Category Archives: Web 2.0

Open Plaques: joining the blue dots

Writing in the Telegraph last year, Stephen Fry reflected: “Many of us like to believe that we understand the point of history. We all pay lip service to the idea that yesterday makes today, but it is hard to make the imaginative leap that truly connects us to the past. It is as if we are forced to move forwards in such a narrow passageway of time that the act of stopping to look behind us is difficult.”

Fry surmised that the UK’s blue plaques – erected to mark the physical locations occupied by people from history who have left a notable mark on our culture – were a living corrective to this. But are they really? What if these inert short-form stories were re-animated by augmenting the physical markers with a layer of digital information that made looking back in time from the present day a far easier, richer and more immediate experience? Wouldn’t that be a greater step forward in terms of bringing history to life?

WB Yeats open plaque on Flickr courtesy of ChicagoGeek

Even as Fry was writing this in June 2009, a project was already underway do just that – to open up that heritage and make it accessible, expanding the narrow passageway of time that Fry lamented.

Credit to kickstarting this goes to Frankie Roberto who came away from a conference on mobile learning for the museums and archives sector in January 2009 with a bee in his bonnet:

“You see them everywhere – especially when sat on the top deck of a double-decker bus in London – and yet the plaques themselves never seem that revealing. You’ve often never heard of the person named, or perhaps only vaguely, and the only clue you’re given is something like “scientist and electrical engineer” (Sir Ambrose Fleming) or “landscape gardener” (Charles Bridgeman).

I always want to know more. Who are these people, what’s the story about them, and why are they considered important enough for their home to be commemorated? I’d like to be able to find out all this, and to do so at the point at which I stumble across a plaque – which to me suggests something on a mobile platform.”

In the 15 months since, this desire for deeper and more accessible context to these static emblems has crystallized in the Open Plaques initiative. An open source community project; it is also community-driven by necessity, due mainly to the data surrounding the UK plaques being fragmented between hundreds of bodies, and not only inconsistent but sometimes totally absent.

It gathered momentum when Frankie’s early efforts caught the attention of Jez Nicholson, Simon Harriyott and Marvin Baretto who’d already (coincidentally) teamed-up to do a blue plaques project for the Open Hack London event in May 2009. So it happened that they prototyped a website that could pull this information together.

Open Plaques London Map

The Open Plaques service which emerged from this ad-hoc grouping (which I joined later last year) synthesises a number of tactics and workarounds to overcome the challenges it faces. As the plaques by their very existence are in public domain, Frankie has made a series of Freedom of Information requests for data and records of the plaques to several of the bodies that hold them, so they can aggregate them together and offer the data in standardised form for free re-use by others.

In turn, the already existent Blue Plaques group on Flickr proved useful and amenable, and the idea of using images from Flickr on the Open Plaques service gained an important leg-up when Flickr agreed to grant a “machine tag” option to photographs of plaques uploaded under a Creative Commons licence.

It’s remarkably simple and works like this: each plaque location listed on the Open Plaques database (which you can search on their site by name, place or organisation) has a number. When the number is added as a machine code in the tags of the corresponding photograph on Flickr by the user – and if the user gives the photo a Creative Commons licence – the image is pulled from Flickr onto the Open Plaques website. The service also allows geo co-ordinates to be imported.

The site itself is still in Alpha phase of development but is already substantially populated – with 38.44% of 2297 known plaques in the database now having a corresponding machine-tagged photograph.

William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect on Flickr courtesy of Sleekit

The whole project is still in the earliest of stages. Making it fully functional and accessible on mobile devices still lies ahead. Any number of possibilities for what could be done going forward suggest themselves. But in the very act of pulling it together, it already bears the DNA stamp of what it could some day become. The plaques themselves encapsulate people-powered history: a history of action, ideas and invention. Open Plaques has the potential to transform them into a living resource – and make each one a porthole that helps us connect with, understand and traverse moments in place and time, just like Stephen Fry said.

