This week I have mostly…

Over the past few weeks and months I’ve been on a major de-cluttering spree, which has particularly focused on my pop culture addiction. I’ve sold, donated and binned a fairly substantial amount of books and videos, with CD’s and DVD’s either ripped and archived or in the queue to be added with the next external hard drive purchase.

The net result is that I’ve made a small amount of cash by letting go of books I’d probably never read again, I’ve gained some space and perspective on what is actually most important to me, and I’ve been investing in more digital formats for the future. The only downside is that one of my favourite habits is to check out the books/films/cds whenever I visit someone’s house, which doesn’t work so well in the digital age. Hence a quick top-of-the-head list of my entertainment for the previous week (For more comprehensive lists, you can always check out Last.fm, Goodreads, etc, but some items either don’t appear or get forgotten…)

I’ve been reading:

Since getting a Kindle, I’ve devoured Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, which I’d meant to read for ages, and finally picked up. Not only is it extremely interesting for those with an interest in medicine and science, but it should also be essential reading for any journalist and writer who has ever had to deal with a press release containing data, technical terms, or plain BS. And it’s a pretty damning report on the state of national news reporting when it comes to big medical stories.

I also raised through With a Little Help by Cory Doctorow. Like Bad Science, I’d meant to read it for ages, and indeed had started via the Creative Commons edition that Cory makes available for free via his website, but to enjoy it outside of a PDF on my laptop I figured I’d pay the ‘Lazy tax’ to have the Kindle version.

It’s a great collection of short stories, and although some did appeal more than others, what is always consistent is that every Doctorow tale comes with insight and inspiration for the future of the internet/society/technology etc. Even an average Doctorow story gets you thinking, and there are a number in here which are way above average. If there were two authors I’d subscribe to for all future work sight unseen, it’d be Cory and William Gibson.

And finally I’m just finishing the Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee – something which I’ve always meant to read but never enough to make it to the top of my list when in a bookshop. But it seemed like good timing, having rekindled my interest in actually practising some martial arts again by The Pajama Game, rather than just watching the occasional film. It’s interesting because it’s not a ‘how to’ guide for individual punches and throws – it’s a sometimes random collection of notes loosely structured after Lee’s death into the philosophy and approach of a fighting style which has no fixed style. And I also happened to read this post by Charles Frith which features an interesting interview with Lee.

I’ve been listening:

In a shocking lack of awareness, I’d seen Laura Kidd occasionally being mentioned in reference to her fanbase on Twitter, but hadn’t actually got around to listening to her music until she recently released an album of remixes in aid of charity. That prompted me to check out her album Disarm (on Amazon, and on Spotify), under the name ‘She Makes War’.

Turns out I’m an idiot, she makes brilliant music including a free downloadable cover of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ which is now the version I’ll hear when someone mentions the song.

I’ve been watching:

Aside from catching the odd episode of Big Bang Theory and a passing interest in Man vs Food, the only thing I actually wanted to watch when it was being broadcast was Sherlock Holmes. At which point my parents decided to have their weekend telephone call, so I haven’t really watched anything this week. And luckily my strange soap opera obsession with Ice Road Truckers Deadliest Roads ended just before this week so you’ll never find out about it.

I will get around to watching Borgen, but will probably end up waiting for the complete series to become available rather than watching weekly – I’ve increasingly found it’s easier for me to spend a weekend immersed in a series rather than waiting impatiently for scheduling to mean that I get out of sync anyway.

In terms of films, there hasn’t really been anything grabbing me – I did catch random bits of films I’d already seen being broadcast yet again, such as watching Oceans 12 for long enough to remember why it was such a letdown. But I did end up watching the Smurfs, which combine Neil Patrick Harris with what has to be the best role Hank Azaria has played – normally his appearance in a film is a guarantee of slight irritation at a slightly annoying pastiche. One that kept a 3-year-old entertained enough whilst his parents could also enjoy it.

I’ve been playing:

Rather than television, any leisure time goes into the Xbox. The social side of Xbox Live defines most of this, with my current Forza Motorsport 4 obsession combining a group of friends and the still-present ambition to find a way to race regularly. I’ve also had a very short blast on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, but it still hasn’t grabbed me as addictively as the previous games in the series.
Besides that I’ve finally been catching up on the downloadable content available for Grand Theft Auto 4, particularly now I know there’s a new one on the way, and also been slowly making my way through the Wild West version in Red Dead Redemption. Both are massive, epic games with enough storytelling elements to replace television and films, with the added advantages of interactivity and being able to pursue the areas and choices that interest me.

Do parents need a big red button to look after their children?

A European parliament committee report on videogames appears to include a lot of sense, but the BBC report I’ve just seen highlights one element of stupidity.

