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Distarcted at social media week London

This post has lurked in the drafts folder of MarsEdit for the last couple of weeks because, well, my current state of under-employment is making me more nervous than normal of offending people. But if there’s one thing the last six weeks or so has taught me, there’s no point in trying to suppress who I am and what I believe just for the sake of a job*.

So, here’s some things I noted during the course of Social Media Week London, from attending events, to talking to people who attended events, and from watching the hashtag streams roll past:

1. This is just beginning

A common theme at several sessions, including the Like Minds one on brand communications is that we’re still just in the early stages of what the internet will bring us and how it will change our world. And I think that’s accurate. The more I step back from my particular bubble world of journalism, the more I see how profoundly online communications and data pools are changing all sorts of industries. You’d better get used to change, because there’s plenty of it still to come.

However, I’m amazed by how many self-proclaimed social media types don’t seem to understand that. There’s a distinct sub-class of social media “experts” that are familiar with Twitter and Facebook, and seem to be threatened by or – worsebe dismissive of any new form of social platform that emerges. They remind me of the way many “new media” types reacted to the emergence of social media: dismissal and hostility. And I suppose it is threatening if you’re invested in a limited subset of tools that you’ve learned about second hand from others.

There’s an advantage to this if you’re in the market for social media expertise, though:  it gives you a quick way of spotting the good people.They’re the ones open to experimentation, change and new possibilities. And that’s what you need in this era.

2. Practical advice is thin on the ground

There were some genuine social media superstars talking at events during Social Media Week London. But I’m amazed by the number of people popping up on panels with only a couple of years’ experience (and the degree to which they overlap with the people I talked about in the last point…). They’re able to talk in a limited way about an equally limited subset of situations. They’re much more comfortable talking theory than they are hard, practical experience. And many people attending these panels want to leave having learnt something they can apply directly. There was much disgruntlement at the night-time drinkies during social media week (and in coffee meetings afterwards) about the value of the content in many of the events.

Part of this is the nature of some of the panels: big name agencies want to sell their own services and flatter their clients. Fair enough. But I’m not sure they’re doing themselves much good by providing weak, platitudinous speakers, though. If I was feeling cruel, I might suggest that Snake Oil is easier to sell than real medicine, because it tastes better – but does you a lot less good. But I’m not, so I won’t. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Oh, and Google? People attending social media week have played with Google+. They don’t need one of your engineers to demo it for them.

I suspect that panel organisers need to balance inexperienced but prominent people from big name companies with more experienced, but lower-ranking folks, even if they don’t work for such big names, if they want their attendees to go away with the sense that they’ve actually learnt something.

3. Beware the noise

There was an interesting comment at the Like Minds event about events (metaevent?): “all you need is someone with an iPhone and a brain…” And that might be true now. But it won’t be true for much longer. As social platforms grow, it gets harder and harder to attract attention – look at how hard it is to build an audience for a new launch on a mature social platform like blogging, for example. The more people creating content live at events, the more you need skilled practitioners to help cut through the noise and achieve the amplification you’re looking for. It’s easy to get attention when few people are doing something. It’s so much harder when everyone’s doing it. The bandwagon feels great, when there’s five of you on it. It’s a bit less fun when there’s five hundred.

4. There’s lots of work left to do on curation

I don’t think anybody has really solved the problem of linking together related content on a topic. We’ve been trying since the days of Trackbacks and Pingbacks, which have all but vanished thanks to the sterling efforts of the spammers (thanks, guys). But the idea of a cycle of buzz-building before something occurs, live-coverage as it occurs, followed by curation of that live coverage through to analysis and discussion is compelling, and useful from everything from the events business to news coverage. And the tools for curation still feel like the weak spot to me.

While I can see, and appreciate, the use of Storify, Bundlr et al, they make me a little nervous. What happens to that curation of information if, say, they’re bought by Facebook and shut down? It feels like they need to evolve into the sort of tool that we can have confidence in, even if the mothership goes away. Centralised platforms are always a vulnerability. I can understand why The Guardian has been working so hard on its own liveblogging/curation tool.

5. Events are the new media

There’s plenty of evidence that we’re moving towards a world where online and print media are ways of connecting and maintaining the relationships deepened and developed at face-to-face events. For all traditional media’s sneering comments about “virtual friends”, online communities seem more keen on meeting face to face than pretty much any other form of community, expect possibly swingers. Tweetups, unconferences, theme weeks, blogmeets (remember them?) et al have been a consistent theme throughout the growth of online media. That’s steadily shifting onto a more commercial footing with media businesses moving into events in a big way (stand up UBM), while events businesses are slowly realising that they need good content resources to build momentum before an event and sustain it afterwards. The printed magazine was a great way of maintaining a form of community – an illusion of community, perhaps – but the mix of events and social media is such a powerful way of connecting people who have a mutual interest in a topic that I’m sure we’ll see this cycle of face-to-face events and linking media as a major theme of all community-centric publishing over the next decade.

