Our Social World

[The following marathon post is based on live notes made at Our Social World, re-edited for context, readability, and for something to do on the train. It's more of a rundown than an opinion - the added value will follow in later posts!]

The experiment begins - WiFi-enabled laptop hastily acquired and at the ready. First thoughts are that the audience is, frankly, exactly what I was expecting. Mostly male, younger than your typical seminar crowd, a lot of Macs, some with personalisation: Flickr and Technorati stickers mostly. I've already had to give the blog elevator pitch to the taxi driver on the way over. Becoming quite proficient at it now. Probably make a post about it later.

Instantly, an interesting fact crops up: get 7 laptopped bloggers round a table and they'll all check their Gmail and not talk to each other all that much. So much for blogs enabling conversations, and God help us when the cricket starts.

Ben Hammersley is apparently the only living person to get a word (podcasting) into the OED. I don't believe that for a second. Sticking with a historical theme, he namechecks the blog A-list from 300 years ago, deeming Sir Richard Steele the first blogger. What about Pepys? Ben believes that the magic formula is:

Amateur publishing + coffee = Social revolution!

(accompanied by mandatory Che picture). His essential premise is that blogging is pamphleteering++, and I'd say he's pretty much spot on, which is why it appeals to those with something to say, and far less to the rest. However, there are some differences: a larger sphere of influence, hypertext capability, searchability (as opposed to the hordeing of printed materials) and, primarily speed.

As later speakers point out, Ben is a journalist and as such takes the journalistic angle. Revolution is in the air! You can almost see the glint of the guillotines. "The freedom of the press belongs to those who are free to buy a press," he says. "Well, we all have a printing press now!"

Simon Phipps is the brave soul responsible for the birth of blogs.sun.com. Of course some Sun-isms eke out: we're in the participation age, it's now the norm (not something cool) to be online, and this process has taken just ten years. Simon makes some excellent points about trust: we're now in a society that fundamentally mistrusts, so it's probably a bad idea to leave blogging to the PR professionals. To kick-start this at Sun, Simon had to reverse a policy that said you'll get sacked for talking about work.

"Your number one task is to write a blog policy." He also claims (correctly) that referrer logs are essential, as is the freedom to link anywhere, talk about the competition positively, admit failure and, goddammit, to tell the truth! The topic strays onto mainstream media. "You don't buy newspapers for the news. You can get news for free. You buy it because someone else has decided what you want to read - editorial view rather than content" (I paraphrase). Gasps from the media types in the room, but probably just because they know he's right.

Main topic thus far has been Daily Mail-bashing (yep, this is a liberal crowd), and the word 'bullshit' has cropped up several times. Great stuff. Out to the cricket - Eng 325-8. Not great on what looks like a 400+ wicket.

The BBC's Tom Coates gives an excellent talk on Social Software. The 'old' internet - IRC, email, Usenet, mailinglists, messageboards, MUDs - was designed to be participatory. It wasn't until the WWW that it all went askew and ended up as a broadcast and commerce medium. Tom attributed the return of the pendulum to blogs and Amazon (personally I think of old-school personalisation as a notable failure so I can't agree). There follows a brief demo of latest BBC R&D: Phonetags, where the public texts in when there's something on radio they like. They can then come back and review, tag, etc, thus providing the BBC with free folksonomic metadata. Similar is audio collaboration: allowing the public to comment and wiki-ise audio files.

From these great ideas, the conversation moves to the hoary old spam problem. How do you make social systems that aren't spammable? The general consensus? Um.. dunno yet. We're trying. I suspect whoever solves that will become very rich.

Johnnie Moore talks about "chaos and engagement". After a free-form drawing exercise, we hit the first truly controversial point of the day, Johnnie’s blog 173 Drury Lane, a consumer-driven blog about Sainsbury's started mostly out of curiosity. Some debate around the room regarding how Jamie Oliver's favourite corporation would react? Johnnie assures us they’ve not sent round the lawyers yet but, astonishingly (to my mind) there seems to be a body of opinion that they’d be justified to do so. Anyway, read the blog and make your own mind up.

Lee Bryant tackles the thorny “folksonomy v taxonomy” debate. Lee’s most interesting point is that English’s polysemy tends to be self-organising through positive feedback. Flickr tags are a great example, which tend to converge on a single agreed term (as seen with recent Hurricane Katrina photos) with time. Newspeak sprung to mind somehow.

SixApart’s Loic le Meur talks proudly about his 8 million users, and then discusses the long tail (also known to us statistician types as a ‘power law tail’). In France, blogs are creeping up this curve into the mainstream, despite predictions that the fad will die. No doubt France’s looser libel laws have helped!

