Category Archives: Life caching

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.

Advertisements

SXSW 08 core conversation: do you have to disappear completely to get things done?

While anxiety and frustration were visible on the faces of those gathered at this Core Conversation,  it wasn’t due to the gruelling conference – or social – schedule (in-step with the syndrome under discussion, it’s taken me just over a year to write up this final blog post from SXSW Interactive 2008).

And yours truly? By random chance I’d been scanning the room, looking for something else that I knew was on there, but stumbled upon this instead and was drawn to it in a heartbeat.

Weirdly my serendipitous discovery in meat space of a conversation I didn’t intend to find, mirrored one of the key issues in the larger digital challenge it was grappling with: the overload tendancy that’s wedded to being “always on”.  You’re only ever one link away from some interesting new fact or opinion.

In a wholesale Being John Malkovich moment, I’d gone through a port-hole and all the voices and daily dillemas in my head that worry about overload were embodied and talking to each other in front of me… Nurse, the screens!

Ryan Frietas facilitating Do You Have to Disappear... at SXSW 2008

Ryan Frietas facilitating Do You Have to Disappear... at SXSW 2008

So yeah… it was 11th March 2008 at SXSW Interactive, and the facilitator was the one and only Ryan Frietas, then Director of Experience Design at Adaptive Path.

Do we know what we’re doing?

Here’s the backdrop: we’re overwhelmed by information, drowning in email, weary with un-read feeds, tired of Twitter, assailed by mobile comms, productively challenged… and yet the nagging feeling that we’re probably missing something very important is strong enough to trample all common sense, and our counter-productive habits surface given the slightest glimmer of opportunity.

Pleasingly, the first point Frietas made was the counter-argument: there’s a generation being raised who are multimedia and multi-tasking all in parallel, and are socially different from us. Hurray for them I guess, but what about the rest of us, who didn’t use a computer till we were 10 or maybe even 20 years old, and the internet even later? What solace can we take from the information overload?

Self-help required: employers and govt 4 steps behind (as usual)

The group – while commonly exhausted – had plenty of suggestions for coping-strategies. If you’re a freelancer, consultant, or just the type who catches up on email and admin at odd hours due to parenting duties or whatever; don’t give the impression that you’re available and working there and then or the email stream will just increase. Write emails in draft in the evening and weekend if needs be; but send them in office hours.

If you check email, Twitter and RSS feeds first thing in the morning you’ll have nothing done by 11am or midday, and that puts you on a psychological downer for the rest of the day. To compound matters, the rest of the day will be less productive than it would have been because of what you did (or rather didn’t do) in the morning.

“Eat the frog” was one of Ryan’s suggestions. Do the thing you really don’t want to do as your first task: a small accomplishment that gives you an immediate sense of achievement and helps you face the rest of the day.

We then paused to talk to the person next to us, and I found myself listening to the woes of a web project manger working at the Austin branch of a large US advertising agency, but she could have been from anywhere. She described an incredibly busy agency scenario, with everyone working lots of unpaid overtime; calls and emails from her boss at the weekend; general over-work and insufficient numbers of skilled staff that sounded identical to many digital shops globally. She loved her job but was unhappy. There was never enough time and the torrent of email was endless.

Firehose slapdown…?

On the positive side, it’s an ecosystem of information that we’re all contributing to with blogs, wikis, social networks, microblogging,  etc, noted Ryan. This is true, but how much of what we’re actually sharing is valuable, discoverable, and to whom?

One woman told of how she goes on regular media diets. This reminded me a lot of some ideas floated at the Digital Health Clinic run by Gavin O’Carroll which I attended in London late in 2007. I’ve tried out a diet myself, and it worked a tonic.

In fact the DHS clinic spurred me to check-out of Facebook completely for a few weeks at the end of December 2007. My usage of it has been sparse ever since, but for me Twitter is still a toxic siren. Tweetdeck (which I’ve tried) and the like promise to detoxify the stream, with the ability to sort and stratify the importance of our relationships and incoming data-stream on Twitter. While that’s progress to be welcomed, it’s still a mechanistic approach to filtering and managing highly-nuanced communication.

Widgets and tactics help, but it’s complicated…

Talking of which, some other tools mentioned were the dashboard widget that monitors what apps you are on and when you switch between them. The much-feted Feltron was also cited – it tracks what you do on your computer and builds up an annual report.

Part of the challenge derives from the weak divide between work and social / fun stuff, Ryan commented. There’s an element of truth here – for some – but it makes me wonder, how did I not feel this pressure when I was editing a music website back in dotcom boom 1.0? I was obsessed by the subject matter, and 2-3 nights a week I went out to gigs or clubs in connection with my role. And was I poorer, stupider, less happy or as shattered then? No on all counts I’m afraid. The salience of Ryan’s point is more general, as the context and nature of work and the concomitant technology has evolved.

