Friday, December 11, 2009


Over the last few weeks I've been reading a fascinating book entitled THE GHOST MAP by Steven Johnson, that details the story behind the 1854 cholera outbreak in London and the efforts of a few men, including the physician Dr. John Snow, to isolate the cause.

Dr. Snow is perhaps most celebrated for developing the titular "Ghost Map" that (and this is simplifying the process) helped form a visual correlation between the number of deaths and the proximity of the contaminated water pump that turned out to be the root cause.

It's a fascinating book for anyone interested in social sciences, history, biology, and communication. A large part of the story discusses how Snow culled information from a variety of apparently disparate sources, some written, some verbal, and his own observations and bought them together to develop one of the most celebrated examples of technical communication and visual design of the modern age.

But the book itself has one great failing - it doesn't include a copy of the map! You know the map that is referenced in the title of the book? The map that has a whole chapter to it and to which the author constantly refers. A map that is in the public domain and widely available on the net. Yes THIS map.

Here is a great example of setting up a reader / user expectation and failing to meet it. The quality of the content in this book was excellent, yet the one thing I will remember most (and obviously decided to blog about) was that single point of failure.

So how does this relate to corporate communications - simply put - make sure that you deliver the content you promise - even if it's an implied promise. And titles are the first place you set up expectations of what's to follow. Make sure you deliver.

So to make sure I deliver on my promise, what does the Ghost Map have to do with the Social Web? In the later two chapters Johnson goes on to discuss the impact of Snow's work on science in general and the use of cartography in mapping social trends.

In that discussion on maps he makes the following observation:

"The amateurs are producing the most interesting work, precisely because they have the most textured, granular experience of their community."

An astute observation and not one that just applies to cartography projects, - it also applies to the changing face of corporate communications and social media. The day of the 'experts' being the sole trusted source of information. As Don Tappscott & Anthony Williams put it in their book Wikinomics:

"There are always more smart people outside your enterprise boundaries than there are inside."

In London in 1854 the experts inside the organization, i.e. the Government, were convinced it was the mythical 'miasma' that was killing people. It took informed 'amateurs' to identify the root cause and develop the documentation to prove their case.

Any organization today should be listening to, and encouraging, the participation of the smart people outside.

Imagine if Dr. John Snow had access to a wiki, or Twitter?