12 Things I Think I Learned at SXSE London

SXSE London logoOn Tuesday 3rd July 2012, as grey sheets of summer drizzle swept gently over the Thames, a group of web enthusiasts assembled nearby at London’s first robot pub to examine how the ‘information revolution’ is already shaping our future.

The event was called South By South East London, rumored to have been organised in just a month, with all proceeds going to the charity Crisis.

The enthusiasm of the speakers was infectious, and it was great. Even if I did get a numb bum.

And now, without further ado, here’s what I think I learned (my handwriting is appalling so it’s hard to be sure).

  1. BANKING: Manual data-mining (e.g. cyber-snooping) goes on at a high level in the banking industry: one technique is to browse the LinkedIn accounts of employees at a company which is pitching for investment. If a lot of people (or key people) look like they’re about to leave, things might not be going quite as well as the pitch is making out… [Andrew Walker]
  2. POLITICS: For politicians, knowing whether to react to an undesirable trending topic on Twitter is difficult to judge. Will it be over in 30 minutes? Would responding to it only stoke publicity – or would a quick response nip it in the bud? [Alberto Nardelli]
  3. ACTIVISM: ‘Arm-chair’ activists are all very well, but the real power in social media is converting those Facebook Likes into real-world activity, which is what happened when a Lib Dem activist flash-mob happened in Trafalgar Square thanks to an independent Facebook Group. [Cat Turner and Ben Stockman]
  4. DEMOCRACY: There’s a fantastic initiative called Bite the Ballot which aims to get young people engaged in the UK political system – simply getting them registered to vote is an incredibly powerful first step. You could say it’s ‘disruptive’ but the main political parties are supporting it. [Michael Sani]
  5. PR: Alastair Campbell’s ‘command and control’ media strategy would not be possible in today’s social media driven landscape. [Stephen Waddington]
  6. FITTING IN: Social media is generally about interaction within (and between) two groups. Group A is a circle of friends (a social network). Group B is formed around shared passions or interests (online communities). If a brand is lucky, it can find a niche in Group B but use Group A to recruit members. For example, the dog-owner’s community Park Bench that began on Facebook but is now a community in its own right. [Oli Watts]
  7. GETTING RATM TO CHRISTMAS #1: Pull every trick you can find and learn from the ones that don’t pay off. Use your knack for sensing what makes the media tick to gain maximum exposure at any given opportunity. Create an army who will work for your cause. Make sure you fully understand what needs to be done to achieve your goal. Namecheck anachronistic celebrities on Sky News to generate buzz. [Jon Morter]
  8. FREELANCING: For a freelance journalist, followers on Twitter can be an important asset when pitching for work – those followers are a potential readers for your potential employer. However this can result in freelancers being needy tweeters. [Stu Hertiage]
  9. FUTURE CINEMA: Future Cinema looks incredible and I need to attend an event. [Sophie Kendrick]
  10. SOCIAL MEDIA FOR NEWS ORGS: No employee of a news organisation should be bigger in social media than the brand they work for. Social media rules for staff shouldn’t be stringently enforced doctrine but instead should be naturally reflect the values of the parent organisation. [Ruth Barnett]
  11. THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION: Thanks to the joint initiative edX, it will soon be possible to participate in MIT and Harvard courses online! [Ed Weatherall]
  12. THE VISUAL WEB IS NIGH: Cameras are becoming ubiquitous and images are becoming ever more prevalent in web design (though not, ahem, on this blog post) and as social currency. Some are calling this revolution the ‘imagesphere’. [Dirk Singer]

I believe the next #SXSELondon is in November, and I hope to be there.

Further reading

Inaugural SXSE London helps Tech City find its voice on The Wall
SXSE Storify with stats and pretty pictures on Social Placement

The website that wasn’t

Once upon a time I had a website. This blog that you’re reading right now was on it. My amalgamated web presence was on it. I fed my tumblog through it. And all was well.

Then, on approximately Friday, 10th June, this happened:

What you shouldn't see

And it wasn’t because I had decided to capitalise on my site’s massive traffic by turning it into a highly profitable music-based search portal (because it doesn’t get any).

