Three recent memes

BlogOffNot everyone was impressed by BlogOn (video archives). As I didn’t go, it’s hard for me to know whether I would have got something out of it or not, but if the video stream was anything to go by then the product demos at least were tedium on toast.

Fake Blogs – The ILoveBees blog, which refers to a faux-hacked site, has been revealed as a marketing blog. Does this mean it’s not a proper blog? Be interesting to see if Bungie Studios, the company behind it, can keep it up, or whether the blog just fizzles out.

Technorati had a makeover – and someone stole their nav. Technorati is a great tool, when it works, but the new design leaves a lot to be desired. It’s almost as if the last five years never happened and we’re back to segmented navigation, having to click on the logo to go back up to the home page in order to drill down again into another section. There’s been a lot of criticism of Technorati lately, due mainly to the fact that the site’s been up and down like BdJ’s knickers. Hopefully they can iron out their technical difficulties and return to reliability very soon.

The Guardian to launch games blog

The Guardian, one of the few UK publications to understand blogging, is to launch a new games blog.

The blog, which will be available from Monday 2 August, will be written by Aleks Krotoski, former presenter of Channel 4’s “Thumb Bandits”; Greg Howson, Guardian Online’s games reviewer; and Keith Stuart, the mobile gaming expert. It will cover every game genre and every major gaming platform, including PCs, consoles, the net and mobile phones.

“Gaming is no longer just the preserve of the teenage boy. More and more of our users are taking it up and we want to provide an intelligent, interactive forum for them,” said Neil McIntosh, Assistant Editor, Guardian Unlimited.

The Guardian launched a news blog three years ago, following it up with the Online blog and then the US Elections 04 blog.

The addition of a new gaming blog marks the beginning of The Guardian’s expansion into the blog space as they intend to launch a series of new blogs over coming months.

However, as Jane Perrone, Deputy Editor for News and Politics, Guardian Unlimited, said during her presentation at BlogTalk in Vienna, there are bound to be some people who will not welcome this development, feeling that it is an intolerable ‘invasion’ of the blogosphere by big media.

A more constructive way to look at it is to realise that The Guardian’s blogs have a good record for linking to external sites, and by doing so they bring the blogosphere to the attention of a much wider audience. It’s easy to forget that blogging is not a mainstream activity yet, regardless of the rush on political blogs that is going on at the moment. Any move by a newspaper as well respected as The Guardian to familiarise more people with the high quality writing that’s being published on blogs it to be applauded.

Lumpers and Splitters

When Carl Linnaeus started classifying plants and animals in his taxonomic Systema Naturae, he inadvertently gave birth to two new groups of people: Lumpers and Splitters. Lumpers are the sorts of people who look for similarities between things and group them according to what features they have in common. Splitters look for differences and create new classifications for things that don’t seem to fit in an existing pigeonhole.

The trouble with the classification of things is that we learn from a young age that things are what they are, without ever really considering why they are what they are.

Let’s take the example of a mammal with four legs, fur and a tail which goes ‘miaow’. Let’s call it a cat. Were a Lumper who knew about cats to see for the first time a mammal with three legs, fur and no tail which goes ‘miaow’ they will say ‘cat!’, but a Splitter would say ‘not cat!’. We, of course, instinctively know when a cat is a cat, without ever having to count legs or check for fur.

Of course, methodologies for classification of the natural world have developed significantly since 1735, but we’re now faced with similar issues of taxonomy and nomenclature in the blog world. Is a LiveJournal a blog? Must a blog have comments and trackbacks? Is a fictional blog still a blog? Must a cat have a tail?

These, though, aren’t the questions I’m going to tangle with right now. Instead, I’m going to posit the existence of five overarching types of business blog before I start considering them in more depth in future posts:

1. Marketing blogs – external, B2C blog, used to promote either the company or a product/service.

2. External blogs – used to communicate with the public, but not for sales purposes, for instance, in a consultation process.

