Category Archives: Technology and Software

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Lee Miller in focus

Telling the story of my Finding Ada heroine for 2010 – photographer Lee Miller – requires taking a broad perspective. Her life’s achievement is a composite of a number of key strands: art, photography, fashion, technology and war reporting, bound together by a pioneering spirit.

This hurried blog isn’t the place to explore and understand these all in detail. Lee Miller was a breakthrough figure for a number of reasons – this is just a snapshot.

Lee Miller self portrait, New York 1942

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York state in 1907, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller left for Paris at the age of eighteen where, according to Ursula Butler:

“She studied lighting, costume and theatre design at Ladislas Medgyes’s School of Stagecraft. She later returned to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League. There she met Condé Nast and he introduced Miller to the world of modeling. From 1926-1929 she modeled, but eventually wanted to see what life was like behind the camera. Miller studied under the great dada-surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Under his supervision, Miller learned how to manipulate the photograph to make a self-contained, semi-abstract or dreamlike image.”

She also became his wife and established her own studio. So far so interesting, but things were just hotting up.

The word ‘photography’ was coined by scientist Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839 (though it had been coined seperately by Hercules Florence in 1834!) and is actually is derived from two Greek words: ‘photos’ meaning light and ‘graphein’ meaning draw. The pace of technology development in cameras and photography accelerated during the early twentieth centry, but our subject’s contribution to the science of photography was a marriage of chance and artistry. Miller brought the alchemy.

Much debate surrounds the issue as to which of the couple stumbled across a technique in photography that – like a reverse negative of the ‘photography’ coinage – had been discovered a few times previously but not clearly defined and adopted: namely solarisation.

Solarized portrait of an unknown woman by Lee Miller, Paris 1930

The effect was usually caused by inadvertent severe over-exposure or occasionally by accidentally exposing an exposed plate or film to light before processing. Artist Man Ray perfected the technique which was accidentally discovered in his darkroom by his assistant Lee Miller.” [Wikpedia]

Whatever the facts, Man Ray was soon flying the flag for perfecting this technique whilst his collaborator Miller was merely, again, known as his model (although she marshalled the technique to equally compelling effect – see her above ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’ from 1930). Man Ray was of the controlling variety, and Miller being a woman of substance soon broke free of his grip. She continued to be deeply involved in the Surrealist movement, amassing a body of work in her late twenties and early thirties that puts her on a par with the leading figures in photographic art and photo journalism, though this has only been recognised in the last two decades after her death, thanks to the meticulous recovery, ordering and promotion of her archives by her son.

A friend of Picasso – and combining commercial fashion photography and artistic work while entwined in a bohemian milieu – what beguiles me is the mastery she achieved in the realm of photography by bringing with her all her selves as she worked though each chapter of her career and each dimension of her work. There was truth and artifice – with neither undermining the other – in her iconic photo ‘Women with fire masks’ (1941), taken on the street of her own residence in Hampstead.

Women with firemasks by Lee Miller, 1941

Conversely, when Vogue sent her off with a Rolliflex to Europe to cover the end of the war and the liberation, her photos combined a self-sufficient, often mysterious power with a visceral sense of unfolding drama. As she travelled through a bombed-out, shattered Europe, her camera captured many of the most powerful images of the closing months of that dark chapter in the last century. From the Italian front and the first ever use of Napalm at the siege of St Malo, to the death camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, and the liberation of Paris, you can view a wide selection of her potent war images online in the Lee Miller Archive.

Mistress of the lens, at the height of her career she lived for several years in this house on Downshire Hill in Hampstead, also spending time in Egypt and travelling widely, before moving to Farley Farm House in east Sussex. She had two further marriages, the second to British surrealist artist Roland Penrose whom she stayed with.

Lee Miller’s house, Downshire Hill, London, March 2010

After the war, whilst still doing the occasional fashion shoot, Miller’s overall profile declined and she suffered bouts of clinical depression alleged (in retrospect) to have been symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the horrors she had seen while on war assignment. In turn, her ironic sensibility was reinforced with disillusionment at the limited type of commercial work she was being offered. Women en masse had successfully taken on all sorts of previously “male” roles during the conflict, and as a surrealist photojournalist embedded with the US army Miller was among them. But after the war, governments scrambled to promote traditional values in their efforts to glue broken societies back together, and opportunities for women in the working world shrank.

In her lifetime, she was all to aware of the cultural – and personal – impact of womens’ abilities and output being marginalised. A photograph she composed of Max Ernst and his partner, artist Dorothea Tanning, encapsulates her subversive take on this.

The recognition she has posthumously achieved was acknowledged on a grand scale some 30 years after her death in a major retrospective at the V&A in 2007, which I attended, plus coverage and exhibitions globally in the last decade. Now the scales have been duly re-balanced, we can celebrate Miller as a true icon and pioneer in the art and technology of photography. For innovation and inspiration personified, look to Lee Miller on Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace Day is an annual worldwide day of blogging to celebrate the achievement of women in science and technology. More information on Ada Lovelace Day 2010 can be found on the Finding Ada website.  This post hasn’t been much about technology per se – it’s what we do with it that matters…

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Community management under the bonnet: 23 things

Online communities have been around for as long as the internet itself, but the path technology has travelled in the last decade means the options for what you can offer and what you can do with them today have exploded.

Despite this, they’re still viewed as a bolt-on or feature of a brand’s web presence and their internal workings and dynamics are little understood. This has led to what’s been termed as the “iceberg effect of community management”. In other words: there’s much more going on in an online community than is visible from the surface. Especially in the initial stages, just as much of this hidden activity involves the community manager as it does the community members.

Image courtsesy of Rita Willaert, Greenland, 10th September 2005 on Flickr

Image courtsesy of Rita Willaert, Greenland, 10th September 2005 on Flickr

The full-spectrum of web and social media tools is now being vacuumed up into and integrated with communities: so beyond forums and chat, we now have blogs, RSS, aggregation, email, polls, Q&A, photos, video, audio, virtual worlds, groups, ratings, attachments, events, microblogging, profiles, focus groups, networking, widgets and wikis, to list only the most obvious…

These tools protrude the ocean’s surface, along with the reams of content created by community members. But that is only a small fraction of what is happening. As more brands and organisations come to recognise the potential value of facilitating their own communities – but still consider it as an “add-on” to their main website – what does this mean for the role of community manager? What do they need to know and what do they do all day?

