Conference Notes Technology

On Werewolf at FOO Camp 06…

I’m sure Tim actually gets quite annoyed by the amount of times that people ostensibly talk about FOO Camp but actually end up talking about Werewolf – a game that is played pretty much solidly throughout the Friday and Saturday nights by up to forty or fifty people at any given time. If he does, then it’s a shame, because I genuinely think that the Werewolf action is an absolutely necessary gelling agent for the whole event. There are a lot of people at FOO and geeks are not necessarily the most naturally gregarious of people. Speaking from personal experience, without Werewolf I’m not sure that I would have been able to get passed my inhibitions last year and actually talked to anyone at all. It’s not why you go to FOO, but it definitely makes the rest of the event more pleasurable and interesting.

This year’s Werewolf action was among the best I’ve ever experienced – playing with a new group people changes the dynamic dramatically – taking a couple of games before you start to get a sense of the people around you and when they’re feeling awkward or lying. It’s always easier with people you know well who haven’t played much. By way of an example, I cite Paul Hammond’s first stint as a Werewolf. He turned sort of purple and kept smiling all the way through. Very odd behaviour. Other players were more inscrutable, with Cal in particular ploughing his way through unsuspecting villagers with a great big grin on his face and a card around his neck reading ‘villager’.

If you’ve not played Werewolf, I’m not going to describe it for you – you can find much better representations on the web of the kind of game it is. I’m just going to thank Jane McGonigal, Danah Boyd, Chris DiBona and Artur Bergman for hosting the games, and particularly Danah and Artur for taking most of the strain this time, allowing Jane to actually play for a change. She’s written up a lot of the experience of FOO on her site: It’s Foo-tacular! and remains one of the most terrifyingly good Werewolf players I’ve ever competed against.

There’s no way on earth I’m going to remember the names of all the other awesome Werewolf players, but obvious kudos goes out to Sam Ruby, Michael Buffington, Rabble, Greg Stein, Julian Bleecker and Mike Migurski. I’d like to put out a special w00t to Suw Charman and Mark Shuttleworth for the fascinating / exhausting game on Saturday night and say finally that it was particularly good fun to actually get a chance to hang out with Erik Benson, who I think is now a full Werewolf convert and hopefully a solid new friend. Colleague Simon Willison also deserves a mention for being unusually but stunningly hopeless at the whole thing.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about or why this was so much fun and so worth talking about, then can I advise you to run to any environment where you get to play a few rounds with smart people. I believe there was one such place over the weekend at BarCamp. Hopefully this should mean that an appetite for more games will emerge in the UK, that we can start moving towards the creation of a local regular Werewolf event in the UK and that in the end we’ll all be able to participate in the proposed “World Series of Werewolf” – an idea that’s time has clearly come…

Conference Notes Technology

Some thoughts about FOO and elitism…

I’m going to try over the next few days to capture retrospectively my FOO experience in a little detail. I didn’t think I’d have enough time to do it, but it turns out that when you’re trying to avoid writing your talk for major conferences in the US there’s no end to what you can accomplish (as long as it’s not in any way related to the talk in question). So my flat’s almost completely clean, I’ve scanned in every photograph I own into Flickr, I’ve ordered food, and done lots of washing. I’ve caught up on a month of back e-mail. I’ve even cooked, for god’s sake, and I never do that. It makes sense that the weblog should get some much-needed attention in the process.

But before I get into the substance of the event I wanted to stick my oar in about some of the FOO elitism arguments that have been roaming around the Valley recently. I’m not going to comment on my personal beliefs on why Dave Winer was not invited – that’s between Tim and Dave – and in fact you can read some of Tim’s reasoning on Om Malik’s site that might give some clues, but I do think the whole thing is rather overblown and here’s why:

