TV Un-Festival: Hazel Grian, John Williams – Alternate Reality Games

Alternate reality games. History is it was a marketing tool.

Meigeist, partly funded by HP, corss-media narrative, takes place on- and offline. Puzzles for people to solve, and they have to get otgether to get hte next part of the story. Need diverse players. Games like ILoveBees are complex puzzles that need people with diverse interests to solve it. Get passionate online community to solve it.

Story is a scifi one, but set in as much reality as possible. Totally free – funding was from Film Council and HP and other bodies. Eight week run. Main characters had own blogs, Eva McGill, main character was a student who finds herself mixed up in this extraordinary world. Video blogs, backdated to give it history. People could email Eva and she would email back. Level of interactivity was really high, lots of personal contact which people really liked. Answered messages, comments, sent things in the post, had an eBay auction of a toy that had a clue. Had as many platforms as possible, Live chats, set a task, mission is to help the main characters through her problems where she’s starting to have strange psychic happenings in her head. Players made films, and were rung up on the phone, asked to perform tasks, also received SMS messages although US people had a problem with that. Main thing was to keep up the level of interactivity – we could do that because we were doing it full time, role playing, and doing improvisation.

Had a live event in Bristol, had the actors hired for the day, did a mock symposium, had little adventures with the characters in town, so the players got to meet them in person.

Also had a sense of humour, so did characters who were investigating paranormal activities, based in Radstock, but their function was to be like the players to that they could drop hints, a bit like the Greek chorus, emphasising the key points. Developed another game using them.

Most impressie things is the communities that get involved, people from all round the world play. It’s not just 15 year old boys – 50/50 split m/f, age 14 – 47, all getting involved and sending emails. Different levels of interaction, so had lots of different ways to interact depending on people’s own comfort zone. 30,000 unique IPs logged. Want to look into demographic more in future, because it was using platforms everyone uses every day, you didn’t have to buy a different bit of kit or learn new skills. One of the key players was a woman called Sylvia from Ohio. Had a few thousand that gave contact details and about 50 people who got really involved. Quality not quantity.

Cost of project was £30k, for ten month project with two people.

People worked together through a forum. That was set up so that people could collaborate there and that was the hub of how they could communicate. Work people do is amazing. is a good place to start.

Q: What has the most successful ARG?

Well, lots are for marketing, so ILoveBees for Halo, but how do you class its success? Difficult to say how successful it was because it’s hard to say what the aim of each ARG is. Ours was very successful by our own aims, but it didn’t sell anything. We weren’t pitching it that way.

Q: Has it broken through to the mainstream?

Q: PerPlex City, by MindCandy, was bigger, company made quite a bit of money as people could to buy merchandise.

Doesn’t exist any more though. Made a lot of cash from merch, got a lot of investment and sponsorship, but caused so much pressure on MindCandy that it split them apart.

But we didn’t get any bad feedback at all – it was just “the best thing” that the players had done for ages.

Q: I played it, but you didn’t mention yet, the real-time chat channel by IRC, even just 5 – 10 people, but that was the heart of it for me.

Saw that as well, it was nice when something was released in the chat that there’d be a lot of buzz.

Q: Were you in the channels?

We were but we’re not going to say who we were.

You want to know what the audience things, and you have a live feel, you can see what people are thinking and feeling, it’s almost like stand-up comedy.

Q: In reference to early question, one successful one is CourtTV – it’s a story over 14 days of a woman who’d found her husband cheating on her, and it was a story that lots of people followed, but not a game. Another over, proper ARG, 8 days, 30k people playing, 6k got the solution right, all using online materials etc.

Looking now at Geocashing and Geodashing – augmented reality games.

Q: At the moment you are creating things ad hoc, would you imagine in the future would there be a more high-level thing that controls is, so you could create a website that is more automated?

Problem is the more you automate it, the more personal it is. If it’s really chatty, and personal, then it’s a whole different game, autoresponders are a bit cold.

Hazel is a writing on Kate Modern, a Bebo promotional thing. Getting that level of interactivity is interesting, all has to be answered online all the time. New level of this. What’s also interesting is how you fund, sponsor, set up these things. Should the BBC be commissioning these things? Same people as LonelyGirl15.

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New, new uses, or new to you?

A few weeks ago, I blogged some thoughts about innovation inspired by the close of The Economist’s Project Red Stripe, to which Jeff Jarvis responded. Jeff’s post was interesting, as were the comments, but one in particular from Malcolm Thomson stood out:

John Robinson says rightly “A protected group from within can come up with innovation, but unless they require no money or commitment, then they have to go before some decision-making person or body.”

