Category Archives: Open Source

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.


Alchemy in the micro media maze

Micromedia makes my life better. For one thing – I don’t have to take comprehensive notes at Chinwag events, because there’s always the trusty podcast 🙂 Thus I spent more of this event using my more evolved faculties of listening and thinking. Amen to that!

L-R: Umair Haque, Ewan McIntosh (The Guardian), Steve Bowbrick, Mitch McAlister (, Miles Lewis (, Gerd Leonhard

L-R: Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick, Neil McIntosh (The Guardian), Mitch McAlister (MySpace), Deirdre Molloy (Chinwag), Miles Lewis (, Gerd Leonhard

Another good thing about micromedia is that it can re-combine or aggregate into different – often richer – things than its constituent ingredients. The whole is indeed greater… usually. And that’s exactly what happened at Chinwag Live Micro Media Maze last Tuesday 20th May.


Umair Haque – Director, Havas Media Lab / Bubblegeneration
Gerd Leonhard – Media Futurist, Author, Entrepreneur
Mitch McAlister – Product Director (Europe), MySpace
Miles Lewis – SVP, European Advertising Sales, LastFM
Neil McIntosh – Head of Editorial Development, Guardian Unlimited
Chair: Steve Bowbrick

From the premise of widgets, and disaggregated, widgetised media more generally – it quickly took off into a much broader debate about the value of media, the challenges for advertising, and the potential of openness for brands, innovators and society more generally.

That’s an exciting leap – and it’s alchemy in my book. Like a previous event we held in Manchester in April – User Centred Advertising – raising bigger questions and breaking out of the ‘media as entertainment’ mindset triggered a much more stimulating conversation with the audience and pointed to an almost boundless horizon of opportunities.

Syndicated companies vs dinosaur brands

And if you’re looking to the future, then Media Futurist (and author of books The Future Of Music and Music 2.0) Gerd Leonhard is your man. Gerd has a way with metaphors and was on good form that evening. He predicted that in the future, there will be one bookmark that represents me, which I can reveal and share different parts of with my friends, colleagues and network.

In the future, most companies are going to be 90% syndicated, he said, as few can afford the huge investment it takes to create a major centralised [aka monolithic?] brand.

Coming from a massively widgetised service, Miles Lewis had some fascinating facts and insights – Last.FM‘s homepage only has 3% of its total hits. They’ve built their success by being all about music and nothing else, he observed. As such, I guess they are one of the leading niche networks – certainly the leading one founded in the UK! [aptly – they spoke at the first NMK Beers & Innovation event I organised in February 2006 on Start Up Culture]

Steve Bowbrick, Umair Haque and Ewan McIntosh at Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze May 2008

Steve Bowbrick, Umair Haque and Neil McIntosh at Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze May 2008

The writing on the crumbling walls is that they’re doomed

Lewis estimated that by the end of this year 55% of their users will be partaking of Last FM via widgets (currently that already stands at 40%), of which the largest has 50,000 users, and the smallest just 3. Regarding those thousands of smaller widgets, he wondered – somewhat archly – how the big media buyers and agencies [with their dinosaur mindsets 😉 ]can reach down into these micro audiences.

Mitch McAlister threw his and Myspace’s support behind the tenets of and movement towards openness – what Gerd is doing, and Lawrence Lessig, and a whole lot of other people, plus open source technologies and development. Collaboration, data portability and more are all key.

What’s more, Mitch expected to soon see the majority of traffic to Myspace on non-PC devices. The main stumbling-block has been the mobile network operators but that’s starting to change. Social nets shouldn’t be walled gardens, he stressed.

Brands in the wild and the benefits of remixable culture

Neil McIntosh of Guardian Unlimited said micromedia is good news for journalists, quipping that “nobody wants to be a channel”. The difficulties he saw were twofold. Firstly, it’s harder to serve ads against feeds. The second challenge was context – if you have a brand built around trust, what happens when your content is presented in an upsetting or inappropriate context off your site.

