Common User

Me rambling on.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Packed Lunches, Kelly's Dinners and a conversation

My three boys all now have packed lunches at schools, packed by their mum I should add. (in Beano lunch boxes..Don't ask). This was after we both shamefully allowed them to eat at various times Dinosaur foot prints, unidentified 'meat" sausages and a turkey twizzler or two for what the eldest charmingly dubs; "hot dinners". Its now all vegetable samosas, fresh fruit and wholemeal bread round our way now. (they love pizzas, chips, crisps and sweets too so don't think I'm Jools Oliver or something.)

So now a full 12 months after Mr Oliver first met the, then Education Secretary, Charlie Clarke and told him off, Ruth Kelly is finally pledging to end "the scandal" of the turkey twizzler. The key here is "pledging". She hasn't actually banned anything yet, despite the excitements of the papers. In theGuardian today in a sidebar (can't find it online) is this quote from Jeanette Orrey; (School meals policy advisor to the Soil Association)

"Overnight change doesn't work. You introduce something, you ask the kids, "Do you like it ? You have got to have a conversation. You have got to get the kids into your way of thinking, but also engage with them, explain to them why you are doing it. Its no good saying to a child. "There's a dinner"; and thats it."

Well blessed are the changemakers. Will Davies is particularly good on this type of neophile tendency of new Labour on Potlatch and how its a "It's a bizarre and politically skewed ontology, shared by management consultants, marketers and physicists, but by few others. " Jeanette (read her greatly book; The Dinner Lady) articulates perfectly the techniques (sorely absent) that should accompany such a change.
How about replacing a "new paper", "a new website feature", "a new TV programme" for example in above quote for example. Naming no names.
Actually there really will be a conversation about "junk food", vending machines, and how much beef in a beefburger.. A very heated conversation. Not in school classrooms, kitchens (if there's any left) or playgrounds but between Kelly's team and organisations like "the Food and Drink federation" who, naturally enough aren't keen on this change/regulation at all.

"Banning foods is neither a sensible nor an effective solution to tackling obesity. Balance is the key and bans will not help teach children how to build a balance diet"
said its spokesman Martin Paterson.
This one isn't over yet.. As ever with New Labour, they've started to communicate something before they have actually done it. And whats finally implemented will almost impossible to understand, research or grasp. And be as watered down as those bloomin sausages. However, I reserver judgement. Perhaps the conversation about the change following implementation really will include those who it affects.
Ie: my kids. For the type of children who (2nd shameful confession of post) play online games sponsored by Kelloggs and worse. Perhaps the idea (and its inevitable. The wonks are thinking it up already.) of god forbid, something like a smoothies website to win em over to the idea of fresh fruit, lettuce and milk might work after all.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Simon Waldman, the BBC and where power lies.

Simon Waldman came to speak to the BBC yesterday trying to answer the question; "where does the power lie ?". He didn't really get round to answering it but he did spend
a brilliant 50 minutes trying to articulate shifting journalism trends to what turned out to be a fairly senior and mostly mainstream TV/Radio News audience.
Although he covered a lot of familiar ground for me (Wikipedia, Daily Kos, the Guardians' Doonesbury moment, Google News, theguardian's new user led print features, the Demos pro-am report,, mini microsoft) it was a great talk.

I especially liked his juxtaposition of this Ansel Adams picture with this taken by Adam Stacey from 7/7 and his argument that
"the fact that this exists doesn't make professional photographers any the less"

He deliberately stressed that this is a pro-am world. Professionals and amateurs. He also reiterated that this was a boggle world (No bear with him..a convincing analogy that argues you have to offer both the mundane and the automated; Guardian Unlimited, for example, wisely decided to offer both the distinctive high quality journalism alongside the edited/tweaked wires when they launched in order to have a coherent successful offering. In Boggle you have to go for both low letter words and difficult 5/6 words in order to win. Ok you had to be there).