Re-shaping historical interest points nationwide as dynamic experiences is a mammoth task but Open Plaques – which is unfunded and 100% volunteer based – is already gearing up for a productive 2010. In February, Simon and Frankie attended the first ever English Heritage conference on commemorative plaques (yes, they’re not all blue) to find out more about the organisation’s thinking and plans, and talk to people about the initiative. Simon also talked about the project at last week’s £5 App Meet in Brighton.

In the meantime, we need more people to help fill up the image database – yes that’s you Flickr users! – plus help with the technical development. Spreading the word also matters and you can stay in the loop by following Open Plaques on Twitter.

Any input is welcome. You can even source and suggest plaques that aren’t on the website’s (incomplete) list. So if you’d like to get involved in connecting past and present, and do some local or further-afield exploring in the process, visit the site’s Contribute page for more instructions, see Jez’s blog and the Open Plaques group for simple Flickr tips or get in touch directly, and lend a hand in joining the blue dots.

[UPDATE 12/5/10] We now have an Open Plaques blog and I’ve added my first post: Meet the time bandits.

Micromedia futures or the emperor’s new clothes?

Disposable, atomised media is all the rage and I’m as guilty as the next person of wallowing in it.

Web 2.0 and all its trimmings is no exception to this trend, in fact it glories in all things transient.* But what does it add up to? This question is an itch worth scratching, so sometimes we revisit particular events after their initial outing.

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze at ad:tech 2008 L-R Miles Lewis of Last.fm, Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze at ad:tech 2008 L-R Miles Lewis of Last.fm, Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick

Which is why, after it’s May 2008 debut (which garnered some good coverage), Chinwag Live took the Micro Media Maze panel on tour to the annual ad:tech London expo in Olympia on September 24th 2008, for an afternoon session on the issues of widgetised, disaggregated media – exploring the trends they embody and are driving forward.

PANEL:
Umair Haque – Director, Havas Media Lab /Bubblegeneration / Harvard Business Online
Miles Lewis – SVP European Advertising Sales, Last.fm
Nick Halstead – CEO & Founder, fav.or.it
Chair: Steve Bowbrick – digital media consultant & entrepreneur

Steve Bowbrick opened by remarking that we’re coming to the end of the IP4 phase of the internet and moving into IP6 (what happened to IP 5 nobody knows). In IP 6, there is 2 times the power of 52 addresses to every star in the universe.

This fits with the trend that we see emerging today in the digital world of everything being connected to everything else.

Every device – whether it’s a PC, or a phone – can have its own address in the IP space, Steve said. Steve I’ll raise you a bunny and the arrival of that old stalwart the interactive fridge 🙂 . Conjuring up a picture of billions of interconnected end points, this reminded me somewhat of Bruce Sterling’s concept of spime but I digress…

The micro media era – content unbound

Micromedia” – a term coined independently by both panellist Umair Haque and new media theorist Lev Manovich in 2005 – held out the promise of content being able to move between these fixed places (or IP points), to be unbundled and rendered remixable; the resulting formations of which could unlock new sources of value. Steve Bowbrick didn’t mention this explicitly, but it’s worth revisiting Haque’s original 2005 Media Economics Powerpoint presentation. The implications certainly informed the discussion.

Nick Halstead of fav.or.it observed that widgets are catering to the ability to customize, another trend we’ve seen explode over the last few years as media becomes more personalised. In turn, the widgets provided by MyBlogLog, Digg, etc, are using the medium in a very viral way, he noted.

fav.or.it’s widgets expose what widgets are popular on fav.or.it. There’s also an attention tracking element to their widgets, Halstead explained, as they’re tracking the number of seconds each user who has installed the widget spends on it and on the sites / URLs visited via the widget.

Widgets and the media balance sheet…

Last.fm now has 21 million users and an additional 19 million more people coming in through widgets. But they have a problem, as their SVP of advertising Miles Lewis explained. They can’t monetise people who only visit and experience Last.fm on widgets, and hence can’t pay for the music rights (publishing, recording and streaming rights).

Currently, there are 350m active Last.fm widgets [I need to check the podcast coming this week to verify this figure], and they also have free streaming on the iPod. Their recent re-design has helped them in terms of streaming rights and deals with the labels, Lewis explained.

