Julian Stodd “The internet is a tool of mass connectivity — where the power of one-to-one connections is facilitated and can drive direct change.”

Author, Speaker, and Captain at Sea Salt Learning, Julian Stodd helps organizations understand and adapt to the social age. His writing focuses on all aspects of the social age, including social learning, social leadership, collaborative technology, social justice and equality, and dynamic change.


Julian’s Story

I’m wondering if you could start by giving me an overview and tell me a bit about your work.

Yes. I’ll try to keep it to a short story. My work explores the social age. I use that to describe the ecosystem we inhabit today and the broad spectrum of change that that entails.

That is everything from the new nature of work and the evolved social contract that exists between organizations and individuals which is away from a relationship of ownership and control towards one of mutual engagement.

The portfolio nature of careers, the democratization of creativity, and publishing are key parts of it, along with the rise of connected social communities, and notions of amplification.

All of these are about evolved power dynamics (see also: #Trump – New Mechanics Of Power), which broadly mean that individuals are gaining a louder voice and organizations are losing the power to dominate, own, and control conversations, stories, and even things such as their own brand value.

With the more fluid nature of engagement between organizations and individuals, they also need to work harder to get engagement. This impacts on lots of different areas.

The areas I focus on most strongly are how the ways that we learn have changed, so we need to look at social learning approaches that tie into the tacit tribal knowledge of the community, rather than simply formal stories told by the organization.

My last book is around social leadership, which looks at the type of leadership and authority which is exerted in social spaces.

In formal hierarchies, formal leadership within the rules of the organization prevails, but in social spaces, it’s socially moderated leadership that counts. Reputation-based authority granted to inspire the community — not demanded, not awarded. It has to be earned.

My more recent work is around organizational culture — how it forms, how it changes. My next book is about how organizational change.

The current research project that I’m working on is around the landscape of trust, which looks at how trust exists. How it exists between individuals, how it exists within teams and organizations, how it’s earned, how it’s eroded, how it differs — because our perceptions of trust differ very much, hence why I’m using a landscape analogy

Rather sort a broad answer, I’ve realize, but that’s really where my work is. It’s exploring these new realities

In this work and in your research, could you hone in on a time when you felt a real sense of success and tell me a story around that?

I don’t intend for this to come across wrong, but I sort of generally feel a sense of success as long as I’m doing something.

Let me explain that. In the old world, we used to do our research, we used to do our work, and we used to publish. The act of publication was kind of the act of success. In the new world, I’m very much, I believe, in working out loud and share as you go and iterating your work. If I look at the next book, the one about change, there’s something like 65 different articles I’ve written about aspects of that.

There were two full drafts of the book which I’ve shared with the community and had over 20 different detailed reviews of. The act of publication won’t in itself be successful because it will just act as the foundation for continuing to learn and evolve the work.

For that reason if I feel I’m able to be curious, if I feel I’m able to explore, then I’m feeling successful, but it’s not the artifacts of exploration that cause me to feel successful.

Now, flipping the question, how about an example of a challenge?

The challenge that I will describe is the challenge which probably any researcher would recognize, which is the difference between the bud at the end of a branch and the whole tree. I’m broadly interested in what the whole tree looks like.

Typically, when writing or researching, one narrows it down to one branch, down to one twig, down to one leaf, and one bud at the very end. What I’m doing at the moment, really, will be my life’s work to do this. I’m under no illusions that I will get to the end and say I have a definitive understanding of how the world works. These are complex, sociological, technological systems, multivariate environments. The best one can hope to do is produce sketch maps as you go, which is one reason why all my work is illustrated and is sketched and is iterative.

To that point, any sense of frustration or worry I would have is just how much can I get around to exploring and testing in one career.

What are some of the ways you approach addressing this challenge?

I have some clear guidelines. I’ve two areas to answer that in. The first is around the way I try to be in the world. There are principles which are published on my blogs. My blog is my primary reflective space. (Here’s an example of #workingoutloud.)

