Business Politics Technology

Should we encourage self-promotion and lies?

A couple of days ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece on his blog called A Rant About Women which took as its subject the comparative comfort with which some men are prepared to market themselves, mislead and lie to get ahead compared to women.

I’ve been reading responses to this piece on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’ve become increasingly horrified by what I’ve seen. Generally, it’s being viewed as a call to arms to create a new breed of women who are as self-important, self-promoting, shameless and arrogant as some of the worst (and most celebrated) men in the industry. This attitude is being viewed as the ‘way to get ahead’ for any individual wanting to make their mark in the world.

I’m prepared to accept that there’s a correlation between attitudes to competition and self-promotion and gender. I’m not as prepared to take it as far as Clay seems to, but I’ll go along with its generalised existence.

And clearly, if aggressive self-promotion and pompous self-aggrandizement is what gets people ahead in the world, then at the individual level, it’s better to perform in that kind of way than it is to sit passively and watch yourself get passed over by more clumsy, venal, smug, aggressive, macho idiots.

But at the level of the company, at the level of the community, at the level of the industry – are these attributes in fact in any way desirable? Does self-promotion really lead to great products or projects? Is the ability to lie and mislead really what it takes to achieve?

My experience has been that there’s definitely a role for the arrogant and the pushy in the creation and promotion of a project. It’s also taught me that this skill is a small part of the set of skills necessary to produce something great.

The kinds of things that result in great products are tangible skills, a desire and a pleasure in collaborative building, an aspiration and sense that you’re making something important, a sense of teamwork, room to experiment, the ability to bring out the best in the people around you, a good work ethic.

Alongside that a desire to show-off can be really beneficial, a confidence in your ability is essential, the ability to push yourself into new areas certainly a benefit. But these attributes can also get in the way. There’s something in American culture in particular which values the pushy and the determined, but we’ve all worked with people whose confidence massively outstrips their abilities, who cannot work together with other people because they think they’re superior to everyone else.

And we’ve also met a whole bunch of people in the industry who do nothing but self-promote, working day and night to sell themselves, and achieve positions massively disproportionate to their tangible abilities. There are people in our industry in positions of substantial power whose reputation is built upon the way in which they present themselves as being visionaries and experts. Some of them have found that it’s simply more efficient for them to spend their days building that reputation through PR and self-promotion than it is to demonstrate it through the things that they make, the value that they create.

I’d never argue that we should forcefully reject anyone who manifests confidence, skills in self-promotion or who is cocky enough to sell themselves. But what I want to strongly resist is the idea that it is these attributes that we should be promoting – either in women or in men.

It should be unacceptable for us to say that lying about one’s abilities is something that everyone has to do to get ahead. It should be unacceptable for us to say that arrogance and aggression are to be aspired to.

Instead we should be demonstrating that great projects, like the ones Apple produces, are at least in part based upon trying to produce the best thing possible, feeling the integrity in the product you’re making. Trying to do something good. We should acknowledge the example of Flickr who created an astonishing culture of extremely talented engineers and designers around the very real aspiration to make something beautiful, powerful and good for the world. Or the guys at Twitter who discovered their idea initially by letting small groups experiment in interesting directions rather than dogmatically following the vision of a bold cocksure individual.

Good projects come from good people, good vision, good execution, good collaboration, good insight. And it’s these traits – and the ability to spot them – that we should be encouraging in our colleagues.

The right thing to do is to get it into the heads of our VCs and companies that a hunger to win at any cost is not the main attribute of a creative or productive person. That the ability to be intelligent, think through problems, work with other people, develop ideas effectively – that all of these traits are better indicators of success than how big they tell you their testicles are! That the person who comes to you with the biggest pitch is not necessarily the person you should be listening to.

And while encouraging people to spot the talented and the creative, we should also be considering how we shame those people who self-promote without creating. The financial collapse has taught us that rhetorical bubbles divorced from reality are a danger to us all. We’re already approaching this point – our industry has become venal, insular and dominated by marketing. We have come to value the wrong things. And if we want a continued vigorous, creative, free, open and equal environment, that’s something we have to fix. It’s not something to aspire to.

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Who's afraid of Ashley Highfield?

Today it was announced that the BBC’s New Media operations are going to be restructured radically. At the moment most of the content creation parts of the organisation are kind of co-owned – for example, Simon Nelson who was the ‘controller’ of the part of the BBC that I used to work for (BBC Radio and Music) reported equally to Jenny Abramsky (in charge of the BBC’s radio and music operations) and to Ashley Highfield (in charge of the BBC’s New Media Operations). Ashley himself had pretty much direct control over a centralised part of the organisation known internally as New Media Central.

After working at the BBC for a few years, it seems to me that this structure was a sort of clumsy compromise that had a lot of problems but a lot of benefits. I wasn’t in the right positions to see the whole picture but there seemed to be organisational and communication problems with such a layout, and a certain splitting of resources. But on the other hand – and this is a big other hand – increasingly the divisions between ‘new media’ stuff and content creation were able to blur, creating new opportunities for each to support the other which couldn’t help but be a good thing.