But people have been saying this for a little while, haven’t they?

*If I’m broke, homeless and divorced in a year’s time, you have full permission to quote this at me and laugh, in exchange for sparing some money for a cup of coffee…

People have, on occasion, described TechCrunch (and ex-TechCrunch) writers are “bratty” in their writing style. MG Siegler does a pretty good job of proving the point in his complaints last week about the lack of credit he got from the Wall Street Journal:

Earlier today, I broke some news.
I don’t typically do this anymore given my new job. But from time to time this will happen. But if you read The Wall Street Journal, you’d never know. Why’s that? Because they’re fuckheads who don’t credit actual sources of information.

But, you know what? Bratty or not, he has a point. There’s a whole underlying cultural issue behind all of this, one that is deeply embedded in the journalistic workflow. Sometimes, when training journalists in blogging, I’ve said something like this:

“Most magazines exist in this strange alternate reality where their competitor doesn’t exist. They’ll acknowledge anything that happens in their industry, other than the work done by their competitors.”

It was the start of an argument about linking to your competitors, rather than just rewriting their exclusives without acknowledging them – which is what seems to pass for standard practice these days. No wonder we slipped so easily into rewriting press releases when we’ve been rewriting other journalists for years…

Here’s the thing: not linking (or acknowledging) the reporter that broke the story first is part of the competition game that publications play between themselves. And you know who gets played? The readers. They’re the ones you’re trying to fool when you don’t link to the original story, and if they happen to read both publications – which many do – you’re busted. And you just made yourself look like a second-rate journalist, and a bad loser to boot.

As Matthew Ingram puts it:

I think that failure to link decreases the trust readers have, because it suggests (or tries to imply) that the outlet in question came by the information independently when they did not.

Perhaps it’s all been exacerbated by the perilous financial situation that most publications find themselves in right now. Indeed, our national press only seem ready to acknowledge the existence of each other when the time comes to go on the attack, as Fleet Street Blue notes.

David Weinberger makes the “public good” argument for linking:

I think there’s another reason why reports ought to link to their, um, inspirations: Links are a public good. They create a web that is increasingly rich, useful, diverse, and trustworthy. We should all feel an obligation to be caretakers of and contributors to this new linked public.

However, I’ll give you a more basic, a more commercial reason for linking to your competitors. If you give your readers confidence that you’ll link freely and generously to the best work done elsewhere, you’ve just given them another reason – and a compelling one –  to visit your site first. Don’t win through pretending you broke the story; win by being the most comprehensive place to go to find information on a topic.

Update: Steve Buttry has some excellent reasons for linking, too.

Well, this is certainly an alternative business model for magazines:

The U.K. edition of Wired magazine is getting into the consulting business — and the editors are doing the heavy lifting. Condรฉ Nast U.K. said Thursday that Wired Consulting will be a bespoke business consultancy, sharing its “access and insight on the techniques, technologies, and people driving change.” The aim is to enable businesses to develop future strategies.

The concept is that the editors are learning more from their interview than they can put into the magazine. So they’ll sell it as consultancy. Funnily enough, a couple of us proposed something similar in my last job, with the more web-savvy members of the company helping the target industries migrate online. We didn’t really get any traction. Maybe the Wired guys will prove the model…

[via Kevin Anderson]

Given that I spent most of social media week hammering at the keyboard of my MacBook, bashing out liveblogs for the good people at Like Minds, I’m faintly surprised to discover that I was, in fact, one of the top 30 most influential tweeters during the event. This, at least, was the verdict of the Brass Agency, who were doing all sorts of clever social media monitoring and analysing things during the week. 

