Why 3 won’t replace 2

I was at the Hague during the latter part of last week, doing a keynote at CATCH // Museum 2.0. The organisers had seen me talking at “Kom je ook?” and asked me to go over again.

This talk – “Why the Social Web is here to stay (and what to do about it)” is an expansion on the one I did in December last year at Online Information. That one focused a bit more on the enterprise, wheras this one was specifically pitched at cultural heritage.

The message is much the same: connecting with others is deeply important to people. The social web connects people. Therefore, the social web is deeply important…

Anyway. Here are the slides

[slideshare id=1059694&doc=DMJEMyDropboxWorkHagueConferenceWhy_the_social_web_is_here_to_stay_final-090223094929-phpapp01]

“we have a tech generation that thinks that’s all there is”

How to go about writing up a conference like Future of Web Apps? With, what, a thousand plus people converging on a space as large as London’s Excel centre, it’s not like you can be at every talk, breathe in every vibe, taste all the startups. I was even more crippled by the fact that I couldn’t make the first day. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts…

Mark Zuckerberg. Now with media training (TM)

Mark Zuckerberg. Now with Media Training (TM)

Conferences – in my experience anyway – aren’t usually about the sessions. They’re about the people, the schmooze, the drinking, the between bits. FOWA does these bits – big time. I had the headache to prove it. From that perspective, FOWA (and I believe I’ve – almost by accident – been to every one) is a winner. Big name (Zuckerberg, Rose, Arrington, Sierra..), big announcements, big…well, everything.

 

For this, Carsonified (and I’m slowly getting to know ’em – they’re Bath-based after all..) get massive quantities of respect. Ryan Carson is good at this shit: he knows it, the industry knows it, and it’s obviously a formula that works.

But..but..but..

I also think that conferences need a very strong sense of direction. It’s all too easy to revel in the hero-worship that surrounds people like Zuckerberg, and somehow forget that however much we might want to influence 100 million people with our web app, most of us aren’t there yet, and there’s a huge number of boxes to tick – technology, funding, usability, content, luck – before we’re going to even stand a chance of getting there. FOWA should be the place that, even if not actually answering these questions, goes about helping young developers begin to ask them: how can I get funding, what technology should I use, how can I create outstanding content, and so on. I’m not close to being a cutting edge developer, but every session on the developer track was so generic you could probably sum them up like this: “oAuth: it’s quite good”, “cloud computing: it’s quite good”, “work-life balance: it’s quite good”. To me, FOWA doesn’t come across as the future of web apps. It’s the near past of web apps. 

The challenge that Ryan et al. face is not an easy one: they’ve built a conference of big names, and with that comes a conference with a high level of sexiness and kudos. But what they haven’t done, IMO, is to build a conference with big ideas. This is increasingly going be a problem as – in the words of developers – FOWA attempts to scale into the future. As much as the bits-in-between make you feel warm inside about the whole tech scene, it’s a transient kind of warmth – as Simon Cowell said recently on XFactor (I know, hard to imagine someone as high-brow as me watching..): “it’s like eating water”. Without really challenging sessions, the socialising bit becomes really pretty vacuous. 

I don’t have the answers to this, but I have some thoughts:

Firstly, and most importantly – ideas. If we’re not at FOWA to exchange ideas, what exactly are we there for? At events like this – actually, at events like life – I’m looking for disruption, for new stuff, for insight, for difference. I’m not expecting academically rigorous research: I go to museum conferences for that – but newness should surely be a part of a conference all about the future, right? While some of the sessions delivered that (for me: Kathy Sierra on engaging users and Gavin Starks on green computing), for the most part this was very much a safe, formulaic place and not a bleeding-edge, forward-looking one. The business talks were leagues ahead of the developer ones, but even so there wasn’t enough challenging going on. Even Jason Calacanis, who pretty much makes a living from being offensive, didn’t manage to say much about life/work balance apart from “work hard, play hard”, which is hardly disruptive or original. Originality is often brave and sometimes dangerous, but I think this is the space that FOWA should be striving to be in.