The concept of “friendless zero” got the first real laughs of the session. Analogous to the Inbox Zero movement (which gets your inbox down to the magic digit), Ryan admitted he’d gone in that direction lately, keeping his Twitter follows down to a tiny number of close friends and colleagues. Still, I’ve heard countless stories of how people brutally cut back their RSS feeds to the bare essentials only to find a few months alter they’ve crept back up again. I abandoned Bloglines two years ago myself for the same reason; and I haven’t replaced it with another reader. Nothing bad has happened because of this  😉

If engineers fall short, what else is there?

The question was asked: can we automate relevance of information and people? That’s an engineer’s approach to human interaction, observed Ryan. My friend is a 5, my mother is a 3, etc… it simply doesn’t make sense of or cater for the complexity of our relationships.

Another suggestion from the group was only have one device out at a time [great, but are you going to ignore your mobile ringing or beeping just because you’re working on your laptop?]. Someone else suggested the classic panacea of having a hobby that takes you out of yourself.

Much of it comes down to time-management and managing expectations, someone said. That may be true, but these are delicate skills to master and practice, and who in the social media ferment is evangelising them? Discounting Tim Ferris of course, who has actually elevated it to the realms of a modern-day religion (and religion is in the province of the supernatural); oh yeah, and sad-sacks for whom GTD becomes the only topic of conversation.

Central exhaustion system

One reason that it’s so important for us to check our various feeds [and devices sir 😉 ], Ryan argued, is that we’re also interacting with another layer of information and media that is apart from our direct experience and what we’re doing. This works for me. It’s the invisible skin of data and interaction layering over our immediate and physical lives. But isn’t that what old skool social connections – aka the ideas and experiences we hold in common with other people – have always done? And wasn’t the point of the session to explore how we maintain productivity, creativity and being “in the zone” in the face of endless sources to discover and distractions?

Maybe it’s just me, but the flow isn’t all that (yet); or at least, it’s over-rated. Un-critical social media mavens love to sanctify it, but many information workers are paying the price for the level of dysfunction it produces in its current embryonic state. It’s plumping-up already maxed-out email and task agendas.

While a perfect infomediary grid beckons – the venerated digital nervous system predicted of yore – we’re left to deal with our real, complicated and imperfect experiences. Naturally the recession / depression / correction – or what you will – isn’t helping. We’re all working that little bit harder (than last year). We’re all that little bit more insecure, and we’re that little bit more atomised too.

The spread of Being John Malkovich Syndrome (#bjms) is merely the solace we can take from each other here and now. It holds the seeds of promise, but it’s not yet fit for purpose. Sifting meaning and / or value from the voices, chatter and keywords we skim through is an arduous, often wasteful and frequently un-manageable task.

Twitteresque – digital stylistics or path to a higher being?

Speaking of Twitter, just today Nic Brisbourne summed-up part of the signal-to-noise filtering challenge:

“I’m not sure that tools are the only answer though… I recently read Lessig’s Code2.0, a book in which he talks at length about how communities are governed and regulated.  He persuasively argues that for there are four modes of regulation – architecture/code, law, norms and the market (more details here) – Tweetdeck et al are code based solutions to the problem of too much traffic on Twitter, but the other modalities or regulation (as Lessig would describe them) are also important.

“It is pretty clear to me that as the community grows something is going to have to change – and as I have written before it is instructive to think of the Twitter community as an emergent system with rules that need to evolve to ensure that the signal to noise ratio is maintained at a sensible level whilst keeping the service growing… The health of the Twitter community (as with all communities online and offline) is 100% dependent on the rules”

So given the openness of Twitter, the emergent norms are either (1) anyone’s guess , or (2) the same norms we see operating in other civilised (or – slight difference here – “consensual”) communities. Place your bets.

Broadsight’s Alan Patrick keeps saying he hears less noise on Twitter and more signal. I’ve not seen evidence yet, although most of the folk I follow are reasonably well-behaved. To those I’ve un-followed, it’s not because I doubt your genius 🙂 But whatever Alan is on, I want some…

Digital Health drop-in surgery 19th March

In the meantime if you’re feeling the overload burn, Gavin O’Carroll is running a Digital Health Service drop-in surgery this Thursday 19th March 2009 at the RSA
http://digitalhealthservice.pbwiki.com/

FURTHER READING ON INFORMATION OVERLOAD:

Going Without Comms To get a better Connection – Broadstuff 16 April 2009

Digital Overload is Frying Our Brains – Wired 6th February 2009

Distraction: Being Human In The Digital Age by Mark Curtis (Futuretext, 2005)

Overload! By Columbia Journalism Review – 19th November 2008

Dumb, Dumber and Google: Alan Patrick, Broadsight – 9th June 2008

10 Things I Learned from Mental Detox Week: Ian Tait, Poke London – 30th April 2008

Information overload in the web era: Nic Brisbourne, The Equity Kicker – 22nd April 2008

