Monday, 21 December 2009

The year in review

2009 has been something of a roller-coaster for me, career wise, and now's as good a time as any to take stock. And as I've been lax of late in tending to my blog, I thought I'd do it here...

It's been a real challenge trying to grow the agency in this recession. I'm talking about maturation rather than financial growth - our team has changed a lot over the year. As well as losing a couple of people to redundancy in September, we also lost our Managing Director in October and I was promoted into the role alongside our Creative Director, Will Bloor. It's been difficult to bed in processes as a result.

But the Digital team have really risen to the challenge, and we're already starting to reap the benefits of improved processes and standards. The number of moles which need whacking is going down all the time, and the moles themselves tend to be less vicious and spiteful...


















We've got an amazing team of people here, with more on the way, and some really terrific clients who appreciate our work - and who could ask for more than that?

My poor blogging record is probably a fair reflection of efforts directed elsewhere. I was very fortunate in my previous job to have the luxury of time in which to learn and pontificate about open source, and I certainly miss that time and space here. While I attended quite a few conferences this year, work back in the office was never far from my mind. The open source landscape (and technology market in general) will continue to evolve apace, and I'm anxious to keep up. This is something I'm keen to fix in 2010.

So my ambition for 2010 is to redress the balance between thinking and practising. There is some truly amazing stuff going on around the world, and when I see videos like this one (Salim Ismail talking about the Singularity University), it reminds me what I love about this industry of ours.



Seriously cool stuff.

And with that, I'd like to wish anyone reading this a terrific Christmas and a really happy new year!

++
Thanks to Kenneth B.Moore for the use of his Whack-a-mole photo.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Collaboration in a networked world

I'm currently at Supernova, where I attended a panel on 'Frontiers of Real Time Collaboration' (videos are the last two on this page, and there's a public Google Wave for the session). It gave me food for thought, not so much because of what was said - enough about Twitter, already! - but rather because of what wasn't said.

Finding effective ways to collaborate is a really interesting subject, and its one of those where I suspect everyone has a different view on what collaboration means. For me, collaboration is an umbrella term for a host of different activities, modes, relationships and states.

I find it helpful to think of collaboration as a pathway, starting with Discovery (realisation that there is a problem, finding people who want to solve it with you), then Coordination (identification and assignment of activities) and then Creation (of assets that are needed to do the job e.g. written documents).

But it gets much more complex when you consider the different modes of interaction between participants on this path. This might be defined by relationship (e.g. student / teacher), access (e.g. inside / outside firewall) or current mode (active / passive). By active and passive, I'm talking about the level of involvement at that moment - I might be having an IM chat with a fellow collaborator, or at the other end of the spectrum I might be out having a meal at a restaurant, safe in the knowledge that everything is being gathered in one place. I might not even be involved on the project yet - but when I join, I need to navigate the work done up to that point.

Incidentally, I think Google deserves a lot of credit for trying to address this active / passive challenge with Google Wave. Obviously, Wave has it's faults, predominantly in the user interface, but this is still real new frontier stuff, and I'm sorry that Anna-Christina Douglas of the Google Wave team didn't press home this major achievement in the panel yesterday.

Back to the collaboration pathway. There are literally hundreds of tools that address parts of this, from wikis to forums, from email to video chat, from Google Docs to instant messaging. They're generally free as in beer, and well established. By and large, I think most teams settle on the collection of tools that best fits whatever it is they're trying to achieve. So this raises a number of interesting questions:

- Isn't this enough? What could or should come next?
- Could technology be improved to support certain types of collaboration more effectively? Which areas need work?
- Does technology need to catch up with people, or do people need to catch up with technology?
- What about people who work for companies that restrict access to, or discourage participation using, free and public tools? Is it fair to ask them to rely on an intranet over which they have no control?
- How can technology augment and support activity that takes place in real life, face to face?

I'm starting to form the view that this is one frontier that doesn't need to move that quickly. A lot of the tools we have are more than adequate for our needs. Necessity is the mother of invention, which is probably why Google Wave is the first major innovation on this landscape for several years.

As for intranets, it's incumbant on large organisations to realise that they don't have a monopoly on necessary skills or good ideas. Those that succeed in the next decade will be those who can work just as effectively with those outside the firewall as those on inside - as well as providing effective tools for their staff to work together, of course!

I'm truly crap at articulating points such as those raised here in a public forum - for me, they take time to percolate - but one point I wish I'd made yesterday is that there is already an area where people have been collaborating very productively for over ten years - open source. I think that the tools these communities use (IRC, Forums, code versioning systems, IM) lend themselves nicely to the task at hand, but there is still plenty we can learn from these communities, particularly in the way that they self organise.

Yesterday's panel discussion focused quite heavily on Twitter, as being the 'real time' element in the discussion title. I like Twitter, but I think it can only play a small role in collaboration exercises - perhaps in the Discovery phase, but not in terms of Coordination and Creation. It's just not a tool with which you get things done, in a project collaboration sense.

Nice to get all of that out of my system!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

On page folds and users

There's an interesting article by CX Partners doing the rounds about the "myth of the page fold". Those of us who've been kicking around the industry for a while will have had this drummed into us: people don't like to scroll. But behaviours are changing as people become more familiar and comfortable with the web, and particularly as popular sites have more and more content below the fold, which has a snowball effect on behaviour and expectation.

