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April 2008 Archives

Microsoft and Yahoo

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I'm slightly frsutrated that there is still no news on the Microsoft and Yahoo deal. This is going to impact on a whole series of applications for my business, and while I'm not entirely sure what benefit it will bring to either Yahoo or Microsoft for the deal to go ahead, it's certainly better to have the giants concentrating on innovation and new products than arguing over a price for assets. Get in there, deal and get over it, Yahoo. Your reign was over a long time ago.

Anzac Day 25 April

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Thinking of everyone at home in Oz this ANZAC Day, and thinking of my grandparents - all gone now, but always in my heart. And thinking of Mum too on this day. My thoughts are with you. Lest we forget.

We-Think: Leadbeater's presentation

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Last night I attended a public lecture at the RSA from Charlie Leadbeater, based on his new book, We-Think. And anyone who follows my twittering will be aware I was spamming away during the lecture!

First of all, I have to say I am a bit of a fan of Leadbeater's methods and vision. As an advocate of these technologies it's fantastic to come across people like Leadbeater and Shirky and Rheingold and others who share my sense of the value of social networks for changing the way we can behave collectively. But even when I come across a 'kindred spirit' in social technologies, I need to ensure I think critically about what is being set - not to criticise, but rather to critique. And as such, I was drawn to the issues raised about mass innovation and the claims made by so many theorists about the reducing costs of production with social media.

I've said this myself. Certainly social networking tools such as blogs and wiki do provide the users with the tools to publish their opinions for a general audience, and for those blogs and wikis that attract significant traffic, there is also the opportunity to engage in sustained debate on issues raised (or at least continue the conversation for longer than an hour or a day). And there is no doubt at all that the greatest advantage of these technologies is that they enable mass access to knowledge which is collectively and collaboratively created. (Incidentally, someone pointed out to me on this blog the other day that the word 'collaboration' could have negative connotations for some people, due to use of the word in 'collaborating with the enemy'... so perhaps 'cooperatively created' may be a better expression). The value of wikipedia as a current and remarkably accurate resource for information on virtually any topic is profound. Regardless of all the attempts to denigrate wikipedia as a popular reference, with its volunteer editing force, the phenomenon keeps proving the doubters wrong, coming up as more reliable and certainly more current than any other major reference source.

The only problem I have with the notion of social networking and collaborative innovation and knowledge sharing is that it's actually not as cheap as everyone thinks it is. And that's the only thing that really concerned me about Leadbeater's presentation last night.

Here's the thing: the truth about Wikipedia and other social networking platforms is that they are hugely expensive to run. Hosting costs on the Amazon S3 platform may be cheap but they are not zero. Not by a long shot. But more importantly, there is massive time investment from a volunteer force of editors at Wikipedia who strive to ensure information is accurate and up-to-date. These people believe strongly in the principle of providing access to information. And they spend hundreds of unpaid hours ensuring that the hackers and even the well-meaning but misguided posters to wikipedia are kept under control. Now money may not change hands, but the time costs associated with editing are phenomenal.

And for more commercial sites and social networking platforms, delivery of professional content, editing of user generated content and responding to the needs of the users generally involves the employment of staff for those roles. Further, the ongoing bug fixing and continuing development of functional components that improve the accessibility and accuracy of information presented is an ongoing cost - and a large one.

This a problem I have identified before in Benkler's work on the cost of information filtering. Even where there is not a monetary cost associated with accessing specific and targeted information, there is often a cost associated with generating that knowledge. That could be a financial cost or a commercial (advertising sponsored) cost or an opportunity cost if the information is not gathered in time or for the benefit of the gatherer. There are a series of other costs too, associated with marginal value added and investment return for information searching, as well as intangible costs and benefits of social connection and productivity disruption. These are all familiar to economists, because they are the costs that are associated with sales and with acquisition of property. But they keep getting ignored as costs for social networking technologies. They exist, but we advocates all rather conveniently ignore them.

And at our peril: the costs of keeping information accurate and current could generate a new hierarchy of information wealth - those with the means to be able to support information searching, and those who must resort to the more mundane resources online. And there is already a new industry of agents emerging who specialise in data mining and network theory as a means of extracting information efficiently and generating connections more efficiently between key players in a system. These are premium services, requiring highly specialised skills and technologies, and no matter how collaborative people may be in publishing the specifications of a data mining technique, the cost of integrating these specifications and the first mover advantage in deploying them for the benefit of a corporate player are both colossal.

