My talk at Adaptive Path’s MX conference: Battle For The Planet Of The Apes

The Apes, originally uploaded by ED209uk.

I’m finally getting around to put some of the talks I gave last month in San Francisco online – the first of which being a talk I gave at Adaptive Path’s MX conference entitled: Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. Unfortuntely, slideshare seems to have eaten a few images, but I’ll try and correct that in coming days.
Brandon and Henning of AP had asked me to give a perspective on social networks and some of the design decision’s we’d taken on Dopplr – it ended up a bit more of a tongue-in-cheek critique of some of the prevailing idioms in the current YASNS boom and an appeal to step back to a broader view of social software…
Thanks to AP for the invite, and for the attendees of MX for their attention!

Eno vs Shirky at the ICA

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Eno vs Shirky, originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.

Shirky vs eno: raw notes, usual disclaimers apply – not a transcript by any means.


Monday 17th march, 7pm

Eno: Emergence of social communities through networks
1988 : joined the well
Felt like a fulfilment of mcluhan idea of the global village
Persistent on a mixture of honour and shame – which is what keeps small communities together.
93-95 internet had started to grow and it was obvious it wasn?t a 60s social experiment.
Large scale online games: not idealistic global villages -they need different sorts of tools and rules to run successfully. Not anarchistic or simplistic – but nothing like business as usual.
What is the difference between a trad business like ford cars and wikipedia?

Clay: The biggest difference is that large actions generally entail large transaction costs. Scale of decisions pushes you to add some kind of structure. Till recently this was always certainly hierarchically. Internet and social tools reduce coord costs so radically that groups can form and disband easily, but still produce action. Contribution of individuals can be lightweight and distributed.
Most people do almost nothing, and a very few people do an awful lot. Power law. The value of those minimal contributions, can be aggregated to a great effect.
The search for how to structure very large networks that are building value (e.g. Wikipedia, linux) that we are living through is the experimental wing of political philosophy.

Eno: We are poorly informed by our current news media structures (cf. Nick Davies book) PR culture means opinion is careful moulded by power and distributed by a hungry and resource-starved mainstream rolling news media.
Other sources of opinion are needed – the networks.
There?s a phrase of yours I like: ?replacing planning with co-ordination?

Clay: When ever you get a mobile phone you replace plans with co-ordination. What this does for p2p comms is now coming to groups. Great example: HSBC protests on facebook (clay mentioned this on STW)

Eno: a lot of the book is about how a quantitative change becomes a qualitative change. Enabled new situations to catalyse.

Clay: what?s changed is not the tools. Society doesn?t change because of tools, but when attitudes and behaviours change. The tools plus increased social density and comfort – means early adopter techniques have become mainstream social behaviour. The public can now take the sort of actions that they were locked out of just a few years before.

Eno: we?re in England and so we?re pretty cynical compared to people from the west coast. Coming from the most surveilled society in the western world. Can?t believe that governments are going tolerate these changes in power balance that online communities create.
If the co-ordination is mostly through the internet- it?s inconceivable to me that governments are not spending billions on figuring out how to control this. Doesn?t this co-ordination online make us vulnerable?

Clay: Well – I?m not from the west coast I?m from NYC, so my levels of cynicism is somewhere between Mountain View and Brixton.
Yours is a nightmarish scenario, but the thing holding it at bay is that the internet is the first thing that merits the name ?media? because it is genuinely general purpose and flexible. The choice that governments have therefore is connect or disconnect. Too much of what the government is doing is on the same network. The danger is that certain wealthy and controlling regimes will perfect some kind of point control to remove undesirable information from the public sphere before there is casual awareness (cf. The chinese firewall)
(Starts ref: the Leipzig / Minsk ice-cream protest story from ?here comes everybody? – information cascades)

Goes to questions…

Link Locusts

I’m not sure I trust a reporter looking for a headline and surveying one classroom in one school, but this made me chuckle:

“The relatively short lifecycle of a popular site is a terrifying prospect for companies like Google Inc., which this month spent $1.65 billion in stock to acquire the Internet’s latest grass-roots favorite, year-old YouTube, whose popularity Google hopes to harness as a loyal video audience.