Everyone who attends FOO feels honoured to be there, but let’s be clear – invitation-only events happen all the time in the tech industry. There are more conferences and seminars happening in and around Silicon Valley than there are days in the year. And any individual or company is free to start their own event and invite whomsoever they choose. I went to a Microsoft Social Research Seminar earlier this year with a lot of the smartest people in that part of the industry and no-one batted an eyelid. If all events were invitation-only then I might have some more concerns, but they’re not. It’s never been easier to show off your great work in the industry and have it seen, nor to find places to show it off to people who will respond to it. I find it ridiculous that anyone can look across the valley to Sebastopol – past MIcrosoft, Apple, Google and Yahoo! – and somehow come to the conclusion that O’Reilly have their iron grasp on the creative direction of the Internet and are leveraging a couple of hundred person camping trip to cement it. I just don’t buy it – and as a consequence I’m pretty sure that the arguments that protesting FOO is about the misuse of power or influence or propriety or something are just bunk.

Another thing I’ve heard expressed is some concern that FOO is some kind of power-brokering Web 2.0 dark-masterplan dominance play, but I can only say that in my experience it’s quite the opposite – the value in FOO is not in bringing together the powerful in order to assert control, but in the cross-pollination of disciplines. It’s about meeting people who are talking about brain imaging and hacking, seeing the robots playing football, listening to the sociologists and chatting to the people who grow diamonds in their cellars and are trying to build tricorders. It’s about stepping out of your worldview for a minute and seeing a larger picture. Confounding yourself. That’s why there are ten talks going on at any given time and why some of them get barely one person attending them – because it’s an event based on multiple voices rather than establishing a consensus. I think anyone who came to the event looking to assume their rightful place in the cadre of the dark cabal running Web 2.0 would be more than a little disappointed by the general lack of interest in playing that particular game. Unless I went to the wrong sessions, of course. Which is quite plausible. FOO seems to me an oddly and beautifully innocent event. I’m sure people do business there, but it does generally seem to be more about genuine enthusiasm and excitement about technology than these larger questions of politics.

But still the charge remains that it’s the same old group of people who wander in and out of the event each year, and I’m afraid I don’t buy that either. I was lucky enough to go last year – my first and I thought at the time plausibly my last opportunity – but this year was completely different. There were something like three times as many people at the event this year, which means necessarily a couple of hundred new people were there. If that doesn’t convince you, then maybe you’d be convinced by Tim’s assertion that one model they were considering for next year would include none of the people present this time. I don’t don’t know if they’d make such a severe change – and I’m obviously deeply hoping that I get invited again next year – but there does generally seem to be a committment in O’Reilly to find a way to bring in lots of exciting new people. Again, I don’t buy that it’s the old guard. And I’m unconvinced by the idea that only the powerful and influential get invited. I’m pretty sure Jeff Bezos would still be there if that was the rule, but that wouldn’t explain why they let me in.

No, FOO is a great experience but a necessarily limited one – and what people should be thinking is how can they learn from it to create a variety of other events, private or public, invitation-only or free-for-all that keep a vibrant culture moving forward. The Bar Camp people – for all their initial hostility to FOO – have actually stolen many of its best elements and made it their own – ad hoc and fully open gatherings of creative nerds. It’s a different experience but it’s an exciting and complementary one. I just wish more people had followed their lead.

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
Conference Notes Talks

Heading to Amsterdam for XTech 2006…

In about six hours I’ll be heading off to XTech 2006 with team-mates and fellow speakers Paul Hammond and Simon Willison. I’ll be doing probably my final run at Native to a Web of Data in public before I write it up finally and stick it on the internet. The pitch is as follows:

“The web is changing from connected pages to a web of interconnected data sources, and the consequences are likely to be enormous. A new ecosystem of dirty semantics and structure in the wild is emerging that rewards every entity within it both creatively and financially ‚Äì making the Aggregate web much more than the sum of its parts. But what are the architectural elements of the emerging web of data and how can you design and build services that thrive in this environment? What elements of our practice need to change and which ones need to return to the fundamental principles of the web? And how do we actually bring it all together to make something awesome?”

Paul’s going to be doing a talk called An open (data) can of worms which is a rather more pragmatic overview of some of the problems getting data out of organisations and into the hands of real people. And Simon’s all over the shop, talking about or chairing sessions on The Yahoo User Interface Library, Ajax Lightning Demos and Django: Web development on journalism deadlines. I can tell it’s going to be good by the way they’re both sitting opposite me at this moment, writing frantically and looking a bit tense.

