Musing about engagement

It’s good to talk

(Some of you might remember the old BT campaign from the 1990s. So here’s the link, in case you’re in need for a nostalgia fix).


I had occasion to visit the local hospital this afternoon. So I checked myself in, made my way to the relevant waiting room, took out my book (I rarely travel without one) and settled down for the wait that the room promised.

There was only one other person there. A lady who didn’t seem particularly happy about being there. Someone came to attend to her, and things went from bad to worse. Apparently she wasn’t meant to turn up today, so her name wasn’t on the list. They would still see her, but needed her to fill out a form. She explained, in some agitation, that her arthritic hands made writing impossible. The attendant offered to do the writing, but couldn’t understand what the lady was saying: by that time her voice had become a tired wail.

So I volunteered to interpret her and complete the form. The attendant took it, the lady thanked me. And all was well. And I sat back down with my book.

Then she started talking to me. Asked me why I was there. Listed the medical appointments she had coming up. Told me how old she was, told me what she did for over fifty years before she retired, why her hands were as arthritic as they were. I nodded, smiled, acknowledged, asked the odd question here and there. I did the polite thing.

After a few minutes, she said “I’m sorry to go on, I just wanted to talk. I don’t get the chance to do that often enough”. We chatted until it was time for her to be seen.

The incident made me think. The topic of people needing to talk has been on my mind for a very long time, ever since I saw a poster at a railway station, maybe thirty years ago, saying something like “This is Helen. She hasn’t spoken to anyone for 27 days“. As someone born and brought up in Calcutta, living in a very crowded city, growing up in a warm and loving family, being blessed with great friends, the statement on the poster just “did not compute”. I wasn’t trained to understand loneliness. Or, for that matter, what it meant to grow old in isolation.

Regular readers may have noticed I wrote about something related recently, the concept of Kletsklassa: how a Dutch supermarket sought to reduce loneliness in the community. Rather than link back to my post, here’s someone else’s view on the topic, worth reading.

Markets are conversations

Yes, it’s time to refer to Cluetrain again, and to Doc Searls‘s wonderful message there. It’s hard to believe that we will soon be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Manifesto going live. But let me work my way through to the reference.

In a recent post I’d mentioned that there was a campaign under way to shutter a number of railway ticket offices. Apparently someone with a clipboard and some moisture behind the aural organs had worked out that people weren’t using the ticket offices any more; at the very least, numbers were dropping, and there were efficiency to be had. So the ticket offices had to go.

I live in a village. A village with a lot of people my age, or even older. A village with many retirees. The ticket office gets used. A lot. Aggie, usually to be found behind the counter window, is an integral member of the community. Always smiling, always there to help. Many of her customers have Senior Railcards, and she’s there to help them find the best tickets. When to get a Travelcard. When to get two singles. When to get a return, and to pay separately for the Tube component. Most of her customers have very specific needs, and the fare systems are complex.

There are machines outside the ticket office, on the platform. But her customers don’t tend to use them. It’s hard to bend down and read what’s on the screen. Hard to understand why the touch screens aren’t working. Hard to understand why their card doesn’t work. Harder still when that rare visitor, the sun, turns up, and makes screen-reading impossible. To make matters worse, Wet And Windy and Freezing are common flavours that the weather comes in.

So they go to the ticket counter.

When they go there, they chat. Say hello to Aggie (or, on the occasions when she’s not working, her colleagues). They exchange pleasantries. Ask about each other’s health. Share their news. They don’t just chat to Aggie, but also to the others in the room, which doubles as a small waiting room. It’s a community.

They go to buy tickets, in order to go somewhere. They avoid the machine, because they need the advice and the help. They stay for the warmth and for the company. It’s a ritual. It’s a community thing.

And it’s going to disappear. Because profits.

The clipboards don’t understand that machines don’t put up Christmas trees or decorations; that machines don’t know how to charm a crying child; that machines don’t know the habits and the challenges and the needs of the community. That machines don’t smile and say hello.

By the way, I’ve worked in and with technology all my life, and technology keeps me alive. I’m no Luddite. The principal point I wanted to make at this stage is that the ticket office represents more than just a place where tickets are vended. The warmth, the assistance, the companionship, the sense of community, these are all part of the picture.

Those conversations form the markets.

This isn’t just for or about old people. When I was a teenager in Calcutta, I would disappear every now and then to go to the Ice Skating Rink. (I hear that today it’s no longer an ice skating place, but it’s still called what it used to be called).

I never went there for the ice skating. I didn’t own skates, and never rented them either, there were many other things I preferred to do with what little money I had.

I went there for the ice, not the skating. It was the coolest place in the city. The operators assumed that everyone who entered would hire skates and book time on the rink, so that’s how they made their money. I was an outlier. A happy, chilled, silent outlier.

People do things for reasons, but the reasons aren’t always transactionally obvious.

When I was young, every time someone left the city or arrived there, we would all go to the railway station. To see them off. Or to welcome them in.

We went regularly to railway stations. Without any intention of getting on a train. Someone worked it out, so we had to buy something called a platform ticket. For the right to say hello or goodbye. Which we did.