His opening gambit compared 1985 to 2005 and argued that the barriers to entry, distribution, findability have all but been removed resulting in these two truisms
  • When technology and access becomes neutral, then talent becomes more important.
  • Output/talent, however, improves with the feedback loop that the internet gives them.
This was virtually impossible in a pre Eddie Shah newspaper world, in a pre Sky TV world, a pre - Blogger publishing world. Owning and distributing ideas and journalism was restricted to the elite or that charming phrase; "big media" and seven figure sums. Well maybe. I'd challenge that a tad..
Obviously we have seen the roots of the creativity explosion before in small cultural bubbles before the internet gave us the universal cheap publishing tools, astonishing findability and software that facilitate sharing, collaboration, annotation, self policing and improvement. That virtuous circle that, taken to its extreme results in the 2 edits a second for 7/7 and Katrina on Wikipedia and the collaborative creation of immense value via the emergent intelligence systems such as Technorati, eBay trust and

Simon's point was that although the conditions being expressed today through the likes of blogger, iLife, flickr and Skype, appear transient, in five years time; people's creative desires and impulse to communicate would remain constant and still exist but the products and services served by these needs would have been replaced by new boys on the block. This impression that the internet has created new dynamics in journalism or culture is misplaced though (mind you i'm not sure Simon said that ...refers to badly written, I'd say again its just accelerated it. Its democratised it.

I like to hark back, being of a certain age (and some go even further) to the fanzine and just do it three chords culture of punk and post punk. The cheap access to publishing and tools then supplied by the growth of independent labels, the findability offered by the (then incredibly powerful) weekly music press and the growth of fanzines (themselves a result of cheap publishing tools such as new Xerox photocopiers), the distribution network of independent record shops and growth of live music friendly pubs, clubs, gigs and hey! get this the royal mail, resulted in a virtuous circle of sharing and collaboration. This, All combined with the desire to challenge the prevailing regime of prog rock, the Old Grey Whistle Test and Rick Wakeman. resulted in dozens of dozens of great singles in post-punks golden era of 78/79/80 and a creativity boom.This connectedness also explains how in 1978/9 (See: Simon Reynolds book on Post punk; Rip It Up for a much better explanation of this) there was a sudden growth in city based compilations devoted to local bands. The growth was restricted to the art school, youth fringe but the same elements were in play.
You could also see this type of bubble/dynamic with beat groups in Liverpool in 1962/3 (helped by the local music paper Mersey Beat, Epsteins NEMS Record shop, hire purchase, ) and even (and yep its stretching the analogy a bit) the english kitchen sink movie boom of the late 50s. (fuelled by Hollywood cash, northern script writers, the access to TV offered by ITV/Granada).
And there are thousands of other examples where as Simon puts it the desire to
for users/audiences to
  • create and communicate
  • control their media
  • challenge the established order
are in play pre- internet.
But then thats his point. These impulses are the constant and its entirely this analysis that poses the really tough questions for mainstream media. With an audience who want to challenge you, with an audience who don't need you to control their media for you, with an audience who want to create their own media and communicate with each other about it. er, whats left for big media to do ?
But now we're in Jeff Jarvis, exploding TV, exploding newsroom territory. And thats for another day.
Obviously The Guardian and (my employers) the BBC aren't completely stumped with these questions and SImon went on to show off some of the new Guardian new community experiments; including Been There.
There was some other good stuff about individuals not institutions being the "new" filters and a forlorn attempt to explain bloglines and get your bootleg on to an unitiatied audience but overall it was very fine, if a bit doom laden as these postcards from the future tend to be for mainstream media.
The only thing that really cheered me up was the schadenfreude provided
the quote he retrieved i think from Simon's visit to Seoul (for the Association of World Newspapers Conference) earlier this year when the COO of the Independent; Gavin O Reilly was quoted as saying

"I think participative journalism is a dangerous precedent for our industry. People forget that newspapers have been an interactive medium. People have always been able to interact with us via the mailbag"

Thank god for that. Some of em still don't get it. At all. Phew.

(UPDATE: I forgot, of course that Simon trumped all attempts to play the historical analogy game with this post connecting blogs to cave paintings back in February. Damn)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Our Hidden Lives on BBC Four

Simon Garfield writes in the Radio Times this week a short piece about Mass Observation. BBC Four, as part of their "Lost Decade" season; are broadcasting an adaptation of Garfields' excellent diarists compilation book; " Our Hidden Lives" starring amongst others Richard Briers. (So it must be ok.) next week.

When the Second World War ended 60 years ago the celebrations didn't last long. The black-out material was removed from windows, but Britain seemed just as gloomy without it. The country was soon plunged into deep economic crisis, and men and women began to use a common phrase that perfectly summed up their frustrations: "But I thought we had won the war!" And then, amidst all the austerity and despondency, they went out and queued for hours for a tin of peaches to gives as a wedding present.