And that’s just the start! There are all manner of people from my current and previous employers doing interesting talks. Mr Biddulph’s going to be doing an overview of his work putting up the BBC programme catalogue using Ruby on Rails, Jeffrey McManus (who heads up the Yahoo Developer’s Network) is going to be talking about building a participation platform and – most excitingly for me – Tristan Ferne’s going to be talking about The Annotatable Audio Project that we got started at the BBC [Read Original Post]. I’m really looking forward to seeing how far they’ve taken that one and whether it’s likely to get out in the open any time soon.

Business Conference Notes Net Culture Social Software Talks

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!?

Conference Notes Life

Back to London and Changing Media…

Phew! And I’m back in London and this is basically the first opportunity I’ve had to put my head above water since. I’m ploughing through a backlog of e-mail from stuff I’ve not had much of a chance to deal with over the last month or so, finishing off scraps of work so I can close their respective GTD loops (I never finished the book, too busy) and looking at the wastelands of my nearly finished weblog posts and ever expanding to do list and thinking about how much of it I can hope to get done over the weekend. So much of my life at the moment is about getting back to zero. Other people seem to get much more done across a much wider range of territories without getting so swamped. Or they hide it better. Or they lie.

So what’s happened since I’ve last been online? Er. Good question. My one hour of sleep was followed by several hours in Newark, a seven hour flight getting back to my flat around 10pm on Sunday evening. And then a few scant hours later I was on stage at the Guardian Changing Media Summit in London’s fashionable Victoria. As Ben Hammersley’s utterly charmless portrait of me indicates, I had the jetlag sweats and grumps and could only concentrate due to the significant amount of adrenalin in my system. Here’s a more flattering Mirror Project-alike photo that I took later in the day in the excitingly lit lifts:

I’m generally having a bit of trouble getting my head around what happened at the Guardian Sumit, but I get the impression that it was a strange event – it felt a lot like the people who had prophesized the dot-com crash last time around (and were secretly delighted that their more traditional media had won through against this weird interloper) had been brought to the event a little against their will – having finally realised that a boom and a bust doesn’t conceal the more general, solid and underlying push in the same direction. The day seem strangely retro and a little bit grudging – or maybe that was just the audience. As I say, I have a pretty bad sense of what actually happened, so I could have got the whole thing completely wrong.

One thing I said during the Social Media panel that seems to have confused a few people was that I mostly have no idea what on earth people are talking about when they use the term social media. This may seem like a terrible confession (and I think some have decided to take it in that way), but I think they’ve slightly missed the point a bit. I’ll write more about that later, but my main issue was simply that the term seems to be being used as a badge for pretty much anything that someone wants to talk about and make sound contemporary. Online community as a term has disappeared, social software seems out of vogue (is media the natural progression) and social networks are quite 2004, but social media as a term is everywhere. And depending on who is using it, it seems to mean everything from mainstream media owners adding new ways of engaging with their consumers, through to standards like community and social networks, all the way through to You Tube, Flickr and weblogs. It felt like there was a pretty weird diversity of opinion on the panel as well. Very confusing.

I don’t think I’ve seen a term so indiscriminately used – I think it’s even more bastardised than social software was at its worst. But I’ll write more about that another time – I have the basic transcript of what I was planning to say at the conference written down somewhere, and I’m sure I can drag the whole thing into some kind of order over the next couple of days.

Otherwise the conference was most notable for me as an excuse to catch up with some of my favoruite people – Hammersley, Neil, Suw, Paula Le Dieu, Sasha, Hugh and a whole slew of old BBC R&Mi types like Sarah Prag, Dan Taylor and Chris Kimber. And I got to see Simon Waldman (unusually grumpy, I thought) and Adam Curry‘s hair – which was totally Smashy (and Nicey). And I had Vietnamese food. And then couldn’t sleep until nearly 3am.

