Soliciting conversation and listening actively while isolating discussion

I've been paying more attention to The Age's "what's on" listings and reviews while I'm actually in Melbourne, and noticed that their film critic, Jim Schembri, is doing a fine job soliciting responses on his film reviews.  At the end of a piece on 'Bruno: Comic genius or witless git?', he asks:

What do you think? Is Bruno funny? Half funny? Not funny? What do you think of Sacha Baron Cohen? Do you agree with anything in this article? Does the author make any valid points? Is there skill involved in this brand of comedy? Or is he a middle-aged fud who just doesn't get reality humour?

What do you think of the Shock and Guffaw School of Comedy? Should ethics factor in to it? Or are the laughs worth it, whatever the cost?

And what did you think of the saturation Bruno media blitz? Did you enjoy it? Or was it a case of "enough already"?

What is you favourite Sacha Baron Cohen moment? Is there a scene from his films or TV shows that make you laugh every time you think of it?

And if you had to choose between Bruno, Borat or Ali G, who would you most take to: (1) a wedding? (2) a funeral? (3) a kid's birthday party?

Your valued thoughts are hereby sought.

These direct questions are a good attempt at provoking discussion. I'm never sure how well specific questions soliciting audience response work, and in this case I'm not sure what prompted them – does it lead to a more constructive discussion? Reduce flame wars or trolling? Your valued thoughts are hereby sought.

But this is the best bit, and the point I'd like to make to museum bloggers – he also responds to comments:

The design is subtly clever, in that the blog author's responses appear inline, but are distinguished from audience comments with a heavier typeface. They're also attributed differently – "Schembri note" versus the 'Posted by blah on blah at blah'. This provides a level of authority while allowing direct responses to specific comments. I'm not sure how he'd respond to a bunch of similar comments – does it work if it appears as a separate comment? Would it display differently?

It's a great example of starting a discussion and actually sticking around to listen to the results – it turns a blog post into a conversation.

The other interesting point is that there's a very similar piece of content by the same author, Borat's bro is fully sick in the film section of the 'main' site, and the sub-heading makes it sound like it's also a participatory piece – "Bruno: a comic genius or a witless git? You be the judge" – but it's not.  And there are no links to the blog piece, so at a guess the majority of readers would never know they could comment on the film.  Effectively, the discussion is isolated from the main site, the general reader.  I can think of a few reasons why this might be the case, but a more interesting question might be – what effect does this have?

I'm still thinking this through (particularly in relation to cultural heritage and social media) – your thoughts would be welcome in the meantime.

Institutions, authority, community and social media

A very interesting example from the library sector – the CEO of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) posted about twitter, and caused a minor outbreak of fury. A little while later he posted what I think is an honest reflection on and acknowledgement of the issues raised, and of the changes institutions face in the era of social media – 'social networking [is] changing the dynamic of institutionalised professionalism'. It's also a good demonstration of the idea that making mistakes in public doesn't mean the end of the world, and might even cause positive changes.

In a post titled, Yes, let's try that! the CEO responds to criticisms of his original post (below):

I went on to make an observation (that there's a widening gap between the culture of the institution and the culture of the network) and ask a question: How can we best combine the authority of our Institute and the democracy of our network?

CILIP (like many organisations) is conflicted between authority and community – or (to put it in a way which chimes more with this discussion) between systems and conversations.

So let me try to explain my thinking – and show why I think the discussion about using social media is also a discussion about the future for professionalism.

We can't simply (as some comments have suggested) ignore the issue of authority. After all, we're a profession which prides itself on authenticating information as well as providing access to information – "authority control" is a skill we practice. And any profession worthy of the name has to have systems in place to authenticate and accredit professional practice. The problem (and that sense of frustration and irritation) arises when an organisation's systems and a community's conversations get out of kilter with each other – when the gap appears to widen between the organisation and the community, between the institute and the network, between "us" and "them".

For context, the original post, All of a twitter, that kicked off the debate started:

There's some twittering at present about whether CILIP has (or should have) any "official" presence on various lists or micro blog sites.

The simple answer, of course, is no. In terms of "official" activity, cyber life is just like real like – if it happens in a CILIP-sanctioned space, it's official; if it happens down the pub or in someone else's space, it isn't.

It's interesting seeing how the library sector is grappling with these issues, particularly in a week when the 'creative spaces' beta launch has caused such a stir.

Are blog awards missing the point?

And not only that, but why did I feel disconcerted when this blog was nominated for an award back in April? (I didn't win, but that wasn't surprising.) I kept meaning to post back with the results, but I hadn't yet managed to articulate how I felt about it.