It's a good article, but I think it simplifies things a little too much. From the article:
Over the last 6 years we’ve watched over 800 user testing sessions between us and on only 3 occasions have we seen the page fold as a barrier to users getting to the content they want.
Emphasis mine. Putting to one side our own personal views on the value of advertising to the user, the fact remains that many websites depend on advertising revenues for their business to succeed. Web sites should be designed primarily around the user requirements, but still need to be mindful of the business requirements - and adverts above the page fold perform much better than those below. So while the article is correct in pointing out that users are happy to scroll, businesses relying on advertising revenues can't afford to be cavalier with where they place their adverts.

And it's still incumbent on us web professionals to make sure that the user journeys are as straightforward as possible for the end user. This means making it easy to find the most popular content quickly, which implies less scrolling. In some circumstances, I agree with the sentiment expressed here...
Less content above the fold may encourage more exploration below the fold
...but it really does depend on several factors. There is a trade off between this notion and presenting a high percentage of users with the information or links they want without forcing them to scroll. As a gross generalisation, I suspect many users still look through most content on a page to see if what they need is there before they bother scrolling down.

And fortunately we have a way of proving whether this is true in each case; test, iterate and test again.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The web is not a channel

Here in agency land, people often refer to the web as a channel. And coming from a background where I was surrounded by developers, this has never sounded right to me.

So when I was invited to present at an internal Loewy-wide event to pimp our Digital wares, I decided to try and describe a better way to think about the web. I'm giving the talk today, and my slides with notes can be seen on Slideshare or below:

View more documents from Phil Whitehouse.

Friday, 7 August 2009

ie6 isn't going anywhere

It's well understood in the web community that Internet Explorer 6 is an atrocious browser to code for. I'm Not A Developer (IANAD), but I've spent plenty of time hearing them complain about how badly it renders code which performs properly in more standards-compliant browsers. For those of us building websites, it's a terrific (and expensive) bore having to find ways to get code lookin' good in ie6.

While I applaud the general intention of initiatives such as ie6nomore , which aims to persuade people to switch to more modern browsers, I don't think their latest idea is particularly helpful. They've provided code which developers can add to their websites that invites visitors to upgrade to a modern browser, which is only seen if they're using ie6.

This prompts the question: of those people who are using ie6, how many of them actually have the option to upgrade? I'd think not many. I'd wager that most people using ie6 are working for large corporates, and have a locked-down PC with ie6 installed, without admin access. This is the browser of choice for the IT department, whose complex IT systems (such as the intranet, timesheet system, finance systems, etc.) need to be tested and probably fixed before a company wide browser upgrade can take place.

Until the benefits of modern browsers outweigh the cost of testing and upgrading internal systems - and this could easily run into the millions for large companies - IT departments will naturally resist upgrades. So adding these code snippets won't make much difference, and will just frustrate and irritate the people who visit your site who'd dearly love to upgrade.

If people want to put this code on their personal or project websites, then I think this is fine. Your personal website is a form of self expression, and wanting the world to upgrade to standards compliant browsers is a worthy cause - one I very much support myself. But I wouldn't recommend this path to clients, or anyone for whom the general public are the likely audience.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Social networks supporting innovation

The New Scientist has an article claiming that social networking stymies innovation:
...certain patterns of social interaction make radical innovation more likely. Bold ideas are typically incompletely formed when first conceived and easily shot down by criticism. Hence, they emerge more readily in communities in which individuals work mostly in small and relatively isolated groups, giving their ideas time and space to mature.
I'm not sure I agree with that. Radical innovation can flourish in a small, isolated group, but there are plenty of examples where radical innovation flourishes in a larger, well connected group - pretty much every successful open source project contains some element of radical innovation. And survivorship bias suggests we should consider the myriad of unseen examples where innovation failed in small, isolated groups.

The article continues:
The problem, says social scientist Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the National University of Singapore, is that today's software developers work in social networks in which everyone is closely linked to everyone else. "The over-abundance of connections through which information travels reduces diversity and keeps radical ideas from taking hold," he suggests.
We ought to make a distinction here between the activity of finding suitable collaborators and the process of developing the idea to maturation. Just because someone has a well established network on a social networking platform, it doesn't necessarily follow that they'll share their ideas with all their contacts there. It's far more likely that they'll cherry pick the individuals with whom they wish to collaborate - and the social networking tool will have allowed them to connect with a more diverse pool of talent, improving their ability to identify the best partners.

As for incomplete yet bold ideas being "easily shot down by criticism", I don't see much evidence of this. On the contrary I think the act of preparing an idea for public review helps the author tighten the idea considerably, to a point where - if it has merit - your audience is more likely to debate the finer points rather than shoot it down completely.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Flash vs Javascript

I know what you're thinking. There's a gazillion blog posts on the web arguing about Flash and Javascript. So why write another one?

This one is slightly different. I work in a commercial, competitive environment where there is strong opinion both sides of the aisle. And a mix of clients (doing good work) actively seeking to use both technologies. And strangely enough, a sort of consensus is starting to form. So I'm going to try and capture that consensus and share it here. No doubt colleagues past and present will put me right!

