and responding to things play a key role, and recognising that this complexity makes an individual including its meaningful relations to others the relevant unit of agency.
    This is networked agency.
    Networked Agency, residing at the level of an individual plus its social context, I see consisting of three parts:

    Striking power. The ability to (collectively) act and create on your own accord. This is where low-threshold tools are important, as is knowledge of working methods and processes.

    Resilience. The ability to shield oneself against and mitigate negative consequences of other’s behaviour propagating through the network to you. This is where being able to work locally when disconnected is important, and temporarily suspending interdependencies. Next to early warning systems, and how to help put a brake on negative patterns you identify.

    Agility. The ability to leverage, adapt and respond to opportunities from other’s behaviour propagating through the network to you. This means sensing what is going on early, seeing what aligns with the interests and needs of the local network, how to use that for yourself, and how to feed attractive patterns with ones own contributions to help sustain them. (e.g. open source development).
    Relevant blog postings:

    Agency Manifesto, a summary of my 2016 blog postings and manifesto

    On Agency Pt 1.: Embracing Distributedness to Increase Agency, on how tools need to be more aligned with the underlying network structures

    On Agency pt. 2: The Elements of Networked Agency, on the two qualitative differences with ‘regular’ agency: its relevant unit, and adding resilience and agility to striking power, as the former two are a consequence of the added social and networked layers

    On Agency Pt 3: Technology Needs for Increased Agency: Networked agency needs a combination of ‘hard’ (digital) technologies, and methods and processes that work well in a networked environment. This gives us both a design challenge and a design thinking aid.
    As an example of a design aid, I created the image below:
    Early 2017, in collaboration with the Frisian Library Service, we used the above to design a project with a primary school group, for them to design and create ‘solutions’ to things they wanted to change in their environment. The feedback was very positive, both from the participants, my project partners and the financing Dutch Royal Library. It turned into the basic working method of the Frisian Library Service, and we’re currently trying to extend that collaboration also with other local libraries in Europe.
    Keynote video
    At the June 2018 State of the Net conference in Trieste I gave a keynote on networked agency. A video, alongside my slides, is available.

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