People do things for reasons, but the reasons aren’t always transactionally obvious.

Cost leadership and service leadership

Nearly 20 years ago, an old friend, Sean Park, the founder and CIO of Anthemis, released an amazing video. AmazonBay. If you haven’t seen it yet, see it now. If you have seen it already, see it again. It’s worth it. Sean is one of the smartest people I know.

I had the privilege of working with him for a number of years, and we spent a lot of time chatting about what we saw and learnt. Part of what I learnt from him was the idea of a Death Zone, at the centre of a spectrum that went from cost leadership, high volume low touch, to service leadership, low volume high touch, and why companies in that Death Zone were likely to include regional champions with some sort of regulatory capture, unable to compete at the extremes, destined to stay in the Death Zone.

The high-touch end was one where carbon ,not silicon, was the order of the day; conversation was normal, expected, encouraged. The high-volume end was one focused on silicon not carbon, straight-through-processing, doesn’t touch the sides.

Which begged the question, if markets were conversations, what would this mean for the silicon end of the spectrum? Not surprisingly, it meant better customer experience embedded into the self-service model, something Sean was quick to point out and pick up on.

An aside. We’re seeing more and more anthropomorphism enter the digital world. Machines now have bedside manners, aided and abetted by LLMs, and people haven’t adjusted their trust models to prepare for that. It will hurt.


Which brings me to the point of this post.

We live in a strange world.

On the one hand, we keep shutting down opportunities for people to meet face to face, to engage in human terms: bank branches are going extinct; ticket offices are emerging as a variant of hen’s teeth; supermarket checkouts are becoming one-armed bandits with regular prizes, red lights that flash loudly and tell the world that the bozo at till 14 needs help.

We keep shutting down the chance for the conversations which make those markets.

On the other hand, as we digitise everything, we are desperate for “engagement”; we measure likes and similar signals, ask for feedback and check Trustpilot and NPS, we track customer persistency, we find ways to track and reward loyalty, we look for opportunities to “upsell”.

We keep inserting ways and means to sense what the customer wants or thinks or feels, to keep the customer in conversation with us, the conversations that make those markets.

Two paths. One that increases engagement, and one that decreases it. Two paths that we follow at the same time.

As with much in life, it’s not really a question of having to choose between one path and the other. This is not about A or B.

It’s about A and B.

With the customer free to choose, based on context. Sometimes being able to select time and place and self-serve from home is fine, especially if the chooser is comfortable with the technology. Sometimes it’s about simplicity and convenience and having someone help you. Sometimes it’s about the community and the companionship. With the customer free to choose.

One of the more worrying trends I’ve noticed recently is that every action of mine, analog or digital, sparks off a request for feedback. Go for a medical appointment? How did we do? Buy something in a shop? How did we do? Book a flight or hotel? How did we do? Book a car service? How did we do?

The logical continuance is that soon we will be bombarded by surveys about surveys. How did we do?

And the logical consequence is that people will respond less and less to surveys. People will stop letting you know how they think or feel or what their needs or aspirations are.

Not because they weren’t asked. But because they didn’t like the way they were asked.

Markets are conversations. And the terms of the conversation can’t be set by one side alone. Not in any sustainable or reliable way.

Everyone needs TLC. Everyone needs affirmation. But it can become tiresome if you keep getting asked to provide it. And then unintended consequences could follow.

As Auden said, in The Unknown Citizen

Was he free?/ Was he happy?/ The question is absurd/ Had anything been wrong/ We should certainly have heard.

Engagement matters. It really matters. But it has to be on the customer’s terms. Otherwise customers appear happy and all is well. Until they’re not. By which time it’s too late.

Engagement matters.

Something happened

A security guard standing just off the covered areas of the pitch at Old Trafford yesterday


This isn’t a post about Joseph Heller‘s often-panned second novel, which, despite the critical reviews, particularly the one by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, has a cult following. I have read it, I confess to have found some of it hard going, but I did finish it. I liked it. And it didn’t make me feel depressed.

It’s not really a post about cricket either, though my observations are made through the lens of being at a cricket match.

I went to Old Trafford – the one with the James Anderson End rather than the one with the Stretford End – for the first time yesterday. Got there around 9am. By the time I left there late in the afternoon, I was able to add to my (relatively long) list of “days spent at the cricket without a ball being bowled”. (Incidentally, that category is distinct and different from “days spent at the cricket without watching a ball being bowled”, something I have yet to achieve but have noticed happening around me, particularly amongst the Roy Keane “prawn sandwich brigade”.

Rain Stopped Play. Three little words that no cricket fan wants to hear. But it happens often enough. I haven’t seen the latest statistics, but I remember reading this a few years ago:

If you’re interested in things cricket, then it’s worth reading the whole of the article: Soggy Days Are Here Again.

Even if you’re completely uninterested in cricket, I hope you find the rest of this post useful. (Incidentally, if you are thus afflicted, may I recommend prayer?)

Nature abhors a vacuum

Much of the time, things don’t go according to plan. Which is why we’ve been told: Best-laid schemes gang aft agley. They don’t survive first contact with the enemy. They’re useless, but planning is essential. And everyone has one until they get punched in the face (preferably not by the originator of that particular phrase, Mike Tyson).

