Time travel

On any given day I get sent maybe 20-25 messages through one communications channel or other, with links to new sites or apps. Most of them are of no value to me at all. Maybe I’m growing old. A friend sent me a link today; I can usually rely on him to send me interesting things, so I took a look. This, despite the site and app having one of those oh-so-oughties names.


I tried it. Not having to register in order to try it out helped, that was a big plus for me. Chose Canada, Slow, 1970s. And up came Neil Young and Vampire Blues. After a while switched to India, stayed Slow and 1970s. And I was served Ananda Shankar and Raghupati. Registered straightaway. Downloaded the app as well. I like being able to vary how I want to engage with such things.

It’s still in beta, and I’m still learning about the site. Some categories are empty. I have no idea how many people have uploaded music, but that number feels low at present, I see the same names come up a few times. That may have to do with the selections I’m making.

I’m intrigued by the Share and by the Buy options song by song; the prominence given to the uploader suggests that over time this is going to become a blip.fm with an edgier UI.

The ability to time-travel around a music site is itself not new; neither is the serendipity offered in various forms. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw India turn to British India when I chose 1930. But being served Yom Hashabat by Nathan Solomon Satimkar was, to say the least, unusual.


Radiooooo feels a bit like the first time I came across a food hall at a mall in the US. I was like a child in a sweetshop when I realised that I could choose to have something sensibly spicy while other family members could do their own thing, and we could still sit together and eat together.

That’s how I feel about the site right now. It’s fascinating to be able to mix genres so easily. It’s almost as if someone decided to build a mechanism by which each one of us could design our own StumbleUpon for music.

The ease with which I can get to, discover, shuffle through disparate times and places and genres is very attractive. There’s a long-tail aspect that soothes me, I’m not a hit-culture fan. I am even less a hit-culture fan when people I haven’t learnt to trust make the choices for me, but that’s another story.

I haven’t uploaded anything yet, nor shared anything so far. I’m still in early explorer mode.

But what I’ve seen so far, I like.

Radiooooo has possibilities. And I shall continue experimenting, and watch with interest.




Thinking about social objects

You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.

Andrew Largeman, a character in Garden State, a film that was written and directed by Zach Braff some years ago.

A group of people that miss the same imaginary place. That phrase really stuck in my head when I saw the movie, and it’s stayed there ever since. Go see the film if you haven’t already, you won’t regret it. [And you don’t have to take my word for it either. An IMDB rating of 7.9, spread out over 90,000+ votes, nearly a thousand reviews, that’s some going.]

It wasn’t long after that when Jyri Engestrom started riffing with the idea of social objects, and when Hugh MacLeod picked it up and spoke to me at length about the concept, part of me was still completely stuck in the Andrew Largeman mindset. The same imaginary place.

And that’s part of the reason I share some of the things I do via twitter: The music I listen to. The food I’m cooking or eating. The films I’m watching; the books I’m reading; the places I go to. Sometimes what I share is in the immediate past, sometimes it’s in the present, sometimes all I’m doing is declaring my intent. Because, paraphrasing John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

When we share our experiences of sights and sounds and smells, we recreate the familiar imaginary places we share with others. We use these digital objects as the seed, as one dimension of the experience to flesh out the rest of that experience. So we take the sound or image or location or even in some cases the smell, and we extrapolate it into a rich memory of that particular experience. Which is often a worthwhile thing to do, for all the people who shared that “imaginary place” with you.

This has become more valuable as a result of phenomena like Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, that have made it easier for you to share the digital objects with the people you shared the original experience with. Which is why any tool that helps you capture what you’re watching or reading or listening to or visiting or eating is worth experimenting with.

This is something I’ve been doing for some time now, playing with every tool that comes on to the market, trying to see what it gives me that others didn’t. [When I started doing this, I had to come to terms quite quickly with the fact that some people don’t like being on the receiving end of all this “sharing”. More than once, I thought long and hard about segmenting my stream so that people could tune in or tune out of the particular segment. But I’ve stayed “whole” nevertheless. More on this later].

I’ve written about social objects a few times, even touched on the topic of something analogous to a graphic equaliser for an individual lifestream, yet I felt it was worth while in discussing them further in the context of “a group of people that miss the same imaginary place”. This time around, I want to concentrate on the ecosystem, on the tools and conventions we will need. Because that’s how sharing of experiences can become simpler, more extensive, more valuable.