I cross-publish in various places and I carry on conversations to various other channels. But the blog is the one point where I try to capture my revolving understanding. The principles around the blog are to always be positive, to never criticize unless it’s offering constructive alternatives to do it — and certainly never to criticize individuals or organizations directly. And to be engaged, so if anybody engages in any channel, I try to always engage and respond, to thank them, and to share related information.

So if you send me a transcript to this conversation, my responses is unlikely to be to edit it. It’s more likely to be to add some links out to other materials and resources.

So one part of it is the way of being in the world. The other thing which I try to do is I try to spend half of my time in the research and writing space — thinking about ideas — and half of my time in the very gritty, dirty, and untidy world of doing stuff about it.

That was the reason I set up Sea Salt Learning as an organization to work globally at enterprise level on doing it. All of the ideas in my writing I develop into a methodologies and models and we go on test them prototype.

I consider myself an explorer of the social age. I like to think about it, but I hope that my reputation will be around doing something about it. It’s not that I have no time for theorists, but I have more time for theorists who are also practitioners or theories that can be put into practice. So that’s the other way I try to address it — is to ground my work in real life.

Turning now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe — the open internet. What is that for you? How would you describe it?

In the simplest sense, it’s a space of potential. Ultimately, the internet is a space of connection and a space of sense making. By which I mean talking beyond the internet purely as infrastructure, but including the technologies and capabilities that are offered on top of it.

For example, search engines allow me to find stuff out. The multiple socially connective tools allow me to collaborate. The internet’s democratized and anonymized nature allow me to explore, rehearse, and prototype under many identities. We see all sorts of instances of that taking place.

I do have an overwhelmingly positive view of how the internet transforms us. I use that word deliberately because I believe that, again, the highest level of the internet is an extension of our universe in many ways.

It’s not a tool that we use. It’s part of our existence, increasingly part of our cognitive process and setup. We see the very sociology of behavioral characteristics that are changing as a result of this new space opening up.

Could you tell me about a specific time where this openness of the internet has been important to you, or if you’ve ever felt or benefited from that personally?

Again, I’ll answer that in two ways. One, I want to talk about an experience I had. I’m a mentor with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, a mentoring organization that connects mentors in developed economies — Germany, the UK, the US — with women who are operating micro-businesses in developing or emerging economies.

In the big wide world, it operates in the space of one-to-one connections, so one mentor, one mentee. Helping that person develop a more effective business model. These micro-businesses, sometimes, are run by just one woman. Sometimes, there are two or three or four employees — but they’re all small.

The theory is, by running a more successful business, there’s greater financial independence. Through greater financial independence and power comes political power and authority. Through political power and authority comes change.

For me, it’s a great example of how — although the internet is a tool of mass connectivity — the power of one-to-one connections is enormously facilitated through that. Those one-to-one connections can drive direct change.

I’ve now run five of these relationships over five years. None of these businesses have changed the world, but I’ve developed five direct connections with women in different countries around the world, places I’ve never visited and probably never will visit, doing amazing stuff at a really microscopic level.

That, in itself, is a valuable experience for me developmentally and speaks to the power of the internet, specifically the way that communication technology is now without borders. Communication technology was primitive and used to keep us apart. Now, it keeps us together. The distance of geography used to keep us apart. Yet now, it’s almost irrelevant in our communication. That’s the positive side of it.

The challenging side of it is that out of those relationships, in two instances the husband of the woman involved felt the need to interview me first, with the wife, to understand if the ideas that I’m going to share — the perspective I’ll bring — is one that is aligned with local cultural values. In one instance, the husband decided that he didn’t want his wife to be mentored because there wasn’t a fit, for whatever reason.

That’s interesting because it speaks of the flip side of the challenge, which is we think often of the internet and technologies as enabling and facilitating, which they can be. It helps people lead better lives but, also, it can open up new spaces of inequality. Not purely to do with lack of access to our understanding of technology — which are very often the factors we focus on: how can we get technology and signal into people’s hands? — but it’s to do with our global cultural differences and the inequalities that come about because of that.

