Categories
Humour Net Culture Television

Cybermen are Human 2.0?

According to Doctor Who, the Cybermen are Humans 2.0 (or more specifically, Human Point Two, which… means… very little). But I protest! I’m not sure Human 2.0 means anything at all! It’s just a stupid buzzword.

Of course it all started with that famous talk from ETech 2004, Is there a robot overlord in your future?. Then there were all those rumours about Dean Kaman showing a new invention to Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, and them riding around on it for hours. And then the subsequent stories about Steve Jobs’ skin slipping off at Apple Keynotes and his new mission to “Crush humanity beneath the heal of the Cyber Leader forever“…

And then – of course – Tim O’Reilly had to create a bloody conference. I mean, seriously! Can’t people see this whole thing is just a buzzword!? It’s just a craze! There’s no substance to it at all. All fluff.

My personal opinion is that it’s just some way of getting some more money invested in the eradication of the human race after the whole World Conquest crash of the late nineties. I mean, sure – we’ve had some hard times recently. Daleks defeated in the far future. The whole Time War and everything. But this kind of shallow attempt to market a slow evolution in science as an end to all human freedoms is just wishful thinking and it has got to stop! I mean, can you believe it?! O’Reilly have even produced a bloody book!

Face it guys, there’s nothing new here that the Slitheen, Autons, Sea Devils or Microsoft haven’t tried a million times before. There’s no substance to it! No great evolution in zombification, no super-guns on the moon eradicating parallel universes. I’m not even sure I’ve seen a stomping moonboot! Hype. Hype. Hype. Hype. Hypey-Hypey Hype-Hype.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve decided to ignore this whole cycle, bury my head in the sand and not pay any attention to all my friends disappearing until such a time that I actually see a Cyber Leader erasing the leaders of this world with some kind of sonic blaster. And then, shortly after I’ve finished celebrating, I will finally be convinced. But not before! This I swear on the databanks of my enslaved robot family until the final years of this tiny crushable human civilisation. So there!

Categories
Gaming Net Culture

On wanting to stop wanting 'World of Warcraft'…

There’s a command in World of Warcraft that tells you exactly how long you’ve played with your active character and how long you’ve been playing at your current level. All you have to do is type /played into your chat prompt to find this information out. If you’re a regular player of the game, I think you should go and do that now. Don’t worry. We’ll wait. It’s sort of important.

I’ve had World of Warcraft for almost exactly six months now, which – coincidentally – is pretty much exactly how long I’ve been working at Yahoo. I bought the game in my week between jobs, while I was supposed to be recovering from the BBC and thinking around my personal projects. Buying WoW pretty much killed off that idea straight away. I think on one day I played from around nine am until three the following morning. The week evaporated in moments.

So I typed in /played over the weekend and I got back the figure of fifteen days and four hours for my main character – another nine hours for my second. Fifteen days solidly. That’s three hundred and seventy three hours of immersion in Nordrassil when I could have been doing something else, something more useful.

Let me give you some context there. Imagine playing WoW was my second job, which is how it has felt at times. Thinking in terms of eight hour days and five day work weeks, I’ve played the game for roughly two and a half months. And that’s on top of the day job. It’s no wonder that the weblog has slipped. More alarming still is that even though I’ve played it for that length of time, I’m still only level 51.

The question then, is how to stop. And not how to stop in the simple, “I’ve got a problem” kind of way. Let’s be clear – my day job has not suffered, my relationships are just as screwed up as they normally are, but no worse. But I’m starting to resent playing as much as I’m keen to get up to level sixty. I regularly get this sense of time passing just a little too fast, and even though I know that the time I spend playing WoW is not time that would immediately translatable into rebuilding Barbelith or learning how to develop in Rails, I’m increasingly aware that I want to stop wanting to play, even if I am prepared to let that process of detachment be a gradual one associated with some sense of completion.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the option to ‘just stop’ isn’t interesting or practical. I have this idea for a way to bring in some kind of honest scrutiny from outside about the time I spend playing WoW. It’s pretty simple, and also pretty cool. World of Warcraft has a set of APIs and can have mods developed for it using a language called Lua. There are a great many of these mods – mostly concerned with giving people better access to spells or dealing with the Auction Houses, but the ones I’m most interested in are the ones that fuel sites like Thottbot that capture information about what you’re doing in game and dump them to a central server – almost like a gaming version of last.fm – creating aggregate value out of the smallest of engagements. The aspect I’m most interested in is the fact that they can communicate outside the game to servers in the real world. Which makes me wonder why there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of weblog integration or posting mods.

What I want is a badge of some kind I can put on my site that exposes to the world how long I’ve been playing, and how long recently. I think maybe by putting this in public I can start to adjust my own perceptions of what is an appropriate amount of time to waste in this manner. Just a little badge – a strip or a button that I can deposit on the page that means I get occasional raised eyebrows and comments on IM or when I’m down the pub. Anything really that exposes me to the judgement of the masses. Does anyone know of such a plug-in? If I (grudgingly and a long time after the fad died) invoked the Lazyweb – could anyone write one?