But ‘unless they require no money…’ is of significance. Now that the tools of video journalism are so incredibly cheap, now that tuition with regard to the essential skills is so accessible (CurrentTV’s tutorials, etc.), the reporting/storytelling innovators must surely already exist in growing numbers.

Many months ago, I collaborated on a project looking at the future of retail. I’d been asked to take part in two discussion sessions by the company writing the report, and four of us sat around a big whiteboard thinking about trends in retail, and what the future might hold 5, 10 and 15 years out.

Our main conclusion was that the final recipients of this report, a global company who wanted to be prepared for the future, were woefully unequipped to even make the most of the present. Many of the most basic things that you’d expect such a company to do online were not being done and it was clear that, given the culture of the organisation, they were not likely to get done any time soon. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t Web 2.0, more than that they hadn’t even made it as far as Web 1.0 yet.

Much of the media – and other sectors too – struggle to understand the developments of the last 5 – 10 years, and find it difficult to work existing technologies into their business, even when there are clear benefits to doing so. But it’s not like things are actually changing that quickly, especially if you stay on top of developments. As Tom Coates said about the broadband vs. TV ‘debate’ last year (his italics):

These changes are happening, they’re definitely happening, but they’re happening at a reasonable, comprehendible pace. There are opportunities, of course, and you have to be fast to be the first mover, but you don’t die if you’re not the first mover – you only die if you don’t adapt.

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention.

When businesses talk about innovation, they frequently mean “new” in the sense of “brand, spanking, no-one-has-ever-done-this-before new” or “first mover new”. Because they see the landscape as changing at an alarming rate, and they see innovation with the same blank-paper fear as the blocked writer, the whole thing becomes terrifying. Add to that the fact that they do not have a good solid grip on the state of the art as it is now, and you end up with a group of petrified execs standing on the brink of a chasm they fear is too wide and too deep to risk jumping, because the only outcome they can see is crash and burn.

Another type of innovation is the “new use” – taking tools that someone else has created and using them in an innovative way. How do you use all this Web 2.0 stuff that people are creating all the time and work it into your business? How does it bring value to your audience? What symbiotic relationships can you nurture that will enable you to do something different? This is the sort of innovation that I think the media needs to focus on.

Some are trying very hard to do this, some are just paying lip service, but many aren’t trying at all. Comments are a great example of a relatively new technology – it’s only been around for a few years – which the press have embraced en masse, but entirely failed to use effectively. The point of comments is that it allows writers to have a conversation with their readers, and for stories to continue to be developed post-publication, yet in the majority of cases comment functionality is slapped on to the bottom of every article – regardless of whether that article would benefit from comments – and readers are left to fight it out by themselves. Little of worth is added to either the articles, the publisher’s brand, or the commenters’ lives.

Creating a boxing ring online is not an innovative way of using comment technology, it is obvious, old-school, and short-sighted. It’s creating conflict to sell newspapers, increase hits or get more viewers for your TV slug fest.

Equally, using video to replicate television is like using Thrust to do the shopping – it makes no sense and is a massive waste of money. There are plenty of big hitters already doing TV rather well, and in an era of 24 hour rolling news, the last thing that we need is to replicate that online. Rather, the media should be using online video to do things that TV cannot do, to get places TV cannot go, to examine issues with the sort of depth and nuance that 24-hour rolling news couldn’t manage if their very lives depended upon it, to tell the stories that TV has no time for.

Where are these media outlets – newspapers or otherwise – who can honestly say that they are using even just comments and video truly innovatively? In so many cases I see new-school technologies used in old-school ways that transform it from groundbreaking to mundane. One case in point was Ben Hammersley’s BBC project about the Turkish elections. Yes, he was using, and Flickr and he was blogging and using RSS, but with a distinctly old-school flavour that robbed the tools of their own potential.

A pneumatic nail gun can put nails through steel girders, but if all you do with it is build a garden shed, you might as well have used a hammer.

Finally, technology may not be new, but if it’s “new to you”, it can have real value. It used to be just blogs that provided an RSS feed, but then the tech press started using RSS, and now it has become standard across the majority of major news sites – no one sensible is without it. Other outlets might be using blogs or or wikis, but that shouldn’t stop you from assessing how best you can use these tools yourselves.