Umair Haque of Havas Media Lab explained that he wrote a long piece entitled The Age of Plasticity in 2005 (accessible as a Powerpoint download from his Bubblegeneration blog), wherein he first articulated and explained at length the idea that we get productivity and efficiency gains when we are allowed to remix things. Haque didn’t mention that he was also one of the two people who independently coined the term micromedia – also in 2005 – the other being leading new media theorist Lev Manovich]

Coops on the mike and Ian Delaney (lurking left) at Micro Media Maze

Coops on the mike and Ian Delaney (lurking left) at Micro Media Maze

Last FM and Myspace have revolutionised and solved the problem of the music industry, Umair said. But what is happening now – apart from micromedia being seen as yet another way to shove shitty advertising down our throats?

Going beyond the trivial mindset…

Umair (who also blogs as a discussion leader at Harvard Business Online) loathes the term ‘monetize’, he said, because you have to *create* value before you can capitalise on it; you have to have a purpose before you can profit from it. It’s not about creating games for Facebook. We in London labour under the delusion that media is entertainment, but media is so much more than that, it’s the interface for so much activity and experience in the world.

He challenged the panel and the audience to come up with something that would help solve real problems, not trivial ones, and create value at the same time.

Gerd Leonhard drew this analogy: in old media control = money; in new media trust = money. In companies embracing new media, collaboration with the audience is supplanting the old business model of control. Gerd’s remarks on a trust-based market reminded me a lot of the ideas of social capital getting a published articulation in Tara Hunt’s book The Whuffie Factor due to drop this autumn.

Media and ad agencies looking in the wrong direction?

Paul Fisher of Advent Capital Partners was first in from the audience with a question. If industries are creating less value, does this mean there will be fewer jobs in the old companies? In turn, where should he be looking for growth areas in terms of investments? For its sheer audacity, this got a few laughs from the audience.

Miles Lewis of Last FM had an interesting perspective on this. He argued that it is media agencies and ad agencies that are the dinosaur industries. The billions of spend they control are not going to where people are, it’s all going into TV and search.



Well, that’s what I’ve deciphered from my pleasingly sparse notes… but the debate was long and lively, and continued as people stayed to chat and have a drink afterwards. You can catch it all on the Chinwag Live podcast due later this week. Subscribe here or for iTunes go to the event page.


There have been some superb write-ups already from people who attended.

Jonathan Hopkins – Middledigit
Ben Matthews – Pudding Relations
Jemima Kiss – PDA Blog, Media Guardian
David Jennings

[NB. cross-posted on my Chinwag blog]

Widget Week part 1 – Mobile Monday: Mobile Widgets

Widget Week kicked off last Monday 14th May, and hard to believe though it was, there was me at a MoMo London that I’d come up with the theme for, and someone thought I was called Brenda. Typical 😉

After a quick intro from MoMo’s Alex Craxton and myself, it was on to the substantial roster of speakers – most of whom also gave demos.

David Pollington of Vodafone R&D gave the opening talk – a scenesetter that summarized the key issues and opportunities he saw clustered around the emergence of mobile widgets.

First off – do we want a mobile internet or a mobilized internet? What do people want when mobilized? They certainly don’t want to have to fire-up a browser and search – so widgets are the perfect solution, or at least that’s the hypothesis.

Self-service approach to the Long Tail

Widgets are good for users, Pollington said, giving a threefold justification. You can provide customisable widget templates, hence enabling a self-service approach to the Long Tail; widgets are more bandwidth efficient; and they enable and embody always-on connectivity.

They’re also good for developers, he continued. By leveraging web technologies widgets open mobile service development out to the web development community.

They’re good for business too, he added, but I couldn’t keep up with his rapid-fire delivery! In terms of exploring new presentation options, Pollington said he would like a snapshot option, so he can tab though his widget screens.

In turn, widgets are enabling mash-ups. As a mash-up example he cited the single-click download of a map for one of the addresses in his address book.

Wigdets contextualize

In the same vein, when capturing a camera event a widget can offer the user options for annotating and blogging that image. Widgets aid contextualising services. The contextualisation comes with utilising location data in the calendar.

2008 will see a paradigm change in how widgets change mobile access to web information and services, he concluded.