What had actually happened is that I lost my domain name. This is because my domain provider, Web Mania, went out of business without telling me. But they did notify me that my domain was due for renewal – back in April. They sent a reminder email saying,

To prevent any disruption in service, it is important that you renew your account before it expires.

Yes Web Mania, it is important – which is why I did it immediately. I paid my renewal fee, and received email confirmation that said,

Thank you for renewing your account. Payment has been received.

So I naively assumed everything was fine. I mean, Web Mania took my money and sent me email confirmation that they had renewed my domain.

Unfortunately, one vital step was somehow missed from this process: the bit where they actually renewed my domain. That bit didn’t happen. I was no longer master of my domain, and I only found out that Web Mania had gone into liquidation by googling it when they didn’t reply to my emails or phone calls. There was absolutely no indication on their site, I received no notification by email, and there wasn’t even an apologetic message on their helpline.

And it looks like I’m not the only one. I can’t say I ever thought to contact my local paper about my website going missing, but this man did having been in exactly my situation.

#bbcpop: Think Before You Grief

As you may or may not know, I work at the BBC as part of a team producing the Comedy website. I’m writing this as a personal response to the many people on Twitter asking what the #bbcpop hashtag was all about.

Last night, we hosted an event in London as part of Internet Week Europe. It took the form of a Popcorn Comedy night – a mix of live comedy and funny videos sourced from the internet, with the opportunity for anyone interested in developing comedy for the web at the BBC to chat with us and find out how to get involved.

And, seeing as this is Internet Week, we used Twitterfall to display the #bbcpop backchannel so that the audience could have fun interacting between acts – and comment on the stuff they were seeing.

Did you just say #bbcpop?

Yep. So that’s the origin of #bbcpop. It was a backchannel for people at the event to play with amongst themselves, completely uncensored. We knew people would have fun swearing on it – it was an adult comedy event attended by creative, playful and above all, mischevious people.

One of those people was Nat Saunders, co-creator of Misery Bear. Noticing the temptingly big screen, he gleefully tweeted:

At a BBC event with a huge live tweet screen. If you do a swear word and add #bbcpop to it a whole room of people will see it. Ha!

Nat is a very funny guy and has quite a following on Twitter. Within literally seconds, the screen was flooded with swearing and re-tweets:

The Big Screen

This was funny for a few minutes, but by then the screen was so deluged, it was impossible to join in with the conversation. Tweets from people actually at the event were instantly lost in the landslide of abuse: the hashtag was picked up by hundreds of people in the Twittersphere who used it as an opportunity to get whatever beef they had with the BBC off their minds, or just join in with a Malcolm Tuckeresque swearfest. These people had no clue what the tag related to, and seemed often to believe their tweets were being displayed to a meeting of BBC executives. I know Nat meant absolutely no malice and was just having a bit of fun.

Wiping the slate and then shitting on it again

So at that point, I suggested wiping the slate clean: let’s start with a new hashtag (#bbcpopcorn) so that people’s tweets from inside the event would have a chance to be seen.

Unfortunately, as is perhaps inevitable, this was seen by some at the event as ‘censorship’:

Well said old boy RT @XXXXXX: #bbcpop migrated to #bbcpopcorn in a futile and terrible attempt at censorship, swear again at these cunts

Despite the intention being the opposite. Once this had happened, there didn’t seem much point in trying to defend against a tsunami of mischief. The original #bbcpop, meanwhile, had apparently become so ‘successful’, it was a trending topic.

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from this as a social media host. In the aftermath, I’ve seen people tweet that it’s “taught the BBC a lesson about the power of Twitter”. If the lesson is supposed to be that Twitter is a public space and people can use it however they wish: I already knew that.

And of course I’m not at all surprised that Nat’s original, naughty call to action generated such an enthusiastic response. I know this because I’ve been there myself: remember when Skittles replaced their whole website with a twitterfall? I was one of the people who took advantage of it.

It’s happened repeatedly when corporations have displayed an uncensored feed of public tweets on their websites. We scoff at their naivety. Don’t they know that anyone can say whatever they like?! Tee hee!