Quite often, something that was meant to happens doesn’t happen. People fall ill. Events get rained off. Flights get cancelled. Cars break down. Machines stop working. Something happens.

It’s not about the vacuum caused when something happens (or doesn’t happen), it’s about what happens as a result.

Something happened

Yesterday was a case in point. A lot of people made the effort to get to Old Trafford to watch a day’s cricket. Despite the rain, and despite the forecast.

Yes, it was about the cricket. But not just about the cricket. It was about preparing for the day, packing the necessities in terms of food and drink and rainwear and whatever. It was about preparing for the day, planning the journey, booking the train tickets, filling the car up, whatever. It was even probably about giving Accuweather its busiest day. (Incidentally, I was on the Apple Weather app, the BBC weather app, the Met Office app, anything that would give me the slightest reason to believe that somehow there would be some play that day; and Accuweather was amazing in the way it did what it said on the tin. Accurate weather forecasts. Not the forecasts I wanted but accurate nevertheless).

It was about going to the match. And being there. Hoping to watch some cricket. (And yes, hoping to watch England win). But it was never just about the cricket.

Cricket as a social object

If you’re interested in the theory of social objects, the Wikipedia article is probably as good a place to start as any, especially if you then follow the links to the articles and papers it refers to. I was introduced to the term by Jyri, then had opportunities to learn further and to discuss the implications with Hugh; that led me to reading the works of people like Durkheim and Latour, which is why I think the Wikipedia references are a good foundation.

In those days my favourite example of a social object was a song’s lyrics, as evinced by a site called, which I believe is now to be found here. I loved the idea that people went somewhere to debate (often with both passion as well as competence) the meaning of lyrics of some of their favourite songs, and in the process formed communities of interest that went deep and lasted long. After a while, you could take the lyrics out of the community but the community would still remain. And that’s my simplest understanding of a social object, something that attracts people to do something “ritually”, and then almost fades into the background as the relationships form between the people so attracted.

Cricket is often like that. People get to know each other better while watching cricket, in a way that just doesn’t happen with most other sports.

When you’re watching football or rugby you are barely able to hear the person next to you; much of the time, you’re standing up. And it’s all over in a couple of hours.

When you’re watching tennis or snooker, it’s pin-drop silence time (as my teachers used to say at school). Talking is very much verboten. You do get the chance to get yourself some food, but the imperative is to get back as quickly as possible and to re-enter the Pin Drop Zone.

Now these are not the only sports, and I’m sure there are many with social-object characteristics. But none of them has the set of rituals that cricket comes with. Meeting for breakfast before the match, often with the customary bacon roll(or its non-pork equivalent). Breaking for lunch. Breaking for tea. Chatting with your companions throughout. Chatting not just with your companions, but with everyone else who’s there. The security guards. The ticket checkers. The venue assistance providers. The staff serving at the food and drink outlets and franchises.

You’re not just allowed to chat. You’re expected to. In the same way that you’re both allowed as well as expected to nod off occasionally on a warm summer’s day at Lords. It’s an integral part of being at the cricket.

Yesterday, I had the chance to spend time with the security guards, learning what they did when they weren’t doing what they were doing as guards. Why they signed up to do what they did. What made it special for them. The people they met, the respect they were shown, the experiences they had. Some were local, others had travelled a long way. Some did it for the cricket, some started doing it for the money but then found themselves smitten.

Yesterday, I had the chance to spend time with the other would-be spectators, learning about the distances they traveled, the methods they used. The ones nearest to me had walked a decent distance to the railway station, taken a train, then taken a tram, then walked again.

The list goes on. And it’s not as if I was doing something special. Everyone around me had a smile on the face, a greeting for everyone. We were together. Together in this insane belief that somehow the sun will shine and play will resume and England would win and all would be well.

There was a little bit of that. But it was never just about that.

Something was happening. People were being polite and charming to each other. There was civil discourse. Mobile phones were only being used for two things: to check AccuWeather or to resolve cricket life-or-death trivia questions. No conference call wallahs, no pollution of personal space by phone-meets-boombox. Just civil discourse. Even if some of that civil discourse was of the Four Yorkshiremen variety. Especially if some of that civil discourse was of that variety.

Of course there’s a selection bias. We were all there for the cricket. Nostalgia is never what it used to be, even at the cricket.

Yes, something did happen

Visitors at Old Trafford yesterday, with accoutrements in tow

We were acting normal. Human. Engaging with each other. Listening to what others had to say. Giving each other time and attention.

Of course, it would have been nice if there was actually some cricket to watch. But you know what? We would still have been polite to each other, asked after each other, learnt about each other. That doesn’t just happen when there’s no cricket to watch. It’s part of what happens at the cricket.

The worst that could happen

As long as cricket is cricket, as long as we have Test matches, as long as the game continues to evolve, as long as the game continues to attract people from all backgrounds and interests, we will look on days like this with only mild regret, because it wasn’t just about the cricket.

