Ada Lovelace Day

About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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All content © Kevin Anderson and/or Suw Charman

Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Cars: There’s an app for that

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Suw and I are taking two weeks off. Most of the time, we’ll be here in London enjoying a holi-stay. I might engage in some deep-thought blogging after recovering from a really too busy 2009. In the meantime, I’ll just engage in a little light coolhunting.

Someone recently was picking my brain about the future of in-car technology. I think that one of the knock-on effects of the iPhone is that people will expect apps and add-on services in a wider range of consumer electronics. Cars will not just have on-board computers to manage the engine but also on-board computers to navigate, entertain and inform much as we would expect in our home.

Hobbyists have already been adding these kind of systems to their cars for years, and Prius drivers love to hack their hybrid cars. High-end cars have complex environmental and entertainment systems, but we’re starting to glimpse how these activities will filter into the mainstream.

Satellite radio services in the US have been using some of their surplus bandwidth to provide information services, and with 4G data services such as WiMax and LTE service expanding in the next few years, mobile data will provide the kind of bandwidth that we’ve previously thought of as restricted to DSL and cable. Faster wireless connections will bring new forms of entertainment, expand the use of web services and provide new opportunities for information providers.

GigaOm has a great post on a prototype system in a Prius.

As a journalist, the question is whether news organisations will let another opportunity slip by them.

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Visualisation for news and community discovery

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I think that visualisations and interface innovation hold great untapped potential for journalism, not only helping journalists and audiences to see trends and understand complex sets of data but also as a tool that will dramatically improve news site usability. The last few years have seen a lot of innovation in visualising data with the advent of mash-ups and easier visualisation tools from Google, Many Eyes from IBM, etc., but there has been too little interface innovation for news websites.

By and large, news websites still reflect their print heritage. They make the classic mistake of rigidly reflecting their own structure while ignoring the semantic connections that cross desks and departments. Most news web site interfaces obscure the vast amounts of information we produce as journalists. Good interfaces go beyond design and search to issues of information architecture, user experience and discovery.

I believe that interface innovation can unlock the power of technologies, helping them break out of a small group of technically adept early adopters to a much wider audience. The Windows-Icon-Mouse-Pointer interface helped open up computers to a much wider audience than when command line interfaces were dominant. The graphical web browser helped unleash the power of the world wide web. In 1990, when I first used the internet, I had to learn arcane Unix commands to even read my e-mail. In August 1993, I used the seminal web browser Mosaic for the first time in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois, where I was studying journalism and where that groundbreaking browser was created. I instantly realised that the web browser would become a point-and-click window to a world of information, communications and connection.

I’ve been interested in interface innovation since the late 1990s when I first saw the Visual Thesaurus from a company then called Plumb Design, now called Thinkmap which showed the connections between related words. The company did even more impressive work for Sony Music and EMPLive, an online exhibition for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project. In many ways, the work was way ahead of its time and sometimes ahead of the capability of the internet. The projects used advanced interface concepts more often found in CD-ROM projects of the day than the internet. One of the things that impressed me about especially the EMPLive project was that it allowed virtual visitors to the navigate the music collection a number of ways, whether they were interested in time, genre or a particular artist. The presentation also showed relationships between elements in the collection. I like Robin Good’s description on the Master New Media blog of Plumb Design’s work:

The original goal at Plumb Design was to create dynamic interfaces to information systems that reveal interrelationships often obscured by conventional methods of navigation and information display.

In many ways, Plumb Design showed what was possible with data, semantic analysis and rich interfaces more than a decade ago.

While interface innovation has not been an area of focus for most news sites, thankfully we’re seeing some tentative steps forward after a post-dot.com crash period of stagnation. Slate has launched a service called News Dots. Chris Wilson describes it like this:

Like Kevin Bacon’s co-stars, topics in the news are all connected by degrees of separation. To examine how every story fits together, News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network. Subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another if they appear together in at least two stories, and the size of the dot is proportional to the total number of times the subject is mentioned.