Image courtesy of The Brain Toad on Flickr

Image courtesy of The Brain Toad on Flickr

This is my off-the-cuff list of community management under the bonnet. I prefer the engine metaphor because communities commonly have a goal – they’re supposed to get you somewhere. I’ve also included the pre-launch stages. Depending on your product and whatever way you slice it, there’s a lot to get stuck into!

1. Business Plan
Translating business objectives into a workable plan that is agreed with stakeholders across the business. Finding and agreeing a budget. If you’re already on board at this stage, you’ll need to be involved in this in order to understand the business needs, if you’re hoping to translate it into a successful product that is…

2. Technology Platform & CMS
Choosing a technology platform – low-cost off the shelf packages you can tailor to suit community interaction, eg. Ning, Squarespace, Joomla; bigger-budget customised developments based on for example Drupal (the system I’ve worked with in my last three roles); or maybe you go totally bespoke whether in-house or with an agency (potentially the priciest, and beware proprietary lock-ins that could come back to bite you).

3. Personas & User-Centred Planning
Personas are a useful heuristic for surfacing the needs of the different key groups who’ll be using your community. You think you have your audience all figured out, but have you thought about their activities and requirements in community terms? Explore this in workshops if you can.

4. Design & Build
If you’re around during this phase, you could be called upon to input from the following (and more) perspectives: web design and wireframing, information architecture, usability, accessibility, user experience, on site search, SEO, taxonomy and folksonomy, APIs, browser compatibility and web standards. Many brands are still lacking in some or all of these departments, so your broad knowledge and experience can help make or break the end product! In terms of collaboration and notation around refining design and navigation concepts with your devs and designers, I can’t recommend Conceptshare strongly enough. I used it for that purpose in Chinwag‘s previous re-build and it is genius.

5. Registration & CRM Integration
The first experience of a community member is often to register; don’t make it painful and onerous, you’ll annoy and lose people from the get go. Communicate the importance of this to direct stakeholders, preferably with story boards and demos of best practice. The experience generally is so poor and under-thought that Joshua Porter’s writing a book about it. Get advance estimates for the costs of integrating community registration / login with your current CRM system (preferably when you’re in Business Planning stage). The figures – and actual effort – can be unexpected. Is there another solution?

6. Testing & Tweaking
When you have early “alpha” versions of the site to play with, plan for an extended period of UAT (user acceptance testing). Get people across the business involved. Allow for some less structured “guerilla” usability testing too, at different stages of the build. You can learn as much from this as from pre-scripted interactions. Make sure your community manager is involved for most if not all of it and has oversight on the final sign-off.

7. Guidelines
Social networks revolve around me and are a bit of a free-for-all, they’re social but generally selfish. Communities bring benefits to people by having a common purpose that may facilitate but also overrides pure self-interest. So community rules and a general etiquette are essential. These guidelines need to be agreed by your organisation, and include some legal considerations. You may also need specific guidelines: for your bloggers, for group managers, for staff members and for sponsors, depending on the scope of your endeavour.

8. FAQ / Help
The more multi-faceted your site, the more bases your FAQ will need to cover! Basic instructions on your different areas, tools and registration are essential, should be visibly linked to everywhere and also feature somewhere in the site-wide navigation. Keep them readable and concise. A good FAQ is not an afterthought, and harder to write than you’d imagine. Be community-minded and have a site help discussion forum too, where your input and peer support can mingle to the benefit of all concerned.

9. Seeding: pilot before launching
There’s nothing worse than being told of some cool new community or cutting edge network, and hoofing it over there only to find it bereft of visible life forms. Counter this by running a closed pilot, while you also beta test the site’s taxonomy and functionality. Invite a segment of your audience to participate in the pilot. Make sure they know they’re getting a special preview, listen to their feedback and iterate rapidly to solve key technology, content and user experience design issues during this period. Allow for a couple of months minimum, or at least until there is lively activity before opening up. Then when the world turns up, they won’t be confronted by a confusing environment of unusable tools and tumbleweed. [See also .17]

10. Moderation
Think about posting controls, editing permissions, alert systems, freezing tools, spam filters and of course, moderators! Which is better for your community: external agency moderation, user-mods, or moderation by the experts, contact centre staff and people who know the answers and issues themselves inside the business? As community manager for CIMAsphere I run staff training workshops, and oversee the moderation workflow and rolling schedule. A closed group on the community for geographically distributed moderators to discuss issues and share best practice is another plus. Relying solely on external mods can be un-feasible and also means the brand is not fully engaging.

11. Inboxes
Not everything happens *on* your website, so common community inboxes you may have to set up and manage include: info, help, feedback, and abuse; plus the community manager’s personal inbox of course. That’s a lot of email! Who else can help you mange these inboxes? Hunt down the most apposite or amenable folks and spread the inbox love to spare the pain!

12. Enhancements & bug fixing
Gotta love those bugs as a community manager! Living in perpetual beta with a modest budget, bugs follow you wherever you go. Users complain on the site, people email for help, some people struggle to even login if your registration process isn’t perfect (and whose is?). Bugs perkily await you in the morning, and they’re there when you go to sleep each night. The thing businesses need to consider is that bugs impact users much more directly and frequently in communities than in other websites. And who else can communicate these bugs’ intricacies and preferred fixes to developers apart from the community manager? Prioritise ruthlessly, and use a good bug-logging or collaborative project management tool. I recommend TracAdminitrack, or even Basecamp (but not Bugzilla – it’s strictly for the engineer contingent). Realise you’ll never get them all fixed if your support budget is minimal. Communicate with your users about the bugs, and discuss with the business how they plan to support product development in the future.

13. Analytics
Unique users, dwell-time, page views, referring sites, search traffic, browser and device breakdown, exit pages, pages per visit, popular keywords and content, campaign tracking… this is just the beginning, but if you can’t report on the above, something’s wrong. Even if you use a paid analytics vendor like Neilsen, Omniture or Nedstat, it should be possible to also plug in the wonderfully free Google Analytics. But realise there’s more to GA than meets the eye – look into its deeper facilities.