The consensus is that we're going to use open web standards (html, css and javascript) wherever possible and practical, for the following reasons:
  • Easy to optimise for accessibility
  • Easy to link to specific content (each page has it's own URL)
  • Easy to copy particular text for pasting elsewhere
  • Easy to optimise for search engines
  • Easy to subsequently change and maintain code
  • Works on all devices, all browsers (unlike, say, Flash on an iPhone or Wii)
  • No need to download plugin or application
  • No dependance on an external vendor
  • Ability to view source (supporting the education of development communities)
Html, css and javascript are the building blocks of the web, and we want to contribute to the ongoing improvement of the web wherever we can. Some of the above is possible when using Flash, but rarely used (especially where budgets and resources are limited) and difficult to implement.

BUT! The challenge comes when we want to do something that isn't practical or possible using open web standards.

I think it's OK to use Flash when:
  • We're streaming videos or music. This is the only way to get this stuff out to a wide audience (at the moment)
  • We're creating complex, interactive, immersive (maybe 3D) environments. These could include animations. To some extent, this is possible using web standards, but only with a greatly increased build time. This is the key: persuading someone to pay for this is a different prospect to a lone developer dabbling with the technology in his or her own time. Depends on how much more expensive it is, of course - but we've got to be practical. If we go down this route, we MUST still make the information accessibility compliant, linkable and available for search engines to spider.
  • We want to create effects that can't be created using open web standards. In this instance, it's still essential that the experience degrades gracefully. We're talking about design-led flourishes that enhance the mood of the page - but leave the content untouched. If someone visits the page who hasn't got flash installed, they'll be none the wiser - the same information will be accessible in the same way. Our home page is a good example - for those who have Flash installed, the characters at the bottom move around. For those who don't, they're static hyperlinks. There's something to be said for beauty on the web, and sometimes that beauty will be animated.
The open web standards crowd (including many friends) may gag on these points. But I think the above is a practical compromise. It is inclusive and recognises the fact that cutting edge front end development is time consuming. If something takes much longer to design and build using web standards, then we'll be pushing work away if we don't compromise. We work in a highly competitive industry, and it's easy to be idealistic when you don't have to worry about commercial considerations.

All that said, we actively seek opportunities to innovate using javascript libraries and emerging technologies - within those commercial limitations.

In a large team, working with a complex client, there may also be political issues at play. Does the client have the expertise to maintain complex code? Are the people crafting the user experience sufficiently skilled to understand what javascript can offer? In the real world, these are all factors that will will inform the decision.

What about when clients ask us to build something in Flash? We will inform them of the risks. We won't turn down work if they insist on using Flash - the alternative is that they'll go elsewhere, and we won't be able to work on converting them! And, yes, if we do the work, we'll get paid. Without our customers, we'll go out of business.

I'd love to hear views on this, particularly where there are other situations where one would make an argument for using Flash. Further arguments in favour of open web standards are also welcome - but do bare in mind those commercial considerations!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Open Tech 2009

The excellent Open Tech conference took place yesterday and, once again, it proved itself to be one of the very best events in the calendar. The high quality of speakers and intelligent, engaged attendees made it feel more like a Barcamp than a commercial venture (although clearly at £5 entry fee making money was not the main objective).

Which is why I was more nervous than usual when preparing my talk, 'How to build developer communities'. I'd bounced quite a few of my ideas off the Osmosoft crew when I worked there, so was confident that they held water, but holding opinions and communicating them to a naturally skeptical crowd are two very different things. And being up against Bill Thompson on the other stage meant I had to make it worth the audience's while.

In any event, it seemed to go OK and hopefully I escaped without too much egg on my face. If you're interested you can see the slides on Slideshare, and they're also embedded below for your ultra-convenience:



Highlights from the event included getting to know Jeni Tennison and other OPSI folks; chatting with MP Tom Morris (who went to University with my missus). And of course Paul Downey gave a memorable talk, this time on the creation of standards. I filmed it and I put it on the internet. I did the same with some photos.

So, thanks very much UKUUG for putting together another brill event. Good work folks!

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

@stupid

BBC News today reports that Habitat have got into hot water by mis-using a hashtag on Twitter. By adding #iranelections to their tweets, it meant that anyone searching for #iranelections saw their promotional message. At least, that's what it meant if someone searched for #iranelections in the fraction of a second after the message was posted - given the sheer volume of tweets currently using this tag, it would've been lost in the fog immediately. Net result: miniscule chance of benefit, but high likelihood that someone actually following the account would be offended.

All of which immediately puts me in mind of Hanlon's Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Chances are, someone relatively new to Twitter, and presumably quite junior, figured they'd found a way to game the system, and hadn't thought through the consequences. Maybe they read one of the vile guides explaining how to game Twitter? If Habitat are criticized for anything, it should be that they (or their agency) are using people for this task who don't understand the social web. You need only look at the list of people they follow - currently 4 people - to see this was the case.

We've reached the stage now where job descriptions need to include a requirement for people to demonstrate they've participated in social networks for long enough to understand the social nuances at play. I think Habitat will recover quickly from this unfortunate incident, but we can anticipate similar transgressions elsewhere.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Make this the last tube strike

London's tube drivers are on strike (again), holding the entire city to ransom (again). The answer seems obvious to me:

1) Fire them all
2) Offer to re-hire on near identical terms, minus any union affiliation
3) High profile training scheme to make up the shortfall

Actually there wouldn't be much of a shortfall. Very few tube drivers could afford not to accept the offer to re-hire, not in this economy. And there'd be no shortage of people willing to accept the offer of training and work. In fact it's precisely because of the state of the economy that makes the timing of this scheme perfect.

