Category Archives: Citizen Media

Open Plaques: joining the blue dots

Writing in the Telegraph last year, Stephen Fry reflected: “Many of us like to believe that we understand the point of history. We all pay lip service to the idea that yesterday makes today, but it is hard to make the imaginative leap that truly connects us to the past. It is as if we are forced to move forwards in such a narrow passageway of time that the act of stopping to look behind us is difficult.”

Fry surmised that the UK’s blue plaques – erected to mark the physical locations occupied by people from history who have left a notable mark on our culture – were a living corrective to this. But are they really? What if these inert short-form stories were re-animated by augmenting the physical markers with a layer of digital information that made looking back in time from the present day a far easier, richer and more immediate experience? Wouldn’t that be a greater step forward in terms of bringing history to life?

WB Yeats open plaque on Flickr courtesy of ChicagoGeek

Even as Fry was writing this in June 2009, a project was already underway do just that – to open up that heritage and make it accessible, expanding the narrow passageway of time that Fry lamented.

Credit to kickstarting this goes to Frankie Roberto who came away from a conference on mobile learning for the museums and archives sector in January 2009 with a bee in his bonnet:

“You see them everywhere – especially when sat on the top deck of a double-decker bus in London – and yet the plaques themselves never seem that revealing. You’ve often never heard of the person named, or perhaps only vaguely, and the only clue you’re given is something like “scientist and electrical engineer” (Sir Ambrose Fleming) or “landscape gardener” (Charles Bridgeman).

I always want to know more. Who are these people, what’s the story about them, and why are they considered important enough for their home to be commemorated? I’d like to be able to find out all this, and to do so at the point at which I stumble across a plaque – which to me suggests something on a mobile platform.”

In the 15 months since, this desire for deeper and more accessible context to these static emblems has crystallized in the Open Plaques initiative. An open source community project; it is also community-driven by necessity, due mainly to the data surrounding the UK plaques being fragmented between hundreds of bodies, and not only inconsistent but sometimes totally absent.

It gathered momentum when Frankie’s early efforts caught the attention of Jez Nicholson, Simon Harriyott and Marvin Baretto who’d already (coincidentally) teamed-up to do a blue plaques project for the Open Hack London event in May 2009. So it happened that they prototyped a website that could pull this information together.

Open Plaques London Map

The Open Plaques service which emerged from this ad-hoc grouping (which I joined later last year) synthesises a number of tactics and workarounds to overcome the challenges it faces. As the plaques by their very existence are in public domain, Frankie has made a series of Freedom of Information requests for data and records of the plaques to several of the bodies that hold them, so they can aggregate them together and offer the data in standardised form for free re-use by others.

In turn, the already existent Blue Plaques group on Flickr proved useful and amenable, and the idea of using images from Flickr on the Open Plaques service gained an important leg-up when Flickr agreed to grant a “machine tag” option to photographs of plaques uploaded under a Creative Commons licence.

It’s remarkably simple and works like this: each plaque location listed on the Open Plaques database (which you can search on their site by name, place or organisation) has a number. When the number is added as a machine code in the tags of the corresponding photograph on Flickr by the user – and if the user gives the photo a Creative Commons licence – the image is pulled from Flickr onto the Open Plaques website. The service also allows geo co-ordinates to be imported.

The site itself is still in Alpha phase of development but is already substantially populated – with 38.44% of 2297 known plaques in the database now having a corresponding machine-tagged photograph.

William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect on Flickr courtesy of Sleekit

The whole project is still in the earliest of stages. Making it fully functional and accessible on mobile devices still lies ahead. Any number of possibilities for what could be done going forward suggest themselves. But in the very act of pulling it together, it already bears the DNA stamp of what it could some day become. The plaques themselves encapsulate people-powered history: a history of action, ideas and invention. Open Plaques has the potential to transform them into a living resource – and make each one a porthole that helps us connect with, understand and traverse moments in place and time, just like Stephen Fry said.

Re-shaping historical interest points nationwide as dynamic experiences is a mammoth task but Open Plaques – which is unfunded and 100% volunteer based – is already gearing up for a productive 2010. In February, Simon and Frankie attended the first ever English Heritage conference on commemorative plaques (yes, they’re not all blue) to find out more about the organisation’s thinking and plans, and talk to people about the initiative. Simon also talked about the project at last week’s £5 App Meet in Brighton.

In the meantime, we need more people to help fill up the image database – yes that’s you Flickr users! – plus help with the technical development. Spreading the word also matters and you can stay in the loop by following Open Plaques on Twitter.

Any input is welcome. You can even source and suggest plaques that aren’t on the website’s (incomplete) list. So if you’d like to get involved in connecting past and present, and do some local or further-afield exploring in the process, visit the site’s Contribute page for more instructions, see Jez’s blog and the Open Plaques group for simple Flickr tips or get in touch directly, and lend a hand in joining the blue dots.

[UPDATE 12/5/10] We now have an Open Plaques blog and I’ve added my first post: Meet the time bandits.


Delete, not fade away and radiate?