Second: speakers need to be not just mediocre or good, but fucking great. I want entertaining, well-delivered, funny. Simon Wardley (I missed his session, but we shared a stage in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago) – is all of these. He rocks. He could talk shit and it’d still be great – as it happens, he talks with sense and conviction AND makes it funny too. Ditto, Kathy Sierra, who in my opinion did the best thing I’ve seen in some time: a funny, insightful, interactive session which really engaged as well as inspired. Many of the people presenting at FOWA just can’t do it. They might be great developers, but they can’t talk in public, and I’m sorry, but if you can’t do it, don’t do it. Or at least have a mind-blowing idea to cover up the fact you can’t talk about it 🙂

wakoopa. software without a reason, and bad spelling too...

wakoopa. software without a reason, and bad spelling too...

Finally: I think that all events like this can – and should – learn from people outside the specific sector. The tech scene should increasingly be listening to, and encouraging discourse with normal people. Ask yourself – where were the users at FOWA? It’s easy impressing a room full of developers with your new startup. It’s incredibly hard impressing a room full of people who have full, busy lives doing things other than geekery. It’s great having the funders and business guys there, but I also think it’d be really interesting to hear from people who struggle with technology – and endeavour to get some insight into what works for them. I’m personally 100% in support of Tim O’Reilly and his crusade to encourage tech that makes a difference rather than tech that scratches a transient, unimportant itch (and yes, Wakoopa, I’m afraid that’s you..).  I think it’s especially important to focus on this stuff in the current wave of uncertainty about our financial and environmental futures.

I hope this doesn’t seem an overly negative response to FOWA. It’s not meant to be – after all, I’ll be going again next year. This is a great event, and really the only one of its kind in the UK – but I also hope they learn to grow over time and mature the conference into something with a bit more weight – not serious, or academic, but perhaps finding ways to improve quality, Pirsig style

BathCamp update

As I mentioned in an earlier post, because I haven’t got enough on outside of work (OneTag+, various blogs, a novel, music composing, Stufflinker, museum mashup day, 2 kids) – and really need to fill that 25th and 26th hours of the day – I’m working with a bunch of people to put together a Bar Camp in Bath (BathCamp…!) later this summer.

Frankie, Mia and I thought it up while we were at Museums and the Web after 400 pints of Rickard’s Red and a plate of finest poutine, and have been shaping it since then.

It was all seeming a bit overwhelming, and I’m not the first person I’d call on to organise anything, but luckily I met a fine geezer called Tim Beadle (who does tech stuff in Bristol) and a fine geezerette called Laura Francis (who does tech stuff in Bath), both of whom were involved in setting up a Bristol Bar Camp last year. We’ve agreed it’d be sensible to combine the two events and bring Bristol Bar Camp to Bath this summer.

Anyway (Get to the point, man!): Tim Beadle and I have booked a venue and date for this summers’ BathCamp. It’ll be from Saturday 13th – Sunday 14th September 2008 at Invention Studios in Bath. Further details including Upcoming link, map, Flickr shots etc are on the BathCamp blog over here. I’ll drop the occasional post on the Electronic Museum site, but if you want to watch progress, the BathCamp blog is the thing to subscribe to.

Eduserv Foundation Symposium

I’m off to the 2008 Foundation Symposium tomorrow, a day of asking: “what do current Web trends tell us about the future of ICT provision for learners and researchers?…”

The programme and speakers look pretty good – Larry Johnson from NMC and Jem Stone from the Beeb to mention but a couple of the better known names.

Andy, Pete and Ed from the Foundation are trying out a bunch of interesting stuff to support the conference backchannel. For starters they’ve set up a Ning iteration at http://efsym2008.ning.com/ which, as Andy and I point out in the comments, is (at the least) pretty useful in this day and age to put a face to the virtual contacts we’ve all made via Twitter, IM and blogging. Ning for me has really risen in importance as a social media platform to be taken seriously since they solidified their API and developer network

Next off, they’ll be streaming live video from the event, so if you can’t make it you can catch our ugly mugs on the Eduserv website. On the same page there is also a live chat facility as provided by CoverItLive. I’ve been roped in to pick questions and shout them out during the QA’s after each session. So be nice and I might just let you ask something 🙂

Last but not least, OneTag will be in operation with a slideshow and mobile version of everything tagged efsym2008.