3. Insider blogs – employee blogs, sanctioned but not controlled by the company they work for. (Sometimes disclaimed by the company they work for.)

4. Internal blogs – blogs used within a company to share knowledge, build communities, disseminate news.

5. Content blogs – public-facing blogs reliant on content to bring in either subscription or, more likely, advertising revenue.

Lumpers would probably look at the above list and label them all ‘enterprise blogs’ or somesuch. Splitters will say ‘Yes, but that doesn’t cover everything – what about…?’, or will argue that some blog types listed aren’t business blogs at all, but personal blogs.

There are benefits and problems to both the Lumping and the Splitting points of view. Lumpers have a tendency to miss the fine detail, which can lead to the erroneous assumption that all blogs are like their blogs, but they are good at looking at the wider implications of blogging. Splitters tend to get too caught up in the details of how and why blogs are different, so they miss out on the bigger picture.

But of course, categorising blogs is not always helpful: it detracts from the most important part of blogging – the people. The risk is that instead of understanding the people who write and read blogs, how they use blogs and what they gain from the experience, we will end up talking about semantics and software instead (cf. the LiveJournal vs., well, every other blogging tool debate).

This is what happened to Knowledge Management – it stopped being about the people and the knowledge and became a big discussion about software and IT.

On the other hand, classification is important for the efficient discussion and study of blogs. If I say ‘Marketing Blog’, I need to know that you understand what I mean, without having to pause and explain it every time. A common vocabulary is essential to meaningful conversation.

I don’t expect to have nailed in one shot the different sorts of business blog, but the comments are open. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: Fredrik over at CorporateBlogging suggests that ‘internal blogs’ is a better phrase to use for No. 4, and I agree. Don’t know why I didn’t call it that in the first place.

Mobroadcasting breaking news

The potential for digital cameras to capture breaking news is in itself old news. News programmes have been using stills and footage sent in by viewers who happened to be in the right place at the right time for ages.

But I saw for the first time this morning an example of the ultimate in moblogging: Mobroadcasting. BBC South‘s news bulletins have this morning been illustrating a breaking news story with a still photo taken by a cameraphone, and have explicitly stated it as such.

The photo, of the plume of smoke caused by a serious fire that had just broken out, was easily as good as the stills you’d get from a ‘proper’ camera – testament to the quality of cameraphones now. Strangely, although the photo made it on to tv, it isn’t yet on the relevant BBCi page.

I wonder how long it will be before we have open collaborative mobroadcasting on our screens.

Welcome to Strange Attractor

“When [a] process is applied to the function

f: (z) –> a + b z exp i[k – p/(1 + |z|2)]

a strange attractor emerges … With a suitable choice of parameters all sorts of different swirled and folded patterns can be made.”

— from Strange & Complex

If you could visually represent the ebb and flow of my thoughts, you’d find a lot of swirly folded patterns emerging. The cause? Blogs – my very own strange attractors.

But blogs have a far wider effect than just making me think in swirly folded patterns, they are perturbing the business world as well. A disruptive technology that is more often than not smuggled in through the back door by evangelist employees, blogs are helping to unite previously scattered communities of interest.

Like instant messaging, blogging is gaining such a strong foothold amongst business users that by the time the management realises they have been infiltrated, they no longer have the power to switch it off. The corporate cat has to sit back and watch as the Trojan Mouse struts its stuff.

The thing about strange attractors is that they bring their own kind of beautiful order to chaos, but it is still chaos. You don’t really see the strange attractor, you just see the chaos flowing around it and know where it is.

— Joi Ito

In this blog, I want to understand the processes and functions that create these strange attractors, these swirly folded patterns. What makes for a successful blog? How do we counter high churn rates and rapid abandonment? And how do we implement blogs in business in a way that engages users and brings most benefits?