But businesses are inherently neo-phobic, and this has resulted in the Great Race to be Second: the burning desire of companies everywhere to watch what others do and see if it succeeds before they follow suite. Neo-phobia also leads companies into a state of group-think, where they use technology only in the same ways that they’ve seen other people use it. RSS is another fabulous example of this – news outlets will only provide a headline and excerpt news feed, rather than a full feed, because they are scared that if people can read their content in their aggregator, they will not visit the site and if they don’t visit the site then valuable page views and click-throughs are lost.

Every now and again I see an article saying that full feeds increase click-throughs, the most recent being Techdirt, and their argument is compelling (their italics):

[I]n our experience, full text feeds actually does lead to more page views, though understanding why is a little more involved. Full text feeds makes the reading process much easier. It means it’s that much more likely that someone reads the full piece and actually understands what’s being said — which makes it much, much, much more likely that they’ll then forward it on to someone else, or blog about it themselves, or post it to Digg or Reddit or Slashdot or Fark or any other such thing — and that generates more traffic and interest and page views from new readers, who we hope subscribe to the RSS feed and become regular readers as well. The whole idea is that by making it easier and easier for anyone to read and fully grasp our content, the more likely they are to spread it via word of mouth, and that tends to lead to much greater adoption than by limiting what we give to our readers and begging them to come to our site if they want to read more than a sentence or two. So, while many people claim that partial feeds are needed to increase page views where ads are hosted, our experience has shown that full text feeds actually do a great deal to increase actual page views on the site by encouraging more usage.

But even if the assumption that partial feeds drive traffic to ads is correct, there’s still no excuse for having partial feeds, because ads in RSS have been around for ages. I don’t remember when Corante started putting ads in the RSS feed, but they’ve been doing it for ages and I have never had a single complaint about it. I don’t know what the click-through rates are compared to the ads on the site, but I’m sure that it would be possible to experiment and find out. It is undoubtedly possible to design a study that would give you the right sort of data to compare the effectiveness of partial, full, or full with ads feeds, but I’ve yet to hear of one.

And therein, I think, lies the rub. We don’t always know what will happen when we introduce new technology, but instead of experimenting, the majority prefer to go along with group-think and the old-school ways. They want innovation but only as a buzzword to chuck around in meetings – the reality is just too scary. Yes, there are mavericks who get this stuff, but they are frequently hamstrung by the neo-phobes, and have to spend their time pushing through small, bite-sized changes whilst they wait for the dinosaurs to die off.

Where’s your innovation?

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but Neil McIntosh’s post about the closure of The Economist‘s skunk works, Project Red Stripe, has finally prodded me into action.

Project Red Stripe was a small team of six Economist employees who were given £100,000 and asked to “develop something that is innovative and web-based and bring it to market” within six months. They brought in outside experts to talk to the group and solicited ideas, from Economist readers and the wider blogosphere, which they then “evaluate[d …] against a set of criteria that the Project Red Stripe team have predetermined”.

Unfortunately, the idea that they came up with wasn’t really one that The Economist could see a way to earn any money out of. Project Lughenjo was described as:

[A] web service that harnesses the collective intelligence of The Economist Group’s community, enabling them to contribute their skills and knowledge to international and local development organisations. These business minds will help find solutions to the world’s most important development problems.

It will be a global platform that helps to offset the brain drain, by making expertise flow back into the developing world. We’ve codenamed the service “Lughenjo”, an Tuvetan word meaning gift.

Announced only four weeks ago, it has now had the plug pulled.

Neil, in his response to this turn of events, rightly questions whether ‘profitable’ is the only definition of success, and points out that innovation isn’t always radical and that a single innovation’s success can be, instead of based on it’s own performance in isolation, a result of its position within a group of innovative components that are profitable only in the aggregate. He says:

The lessons for news organisations? We needn’t make innovation hard by insisting the end product is always huge and/or high-profile. We shouldn’t think that innovation is something that can be outsourced, either to a small team or to a software vendor (the latter being a surprisingly popular choice for many newspaper publishers).

And we needn’t necessarily worry that we’re not having enough ideas. If you ask around, you’ll probably find it’s not ideas we’re lacking. What’s tricky (I know – this is my job) is capturing the best ideas, mapping them to strategic goals, and delivering them in a way that makes them successful.