So was this another Twitterfail?

Not quite. There’s a crucial difference: this wasn’t the BBC’s ill-advised footsteps into unmoderated social media. This was a backchannel for an event, just like any other. And usually you don’t expect them to be full of unrelated abuse from people who aren’t there (though it’s obviously a risk).

As a user it’s easy to instantly write a single mischievous tweet and include a hashtag. Poof! It’s gone. On the receiving end, the cumulative effect of these individual tweets is a slightly depressing torrent of apparent abuse – especially when it’s nothing to do with the hashtag it’s attached to, being written by people who have no idea of the context.

I was surprised by some of the (quite high-profile) people involved. Shouldn’t they haven known better? What if it HAD been seen by a room full of executives, and not comedy fans?

So I suppose my lesson was this: as a user, if you’re joining in with mischief, think before you tweet – whether that’s at Stephen Fry or a faceless corporate entity, know your facts first.

There’s a dark side to Twitter that has emerged in recent times: snap reactions to ‘news’, unthinkingly aggressive herd behaviour that can amount to bullying. It’d be an overreaction to say that happened here, but it’s an echo of that behaviour – the instant and unrelenting tide produced by thousands of seemingly ephemeral snide comments.

So, come on tweeps. If you’re going to participate in a public medium, why not behave like the friendly, thoughtful people you really are?

And, if you are a faceless corporate entity planning to use a public tool as a private backchannel: if you’re not planning to moderate it as you go along (which would be censorship), maybe you need a different solution. Unless you’re hosting Swearfest 2011, of course.

I leave you with my favourite bear:

This post was entirely my personal opinion and not that of my employer.

Facebook’s bad vibes

Still using Facebook? Loser. All the cool kids have either been BANNED or quit in disgust. Facebook could be about to become this year’s MySpace (remember MySpace?). The relaunch of Netvibes with the new Ginger feature set has seen the customisable ‘start page’ build the familiar elments that comprise its RSS-feed aggregating, drag-and-drop widget house into a fully-fledged attempt at a social networking platform: it pulls feeds in, it spits them out again to your subscribers. This includes status updates and ‘walls’. Sound familiar?

Facebook status updateOf course it does, you idiot. Unfortunately for Facebook, it would never have been long before this began to happen. Predictably it took MySpace longer than it should have to introduce status updates on its service, but it’s not the only competition. You could now spend all day updating all your status messages across different services if you wanted. This had obviously become apparent to developers, which is why there’s been a sudden slew of new services promising to help you aggregate and maintain all your other services and the services subscribed to by your friends. Services.

Some folk are calling this ‘lifestreaming’ (me for example, just then) and sites like Second Brain and the mildly terrifying Spokeo (‘Spookio’ might have been more accurate) already do a pretty good job of aggregating common feeds in and out and finding those emitted by those you wish to stalk.

Find your friends, track your friends, harass your friends, lose your friends.

The thing is, Facebook could come out of this very well in the long term. They just need to open up and embrace the wider web. The vast majority of Facebook users are not going to be getting Second Brains in the near future, mostly because they couldn’t give two shits about RSS feeds or social bookmarking. But it’s not impossible that the more enthusiastic casual web users will soon pick up Netvibes accounts, especially as they can use Netvibes to incorporate common activities like checking webmail, monitoring eBay bids – and indeed, Facebook updates.

Netvibes is a lot less uptight about how you use it. Facebook ‘applications’, as we all know, are an absolute chore at the best of times and when you want to do something simple with your favourite external service – like adding a feed of your latest pictures on Flickr, for example – the experience is rarely satisfactory. This is mostly, I suspect, because Facebook want us to stay within their little blue and white garden, and use their photo sharing features. At the same time, Facebook are tentatively sullying the focal point of information with advertising (sorry, ‘sponsored messages’).

So, the ball’s in your court, Facebook. Are you going to start playing nicely and become my lifestreaming tool of choice, or are you going to stagnate while Netvibes and the rest get on the social networking bandwagon?