But, Steve Bowbrick asked, isn’t that reversing the entire widgetisation trend? To which Lewis replied:

“It’s less about reversing a trend than it’s about building a bigger widget that has an ad on it.”

‘Last.fm In A Box’ is a new solution they’re working on, Lewis revealed [see Mashable and CNET‘s coverage of the announcement in June 2008]. If you click on the link, it opens a player and a commercial message starts that you can then minimise if you wish to proceed immediately. It’s on Rockstar.com on the Guitar Hero game.

Nick Halstead of Tweetmeme & Mile Lewis of Last.fm

Nick Halstead of Tweetmeme & Miles Lewis of Last.fm

Trojan horse for toxic media?

Umair Haque took the premise of widgets – and media more broadly – to task.

“We need to step back and realise that if we use widgets to bring the same old paradigm, that trend will eat itself, as it has done on Wall Street. The stuff we trade in, in media, is in danger of becoming toxic waste.

Now I’ve heard of toxic boyfriends and toxic hangovers before 😉 , and this week’s been all about toxic debts in financial markets, but toxic media was a new one for me. Haque posited an alternative:

“Ads have to become benefits for consumers – communication as benefit, not cost. Media and communications need to help people improve their abilities.”

“But most media – all the stuff we’re surrounded by here at ad:tech – is about making stuff 1% more efficient than it currently is. Most widgets are just distribution mechanisms for the same old junk, and these widgets are about amplifying the devaluation of that junk.”

Off-the-peg widgets for social networks

From the audience Miko Coffey asked the panel’s view on Widgetbox, which allows creation of widgets on the fly that run on Bebo, Myspace and the like.

Miles Lewis replied that Last.fm are open source. Nick Halstead explained that fav.or.it supports Creative Commons licensing, but the problem is that many of these sites promise to deliver widgets that work everywhere but they’re still not mass market enough.

Another audience member from a charity told how they had created an alcohol tracking widget, where users could enter their intake of alcohol and track how that changed and added up over time. How could they get older people to use this widget, when use of this media is dominated by a young audience?

Game-changing moves and creating new markets

Umair Haque turned the question around.

“Nintendo would never have created the Wii if they’d asked who the average game player was. Ten years ago, we never would have thought that old people would be playing games.”

Implicit in Haque’s statement was the understanding that Nintendo have eschewed recycling the same old ideas and assumptions in a new wrapper. Instead, they have done something different and created a whole new market in the process.

He cited companies like Kiva, who have pioneered micro-lending to entrepreneurs in developing countries, as salutary in that regard (the Grameen micro-financing initiative is in a similar vein and was recently mentioned by Vint Cerf in a piece for The Guardian). They show how enabling micro-transactions in a counter-intuitive fashion (from the financial norm in this instance) have been incredibly powerful and transformative.

Business models and the limits of social media

Another audience member who only wished to be identified as coming from “a social networking property”, asked about Last.fm’s business model. Lewis explained it was fourfold: advertising, affiliates, subscriptions, and on the biz dev side, a client like a retailer could use Last.fm In A Box to stream music and place an ad it, so people could listen to that while on the retailers website.

I took this to mean a white labelled widget or plug-in powered by Last.fm that adds ambience to a site, and the user experience, and monetises itself simultaneously.

While the crowd-pulling seminars at ad:tech London seemed to revolve around monetising social media, it seemed that our panel was more frank about the progress made to date. Last.fm, as the poster child of the UK’s Web 2.0 scene (they spoke alongside Skype at the first Beers & Innovation event I organised in February 2006), is still to turn a profit despite its huge audience. Since its acquisition by CBS/ Viacom, it has leeway to continue to grow whilst it pursues this objective.

The next wave of micro media

In turn, the economic shocks reverberating around the world should give us pause for thought. Perhaps the recession we’re poised to enter will precipitate new ways of creating value, and innovative services and strategies that foster that. Recall that game-changing services Craigslist and Flickr were born out of the utility and creativity fostered in the downtime of the last doctcom bust. Keeping an eye on mobile services is probably a good idea.

Steve Bowbrick, reflecting on the session, gives his view:

“The business of marketers should be to invest in durable, authentic content and experiences for their customers, not coming up with increasingly effective ways of taking them to the cleaners. At a conference and trade show devoted to online advertising I think this was a good message to leave behind.”