The Digital Health Service

The strain of digital sweatshops: PDA Blog, Media Guardian – 14th April 2008

In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop – NYT 6th April 2008

Does work/life balance exist?: Danah Boyd, Apophenia – 6th April 2008

Computer addiction as survival for the ego – 10th December 2007

Notes on Core Conversation: Do You Have to Disappear Completely to Get Things Done?: Liserbawston – Ning, 11th March 2008

My other SXSW 2008 panel reports:

https://innovationeye.wordpress.com/category/sxsw-interactive-2008/

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, Subvert.com
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 – Suck.com, 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 Mediamatters.org 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…

—-

FURTHER COVERAGE OF THIS PANEL

Valleywag
http://valleywag.com/365674/julia-allison-crashes-sxsw-explains-it-all

Nowpublic live blog
http://www.nowpublic.com/culture/nowpublic-sxsw2008-liveblogging-now-gossip-sunday

Guardian Digital Content blog PDA http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/digitalcontent/2008/03/sxsw_how_gossip_feeds_the_web.html

Los Angeles Times
http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/webscout/2008/03/gossip-panel-de.html

Session video (on Blip.tv)
http://blip.tv/file/745166/

Gossip panel podcast on SXSW Interactive website (in April 2008 archive)
http://2008.sxsw.com/coverage/podcasts/

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)
http://podcasts.chinwag.com/cl6-full.mp3

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.

Knowing me, knowing you

Scavenging the shelves of the Austin Airport newsagent looking for an alternative to the dreaded airport novel, I happened upon a magazine I hadn't seen in aeons – Fast Company!

Fast Company?!! Oh dear, is this Web 2.0 fever I've caught on the way back from SXSW Interactive? Nurse, the screens!

Back in the almost-heady days of 98/99 when I was Web Editor at Ernst & Young International, our Web Manager – the awesome Mr Paul O'Shea (a Cork man you see) – was an avid FC reader and I'd regularly browse his copy.

Anyway, it just so happened it was a great issue of FC I purchased – more than adequate brainfood for the return trip.

Right at the back was a great big 'ol feature on careers in the the networked age, entitled 'Creating a Gem of a Career' with the standfirst (as we old-school journos call it): 'Monster.com? History. Networks? Everywhere. Five trends that will shape your career in the coming decade'

You can read it here 

Big Brother right back at ya

The passage that really stood out for me was this:

"Your network may make companies transparent to you, but you're transparent to employers as well. Anything online, whether easily available or tucked away in a private network, is fair game. 'It's a big problem when someone's Facebook profile says that her favorite thing is to get s–tfaced on a Saturday night," says Masie.'Google is the first stop for finding info [on potential hires], then Facebook,' he says. So there may be a number of versions of "you" being projected into the world. Not all of them will necessarily be what you want an employer to see. Can you control that? If not, can you live with it?"

The networked generation goes mainstream

…but here's the bit that really twisted my melon – and offers hope for folk like myself who angst about "life-caching":

"Over time, hiring managers will be less interested in the salacious stuff that a Google search might reveal. 'So you were president of your frat," says Morris. 'As more information gets out there about everyone, it diffuses the importance of each individual piece of information. It will be okay.' "

A VE-RY interesting perspective, and think of the implications. As the MySpace / Facebook / Bebo generation enters the working world, it – the voluminous Buzznet/Flickr-stream, the years of carefree blogging and distributed blog posts, the tracked searches on Google – will (within reason) be immaterial… eventually. In the UK? Maybe in about 5 or 6 years I reckon (stick that in your predictionometer!)

Nonetheless, some issues remain. In terms of dealing with this new, two-way transparency of the distributed self, they cited the (free) service offered by ZoomInfo.

Return of the everywoman/man

Another thing I really rated about the writer's reasoning was the invocation to: "Embrace the Liberal Arts (Again)" ie. a broad-ranging understanding – and experience – of the world, of work and the different components of your business area is what gives individuals the edge in the modern economy.

As FC puts it:

"Many of today's exciting jobs (Java developer, brand-experience designer) didn't really exist 10 years ago. And the exciting professions of tomorrow have yet to be imagined. As a result, what we need from our education has changed. 'What you want to learn is how to learn,' says Taleo's Snell. And that's where the liberal-arts education becomes valuable again.' "

Agreed! Moreover, as I see it, anyone, even the most brilliant of experts, can enhance their standing – and their contribution to human knowledge and enterprise – by not soley operating in or being totally absorbed by the silo mentality.

In turn, this sort of synchs with New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki's analysis in his book The Wisdom Of Crowds (Surowiecki SXSW session coverage coming soon – I promise!).

And "lesser" specialists can learn whatever they want about their discipline or cross-company practices – and build-up new skills – from the internet and the blogs throwing open the doors on the "secrets" of professions in multitudes…

For all those already or aspiring to be working in innovative companies – and for Britain's economy in general – yet another wake-up call…

[PS. Turns out, while getting you the article link, I found out Fast Company also have a blog]