(The thing that this whole experience has driven home to me is the difference between illusory value – fighting for artificial scarcity – and actual utility. I wouldn’t be feeling in the slightest bit ashamed of the way I played in game if I knew that one of the reasons I was doing it was the repopulation of the Amazon rainforests, or to help improve – or even perform – cancer screenings. It’s the sense of enjoyable work and creativity with no intellectual or physical byproduct either than a slight headache. There’s something fascinatingly wrong with that.)

Categories
Family Net Culture Technology Television

Is the pace of change really such a shock?

I’ve got Matt Biddulph staying with me and been hanging out with Paul Hammond a lot recently again and since they’re both ex-BBC colleagues, we’ve inevitably found ourselves talking a bit about what’s going on at the organisation at the moment. And it’s a busy time for them – Ashley Highfield and Mark Thompson have made a couple of interesting announcements that contain a fair amount of value nicely leavened with some typical organisational lunacy and clumsiness. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is this, which is a link that I’ve already posted to my del.icio.us feed earlier in the day and will turn up later on this site as part of my daily link dump. For those who don’t want to click on the link, here’s the picture:

Now this is a photo taken in the public reception area of BBC Television Centre, but I want to make it really clear from the outset that you shouldn’t be taking it literally or seriously – it’s a prop, a think piece, to help people in the organisation start think about the issues that are confronting them and start to come to terms with it. It has, however, stuck in my head all day. And here’s why…

The apparent shock revelation of the statement – the reason it’s supposed to get people nervous – is because it intimates that one day a new distribution mechanism might replace broadcast media. And while you’re reeling because of that insane revelation and the incredible insight that it contains, let me supplement it with a nice dose of truism from Mark Thompson:

“There are two reasons why we need a new creative strategy. Audiences are changing. And technology is changing. In a way, everyone knows this of course. What’s surprising – shocking even – is the sheer pace of that change. In both cases it’s faster and more radical than anything we’ve seen before.”

So here’s the argument – that perhaps broadcast won’t last forever and that technology is changing faster than ever before. So fast, apparently, that it’s almost dazzlingly confusing for people.

I’m afraid I think this is certifiable bullshit. There’s nothing rapid about this transition at all. It’s been happening in the background for fifteen years. So let me rephrase it in ways that I understand. Shock revelation! A new set of technologies has started to displace older technologies and will continue to do so at a fairly slow rate over the next ten to thirty years!

I’m completely bored of this rhetoric of endless insane change at a ludicrous rate, and cannot actually believe that people are taking it seriously. We’ve had iPods and digital media players for what – five years now? We’ve had Tivo for a similar amount of time, computers that can play DVDs for longer, music and video held in digital form since the eighties, an internet that members of the public have been building and creating upon for almost fifteen years. TV only got colour forty odd years ago, but somehow we’re expected to think that it’s built up a tradition and way of operating that’s unable to deal with technological shifts that happen over decades!? This is too fast for TV!? That’s ridiculous! This isn’t traditional media versus a rebellious newcomer, this is a fairly reasonable and incremental technology change that anyone involved in it could have seen coming from miles away. And it’s not even like anyone expects television or radio to change enormously radically over the next couple of decades! I mean, we’re swtiching to digital broadcasting in the UK in a few years, which gives people a few more channels. Radio’s not going to be fully digital for decades. Broadcast is still going to be a dominant form of content distribution in ten and maybe twenty years time, it just won’t be the only one. And five years from now there will clearly be more bottom-up media, just as there are more weblogs now than five years ago, but I’d be surprised if it had really eradicated any major media outlets. These changes are happening, they’re definitely happening, but they’re happening at a reasonable, comprehendible pace. There are opportunities, of course, and you have to be fast to be the first mover, but you don’t die if you’re not the first mover – you only die if you don’t adapt.

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention. Because if we’re honest, if you don’t want or need to be first and you don’t need to own the platform, it can’t be hard to see roughly where this environment is going. Media will be, must be, transportable in bits and delivered to TV screens and various other players. And there will be enormous archives available that need to be explorable and searchable. And people will create content online and distribute it between themselves and find new ways to express themselves. Changes in the mechanics of those distributions and explorations will happen all the time, but really the major shift is not such a surprise, surely? I mean, how can it be!? Most of it has been happening in an unevenly distributed way for years anyway. And it’s not like it’s enormously hard to see what you’ve got to do to prepare for this – find a way to digitise the content, get as much information as possible about the content, work out how to throw it around the world, look for business models and watch the bubble-up communities for ideas. That’s it. Come on, guys! There’s hard work to be done, but it’s not in observing the trends or trying to work out what to do, it’s in just getting on with the work of sorting out rights and data and digitisation and keeping in touch with ideas from the ground. This should be the minimum a media organisation should do, not some terrifying new world of fear!