The other thing which almost seemed to me to be a good thing – sort of by accident – was that it created an environment where parallel parts of the BBC could operate independently and in a rather more agile fashion. More specifically still, it meant that certain parts of the organisation with a kind of critical mass of smart and clued-up people could really thrive and generate their own culture and goals and get things done, even as others weren’t doing so well. It may be just because I worked there or Stockholm syndrome but I rather think that BBC Radio and Music was one of those places, and despite the fact that a bunch of my favourite people have since moved on, I think it probably still is.

Having said that not all parts of the organisation were similarly dynamic, despite the often amazing number of talented people working within them – specifically, in my opinion, Central New Media under the direct management of Ashley Highfield.

You’ll have heard a lot of announcements coming out from his part of the organisation over the last few years, but surprisingly few of them have amounted to much. They all made headlines at the time, but they’ve all rather disappeared. Do you know what happened to the grand plans of the Creative Archive or the iMP? They were both being talked about in press releases in 2003, but the status of the iMP now appears to be a closed content trial and the Creative Archive has amounted to nothing more than a truncated Creative Commons license used by several orders of magnitude less people and a few hunded short clips of BBC programmes. Highfield’s most recent speeches from May this year are still talking about these projects, with him showing mock-ups of potential prototypes for the iMP replacement the ‘iPlayer’ that could be the result of a collaboration with Microsoft. Are you impressed by this progress? I’m not.

And then there’s BBC Backstage – a noble attempt to get BBC APIs and feeds out in public. What state is that in a couple of years down the line? Look at it pretty closely – despite all the talk at conferences around the world – and it still amounts to little more than a clumsy mailing list and a few RSS feeds – themselves mainly coming from BBC News and BBC Sport. There’s nothing here that’s even vaguely persuasive compared to Yahoo!, Amazon or Google. Flickr – a company that I don’t think got into double figures of staff before acquisition – has more public APIs than the BBC, who have roughly five thousand times as many staff! This is what – two years after its inception? Even the BBC Programme Catalogue that came out of this part of the organisation a while back has gone into a review phase (do a search to see the message) without any committment or indication when it’s going to be fully opened up.

I’m sure – in fact I know – that there are regulatory frameworks that get in the way of the BBC getting this stuff out in public, but these long lacunae go apparently unnoticed and unremarked – there’s an initial announcement that makes the press and then no follow-up. If Ashley Highfield really is leading one of the most powerful and forward-thinking organisations in new media in the UK, then where are all these infrastructural products and strategy initiatives today? And if these products are caught up in process, then where are the products and platfoms from the years previous that should be finally maturing? It’s difficult to see anything of significance emerging from the part of the organisation directly under Highfield’s control. It’s all words!

And that’s just the past. This is a man who decides to embrace social software and the wisdom of crowds in 2006 – clearly waiting for Rupert Murdoch to buy MySpace and show the self-appointed R&D lab of the UK new media industry the way. His joy for this space is expressed in lines like, “The ‘Share’ philosophy is at the heart of 2.0 … your own thoughts, your own blogs and your own home videos. It allows you to create your own space and to build around you”, which is ironic given that earlier last year he stated in Ariel that he didn’t read any weblogs because he wasn’t interested in the opinions of self-opinionated blowhards. This is a man who apparently coined the term, Martini Media and thinks that expressing your future strategy through smug references to 1970s Leonard Rossiter-based adverts is a surefire way to move the ecology forward. This is a man described by the Guardian in its Media 100 for 2006 as follows:

Exactly how much the impetus for such initiatives stem from Highfield, and how much from the director general, was the source of some debate among the panel.

“Ashley Highfield is among the most important technology executives working in the UK today,” said one panellist. “Yes, but talk about being in the right place at the right time,” said another. “Mark Thompson should be credited with the vision, not him.”

This is a man – bluntly – whose only contact with Web 2.0 that I can find is a pretty humiliating set of pictures on Flickr of him on a private jet and ogling at half-naked dancing girls. (Note: This set of pictures has now been taken down).

So it is, I’m afraid, with a bit of a heavy heart that I can report that the restructuring of the BBC is going to result in a much larger role for Ashley Highfield within the organisation – managing (according to the Guardian, and I’d take this with a pinch of salt) up to 4,000 people throughout the organisation. All the new media functions that have currently been distributed will now it seems be directly under his auspices, and presumably more under his influence than those of the programme makers and pockets of brilliant people around the organisation. I don’t know enough about the nature of the restructuring to know whether it’s a good or a bad thing at a more general level, but it’s pretty bloody clear to me that it’s an ominous move.

Which is what makes me so surprised when people outside the organisation talk about how scared they are of the huge moves that the BBC can make on the internet, because the truth is that for the most part – with a bunch of limited exceptions – these changes just don’t seem to be really happening. The industry should be more furious about the lack of progress at the organisation than the speed of it, because in the meantime their actual competitors – the people that the BBC seems to think it’s a peer with but which it couldn’t catch-up with without moving all of its budget into New Media stuff and going properly international – get larger and faster and more vigorous and more exciting. I want the BBC to succeed. I want it to get stronger – I think it’s a valuable organisation to have in the world and I think it sits perfectly well alongside the mix of start-ups and corporates that’s emerging on the internet. And it’s for precisely this reason that I’m concerned about these moves.