Over the coming months, I will be examining these questions as well as looking at some of the side issues, for example, what is the role of storytelling in business blogging? Are the best bloggers also the best storytellers? Or does content trump language?

What comes after Cluetrain?

Imposing command-and-control solutions to business problems – particularly around knowledge management (a jaded term if ever I heard one), e-learning (ditto) and internal communications – has been shown to be ineffectual. Instead, statements of facts are being replaced by conversations and the flow of mutable, context-sensitive information from person to person in an intimate and informal manner. The important behaviours are emergent, bottom-up, organic.

New paradigms are coming not from theorists saying ‘This is how I think you should work’, or from software companies saying ‘This is how we will make you work’, but from people bending a diverse set of tools to their will on a day-to-day basis. Danny O’Brien’s LifeHacks translated into non-geek terms.

If you have come over from my personal blog at Chocolate and Vodka, you’ll already know that random chaos is my base state – my mind tends to skip about a lot. It’s a useful trait, however, as my job here is to be the butterfly that flits from flower to flower, hopefully stirring up a storm in the process.

So, settle in, get yourself subscribed to the RSS feed, and enjoy. I still have a bit of rearranging of furniture to complete, but I hope you will bear with me whilst I decide where the sofa goes. Next to the window, perhaps?

— Suw

BlogTalk, a week on

34,000 feet. If you’re lucky you can see a long way from 34,000 feet on a clear day. If you’re not all you get to see is wing and cloud with the odd glimpse of land through holes in the water vapour. Yet even when the weather’s good it’s hard to make out much detail from so high – you can actually see a lot more just after take off when you’re only a few thousand feet up.

Seeing further doesn’t mean seeing more.

BlogTalk is behind me now. Temporally. Physically. But not mentally. Mentally I’m cruising at an altitude of 10,000 ft, in clear air, circling over the various topics and conversations that are laid out below me. Question really is where to land? Which subject do I address first?

A lot was said at BlogTalk both in the conference room and outside of it. Now, a week later, these are the things that have stuck in my mind.

Blogs in business
We heard quite a bit about blogs in the knowledge management sphere – how companies are starting to use blogs and other social tools to help them gather information that’s currently locked up inside their employee’s heads and to bring new information to people’s attention. Blogs are also being used in project management as a way of building teams and encouraging constructive risk taking and collaboration.

Many of those working in this area are having to deal with the fact that the majority of people just don’t know what blogs are, so there’s a large amount of persuading and evangelising to be done in order to get users to accept these tools. Ninety per cent of the work is educating people and changing their existing mindset so that they can learn how to get the most out of blogging.

Freelance blogging
Writing your own blog and earning revenue through ad clickthroughs is not the only way to make money from blogging.

As the power of blogs as a conversational communication tool becomes more widely understood, I think we’ll see and increase in blogs used by companies to create and maintain a corporate identity and for marketing conversations with their customers.

I see the Corporate ID Blog as basically building a personal relationship between the customer and the company, giving updates as to products or company policy or informing the customer of developments and future directions. The Marketing Blog addresses the needs and interests of users/buyers of a specific product, building a community of people who are united by a specific set of issues. Unlike traditional marketing, which exists to name drop, marketing blogs will have to reconsider marketing in terms of community and dialogue, scrapping the broadcast model in favour of the new conversational model.

Soon there’s going to be a whole new creative industry, that of the Professional Blogger. It’s going to take a raft of skills, not just good copy writing, but also research, networking, conversational, educational and moderation skills. A professional blogger needs to be able to understand the client, how the blog medium can work for them and how to steer blog-based conversations to ensure that the client doesn’t get frightened off and that the readers don’t get bored. It’s not just a matter of throwing a standard blog solution at a site in the hope that it will stick.

Multilingual blogging
As I’ve already mentioned here, I had long and fascinating conversations about multilingual blogs at BlogTalk, although sadly there were no presentations on that topic. That is surprising in retrospect, considering that the majority of attendees were themselves bi- or multilingual.