14. Community & engagement metrics
Another beast from analytics entirely: clicks are not the bottom line! Value comes in many forms. Most active participants; most active groups / forums; total posts / interactions; average posts per user; ratio of posters to passives. These are some fundamentals, but don’t tell you much more than if you’re properly monitoring the community from a managerial perspective in the first place. But how many go onto recommend you, or redistribute your content elsewhere? How many buy? How many change their sentiment from negative to positive, and vice versa? How many act creatively? How many contribute valuable feedback and knowledge to other users and to your organisation? Only some of these metrics are directly monetary, others contribute to site and business objectives in the broader sense and longer term. Think about types of value, what you want to measure, and what you effectively *can*.

15. Bloggers
Internal or external, expert or enthusiasts, detractors or advocates? Okay, it might not be the most sensible move to hire detractors as bloggers, but critics will have a voice on your site nonetheless, and are part of the positive future of your organisation, catalysts for beneficial change. This is because they often speak loudly the frustrations and uncomfortable truths that the brand smoothes over. That’s because they’re passionate, so some could be bloggers eventually 🙂  Get a mix of bloggers on board, make sure a variety of business and community interests are represented, and within your guidelines allow for freedom. Give them ongoing feedback. Run training for internal bloggers and monitor their progress. Try out different things and don’t expect it to purr along like a dream. Expect it to be bumpy.

16. Groups
Groups are very powerful clusters: a key trait of people is to identify by similarity of experience, location or interest. According to the Ruder Finn Intent Index, 72% of people go online just to become part of a community. Groups in communities facilitate this clustering further. Do you have pre-defined or user suggested groups, or both? Devolving group control to community members is common practice. Group guidelines and moderation can ameliorate the risks involved, as well as reassure the group managers that you’re taking their group’s good health and sanity to heart.

17. Advocates, evangelists & early days participants
Prior to launching, identify and open a communications channel with brand or business advocates who can get motivated to sign-up and post when you launch, and help spread the word. These could be dynamic individuals already championing your brand elsewhere in the social mediaverse, or people who present themselves and have good ideas when you (for instance) do a mail out to your audience asking for ideas and involvement before the community goes live. In turn, your first active users should be carefully listened to and responded to. Those first weeks are critical. Having turned up first to the party and said hello, they deserve special attention!

18. Getting to know you
If you don’t “know” your community, you’re onto a loser. By know, I mean get familiar with them as participants. You don’t need to be the resident expert on the community’s focus (though input from experts is essential) but you do need to know who’s unhappy, who’s helpful, who’s critical, and who’s smart. Many community users will be a combination of these and other types. Some people can even be accidentally evil and destructive. Unless they’ve been heinously bad, don’t jump to cast judgement! We’re complicated creatures after all.

19. PR, content and attention planning
Do you know why you’re building your community? Then the PR and content planning should be seamless. Schedule in some eye-catching events and content around your launch; but remember it’s not about broadcasting “messages” or parading shiny baubles. Instead it’s about being interesting by providing value and being relevant and useful. If your event isn’t going to really matter to those early days and ideal users, then all the press coverage and email-outs in the world aren’t going to get people logging in and participating! It’s the same with content and event programming going forward. What might impress journalists and influential bloggers on the one hand and what tickles your community on the other don’t necessarily correlate.

20. Culture shift and cross-business input
The governance and ongoing development of the community shouldn’t be left to one person, or even one department. A cross-business steering group is one way of bringing a range of business eyes and knowledge to bear on the project and prevents it being siloed or becoming a political football for competing fiefdoms in the organisation. Communities languish and fail every day due to the latter scenarios. Breaking down those barriers is one of the great leaps forward that a community can begin to facilitate. People talk about operational efficiencies, but they’re rarely delivered in a meaningful or positive way. Well managed communities make this approach tangible, and eat away at the barriers and inertia both within businesses and between them and their customers.

21. Direct engagement and response
Follows from the above. If your community is a platform for CRM, R&D, product development, PR, marketing or customer insight, direct engagement must be baked in. As community manager you should liaise across the business to make sure the right people are aware, listening and acting upon feedback – whether that’s publicly, or off-line, or in specific community spaces. And the community needs to know you’re listening, even if you don’t respond publicly on every single occasion. Ignore them at your peril. Creating community areas and content that your users have suggested and asked for is one of the best outcomes of engaging with them. Hosting raw, unfiltered and real-time feedback is also a wake up call to complacent businesses; you can gain insight and improve your key business offerings based on monitoring conversations and analysing positive and negative comments.

22. Communications & Marketing
Communities do generate their own buzz, but those who can gain most from community often don’t have the time or aren’t in the right context to pick up on these vibrations. That said, neither does traditional marketing always reach the parts that other, more context-specific comms can. Marketing in and for communities often falls flat, or as one marketer has put it “there’s a hole in my funnel“. It’s got to be clear: what’s in it for them? Reaching out and partnering with other networks is likely to be more fruitful (see 23.). In turn, setting up group, discussion and blog alerts, and a community newsletter, can also spur new members and accelerate activity. Working with advocates in your community and elsewhere also has a grassroots halo effect.

23. Off-site community: partnering & networks
Linking with or extending to external communities can create a virtuous circle, with value for the brand and community flowing in multiple directions. Are there directly-related or relevant groups elsewhere? There were already 30+ CIMA student and member run groups on Facebook when I started at CIMA, which up until then had been ignored by the business. We decided to work with some of the livelier groups rather than starting our own, we recently set up a Facebook page and Twitter accounts, and we’re reviewing other networks. Think about the positive impact of reaching out, but beware duplicating your product and effort on a platform you don’t own. Be realistic about your workload but inform the business that your customers are out there – they’re organising themselves and being courted by others. So for how much longer will your brand be relevant, or will it soon be surplus to requirements?

Think a lot of this is a job for other people? Web editors, web designers, CRM staff, digital marketing and PR folks, web producers, brand managers, product and business development, perchance even some community assistants? That’s as may be, but community management is an emerging profession and – in the main – little understood.

