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.

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]

For the webs2, please follow the crowd

The last talk I gave – in December 2008 – was at Online Information and titled “What does Web2.0 DO for us?”.

Here are the slides (my third slide deck to get “homepaged” on slideshare…yay…):

[slideshare id=812457&doc=whatdoesweb2doforusmikeellisv12-1228296734998366-8&w=425]

This one was attempting to focus on Web2.0 in the Enterprise. Frankly, “The Enterprise” is a subject which fills me with fear, dread and trepidation, but the movement of Web2.0 into that space is probably inevitable as sales teams around the world spot another opportunity and sell it out to cash-rich bods wanting to “be innovative” in the name of their behemoth of a company. It’ll be interesting to watch.

The talk was popular, which I’m pleased about. Online Information is a funny old conference – the halls are stacked with basically the same company replicated about 200 times: reasonably bad CMS systems with reasonably bad sales people trying to sell to a reasonably badly informed market of people. I sound over-rude, but I have to be honest – I last went in about 2003 and absolutely nothing has changed. Which can’t be good in the tech field, right?

My slides were supposed to be about one thing (why the social web is important in “The Enterprise”, and why “The Enterprise” should take it seriously) – in the end, I actually focused on why “web2” is important to people rather than as a “thing” in abstract. I see the connecting of people with other people as reason for believing in the social web as a sound platform upon which to build any content. I believe this engagement is key to bringing (heritage) content to the foreground; furthermore, I think that even though web2.0 has been hyped to death, we should continue to believe in what “the social web” means. Mainly, we should believe this because the social web is about people and connections and as such has enormous importance to us as social, connected animals. 

One of the problems with talking about “Web2.0” is that the phrase carries an implicit weight with it: as soon as there is a count attached, you’re naturally looking for the current one to expire – for “Web2” to be replaced by “Web3” and shortly after that, “Web4”. Useful though “Web2.0” is as a phrase, I’m with the commentators now who suggest we talk about “the web”, or – my preference – “the social web”. Not because it is any less important, but because it is more so.

Incidentally, earlier today I was researching some stuff for a keynote I’m due to give in The Hague later in February (more details soon…) and used Google Trends to check on the phrase “web2.0”. It’s interesting to note that it reached its peak during q4 2007, and has since dropped off in popularity: 


Web2.0 on Google Trends

You’ll see immediately that this follows the Gartner Hype Curve prediction (or at least the beginning of it) – it’ll be interesting to watch in the coming months and years how the curve settles into a dampened “plateau of productivity”. (I’d also be interested if anyone can figure out why there is a gap between 2004 when O’Reilly first mentioned the phrase and mid-2005…)

For the graph junkies, here’s the same period for the phrase “social web”:


"Social Web" on Google Trends

So. That’s the hype. Maybe now we can get on with producing some astonishing, user-focused content..


A lot of rumbling about the noise created by the (social) web has been reaching our ears recently. I’m not in this instance talking about the management of “outgoing” social media but more about how people deal with the sheer quantity of stuff which is arriving through various channels. The news feeds, tweets, emails, IM – all are part of the incoming stream. Then of course there are conversations with people in the real world (gasp!), paper-based print, TV and so on.

Fundamental, of course, to any conversation about technology is that you are ultimately destined to fail, if you’re hoping to know everything. I’ve been following the conversation at a sprint for more than ten years now and like to think that I’ve got a reasonably good grasp of the web technologies out there, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that the speed of change is so intense that we’re all going to get left behind sooner or later. Those who have tried particularly hard to keep up have suffered because of it – Om Malik’s heart attack and the death of Russell Shaw are pretty well publicised. While much of the media are swinging off in what is obviously ridiculous “blogging kills you” type directions, there are still some lessons. We’re all getting older (goddamit) and sooner or later we’ll be that “back in the days of X command-line interface, when the world was rosy” IT bod in meetings. Get used to it. I’m almost there already – remember the…NO, STOP..

There’s a tendency I’ve noticed when some are faced with this craziness: ostrich the problem. The argument is articulated like this: “With so much noise, maybe we’d be better off just not doing anything“. It’s either a conscious decision, or a rabbit-stuck-in-headlights paralysis. Either way, to me it’s always been the most spurious of positions to take. To steal and adapt (CC-styley!) a well-known phrase:

“where there is noise, there is signal”

Choosing to actively run away from the noise – to “not do the social web because it’s too noisy” is a hugely perverse argument. Yes, there is noise and hype…no, Twitter probably won’t, you shouldn’t be on Facebook just because you can…but the point as far as I see it is this: the social web has signal far above the hype: signal far stronger than the noise, provided you can take a step backwards and look at the direction of travel rather than the individual paths being walked. The social web is important because it lets us connect, not because it lets us tweet.

There’s no doubt that the noise is intense – unfiltered, it is way more than most of us can cope with. Here’s a (probably incomplete) list of my current inputs. Every one of them is a stream of information but also a potential distraction, red herring, attention-grabber, too:

email (Outlook), email (Gmail), twitter (via twhirl), IM (Google Talk), IM (MSN), IM (Skype), phone (mobile), phone (desk), phone (skype), feeds (google reader), “the web”, …not forgetting conversations with real people…

I may be in the upper quartile of “wiredness” but I’ll bet most of you are exposed to these, and some possibly more.

As many commentators have pointed out, as the noise continues to grow (which it will), the signal to noise ratio drops and the need for us to find mediated experiences will become ever more important. My good friend Dan Zambonini pointed me to this excellent blog post by Kevin Kelly. Here’s a quote:

“I have tried to temper my celebration of the bottom with my belief that the bottom is not enough for what we really want. To get to the best we need some top down intelligence, too. I have always claimed that nuanced view. And now that crowd-sourcing and social webs are all the rage, it’s worth repeating: the bottom is not enough. You need a bit of top-down as well.”

He’s right of course – the lesson that we all take away is that although the technologies get more “intelligent” (dare I say, “Semantic”..?), the noise is probably increasing at a far greater rate. Net result – at least a cancelling-out of the “filtered benefit” and more likely – just more and more noise.

The human author – the topdown influence in Kelly’s post – is the conduit by which everything is managed. This role isn’t going anywhere, but it’s easy to forget this when we’re all getting excited about the machine -processable web, the API, Twitter and so on.

The human element is always going to be the single most important thing in the equation, which is exactly why the social web is so important, and can’t – or won’t – be ostriched.