I think this is the most important thing that these organisations need to recognise now – not that change is dramatic and scary and that they have to suddenly pull themselves together to confront a new threat, but that they’ve been simply ignoring the world around them for decades. We don’t need people standing up and panicking and shouting the bloody obvious. We need people to watch the industries that could have an impact upon them, take them seriously, don’t freak out and observe what’s moving in their direction and then just do the basic work to be ready for it. The only way that snails catch you up is if you’re too self-absorbed to see them coming.

Categories
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 – plasticbag.org – for nearly seven years now and I’ve been running an online community at barbelith.com 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, del.icio.us 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 del.icio.us 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, del.icio.us, 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!?

Categories
Gaming Net Culture

An update from Nordrassil…

The weirdest thing about my weblog is that I rarely write about what I’m doing at work, and normally write about the stuff that’s going on in the wider web and that I’m up to in my spare time. Except that at the moment I’m pretty much only doing three things – trying to catch up on my e-mail and get organised for a long upcoming business trip, getting my head around Yahoo! and playing World of Warcraft. So I was thinking maybe I should be telling you what I’ve been up to in-game… I can’t imagine that would be an enormously fascinating read, but it does occupy a fair amount of my spare time. Maybe it’s not such a great idea…

Well, just in case you care – this is Pentheus (Level 43, Human Warlock), who is currently down in Stanglethorn Vale (Nordrassil shard) dealing with pirates and trying to get crystals out of Basilisk corpses. He’s recently managed to become an Artisan Cook and Enchanter, and has secured a flaming Felsteed as a mount. He’s now trying to get enough stuff together to improve his tailoring skill and has his heart set on a Soul Shard bag. He currently looks like a bit of an idiot, but the hat’s got a certain amount of dirty power to it, so what can you do.

Meanwhile, Andromache (my Level 8, Human Priest) is roaming around the icy wastelands around Ironforge, looking for herbs and trying to avoid getting stomped on by wolves. She’s spent much of her time so far sitting in Stormwind by the Auction House waiting for materials sent in by the internal mail from Pentheus to trade, but has recently decided to strike out on her own. Good on you, girl!

Both are members of the understated guild known as The Union, should you care even the slighest bit. Please feel free to say hello if you’re roaming around and happen to stumble upon one of them roaming around the place. In the meantime, I’m afraid the weblog will continue to suffer being the unfortunate third in my life to my two main masters – work and killing stuff for swag. I wish I could post automatic monthly progress reports to my site from the game. That would rock. Also my monthly favourite songs from last.fm. Then I’d barely have to write anything at all…

Categories
Design Navigation Net Culture Social Software Talks Technology

My 'Future of Web Apps' slides…

Right then. My slides. I’ve been trying to work out the best way to put these up in public and it’s been more confusing than I thought it would be. Basically, the slides are so Keynote-dependent and full of transitions and weird fonts that it would translate very badly to Powerpoint – and with no one having the fonts, the presentation would look pretty terrible anyway. So I’ve decided to put it out there in two forms – both simple exports of a slightly adapted version. If you want the PDF it’s here: Native to a Web of Data (16Mb). If you’d rather view it online directly, then I’ve used the export-to-HTML feature (which I’m beginning to suspect might kind of suck a bit) to produce the likely-to-crash-your-browser-with-its-hugeness Native to a Web of Data.

The biggest question I’ve been asking myself is whether or not it’ll make any sense as a standalone presentation, and i’m afraid to say that the answer is sort of. Without my notes there are great chunks where I’m afraid you’ll have to make pretty substantial leaps to keep the thread of the thing, which is hardly ideal. What I should really be doing is writing the thing up in a more logical thorough and coherent way, but I’m not sure I’ve got the mental agility to do that at the moment. So enjoy it in as much as you are able and I’ll think about writing it up over the next few weeks.

As usual I have to preface all of this stuff with the normal disclaimers. The views presented in this presentation do not necessarily represent the views of my employers.

Categories
Net Culture Talks

On the upcoming Carson Workshops summit…

Quick announcement – I’m going to be talking at the upcoing Carson Workshops summit on The Future of Web Apps on the 8th of February in London. It’s a one-day conference for developers and web application builders that’s going to be focusing in on some of the technologies and ideas that are foundational to the web that is to come. It’s got a pretty stellar group of people speaking – Joshua Schachter of del.icio.us will be talking about tags and how useful and important they are, David Heinemeier Hansson will be talking about Ruby on Rails, Douwe Osinga will be talking about Google Labs, Eric Costello will be talking about Ajax and developing for Flickr, Steve Olechowski will be talking about Feedburner, Shaun Inman will be talking about Mint and APIs and Ryan Carson will be talking about Web 2.0 business models and dropsend.

I’m down to talk about UI, but I’ll be talking about design in its widest possible sense – drawing together a lot of the thoughts that I’ve been having while working at the BBC and at Yahoo! on what the future of the web will be like, what ideas will flourish in that environment, on site structures and navigational ideas that work as part of a wider web of data, about identifiers, addressability, modularisation and data structures as well as various other thoughts about how to build for iterative design processes. If it sounds unformed at the moment it’s because I’m really working around the territory to start drawing a few years of stuff together into a coherent picture, some of which I’ll be writing up before the event itself.

