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Who's afraid of Ashley Highfield?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaming Social Software Technology

Self-reflexive rulesets in online communities…

It’s Tuesday morning and I’ve been in Seattle since Sunday evening at this year’s Microsoft Social Computing Symposium and frankly, I’m completely braindead through jetlag. I’m barely hanging on to intellectual coherence by my fingernails. Sunday evening I got about three hours sleep in total, last night a roughly similar amount. The quality of the event has been pretty high so far though, and I’ve met some fascinating people but I’m really not firing on all cylinders. Ross Mayfield’s taken a few chunks of notes, and most interestingly I’ve met some people with a similar interest to me in reflexive political models in online communities, including one guy who wants to build something very similar to the place I want Barbelith to become -online in an MMORPG. I finally got around to post up some of my earliest ideas around this subject on the Barbelith wiki a year or two back under the Tripolitica heading, but basically it goes a bit like this:

Imagine a set of messageboards, each with their own clear identity and each with a functioning moderation system based around a pre-existing political structure – one Monarchic, one Parliamentary Democracy and one Distributed Anarchy. Each of these political structures has been generated from one abstracted ruleset, and each component of that ruleset can be – in principle – turned on or off at will by the community concerned. Moreover, the rules are self-reflexive – ie. the community can also create structures to govern how those rules are changed. In other words, members of those communities can choose to shift to a different political model, or can develop their own by incremental improvements of changes to sections of the ruleset to allow moderators or administrators or normal users to create the ‘laws’ that govern how they inter-relate.

This self-reflexive component would operate with a bill-like structure – ie. an individual would be able to propose a new rule or a change to an existing rule that then may or may not require some form of wider ratification before it becomes ‘real’ and starts empowering or constraining the citizenry of that board.

When a new user joins the community, s/he is presented the current political structure of each one and from that point chooses a board to be affiliated with. S/he is then part of the population of that community and can rise up through the ranks (if there are ranks) and participate in the functioning of that political community. This goes right down to the creation of different parts of that commnuity, how the various parts of the community inter-relate with one another and who can post what and when.

Each community will have its own strengths and weaknesses – some will no doubt go horribly politically wrong and have power seized by mad administrators, but hopefully others will find their own kind of political equilibrium after a while – and maybe that political equilibrium could be a good model that could be genericised and used as a more common and rigid platform for new online communities that aren’t interested in the emerging rule-set component. That is to say, maybe we can evole a better system for handling debate, discussion and power relationships in messageboards and other online community spaces and games. Of course, for that to happen, the ruleset has to be sufficiently politically abstractable that new arrangements could emerge that didn’t initially occur to us during the creation of the ruleset and the reflexive process has to be comprehendible to real users.

Some sample bills:

  • Anna proposes a bill:

    Junior members to not be able to create threads

  • Bill proposes a bill:

    Administrators to not be able to change user roles.

  • Charles proposes a bill:

    Junior members to be able to create posts. Action will require ten ratifications from Moderators, Administrators, Normal Members. One disagreement can veto.

  • David proposes a bill:

    Moderators to be able to edit abstracts. Action will require three ratifications from Moderators or Administrators. Three disagreements will veto.

  • Edgar proposes a bill:

    The User Responsible to be able to change their own display name. Action will require no ratifications.

  • Fiona proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to be able to Unblock Users. Action will require 60% assent from Normal Users polled over 24 hours.

  • Gavin proposes a bill:

    Normal Users to not be able to propose bills. Action will require a 51% decision of all users polled over a 6 hour period.

I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts around this stuff.

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!?

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.

Social Software

A design gripe…

I’m loath to complain in public about a service that I love so much, but I do not understand why’ submission form doesn’t limit the amount of characters that you can input into it. Instead, you’re left to work out later that whatever you’d written had been cut off automatically at a couple of hundred characters to fit into the database. This must be the simplest thing to fix, surely? I can only assume there’s a good reason for not fixing it that I’m missing. Can anyone help me out here?