Online communities are viewed much like websites were 10 years ago – “oh, that new thing, let’s get one”. As time goes by, community management will become more specialised. But for now, it’s a whole lotta skillsets rolled into one…

So it follows that I’ve actually left out some things – 23 things is enough to be getting on with 😉  What else do you think goes on under the bonnet of community management?

In line with this (if you’ll forgive me for mashing my metaphors) it’s also time to ask: what other new roles will emerge to power communities forward and keep the iceberg’s complex ecosystem intact?

Some hero magic on Ada Lovelace Day

It’s all about the “now” and the “next” in media and technology; but in the headlong, often mind-numbing rush for mindshare, followers, whuffie or whatever is this week’s shiny nu nu thing, what has gone before is equally important.

That’s why, to mark Ada Lovelace Day I wanted to write about someone who inspired and mentored me directly.

I’d already edited a web site for the Edinburgh Festival and covered technology and multimedia culture for the likes of The Scotsman newspaper and .net magazine before I touched down in Londoninium in July 1998.

I was starting as Web Editor for the international website of Ernst & Young but – I was informed on Day One – there was a month of handover between me and the freelancer who’d previously been editing the site part-time.

On the morning the freelancer was due to come in my nerves were ratcheted up another notch from their already high levels. There was me *way* out of my comfort zone working in corporatesville when in walks this stunning woman: pixieish hair, jeans and a biker jacket. And when she removed said jacket, ooh, the tattoo on her arm was just gorgeous. She smiled and extended a hand: “Hey! I’m Lizzie”. And that was Liz Bailey. I’ll never forget it.

It was less of a handover, more of a crash course in ramping-up my html skills, and getting the ultimate outsiders insider’s guide to my employer, interspersed with some scrumptious Chinatown and Soho lunches and lots of hilarity. The full-spectrum introduction 🙂 But more than that it was finding – in this most alien of environments – a kindred spirit, because Lizzie was my entry point into London’s embryonic web scene.

A freelancer who also wrote and did web editing, design and production for Wired UK, The Guardian, BBC Online, the FT, Demos, Wallpaper*, McKinsey, The Telegraph and more, Lizzie knew everyone who was doing anything interesting web-wise in London.

Missing my own familiarity with Scotland’s web scene, I was happy to take a cue from my new mentor. If it wasn’t for Lizzie, well I would’ve been fine, but she allowed me to bridge both worlds: the corporate but innovative focus of my everyday work, and the creativity, excitement and bone fide madness of the first dotcom boom.

I’d seen a black and white A4 newsletter once in Glasgow (when someone in London posted it to me) called New Media Age – it carried four pages of news on the nascent sector and no ads! But it was Lizzie who tipped me off re a packed mid-week party in Great Titchfield St dubbed ‘Boob Night’ where I met the editor of the then fully-fledged magazine, a young fella by the name of Mike Butcher who I managed to out-argue . He says he doesn’t remember it, but back then nights of mayhem where the champers flowed gratis were ten a penny for the current TechCrunchUK editor  😉

At Lizzie’s 30th Birthday party I also met Phil Gyford (then at BBC Online I think), and a guy she was working with on ‘New Media Creative’ magazine called Paul Murphy. Later she introduced me to hotshot new media reporter Polly Sprenger who was fresh over from Wired News in San Francisco (Mike Butcher once described Polly to me as “the Red Rum of technology reporters” after they worked together on the shortlived Industry Standard Europe magazine).

It reaffirmed I wasn’t just working in a “job”, for a “company”, but part of of something game-changing and amazing.

But this melange of web culture, innovation and merriment paled next to Lizzie’s own formidable focus and grit. A web grrrl to the core, Lizzie would magic up websites to die for whilst relentlessly promoting the causes of usability, innovation and the visibility of women in the web design and technology sector.

That movement for change – and celebration of talent – has latter day embodiments in UK-founded networks (some of which have gone global) like She Says, Girl Geek Dinners, Women In Mobile Data, and the briefly existent Digital Womens’ Club – all great initiatives I’ve actively supported.

Three years flew by, and when I was two jobs on from Ernst & Yong working as editor in chief of a VC-funded music website, the entire sector imploded. After a barren several months I decamped to the TV industry back in Belfast in 2002. But Lizzie hung in there. Multi-talented and entrepreneurial to a tee, she was surely the woman who knew most about new media in London. She was praxis.

And just when I came back to London in 2004, as the first timid signs of hope were visible in the sector (I’d been waiting, watching and biding my time you see), Lizzie switched careers and started studying to be a barrister.

Now she’s qualified and doing well, but her influence in web culture and technology still resonates for me. I’ve often been at conferences like SXSW Interactive, FOWA, Changing Media – and the NMK and Chinwag Live events I’ve organised myself – and thought “damn, Lizzie should be speaking at this!”. But looked at in a broader way, she has been…

I don’t know if I’d have dared come back to digital if I hadn’t known Lizzie. There were too many talented people flushed out of the sector back then. As it turns out while digital certainly has been affected by the current recession, compared to the rest of media – and jobs more generally – it’s still *relatively* resilient. In short, it’s nowhere near a dotcom bust Groundhog Day scenario.

Tons and tons of people inspire me of course, but in reality it’s hard to say what it all will mean and which parts will be valuable 10 years hence.

So raise a toast to the inaugural Ada Lovelace Day and sample some vintage Liz Bailey (NB. it’s an internet hazard that most of Lizzie’s work from then – like most of mine – has not been archived):

Boo gets booed – The Guardian 11th November 1999

Britgrrls No Bark and No Byte? – 1999, trAce

Demos publications by Liz Bailey

Who was Ada Lovelace?
Born on 10th December 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella, Augusta Ada Byron (now known simply as Ada Lovelace) wrote the world’s first computer programmes for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine that Charles Babbage had invented  »read more

Credits
Thanks to Suw Charman for co-ordinating Ada Lovelace Day on Tuesday 24th March 2009. The first of it’s kind, it’s “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.” »Ada Lovelace website

Join In!
You (male or female) can still register your pledge to write a blog post celebrating your technology heroine on this day – Tuesday 24th March – at the official »2009 PledgeBank page

Mobile search and location reshaping the digital space

Locative media first came onto my radar in 2005 when notice of a collective called Proboscis and their Urban Tapestries initiative hit my inbox at NMK. Excuse me, geotagging the city you say? My curiousity was duly piqued…

Looking into it, I discovered an intriguing creative underground of technologists and artists doing some rather facsinating things with urban geo-mapping, robotics, storytelling and locative media. They even released a limited edition downloadable book about their work.

