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.

All noise, no signal. Lifestreaming is a timesink

The fascination with various “lifestreaming” tools continues apace. Brian Kelly has been getting particularly excited about the regulation (or not, as his fellow Twitterers are shouting) of these tools. “We should have standards” he says. “No! Standards are boring”, everyone replies…

In this particular area I have to say I pretty much fall on the side of the anti-standards bods – lifestreaming should be about spontaneity and not regulation – but there are still some interesting issues about the modes of use of these tools, and I can understand what Brian is pointing out.

The reason why there are issues is pretty clear: lifestreaming is a paradigm shift; it’s disruptive and hence different from everything that has come before. In some ways, tools like Twitter are IM-like in the way they work. In others they’re a little bit more like a chat room. In others, they’re like an email thread and in yet others more like a discussion board.

There’s no surprise therefore that we’re all a bit confused. Throw into the recipe tools like Twitterfeed (passes feeds to your Twitter stream), Hashtags (enables you to tag tweets), Twitter Facebook app (feeds your tweets to Facebook status) or Twittervision (type ‘L:’ for location…). Then lightly saute before throwing in some finely chopped Pownce (it’s the new Twitter, only ‘better’) or Jaiku (Google bought it so it must be good..) or Tumblr (who really knows what ‘microblogging’ is anyway?)…and it’s hardly surprising that we’re feeling the need for some sanity.

This is classic Gartner hype in action. The emergence and adoption of these technologies is rapid, exciteable, reactionary. Darwinian evolution is choking the ideas that don’t work and elevating those that do.

Take the Twitter Facebook app as an example. Both Brian and I installed it at pretty much the same time. It links your Twitter updates to your Facebook status. All good, you think – I only have to do this once, updates both – excellent. Then you realise that actually the use mode is different: Twitter isn’t being used as a “what are you doing” tool (the original intention) but instead has become a way of having a conversation with your fellow users. In this context, linking it to Facebook makes no sense, as the following screen shot demonstrates. Shortly afterwards, both Brian and I (independently) removed it.

twitter on facebook

In “conversation” mode, Twitter doesn’t actually work – if I’m friends with person B and they’re friends with person C then all is fine from my perspective if I’m having a conversation with B. If, however, B is having a conversation with C, I just get B’s side of the discussion. And that, frankly, is rubbish…

Pownce might be about to help out here – it gives you the option of posting comments to public/all friends/selected friend. But then we’re really back to square one: sending a message to “public” and you might as well use Twitter. Send it to a single friend or a group and you might as well use email or Facebook messaging.

And here, for me, is the rub. I’m going to go out on the line here (always risky) and suggest that essentially none of these tools actually adds anything. Let me rephrase that. All of these tools do add huge amounts of noise, but to me none of them add signal. Sure, they’re fun. Sure, I check mine every so often and take part in the conversation, but they’re not doing anything useful for me apart from…er…um…

It’s a bit like those 3D world conversations when you discuss the various technical aspects of the 3D world and actually find after an hour or two you haven’t actually shared *anything* useful. It’s technology for technologies sake. I think we’re getting caught up in the fact that we *can* rather than finding a gap in need and responding to that gap.

This is not to say that lifestreaming doesn’t have a place. I can see that during a conference, being able to send comments is useful. I can see that the mobile integration factor is a pretty exciting area of development. I can see how this might help during an emergency, or during a live event like a talk as a way of garnering feedback. Here on my desktop, however, it’s just a distraction, a timesink.

Within an institution, I’m also failing to see the applications. And this is where Brian and I both converge and diverge all at the same time. I think he has a point in trying to establish the modes of use, settle these down and try and get some clarity. But unlike Brian, I’m not convinced that institutionally there is anything in it. It may be that these tools and modes of use mature, and once we’ve all skidded through the trough of disillusionment we’ll find we’re in more informed place. But for now, I’m watching (and taking part…!) with an air of cynicism.

What do you think? Do you use these tools? Do you think they have a place in institutions? Should we look to standardise, either technology or modes of use? Comments please!