Changes are needed. Weather patterns look like they’re getting more extreme, and we all know why. We’re going to have to get better at planning for rain, preparing for rain and protecting against rain. Early starts, as was scheduled today in Trinidad. (Though even that early start plan has failed). Reserve days. Better drainage. Better forecasting. Whatever.

The changes will happen. As long as we protect the reason why people turn up knowing that they’re unlikely to watch any play. It’s not about abominations like the Hundred, which compress an already-busy schedule. It’s not even about short-format games. Yes, short-format games do have their place.

The T2o, the 50 over game (and the 40 and 60 over games that preceded them) all have their place. Bringing innovation to the long-format game. Helping introduce people to that game. Attracting people who would otherwise not have experienced the joys and sadnesses of the game.

In the end it’s about the Test. The communities that have been built around Test cricket. And the humanity embedded in those communities. That’s what we have to protect. Test cricket is a precious thing.

It’s great to see the women’s game evolving at pace, and I look forward to attending a five-day women’s Test match at Lords. It cannot be soon enough.

The trust level of the room


A few days ago I mused about when media is social; I particularly wanted to highlight the need to separate social media from broadcast media, and how that could take some of the toxicity and polarisation out of the environment and help bring us back to places where civil discourse is possible.

Today I want to spend a little time on what we share, rather than who we share with or how we share.

Many years ago, I think it was while I was at BT, I spent some time with David Anderson. Fascinating guy. Our conversations started with agile and Kanban, then went through understanding how the behaviour of work-in-progress queues could signal operational health as well as illness. Somewhere within those conversations, as we touched on aspects of collaborative approaches, David said something that helped me think about trust differently; he used a phrase akin to “the trust level of the room”. Maybe those were his exact words. (David, if you read this, thank you once again for the time you spent with me.)

Ever since then, I’ve been musing about this, specifically when it comes to what we share.

Cooking onions in pans meant for milk

Words have power. They can build people up and smash people down.

A number of times in my life, I’ve been “dressed down” in public, and never enjoyed it. I still remember an incident in January 1972 like it was yesterday. New school year, new class, new teacher. The teacher started with an icebreaker: what did you do during the Christmas holidays? When it came to my turn, I told him precisely what I’d done. Played cards, carrots, scrabble, cricket, Cluedo, with my siblings and with the children of the neighbourhood. Listened to music. Read books.

And read comics.

The guy went spare, tore shreds off me, made an example of me in front of the whole class, ranting about how reading comics was the most damaging thing one could do when it came to developing and nurturing writing skills, particularly creative writing. I was 14 and thought I was tough, but my eyes were hot with my tears; the class was silent, but I could feel their shock and sympathy.

After the icebreaker, and before he started with the first lesson, he had some more business to finish. “One more thing. I hear that one of you won the senior school essay prize last year, the first time someone from class 7 got it. Who was it?”.

I took my time raising my hand.

I still remember those tears. That wasn’t the only time it happened, not just to me but to people around me. Over the years, I’ve seen too many examples of people criticising others in public and with venom. I’ve done it myself when younger, and learnt from that.

It took me many weeks to trust that teacher. There’s a Sindhi saying: When you cook onions in a pan meant for milk, the smell of onions stays a long time.

So it is with social media. There’s no dearth of places where we all choose to criticise, to negate, to tear strips off each other. Maybe we don’t need another one?

Making a space safe, one where civil discourse can be had, where divisive behaviours are not welcomed, is hard. Legislating for such behaviour is probably a waste of time.

There is still something we can do to engender such behaviours. We can lead by example. We can act with kindness in what we say and do in social spaces. Where constructive criticism is called for, it can be done with kindness, and in private.

We have to stop cooking onions in milk pans.

The trust level of the room

It’s been a few decades since I first heard the phrase “he walked in, and what he said just sucked all the oxygen out of the room”. I found it useful, but it lacked something.

What it lacked was this sense of collective ownership of an ambiance, a zeitgeist, an atmosphere. Associating a room with a trust level gave me that sense of collective ownership, which soon morphed into a sense of stewardship, a responsibility for keeping the trust level protected, a responsibility for growing the collective trust level.

Clay Shirky has shared many things that I’ve found really useful. One of them was to do with the commons, and how the differential in cost-of-damage and cost-of-repair helped preserve or pollute the commons. I think he used Wikipedia as an example, and spoke about the power of the Undo button. This was many many years ago. (Clay, if you read this, thank you once again for letting me into your world as often as you did).

If I remember right, Clay used graffiti and chewing gum as examples of where the cost of repair exceeded the cost of damage, and how the commons were harmed as a result. And then explained the power of the undo button.

This idea of cost-of-damage and cost-of-repair, and the need to keep the cost of repair below the cost of damage, is, I think, also applicable to the trust level of the room. It becomes a very human and sensitive challenge to preserve a room’s trust level.

For some years now, I’ve tried to think of the people I converse with as a “room” with trust levels that can be sensed; in practice, I’ve tended to think of it as a series of partially-overlapping rooms. Whenever I’ve thought about sharing something, one of the first questions I’ve asked myself is “what will this do to trust levels?”.

