Geek curry night in Peterborough…

The belated arrangements for the fourth meetup for ‘Digital People in Peterborough‘ have now been announced, and in a change from the pub format, it’s going to be a curry night

I’m still surprised that something I’d mentioned in passing to my good friend @pjeedai and virtual acquintance (at the time) @joffff has turned into a regular meetup which sees 20+ digital people get together for drinks, food and chatting. All from just deciding a time and a place and seeing if people would turn up.

And it’s continuing to grow. We’re getting a reasonable amount of people checking out the site regularly, more and more people are registering and posting in the forum, the Facebook page has got 34 Likes so far, and the Twitter account has 25 followers.

That might be small if you’re used to reading case studies of global brands and millions spent in marketing, but as a group which met for the first time 5 months ago, and which has come together from nothing, I’m pretty amazed. And particularly as it’s revealed how many talented and skilled people are in the area – as a result, it’s led to the founding of digital design and development company Jodanma, of which I’m a co-founder, for example.

With the ease of communication and organisation, if you’ve ever wondered about starting a community around a cause, shared hobby, idea, dream etc, there really is no excuse not to give it a go. Maybe it’ll become massive in terms of size, or value. And maybe it’ll take a bit of time and work. But there’s no excuse for not giving it a try and finding out who else is interested…

 

My thoughts on Facebook’s commenting system

There’s been a lot of debate around Facebook’s new commenting system, particularly due to the fact it is currently being tested on Techcrunch.

Matthew Ingram does a good job of summarising at GigaOm, although the heart of the debate seems to be in the comments section of Robert Scoble’s post (I pop up a couple of times in the comments!). There are various reasons for allowing a choice of commenting profile, whether or not that includes the facility for anonymity in an easy or more complicated manner – such as creating a fake Facebook account. But I think I can summarise one major flaw in the test and reactions so far.

When UK pubs had a reputation for violence, they’d introduce a dress code requiring shoes. That’d work for a couple of weeks. And then you’d find yourself in fights with the same people, but in slightly smarter clothes.

On a more analytic level, there are a variety of reasons for not using a commenting system which currently rests on the shoulder of one company.

  • You may want to keep Facebook personal, and use Twitter/LinkedIn/your blog or site as your professional reference.
  • You may not your Facebook profile to be a mess of comments you’ve left around the web.
  • You may wish to be anonymous to voice your authentic opinion whilst minimising the repercussions either personally or career wise.
  • Facebook is blocked by a number of organisations, preventing commenting from people in the workplace.
  • Whilst I may choose a relatively public online persona, my friends and family haven’t chosen to participate in my online life in the same way. And whilst Facebook has privacy controls, I don’t fancy checking 500-odd people have the right settings in place before I post on Techcrunch. Or want any of them involved if I choose to disagree with something on there and annoy someone.
  • Blog comments have long been one way of creating community between bloggers, whether or not those comments are seo-friendly ‘do follow’ links or ‘no follow’. If someone posts a great comment on my site, I’d like them to get the small reward of a direct link to their site, if anyone wants to find out more. Not reward Facebook for doing nothing. And judging by the SEOMOz toolbar’s ‘NoFollow’ indicator, the Facebook comments are followed links back to Facebook everytime.
  • There are viable alternatives already out there – for instance Disqus, as used on this blog. Pick whichever ID you’re comfortable with, and use it!
  • The comment culture is built by the culture of the site – rather than using technical solutions, perhaps it’s more sensible for the TC team to look at why they generate so many antagonistic or crap anonymous comments. Besides their size and audience, perhaps the fact that they may sometimes stray into tabloid linkbait might contribute? Look at the difference between similar sites in terms of technology e.g. Digg vs Reddit vs Hacker News, for example. All three allow link sharing, but the quality of discussion is better on Reddit and Hacker News in my opinion, because there’s more of a community on both.
  • Facebook Comments has code in it which would have allowed Google and Twitter logins, but was removed for some reason – and as a company with an immense userbase, they’ve got no vested interest in allowing a wider range of logins.
  • Following a VRM principle would suggest that the content and data created is mine, and I should be allowed to choose how, when, and why I share it.
  • And finally, there may be times when I might have a legitimate reason to not share a blog comment, for example, on Facebook. Perhaps I’m enquiring about a present or a recipe as a surprise for my partner (Remember Facebook Beacon?). Perhaps I want to describe a personal experience which may relate to my family. Maybe I’m commenting on a site which I don’t want to necessarily be associated with or advertise because I want to disagree with what they’ve written.

I’m all for quality conversation, but as you’d imagine, I don’t think I’ll be installing Facebook Comments anytime soon… Am I making the right decision?