Then came a short presentation on uiOne, the [event sponsor] Qualcomm user interface profile that according to representative Anwar Ahmed “enables rich and dynamic user experiences on wireless devices”. The speaker stressed the rapid development of customisable interfaces on uiOne. End users can also use it for presentation, theming and micro-segmentation.

Then it was the turn of Cees Van Dok, the creative director of Frog Design. Their strapline is ‘evolve, expand, envision’. Their relevant product is Celltop. It runs on the Alltell mobile carrier network in the US, who approached Frog to develop it, and from the demo it seemed rather nifty.

Open source-powered platforms

Ganesh Sivaraman of Nokia (who also came along to Chinwag Live Media Widgetised) was next up. His talk was quite compelling. He spoke of taking web apps and widgets to mobile devices on Nokia’s S60 platform. S60 has over 50% share of market on converged devices.

Built on top of the Symbian platform, it offers page view, toolbar, web feeds (RSS and Atom), and visual history. He described it as a world class browser developed by embracing and participating with the open source community.

The next step, reasoned Sivaraman, is internet going mobile, taking all Web 2.0 websites and web services to a mobile widget. With Web Run Time, S60 extends and integrates the best in class web components across the platform, he continued. It leverages all known web technologies with two principal outcomes: (1) They develop with standards-based web technologies; (2) Millions of web developers can now go mobile.

By 2010 Nokia predicts 4 billion mobile device subscribers. It will be much easier to facilitate the spread [of mobile web?] by creating templates to crank out widgets.

Web standards and then some…

Charles McCathieNevile of Opera Software kicked off with a bunch of Opera-related statistics. In 2006 they shipped about 140 40 million high-end browsers on four of the major converged device platforms [thanks to Chaals for the correction]. 2006 also saw 40m Opera desktop browser downloads. There are 10m Opera Mini users; and 500,000 community users. There are around 1,000 Opera widgets; and Opera also runs on the Nintendo Wii, airplane seats, Archos, and the Nintendo DS.

If the browser is the platform and Opera widgets are cross-platform, then web standards are the glue… but there is more! The Opera platform also dug into the camera, for example, so you can use it for photo uploads to a widget [if I noted that correctly].

Widgets everywhere!

Opera took a draft widget packaging spec to the W3C to ensure that widgets can work anywhere. [UPDATE: McCathieNevile has since contacted me to stress that the point of taking the spec to W3C is to kick off the collaborative work of coming up with a single widget standard that everyone implements. So instead of developers being asked to build on X, Y or Z’s platform, they just build widgets and the user decides what platform offers them the most, since platforms will be compatible]

So what can we expect in the future? Messaging between mutually trusted widgets, Charles posited, and mash-ups between widgets – although that poses bigger technology and security challenges.

Widgets will be interoperable soon, he reckoned in conclusion. When you can take your widgets everywhere that’s when it’s really going to take off and make a big difference. So true!

Following Charles even deeper into the web domain (or at least, deep by MoMo standards) we got a short demo from Paris-based personalised homepage outfit Webwag who I’d just stumbled across a fortnight beforehand. Adding to the night’s predictions, their able COO and co-founder Florent Pitoun said that by 2010, 50% of internet users will have a personalised startpage.

Widgets on demand

In my opinion, the Webwag homepage is akin to that of Netvibes and Pageflakes, but it has unique strengths, as Pitoun demonstrated. They provide the facility to create widgets – including mobile widgets [UPDATE: enabled further by their recent aquistion of Mobease] – through their Widgets On Demand function.

Webwag will be LBS-enabled in the near future Pitoun added, and you can checkout what they’re doing at He also demonstrated Webwag’s intra-widget communication ability between the Flickr widget and background widget, both on his mobile phone.

Then we had a quick talk from Ray Anderson, CEO of Bango. He made a call for interested mobile folks to contact him about the “web trigger” widget they are developing that will both collect user numbers, and offer the “read and sign terms and conditions” facility (if I understood him correctly).

Last up was Kaj “Hege” Häggman, the business development manager and inventor of Widsets (run out of the Nokia Emerging Business Unit) who also spoke at Chinwag Live Media Widgetised two evenings later.