Today Paul Walk blogged 'I think I might be allergic to lists and awards', which sums up a lot of my inchoate thoughts. In posting a comment I realised that I found being reminded that I have an audience a bit disconcerting. I also realised that the value of this blog for me is the chance to learn more, not only during the process of writing a post but also during the online and offline discussions that follow.

Anyway, go read Paul's post. Tony Hirst also makes an interesting point in his comment – awards may act as 'crossover' that introduces non-blog-readers to the value of blogs.

Social Media Statistics

One of those totally brilliant and obvious-in-hindsight ideas. I'd like to see stronger guidelines on citing sources as it grows and clear differentiation by region/nation, because it's easy for vague figures and rumour to become universal 'fact', but it's a great idea and will hopefully grow: Social Media Statistics is:

A big home for all facts and figures around social media – because I'm fed up of trawling around for them and I'm also sure that I'm not the only one who gets asked 'how many users does Facebook have?' every hour of every day. … I'm hoping that this wiki will not only include usage stats, but also behaviour and attitude stats. It's a bit of a skeleton at the moment, with v few of my stats having stated sources, but be patient – and help where you can!

Please add in any juicy stats as you come across them, and do cite your references and link to them where possible.

I'll put my money where my mouth is and add information I find. I find wikis a really useful tool for lightweight documentation – it's really easy to add some information while it's in your brain, and the software doesn't get in the way of your flow.

For a while now I've wanted a repository of museum and cultural heritage audience evaluation – this could be a good model. Speaking of which, I really must write up my notes from the MCG Autumn meeting.

[Edit to add: Social Media Statistics also links to Measurementcamp, which might be of interest to cultural heritage organisations wondering how they can 'measure their social media communications online and offline' (and how they can work with project sponsors and funders to define suitable metrics for an APId, social media world).]

Microupdates and you (a.ka. 'twits in the museum')

I was trying to describe Twitter-esque applications for a presentation today, and I wasn't really happy with 'microblogging' so I described them as 'micro-updates'. Partly because I think of them as a bit like Facebook status updates for geeks, and partly because they're a lot more actively social than blog posts.

In case you haven't come across them, Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku, tumblr, etc, are services that let you broadcast short (140 characters) messages via a website or mobile device. I find them useful for finding like-minded people (or just those who also fancy a drink) at specific events (thanks to Brian Kelly for convincing me to try it).

You can promote a 'hash tag' for use at your event – yes, it's a tag with a # in front of it, low tech is cool. Ideally your tag should be short and snappy yet distinct, because it has to be typed in manually (mistakes happen easily, especially from a mobile device) and it's using up precious characters. You can use tools like Summize, hashtags, Quotably or Twemes to see if anyone else has used the same tag recently.

You can also ask people to use your event tag on blog posts, photos and videos to help bring together all the content about your event and create an ad hoc community of participants. Be aware that especially with Twitter-type services you may get fairly direct criticism as well as praise – incredibly useful, but it can seem harsh out of context (e.g. in a report to your boss).

More generally, you can use the same services above to search twitter conversations to find posts about your institution, events, venues or exhibitions. You can add in a search term and subscribe to an RSS feed to be notified when that term is used. For example, I tried"museum+of+london" and discovered a great review of the last 'Lates' event that described it as 'like a mini festival'. You should also search for common variations or misspellings, though they may return more false positives. When someone tweets (posts) using your search phrase it'll show up in your RSS reader and you can then reply to the poster or use the feedback to improve your projects.

This can be a powerful way to interact with your audience because you can respond directly and immediately to questions, complaints or praise. Of course you should also set up google alerts for blog posts and other websites but micro-update services allow for an incredible immediacy and directness of response.

As an example, yesterday I tweeted (or twitted, if you prefer):

me: does anyone know how to stop firefox 3 resizing pages? it makes images look crappy

I did some searching [1] and found a solution, and posted again:

me: aha, it's browser.zoom.full or "View → Zoom → Zoom Text Only" on windows, my firefox is sorted now

Then, to my surprise, I got a message from someone involved with Firefox [2]:

firefox_answers: Command/Control+0 (zero, not oh) will restore the default size for a page that's been zoomed. Also View->Zoom->Reset

me: Impressed with @firefox_answers providing the answer I needed. I'd been looking in the options/preferences tabs for ages

firefox_answers: Also, for quick zooming in & out use control plus or control minus. in Firefox 3, the zoom sticks per site until you change it.

Not only have I learnt some useful tips through that exchange, I feel much more confident about using Firefox 3 now that I know authoritative help is so close to hand, and in a weird way I have established a relationshp with them.

