The democratisation of everything and the curators who will save our collective ass

Over the last few years we’ve seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we’re seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk.

Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry.

Even sculpture is going to succumb, as Second Life residents can create complex avatars and then have them 3D printed into a physical item. It’s early days now, but it’s not going to be long before you can create any shape you like and have it printed, allowing anyone to become a sculptor without ever having to deal with physical materials.

What’s left? Software maybe? Or maybe not.

If you read my personal blog, Chocolate and Vodka, you’ll know that I’m learning Ruby on Rails. Ruby is a programming language, and Rails is a programming framework. The way it works is that you set up your database, and then you ask Rails to, say, create your input form, and it writes the Ruby and the HTML you need in order to create a web page that allows you to input data into your database. I have very little ability when it comes to programming, but I am learning Ruby on Rails and I see no reason why I can’t start creating my own web-based applications within the next few months.

Like 3D printing, this is just the beginning. Ning and Coghead are attempts to make web app development easier, but as they, and RoR, evolve we’re going to see people with no programming skills able to make their own web apps without ever having to learn a line of code.

The future is going to contain lots of small, agile development projects, and I’m not the only one who thinks this. Evan Williams recently wrote about what he calls the Obvious model for building and running web products:

The Obvious model goes something like this:
* Build things cheaply and rapidly by keeping teams small and self-organized.
* Leverage technology, know-how, and infrastructure across products (but brand them separately, so they’re focused and easy to understand)
* Use the aggregate attention and user base of the network to gain traction for new services faster than they could gain awareness independently

evhead: The Birth of Obvious Corp.

Hosting is affordable; Google’s AdSense makes raising revenue from ads simple to set up (which doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get much revenue, mind); and blogs make it easier to promote your app. Just like every other area of human creativity, the barriers are coming down.

I was at a ‘future of…’ session the other week, and one of the trends I suggested was important was ‘the ubiquity of everything’. My fellow brainstormers didn’t seem to agree with the word ‘everything’, but I think we are moving towards a world where the only things that are rare are certain physical resources, and attention.

We already have more movies available than any one person can watch; more videos on YouTube; more blogs; more podcasts; more internet radio; more books; more software; more web apps; more games; more everything. It’s not like we’re starting from a point of scarcity here. And the flood of stuff is going to turn into a rampaging torrent as more people get online and more people get excited by their ability to participate and create.

In the past, the media acted as gatekeepers. They were the ones that went to the movie previews and told us which ones were good or crap. They were the ones who went to all the gigs and told us which bands were cool or rubbish. They were the ones who got the advance copy of the game and told us whether it was playable or tedious. They were the arbiters of taste, the people in the know, the ones with the connections needed to get at culture before us plebs got at it.

But we don’t need gatekeepers anymore. We don’t need people who stand between us and our stuff, deciding what to tell us about and what to ignore. We don’t need arbiters of taste. There are so many blogs out there reviewing software and web apps and films and books and every other sort of creativity that we don’t need to rely on the media’s old gatekeepers telling us what we should like.

We do, however, still need help. There’s just too much stuff around for us to know what’s out there, to keep up with what’s good, what works for us, what is worth investigation. What we need are curators. And we need them badly.

We need people who can gather together the things that are of interest to us, things that fit with our tastes or challenge us in interesting ways, things that enrich our lives and help us enjoy our time rather than waste it on searching.

Curators already exist. Some are people: Bloggers who sift through tonnes of stuff in order to highlight what they like, and who, if you have the same taste as them, can be invaluable to discovering new things to like. Some are aggregators: Site that gather lots of little bits of stuff and present them in aggregation and help us find the bits that the majority find to be good. Some are algorithms: recommendation systems and search.

But curation of the web has barely started. Much of what you could call curation that exists today is flawed: too many noisy opinions and not enough capacity to understand what I as an individual want; recommendation algorithms that produce seemingly random results; and the problem of ‘popularity begetting popularity’.

The great challenge for us, and the web, going forward is no longer breaking down the barriers to creation, it’s finding our way through the huge amounts of creativity that’s resulted.

Comment is F**ked

First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies.

As Steve Yelvington said this week:

Editors, please listen. If you’re not rethinking your entire content strategy around participative principles, you’re placing your future at risk.

The Guardian seems to understand this need for participation to be integrated with its traditional content, but as with many media companies: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles. Ben Hammersley, European alpha geek and one of the people behind CiF, knew there would be risks:

Perhaps the most prominent liberal newspaper in the anglophone world, opening a weblog for comment and opinion, with free and open user commenting is, to put it mildly, asking for trouble. … This means that we have to employ a whole combination of technological and social countermeasures to make sure that the handful of trolls do not, as they say, ruin it for the rest of us. Frankly, it gives me the fear.