Like EMPLive and the Visual Thesaurus, News Dots helps show the interconnection between stories. The feature uses Calais, “a service from Thompson Reuters that automatically “tags” content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth”. Slate has built its own visualisation tool using the open-source ActionScript library called Flare.
Slate's News Dot project
It’s a good first stab, but Slate admits that it is a work in progress. I like that the visualisation clearly links to articles and sourcing information. I like that the dots are colour-coded to show whether the dot represents a person, place, group, company or ‘other’. I think there might be a possibility to better show the correlation between the tags, but as I said, this is a good launch with a lot of possibility for improvement and experimentation.

Another project that I think shows the potential of improved interfaces is the Washington Post’s visual commenting system called WebCom. As Patrick Thornton explains, it is a visual representation of comments n the site. As new comments are posted the web expands. Those comments rated highly by other commenters or those that spur the most responses appear larger in the web. The web not only allows for navigation and discovery, but users can comment directly from within the visual web interface.

Thornton says:

The commenting system was built in two weeks by two developers at washingtonpost.com. A front-end developer worked on the user interface, while a back-end developer created the database and commenting framework in Django. Because the user interface was built in one language — Flash’s ActionScript 3 — and the back-end in another, the Post can take this technology and put it on different parts of washingtonpost.com with different user interfaces.

Wow, that’s impressive in terms of turnaround time. Django is quickly becoming an essential tool for the rapid development of journalism projects.

Thornton points out that it doesn’t work on mobile browsers or older computers. I might quibble with the focus on most popular comments or comments that spur the most response; comments that draw the most responses can often be the most inflammatory or intemperate. Likewise, popularity often becomes self-reinforcing, especially when it drives discoverability as it does in an interface like this. I would suggest that a slider that weights other factors might be useful. A simple search or tagging system might help commenters to find threads in the discussion that interest them. Again, this is a good first attempt and, with the development time only taking a few weeks, it shows how rapidly innovations like this can built and tested in the real world.

It’s exciting to see these kinds of developments. News organisations are struggling during the Great Recession, but often these times of crisis spur us to try things that we might otherwise think too risky. Whatever the motivation, it’s good to see this kind of innovation. If this can happen during the worst downturn in memory, just think what we can do when the recession eases.

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

Will the Asus “Eee-Reader” be a sea change?

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Lots of people were tweeting yesterday about the new Asus e-book reader which, we’re told, would be a form factor unlike any of the e-book readers currently out there. Due out, possibly, before the end of the year, it would be a foldable dual-screen reader which will let the user read a text on one screen whilst surfing the web on the other. It will be full-colour, with a soft keyboard on one of the screens. With a price tag of somewhere around £100, it could make a very compelling device.

But I fear there is a big, fat, juicy fly in the ointment. Neither Kevin nor I have been impressed with the software that comes built into cheap electronic devices. We bought my mum a little MP3 player a few years ago and whilst it looked nice enough and was within her budget, the user interface was nothing short of appalling. Even I had a few problems understanding how the thing was supposed to work and as far as I know, my Mum hasn’t touched the thing in months, if not years. And as for Kevin’s GPS device wrangling hassles, let’s not even go there.

We’ve also not been impressed by the Asus Eee PC’s operating system, Xandros. It’s not because Xandros is based on Linux, which we both use regularly, but because Asus’ implementation of Xandros makes it difficult for the casual user to install software not included in Asus’ package. It’s like Microsoft making it difficult to install anything but Microsoft-approved software on your laptop.

When it breaks, you need quite a bit of know-how to fix it. Kevin has spent hours working on a friend’s Eee, first getting it to run a Twitter client and then fixing a BIOS update that buggered things completely. Updates to the Eee change the location of user application preferences, which can then break shortcuts to user-installed software. That makes installing your own software challenging. This is something that users would be up in arms about if it were Apple or Microsoft.

The mock-up of the Asus “Eee-Reader” looks lovely and the price is certainly user-friendly, but will the software be? I have shied away from the other e-readers because a portable device of that size that I can’t write and check email or Twitter on is unappealing to me. The users interfaces of the devices I have played with have been at best clunky and at worse frustrating and proprietary software means users can’t install their own software (as far as I’m aware).

