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Anil Dash on entrepreneurship, government and the future of the social Web

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Today’s Q-and-A is with blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash.  Anil will be speaking at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 10, at SmartBrief on Social Media Advisory Board Member Debbie Weil‘s Sweets and Tweets event in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. I’ll be there, too, so come on out and we’ll share a cupcake with Anil.

As a technologist and business consultant, what advice do you have for companies about the future of social communication online?

Perhaps the most important thing to realize about this new era of the social Web is that this isn’t a story about technology. We focus so much on tools and technology, features and functionality. But the social Web is an engine of cultural change, and social changes that used to take years or even decades to disseminate through society are happening orders of magnitude faster.

And that’s an opportunity! The natural reaction of a lot of people and institutions to that sort of radical change is a little bit of trepidation. But if, instead, we can see it as an opportunity to empower people who want to create and shape culture, then all of a sudden we can imagine a lot of different new abilities we couldn’t have had before.

At a more practical, less theoretical level, what I end up talking to companies and organizations about is how to see the social Web as a platform for realizing efforts that in the past would have been impractical because they required too much resources, too many people or just plain too much cost. That’s an exciting environment for innovation.

Tell us a little about Expert Labs, your newest venture, which is part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and funded by the McArthur Foundation.

I’m extraordinarily proud and excited of what we’re doing at Expert Labs. At its most ambitious level, the mission of our little organization is to help policymakers in the federal government make better decisions by letting them crowdsource answers to their questions from the scientific community and the public at large.

In more day-to-day terms, what we’re doing is building an open-technology platform that lets someone ask a question across social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Google and then intelligently process the responses that come back, even if they number in the hundreds or thousands. We’re not removing the process of judgment for policymakers, but instead giving them a wider set of data points to make their judgments from, by opening up to the social Web instead of just a few hand-picked experts who are invited to a closed-door meeting.

Most amazingly, the first client for this technology platform is the White House. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is defining a list of Grand Challenges: The big problems facing society and our country that are going to yield the most important breakthroughs in science, technology and pure research — think of the next moon landing, or the next human genome sequencing. And they want the public’s help, especially the scientific community’s. So they’ll be using the platform we’re making at Expert Labs, called ThinkTank, as part of their set of tools for getting broad public input on that question. Meanwhile, we’ll be using our access as part of AAAS to connect with the scientific community and get their input early and often for the White House to read, review and incorporate into the initiative.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking to start a new venture at this moment in time?

The first thing to understand is that entrepreneurship is not a rational act. It’s a calling that requires an irrational belief in a vision, one that transcends the fact that most businesses fail and most ideas aren’t that good and that execution is a stumbling block that trips up most people who try. We try to wrangle with this reality by doing lots of detailed analyses and making fancy spreadsheets and reading elaborate case studies about what businesses or ventures have worked in the past. But it is worth reckoning with the reality that there is some large part of entrepreneurship that is an act of faith.

And that leads to the most important learning: We have to be responsible. If we’re going to pour our efforts, our dollars, our time, our hearts and souls into an entrepreneurial effort, then we have to think of what the meaningful driver behind that effort is. If we’re going to participate in an act of faith, then it can’t merely be for the hopes of getting rich, or because of some insecurity-driven competitive urge. It has to be because we have a real belief in our ability to make the world better and more equitable, it has to be predicated on the idea that we can create opportunities for others, and it has to be grounded in the concept that entrepreneurship can be a force for good.

You can’t succeed as an entrepreneur if you can’t say that you believe in something, and that it’s something meaningful and important, and that it’s a mission that justifies our irrational and optimistic decision to make sacrifices, work our butts off, and choose the uniquely difficult and rewarding path of being an entrepreneur.

Image credit, Robert Adrian Hillman, via Shutterstock