If any of that sounds interesting, then there are still some seats available – but not that many. So if you’re interested in coming and having your brain blown off, then get your act together and sign up today. And if there’s any thoughts you’d like to share with me about this future and what UI means when not all the users are human, then please feel free to stick your oar in below or send me e-mails to tom {at} the name of this website, as ever…

Categories
Net Culture

The Gardeners of the Internet…

So a few days ago I wrote about my irritation at stumbling upon registration screens at the New York Times and how I wasn’t going to bother reading things they wrote any more. Well, that turned out to be untrue – I clicked on a link and there was an article at the other end of it (rather than a registration screen) and so I read the little bugger ’til pure sweet knowledge dripped down my chin – as if I’d been chowing down on some kind of ultra-ripe infopeach. It was an exhilarating experience and one that I’ve missed. I miss you New York Times.

Anyway, the article was about Google, ego-searching and the past. The article featured Anil Dash wearing a Goatse T-shirt and was called, “Loosing Google’s Lock on the Past”. You will notice that I’m not linking to the story in question. It turns out that while I’m prepared to read something that I know will shortly go behind a registration screen, I’ll be damned if I’m going to force other people to go through the whole palaver. So I’ll just summarise instead – the article is about people who don’t feel that they are well represented by the results that Google provides when people do a search for their name. These people feel exposed – even horrified by this external body’s objectified misrepresentation of their complexities, triumphs and flaws. They want these impressions fixed, they want their web representation to more adequately fit their understanding of themselves.

When I read the piece, I came to the conclusion that fundamentally it was a story about people who have been linked-to inappropriately and were suffering as a result. It seemed like a story of people who needed the only kind of help that only a weblogger could provide – honest and impartial reference, with the right keywords and a wodge of pagerank behind them. And I considered myself ready rise to this challenge and help them (or hinder them) by effectively referencing sites that – after a little research – I thought seemed fair or representative. I felt that this would be doing my tiny duty as a “Gardener of the Internet”.

But the more I explored the subject, the more I started to wonder whether it was actually possible? I started to realise that there were some common threads between the people and their stories that explained their situations. Maybe the problems didn’t lie at Google’s door at all…

The article starts with its author complaining about the photo that comes up when you do a search for her name on Google (Google Image Results). There’s a simple solution to this kind of problem – find another photo on another page where she’s mentioned and link to it. But after looking across a number of search engines for about half an hour, I couldn’t find any other pictures of her at all. Step one to having good photos appear on Google Images? Have good photos of yourself on the internet. Conclusion: I failed to make Stephanie Rosenbloom’s life better, but is the blame at Google’s door? No.

Next, Wendy Barrie-Wilson’s positive review from Variety is apparently buried in lots of more negative reviews. My first reaction – if there are lots of negative reviews then maybe they’re deserved. But on further investigation, it rapidly becomes clear why her positive review can’t be seen – it’s because Variety – much like the New York Times – requires you to register before you can bloody read anything. Of course this cripples a site like Google – if it’s harder to read an article, then less people will link to it. And if Google can’t see the article at all, then it’s going to be way harder for it to determine what it’s about! Surely this is obvious?

So what can I do? Well I can do my best – so here’s a link to the Variety review of The Glass Menagerie featuring Wendy Barrie-Wilson even though it won’t do any bloody good. And to try and redress the balance a bit, here’s the transcript of the Variety interview from Wendy Barrie-Wilson’s own site. Conclusion: Wendy may blame Google for her review not showing up, as may the New York Times, but the real perpetrator is registration-required websites – sites like the New York Times itself. I’ve done what I can, but it’s not a lot.

Next up, Gentry L Akens II – who wants to be known for his work as a production designer and art director for the Nickelodeon television shows “Gullah Gullah Island” and “Taina” and for “The Mickey Mouse Club”. Ironically, the first result for a search on his name is another article by Stephanie Rosenbloom called Bummed about your Google image from Seattlepi.com. After that is his rather sparse IMDB record. There is not, it must be admitted a lot of stuff here about his work with Nickelodeon.

Te more I’ve investigated this one, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two major issues here. Firstly, the number of potential variants of his name will cause problems for any search engine. Are people who meet Mr Akens going to remember to type in the middle initial and the ordinal at the end, or are they just going to type in Gentry Akens? But secondly, and more importantly, there seems to be a significant difficulty in finding any pages about his work with Nickelodeon on the internet at all – after all, a search engine can only show you a page that exists. (It’s worth mentioning that MSN’s search engine came back with rather more satisfying results for Gentry Akens, however.)