Whatever happens, we should assume that while micro media may be here to say, its deployment by companies and organisations is not intrinsically clever.

Instead, what will make micro media strategies fly is a combination of experimental chutzpah and purpose to solve real problems. Or else, like Haque says, it could just be about making stuff 1% more efficient, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

[* Of course Web 2.0 has many upsides too, collaborative software being my particular favourite, and services such as Zopa]

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PREVIOUS EVENTS ON WIDGETS & MICRO MEDIA:

Beers & Innovation: Aggregator & Upsetters – October 2006 (event report)

Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised – May 2007 (event report)

Mobile Monday London: Mobile Widgets – May 2007

Chinwag Live on Tour: Media Widgetised at ad:tech London – September 2007

Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze – May 2008 (event report)

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]

————————-

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]

Interesting bits round-up for 19 May 2007

First Moblog from Mount Everest!

The Call Of The Mountain (via Alfie). Forget lazy usage of the word and of the moblogging medium – this is literally awesome. Or at least it will be if mountaineer Rod Baber can get a signal further up there – there hasn’t been any posts since he left base camp. Hope it goes safely.

[BTW, have you seen the total makeover of MoblogUK?]

Capturing & sharing fragments in time…

At Minibar in East London on 20th April the standout demo was Rememble. It’s a Flash-based social timeline that can save content – from images and emails to text messages and audio – as ‘membles’, taking them from mobile phones, PCs, digital cameras and web services.

Coming soon from the workshop of Gavin O’Carroll –  a talented guy and fellow Northern Ireland exile who I got to meet at Chinwag Live Media Widgetised on Wednesday – it’s still behind a beta-testing wall (but you can get a beta account). Conceptually, Rememble is an original twist on life-caching propositions and poised to break new ground. Convergence in action!

Ego run amok is so 2.0 

Nice little riposte from Twatter.org – clearly built by a Britisher 😉

What’s up with web culture? 

Bruce Sterling’s rant podcast from SXSW 2007 – egad, just do yourself a massive favour and listen to it [warning – the contents of this podcast may flatten your pretentions but that’s why it’s so refreshing]

Last but not least…

Happy Widget Week 🙂 It rounds-off at Beers & Innovation: Widget Nation on Tuesday 22nd May. Hope to see a few of you there.

Internet World snippets

The Chinwag posse pulled-off what I’m dubbing a “pop-up event” at Internet World last week.

Much like the pop-up restaurant phenomenon – one minute there’s nothing but an empty shell auditorium, then all of a sudden you have a well run event in full flow, with a big audience and high-level discussion.

Thanks to the lackadaisical support of IW’s on-hand sound technician, our recording of the Wednesday 2nd May event for podcast was royally screwed. Luckily however, the panel was a re-run of our 27th March event (for which there is a podcast) PPC Earthquake – although each discussion was quite different and the audience had different questions, plus we had Yahoo joining the panel at Internet World.

The expectant generation

I dipped into a few other sessions later that afternoon, including one in the Brands Reignited stream ‘Client 2.0 – Best Practice Strategies for Running an Agency Focused On New Generation Clients – The Millenniums’. Beat that for a snappy title 😉

The observation that struck me most was made by panellist Alex Wright, MD of Agency.com, in reply to a question about the opportunities and challenges brought on by a new generation of connected clients and staff:

“They expect to become Marketing Manager and they expect a 20-30% pay rise and if they don’t get it, they’ll change jobs every 12-18 months. A sense of entitlement [and personal sovereignty, I’d add] defines them [the millennials] and this is something we’ll see in both agencies and clients.”

Subscription-based social networks

Then I happened upon (Chinwag UK-netmarketing mailing list stalwart) Richard Gale’s session on the development of social networking in Playboy TV UK – ‘Platform Hopping with the Bunnies’. His standout point for me was:

“The concept is now the vital element, and understanding the nature of ego and how it affects premium rate social networking.

A strong concept can go multi-platform and become a brand in itself…. You can make a social network that operates in the black from month-one.”