Cut. Cut. That’s enough for now. Too much to do. Roaming off for a bit. I’ll leave you with the most terrifying part of the last few days – working out why my phone had stopped working while I was in New York. Apparently roaming data is even more expensive than I thought it was. That’s five hundred pounds I’m not going to get back in a hurry (mostly spent on a month of trans-Atlantic Flickring). Not good. Very scary. Not doing that again.

Conference Notes

Veen & JJG at ETech 2006…

I’m in my first session for ETech 2006 – watching Jeff Veen and Jesse James Garrett talking about Designing the next generation of Web Apps:

An insight that I’ve gained from the session so far – that there have been two kinds of people in the world – people who think of the web as a browsable information resource and those that have tended to view the web as analogous to a desktop application. Jesse made a point that really reminded me of something dumb I wrote about weblogs a while back – that the web is being framed in terms of things that people have known before and that we’re still determining what the web actually is. And what it’s gradually revealing itself to be is neither (information resource / application) and yet both. It’s something new which we have to craft for in a new way. Very much liking that – it’s like the distinction between document and application has collapsed and is now being rebuilt and reconfigured from the ground up. Very nice indeed. Lots of nice thoughts coming out of that…

Conference Notes

A visual representation of my Carson talk…

Tom Coates, Yahoo: Designing Web 2.0-native Products for Fun and Profit

By way of an attempt to get slightly more on topic for a moment, I thought I should probably link through to this awesome mindmap representation of my Carson talk that Larsz put up on Flickr the day after the summit. He’s done one for the other talks too, and they’re pretty good summaries. More of this stuff, please, internet! Ways of quickly digesting information without having to attend talk are always good. More specifically, if you could find a way of getting me summaries of my talks before I’ve written them that would help an enormous amount!

Conference Notes

In which Foo blows my head clean off…

So the whole FooCamp experience has ended, and frankly it’s been pretty astonishing. It comprised roughly a hundred and forty potential talks to go to across ten rooms, assembled in an ad hoc fashion on the Friday night. Some of the talks were amazing because of who was there, some of them were amazing because of what they were about, some of them were frankly so far beyond my expertise that I smiled and nodded at the right points hoping that I wouldn’t get found out and asked to leave. Even the stuff that was in itself not terribly interesting became interesting because of the people who were present and who were able to take up the baton and run with it in new directions.

It’s absolutely clear to me that the whole reason for the event is the people and therefore the opportunities for creative collision and friction. As such, it has a tremendously collegiate non-competitive feel to it, with everyone believing that the best way to make great things and change the world is to share ideas and learn from each other. As Danah has said, it’s incredibly depressing and conflicting that this kind of event just doesn’t scale well enough to let in all the people who should be there. I’m more than aware that there are hundreds of people in the world who would have had more to contribute to this event than I, and I was surprised to be invited and was humbled by the stature of many of the other participants. I think Danah kind of hints at something interesting when she talks about the parallel BarCamp, and about the nature of competition and alternatives. Perhaps a competitive market in collaborative events could be a way to achieve fairness – or maybe that makes the divides wider. Maybe it’s impractical to think about collapsing heirarchies, and we should instead be proliferating them wildly – cut in all kinds of different directions, removing a sense of one embedded power structure and replacing it with hundreds of parallel, orthogonal ones. I don’t know – scarcity of time, attention and resource have always been problems and we all have a responsibility to try and work out ways to alleviate them. In the meantime, all I can say is that FooCamp was a hell of an experience, and one that I’d delighted to have been able to attend.

My favourite sessions were on BitTorrent and the future of media (Bram Cohen), Technologies of Co-operation (Howard Rheingold) and on the nature of Web 2.0 (Tim O’Reilly) but it was definitely the stuff that went on outside the sessions that really blew my head off. The conversations I had with the guys from Odeo and with Doug Kaye from IT Conversations were wonderfully engaging and useful. And I think I can see some really interesting opportunities for collaboration after long involving and exciting conversations with Jimmy Wales. More on that another time, when we’re a little further down the line with it. It was also great to see Dan Gilmore again, and to now be in a position to think about how I might be able to get something going between him and the BBC. It was also great to finally meet Andy Baio – with whom it seems I have something new in common – and to get more time to go to Taco Bell with Josh Schachter! Everyone gets Tacos! Everyone’s happy!