To do that, you need innovators who understand the importance of baby steps and can deliver them, one after the other, regular as clockwork. And, unlike Red Stripe, you can make their life easier by making sure they’re not locked away from the rest of the business, worrying about a blank sheet of paper and a mighty expectation from the mother ship that, somehow, they’ll be able to see the future from there.

Neil also links to Jeff Jarvis, who says:

[T]hey ended up, I think, not so much with a business but with a way to improve the world. Their idea, “Lughenjo,” was described in PaidContent as “a community connecting Economist with non-governmental organizations needing help – ‘a Facebook for the Economist Group’s audience.’ ” It wasn’t intended to be fully altruistic; they thought there was a business here in advertising to these people, maybe. But still, it was about helping the world. And therein lies the danger.

I saw this same phenomenon in action when, as a dry run for my entrepreneurial course, I asked my students at the end of last term what they would do with a few million dollars to create something new in journalism. Many of them came up with ways to improve the world: giving away PCs to the other side of the digital divide, for example. Fine. But then the money’s gone and there’s not a new journalist product to carry on.

This gives me hope for the essential character of mankind: Give smart people play money and they’ll use it to improve the lots of others. Mind you, I’m all for improving the world. We all should give it a try.

But we also need to improve the lot of journalism. And one crucial way we’re going to do that is to create new, successful, ongoing businesses that maintain and grow journalism. We need profit to do that.

A very good point. Altruism isn’t really what’s needed, and it doesn’t necessarily equate to innovation (although in rare cases, it does – think of the $100 laptop project).

It’s not just newspapers
One thing that’s really important is to remember that the problems that The Economist have with innovation also face many other businesses in many different sectors. I see, for example, the PR industry just storing up trouble, the way that they have segmented themselves in to different agency types such as creative, print, TV, or online. I don’t think that any company can afford to segment its PR and marketing like that, let alone an entire industry. How can the situation where your creative team is separate from your online team – and those teams are run by different companies – be a good way to keep abreast of technology, to understand and grasp the opportunities? If a creative agency has an idea for online, how will they be able to implement it if online is run by someone else who is actually in competition. Now, maybe I’m misunderstanding the way that the PR world works, but that’s how it looks to me on the outside: like built-in failure.


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Ian Forrester interviews us at XTech

Ian Forrester, of BBC Backstage and cubicgarden, interviewed Suw and me at XTech last week. We talked about what we took note of at XTech including Gavin Bell’s talk about online identity and the presentation by Blaine Cook (Obvious Corp.) and Kellan Elliott-McCrea (Flickr (Yahoo)) about Jabber: Social Software for Robots.

Ian did quite a bit of video blogging from the conference including some of the presentations that we discussed. The other videos are along the right hand side of this page.

UK start-ups: They are out there

I’ve been having conversations lately with a few people about British start-ups. As Tom Coates noted, it is a conversation we’ve been having for quite a while now, but rather than pontificate, I thought I’d do another one of my list blog posts. Who are the British start-ups? And what do they do? I’ll be editing this post as I go along to reflect new info, but here’s my starter for ten:

“Ning is the fast and free way to create custom Social Websites!”

“word-of-mouth community where people can remember, share and discover great places”

“etribes is used by thousands of people like you who want a simple, secure personal website.”

“Web Widgets. Snipperoo is for collecting and using them without hacking code. Add widgets to your account and they appear on your site. It’s like magic! And it’s free.”

“Webjam is a flexible tool that allows you to manage multiple pages, on your own or with people you invite, with just one account.”

“Blog instantly by speaking your entry into your mobile phone. Simply call your Speak-a-Blog TM number and speak your post. SpinVox converts it to text and posts the entry live to your blog, within minutes.”
“The social music revolution.”

“The marketplace where people meet to lend and borrow money.”

“Email large files easily and securely”

I just know I’ve forgotten some, so tell me… where are the other UK tech start-ups? And which ones do you rate? Equally, I feel pretty confident of the provenance of these start-ups, although it’s not always clear, so please correct me if I’ve got it wrong.

Six Apart spins like a Whirling Dervish

I’ve refrained from blogging about Six Apart lately, because I have nothing positive to say about them or their products right now, but I’m afraid I can’t let their latest marketing email pass without calling bullshit.