Nonetheless, this has been the most successful of all my attempts to weave in a little extra meaning into the great search fabric of the internet, because I am able to link to a piece on Gentry Akens’ work on Daddy-O which mentions his work at Nickelodeon and some coverage of an FMPTA Space Coast Meeting where Gentry Akens was brought in as a guest speaker. Hopefully, these pieces will now be given incrementally more focus on Google. Conclusion: A paucity of material about Gentry’s work was probably more of the problem than Google’s algorithms, and this can be simply solved by putting up some material – but it’s worth mentioning that other search engines seemed to have less difficulty in this particular case. I got to help a little bit, which was nice…

So all in all, after making efforts to help three people who have taken aim at their self-representation on Google, all I can really say is that the fault doesn’t lie with Google at all. Instead the search engines are simply reporting the paucity of information on the internet about these people. Stephanie Bloom is absolutely correct in saying that a way to fix these problems is to self-represent or to put more out in public – to add to the internet rather than to try and take from it. It’s an accretative body, where a picture emerges out of an infinity of parts – each component can only ever have a fragmentary perspective. It’s the addition of new information that balances out the Badly-designed websites. It’s the addition of new imagery that alleviates the horror of one disappointing representation. We have to give up the idea that our representations online can be so totally massaged and controlled, because – ironically – the best way to be represented fairly online is to give up on the assumption that your self-representation is the best one.

But there’s another and more fundamental change that we have to face as well. This is not a change in the way we self-represent, but instead a change in the way we judge others. We have to get past this moment in time where the user of a search engine is comfortable to base their impressions of another person on the most slight and fragmentary piece of evidence. We must get used to the idea that the people around us are more varied and extraordinary than we’d currently believe. The flip-side of getting a multi-faceted picture of a person is that we’re going to be exposed to much more of the roundness of an individual’s life. We need to be able to evaluate information, contextualise it – to learn to be questioning and patient. The information that comes to our fingertips when we type in someone’s name is not ever going to be complete. It’s never going to be perfect. Even with webloggers trying to make things better: there are not enough gardeners for everyone.

Categories
Net Culture

Old news: Firefox in the New York Times…

Final old news entry of the night, I think. It’s 1.30am and frankly I’m not as young and spritely as I once was. So anyway a while back I linked to a hooji whereby you could get your name in an advert in the New York Times by donating some money to Firefox. My link read as follows:

Help promote Firefox by getting your name in the New York Times $30 a shot gets you a name in the New York Times advert as well as helping the open source community and encouraging real human beings to use the best browser on the PC (although not necessarily on the Mac)

Long and the short of it – they ran the advert a while back. It looked great, did the job (see some stats on browser usage) and indeed my name and the names of my web-lovin’ peers around the world were all dutifully recorded. I feel quite proud about the whole thing, in a vaguely dumb and clumsy way. You can read all about the advert at the spread firefox site, or – if you’re particularly weird – you can just have a quick glance at the tiny part of the advert which has my name on it:

Well I thought it was neat…

Categories
Net Culture

Graf report published…

The Graf report – the independent review of BBC Online – has just been published. Despite the fact that I’m basically on holiday today, I am now going to start reading it in earnest. I’ll probably knock out a summary of the key points later in the day, but in the meantime I’m going to keep the most pertinent quotes below. Be warned – this is likely to be a very long post, and only really of use if you want to get a quick sense of the material suggestions in the Graf report:

Ultimately, if BBC Online is to continue to operate in content areas that go beyond traditional programme support, the Board of Governors or whoever regulates this service will have to exercise some fine judgements. They must do so, and be seen to do so in a rigorous, open and fair minded way. (Page Six)

When asked how much they individually valued the BBC internet site, 18% of the sample said ‘very much’ or ‘quite a lot’. This grew to 36% of 16-34 year old internet users. Also, when respondents in our audience research were made aware of the amount of their licence fee invested in Online (approximately 3%), most respondents, including light and nonusers of BBC Online, felt that this sum was fairly insignificant. They considered that the opportunity presented by BBC Online, to access BBC resources in more depth and at their convenience, represented value for money. This was a similar finding to public responses at a Board of Governors Seminar in early 2003. (Page Six / Seven)

The remit and the strategic objectives, which guide BBC Online, should be more clearly defined around public purposes and/or programme-related content and should be clearly communicated to the public and the online marketplace. I recommend that:

  • The BBC considers aligning online services to the framework for online public purposes and strategic priorities, as outlined in chapters 8 and 9
  • BBC Online must actively seek to engage and communicate its purposes and strategic objectives to its audiences and the wider market
  • BBC Online continues to act as a home and guide to the internet for those who require it; it must however develop a more consistent and transparent approach to linking to all relevant sources (commercial and public) and ensure that its search tool prioritises user experience over BBC content
  • The remit and strategic objectives should be directly underpinned by a financial and performance measurement system, which clearly links the BBC’s remit and strategic objectives, through BBC-wide new media objectives down to divisional priorities. This improved clarity should work to encourage focus and further efficiencies

BBC Online should be clearly distinctive from commercial offerings. The quality of a particular service, however high, does not constitute distinctiveness per se. At times, it seems that BBCwide Online goals are not effectively transmitted to actual delivery – for example, goals of distinctiveness can lose out to the day-to-day realities of competitiveness and, in some cases, there seems little real difference between BBC Online and its commercial rivals, apart from advertising content. [particularly highlighted: What’s On / Linking Policies and Homepage design]