We know this to be true from an exact and fascinating source - the personal diaries of those who lived through these years and agreed to share their daily experiences with a unique organisation called Mass Observation, the purpose of which was to learn more about how ordinary people spent their days and what they thought about the world. Hundreds of people from industrial centres, country towns and remote villages wrote on a regular basis, completing their diaries after work as secretaries, shopworkers, civil servants, housewifes and electricity board inspectors. Some entries were exceedingly monotonous, but most revealed frank and funny stories about their neighbours, their allotments, their complex journeys to work, their reviews of the latest films, and their staggeringly inventive ways with mock cream.

The diaries are now archived at the University of Sussex, and they reveal a picture of Britiain impossible to find elsewhere. Where else can one read about the introduction of Clement Attlees introduction of the Welfare State in the same paragraph as one learns about the thrill of a child's first banana, or how enthralling the film at the local cinema was that evening ?

Well its just like Jason Kottke but without the micropayments. Anyway I'm especially looking forward to the second volume of Garfields astonishing collection of diaries "We are at War". A drama documentary called Little Kinsey, also based on 1949 mass observation diaries and focusing on bedroom habits, is on BBC Four next Wednesday. As Peterme is reiterating in his fascinating new "Designing for the Sandbox" (sandpit surely!) blog, then user created content has a long, long history. Before 1994 even.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Guardian says sorry again

The Guardian has used one of its blogs again as a platform for clarifying and apologising about an editorial decision. In this case, the use of material posted to its online forums in the Guardians new Saturday print Family section. Although, as Emily Bell describes, it was perfectly acceptable within the terms and conditions of the boards it offended many users.

It was a mistake to use some of the material without more warning and consultation, given its more personal nature. We are sorry if posters have been offended or upset by this. There are individuals who have complained to GU or the readers’ editor directly and we will be contacting them personally.

For an issue with slightly more weight than the previous user led editorial reversal, this shows again how comfortable The Guardian now is at dealing with these type of issues. Whether its the format, the speed of response, or the quality of the writing they just don't sound like grudging climbdowns. They sound confident and open.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Lego Star Wars and granting permission.

"Hey Dad ..I've got General Grievous". I've been spending a lot of time, in the last few months with Lego Star Wars. . So enamoured has my son become with the thing, I've already had to have it replaced once (a scratch) and last month bought a second copy after it mysteriously suffocated from too much handling after a friend came to visit.

"having" General Grievous actually means having him by the way. My son can now whip about as the evil General turning droids into tiny bricks with two lightsabres thrashing away at once jumping preposterously high in the air.

What impressed me almost immediately was as Iain Simons puts it in the New Statesman (reg required) this week is how the "project works its two brands with energy". .Well yes but paradoxically, more crucial to its success, is perhaps the way it combines the consistency of the lego and star wars worlds we know and love with that now familiar but tough leap to let go. And despite the flexibility, those flat faces and moulded hair, it still feels right. Lets face it, as an idea, it still sounds more like a creative experiment in fandom being endorsed heavily on Boing Boing because the community just received a cease and desist rather that a sanctioned MSM product. How on earth did they let it happen ?
Simons goes onto explain...

"Central to "Lego-ness" is the concept of permission - to build, to experiment, to play with the infinite possibilities of reconfiguring plastic bricks. Equally the Star Wars element is about using George Lucas's characters and iconography with the freedom of movable bricks."

To be fair Lucasfilm aren't always so relaxed, as BB are better placed to point out but this is a rare tie in, that starts with the audience. (Under tens and their Dads), and thinks that to succeed you give them control and (oddly rare for a videogame) the tools to be playful with the brand/characters. Now how do I apply this splendid liberal approach to the challenge Mrs Common User has set me. How do I prevent the the poor fella from playing it five hours a day. I'll get back to you on that one. That PSP at christmas is starting to look most unlikely indeed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Guardian and readers contributions