As a Londoner, I'd be happy to put up with a few months with the service at 80-90%, if it means we get no more strikes in the long term.

I imagine there'd be financial repercussions for firing people en masse. Maybe problems with pension schemes, etc. But it would actually be a very small group you'd have to worry about (those who didn't re-hire). And there are no shortage of articles shouting about how much money the city loses each time there's a strike.

And this could revitalise Gordon Brown's career. Could give Boris Johnson a lot of support. I don't support either politician, I'm just saying there is political capital to be gained. The tube drivers have little or no support outside their union.

So, what am I missing?

Monday, 18 May 2009

Privacy

I'm working my way through Jonathan Zittrain's excellent book, The Future of the Internet And How To Stop It.

The book itself makes some excellent points. The heart of the book concerns the web, and how it became the hotbed of innovation it is today. Essentially it boils down to two factors; experimentation is possible on the endpoints - everyone is free to use their computers how they like - and, secondly, the web doesn't discriminate between different types of traffic.

These factors are under threat. People are increasingly relying on devices that are locked down (think iPhone and Tivo), where users rely on benevolent vendors to allow changes on their behalf. What's more, these devices are tethered to a vendor's remote system, and it's therefore possible for those vendors - or more likely, an over-bearing government or court - to force changes on those devices without the consent of the user.

And where the network is concerned, at the moment, your traffic is treated with the same level of prioritisation as everyone else's. But ISPs (and others) are keen to re-prioritise this traffic for their own benefit (usually under the auspice of network optimisation). Most ISPs provide a browser with the home page defaulting to their portal, and it isn't difficult to give this content priority over that offered by competitors. I'm relieved to say that good folks like the EFF are doing a stand-up job resisting these changes.

Nevertheless, the generative nature of the web is under threat. These are the foundations on which the internet was built and it has flourished as a result. But this post isn't about that! Oh no. I'm not in the habit of writing look-what-I've-found posts, but....look what I've found!

While reading the book, I discovered that the USA PATRIOT Act allows their government to order a service provider to turn over the contents of their server without probable cause. That includes your emails, attachments, your online documents, everything you've saved online. Not only is the company not allowed to appeal this, they're not even allowed to tell anyone they've received the order! A court has to approve the order, but out of about 8,000 requests made between 2003 and 2006, only 15 rejections were made. That's 0.2%.

Like Zittrain, I would argue strongly in favour of a sensible balance between the rights of government and the rights of the individual. Checks need to be put in place to keep governments honest. I'm just astonished to learn that such a flagrant abuse of the legal system has been allowed to take place, tipping this balance and eroding a huge chunk of liberty and freedom from under the noses of the average American.

Unfortunately, Zittrain's excellent (funny! entertaining!) presentation at SXSW hasn't made its way onto their youtube channel, but a similar presentation can be seen here. It comes as "highly recommended".

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Introduction to Open Source

I gave a presentation to my colleagues, giving a general introduction to Open Source. It was filmed, and the results can be seen here:


Introduction to Open Source from Phil Whitehouse on Vimeo.

And the slides can be seen here:

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Can we stop talking about Twitter now?

Whenever an emerging product or service hits the mainstream, it's inevitably followed by a flurry of online and newspaper articles educating the uninitiated. The recent explosion of repetitive articles about how to use Twitter - particularly from a business perspective - is perhaps reflective of not just the novelty value of this 'new' service, but also the constraints that are leading to innovative uses of the medium (full disclaimer: I wrote one using Twitter itself back in January 2008).

However, it's important to note that it is just a medium and actually most of the opportunities and challenges of using this medium effectively are not new. It's simply the latest step change in the democratisation of the web - Yet Another Online Tool which puts individuals on an equal footing with those who previously had all the power - corporations, governments and religious bodies. These tools, that allow grassroots networks to self organise, and exclude those deemed unworthy or without merit, have been around for a long time. Blogging tools (and RSS) have performed this function admirably for about ten years and more recent tools such as Facebook and Twitter have led the charge into the mainstream.

I'd therefore argue that the challenge isn't 'how to use twitter effectively', it's 'how to use the web effectively'. And the answer to this question starts with a basic understanding of the fact that the broadcast models of old simply aren't working in the way they used to.

Before the mid-90s, large companies could depend on broadcasting their information through a variety of channels - whether through press releases, events, adverts and other communications channels. These relatively subversive channels provided little in the way of discussion or debate and any word of mouth discussion about the quality of a given product or service was usually limited to those within earshot.

Not so anymore. As an individual I have access to global online networks of friends, colleagues and industry experts, all of whom are only too willing to share their views on the world - and listen in return. Given that people naturally gravitate towards those who share their views, it's fair to say that someone in one of my online networks has either made, or is considering, the same purchase decision that I'm making. I hold a healthy, cynical view about adverts and press releases, which are obviously biased and therefore held in much lower regard than the views of people in my network.

If you're a large organisation, and you want to engage effectively in these networks, it may first be necessary to undergo sociological and organisational change. The organisations that behave as though they are the ones in control - that simply bestow information on their audience without listening - will fail in this space. The audience has tools to filter out any messages they choose, and messages that aren't conversational or social will be obvious candidates for the chop.