Design Navigation Social Software Technology

On Metafilter's folksonomic subdomains…

I’m going to move on quite quickly back onto something way way less embarrassing and mainstream back into the boring semi-beating heart of one of my pet work-related fetishes, the folksonomy. In particular I thought I’d talk about a new development over on Matt Haughey’s Metafilter, written up on Metatalk. Each post on Metafilter can be tagged folksonomically by its author when it’s created – so when I write a post on trees, I can add a few keywords like trees, plants and leaves to make it easier for other people to find them later. What Matt has added recently is a different way to get nice easy to browse sharded versions of Metafilter by making it possible for people to use tags as a sub-domain. So for example, now at is a kind of ‘treefilter’. And at is ‘plantfilter’. And so on…

My first reaction was extremely positive – I think it’s a great idea to help Metafilter serve more constituencies to provide what amount to multiple homepages. And I love the idea of using tags elegantly to create new ways to browse around and explore sites large content sites. In fact a few years ago I spend a fair amount of time hassling Matt to start regional metafilters for people of different cultures and backgrounds, arguing for a version of the site for the UK or London or a On Regional Metafilters and Matt Haughey wants me dead). This tag format makes that actually practical – there actually is a now and a And it’s interestingly extensible in all kinds of neat directions.

But there’s something troubling about it for me, and I think it’s the idea that now a single thread on Metafilter can have a great variety of URLs. The current top thread on is called Sieg Whaaat? and it’s URL is But now, suddenly, it also has twenty other URLs including, and

Now I know that various search engines can compensate for content displayed the same in multiple places, but it’s got to affect Google rankings or any solid concept of one addressable web-page per resource on the internet. And even if it doesn’t affect the big players too much, it’s inevitably got to screw up all the other smaller services that use URLs to identify resources. How will Technorati or handle this stuff now? How will you be able to aggregate annotations or comments upon a thread in Metafilter in a coherent fashion without making it some kind of special case?

It’s such a shame really, because there’s a hell of a lot of potential here. Really what you want is some way to make these homepages as useful as they are without carrying the URL structure through into the individual thread pages. It seems clear why he hasn’t done this, of course – if you want to keep someone within a conceptual sub-site like then you have to change all the links contextually around the page to make it seem like a coherent site – on the destination pages as much as on the indices. And that means either some form of cookie-like approach that keeps track of how you found a link, or something in the URL. The former approach doesn’t work so well because it means that you can’t easily send someone a URL and be sure they’re seeing the same thing you saw. You might be recommending a great page on a site about gardening, only for them to see it as a generic and intimidating entry on Metafilter central. The latter approach creates URLs that either proliferate versions of the same page, or are full of query strings (which are somehow less definitive in their addressing of a page).

All in all then, I applaud the intent a lot but think the implementation is profoundly broken. Unfortunately I can’t think of a solution.

On a related note, though, the whole tagging thing is starting to get me really excited because it kind of makes whole database schemas quick to upgrade and you can add loads of fascinating functionality really quickly. Imagine, if you will, that any thread started in a sub-domained area includes (by default) the tag for that area. It doesn’t do this at the moment, but it could do so really easily and could start generating nice feedback loops.

Or take it in a completely different direction – get rid of tags from the subdomains and instead put in tags that represent languages. So you create a form of tags which operates as a key:value pair with a code something like lang:english or lang:francais and then present a default English homepage to Metafilter with links to and on it. You then encourage people to post links in French on the latter one, and automatically tag each of their posts with lang:francais as you do so. This would create real meaning in the subdomains and would keep the URL space nice and tidy. To browse a sub tag then, you’d have a URL like, with all the threads within that area given URLs like

Business Social Software Technology

In which Yahoo! buys…

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

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

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

Social Software Technology

A quick thought about collections in Flickr…

Frivolous post, this. A desired feature for Flickr would be to be able to add public photos to groups and pools without the user having to join the group in question. That would make it like Amazon listmania stuff, which is an enormously cool way of collecting interesting metadata. I mean, let’s be honest – if someone can link to them individually on their weblogs, then they should be able to make a collection out of them. It would be neat. Maybe you could slap a quick proviso – “X user wants to add your photo to the collection Y – yes / no / [x] always use this option” – or something.