I had a spring in my step as I made my way to the newsagent yesterday morning. And of course after all that its astonishingly fine.The size of G2 is a bit ridiculous, a bit Russian Doll as one of my colleagues neatly put it but apart from that its a brave and innovative leap as that one 17 years ago when David Hillmans astonishingly clean, modern whitespaced design was introduced. I loved it. Dan has the best and most comprehensive design commentary.
What i picked up on straightaway though were the further improvements its introduced (in print) to try and incorporate the contributions of its readers/users and open up the paper. And at the same time further blur the dividing lines between the paper and Guardian Unlimited. Online the Guardian is obviously comfortable in this area with the (astonishing) new editors blog (which has already shown its worth as a tool to reflect user feeling/brand response conversation in the reinstatement of the Doonesbury cartoon strip) building on the work of Rafael Behr over at The Observer.
Emily Bell has also used the reformatting to announce a couple of new social software products including a collaborative annotation travel guide thing; Been There
where I've already been questioning Simon Hoggarts views, no less, on Brighton's fish and chip shops. He should have talked to his colleague Matthew Fort who like me knows that the only chippie worth mentioning on the south coast is this.. But I digress.
Up til now the lynchpins of reader participation, ownership and accountability (in print) had been the paper's Ombudsman Ian Mayes and his weekly column (Previously on Saturdays and now moved to Mondays) alongside the first and finest (and witty) Corrections and Clarifications column in UK newspapers. And increasingly letters pages had started to proliferate in every one of (society, education, life/it) G2 sections and supplements but now look. This sort of participation is happening all over the shop...
The high profile and explicit call to action on page 2 of the paper for feedback about the design "", is obvious enough but a new innovation is the, er democratisation of the obituary pages, which originally I envisaged was to be merely annotations of the great and good but has (3 days in) evolved into a fascinating reader led space documenting what they are calling "other lives" and has so far amongst others featured a dedicated mother/cleaner/socialist/anglican worshipper,
an archaeologist, and a TV producer in admidst the actors, politicians, and sportsmen.

Now The Observer has done a pretty good job of acknowledging the role of zines in amidst its sports coverage with regular zine editor contributors but now the Guardian has started to tip a nod in this direction with some "citizen" match reports. And yesterdays Education supplement was stuffed full of this sort of stuff with 4 examples of copy being driven entirely via readers (emailed) submissions.
Finally they've taken a step further, as far as possible, the relationship with online. Upselling to Unlimited and the digital edition is difficult to get right editorially and in print (all those URLs) but it still feels pretty seamless and not too intrusive and, there again, the most prominent web print feature is again user led; a blog review and a most popular pages chart.
This is groundbreaking stuff (for UK papers at least) though and The Guardian, again, is leading the way in dare I say it having a conversation (that old chestnut) with its readers both in print and online. (and now on TV too.) Markets are conversations after all. Now will that translate into er, revenue. Those £80m printing presses and dicey circulation figures are heavy baggage to carry about for much longer.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Our Social World

On Friday I went to oursocialworld in Cambridge. A fine day where the rapid fire presentations were interspersed with bibilical cracks of thunder from outside and some nice flapjacks. As is usually the way with these things the format was a succession of 9-10 Keynote/Powerpoints; so in descending order...

- Ben Hammersley had another successful (and thoroughly entertaining) go at arguing how there were parallels between blogging and 18th century pamphleteering and that Tatler published the first blog. One day I'll have a go at this tempting parlour game and paint amusing parallels between the blogosphere and the proliferation of DIY publishing and punk zines of the the late 70s where Danny Baker and Mark Perry were the Scobles/Kottkes of their day. But with Letraset, Carrier Bags and Permanent Markers. I will inevitably fail.

- Simon Phipps from Sun Microsystems talked about the process of setting up In the space of a few months Sun Microsystems had 500 public staff bloggers and their CEO; Jonathan Schwartz was hard at it knocking out some pithy thoughts late at night once he's put his kids to bed. He also revealed the benefits that this has brought Sun in enabling an honest and direct conversation with its industry. (but few examples how exactly). Clearly marketing/PR have had the wind put up em. I didn't get round to asking him how/if a supposedly impartial (mostly) not technical broadcaster could/should do the same.

- Johnnie Moore got us doing some improv drawing but also talked about the relationship between consumers and big brands could be disrupted when he, as a matter of fact, revealed he was one of the co-authors of a independent Sainsburys blog; 173 Drury Lane. (the street of the very first J Sainsburys shop). Except Sainsburys hadn't really noticed. Surprisingly the BBC has relatively few of these I suspect, because you're not exactly short of BBC commentary in big media. Every single day. Inevitably some of the best blogging insights into the BBC are from BBC staff themselves. Apart from these dedicated licence fee payers of course.

- Loic le Meur from Six Apart (the owners of LiveJournal, MovableType and Typepad) talked about European blogging and their success with integrating blogging (and their software) into "big" media organisations (Le Monde), and how radio stations in France by endorsing blogging and showcasing it for the young people have resulted in nearly 3m French having a go. Blimey.

