Being serious isn’t the whole answer

It’s been interesting watching the response to whatever 2.0 is as the whatever it was has matured into whatever it is now.

…I should probably rephrase that…

The social web has changed as it crawled its way through those painful teen years of greasy skin, piercings, “you just don’t understand me” and shouting at its sooooo 1.0 parents. And so, too has the institutional assessment of these environments and tools. Once upon a time the development of social tools had our fellow insitutions looking on with horror. After a while it became entirely de rigeur. Round about now, it has become unfashionable to launch anything without some kind of social element.

This is the inevitable Gartner Hype curve in action. We’re right up there at the peak. Everything is exciting, new, spangly. Institutions – not just cultural heritage, but enterprise too – are like kids in a toyshop. Everything we see is exciting. Everything, frankly, also has FUNDING embossed on it in an enormous web2.0 font.

This is inevitable, but irritating. With the rise to the peak of inflated expectations, budgets rise, projects become longer, teams get bigger. In some ways, this should make people like me happy. What we’ve banged on about for so long is at last funded and adopted by institutions. As always, the irritation is more about doing technology for the hell of it rather than looking at how users might really want to interact with our content.

Being at the peak naturally has people considering the trough. Recently, I’ve noticed two cultural heritage commentators taking this kind of angle. Brian Kelly’s recent stop doing, start thinking presentation took our original one (stop thinking, start doing) and turned it around in ways that are probably obvious from the titles. He suggests a more conservative approach to Web 2.0 which looks at risks, balances concerns, considers reliability, accessibility and archiving. Nick Poole does the same – a recent tweet talks about the “luxury of the last ten years” and asks how we should be focussing our efforts from now on.

These are extremely valuable viewpoints. Building our digital strategies on ground that is shifting constantly is a scary thing, and it is absolutely right that we have considered, serious responses to new technologies and the hype. It’s obviously particularly important that we consider this stuff carefully given the current economic climate.

The problem I have is that serious is where people start asking about consequences, are suddenly asked to provide figures on return on investmentSerious is where things slow down and stop being agile. Serious is where Project Managers live. Serious, frankly, isn’t where innovation, fun and excitement happen.

Twitter didn’t grow out of serious. Nor did Facebook. Or Launchball.

Now, I’m convinced that the core proposition of the social web transcends any kind of hype. So ultimately, I think we’ll continue producing online experiences that tend (albeit slowly) towards a viable, fun, user-centric horizon. I also think we’ll come up with the kinds of strategies that Brian and Nick have written about. We need to find ways of safeguarding our approaches, shielding them from the hype as much as is possible. But we need to do this as much (if not more) with big, funded, serious projects (“do it because it addresses user needs, not because you can get funding”) as with the lightweight, agile, rapid ones.

In a sentence: let’s work hard to find coherent and sensible strategies to what we do, but let’s also make sure we continue to innovate, to play, to fail rapidly and then move on. It is here that we’ll likely find true audience engagement.

3 thoughts on “Being serious isn’t the whole answer”

  1. Hi Mike,

    I think this is an excellent, and really valuable overview. I agree that it isn’t an either/or, but there is something odd about the way we handle product development, and the transition between startup and service.

    It should be possible to work in an environment where spontaneous, fun and creative things emerge from the simple process of playing with technologies. Equally, it should be possible to incubate the *best* of these and then to transition them into long-term, managed services (Twitter and Facebook may not have grown from serious, but you can betcha they’re serious now…)

    The changes which happen under the bonnet when you shift from startup to service are fundamental and important. You have to take something from one kind of culture and hardwire it into an existing organisational one. The expectations of users ramp up proportionately to the issues of quality and reliability.

    Where we do tend to go wrong is in expecting to go directly from idea to fully-fledged implementation. Funders are no good at delayed gratification!

  2. Hi Nick

    I agree, and the notion of “incubation” is an important one. There’s a sense in which these ideas and concepts need to be given freedom to run on their own without too many constraints (or funder expectations!) but you’re right, the transition to service is currently uncomfortable.

    Having said that, some of the approaches – say, Brooklyn’s use of direct video capture to YouTube is pretty much full service straight from idea.

    I’m sure this particular example wasn’t *quite* as simple as Shelley makes out, but nonetheless there’s an embracing of risk, fun and “fail quickly” that is important here.


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