Given that search is becoming such a fundamental part of how the internet is used, it is worth keeping a publicly funded, UK competitor in the market place. The size of the BBC site means that it needs an internal search engine in any event; a condition of also providing a worldwide web search facility should, however, be that it is reorganised to provide a truly independent capability, i.e. not one that favours BBC sites. (Page Ten)

In future, therefore:

  • BBC Online should prioritise news, current affairs, information of value to the citizen, and education. Within these areas, it should prioritise innovative, rich, interactive content
  • I believe that it is legitimate for BBC Online to provide online Sport content. As a public service provider the BBC should, however, prioritise sports news, programme support, the major listed events, and the provision of material on minority sports, with an emphasis on encouraging participation. It should not be competing for other online rights, unless linked to broadcast ones
  • The BBC has a role as a home on the internet for those who wish to have a safe guide and introduction to the web. To fulfil this role properly, however, the BBC needs to rethink a number of areas within BBC Online, including the purpose and layout of its home page, its site navigation, its links policy, and its search engine

I, therefore, recommend that: The BBC sets a target of, at least, 25% for online content (excluding news) supplied by external and/or independent suppliers by the end of the current charter (Page Twelve)

The technical delivery of BBC Online is of a high standard. For example, BBC Radio Player, which enables users to access their favourite radio programmes or missed interviews within a two-week window has boosted radio listener numbers, and it has been met with broad consumer approval. If additional costs can be managed, the BBC might encourage more users to access rich, audio/visual content by the use of alternative streaming products, such as Windows Player and associated codec, or an open source alternative. (Page Twelve)

The BBC should continue to develop a ‘new relationship’ with users through more extensive engagement in community/user-generated content, which would further deploy the capacity of the medium to provide opportunities for interaction between users and producers. (Page Thirteen)

The present management structure of the BBC, however, can make it difficult for an outsider to engage constructively with the organisation. Its operational structure reflects the relationship of New Media to the BBC’s Television and Radio divisions, as well as to its central policy and strategy units. BBC Online’s resulting matrix management structure has encouraged ‘360’- commissioning, and more coherent internal budget and strategy setting processes. It can, however, also create a culture and organisation that, at best is confusing and, at worst, is a recipe for dodged responsibility when dealing with third parties. (Page Thirteen)

In practical terms, a precautionary approach means that, if there is a ‘close call’ between the public service benefits of a proposed BBC Online service and the costs of that service, the proposal should not be taken forward. If the governors take this approach, they will be wary of any proposals for new online services that are not accompanied by a reasoned judgement on market impact. (Page 14)

With respect to any positive market impact of BBC Online, although it is clear that BBC Online will have stimulated some internet take-up, the evidence that this has been (or will be) a significant impact is weak. (Page 15)

Page impressions are an industry standard (in the commercial sector), which describe, or at least give some indication of the pattern in consumer demand. The BBC News website’s page impressions have grown from 21.6 million page impressions per month in December 1998 to 187.6 million in December 2002. However, any assessment of the impact of BBC Online’s news and information services presents challenges, in so much as which metrics are capable of giving a fair and meaningful description. Whilst the only consistent year on year metrics for BBC Online are page impressions, they only provide a description of how many pages have been delivered to users rather than how many individual users (or ‘unique users’) the site has, or any sense of the ‘stickiness’ of the site in terms of time spent. (Page 19)

BBC Sport online has, as an example of the impact of these types of services, reported an increase in page impressions from 33.2m to 92.8m between December 2000 and December 2002, and it now reaches 17% of the UK internet universe. Factual evidence alone, however, cannot accurately illustrate this objective’s impact on audiences. The review’s audience research revealed users and non-users alike were surprised at the extent of information and features on topics that did not necessary align with BBC broadcast programming.

The BBC has also used a number of technological solutions to enable users to access programming relevant to their interests at any time, from across the networks. For example, the BBC’s Radio Player, which streams live and archived radio programming, has been a significant step in the BBC opening up its audio archives (now available within a seven day window). It should be noted that the provision of streaming services, such as the BBC Radio Player which provides live and archived material, is a relatively complex technical process and, as a consumer proposition, constitutes a new and innovative technology-based service. However, the BBC Radio Player primarily relies on users using a single streaming application, provided by Real. Such downloads can deter new or inexperienced internet users and, on the BBC site, users cannot in most instances choose to use an alternative steaming application such as Windows Media player, which is pre-installed on any computer with a Windows operating system.

The review’s audience research presented some reservations about the design and ease of navigation from the BBC Online home page. Users, other than the very inexperienced, tend to be goal orientated, seeking to find a specific service or information as quickly as possible, but members of the public found the BBC Online homepage too cluttered and that it did not adequately serve as a guide to the rest of BBC Online. They did however find that the navigation within specific genres such as News and Radio was generally effective, particularly when indexes were kept concise and sites used minimal graphics, which they felt could unnecessarily slow download times. (Page 25)

Applications developed by the BBC, such as DNA 26 have also enabled user-generated content to be more stimulating for the user and more efficiently managed. The current growth in web log usage also allows users to contribute richer content (e.g. to news stories) in the form of text, pictures, and audio and video clips.