Facilitating user-created apps

Given David Tollington’s and Charles McCathieNevile’s insightful contributions, and the limitations on time, he passed over the implications of widgets for a quick overview of the technology and usability aspects of Widsets. As such, it has a user-customisable UI; produces mobile mini-apps that perform a specific task; and is good for keeping an eye out for updates.

Widsets have an SDI coming out this summer that allows complex widgets for communities. They also facilitate user created apps – you can create a Widset for your business, or a Widset for your blog.

Widgetisation simplified

Collaborative filtering is important, Häggman continued. You can trust your community when it comes to selecting widgets for your mobile. What’s more, distribution channels will come pre-installed on all new Nokia models, and also on selected Blackberry, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and LG handsets.

They’ve also partnered with Netvibes to get mobile widgets on there, he explained. So why should content providers work with Widsets? Because they’ll get many distribution channels, it’s easy to do, all mobile technology challenges are dealt with by Widsets, the server is stable and it will enable new business models.

I loved how this MoMo looked at mobile development innovation from a broader web perspective without recourse to the standard mobile web 2.0 clichés. Opera, S60, Widsets and widget aggregator outfits like Webwag are very well placed to both benefit from and push forward innovation and convergence in this area.

Widget Week hypothesis proven?

It also dovetailed – far beyond my expectations – with my previously-stated view that the UK, Ireland and North-Western Europe as a whole is better placed and (currently) much farther ahead of the US and the Far East in terms of understanding and innovating in this space. Feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong.

However, that’s not to detract from the topical span of MoMo’s global chapters – which is *hugely* impressive. Check the worldwide MoMo aggregated events here:

Big thanks to Daniel Appelquist, Alex Craxton and Jo Rabin (the MoMo London trio) for running with my Widget Week idea. It wouldn’t have been the same without them. Hopefully we can get the web developer community properly on-board for Widget Week 2008!

[UPDATE: Rod McLaren of Mobbu has also provided a great write-up here, via Florent]

Roll on SXSW Interactive in Austin!

I’m off to SXSW Interactive in the morning! And it’s in Austin, a bohemian oasis isn the middle of redneck Texas.

Went last year, had a tremenduous time, and have been planning my return pretty much ever since I arrived back last year.

I think it’s the only large-scale digital / tech conference (in the English-speaking world) that’s also a festival.

Daytime sessions that have caught my eye so far include:

Online Publishers & Ad Networks

How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0

Turning Projects Into Revenue Generating Businesses

Under 18: Blogs, Wikis and Online Social Networks for Youth

Kathy Sierra Opening Remarks

Tag. You’re It

Everything’s Gone Douglas Coupland

Games + Entertainment Brands: Five Top Trends In 2007

Mapping: Where the F#*% Are We Now?

Web Hacks: Good or Evil (or: Welcome to Web 2.666)

Every Breath You Take: Identity, Attention, Presence and Reputation

Using RSS For Marketing

Web 2.0 and Semantic Web: The Impact on Scientific Publishing

Why We Should Ignore Users

Non-Developers to Open Source Acolytes: Tell Me Why I Care

How to Convince Your Company to Embrace Mashup Culture

User Generated Content and Original Editorial: Friend or Foe

Why Marketers Need To Work With People Media

Open Knowledge vs. Controlled Knowledge

MobileActive: Mobilizing The Masses With Mobile Technology

There’s no Such Thing as the Mobile Web (Or Is There?)

The Global Microbrand: Are Blogs, Suits and Wine the New Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll?

And that’s just the ones I *really* want to go to!!

All the panels:

I’ve also put myself down for more than a few parties over the 10th – 14th March duration:

Stamina will be required 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

A laser beam of Texan foresight…

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

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

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

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

A tag and a theory object…

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

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

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

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

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

Building an internet of things…

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

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

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

Become the change we want to happen…

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

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


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

London podcast

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

My other SXSW Interactive 2006 session reports:

What’s In A Title?

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

DIY Media – Consumer Is The Producer–-diy-media/ 

See all SXSW Interactive 2006 daytime panels here:

See the SXSW Interactive 2007 website

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

SXSW notes: Commons Based Business Models

Speculation and hand-wringing about business models seem to go hand in hand these days.