If, like the Eee PC, the Eee-Reader uses either a Linux or Windows variant as its OS, users will at least be able to customise their device to some extent (depending on hardware limitations and know-how). At the moment, netbook users who have the Windows machine actually have more freedom than those on a Xandros machine, because Asus have made it so difficult to install software on Xandros. If the Eee-Reader gave me that choice, I’d probably end up plumping for Windows, even though that comes with its own issues.

What might be interesting would be if it was capable of running Android. As Kev tells me, “people have some interesting hacks with Android.” I’ve never had a chance to properly play with Android so I’m not sure if I’d be keen on having it on my e-book reader or not. I would guess that ‘Hackintoshing‘ it won’t be possible; there are specific hardware requirements for a Hackintosh and as yet we have no idea whether the Eee-Reader will meet them.

My worst-case scenario is that Asus would produce some sort of proprietary OS with only limited functionality that users can’t add to. If Asus did that, they would be missing a trick - the success of Apple’s App Store shows that people want to be able to install applications of their own choosing onto their phone and that developers are willing to spend time creating them. If the Eee-Reader’s hardware specs mean that software needs to be specially developed or adapted for it, then Asus should use an OS that’s easy to develop for and create an open marketplace that encourages an ecosystem of applications for users to choose from.

The initial description of the Eee-Reader sounds attractive, but unless its software is usable and extensible it’s not going to tick the box for me. I can’t carry round a laptop, and iPhone and an e-reader; my back would never forgive me.

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Why Identi.ca needs to look further afield than open source

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

There’s been a lot of buzz in the Twittersphere this morning - well, when Twitter behaves, that is - about a new Twitter-like service, Identi.ca. Launched yesterday, Identi.ca takes the Twitter idea and open sources it, and that alone makes it worth keeping an eye on not just because we can soon expect a world full of Identi.ca installations, but also because it means that business will be able to take the code and run it behind the firewall, finally bringing Twitter-like ambient intimacy to enterprise. (If any businesses are brave enough to experiment, that is!)

In my view, though, being open source isn’t going to be enough of a draw for most people. Even if you assume that the service will turn out to be stable, reliable, richly featured, able to easily import contact lists, and attracts the interest of third party clients like Twitterific and Twhirl, that still won’t be enough to draw people away from Twitter, unless Twitter catastrophically fails. Yes, Twitter’s having significant and annoying problems, but it’s important not to underestimate just how apathetic users can be when it comes to migrating from one social system to another.

What Identi.ca needs to do is to become a cross between Ping.fm, which allows you to posts to multiple social networks, and FriendFeed, which aggregates your output from a variety of tools such as Twitter, Flickr, and Del.icio.us… but with bells on. We need a ‘write once, post anywhere’ system, combined with an ‘aggregate and de-dupe’ system, so that we can all become tool agnostic. Such a system wouldn’t care where you wrote your update, it would distribute it to all the tools you use, and it would aggregate back responses from all your friends, regardless of which system they used at the time.

I think there are two key parts to such a service: De-duping will be essential if such a system is going to be at all usable. If you post the same message to Twitter, FriendFeed, Plurk and Jaiku, then I don’t want to see it showing up four times in my aggregated feed. Friend list management and grouping is going to be the other key issues. The tedious thing about Identi.ca - or any other such service - is recreating my Twitter friend list, or at least some part of the Twitter/Identi.ca friend lists Venn diagram. This is possibly where something like OpenSocial might come in very handy.

I doubt that such a tool would be simple, and relying on other people’s APIs creates multiple points of failure, but the nice thing would be that if I am posting to all ‘microblogging’ platforms and aggregating them all back again, it won’t matter if one tool goes down for a bit. If Twitter dies, but my update has gone to FriendFeed too, and then pushed back out to my friend’s account that they happen to access via Jaiku, who cares that one route in that network was out of action for a bit? On the other hand, if Identi.ca were to becomes that WOPA-AADD system, then you are rather creating a single point of failure… unless, of course, people were to run multiple installations as nodes in a Skype-like network, which would be possible with open source code. Just a thought.

Whilst I doubt that I’ll be deserting Twitter any time soon, if Identi.ca moves in the right direction it could really make a big difference to how we maintain our online presence.