Kevin Kelly and “speeding up evolution”

Many years ago, I was fascinated by something Kevin Kelly said about invention and innovation. He said something along the lines of ” they happen for three reasons: to satisfy a perceived demand; to make use of an observed effect; or to speed up evolution”. I think he used Kevlar as the speed-up-evolution example. Humans could have evolved to become bulletproof: many millennia, many deaths. An alternative was to invent Kevlar. (I shall resist the temptation to say “or ban bullets?” since it’s a rabbit hole insofar as this particular discussion is concerned).

In keeping with this frame of mind, I’m fascinated by the idea that we can invent “interventions” in social media that “speed up the evolution” of the trust level in our different rooms, the collective of which is the sphere of social media.

Language and sensemaking

I’ve been spending much of the last nine months looking sideways at language, and learning about the incredible sense making capability that language represents. The sense making capacity and value becomes particularly interesting to me when I consider language diversity.

Even today I’m astonished that, in my mother tongue, there are a litany of words for aunt and uncle, letting me know which of my parents is the sibling of the aunt/uncle, and going beyond that to tell me whether that person is older or younger than the parent in question. The existence of that litany of words was itself proof positive of the importance of family and relationships in Indian cultures. This is akin to the “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” example of the number of words for snow.

Holding on to the cultural diversity shown in language enriches our capacity to make sense of the world we’re in, and will help us make sense of worlds to come.

On a call this afternoon, there was reference to a Dean Kamen quote along the lines of “You get more of what you choose to celebrate“.

We need to learn to celebrate the forms of sharing on social media that will help us protect, develop and enhance our collective trust level. I know that sounds a bit Kumbaya but so what?

Some conclusions

As with everything else, these are provisional observations, shared with a view to helping us learn.

Over the years I’ve been active across different forms of social media, learning by using. Wherever possible I’ve tried to engage as early as possible, experimenting, learning from failure.

If I take just Twitter as an example, in my first year of using it, I learnt, for example, how to rescue a hamster lost underneath floorboards; how to buy a CD from a shop in Toronto that wasn’t on the web, and have it shipped to my home in England.

One time, maybe a decade or more ago, I shared my excitement at getting tickets for a Cat Stevens/Yusuf concert. (It’s his birthday tomorrow. If any of you knows him well enough, wish him happy 75 tomorrow!). Where was I? Oh yes, sharing the news that I’d acquired tickets for a concert. A few minutes later, I heard from a friend who lived in mainland Europe that he’d been wrestling with what he was going to get his wife for her 50th birthday, and my sharing had led him to get tickets to the concert and to book a trip to London for it, all as a special surprise for his wife. That made me very glad.

So where am I going with all this? Words have power. We can build people up, we can cut people down. There is an abundance of people-cutter-downers. We can be different. Social media retains that promise, and we have that power.

Thinking about what we say. Using language that will help advance the cause of building collective trust. Sharing things that “do no harm”. Thinking about who might find it useful before sharing whatever we are sharing. Learning to cross-check and corroborate what we share. Celebrating the power of collective curation. Choosing to share what we write, our original work, giving credit when quoting others, saying thanks when relevant. Acting as curators for the collectives we are part of.

All the while doing all this while being kind.

Utopia? Maybe. But I’m a child of the fifties who entered his teens in the sixties, so there are many things I remain utopian about.

We have the power to make what we want of social media. I’d like to believe we have the will as well.

PS If I get the time and if I find people are interested, I will continue with a “taxonomy and ontology for sharing”. Been thinking about it for a while, but not polished it up into a shareable state as yet.

When is media social?

Broadcast is not social

You’re in a conversation with others in an open, public place. An airport, a railway station, a shopping mall. And then someone says something on the tannoy, for example about the train on platform 14 being delayed. It’s useful. It may even be useful to you. But it’s not social. The tannoy announcements make personal and local conversation difficult.

You’re in conversation with others in a constrained space. An office building. A hotel. A cinema hall or theatre. And then someone says something on the PA system. Perhaps there’s a fire in the hall, and you’re being asked to evacuate tout suite, in an orderly fashion. It’s useful. Very useful. It may save your life. It’s an urgent Public Service Announcement, something that the Public Address system was designed to deliver. It’s useful for all concerned. But it’s not social.

Something is social when there is capacity for interaction between participants. Bi-directional. I think it was Tim O’Reilly who called the Web an “architecture for participation”. Broadcast is not an architecture for participation.

For media to be social, it needs to engender participation. And by that I don’t mean reactions and likes and emojis and whatnot. We’ve had broadcast media for a very long time; the whole point of social media being different was that it was social, on a scale quite different to broadcast, enabling a very different type of conversation.

Book internet and cable internet

It’s hard to believe that Hossein Derakhshan‘s seminal The Web We Have To Save had its eighth anniversary last week. It’s an amazing post. You should read all of it. He makes a very persuasive case for the David Weinberger assertion that hyperlinks subvert hierarchies, one of my favourite quotes from Cluetrain. One of the most telling quotes from Hossein’s post is this one:

But the Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.

Many years earlier, when I started this blog, I wrote a “kernel” focused on being connected, not channelled. Hossein did a much better job of explaining what I was trying to say.