It follows that those which succeed need to join the conversation at the same level as those they want to engage with. Those companies that are genuinely friendly, personable, helpful, and offer good value are the ones which will succeed - word will get out! The organisational re-structuring I'm referring to will need to support these processes and communication channels. Creating effective feedback loops that can respond quickly and honestly to problems becomes the key to doing good business. Rather than relying on an overstretched marketing department, the key is unlocking the genuine enthusiasm of your people. They have more credibility in this space than anyone who has their own CRM system.

So my advice is: stop worrying about how to 'monetise twitter'. It's as much a waste of time as trying to monetise a dinner party. Read the Cluetrain Manifesto to understand how conversation leads to relationships, and relationships leads to transactions. Those who try to use the social web to get straight to the transaction will do more damage than good.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

in which I discover a planet sized gap in my knowledge of geeky pop culture

Can't quite believe that I hadn't heard of Jonathan Coulton until recently, but now I have I can't stop listening to him. Funny, geeky, talented and well worth checking out.

Here's his official site where you can try his music for free. But if you like it, please pay the man. I recommend "Tom Cruise Crazy", "Re: Your Brains", "The Future Soon" and "That Spells DNA" (DM me if you want more recommendations).

And here is a handy video of "Tom Cruise Crazy":

Wish I could go on about this, but I'm super busy. Sorry.

Monday, 6 April 2009

BBC Interview

As those who have met me will testify, I have a face for radio. And as it happens I was interviewed by BBC London at the weekend in connection with the Mrs Sew&Sew campaign. If you'd like to hear it, here's a link to the mp3 file (just under 5 minutes long).

I'm surprised they wanted to talk to me though - they weren't interested in the social media aspect the campaign - they only wanted to talk about thrift, especially during WWII. A historian from the Imperial War Museum would've been far more appropriate! So given the historical nature of the interview I'm pretty pleased I avoided embarrassing myself in public. And I got a public mention of my employer The Team in as well - result!

Comparison of aTV Flash and Boxee

If you've got an Apple TV, or you're considering buying one, then this post is for you.

I bought my Apple TV to watch content that I've downloaded over BitTorrent on another Mac - quite a specific use case. I've been using aTV Flash for about 9 months. It's been pretty good, and improving, but it cost $50 and there's a free alternative called Boxee which I checked out over the weekend. Here's a brief comparison (v3.5.1 of aTV Flash, 0.97 for Boxee).

Installation: Both solutions were pretty easy to install. Maybe Boxee was slightly easier, because there were a few areas where the process was simplified. But not much to choose between them.

Streamed content: Boxee won this round too - in fact I think Boxee is mostly designed with streamed content in mind (much bigger in the States than here in the UK - see Hulu). But not much good for me as I don't watch much streamed content.

Interface: aTV Flash just extends the existing Apple TV menu, Boxee creates a completely different interface (which you still reach from the Apple TV menu, existing functionality is protected). Personally I prefer simplicity, and this is quicker too, so aTV Flash wins this round.

File transfer: This is where the big difference was for me. Using aTV Flash, I could FTP content across at speeds of 430kb/s (12 minutes to transfer a 45 minute show). But Boxee doesn't enable FTP. Unless you have sys admin skills, you HAVE to use SFTP - with speeds of 80kb/s (60 minutes to transfer a 45 minute show).

I have heaps of content that just sits on the Apple TV box, and it was obvious this would take weeks to get on there over SFTP. So after playing with Boxee for a while, and researching the FTP issue, I gave up and rolled back to aTV Flash. Obviously the $50 price difference wasn't an issue in June last year when I paid for it (there were no user friendly alternatives), and I got a year's worth of updates and support, but it may be an issue for you.

Obviously this is all the case as of 6 April 2009. The SFTP issue may have been resolved by the time you read this - but if this is a deal breaker for you too, maybe see if the Boxee community have responded to my suggestion on their discussion boards when making your decision.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Company blogging

As part of The Team's new website - which has a long way to go, believe me! - we'll be surfacing opinion via a company blog. I've cobbled together some guidelines which are shared here in case they're of value to anyone else.

The important thing here is that companies shouldn't look to create guidelines that are too restrictive or lengthy - they won't get read, and will probably put people off. Rather the best thing to do (IMHO) is create a light framework and a system of support. That's what I've tried to do here.

I reckon this is also a lot better than nothing. It can be intimidating writing in a public forum for the first time, and not knowing whether there are any rules of the games can be off putting by itself.

Obviously this is written from an agency perspective but most of the guidelines apply in any corporate context.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which is a day when we celebrate women in tech. I'd personally like to see more women in tech, particularly in programming, predominantly because I believe in the power of diversity in general. I believe that the best way to solve problems is to bring as many different viewpoints and backgrounds into the equation. It combats what I see as the natural human tendency to seek out those who agree with you, to seek the comfort of the echo-chamber, which is often a path to mediocrity. And diversity tends towards a more interesting workplace.

So, I have a conundrum. There are two women in particular that I find incredibly inspiring. Which do I pick? No problem - I pick both!