I have spent the best past of the last four or five months listening to various friends struggling on a daily basis to keep Movable Type up and running. In fact, if you’re a regular reader then you’ll have experienced for yourself some of the problems that Corante have had with MT: the slowness, the failed page loads, the inability to post comments and, at one point, Strange’s total absence. I know of at least four large commercial installations of MT that have struggled – and, at times, failed – because Movable Type simply did not scale. (Although the new Rebuild Queue has helped.) I have personal friends who have had significant problems with MT, even though their sites are relatively small. And I have consoled more than one developer as MT saps their will to live, with significant bugs in 6A’s code being found and, eventually, fixed.

(Note: I am not going to name names, other than Corante’s – you knew about that anyway. Businesses in particular seem to be very wary of admitting when they are having software problems, but I am talking about household names both in the UK and the US who are having problems, and not small ones.)

With all this in mind, I find it totally disingenuous of 6A when they write:

We talk a lot about helping bloggers succeed with Movable Type, and that requires us to also focus on an important rule: Failure Is Not An Option.

You see, one thing Movable Type users often have in common is that, whether they’re writing a personal parenting blog for friends and family, or they’re publishing their opinion on case law for a law blog, they just can’t accept downtime on their blog. Fortunately, Movable Type was designed from day one to be super-reliable, standing up to the heaviest traffic load, even if you get linked to be a huge website.

This is nothing more than marketing department spin. MT is not super-reliable. If it was, then I wouldn’t keep hearing of yet another blogger who has abandoned MT, or another company that’s fighting to keep its MT installation going.

Six Apart is talking about MT as if it’s only used by individual bloggers, and that the only problem is when you get linked to by a big site. But whilst there are plenty of individual bloggers who are having problems, there are also business who have paid good money to MT for a commercial licence and are now finding MT to be a liability. And it’s not necessarily a big link that’s causing the problem, but fundamental flaws in the way that MT deals with spam and comments, and other bugs in the code that frankly should have been picked up years ago.

The spam problem, as I understand it, is that MT doesn’t differentiate between a spam hit and a proper comment until it has hit the database. It does the same amount of work in both cases, and the only difference is where that comment eventually turns up: on your blog or in the junk folder. So if your blog is hammered by spammers, the database does the same amount of work as it would do if it were hammered by real commenters. Of course, a spambot can hit your database with more comments more quickly than a human being can, and that alone can bring a blog down.

I heard of one case where, every time a comment was made, it caused 250mb of data to be transferred between servers. Scale that up to 100s or 1000s of spam comments, and suddenly you have the kind of load that can melt a server.

So no. MT is not super-reliable, and it cannot stand up to the heaviest traffic loads.

Six Apart go on:

How does it work? Well, unlike most blogging tools, Movable Type supports two different ways of publishing your pages — it can look in your database and choose which posts to display each time someone visits your site, or it can just generate a regular HTML web page that gets displayed without having to touch your database. That’s what we’re talking about when we say Movable Type supports “static” or “dynamic” publishing — static publishing doesn’t talk to your database every time someone visits your blog, and it’s the default in Movable Type. We let you choose between both so you can set the right balance of performance and scalability. (Static publishing takes longer for you as an author, but less time for your readers — so if you’ve ever waiting for your site to “rebuild”, you can take some consolation in the fact that your readers will have less of a lag when they visit you.)

Aaah yes, the rebuild. They talk as if this is a good thing. The trouble with rebuild is it’s really not very efficient, and frequent comments cause superfluous tasks to be queued for the rebuild, so you end up wasting a lot of server capacity. God knows the number of times I’ve sat there, waiting for a blog to rebuild… and waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

If you have the very latest version of MT, you have Rebuild Queue, but if you don’t then it doesn’t matter whether your site is static or dynamic, the problem is total comment load, including both spam and valid comments.

Most other blogging tools don’t do rebuilds the way MT does, and I can’t think of another tool that I use that suffers as much from bugs and downtime as MT. Doing things differently doesn’t mean you’re doing them right and everyone else is doing them wrong.


Now, if you have a huge farm of servers and lots of technical staff, you can make dynamic publishing work at very high traffic volumes, too. In fact, our LiveJournal team here at Six Apart invented a lot of the open source technology that makes that work — the people behind sites like Facebook and Digg and Wikipedia and our own Vox use it, too. But if you’re running on a regular web server at a standard hosting company, they’re going to get kind of annoyed if your blog is hitting the database thousands of times just because you wrote a popular post.

Most commercial installations don’t have big server farms, nor do they have lots of technical staff. Yet even if you do chuck a few extra blades and a couple of developers at the problem, it’s still difficult to make MT work in either mode, static or dynamic, if you’re being hammered by spammers. Again, writing popular posts isn’t the problem. Serving pages isn’t the problem. Comments are the problem.

