XCOM2002 and TAKING IT OUTSIDE

06/09/2002

I don’t even know where to start on today – I’ve not felt so mentally depleted and exhilarated at the same time for ages. I’ve spent the day with NTK and Haddock at Extreme Computing 2002 and the spin-off Take it Outside. I’ve been on three separate panels and talked so much that the pubs and bars around were full of beasts of burden missing rear limbs.

Where to start? Perhaps with an explanation – why haven’t I mentioned these conferences, why haven’t I mentioned these panels on plasticbag.org over the last couple of weeks? I suppose there are a couple of reasons – firstly I was scared, I didn’t want to make too much of a big deal about them because I was nervous about being able to do them – it’s been a few years since I talked in front of people. Secondly I guess I didn’t feel that there might be any reason for people to come and listen to what I had to say – why advertise what might be unbelievably boring? Why draw attention to something that might end badly? It may sound over-cautious, but there are a lot of things that could have gone wrong. Why not take things a little slowly…..?

Brief piece of scene-setting first: I met up with Cal and Jones at the Starbucks opposite the British Library, and then moved over to the Camden Centre to meet up with Denise from http://www.b3ta.com. Rob from B3ta also turned up after a while, as did James from unfortu.net.

First impressions are complex and confusing – there’s a room full of geeks and weirdos and I feel totally at home. There’s a block of hot people and whole racks and tables of strange and exotic people – running stalls with products from the obscure to the mediocre. Spectrums are everywhere. The C64 militia are in evidence. Steve LeStrange (I think) performs on stage. Very odd. After a stiff drink I retired to the pub for the first Take it Outside panel of the day…

Online Communities: The real world, only worse?
with Stefan Magdalinski (moderating), Cait Hurley, Denise Wilton and me.
First panel of the day gets off to a slightly choppy start, but for me was the most rewarding of the day. The debates centre around the relationship between virtual and real life communities. The stuff I think I found most fascinating were the debates about where online and offline communities differ, where they are similar and where they could be different.

Various parties contended that the two were more similar than normally given credit. Others (myself included) argued that differences emerged in stuff like stable identities, verbal and visual conversational cues, the inability to blot people out, the edges of workable communal space, the lack of differences in ‘volume’ of people speaking as well as in the way in which the relationship between people was solidified through relationships enshrined in software. One of the things I was very keen to emphasize was the possibility of building new political systems via the medium of community software – so in a sense I was very keen to decalre that online communities still had to potential to be radically different from the real world, and might even be better in some ways.

One of the other angles that was interested was that of moderation and how it’s undertaken. Obviously Barbelith was my point of reference here – with it’s new sense of distributed moderation being a very early stage towards my long-term objective of moderator-less, hierarchy-less governance in virtual space. But interestingly, although most of us could report experiences with trolling that meant that we felt some kind of comprehensive moderation process was necessary (whether it be top-down monarchist, feudal-moderation-lords, or distributed anarchist-style), B3ta reported a vast amount of traffic (I don’t know if I can report the number) along with a remarkable lack of trolling. Jones postulated that this was to do with strength of brand, while I retreated towards my more traditional model of interpretation – that there was something intrinsic to the model of the board and the board software that combines effectively with the subject of the board in order to make an environment that is not conducive to trolling…

In Defence of Weblogs – grassroots content management systems of the future, or just a load of self-obsessed secret diaries of Adrian Mole?
with Neil McIntosh, Ben Hammersley and me.
The largest panel of the day for me took me to the main stage of XCOM itself – but seems to have not been a total success, mainly because of problems with the acoustics in the room. From on stage there didn’t appear to be much if anything wrong with the sound, but guaging from Cory’s piece on his experience of the panel it seems that we were the only ones who could hear it. In fact often I appear to have been arguing totally the opposite to what Cory managed to hear – so I think I’ll probably clarify some of the basic positions that I wanted tried to present rather than talk through the whole experience…

The main questions presented were concerned with the relationship between weblogging and journalism, weblog content aggregation and its potential to be a competitor or complement to news sites, the function of weblogging above and beyond it’s ability to reflect boring peoples’ boring existences rendered interminably online.

