I was recently asked that oh-so-common question — which Americans think is an obvious and practical way to start a conversation with an unknown person, and which many other cultures find mildly offensive — “What do you do?”
I know the idea is to quickly triangulate on topics of potential common interest, or even to establish common friends who may be lawyers, doctors, or artisanal donut makers. And leaving aside the possibility for establishing some sort of rank in the social hierarchy — “I’m the executive director of The Daily Show” versus “I’m an artist and part-time plumber” — I took a left turn at that cocktail party (a political fund raiser, actually), and actually started to describe what I do. I mean that of instead of just providing a brief label — “I’m a research analyst and futurist” — instead I explained how I spend my time.
This is a somewhat expanded version of my monologue at the fund raiser. And I thought it would be interesting, especially as I am coming up on the end of the first year as a GigaOM lead analyst, here, in the Social and Future of Work focus area.
What do I do?
Because of a natural tendency toward looking underneath every rock I stub my toe on, I spending a great deal of time digging into what I consider my areas of inquiry and writing about what I find. Those areas are varied, but share common foundations: I am a long-time student of people. I earned a degree in biology from UMass, Amherst, and studied other aspects of the human mind there: psychology, linguistics, poetry, languages, anthropology. At one time I was heading toward a PhD program in linguistics, but I encountered computers and fell through that looking-glass, getting my masters in computer science from Boston University.
After a decade as a software researcher and entrepreneur in software tools — I invented the Modular C programming language, among other things — I became interested in what I called collaboration tools and which slowly evolved into the social tools we are using today. In fact I coined the term ‘social tools’ in 1999 in the final issue of my old Message newsletter. And I coined ‘hashtag’ in 2007, providing the name for Chris Messina’s innovation.
In the old days — prior to 2010 — I spent a great deal of time consulting with start-ups, but today I do little of that, partly because of the changes in funding for start-ups — they need little to get going, and have little time to involve themselves in the opinions of advisors — and partly because I am less interested nowadays in the success of any particular company, and much more interested in the ways that the world of work has changed, is changing, and will change in the future. Instead of acting as an advocate for client companies I think of myself as an advocate for posterity. I feel I am working to advance new principles for the world of work, and the people who occupy it. However, I am happy to work with companies on briefings, executive retreats, and speaking engagements, when the relationship makes sense.
In specific, in any given week I receive or give briefings to a handful of companies’ representatives, generally software vendors. I write about new products, market trends, acquisitions and funding, and the other activities surrounding the technologies companies and individuals use to get their work done.
I read a great deal — upwards of four or five hours a day. Basically, if I am not doing something else, I am reading. I read with the avidity of an addict, searching for the next insight, a new pointer, a nexus of brilliant conversation.
I write a great deal. In any week I write between 15 and 30 blog posts at GigaOM Research and other blogs, notably stoweboyd.com. The Socialogy series at stoweboyd.com has over a dozen interviews with people like John Hagel, Brian Solis, and Megan Murray. And I have written several reports this year, averaging 30 pages each, and plan at least one more, probably on the general drivers in work management tools. My focus is generally the future of work, and under that umbrella social business fits nicely, but so do human cognition, organizational culture, and the changing nature of the social compact.
I am striving to write a book, but I have been unable to complete it, and I have started over twice already. I have slowed my travel to a crawl, since it is so disruptive, and so I am hoping to be able to finish a draft in the next three months. To do so, I have become much more organized about my work and study, and I hope to have a full day each week to dedicate to the book starting 1 November.
One of my deep beliefs is that I am part of a movement, perhaps one of its loudest and well-known advocates, a movement that believes that we should all be able to find deeper meaning and purpose in our work, even as businesses learn to move faster to match the pace of a relentless world economy. One of my goals is to help organize that movement, to make it more tangible, connected, and self-aware.
So, that’s what I do.
Toward that last paragraph — helping to organize the movement — I will be making an announcement in the next week. If you’d like to be alerted when that information comes out, or to get updates on my book project, you can sign up for the mailing list, here.