Archives for category: social media

I’m grateful to the KTN’s Tom Campbell for pointing out yet another fascinating piece in The Guardian, a think piece by the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the celebrated This is Your Brain on Music. The article is effectively an executive summary of Levitin’s new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, which presents the argument that modern communications tech is having a massive negative impact on our brains. Regular readers will know that he’s pushing on an open door with me on this. I’ll certainly read his book, but mostly as evidence gathering for what I already believe (and yes, probably as an exercise in confirmation bias). Nonetheless, the artice is a concise summation of the potential psycho-physical damage wrought by connected tech: reduced concentration, increased cortisol and adrenaline, sleep deprivation and on and on.

I was particularly strock by this passage about the role of email in our lives:

Before email, if you wanted to write to someone, you had to invest some effort in it. You’d sit down with pen and paper, or at a typewriter, and carefully compose a message. There wasn’t anything about the medium that lent itself to dashing off quick notes without giving them much thought, partly because of the ritual involved, and the time it took to write a note, find and address an envelope, add postage, and take the letter to a mailbox. Because the very act of writing a note or letter to someone took this many steps, and was spread out over time, we didn’t go to the trouble unless we had something important to say. Because of email’s immediacy, most of us give little thought to typing up any little thing that pops in our heads and hitting the send button. And email doesn’t cost anything.

Sure, there’s the money you paid for your computer and your internet connection, but there is no incremental cost to sending one more email. Compare this with paper letters. Each one incurred the price of the envelope and the postage stamp, and although this doesn’t represent a lot of money, these were in limited supply – if you ran out of them, you’d have to make a special trip to the stationery store and the post office to buy more, so you didn’t use them frivolously.

This really chimed with me, because my first job was in in the post room of the Virgin Records HQ in London, so I have a hands-on – if decades old – memory of how people “did” mail back in the 80s. Let me concentrate on internal mail as some reports suggest that as much as 40% of work email is internal.

Here’s how you would send a memo,then, back in 1987. If you were one of the higher ups, you might dictate it to a secretary who would then type it up. If you weren’t, you’d do it yourself. On a typewriter. If the memo was to go to someone else then you copy it using a sheet of carbon paper – hence “cc”, or carbon copy. If you needed it to go to, say, 5 or more people then it would be photocopied by some poor sap like yours truly. (Anyone who’s struggled over a 1980s photocopier will know just why I used the phrase “poor sap” there.) Finally, the memos would be placed in in reusable “for internal use only” memos something like this:

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Oh, and again, yours truly or one of my colleagues would distribute said mail into pigeonholes… just a couple of times a day.

What a staggering waste of time, right? How can I possibly decry the obvious efficiencies that email has brought us? Well, here’s the thing. Precisely because creating and sending mail used to be so onerous… you almost never did it. Seriously, if you were sending an internal memo in any large company in the mid 80s, it was because you had something important to say.

It’s not difficult to see where I’m going with this. Wind forward thirty years and email has become the job. Most readers will instinctively know this to be true. An email from a client to me this morning thanked me for “not clogging up already clogged inbox” because on finding out that he wasn’t in the office last week I didn’t send him a mail. That “clogged inbox”, I would suggest, is ubuiquitous in modern work life, and yet it’s a relatively new thing. I can remember starting at the BBC in 2001 and email really not being an issue – not least because few of us had handheld devices (Blackberry users seemed like sadly addicted corporate workaholics). By the time I left in 2005 it seemed to me that email had become the chief source of stress for all managers. (Interestingly, meetings would be second on that list, and ironically, a third of emails seemed to be either scheduling or following up on meetings.)

But, but… the insanity of this is that, with very few exceptions email is not the job – it is at most, a communication about the job, and very often not even that. Our working life has become utterly meta, a job about a job. Now that’s a staggering waste of time.

In his book The 4-Hour Work Week, author and biohacker Tim Ferriss (a big Turner Hopkins hero it must be said) derides emails as “brain farts”. Over the years his position seems to have mellowed and he now thinks of email as a powerful tool to be used judiciously. I agree, but just how do we go about acquiring that judiciousness? Well, here are a few strategies that I’ve tried on and off over the years, with varying sucess.

Limit the number of times you access email every day. As my dental hygeinist likes to say about flossing, once a day is the gold standard. Unlike flossing, however, the more sessions, the more poorly you’re doing. I would suggest three at the max. And when you do mail, do it – and that’s all – do not multitask. If a mail requires action then schedule that action for later – put a link in your “to read” notebook on Evernote (I recommend having dedicated reading time week for these links or any documents), put “call Charlie” in your diary at a given time, whatever. File or preferably bin the mail, move on. Stop after 30 minutes – at the most.

Do at least one task before checking your mail – and preferably don’t check your mail before midday.

You should aim for white space at the bottom of your inbox. To do so will require ruthlessless in your your triage. The next few points cover that.