Kathy Sierra is one of the most inspirational speakers I've ever seen, and ran a fantastic blog until 2007 (still worth looking back through it - all very relevant). She worked for Sun - obviously a male dominated organisation - for several years, and took on the tremendous challenge of making technology accessible to, and understandable by, everyone. She participated in one of this year's most interesting panels at SXSW, about presentation techniques. It hasn't been uploaded to the SXSW youtube channel yet, but it's well worth watching out for. She doesn't have her blog anymore (long story), but you can follow her on Twitter.

The other woman up there with Kathy is danah boyd (her choice not to capitalise). She's done a lot of research about how teenagers use the web, and represents the voice of reason and clarity in a world where people make far too many sweeping generalisations. She also participated in one of the best panels at SXSW ("Everything I Needed to Know About the Web I Learned from Feminism"). Her recent dissertation (Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics) is required reading if you'd like to engage with this important audience. Her blog is awesome, and she's also on twitter.

Yay, ladies!

Monday, 23 March 2009

Mrs Sew&Sew

I've been a project manager for a loooooong time now, almost 13 years if you include my marine insurance days. And while it's been a lot of fun - no, really! - I've often wondered what it might be like to be a creative on a web project.

Well, now I know! We were recently approached by a client - the Imperial War Museum - to apply some social media foo to encourage families to visit the museum over the Easter Holidays. They're currently running an exhibition on Children in Wartime, so we thought it might be fun to have someone tweeting and blogging from that era, to tie into the real life exhibition.

They've got an astonishing range of material in their archive, including some from a campaign from during WWII called 'Make Do And Mend'. So we've managed to get our hands on loads of videos, posters, knitting patterns, photos and some pretty amazing books. The campaign will roll out over the next four weeks, up to the end of the holidays. Should be fun!

Here are some links to her Twitter page, her Blog and the museum's Youtube channel (srsly there are some fab videos on there, well worth checking out).

As for who's actually doing the writing...well, we've got to retain some sense of mystery, haven't we? ;-)

Open source show and tell

I'd just like to announce an event that's being jointly hosted by my previous employers, Osmosoft, and my current company, The Team. It's an open source show and tell, and I'm thrilled to confirm several high calibre presenters will be in attendance. So if you're interested in what's happening in projects such as Drupal, Ubuntu, TiddlyWiki and oh so much more, come along!

You can sign up on the Upcoming page if you like; attendance is free, and there will be beers afterwards (maybe even during!).

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

VRM: Collectively immense

After last week's VRM meeting, I've been pondering the merit of my Personal RFP model. Again, the notion of a broker (especially a powerful one, such as Google) was unpopular, but no-one suggested a better way of getting to a point where a network of individuals can support the model.

So I've been mulling over a variation on the theme. Could we create a social network which replaces the broker?

I think we could. I've looked at the roles the broker would've played and tried to figure out if the abstract notion of a social network could play these roles instead;

- access to large volume of vendors
- filtering RFPs on the way TO vendors
- filtering RFPs on the way FROM vendors back to potential customers
- aggregating recommendations and ratings

I believe that a social network could manage all of these roles using the same mechanisms as wikis (with their low cost of repair, and therefore low level of vandalism), combined with Amazon's model of recommendation (where recommendations planted by those with vested interests are lost in the collective voice of genuine feedback). And a crowd sourced system of classification.

Neither wikis nor Amazon's recommendation system are perfect. But they have all proven to be Good Enough.

Let's look at those roles, starting with accessing large numbers of vendors. We all have our favorite vendors, but without an immediate incentive I can't see customers alone getting enough vendor data into a system to get sufficient critical mass. But perhaps we could reach that point by scraping data from somewhere? Could be a variety of sources, starting with the Open Directory (which is somewhat out of date, but hey you've got to start somewhere). This, combined with a way of allowing vendors to edit their own details (with a system of take down and lock down in place, a'la Wikipedia), could work.

Filtering on the way in and out of the system could be handled algorythmically. They could be based on location (given radius), keyword (e.g. carpenter) and rating (minimum that the customer is interested in). Perhaps some level of semantic analysis if we're feeling clever. My suggestion here is that we start with something basic and open source-it, so that we can constantly improve results based on what we've learned, as well as drawing in talented people.

Actually I envision that this whole project would need to be open sourced. No security-by-obscurity here!

For the recommendation engine, I've already highlighted Amazon's model as being the most effective. And I think customers would be far more likely to contribute back their reviews and ratings to a system which is neutral than to one which is commercial.

Which leads us to a business model. Hey, it's 2009, we don't need no stinkin' business model! Only (half) joking. But seriously, I believe a platform like this could attract advertisers. I'd prefer to avoid charging customers and vendors for using the system, certainly at the beginning. Customers will never be charged of course, but I think vendors would need to see the value in the system before accepting a small charge towards upkeep of the project. I'd prefer to keep investors out of it, if possible.

So the final stage in this very rough analysis of using a social network as a broker is to rationalise it against the evolving VRM principles. Does it tick all the boxes?
  1. Relationships are voluntary.
  2. Customers are born free and independent of vendors.
  3. Customers control their own data. They can share data selectively and control the terms of its use.
  4. Customers are points of integration and origination for their own data.
  5. Customers can assert their own terms of engagement and service.
  6. Customers are free to express their demands and intentions outside any company’s control.
Boxes 1, 2, 5 and 6 are ticked.

Re: 3, if a customer shares their data with a system, and allows that system to share the data with multiple vendors based on a publicly available algorythm, does this count as still being in "control"? What if the terms of this use are defined by the network of customers, rather than just by the individual? Could we evolve the system further down the line so the customer can define their own algorythym? I like to think so.