The snippable web

Amid the rush of last-minute event preparations that morning, I missed the talk in the Web 2.0 Experience strand given by BT Retail‘s Head of Internet Strategy, George Berkowski on ‘Aggregation, Web-clipping and the Right Web Platform’. So I’m still intrigued to hear his contributions as a panellist at our upcoming Chinwag Live session on 16th May – Media Widgetised.

And then of course there was the Chinwag Drinks afterwards at the pub down the road. A lovely bunch of people came along and we had a grand time in the beer garden 🙂

—————-

[BTW, I expect some of the above URLs may not work by 2008, as the Internet World website spurns several of the basic tenets of good web design – unbroken URLs being one of them. A good list of further tips for reference – 43 Web Design Mistakes You Should Avoid]

Roll on SXSW Interactive in Austin!

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

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

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

Daytime sessions that have caught my eye so far include:

Online Publishers & Ad Networks
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060200

How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060169

Turning Projects Into Revenue Generating Businesses
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060246

Under 18: Blogs, Wikis and Online Social Networks for Youth
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060248

Kathy Sierra Opening Remarks
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060180

Tag. You’re It
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060222

Everything’s Gone Douglas Coupland
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060283

Games + Entertainment Brands: Five Top Trends In 2007
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060284

Mapping: Where the F#*% Are We Now?
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060187

Web Hacks: Good or Evil (or: Welcome to Web 2.666)
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060263

Every Breath You Take: Identity, Attention, Presence and Reputation
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060150

Using RSS For Marketing
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060252

Web 2.0 and Semantic Web: The Impact on Scientific Publishing
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/conference/panels_schedule/?action=show&id=IAP0602

Why We Should Ignore Users
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060271

Non-Developers to Open Source Acolytes: Tell Me Why I Care
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060196

How to Convince Your Company to Embrace Mashup Culture
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060170

User Generated Content and Original Editorial: Friend or Foe
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060251

Why Marketers Need To Work With People Media
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060270

Open Knowledge vs. Controlled Knowledge
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060202

MobileActive: Mobilizing The Masses With Mobile Technology
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060190

There’s no Such Thing as the Mobile Web (Or Is There?)
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060244

The Global Microbrand: Are Blogs, Suits and Wine the New Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll?
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/?action=show&id=IAP060165

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

All the panels:
http://2007.sxsw.com/interactive/programming/panels/

I’ve also put myself down for more than a few parties over the 10th – 14th March duration:
http://upcoming.org/user/45382/

Stamina will be required 😉

Beers and Innovation 5: Aggregators and Upsetters

True to form, I wrote this up on 30th December to finally clear the decks of 2006’s inaugural Beers & Innovation event series. And I’m only posting it now… Indeed.

And what better way to draw it to a close with what was perhaps my favourite night in the series.

In truth, it’s a probably a dead heat with Beers & Innovation 3: Mash Ups & Web Services. Equally focused on how we’re re-forming and experiencing the web, B&I 5 had the edge in raising more questions than it answered, which is part of what fuels the quest for understanding in the first place I guess…

It also had more explicit “edge” focus. In fact I was originally going to call it ‘Aggregators & The Edge’ or (following on from RSS Frontiers) ‘Edge Frontiers’. But the dual musical and business model reference to “the Upsetters” just felt better, plus I know Mike Butcher likes a pop culture reference to his event titles, so it helped me persuade him to chair the evening 😉

Reevoo CEO Richard Anson started by explaining the nature of Reevoo’s aggregation service – its business model is to provide customer reviews for clients and integrate them into the client-side business.

Trust baseline for sense-checking brands

They publish all reviews positive and negative and they don’t edit them (profanity and libel being the only barred content). Then they also aggregate all the reviews around each product to create an independent basket of reviews for that item that are accessible from the Reevoo site. Clients include Jessops and Orange among others.

Customer involvement backs and reinforces user loyalty. Revoo.com is where people can come and sense-check a brand, he stressed. They also aggregate reviews from blogs using the hReview open standard microformat. Additionally, they aggregate reviews from experts.

Underlying everything is the impartiality they get from consumer reviews. Between 8 and 13% of people that they ask to contribute a review do so.

