Category Archives: Bruce Sterling

Micromedia futures or the emperor’s new clothes?

Disposable, atomised media is all the rage and I’m as guilty as the next person of wallowing in it.

Web 2.0 and all its trimmings is no exception to this trend, in fact it glories in all things transient.* But what does it add up to? This question is an itch worth scratching, so sometimes we revisit particular events after their initial outing.

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze at ad:tech 2008 L-R Miles Lewis of Last.fm, Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze at ad:tech 2008 L-R Miles Lewis of Last.fm, Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick

Which is why, after it’s May 2008 debut (which garnered some good coverage), Chinwag Live took the Micro Media Maze panel on tour to the annual ad:tech London expo in Olympia on September 24th 2008, for an afternoon session on the issues of widgetised, disaggregated media – exploring the trends they embody and are driving forward.

PANEL:
Umair Haque – Director, Havas Media Lab /Bubblegeneration / Harvard Business Online
Miles Lewis – SVP European Advertising Sales, Last.fm
Nick Halstead – CEO & Founder, fav.or.it
Chair: Steve Bowbrick – digital media consultant & entrepreneur

Steve Bowbrick opened by remarking that we’re coming to the end of the IP4 phase of the internet and moving into IP6 (what happened to IP 5 nobody knows). In IP 6, there is 2 times the power of 52 addresses to every star in the universe.

This fits with the trend that we see emerging today in the digital world of everything being connected to everything else.

Every device – whether it’s a PC, or a phone – can have its own address in the IP space, Steve said. Steve I’ll raise you a bunny and the arrival of that old stalwart the interactive fridge :-) . Conjuring up a picture of billions of interconnected end points, this reminded me somewhat of Bruce Sterling’s concept of spime but I digress…

The micro media era – content unbound

Micromedia” – a term coined independently by both panellist Umair Haque and new media theorist Lev Manovich in 2005 – held out the promise of content being able to move between these fixed places (or IP points), to be unbundled and rendered remixable; the resulting formations of which could unlock new sources of value. Steve Bowbrick didn’t mention this explicitly, but it’s worth revisiting Haque’s original 2005 Media Economics Powerpoint presentation. The implications certainly informed the discussion.

Nick Halstead of fav.or.it observed that widgets are catering to the ability to customize, another trend we’ve seen explode over the last few years as media becomes more personalised. In turn, the widgets provided by MyBlogLog, Digg, etc, are using the medium in a very viral way, he noted.

fav.or.it’s widgets expose what widgets are popular on fav.or.it. There’s also an attention tracking element to their widgets, Halstead explained, as they’re tracking the number of seconds each user who has installed the widget spends on it and on the sites / URLs visited via the widget.

Widgets and the media balance sheet…

Last.fm now has 21 million users and an additional 19 million more people coming in through widgets. But they have a problem, as their SVP of advertising Miles Lewis explained. They can’t monetise people who only visit and experience Last.fm on widgets, and hence can’t pay for the music rights (publishing, recording and streaming rights).

Currently, there are 350m active Last.fm widgets [I need to check the podcast coming this week to verify this figure], and they also have free streaming on the iPod. Their recent re-design has helped them in terms of streaming rights and deals with the labels, Lewis explained.

But, Steve Bowbrick asked, isn’t that reversing the entire widgetisation trend? To which Lewis replied:

“It’s less about reversing a trend than it’s about building a bigger widget that has an ad on it.”

‘Last.fm In A Box’ is a new solution they’re working on, Lewis revealed [see Mashable and CNET‘s coverage of the announcement in June 2008]. If you click on the link, it opens a player and a commercial message starts that you can then minimise if you wish to proceed immediately. It’s on Rockstar.com on the Guitar Hero game.

Nick Halstead of Tweetmeme & Mile Lewis of Last.fm

Nick Halstead of Tweetmeme & Miles Lewis of Last.fm

Trojan horse for toxic media?