Bin or file all CC’d messages; if the mail isn’t addressed to you specifically it’s not worth even glassing at, and is almost certainly someone covering their arse. Do not allow someone else’s arse covering to devour your time.

If it looks like spam, it is spam. Bin it without even looking.

Ditto anything that’s allegedly funny or diverting. Seriously, the microseconds of amusement you’ll get from following the link will not make up for your cortisol level in aggregate.

Unsign from every mailing list you can. This can feel like a game of whack-a-mole as every time you give your email address to a hotel or restaurant or whatever, you’ll end up on a mailing list. But persevere – this is a never ending job, but within two weeks you’ll have got rid of 90% of the offendors and it’s pretty easy to keep on top of things thereafter.

If there’s any source that you really, really want to follow then ask yourself if you couldn’t so better by using a feed reader and subscribing to their feed. The beauty of a feed reader is that you go to it – quite the reverse of email.

Turn off all email alerts, on all devices. Actually, turn off pretty much all alerts for anything on all devices, but most especially email.

You need to accept that for a while this is going to feel uncomfortable – indeed, it can feel like giving up an addiction. Furthermore, as per recovering addicts, you’re going to piss people off, I guarantee it. Colleagues, friends and loved ones will be angry that you’re not getting back to them – how dare you? Don’t worry, they’ll get used to it.

And remember, if your boss asks you “didn’t you see my email?” it perfectly legitimate to say “no – I was doing some work”.

Finally – and again, I’m with Ferriss on this – when you do write an email, do it properly, as though you were writing a letter. Don’t just dash out a “meet Wednesday?” one liner, which is as inelegant as it is disrespectful. Essentially, do unto other’ inboxes as you would have them do unto yours.

And I want to finish by saying that if this comes across as preachy, I apologise. It deeply angers me that millions of hours are wasted every year on this crap and that an apparent efficiency aid has made us the most unproductive working generation in history. And yes, I certainly fall off the wagon now and then. I found myself only this morning checking email on the Tube. Why? I had a good book to read, people to look at and ponder about, daydreams to dream, an incessant monkey brain to keep me amused. And in any case I was only going five stops – could I really not bear to be bored for five stops on the London Underground? Apparently not – so I checked the iphone. Old habits etc. Like I say, this is a lifelong task, but I suspect it’s only going to become ever more crucial for all of us.

Simon

PS. Levitin incidentally makes the point that email is something the young consider for “old people” and certainly he’s right about their personal media use – but I suspect as they join the workforce, this will change.

PPS. My favourite Memo ever:

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A couple of weeks back, Tom Campbell pointed me to a fantastic piece in the Guardian, a full transcript of the key note Steve Albini gave at the Face the Music conference in Melbourne back in November. I mentioned it here briefly, and said I’d return to it, so here we are.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Albini’s work, it’s fair to say he’s a “veteran” of the underground music scene. Since the late 70s he’s worked as a musician, producer (he prefers “recording engineer”), studio owner, DJ, promoter… and on and on. What binds all his creative work is its fiercely uncompromising nature.

And Albini isn’t just artistically uncompromising either. Throughout his career he’s stood defiantly outside the mainstream record industry. For sure, he’s produced work on major labels (think Nirvana’s In Utero) but he’s conducted his affairs strictly independently. In doing so he’s built up a unique perspective on the industry – and a pretty jaundiced one at that. His position previously was probably best stated in his early 1990s talk, The Problem with Music, in which he cogently argued the case that the music industry was set up in such a way that it delivered maximum profit to itself, while delivering little in the way of reward for bands and little in the way of value for fans.

This talk returns to the theme, but with a twist: Albini thinks that the digital age has brought about some significant solutions to music’s “problems”. Now this is a long piece, with a carefully constructed and tightly argued case, so I urge you to read the thing in full, or at least stick the youtube clip on while you’re making dinner tonight. Albini is not only a clear thinker, he’s a fine, polemical writer and an engaging speaker. But at the risk of boiling it down rather too crudely, Albini’s argument could be summarised thus:

• For music fans, there is now unfettered and effectively unlimited access to all music.
• Bands have unprecedented access to cheap recording means and access to potential fans through a plethora of free or cheap distribution services.
• A network of bloggers and online zines has replaced the old behemoth media gatekeepers.
• There are vastly more opportunities to play live than ever before, and distributing music freely makes it much easier to establish a rep and get people to your shows, buy your merch etc.
• Intellectual property needs to be rethought completely, and very possibly simply dropped by musician as a means to make money.

Now, I have to say, that I broadly agree with every word (and again, please read his, rather than my summary), although in a moment I’ll talk about a slight nag. Where Albini is most convincing, however, is in debunking the notion of a “golden age” of music.