I think we do five things with digital objects:

  • Introduce the object into shared space
  • Experience (and re-experience) the object
  • Share what you’re experiencing with others
  • Place in context that experience
  • Connect and re-connect with the family that has the same shared imaginary place

So to my way of thinking, once I start going down this road, every music site, every photo site, every video site, every audio site, they’re all about helping us introduce digital objects into shared space.

Many of these introducer sites also double up as experiencer sites: so you can watch the videos, hear the music and so on.

Every community site then becomes a way of sharing the experience of those objects: every review, every rating, every post, every link, every lifestream, all these are just ways of sharing our experiences, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without.

As more people get connected, and as the tools for sharing get better, and as the costs of sharing drop, we’re going to have the classic problems that we’ve already learnt about from the web in general. There are too many firehoses. It becomes hard to know what is out there, harder to find the right things. Errors, inaccuracies, even lies abound. (Digital objects are easy to modify).

So metadata becomes important. Preferably automated, so that authenticity is verifiable. Preferably low-cost and high-speed. Preferably indelibly associated with the digital object. Preferably easy to augment with tags and folksonomies and hashtags. Times, places, people. Names and descriptions. Devices involved, settings for those devices. History of views, listens, access, usage, editing. The edits themselves.

Authenticity becomes even more important. Watermarking the object while at the same time allowing copies of the object to be modified.

Search tools have to get better. I’ve been reading and re-reading Esther Dyson’s The Future of Internet Search for some time now, linking what she’s saying to what I’m thinking about here. Esther has been a friend and mentor for a long time; when she has something to say, I shut up and listen.

Visualisation tools also have to get better, which is why I spend time reading stuff like Information is Beautiful, why I visit feltron or manyeyes.

Sometimes many of these things happen in one place, elegantly and beautifully. That’s why I like Chris Wild’s Retroscope, why I like How To Be A Retronaut. It helps us place into context some of the things we share, some of the things we used to share.

Sometimes the tools for doing some of this move us into new dimensions, as in the case of layar and augmented reality, or for that matter AR spectacles. Noninvasive ways of overlaying information on to physical objects, ways that allow us to share the imaginary place more effectively.

As a young man, I was an incurable optimist. While time has tempered that optimism, my outlook on life continues to be positive, so positive that people sometimes claim I’m almost Utopian. Yet I still remember two quotations that were like kryptonite to the Superman of my optimism.

The first was Thoreau’s: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. And the second was Burke’s: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“.

There are many things we have to get better at, and many people working hard to make sure that, collectively, we get better at them. Feeding the world, eradicating poverty and the illnesses associated with poverty. Making sure every child has access to basic education. Improving healthcare, moving from cure to prevention, moving from symptom to root cause. Being better neighbours. Being better stewards of our environment.

I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally lonely; I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally depressed. And I have always wanted to do whatever I can to prevent these things from happening.

The tools we have today can help us eradicate loneliness and depression in ways that pharmacology can only dream of. Those tools can and will get better.

Of course there are things that come in the way, things we have to deal with first. Concepts like intellectual property rights have to be overhauled from the abominations they represent today, rebuilt from the ground up. Concepts like privacy and confidentiality have to be reformed to help us bring back community values that were eroded over the last 150 years or so. Human rights have to be reframed in a global context, the very concept of a nation re-interpreted, a whole new United Nations formed.

But while all that happens, we can help. By continuing to create ways that people remember the familiar shared imaginary places, by reminding ourselves what family means.

Family is not about blood alone, it is about covenant relationships. When something goes wrong in a covenant relationship, you don’t look for someone to blame, or even sue. You look for ways to fix it. Together.

Families don’t just share a past, they share a present. And a future. Social objects are, similarly, not just about the past, they’re about the present, they’re about the future.

We’re on the start of a whole new journey, and so we spend time learning about sharing by declaring past and present experiences. Soon we will get better at sharing intentions.

Soon we will get better at sharing imaginary places that are in the future, not in the past or present.

Soon. to paraphrase the prophet Joel,  our old men shall dream dreams, our young men shall see visions.

Hauling bits around

I’ve probably known Bob Frankston for far too long. Actually I don’t think that’s possible; along with Dan Bricklin, he has been a fantastic foil, sounding board and mentor over the years. My trips to Boston would not be the same without my meetings with the two of them.


This particular post, however, is heavily influenced by discussions I’ve had with Bob, who is the only man I know completely capable of interrupting himself, and doing so with panache and flair.

Of late I’ve been having some interesting experiences with Twitter, particularly in the context of being able to acquire things remotely and getting them sent to me.

First off, some weeks ago, I was trying to source a hard-to-get CD. I have this strange fondness for Canadian folk/rock, the consequence of growing up at a time (early 1970s) and a place (Calcutta) when Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and The Band were part of every respectable music listener’s staple diet.