As digital capture of our lives edges ever closer to ubiquity – and that seems to be where we’re heading – what are the consequences for memory and for judgement on both a personal and societal scale? Is it a curse or just a new aspect of the modern age that we’re inevitably making some mistakes in coming to terms with?

That’s the subject of a new book ‘Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In A Digital Age’, and on 19th November I attended a talk at the RSA given by the author Victor Mayer-Schonberger, director of the information and innovation policy research centre at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which was ably chaired by Kevin Anderson, Blogs Editor (now Digital Research Editor since December ’09) at The Guardian.

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In The Digital Age at the RSA, 19th November 2009

It’s a wide ranging topic, and a lot was covered, but the crux was this: the growing tendency to default to digitally documenting and sharing experience is creating a digital legacy that we as individuals are not fully able to control. In many cases this can lead to information being taken out of context, or shared beyond appropriate boundaries, with baleful (and other, still unknown) consequences.

Take a trio of now commonplace examples. The innocent party photo passed through Facebook or stored in Flickr or Google’s image archive means you’re passed over for a promotion or job, or sacked from your current one. The long past relationship is made ever present by related content from that time being accessible at the push of a button and compounded by current two or three-degrees connection to the ex. The holiday or special occasion is experienced less as something we live through intensely in the moment and later recollect at leisure, but is constantly punctuated with recording for posterity and increasingly stylised and calculated for the consumption of a small or not-so-small audience.

The second interlinked thesis is that our slowly evolved patterns of memory, learning and recollection are being distorted and un-bound by reliance on digital recording and storage. Memory reconstructs the past to minimise cognitive dissonance, the author explained. This is more potent and interesting, if an area I’m less familiar with. Normally, we cannot deliberately forget (for the reverse, see Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s fantastic movie Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) and memory naturally both selects, filters and deteriorates over time. But if the default is moving to not physiologically but digitally remembering, is the solution to delete?

Mayer-Schonberger is himself ambivalent about this, but citing a woman known as “AJ” he shared some compelling evidence of studies of human beings who have biological difficulties with forgetting. AJ experiences total recall as a curse. Tethered by an ever more detailed recollection of what has gone before, she is continually haunted by the past; resulting in an inability to live in the present, to generalise and to abstract from experience.

Another worrying consequence touched on by Mayer-Schonberger is our mass participation and compliance in the creation of a temporal Panopticon – in other words our collusion in the ability of institutions to store and always see our actions at any moment in time. My colleague Ian Delaney has written about this more eloquently than I can.

Accelerating referencing of digital content taken out of context – according to Mayer-Schonberger – means we also increasingly deny each other the capacity to change, evolve and grow and as such we are becoming a more unforgiving society. He floated an extreme scenario: what if we disregard our own recollection and instead depend solely on digital memory? Wouldn’t we have lost more than we had gained?

Clearly a thought experiment, he added the caveat that as only fragments of our experience are captured digitally, this cannot actually happen in totality. The problems right now – as mentioned with the careers, relationship and holiday examples – come when it happens on a piecemeal, ad hoc or imperceptible basis.

Solutions proposed by Mayer-Schonberger, include:

(1) Reintroduce forgetting by technological means – an expiration date put on information that we are prompted to input when we add time and GPS co-ordinates to data (or more simply, when we save it). The pitfall of this approach is if it’s public it can be copied by others and stored elsewhere.

(2) “Digital rusting” – a closer approximation of the tactile and receeding nature of memory. The issue with this is how we can know at the point of recording how we might feel about the material in the future. This might be a workable model for some public data, but personal information (and creation) has different implications, and personal and public often overlap. Ultimately, I feel current and future historians might beg to differ with this approach.

(3) Go back to forgetting by default. This means either we cease to record and save information (not gonna happen), or that we forget we have done so – which is a much worse nightmare! The key I think is that information, however private or public, somehow needs to be understood and placed in differing temporal and social dimensions.

(4) The dark side of the network – and the downside of the end of silos – is that because social conventions lag behind the increasing openness of information it’s easy to find “personal” information about “impersonal” connections, and once this data is exposed and fed into to impersonal judgements it’s not so easy to get a second chance. The solution? We should promote the exercise of judgement [privately and publicly, I presume], argued Mayer-Schonberger. Guy Parsons shared an optimistic twist on this at Chinwag Live: The Dark Side Of Social Media, an event I organised back in 2007. But not all elements of society will consistently act this way, so the risk remains.

If the wisest survival response is then self-censorship, how far should you go? Even private use of search engines is not immune. Mayer-Schonberger cited AOL’s now infamous search query datastream release c*ck-up in 2006, wherein the supposedly anonymized data of search records was rapidly traced by technologists at the New York Times to some of the individuals who’d created it. What if it you had been one of them? In turn, how much does constant watchfulness really benefit public and personal development? Is it right that privacy is being eroded so much that we need to be so careful?

Nico Macdonald made the point that you can’t code the solutions to social problems. This seemed uncontroversial as I don’t think much store has been put by the “expiry date” solution in responses to the book. We shouldn’t be “subjected” to technology but be more active in shaping it, he inferred. Perhaps that’s what we really need reminded of.