I think, depending on their age, if you asked most people when the golden age of rock or pop was, they’d variously reply the 60s or 70s. The 80s at a pinch. But in brute economic terms it was the 90s – by a very long way. The revenues steadily climbed in that decade and topped out around 2000. The reasons are various, from the massive impact of MTV (difficult to imagine now) to the reinvention of the Hollywood blockbuster as an extended promo video. But chief among the reasons was surely the rise of the CD, which allowed the industry to re-sell to its customers their entire record collection without reissuing artist contracts or advances. And, despite the fact that CDs were vastly cheaper to manufacture than vinyl, they somehow sold for considerably more.

So: boom time for the industry, but for artists? Albini argues here that, no, it wasn’t. In truth, for bands that did get signed to a label, almost all would spend their entire advance on making a record and would never see a penny in royalties. Essentially, Albini argues, every penny that the industry spent was the artists’ un-recouped advance money. As for those that didn’t get signed, making a decent living from a career in music was all but impossible.

With all of that I concur. One of the more historically inaccurate pictures that have built up of late is of a time when thousands of bands were making healthy careers out of selling music. It’s a scenario that’s been summoned up by artists and industry vets since the rise of Napster and continues to be now with the railing against both free and paid-for streaming services. But it is, to be clear, a lie. Only a very small number of musicians has ever made what might be characterised as a half-decent middle class career from playing in bands, and that’s why almost no one does it very seriously much past the age of 35.

Or put it this way: the current situation might not be a utopia, but nor was the past. The only people hanging on to that myth have hugely vested interests: they’re either a rarely successful artist or an industry professional.

Here’s where my nagging thought comes in though. Unsurprisingly, the most insightful, and certainly most heretical book written about digital culture in the last year is Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? Like Lanier’s previous book, You Are Not a Gadget, Future is wide-ranging, hugely discursive and at times somewhat serpentine. It certainly has many themes, and the lack of opportunities to build a meaningful career though creative practice is only one of these.

Nonetheless, at its heart the book contains a dire warning about what the rise of “siren servers”, ultra-powerful repositories of data running equally powerful algorithms, owned by just a handful of huge conglomerates, largely based on the west coast of the USA. Lanier envisions a future in which the middle class in entirely hollowed out, with an insanely rich elite lording over the rest of us who, if we’re lucky, will make minimum wage. For him, that’s what technology’s current trajectory will head.

I think that one reason Albini and Lanier have different positions is that they have different perceptions of what music is. Read Albini’s piece and you’ll see a world of “bands”, “gigs”, “merch”, “fans” etc. Now that’s a little unfair of me as Albini’s output has been massively eclectic and in this talk he references drone music and Cincinnati soul. Nonetheless, I think his view of the business differs from that of Lanier who sees an industry beyond the rock world: a landscape of session musicians, composers and professional songwriters, jazz and classical players, jobbing club musicians… in short a world in which is was possible for a musician to make a middle class living from plying their trade. Indeed, “trade” may be they keyword here, for Lanier sees artisanship being wiped out by digital technology; Albini, I suspect, couldn’t care less about artisanship.

Only this morning, preparing to get these thoughts down, I ran across a piece in the music and tech blog hypebot that pointed to the collapse of the session music world in LA – and in Nashville too; the reasons are various and tech isn’t the only driver, but it is surely in the mix. In effect, players’ fees have dropped 68% in the last 15 years. This surely plays to Lanier’s vision of an eviscerated creative middle class.

So here’s my problem: I instinctively agree with much in both Lanier’s and Albini’s positions, and yet they seem diametrically opposed. I certainly agree with Albini that a rose-tinted view of the past is unhelpful, even deliberately deceptive. But I can’t deny Lanier’s position either.

What I will say however, that music here is not an outlier. By virtue of file size, music was always the canary in the coal mine when it came to the creative content industries. (Actually poetry was but no one seemed to notice that; I’m guessing the revenues might have something to say about that.) The Albini/Lanier dichotomy, if you like, is playing out elsewhere with self-publishing authors pitted against Amazon-bashing Booker winners, vloggers against paywall-building news organisations… well, you get the picture. Ultimately, I want Albini to be right, but are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Simon

On November 12 I attended a fascinating evening hosted by Christies looking at the future of arts journalism, the second such event over the last few years, it turned out. I confess that a few weeks have passed but I’ve finally got around to writing up some notes I took during this discussion and the audience Q&A that followed. This isn’t a comprehensive report from the session but hopefully it captures the main points and tenor of the discussion. If anyone who was there thinks I missed anything salient do get in touch. So then…

The panel comprised: Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor; FT arts editor Jan Dalley; our good friend Leonora Thomson, the Barbican Centre’s Director of Audiences & Development; and Richard Morrison, senior Arts Correspondent for The Times. The panel was hosted someone who’s strictly outside the arts world but who’s nonetheless very familiar with the challenges to journalism across the board, Roy Greenslade, media commentator for The Guardian and City University’s Professor of Journalism.