It speaks to the wider emergence of a globally connected space where the participants are separated not just by geography, not just by law — of course, we are separated by law as well; in something like 80 countries in the world, for example, homosexuality is illegal or not yet decriminalized — we’re also separated by moral and ethical boundaries. If the technological challenges fall away, those challenges will likely come to the fore.

I’d really like to get your thoughts on the rise of cyber bullying, doxing, and similar types of behaviors, particularly targeting women and groups of people who are considered different in whatever way.

It’s very interesting. Again, there’s two aspects of this. One is that the internet is viewed — incorrectly very often — as a consequence-free space. Or, at least, we are able to claim a space that is free of consequence.

There are plenty of young people exploring their sexuality, exploring abuse, exploring aspects of their own identity, who are able to engage with other people in entirely anonymized manners. They’re able to rehearse their narrative of who they are themselves. They’re able to do that in a supporting community.

There are many examples of how this ability to claim a consequence-free space is a force for good. I would go far as to say there are people who are alive today because they have been able to find this space to explore, to share without judgment, to connect in many ways.

The flip side is that it’s a space without consequence. It’s a space that we have not yet figured out as a society how to use, how to manage, how to behave in. Many of the examples of abuse and bullying — and I know this is a really high level of generalization — are facilitated by the technology, but they speak of wider cultural failings.

The mistake, I believe, is to blame the technology or the technology provider because, essentially, these are cultural challenges. Just to stick with a simple example, if you have men who are abusing women on Twitter or on any kind of public forum, it’s likely that not many of those men would do it in public. They wouldn’t do it to your face. They wouldn’t do it in front of their wives, their mothers, their sons, their fathers. They do it because they’re in a space where somehow, they believe, they’re in a consequence-free environment, that some different set of rules apply.

I believe that we will see a continuing evolution of this. On the one hand, we see that there will be technological approaches to dealing with this, in as much as the rise of AIs and the rise of bots may just lead to, for example, an ability to connect with those people and swamp them with responses and input to the point where they’re simply unable to function. We may see that real-time semantic analysis of dialogues will allow for some kind of silencing of those voices, although that may leave us with a different ethical challenge, which is are we prepared to put up with the silencing of voices we don’t like — for all sorts of really good reasons, I should point out — if that means the silencing of voices? Because of course the same technologies that can be used to counter bullying are the same technologies that can be used to counter political opinion or dissent.

See the dialogue just today in the news about the U.S. elections and the rise of bots in controlling Twitter chat — effectively bots arguing with bots. At the same time, we see the emergence of AI-driven and AI-created forms of storytelling and the impact that will have on the writing of history, and things like that.

There’s no doubt that technology has unleashed a wave of violence, I would say, in simplest of terms. I believe that this manifestation of is transient. I just simply couldn’t tell you if what will come next will be different. We will find safe spaces, I’m sure of that. In the wild west of the internet, we’ll see the emergence of entirely gated communities where people will choose to spend their lives because they don’t want that paper-thin margin that separates them from the abuse. There will be ways of controlling that, because most people don’t want access to everything. They want a safe space to inhabit.

It’s a rapidly emerging picture and, indeed, in my last social leadership book — I’ve just released a second edition — and what I’ve expanded in that is the chapter on social capital, which is about equality and the responsibility of social leaders to fight for fairness and equality, and to address these kind of injustices. It’s a timely question.

How did you come to learn about Mozilla? And what is your level of involvement with them?

My involvement is what you call entirely social. I have no formal involvement. I’ve spoken to and met a few people both from the volunteers and the community around it. I’m aware of the Foundation.

Interestingly, the way I’ve been the most involved in it might actually be to have explored some of the challenges that Mozilla experienced around Brendan Eich. In fact, I wrote that up as one of my case studies around the emergence of social leadership. So I have a cursory understanding of the organization.