The report backs the idea that videogames can be beneficial, including helping creativity, cooperation and strategic reflection.  And I can see that although I firmly believe parents should be making decisions about appropriate content, the voluntary age rating system should be improved as we’re still reaching the age where parents are generally videogamers themselves.

But the bonkers part appears to be calling for a ‘red button’ on consoles, computers and within games for parents to turn off a machine or game.

I hate to point this out, but:

  • Consoles and computers have such a button. It’s called the power button.
  • If that fails, non-sentient computers and consoles can be disabled by removing a device known as a ‘plug’ from an ‘electrical socket’
  • Surely there’s an element of parental control which needs to be used if parents wish their offspring to stop playing for a while? The same element which would hopefully be used to dissuade or stop children from any other activity at the wishes of their parents?

If research shows that more than half of European children are playing games unsupervised, then there’s a definite need for parents to take more of an active interest, rather than awaiting the first assault charges brought because a game was suddenly ended mid-session.

It’s why there needs to be parental involvement in internet usage and social networks. And why I’d always recommend that any children using webcams should only be able to use them in a shared family space, and not in their own rooms, for example. But for someone far more knowledgable about the reality of online risks, I’d recommend checking out Danah Boyd’s recent post.

Interview with Blippr founders Jonathan C and Chris Heard

Two websites are currently showing the way the microblogging format can be used outside of pure conversation. But although the pair even have similar names, they take totally different approaches. I’ve previously covered ‘Twitter radio’ Blip.fm, but somehow I’ve neglected to cover the other major twist on microblogging, Blippr.  (You can find me using it, here)

But what is interesting about the system is that it not only allows for 160 character reviews of entertainment (music, films, books, videogames), but the focus of the company behind it is concentrated more on the recommendation side of things than purely Twitter for reviews, which means they’re taking on some big names (Disclosure: It also means they play in a similar space to ditto.net, which I do some work with).

Blippr

What is Blippr in 140 char?

(Jonathan): A community of people looking to discuss, discover and organize books, games, movies and music. In 160 characters or less, of course.

Your company (Tag Team Interactive) has a focus on social relationships and recommendations – what inspired this philosophy?

(Jonathan): My business partner and I just know and see the value in personal recommendations–the ones you receive from your family, your close friends, even just acquaintances. There’s an explicit amount of trust that you extend those influences in your life and you don’t need to come to understand. Recommendations across other platforms, like Amazon or Netflix for example, take time to train and come to trust. There’s this sort of “black box” effect. You’re not sure exactly why the item they’re recommending is a fit for you. However, if your good friend said “You have to see Pineapple Express, it’s hilarious”, it doesn’t require the same amount of learned trust. You already know you can trust that person. It causes even that much more drive to go out and see that movie.

Your company website mentions Blippr is your second application, but what was the first? Was it related to Blippr, and did your previous applications and websites have a direct effect on how Blippr was created?

(Jonathan): Our first was Judge-O-Rama, a site focused on enabling people to resolve their conflicts and contests in a head-to-head context. We like to think of it as our “practice app.” It was just something fun and entertaining, not quite as useful or focused as blippr. Judge-O-Rama was definitely instrumental in our working together, though, and at least serving as the inspiration to us starting to work together. In terms of how this served in blippr’s creation, I think this blog post will give you a good idea of how blippr started.

Who do you see as your competitors? Does it include Blip.fm? What are the advantages of Blippr?

(Jonathan): We don’t view Blip.fm as a direct competitor, per se. They’re doing the micro-thing, but we’re not trying to create a me-too “Twitter for reviews” application. That’s the obvious connotation most people make, given the review constraints, but we’re far more focused on developing the social recommendation and organization pieces than we are a simple micro-review platform. As such, we view our competitors more along the lines of Flixster, GoodReads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, iLike, Trusted Opinion, and a few others. Obviously one of our key advantages is our focus on not just one particular entertainment categories–movies or books or music or games–but on all of the above (we also plan on adding TV in the future). Furthermore, I think if you look at most of those sites, while they have solid communities, we’ve tried to make the participation process as simple as possible to encourage more participation. Also, last but not least, I would say that our focus on integrating with as many platforms as possible is a big differentiator. You can connect your blippr account with Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku, Pownce, Identi.ca, Tumblr, Facebook, Last.fm, GoodReads, LibraryThing, Amazon, and others, which is obviously a great opportunity for our users’ opinions and reviews. Those are some of the high level advantages, at least.

Obviously you’re monetising the site through Amazon, but do you have any further plans to drive revenue you can disclose? With traffic growing, was it a conscious decision not to include display advertising?

(Jonathan): We would say that commerce through various sites will definitely be a large share of revenue, but we do intend on eventually displaying ads that are relevant to blipprs’ userbase, as well. Obviously, the primary intent there is to offer entertainment advertisers a place to capture people who truly are interested in entertainment media and looking to make a decision. But we very much aim to make it a value-add to users first, then advertisers. Jeremy Liew, of Lightspeed Venture Partners, wrote a great blog post a while back on the topic of endemic advertising, which I believe really showcases blippr’s revenue opportunity.