- Lee Bryant from Headshift announced in amidst several slides (pdf) discussing the role of social tagging in developing shared meaning and language, an impressive looking new project; Patient Opinion where using the feedback loop, geo-location of NHS services, blog type architecture, user tagging and self categorisation, then hey presto a bloody impressive conversational/accountable tool. Could it work for another national treasure providing free at the point of delivery services for every UK taxpayer ?

- Euan Semple (of this parish) showed some screenshots of talk.gateway, connect.gateway and our internal blogs and revealed that Richard Sambrook's blog was set up because so many people used to ask Richard; "What do you do all day ?". As one of his bloglines subscribers it turns that the answer is "quite a bit". He also argued that because of the directness and honesty of Sambrook's blog postings and because their consumption is a clear subscription model then they tend to have more impact than the staffwide emails of other executives at the BBC.

- Suw Charman talked about her work as a blogging consultant. But i missed this bit as i was having a row with my bank about my overdraft. Sorry Suw.

- Hugh Macleod briefly referred to the usage > buzz > advocacy dilemma of marketing and the potential of blogs in this area (see Technogoggles commentary) when he revealed the history of how he (and his client) had set out to sell a brand of wine. A nice dry Rose as it happens which was on offer for free at close of play along with some olives and sun blush (why not dried?) tomatoes.

Ross Mayfield the boss of Socialtext demoed Wikiwyg which looks very impressive. Its a, er wyswyg tool for wikis. He also criticised the use of the phrase "user generated content". "I hate that phrase" he says arguing that actually language and framing really do matter if you intend ot have a relationship with your users and that such initiatives (to succeed) need shared control as this is the only way to foster trust amongst participants.

As is usually the way with these things the most provocative and useful presentation of the day came from one of my colleagues; Tom Coates. Although he rightfully passed on the the challenge of defining "social software" he had a go at defining current themes in i dunno, social media and showed a couple of proofs of concepts that he'd been working on in with his BBC Radio and Music colleagues. He also touched on (substantial) developments in this area that weren't blogs which was the dominant theme for the rest of the day.
Tom's themes from the top:

Social Software with an individual goal or "social software with a point".

If you give users the ability to share, some ability to self-categorise and commit to openness (the distributed internet) and the primary focus is an individual act (storing and showing off my pictures) there can be incredible collective value. Tom and also Max Niederhofer (later in the afternoon) went further arguing that more importantly its giving users objects (an event, a picture, a radio show) that is a pre-condition in allowing allow users to express themselves. Tom (and his ex-colleague; Matt Biddulph) and others have elsewhere concluded that this is an important driver in making these networks flourish. Furthermore the objects need standard unique identifiers. Now these clearly exist for books, and to a certain extent for music tracks (CDDB) but its been their absence for programmes (either TV or Radio) that led to an infrastructure project at the BBC called Programme Information Pages (pdf) that both Tom and Matt (and others) worked on.
Examples: Flickr (photos), (events)

Collaborative Annotation of Media, Your Stuff.

Another example where given certain tools and pre-conditions, individual annotation and actions can lead to collective value.

Examples: (bookmarks), and because I''ve just had a look at it theguardian's new Travel Guide; "Been There".

Tom showed off an interesting proof of concept that took audio streams and allowed users to annotate (using Wiki functionality) radio features/shows at various time junctions. This breaking down of programmes into micro content combined with a neat way of thinking about sociality (but obviously for someone who works for a broadcaster based around audio/video) was interesting and not something that the early A/V Flickr type apps(Youtube )

Collaborative Creation of Media

Where thousands (although in Wikipedia's case andI always forget this, its still skewed towards a fairly small set of editors, moderators and writers who do 90% of the 'work' and the rest being done by the masses who make 1 or 2 edits a month.
eg: Wikipedia

New Ways of Sharing Experiences

eg: last FM
Tom also showed off the proof of concept for Phonetags (which plays on some of the functionality of Audioscrobbler/Last FM and combines it with Radio and a neat use of SMS)

New Ways of Harnessing Individual Creativity or Play. Aggregating behaviour.
eg: microformats
There are obviously dozens of examples here but Tom cited this one which is a new project by Kevin Marks from Technorati which attempts to solve the issue of having thousands of distributed content forms (eg: reviews) in many format. What if we could recognise them and present them back as meaningful feeds/sources. ?

Don't know if Tom is gonna post up his slides and apologies in advance for any misattribution but these 5 themes ended up being a useful framework for me thinking my way through this maze and not falling into the trap of launching YASNS. Thanks Tom.

And thanks to Geoff Jones for putting the whole shebang together.