Consolidating some of Cory’s transcript of the piece (concentrating on the stuff that I’m purported to have said) leaves us with this:

Dave: Aren’t blogs desined to cut down repetition? Tom: Some people blog for fun, for self-promotion to pursue a special interest or to stay in touch with a bunch of friends. Dave: Aren’t blogs desined to cut down repetition? Tom: No, my tool is designed to connect with with other bloggers with similar interests. You can get 200, 500 opinions on a given subject. Tom: {Cory couldn’t make out a word here} There’s a need for an editor — whether it’s Slashdot like automation or a human being. My fave: kottke.org.

Actually a large block of this needs further clarification. My positions are as follows:

Dave’s first piece of devil’s advocacy was concerned with the angle that there are too many weblogs producing too much banal and boring content. There’s no way to deny (of course) that there’s a certain amount of truth to the allegation that there are a lot of boring weblogs out there – my position is that it’s like the web itself – there are many hundreds of thousands of sites out there boring to almost everyone or indeed absolutely everyone. But there isn’t a shortage of space on the internet – it doesn’t matter! You don’t have to read them all.

The tool he refers to is metalinker – a Cal and I co-product. When Blogdex was first launched, I was very resistant to it – I argued then (with some justification) that Blogdex wasn’t about loving weblogs, but was instead about allowing people to get links stripped from all the weblogs without actually having to go through the horrible process of reading those weblogs. Increasingly I’ve begun to think that while that is true, there is an alternative use to Blogdex – a use which encourages linkages between posts made by different webloggers, which allows a debate to spiral over many sites and be trackable.

One of the other things that Dave suggested as a possibility was that the lowering of the bar when it came to DTP didn’t result in thousands of different magazines, but instead a colonisation of the space through cost-cutting at major magazine publishers. The suggestion that weblog ‘space’ could be taken over by corporations seems to me to be totally flawed – at the most basic level because the cost of distributing magazines remained after the development of DTP – something that wouldn’t affect weblogging.

This brought us around again to the idea of journalists and webloggers competing with one another. Which at the moment is patently ridiculous. However interestingly there does appear to be a parallel at work between the two – vox pops and columns are staples of journalistic work that have significant parallels with weblog culture. I mooted a situation whereby with a combination of the way in which things like blogdex and Google News grouped and gathered news and linkages with the a centralised weblog content aggregation process and some kind of feedback mechanism, you might be able to assemble a site that produced interesting online news commentary in almost real time in a way that might challenge conventional models of news media. Someone from the audience at this point suggested that an editor might be crucial for this process. But it’s simply not true. I even used my phrase of the moment in my reply. Algorithms will be editors. Or perhaps editors will be algorithms. Or maybe feedback will be the model that generates fake editors. And maybe it will be personalised…

Towards a Common-Place Web: online writing and social memory
[As part of TakeItOutside]
with Nick Sweeney moderating, Giles Turnbull, Karlin Lillington and a visit from Cory Doctorow.
The final talk for me again concentrated on journalism and weblogging – and I don’t know how useful it was. I’m exhausted this evening – so I think I’ll leave writing about it until tomorrow…

What else?
Weirdly it’s some of the less loud and vibrant parts of the day that stick in my head. It’s sitting on the steps opposite the conference place at the end of the day feeling slightly thin, grey and worn out. It’s the conversation with Webb and Phil in the hall while it rained outside. It’s the huge bucket of KFC and the frustration of trying to prove something that maybe didn’t need to be proven and failing nonetheless. It’s going ideas-wild about tube maps on the way home. It’s watching the last ten minutes of the Buffy musical with Cal and pizza at the end of the evening. It’s thinking about the next conference, in just over a week, at which I have to present a paper only 2/3rds written and still in the ugliest powerpoint format of all time…

Related links: Onlineblog, Ben Hammersley, XCOM gets slashdotted, Sashinka | If you want to e-mail me about anything discussed over the day (or want to pay me to help develop a weblog aggregation news resource) then e-mail me on tom [at] plasticbag.org | DO YOU HAVE A PERTINENT LINK OR COMMENTARY ON SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED ON THIS DAY, IF SO LET ME KNOW.