This was definitely a fringe phenomenon but the Social Tapestries project followed, and along with PLAN (Pervasive and Locative Arts Network), a 2-day globally-framed conference on wireless locative media at the ICA I was lucky enough to attend, it was clear this was coming out of obscurity. Augmented reality was coming to a place near you and me…

Courtesy of Chinwag Live: Search & LBS. L-R: Plazes, Taptu, The Cloud, Rummble, MSearchGroove, Jo Rabin

Courtesy of Chinwag Live: Search & LBS. L-R: Plazes, Taptu, The Cloud, Rummble, MSearchGroove, Jo Rabin

Jump forward three years, and while things haven’t exactly moved at light-speed, the calibre of people and companies we invited to speak at Chinwag Live: Search & Location Based Services on 8th October bespoke a phenomenon that is now unstoppable. Moreover, we’re now witnessing the birth of its business development phase…

PANEL:
Felix Petersen – Co-founder, Plazes / Head of Product Management, Social Activities, Nokia
Chris Moisan – Product & Market Development Manager, Taptu / blog
Andrew Scott – Co-founder, Rummble
Peggy-Anne Salz – Chief Analyst & Producer, MSearchGroove
Adrian Drury – Head of Commercial Strategy & Business Development, The Cloud
CHAIR: Jo Rabin – Consultant & Co-Founder of MoMo London

When an articulate line-up of some of the global leaders in mobile search and LBS are giving their best right in front of you, it can be hard to keep up. So I decided to change tack in my note-taking habits for our events series. I focused on listening to the panel discussion, and then took sporadic notes of points that struck me in the later discussion with the audience.

And boy, it was a conference-load of information packed into 100 minutes. But I needn’t have worried, because not only do we have the fantabulous podcast (coming next week), there have also been some superb write-ups from delegates including Mjelly, Cogapp and Mido.

Privacy’s endless permutations

Privacy and security are big issues stalking this space. If your location is being tracked – sure, that’s a technical achievement. But why would you want your friends to know you’re in a work meeting, or your employers to know your nocturnal movements, or your ex-partner to know you’re in a nearby restaurant with your new flame..? The permutations are endless.

Plazes CEO and product honcho of Social Activities at Nokia Felix Petersen stated that the privacy issue is threefold – firstly: tracking (passive / implicit) versus publishing (active / explicit). But there’s the mental transaction cost of changing your presence status all the time. The second aspect of privacy is time; for example, is it okay if people see me after 8pm? Also, the kind of place. There are complexities to sharing and personal relations in real life that need to be addressed, and as far as I’m concerned slicing them by “my friends only / family / everyone” barely scratches the surface.

The challenge is how to bake in these options without making it too complicated, Petersen reflected. That’s the third aspect – people want privacy options but they won’t use them much. In reality, Plazes have found 90% of the people don’t use it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to be there, he stressed.

Andrew Scott of Rummble told a similar tale. They have these privacy settings and only about 5% of their users use them; on the other hand, 25% of photos (on Rummble or Flickr) are geotagged.

Who owneth the data, maketh the sale..?

Adrian Drury of The Cloud remarked that there’s an interesting question about who owns the data when lots of different players are coming into the value chain, for example Skyhook, and ad-serving platforms. How do we protect the user from their data being abused? The people that own the brand relationship aren’t usually the same people that own the geodata.

As talk turned to the topic of monetising LBS and mobile search, Andrew Scott said media buyers needed to be more flexible about the stock they buy, in order to make relevant advertising work. Adrian Drury brought it back to the inventory question and where the money is; he stressed it’s about scale, scale and scale.

At the point where the LBS industry can deliver enough volume of users, volume of available devices and consistent platforms, then we can actually go out to groups of people or industries that are marketing and advertising and have an interest in doing that on a location based basis, and who can actually build campaigns around stuff that is location-based; then suddenly you bring another element to this industry. Today there are X-thousand iPhones in the UK, in 24 months there will be a multiple of that. That’s another consistent platform, and offers advertisers the availability to push campaigns out to that platform.

Interactive billboards – poised to pounce?

Interestingly, Adrian cited the billboard industry as ones to watch – the JC Decaux and Viacom’s of this world. They are one enormous advertising inventory industry that is yet to converge with the digital world in any significant way. But obviously location-based services bring them immediately into the digital world, Adrian observed, and they will be – and are – thinking about that quite heavily.

If it’s pull it might work, Felix countered, but he reckoned its niche. What doesn’t scale is the example of a billboard pushing something to you. It’s either too small an audience (one person on holiday walking across a bridge in Istanbul) or it’s just super-spam.

Billboard advertising (via Bluetooth I assume) won’t work if it’s done in a spam like way, Felix continued. The alternative? Either you start profiling (very time consuming, not very attractive) or you have socially relevant check-in points, for example being checked into a relevant wifi network (in Starbucks, or a hotel or an airport) – that’s the closest model to what we have on the web right now. Banners don’t work, he elaborated, but ads that react to your interaction with a location are going to be received differently (like Adwords react to the content of the page you are on and the history of your searches), and that’s what we need to crack.

Recommendation and discovery – playing the long game?

In this vein, Peggy was far more excited by content recommendation and discovery. She mentioned ChangingWorlds – a server side solution that does the profile building and what Xtract has done with Blyk. Granted, it involves heavy-lifting and mega-crunching of data, but it’s a much more exciting opportunity and potentially *far* more lucrative.

Claudia Poepperl from Mobile People (mobile local search) noted that the Yellow Pages industry is $30billion industry, that’s where the money is. How much are the panel partnering with Yell or Yellow Pages in order to tap into that massive revenue stream? Andrew Scott said it’s too complicated for local advertisers – it’s the heavy lifting that stopping them getting it right, and Rummble simply won’t carry these ads until they are personalised and relevant.