Ben was right to be concerned. Honestly, I wish there were a clearer headed assessment of the risks involved with blogging by media companies. Don’t get me wrong. I think that media companies should blog, but the risks aren’t as simple as they may appear and something on the scale of CiF is of course going to have problems. The Guardian appear to have focused mainly on the risks posed by commenters and have put a lot of energy into figuring out how they can have open comments without falling foul of UK libel law.

But people are people, and you are bound to get abusive, rude or irrelevant comments. Any publicly commentable website will reflect the cross-section of society that reads it, so it’s inevitable that some comments will not be as civil and insightful as we would prefer. Trolls happen.

Just this week, Engadget had to temporarily shut off its comments “because of the unacceptable level of noise / spam / junk / flaming / rudeness going on throughout our boards”.

Where the Guardian has fallen over is in their assessment of the risks posed by their choice of columnist to blog on CiF. Rather than thinking about who would make a really good blogger, they seem to have made the same mistake as the rest of the big media who have tried their hand at blogging: They’ve given their biggest names blogs, despite the fact that these people have no idea how to. Now a bit of a tiff has kicked off between the Guardian’s stable of columnists, the commenters on Comment is Free and the bloggers there. (Thanks to my colleague Nick Reynolds at the BBC who blogged about this internally and brought it to my attention.)

Catherine Bennett writes a column so full of uninformed generalisations about blogging in the UK, specifically political blogging, as to completely lack credibility. She seems to be trying to discredit the Euston Manifesto, a net-born political movement in the UK, by painting it as the creation of a sexually obsessed, semi-literate male-dominated blogging clique. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link to the Manifesto and draw your own conclusions.

Another Guardian columnist, Jackie Ashley, defends professional columnists, and says: “To those of you who think you know more than I do, I’m eager to hear the arguments: just don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.” Polly Toynbee asks commentors: “Who are you all? Why don’t you stop hiding behind your pseudonyms and tell us about yourselves?”

Ms Toynbee why don’t you step out from behind your byline and tell us a little about yourself instead of belittling us? It’s usually worked for me when trying to dampen an online flame war.

I’m sitting here reading her column, and I really don’t understand how she expected this to put out the fires. She asks for civility and for people to tell us who they are, but then she says of one of her anonymous detractors:

What do you do all day, MrPikeBishop, that you have time to spend your life on this site? I suppose the answer may be that you are a paraplegic typing with one toe and then I shall feel guilty at picking you out as one particular persecutor.

What do you expect when you respond to ad hominem attacks with patronising ad hominem attacks? Do you really see this as a solution? Are you treating your audience with the kind of respect that you for some reason think you deserve by default?

Ms Toynbee professes to answer her many e-mails, but I do get the sense that the Guardian’s columnists are simply not used to this kind of medium, they are not used to getting feedback in public where they can’t just hit ‘delete’ to get rid of a pesky critic.

Suw – who I should inform Ms Bennett is female and blogs, thank you very much – likened such old school thinking to this:

It’s like them walking into a pub, making their pronouncements and then walking out. Later, they are shocked to find out that everyone is calling them a wanker.

An interesting comment on CiF from altrui May 18, 2006 12:04 (I can’t link directly to the comment):

One observation – those who respond to commenters tend not to be abused so much. There is a certain accountability required among political commentators, just as there is for politicians. Until now, opinion formers have never really had to justify themselves. I can think of many of the commentariat who write provocative and incendiary pieces which cause no end of trouble, yet they carry on stoking up argument and division, without censure or even a requirement to explain themselves.

Two issues here: Columnists are not used to engaging in conversation with their readers; and the readers have had years to build up contempt of specific writers and are now being given the opportunity to revile them in public. A lethal combination of arrogance and pent-up frustration – no wonder CiF has soured. Question is, can the Guardian columnists learn from their mistakes and pull it back from the brink?

A few suggestions. Don’t treat your audience as the enemy. If you’re going to talk down to your audience, they are going to shout back. And quite honestly, I would say to any media organisation that your best columnists and commentators don’t necessarily make the best bloggers. Most media organisations thinkg blogging is simply snarky columns. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

It’s a distributed conversation. Ms Ashley says: “As with child bullies, I wonder if these anonymous commenters and correspondents would really be quite so “brave” if they were having a face to face conversation.” You’re right, and I am in no way defending some of the toxic comments that you’re receiving. But step back. Read your column as if it were one side of a conversation and think how you would respond.