Lunch: Australia 45-0. They look capable of scoring rather a lot more.

My, the BBC are well represented today. Euan Semple takes us through the principle of ‘democratising the workplace’. Euan’s experiences nicely crystallize the differences between types of social software:

  • Bulletin boards are noisy, quick, not for the faint of heart

  • Blogs are about personal space, opinion and, more and more, status

  • Wikis are more formal and collaborative.

Of course, says Euan, any project of this ilk is a leap of faith – not least because of the need to educate managers that the “work/not-work” divide isn’t quite as black and white as it seems. People must be given time to browse, play and experiment.

Our only female speaker is Suw Charman. Suw, although ostensibly talking about ‘Dark blogs’, offers us some valuable rules for getting business blogging. I paraphrase:

  1. Always allow for emergent behaviour - new and unintended use.

  2. Successful projects have a clear business need. If you have this, adoption isn’t the huge stumbling block it's thought to be.

  3. Always look to fit blogs into existing processes. Posting content by email is a nice hacker example. Adapt to your users, don't make them adapt to you.

  4. Avoid scary jargon. No one cares that you're “blogging” – they’re more interested in “here's the link to the page”. Go easy on the paradigm shift prose too – blogging is just a tool that helps you do your job.

  5. Support is more useful than training. People will get the wrong end of the stick; it happens, tread gently with them.

  6. Eat your own dogfood. If you’re not blogging yourself, forget about it.

  7. Getting it right requires reading, thinking, playing, surfing – “invisible work”. If this is frowned upon in your business, you’re wasting your time.

  8. Stop being so anal about RoI, and don't worry about failure.

Afternoon drinks: Two things I thought might happen, have happened. First, Australia are running riot, thumping some really sloppy Flintoff deliveries to the boundaries. Second, the Stormhoek has arrived. And (takes a swig), yes, it's rather nice. I’ll leave the florid wine-lingo description to my ex though.

Julian Bond from Ecademy has some advice for the audience: sell consultancy to FTSE, sell solutions to SMEs. Obviously my interest is in the latter market. Julian explains that there’s definite scope for SMEs to get great use from blogs through a guerrilla marketing strategy: it’s quite easy to become known as an expert in a niche area. There’s a book begging to be written there: “How to be a guru on the web”.

Personal digital identity is Simon Grice’s topic – it’s an interesting one but I’m not convinced it fits that snugly with the conference agenda. Simon talks about mobile devices as being probably the first truly pervasive identity, and the data protection implications of this. As a usual aside, if your mobile phone company pisses you off, ask them for your data under the Data Protection Act. It’ll cost them a lot of time, a lot of paper, and a lot of postage!

Max Neiderhofer’s talk is as lofty and colourful: “What makes blogging fun?” Some interesting demographic information then, for me, the observation of the day:

“Blogging is an MMORPG… the ultimate goal is to be loved and respected.”

How about another? (Max really is good at these soundbites - I’m getting visions of a range of Neiderhofer “Blogging is…” merchandise):

“Blogging is open-sourcing yourself.”

Rules emerge in any game scenario, and for blogging these rules are transparency, honesty and respect. Fail to play by them and you’ll end up being torn to shreds by the hungry blogosphere.

Colin Donald contrasted old and new media in a persuasive manner, by demonstrating the god-awful MTVOverdrive.com (old media at its clueless, broadcast-driven worst) and the small-but-quirky videos.antville.org. The connected age™ is allowing ordinary people to route around mass media, and take control of their own media consumption.

Or so it seems. I wish it was that simple. Unfortunately mass media still has the cease-and-desist firepower to crush all but the most concerted groundswell.

So far, so bloggy. Luckily, Ross Mayfield speaks up for wikis. Pointless aside: wikis are huge in Germany, but not in France. Ross sees wikis as the antidote to email decentralisation. 75% of knowledge assets exist in email. I can see a lot of applications for business support so I’ll put this on the mental ‘to explore’ list.

It’s Friday, the cricket’s still on, we’re starting to flag a little. To round things off, here’s Hugh Macleod (less abrasive than you’d expect from his blog) carrying the now-semi-famous Stormhoek. Hugh covers, with dreadful mic technique, the central thrust of his blog – the death, or at least obsolescence, of advertising. I like the (English) cut of his gib* and I’ll definitely be posting more about his work with Stormhoek.

And that’s it. I need my usual week’s gestation period now to take in some of the concepts - expect follow-ups galore. I think, in the end, that’s all you can hope for from a conference like this – food for thought, and in that respect I think it’s been a great day.

* blog joke, I'm so sorry.

Cennydd Bowles