Point 4 is a little tricky. Customers would obviously be the point of origin, but given that the filtering and forwarding is happening on a distant server, is the customer still a "point of integration"? My feeling is that this obeys the spirit of the principle, if not the letter. Again, it would be an open system and subject to the same scrutiny as the best open source project - which I think would give the customer the transparency they need to decide whether to trust the system in the first place.

Lots to mull over.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Foot massage

Since I saw Fergal Sharkey talking at the Mandrake a few weeks ago, I've been pondering how the music business is changing. The trailblazers like Radiohead and Prince provide interesting case studies, as they try out new business models. But I don't think anyone saw this coming - Josh Freese, the drummer for NIN, is selling foot massages with his latest CD, and that's just the start of it. Brilliant!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Micro-experiment

Thanks partly to frequent mention of Twitter in the Red Tops, as well as a few high profile celebs joining the network, usage is rising steeply. Newcomers are trying to understand how to use it. Several will fall into the trap of treating it as a broadcast channel, others will be too commercial, and others will fail to recognise the kind of behaviour that inspires trust. And some will get annoyed at the supposed mis-use of the system.

Which is why this quote from Rands is pertinent:
Twitter spam. Really? Are you even paying attention? I’ll say it again, you choose who you follow. If you’re following a newsbot, you’re going to get news spam. If you follow a good friend who can’t stop RTing, you’re going to to get retweet spam, but complaining about it is like standing the middle of a freeway asking, “Why do these cars keep hitting me?”
Whole, really rather good article is here. Pub-sub, baby, it's the future and it works! And it's this mentality that's meant my experience of twitter hasn't changed for the worse during this growth period.

It doesn't come as a huge surprise that the traffic increase is reflected in more corporate accounts. I've mentioned in the past that social media stops being social when it adopts a commercial tone of voice. And one-on-one engagements count for more. I kind of ran the company twitter feed at my last place, which I'm convinced helped us to engage with a savvy audience (176 followers, which ain't bad), and we're going to explore how it can work at The Team.

Letting anyone post whenever they want hasn't really worked, so we're setting up a simple twitter experiment. There are many people at The Team who are on Twitter, and they have a wildly diverse portfolio of work. Only 1/4 of our staff are in the Digital team, the rest being involved in Brand, Marketing and Employee Engagement. So we're going to take it in turns guest tweeting from week to week, to use Twitter as a social tool for sharing our varied outlook on life.

If you want to see whether this experiment works, you can follow us here.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Dark Ages of Football

There are plenty of businesses that should be pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Airports is one. Government is another. But within the entertainment industry, there can't be many organisations as backwards as that which runs our very own national sport.

Turns out Sky Sports has won more of the rights to show live football. As far as I can figure out, this gives the average consumer very little to cheer about. The government needs to take a look at an industry which forces consumers down a duopolistic, narrow broadcast channel when the web offers so many greater possibilities - and these possibilities could well be more lucrative for distributors and football clubs alike.

Let's just say that I wanted to watch this match live. My choices would've been to either go to the ground or, ironically, go abroad and watch it on TV. Or watch a poor quality live stream through a dodgy website.

Let's just say that I want to only watch live matches involving my favorite club. There are no packages that let me do that, I have to pay for all the other games too. I won't even get this on the club's dedicated TV channel!

Let's just say that I want to watch a specific goal from the weekend. I've got to look on Youtube, and keep trying until a clip appears, then watch it quickly before it's taken down. The fact this happens is sufficient proof of demand, surely? Fortunately it's still possible to see the best goal ever scored...but we all have our own favorites, and they're not always easy to find or see.

Long Tail economics assert that infinite supply leads to unlimited demand. There is such a vast quantity of footage out there (including off the field of play) that it's surely just a question of how you serve it up and what you charge.

Dear Football Association: We will look back on this time as the dark ages of football. The above demands aren't unusual, and there's a ready made distribution network out there waiting to be harnessed. Time to suit up!

/rant

FOSDEM 2009

I've just spent the weekend at FOSDEM (Free and Open Source Developer's European Meeting) in Brussels, and it was every bit as invigorating as last year. There's something very special about such a well attended event where the vast majority of people are contributing their time and considerable expertise free of charge out of love. It can't help but rub off, even on non-developers like me.

However the most interesting thing I found is that several open source projects are now making special efforts to engage with non-developers. Whether it's in the fields of design, usability or marketing, several projects are now realising that their product can benefit from a more diverse skill set. I've written about Ubuntu in the past, and now Drupal has hired not one but two usability gurus and MediaWiki is hiring for a Usability Initiative.

Furthermore, Mozilla are starting a new design initiative called the "Creative Collective". What sets this apart from the other projects is that creatives are expected to contribute for free. And they've done it in the past, e.g. for t-shirt design projects. How did Mozilla drum up so much support from designers? Through branding and marketing. Many designers embrace Firefox to such an extent that designing Firefox t-shirts is a form of self expression. And the results are terrific.

Anyway, back to FOSDEM itself! I was mostly interesting in the Mozilla and Drupal tracks, and both projects are making great strides.