Hyperlinks are participatory architecture. Walled-garden controls are not. If someone else decides who or what is in our individual streams, we’ve moved from book to cable. Channelled, not connected. Not what we want.

The web is agreement

One of my colleagues from many years ago, Paul Downey, used to drive the message “The web is agreement” wherever he went. I still think there aren’t enough who understand the importance of what he was saying. The architecture of participation is itself underpinned by agreements, often social, often technical, sometimes legal. Here’s one of the drawings he did on the subject, maybe fifteen years ago. (If you want to see what else he was doing then, here’s The Web Is Agreement.).

What’s important to remember is that in a participative architecture the agreement is between participants, rather than imposed upon them by someone else.

Markets are Conversations

I mentioned earlier that one of my favourite quotes from Cluetrain was about hyperlinks. A second is about markets, and comes from Doc Searls. I’m glad to see he continues to blog, and he can be found here. Without Doc’s encouragement, and without being egged on by the late Chris Locke, I wouldn’t be writing this.

Doc helped me understand a lot more about how relationships come before conversations which are the markets, and transactions nothing more than the natural outcome of those relationship-led conversations.

These are not broadcast. They’re closer to peer-to-peer. These conversations happen in small groups, probably with an upper limit of the 150 posited by Dunbar, and probably closer to George A Miller’s Magical Number Seven.

Peer-based conversations can and do happen in public spaces, much like the addas in Calcutta, something I’ve written about before. There is something wondrous about the way a small group of people can have a conversation, with others kibitzing at the edge, and how participants solidify and melt at the core of the conversation.

I thought early Twitter had that promise, with the way we could use the @ to connect with a core while still allowing for open access to the conversation in a truly participative way. That’s why I wrote this, about “capillary conversations”, and continued with this and this. (I really thought that Twitter would allow this evolution, but it was not to be).

That’s why I was fascinated with what Dave Morin and team were trying with Path. It was very much about peer-to-peer and small-group conversations, in a circle of trust.

I’ve been keeping pretty quiet on social media for almost a decade now, largely driven away by increasing levels of polarisation, divisiveness and toxicity. Civil discourse seemed to be less and less possible, and since that was what had attracted me to social media in the first place, it was no longer meaningful for me.

I’m watching Threads with interest. Right now I’m private-profile there, only following people I know and only allowing people I know to follow me. A series of partially-overlapping groups, probably resembling a small Facebook friend graph.

There are also no hashtags and no lists. Both very useful, yet both represent utilities I have no current need for. I have this fear that such tools accelerate the marketing and decelerate the conversing in this markets-are-conversations world. I have this fear that as a result, attention and engagement are seen as things to scale rather than to nurture and cultivate at lower levels. I may well be wrong. And if I am I’m happy to change my mind.

Noise-cancelling media

Tour leader speaking to her clients in Windsor this afternoon

Maybe it’s because I’m growing old. If I’m sitting on a train — since I retired, my plane travel has dropped dramatically, a good thing — I don’t really want to be listening to someone loudly berating others on a business conference call. So I try and find quiet carriages, places where phone calls are verboten. And if someone transgresses I’m quite happy to remind them of that fact. I’m into environmental noise reduction.

This afternoon, I walked past the tour leader. And I noticed she had a small microphone on. She was talking to her customers using that, and they were using earphones to listen to her. They were having a private conversation in a public space. It is possible to do so without impinging on everyone else’s space.

We like going to museums and art galleries. Some people wear earphones to listen to the commentary; others walk around ears-free, using their eyes to read the little art-explaining notices. Yet others do neither, and just soak in what they’re seeing and experiencing. It’s a matter of choice.

Choice is a wonderful thing, especially in a well-designed participatory environment. When your exercise of choice doesn’t impinge on someone else’s right to exercise their choice, it’s wondrous.

It is possible to have filters that can do this even in a public place. You learn. It’s a variant of how a mother can recognise her child’s cry in the middle of the cacophony emanating from the creche next door. We adapt ourselves to learn how to separate the signal from the noise, to recognise those who cry wolf, to know the sensationalists and bullshitters.

It becomes even more possible when, in a digital world, we have the right tools.

Right now, what I know is this. My Threads feed doesn’t have any of the topics that I would rather not see. There’s less noise. It would be even better if I had more direct control of my feed, so that it became a reverse-chronological order latest-on-top record of what the people I followed were saying. It would be even better if I could choose to include (or mute) their conversations with others, at some level of granularity.

There’s a FOAF serendipity value to be had by doing this, a bit like the blogrolls of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I could discover new “interesting” voices by inspecting the blogrolls of people I read regularly. The key there was that I could insure against the Filter Bubble that Eli Pariser warned us about. By connecting with the blogs of people who were on the blogrolls of people I read, I tended to find people interested in similar topics but often with different views on those topics. And it was only by reading those different views that I could say I learnt.

Having more direct control of my feed, the “stream” that Derakhshan spoke of, would also reduce my vulnerability to Kevin Slavin’s well-grounded concerns about algorithms. Those who’ve been reading me for a while know that I’ve always believed in subscriber-side filters and not publisher-side controls. Publisher-side filters lead to censorship by bad actors, sometimes even state actors.