Now, it’s very easy to blame the spammers, but the sad fact is that spammers aren’t going to go away, and tools have to be built to withstand their onslaughts. MT isn’t. It didn’t matter how many servers you threw at MT 3.2x, comment spam could still kill them.

Oh, and just to nitpick… all that lovely open source stuff from LiveJournal? Well, let’s remember that minor point of fact that 6A bought LJ for its open source goodies. No sneakily trying to claim credit for LJ, please.

You might’ve seen this effect already — ever check out a link that’s been promoted on a big site like Digg or Slashdot and been faced with a “database connection error” when you visit the blog that got Dugg? Well, Movable Type is designed to prevent you from ever having to face that problem.

I feel like a broken record. Spam, guys, spam. Not the Slashdot Effect. (For the record, I’ve noticed that the Slashdot Effect is nowhere near as strong as it used to be anyway.)

For more tips on how to make sure your blog is performing as reliably as possible, our community’s put together some resources:

* MT Wiki
* Performance tuning Movable Type
* Enabling FastCGI
* Movable Type System Architectures

MT was always a tool that you needed to have a reasonable amount of expertise to install. Then they made it a bit easier, so you didn’t need to have quite the developer chops that you used to. Now you need to be a developer again to make the damn thing work. Make up your minds, 6A. Either MT is a developer tool or a consumer tool – you can’t keep wavering between the two.

And of course, we haven’t yet achieved this goal of making blogs failure-proof. Some of the steps for making a Movable Type blog bulletproof are too obscure or confusing. So we want to collect your feedback on the questions and concerns you have about the reliability of your Movable Type site — if you’ve ever missed out on some page views or potential readers because your blog wasn’t reachable, let us know or briefly summarize your story on this Movable Type wiki page.

OK, so 6A haven’t achieved their goal of making blogs failure-proof, why spend five paragraphs claiming they had?

If they want to understand where the problems are, they should start offering some support instead of expecting the people they’ve let down put the time and effort into writing it all up for them on their wiki. I know of people who have paid good money for MT who have had to fight to get 6A’s attention for support – 6A have complained when people ‘don’t use the ticketing system’ when the ticketing system was in fact broken. Hell, I even know of companies that have had to fight to pay them for a licence to use their software as per their terms and conditions. What sort of way is that to run a business?

Give proper support to the people whose MT blogs are failing, and you’ll soon gather all the stories you need to figure out what’s screwed up with MT. Instead of asking us to put the effort in, why don’t you, for a change?

We’ll start blogging about the reliability stories we’ve heard, both where MT has held up under pressure as well as where MT didn’t do what you’d expect, and how to fix it. Until then, you can help by pointing us at examples of Blog Failure, whether it’s on Movable Type or not, and we can all work together to help solve the problem.

Frankly 6A’s marketing department should be given, at the very least, a strong talking to for this email and especially the first and last paragraphs. Why should we do your work? It’s not the consumer’s job to figure out what’s wrong with your software – that’s your job, and if you provided decent support you’d have most of the answers by now anyway.

MT 3.34, released on 17 Jan 2007, has helped a few of my friends and contacts, but they are still having to do significant work to get all the plug-ins installed and working efficiently. Spam is still a problem. FastCGI gives a perceived speed increase, but frankly is a bit like faking it.

And whilst Rebuild Queue helps, it comes too late for many individual users and large MT installations. In commercial settings, MT’s damaged reputation has rubbed off not just on other third-party blog-related tools, but also on those evangelists who championed blogs in the first place, obscuring blogs’ benefits with serious performance issues that blot everything else out. It also makes it much harder to sell other Web 2.0 applications because of the fear that they too won’t scale.

The truth is that 6A have dropped the ball. They abandoned MT and their users, and their lack of support and updates has caused significant problems for even those people who are paying to use the software. Instead of keeping on top of MT and ensuring that it can cope with a rapidly changing environment and increasingly sophisticated spammers, they’ve spent the last two years focused on Vox.

Personally, I find it hard to have faith in Six Apart’s commitment to developing, improving and supporting Movable Type, which is why I now advise clients to avoid it at all costs.