The discussion kicked off with 5 minutes or so of personal introduction and general observations from each of the panellists. Richard Morrison is something of a veteran, having worked under no less than 8 editors at The Times and having lived through the Wapping dispute. Indeed, he ended up writing about the arts because of departmental sackings. He confessed from the start that “no newspaper would close because it stopped covering the arts” (a sobering thought). He briefly mentioned arts blogs, saying that while there were definitely issues there, they had definitely opened up the debate around the arts generally. (We would return to this quite a lot.)

Dalley opened with the idea that the relationship between the arts world and journalism is an essential one – I think in both senses of the word. She agreed that blogs demonstrate a widespread “lively engagement with the arts” but thought that the standards just weren’t high enough. That said, she thought this was to some extent the case in mainstream journalism too, with some real failings in training.

Thomson said that without doubt everything had changed over the last few years, but agreed with Dalley that the arts/press relationship remained hugely important. Moreover, there’s so much arts activity in the modern world that journalists have a responsibility to curate it for the public. She also made the intriguing early remark that quite a number of established critics were struggling to find a way to discuss “digital creativity”. In parallel with this, arts PR people struggle to keep pace with social media developments.

She also pointed to two wider issues: that social media (and all media for that matter) are increasingly obsessed with celebrity culture and that the crisis in arts journalism reflected the wider position of arts in the culture (her observations that politicians seem almost embarrassed to be at arts events raised a chuckle).

Gompertz wasn’t nearly so gloomy, pointing out how difficult it was for Joan Bakewell to place arts stories in the allegedly halcyon 60s and that there is a huge appetite for arts stories on BBC online, from Ai Weiwei to Pussy Riot, via Justin Bieber. He admitted, with reference to the latter, that there was always a danger of falling into the celeb culture Thomson had referenced but felt that on the whole at the BBC they got the balance about right. (That said, he was apparently about to have half his team sacked, so one wonders how widely at the BBC this “huge appetite” was appreciated.)

Dalley picked up on the point about digital arts, saying that without doubt younger journalists took this in their stride, being very flexible about the whole range of multimedia, although she did repeat that despite their evident cleverness, too many of them have poor writing habits. Morrison described how back in the day a lot of arts journalists had made the leap from specialist arts magazines to the mainstream. As such they’d already had a lot of schooling in writing for print, albeit for smaller audiences. Will bloggers make that leap in the future? And how will they differ from their forebears?

There was an intriguing side-discussion about class. Dalley observed that the overwhelming majority of young journalists had gone to independent schools. This undoubtedly reflects a wider problem in society, but is a problem nonetheless. I wondered how it might affect the kinds of arts that are covered by the press, if at all?

There was a consensus that commercial sponsorship of the arts is pretty much essential, but that it presents some real problems for journalists covering sponsored events. It’s one thing if a sponsor had paid for (the much expensive) “ title sponsorship” – Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize etc – but otherwise, arts journalists are under no obligation to mention sponsors. That said, both Morrison and Dalley admitted that the position had changed over the years and these days journalists would often mention sponsors “as a service to the wider culture”.

Greenslade raised the issue of the key difference between general arts journalism and criticism specifically. Again there was general agreement on the fact that few critics had the kind of power they’d once had – the reputed ability to single handedly close shows. That said, a critical consensus could still have a massive impact one way or the other. Thomson pointed out that at least in classical music, critics could help build performers’ and conductors’ careers (“a healthy power”, Dalley put in).

Of course, editors love it when a critic “puts the boot in”, as with the Glyndebourne/Tara Erraught spat earlier this year – a spat with which Morrison was closely associated (whether this had backfired or should be filed under “all news is good news” was a moot point.)

There was an interesting exchange about coverage of regional (ie non-London) arts activity in the national press. The picture that emerged here was one of reduced budgets leading to travel and accommodation expenses being unsustainable (indeed, these would generally outweigh the fee by a factor of three).

On the flip side, I was struck by Dalley’s observation that the FT’s arts coverage brings in a huge amount of valuable advertising – not from arts organisations but from luxury brands who clearly see an association with the arts as some kind of validation.

Finally, perhaps the most heated bit of the discussion was around social media in general and twitter in particular. Twitter had been arguably the main weapon in two recent campaigns against arts events: the Met’s staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klighoffer and the Barbican’s allegedly racist art installation/exhibition Exhibit B (the Met, by the way, went ahead, whereas the Barbican pulled the piece. Thomson talked about the latter at some length. She felt that ultimately the press dealt with the story responsibly but that in had taken them some time to get there; initially they had been caught up in the twitter storm as much as the public. The consensus here was that twitter can generate an awful lot of “noise” – and that it’s the journalist’s job to cut through and bring clarity to complex cases.

All in all, I found the evening thoroughly engaging (not least as a music journalist-turned-blogger!) and look forward to seeing the subject returned to in another couple of years.