For me, Mozilla has been an identity community and, because of that, I had certain demands from it in terms of value alignment. That situation would have been fine if I was an employee in a company — that diversity of views is to be expected — but in an identity group it starts to feel contradictory. That was the challenge I faced.

Absolutely. Very interesting. It speaks to all of these wider points about the social age. An organization which isn’t defined by contractual relationships. An organization where brand value is held in the perception of the community, some of whom are employed, some of whom are loosely-employed, many of whom are not employed. And that’s where the value sits. So the decisions that are taken, the relative rise or fall in power of formal voices versus social voices, is a really a fascinating space.

Can you tell me about a time where Mozilla had some sort of impact on your work or the way you do things?

I wouldn’t say I have a strong story about it, but one of the things I have found interesting — with Mozilla more than anywhere actually — is my perception is that it’s in the DNA of these groups to figure stuff out, take it apart, put something together that works for Mozilla.

It’s one of the few times I’ve been asked directly about the rehashing, the reworking, the mash-up of some of my ideas into other places. In fact, just yesterday on Twitter, somebody from Mozilla was asking me, “Is it OK for us to mash-up the social leadership model?”

That’s interesting because I work to the principle of working out loud and sharing all my work openly. I don’t seek to earn a living by putting ideas behind paywalls. Anything that’s published in the book is also available openly. I believe that sometimes people like books because they’re beautiful objects. They’re nice, they’re artifacts.

Yet, of course, I still take pride, and of course earn my living from my ideas. So it’s an interesting challenge. How does one address that issue? Because I also believe we can’t apply old models of copyright and intellectual property in the same way. Yet we have to find ways of engaging that are fair and sustainable, and create the conditions where people will create as well as consume.

If I think of one thing which is unique to my relationship with Mozilla, it’s to the fact that there is such a culture of curiosity and interest, and yet it may be quite a young culture, I want to say in that sense. I don’t know the why the picture is — how your model, especially, matches up against some of the other tech organizations and giants. Because they are different models. I don’t know if, culturally, we’re just racing them to see who comes out first. I don’t know what the end of that story will be.

Thinking again about Mozilla, can you tell me about a time where it hasn’t met your expectations or you’ve been disappointed? Or, some piece of feedback that you would have.

I don’t think I could profess to have enough knowledge to understand it. The only example I could give you would be a fairly obvious one. Around the time of the challenge with Brendan Eich and the whole process of that evolution, there was a period of time when the organization threw up walls between itself and the community.

It’s response to questioning from the community was to reinforce the walls. I don’t think that was a typical expression of the culture of the organization. It was an aberration of what would normally be a highly community-engaged culture. It was very interesting to me that, at the time when he resigned — and I think it was, from memory, a period of a few days between the fires really catching and him moving out — and the organization, I believe, apologizing to the community.

I forget the lady’s name — I think she was director of education or something — who wrote the personal blog, which effectively ultimately gained higher social authority than the formal hierarchical authority of the organization.

I suspect that was one of the defining, learning moments for a socially-empowered entity, a socially-powered organization.

I don’t think I could pass judgment on it. I can only pass an observation of it.

How might these stories that we’re collecting be useful to you, of at all?

Whilst we might share stories now about specific instances, at the wider level I’m interested in how Mozilla is interested in stories. Storytelling is a key theme that runs through all of my work. There’s a whole chapter in the social leadership book on it. I use three levels of narrative in social learning design. The Socially Dynamic Organisation talks about storytelling approaches. I’m fascinated how you are co-defining approaches to using stories.

The key thing is the value in a community isn’t reciprocal like that. I don’t do something for you because you do something for me. I invest in community at a granular level — like a one-to-one conversation — because, at a macro-level, community supports us and empowers us in all sorts of ways. So our transaction today is not so much a transaction. I’m giving you some stories, and you’re giving me some kind of inspiration and insight. That’s pretty typical of how you build a high-functioning community. It’s one that has foundations of shared understanding and trust — the trust piece being what I’m exploring at the moment in research — and then when you call for help, it answers.