And the games! And the toys! A couple of years ago I noticed on Barbelith that people had started playing a game known as Warewulf or The Mafia Game. Here’s the begining of one of my favourite instances of the game in action on the board: Mafia 2: The Early Years. I enjoyed the spectacle so much that I even persuaded Cal to start working it up into an online game based around messageboards. The Barbelites even played on the new system a couple of times to test it. Eventually, we ran out of time on other projects and it got shelved. But nonetheless, I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with the game – even though I’ve never had the opportunity to play it live.

Well all that changed this weekend, with up to thirty of the most impressive people I’ve ever met staying up until four or five AM to play Warewulf with each other. It was tremendously good fun with HB Siegel, Chris DiBona, Jane McGonigal and Don MacAskill shining particularly brightly. It would have been even more enjoyable if they hadn’t decided so often that the game was really called “Kill the Brit”.

And the Segways – well what can I say. I mean, I’m a Londoner – I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen a Segway in the flesh until this weekend, let alone played with one. But they could barely get me off them, as this photo (taken by the redoubtable Dave Sifry) should illustrate:

Anyway, that’s enough from me for the moment. I’ve got lots of things I want to write up and talk about over the next couple of weeks, but for now I have too many meetings to go to and things to chase. So for now, that’s your lot.

Conference Notes Gaming Technology

Supernova '05: Byron Reeves on MMORPGs…

It’s difficult to articulate how busy I’ve been since Supernova – what with servers falling over and jet-lag and work and general calamities. All of which probably explains why I’m still writing up Supernova notes almost two weeks after the events themselves. And I’m afraid, having lost an extremely detailed draft of several sessions yesterday because of a problem with my lovely Powerbook, I’m going to have to start being a little more concise about the whole thing.

Which is a shame because the presentation I want to talk about now – by Bryon Reeves on MMORPGs and the nature of ‘fun’ – was one of the two or three major highlights of the conference for me. In my last draft of this piece (unfortunately lost) I wrote in quite a lot of detail about the experience of attending conferences and how little time it takes to become (over-) familiar with the major issues of the day. But occasionally, you can get something really special and unexpected emerging – when you can gain greater insight from someone from a parallel discipline applying their techniques to your problems.

So Reeves stands up and details an experiment. Two groups of people are individually placed into some kind of brain/CAT-scan kind of device that measures electrical activity in different parts of the brain. They are presented with a game with no win-state – two circles on a screen, one of which is controlled by our subject. One group of subjects are told that the other circle is controlled by another individual, the other group are told that it’s automatic – computer-controlled. In fact, the circle will move in exactly the same way for both groups of people.

But the mental activity is completely different. The group that believes the circle on the other side to be a distinct social actor have considerable activity in the parts of their brains that handle social interaction. What does this demonstrate? Reeves says that it proves that MMORPGs are not places which can be understood merely via human/computer interaction, but require approaches that understand that the computer is mediating between social actors.

Now this blew me away, I’m afraid. It blew me away because – although it proved something that should have been obvious – it also got me thinking in all kinds of new directions around solipsism and artificial intelligence and stuff. Like for example, the significance of what you believe is going on in how you interpret (which makes me curious about how well we’ll interact with apparently sentient actors that we still know are computer-generated), and it made me think about how you might conjure up an alternative version of the Turing test to assess exactly how unlike human beings an artificial intelligence is. (In a nutshell – one implication of that particular experiment is that human beings couldn’t tell the difference between human and computer agency when their interactions were so heavily truncated. So maybe you could create a whole set of environments where the ability of other human agents to interact was heavily restricted and run them against bots interacting in the same space. By quantifying the levels of interaction you could – presumably – create some form of multi-axial scale for the assessment of intelligences…)

The specifics aside, the reason I was blown away by this talk was that it made me think not only about massively multi-player games and ways of employing interesting interfaces – it employed the study of MMORPGs in a way that gives you more perspective on people themselves. And – quite personally – it coincidentally managed to touch on a lot of the subjects I was really interested in during my incomplete doctoral work in a completely different area – tracing patterns of pleasure and identification in ancient and modern drama…