I asked a question of Leadbeater last night about the possibility of an emerging hierarchy of information haves and have-nots on the basis of such powerful costs in information filtering, but Leadbeater responded in terms of social hieracrhies and not financial relationships. In all fairness, the way the questions were posed (3 at a time) made it hard for questions to be answered successfully, so I completely understand his difficulty with my perspective. And when I perhaps phrased the issue a little more succinctly later, he expressed a keen interest in seeing how these little information empires are being built. But it's something I think we all should understand. Social networking technologies are revolutionary in their potential for information access. We just need to be aware now that if we want to sustain that democratic accessibility of knowledge, then we are going to have to consider the economic and social ramifications of the perennial drive for more and more accurate knowledge, as well as more and more beneficial connections between people.

Culture Trip

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Last night I attended a panel debate, based on the Labour Government aspiration of 5 hours of culture taught as part of school curriculum every week. This follows on from the successful campaign to introduce 5 hours of sport into the curriculum over the past few years. The rationale for the move is to encourage a broader education among UK students and to capitalise upon the immense range of cultural resources available in the UK (and particularly in London) with cultural heritage, art, music and dance ('high art') considered necessary for a socially progressive society.

There was a sense amongst those present last night that cultural education has suffered in the drive for improvement in literacy and numeracy as well as the weighting of scientific and mathematical education. Whilst nobody present would have overtly stated that such enhanced literacy, numeracy and scientific education is unnecessarily time-consuming (and perhaps even partly irrelevant), there was a distinct sense that the skew of education towards purely pragmatic subjects has deprived current students of a sense of the value of cultural products and creativity, and engagement with artistic ventures.

What concerned me about the discussion last night was the assumption that only educational institutions (admittedly in partnership with cultural bodies) were responsible for cultural education. As was identified in the debate, only 20% of children's waking hours every week are spent actually in class at school. My question is - what happens in the other 80%?

If the ambition is to develop a more culturally aware, creative and engaged generation then what happens in school time is important but it is not the silver bullet for cultural education. By its very nature creative engagement and cultural appreciation is a collective and performance oriented activity. It is not merely a matter of filling an 'empty vessel' with knowledge and formulae, but rather a process of understanding and creating an aesthetic which reflects the current and historical image of society. As such, it is woefully inadequate to assume that cultural education can be achieved entirely within the confines of an educational institution. Families need to support cultural engagment, and parents in particular, have a responsibility not only to introduce cultural content to their children, but to seek to understand it themselves, with their children, in order to truly expose children to the whole process of cultural understanding.

Art is not an object, but a journey. Schools can assist cultural education, but until the hearts and minds of parents and the broader community are captured by culture, I hold little hope for the development of a dominantly creative and culturally articulate generation of school leavers.

Social engineering made simple

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This is truly terrifying: when offered a chocolate bar as a form of payment up to 45% of women emerging from Liverpool Street Station were prepared to give away their private information and passwords. This is based on a survey of 576 office workers by Infosecurity Europe.

Honestly, girls, get a grip. A chocolate bar costs a quid. Your passwords and private access data could release everything from your bank account details to your taxation records and health information. Get some understanding of the damages that social engineering can do, and for goodness sake, keep this kind of information absolutely secure.

Collaborate or Quit!

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There's an interesting article from Dennis Howlett on the 'Poverty of Enterprise 2.0' in today's ZDNet. It needs a darn good edit as an article, but the value of the article is in its central perspective that businesses and consumers are finding the process of adapting to the mantra of collaboration rather difficult. In particular, there is a grain of truth in Howlett's notion that until the management of large corporations can massively shift in favour of flatter organisational information exchange - thereby undermining the very hierarchies that supported their rise to management - then it will be almost impossible to adapt social networking for much more than improved communication in a corporate structure. Importantly social networking technologies probably won't generate the kinds of business improvements that the technologies promise.