Simon

tumblr_md6gxa1gqM1qbl75hLast week I briefly mentioned The Distraction AddictionThe Distraction Addiction, a remarkably engaging, yet thoroughly erudite little book by veteran tech commentator Alex Soojung-Kim Pang that introduces the notion of “contemplative computing”, that is, an approach to our use of tech that is more mindful, directed and conscious. I’m sure I’ll be returning to the book in other contexts, but I thought might be useful to list the “eight steps to contemplative computing” that Pang gives at the end of the book.

Be human  It is in our nature to become “entangled” with the tools we use – we’ve most likely been doing it for 500 millennia or more; but we need to be cautious about losing our humanity when using digital “tools”.

Be calm Be honest with yourself, do you spend more time at a screen in state of agitation than not?

Be mindful Traditional Buddhists warn against the danger of “McMindfulness”; nonetheless there are important lessons about our engagement with tech to be learned from contemplative traditions.

Make conscious choices Don’t let the tech drive you; drive it.

Extend your abilities Use technologies that extend your existing skills and abilities – in a profound way. That may sound obvious, but look at the apps and services you use and ask yourself whether they actually do.

Seek flow “Flow” is the concept – now widely discussed – introduced by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to describe the state entered into by us when thoroughly engaged in a task. Pang argues that we should use tech in a way that maximises our opportunity to enter flow – and this of course means avoiding distraction.

Engage with the world If your use of tech is getting between you and an experience – that is, if your experiences are mediated by technology – then rethink!

Find opportunities that are restorative It is vital to restore our mind’s ability to focus; there are many ways to achieve this, from meditation to finding/creating the right physical environment to the use of “Zenware“.

I’ve personally been trying to live by many of these precepts for some years now – and it’s not always easy – but it’s great to see them gathered and explained so coherently by this fine writer and thinker. I shall redouble my efforts!

Simon

Last Monday (June 9th) saw the 6th BBC Online Briefing, outlining the organisation’s digital activity for external stakeholders and suppliers. I was lucky enough to be asked along again so as ever, I thought I’d report back (and, yes, it’s taken a week but what can I say, we’ve been busy).

Once again we were in the BBC’s storied Radio Theatre, and the event was hosted by the thoroughly charming Fiona Bruce, who seemed to be relishing this second appearance and generally got under the skin of the discussions more than last time (sometimes provocatively so, but we’ll get to that later).

BBC Online’s current priorities – BBC iPlayer, myBBC, innovation at scale, “the BBC, online” and continuous delivery  – were emblazoned on a banner by the side of the stage and in his opening key note,  BBC Future Media Director Ralph Rivera outlined these through a series of concrete examples from across “the products”, including:

  • the roll out of the Knowledge and Learning “iWonder” guides (a huge task involving the consolidation of material from over 200 existing sites)
  • long-form journalism in News (in which I gather our good friend Paul Finn of Fitzroy and Finn had a major part in designing)
  • the new iPlayer, launched in BETA in March
  • the re-tooling of “below the waterline” features such as metadata ingest
  • the ongoing development of Playlister
  • ditto with BBC Live, which will give, over the summer, “the Olympic experience” to Wimbledon, Glastonbury, the Commonwealth Games and of course the World Cup, which I gather is happening as I write

Ralph went on the discuss the importance of working with external companies. He admitted that it was still difficult for outsiders to work with the organisation, but that the development of the new roster, broken into Testing, Design and Services, was hopefully going to be a big step in improving things. He also pointed out that the external quota is “a floor, not a ceiling”; the impressive fact that last year’s external spend in digital was 30% – around £19.5 million) suggests that this is more than just rhetoric.

Robin Cramp was up next, talking though Connected Studio‘s work over the last six months (much of which, of course, we’ve reported on this blog). Robin first introduced Matt Shearer, from BBC News Labs and Chris Rush, of the agency Realise who talked us through Referend-erm, an interactive hub about the upcoming Scottish independence referendum, aimed at 16-24 year olds, where “no question is to big, to small or too stupid to ask”. I was pleased to see that the team had opted to to create an app but rather a mobile-first, fully responsive website. Matt described the work as a “speedboat project” – enabling the the team to build something outside the organisation’s usual roadmap.

Robin was joined by CS Head Adrian Woolard. The two talked through upcoming CS projects, which would include working with the Natural History on their next behemoth series, One Planet, as well as with Radio 3, building on the work already done around classical music, and the World Service. Adrian also discussed a project encouraging coding for teenagers and hinted at a new platform to enable “innovation at scale” – but couldn’t say what it was jut yet…

John Page from R&D then presented a range of work that showed just how BBC R&D was “at the heart of reinventing our industry”, looking ahead in time frames of 3, 5 and 10 years. “Broadcast as a system” had traditionally been Create>>Deliver>>Consume, but several factors were disrupting the model, including end-to-end IP, data-centrism and new devices and interfaces. R&D are currently responding to these shifts by concentrating on projects that are:

  • immersive (a project using Oculus Rift and binaural sound to present chamber performances by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra)
  • data-centric (overlays on sports event)
  • interactive/personal/adaptive (personalised sound mixing of live events)

John also discussed the importance of collaboration with outside agencies including tech manufacturers, SMEs, digital agencies (I was pleased to see that they’ve been working with my old firm Somethin’ Else) and academia.