Intermediary quandaries and scale

Chris Moisan of Taptu said, as a mobile search engine, if you know someone’s location and there’s an intention then having Yellow Pages content where there’s a relevancy is a no-brainer. But the issue for them as a start-up is that to index that much local content isn’t possible yet.

Felix observed that the key intermediary is who whoever bills and owns the namespace for the small retailer. As yet, there’s no unified scheme comparable to phone numbers that allow the small to medium sized local retailer to claim this space that someone else has built.

Qype and Yelp are trying, but they’re rather small, he explained. Whoever will own it can unify it. Yellow Pages are in a good position to do that but they don’t. At the moment it’s the preserve of Google and Nokia.

Scope for location based advertising?

Joel Brazil from Tipped asked how many local search services would you expect an average local retailer would buy advertising from annually; and how would they actually engage in the sales transactions? How many different sales reps could they entertain and buy advertising from?

Adrian replied probably not a lot. At the minute you have a brand relationship or a portal relationship – Yell, Google etc, and they will give most advantage. Felix simply said it’s whoever owns the namespace, whoever drives the traffic. Peggy Anne Salz of MSearchGroove explained that she was doing research for NearbyNow, looking at special offers and exclusives for location based advertising. One major benefit might be in stock replenishment.

Andrew Scott reiterated that companies need scale to make these marketing campaigns work; and the most relevant and least intrusive ads work best. In the future there will be mobile, geocoded ads, remarked Felix later in the debate.

Platform wars: telcos v operators v digital media decks

Adrian situated the fragmentation and user experience issues more broadly. The mobile network operators are old fashioned telcos, and do things very slowly. They have this GPS platform; they’re all able to do this and none of them have productised it particularly well at all.

They did a very bad job in their media deck and they had years and years lead-time to get it right! Then along comes Apple, puts a good media deck on their network and gets it right, with Nokia following close behind them. That will change things and there will be a real fight, Adrian predicted. Who owns the location data – is the operator or someone else? Whoever controls the location data will be the one who wins the war and takes the margin on this, he predicted.

Technically it’s been possible for over ten years for the operators to know where you are, by triangulation and other means, Felix concurred. But the operators just saw it as a way of retaining customers, which totally misjudged the nature of this kind of service which grows in value when you can use it with all your friends, not just your friends on the Vodafone network. That was their fatal mistake.

Power moves to the edge…

But new technologies have changed this, Felix said. Now the power really is moving to the edge: with GPS phones, with third-party providers like Skyhook who provide the wifi databases, and you now have the crunching power in the phone itself. The context is really here in the phone, not in the network – calendaring, who is close by, how many of your friends are in the room.

Like with Nokia Maps, he explained, you don’t need to build something into the *highways* to see if there’s a traffic jam, because if you have enough people using Nokia Maps you can see how fast they move and if they’re all slowing down, then there’s a traffic jam..

Andrew remarked that on a recent trip to the States, he discovered that AT&T were considering scrambling their user cell ID info so that Google couldn’t use it. But Rummble use Skyhook, Google Gears and Google Maps, so they’re not dependent on the operators. Adrian added that wifi networks are also distintermediating the operators. Yet more mounting evidence of the coming battle in this space…

Business in the here and now

Dan from Sponge wasn’t convinced the pot of gold is Yellow Pages. But, he asked, how can the fragmented world of location based services present something simple and attractive to the Slug & Lettuces and Heinekens of this world? Adrian replied there’s a massive difference between whether you’re doing search or display advertising.

With talk turning again to marketing budgets, Adrian encapsulated the barriers currently facing marketers in the location-based space – you need to give media campaign planners enough scale so that they can organise their budgets. In turn, he asked, what premium is there on location?

Such scale in location based services has not currently been achieved, the panel agreed, and clearly no one had all the answers. But I’ll wager some of the companies involved in this absorbing discussion will play a part in changing that.

Merging physical and digital space

While the business development side of LBS is getting interesting, it’s all a million miles from the work of Proboscis and their ilk. But Felix Petersen said that truly locative media will facilitate some amazing things; people will not change, but outcomes will. And this very week (until this Sunday Friday 24th October!) another quite remarkable London-based urban mapping and discovery project is underway.

This time locative authoring and the “public based commons” is getting an accessible game-play twist, with the individual (but collective) mapping out of the answer to a question that players must solve by getting involved in discovering hidden objects and mapping them by GPS.

Utilising Twitter, mobile blogging and GPS, it’s the work of Moblog co-founder Alfie Dennen (in association with Demos, HomeMadeDigital and TED), whose objective is to unlock the urban “noticer” in all of us within a fun, engaging scenario, whilst also raising awareness of the XDRTB campaign started by photographer James Nachtwey which is highlighting the ravages of drug-resistant tuberculosis. As it happens, Alfie is also speaking at our next evening panel ‘MoSo Rising’ on November 11th.

The occurrence of these two separate events in the same fortnight in London was not consciously pre-planned, I promise. But it’s certainly something to be noted, or should I say “noticed”. One thing’s for sure – Felix Petersen was dead right to say the merging of real-life and digital location is starting to move in from the edges. The clue is in the patterns emerging. Better watch out…

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[NB: Really, this is just a fraction of what was covered in this event. I especially recommend Mjelly’s post for coverage of the event’s first half. I’ll update this post next week with a link to the podcast when it’s released]

[NB 2: cross-posted on my Chinwag blog]

How we knit the webosphere together – lessons so far

This is outta character, but I’m reposting a comment I made on the Broadstuff (aka Broadsight’s Alan Patrick’s) blog within the last hour, with a few corrections…

Here’s the original post: Bitchin’ About Aggregator posts on Techmeme

To recap on Broadstuff’s key points:

“In essence the issue discussed is… that these aggregators are taking commenting and all that away from the blogs, and “the conversation” is happening elsewhere

… here’s my thesis; anyone who wants to talk to the blogger will probably do it on the blog still, or on a social network they use.