MORI research, conducted for the BBC, found that 7% of UK users were encouraged to go online specifically by the BBC 30. However, more detailed research would need to be undertaken to establish whether the BBC had played a key role in developing skills or building confidence.

News, education, provision for minority communities, and developing users’ confidence and skills base in new technologies reveal themselves to be the service’s key priorities. (Page 31)

There would seem to be, at best, a lack of understanding of BBC Online’s core purposes by the wider market, and at worst, an unnecessary adverse impact on their investment priorities due to other providers loss of trust in BBC management’s intentions. Such lack of understanding and trust would not be surprising given that there is some evidence to suggest that even within the BBC, the online service’s limitations are not consistently well understood. Whilst pseudo mini ‘E-bay’ sites for the sale of junior football kit or downloadable mobile phone ‘Ring tones’ may be quickly withdrawn by central editorial policy, their very emergence would suggest that Online’s remit is so broad that it risks being at times mistaken for universal. (Page 31)

Reach is a key means to ensure that increasing numbers of licence fee payers can derive some value from the BBC’s online services. This strategic goal does, however, risk the BBC being perceived by commercial operators as an aggressive, and unfairly advantaged competitive force. Submitters to the review also argued that the BBC’s current inconsistent approach to linking, the prominence of BBC Online results in its search engine, and the low level of joint venture or externally commissioned projects have compounded this impression.

The review’s discussions with BBC staff made clear that, at a senior level, content divisions have an acute sense of their responsibility to make a ‘good’ judgement as to an appropriate balance between popular services and those that more obviously provide public service value. For example, whilst Sports feel they have a responsibility to provide up-to-date, impartial sports news, they also have an obligation to provide some entertainment and encourage participation in sports (for example, through Sports Academy). This strategy of case-by-case judgement has not, however, been actively articulated or discussed with the wider market, and the Board of Governors seek the public’s views on a particular service’s success in this regard on only an ad hoc basis. (Page 34)

BBC Online’s survey of users in early 2003 revealed that approximately 22% of users were from outside the UK 40. The BBC has developed geo-locators that can, with reasonable success (particularly for broadband content), re-direct overseas traffic to the BBC’s internationally facing site, which is funded by the World Service (and subsequently Grant-in-Aid rather than the licence fee). However, until such tools can guarantee 100% accuracy, and there is no risk of licence fee payers being blocked from reaching BBC content, more stringent measures have been deemed unworkable. Members of the public who took part in the review’s research were also not unduly concerned that non-licence fee payers were able to access the content and indeed, many felt proud that the UK had such a good advocate of the British nations on the internet. Some users were also appreciative of being able to access BBC content when abroad themselves, on holiday or on business. (Page 37)

Targets relating to ‘reach’ and consumption appear as priority targets throughout the period under review. The apparent prioritisation of reach as a target for BBC Online, particularly during the services rapid build has been interpreted by many competitors as evidence of the BBC’s fiercely competitive drive to gain audiences to the disadvantage of other commercial content providers. The BBC has argued that a reach target is essential to ensure public value is maximised. The BBC’s current reach target is based on users reached amongst the UK internet universe, rather than as a percentage of licence fee payers. (Page 38)

Submissions to the review made clear a sense of cynicism towards the Governors capacity to sufficiently challenge BBC management’s advice and strategic priorities for BBC Online. The dramatic growth in BBC Online’s budget, content genres and capabilities were cited as evidence of a service that been allowed to develop under a culture of ‘imperialism’, unfettered by careful consideration of the public value or market impact. (Page 39)

It is the nature and purpose of the BBC as a public-sector body (funded by the licence fee) to affect the mix of services consumed, and nature and conduct of other suppliers involved in the markets concerned. Thus, it might create economic changes or alleged ‘distortions’, or ‘crowd out’ private enterprise and investment. Such effects are inherent to public provision. (Page 41)

The KPMG report estimates that BBC Online may have reduced the total expenditure on UK online advertising by around ‘5 million per annum (out of an estimated total of the order of ‘200 million). However, while this figure has been the subject of significant dispute, its relationship to the public interest has not been established. We have not seen any reason why an online advertising market worth ‘X million per annum is any better or worse for the public interest than an online advertising market worth ‘Y million per annum. Some commercial operators have sought to demonstrate that BBC Online has an adverse market impact by showing that it diverts audiences and thereby revenues away from their own businesses. However, we found no reason why a consumer’s decision to use a BBC Online service rather than a commercial service should be considered in itself to be a factor operating against the public interest. (If BBC Online attracts audience in a way that has an adverse impact on competition this would be relevant to the assessment, as explained below.) (Page 43)

A common complaint about the BBC is that ‘the playing field is not level’. BBC Online has considerable competitive advantages derived from its access to licence fee revenues, and the cross-promotional and other resources that are connected to the BBC. If the BBC wants to provide certain online services it will almost certainly be able to do so, and does not need to receive any user revenues in order to justify its investment. However, genuine though they obviously are, and even though they might have adverse effects on competition as discussed below, these advantages do not preclude effective competition in the markets supplied by BBC Online. Effective competition does not need a level playing field. For instance, in the context of television the BBC competes against ITV1, Sky One and many others, and competition for audience appears generally effective despite the BBC’s funding advantages.