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

TV Un-Festival: Sclipo

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Gregory Gimi

Social network that allows people to share knowledge through video. 600 million people use the internet to find information and to learn. Learning on the internet is a very important one. Why Sclipo? Three phenomena:

- video became efficient, most of the learning you could do before was text based. So can see what you are being taught. Added quality of learning.
- web 2.0, user generated content. Not so much that people generated content, but that people looked at people generated by other people and find that attractive, e.g. Wikiepedia, YouTube. Without being recognised professionals. Adds efficiency to the process.
- social networking effect. very popular, and learning experiences depend on social networking.

Have different ways of browsing the video content, looking at videos that teach skills, through ‘Academies” which are channels, and skills channels which are companies demoing their products.

Everything from cooking to technology. Similarities with other websites, but we use more educational terminology. You can learn through two methods - looking at the video and then by webcam, so if I find someone who’s good at cooking and I have a specific question, the next level of learning is through a webcam, and this is what we call SclipoLive, so can request a class from that person.

[Demo of a live webcam teaching session.]

The webcast is automatically recorded, so can then be watched by other people afterwards.

Three models of academies: if you teach and make money then there’s a commission, if you don’t make money then add ads.

Q: Do you share the ad revenue with the person giving the class?

Not at the moment.

[Long discussion of how payment system could be built.]

Q. what licences, e.g. Creative Commons, can I use?

Publisher owns the content, the person putting the video up.

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Saturday, August 25th, 2007

TV Un-Festival: Jonathan Tweed - BBC iPlayer Facebook app

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Hackday - put iPlayer on Facebook, wanted to show the iPlayer team what they should be doing. People are too busy to watch TV. Times this week reported that usage of social networking site exploding and that this is going to have an impact on TV viewing.

When people aren’t watching TV they are either going out or going onto social networks like Facebook. Answer to this is to put TV on Facebook because that’s where people are - put your content where people can’t miss it. Problem - if they are not watching TV, how do they know which shows to watch. They trust their friends more than anyone else, so have to add social features so people can recommend things. Everything else has social features, but iPlayer doesn’t. So added social features to iPlayer, shows what friends are watching, and what they think of them, also have current pics on iPlayer, and last night’s TV. Provides a click through to iPlayer to download/watch the TV, so can also search iPlayer.

Can also add reviews, which adds to Facebook, and to iPlayer. That’s as far as it’s been taken so far. At the moment you have to seek out what your friends are watching but want to add in a notifier to tell you what your friends are watching. Going to add recommendations. Want to find out what you think, what do we need to add to make it compelling?

Should we be doing this? Other companies are doing similar things? Should the BBC host a site where users are reviewing its programmes? What does it need? What would make it use it? What’s the future for Facebook applications? Is it a fad?

apps.facebook.com/bbciplayer, but need to be on the iPlayer beta at the moment. Once iPlayer comes out of beta it can be on the directory.

Q: Have you thought about widgets?

Yes, we are. But this isn’t an official project. Did this for Facebook because we can’t do it on MySpace or Bebo, but will put together widgets for other sites.

Q: Why do recommendations by brand?

We’re going to do it but programmes, or by genre, or whatever you want.

Q: What about the ability to become a critic?

That’s a good idea.

Q: Can you recommend stuff that’s not on iPlayer?

No, because it screen scrapes the iPlayer site. Quit hard to get access to the internal BBC data but because this is hosted externally we can’t. Value in the application. Need to get more stuff on there and use other ways of finding it. Is it reasonable for the BBC to do this?

Q: Is this programmes or just clips.

This is full programmes.

Q: Is it worldwide.

Application is available worldwide but iPlayer is UK-only.

[Lots of discussion about possible functionality which I'm not going to transcribe, because I'm getting tired now.]

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Saturday, August 25th, 2007

TV Un-Festival: Paul Cleghorn - Tape It Off The Internet

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Designer by trade, made some screens of what he thought that a compilation of what TV was available on the web, and took a lot of user feedback and started a build from scratch, starting in March. Live with a new version launching in a week or two. Going to open up to beta users.