Many columnists seem to use the British public school debating trick that really is a form of elitist trash-talking. Belittle your opponents as much as possible. Most will lose their heads, and therefore the argument. But, again, step back. Would you ever address someone face-to-face in the patronising manner of your columns and honestly expect anything approaching a civil response? It seems that your debating strategy has worked all too well, and your audience is so angry that they are responding merely with profanity and vitriol.

Again, having said all of that, I’m glad that the Guardian aren’t letting growing pains stop them. They are choosing one of their best CiF commenters to become a CiF blogger. Bravo.

Doing less

Two years ago, when I first said I was going to become a ‘blog consultant’, many people laughed. “You’ll never make a living out of that,” they said. “Who is going to need you to teach them how to blog? I mean, come on. It’s easy.”

Deep down, I worried that they may be right. Who needs to be taught to use a blog? Who needs to be taught about the cultural differences between mainstream media and PR, and blogging? Who needs to know how to use wikis or instant messenger? Come on… it’s as easy as pie.

Two years ago, I spent a lot of time reading blogs, following all the main players, and writing about it all on Chocolate and Vodka or, later, here on Strange Attractor. Dave Sifry couldn’t fart without me knowing about it and blogging about it. As new blogging and social networking tools crawled into beta, I was there, ripping them into small bits if they were rubbish, exhorting you to go and play with them if they were good.

It was great. I got into some fantastic conversations with some really intelligent people, and those conversations frequently let me to conferences, seminars, and even just plain ol’ meet-ups (which are, usually, a lot more fun). I felt like I was a part of a community, a part of something bigger than me, and that my life was enhanced because of it.

Now, things are different. I am successful as a social software consultant – my diary is full for the immediate future, I have the stable income I didn’t have two years ago, and I have an awful lot more experience under my belt.

What I don’t have is time. Time to read blogs. Time to investigate new tools. Time to write. Time to be a part of the community of metabloggers whom I count as my peers. I feel a bit like I have slipped down the rabbit hole into an alternate reality in which Suw Charman works away at her desk every second of the day, hardly speaking to anyone (not even her friends), overwhelmed by email, and feeling guilty that she’s not crossing enough off her To Do list.

I don’t like this reality. I don’t like the fact that both Strange and CnV have suffered from my lack of time to post. (Note: I really should be replying to emails right now, instead of writing this, but people are just going to have to learn to wait.) And I really don’t like the feeling that I have drifted away from my community.

Feast or famine is a familiar cycle for any consultant, and in the nine years I have been working for myself, it’s been a cycle that I’ve come to understand at a very fundamental level. Until now, it’s been a financial cycle – you have a client, so you work your ass off for that client, and then when that contract ends you have nothing to replace it with because you were so busy working your ass off that you didn’t have time to go off and find another client. Blogging kills that cycle because I have a permanent presence on the net, even if it’s not as active as I would like. I have a load of leads for new clients to follow up, and I can’t imagine running out of work any time soon.

But the feast/famine cycle remains – except now it is all about time. I’m suffering a chronic time famine at the moment. Every second of every hour is filled with things I need to be doing, so all of the stuff that I want to do but which doesn’t have a deadline gets bumped, day after day after day. My To Do list has been moved to an A4 notebook, and it does nothing but get longer. Currently, it’s six pages of A4, and I know that I haven’t yet put everything on it. I would estimate that it should be at least triple that, if I honestly wrote down everything I want to or have to do.

I bought Getting Things Done, because I hoped it would help me get things done, but so far I’ve only had time to read the first 45 pages, and most of that was telling me to do things that I already do, or which I’ve tried before but which didn’t work. My conclusion is that the answer really isn’t about becoming more efficient (although patently that can’t hurt).

So what is the answer? On a fundamental level, the answer is ‘Do Less’. For months I’ve been saying it in jest, “I need to do less so that I can do more”, but it’s really very true. If I want to learn Spanish, if I want to take up climbing again, if I want to play my guitar then I need to free up some time in order to do those things, and in order to do that, I need to do less of all the other stuff.

Perhaps there’s a self-help book in there somewhere. Getting Less Stuff Done. Hmm, I think I’ll need to put that one on my To Do list.

Linkylove or blog fuckwittery?

How many apples of rotten experience does it take to sour a whole barrel?