With that sort of upbringing, when I read about a new star on the horizon, Taylor Mitchell, I planned to listen to her. After hearing a couple of songs on her MySpace site, I tried to buy her album, but it was not available online anywhere. Then I found out, only a few days later, that she’d died, in very tragic circumstances.[Please do consider contributing to her memorial fund, which you can do here.]


Now I was even more determined to acquire her CD and listen to it, my own way of paying homage to her undoubted talent. But I was in Windsor, UK and the only shops that sold it were in College St in Toronto. So I tweeted it. Were any of my Twitter friends in Toronto that day? Were they prepared to do me a big favour and sacrifice time and effort to get me the CD?

Yes. Unbelievable, but it happened. Someone I only knew via Twitter, a New York resident, was in Toronto that day, saw my tweet, went to the shop, bought the last copy. And managed to get it to someone else who worked 100 yards from me in London.

More recently, some weeks ago, I was thinking and praying about my godson Noah. I was going to see him just before Christmas, and I wanted to get him something special. I’d already spoken to his mother, and I knew that he was in a creative Lego mood. But which kit? And what could I do to make it memorable and different?

The answer came serendipitously. I was scheduled to have dinner with Cory Doctorow and his wife Alice, and I was idly catching up on his Boing Boing writings while waiting for them at Saf last week. [Excellent company, excellent restaurant]. And then I saw this:


So I read the story. And I knew I’d found the perfect present. But could I get it anywhere online? Nope. Only available bricks and mortar in Japan.

I tried for a few days, and then yesterday I tweeted my need. Anyone in Japan right now and likely to get back to the UK before 17th December and willing to acquire the Muji-LEGO mashup? Answer came there one. And wonderfully, magically, the present is now winging its way to me.

These are just instances. What really matters is the emerging business models. how people are innovating in this space. Over the last fortnight or so I’ve learnt about a couple of examples:

Lug-it, a cloud-based physical haulage system: “a P2P package delivery system on top of your extended social network”


SendSocial, which promises to let you “send anything, anywhere, without an address”.

logoWhich brings me all the way back to Bob Frankston and the reason for this post. Bob’s always drilled into my head the concept that the addresses and numbers we use should never be considered routing; instead, I should consider such things to be nothing more than hints, clues as to the best way to get something to someone. Reading about SendSocial reminded me about his dicta, with their focus on getting things from person to person without an address.

Similarly, seeing what the people at lug-it were doing also filled me with glee. There was something so tellingly small-world-experiment about it, something intrinsically valuable about social networks and their P2P characteristics.

So now I have cause to think. About what this means for social networks. About what this means for digital communications.

And I have cause to celebrate. About the beauty and simplicity of the ideas that are blossoming in this space. Lug-it, SendSocial, I hope you succeed.

Clay Shirky at the ICA

I went to see Clay Shirky speak at the ICA this afternoon, as part of a tour to launch the paperback version of Here Comes Everybody. And even though I’d heard him launch the hardback (at the RSA, around a year ago), I found what he had to say fresh and compelling.

Clay spent some time extending his “group action just got easier” theme. As a recent example, he took a look at Improv Everywhere and their No Pants Day; as ever, he kept reminding us of the possibilities afforded by group action. In his words “What happens if you take something that people are good at doing, that people like doing, and make it simpler and cheaper?’ “What happens when the medium of communication is global, ubiquitous, social and cheap?”

He then spent some time on the “social” third sector, distinguished from the revenue- and profit-driven private sector and the social-value-creation driven public sector. Comment was also made on the ability of small groups in such social contexts to protect themselves against freeloaders, in contrast to the tolerance shown to freeloaders by larger groups, ostensibly as a result of their inability to defend themselves.

The Gnarly Kitty example was also interesting, with its “in the public but not for the public” stance. Intriguingly, in this context, Clay averred that journalism had morphed from a profession to an activity.

The most interesting part of the debate was when he touched various aspects of Barack Obama’s campaign and early presidency. He walked us through the Will.I.Am video and its impact, particularly when one bears in mind the fact that the Obama campaign didn’t commission the video, pay for it in any way or even endorse it; yet it had a material effect on making people believe that the Obama presidency was actually possible, that it had moved into the bounds of reality.

There’s a lot more I could cover, but I will not be able to do it justice here; you’re better off reading others like Michael Mahemoff, who covered it well here. Better still, go buy the book. In the meantime, I’d like to spend some time on one particular aspect of the session. Clay talked to us about the way marijuana legalisation was voted as No 1 of all the issues facing Obama, as reported here.