“To a youth market composed of teens like Kim and Birnbaum, MySpace is just the latest online fad. Before MySpace, the place to be was Xanga, and before that, Friendster, MiGente and Black Planet.

“They’re not loyal,” Ben Bajarin, a market analyst for Creative Strategies Inc., said of the youth demographic. Young audiences search for innovative and new features. They’re constantly looking for new ways to communicate and share content they find or create, and because of that group mentality, friends shift from service to service in blocs.

Consider the most popular teen sites tracked by Nielsen-NetRatings. Topping the list last month were,, — none of which appeared among the top 10 for April, or the list a year ago.

Madeline Dell’Aria, another high school junior, has fallen in and out of love with a number of sites. In middle school she started avidly blogging on Xanga. Last year, after most of her friends abandoned Xanga and migrated to MySpace, she followed. “No one was using Xanga anymore,” she said.

Initially, MySpace drew her in, and she spent lots of time looking at her friend’s photos or leaving comments on their pages, she said. Now, only a year or so later, ennui is setting in. She spends a lot less time on the site, instead listening to music or talking on the phone, she said.”

I like the idea that hordes of voracious kids with ADHD are moving like locusts from server-farm to server-farm, feasting on link-potential and feature-sets, then leaving them as quickly as they came – barren hosts to nothing but digital tumbleweed and middle-aged new media pundits.

Are Friends Electric?

Mike Sugarbaker makes comparisons between and Pandora, finding pros and cons in each, and ends up asking why we can’t gene-splice the two together:

“We shouldn’t have to choose between bottom-up and top-down, between cathedral and bazaar – that’s the other thing, that Pandora’s categories were made by experts and presumably applied by professionals, whereas basically is just the product of what people do anyway, via the site and its associated Audioscrobbler tool.

People say that the top-down, made-by-those-who-know-what’s-good-for-you approach is now outmoded, but in this case it seems to have what folksonomy will never get us: the element of surprise.”

Well, the gene-splice has happened it seems: with PandoraFM (

I missed this when it made LifeHacker late last month, but this seems like an excellent idea (although there’s still no link through to Bleep. Hummph) – injecting the element of robotic, clinical input into the organic social network. Going to try it for a little while…

What other social networks could benefit by the addition of non-humans?

I’m sorry Dave, I can’t let you build that.


Via Dav/AkuAku, this from the Bunchball website:

“You have an idea for a multi-user networked application. Maybe it’s a game, maybe it’s a new way to share music or photos, maybe it’s something nobody’s ever thought of. A beautiful little jewel of an application, you know that you can make something fantastic. But then you realize that in order to build your application, you need to figure out user signup, and group creation, and invitations, and permissions, and chat, and presence, and how to save changes in the application, and how to figure out who to send those changes to, and the list goes on. And oh yeah, don’t forget that you need to setup a server, write server-side code, deal with a database somewhere, worry about uptime and bandwidth and online file storage, and that list goes on as well. All of a sudden you realize that your beautiful little jewel is just the tip of a very large iceberg. You’re going to spend 90% of your time implementing what’s below the water, out of the user’s sight, and 10% of your time building a great application.

Bunchball gives you the iceberg. You just provide the tip. So now you can spend your time doing what you wanted to do in the first place, which is to create a great application.”

Along with, Dav has termed these services (or ‘playgrounds’ as Ning would have it) as ‘Blank White Servers’, which are potentially game-changing things, beyond the bubble of hype around Web X.X.

The point the Bunchball site makes – that providing the common building blocks and infrastructure allows developers to concentrate on delivering extra value to the end-user -makes me wonder whether this will be the case.

Will developers, freed from the burden of recreating back-end systems, invest their energy into creating a great user-experience?


Certainly, Web X.X’s real successes so far have been built on great UI design (Flickr, Gmail) and paying attention to the details in the user-experience – hopefully this will serve as inspiration to those who follow.

In my experience at least, it takes a great deal of effort and will on the behalf of the developers to go the extra (several) miles to create a great user-experience on top of getting something to “just work” – especially if there is a pre-established framework or library of things that they are using to create a service or application.