This is a provisional thread. Just some things I was thinking about. They’re still thoughts that are inchoate, slowly forming. I remember Doc Searls describing blog posts as snowballs started in one place that gather mass and momentum, disintegrate and reform, only to land up somewhere very different from where they started. I think he was referring to a conversation he had with George Lakoff.

Media is social when it is participatory, peer-based, peer-mediated, and in essence personal. I used to say that social is the plural of personal when I was at Salesforce, and I haven’t changed my mind.

The world is a very different place from the one where social media emerged. Some promises were delivered and some not. When “social” was invaded by “broadcast”, things began to change. When the smart mobile device became the platform of choice, and telcos could change the book-internet to the cable-internet, things began to change further. When advertising became the underpinning business model, things began to change even further.

These are not irreversible changes.

Humans are essentially social. We will continue to build architectures of participation — even if they revert to being analogue. And if digital infrastructures can preserve the right values, we will find ways of scaling those architectures.

I remain optimistic. We shall see.

Of Cheap Day Returns and Kletskassa

Soon, AI will be used as the scapegoat for anything that doesn’t work

Following on from my last two posts, I’ve continued to ruminate on instances where inflexible rules (often compounded by unnecessary complexity) created problematic circumstances that could only be solved by humans with empathy and empowerment.

I loved the @mildlyamused tweet that Stefan referred to in his post, where Donna talked about “arguing with a motion sensor about whether or not your hands are in the sink”. As we continue to implement inflexibility and poor design in software, we’re going to see more and more of this.

It’s easy to blame the software or firmware or hardware. All designed and implemented by us. Soon we’re going to blame “AI” for everything that doesn’t work, in an ironic variant of Douglas Hofstadter‘s definition of AI, sometimes referred to as Tesler’s Law or Effect, sometimes attributed to others; Hofstadter described AI as “anything that hasn’t been done yet”.

The Cheap Day Return saga

Many years ago, around 1986 or 1987, I’d planned a day out playing golf with a bunch of colleagues. We’d booked a tee time at Gatton Manor, near Ockley, which at the time prided itself as the course with the most holes with water hazards; it also had the longest Championship par 5 in the country, I think it was the 16th, 625 yards. (The course has been shut for development for many years; I hear it’s reopened, and I will plan a visit soon).

Anyway, back to my story. I’ve never driven in my life, as in driven a motor vehicle. (After seeing me play off the tee, the unkind amongst you would say that the distinction is a tautology).

Since I didn’t drive, I’d arranged to meet the rest of the four ball at Camberley station. Why Camberley? Because they lived there. So I wandered down to Windsor and Eton Riverside station at the crack of dawn, asked for a return to Camberley, changing at Staines. The man at the ticket counter asked me when I’d be returning, I told him, and having heard that, he issued me a Cheap Day Return and I went to the platform in a state of anticipatory bliss. (I’m like that, many small things fill me with joy).

Now you can’t get to Camberley without passing through Ascot and Bagshot first. When I got to Bagshot, I was shaken out of my early-morning reverie by the raucous sounds emanating from the car park there. My colleagues and golf partners. Trying, urgently, to attract my attention. Which they succeeded at. So I got off the train, one stop “early”, accompanied by my clubs and bag.

Even at that unearthly time, there was a ticket inspector at the exit. I gave him my ticket.

“This ticket’s not valid. You can’t get off here”. “Why ever not? I’m paid up to the next stop, and this is a valid “alighting” stop, isn’t it?” “Yes, but not on this ticket. Cheap Day Returns from Windsor cannot be used at this time to get to Bagshot, but are valid from Camberley onwards”.

Heaven help us.

(Incidentally, in the Wikipedia entry for Cheap Day Return, the second reference is to the Jethro Tull song from Aqualung. Well worth listening to. Here’s the link.)

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies

I know I’ve written about this before, probably over a decade ago. I gave him my card, told him he can write to fine me or whatever he had to do, and barged past him to meet my friends, reverie now no longer as blissful as before. (British Rail actually wrote to me to explain the rules and to “let me off” grudgingly just this once).

Now all this was dreamt up by people and imposed on people in a very analogue way; as more and more of what we do goes digital, we’re going to find more things that go wrong. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be digitising processes. What it does mean is that process design in a digital world really needs to understand the concept of leeway.

David Weinberger, writing in The Cluetrain Manifesto, introduced me to the lovely phrase “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchies“. In this particular context, I think of complex rules and processes as the hierarchy, and trust-based human interactions as the hyperlink.

A classic example for me is something I’ve had to face a few times:

I’m heading for the airport. I get a notification that the plane I’m booked on is delayed by a few hours. So I make use of the time doing something else and then arrive at the airport well in time for the now-delayed flight. Hand baggage only as usual. (Paper) boarding pass in my hand. (Why paper? I will come to that later). Walk up to the turnstiles that welcome me to security. Place pass on scanner. Red light. You can’t pass Go or collect 200 or anything else.

Why was I stopped? Because the system thinks I’ve missed my flight, or at least that I’ve missed the deadline by which I should have passed through security and headed for the gate. It doesn’t matter that the flight is late, and that the plane hasn’t even arrived at the gate to let people board. All that matters is that I’ve missed the preset deadline.