Social networks don’t make students dumb

Apparently using social networks doesn’t cause students to suffer academically, and in fact, can eliminate the different in American GPA scores between students whose parents had differing levels of higher education, and for some demographics it had a positive relationship.

Researchers from Northwestern University have acknowledged that students will distract themselves and waste time but the positive effects outweigh the negativity for some, or at least cancel out for others. (h/t Ars Technica).

Information Hydrant by Will Lion (CC Licence)

Information Hydrant image by Will Lion on Flickr (CC Licence)

There’s been a lot of debate about the effects of the internet, particularly in the debate between Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows – does the internet enable productive spare time, or rewire our brains to skim read without any proper thought (possibly the most lightweight and succinct summation!).

My own thoughts can be summed up in two bullet points:

  • The internet is the most amazingly comprehensive, searchable and shareable source of information that has ever existed, enabling the largest ever number of people to create, compile, curate and spread information
  • It’s all about how it’s used in conjunction with the other sources of information available from print to radio to television, and the outcomes it produces.

The internet is not inherently anything, despite the fact it was based on openness and sharing, or the fact it can be used for misinformation, criminal activity or censorship.

Until computers and networks become completely sentient, then it’s the human interaction with the internet which shapes what it can do, and what it becomes.

And as long as individuals, groups and companies continue to provide useful and valuable information for use by others, the net effects for those who learn the skills to use the internet effectively will be positive – social networking is an ever-more important part of that as it encompasses interaction, organisation and knowledge-sharing.

The importance of experiencing your community

When talking about community-building or social media, it’s easy to suggest you should be part of it. And that’s not too hard to do if the community in question is something you already identify with.

Pearl Jam performing at Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park

Pearl Jam performing at Hard Rock Calling

The chance to go and just be a normal fan on Friday when Pearl Jam played Hyde Park reminded me exactly how much I’ve identified with music and bands throughout my life, and how much of a social experience it is, even when you lose your group of friends in your quest to get to the front of the crowd (In my defence, I’ve liked Pearl Jam for almost 20 years, and hadn’t seen them live until now!).

It was just as easy when I worked in motorcycling and cars – I can thank my father for that one, with some of our earliest family outings to car shows and Rallycross. And that was followed by lifts from school on the back of his motorcycle.

But it’s important to occasionally have normal fan experiences, even if it’s a subject you’ve got a close affinity to. Because otherwise you forget the priviledged experienc eyou have as a member of the media, for example.

And it’s even more important if you’re working with communities you’re not familiar with. If you’re working with an unfamiliar subject matter, it’s time to search through friends and family and find some people who might share that interest. And it’s also important to find some members of any existing community to talk with.

It’s not because you can’t find out a lot by using online monitoring tools, research papers, blogs, etc.

It’s because there’s still nothing like seeing the look on someone’s face or their eyes light up when they’re discussing a subject they’re passionate about – and that’ll infect the work you do and give you a far better respect for that subject than anything else you’ll do. And if you don’t love the subject yourself, the best you can hope is to immerse yourself in their love for it.

Open discourse on Open Source surfaces familiar problem

I’m just on my way home after a great evening at the BT Centre for ‘An evening of open discourse’, which was an open self organising evening of discourse around open source, open data and open APIs.

There was a great panel initiating the discussion and debate, with Doc Searls, Karim Lakhani, Blaine Cook, Kevin Marks, Jeremy Ruston and Lars Kurth. A good enough panel for me to overcome the fact I was by far the least code-aware person in the auditorium by a factor of almost infinity. And then some. But given the fact I blog about microblogging exclusively on www.140char.com, the chance to listen to a former lead developer at Twitter and the principle co-author of OAuth was particularly of interest, even amongst one of the more accomplished panels I’ve seen.

Luckily, although I’m not an Open Source coder, I’m very much a believer in the opportunities it brings, and interested in the history of it’s continued evolution, and the human elements and personalities involved – and I knew enough to follow all the technical references, which was nice.

But problem the most reassuring thing for me was that it seemed the main two elements of the debate were two non-technology issues:

  • How do commercial and Open Source interests co-exist either alongside each other or in a hybrid model?
  • How you can assemble, motivate and integrate a community.

Those are two areas where I’m less ashamed of the fact I use Open Source tools, but I’ve never built even the smallest part of one!

And obviously the community model is of huge interest, and it was surprising in some ways to hear that there’s still a widespread admission of a lack of understanding about how communities might work in the Open Source developer world, which has been around for decades longer than the current assumed knowledge of a large group of marketing people in the social networking world.