One of the main issues with bilingual blogging is that blog tools are not set up for it. If you are using a hosted service then the chances are that you will be using either English, or your local language if you are lucky enough to have a localised version. If you use tools such as WordPress and have the skills then you can hack the code to make it behave in a more bilingual way, as Steph has. It’s not a perfect solution though, and we need to consider the issues around bilingual blogging so that appropriate tools can be developed.

The basic solution is to run separate blogs for each language you write in, but that can be cumbersome and result in one blog being neglected. Easier is to put all your languages on one blog, but then you risk confusing and possibly annoying monolingual readers, or of reducing one language to minority status. Ideally one could administer a bilingual blog which would allow you to create two sets of blog furniture, depending on the language of the entry, and allow for easy categorisation and cross-referencing.

That’s really just scraping the surface of it – I need to spend much more time mulling this over and to blog more about it. Meantime, Steph and I have set up a Multilingual Blogging topic on Topic Exchange so please ping it if you write about this subject, in any language.

Collaboration and the hivemind
One of the most enjoyable aspects of BlogTalk was the collaborative note taking, co-ordinated using Rendezvous and SubEthaEdit. It is a crying shame that these are Mac-only applications because that excluded quite a few people from the process. What was interesting was that taking part in the note taking changed my experience of the conference.

For starters, by communicating in a backchannel such as Rendezvous or IRC you get a much stronger feeling of community. I didn’t get to use the IRC channel much, but I’ve seen it at work during other conferences (that I wasn’t present at). That was a shame, but it was mainly due to being on an unfamiliar computer.

By collaborating simultaneously in real time note taking I found that my level of concentration really stepped up a gear. I went from being easily distracted, even though I was handwriting my own notes, to focusing so intently on what was being said that I resented anything that interrupted me. The density of my note taking by hand was pretty light – diagrams, bullet points, the usual sorts of things. The other note takers followed the same tactics in SubEthaEdit, but when I got my hands on Steph’s laptop, I went into overdrive, virtually transcribing everything that was said.

I don’t know if that was a good thing or not, and nor am I sure why my style so drastically changed between media. Possibly it has something to do with the fact that I am a bit dyslexic so find handwriting stuff not as easy as typing it. And I am a demon touch-typist, so I can easily match a moderately paced speaker, particularly if I don’t worry about accuracy. Add to that my completist personality and maybe that gives us a clue.

Again, there is room for development of techniques in this. As I mentioned, this was a Mac-only experience, and it was a shame to exclude people from it. I am also not sure if it would scale up particularly well – if you had too many people working on one document it risks becoming messy and a bit slow. As it was, there was a smallish core of about half a dozen note takers, usually with one person taking the lead and others chipping in with lost/misheard bits or to correct typos.

What would be valuable, but which doesn’t seem to be happening as much as I would have expected is the reformatting and expansion of the notes now that they’re in the wiki. The SubEthaEdit documents that were wikified were just a starting point and there is no feeling amongst the perpetrators that the resulting wiki is in anyway owned by us. With so many attendees who could add their notes and knowledge into the mix, it is a shame to see that this is not happening.

I suspect the problem is that wikis are an ugly solution to a simple problem – formatting a wiki is a bit of a nightmare, particularly when they can’t even cope with a single line break, as opposed to a paragraph break. Someone somewhere needs to seriously address general wiki usability.

Points to consider
Beyond these core areas of interest were a whole bunch of other things that I need to delve more deeply into when I have the time.

– Blogs are oral communications in a written format. What implications does this have for those of us working in this area professionally? How can this format be adapted to business use and how will businesses need to adapt in order to make best use of the blog format?

– Video blogs. Will video blogging be the next big thing or are people happy with the simpler, more basic moblog? Are barriers to entry, such as bandwidth requirements and complexity of format, too high?