Umair Haque took the premise of widgets – and media more broadly – to task.

“We need to step back and realise that if we use widgets to bring the same old paradigm, that trend will eat itself, as it has done on Wall Street. The stuff we trade in, in media, is in danger of becoming toxic waste.

Now I’ve heard of toxic boyfriends and toxic hangovers before ;-) , and this week’s been all about toxic debts in financial markets, but toxic media was a new one for me. Haque posited an alternative:

“Ads have to become benefits for consumers – communication as benefit, not cost. Media and communications need to help people improve their abilities.”

“But most media – all the stuff we’re surrounded by here at ad:tech – is about making stuff 1% more efficient than it currently is. Most widgets are just distribution mechanisms for the same old junk, and these widgets are about amplifying the devaluation of that junk.”

Off-the-peg widgets for social networks

From the audience Miko Coffey asked the panel’s view on Widgetbox, which allows creation of widgets on the fly that run on Bebo, Myspace and the like.

Miles Lewis replied that Last.fm are open source. Nick Halstead explained that fav.or.it supports Creative Commons licensing, but the problem is that many of these sites promise to deliver widgets that work everywhere but they’re still not mass market enough.

Another audience member from a charity told how they had created an alcohol tracking widget, where users could enter their intake of alcohol and track how that changed and added up over time. How could they get older people to use this widget, when use of this media is dominated by a young audience?

Game-changing moves and creating new markets

Umair Haque turned the question around.

“Nintendo would never have created the Wii if they’d asked who the average game player was. Ten years ago, we never would have thought that old people would be playing games.”

Implicit in Haque’s statement was the understanding that Nintendo have eschewed recycling the same old ideas and assumptions in a new wrapper. Instead, they have done something different and created a whole new market in the process.

He cited companies like Kiva, who have pioneered micro-lending to entrepreneurs in developing countries, as salutary in that regard (the Grameen micro-financing initiative is in a similar vein and was recently mentioned by Vint Cerf in a piece for The Guardian). They show how enabling micro-transactions in a counter-intuitive fashion (from the financial norm in this instance) have been incredibly powerful and transformative.

Business models and the limits of social media

Another audience member who only wished to be identified as coming from “a social networking property”, asked about Last.fm’s business model. Lewis explained it was fourfold: advertising, affiliates, subscriptions, and on the biz dev side, a client like a retailer could use Last.fm In A Box to stream music and place an ad it, so people could listen to that while on the retailers website.

I took this to mean a white labelled widget or plug-in powered by Last.fm that adds ambience to a site, and the user experience, and monetises itself simultaneously.

While the crowd-pulling seminars at ad:tech London seemed to revolve around monetising social media, it seemed that our panel was more frank about the progress made to date. Last.fm, as the poster child of the UK’s Web 2.0 scene (they spoke alongside Skype at the first Beers & Innovation event I organised in February 2006), is still to turn a profit despite its huge audience. Since its acquisition by CBS/ Viacom, it has leeway to continue to grow whilst it pursues this objective.

The next wave of micro media

In turn, the economic shocks reverberating around the world should give us pause for thought. Perhaps the recession we’re poised to enter will precipitate new ways of creating value, and innovative services and strategies that foster that. Recall that game-changing services Craigslist and Flickr were born out of the utility and creativity fostered in the downtime of the last doctcom bust. Keeping an eye on mobile services is probably a good idea.

Steve Bowbrick, reflecting on the session, gives his view:

“The business of marketers should be to invest in durable, authentic content and experiences for their customers, not coming up with increasingly effective ways of taking them to the cleaners. At a conference and trade show devoted to online advertising I think this was a good message to leave behind.”

Whatever happens, we should assume that while micro media may be here to say, its deployment by companies and organisations is not intrinsically clever.