That’s a question that Adagio Teas should be asking themselves right about now. They recently made an offer on their website that if you link to them you get a reward ‘commensurate with your webpage’s Google PageRank’, and sure enough, if you search Technorati you’ll find a good number of blog posts from people who’ve been happy to take some tea off Adagio’s hands for the sake of a link. Nice bit of PR, you might think? Well, yes, until you get to Jay Allen’s experience, and then it all starts to sour.

Jay sent in a link to a blog post that he had written about Adagio Teas, but because Adagio were looking at Google’s PageRank to determine which of three rewards linkers should get – 0-2 get a tea sample; 3/4 get a sampler set, 5+ get an ingenuiTEA Set – and because the PageRank of a single post is not the same as the blog it’s posted on, Jay got only a tea sampler when he should have got the tea set.

Now that’s not, really, a big deal. What brings this whole story into the blog fuckwittery camp is the response of Adagio’s customer service representative, Ilya Kreymerman, who managed to show a complete lack of comprehension about how blogs work, i.e. that a post can be on the front page of a blog and in the archives at the same time. He then went on to be sarcastic and rude in Jay’s comments.

How, precisely is this supposed to help the situation? And how close are Adagio going to get to stuffing up a nice bit of PR with some ill-conceived ‘banter’ that does nothing but make them look like a bunch of nitpicking, tight-wad chancers?

This is something that has bugged me about alleged customer service representatives since pretty much the dawn of time. Listen, Mr/Ms Customer Service Person, your job is to say ‘I’m sorry. How can we make this better?’, not ‘This is all your fault, you’re an idiot, you should have done/not done this.’ Is that really so hard to comprehend?

Disgruntled bloggers are a vociferous bunch, and any company who thinks about using blogs to manufacture good PR have to remember that it can be easily undone. Piss off just a few popular bloggers and you’ll be really wishing you hadn’t.

UPDATE: Adagio Teas’ Ilya Kreymerman emailed me after reading this, and offered to send me tea because even though I hadn’t applied for their link scheme, I’d still linked to them. I accepted their offer, and true to their word they sent me one of their ingenuiTEA Sets and some tea. So, whilst I still think the tone of Ilya’s posts on Jay’s blogs were somewhat ill-considered, I will freely say that their wee tea set is pretty darn ingenious and cool. Unfortunately I never drink tea, but my parents say that the leaves Adagio sent are a good step up from “the usual stuff we drink”.

So, a good save from Kreymerman, or have I been swayed by a freebie? Bit of both, I’d say, but you can make your own mind up.

Another one bites the dust

Another blogger fired for blogging – this time Mark Jen got the sack from Google after just a few weeks for blogging about how he didn’t like his remuneration package, amongst other things.

What surprises me about this is that I thought Google were savvy enough to have a clear blog policy and that they would have ensured that all employees understood it. They are a truly geek-laden company, after all, and geek-laden companies should be amongst the first to realise that employees will blog. Maybe not all of them, maybe not all the time, but they will have people blogging and some will be blogging about their work and about the company.

For Google, that should have been a no-brainer, particularly in the light of the fact that they own Blogger. How on earth the concept of blogging guidelines could possibly have escaped them, I just do not know.

Neville Hobson has some good commentary, as does Scoble.

The Fall and Fall of Journalism – an LSE debate

The London School of Economics has invited me to take part in a panel debate called The Fall and Fall of Journalism on Monday 28 February, at 6.30pm (tickets £8):

A panel of speakers will debate whether the traditional role of journalists is being usurped by simply anyone who has access to a digital camera, camcorder and the internet. This debate will explore the new phenomena of citizen reporting, blogging and other new technology/new media-enabled reporting.

I will be discussing the impact of blogging on journalism with Leslie Bunder, Editor,; John Lloyd, Editor, Financial Times Magazine; and Professor Robin Mansell, Dixons Chair in New Media and the Internet, LSE.

This should be an interesting debate, which I am very much looking forward to. I’ve been keeping my eye on the discussions that have happened in the States, not least because I am both blogger and, occasionally, journalist so I can see things from both sides of the fence. Of course, the situation here in the UK is slightly different, because the nature of our media is slightly different, but I think the main premises stand.

So, if you’re in the London area, do drop in and feel free to say hello afterwards!

Fired blogger gets hired

Joe Gordon, who was fired by Waterstone’s for blogging a few frustrated comments about his employers, has now been hired by Forbidden Planet, thus making at least one of my predictions come true – a better job with better pay.