… all these Feedread type aggregator plays that are trying to create their own platforms are medium term f*cked (no matter how much PR $5m can buy) as any form of large scale service – they are just too disjointed…

… Maybe what would be more useful than a Friendfeed downstream aggregator is a “reverse aggregator”, where people who want to comment on any one of these media can do so and it pops up on the blog page, allowng other commentators on other aggregators to see the conversation.”

Here’s my verbose response (but it’s a mammoth issue – my lame excuse)

(1) Initially, in terms of connecting blogosphere conversation together there was trackback, but then along came the traditional publishers and they couldn’t deal with the (spam / gaming) issues, nor incorporate the lessons of online communities’ design or etiquette so far. Thus the promise held out by trackback (see Nico Macdonald, ‘Comment is Free,’ but designing communities is hard, Online Journalism Review, 17th July 2006) was quashed.

(2) Then trackback spam arrived (your favourite Alan) – possibly the final nail in the coffin of trackback’s potential (if we agree pingbacks are the watered-down substitute).

(3) In turn, beyond mere feed readers, more sophisticated aggregators like Netvibes and other “thin portal[s] of widgets” (to quote Mike Butcher on a post about Sleevenotez he wrote on Vecosys, since deleted by the blog owner) entered the arena, along with cross-platform microblogging. The social web and mobile stuff more generally – rather than just the blogosphere – at least became more manageable [see also Jaiku, though it’s gone quiet since Google acquired it late in 2007, and interesting lifestream propositions like Rememble].

(4) But before we could take a breath, social networks went zoom, and we were pouring tons of valuable-to-trivial content, discussion and links (it’s all a continuum, right) into the likes of Facebook and Bebo. But it was hellish-difficult/impossible to connect this back out to the open internet, the ahead of its time [and much lamented] BlogFriends for pouring back in-and-out notwithstanding.

(5) Now we have the next wave of aggregators: Friendfeed, favorit, Plaxo’s Pulse feature, the recently souped-up MyBlogLog et al.

(6) And hot on their tails – for the blogerati – Cocomment, Disqus, SezWho, and IntenseDebate became part of the equation, some of whom even have social network integration in their pipeline apparently 🙂 [my, that sounds rather painful]

(7) This doesn’t even factor in the photo and video outfits out there – Seesmic, Qik, Flickr video, Google Video, Vimeo, BlipTV [gratuitous interview and Beers & Innovation RSS Frontiers video linkage], Moblog and the like; especially the cross-platform players among them. Who has even mentioned or interrogated their part in the connected web in this month’s discussion? Yep, time to remove the old-skool web goggles.

So now that the conversation has left the blogosphere [ReadWriteWeb, 20th March 2008] where does that leave us?

If the walled garden is crumbling, but our attention is ever more stretched, and our conversational quality and digital health suffering, is the model of aggregating eyeballs doomed or due for a fresh lease of life from the most innovative but implacably dominating mover in this space?

And / or in biz parlance, has the reverse aggregator got legs?

I’d love to hear what folks think about all or any of this. Then I can go back to knitting or eating chocolate to calm down – apparently that’s what works for people who aren’t bona fide geeks and are seen to be interrogating stuff above their station, or asking questions that are difficult. Who knew? Go experts! 😉

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PS. All of which makes me even more convinced that the questions we asked in London (and the blogosphere – joint blog by Mike Butcher + Deirdre Molloy) in June 2006 at the NMK Content 2.0 conference, which I co-organised with NMK co-worker Nick Watt, still haven’t been seriously addressed.

PPS. So much for the networked age!

PPPS. Buce Sterling on why the interweb’s a mess 🙂

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]

Widget Week part 2 – Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised

Potent openers are thin on the ground at events, mine especially. Having often developed and programmed the events, I’m normally found delivering safety instructions and other such vital messages in a vaguely ironic monotone (see photos).

So props to Steve Bowbrick for his scenesetting observation at Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised on Wednesday 16th May that the opposing life forces of disintegration and re-formation are encapsulated in the widgetisation of media.

Getting the second event in Widget Week properly underway, Steve canvassed the panel for their definition of a widget and the answers were both resonant and diverse. For their answers, you have to listen to the podcast due this Thursday 24th May.

PANEL:
Mark Taylor – Head of Content, Eircom & founder, Sleevenotez (blog)
George Berkowski – Head of Internet Strategy, BT Retail
Fergus Burns – CEO & Founder, nooked
Jonathan Gabbai – Solutions Manager, eBay
Kaj Häggman – Business Development Manager & Inventor, WidSets (blog)
Chair: Steve Bowbrick

So are widgets internet famous? 😉 George Berkowski, Head of Internet Strategy at BT Retail flagged-up Adsense as the most successful widget to date. He also cited Photobucket, which gets 1% of all internet traffic in the US.

Nooked CEO Fergus Burns was quick off the mark with some headline info about the widget economy. Last year was the year retailers and advertisers started asking “how do I get onto Myspace and onto Vista Gadgets?” You want your widget to be viral, but how do you drive traffic back to your site from RSS and the widget, Burns continued. The challenges ahead mean it has to be fun and it has to give value to the consumer (can you tell Fergus wasn’t giving away too much..?).

Kaj ‘Hege’ Häggman of Widsets stressed the widget proposition has to be simple. They now have 14,000 widgets in their library, 99% of which have been created by users. Doing profile-base widget recommendations is edging very close to advertising he noted.

Widgets – socking it to the portals?

Eircom Head of Content and Sleevenotez founder Mark Taylor explained that the “Kwaydo” engine that powers Sleevenotez (get more info by clicking on ‘Navigation’ on the Zythe homepage), is in fact a platform that powers what he terms “thin portals”.

He acknowledged that on the one hand – with Kwaydo – he is trying to disrupt portal models, but on the other – with his (Irish incumbent telco) Eircom hat on – to maintain them. He said widgets can extend your brand’s borders, but as a widget sceptic he is concerned that widgets are going to become another marketing and advertising tool.

Outfits like Ning and PeopleAggregator are going in one direction against the old portals, he said, but portals still have a role to play and while we are trying to figure out what that role is, it is clear that there is a value in aggregating large audiences. In turn, those portal-type aggregators can also provide access to exclusive content that you can then widgetise.