But this is the same problem that faced the development of the internet over a decade ago. The promise of connectivity only became a reality when broadband became affordable and the social and usable tools of the Web 2.0 era began to emerge. For those of us building websites in 1994-1997 (and I was one of them) it was blindingly obvious to see how the accessibility of the web lended itself to information exchange and brought down the cost of access to information. But as advocates of new technologies, we lived through a period of doubt and refining of the technologies before we could demonstrate what we already understood about the WWW. And - to be blunt - some of that waiting period was effectively a form of waiting for people to die. Since 1995, all those business leaders who were technology doubters in their 50s and 60s have either been forced to adopt technology or they have retired. Now we're on to the next wave of doubters about social media, and to some extent this is an even tougher cookie to crack because the promise of connectivity and collaboration can potentially break down the natural authority developed by hierarchical decision making.

Essentially however, this is another generational window. In another 10 years, I'm confident there will not just be comfort in the notion of collaborative decision making, but there will be legal imperatives for transparent business decision making that go much further than current corporate governance recommendations.

And the thing is, as a business leader, I can say comfortably that there will always be authority in upper management, because it takes a particular personality to be able to look after the interests of a business, financially, socially, and strategically. What is needed is the kind of manager that will adapt to the idea of collaboration but will maintain a cognizance of the legal and social ramifications of responsibility for decisions made either hierarchically or collaboratively. Because ultimately, all the social media in the world is not going to take away the generations of business and trade law that will still identify a Director when business relationships and business productivity fails.

Social media influence

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One of the groups I've joined on Facebook is the Social Media Mafia; an alliance of creative types, technologists and strategists who are collectively attempting to improve social media by challenging the technologies, the advocates and the doubters, and to plan further research into the phenomenon. The latest challenge for the Social Media Mafia group is articulated in the group founder, Chris Hambly's blog where Chris explores the difficulties of measuring social media influence. I responded directly on his blog, but it's worth reiterating that techniques for measuring social media are generally woeful - not just because there are no clear methodologies, but because even when you can demonstrate intention to purchase and brand recall through viral marketing, you still can't show a direct relationship between buyer behaviour and social media influence.

All that aside, I believe the most significant weakness in strategic analysis of social media is that the measurement techniques used are often completely inappropriate, and occasionally completely misread. Because there is no generally agreed technique for identifying an appropriate data analysis method for various iterations of social media, there is little basis for predicting future behaviour among users of social media, thus it is particularly difficult to determine how social media can be monetised or have sustainability over time. I'm still convinced that the problem with evaluating social media is more about the differences between value and utility, but I'm hoping to articulate this more clearly in my next book!

The new GG of Australia

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I was so pleased to hear that Queensland's Governor, Quentin Bryce, has been named as the incoming Governor General of Australia. Besides the fact that Australia is well due for a woman in the role, Bryce represents an opportunity for women to challenge currently held ideas about women's rights and to celebrate the achievements of women in all facets of Australian life.

And Bryce herself is a woman who commands the greatest respect and admiration from me. Her involvement in discrimination issues and indigenous health will always position her as a pioneering campaigner for a fair society. Good appointment, Rudd.

Reality check

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Is it sad that I'm glad to be freshly showered and tucked up in an old flannel shirt, under a cosy minky blanket, with a cup of tea, at 9:30pm on a Friday night?

Something 2.0

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I know my friends and learned colleagues in the group IT Strategic Partners (hi to you all!) are mightily sick of the 'Web 2.0' tagline to describe the more social web achieved through vehicles like blogs, social networking sites and collaborative online spaces such as wiki. But I'm afraid all the grumbling won't take away the mass hysteria over the tag and the adaptation of it for describing social tactics across all facets of business and society. Just today on ReadWriteWeb, there are no less than three '2.0'-oriented cliches applied to activities...
1. Business Development 2.0 - where you generate new business through social networking platforms and instant messaging rather than picking up the phone;
2. Support Group 2.0 - where you can find a digital analyst who can take you through your many neuroses; and
3. Marketing 2.0 - where the instant messaging service meebo will be rolling out personally targeted ads through its architecture, in spite of its own research demonstrating the oft-quoted truism that social networking users generally express a desire not to have advertising pushed at them.

And I'm not going to shy away from '2.0'-isms. I will instead jump on the bandwagon and recommend you all go and talk to the far more social Joanne 2.0. (Warning: she's a bit of a flirt.)

Errors in stats... World Internet Use

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I think the results released a couple of weeks ago by Nielsen on global home internet access are probably more of an example of errors in data collection or a general error rate of about 2% than a demonstration in a drop in home internet access use among some of the most digitally sophisticated countries in the world. While I don't doubt there is some drop off in home internet access due to removals, expenses and so on, I can't quite believe that 3% of Australians and 3.5% of all Swiss netizens decided to switch off home internet access in February this year. It looks more like the sample Nielsen used was shoddy to me.