The final presentation of the first half came from Carmen Aitken from BBC Audiences, who came to talk not about “the death of TV” – but rather its future, based on various in-depth audience research methods. TV, however it’s consumed, continues to satisfy four key needs: sociability, sensory stimulation, synchrony and relaxation. Interestingly, research shows that most viewers generally know what they want to watch, and find it via EPG, PVR and VOD – very much in that order. As for those of us who have given up on the TV as a device entirely – well, we are still very much outliers, although it’s worth noting that we tend to use laptops to do so rather than tablets.

Carmen posited three scenarios for the future of TV, using car-based metaphors:

  • Flying Cars model – a completely disrupted landscape
  • Horse and cart model – business as usual
  • Modified car model – some hybrid of the present and new forms of consumption

She made a cogent argument for the likelihood of the last one, of course. I personally emain unconvinced, and, as I’ve said before, when thinking about the future of media generally, we’d all do well to think about Nasseem Taleb’s “turkey graph“.

After a brief break, the stage was taken by polymath Dave Birss, who’d been asked to think about what he would do if given a digital-only network to run (one couldn’t help but think of BBC Three here, but that was never made explicit). Dave set out to test a series of assumptions, in each case taking them part fairly comprehensively. These included:

  • Assumption – “The success of a programme = the number of viewers.” Dave – why couldn’t we use the number of interactions as a success measure? Wouldn’t this tell us more about how an audience really felt?
  • Assumption: “We make programmes for people sitting on the settee.” Dave – really? Tech gives us the ability to make location-based, context-appropriate content.
  • Assumption: – “Digital stuff should be an extension of TV content.” Dave – why not start “in the real world”? What about “player-written drama” or “social-guided programming”?
  • Assumption: “Content needs to be edited to fixed lengths.” Dave – why not have expandable content”, content which might initially appear as a 3 minute stub, which might expand to 90 minutes if the viewer wanted to see, say, a whole interview.

This last point was the most compelling for me, but interestingly it’s where Fiona Bruce came in, making the observation that from her experience, lengthy, un-edited interviews led to “crapitude”. Well, I think it’s a question of intention: if you go into an interview knowing that you can fix things in the edit there’s no real jeopardy – no incentive to make a good long-from interview. But speaking as podcast junkie, I have to say that the scene is pretty inspiring – and I rarely, if ever, come across a dud. (Note that Dubner & Levitt and are doing the rounds at the moment, promoting Think Like A Freak; most of what I’ve heard on the radio so far has been soundbyte-y, but not this fabulous hour-long conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Most definitely not an example of crapitude.)

The session was rounded off with a Q&A with Ralph and Matthew Postgate, Controller of R&D. Questions covered included:

  • What tech gets you most excited? Matthew – broadcasting data sets and the Internet of Things; Ralph – truly interactive, immersive video.
  • What the role of UGC? Ralph – something we can draw on, but not our core mission nor a strength; “we are the signal in the noise”.
  • What are the key qualities you’re looking for in a collaborator:P Ralph – creativity, diversity, a focus on delivery – and tenacity.
  • Will the licence renewal process affect innovation? Matthew – yes, but positively, driving innovation in areas like personalisation.

Once again, it was a thoroughly engaging afternoon, and a revealing one two. Congratulations to all involved and I look forward to the next one…

Simon

Tuesday was a busy (and long) one, then. We kicked off in Kings Place in the morning with the TSB briefing then started all over again in the same room that afternoon with the launch of the TSB’s Digital Strategy for the coming period.

The afternoon was introduced and generally hosted by Frank Boyd, one of the directors of the newly formed Knowledge Transfer Network, who briefly talked us through the KTN’s work before handing over to the TSB’s Head of Digital, Nick Appleyard who presented the organisation’s current and upcoming position on the digital industries. Some headlines, then:

  • The stakeholders in the digital space the TSB seeks to link up are the development or tech community and the businesses on whom an impact has been made by digital. The latter group often struggles to understand digital but the former group, as steeped in it as they are, struggle to find a route to market.
  • The TSB achieves this “joining up” with its IC Tomorrow team and via the KTN.
  • The principal elements of the idea cycle are conception, IP, business models and technology. But all too often the missing piece is the user.
  • So the TSB really seeks to fund projects that are user- and market-led.
  • UK is a great place to build digital technology businesses because of users’ expectations and behaviour: we’re Europe’s leaders in online and mobile penetration and the world’s leaders in terms of online transaction.
  • The TSB has launched the Connected Digital Economy Catapult in order to provide a platform and tools to help tech SME’s reach new markets.
  • Collaboration is hugely important to the TSB, and current partners include Nesta, ESRC, Creative Skillset, UKTI, and on and on…