Mozilla in fact is now imagining what life might be like in 2060! Obviously no-one can predict what the web or world will look like then, but they're going to follow a "clear conceptual map" to get there, based on helping users to study, copy, modify and share. Incidentally, it's worth pausing for a moment to see how far they've come already. In 2003, Internet Explorer had ~99% of the market share. In 2008 that figure has dropped to ~68%, with Firefox taking ~21% of the share. And that's even with most standard PC builds coming with Internet Explorer pre-installed. Amazing, really!

As for Drupal, it was useful hearing about the progress they're making towards Drupal 7. But the best session for me was one by Emma Jane Hogbin, who lives some 200 miles North of Toronto. She operates a sort of Drupal club, for small businesses within 100 mile radius, for whom she runs several web sites based on near-identical principles. Economies of scale (think: bulk security updates) means she can provide a valuable service at bargain prices, and she brings all these business owners together for a Drupal night once a month or so, to see each other's websites and form friendships. Inspirational. She's uploaded session notes and answers to questions here.

Anyway, that's FOSDEM over for another year. I'm going to miss the quirky, geeky humour:
Toilet humour
...not to mention the crazy beers...
Kwak
..and Brussels was gorgeous as always!
Tower
Finally I can't end the post without thanking the organisers and staff. As ever they did an amazing job, didn't ask for any money, and every single one of them deserves a huge amount of credit for a job well done. Thanks guys!

++

UPDATE 9/2/09: Oops, forgot to mention that there's an album of photos up on Flickr.

Friday, 9 January 2009

VRM in 2009

I'm willing to wager that 2009 will be a watershed year for VRM. But then I suspect the same will apply for the next 5-10 years too; we're only at the beginning of the journey. So what activity can we anticipate from the VRM community over the course of the year?

From where I'm standing, VRM seems to be gathering significant momentum in terms of mindshare. Folks are frequently joining the VRM mailing list, and offering valuable, constructive input. And a few hardy vendors are starting to take notice (as evidenced by their attendance at November's meeting). It all goes towards improving the definition and objectives of the VRM project, and there's some fantastic work going on at http://projectvrm.org/ as a result.

So in 2009 I think we can expect two things.

On the positive side, actual VRM tools will move from conception and production into launch. Having these tools in the wild will help many to understand what is, up to now, a fairly conceptual notion. This will help determine the future direction of the project and, naturally, improved tools will follow.

Unfortunately, on the negative side, I suspect VRM will become a misused buzzphrase. It'll be interpreted (whether accidentally or maliciously) as simply giving customers a bit more control over their data, without strictly adhering to the actual principles of VRM. Companies will proudly sign up for their faulty interpretation of VRM. Course correction will become an important job for the project team.

Looking beyond these, I imagine that one or more VRM tools are on the horizon that will be embraced by customers and vendors alike. I still believe that there'll be room for a broker in this arrangement - at least to get things off the ground - with a strict provision for direct-to-vendor relationships as well.

And I believe with passion that 2009 will be a huge net positive for the VRM project. The quality of the discussions taking place on the mailing lists (join!) is consistently high and thought provoking. Some of the best minds on the planet are coming together for the greater good. VRM has implications that go far beyond mere trade...this is truly groundbreaking stuff and I'd urge anyone who hasn't yet taken an interest to get involved!

Christmas in Hong Kong

We decided to stop in Hong Kong on the way back from Australia, which happened to include Christmas Day. I didn't know what to expect, and a few have asked what it was like, so here goes...

(Quick link to photos)

Christmas is still a public holiday, from the days of British rule, and with the weather being ~20°C plenty of people were out and about. The overwhelming impression - skewed as it may be - was that everyone hit the shops. They were heaving!

We had Dim Sum for our main Christmas meal, as the amazing Luk Yu Tea House in Lan Kwai Fong. Best. Dumplings. Ever. And the kids got to use chopsticks for the first time.

Yum Cha

Tea

But the most interesting thing by far was that the parks were packed with people holding Christmas parties. In Kowloon Park we spent some time with some people from Indonesia, who'd bought their instruments to rock out to:

Guitar hero

Get down

Meanwhile the locals were trying to concentrate...

Chinese Checkers

And at the end of Christmas Day, there was the usual 8pm lightshow. Crowds gather on Kowloon to look over the harbour at Hong Kong island, where several buildings have coordinated a lights and lasers show to music:



It's obviously impossible to get a clear picture of a city like Hong Kong in the short time we had. But I will say it was one of the more interesting Christmas Days I've had...!

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Australia 2008

Happy New Year!

This is the first of a few catch-up posts. I spent most of December travelling around Australia, catching up with friends in Melbourne and Sydney, and driving along the coast inbetween.
















It was a great trip, and we got to see a corner of Australia we missed out on last time. Highlights along the coast were Wilson's Prom (a lovely national park at the Southern-most point of mainland Australia)....

Serenity

With heaps of animals...

'Roo

...some more friendly than others...

Attack! Attack!

...we stayed in some cool cabins along the coast (this one was only A$95 a night!)...

Log cabin

...and had a few jellyfish encounters...

Bluey

...but Sydney (with apologies to Melbournites) was the real jewel in the crown. It was great to visit old haunts, as well as catching up with old friends. And the harbour...oh, the harbour....

Skyline

In short, well worth the effort! Several have asked how we managed this with two very small children in tow, I'll post about that separately. In the meantime, here's to 2009 and saying goodbye to George!