Category Archives: User Generated Content

Delete, not fade away and radiate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions proposed by Mayer-Schonberger, include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apologies and thanks to Stein et al for the title.

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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?

Joining the dots at Chinwag Live MoSo Rising

On November 11th 2008 a cross-section of mobile and web practitioners assembled to discuss the ascent and future of mobile social networks and media. It was the second mobile-focused event in a row for Chinwag this autumn, but the discussion was completely different – see my previous post.

Chinwag Live Moso Rising Nov 2009

Unfortunately, someone in the audience repeatedly disrupted it right at the beginning, which threw the panel off slightly, and it took some time for the discussion to find its sweet-spot.

Speaking to jamescoops of mjelly afterwards, I totally agreed with his view that events like this need to begin from some kind of shared framework of understanding, from which they can then progress to a fruitful debate, and in doing so also surface and deal with the blind-spots of the audience, as at Chinwag Live events the diversity of specialism and experience is broad – a state of affairs which (for good reasons) I think should be cherished.

To try and make up for this here, I’ll quote from the event description that was co-written by myself and Julia Eilon:

“The rise and rise of mobile social networking and services is upon us, but is ‘mobile access’ enough or do users seek more?

Spurred on by web leaders like Facebook and MySpace and with lower data charges spreading for mobile web access, mobile social usage has soared. Are location-based services going to be key to its success, or is there more to the future of this most social of devices? How can brands engage in the mobile social space?

Will there be a battle for survival among the current myriad of mobile-only social networks and video / blogging platforms, or can they succeed with focus on novel functionality and user experience? Should online niche social networks also make the move to mobile? Where are the revenue streams and how effective can the ROI be?”

PANEL:

Harry Blunden – Head of Digital, ?WhatIfInnovation!
Justin Davies – Founder, NinetyTen / BuddyPing
Alfie Dennen – Co-founder & CEO, Moblog
Chris Seth – MD Europe, Piczo (unable to attend at last minute)
Roy Shelton – CEO, Next2Friends
CHAIR: Bena Roberts – Mobile Media & Advertising Consultant, Founder & Editor, GoMo News

What follows are some excerpts from my notes. The full-fat podcast will be out soon…

Business models and traction

Roy Shelton – when Next2Friends started they thought they could charge subscription, and then build it up around advertising, but now they’re using it mainly as a white label service to power others’ services.

Alfie Dennen (who has also been busy with some noteworthy personal projects) spoke of the phone as a vector. There’s no chance of traction unless an operator / carrier deck deal is in place. So Moblog has done white label products. Practically speaking, there are quite a lot of ways you can make money from mobile social platforms and services, but it’s still quite guerrilla, he stressed

Justin Davies – the network operators will be key. Think of the power of being able to take a picture and instantly send / share it with my address book.

Jay Cooper from Blyk (in the audience) challenged this, saying Blyk have proved that the ad-funded model can work – it’s not about technology, it’s about having a community. Panel members countered that it was rather about Blyk’s very unique business model 🙂

Who, why, what, when and where..?

Next2Friends are working with the UK’s biggest gay social network to enable real-time posting of photos to the web based around voting upon “who do I want to sleep with tonight?”

Alfie – in China there’s an issue with LBS in that you can’t say where a lot of things are. Moblog had to write an algorithm that screwed up the location slightly.

Justin – just to get the location licence you have to jump through a lot of hoops with the operators, but ultimately, in terms of revealing your location on LBS, it’s up to the user. We need more regulation, and to know and think about the boundaries surrounding us and the legalities surrounding that.

Roy – the advice Next2Friends were given in the UK and US was very different, so they went down the self-policing route. UK is also governed by OFTEL (now OFCOM) regulation of content for under 16s.

Courting brand relationships…

Conor McKenna of mobile social search engine Taptu asked: what should brands be doing and what should agencies be putting in front of them?

Harry Blunden of WhatIfInnovation addressed this, flagging up “branded utility” as a hot idea (although not so new – I first heard of it from Simon Andrews in August 2006), and social networks on mobile are in that space. WhatIf have been looking at brands and mini meet-ups – for example beer voucher giveaways driven by social network awareness.