Much was said about search engines and the Internet Archive even got a namecheck. But the cash-strapped Internet Archive is shrinking not growing I’ve noticed. Google is dependent on the trust of its users, and that trust is tantamount to its business model Mayer-Schonberger stressed. But a recent remark by Google’s Eric Schmidt tells us this is changing. Facebook now faces the same issue. Despite their recent announcement about the Open Graph API and their latest privacy settings swerve, most people expect privacy from Facebook. Whether or not that expectation is foolish, Facebook could still be wrong-footed by being too open.

Returning to recall for a moment, timelines are something I’ve always thought that, conversely, digital content could do with more of but their genesis requires some subtlety and serious forethought. Fear of interrogating the past could diminish us as much as it might protect us. Surely it’s a function of human enquiry and maturity to be able to embrace our past, to reflect on and dwell in it on occasion without becoming paralysed like AJ? Why would the digital storage and referencing of past information stop us from being able to interpret it wisely and still live in the present? This is really where Mayer-Schonberger and I part paths.

Flexible and reliable privacy settings are just a feature that should come with such services. The first one I came across was Rememble, which enabled you save and store selected text messages, blogs, tweets, photos and other content in a visual timeline. Creator Gavin O’Carroll likened it in 2007 to a washing line for your digital bits and pieces. It was a narrative-led yet accessible framework for piecing together fragmented content and reconstructing memories, conversations and events at the personal level.

If you’re looking to place stuff in a larger historical context, a landmark project – sadly no longer existent – came in the form of Miomi. It was an exciting melding of content from different sources to create user generated history that I saw demoed at the Minibar start-up event in Brick Lane in 2007. Miomi allowed the user to zoom in and out of particular years and decades over the last century and a half and see relevant content (eg. from Wikipedia and public digital records) relating to that time, and also location, as well as annotating and adding their own. Unsurprisingly the more contemporary part was already very detailed. I’m doubtful it would have scaled well in terms of moderation and accuracy, but its ambition was refreshing. I’m sure it’s next-gen version is being cooked up somewhere.

So digital permanence was the dish of the day at the RSA. But the opposite view – that digital is an extremely fragile and ephemeral medium for so much of human culture and activity to be engraved and invested in, and that we should make far more effort to selectively and robustly archive it – wasn’t voiced at this event. Paradoxically digital content is both brittle and persistent, transitory and important. There is no black or white answer to seek refuge in.

Finally the context question. In his talk Mayer-Schonberger seemed to side with the view that personal digital content – in the very act of being accessed beyond me and forwards in time – always lacks a contextual ‘je ne sais quoi’. Granted he may say much more than this in the book (I have it on order) but this is where the story both begins and ends.

While I can’t talk with any depth about the brain’s gradually evolved ability to remember and recollect, surely the digital overlay is just a new frontier for the human ability to record and sometimes simultaneously interlace experience with another layer of data?

We’ve done it before. We drew pictures, told stories and wrote books. These things took time to permeate our cultures but they enriched them. In the last century we had social panics about radio, recorded music, film and then television being available to the masses (just as we had panics about women voting and going to work, for instance). More recently, there was somewhat more minor fretting that people listening to walkmans walked this earth as if in a bubble. It’s funny when you look back on it now – because it’s y’know, recorded – and remember…

Now the context is evolving. That’s why creative projects such Britglyph and Open Plaques are intriguing, using the medium as a canvas to help us collectively discover, trace and find new ways to map meaning and think about human activity back and forth in time. This is what Bill Thompson was driving at when he described Britglyph as “a fascinating example of what is possible when you work with the grain of the internet, building something around the things the network makes possible.

So rather than disgorging personal data to the network, we should always be curating and shaping. That’s the trump card digitally-augmented context – mastered and done well – is bringing to the table.

Are we really so incapable of adapting to and interpreting new contexts that this growing layer of digital information augmenting our lives will render us personally dysfunctional? Or worse still, divided into slaves to “one ring that rules them all” (whether that’s Facebook, Google or your friendly local authorities) on one side, and savvy digital invisibles on the other. Or is this just the messy late-teenage phase of the unfolding web canvas? It seems like it could go either way.

Last words, for now, go to Chris Stein circa 1978.

…watchful lines vibrate soft in brainwave time.
Silver pictures move so slow.
Golden tubes faintly glow.

Electric faces seem to merge.
Hidden voices mock your words.
Fade away and radiate.
Fade away and radiate.

Beams become my dream.
My dream is on the screen.

For a reverse panopticon of the event itself 😉  Neil Perkin has provided a good write-up, the event was recorded by the RSA (MP3 download) and Mayer Shoenburg was interviewed by Reuters beforehand.

Apologies and thanks to Stein et al for the title.

SXSW 08 panel: Gossip, social electricity and the new web egosystem

Convened (as it emerged) at the behest of Valleywag’s chief scribe Owen Thomas, this session was among the best I attended at SXSW Interactive 2008, as much for the social static and currents it generated as for cerebral reasons.