Which probably shows the difference between people who deal with code, and those who might deal more in packaging and branding.

But it’s also clear that there’s still a huge learning for a lot of people around the fact that starting Open Source/crowd-sourcing/social networking/user generated content isn’t something that unleashes the ‘magic internet pixies’ who come and provided free coordinated, organised and harmonious free labour. One reason colleagues can manage to stay civil on many occasions is the fact they’re getting paid to be there!

The biggest challenge definitely seems to come for those businesses, such as Symbian, Sun or Linden Labs who have attempted to open up what was formerly a closed system, and then how those changes have sometimes struggled to be integrated into the rest of the business, and to motivate the open community in the way that was correctly, or incorrectly envisaged by the business originally.

Much the same as magazines sometimes suggested that when they unleashed ‘Commerce, Content, Community’ (the revised ordering of importance), that the content and community elements would take care of themselves.

Hence why communities don’t have hierarchies, shared beliefs, infighting, rules, standards, laws etc.

Oh wait.

I’ll try and expand more on communities across technology/networks and on and offline in the future.

 

There were also some really interesting insights, such as the power distribution of open source projects, in that, as expected a very small percentage of people do a lot of the work. But the perhaps surprising insight is that all of the new/novel ideas about the project came from the Long Tail, who might turn up, contribute one novel aspect from a different viewpoint, and then disappear – but their ideas make the project.

Kevin Marks did a good job of separating out the two principles of having open code which everyone might use, and having open standards which would allow different code to interoperate, and that the key sign of the gold standard is when two people can interoperate without even knowing the other exists.

And Blaine provided some really good insight into the early days of Twitter when it was more like 5 employees than 150 – such as the conscious decision not to develop an official Twitter client, and his introduction of the Twitter API as the push towards opening everything up.

It was definitely a great event, and I’ve got a lot of appreciation for the efforts of the organisers. Plus BT Centre look kinda cool from what I saw of it…

Motorcycling and the art of social media

As someone who combines an obsession with motorcycling with a love of social media marketing and tech, I picked up on a post back in July when Dave Winer met multiple world champion and motorcycling legend Valentino Rossi. One pioneered blogs, RSS, podcasting, and more, and the other has won eight motorcycling world championships, including claiming the last title of the 500cc two-stroke era, the firs of the 990cc MotoGP era, and claiming a title in the year he switched from the all-dominant Honda factory team to the underperforming Yamaha team.

And then during the Indianapolis MotoGP round I spotted a message by Robert Scoble:Just had lunch with the #2 motorcycle rider in the world (Gorge Lorenzo) So young and good looking and popular. Nice to all the fans too.’

Seems like Fiat in the U.S is inviting a few prominent tech people to discover the excitement of motorcycling. But motorcycling should also appeal because it shares a lot of elements with social media marketing and other interests that inspire passion and devotion:

Community: If you park by the side of the road in your car, it’s pretty rare anyone stops to help (unless you’re an attractive lady or own a rare car). The unwritten rule of motorcycling is that you stop for another biker in trouble – and surprisingly this actually happens quite a bit.

Passion: Motorcycling isn’t a cheap or practical method of transport in most of the Western world – it’s for people who want to feel freedom and excitement, and want to be absorbed into that world by reading and watching everything, buying upgrades for their bike, the latest helmets and leathers, matching t-shirts, mugs and anything else they can find. The biggest selling items of memorabilia for Austrain manufacturer KTM? Bright orange, KTM baby dummies (pacifiers).

Tribal: There are countless tribes within motorcycling – by manufacturer (e.g. Harley-Davidson) , by individual model (e.g. GSX-R owners), by location, by sport (MotoGP, World Superbikes, road racing, off-road etc), by budget (e.g extremely low cost ‘rat bikes’), by age (classic collectors). And each has stronger or looser ties with others – and individuals belong to one, or many in self-forming networks of niche interest – just as we see played out on Twitter or Facebook.

It’s extreme: Granted, as an overall group, it’s pretty huge niche. But it still requires road riders to accept that they’re more likely to be injured by a myopic car driver, that spare parts, maintenance and insurance cost far more than cars, and that some people will instantly assume that they’re antisocial and only out to race around at high speed. And that any accident is always the fault of the motorcyclist.

And in a non-Bluetooth enabled crash helmet it’s one of the few times a chronic multi-tasker is totally and utterly focused on one thing – which is why so many world champions admit that they feel ‘flow‘ when it all goes well.

As someone who worked for one of the largest publications in motorcycling, Motorcycle News, for seven years, I spent a lot of time learning about (and working with) online and offline communities on two wheels, and it’s definitely shaped the way I approach all the other communities I’ve worked with since then.