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FOWA 07: Round up and impressions

So the notes are up, the dust has settled, and I’ve recovered from all the excitement. Time to think about the Future of Web Apps and give my opinions, as so nicely requested by Alan Patrick. I don’t usually have time to both take notes and think about my reactions to what’s being said – the notes are just my way of processing what I’m hearing. If I don’t take notes, I tend to fall asleep, so it’s a sort of conference survival mechanism thing, really. Anyway…

Firstly, I have to thank Ryan, Gillian and Lisa for letting me in to cover the conference. We had agreed that I would write short summaries of each session for their live coverage page, but problems with the wifi meant that it was really difficult for me to get the summaries to Lisa who was posting them live, so we really only managed to get a few of the talks from the first day posted. I feel a bit bad about that, but I hope that the comprehensive notes I have posted here will do instead.

The wifi was a real problem this year. Last year, they’d organised great wifi, but this year, despite spending good money on it, one of their suppliers failed and there was no wifi except BTOpenzone, which on the first day crumbled under the weight. It was a bit better on the second day, but still not all that reliable. I really hope that Carson get their money back, and compensation, from whichever supplier screwed up. Wifi at conferences is really important, and it’s something that significantly changes attendees’ opinion of a conference, so I feel for Ryan, having spent so much on it only to have it die.

Now, on to the content. The tone of this year’s conference was very different to last year’s, in my opinion. It was much more business- and vendor-led, with fewer of the sort of inspirational talks that we had last year, from people like David Heinemeier Hansson, Tom Coates, or Cal Henderson. I think that made it a little flatter this year, with fewer ‘wow’ moments.

The highlight, for me, was without a doubt Simon Willison talking about OpenID. Simon’s good at being excited about things – he has an energy and enthusiasm which is totally contagious, and by the time he finished his talk I immediately wanted to run off and set myself up an OpenID server.

Stef Magdalinski and Richard Moross from Moo were also great. Stef has a great style as a speaker, a nice wry humour that I very much appreciated after some of the dry sponsor slots. Plus I love Moo. They produce the best business cards I’ve ever seen, and every time I give one out, people notice it, notice the quality and the unusual dimensions, and they immediately love them. Which reminds me, I really must get some more done. So, as a fan of the product it was great to hear more about Moo, and surprising to hear that they are based in London. For some reason, I thought they were based in San Francisco! Just goes to prove, yet again, that the best start-ups don’t always come from America.

Tara Hunt’s presentation on community was very interesting. I think I know a bit about community but Tara had lots of interesting stuff to say and said it well. My only criticism was that she tried to cram a bit too much in, and so she went a little bit too fast for me to keep up.

Notable product pitches came from Simon Wardley from Zimki, who should get some sort of special award for effective use of photos of kittens with guns, and Stefan Founatin from Soocial whose presentation was funny and inspiring all in one.

So, what didn’t I like? Well, I don’t like boring presentations from people who could only talk about how great their own company is. Werner Vogels from Amazon totally wasted a good opportunity to talk about on-demand resourcing in a useful and interesting way, instead choosing to bang on about how great S3 and EC2 are as if that was all we needed to know. He had the beginnings of a really good talk about push- and pull-mode resourcing, and could have given us a really useful insight into how S3 and EC2 actually work, but chose the patronising ‘Look how great we are! These people use our service! Our service is great!’ route instead. When someone asked “How do you ensure that the data you host on S3 isn’t lost”, he totally refused to answer and basically just told us to trust them. Sorry, but you can’t demand trust, you have to earn it.

Here’s a general tip for people representing their company at a conference. Remove every single superlative from your presentation. I don’t want to see you saying that your product is ‘the best’ or ‘most this’ or ‘incomparable’ – I won’t believe you anyway. You can do more to enhance your company’s reputation by giving an interesting talk that’s only tangentially related to your products or services than you can by blathering on about how great you are.

As for sponsor talks, well, frankly, sponsors should never be allowed anywhere near the stage unless they have something genuinely interesting to stay.

Barring a few boring talks, I came away from FOWA 07 feeling pretty good – I enjoyed myself and had some good conversations. It wasn’t as inspirational as last year, and I think I’d prefer next year’s to go back to a one-day format but be much more rigourous about who gets invited to speak than have two days with sponsor chaff clogging things up.

Of course, I’m secretly hoping that next year I’ll be able to come up with a relevant talk to submit myself, but I guess that depends on how much Ruby on Rails I get my head round in the meantime. But either way, I’ll certainly be hoping to attend again.