I suggest this after discovering a dark and evil (and very very funny) primal need to collect together the best photographs of much-missed friend and former colleague Cal (in costume) – a set of photos which would bring out his true majesty and greatness. I miss you, dude – and I’m really looking forward to hanging out in a week or so. Please don’t break my legs:

Social Software Technology

On 'The State of the Weblog Nation (2002)'…

The early UK weblogging community was really focused around a couple of core mailing lists (UKBloggers Social and UK Bloggers Discuss) which subsequently fell apart, probably as a result of meddling in the structure by myself and Mr Morgan. The list spawned well-documented blogmeets – the earliest of which was in early 2000 – which themselves triggered the beginning of a vibrant, real-life community of people who worked, played, lived and occasionally slept with each other (as well as regularly colliding with the cult I look after at Barbelith).

Over the next couple of years, the community kind of fragmented as core people ran off back to their home countries or got involved in work or broke up acrimoniously. Some of the original people ponced off to another list called vodkajelly and plotted behind the scenes, before that too gradually evaporated under other life commitments. And alongside, parallel weblogging communities – many of which had never heard of UK Bloggers – started to emerge. Most of the people who were there at the beginning are doing pretty well for themselves, and are still friends. But we don’t see each other as much as maybe I’d like.

Anyway, a few months ago I was reminded by one of my partners in early UK weblogging crime, Ms Meg Pickard how much fun it all was, and also how ahead of the times we occasionally were. She reminded me in particular of an e-mail that I’d sent to the list suggesting a UK weblogging festival, which I’d written after many discussions and bits of trouble-making with Meg and people like Cal and Mo and Davo, and pointed out both how self-indulgent it was and how similar elements of it were to conferences that appeared years later.

So anyway, I thought I’d republish it here for the purposes of nostalgia and to reference youthful enthusiasm. It’s kind of lame and embarrassing, but it’s also kind of fun, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t think again of what an event for and about webloggers might be like. Think of it as a rambling, infantile starter for ten, and feel free to shout out below any thoughts it inspires (other than the obvious ones concerning slapping or getting a life). There are minor edits for language and formatting because I was much more of a potty mouth in my late twenties.

From: Tom Coates
Date: 2 July 2002 23:20:11 BDT


Being a day in London organised by some people – possibly us – designed to be a celebration and parody of weblog culture (such as it is) for the benefit of all oppressed webloggers and weblogging shareholders world-wide, designed to be a laugh and based around encouraging participation from every single weblogger we can lay our arsehole handmitts on – featuring:

  • invited american webloggers and international weblogging stars/whores…
  • DAVE FUCKING WINER (we can do this… I’m sure of it)
  • warbloggers
  • serious panel discussions and presentations:
    1. News of the people – what will the shape of weblog aggregation be in
      a few years time?
    2. Broadband blogging – what else of our lives can we possibly put
      online, and why the hell would we want to..?
    3. What have we done?! what the hell has weblogging done to the
      internet? is it good, is it bad – who the hell do we blame?
    4. Weblogging Utopia – how has weblogging helped the disenfranchised and
      the oppressed?
    5. Shape of the future – what’s the potential next step in weblog-tech –
      what will weblogging be like in five years time – what functionality
      could transform weblogging into something more X, Y or Z? What’s to come
      AFTER weblogging?
  • panel discussions and presentations from (shorter, more funner ‘n’ shit) – examples… (imagine 70s style Open University lessons on Hydrocarbons and Calculus)…
    1. Writing “the most boring weblog in the world….”
    2. Blog love – a powerpoint presentation about two noomeejawhores
      brought together by puters…
    3. What to write when you have nothing to say… by several old-time
    4. Lying on your weblog – the path to daypop?
    5. Why nothing else in the world matters but fucking weblogs…
    6. Backslapping wank – a presentation on non-reproductive sexuality, by
      Tom Coates…
    7. The weblog path to successful self-promotion…
  • debates… each one half hour long… Two people stand on stage and pitch opposing positions for five – ten minutes. Audience asks ten minutes of questions. Audience vote on the replies and EVERYONE HAS TO STICK WITH THEM ALL YEAR… (or at least pretend they are going to…)
    • “Grouchy” vs “Happy” – What should be the mood of weblogging for
      2003? – Representing ‘Grouchy” – Mr MOOOO MOOOOORGAN… Representing
      ‘Happy’ – MR … er … oh I don’t know, we’ll think of something…
    • “Pointless” vs “Pointful” – Tom Coates vs Anyonewho’spreparedtotakemeon
    • “Short posts” vs “Long Posts” – Cal Henderson vs Meg Pickard
    • “Blogger” vs “Greymatter” vs “Moveable Type” vs “Mothra”
  • ongoing polls through the day, with voting from the floor in an exciting fashion…