Plus as a lifelong dyed-in-the-wool observer I’ve latterly realised I’m an anthropology nerd 😉

Featuring (L-R in my photo):
Alan Citron – General Manager, TMZ
Owen Thomas – Managing Editor, Valleywag
Chair: Heather Gold – Writer/Performer,
Julia Allison – Reporter, Star magazine (invited onto panel in real-time)
Shaila Dewan – National Correspondent (South), New York Times
Evan Williams – Co-Founder, Twitter/Obvious

Heather Gold did a tremendous job of chairing. A professional stand-up comic and longtime geek who’s been running her Heather Gold Show in the evening fringe scene at SXSW for a few years, she was the doyen of conversation, getting everyone involved. Like the referee of your dreams, she allowed volleys of audience questions right through the session while still giving each panellist their say. Question Time was never like this.

“I like to organise conversations around things that people really care about… this will run like a collective inquiry as you all have as much expertise on who you are and on the world as we have on our points of view so you’re all welcome to join in.”

Heather, I salute you!

She didn’t stand for any bullshit either. Panelists had to *answer* the questions (until the very end part, that is…), and cutting across other folks was fluently de-engineered by the Gold MC.

Okay, several paragraphs in and no gossip! As Twitter dominated a lot of the discussion Heather first canvassed the 100-strong audience for those who didn’t know what Twitter was – there were a handful. Twitter founder Ev Williams helpfully flagged-up a new online video from Lee LeFever of Commoncraft ‘Twitter In Plain English’ which gives a concise explanation to newbies (Twitter have since added this video to their homepage – I hope Lee got paid).

Supercharged telegrams from the frontline

Speaking for the power and usefulness of Twitter, Heather explained that she follows Bara Tunday on Twitter for news on the Obama campaign – he’s a technologist in Barack’s official team and his tweets tell her more about Obama than the New York Times does.

Owen Thomas described Valleywag as Silicon Valley’s tech gossip rag. But he cited Chris Nolan’s groundbreaking work (for the San Jose Mercury News) in merging tech biz news and personalities as a big inspiration to him. Thomas earned his spurs in tech journalism, having previously worked for Wired, Time magazine, Red Herring (version 1.0), Business 2.0 (recently deceased) and – his favourite –, amongst others. Nolan’s ability to create a real, tight connection with readers is the other trait Owen strives for with Valleywag.

So what is gossip? Thomas defines it as “what people are talking about, and that is inherently interesting… My first filter and inspiration for writing a post is: is this something people are talking about? Thanks to people like Ev, technology is making gossip more efficient. And ‘efficiency’ is the word of the day,” he added in a snarky allusion to Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote two hours earlier.

At this point he was booed and heckled by audience member Julia Allison who was then invited onto the panel by Gold. Web TV presenter for the Star magazine gossip site, Allison said she writes about Britney, Paris, Lindsay et al, but in her view “this shit shouldn’t matter.”

Respite from & comfort blanket against what we can’t change…

Shaila Dewan of NYT described herself as “a newspaper reporter”. She covers “the southlands… fires in sugar refineries, hurricanes, the human fallout from Hurricane Katrina, and what the government didn’t do about it, that kind of thing.”

Alan Citron described TMZ as an online celebrity news site that is also becoming a video/web TV show. He’s the general manager but also a former journalist of 13 years standing at the LA Times. He was away from journalism for around 10 years doing other jobs on the internet, and while he isn’t actually interested in it, Alan liked getting into celebrity gossip because it reminded him of what he liked about journalism: getting back to and helping create a news group, helping to deciding what this thing was going to be, figuring out how to make it bigger, even as the business guy you get to participate in those decisions. Especially early on, it was just like being back in journalism. And that’s why he took the job

Why is it doing so well, Heather wondered. Citron’s reply spoke volumes:

“It’s an insatiable appetite – whether it’s bullshit, or whether its good for you, or whether it’s a convenient distraction from Iraq and other things like that which are exhausting…There’s always that one person that someone is following, or a roster of celebrity stars – it’s like their little mental vacation.”

Rags to riches: profiting from gossip

It’s certainly big business for TMZ, as Alan revealed. They average 7 million page views per day and according to Ominiture they had 30 million unique users in February 2008, although it was a big month for celebrities as Heath Ledger committed suicide and Britney lost custody of her kids, Citron added. “And it’s not just here, it’s everywhere, this is a worldwide phenomenon.”

TMZ became profitable after just 11 months. They had 25 staff when it was just a website, now it’s 150 as television production is more production-intensive.

Valleywag has three full-time staff and three contributors. Last month (February 2008 ) they got 4.5 million page views, Owen said.

How can these gossip rags possibly keep up with Twitter, Heather asked. Ev replied that it’s all just part of an ecosystem. Heather quipped “did you say ecosystem or egosystem?” Que hilarity. Next Heather lobbed the ‘what is gossip’ query over to Ev. “The best gossip is about people you know,” Ev said.

Expanding on her Twitter-as-lightning-rod-news-source theory, Heather said following Jason Calacanis on Twitter is the fastest tech news you can get. How does he manage to tweet so much? Owen’s theory was that Calacanis is bulldog-sourcing it (ie. it’s a collaborative effort with his beloved bulldogs).