Going on the premise that business models will “just emerge” isn’t sufficient motive for many start-ups, nor comfort to their potential investors. But neither is the solution simply always about scale (ie. traction plus “eyeballs”).

One interesting result of recent technology developments is the growing niche of commons-based initiatives, and SXSW Interactive scented a trend worth investigating in 2006 when they programmed a session on commons-based business models on Tuesday 14th March.

As teasers go, the programme blurb was quite enticing. ‘How will peer production models prove out in the content space? Learn how pioneering commons-based business models are creating what Business 2.0 calls the next multi-billion dollar industry.’ I was so there already 😉

Jimmy Wales – Wikipedia
Joi Ito – VC & Entrepreneur
Theresa Malango – Magnatune
Ian Clarke – Freenet

Outlining the company ethos, Theresa Malango explained that Magnatune still have a small staff as they want to hold onto their values as the business grows. They also want to sustain their artists and their artists do get paid.

Ian Clarke explained that Freenet’s A-round investors were the same team that first funded Skype. The internet is now fast enough to support video at a rate that people are willing to watch, and Google Video and YouTube are also in the market. Freenet attach unobtrusive marketing to their pages, he explained. All their videos are raised under a Creative Commons licence that doesn’t permit alteration of the video (which won’t allow people want to strip out advertising) but all artists retain copyright.

Investors & the commons space – oxymoron or bandwagonesque?

Jimmy Wales joked that to build a site that’s number 20 in the world they had beat off VCs with a stick. More soberly, he explained that Wikipedia have investors that understand how to grow a business in a commons based culture, people who are sensitive to the situation.

Aren’t commons-based business models VC incompatible, someone asked, as there’s no lock-in that guarantees a VC payout at the end? Also you can get in for very little money – that’s okay for angel investors, but for VCs?

Joi Ito explained that he has stopped investing completely, prompting an audience member to speculate on whether there’s a Web 2.0 bandwagon, with microformats, etcetera, whereby now, people with ideas and no business models are getting funding? Having a Creative Commons licence is not a religion, Joi observed. It should be about choice.

Automatic for the (Web 2.0) people

Theresa Malango interjected that the whole deal is about making the overhead manageable. They have a lot of flexibility that can suit artists and managers. It’s not an either/or situation – you don’t have to give up one thing (CC licence) or the other (making money).

Queried about DRM, Clarke reckoned that it’s the opposite of what technology should be about – it disables people and content, rather than enabling them. Joi Ito added that there’s a nuance to add to that – certain types of channels have DRM built in and the artists has no choice – and the new GPL code cannot be used without DRM (?)

Clarke observed that you have to be pragmatic: you can hate the game while still playing it, and you can criticise the game while playing it. In Malango’s view, CC is becoming flexible enough that they can give flexibility within commercial models.

Transcending the DRM model & mindset

What about emerging payment models, eg micropayments, or are they advancing that this [Creative Commons commercial licences, I presume] is the only feasible model at this time? Wales replied that iTunes is a new model that works, dubbing it “digital annoyance management”. He buys, burns and rips because his MP3 player won’t play iPod or iTunes files. What you’re paying for with iTunes is the service, he stressed – always there, reliable, and the IRS aren’t going to come knocking on your door.

Clarke said that advertising has the nice quality that you can just do it and you don’t have to create DRM or rely on inbuilt flaws to guarantee revenue. It will end up like cable TV where you have direct payment models and advertising will cover the rest. It’s the easiest way, he figured.

Mining the Long Tail and cultural differences

The traditional operating systems (OS) model is to have the stuff downloadable for free and all the support, etc, is what you charge for, an audience member remarked. Malango replied that they dealt with all this head on because they only did downloads; then they realised that there was still a demand for CDs, so they introduced that, but now it’s dropping off with the pervasive uptake of downloads plus broadband.

Ito explained that he has been taking it to people who do anime. They are changing their model in order to sell ultra-deep content to the few thousand hardcore fans. It’s about the relationship, he stressed, as you can cut out the middlemen and give more (as per the Long Tail) to less people and charge more for it. Endorsements and events are another way to supplement revenue. This approach is taking off in China where the worst thing for a musician is not to be copied.