Also, there is the problem of trying to reconcile the design choices you think necessary for the specific service, aplication, user or activity at hand with the design choices predetermined in the platform by those that came up with it.

This building block approach of Bunchball, et al, of course begs the same question of what design choices are encoded in the building blocks themselves?

The following ramble I will have to revisit once I’ve explored and understood Ning and Bunchball more fully from actually playing with them both, but…

Architecture is destiny*: someone elses playground, architecture, landscape, physics will inevitably shape the end design noticeably. What are the combinations it forces? What are the affordances that are built in, and what patterns are most favourable as a result?

As they are aimed at providing infra and building blocks for social applications, would perhaps some of the forced combinations, or affordances of the infrastructure be default-biased towards safety and privacy?

Productivity or (/and?) play?

As playful platforms made by smart people I’m sure that the possibility spaces they afford will sustain 99% of the self-centred or small-group-centred software that people will want to construct right now – which is just fantastic.


Just what politics are encoded at the molecular level of these playgrounds?

As soon as I get my accounts I’m going to start playing and see.

See also: The Otwell on Ning
* Who said this originally? I can’t seem to find the source.

“In our wiki”

I had a  random friday afternoon thoughtfart while listening to Paul Morley/Strictly Kev’s 1hr remix of ‘raiding the 20th century’.

Listening to Morley‘s* cultural history of the cut-up on top of Kev’s sonic critique made me think how cool it would be to hear Melvyn Bragg and the "In our time" gang’s thursday morning ruminations on, for instance, Machiavelli – cut-and-pasted over mashed-up madrigals.

Putting this fancy to one side for one minute… it made me think of other superlayered participatory critique and knowledge construction – the Wikipedia.

If there were a transcript of "In our time" (is there?) why couldn’t that be munged with wikipedia like Stefan did with BBC news… and what if then new nodes were being formed by Melvyn, his guests and his audience – together, for everyone, every week, and cross-referenced to a unique culutral contextual product – the audio broadcast.

The mp3 of "In our time"  sliding into the public domain and onto the internet archive’s servers, every thursday rippling through the nöösphere reinvigorating the debate in the wikipedia, renewing collective knowledge.

"In Our Time" is great ‘campfire’ stuff – you have The Melv as the semi-naive interlocutor and trusted guide, the experts as authority to be understood and questioned… but it’s only 30 minutes and 4 people… what about scaling it way out into the wikinow?

How good would that be??!!!!

Of course a first step, a sheltered cove, would be to set up "In Our time" with their own wiki for Neal Stephenson Baroque Cycle / Pepys diary style annotations of the transcript and mp3..

The Melv’s own multimedia mash’d up many-to-many mp3 meme machine.

Update: over the weekend, Matt Biddulph showed another example of how powerful mixing BBC web content with web-wide systems might be: with tags extending BBC Radio3’s content. Fantastic stuff.

p.s. from a Bio of Morley found at
earns a farthing every time Charlie’s Angels, Full Throttle is shown or
trailed, owing to his contribution as a member of the Art of Noise to
Firestarter by the Prodigy, which features a sample of the Art of
Noise’s Beat Box, used in the film. The pennies are mounting up."

The Invisible College


Tour-de-force of an entry over at Monkeymagic on the echo-chamber hoohaa:

“Echo Chambers have a valuable pedigree in the Invisible College. Just as with the Invisible College, by allowing like-minded individuals to argue over, agree over, and develop new ideas, Echo Chambers facilitate new thinking and specialism. But Echo Chambers do more: they are visible, open access versions of Invisible Colleges, and as such allow generalism. Their visibility allows those same like-minded individuals to look out and see where their thinking lives on the landscape. Their open access allows others to look in and appraise and critique.

Nuking Echo Chambers is, to use an -ahem – gentler phrase, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How about giving people the benefit of the doubt, allowing for them to be curious? Why not just concentrate on building tools for better visibility and access?”

Last year I wrote something while at the BBC for the Aula Exposure book on what seems to have wrapped itself in the memeskin of the “echo-chamber”:
Continue reading “The Invisible College”