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.


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

Assumptions, exactitudes, perfection and creativity

A while back, those wonderful fellas at Box UK asked me to take part in their Cardiff Web Scene Meet-up #4. I pondered for a long while what I was going to do. The obvious one was an overview of BathCamp: how we put it together, what tools we used to collaborate, and so-on. In the end I decided I’d use the slightly different format (an informal gathering in a bar) as an excuse for a slightly different kind of presentation (an informal gathering of thoughts and slides..), and not just do the obvious thing..

The slides are an expansion on my previous post, Newton vs Einstein, and form an underlying question which continues to be an itch I need to scratch. The question is really summed up in my third slide: When do we need perfection?

[slideshare id=619607&doc=newtonvseinsteinfinalppt-1222420030171861-9&w=425]

The Newton / Einstein metaphor (for those who can’t be arsed to read my original post) stemmed from In Our Time on Radio 4: given that we manage to go about our daily lives (and even carry out a number of fairly stunning technical tasks, such as putting a man on the moon) without worrying about the complex rightness of Einstein, how much can we make do with simple approximations – how much do we actually need to worry about being “right” when we’re in an environment of wanting to get things done, where “rightness” actually hinders rather than helps?

This question isn’t as simple as it first appears. There is no binary position here, no right or wrong, and yet often in IT scenarios, we are asked to choose EITHER the easy, quick, risky, “lightweight” way OR the long, arduous,  “enterprise” one (this Dilbert cartoon, posted by @miaridge on Twitter about museum projects, may seem oddly familiar…). And yet this isn’t just about over-speccing or analysis paralysis. This goes deeper, asking questions about creativity and innovation and what these mean.

Here’s an example. For maybe 5 of my 7 years at the Science Museum, the entire website was published (not served – how stupid do you think I am 😉 ) from an Access database using a simple system I built in ASP during my first year at the museum. This system enabled maybe 20 authors to contribute to the site, whilst maintaining a simple templating system and look and feel. During this time, the site was run out of a single (and slightly battered) web server. Just before I left, we went through a long CMS project, and ended up installing the excellent Sitecore content management system across (if my memory serves me correctly) 7 servers, plus having a re-design which culminated in the current Science Museum website: it is beautiful, clean, well coded, and – frankly – the apple of my eye. 

It would be very, very easy to dismiss the old site and way of doing things in light of the “professional” approach that content management at “enterprise” level brings to the party, but the fact was for five years the old site performed nearly perfectly, both technically and in terms of responding to the content needs of the organisation. It was imperfect, hacked-together, “lightweight” – and did the job. Compare that to now (when I’m betting that 90% of the CMS functionality and 95% of the server capacity isn’t used..) and it’s not immediately obvious to me – and this is a quite open statement, without bias – which is the better solution. I think both bring benefits and disbenefits, and somewhere in the middle is a ground which more of us should be striving to inhabit, rather than hanging on to our notions of “lightweight vs enterprise”.

These questions begin with a bias even in the naming. “Lightweight” seems fickle, faddish, subject to change and risk. “Enterprise” is laden with visions of dull corporate lunches, sales people and multi-million pound pricetags.

The question I ask in the slides really outline the entire theme to this blog and the questions I have been asking over the past decade (eek!) working online. Brian Kelly suggests in this post that “it is time to get serious” – that strategic thinking somehow lives in a different place to the lightweight. He’s referencing the presentation we did together a couple of years ago (Web 2.0: Stop thinking, start doing) – but I can’t help thinking that now is the time to bring strategic and lightweight together rather than trying to drive them apart.

My time as Head of Web at the museum was almost all about strategy, about bringing together digital and real content and about getting things done. Ultimately, I’m way, way more on the strategic side of this stuff than anything else. But…getting creative things done requires making assumptions – inaccuracies and uncertainty are inherent and valuable. 

Ultimately, most of us work in enviroments that are at complete odds to creativity: we are forced to work to project plans, “plan” our time, “justify” our expense, “do” the actions. Web2.0 and “lightweightness” are never going to be comfortable – these approaches are deliberately disruptive. The question is – and always has been – how do we embrace this uncertainty and creativity and move forward but still maintain a clear view of the horizon..?

It’s BathCamp weekend!

…well, almost.

A long time ago I posted the first mention of BathCamp. We came up with the idea in Montreal at Museums and the Web in April 2008. Now we’re 5 months down the line and two days (eek!) before the event itself.