AND MY FAVOURITE FEATURE… Vote for the leaders of your weblog nation… People are forewarned that they can come representing a particularly political party who wish to rule weblogland – at the beginning of the day each one can get up on stage and declare their policies for ruling weblogland (“READ MY LIPS! No more green weblogs!”) and then can canvas and campaign throughout the day – and then the final
event of the day is the voting for the party that will lead weblogland for ALL ETERNITY. We’ll get some dodgy Americans over and people like Cory Boing Boing, or Megnut or Winer and stuff – it’ll be great…

Things we need:

  • a venue
  • some money
  • Matt Jones’ sponsored Wireless networking of some kind…
  • A/V equipment, projector
  • a guy covered in post-its who can be a living ‘weblog’
  • – a rousing rendition of “WE ARE THE WORLD” at the end…
Social Software Technology

In which Google Base launches…

Right. Now. This is interesting. Google Base has launched and is both pretty weird and pretty interesting. The concept is fundamentally pretty simple – it’s almost like a completely open content management tool where you can post a recipe or a personal profile or a classified ad or whatever kind of thing you want. The item is then added to the internet as a standalone page – A recipe for Beef & Broccoli Over Shells for example. You can then contact the poster and navigate through similar items by tags (here called ‘labels’) or search through the complete database to find events, jobs, news, products, reference articles or whatever other type of data you want to define and submit.

From a personal perspective, I don’t quite get it – there’s no obvious reason I can think of for an individual to post a recipe to the service – but from a business perspective it’s really interesting. Basically it’s a complete circumvention of the problems with the Semantic web which abandons decentralisation and microformats completely. If your company has a database of things (whether that be products or pictures or weblog posts or news articles or whatever) that it represents on the web, then Google Base suggests that you should not wait to be spidered and nor should you expect them to do all the heavy-lifting to work out what your site is about. Instead, you just bulk upload all your data to Google directly and associate each entry with your corresponding page on the web. Google get an enormous amount of new useful data to organise and present to people, while the businesses or start-ups that use the service get new interfaces created for their content, and a greater findability and navigability for their data, products and services. And when Google creates an API for the service, suddenly every data source that uses them has an API as well. That’s pretty astonishing.

It’s not all positive for the businesses or start-ups, of course. It consolidates the idea of Google or a parallel search engine as the definitive place to find out information of any kind (rather than the local brand that you usually associate with events, restaurants or whatever). And that kind of corresponds to a larger question about whether Google is gradually and systematically eating the web. And I think there are larger problems too – the lack of any form of solid identifiers that will indicate whether you’re talking about the same film or book (in the review space at least) seems to me to be am issue. But generally it’s pretty interesting.

Which brings me to a fun challenge to my old employers. My old colleague Mr Biddulph (who has been freelancing for the BBC for a few months) and Mr Hammersley (of RSS, web services and utilikilt infamy) have been working on a representation of the BBC Archives Infax database for a few months. They’ve written about it in two pieces: The BBC’s programme catalogue (on Rails) and Hot BBC Archive Action. So why not make this content more explorable and searchable (and help define the way the web understands TV and radio programming) by bulk-submitting the entire massive database to Google Base? That would be an extraordinarily interesting move…

A couple of other interesting pieces: