Category Archives: SXSW 2008

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/

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SXSW 08 panel: How widgets influence music on the web

You could sense the ‘we’ve got troubles but we’re still way cooler than you geeks’ (or are they?) vibe a mile off. The music biz was already rolling into Austin on the last day of SXSW Interactive 2008 before the full-scale SXSW Music conference kicked-off the next day – and they were out in force at this session on the afternoon of Tuesday 11th March.

PANEL:
John Bartelson – VP New Media , Island / Defjam
Rogelio Choy – VP Business Dev, RockYou
Chair: Liz Gannes – GigaOm
Ali Partovi – CEO, iLike
Jian Chen – Frontend Software Engineer, Meebo.com

After a year of Facebook mania, clearly the scent of widgets – and some massive widget players – was enough to lure artists, and indie and major labels into the room (if not the debate), and so it began…

Ali Partovi explained that they’ve built iLike into other social platforms but have also built a set of artist tools that will enable them to do stuff once, and publish / syndicate across Facebook, Bebo and elsewhere.

Bono of U2 started to write a new song ‘Wave Of Sorrow‘ and developed it through a process of discussion with fans on iLike. Partovi showed a video featuring Radiohead, Linkin Park and U2 and then rolled out the stats for some shock and awe impact (BTW, I haven’t checked these stats):

U2 – 2m fans on iLike / 131,000 on Myspace
Linkin Park – 542k iLike / 343k Myspace
Foo Fighters – 887k iLike / 588k Myspace
Radiohead have 1.4m fans on iLike

Through mediating their song development on iLike / Facebook in this fashion, he continued, U2 increased their iLike follower base from 1m to 1.3 million, and they’ve got nearly 10,000 comments on the video posted on U2’s iLike Facebook app about the creation of the song (also available on Youtube) .

Content everywhere: aggregating a wider audience…

Chen from Meebo described their product as chat room widgets embeddable across sites. They also generate traffic into the site and between sites. All the distributed widgets aggregate together a larger audience. Meebo widgets have totally skinnable interfaces for your brand or band.

In turn, their chat widgets recognize and play certain media URLs (video, audio, photo and URL previews). The media capabilities are not just for UGC, he added, but also media syndication.

Chen saw great potential in syndicating exclusive content from high quality content providers. He cited the Kanye West ‘Graduation’ album release, wherein Kanye’s label worked with Buddylube, a web 2.0 marketing management company who do a lot of customization of widgets. Graduation (released 11th September 2007) has now (March 2008 ) sold 950k albums, and had 330k legal digital downloads.

Widget marketing trends & the music value chain

Choy of RockYou said they went from 7m visitors to 45m since they’ve went onto Facebook. RockYou also works on Myspace and Bebo.

From the audience someone asked: how and when do we get to the stage where this is a normal way to market and communicate with fans? Chen replied: when the tools are simple enough for independent bands and indie labels to use.

Moderator Liz Gannes said we should check out Kanye’s blog. Is it all about the marketing? No one is talking about distributing…

Partovi of iLike commented that a lot of bands are thinking of themselves as a media business, where they’ll eventually be able to do an ad-supported model.

Choy said that the notion that artists can monetize on RockYou only works if they come through something like iLike. It’s very difficult process if you want to go into selling music online.

My question (which wasn’t picked, despite having my hand up for while) was: with a million widgets and oceans of UGC, will search and widget aggregators overtake the viral growth of widgets? Do they optimize widgets for search, and how to they monitor the level and spread of widget usage as content gets more and more disaggregated?

[Sidebar: This issue will be addressed at the Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze event next week, Tuesday 20th May – and Myspace’s European Product Direcetor Mitch McAlister and Last FM‘s SVP of European Ad Sales Miles Lewis are among the panelists you can quiz on this topic. Booking and more info here.]

Future distribution – D2C scenarios and widget overload

Gannes asked the panel: is the distribution business viable for you? Choy said that selling (not just music but also photos, videos, etc) is not part of what RockYou does directly, but it is through relationships… I guess he meant RockYou is part of the value chain.

Partovi remarked that as things get more and more cluttered, utility decreases, usage decreases and it’s harder to get take-up. Things stagnate and there’s less innovation; and innovation is very important.

iLike lets artists know who their fans are based on peoples’ activity on the widget. This gives, for example, Radiohead access to a much bigger audience online than they could handle or attract through their own site. However, people still downloaded their new album from Limewire, and Radiohead got no metrics [never mind revenue] for that, and no email addresses for all those people.

And there’s the rub! Elsewhere that day, as reported by Paid Content, there was a rowdier session on ad-supported music services. If I could have widgetised myself (far preferable to cloning methinks) I would definitely have been there. 😉

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More coverage of this session:

Widgets put music where it’s at – Jemima Kiss, Media Guardian PDA blog

Upcoming evening panel event:

Chinwag Live Micro Media Maze – Tuesday 20th May 2008, London
http://live.chinwag.com/micromediamaze

SXSW 08 panel: Life after the iPhone

The lights were dimmed way down low in this packed Tuesday 10am session. In line with the majority take on mobility’s best way forward, the environment was attuned to take account of the user context and experience (the morning after the night before…) 😉

PANEL:
Scott Jenson – Mobile UI Manager, Google
Karen Kashansky – UX engineer, TellMe
Loic Maestracci – Dir. Marketing, Groove Mobile
Kyle Outlaw – Senior IA, Avenue A Razorfish
Chair: Kate Ryan – Ten Digital

The scene was verbally set by the chair Kate Ryan – we’re here not to discuss technical roadmaps, but to explore how user experiences (and Rich Internet Applications for the mobile web) may change in the future because of the impact of this product in the market.

Saying “mobile” doesn’t cut it anymore, Karen Kashansky stressed. Is the person walking; driving; is it noisy where they are; are eyes available? Kashansky came at the topic as someone who has been designing voice-driven user interfaces for twelve years.

Now she wants to take that step further, and sees a lot of potential for voice-in and voice-out on handsets in the wake the iPhone. If you’re driving, you might just want to hear the list of Indian restaurants, not see it. It’s all about context – user experience (UX) professionals need to take care that we’re designing for the right experiences.

Rip it up and start again…

Kyle Outlaw remarked that the iPhone marked the onset of an era of disruptive mobility. Traditional design processes and deliverables are becoming extinct, he said. Instead of wireframes and siteflow we need to get our hands dirty and experiment a lot more. More R&D is required too.

Repeated reference was made through the session to the iPhone’s flaws – taking too many clicks to make calls, and terrible for SMS being the principal agreed drawbacks. But these were counterbalanced by what Google’s Scott Jenson termed its “sheer audacity”, with the lack of scroll bars, menus, and the visual voicemail cited as breakthroughs.

But the idea of the iPhone as the “web in your pocket” is a misnomer, reckoned Jenson. What it’s about is seamless mobility. We don’t want to read the newspaper on the iPhone, we want web-enabled iPhone apps that anyone can easily connect to.

“It’s the beginning of the end of perpetuating the myth that the mobile is another desktop platform,” he said.

iPhone ripple effect and pain points

Kate Ryan asked: what’s the impact of the iPhone on design?

Jenson countered that you need the rethink the whole mobile process. There will be significant innovation but it will be driven – in terms of monestisation – by pretty boring stuff. Maestracci noted that on the new Sony Erriscon model the media player is a dumber version of the PS3. Kashansky rated visual voicemail on the iPhone.

Ryan then canvassed the panel for examples of good design on mobile. Kyle Outlaw observed that the iPhone stripped the phone down to its essential features [if you take a US-centric approach and haven’t been texting daily for 8 years like most Europeans!], contrary to the “featuritis” trend, and those features were very well done.

What will be the iPhone killers? Kyle cited the Sidekick (T-Mobile US-only handset), while it’s a little too big it’s got a better keyboard and is a messaging machine! Another panellist flagged up the PSP Slim with Skype on it. Also they were very interested in what’s going on with mobile and VOIP.

Jenson observed that in some senses the iPhone has gone too far, for example it’s the worst SMS experience, which is not good for Europe. In limiting its features, the iPhone pays a price.

Kashansky stressed that we need to look at who will be using this phone and then slim down features to suit what different types of people need.

Testing trends and development challenges

Responding to query about openness, Maestracci said open access as provided by Google Android or the iPhone SDK opens the door for designers to build apps. [But stories have also since emerged that Apple plans to patent iPhone haptics, as Bryan Rieger of Future Platforms told the audience at Chinwag Live: Real World Usability in London on April 22nd – a barrier to generalising the new user experience surely?]

Kate Ryan – how does the need to design for mobile change UX (user experience) professionals’ jobs?

Kyle Outlaw – rapid prototyping; early and often; the need for agile over waterfall development models as we go into this area where standards aren’t fixed.

Kashansky – UX professionals need to think a little more creatively about how they test things. Eg synching mobile with gaming devices, or web, IPTV, and GPS.

Jenson – people more as producers of information, not just consumers.

Maestracci – richer applications, shift from text based to media / interactive video-based; an input device not just an output device.

Outlaw – mobile used to be seen as one channel among many but now mobile is emerging as a multichannel device. VOIP application development will be big. Ribbit is developing VOIP widgets for mobile.

UX & multiple inputs: drivers for seamless mobility?

Kate Ryan asked: what is the mobile killer app? Outlaw said: searchable luggage. Kashansky wanted a “mobile device as a shell to access my info in the cloud; so for example when I get into my car, I interact with my device via my steering wheel.” Jensen’s answer was twofold: unlimited broadband and a battery that doesn’t die quickly. Maestracci cited music, but also being “always connected”.

Outlaw pointed out that in terms of development for iPhones, the approach is more like smart phones, so the approach isn’t handset-specific. Outlaw and Jenson had different thoughts on the long-term viability of SMS.

Groove Mobile’s Maestracci remarked that the thing about the mobile phone is that it’s an always connected device – SMS was the first push technology for the phone; now we have Blackberry and email. The open platform can really expand the possibilities of the phone.

Audience question: stylus inputs – is it going away or will it be integrated with iPhone-type design?

Jenson explained that he worked at Symbian for quite a while [stylus central!]. Using your hands feels more personal and less geeky, he said, and you can lose the stylus all the time. Plus, if you design for the phone, you want to have multiple input points on the screen at any one time. At the same time, he admitted, he can’t get to grips with the keyboard at all.

Platform and apps as a stepping stone

Audience question: the Safari iPhone browser makes it easier for iPhone application developers. Is this the start of a trend – “optimised for iPhone” – and will this diminish the opposition and make the iPhone ubiquitous?

Jenson replied: “to me the iPhone is a webkit”, it’s just raising the standard of mobile browsing; and Motorola are adopting the new Opera Mobile browser, which is a really good browser. In turn he advised: “don’t just port your website; you still have to re-design it for the mobile.”

As with the iPhone SDK, developers will be able to do VOIP apps, Kyle Outlaw added. Outlaw is also developing Food Ninja for restaurant reviews.

While there were slightly fewer mobile-specific panels this year, mobile was integrated into a broader range of panels instead, which is as it should be I guess. But appreciating the impact of mobility and scanning its horizons still requires the kind of deep focus provided by this session.

And a week after SXSW whaddya know, on March 18th along came an M:Metrics report that the iPhone Hype is Holding Up – also covered in the New York Times.

[UPDATE: Google’s Scott Jenson is speaking at MEX (Mobile User Experience) in London, 27-28th May 2008 http://www.pmn.co.uk/mex/
MEX Blog updates here

Plus there’s a great short interview with Scott by MEX’s Mark Pawlowski here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5VeIuxg6SE]

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Continue the session discussion on the dedicated Ning social network site http://Lifeafteriphone.ning.com (requires Ning log-in)

More coverage of this session:

New Media Buzz – Michael Leis of Emerge Digital
In Transit – Mark Danielson
Media Guardian PDA blog – Jemima Kiss

Older general posts on the iPhone that are worth checking out:

Russell Beattie – i-dot thoughts
Mobhappy (Russel Buckley) – 2007 predictions, the final one
Mobhappy (Carlo Longino) – Is The iPhone Any More Attractive To Developers Now Than It Was Two Days Ago?

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…

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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

Facebookology – the Mark Zuckerberg SXSW 08 keynote interview

Looking at the man who created an addiction I have recently recovered from, whose product I have read and thought about way too much, I was conflicted.

I mean how many layers of information/identity/experience etc can one person process in a split second, right? Facebook has been useful, work enhancing, fun, valuable, diverting, strange, compelling, addictive, aggravating, blundering, wasteful, alienating.

In terms of where it ranks in the social software services I use (for a host of reasons), that depends, but today I rank the top ten thus: Flickr, Drupal, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Upcoming, Linked In, Delicious, MediaWiki, Bloglines.