The democratization of celebrity and public life

Audience question: What’s the minimum level of fame needed to be pictured drinking a milkshake on Valleywag? Owen countered that people in the tech industry are “interested in other people that are not company CEOs. The internet has changed the nature of publicity, the nature of who is a public figure.”

“Don’t put your relationships online,” Julia warned, adding that she’d learned the hard way (in reference to a dalliance with the founder of Vimeo) – “because then people will feel they have a right to comment on them, and that (even if they don’t know you) they are somehow part of the relationship.”

Alan Citron commented that there are more and more layers of people who now qualify as celebrities, “like the person who gets disqualified from the third round of American Idol. More and more people are being sucked into this celebrity thing, and we’re not ready for it.”

“The Zuckerberg [Lacy keynote interview] interest on Twitter today is all about what we call the banana peel moment”, he continued, but Heather countered that “the thing with embarrassing is that if we own it it’s not embarrassing.”

Majority rules and the shifting sands of trust

“Gossip is a way of enforcing societal norms, the way we act and how we judge each other,” Allison astutely reflected. “Facebook is a tool for people to gossip and hook-up,” she added, somewhat more mundanely.

“There isn’t a clear line”, said Ev Williams, “we use tools to do things we’ve always done.” He also had a question-cum-comment that raised broader issues about trust, expertise and the cultural effects of people media.

“You learn after a while that the media is usually really inaccurate if it’s about a topic you know a lot about, but if you don’t know about it you think it’s accurate. As the bar lowers on who is covered in media, will people just learn to distrust all media across the board? And therefore maybe (a) it’s not as hurtful [when you’re gossiped about] and (b) everything’s more critically looked at?”

Giving each other a break…

Heather said in her experience there more open you are about things the less you’re gossiped about. If there were a story about you but you’d already blogged the details wouldn’t people rather go to that blog and read about it directly from the person’s own mind and experience as opposed to someone else’s report of it? Ev rejoined: “In theory. That’s a good defence of people not calling you a schmuck – by calling yourself a schmuck first.”

[Hmm, Isn’t this personal equivalent of “declarative living” a lot more fraught, or am I just out of touch with the zeitgeist?] 😉

At this point my notes became sketchy as I scribbled out a few bullet points for what I wanted to say and joined the standing line queue for the mike….

Anil Dash (of Six Apart) said the “they” is fraudulent, we’re all doing this and we’ve all been on both sides of it – he’s had death threats come in through his blog, and he also had great things happen (because of his blog) and all of it is reported as if he’s not a person. But we built the tools – it’s our fault, he stressed.

New concepts of authority and working the gossip game

“Notions of authority are generationally changing,” Heather noted… “If we are the media we are now reporting on ourselves.” “We are all the thing that we are saying is a problem”, Anil retorted. Julia Allison wondered if isn’t the answer to be very conscientious – people don’t have context when reading these stories as they don’t know the person. [Which sounded like an update on the longstanding demand for media literacy to me; however, in lieu of education’s inability to adapt to the pervasive media society, haven’t we always just provided this literacy for ourselves?]

Someone from said if something is picked up in the liberal blogosphere it often goes no further than that unless there is an element of it that holds interest for other parties. But if something involves gossip it can go a lot further – in that way gossip can be good.

The divergent effects of gossip on men and women came up – if a woman is gossiped about she is considered a slut, if it’s a man, he’s a stud. But (rightly in my view) Heather parked this, as we just didn’t have time to go into the whole gender divide and representation topic.

Identity management in the digital age

My observation to the panel was this: In this era of instant gossip and the democratization of gossip, where everybody’s gossiping about each other in public and it’ll be there for years somewhere, cached on Google etc, there’s still a divide. When famous people are being covered by Star magazine or whoever, they’ve got managers and PRs and flacks who will give them feedback on that and they can sometimes try to turn this around to their advantage and they’ll be protected; whereas you and I don’t have handlers, minders, PR people.

So what you need to think about is identity management and how you handle yourself and your reputation. Everything is not going to become transparent, and it really annoys me when people say that it will, because people still want parts of their lives to themselves, they might share it with a couple of other people but not everyone else.

What do the panel think about the idea that we all need to help each other out and give each other more advice on this? There’s a video I saw recently on Videojug ‘How To Behave On An Internet Forum’, which may be in some ways a bit dated, but it relates to this issue of how do you behave in this community where anyone can participate? So how should we handle ourselves to protect ourselves from the malevolent gossip and the useless gossip?

Julia jumped in to proffer her response and didn’t answer my question at all, she just echoed the sentiment and said it’s unfair on people who can’t afford to defend themselves from this gossip. I wish someone else had answered! 😦

Navigating through the “all-seeing we”

Nick Douglas from Gawker (and formerly Valleywag) sardonically observed that even if people respond to what’s written about them, the likes of Gawker and Valleywag just turn it back into another story because they want to pull it back into the machine that makes us money and makes us feel good because (que quotation mark gesture) “we’re better” than Julia (or whoever they’re writing about).

Lane Becker of Getsatisfaction (and formerly Adaptive Path) cited this as the best SXSW panel he’d ever been in.