He suggested that hen something like this happens, there are really three choices. To act on the suggestions as ranked, seems wrong, in effect letting the gamers win. To cherry-pick from the suggestions seems undemocratic. So we have to do something else, which is to fix the system. And this is hard.

Why is it hard? Well, for one thing, to make this happen properly, we need to fix the treatment of identity. We need to make sure that those who were entitled to vote did so. We need to make sure that those that were entitled to vote did so once and once only. And we need to make sure that the votes so cast are collated and counted fairly and accurately.

He made a really important point here. This issue of identity is not one that is held up by the unavailability of appropriate technology; rather, it is held up by adoption, which is a social and cultural thing.

I discussed with him the possibility of learning from online communities such as opensource, which are usually governed by some version of benevolent despotry: 1000lb gorilla, moderator, core, whatever. While we can learn from such communities, we need to remember that governments differ from such communities in some critical ways: for example, people can leave opensource communities if they don’t like what’s going on; or, where they like some aspect of the output but disagree with the direction, they can fork from them; this is not easily possible with government, there are physical constructs that don’t play out as easily as the virtual or digital aspects.

I left there musing about something which has exercised my mind before in this particular context. Voting alone does not seem enough.

I think the answer has to do with taxes. What I visualise is this:

Each of us is given the opportunity to “allocate” our taxes against the specific initiatives we would like them spent on. In effect each of us would choose from hundreds of initiatives and public expenditure heads, and allocate the tax we pay, in increments, across the initiatives we want to support. The withholding of tax against a specific heading becomes a form of protest. The allocation of tax monies towards a specific initiatives becomes a strong indicator of support.

There are some risks. Prima facie such a system would be biased towards the rich, if the actual sum of money was seen as a vote. To prevent this, each person has exactly 100 units of tax-vote. My tax-vote may be worth more or less than my next-door neighbour, but from a voting perspective it carries the same weight. A widow’s mite is the same as the billionaire’s largesse.

Another risk is in the likely imbalance between the allocation of funds and the usage of funds, as it were. When people withhold funds from initiatives they will definitely gain from, in effect “fractional freeloading.” One way to avoid this is to make everyone’s allocation visible.

Which in turn leads to an interesting question. As we proceed down this route, as we become more and more reliant on the internet to exercise our democratic rights, duties and powers, what price anonymity? Will a person’s vote stay secret? Should it?

One thing is clear. While there are many technological advances in the context of democratic action, there are still many issues to solve. Identity, confidentiality and privacy form one set. Freeloading and the Tragedy of the Commons forms a second set. These are not the only sets, but probably the most important. And they have to be seen in the context of social and cultural change, and not as technical or process barriers.

Of followers and followees and friends

Take a look at this study in the latest First Monday, on Twitter Under the Microscope. What it does is associate each Twitter user with three types of people: “followers” (people who “follow” the person), “followees” (people followed by the person, the declared friends) and “friends” (people who have received at least two @ messages from the person, the “hidden” friends).

Huberman et al come to a finding that’s not surprising: the driver of usage is a sparse and hidden network of connections underlying the “declared” set of friends and followers.

This by itself is not surprising: as the authors point out, every community, every social network, evinces a similar pattern. We send e-mail regularly to a very small portion of our address book; we call a very small portion of our mobile contacts; we reach out to a very small portion of our Facebook “friends”. This sort of behaviour is true even in other communities; for example, there are a number of opensource projects that behave similarly.

So why should Twitter be any different?

Let’s take a look at this diagram:

This would suggest that as the number of friends increases, there is apparently no loss in reciprocity. Yet, when you look at this diagram, there is a suggestion that the number of friends is constrained in Dunbar-like manner:

I’ve tended to believe that if anything, social software would help raise the Dunbar number. The studies above suggest this is not the case. But I’m still holding on to my hunch.

Why? Because I think we live in an age where there something wonderful happening, something that just has to affect the Dunbar number, something that is accentuated by social software.

Most people would agree that the development of language as a means of communication affected the Dunbar number, raised the Dunbar number.

Most people would agree that the evolution of language from oral to written cultures had a significant and positive effect on the number.

It is not difficult to make a case that there was further improvement when writing turned to printing (with an intermediate growth phase as scripts becames codices).

It is reasonable to suggest that when we got the world’s biggest copy machine (as Kevin Kelly called the internet) we would see another shift.

I think there is one more shift of significance. The ability to search and retrieve communications cheaply and quickly. Something that has just started happening.