Nick handed over to KTN’s CEO Chris Warkup whose opening remark struck a chord in the room: that the UK is great at innovation but not so good at the exploitation of new ideas. He then talked us how the new KTN was going to work. Here are some headlines:

  • The new company merges 14 previous KTNs.
  • Knowledge Transfer isn’t something that can simply be conducted virtually; rather, it’s a “contact sport”.
  • Often businesses have lots of information and knowledge to hand, but can lack wisdom.
  • The KTN seeks to drive cross-sector collaboration, join up business, technologists and funders, build multi-disciplinary teams and help the TSB in ths scoping of competitions.
  • He ended with a line of Matt Ridley’s, which I’ll paraphrase: “The future’s most limiting resource won’t be water or oil, but good brains.” (Matt, of course, is, in his own terms, a rational optimist; being rather more of a glass half full guy when it comes to civilisational development I think I’m rather more with Jared “Collapse” Diamond on the lack of water front, but still, I take his point.)

Chris was followed by the first of two talks from companies who’d received TSB funding. Jeff Clifford and Graham Jack represented Double Negative, the largest visual effects company in Europe, and often in the world. They discussed the huge changes in their field over the last decade, with the requirement for CG increasing dramatically – a real headache both in terms of logistics and the use of artists’ time. They went on to illustrate their work with a showreel of scenes from the upcoming Thor 2, which showed pre-VFX shots with finished ones; they were, of course, barely recognisable from each other.

They went on to say how innovation in workflow was absolutely essential for them, and that’s where they’d focussed for their TSB-funding work. SIM, a project run in collaboration with FilmLight and Surrey University sought to address these issues, and a project about to start is ASAP : a Scalable Architecture of Production.

Next up was Pilgrim Beart, founder of AlertMe.com, and the chief architect of Hyper/Cat, a TSB-funded project looking to create interoperability standards to join different verticals all working in the Internet of Things space. He opened with the fascinating observation that as the number of connected devices on the planet grew to outnumber, vastly, the number of people, then devices were going to have to start “looking after themselves”. And what was getting in the way of the IoT actually happening? Interoperability between verticals.

So Hyper/Cat sought to crack the problem, or at least examine how it might be cracked down the line, with a multi-party demonstrator. The outcome had plainly been successful, and Pilgrim outlined the chief drivers of its success:

  • Learning by doing
  • Strong relationships
  • An early market
  • The development of a process for coming up with a spec
  • Global potential – the UK can truly lead here.

He finished with the observation that in 10 years the very term Internet of Things would be long gone; we’ll simply talking about “The Internet”.

The day ended with a panel discussion on the challenges facing digital innovators, hosted by Jon Kingsbury, currently at Nesta but about to come over to the KTN as Head of Digital Economy. Jon was joined by Allesandro Guazzi of Sentimoto, who are developing smart wearables for older people; Emer Coleman of TransportAPI, who make apps based on public data made available through APIs; and Databarta’s Jane Lucy, a specialist in the use of digital media to deliver campaigning. The panel took questions from the floor and debated a range of issues, including:

  • The desperate lack of tech talent, especially devs and most especially Ruby devs.
  • The importance of the engagement with Europe and the Horizon 20/20 project.
  • The difficulty of actually doing x-disciplinary collaboration.
  • The value of mentoring.
  • The importance of “social”.

Jon put a final question to the panel: what could the TSB do to improve the situation. Three answers came through loud and clear: skills development; help finding the right collaborators; and a push for open data standards.

It was a nice, sparky ending to a generally lively and hugely informative afternoon.

Simon

We’re delighted to report that our friends Brand Embassy have closed a $1 million round of seed investment with two funds and are opening six new offices globally. We first got to know Brand Embassy and its founder Vit Horky when acting as mentors on the Start Up Yard accelerator in Prague; it was clear from the get-go that Vit had a great business on his hands and we’ve watched its progress eagerly ever since.

Here’s how BE have made the announcement:

Brand Embassy equips companies to answer customer service inquiries through social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, enabling them to provide “social care” for their customers with its SaaS platform. it has moved quickly to establish its niche in the evolving customer service industry. “Our platform has been used by over fifty large international companies across the world,” says Vit Horky, Co-founder and CEO of Brand Embassy. “They’ve handled over 7.5 million service issues via Brand Embassy since 2012. Currently our strongest sectors are with telecoms and financial groups – two sectors where customers demand a fast and accurate response to their queries.”

Congratulations to Vit and the team; we look forward to watching where the business goes next.

For more information, go to the News page on Brand Embassy.