Joe is still waiting for news of his appeal against Waterstones, and to see whether an industrial tribunal will be required. Whilst it would be tedious for Joe to have to go to these lengths to gain recompense for Waterstone’s idiotic behaviour, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I am sure I am not be the only person to wonder curiously how the lawyers and trade unions view blog in relationship to such concepts as freedom of speech, public domain and bringing a company into disrepute.

I’m also curious to know what internal changes will or have occurred at Waterstone’s now that the person who fired Joe for allegedly bringing the company into disrepute has managed to actually and measurably bring the company into disrepute. But I guess that’s something I’ll never find out.

Reading through Joe’s archive, though, it seems that he was not actually the first person in the UK to get fired for blogging – JGram and Dykenee Crossroads (whom I can’t find online) have also been fired for their blogs. Back in November, JGram blogged the official letter and reason for his firing, however, the original posts have been removed, so it’s impossible to say whether the company he worked for were overreacting or not.

My belief remains that frequently blogs are an excuse – whether used by the company to get rid of someone that they just don’t like, or the blogger to cover up some other misdemeanour. Blogs remain a minority occupation misunderstood (or not understood at all) by many. People frequently fear that which they do not understand and fear can breed illogical over-reactions at worst and a pretence of non-existence at best.

Illustrative of this was the conversation I had with my Lloyds TSB business bank manager on Thursday as I attempted to update him as to what I am doing with myself. The subtext – and it was not a particularly well hidden subtext – from him was ‘I do not understand what you are doing, I do not believe that what you are doing is important, and I do not believe that you will be successful’. Not only did he actually tell me that he didn’t understand what I was doing or how I could make a living from it, he actually implied that no amount of effort on my part would ever result in my being successful and that no amount of explaining would ever make him understand.

Now, this doesn’t have a particularly big impact on me, but it will do on Lloyds TSB when I move two business accounts and at least one personal account away from them to another bank because I’m fed up of having to deal with an ignorant, rude and ineffectual idiot of a bank manager. Ah, the power of the customer.

But all this is is just another illustration that it doesn’t matter which side of the fence you are on, employee/employer or business/customer, you’ve got to keep your eye on that blog-shaped ball.

First UK blogger fired for blogging

In the first case of its kind in the UK, blogger Joe Gordon from Edinburgh has been sacked by his employer Waterstone’s for a few mildly negative comments he made about his job on his satirical blog, The Woolamaloo Gazette. Joe was warned shortly before Christmas that he was going to be subject to a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct for bringing Waterstone’s into disrepute, but due to the festive season the hearing did not take place until 5th January. The hearing found that he had ‘violated the rules’ and he was summarily dismissed.

In dismissing Joe, though, Waterstone’s has prompted a massive backlash and huge amounts of very negative publicity – the story has been covered by BoingBoing, The Guardian, The Scotsman, The Bookseller, and The Register. Matthew Whitaker, who is a fellow blogger and a friend of Joe’s, is keeping a round up of all the press this story receives, and there have been a huge number of supportive comments on Joe’s own blog with many people writing to the company to complain or promising to boycott Waterstone’s completely.

As a bookseller with 11 years experience at Waterstone’s, and as someone responsible for organising many of the book signings that have taken place in the Edinburgh branch, Joe has the support not only of the blogosphere but also of authors such as Neil Gaiman, Charles Stross, and Richard Morgan.

All in all, this has turned into a major PR gaffe for the company – the blog-savvy media here have all been aware of the possibility of someone getting sacked for blogging because it’s happened several times in America, and they’ve been just gagging for a story like this to unfold here. I predict that it will be picked up now by the wider media, that Joe will get a whole lot of useful legal advice and support, and that Waterstone’s will end up with a large serving of egg on their face. Which will stick.

In the US, employment law exists but is weak – if you challenge your former employer’s decision to dismiss you, you are very likely to wind up on the heap marked ‘unemployable’ even if you win, but the situation in the UK is very different. Tribunals and unfair dismissal cases are taken more seriously, not just by the unions but by people in general. When someone gets fired unfairly, we tend to come down on the side of the employee. We like our underdogs.

My hopes for Joe, on a personal level, is that he gets the support and advice he requires to successfully challenge Waterstone’s and that he gets recompense for his dismissal which, on the face of it, looks very unfair. I also hope that he gets a far better job than the one that he was fired from. But looking at this more broadly, this case brings to light the fact that there has been in general a lack of thought about the issue of bloggers mentioning their work on their blogs and what that means. We need now to have some calm, sensible discussions about the repercussions of what has happened.

More to come when I’ve had a think about it.