I’m deeply, deeply excited about what we’ve (collectively – thanks guys!) achieved: fantastic sponsors, an amazing venue, a hugely interesting list of people wanting to talk and a quantity of buzz, too. I’ve also been very touched by the number of people who have helped out in many and various ways. Sometime soon I’ll talk about who they (you!) are, but now is not that time – got things to do 😉

You’ll have noticed that there has been a looong gap since the last post on Electronic Museum. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the obvious one – BathCamp has not only diverted some of my writing attention over to http://blog.bathcamp.org/ but also eaten up many spare evenings and weekend time: the time I usually spend both researching and writing the Electronic Museum blog. Second, I’ve become increasingly aware that the blogs that I really read are not the ones who mercilessly grind out a post or more a day (you know who you are!), but the ones which are beautifully written, opinionated, well crafted and (possibly because of this) most often less frequent. Much as I love TechCrunch, for example, my Google Reader tells me 13.6 posts a day are pumped out from the lips of Arringtons’ team. I also did some asking around about RSS subscriptions, and a number of people said they subscribe to 100 or more feeds. I subscribe to a choice few feeds, and checking today after a 3 day break, I have 650 unread items. This is craziness, and I want to be a part of the signal, not part of the noise.

I’m on holiday next week following BathCamp (so you’ll get a bit more blessed silence from me..) – following that, things might return to normal round here OR I may bring my latest scheme into action. Watch this space 🙂

See you at BathCamp – if you can’t make it, remember you can keep an eye on anything tagged bathcamp08. ta!

Newton vs Einstein

Perfection geneIf you spend any time at all reading this blog (of course you do..) then you’ll know that I have a recurring theme about perfection, ideas, freedom and “justdoit-ness”. I sum it all up on a previous post where I talk about my OPG – Overactive Perfection Gene – which works hard to prevent me from doing stuff rather than just thinking and talking about it. On the left is the “time vs perfection” graph I chucked into that post.

Yesterday there was a superb programme on Radio 4’s “In Our Time” about Newton’s Principia and the Laws of Motion, and about the philosophical as well as physical meaning behind these axioms. It’s well worth a listen. I’m not sure if this is the direct link but it’s somewhere round there…

I’m a geophysicist by training (don’t tell anyone) and so the three laws aren’t new to me, and probably aren’t to you either. What struck me about this programme in particular however was the last five minutes where the guests began to focus in the apparent displacement of Newton’s laws by Einstein a couple of hundred years later. Einstein showed that the Newtonian model of the world was simplistic, that the laws of motion hid something deeper and darker: mass-energy equivalence being the most striking example.

It appears (as far as we can tell right now..) that Einstein is “right”. But like A-level students completing our exams, going to university and then discovering that actually what we’d spent years learning was all an approximation, one of the first questions we naturally ask is “does it actually matter?”.

It would appear not, for the most part. Einstein’s brilliance – his “rightness” – matters a huge amount when we’re nearing the speed of light. But down here as we plod about our normal daily lives, we can cope with the innacuracies. Relativity matters not a jot; actions do have an equal and opposite reaction; gravity acts downwards and relativity is merely a philosophy. As Melvin Bragg said on the program:

…we didn’t need Einstein to put Armstrong on the moon

Like some bad vicar trying desperately hard to relate OK magazine with a verse from the bible, it’s time for me to get to the point. It is this: just as we accept Newton over Einstein even though we know he is essentially “wrong”, if we (and by this I mean me, museums or anyone with ideas) want to shine, we too need to accept imperfection. In fact, I believe we need to learn to actively embrace it. Again calling back to the programme: a mechanistic universe is not by any definition a deterministic one: if we worry and continue to worry about the “what if’s” then we will never grow.

I’m of course always prompted by the discussions around Web2 and museums, which flared again last week on the MCG mailing list (#34). As Nick Poole pointed out, we do have a tendancy to take to our corners and thus risk polarisation, but essentially it boils down to “we should think more” vs “we should do more”.

One of the other speakers on the Radio 4 programme came out with this, which really resonates with me:

the perfect truth is perhaps not to be had, and certainly isn’t necessary for startling and brilliant success

If we can learn to accept a level of chaos, embrace the prevailing direction of travel without actually knowing where we are going to end up, then we stand a chance of actually getting somewhere. If we carry on worrying, we’re going nowhere but backwards…

Ceci n’est pas une tag

There’s an interesting post over on the conference.archimuse.com blog where Jennifer reports that research they’ve been undertaking on the use of the steve.museum tagger shows that greater than 75% of all new tags given to images in the experiment weren’t words originally associated with the image by museum staff when cataloguing.

It’s a tag!That’s a pretty extraordinary statistic, and says something deep about the ways in which museums interpret and communicate their assets. I’m sure Jennifer will be drawing her own conclusions from this, but the first and most obvious response (without having read the research in depth, so shoot me down if you have..!) is either that museums are badly out of touch with how their users interact with their assets, or that findability isn’t that important to curatorial staff. Neither of these is a particularly positive conclusion to draw.

Ultimately of course, this comes down to a user-focussed (or not) approach, both to the way that assets are presented online, and the way that folksonomies and taxonomies are applied to collections in-house. Understanding the end-users of your product is one of those holy grail things which so many people (including me) preach about, and yet is missed time and time again. So often, it’s the organisational perspective which ends up being presented, and not that of the user. Inevitably, it’s users who end up losing out.