Finally, twitter et al have a social function – tonight I met someone who was at the same event I was last week who vaguely recognised me because of the profile pictures attached to Twitter profiles on tweets about the event. Incidentally, he's written a good explanation of twitter, so I needn't have written this!

[1] Folksonomies to the rescue! I'd been searching for variations on 'firefox shrink text', 'firefox fit screen', 'firefox screen resize' but since the article that eventually solved my problem called it 'zoom', it took me ages to find it. If the page was tagged with other terms that people might use to describe 'my page jumps, everything resizes and looks a bit crappy' in their own words, I'd have found the solution sooner.

[2] Anyone can create a username and post away, though I assume Downing Street is the real thing.

Web tools for different learning styles

A useful page presenting 100 Helpful Web Tools for Every Kind of Learner:

Determining how you best learn and using materials that cater to this style can be a great way to make school and the entire process of acquiring new information easier and much more intuitive. Here are some great tools that you can use to cater to your individual learning style, no matter what that is.

Resources listed include mind maps and charts and diagrams for visual learners, podcasts, presentation tools and screen readers for auditory learners, and collaboration, note making and interactive tools for kinesthetic learners.

It's also a good list of the applications people might be using while surfing your site – how well does your content work with these web services?

Play with your customer profiles

It's a bit early for a random Friday fun link, but this Forrester 'Build Your Customers' Social Technographics Profile' interactive counts as work too.

Companies often approach Social Computing as a list of technologies to be deployed as needed — a blog here, a podcast there — to achieve a marketing goal. But a more coherent approach is to start with your target audience and determine what kind of relationship you want to build with them, based on what they are ready for. You can use the tool on this page to get started.

You can pull down menus to change the age group, country and gender of your target audience, and the graph below updates to show you how many are in each 'Social Technographics' group.

The definitions of the 'Social Technographics' groups are given in a slideshow.

Hat tip to Nina Simon. [Update to get Nina's name right, I'm very sorry!]

Notes from geeKyoto

Quick and dirty notes from geeKyoto, held at Conway Hall, Saturday May 17, 2008. These are pretty much as entered on my phone. The theme of the event was vaguely 'we broke the world, how can we fix it?'. This isn't strictly a post about IT, but there were lots of good presentations and discussion about visualisation, data sharing, communication, building online community, IT enabling communication, some excellent websites and examples of APIs in use. There was also something about re-connecting with offline communities with a 'secular sabbath'.

Christian Nold: in-between the individual and the masses is group and community. Lots on mapping emotions as people walk around.

Alex Haw: spatial control and methods for losing it. Surveillance. Run through stuff. Making the surveillance visible with scaffolding. Re-displaying movement, occupancy. Visualising financial transactions database on physical space. Re-scaling. Coding information analysis. Performance.

Simon Downs, Moixa. Modern design is responsible for climate change, so it should also fix it. Universal design so can upgrade chips instead of throwing out computer when operating system upgrades. Change behaviours with low overhead, easy methods e.g. put balloons on monitors that have been left on overnight. Local dc not remote ac power. How can design work to stop people throwing things away? Batteries rechargeable on USB ports. Disposability is unsustainable. When you buy a phone in China the chargers are standardised so you don't need to manufacture/buy all the accessories again. Consumers make changes, not governments, in what they buy. There was a question and discussion re price of the USB-chargeable battery.

Adrian Hon, Naomi Alderman: Secular Sabbath. Changing state of anything electrical isn't allowed, so instead people have meals with friends, read, go for walks, have conversation, sleep, singing. It facilitates relationships. Tested impact on environment, change in usage of devices. A really good point: behavioural changes in environmental energy don't have to be a sacrifice. Take a day off, get over feeling you'll miss something. Recommendations: invite friends over for monthly secular Sabbath. Chat, walk, good food. No TV, phone, computers. Don't travel unless walk. Enjoy a sense of place. Travel can turn into 'work', be stressful. Day of rest is good and the environment benefits, yay. Bikes are ok too. It helps you prioritise your day, because you can't do stuff, only think. [It's a bit like earth hour, which was quite nice not only in terms of participating in something big but also because it meant remembering that conversation is good and doesn't require any additional power. But a secular Sabbath also means friends must be nearby or stay overnight, this might limit it to very good friends unless you somewhere comfortable to put them up. I wish there was a non-religious equivalent for 'sabbath'. That said, I really loved this idea. Even having an offline night sounds like a good idea – I could read or garden instead.]

