The history of the Internet has been about people trying to get the same things they already get, but cheaper, faster, or more easily.
Banner ads are just online billboards. Email is just an online fax. Search engines are just a better, faster library. We didn’t change our lives–we just used the Net to make our lives faster and more flexible.
That’s where Joi Ito comes in.
Joi is one of the preeminent bloggers working today. (A blog is an electronic Weblog, a diary filled with quick posts and links.) But Joi isn’t doing what almost everyone else is doing with their blogs. The typical blog contains uninformed opinion about world events, or overlong posts about the weather or your uncle Bob. The typical blog is narcissistic and often focused on how to get other people to link their blogs to your blog, so that both blogs will rank higher in Google searches.
The typical blog addresses a variety of needs that already existed in the offline world: the desire for attention, the urge to express yourself, a way to pass the time at work. Not Joi’s. (To find his blog, visit http://joi.ito.com, or go to Google and type “Joi.”)
Joi has decided that instead of using a blog to make his life function better, he would change his life to make it work better with his blog. As an enormously successful entrepreneur, political rabble-rouser, and investor, Joi’s not a typical “Hey, look at me!” blogger. He created one of Japan’s first personal Web sites, was the chairman of Infoseek Japan, and runs a $40 million venture fund. He’s also eager to see how this experiment changes his life.
When Joi is online (six or eight hours a day), a camera broadcasts him as he types. If you want him to invest in your company, he’ll point you to a discussion of his investment process and his standard terms, both of which are posted online. He’ll encourage you to talk to the CEOs of companies that he invests in (all just a click away). If you send him a proposal, he’s likely to turn it down, but he’ll encourage you to post it on the blog, participate in an online discussion, and see what the thousands of people who read it have to say. It will help sharpen your message.
It’s important, though, to not think of this as Joi’s powerful new network or Joi’s group. “Joi Ito is no longer a name, it’s a place,” he says. He coordinates a collective, one in which he’s a member, not the chief. He’s one of what he calls “a posse” of 70 or 80 people who are almost always hanging out in his blog’s chatroom, 24 hours a day, keeping order, doing research, responding to queries, and helping out. When I met Joi at a conference, he was blogging it, in real time, over the wireless network. Others in the group started sharing their questions with Joi, and he passed the questions on. Suddenly, it wasn’t 30 people on a panel–it was 110 people, all around the world. Some of those in the live group then opened their laptops and joined the online discussion instead.
Every time Joi posts a comment on his blog, many people respond to it. Post a stupid remark, and the group is likely to shout you down. Surprisingly, this doesn’t lead as much to groupthink as it does to civil behavior.
So is it working?
Joi tells me that he’s more productive than ever. He doesn’t need employees; he has the posse. One day, Joi came up with an idea for a clever device called a Hecklebot. A simple scrolling LED display (the kind they have announcing the lotto results at your local 7-Eleven), it would be hooked up to his blog’s chat room. That way, any time someone wanted to make a comment to Joi or anyone with him, she could just send a message to the Hecklebot. Two weeks after Joi posted the idea, someone in the posse built one and sent it to him.
This is the virtual organization in action. It’s about people leaning into the Web, counting on it for organization, sustenance, and psychic and monetary rewards–and doing things with it that were inconceivable just three years ago.
This is not about faster or cheaper. It’s about very fast, very flexible, sometimes very deep links with strangers who share similar goals. The end result is something that’s hard to recognize as a logical step in our organizational development. But of course, that’s just what it is.
What if we combined our existing organizations with this new thing? It’s a new sort of management that focuses on nothing but creating cool stuff fast, as part of the mob. You may not want to do it. But your competition does!
Seth Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an author based outside of New York. Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (Portfolio, 2003) is his latest book.