Simon

Last Tuesday Sarah hosted the fourth of the networking events she’s putting on as part of her work for Angel Academe, the investor network she founded last year. For newcomers, Angel Academe is, in Sarah’s own words, “A community of professional women with extensive business experience who want to support tech entrepreneurs – as mentors, non-execs and angel investors.” This time out we were at Thomson Reuters‘ London HQ in Shoreditch, as TR have agreed to be one of the network’s key sponsors over the next year, along with the law firm Kingsley Napley.

Agenda Oct13

The evening took the same format as previous events: an introduction from Sarah, a talk by an “inspirational angel” and three pitches from female entrepreneurs. And networking over drinks, of course.

After outlining AA’s mission and the situation it’s trying to address (in short, the dire like of female investors in tech firms – or generally, for that matter), Sarah took the opportunity to talk about the work the network has undertaken over the last year, which includes three large networking events (at Tech City HQ, UBS and the BBC’s newly re-opened Broadcasting House) and the setting up of an investor group, who currently have two substantial investments under consideration.

Cyndi Mitchell

Sarah was followed by Cyndi Mitchell, Co-Founder and CEO of Logscape, experts in data analysis and visualisation. Cyndi gave a delightful talk, recalling how she had been an early investor in a friend’s scaling up of Foo Foo Fun Box, an initiative to help post-natal mums with pelvic floor health. What was refreshing about the story was that it showed how angel investment isn’t just for the super wealthy. Cyndi invested just £10k in FFFB, but this was enough to get it to the next level. Crucially, though, it wasn’t just cash she brought to the table; she was able to call on her massive personal experience as a tech entrepreneur to advise her investee.

Anne Bruinvels

The first of the evening’s pitches came from Anne Bruinvels, Founder at Px HealthCare (ie, “Personal Healthcare”). Anne talked about the Owise app, which gives people personalised healthcare solutions, initially focussing on breast cancer. A couple of things she said really resonated with me, and, I think, with many in the audience. “Those gathering anonymised health data should make it available for research”, something I’ve become acutely aware of watching the burgeoning Quantified Self movement. And she said that the company had started almost as a way of directly answering the question: “Is it possible to have a socially motivated business and make money?” She firmly believes, of course, that you can.

Julia Grinham2

The second presentation couldn’t have been more different. Julia Grinham is CEO and Co-Founder of Upper Street, a service which allows customers to design their own shoes. Julia definitely pulled off an Angel Academe first, handing out boxes of some of these custom made shoes, which are plainly beautifully made and come exquisitely packaged. She talked about the huge potential in the custmomised clothing market and cited it as context for seeking to grow the company into a £3m firm in the near term.

Buddy BounceFinally, Emma Obanye took the stage to talk about BuddyBounce, of which she is the co-founder. Buddy Bounce sets out to answer a key conundrum in the arena of social media marketing: brand owners (record labels, agencies, broadcasters and so on) might be able to lay their hands on a lot of stats, but in truth they don’t really know who their “superfans” are. Users of BB are able to aggregate all their existing social media activity in one space, allowing brands to interact directly with fans and rewarding superfan behaviour. The service is currently targetting the record industry and already has 20k active users, on effectively no marketing; it’ll be looking to other entertainment sectors once it’s proved its model in music.

Audience

So there you go. If you’d like a bit more detail on how the evening went, and what some of the key points made were, then look up the twitter hashtag #aanetworking. Sarah’s currently in Turkey, at meetings in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, where she is, among other things, talking about inward investment to the UK and, of course, female angel investment. I’m sure when she’s back she may have a few things to add about the event.

Simon posted last month about the briefing event we ran at Ofcom just prior to the publication of our report on UGC. I’ve just found these photos I shot there, which I thought I would share.

Campbell Cowie, Director of Internet Policy at Ofcom, and commissioner of our report.

campbell

Sophie Walpole, of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

sophieRobbie Stamp, of H2G2,

robbie 2Our old friend Nick Reynolds, from the BBC.

nickThe panel in full.

panelOh, and Simon, of course.

simonSarah

We were very pleased to see that TechDirt, the US blog that reports intelligently on trends in technology and business, has picked up on our report for Ofcom about UGC. In a piece entitled UK’s Ofcom Recognizes That Copyright Can Be A Threat To User Generated Content, Glyn Moody picks up in particular on the themes around intellectual property which we outlined in the report.

Notice that “IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) practice” is seen as a threat to UGC, rather than the other way around, which is traditionally how things are presented, especially when penalties for infringement are being discussed. That’s hugely encouraging, because it suggests that Ofcom and other UK government departments might start seeing UGC as a huge opportunity for creativity, not a threat to it, as it is so often painted.

All-in-all, then, this 70-page report is a valuable contribution to the debate about the role of copyright in the digital age. Let’s hope the policy makers in the UK and around the world read it, understand it, and act on it.

It’s not often that our work is published – it’s generally for our clients’ internal purposes – so it’s great to be picked up on this occasion when we have been. And its’s always nice to be so closely read – so thanks, Glyn!

Sarah