I might rank these differently tomorrow, or if you ask me a specific question about my purpose, but that’s the broad order right now (sad how my RSS reader has dropped down the list, huh?) .

Zeitgeist platform

So I adopted my “industrial (floor) era” reporter stance and took copious notes at the SXSW Interactive keynote interview with 23-year-old Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Lurking in the shadows, I also drank coffee and ate a superzised muffin. I was coping 😉

And after the webstorm around the “Sarah Lacy / mob-rulekerfuffle died down, and putting aside the business issues per-se, a few seemingly innocuous par-for-the course points lingered.

Zuckerberg was keen to stress the neutrality of the platform, stating over and over that they just want to “help people communicate more effectively and efficiently”. While the case studies he raised of how FB has been used to co-ordinate politically in Colombia and Lebanon could both (naturally) be interpreted as politically skewed, and he flagged up the fight against global poverty, Mark saw social facilitation via technology – not ideology – as the philosophy driving Facebook.

“We’re just trying to build an infrastructure on top of which people can operate.”

Myface or Ourspace?

But this impartial view that Facebook simply lowers the barriers to communication and activity was muddied somewhat when seconds later he remarked:

“People should be able to be heard without any large organisation of millions of people. The world is an increasingly complex place and we need something – an infrastructure – on top of which people can communicate and do it [organise] from the bottom-up.”

Isn’t that an (albeit bland) endorsement of decentralised activity? So bland that it’s in fact very slick. Zuckerberg comin’ on like a talkshow equivalent of Clay Shirky. But lest we forget while caught in the swoon of emergent online communities, centralised political activity abides.

New ecosystem of value-creation a closed book?

So, it’s grassroots activity FB is (apparently) facilitating: the organic, the makeshift social milieu… hmm. Perhaps Zuckerberg should steer clear of sociological points, but the folksy grassrootness was blurred in the context of later comments he made:

“We see the company as a collection of social services,” he said, adding that opening up the developer platform allows people outside to make these services too and they’re “an increasingly important part of the ecosystem”.

“Revenue is a trailing indicator of the non-revenue value you are building,” he observed further into the interview, mid-way through an exploration of Beacon, spammy apps, and the Microsoft / IPO debate.

Beware the quicksand…

Facebook as a brand is rightly a mighty force, whether as a closed system (and open source hate object) or gradually opening space. Speaking of news community aggregator Newsvine, The Guardian’s Charles Arthur recently summed up the power of the Web 2.0 brand:

“[it] is a brand, buoyed by its community of users; without the users it would be nothing, but without the brand, the users would just be people milling around on the web, looking for a forum in which to post their thoughts and be heard.”

…but we’ve seen how easily media (oops, “platform”) brand allegiance can shift, and how heckishly difficult it is to create revenue.

Concurring with Lacy’s point that Facebook considers itself a technology company and not a media company like Myspace, Zuckerberg said: “Yes, and we hire senior people with a technical background, this makes it pervasive in our culture – to be a platform that enables other people to build businesses [that’s anyone from Coke to your 16-year-old neice of course] and build things.”

Ah, a pure marketplace, got it. Oh, but what’s this? Some libertarianism with your platform sir? With some baked-in diversity, vanilla flavour.

All kinds of everything… [*]

“In terms of community we consider it to be a very personal thing. People aren’t being forced into any community, it’s more about allowing them to communicate more and keep in touch with people.”

Egad, Zuckerberg posits Facebook as platform for mass diversity shocker! And yet it’s not so clear-cut. Maybe Mark’s been reading Jaron Lanier? Or perhaps his advisors have been. In turn, spare me the conspiracy schtick; I think it’s a whole lot more confusing and interesting than that. In my book (sic), as both a creature and driver of the complex world, the Facebook story is not over yet – whether you consider it evil, benign or a panacea for all ills.

It’s been an interesting year now social media’s gone mainstream. We’ve lived it, and learnt a few lessons. The gist of it all? Like the SXSW interview, it’s been messy.

[* Dana’s #URL correction# 1970 Eurovision winner says it all]

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The other Pandora’s Box point to emerge from his interview I’ll leave to a later post. Suffice to say it relates to the whole privacy-identity-openness debate.

[NB: I haven’t cross-checked my hand-written notes with either the official SXSW session podcast or the Allfacebook video posted on Valleywag – apologies for any inaccuracies my account may contain]