Anyway, if you want to see for yourself, the final laps of the 2009 Catalunya GP are worth watching (Sadly MotoGP have disabled embedding).

And the thing is motorcycling has always been this way…for instance, check out the 1991 Suzuaki GP with one of Rossi’s heroes, Kevin Schwantz:

Incidentally, I’ll keep my diary open for the British MotoGP round just in case, and especially the Isle of Man TT (one of the few events I didn’t get to visit for work…)

About the community, by the community

Here’s a good example of changing the way we do things, by the always interesting Neil Perkin at Only Dead Fish, from an idea by the also always interesting Herdmeister. And like most good ideas, it’s blindingly obvious when you see someone else do it!

Basically Neil was due to present at a conference on the subject of community. So he crowd-sourced it. And ended up with 30 slides submitted by a range of people (including myself). And a rather good presentation.

You can see his thoughts on crowdsourcing a presentation, and then presenting it, plus his words which accompanied it.

Due to my choice of blog template, you might need to click through to slideshare to be able to read the text well. It’s worth doing to subscribe to Neil’s presentations, like the one I previously recommended.

Passion is why Nine Inch Nails and vinyl are succeeding

There’s already a lot of commentary on the fact that Nine Inch Nails topped Amazon MP3 Album sales for 2008, despite the fact the first nine tracks of the  album had already been released by the band for free under a Creative Commons licence.

And the fact that vinyl album sales doubled in 2008, hitting a 17 year record of 1.88 million in 2008.

As Matt Mason points out, both examples show that ‘the physical souvenir of a digital idea still has value‘, and legitimate purchasing is becoming easier and more cost effective – for instance, Apple dropping DRM from iTunes and introducing variable pricing (although you’ll have to pay to remove DRM from tracks you already own). Om Malik nicely outlines the reasons why even the bonus from that DRM removal isn’t necessarily a good thing for the music industry – mainly because the three-tiered pricing structure being introduced could lead to more people expecting music for less.

And analysts are backing the idea that mobile music has to be free, for example.

Are there answers?

Going slightly further than Matt, I’d say buying an album already available for free, or investing in vinyl, shows something more than the benefits of better legitimate music stores or physical souvenirs.

I’d say it’s a direct result of passion.

The people most likely to download and spread NiN’s Ghosts I-IV are the passionate fans of the band. The people downloading from Amazon were aware of the album but either didn’t want to make do with the nine free tracks, didn’t want to download directly, or, possibly wanted to spread the word by purchasing via Amazon and propelling NiN up the charts.

Meanwhile to be a vinyl consumer you have to find a record player (hard to do offline outside of specialist hifi shops),  invest in needles and fluff removers, and actively seek out releases.

But what paying for NiN or vinyl does, is it elevates you from those people enjoying music as a diversion or convenient entertainment – it makes you someone who displays there passion for the band or format.

You don’t just like NiN enough to listen or download for free – You love them enough to pay $300 for the limited edition ultra-deluxe box set, and then buy the songs again via Amazon to promote them.

You don’t just have a convenient CD of new dance music or classic soul – you have the original vinyl with the ritual of selecting it from your shelf, sliding out the album carefully, putting it onto your record deck, and gently lowering the needle with the precision of a surgeon.

And anyone who witnesses either act is left within no doubt of your passion – and those who share it instantly mark you as one of their own. You’re not just a fan, you’re an Otaku.

It’s what sells a lot of products. For instance, the Halo Xbox game spawned two sequels, limited editions box sets, and a forthcoming strategy game.

  • Plus a table-top miniatures game.
  • The soundtrack CD for each game, plus a collection of the trilogy
  • 5 printed books
  • A graphic novel
  • A four-part comic book series
  • Calendars
  • Canvas Art
  • Posters
  • Vinyl Figures
  • T-Shirts
  • Controllers and headsets
  • Graphics to customise your console
  • Plus downloadable content to add to the original physical version, and customise your console dashboard

Then add in the derivatives:

  • Tournaments
  • Machima, such as Red vs Blue, which has it’s own DVDs, clothing and collectibles.
  • Halo costumes for Halloween or conventions.
  • And all sorts of other stickers and clothing from other retailers.

Now, how could you be a ‘real’ Halo fan if you just had a standard copy of the game? That won’t help you connect with other real fans, given 20 million copies of the series have been sold.

To show to other people you’re a ‘real’ Halo fan, you’ve got to have queued for the midnight release of the game, and have a sealed Limited Edition version. You’ve got to have the sountracks. At least one figurine of the Master Chief. A few of the books. Maybe a T-shirt.

