Conference Notes Personal Publishing

Supernova '05: "Apps. for a Mobile, Connected World"

Hm. So I spent a good forty-five minutes yesterday writing the next post in my series on Supernova ’05, only to lose it catastrophically when Safari collapsed under the weight of 150 open tabs. So this will probably be a slightly shorter version of that post. It may also benefit from having had more digestion time. Who knows.

The first panel of the day was “Applications for a Mobile, Connected World” and featured Lili Cheng of Microsoft, Caterina Fake of Flickr, Amy Jo Kim of, Mena Trott of Six Apart and Evan Williams of Odeo. The area that these people stake out between them could probably be summarised as individual-focused social software, weblogs/personal publishing and amateurised media distribution. All these subjects are very close to my heart and many of the people on the panel are my peers and friends. So again, I should probably throw out a quick warning about perspective and potential bias from the start.

Looking back on the panel, it basically fell into discussions about three main areas: (1) The individual’s creation of media, what it means to them and how it can be supported; (2) The effects of taking that personal creation and embedding it in a wider social context – what new things become possible; (3) The role of human psychology, trust and trusted networks in the whole enterprise.

Discussion about individual creation really started with some comments from Ev – probably doubly appropriate because both his work with Noah Glass at Odeo and his previous life at Blogger confront these issues head on. He started off the session by saying, “at Odeo we’re here to enable lots of the ideas that we saw with blogging and to take them to a new medium”. His starting point was the individual’s participation in media in general and their ability to create and share media of their own. As an example of how that could be immediately harnessed, he cited the work that Amazon undertook in enabling participation and the enormously positive effect it had on their business.

Between them, Caterina, Amy Jo, Mena and Lili focused more on the individual’s desire to express their identity online and to capture memories. Caterina pointed towards Friendster as the moment when the idea of creating a digital presence for yourself suddenly stopped being strange, alien and geeky. She said, in a comment that I personally found very resonant, that “When I first started weblogging, people thought it was very strange”.

Amy Jo picked up on this idea of expressing identity, saying that user-generated content – specifically in her case focused on games – was an incredibly important form of expression and that it was appearing at a whole range of new and interesting registers from overtly publishing in weblogs to the more tacit expression through playlist sharing on services like iTunes.

Mena really brought memories to the fore. She stated that she wished she had a record of everything that had happened in the first twenty-seven yearas of her life like she has since she first started weblogging. She revealed that she takes a picture of herself every day as a hook to hang her memories around – saying that she could see immediately her mood and her background and her surroundings and very quickly get a sense of what she was feeling at that precise moment, even years after the fact… Although there was a bit of scepticism in the backchannel about this concept, Lili Cheng supported it very rapidly by talking about how important she felt it was to capture as much information about what you were doing as possible (presumably connected to her work on Wallop and/or to Microsoft’s stuff around MyLifeBits). Her position was really interesting – saying that it was very difficult to know which memories you were going to come to cherish in the future and that having these records gave you a structure to narrativise around.

Later, in the question and answer session, an audience member expressed their anxiety that their weblog wouldn’t be there in twenty years time – that it would get lost somehow – and said that they would find that ‘devastating’. Mena answered that with a really interesting characterisation of SixApart as a company that ‘held memories’ for their users. She said they took that responsibility very seriously.

In terms of the social dimension, the panel focused on two major areas – the increasing desire to communicate in small groups of real-life friends and the larger implications / possibilities of being embedded in space where your actions became part of something larger and more powerful. Caterina was particularly interesting. She talked about how one of Flickr’s major selling points was the sharing aspect and that this is what differentiated it from the other photo-publishing services online. She pointed out that 80% of all photos on Flickr were public. And she moved on to say that many technologies developed entirely new possibilities when connected to social networks. Her prime example here was the folksonomic tagging approach that Flickr and have pioneered – and she pointed out that this was generating an entirely new way of organising and categorising content online. This wouldn’t have been possible with the substrata of the social networking functionality.

Mena and Lili were the particular evangelists of the power of communication within small groups rather than to the world at large. One quote from Mena rang particularly true:

“One of the biggest things that I’ve been able to see – this whole idea of inward conversations – smaller audiences really matter. I believe that this internal-facing weblog is really important – the kind of conversaiton that you’re goign to have with smaller audiences is different to conversations you have in public. We really realised this when we bought LiveJournal this year. An audience of six people really matters to a lot of people.

Lili took this even further by talking about the qualities of the conversations themselves, pointing towards a concept of ‘energy’ and suggesting that this quality was something that she was now able to move into the rest of Microsoft’s work:

“Sometimes you want to find a critical mass in really small circles. What’s most important is whether I’m having a dialogue with people which feels like it has energy?

At this point, Ev Williams came up with a point to balance this discussion, talking a bit about his time at Blogger again:

“Of course there are a lot of people out there who only write for strangers. We used to put everyone’s name under their posts and people used to really protest. They didn’t want people in their every day life seeing stuff they’d written online.

But probably the biggest focus of the panel, and a recurring theme of the conference as a whole was the concept of ‘trust’ and what it meant. This was a more heavily contested area – related to the idea of social networks and small groups but understood differently by different people. Caterina made a particularly nice high-level and inspiring comment about trust that I enjoyed:

“It’s trust that enables us to go out in the world. It’s the thing that makes the internet possible.”

A slightly more formally expressed and nuanced position (but perhaps a less practical one to implement) came from Amy Jo:

“You don’t build trust by ‘throwing crap up on your website’, even though a lot of the work that people are doing is foundational in building trust – personal control in who sees what. Trust is contextual – I trust my husband to be a good man and a good guy, but I don’t trust him to get the right kind of bleach. it’s contextual, it’s not global.

Finally – moving on from the concept of trust – one other interesting comment came from Ev Williams when talking about the future of podcasting. I’m not completely sure that I agree with it. It was in response to a question from audience about the future of podcasting. His response:

“The future of podcasting is not on the pod but on the phone – and it takes these ideas not only to a new medium but to a whole new audience”.

I’ve heard this particular sentiment from a lot of people recently, but as yet it seems to me entirely unproven. As I understand it, radios on phones have – on the whole – not been an enormous success to date – whether that’s because of implementation or use cases is unclear to me at the moment. But podcasting to phones also feels like something whose time is further off, when the handset has been more substantially abstracted from the concept of voice / data connectivity. But that’s all speculation, and probably a good point to end this particular batch of notes.

[You can find my full notes from the session here]

3 replies on “Supernova '05: "Apps. for a Mobile, Connected World"”

Radios on phones are insanely popular – when colour screens came in, and other features tossed out for size or cost, every time you asked people what feature they wanted, they said FM Radio. It’s the kind of single-function device you wouldn’t carry as a seperate item (MP3 players and iPods in particular bucking that trend), but was considered useful as a secondary feature on another. I think it’s because of the near-infinity of the thing; constantly changing bordom filling audio.

Hm. Interesting. I can’t remember who was telling me that radios were getting squeezed out of phones, but certainly I’m more inclined to believe you than a dimly remembered conversation from the dark backwaters of my recent history.

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