Who’s afraid of Ashley Highfield? I am, and you should be too.

Business Conference Notes Technology

How American are Startups?

The second day of and the first day of the conference proper (yesterday being tutorials) starts with a keynote from Paul Graham (see his Wikipedia entry) talking about whether or not the success of Silicon Valley might be replicated elsewhere – more specifically How American are Startups?. Suw Charman’s done a pretty solid near-perfect transcript of his talk and Graham’s subsequently written up the piece in two parts (How to be Silicon Valley and Why Start-ups Condense in America) but fundamentally his argument breaks down (to me at least) to these points:

  • Silicon Valley is about an accumulation of people, not geography – get the right 10,000 people and you could recreate it
  • To create an environment which is conducive to start-ups you need two groups of people – rich people who are prepared to invest and lots of nerds
  • Government is not a good replacement for rich people / angel investors as they’re slow, invest inappropriately and don’t have the contacts or experience to support the right activity
  • For rich people and nerds to mix you need a location where lots of rich people who care about technology and lots of nerds want to be – New York has lots of rich people but no nerds, other places lots of nerds but no rich people
  • Places that attract nerds and rich people tend to be cosmopolitan, liberal, happy places like San Francisco where people walk around looking happy and with high levels of students going to high-class universities
  • Other features of good places potentially conducive to this kind of activity are: personality, good transport hubs and connections to the existing Silicon Valley, quietness, good weather, not about excitement

Anyway, it would probably be fair to say that the reaction to the session has been mixed, although it’s more to do with his thoughts about American success and European problems than the points above (I suspect). Here’s one particularly astringent comment from Jeremy Keith:

It’s essentially a Thatcherite screed about why businesses should be able to get away with doing anything they want and treat employees like slaves … He also thinks that it won’t be long before Europe is all speaking one language namely, his … What. A. Wanker.

I think Jeremy’s gone a bit over the top, but I can completely understand why he reacted the way that he did. Paul’s piece felt extraordinarily American, in a semi-utopian libertarian free-market kind of way, and I have to admit it felt alien and strange and fairly abrasive. But there was also some pretty solid insights and a hell of a well-presented argument. By the end of the piece I was wondering, was this a political screed supported by good argument? Or was this a position that had been reached through experience that just happened to coincide with a particular political ideology.

I’ve spent about an hour thinking around this now, and have come to the conclusion that it’s probably the second of the two – an argument borne from experience but still an argument that needs to be heavily contextualised and derives from the particular environment that he operated within. The approach that Californians take to governance clearly works pretty well (for some interpretations of good), but that doesn’t make it a natural fact of the universe. It could be much more contingent than we tend to recognise.

Let me put it this way – one point that Graham made was about the role of government – basically intimating that regulation and government intervention was almost uniformly and universally a bad thing. But no government and no enlightened citizenry will be prepared to mutely accept the facts of their destiny on the basis of their weather (one of the aspects that Graham spells out as making a place attractive to the right kind of people). And all governments will try hard to make their environments more conducive to certain kinds of activity, including the US government. For example, one concern that I note that Paul Graham did not mention at all during his piece were simple start-up costs. He talked about companies started in garages, but probably didn’t realise that even garage space is pretty limited for large groups of people in metropolitan areas in Europe. This is a factor that probably has no effect in California outside the big cities, but is of massive importance across Europe. Property prices and costs are so extreme in parts of Britain that it’s almost immediately impractical for two or three people to try and start a little company. This is not in defiance of Graham’s talk, it’s simply ignored by it. And he ignores cultural differences, food costs and increased risks that mean that people are simply less comfortable making these kinds of decisions. If you want to create a culture where this kind of thing is possible, then these things need to be fixed. And that means work that needs to be funded and that means government one way or another.

And there’s another aspect which I found worrying – clearly it’s good for business to be able to hire and fire as you choose. And it’s also clearly not problematic for technology workers to lose their jobs if they’re working around Silicon Valley – it’s not like there’s a shortage of other places to work for. But the laws don’t only apply to the people with lots of job mobility and freedom – they also apply to people at the bottom of the food chain. Many European countries have decided to try and protect those people at the cost of some of their business flexibility. I’m not saying one option is more right or more wrong – I’m actually quite keen on the free market, and my time at the BBC rammed home to me some of the problems of working in an organisation that’s unionised to the point that it’s unable to fire people or restructure itself effectively in response to changing circumstances. But I think it’s important to at least recognise that the things that may make a Silicon Valley possible might also be partially founded on immigrant labour, crippled unions and a lack of support for people at the bottom of the pile. What’s good for Startups may not be good for all, and occasionally I got the impression that much of Graham’s stuff was describing the environmental factors that make Start-ups work as a uniform and perfect good in the world. I don’t buy that so much.

Having said all that, I have to be honest, I pretty much agree with all of his major points, and his thoughts on the right places for start-up activity got me thinking about places in the UK that would be good seed beds for an ecosystem of small and larger companies to operate together effectively. I’m not convinced that London is a good place for this kind of stuff at all, even though unfortunately all the money and all the business ends up there.

