Archive for February, 2008

Microblogging and the mitigation of Facebook schizophrenia

I’ve finally relented and signed up for Twitter. I’m seeing it as a temporary stay of my schizophrenia issues with Facebook. The feature I like best in Facebook is the status update. Twitter is a whole service just dedicated to this feature. In the Facebook status update I was loathed to make work related status updates that my personal friends wouldn’t understand. Twitter though is only being used by my work related friends, so there’s no audience confusion there yet.

So that I’d be able to see tweets as they came through I installed a Twitter widget into my Netvibes page. The first thing that struck me is how much it looks like an instant messaging (IM) client. Some peoples’ tweets are just interesting to read, but some I’d quite like to reply to. There’s of course then the potential for replies it to become threaded conversations like in IM. Unlike IM though all my tweets will be seen by everyone following me. Some of them won’t be following the person I’m having a discussion with. What will these one sided conversations look like to others? Will they annoy people? Will it make people stop following me on Twitter? I’ve seen a similar phenomenon on Bebo when people use public comments as a discussion, and you can only see the side of the person you’re connected to, not their friend.

Microblogging is certainly a powerful and useful new medium. It adds to email, email groups, blogging, social networks, txt messaging, and IM as another tool for communication and presence awareness, and provides something slightly different and complementary. The way it will impact on this growing ecosystem of tools and services remains to be seen. I’ll watch with interest as the way the crossover between microblogging and IM unfolds.

Feedtigue

Yesterday I gave a talk on web2.0 and social networking systems to a group of scientists at a Crown Research Institute. There were about forty people in the room, and another six or so videoconferencing in from other sites. I asked for a show of hands on questions like “who’s heard of web2.0″ (about half), “who thinks they could attempt an explanation of what web2.0 is” (one person), “who reads blogs” (two thirds), “who has a blog” (none), “who has used a wiki” (five or so), and who has an account on Facebook (none). During my talk they asked a lot of very sensible questions about privacy, digital identity, using Web 2.0 and SNS tools in the enterprise, and their utility in distributed research collaborations.

Today I got a request from a colleague to join a new SNS/feed aggregator called FriendFeed. I almost screamed. Another web2.0 technology to learn, another user account to create, another set of social relationships to map, another thing to keep up to date? That’s the last thing I need!!!!! Given that I really trust the opinion of the person who recommended it, and that I have a professional interest in this area I went ahead anyway and created an account.

It made me think that there should be a word for being overwhelmed by all of the rapidly emerging new ways to collaborate and keep in touch with people. ‘Feedtigue’ seems like an appropriate term to me. It also made me think that if I’m feeling this, and I’m a passionate early adopter of such things, what must it be like for the scientists, and other non-IT people?

We’re in a space where the technology is developing so fast, it’s enabling a myriad of changes to the way we interact with people, the size of our social networks, the frequency of our communications. We can’t predict what will work, and what won’t. To me, the web2.0 boom is an evolutionary process. Many things will be tried and will fail. Some things will work and will stick. A lot of the “try everything and keep what works” has to be done by the early adopters, so the majority don’t have to expend the effort, and can wait until the really useful things stablise.

Once I had a look at FriendFeed I was quite impressed. Its main purpose seems to be to aggregate feeds from blogs, Flickr, del.icio.us, twitter, and to distribute them to your social network. It’s not so much another thing to keep up to date, but a way of gathering the existing things together to reduce the effort and friction. It’s a bit like Sxipper (a tool to manage identity and logins across many web sites), and Netvibes (a personal portal) in that it’s infrastructure that helps people glue a whole range of web.20 services together and make them easier to use. I’m hoping we’ll see more of this sort of thing in the future.

Kiwifoo – the dynamics of unconferencing

It was a hot sticky ‘north of Auckland’ afternoon. We got out of the car, stretched, and looked around the Mahurangi School campus. Across the carpark on one of the non-descript buildings we saw a hastily drawn sign signaling the location of the registration desk. Kiwifoo 08 had begun.

Many people have already done a fantastic job of summarising the event in terms of who spoke and what happened. I’d like to focus instead on the process – how it worked from a sense making perspective, how it was similar/different to other conferences (‘un’ or not) I’ve been to.

the programmeAs with all foo/bar/baa camps, the programme was self organised. On the first night an empty schedule was drawn up on big sheets of paper (in this case with 6 rooms and 10 timeslots over three days making 60 sessions). People who wanted to run a session used a marker to write their session title in a slot, until all the slots were filled (which took about 15 minutes). This meant that out of the 150 attendees a bit under half led a session (given some were run by two or three people). Topics varied from usability, narrative, and cognition, to open source rendering engines, using augmented reality with robots, innovation in corporates, OpenID, the copyright amendment bill, electric cars, teaching kids programming, and an IE8 metatag smackdown. The process felt a little different from the e-govt barcamp last year, where post-it notes were used for presentation titles. With the ability to move sessions on the schedule at that event, a fair amount of clustering of like topics occurred over time.

The sessions were held in classrooms, most in large round table style, and a few in lecture style. All the sessions I went to were either fairly interactive presentation/Q&A format, or loosely facilitated (and often heated) discussions, a stark contrast to the dominant lecture format at typical conferences. One of the guidelines for Kiwifoo was that discussions were basically ‘off the record’, or under the Chatham House Rule. This seemed to allow for greater than normal levels of free discussion, in particular around politically or commercially sensitive topics. People were largely respectful of each other, but didn’t shy away from expressing their opinions vehemently, or from asking challenging questions.

Unlike many conferences there was a large social room with comfortable chairs and free Wifi. Tea, coffee and dishes were all self organised. Often people choose to skip sessions and carry on coffee break conversations, and there was no perceived pressure to do otherwise. Many people took time out to tinker on their laptops. I imagine it was for others, much as it was for me, a matter of dynamically prioritising between fascinating sessions, serendipitous conversations, and managing energy levels. It was good to feel that whatever I chose to do was entirely appropriate and wouldn’t be frowned upon.

Kiwifoo was unusual in that it was free (as in beer), and attendance was by invite only. People were invited by reputation (for having done something really leading edge), or through their social networks (for being interesting, good at playing nicely together, or both). This seemed to mean most people were determined to give as much as they got, already knew several people, were generally very open to meeting new people (who knows what cool thing they might have done…), and there was none of the slight stand-off-ishness you see at more structured conferences. The fact that it was ‘live-in’ perhaps made a difference here too. People stayed up late drinking, talking and playing music, camped or slept on the marae, ate together sitting down at long tables, and wore casual clothes.

All of these aspects served to somehow dynamically balance the best of a) informality – which breeds openness, social risk taking, and serendipity, with b) intensity – which gives focus, productivity and a sense of having created/gotten a lot of value. To me this lends a lot of strength to the rationale for the fully fledged incarnation of the World Cafe method, and other such approaches which very consciously take people out of the often constrained business environment to more effectively collaborate around a shared context.

In the closing session there were a number of suggestions for enhancing the process. These included:

  • Lightning talks – having an early session where people have 5 minutes to pitch what they’re planning on doing a session about
  • Themed streams
  • Leaving last day sessions free for things of major collective interest that emerge during the event
  • Post-its for session titles

Other things I’d also suggest would be doing more interactive introduction exercises (physical sociograms etc), as well as the three word intros, and doing three word outros at the end.

Aside from the tiredness of staying up too late, I’d say the format of this event left me more energised, feeling like I’d connected with many more people, and learned much more of use to me than traditional style conferences. A huge thanks to Nat, Jennie and Russell for organising the event and setting the tone that enabled this all to happen.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Captain James Cook