He quoted from an earlier panel Heather had been on, “Climb to heaven on the backs of your enemies corpses!” This stuff is going to work out for you really well in the long term, he said to Julia (and, by inference, all of her ilk). Part of success is being willing to be a public persona.

The performative aspect of being in the industry is just part of being in the game, he continued. He also relayed his own brush with micro-celebrity gossip when Valleywag published a photo of him in the bath with four other under-dressed people. And one of those people was his wife standing up in her underwear and swigging back a bottle of Champagne. Another was Jason Fried of 37 Signals.

Which recycled nugget of gossip from the subject was a perfect end to the session…




Nowpublic live blog

Guardian Digital Content blog PDA

Los Angeles Times

Session video (on

Gossip panel podcast on SXSW Interactive website (in April 2008 archive)

For a deeper, earlier examination of somke of the same issues, check out the Chinwag Live panel from June 2007…

The Dark Side Of Social Media (London, 19th June 2007)

PR unspun – social media sews creative destruction?

Participatory media causes problems for PR and for how brands manage deal with perceptions and discussions of their goods and services.

But it also offers new and significant opportunities for smart brands and operators in the PR space.

How much have they changed though?

At an NMK January event Beers & Innovation 7: Do Agencies Innovate? that I largely put together before I left NMK, Desiree Collier of Burson-Marsteller made the interesting observation that PR agencies are in a much stronger position to develop both innovative and holistic communications solutions for their clients than marketing agencies, because they have more far reaching and integral contact with clients, and the work is more strategic and less campaign-based and short term in nature.

[For readers pining for B&I goodness, Monsieur Ian Delaney has a cracking write up of B&I 7 here]

As Ian recapped of Collier’s points

For all kinds of companies, in all kinds of contexts, conversations are becoming key. So, in many respects, PR matters are at the forefront of companies’ marketing concerns

But having just finished reading The Cluetrain Manifesto (mea culpa, I was just a entertainment and consumer-type web editor back in Bubble 1, and missed the whole Cluetrain fandango), I get the feeling something more fundamental is being avoided.

In the final chapter – ‘Post Apocalypto’ – the author quotes Polish journalist Ruszard Kapuscinski from 1991:

The situation is a demonic paradox: we have toppled the system but we still carry its genes.”

So…. I’m expecting a constant thread in the discussion at the next Chinwag Live event on 24th April – PR Unspun – will be that of how brands and companies can *control* and *manage* perceptions and *control* the conversation.

Maybe I’ll be proved wrong (nothing new there then), but seven years on from the publication of Cluetrain the book, am I really far off the mark in saying PR and marketing are still largely paralysed? Can they really change their spots? Back to Cluetrain again:

“…so while business stereotypes are largely empty, or come from another day and have long since lost any real descriptive power, we find ourselves replicating the behaviors they caricature.

Why? Well, because we’re business people, of course! And that’s how business people behave. Welcome to the hall of mirrors. Welcome, as Vonnegut put it, to the monkey house.

We don’t believe what we’re saying at work. We know no one else believes it either. But we keep saying it because because because because the needle’s stuck. The record’s broken. Because we just can’t stop. Because who would we be if we didn’t talk like that?”

Seven years on this is still pretty powerful stuff.

Is social media sewing creative destruction? Are the incumbents poised to make gains, or will new players challenge their rule? And how much truth in the notion that PR will inevitably be distintermediated – at least in some sectors – by the social and behavioural changes wrought by participatory media?

I hope some of you will come along and put some challenging and interesting questions and points to the panel at Chinwag Live: PR Unspun.

The panel features speakers from the big corporates Edelman and Burson-Marsteller, through to brand and reputation monitoring service Market Sentinel and Second Life trailblazers Crayon LLC.

More info here: (NB: 50% discounted booking rate ends Thursday 19th April)

[UPDATE Thursday 19th April: This event is sold out now]

SXSW notes: Consumer Is the Producer – DIY Media

This panel at SXSW Interactive on 14th March 2006 could equally have been called DIY Machines, and there was a fair share of crafting on the menu too.

The session blurb went some way to encompassing this broad canvas: ‘New technology allows consumers to play an active role in producing media and objects. How does this not-so-subtle change impact the final product?’

To give you an idea of the sheer range of the conference, in the same time slot the following other sessions were also happening, three of which I also wanted to go to: ‘RSS: Not Just For Blogs Anymore’, ‘Secret Sex Lives Of Video Games’, ‘Open Source Management: Walking The Walk’, ‘Dogma Free Design’, ‘The Orthley Children and Their Computer’, and ‘Democratization Of The Moving Image’

Cameron Shaw – Product Manager, AOL
Limor Fried – and iBeam Fellowship in Open Source Electronics
Nathalie and Craft Editor for Make magazine
Phillip Torrone – Editor, Make magazine
Christian Crumlish – and author of ‘The Power Of Many’
Chair: John Lepowsky – Digital Convergence Initiative

We’re now living in a remix culture, John Lepowsky stated in his opening remarks, where production and access to production is now a much easier process. Instead of the powers that be and corporations broadcasting to us, the internet and other many-to-many networks are changing that.