Core mission of Tape It Off The Internet (TIOTI) - like Wikipedia, start with licensed TV information, can add all sorts of things to it, video clips or photos or text description, fan fiction, production notes, etc. Indexing all stypes of TV. Started with BT because it was the only stuff out there, now also iTunes, Amazon, as well as Joost, TV-Links.co.uk, etc. Taking any format and gluing it all together.

Building a social network around it too, can invite fans, can recommend shows, use your peer groups as a basis for recommendation. Trying to get hte whole world of TV in one place. Still a bit hard for people to find what they are looking for, we are trying to smooth that process.

So look at a show, pull in licenced source, but let people add things, so there’s a photo gallery too, so if you saw these people at an awards show then you can draw in from Flickr. Build up user generated stuff around the show. If you find something related on YouTube, e.g. a spoof, or blooper reel or anything else, can add that too so that you build up a full resource.

Trying to connect it up with other services such as Facebook, using Facebook login and will pull in the ‘TV shows you like’ so you don’t have to repeat yourself.

Using tags such as country, and badges so that people can link through to, say, your Flickr page. Looking to open it up over the next couple of weeks. Has widgets.

Indexing stuff like Virgin so detect you have a Virgin IP and show you what they have available.

Being open as possible with user data so that people can take their stuff with them. Trying to cross-reference different sources to help the recommendation engine. Doesn’t seem to be a definitive TV microformat yet, so might make a new one or hijack one. And RSS feeding a lot of stuff, can get feeds for discussion, downloads, etc.

Q: Tivo patent could be an issue for season passes.

We’re not a recording service, we’re just showing information about TV, so we’re not doing season passes, because we’re just listing as many options as possible (unless that becomes unmanageable). But we’re not a recording service.

Q: Where do you licence the data.

From Tribune Services, mainly it’s EPG content, so weekly update with about 2 weeks of information. they have a 40 year archive which we’re using for our archives. Not doing a schedule-based aproach. Do want to skirt around the Gemstart grid patent. Better way to do it.

Q: What about the licensing of data that people put up?

We need to look at Creative Commons, atm, it’s standard terms and conditions, but not sure that’s the best way to do it. But that’s how our lawyers like it at the moment.

Q: You’re being respectful of other sites, but your competitors aren’t and are indexing more content. Is that a worry? E.g. Share.tv

So we index them but we don’t index YouTube because there are two many cats. Not uch reason for us to spend a huge amount of time filtering big buckets of video when others are doing that. We want to be the metaindex at the top.

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Saturday, August 25th, 2007

TV Un-Festival: Ian Clarke

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Degree in computer science and AI from Edinburgh, and designed a project to exchange info in countries where there is censorship. This became Freenet. Non-profit corp in USA, since 1999. 2 Million downloads of software. One of the things that happened with Freenet, even though it was designed as freedom of speech idea - was at same time as Napster - it was perceived as indestructible Napster as it was designed so that it couldn’t be shut down.

Has been thinking, how do you enforce copyright onlne, and the answer is that you can’t. Enforcement of c is about preventing people sharing information when they don’t have permission to. So if you can’t enforce copyright, what is the alternative?

Founded Revver in 2005, to help foster an environment of creativity online, want an ecosystem where creators can be paid for their work. Interested in online video, this was at the time when broadband was starting to make this possible, devised a way to attach unobtrusive ads to end of videos, release under CC no-derivs, attrib, licence, and share the revenue on a 50-50 basis with creators, or 40-20-20 if there was an affiliate, so produce financial incentive to share video.

A lot of the people you may have heard of use or have used Revver, e.g. LonelyGirl15 for about a year, ZeFrank. Almost every well known video blog has used Revver, except Rocketboom.

Whilst at Revver, got curious of how to figure out what people are interested in and show it to them. Not a new problem. Started to look at collaborative filters, basically a system which looks at your behaviour, perhaps what you buy on Amazon, and then recommends things to you that you might like. Amazon, NetFlicks. Problem is that they either work or scale - but they don’t do both. if they can recommend stuff well, they don’t scale, or they dumb down the recommendation so it can scale. Built a filter called Daedalus for Revver, and licensed it to Reddit.