Note to self: Clotted cream

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... nowhere near as nice as buttermilk in ice cream.

The obligatory blog news post

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In today's reading is Time Magazine's First Annual Blog Index, listing the top 25 blogs for 2008. No real surprises, and a bit of a yawn, given that most of them are US-based. Most are technology, gossip and economics-based, and most are more aggregators of information and link farms rather than incisive commentary. Perhaps one eyebrow should rise that good 'ole MeFi still makes the list, but there again, you can't help mediocrity.

In other slightly more bizarre news, Google and the New York Times are now pinpointing on a Google map, where news items occur. I'm not sure whether this is an act of localism or just a hobby of a bored NYT journalist, however.

And finally - also a NYT item - there is finally a story about bloggers blogging till they drop. And essentially this raises all sorts of questions about unfair labour practices and declining lifestyles. Of course there is a cure to all this concern - don't pay by the blog post, and allow people to learn and blog in the workplace, by allocating time for same. Or perhaps that's just idealistic of me.

Vale Button

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So sad to hear the news that former Australian Senator, John Button has passed. Lovely man, and a one of the more clear-minded politicians at the head of the game. You'll be missed Mr Button.

Social networking business flow

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There are a couple of good articles worth a read today on social media and trends between online and offline. Mashable have an article on 'Startups that Came Back from the Dead', looking at social networking platforms from LinkedIn to Friendster and Pluck as examples of businesses that used a range of strategies to investigate their markets and reinvent themselves for their users. I wonder also whether some of these applications just needed time for the inherent value of the product to be understood by the target market. I noticed in a study currently being conducted on Facebook by the Social Network Analysis group that almost everyone who had completed the survey had a LinkedIn profile. Yet when I joined in 2004/5 (I can't remember when exactly) it was used by very few people, and seemed nothing more than a fad. Now LinkedIn is used as a major resource for discovering new talent and head hunting (I've even used it myself to check up on applicants for roles I have advertised and cold-contacted people I found on LinkedIn based ontheir skills set). Of course there is an inherent bias in LinkedIn toward technology based industries. But increasingly it is being used as a professional face and resource for a professional profile. It's just been a very slow starter of an application. Just goes to show, you sometimes need to be rather patient in the world of social media!

There's also an article on odd trends of online advertising. Or at least that's how it's profiled on Mashable and even in the tone of the Harvard Business Review source article. What has been found is that online advertising has more of an impact on offline sales than on online sales. Actually I don't see this as surprising at all. Online advertising works best where its matched with the targeted interests of netizens - and most particularly, social networking users. When they are online, they don't necessarily want to be distracted from what they are doing online, but they are often ready to take ideas in to account for later consideration. In particular, where online advertising involves coupons, or is advertising an offline event or is in any way complex, then users may take note for later checking offline, generally when they are (mentally) framed for purchasing. To me, this trend is indicative of evels of trust of online messages. Online is a place where things are observed and considered; offline is where they impact. That may change over time but right now that's the flow of business online. And to be honest, as a business leader who is dependent on advertising income from technology products, I'm pretty comfortable with that.

My photos of the snow

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... and other things!

Have a look here for my latest shots of the snow as well as that experienced at Easter and a few shost from my last trip to Edinburgh:


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... and lots of it! Two days ago it was 17 degrees and sunny in London. Today it's a blanket of white fluffy snow! So PRETTY! I'm off for a walk in it :-)

The recent proposal to force all social networking sites to ban specific email addresses from setting up or maintaining a presence is inane. Of course I support the idea of monitoring the behaviour of convicted sex offenders, and of course I want to protect the interests of our children, but banning an email address is about as effective in preventing participation with a social networking site as catching water with a sieve. Yes, you might prevent one email address being used on a social networking site, but that will not prevent any offender from simply starting a new email account and using that for his/her participation with a system. Further, if a conviction is appealed and overturned, does the state really expect social networking sites to suddenly 'whitelist' all those who were previously 'blacklisted'? And what about offenders from different jurisdictions? How do you keep track of all these potential users?

The recommended proposals may be laudable in terms of effort in protecting the community, but they are going to be costly and fairly pointless in real terms. And that, ultimately, is more wasteful and less helpful for tax payers than being educated about appropriate behaviour online. This is all about fixing the symptoms of the problems, not the cause.