– Geourls and geoblogging. It’s easy to tie a website or blog to a geographical location with a geourl, but what practical uses does it have? And would geobloggers make themselves vulnerable by publicising their exact location? How can moblogs – particularly individual entries in a moblog – utilise geourls, maybe alongside GPS, to provide additional useful image metadata? (I haven’t checked, but surely this must have been done already though? It’s such a no-brainer.)

– Forming networks. Blogs are invaluable as networking tools, but they don’t work well in isolation. What other tools are required to make the best of blog networking opportunities and what are the emergent behaviours amongst users?

– Categorisation. It is too easy to lump all blogs together under one, ill-fitting umbrella, and extend conclusions from one small subsection of the blogosphere to the whole thing. How can we categorise the blogosphere and where do common generalisations fall down or turn into misconceptions?

– I really need to write a book, but at the moment I feel like a magpie locked in a shop full of Swarovski crystal – so much sparkliness that I’m really not sure where to start.

Previously posted on Chocolate and Vodka.

Blogging bilingually

I had long conversations with Steph whilst at BlogTalk about the implications of blogging bilingually. I have a Welsh language blog which I never update because I find it hard to get the enthusiasm together to go and open up Blogger. So, I’ve decided to experiment a bit and blog in both English and Welsh [on Chocolate and Vodka].

You won’t notice the Welsh posts on the main page (or the main RSS feed) because they’re all stuffed into a special category, Cymraeg, which has its own RSS feed.

I am not sure if this segregation is a good thing or not. The reason that I’ve done it is because the majority of my readers don’t speak Welsh, and I really don’t want to clutter up the blog or the feed with material that they can’t understand. On the other hand, I feel a bit bad marginalising Welsh. The alternative is for me to put everything in the feed and on the main page, either as full posts or using excerpts for the Welsh posts.

If you keep a bilingual blog, please let me know what you do and what you think as regards how I’ve got this set up. All comments and ideas welcome.

Previously posted on Chocolate and Vodka.

BlogTalk Day 2

The second day of BlogTalk was, I thought, much better than the first in terms of presentations. There was a lot more in it that I could get my teeth into, and a lot less academic stuff to go over my head.

Ben and Mena Trott’s keynote started the thing off, but although it was amusing and engaging, it wasn’t really very meaty. They made the point that traffic isn’t the be all and end all of blogging, and that small blogs are as valid as large popular ones. Well, what’s new in that? I had really hoped for something groundbreaking from them. They are in a unique position to provide some real insights into the blogging world, but they didn’t do that.

The outstanding talks were Lee Bryant’s paper on using blogging as part of a knowledge management solution for part of the NHS, which was funny, interesting and gave me a lot to think about; and Horst Prillinger’s paper on whether or not blogs are journalism, which contained an excellent summary of the differences between journalism and blogging.

The SubEthaEdit collaborative note taking continued throughout Day 2, and although I continued to peer over Steph’s shoulder, I again felt the lack of a Mac quite keenly, but by Anjo Anjewierden’s talk Steph’s fingers were achy so I took over the note taking. It was kinda weird at first because the keyboard was all strange, being of Swiss configuration, so I kept getting the y and the z the wrong way round.

The process of actually taking notes by hand is a very familiar one. You watch the speaker, scribble down key words and phrases, sometime sentences. Maybe you make diagrams. Maybe your mind wanders a bit and you miss stuff. With SubEthaEdit I found myself concentrating very hard on what was being said, almost transcribing it word for word. I stopped looking so much at the slides, and focused a lot harder, trying not to lose the thread of what was being said.

If you go to the wiki you will see a distinct difference between my note taking style, which starts in the middle of Panel 7, and everyone else’s. Mine are much more verbose, much longer. I am not sure if this is good or not. I type like a demon, but on a strange keyboard you can either have speed or accuracy but not both. It was really odd typing whilst someone else, I think Horst, came along behind me and tidied up my typos.