A caveat to this is that there’s always going to be a relatively small percentage producing with 1-10% participating in creating content.

[I think this oft quoted forecast, which I’ve heard before from Yahoo’s Bradley Horowitz among others is always predicated on the PC/Web paradigm and ignores the role of mobile in accelerating and mainstreaming production and sharing of content. In a few years the mobile will be the dominant tool for this, and unlike PC usage, is ubiquitous].

Accessible technology frees the impulse to create

The rest are lurkers, Lepowsky continued, but the possibility of creation is there for those who want to do it, technology now frees the impulse [exactly – to the power of ten on mobile!]

Limor Freid explained how she and her associates came up with the idea of making their own keyboards on an open source platform. They built 100 and sold them all – calling them the xoxbox. What’s more, 50% of people who bought one built their keyboard out of more than 500 components, plus they fed back!

She introduced the concept of circuit bending whereby people through experimenting created a clone of the Roland TB303 which isn’t made anymore.

Mod culture and the community network effect

One of the strengths of this process is that if you break it, it doesn’t matter because they already broke it in order to make it in the first place. Modifications and personalisation allow you to commune with the machine. Someone even documented the whole project on a wiki.

Some people started to make really cool music with the keyboards ( Such activity was like someone doing your own press release for you.

As for why people contribute, Freid reasoned that the value lies in the fact that I hacked something up because it was missing. It’s also about ego – I wanted to show off my skills and get positive feedback; it’s fun, like playing with a toy, allowing experimentation and creativity; finally, it incites contribution. Make it possible, she exhorted other open source community managers and facilitators, be humble to your community, be respectful, be thankful, be supportive and mingle with the natives.

AOL’s paradigm shift

Cameron Shaw acknowledged that AOL has been synonymous with the walled garden, and they had a lot of success with that with their premium users, but it’s not the right place to be anymore.

Now they’re actively encouraging mashups and remixing of user-generated content. They’re opening up the AIM platform though the AIM API. There are 63 million active AIM users who can now avail of file-sharing, voice, buddy lists and RSS so that people can create their own content and environments.

They’re introducing an open API for MapQuest and are also building a page publisher, ie. page layout and profiles that you can plug in modules and feeds to, for example the Flickr widget, eBay rating, Amazon wishlist. All in all it’s a pretty scary thing to do, Shaw observed, especially in terms of premium-level content, from mashups of The Sopranos through to remixing the Superbowl.

Risks of the open web

It’s also risky in terms of safety, especially with the current MySpace panic over predators, Shaw added. Moreover, how much responsibility should they take for copyright violation of content hosted on their servers?

The same goes for quality testing – it’s not guaranteed. While developers are used to things being broken, how do ordinary folks cope with the new, extended “hinternet”? [note: this link is to a PDF file].

There’s a new microformat called module T, Shaw explained and recommended we check

Upsides of open source product development

Throughout the session a little robot had been trundling about the isle floor, sometimes making its way underneath the seats and nudging people’s legs and luggage on the floor. Philip Torrone introduced it as the Rumba robot, which had come fresh from the Rumba cockfighting session operated via Bluetooth at eTech (O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference) in San Diego the previous week.

It’s an example of what happens if you can turn your customers into your product team. Sony do the opposite, Torrone noted, and they’ve just announced they’re getting rid of their robot division. Likewise with the PSP – it crashes when you try to do new stuff and you have to pay to download more firmware.

Make magazine focuses on what ordinary people are doing, for example they covered a guy who wanted an alarm clock that makes bacon, so he built it himself. Make *is* a crafts magazine, he stressed, as crafts are activities that involve making things by hand.

The grassroots crafts renaissance

Nathalie Zee, Make’s crafts editor, said there has been a renaissance in crafting – knitting, needlework, etcetera. She got into it during the dotcom crash because it was nice to do something with your hands.

Top craft blogs she namechecked were WhipUp, Not Martha, and Thrift Craft. In terms of internet pastimes and topics, blogging and modifying your clothing are both big, and the impulse is to remix it, rip it up and express your creativity. You can even sell it, like on and where you can find knitted robots, knitted cellphone holders, toys, laptop bags, and even Pacman cross-stitch accessories.

The Yarn Harlot knitting blog decided to launch the Knitting Olympics 2006 – they got 4,701 entries. Everyone who participated got a gold medal to put on their blogs.

Artistry and increasing the use-value of objects

Pink of Perception is the Martha Stewart of the indie generation, claimed Zee. She also flagged up Diana Ang, the person behind Project Runway, who created a vacuum dress that got on the cover of ID magazine. Making mathematical knits is another sub-set of this trend.

It’s all about creating community and merging technology, crafts and sciences, said Zee. With ThingLinks, and Zengstrom, she observed, the common factor is that their work revolves around the Long Tail of fashion and craft.

There’s a sense of going back to handicraft work and the artistry of our generation is in modifying stuff, Zee reckoned. For people to be able continue buying stuff, they want to be able to do more stuff with the things they purchase.

Open source portals and business models

The question was raised as to whether AOL are putting people in place to respond to the feedback they get on the open AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) and Mapquest SDI’s. Cameron Shaw explained that internally all their developers have exposed all their work and their blogs. They are trying to embrace the open source community and feedback will be considered and incorporated.

Someone else asked if you can build a business out of this? Limor Fried stressed that people were willing to pay for stuff, eve if it’s open source. It made more sense to her to cerate open source hardware than open source software.

From open source hardware to social hardware…

What about social hardware, someone else piped up. Torrone was first to respond, citing their creation of the Make Pet. Based on how many people are talking to you on MySpace or about you on Technorati, the pet gets more active and even reproduces. Nintendo DS with wifi is another case in point, as you can play other people near you.

The toy industry is good for social hardware. In Second Life a lot of people make money out of things created just for the virtual world – one woman made $150,000 from her Second Life products. Finally, Torrone announced that Make are also making Pacman carpets!

Fried stressed that she’s not the first to clone in the keyboard sector. Moog was the first to clone in this domain. It’s mostly legal to reverse-engineer hardware as there is usually no copyright. With the session out of time the last namecheck of the DIY media phenomenon went to eyespot, an online video remixing community.

[Note: I checked out the WhipUp blog and discovered one of the best ever straplines – “handicraft in a hectic world” – superb!]


My other SXSW Interactive 2006 session reports:

What’s In A Title?

Beyond Folksonomies – Knitting Tag Clouds For Grandma

Book Digitisation & The Revenge Of The Librarians

James Surowiecki on The Wisdom Of Crowds

Running Your New Media Business

SXSW notes: The Perfect Pitch

What People Are Really Doing On The Web

Commons Based Business Models

Danah Boyd – Current TV interview

See all SXSW Interactive 2006 daytime panels here:

See the SXSW Interactive 2007 website

Stranded at Mobile Monday

Flight delays and flying in general these days sucks big style. 

But sometimes serendipity intervenes! There’s a great video interview with Tara Hunt and Chris Messina, delayed in Paris recently at the end of their holiday and pitching-up at Mobile Mondays.

This year has been a big journey for these guys: they’ve left their jobs at Riya and Flock, set up the innovative Citizen Agency, and recently been joined by Ben Metcalfe.

SXSW flashback

I met them at SXSW Interactive in March and they ended up inviting me out to dinner, along with Tantek, Ryan King and DJ Amber, with added guerilla stickering of Austin’s streetscape en route and elsewhere.

They also proved to have some skillz on the dancefloor at the Odeo & Adaptive Path party in Club deVille  😉  A fun night (like every night at SXSW yes sir) and a phenomenal SXSW baptism. I urge you, if you crave what’s right and good for you, then look into its incredible programme, social circuit and general vibe and go next year!!

Meanwhile, back in Europe…

Once they get past the formalities, the MoMo interview just gets better. Tara raises an especially intriguing point about the conservative tendancy creeping into citizen media [or should that be citizen journalism..?] as it’s adopted by mainstream media.

I’d love to hear this point expanded a little more.

Anyway, they were stranded in Paris. I mean, how Roxy Music…

UK embraces mobile innovation?

I have to flag up our event New Directions In Mobile happening next Tues 3rd Octber, and why not be brazen about it?!

It’s bang on the money for the Beers & Innovation audience and is shaping up to kick some ass on the event circuit.

Plus the emphasis, as with all NMK events, is on debate and discussion. Also, we haven’t had a Beers & Innovation that focuses particularly on mobile as yet.

The event will look at smart thinking for operators and start-ups in this sphere, plus what’s new for mobile marketers, producers, distributors and innovators.

And we’ve some some *very* cool speakers involved.

Among them are Helen Keegan from Beep Marketing, Paul Walsh of Segala, Alfie Dennen of Moblog UK (and We’ and Steve Flaherty of mobile innovation consultancy Ketai Culture. Plus speakers from mMetrics and Marvellous Mobile.

UK networks score with mobile video 

Two big announcements this week in this area seem relevant to the issues at stake. On September 21st, Vodafone’s Jonathan Bill told Justin Pearse of New Media Age:

“Mobile TV is now bigger than ringtones, the stalwart of mobile content… This is the coming of age for mobile TV.”

Apparently over half of all new Vodafone 3G customers choose to subscribe to mobile TV, and Bill said one of the reasons it’s so popular is that it is ubiquitous – you don’t need a specific application or phone.

According to MoCo News:

Competing UK operator Orange said that mobile TV and video combined was approaching ringtone levels, and that “the growth of mobile TV is the growth of 3G”.

[Bill’s figures are] just for the Vodafone UK business, which has about 1 million 3G customers. If most of the people who sign up for mobile TV choose the £10 per month option, that’s quite an income stream.

In turn, 3 announced 50,000 paid users had signed up for their social network site Kink Kommunity, with their user-generated mobile video-sharing service SeeMeTV passing the 12m downloads mark.

So people’s embrace of innovation and new services on mobile, hampered initially by the hiccuping baby-steps of 3G, seems to be moving up a gear.

There are more details on the event here. It’s happening next Tuesday 1-4.30pm and costs £80 for employees of companies of 20 or more and £50 for employees of companies less than 20 and self-employed / freelancers. You can book for it here.