Instead, what will make micro media strategies fly is a combination of experimental chutzpah and purpose to solve real problems. Or else, like Haque says, it could just be about making stuff 1% more efficient, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

[* Of course Web 2.0 has many upsides too, collaborative software being my particular favourite, and services such as Zopa]

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PREVIOUS EVENTS ON WIDGETS & MICRO MEDIA:

Beers & Innovation: Aggregator & Upsetters – October 2006 (event report)

Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised – May 2007 (event report)

Mobile Monday London: Mobile Widgets – May 2007

Chinwag Live on Tour: Media Widgetised at ad:tech London – September 2007

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze – May 2008 (event report)

Interesting bits round-up for 19 May 2007

First Moblog from Mount Everest!

The Call Of The Mountain (via Alfie). Forget lazy usage of the word and of the moblogging medium – this is literally awesome. Or at least it will be if mountaineer Rod Baber can get a signal further up there – there hasn’t been any posts since he left base camp. Hope it goes safely.

[BTW, have you seen the total makeover of MoblogUK?]

Capturing & sharing fragments in time…

At Minibar in East London on 20th April the standout demo was Rememble. It’s a Flash-based social timeline that can save content – from images and emails to text messages and audio – as ‘membles’, taking them from mobile phones, PCs, digital cameras and web services.

Coming soon from the workshop of Gavin O’Carroll -  a talented guy and fellow Northern Ireland exile who I got to meet at Chinwag Live Media Widgetised on Wednesday – it’s still behind a beta-testing wall (but you can get a beta account). Conceptually, Rememble is an original twist on life-caching propositions and poised to break new ground. Convergence in action!

Ego run amok is so 2.0 

Nice little riposte from Twatter.org – clearly built by a Britisher ;-)

What’s up with web culture? 

Bruce Sterling’s rant podcast from SXSW 2007 – egad, just do yourself a massive favour and listen to it [warning - the contents of this podcast may flatten your pretentions but that's why it's so refreshing]

Last but not least…

Happy Widget Week :-) It rounds-off at Beers & Innovation: Widget Nation on Tuesday 22nd May. Hope to see a few of you there.

SXSW notes: Bruce Sterling Presentation – The State Of The World

Never one to limit his horizons, this talk saw the cyberpunk author, tech visionary and all-round web guru range across global and local politics (especially those of the former Yugoslavia, where he has recently been living), the environment, technology, design and society.

Segueing between topics with remarkable lucidity and an implicit logical bent, allusions were littered elegantly among the sometimes incantation-like ebbs and flows of his sentences.

This was Sterling at full throttle, and the over 1,000 strong audience were largely frozen with what can only be summed up as astonishment, as if petrified for 60 minutes solid at the sight of an oncoming tidal wave.

But the talk was the opposite of a preacher’s bombastic sermon that manipulates, mesmerises and undermines independent thinking. Rather, it was questioning, often provisional and truly exploratory of events and ideas in the world today.

Afterwards the throng shuffled out silently, reliance on small-talk fully undermined, the waves of aftershock pulsating through the hall.

A laser beam of Texan foresight…

That he achieved this while also speaking so passionately that he wept on stage was visibly discomforting for some (mostly young, mostly male) in the audience. The irony of course being that Sterling could out-ironise any wisecracking kidult in a nano-second, but sometimes, as he understands, you have to fly by those nets.

I took only partial notes on this talk, relating to his perspectives on his new concept of SPIME.

However other things crept in and overlaid these segments, so the effect is a little kaleidoscopic and sometimes obtuse, removed as it is from the fuller context of everything he said. It’ll take some unpacking, which is partly what made it so tantalising and resonant…

The comic artist is becoming the public intellectual Sterling asserted, citing warrenellis.com. Shortly afterwards, he noted that “the unimaginable does not mean catastrophic”, citing how the economic growth of China is often construed. We should remember, he stressed, that it’s *people* who are doing this in China.