This has happened to me more times than I would have liked. Each time, I was late-on-purpose, to catch a flight that was later-still. Each time, I had to find someone with the hey-presto ability to magic me past the turnstile. At least once, in a mainland Europe airport, I’ve had to vault the turnstile, inelegantly and clumsily, to make it through security on time; it was the last flight to depart that night, and there was no one left manning the check-in desks.

Stuff like this happens all the time, not just tied to the underlying process. We’ve moved a lot of functionality to the cloud, and made our smart devices carry critical workloads.


It doesn’t all work the way it’s meant to. Bar codes and QR codes don’t scan. Image recognition doesn’t work. Phones run out of battery. Taps, towel dispensers and soap servers don’t recognise the presence of your hands. Signals are weak. Surfaces overheat. Touch screens become unresponsive. Sunlight makes the screen unreadable; ambient noise makes the instruction unhearable.

Stuff happens.

I was at a phone shop, waiting patiently to be served, finally at the front of the queue, when a woman came running in to the shop and beseeched me to let her jump the queue and be served before me. All she wanted was a charged battery, or the chance to get a little bit of charge on her phone. She’d come from the shop across the road, groceries piled up in her cart, went to pay, her phone had “randomly” run out of battery, even though she was sure it was over 50% ten minutes earlier. Her phone was her only way to pay. She had a parking slot that was about to run out and a child that needed picking up from school.

It all worked out. But it needed shop assistants in both shops to understand, to make exceptions; it needed the others involved to be human and not mechanical, social and not selfish.

The good thing is that most of the time, humans are human. Social. Empathetic. Machines are machines.

Trust is the hyperlink that can subvert hierarchies.


Herb Kim, who runs the wonderful Thinking Digital conference, shared a story on one of the social channels a few days ago. He’s one of those people who regularly shares stories that will enrich and encourage others, rather than criticise them or cut them down. One such story was about a Dutch supermarket operator who’d opened slow-checkout queues to help combat loneliness amongst the elderly. (An aside. Legend has it that when Mahatma Gandhi first visited somewhere in the West, he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation. He considered the question and then replied, I think it would be a good idea).

I love the very idea. People don’t necessarily do something for the “obvious” or “visible” reason. When we design stuff or automate stuff, we need to consider that.

As I write this, my local train operator plans to shut a number of ticket offices down. No more ticket counters. Instead, machines that are platform-mounted, exposed to the elements, with screens that are hard to read in what passes for sunlight here. Machines. With hard-to-follow instructions based on complex rules. With error conditions that are often neither displayed nor guessable. Offering choices that are very context dependent, missing the nuances that a trained and experienced ticket clerk provides.

My local station has a wonderful ticket clerk. She’s part of the community, part of what makes the village tick. She knows everyone, greets everyone, knows what they need. Knows enough about them to give them advice that is precision-tailored for them. Asks the right questions. And does all this in an environment she works to make friendly and welcoming. Christmas decorations and Easter bunnies and everything. Warm when needed, cool when needed.

Her personality and attitude and service are probably key reasons why some amongst the elderly feel less lonely. They come for a chat, not just to buy tickets to go somewhere. They come for the warmth they are guaranteed before they go wherever they’re going. These things are really important in villages with the demographics we have, an ageing population with many people living on their own.

My village isn’t unique. All over the West, the demographics are heading that way. All over the West, there are instances of misunderstandings as to what a process is really about: the human contact, the ability to have conversations, the camaraderie, the shelter, the dignity and purpose that come from all that.

We can’t blame devices for not working. Hierarchies doing what they do best.

What we can do is be the hyperlinks. Subvert the hierarchies.

Planning for offline behaviours

When I was at the Euro final a couple of years ago, the ticket technology just failed to keep up, and people stormed the gates. Ugly scenes. I’ve seen variants all over the place, where the “design” of a process is focused on objectives like preventing fraud and controlling secondary markets, while paying limited attention to the things that will fail and the leeways needed. I think David Birch, when writing about digital currencies, often makes the point that no digital currency will work unless it caters explicitly for offline behaviours.

Devices will fail. Lost, stolen, out of range, battery dead, screen shattered, microphone or camera not working, Bluetooth disabled, whatever.

Processes will not work as intended. The connection with the mother ship may be down. The mother ship may itself have problems. Stuff happens.

The conditions in which the failure happens are usually the least helpful. Inclement weather; a time when no one is around; a time when everyone is around and everyone is frustrated; long queues here, deserted halls there.

Stuff happens. Stuff that can be fixed because people design for human intervention. Empowered and empathetic.

Many years ago, I gave lectures on the topic of Designing for Loss of Control. Many years ago, I spoke here and there on The Future of Lurk. Both topics continue to intrigue me. Not everyone is digital-savvy, not everyone has the wherewithal to work around the obstacles formed by failing systems, processes and connections. And yet we continue to entrust much that is critical to that world.

It can work.

It will work.

Only if we make the allowances we need to. Only if we treat people with respect, with tolerance, with dignity. Only if we work on the basis of mutual trust.

Only if we continue to be human.