All in all, it’s going to be fun. And an early start, so I’m off to bed. See you there (or not) tomorrow.

Museums and the Web 2008: roundup

Ok. Obviously the intention was to live-blog the sessions I went to during Museums and the Web, but in the end it all comes down (unfortunately) to time, of which there simply isn’t enough (except when waiting for a damn plane). I’m working on an API using a RESTful approach to sort this out but I’m having trouble with the bending of spacetime and a glitch in vbscript which means you can’t get at the right bit of the EnergyEquivalence 2.0 DOM. Bear with me. Maybe it’s better in Ruby…

Anyway. Here’s some highlights for me, in rough order of appearance:

No API? FOI…

Frankie Roberto (Science Museum) and Seb Chan (Powerhouse) gave a hugely entertaining and interesting talk within the topic area “Aggregating Museum Data”. David Bearman introduced it: “I’m not supposed to be biased, but this is my favourite session..”

Frankie’s approach is outlined in his paper, but briefly he asked the question “what if we look at the aggregate of museum collections instead of the detail?”. He got a bunch of data from several museums by submitting a Freedom Of Information request. There were some great moments: the matrix of which museums responded (most didn’t) was one of them; the final application display using Google Maps was another. But most of all he also coined the phrase “Good Enough” around museum data, which is very much aligned with my philosophy of “just do it”.

Seb showed some awesome stuff using Open Calais on museum collections at the Powerhouse and a whole load of other cool stuff around geo-rss, OpenSearch and so-on. He also came out with some great sound-bites: “look closely at order and you see mess” and “tagging: it’s a bit 2007″…

One thing that I really liked was a checkbox he had built into the CMS next to machine-generated data which asked human editors: “has a human verified this data?”. A nice touch, and presumably useful not only for checking (in an aggregate sense) how accurate the machine has been but also possible to tweak the final UI accordingly: “this data is machine generated, don’t trust it quite as much…”, or whatever.

Again, very interesting and eye-opening. Funny, too – I loved the fact that “Ray Oscilloscope” had been identified by the semantic engine as a person…it may become my new pseudonym…

Openness

On Friday, Brian and I ran a session on Openness. The people at the session were great: It was a lively and engaging debate, looking at some of the questions around openness in the museum community; how we measure value; how financial gain can be held up next to marketing exposure and so on. Seb made a great point which stayed with me about how museums have got into the habit of ascribing value to individual objects rather than to the bit which actually adds value: the context, the exhibition, the experience.

Search and semantics

Two more sessions stood out for me: first, the NMOLP presentation from the V&A in London. I have a number of concerns about the general approach this project is taking, but on the plus side they’re looking at OpenSearch to deliver cross-museum searching, and that’s (hopefully) going to be a good thing. I just hope that the Google Coop example I put up at http://www.museumcollections.org.uk/ a while back can be beaten: the point of me doing this was partly to illustrate the ease with which groups of museums can be added to cross-domain search. I’m worried about NMOLP developing their own search ranking protocol, for example, when there’s a pretty good one out there in the shape of PageRank and the Google Enterprise. I’m sure they know what they’re doing, and look forward very much to the end result. Let’s hope it’s got a public API 🙂

Nate did a rather better post on this session over here with some interesting comments, too.

The final one I’m going to post about here is a session on the Delphi Toolkit which was great because it illustrated with real world examples what these kinds of emerging semantic technologies do for the end-user. And I think the SW is an area badly lacking in examples.

Closing Plenary

The whole conference closed with what I thought was a very disappointing plenary from Clifford Lynch. Obviously only a personal opinion, but I felt that after a hugely positive, buzzing and engaging week, this was a very slow, low-energy and – most importantly – misrepresentative wrap-up to what had gone on. (I also felt at several points that he was just plain wrong about some of the stuff he talked about…)

Here’s my “direction of travel” gut feel for what actually went on during the week:

  • We’re doing some very cool stuff using some great new approaches and technologies.
  • We’re starting to see the benefits of open access to our content, both in terms of Creative Commons and programmatic access via API’s or syndication.
  • We’re – at last – worrying less and doing more.
  • We’re beginning to see the benefits of community, not just the coolness.
  • Finally: we’re up for collaborating and sharing in more open and positive ways than ever before.