Avoiding mass extinction: "If all the energy data in the world were accessible, what would you build?". Dashboards on energy consumption. API. Aggregates data and metrics. Your energy identity. Fed from lots of data sources. Credit card transactions have calculated carbon footprint! Remit to measure all energy in world. Data owned by providers, they're a neutral platform. 75% of change doesn't require new technology. Action to measure and compare, design new life, innovate. People aren't interested in comparisons with the national average, but they do compare themselves with their neighbours. Look to industry for mass production models for energy devices. Make energy *the* performance metric. Questions/discussion: they publish their methodologies on wiki; question about using the tax system to motivate change. Taxes are currently on good things not bad things.

Vincenzo and Bruno from Central St Martins on sustainable development. Sustainable tourism, consumerism. Bruno: play in a changing public realm. Sustainable communities. Observe behaviour and subtle clues to help discover problems. Swings at bus stops! [Cool in so many ways].

Futurelab, beyond current horizons. Images of the future, how and what we think about the future influences what the future becomes. [I wonder if they could be involved with bathcamp?] Thoughts from public. Name-checked blog called Paleofuture. 'Choose the future you want because it won't happen if you don't'.

DIY Kyoto. Create awareness by empowering the individual. Focus on positive messages. Then offer practical solutions. Tangible visualisation of electricity usage: Wattson. Feedback on your usage. Holmes. Download last 28 days data. [It's expensive for an individual but it would be great for a business, put it somewhere like a reception desk where everyone passes it to encourage people to help reduce electricity usage.]

Africa, communications. ICT4D. Kenya, falling apart within 24 hours of election. People in rural areas were the ones who missed out on information. Government, broadcasters, problematic. People used phones, internet. When the internet meets politics. Erik Hersman, Africa and IT. People reporting problems, putting it on map. Small agile projects are more effective than big slow ones in this environment.

Bryony Worthington, emissions trading. Buy permits back and remove from system, campaign for more caps. Take control, expose issue to public scrutiny, provide potential for mass collaboration and mobilisation. is new campaign to bring emissions trading into public domain. Bring personal responsibility to companies who are trading, real names and addresses. Compare allowance against emissions.

James Smith. Can software save the planet? Socially responsible software. Carbon diet. Visualise your usage. Do the Green Thing: making being green fun, empowering, gives status. Online community around monthly actions. They had a really good list of simple but clever actions you could do. Building a volunteer community of green geeks. Google group: green-web-uk. Using free software and open standards.

Government/policy guys. They did a bar camp at google. Sliding scale from community of trust to universe of discourse, and the problems this creates in getting the right information to the right people when they need it. People in authority have trouble admitting they don't know everything, asking outside their circles for information is problematic as it can be seized on for political gain (so a bit like some experts in all fields then). They looked to open source for models.

2gether08 – conference later this year. Proposers. Enablers, supporters -> convene -> delivery. Open process. Mapping networks, comparing mapping afterwards to see if event was a success.

[Somewhere along the line I tweeted 'programming at work/home is like a mullet, .Net business in front, OSS party in the back'. Clearly my brain was starting to fade.]

From discussion: Ch 4 have two twitter feeds from news service, exploring possibilities.

Arctic explorer Ben Saunders: think about what you're doing with the tiny amount of time we have in your life. Referenced Bill Bryson on how many hours we have in our lifetime, think about what you're doing with each one. No-one else is the authority on your potential.

We know it's worth doing, but how do we convince others?

Bootstrapping a Niche Social Network poses the question, "How do you bootstrap your social site if you're targeting a group that doesn't yet use software (or doesn't seem interested in using software)? While software designers can often see how useful their tool can be, normal users aren't so prescient. How do you get them to see the value in your software?", and provides some answers:

People don't want to be good at software. They want to be good at fun things like acting, writing, and ultimate frisbee.

Once you identify the areas where the software can improve the theatre folks life, you’ll have a much easier time convincing them to give it a shot. So in their mind they won’t be using "social network software", they’ll be using a tool to help them be a better theatre group.

This is an unfortunate side-effect of the social networking craze. We have new words that we're using to communicate among those of us who design the software, but for the vast majority of folks who will actually use the software, the terms don't mean very much. So while you may understand what I mean by "niche social network", the people actually in the niche social network think of themselves as performers, actors, or what-have-you.

See also: Social Media for Social Change Behind the Nonprofit Firewall (and the discussion in the comments).

The issues are a bit different for social networks – if you get it right then your users are your content creators, while you'll probably need others outside of IT to contribute if you want blogs or videos or photos about your organisation.

Finding real world metaphors also seems to help – Andy Powell described the Ning site for the Eduserv Foundation Symposium 2008 as "a virtual delegate list – a place where people could find out who is coming on the day (physically or virtually) and what their interests are". This description has made a lot of sense to people I've discussed it with – everyone knows what a conference delegate list looks like, and everyone has probably also wondered how on earth they'll find the people who sound interesting. A social network meets a need in that context.