[Note: As First Capital’s Paul Fisher has since explicated, their key differentiator from other (and especially first generation) consumer-review sites – guaranteed trustworthiness – derives from the fact that the bedrock of their reviews are from people who have actually bought and used the product. First Capital advised Reevoo in successfully garnering $6m investment from Benchmark Capital in December 2006].

Unexpected birth of an aggregator

Paul Pod Of TIOTI (Tape It Off The Internet) explained how the origins of the project arose from his frustration that he couldn’t watch Series 7 of The West Wing when it was first being shown in the US. He put up a webpage taking the piss out of the Web 2.0 phenomenon based around aggregating good TV shows. But his friends all said “this sounds like a really good idea!” So he put up a mock-up, got more good feedback, and started to take it seriously.

Now TIOTI is aggregating information about TV shows – episode guides, show guides, first broadcast dates, ratings, and then all the downloads available (at first the latter was all “naughty BitTorrent” downloads; now they aggregate Amazon and iTunes).

They’ve architected the site to pull in and aggregate all this content, have 700 people on active private Beta testing, and are going to launch in public Beta with 11,000 testers this week (starting 13 October 2006). [Note – the site launched publicly on Thursday 11 January 2007]

To Mike Butcher’s enquiry as to what he was most excited about, Paul said on the copyright front, they are talking to people in the TV guide side of things, as well as people on the Wikipedia side.

So a mix of legit content, grey stuff and user-generated content is propelling them forward.

Looking for value in all the wrong places?

Umair Haque began by comparing MySpace and Friendster. In many ways Friendster was the perfect model but the fact it crashed and burned begins to disprove that mere aggregation is the answer. Where was the network effect with Friendster?

Aggregation is a dirty word, he insisted. It stops people thinking. This room is an aggregator. A training course, parliament, the Senate, a nightclub – these are all aggregation. What MySpace got right was facilitating the kind of dynamics that happen in a nightclub. All the actions there are productive. But not all the actions of aggregation are productive.

The latest craze in the Valley is widgets, Umair observed. But once we atomise the content, what’s the value? We should be able to remix and hack things. Ecademy CTO Julian Bond remarked that Umair’s description of an aggregator wasn’t the same as his. Technorati was Julian’s idea of an aggregator.

To which Umair asked – how does Technorati collect value from what it does? The value comes from… [at this point I missed a bit as I had to skate over to the bar to ask someone to stop talking. Who was it? Well, he’s involved with a thingamy, ya know… “project”]

When aggregators go bad…

What’s the difference between Friendster and MySpace? On Friendster I’m limited to 100 characters of text. With MySpace I can do anything I want, Umair noted.

Wasn’t it just more of a business and technology failure on Friendster’s part, rather than being a larger social problem, commented George Nimeh. It certainly wasn’t technology that failed Friendster, Umair countered, as MySpace is built on [substandard] Cold Fusion technology.

Alan Patrick interjected that social networks seem to be subject to generational effects too [echoing Danah Boyd’s point that when Friendster lost favour, its twenty and thirtysomething inhabitants went back to email, IM and SMS; whereas most MySpacers are digital natives and will migrate to other digital social networks if they tire of MySpace].

Business built on shifting sands?

Mike Butcher asked the panel “will the edge aggregation effect work or are you going to be screwed by someone else” (ie. a better resourced company re-aggregating the same content)? And will aggregation be made easier by Microformats?

Paul said he didn’t know the answer to that. Richard Anson said their partners are shops and customers, but they try to do what feels right. Will you have user ratings of reviews on Reevoo, Mike asked, to which Richard replied: no, but they will have trust-based relationships. Digging further into this issue, Mike asked can people share their Reevoo reviews – can they be shared and widgetised? In terms of sharing, they already distribute Reevoo reviews to all their partners Richard explained.

Umair brought the discussion back to the question of value with his characterisation of Yahoo Answers as “just a collection and aggregation of Q&A’s. It’s a dumb aggregator.”

Squaring the social value circle

James Cherkoff wondered how we put social value on the balance sheet. A phenomenal question, Umair commented. It’s impossible for the bean counters to get beyond the basics; so how do you represent social value? Possibly brand equity, but that’s also impossible as the value that’s created is much more valuable than what you can represent though “brand equity”.