The Wisdom of... well... wisdom

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For about 8 years now, there has been a focus on the 'wisdom of crowds' idea, which social networking applications facilitate. But after the wave of Web 2.0 idea aggregation technologies begins to subside, the doubts of the Web 2.0 sceptics (myself, to some extent, included) have been realised in a serious need for editorialisation of aggregated content. Everything from search engines to niche social networking sites now need full time editors with expertise in a field to sift through the piles of rubbish that are submitted in user-generated facilities.

In my work, one of the key aspects of our development is to consider appropriate recommendation engines, and the work of psychologists to specialised professionals is required to ensure that the value of the information our automated systems provide for our users and investors is accommodated by our products. Increasingly, however, it is the notion of the horribly named 'Web 3.0' - the integration of an expertise layer even over the expert-idea-laden algorithms - that is is essential to ensure the longevity of a social networking site. Perhaps this is not a profound idea - that a site about people needs useful people to be successful - but it is one which the conglomerates still don't get. Never mind. The open source community and mentality pervading the development of quality business and personal applications will eventually make its presence felt, even to the older leading players in software development. Only this time it won't be wisdom drawn necessarily from commercial experience, but rather wisdom based on rather old-fashioned concepts of socratic debate.

Education, anyone?

More Oz wildlife

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Thanks to Jo for the link to this magnificent article about north Queensland police taking a croc into custody. I admit as I read the bit about the decision of where they were going to keep the rogue croc, I almost lost the cup of tea I was in the process of swallowing. :-)

Over at Buzz Canuck, there's an intelligent post on the general lowering of the quality of blogging and the terrible 'in crowd' posts from even high quality bloggers in the community. I know even my own professional building of social networking sites is contributing to this attempt to make updating easy, and thinking less time consuming. But there is a fine balance between using social networks to stay in touch and using social networks to cogitate. I have frequently used my blog in the past to consider the range of issues affecting the media landscape but rarely receive responses (when I do, I am more appreciative than the posters realise, but they probably never hear that from me). The trouble is that the fewer responses you get mean the less likely you are to continue posting long and detailed responses. (This is partly why blogs such as Mark Bahnisch's Larvatus Prodeo works, because it has a high-traffic, high-engagement participation, but probably most importantly it has a relatvely high number of individual posters, who are committed to developing pithy responses to the political and social landscape.) But among the individual bloggers, the temptation to reduce the quality of thought and increase the production of widget oriented posts (such as twittering and status updates on Facebook) represents more of a sign of concern about 'blogging in the workplace', taking too much of free/family time up in blogging and yet still demonstrating a need to 'stay in touch'.

Whilst the thought behind something like Pat Kane's notion of developing a 'Play Ethic' is profoundly valuable, there is an intermediary step that needs to be taken to legitimise the act of deep blogging. Social networking advocates should probably consider advocating the use of detailed blogging as an aggregation of data similar to a traditional STEP or PEST scan (a business environment analysis, not a search for cane toads). I conduct these scans at least once a week to stay abreast of changes in the sector, new technologies and new changes in laws relating to my business. Without it, I could not perform as I have done in the marketplace.

It comes back to allocating time to social media. This is work. It's not just articulating to an undifferentiated mass. It is a means of clarifying ideas and creating new opportunities for understanding, new applications, new mashups, new business. So the old bloggers - myself included - may need to consider using the Ideosphere proposed in the Buzz Canuck article as a space for innovation incubation rather than a self-indulgent waste of time. And rather than reducing our social networking activity to mere link farming through facilities such as (still my favourite tool), we need to begin to make sense of what we note, and play a part in a much broader, open-source-oriented innovation age.

Clarification: Toad Day Out.

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For all my London friends, this story about a national cane toad killing day, is actually not an April Fools Day joke, although it probably should be. Note that the RSPCA in Australia has already ruled out a Cane Toad Golf day in Townsville.

And for what it's worth, the sound a cane toad makes when you hit it with the front wheel of your car is something akin to 'faaaaaaaaaaaa - *crackle* *squilch* - thump'.

The Google Time Machine

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According to this news report, Google has a new gDay function that allows it to see popular searches one day in to the future.

G'day SageRank. Now that's superb.

Oh, and happy April Fool's Day!

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