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FOWA 07: Richard Moross & Stefan Magdalinski – How we Turn Virtual Stuff on the Web into Beautiful Things in the Real World


Loves print. Books, magazines, greeting cards. Who really Bluetooth’s their contact details to people? Internet is just the internet. You can’t touch it.

Moo is a new kind of business. New media is creating new kinds of content, communities. Can create, edit and publish our own stuff on the web, and it’s kinda good. Uploading terabytes every month, but it’s stuck up there. Only way to set it free is to print it.

How we turn virtual stuff on the web into beautiful things in the real world.

The challenges. Business started with one person, and it’s a printing business. 500 year old business model producing a product that’s 300 years old – business cards. How do you get someone to care or notice you? Challenge to stand out and build a remarkable company.

Do things that are different enough to be worth talking about. It’s all in the details.

If you look in the usual places you’ll get the usual people. Need to hire unusual people. Everyone hired was through friends of friends, not recruiters. Only one person, Berhane, in the company who isn’t a DJ. Reversed engineered their existing software in a weekend.

Products. The difference make all the difference.

Three steps:
– Look at the marketplace.
– Have a cup of tea.
– Do something completely different.

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FOWA 07: Tariq Krim – Netvibes relaunch, code-named “Coriander”

Time is scarce, and our digital lives are growing out of control. Netvibes focuses user attention on the things that people care about. Netvibes now introducing a universal widget API. If you build a Netvibes widget you’ll be able to make it available on every widget platform including Mac Dashboard, Google… and will try iPhone too.

Netvibes translated by community. Want to stay focus on their values, so will open source the JavaScript runtime. Will be a Netvibes UI library for your own widgets. Building with the community a wall of APIs.

Preview available next week, on the developer network.

Also, support for OpenID.

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FOWA 07: Rasmus Lerdorf – PHP on Hormones: Application Development Using PHP

Started in 1993 with the Mosaic web browser.

Loves solving problems, but hates coding. But, like flying, one has to endure discomfort to get to interesting places.

But developing PHP was such a big job he gave a lot of it away to other people. Why do people contribute to an open source project?

– self-interest
– self-expression
– hormones, oxytocin which is ‘nature’s trust hormone’
– improve the world, has done that to some extent.

When you know you are dealing with a human on the other end, oxytocin is produced. Encouraging people to interact with each other, to trust each other, and open source is one way of interacting with people and thus producing oxytocin which makes them then feel good.

Lots of people feel like they ‘own’ PHP because they’ve put so much into it.

Relates to Web 2.0 stuff, because a lot of those sites harness network effects and get better the more people use them in a way that caters to their own self-interest. PHP is not a website, but PHP users tend to also be PHP developers.

Benefit to Lerdorf is that if other people are writing PHP then he doesn’t have to do it all. Flickr and WIkipedia would be useless without people’s contributions, and PHP is the same.

Why do users contribute to a website?

– self-interest
– self-expression
– hormones, lots of hormones on Flickr
– improve the world, not the major focus for many [although think of Wikipedia]

Two major hurdles
– Performance
– security

If you have a good idea but your site can’t handle the attention and users then it’s dead in the water. It’s easy to clone an idea so you have to out-perform your competition. Need to benchmark how fast your stuff goes. Latency needs to be 20-40ms range. Use tools like Callgrind to find out what’s going on in your application. Look at how your application actually works, what are the calls? Look at CPU load. Does it make sense how your app is using resources?

This is purely performance, not scalability. Scalability comes on top of this. You can scale but still be slow.

Security on the web today is awful. There are some valid criticisms of PHP in terms of security. Should have built security into PHP in the early days, but it was hard in 1995 to know what was going to happen, the problem didn’t exist.

There are some common problems in PHP, in Apache, IE – it’s impossible to secure anything in IE6 or older. In short, the web is broken and you can all go home now. But we have to muddle on, because it’s the only one that we have.

Key problem is clicking on links. Unless you understand exactly what’s in the link you’re clicking, it’s really not safe to click on it. Relatively easy to get people to trick people into giving you their login details. Flash movies can be doing things behind the scenes that can talk to any site you’re logged into, e.g. your banking site.

Filter via PHP all content coming into Yahoo! and filter out anything that could possibly cause a problem. Sort of like a network firewall.

Machine tags geocoding photos in Flickr, can specify area and pull out all geocoded photos from that, without specifying a tag.

In conclusion
– avoid participation gimmicks, don’t pay your users to use your site
– get their oxytocin flowing
– solve one problem
– clean and intuitive UI
– APIs
– make it work

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