Advertising Net Culture Personal Publishing Technology

What has been killing my server?

Today I was at work when Barbelith went down. MySQL errors everywhere, the community in uproar, IMs and e-mails. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough to do. So I explore in more depth. First step, see what’s actually happening on the server – so I launch Terminal, ssh in to the Barbelith Superserver over at Pair, find the directory with my logs in and type in tail -f access-log. Immediately, I see each request coming into the server in roughly real-time, scrolling down the page like I’m looking at The Matrix. Unix is not my strong-point, so thanks to Simon for that little trick. It’s moving too fast for me visually get a grasp on what’s going on, but I start seeing some recurrent patterns after a minute or so – HTTrack, which I do a quick search for and turns out to be a piece of software that you run on your computer to download complete versions of someone’s website. Given that Barbelith contains nearly six hundred thousand posts across twenty five thousand threads (each paginating ever forty or so posts), this is not a small job. And given that the software is dragging down a bunch of pages each and every second, it’s not really a surprise that the MySQL server was having some trouble.

So I banned the user’s IP for a bit by adding a couple of lines to my .htaccess file and waited for the site to start working again. But no luck. Exploring the database through the PHPMyAdmin interface that Cal set up for me, I note that all the activity has resulted in one table in the database getting corrupted. So I dig around online a little longer, and work out how to login to MySQL directly through the Terminal and run a repair table command and hope for the best. It all seems to work. Everything’s back to normal. Cheers all around. I’m very proud of myself.

Except then half an hour later the site is down again. This time it’s so bad that people can’t even connect to my server at all. Every site that I run off the server is completely inaccessible to the outside world. and Barbelith stop working obviously, but also other little-known ventures like Everything in Moderation and bought-for-fun-after-seeing-a-Penny Arcade strip-and-maybe-taking-the-joke-a-little-to-excess are out of action. I can’t even ssh in to my server any more. I can’t send urgent support e-mails to my hosts, or receive replies to them. I am, to all intents and purposes, dead in the water.

I ring them up – half a world away – to find out what’s going on. They’re initially mystified – MySQL is running so hot it’s a wonder that the rack-mounts aren’t melting. When they try and login, the server basically falls over completely. A forced restart, and I hold my breath a little. When it comes back, they dig into the logs and it becomes immediately obvious to them what’s going on. Hundreds – thousands – of requests every minute for a file called mt-comments.cgi – the part of Movable Type that deals with incoming comments to my weblog. My entire site has been quite directly, and clearly spammed to death.

So I’ve had to make a short-term choice while I explore my options in more depth, between a site with no comments and no site at all – and I’m afraid the answer is no more comments, at least for the time being. I’d been thinking of looking into Akismet, but there’s simply no point. That still means that MySQL is going to be dealing with all this crap-peddling evil purpetrated by money-grubbing parasites, and that means regular meltdowns. I’ve come to wonder whether the problems I’ve had with MySQL errors on Barbelith over the last couple of years have been more to do with comment spam than anything else, and – while I want to make it clear that in no way do I blame Six Apart or Movable Type or anything and while I’m sure there’s a way out of this situation – it has started to feel like having the mt-comments.cgi script sitting on my server is like having a bullseye painted on my chest. In the meantime, any advice people have on how to deal with this kind of activity would be very much appreciated indeed. Would moving to Typekey authentication only help? Should I be looking into throttling on the server? Can anyone help? The e-mail address (I’m afraid) is tom at the name of this site – or you can write your own post and link to this one and I’ll find you via Technorati.

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!

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 – 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.)

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 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.

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!?

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 Then I’d barely have to write anything at all…

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.

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 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…

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 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.

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…