The development of the BBC’s online activities may also affect competition in other types of markets, such as those for technology. For example, the BBC’s principal choice of Real Networks’ proprietary audio and video encoding and streaming technologies means that consumers wishing to access the BBC’s online multimedia content will generally need to download and install RealPlayer on their computer. This feature could be considered to increase competition in markets for encoding software (on the grounds that other online providers can rely on the existence of a significant UK user base with access to RealPlayer, as well as to Windows Media Player which is pre-installed on the majority of computers), or to damage such competition (on the grounds that other/new encoding technologies are shut out from the market and cannot match either Microsoft’s or Real’s ability to establish a significant installed user base).

However, any potential adverse effect on competition arising from a requirement for Internet users to install RealPlayer in order to access BBC Online content would only exist if there was no alternative way for users to access substitutable content, which is to say in connection with a relevant content market in which BBC Online was in a dominant position. In these circumstances, competition law would place a special obligation on the BBC to avoid such a lessening of competition (as it would amount to an abuse of a dominant position).

For example, the existence (and editorial strength) of The BBC News website may have deterred newspaper publishers from introducing subscription charges on their online news websites, and thereby precluded investment in enhanced or specialised services on these sites, such as better archive searching tools and/or personalised news delivery services that would produce a genuinely customised online newspaper. At the current stage of market development we observe a mixture of free, registration-only, pay-per-view and pay-subscription models for online news content, which suggests that managerial decisions over appropriate business models could be a close call. For this reason, the impact of BBC Online, with a deep and wide supply of free news content, seems capable of having affected such decisions, and therefore of having affected the business models currently applied. In this way, BBC Online might have prevented ‘focused’ competition in these value-added and/or specialist services, and instead forced all UK mainstream news providers to compete with the BBC and with each other in broader online news markets. This outcome can be contrasted with professional business and financial news, where BBC Online does not operate and commercial providers compete in supplying a range of high-value-added subscription services. (Page 54)

Whilst these examples indicate that, in theory, BBC Online may have lessened competition in a range of online content markets, commercial stakeholders did not provide robust evidence (such as business plans or strategy papers) that could support these hypotheses. It has been put to us that the impact of BBC Online is so large that many investment ideas never get off the drawing board. This factor could reconcile the lack of evidence with the hypothesis that BBC Online has a significant deterrent effect.

Whilst this review did not uncover incontrovertible evidence that BBC Online has lessened competition in online and related markets, the level of concern among commercial operators and the inherent plausibility of the mechanism can be taken as an indication of the probability of future impacts of this nature. These impacts may be caused both by BBC Online’s supply of online content markets and by its supply of wholesale content markets. (Page 57)

Increased broadband and 3G access speeds and new compression technologies are already allowing a faster transfer of data to PCs and mobile handsets and this trend will accelerate over the next five years. Average broadband connection speeds will increase rapidly, permitting the reliable delivery of high resolution streaming and the rapid downloading of near-broadcast quality video. Mobile handsets will also become viable mainstream devices for downloading and consuming content, as hardware (including processor, storage, and display features) and software develop ‘ although such services are unlikely to become widely available at ‘massmarket’ prices for several years. These developments will make the Internet a genuine potential ‘third broadcasting medium’ for BBC content and services. BBC Online already provides live and archived (from the previous week) access to all of the BBC’s radio services, which can be consumed via a narrowband (at a tolerable sound quality) or broadband connection. Over the next two to three years, it will also become perfectly possible for many Internet users to stream or download full-length BBC television programmes (as opposed to just video clips); within the next five years, the majority of mobile devices will be capable of receiving and storing live and archived BBC radio (e.g. the ‘Chart Show’) and limited television (e.g. news bulletins; comedy clips) services. (Page 60)

The growing popularity of audio and video services over the Internet makes them a central component of future online service offerings, from a consumer point of view; as such, these services will be an area of core strategic importance for the BBC (and its competitors) in the coming years. As a publicly funded content provider, the BBC must strive for the optimal balance between distinctiveness, on the one hand, and audience reach on the other ‘ as well as the ability to influence the overall market. The provision of an appropriate level of audio and video services will be an important element in achieving this balance, and in preserving the attractiveness and relevance of BBC Online in the future. (Page 61)

More to come… (Sorry about the length – I’m really just pulling out the stuff I think is immediately pertinent and I know there’s a fair amount of it). I might filter it down a little later, or embolden the stuff that I think’s particularly interesting.