Harry Dewhirst from Ring Ring Media pointed out that simple campaigns like Flirtomatic’s incredibly successful Strongbow offer showed how direct marketing and response will work in this space. More sophisticated targeting is also possible, he added, and it could drive some fantastic campaigns.

Forecasts for (next year, I think) on mobile are a billion for Myspace and 4 million for Facebook. [NB. I didn’t note if this referred to revenues or users, or who said this; I’ll update when podcast is released]

Harry continued that Ring Ring advocate cross-pollination of social nets and off-deck, as well as ads and placement on-deck.

Luis Carranza from Iris Digital observed that the term “mobile advertising” sets up an assumption that it’s just broadcast and online advertising transferring onto the mobile phone, but we need to improve and evolve the marketing approach so that’s is attuned to the medium. Harry Blunden put a different spin on this, stressing that social networks are just an innovation in digital communications.

Courtesy of Chinwag

Courtesy of Chinwag

I can haz mobile web access?

Jez Dutton, a senior planner from Glue, asked about the key drivers from the consumer perspective, and what are the cost issues?

Speaking with his developer hat on, Justin Davies said that 4 or 5 companies will end up controlling access to applications, but you also need to be aware that you can’t develop an app that is similar to one Apple already have.

In terms of countering the billshock that accompanies metered access to the mobile web, Alfie reckoned that bundling Facebook with Orange was a red herring. I’m not quite sure how this follows, but I’m sure he can set me right on this… 🙂

Harry Blunden countered this directly – it’s the original online social networks (Facebook, Myspace, etc) that have driven mobile web adoption, and the experience is improving because of the services and usability they have offered on mobile.

Is mobile the leader of the pack?

Another good question came from the audience in the form of this poser: is the social net phenomenon predicting what is already happening to us on our mobile phones (was Facebook the peak?) or [in the words of the song] is this just the beginning?

Harry cited the Accelerometer in the device [it’s in the iPhone, and some N Series, S60 and Sony Ericsson models from my brief scan of the web on this, and of course has been widely toyed with] – as a an omen of coming improvements in usability and user interface. Alfie observed that the iPhone is not the second coming, it’s just a sign. It’s a necessary evil given the Apple lock-in. The question is more “what will Nokia do?”

Channel 4’s mobile work around the Embarrassing Bodies series was more to his liking. They got 55,000 downloads of information on mobile after they offered a text-in service to receive more information. The context of mobile as a personal device was key to uptake, Alfie explained. How many people would want to download content about that topic to their PC, when, for instance, partners or family members might also be able to see or access that information? On mobile, it made sense.

Conor McKenna made the point that a lot of people who are using mobile web aren’t online [ie. on a computer] much or at all, such as taxi drivers and doctors.

Explaining the evolution of Next2Friends, Roy Shelton said firstly it was about early adopters; the second wave was creative types, aspiring film-makers and the like; then the social shopping function emerges with sharing and getting opinions. Conor chipped in that mobile social is big in parts of Eastern Europe, with ItsMy going ballistic in Hungary.

Luis from Iris revealed that they’re launching two social networks on mobile handsets in the next year. With time running out, Luis asked – what is the one thing that you would say to mobile customers? For Alfie it was “be there” (though his voice dropped an octave, he was only half joking); while Justin directed his message at producers: “keep it simple.”

PS: I’ll update this post with the RSS and iTunes links when the podcast is released.

PPS. I’m *still* semi-sulking coz no-one, at the event or elsewhere, has mentioned the Jim Morrison allusion in the event title 😉

Alchemy in the micro media maze

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

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

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

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

PANEL

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

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

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

Syndicated companies vs dinosaur brands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brands in the wild and the benefits of remixable culture

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

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

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

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

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

Going beyond the trivial mindset…

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

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

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

Media and ad agencies looking in the wrong direction?

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

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

—-

PODCAST ACTION!

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

MORE COVERAGE OF MICRO MEDIA MAZE:

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

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

[NB. cross-posted on my Chinwag blog]

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. 😉

—-

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: 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]