Here’s how they’ve showed the relationships amongst the top 30 (I’m at about 7 o’clock):
And here’s how they explain it:
In the spirograph [above], each bar is an individual person or organisation’s unique twitter handle. Bar height represents ‘influence’ (as calculated by the factors mentioned above) and the lines between the people represent who is following who (blue to pink indicates the direction of the link).
These sort of tools are clearly in their infancy, and separating the wheat from the chaff (or the influential from the plain noisy) is still a challenge – but it’s still interesting. The blue /pink division give you a visual indication of where people who are isolated from the main “bubble of influence” which is a quick way of starting to judge where the outliers – and thus the potential connectors between spheres of influence – are. And that’s worth publishing, I think. 
That, and I’m easily flattered into publishing graphics. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Mum & Dad's music

PandoDaily seems to be rapidly becoming the site I disagree with all the time. It happened again this morning, with a piece arguing that our children won’t want to inherit our digital music collections:

Passing your iTunes collection down to your kids isn’t the modern day equivalent to your dad passing his vinyl collection down to you.
Once you take away the physical element*, there is no sense of nostalgia inherent to that file itself. While there may be many a memory associated with a specific album or song, any copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy that you hand down holds no more sentimental value than a copy of that same song sitting on YouTube. You’re not giving them something of yours, but a distant manifestation of something you paid for.

To which I say: bullshit. I have my parents’ digital music collection in my iTunes library. It might not be the very same bits on the very same spinning platter that they used. (The hard drive still exists, though – it’s in the same iMac, but it lives at my brother’s place in France). As I outlined in a comment on that post, I paid to upgrade those tracks to a DRM-free format, just so I could listen to the music my parents chose when the mood took me. It may not be a physical pile of vinyl I can display in some form of physical shrine, but it is a tangible link to my late parents.

To say that it’s a physical object that is most resonant of a deceased person is arrant nonsense. The most important thing is the choices they made, and that digital music collection is a set of those choices made manifest. I can click on that playlist, click play, and be taken back to my parents’ house in Suffolk in an instant.

Our digital choices matter. Our digital inheritance matters.

One of the advantages of often using the RSA House as my London office is that there are some really excellent lunchtime events in my workplace. Today, Avner de-Shalit, professor of democracy and human rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was talking about the The Spirit of Cities: Why the Identity of a City Matters in a Global Age, a book he co-authored with Daniel Bell on the identity of cities in a global age.

We live in an global era – it is flat in the sense that it is easy to move from one place to another, he suggested. But it’s also flat in he sense that it’s not profound. There’s less debate about ideology than there used to be. However different states try to be from one another, the demands of the global market, the IMF, international law, etc, actually drive them into a stae of relative similarity. What does it mean to be French, German or Italian? It matters less and less, he suggested, but people want to feel particularity. Cities shape our lives because they promote radically different lives.

The book argues empirically that the urban identity is supplanting the national one, and that it’s a positive thing. The authors studied nine cities, and compared them with other cities in the same countries.

He floated some nice ideas:

  • The stroller as the botanist of the street.
  • Why no children in the public specs of New York? You cannot walk in the streets if you are a child. At child height all you can see is legs moving.
  • Civicism – a sense of pride, love and desire to contribute to a city. Use this local patriotism to start to restrict the power of the state. Cities cannot fight each other – just complain.

And he had some definitions of the spirits of cities for us. Paris is the non-pasteurised city, leaving pasteurised to the bourgeois. Berlin is intolerance and acceptance – but mixed with intolerance. He explained this one in some detail. All modern buildings in the city are built with glass and are transparent; a stark contradiction of the Nazi era. However, there have been peaks and troughs of tolerance in Berlin. Tolerance has meant indifference rather than inclusion. On a different path now? We believe so. Berliners are no longer trying to be perfect.

The city as metaphor for corruption and crime is an outdated idea, he suggested. The idea of a city needs to be meaningful to local communities.

Some more ideas from the Q&A, moderated by Dr Fran Tonkiss, Reader in Sociology, and Director of the Cities Programme, LSE:

  • If the idea of a city is engineered top down as a marketing exercise, it needs to be done in a way which allows people to be involved in the process.
  • Cities have the right size – but not the right budget, so there are some problems with which they can’t cope.
  • When we go to a city for the first time, we walk and walk and walk until we collapse – because we want to get a sense of the city.
  • London has different, competing stories. London was more like a federation until the arrival of the mayor. After the war, London decided to be a global city – the sane alternative to New York. A cosmopolitan city. Other cities like London: Tokyo. Maybe there’s room for a book about neighbourhoods.
  • Transport – some cities are good to walk, some are lousy to walk. Lots of books about the workable city.
  • Climate effect on cities? Detroit was doomed by the cold. Cities that flourish in America are often determined by climate. The warmer the better.

I suppose, as a journalist and writer, the idea of cities having, in effect, a narrative of self appeals to me deeply. But the underlying principle, that of the city replacing the nation state as a point of identification, is compelling. I suppose I’d better read the book now…

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