So that’s that. Now I’m in an airport, heading homeward. Bye for now…

API: “the nubby bits on Lego”

Aaron Cope from Flickr gave a good talk this morning entitled “The API As Curator” which meandered its way around but contained some gem quotes and ideas:

“once upon a time I was a painter, and then the web happened”

“you do art to share it”

“the web: it seemed a perfect way around the gallery system, which as an artist is the bane of your life”

“I come in peace”

“making the web’s plumbing non-scary”

“if you’re talking about the web then sooner or later you have to talk about computer programming”

and my favourite one of all:

“An API is the nubby bits on Lego”

He focused in general on the importance of the both the developer as permanent and valued member of any creative web team, but also the process of development itself: the iterative, always changing, rapid-cycle and how important this is to anyone trying to remain innovative and creative online.

But “nubby bits” is still the piece that stays with me 🙂

Museums and the Web day 3 (or day 1..)

Ok. It’s opening plenary time here at Museums and the Web 2008. I didn’t manage to do any blogging yesterday – that’s what an entire day of workshops followed by immediate dinner and wine does to you…

Michael Geist is the guest speaker: “technology advocate and trouble maker”. I like him already 🙂

Michael spent his talk going through a number of sites and examples, some of which will be very familiar to us web types; others a little less well known. The examples which particularly jumped out for me (for two different reasons) were the Facebook group Fair Copyright for Canada which was started by Michael, and his example of opening up the book “In the Public Interest” for free download.

The Facebook group example was particularly powerful because it caused demonstrable change in the real world. This was actually a running thread through many of the sites that Michael showed: virtual experiences are one thing, but “real” world responses to these virtual experiences are happening too, and that’s a hugely important thing to focus on. I’ve used this to defend Twitter recently (yes, I know the irony, having said bad things about lifestreaming before…) – Twitter has recently got me back in touch with people out here in the real world, and that gives it a legitimacy and power that it doesn’t necessarily have “just” online.

The “In the Public Interest” example demonstrated (although Michael didn’t give any actual figures) that free download actually increased sales. I like this because it continues to support the Scarcity vs Scale argument which I’ve pitched on this blog previously. It’s a very pertinent discussion; Brian and I are giving a paper on Openness on Friday at which we’ll be focusing on open content (among other things). Already this week – and in my experience, always within the sector – this discussion rumbles alongside most things we try to do on the web: API provision, Web 2.0, UGC or getting collections databases online. The more evidence there is that this approach works (or not!), the better.

The overriding message from Michael for me is that online activity causes, extends, pushes “real” activity in very valuable and increasingly tangible ways.

Museums and the Web – Tuesday

So here I am in Montreal for Museums and the Web 2008. The journey was ok apart from the obligatory 2 hour delay out of Heathrow. Someone apparently spotted a snowflake on the runway so everything ground to a halt while they dispatched the emergency extreme weather squad to sort it out.

They know how to do weather over here. It’s obviously not snowed for a while but there are still remnant piles, 6-7 feet thick just knocking around the town. Show that to anyone in the UK and the transport infrastructure would have fallen apart in seconds.

So – this week at Museums and the Web: Today – pre conference Semantic Web workshop. Wednesday, I’m running a blogging workshop with Brian Kelly in which I’ll be talking about this blog: why I do it, how it’s going, what I’ve learnt. The afternoon is my workshop on mashups. Slides and stuff for all the above coming shortly.

Then Thursday the conference sessions start. Friday and I’m back in front of people with Brian for our paper ‘what does openness mean to museums?’.

Meanwhile, I’ve provided Jennifer and David with OneTag for the week – the aim in a nutshell is to try and capture the ‘buzz’ around the conference by aggregating any blog posts and tweets tagged ‘mw2008’ and do stuff with this content. J + D have found a bunch of willing volunteers to blog alongside the people like me who’d be doing it anyway. Basically, everyone is being encouraged to tag and post as much as possible.

Have a look at:

More later.