I’ve done some exploring around and found information on the top ten Computer Science departments in the UK and they are: Imperial, York, Oxford, UCL, King’s College London, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Cambridge, Glasgow and Bristol. Applying Graham’s criteria to those places, I’m afraid Scotland is probably mostly out as an ideal transportation hub and a home for rich technologists. I suspect London is simply too expensive and cripplingly scary for anyone other than people wanting to work for big businesses and media companies (it’s the New York of the UK, not the San Francisco). Which leaves Oxford, Cambridge, York and Bristol. I don’t know much about York, but my sense is that it’s a bit too far off the transport grid to be ideal, even though it has a large student population and is a relaxed and outdoorsy place. Oxford and Cambridge are obvious candidates, but I’m actually most interested in Bristol (coincidentally where I went to University) which is an hour and a half from Paddington and the Heathrow Express, is surrounded by beautiful landscape and opportunities to explore and has a 20,000-strong student population across the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England. It’s also not unmanageably expensive.

The other place that interests me a lot is Brighton. I don’t know whether or not it has an enormous technology contingent, but I’m hearing a lot about start-ups based out of there. It’s an hour from Central London, is extremely cosmopolitan and seems to have a lot of the characteristics that a start-up culture would require. I’d be really interested to get people’s thoughts about where and how we could get a more technology-focused start-up scene going in the UK. So feel free to leave a comment.

Addendum: For those interested, he also summarised the advantages and disadvantages of the US in the start-up space, and I’ve cut back the advantages to these helpful headlines which should give you the gist of his argument:

  1. Allows immigration
  2. Isn’t a poor country
  3. Not a police state
  4. High quality universities
  5. You can fire people
  6. Attitudes that don’t associate ‘working’ with being employed
  7. Not anal about business regulations
  8. Huge domestic market
  9. High levels of funding
  10. People comfortable with career switching

Is it a good time to start a business?

There have been a few pretty fascinating posts roaming around the blogosphere recently, and I thought I’d reference them a little more fully than normal not only because they’re particularly interesting but also because they illustrate the possibilities of conversation and debate stretching across webloggia (like in the old days before we had comment spam):

  • Caterina Fake: It’s a bad time to start a company
    Basic premise: There’s too much competition, not enough talent and no clearer business models than there were a while back;
  • David Heinemeier Hansson: It’s a great time to start a business
    Basic premise: If you’re not trying to win the Web 2.0 lottery there’s substantial space for building businesses (presumably enormous space if you’re planning to work as a consultancy or a design company while all the stupid money is flowing around, or if you’re building things to help small teams work together, or selling shiny office chairs and blue neon signs);
  • Brian Fling: Anytime is the right time to start a company
    Basic premise: If you do what you love and you’re sensible about it then you can’t really go wrong;
  • And honourary mention goes to Jason Kottke who posted earlier than any of the above: A Whole New Internet
    Basic Premise: You’ve all missed the boat already. Might as well go home.
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What do we do with 'social media'?

I’m a nervous public speaker, and so when I was asked to talk at the Guardian Changing Media Summit, I started to scratch out some notes about specifically what I’d say about Social Media. When I’m talking, I never really use these notes verbatim, but it’s nice to have them should I get lost, and at least I know that the argument or arc actually makes some sense and that halfway through the talk I’m not going to suddenly realise that point x doesn’t actually so much lead into point y, but actually completely undermines it. Anyone who has ever written a university essay remembers that feeling, when the argument you’d sketched in your head is suddenly obviously untrue when you come to write it down. Now imagine if you were writing the damn thing as a performance piece in front of a few hundred people. How embarrassing.

Anyway, given that – as I mentioned a few days ago – some people got the wrong end of the stick when I said I didn’t know what Social Media was, I thought I’d post what I meant to say. So here it is – ludicrously extended and webified to make me sound more pompous, which can’t help but be a good thing:

Now I suppose I’ve been invited to talk at this event today because I’ve worked with and played around a great many of the areas that we’re talking about today. I’ve been writing my weblog – – for nearly seven years now and I’ve been running an online community at for even longer. I’ve worked (briefly) as a journalist, represented magazines online with Time Out, ran or developed online communities for emap and UpMyStreet and spent the last two or three years working for BBC Radio and Music looking after a little team (with Matt Webb) exploring media annotation, social media navigation and consumption, wikis and recommendations.

I’m now lucky enough to work for Yahoo alongside some of the most successful and important of the new wave of social media sites – sites like Flickr, and upcoming. And yet – and I suppose this may be a relief to some of you – for the life of me I don’t know what people are referring to when they talk about ‘social media’. It’s not that I don’t understand the individual words – I know social stuff, I know media stuff. And it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the things they’re talking about. I get weblogs and personal publishing, I get online communities and I remember the appearance of social software (and my fairly reasonable attempt to define it). But I don’t entirely get how social media has come to sit alongside these terms, or what specifically is different about it from the other social terminologies that we’ve had before. And when I hear people use it I get even more confused. For some people it seems to mean a subset of social software, for some people it seems to mean the same as social software. Worse still, for some people it seems to directly correlate to the web-based representation of social networks and nothing else. And for some others, who I cannot fathom at all, it seems to mean nothing but making your magazine or TV show or radio show slightly more interactive (potentially through the means of a web forum or e-mail).

Now I don’t claim to have the answer to this question and fundamentally language is a fickle creature and tends to mean no more or less than how people employ it, but in trying to work out precisely what I was supposed to be talking about today, I’ve made a stab at figuring this stuff out and putting a bit of a brief historical context around it. Maybe it makes sense. Maybe it doesn’t. I’ll let you decide.

Back before the last boom, the internet was fundamentally a communicative medium – a many-to-many conversational space of e-mail, mailing lists, Usenet and bulletin boards. This kind of activity was pretty much an early-adopter thing because it was a new form of communication. It’s worth remembering that while for many of you the idea of the social internet is a new thing, this isn’t a weird new growth on top of the internet, but something fundamental to its DNA – a connected many-to-many environment profoundly different from broadcast or publishing.

It was the popular arrival of the web that started the shift towards thinking of the internet as a publishing medium, and it was propelled in part by large companies using their enormous resources to put huge swathes of content online. Interestingly, this move was the thing that pushed the internet over the tipping point – publishing is something that people understand and can engage with. So the popularisation of the internet is probably directly related to this one particular and relatively constrained subsection of what it’s most useful for.

The age of social media then is probably about a fusing of these two ways of thinking – the communicative and the publishing/creative parts of the internet – into something new and powerful. It’s an environment in which every user is potentially a creator, a publisher and a collaborator with (and to) all of the other creative people on the internet.

Well so far, so User Generated Content. So what makes Social Media different? Well, one of the reasons is that the things that people are making aren’t just dumped into the world. Instead people are encouraged to use the content they’re creating – they own it and can employ it for renown or for social purposes within their interest communities or their social network. On Flickr many people upload photos from their cameras and mobile phones not just to put them on the internet, but as a form of presence that shows their friends what they’re up to and where in the world they are. Their content is a social glue. Meanwhile, other users are busy competing with each other, getting support and advice from other users, or are collecting photos, tagging photos or using them in new creative ways due to the benefits of Creative Commons licenses. Somewhere at the back of all of this is a concept of publishing, but it’s a one that’s been elaborated on and extended extensively.

There’s another different though, and I think it’s probably even more important. It seems to me that the other main feature of social media is that they’re looking at how each individual contribution can become part of something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, and to feed that back to the individuals using the service so that – fundamentally – everyone gets back more than they’re putting in.

These new services are about creating frameworks and spaces, containers and supports that help users create and publish and use all kinds of data from the smallest comment to the best produced video clip which in aggregate create something of fascinating utility to all. And if you want to know more about that, I’d recommend exploring or Flickr or Wikipedia. You’ll pick it all up quickly enough.

So social media then hasn’t really arrived as much as it’s always been there, waiting for the right set of circumstances to make it really blossom. These circumstances probably include boring things like web penetration, the new generation of users who have grown up with the internet, the widespread take-up of always-on broadband, standards-compliant browsers, a better understanding of addressability and links and search and more sophisticated approaches to handling media and interactions with the server.

And they’ve probably also been waiting for business models, which brings us back to the panel in question which is supposed to be about social media on the one hand and business models on the other. As I’ve said, social media is about helping individuals creating value for all. I’ll give you an example from a recent talk that my boss gave in ETech. He described how Yahoo is using Social Media with sites like MyWeb to aim at ‘better search through people’. Yahoo believes that we can make search better for users – and more financially rewarding for the company – by helping people collect, publish and share information, answers to questions, bookmarks and the like through Yahoo Answers,, Flickr and the like.

And of course social media generates an enormous amount of content, and content is content and can act as a platform for advertising. Traditionally media organisations are suspicious about placing ads around what can often be ‘bad’ user-generated content, but then the question is surely just how you can help surface the good stuff – and the best way you can do that is to work with your community. On Flickr, great pictures are seen by enormously more people than small personal or bad pictures – they have a concept of interestingness that surfaces pictures every day that are of extraordinary quality. Blog posts on average are pretty terrible, but the best blog posts are as good or better than anything you’ll find in the mainstream press.

And that’s just the beginning of the business models. People increasingly are comfortable paying for interesting services online. Get people using social media and hold back the functionality that costs the most to deliver (in terms of server load or storage or whatever) and a proportion of your users will put their money where their mouth is to go for the full experience completely and immediately. All they need is to feel that the service they’re paying for is worth the money. And of course if you’re building an environment in which people can do things with their content, some of the things they may wish to do with them open up other potential revenue streams – getting things printed, published, turned into books, projected onto the moon. Open that stuff up to them and I have no doubt they’ll run at it like a herd of bison.

Anyway, that’s me done. I’m sure I’ve bored you all more than enough, so I’ll just end up with another quick example of user-generated value that’s on the edge of social media. The other day I was rewatching a talk by Will Wright, the creator of The Sims talking about Spore, his new game and he was talking about how increasingly creating a new game required the production of more and more ‘content’, and that this was pushing up the costs of each new game and would eventually be unsustainable. He then talked a bit about The Sims 2 and how users were given the tools to create their own content for the Sims environment – actual objects that they could share with their friends and distribute through the ecosystem. And he mentioned that one of the sites that had manifested in this community of amateur creators had just recently celebrated its hundred thousandth user-created object. Imagine that! A hundred thousand bits of content created by a portion of the user-base, providing value to the game generators, fun to the normal users and prestige and satisfaction for the amateur creators. It’s a rare sweet-spot that makes everyone happy, and when you find them you know that they’re just at the start of something extraordinary. Virtuous circles like these have a tendency to expand and expand quickly. There’s a beautiful creative future ahead for everyone involved, but you have to be involved to experience it. So step forward, media owners! How can you fail!?

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In which Yahoo! buys…

So the big news of the day around my way is the acquisition of weirdly punctuated site by weirdly punctuated site (and my current employers) Yahoo!. You can read more about it on the Yahoo search blog (Two Great Tastes That Go Together) and on the blog (y.ah.oo!):

Jeremy: As Joshua writes, the team will soon be working in close proximity to their fraternal twin, Flickr. And just like we’ve done with Flickr, we plan to give the resources, support, and room it needs to continue growing the service and community. Finally, don’t be surprised if you see My Web and borrow a few ideas from each other in the future.

Joshua: We’re proud to announce that has joined the Yahoo! family. Together we’ll continue to improve how people discover, remember and share on the Internet, with a big emphasis on the power of community. We’re excited to be working with the Yahoo! Search team – they definitely get social systems and their potential to change the web. (We’re also excited to be joining our fraternal twin Flickr!)

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A response to the rhetoric of weblog marketing…

The story so far… Ben Metcalfe takes a vague swipe at the Stormhoek wine that Hugh MacLeod is marketing through the blogosphere. The approach Hugh is taking is to offer free bottles of the wine to webloggers on the understanding that they can write about it if they choose – either positively or negatively. Ben believes this to be a pollution of the weblog ecology and an undermining of the authenticity and personal integrity of individual webloggers who are prepared to put themselves up for sale. Here where things get a little weird, because Hugh responds to Ben’s comments with an extraordinary, and (for my part) quite unfathomable, broadside against the BBC:

The Beeb likes to think it’s in the business of “Empowering People”. Maybe they are, but only if it doesn’t lessen their own power base within the British Establishment. They sneer at commercialism; their currency of choice is control. Are they transparent about that? The hell they are.

Now there’s no point me pretending that I can talk impartially about the BBC in public. After all I consented to work for them, and they pay me for the privilege. So it’s quite lucky then that – having read the posts concerned several times – I can see no relevance to mentioning the BBC in this context at all. The debate seems to me to be in a completely different area. I wrote a comment on Hugh’s site, which I think sum up some of my feelings about marketers giving freebies to webloggers. What follows is a pretty heavily revised version of those comments, edited for readability and rhetorical weight rather than meaning (I hope):

Ben’s comments on the wine marketing move were fairly blunt and I’d probably not be so aggressive, but I certainly don’t think it’s an unreasonable position to take. Hugh and I had similar conversations about whether the Stormhoek experiment was cynical or exploitative at a recent conference we both attended. I have to say I’m still not convinced.

As another commenter suggested, if you’re a ‘citizen’ weblogger all you really have is your name. Weblogs are about authenticity – about people being able to express their voices and opinions. If people get the sense that you’re distorting your opinions for your peers because you get free stuff then it seems to me that they’d have to be less inclined to believe you (and think less of you as a person). And quite rightly – it’s a demonstration of a lack of personal integrity.

Now this case is obviously slightly different, because people are being given the stuff for free and no one is forcing them to write positively about it. But the problem is that people will always find being given free stuff attractive. And that means that – as long as there’s the possibility a negative opinion will result in no more freebies – there will always be a pressure towards playing to the sponsor. A good proportion of people will find this kind of thing completely acceptable, but let’s not pretend that it’s completely impartial, morally neutral and fair. There’s a power dynamic happening here – it is a form of bribery – it just happens to be a fairly mild and gentle form of it in which people don’t really get hurt that badly.

But because it is a form of gentle bribery to say nice things, it seems to me that this means that any positive comment will inevitably be considered dubious by the wider community, and will result in suspicion and a gradual loss of trust. It’s like that old joke that ends, “We’ve established you’re a whore, now we are just haggling over the price…”

The problem is that – at least at the moment, and long may it last – the weblog community determines its heroes and its trusted and noble citizens from smaller but finer-grained metrics than we do in the wider world. We determine who to read based on whether we’ve come to feel a relationship or a personality that means we actually directly like the person or people concerned, whether we trust them, whether they’re the kind of people we would want to associate with or who say things that we respect (or amuse us). And these relationships are more fragile, but deeper and more reciprocal, than those we have with sports heroes and movie stars.

They almost have to be – writing for a weblog is a rapid process that often lends itself to personal and informal writing. It’s harder to keep up a pretense, to hide what you’re like in such an unorchestrated space. So when someone loses our respect, or appears arrogant or when we feel they’re no longer being truthful, then we stop reading. And the brand that they’ve been marketing must get tarnished by this association as well.

It seems to me that marketing of this kind probably has an unfortunate effect on the weblog community, and will probably have mixed results that make some brands very happy but many others slightly damaged. In the case of the wine, it would seem much more sensible to just get the people who make the wine to write their own weblog and use it as a position to talk to the wider world. Perhaps there’s other ways to introduce the wine to a wider community, but the only way it will work is if any perceived link between the weblogger’s opinion and the products on offer for them to try is broken completely. And that’s a bloody hard sell…

There is also one other thing I’d like to say, and I say this with all due respect to Hugh, who I’ve met several times. There seems to be a hell of a lot of mileage recently in grabbing onto a technological trend that’s owned by the people and talking about how it’s going to rip down every aspect of the old world order and replace it with a brave new world without large media / business / governmental organisations. You find a trend and you shout about it in public, waving a fist at the big boys as you threaten to drag them down to their knees. You get invited to a lot of conferences this way. You may even get a book deal. Large companies will invite you to talk to them about why they should employ you to protect them from the future you’ve said will destroy them.

But frankly, it’s all complete balls. The world is changing really rapidly – technology is having a significant impact. I think the idea of tens of millions of individuals expressing their opinions in public is profoundly moving and important and is likely to have all kinds of repercussions that we can’t possibly foresee at the moment. And there are battles to fight and battles to win. But much of the rhetoric simply cannot stand scrutiny.

I’m totally fed up of people standing up and waving a flag for the death of institutions based on sketchy information and a vague belief in the rightness of their cause – and I’m also slightly sick of more moderate voices being drowned out under the revolutionary fervour of people fresh with their first wave of excitement about user-generated content on the web. Weblogs suffer from this enormously. Someone said that every journalist that writes about weblogs thinks that the year they discovered them is the year weblogs went mainstream. I’ve watched this for almost six years now. I now need people to think about what’s more likely to happen – that big media organisations, and governments and businesses will dry up and evaporate, or that some of them will adapt and change to a new ecology, renegotiate their place in the world and have a role in fashioning and supporting whatever it is that’s coming?

Whatever is on the horizon – social software, social media, ubiquitous and pervasive computing, technology everywhere, permanent connectivity, media distribution, mass amateurisation, disintermediation – it’s going to have an enormous impact on our lives. But that impact will probably seem relatively subtle and gradual to those people living through it, and its true effects will probably not be fully recognised for a hell of a long time. So let’s try and be a bit humble about the whole thing, eh? Let’s get excited about possible futures, let’s argue for the changes we think should happen, let’s present ideas and theories and ideas and business models and look to the future and test them and explore them. But please, no more religious wars of us versus them, big versus small, old versus new… We’ve got enough entrenched dogmatic opinions in the world already without creating new ones…


Where are all the UK start-ups?

I find myself thinking of my country and my industry – and what I see confuses and confounds me. This is a tiny little country that remains a world power, one of the few trillion dollar economies in the world. It has 50% take-up of broadband, some huge telecommunications companies and thousands of people working on and around the internet. But still our industry seems dominated by a few moribund and clumsy giants leading a culture that’s inarticulate, unadventurous and profoundly constrained. There’s something very wrong here.

My main question is this: Where are all the bloody start-ups? Where are the small passionate groups of creative technologists (people with clue) getting together to build web applications and public-facing products that push things forward? Where is the Blogger or Flickr or Odeo or Six Apart of the UK? What aspect of this country is it that confounds these aspirations? And I know that Audioscrobbler is wonderful. I really love it. But eventually you have to ask – is that really all we can do?

So is it a lack of money or a poverty of ambition? The UK has some of the world’s best and most creative film directors – but they don’t make films in the UK, they make adverts. Some of the world’s best (and most expensive) advertisements are made in this country, arranged around home-made TV programming that costs a fraction of the price. But when film directors get bored of selling sugar water they move on to make their proper movies. And for the most part, they go to the States.

The same seems true online. The web industry over here is dominated by advertising and marketing because London is dominated by advertising and marketing. People think that the States is the home of this stuff, but it’s not true – American advertising is clumsy and blatant compared to the calculating work done over here. Everything is put to the end of selling something else and I’m routinely surprised by what is for sale. Every event is sponsored by one multi-national or another, from the BAFTAs to the equivalent of the Grammys. On the web, some of the work is absolutely stunning – but it’s all bloody agency stuff – support sites, brochureware, Flash. There’s money all around the place to make things, but still such boring stuff gets made. It’s all just another shiny thing on a conveyer belt already groaning under the weight of shiny things – an environment where the only way to innovate is to get shinier and more illusory, rather than more useful.

All this work is churned out by the ton by great people (and not so great people) hired by marketeers – because apparently there is no one else out there who will harness them to make neat new things that the world could use. The major internet companies have presences in the UK of course, but they’re mostly localisation departments / sales departments / advertising departments. They have technical and creative people working for them, but on the whole they’re not making new products. They’re just selling and supporting the existing ones. The whole bloody place seems to be about selling things made elsewhere, working for the unambitious.

There are exceptions of course – but even then the tiny fragments of things that we do create seem resolutely parochial – little products aimed at exploiting the tiny idiosyncratic spaces in British culture that huge initiatives from the major net powers have missed – albeit momentarily.

So what is it that stops us making great things, starting start-ups and building for money? I contend that in part it’s shame. Certainly the business people of Britain seem to be – at a certain level – highly uncomfortable with the existence of technical people. They’re not a resource to be exploited, or people to collaborate with. The nerdy people who make and create seem to be shuffled to the side, kept in the background, so as not to curdle the canapés at the business meet and greets that are the real motivators of British business. The businessman and the creative technologist seem to be forced into two camps so repulsed by one another (betrayed by that they just circle at a distance, each almost refusing to admit the other exists. So the business people look towards the stable money and wait for the innovations to come in from abroad, or leap clumsily onto bandwagons with the help of the visionless, while the technologists dogmatically avoid anything that looks like it might have been sullied with the hint of a business model.

I look at many of my peers and I’m delighted by the projects that they get involved in – they’ve connected people with politics, connected people with their representatives, found ways for people to work together to make the world better, opened up the writings of incredible diarists, created incredible local information services and worked on open calendaring projects. But would it really be so bad for them to spend some of their time building products that were aimed at changing the world by changing how people do everyday things all over the world, or opened up new spaces for creativity or sharing or self-expression or shopping or whatever? There’s a wonderful creative culture here that cannot commercialise itself. But we all use Flickr and so we can’t have that much trouble with people trying to make a business out of being great, surely? Or is it just when the British do it that we’re all expected to rend and tear?

What is it about this place that there is so little energy in these directions – are we so hamstrung by geography or history or culture that we cannot innovate, build and then commercialise? I look around and I see some of the brightest and best people I know in the world creating world-class ideas that get exploited elsewhere, or are simply thrown away. It’s not right and we should do something about it – I’m just unclear about whether that’s stand up and be counted, or burn it all down and never look back.


On the potential for browsers to replace all local advertising…

I’m a bit confused by all the kerfuffle around the Google toolbar rewriting links on people’s sites. I mean, for the most part it looks like it’s an opt-in thing and I don’t see that this is a particular problem. Cory posted his vehement defence of the proposal:

Plenty of Cowbell asks whether I like the sight of an ISBN corresponding to one of my books being rewritten. My answer: Hell ya! This shows how an authors’ association like the Science Fiction Writers of America could collect its members’ ISBNs and affiliate IDs for their favorite web-stores and provide plugins that would rewrite every single instance of my ISBNs on pages viewed through the plugin with a link to my affiliate account on Amazon, making me some serious coin. Wanna support an author? Install her plugin and help her feed her kids. Wanna support a charity? Install its plugin and have all the affiliate links rewritten to its benefit. Wanna support youself? Install the plugin that rewrites every ISBN with your own affiliate ID.

So here’s the bit that worries me. We’re talking about plugins at the moment, right? Places where there is no reason why anyone should feel forced to use the device concerned. Now move back to the browser market and lets posit a world where browser market share for Internet Explorer has fallen back to some semi-reasonable level – let’s say 40%. Now in Cory’s model, I can see no reason why Microsoft shouldn’t decide one day to replace every single Google Adword (or similar advertising structure) with its own advertising on each and every web page that you visit. I mean – this could be the way that you finance a new browser, you remove advertising from the page and replace it with advertising that makes you money instead of the content creator. You could do the same with RSS readers.

Now given that there are other browsers in the market, there’s still choice in this picture – you could switch to any of them and not have to experience the world the Microsoft way (or the Google way if they created a browser). Unfortunately, given that it would make apparently no difference to the actual content or design of the page in any way, then I’d doubt that many normal members of the public would really care that much – that is until the sites that they liked to visit started to shut down one-by-one. And that’s before the other browser manufacturers realise they cannot compete with the concept someone milking advertising revenue from every single site on the internet and decide to follow them down the path to mutually assured destruction.

Genuinely and honestly, I would like someone to explain to me why such a situation could not emerge as an evolution of the stuff that Cory’s talking about. Reassure me, if you will. Why won’t this happen??


A critical mass of photograph swappers…

Everyone at ETCon had a Mac. Or at least pretty much everyone at ETCon had a Mac. And pretty much everyone was using the wifi network in the conference rooms. And – much like last time – loads of people were using Rendezvous to instant message each other in iChat as well as to collaborate on documents using SubEthaEdit. Also this year, everyone was taking photos with their digital cameras. But one thing surprised me – no one was sharing their albums via iPhoto. When I was in Los Angeles I’d bought iLife because I wanted to play with Garageband, but when I started playing with the various applications I quickly realised that iPhoto’s rendezvous sharing could be really really interesting and cool in an environment like ETCon. I kept thinking that there would be a whole culture in photo swapping and distributing snaps of speakers, nicking pictures of yourself from other people’s computers, finding ways to annotate your own personal experience of the conference with the distributed materials of a few hundred attendees. But there was no such culture there.

There may be any number of reasons why it didn’t take off in that environment, of course. One possibility is that people feel different about photos than they do with playlists and music – more proprietorial, more nervous of sharing. Or there might have just been problems with the network. But I can’t help feeling that it’s a direct consequence of Apple charging for this particular update – and that the critical mass of people that you’d need to make an active subculture around that stuff will now not be reached…