Whilst working on this collaborative filter, noticed that collaborative filters need a lot of data before they can figure out what they are interested in. So Reddit needs people to use the website for several hours continuously. Real opportunity in online news space, with n otable exception of Reddit, no one was really doing personalised news, and those that were were using collaborative filters that are problematic, and the quality of user submitted news is extremely low. If you’re familiar by Digg, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

This was the genesis of Thoof. Alternative to collaborative filtering, figures out your interests more quickly, based on your behaviour, your browser, your approx. geographic location. There are generalisations you can make about mac vs PC users, or Firefox vs. IE, or based on geography. Built tech to recommend stuff to you, but if you see something on the website that can be improved, you can change it and fix it, although there is a voting step - you propose a change and if it survives the voting process it can be applied to the story. Raised a million dollars in seed foundation, launched in June, and traffic growing at 25% per week.

Using Freenet is like using a web browser, but slower - learnt that one of the key problems is that even when there is information available, that doesn’t mean that people will find it. It’s not just about accessing information that they know they want, but about finding information that will interest them once they know about it.

Go to URL in web browser, it’s easy to find out who’s hosting what. With Freenet, info is distributed through the network in a decentralised way, so unless an author chooses to reveal their ID, you have no way to know who they are. But threat model with Freenet at the time was that no one would know what people are doing with Freenet, but that’s not enough. What if you can be punished for just using the software, irrespective of what you are doing with it, e.g. China, so set about redesigning Freenet to use a darknet methodology, so that you could just connect to those people you know personally, so no one knows you are connected to Freenet, but through those people you become a part of a global network. Been working on this for two years, but working pretty well so far - lot of people don’t already have friends that are using Freenet so there is a way you can connect to strangers as opposed to friends if you choose to do that. Freenetproject.org

Q: Are there access points into Freenet, like SMS?

Not an SMS gateway to the best of my knowledge, are web gateways, but using a gateway is … you’re throwing away a lot of the benefit. To get the security, you have to be running Freenet on your computer. It’s not going to run on a typical mobile phone.

Q: You said it was friends of friends, if you try to keep cosiness amongst your contacts, how do you deal with infiltrators?

The only people who can cause problems for you are the people you have immediately connected to. So if your friend is stupid and connects to a government agent, that agent has no way to tell you are part of the network. Many Freenet users don’t care, because they live in the US or UK where they aren’t going to be jailed for this, and will connect to anyone. But we try to place it in the hands of the individual as to how much security they want. There’s a trade off between convenient and connected.

Q: What happens with people abuse the tool.

Any tool can be abused. But the freedom to communicate - if one person wants information and someone else wants to have it, that freedom is essential in a democracy. Our leaders are chosen by us, and in order to make effective decisions we need free information. So totalitarian countries spend a lot of money controlling their people’s ability to communicate. Any tool can be misused but the benefits outweigh the potential abused.

Q: How do people know who to trust?

When people are anonymous how do you know when to trust them? That’s a question that the internet in general gets, blogs etc. But at Freenet we address that problem with the concept of a Nym, an anonymous identity so anything you publish is signed by the nym, so you can link together discussions and content to the same person. Even an anonymous identity can build up trust. Similar to the WWW, a blogger can build up trust. This problem is not completely solved - what might be intersting to experiment with, and we may do it with Thoof in the future, and Thoof’s approach is to fix in a peer reviewed way which works well. What we’re likely to do in the future is to create a ‘web of trust’ so can build up trust based on performance. So if you propose a change and it’s rejected, that decreases your trust level, but if you propose a lot of changes and they all get voted through you’d get more trust. So maybe then stories you right are promoted more quickly, but the mechanisms within the site will get rid of it really quickly.

Q: Where are Thoof stories from?

You can submit anything that has an URL. YouTube, BBC article, anything. What goes on Thoof itself is a title, description and tags. Intention is that the title and description will be impartial and unbiased description of what’s being linked to, but the thing being linked to can be expressing an opinion. Can edit review, title, and even URL.

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Saturday, August 25th, 2007

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

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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.

ARGN.com 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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Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

New, new uses, or new to you?

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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 Del.icio.us, 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 Del.icio.us 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.