There’s a new kind of asset emerging, he continued, “knowledge value” that is both plastic and liquid [for more on this check some of the longer downloadable essays and presentations on Bubblegeneration]. For example, Reevoo reviews *can* be ranked, Umair insisted, but the challenge is huge. Take Google – where is Page Rank on the balance sheet?

Paul Pod remarked that TIOTI relies on old media still being centralised and doing their thing. For now, we rely on sources, but over time we may *become* a source, we may even become a new kind of TV station.

Pinpointing the aggregator mojo

Reevoo CTO Ben Griffith asked what is that the aggregator adds that gives it extra value? Richard reckoned that what they at Reevoo add is that they create a truly independent and trustworthy basket of reviews. In turn, it’s about adding and extending the ability for recommendation – not just through blog but via a number of different sources.

If you rely too much as a business on stuff that doesn’t belong to you, as many aggregators do, aren’t you going to have problems, Mike wondered. The word aggregation itself is a bastardisation, Umair countered. It’s about aggregating peoples’ preferences, but it’s just a pseudo business.

John Baker of Ogilvy One London noted that there’s been quite a few aggregators who have come through, most notably Google – where’s it going to be in 10 years? Paul Pod reckoned Google would be in managed decline, so it will funnel out into new properties that they own.

Isn’t aggregation purely about convenience, commented Philip Wilkinson of Crowdstorm. Richard Anson of Reevoo agreed and Paul Pod added that the value is in filtering the information out in a convenient way or in giving it a flavour that no-one else has.

Maintaining aggregator impartiality

Sophie Coudray of Antersite expressed concern as to how, as an aggregator, you remain impartial. Richard replied that Reevoo *is* impartial – the reviews are ordered only by date. Paul explained that TIOTI has a four-track revenue scheme that will allow them to remain impartial: advertising (they plan to use the site as an Advertising 2.0 laboratory); white-labelling the service; sponsorships; and ratings/download trend reports.

Umair observed that the people in the States who are really revolutionary are creating a new “currency”, but what do you need to support that in the real world? However, the real world is not necessarily the source, he noted. Interactions in the Habbo world and Second Life are what power some of those businesses.

Will you pay people for the user-generated content that they give you, asked Sam Sethi. Paul said no. Whilst agreeing information has a value, he argued that the public don’t care if they aren’t paid and that’s fine. George Nimeh cited the Pareto rule wherein 99% watch and 1% re-use and contribute. Given that user views are formed post-purchase, how will that affect this balance?

Unless you pay people, they won’t come back to you, Sam insisted. But Umair took this reasoning to task. If we pay them, does the stuff that we get back from them then improve? If you look at economic research you’ll see that people have a strong tendency towards reciprocity.

Aggregate or interact?

Rob McKinnon asked – referencing back to Tom from The Economist’s point [which I missed!] – what about sites like ChicagoCrime? These sorts of aggregators can have major implications *in* the social world because they are *about* the social world. So what’s the next big thing in this regard?

Paul Pod reckoned the environment was the upcoming social issue ripe for aggregation. He’d like to know, he said by way of a mainstream example, about what the differential health impact is between living one metre and three metres from the road. As for the legal side of things, Paul said “if we upset some people along the way, we’re probably doing the right thing!”

Richard Anson remarked that if you as a business aren’t pushing the boundaries, then you’re not going to grow as a business. Umair said we need to stop thinking about aggregation and start thinking about interaction. Closing with a flourish, Mike Butcher floated the idea of the first user-generated-content trade union.

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BTW, a podcast of this event, as well as the ‘RSS Frontiers‘ and ‘Social By Design’ nights may be available in the future. From it, any flaws in my reports will be made transparent 😉

All three events were recorded for purposes of podcasting but we didn’t have the time or resources to magic it into MP3 goodness. New NMK editor Ian Delaney will soon have a better idea of when it might happen.

In the meantime you can watch a video of the ‘RSS Frontiers’ talks and some of the discussion here, thanks to the industrious Ian Forrester of BBC Backstage.