Blippr users can cross-publish to Facebook, Friendfeed, Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku and Pownce. Do your users tie into the audience figures for those sites, or has there been any surprises? And is that the main word of mouth that is driving new registrations?

(Jonathan): This is assuredly a large driver of how people are discovering blippr, but I wouldn’t say that’s the main word of mouth driving registrations. Email invites sent from users have also been a large driver. In terms of surprises, I wouldn’t say there have been too many. Most connections have been with Twitter and Facebook. The rest are pretty much equally spread.

Are there any of the cross-publishing sites which are easier or harder to integrate into?

(Jonathan) That would be a question for my co-founder and business partner, Chief Executive Geek, Chris Heald. Some have taken more time than others. Obviously Facebook takes far more time than any of the others due to building an application for the platform, which is much more than just a cross-publish opportunity. iPhone and OpenSocial integrations will be the next difficult pieces for us, but they are coming.

Does scaling prove as problematic for Blippr as it has done for Twitter? There seem to have been some timeouts recently when I’ve been using Blippr?

(Chris): I don’t think scaling is going to be anywhere near the problem for us that it has been for Twitter; our architecture and product design is a good deal different than Twitter’s, so we avoid many of the specific design issues that they’ve had problems scaling. We have had some timeouts lately, but those were due to some rather exceptional circumstances, and a lack of hardware to fail over gracefully to (in those cases, the problems weren’t scaling issues so much as our primary app server going down without a graceful failover – that’s since been corrected). We’re still getting this thing off the ground, so our infrastructure is very much in its infancy (though we’ve been working lately to address that!). However, we have built this thing with an eye towards scaling, and don’t foresee any major problems in doing so as we move forward. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, but we’ve worked very hard to build a flexible product, and hope to see it grow about as quickly as we can keep up with it!

Do you plan to focus on utilising a microblogging format as the logical mechanism for your relationship and recommendation applications?

(Jonathan): The main inputs for our recommendations are explicit relationships (who you follow), agreements with other peoples’ blips, and the ratings you give titles. (Chris): I don’t think the microblogging format could necessarily be described as the mechanism for our relational/recommendation tools – the other data we’re collecting drives that – but the microblogging format uniquely contributes to this aim in that it encourages extremely high levels of participation, and thus, results in more useful data being present in the system for us to draw conclusions from. It is absolutely a key component to the success of these other components that we have built, even if it isn’t the primary mechanism by which these processes work. Whether we’d use it in future similar applications, I can’t say, but we’re both big fans of the behaviors that it encourages, and would very likely consider it.

And are there any Blips on products which have really shocked, surprised or amused you?

(Jonathan): Good question. It’s hard to pare down to just a single blip or two. Seriously, I can say that I am the biggest fan of blippr. As a huge movie geek myself, I’m constantly reading through blips and finding myself agreeing, laughing, vehemently disagreeing, and more. While some people fault blippr’s micro-format and say that you can’t really know whether something is good or bad within 160 characters, I say, read for yourself. You’ll be surprised!

When everyone is virtual, it will be in Grand Theft Auto – not Second Life

Second Life Avatar by tifotter

Having played quite a few hours of Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest game in the series, I’ve become convinced that future evolutions of the game are far more likely to bring virtual worlds to the masses than Second Life ever will.

I’ve experienced the whole GTA series, including the original 2D games for the Playstation, the original switch to 3D, and the gradual expansion of the gaming universe and variety of missions, side missions, and alternative exploits (Why is it the press always focuses on the hookers, rather than the fact you can play darts, pool, or go bowling?). And now there’s a range of really enjoyable multi-player missions.

It’s a consistent world, with rules loosely based on those of reality – but bent for more fun. All it takes is a mechanism for an ongoing economy, and suddenly it’s a virtual world.

Second Life, by contrast, has the barrier of requiring a reasonable PC, a sign-up procedure, and learning how the world works…as opposed to ‘insert cd and play’.

This might be a risky prediction, but some figures do back it up. March 2008 saw 13 million Second Life accounts registered with no idea of how many were active.

By contrast, GTA IV sold 3.6 million copies on the first day of release, and 6 million in the first week. The previous instalment, GTA:San Andreas hit 21.5 million units in total. (Figures from wikipedia.org)

And with copies of the game costing around £40, people are definitely going to play it until they get their money’s worth. It already became the most played game on Xbox Live for the week of it’s release.

It’s got the fans, the brand reputation, and mainstream appeal on consoles which offer easy online access alongside home entertainment. And I know I’m not the only person who bought his copy on the day of release – and without reading a single review.

If GTA hasn’t become a persistent virtual world within the next couple of years, I’ll eat my copy of GTA IV!