A tag and a theory object…

Then he turned to SPIME. Tracing its evolution he recounted that it emerged in 2004 in a speech he gave at Siggraph and in his 2005 book on award-winning graphic design Shaping Things.

SPIME is not a word but a tag, he continued, a theory object! As such, it depends on the popular consensus on what it means. Likewise, William Gibson’s “cyberspace” is a consensual hallucination, a brain experience, and already it has a period feel to it.

This is the SPIME elevator pitch, but it’s not the shape the tag SPIME will eventually take as it’s thrown out into the blogosphere churn of information.

SPIME has an RFID chip in it and a tag, it has a local precise positioning system, it’s Google Maps and a powerful search engine, it’s involved in cradle-to-cradle recycling because you can break it down and re-use the junk. It was virtually designed, a product of CADCamp; it’s rapidly prototyped; it’s a fabject.

Alex Stephen at WorldChanging.com has a new book coming out, an index of the ways out of the smoke-filled cinema, he noted by way of analogy. People will interact with this object in ways we can’t imagine or describe. SPIME because it’s trackable in space and time.

Building an internet of things…

Open and participatory, SPIMEs begin and end as data because they’re virtual objects first and physical objects second. We want to build an internet of *things*.

The real reason we’ll do it, if we ever do it, is because of the way it *feels* – automatic magical inventory voodoo. A lot of people are at work on the internet of things. What it needs is distributed intelligence; it will only work if people find it useful and get value from it.

It’s a new world and a new tag, the semantic web is turning into the wetlands of language. A theory object is a word for a platform of development… it’s just a different type of social activism.

Become the change we want to happen…

People who read the papers and watch TV and don’t engage with all the other stuff, linkages and trackbacks, these are *legacy* people. Words that turn on their creator like Frankenstein – but the creator *is* Frankenstein…

Later, at the end of his talk he emphasised that if we’re going to get anywhere, we need to become the change we want to be. Make no decision out of fear. What is required is a great regional novel about the planet earth, he concluded. And the cure for the panic stampede is to be found in historical perspective.

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Sterling grew up in Austin and is a regular fixture at the festival. In 2007, in addition to another talk (yipee!), he is taking part in the EFF/EFF-Austin SXSW Futures of the Past Steampunk Extravaganza after-dark event. Verily the SXSWi massive are spoiling us and we like it  ;-) 

London podcast

[For more Sterling brainfood – this time on the environment, alpha geeks, media, technology and Web 2.0 – check out the podcast of his New Statesman-hosted talk in London, April 2006. Sterling was *so* on form that night and this is pure quality]

My other SXSW Interactive 2006 session reports:

What’s In A Title?
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2006/03/15/whats-in-a-title-sxswi-notes/

Beyond Folksonomies – Knitting Tag Clouds For Grandma
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2006/03/22/sxsw-notes-beyond-folksonomies-knitting-tag-clouds-for-grandma/

Book Digitisation & The Revenge Of The Librarians
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2006/03/23/sxsw-notes-book-digitisation-and-the-revenge-of-the-librarians/

James Surowiecki on The Wisdom Of Crowds
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2006/04/07/sxsw-surowiecki-on-the-wisdom-of-crowds/

Running Your New Media Business
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2006/11/07/sxsw-notes-running-your-new-media-business/

SXSW notes: The Perfect Pitch
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2006/11/09/sxsw-notes-the-perfect-pitch/

What People Are Really Doing On The Web
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2006/12/18/sxsw-notes-what-people-are-really-doing-on-the-web/

Commons Based Business Models
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2007/01/08/sxsw-notes-commons-based-business-models/

Danah Boyd – Current TV interview
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2007/01/12/sxsw-notes-danah-boyd-current-tv-interview/

DIY Media – Consumer Is The Producer
http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2007/01/19/sxsw-notes-consumer-is-the-producer-–-diy-media/ 

See all SXSW Interactive 2006 daytime panels here:
http://2006.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/

See the SXSW Interactive 2007 website