Utility versus monetisation?

eBay Solutions Manager Jonathan Gabbai stressed that widgets facilitate the distribution of content – which begs the question how do you monetize that? eBay is good for that because it is time-sensitive. The newly launched eBayToGo widget can be embedded on a blog or website giving you live updates on your auction. It this scenario, it’s important to have an open API, as has Amazon and Google, he added.

From the audience Pauli Visuri described a widget rather poetically as a “tear-off” from a website. Robin Gurney of (Estonian-based) Altex Marketing sounded a more cynical note, saying this monetized widget “sounded like a glorified version of affiliate marketing”.

Jonathan Gabbai concurred welcomingly that widgets do lend themselves to affiliate marketing. Someone else said the whole widget phenomenon must be like a “freak-out nightmare” for content owners and publishers, and George Berkowski noted that that is part of it, but there is also a real value for the user – the widget services from Slide, Photobucket and RockYou have great usability and utility for users. They have an altruistic and positive brand effect, and at the same time those companies are monetizing widgets very well.

Applications for and by the masses?

Kaj Häggman observed that it’s as much about allowing users to generate applications, and it’s a new paradigm that that not only gives users control to create their own apps, it’s also about giving control back to the developers. The mobile industry needs to be able to talk the language of the web industry, he stressed; a remark that triggered a flurry of comments about how the mobile industry’s business models were being put on the line by the arrival of the mobilized web, hence their reluctance to embrace it until the last moment possible.

Steve Bowbrick mused on the impact on site owners who have to host the applications and content of others via embedded widgets; the prospect of that happening on phones struck him as even more iffy.

One widget into 25 platforms does not compute…

A delegate from Profero noted that the arrival of Apollo from Adobe opens out the Flash platform to developers and he suggested that this would make it all more popular and widespread. Fergus Burns countered that the recent launches of Silverlight (from Microsoft) and Apollo means that we will end now end up with about 25 different widget platforms that developers will have to develop differently for.

This issue was thrown into even sharper relief by Opera Software ’s Charles McCathieNevile two nights earlier at Mobile Monday: Mobile Widgets. If development work around incompatible widget platforms is not in itself going to become a barrier to the development of widgets, he reflected, support needs to cohere around the notion of a standardised widget spec which is validated by the W3C (more here).

Dave Markham from Vodafone wondered wasn’t it all more about making sure it all works. Vodafone want it to work with widget builders, he said, and he asked the panel whether it would be a better experience for mobile users with downloadable widgets or online widgets.

Widgets as symbiotic parasites

Kaj Häggman commented that a widget is a very personal thing and there is a possibility to put an ad in that space that is not intrusive. Jonathan Gabbai observed that the big question here was one of trust. For kids, you could see a widget as a Harry Potter sticky note. So does that mean it’s all pre-packaged content?

A widget can be classified as a web service, said Burns. Dave Hornick on Ventureblog reckons it can be symbiotic (the Harry Potter-type, providing value for both host and widget provider), or that such as found with Slide, which is a parasitic widget that makes revenue for the widget provider.

Steve then interjected with a vivid analogy of an ecosystem of parasitic widgets leeching around the place and monetizing the attention of hosts on the one hand, and benign widgets that that swung freely between the trees.

Personalisation and widgetised identity

George Berkowski cited the robust personalisation of SnapVine. In turn, he continued, you have the phenomenon of widgetised startpages, whereby you can go to a celebrity’s page, for example on Netvibes, and it has all her content aggregated, plus you can leave voicemails and comments on it.

Lingo allows you to do the same with video and audio. There’s nothing to download, sort of like Skype without the download.

Alex Cooper of 1UpSearch asked if the Widsets business model was one of collecting demographic information and he wondered how that will pan out – will we be spammed by Nokia? Häggman explained that it will be opt-in as they value peoples’ privacy. Steve commented that it all was a bit like widgets as Big Brother or CCTV on your desktop.

Widgets atomised or widgets humanised?

Mark Taylor cited the utility of a private banking widget and Fergus Burns flagged-up the Ding! widget produced by South West Airlines, noting that it had 2 million downloads and there was no privacy issue with that. Jonathan Gabbai remarked that there’s a difference between installation and download, for example, with Firefox you download the extensions but it’s a low barrier to entry.

Finally, Gavin O’Carroll of Rememble asked the kind of mind-melting question that I had hoped audience members might ask in a previous post about this event. Where does it stop? Can you widgetise widgets? For example, will we have banner ads in widgets, and is there any reason why you can’t advertise in widgets?

Check the podcast (due Thursday 24th) for attempted answers to that, as at that point my humble penning skills failed and minutes later chair Steve Bowbrick said it was a wrap.

Stowe Boyd (who discovered the event via Dopplr when he arrived in the UK that afternoon) remained quiet during the discussion but told me afterwards he thought the event was too focused on monetisation (he also tweeted this) and didn’t really look at the user. Fair dos, but isn’t it fair enough to examine potential business models when you want to make a living?

Freakout nightmare or scent of a persona..?

What I felt was also missing was the publisher and brand perspective in terms of future media (although there were plenty of mainstream media publishers in the audience) – how do they maintain their brand identity in the web feed, widget and mash-up space without hugely irritating or inconveniencing people, and how do they fund widgetisation? Alan Patrick is convinced advertising in feeds will fail (see his post on the event). So what will work?

The broader issues of widgetisation outlined in the event webpage were barely touched upon and I would like to have heard more from panellist Mark Taylor too. Check out Mike Butcher’s excellent post on Sleevenotes from back in December 2006 for more on what Mark is up to.

Priya told me later that evening she thought a widget was like a digital perfume. But then we started quibbling over whether she meant natural human scent, perfume or aftershave, and then whether or not we favoured aftershave. And so the lights went down and off I hobbled to Madame JoJo’s for the tail end of the book launch party for Richard Barbrook’s Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machine to Global Village.

Yep, another Chinwag Live to remember when we’re in yr rockin chairz gluing captions to yr cats…. (cheers Ian). Hmm, did I already mention the photos?

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Please bear in mind my notes were sporadic and atomised 😉 For the complete lowdown on what was said, subscribe to the Chinwag Live podcast via RSS or iTunes.