Anyway, Steph and I have been thinking quite a bit about this whole experience. I don’ t know if this sort of collaborative note taking is frequently done at other conferences, so if you’ve taken part in this sort of thing elsewhere, we would really like to know – leave a comment or email me.

Steph has also posted a more detailed history of what we did and asks some interesting questions. We would both like your feedback, so please do let us know what you think.

Right… I’m not done with this subject yet, but I am off to do a bit more sightseeing!

Previously posted on Chocolate and Vodka.

BlogTalk Day 1

It’s gone midnight, so not much time for anything other than impressions of BlogTalk, and first impressions are that there are a whole bunch of interesting people here with cool stuff to say, and not all of them get to stand behind the podium.

I can’t help but be egocentric and say that some of the more academic stuff was hard for me to follow. I’m not stupid but I am out of practice when it comes to extracting core messages in an oral-aural situation. I suppose I live too much online in the written word, so the spoken word is causing me a little culture shock. It’s nice, though, that the majority of accents I hear around me are not English or American. It’s great to get a perspective on blogging that is new, compared to those I usually hear.

As usual, though, I’m almost more interested in the audience and the way that they interact and behave than the actual talks themselves. Not having a laptop myself divorced me from the backchannel – some thing I really felt the lack of at first. Instead I am restricted to analogue note-taking methods: ye olde pen and paper. Advantages are that I get to doodle and draw diagrams, something that those transcribing miss out on.

OK, so maybe that’s not so much of an advantage, but I’ve got to make mysel feel a bit better somehow.

What was cool, though, was watching how the backchannel developed. Obviously there was an IRC channel, but to be honest most of the interesting stuff was being done by the mac users on SubEthaEdit and Rendevouz (links to come when I’m not on a strange-to-me laptop). Being a PC user this was all new to me – Rendevouz allows you to find out who’s around in your vicinity and to strike up conversations. SubEthaEdit allows for collaborative real-time note taking. Unlike wikis, SubEthaEdit documents can be edited simultaneously by a number of people.

Initially, it struck me that multitasking whilst at a conference is really bad for your concentration. You simply cannot IRC, Rendevouz, check links, edit a wiki and SubEthaEdit whilst also listening to what were some very information-dense presentations. You cannot simultanously process so many conflicting streams of data.

What’s clear from watching Steph and the others, particulary prodigious note-taker Lee, is that that doesn’t matter. By collaborating in a SubEthaEdit note-taking session you become part of the hivemind, so if you miss something, someone else will fill in the gap before you even realise that you have missed something. The groups becomes self-correcting. If you’re not sure if the speaker said ‘sidewalk’ or ‘cyborg’ just type whatever you think it was and someone else will have heard more clearly and will correct you.

From SubEthaEdit, the documents were transferred to a wiki to enable wider amendment, additions and reformatting. By the end of the week, if not before, I expect that the wiki will be home to a comprehensive set of notes.

This ad hoc collaboration is a boon. I found it very hard to focus continually on talks which were often very dense, and if I had to rely on my own notes I know that I would miss many of the most interesting points when it came to reviewing the day. Now, however, I can go and annotate what others have written and add my contribution to a growing body of knowledge and experience.

Another way of facillitating this cohesion is the use of TopicExchange to collate the various blog posts made about the conference. As usual, I felt too shy to get my camera out and take photos but so many other people did and hopefully they will ping TopicExchange and I will get to see them then. I was brave, though, and I did ask a question. Aren’t you proud?

The bits inbetween the talks were, as expected, very cool – lots of interesting conversations with lots of intersting people, notably Lilia Efimova, Stephan Schmidt, Phil Wolff, Mark Brady, Sebastian Fielder, Riccardo Cambiassi, Horst, Steph and Lee. (Again, links to come.)

Right, time to crash out. Another full day of talks and talking tomorrow.

Previously posted on Chocolate and Vodka.