Reeve’s next point: People who were able to choose their own avatar in first or third-person games experienced more arousal / fun than those who had them randomly assigned. Which triggers all kinds of questions for me – how are the people using these avatars? Are they fantasy figures? Do they tend to resemble the person who chooses them? Do they resemble their real-life heroes? Are they idealised versions of a person’s self-image or aspirations? Are they vehicles for the expressions of different paths or parts or attitudes of an individual? What does it mean to play an evil character? And what about playing cross-gendered or animalistic characters?

And this in turn makes me think about role-playing, cosplay, sexual game-playing, furries, transvesticism and a whole variety of other areas where an individual’s identity is up for examination or articulation or expression. Which in turn leads you into other areas that are harder to study – reactions to novels, and characters in novels (for example). Is there a function of books that makes it easier to ‘choose your own avatar’ than a film? What kind of brain reactions do people get when they’re watching a film or reading a book and relating to characters than they do when they’re playing a game? In this space, the game could be an easily mutable and adaptable key for unlocking a whole range of experiences around identification, fantasy and role-playing. Awesome stuff.

The position of the camera (1st person vs. 3rd person) creates significant differents in arousal – with third person generating the greatest amounts. Reeves’ comments around this one were particularly encompassing and interesting – suggesting that being able to move our own personal ‘camera’ away from our bodies would have been a great evolutionary response (although difficult to accomplish), that in third-person perspective being able to see people around and behind your avatar generated accelerations in heart-rate. My own personal reaction was that perhaps the third-person view better resembled our own hypothesised continual sense of our environment, but I didn’t have the opportunity to ask about this.

The richness of the media – and the quality of the imagery – has significant effects on the brain, with more vibrant imagery resulting in greater ‘mirroring’ in the brain. This one interested me because – again – of the opposition to the sensations and experiences of reading books. Which things are being stimulated differently, and why, between those two media?

Narrative context has a significant effect on how much pleasure / arousal people get out of their games – it’s definitely arousing to shoot people in a game, but it’s far more arousing to be in a game where you know the background, the narrative – where you know why you’re shooting them. I tend to think this is probably a pretty universal sentiment – most human thought tends towards the narrativistic – with causality and the hypothesisation of motives and narrative arcs making it possible to impose some form of meaning onto the world.

A whole range of simple statements that between them conjure up a lot about gaming, but also lead you in all kinds of exciting directions when you’re thinking about people in general – and the nature of what it is to be human. All fascinating stuff.

The second half of Reeve’s paper looked at some conditions that made a particular thing ‘gamelike’ and how you could harness the enthusiasm that people had for games in other contexts. He cited the following qualities/attitudes in gamers which you could attempt to meet in worklike environments (his comment – “don’t underestimate fun – engagement has a demonstrable ROI”:

  • ‘Failure doesn’t hurt’
  • ‘Risk is part of the game’
  • ‘Feedback is immediate’
  • ‘I’m used to being the star’
  • ‘Trial and error is the best plan”
  • ‘There’s always an answer’
  • ‘I can figure it out’
  • ‘Competition is fun (and familiar)’
  • ‘I make bonds beyond my near-group’

I think my favourite example he cited was really near the end – and was concerned with embedding real work into games. He talked about how in Star Wars Galaxies, characters have to get jobs to earn money that they can then spend. And to get jobs they have to develop skills. So they embedded real-world work into the mechanisms that allow you to develop your skills. They placed images from cancer screens into the games – some with cancerous cells visible, and some without. To develop to another level in the game you had to start determining the difference between these scans. And it turns out, where a normal doctor is around 60% accurate in spotting cancer in one of these screens, you can get the same quality of answer – the same level of scrutiny – by simply exposing the same image to thirty normal game-players aspiring to the Doctor in-game skillset. There’s an enormous amount of possibilities there in brute-forcing a lot of work that requires human judgement but can be learned by pattern.

Fascintating stuff – and a great talk… My full notes are here: supernova_reeves.txt