After all, none of this is new!

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Stop grouping and griping – start thinking and doing

It’s tempting to think that social media is a good place to be right now – after all, there’s good evidence it’s one of the few areas of growing employement.

There’s also plenty of talk about how it’s going to grow as a low cost/more effective way to engage people, and therefore drive revenue – but also harder to measure. And it can be hard to tell who is bluffing, at least until someone came up with a checklist!

So we spend our time joining groups and chatting with our peers, whether it’s on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, etc, etc.

PAR-TIC-I-PA-TION by cindiann on Flickr (CC Licence)

PAR-TIC-I-PA-TION by cindiann on Flickr (CC Licence)

But the one question we need to keep asking is whether each group is really worth joining, and whether we’re actually going to have the time and dedication to make a difference.

It’s something I’ll admit to being guilty of. There’s Social Media Mafia, MeasurementCamp, Social Media Club, Social Media Today, P2PR, EverySingleOneofUs,  just off the top of my head, plus Triiibes, which prompted this post when I thought about how much value others are getting from it – and I’m missing because I’ve spread myself out so much. And some groups, such as the Blog Council, are attracting some criticism. As indeed WOMMA has in this case.

Then add in several Facebook groups, a few LinkedIn groups, and others I’ve forgotten – and suddenly it’s sounding ridiculous, even though I’ve increasingly only tried to be involved in groups with a reasonably clear and defined purpose.

Credentials Required by TheTruthAbout... on Flickr (CC Licence)

Credentials Required by TheTruthAbout... on Flickr (CC Licence)

I’ve already started politely resigning from a few places, because I’m barely even remembering to check in and see what’s happening once in a while, let alone contribute to anything of value – from now on it’s about having a real focus on what matters to me personally and for my career, and selecting a smaller collection of key groups who I can offer value to (and perhaps where interlinks can be found).

Perhaps this is what Twitter has really affected for me – in the past I was a pretty active member of a variety of groups and forums, but now they don’t seem so important, as I’ve got an expanding network of over 1900 in my community for instant responses on a variety of topics, rather than forcing myself to go and check in somewhere else.  The common complaint was that it detracted from blogging, but I tend to find the opposite – but I do find myself spending less time at other social locations, unless it’s a real focused community.

Perhaps it’s just me, and the fact I’ve got a great and involving day job, two blogs, and a young family to think about now? I know from forum involvement for a decade that there’s also a cyclical nature to forum membership – the new excitement, the start of seeing repetition from other members, taking a break and then coming back with new enthusiasm etc….

And I do know some people who seem to benefit from seemingly being in almost every group on every network ever created.

But what do you think? Have you been a little guilty of serial group joining without considering the value? Found yourself stretched too thin? Or do you think it’s fine to be a silent member in places on the off chance people might find you and request a connection/contribution?

And where have you found the clearest sense of purpose/best value?

Thoughts on the Online Community Building Manifesto

Despite a very kind email from the author, Rich Millington, I’ve been a bit remiss in not posting about his Online Community Building Manifesto (link to the PDF). (As a bonus, he’s also on Twitter).

It’s a call to change the way we think about online communities, and one that’s shared by a few people, myself included, but Rich has expressed it with a nice clarity.

We know about technology and we love the internet, but we (in general) don’t know half as much about the people forming communities and about ways to get a better understanding of what they’re doing and what their needs are.

He also raises good points about balancing what we learn about technology with other disciplines including psychology and sociology (with some helpful links to some interesting sources) – I won’t say any more in an effort to encourage you to go read it and leave him some comments.

He’s not alone in his thinking, but the benefit of the manifesto will come if it helps to join some of the minds in this space.  I’d include people like Dave Cushman, Mark Earls, Neil Perkin, and others who regularly appear in my RSS feeds but whose names have deserted me for the moment…which I shall rectify with a bit of an overhaul of my link lists shortly. It’s something that has been implemented in Seth Godin’s private Triiibes group (somewhere I need to spend more time if I can).

And there’s a real tangible personal benefit to social media/community/tribes people – technology is constantly shifting, and being an expert in Facebook or Twitter will start as an asset, become normal and then be old-fashioned and replaced by something new – but the lessons learnt about people will transfer to every network and device. They’ll evolve, but the changes with each evolution will work across platforms and devices and won’t rely on php, flash or javascript!

That’s why I posted on ‘Why Belief Matters‘ back in November, and used football and motorsport as examples. It’s the ‘why’ and the ‘what for’ of any community, and it comes from the people, not from the technology!