Creative Commons culture spreads

Creative Commons has intrinsic values but is also a means to an end, as the founders of Threadless (solicits and runs competitions for t-shirt designs) discovered. They have no CC inbuilt. The same goes for Kathy Sierra’s ‘Creating Passionate Users’.

How does Create Commons engender these communities? Joi stressed we need to differentiate CC from OS (operating system) licences. CC are trying to create metadata so that Google etc have a systematic way of searching the licences and so that they’re machine-readable, he continued. Lawrence Lessig is trying to get together clumps of other commons-based licences that are not CC. A lot of OS licences are very poorly framed legally.

Joi flagged the recent Adam Curry case, whereby someone used the licence without attribution. Curry took them to court and won. Many, many people are using Creative Commons with different goals, and CC allows that, they are trying to provide choice for everyone.

Remixing culture & content let loose

Malango explained that Magnatune use the non-commercial licence for the podcast service they have started. They also use the attribution licence to buy. While Wikipedia don’t use CC, Malango continued, Magnatune believe that the more people hear a track, the more likely they will be to come back and buy it. In turn, it encourages the remixing trend and they want to be part of it – it’s their lifeblood.

Jimmy Wales reflected that Wikipedia pre-dates the CC licence. They use a free documentation licence. There’s also the branding element to consider – if I’m thinking of working with Magnatune, the licence tells me a lot about them. It also gives further reason to participate, creating the “network externality effect”.

Clarke said all their videos are release under a “no derivatives” CC licence. The problem encountered in getting people to create short-form video content is that people tend to think of using others’ music. Why not do a test, Wales suggested, where you leave the advertising in? People probably won’t remove it as it’s at the end, he surmised, because it’s so unobtrusive. If they were remixing it they would strip out the ads, Clarke countered.

Patronage, peer investment & the Revver model…

Mike Linksvayer, who is the Creative Commons CTO, asked the panel what they saw to be the role of patronage in future commons-based business models.

Clarke replied that they developed the idea a couple of years ago to create a marketplace where people could invest in video production of others content, and if others invested later the earlier investors would make money (Google fair share was also namechecked in this context). But the idea wasn’t picked up, he said. Revver, was another concept in this vein.

Tantek Celick (CTO of Technorati) commented that there are tools in the content distribution chain that force DRM in. But the challenge is education rather than tools. Are there alternatives?

Format silos and the multi-channel approach

Joi responded that people should try to come up with and document alternatives. It’s different with software where many different types of content are stuck in a format, for example, if you’re a film-maker you have to use DVDs as one of the distribution channels because it makes sense (while using BitTorrent as well). Thus it becomes a tactical decision and it’s the choice of the artist if you need to hit people with your content next week.

But Tantek countered that DVDs can be made “Region Zero”, and you can make them without bad CSS (?).

Branding, trademarks and the community dilemma

Tara Hunt raised the notion of a commons-based education model, and a marketing model where all the communities participate. Chris Messina added that one of the things that shut down the ‘Spread CC’ and ‘Spread Firefox’ movements was the brand, as if it’s licensed under a trade mark that’s a lot harder to do. Most lawyers of course would argue that not controlling it deteriorates your ability to manage it. Is there a commons-based way to treat trademarks, he wondered.

Jimmy Wales responded that you want fans of Wikipedia to promote it; and then there’s bad people who would misuse the brand. Joi said, with his iCann hat explicitly on, even though we want everything to be distributed, trademarks are one way to find and distinguish communities. As the session wound-up, fittingly, final comment came from an audience member who reckoned we should get rid of top-level domains as they’re not good for anything.

[NB. This was a very fast-paced and high level discussion and I can’t stand by the complete accuracy of everything I noted down in its duration. But, a podcast of this session is available from this page:]

All SXSW Interactive 2006 panels:

My other SXSW Interactive 2006 session write ups:

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

The Perfect Pitch

What People Are Really Doing On The Web

And there’s still time to check out and book for SXSW 2007!