Musing about lifestreams, subscribe-aggregation and publish-aggregation

For years I’ve been watching the way people aggregate and summarise what they do, and how they make such aggregations available to others. In the old days we used to call these chronological aggregations diaries, and we’ve had many famous diarists over the centuries.

Some part of me is deeply enmeshed in an oral tradition: as I’ve discussed earlier, maybe it’s the Calcutta in me, the extension of the adda. Addas are intimate yet open, oral yet visual, immediate yet part of a ritual. Which is why I considered the overlapping small circles that make up the blogosphere to be addas in their own right.

More recently, there have been some powerful developments in the chronological aggregation space. They appear to be driven by two factors: a re-entry of visual communications and associated traditions; and the emergence of ubiquitous mobile tools that could write back to the web, not just access it. Which is why people consider Web 2.0 to be about participative architectures.

These developments have created their own terminology. I think it may have been Jeremy Keith who first used the term “lifestream”; for sure he was the first person I saw using the term, sometime in 2006. Today lifestreaming looks like it’s going to be big business, all based around a multimedia chronological aggregation of things a person or group does.

The facebook news feed is in some respects nothing more than an aggregation of lifestreams, lifestreams belonging to your friends. Twitter brought a pub-sub feel and a brevity, a capillary compression, to the whole thing, and that spawned the FriendFeeds of this world.

Some years ago, Tantek Celik began using his Flickr account pretty much like another blog, and I began to appreciate what happens when photography meets the blogosphere. So I spoke about it to my then 14 year old son, who then pointed out that he’d been reading wonderful blogs like daily dose of imagery for some time by then.

Brittany Bohnet and Dave Morin revelled in using mobile devices to upload aspects of their lifestream into facebook, a trend accentuated if anything by the arrival of the iPhone. As Brittany’s example shows, many people preferred the tumblr approach to this aggregation, first brought to my attention by Kiyo:

Innovation is rife in this space, and it’s only going to get better. For example, take a look at this:

Yongfook is promising us something more with Sweetcron, worth watching out for. My thanks to Cindy Stanford, hci on Twitter, for bringing this to my attention.

There seems to be a sequence worth watching here. First we had RSS. Then we had first-order aggregators, but they were “subscribe” aggregators: one place where you could read many feeds you subscribed to. Now, as people publish in different contexts and media, we have “publish” aggregators, or at least that’s what a lifestream seems to be.

Subscribe aggregators are subscriber-centric. Publish aggregators are publisher-centric. Both types of aggregators, at least in their current form, are backward-looking.

I cannot help but feel that there is a VRM-related innovation to come. Both publish aggregators as well as subscribe aggregators will start dealing with intent, at which point we have digital butterfly markets. Doc, Sean, what do you think?

Then it gets really interesting. I can see so much potential for innovation once we have a meeting point for publish aggregators and subscribe aggregators, a platform that allows us to do that forward and back in time, true multimedia, true mobile.

Comments? Views?

Thinking about opensource and VRM

For many years I’ve been of the belief that:

  • when a problem is generic look to the opensource community for the solution
  • when a problem is specific to a vertical market look to the commercial community
  • when a problem is unique to your organisation look to your own developers

You don’t have to be legalistic about it, this is just a rule of thumb and, at least to my warped mind, represents common sense.

The way I’ve phrased it, I may give the impression that the opensource community is incapable of solving vertical market problems. That is not the case. “Generic” is in the eye of the beholder: if there is sufficient scale then the opensource community will respond. It is the scale rather than the vertical-market-ness that determines this response.

Take a look at OpenMRS: a community-developed, open-source, enterprise electronic medical record system framework. It is based on Java, Hibernate, Tomcat, MySQL and XML, and runs via a browser.

OpenMRS is not unique. As far as I can make out, the Collaborative Software Initiative, which I first heard of via Dana Blankenhorn, was founded precisely to build vertical market apps and stacks in environments where the scale was attractive.

It is now a frightening five years since we started talking about “the missing opensource projects“. It is over four years since R0ml Lefkowitz gave his seminal presentation at OSBC 2004. Opensource is gently moving up the stack; gently being the operative word.

I cannot help but think that there is a direct and important correlation between this movement of opensource up the stack and the mushrooming of VRM. The VRM movement needs leverage, and this leverage cannot come from the existing “vendor” community. Of course there are enlightened people within the vendor community, and it is not my intention to disparage them. But you can’t break wind against thunder and expect an equitable outcome.

There is hope yet. The opensource community is moving up the stack, from generic to large-scale vertical. The VRM movement is gathering pace and momentum. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the two “communities”, if you can call them that. There is a difference, though; opensource is in well-established technical execution, while VRM is still moving through the amorphous concept-wrangling stage.

For VRM to get to full-speed-ahead execution, something else needs to happen. And I think that something else is the “verticalisation” of opensource. The good news is that it’s begun to happen.


A sideways look at IT and IS strategy and VRM

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Umair Haque this past year. He makes me think. Take his latest post, Saving Strategy from the Strategists. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but the following excerpt shows where his head’s at:

Perhaps the meaning of competitive advantage, when all the games have been played and the gears of the economic machine have finally stopped moving, is this: privatize benefits and socialize costs.

That might have been sustainable in a disconnected, asset-heavy industrial economy. But it cannot hold in a hyperconnected edgeconomy. When all of us can trade ten billion times a day, if everyone’s simply trying to claim benefits from everyone else, while shifting costs and risks to everyone else, the result is economic implosion.

In an edgeconomy, chasing competitive advantage is like playing a game of economic musical chairs – one where you leave a grenade on your chair every time the music starts up again. Sooner or later, everyone gets blown up.

The problem is simple. As we’re finding out the hard way – yesterday’s approaches to strategy simply cannot power the economies or businesses of the 21st century.

So the question is: how do we save strategy?

Umair then goes on to make the following points while looking at how market participants, acting “strategically” can cause serious implosion:

  • Strategy isn’t arbitrage
  • Strategy isn’t dealmaking
  • Strategy isn’t an arms race
  • Strategy is about long-term “best interests” of all stakeholders

Now that’s a ridiculously short summary because I would prefer you to read the real thing rather than any attempt at summary from me.

But in the meantime. I started mulling over what would happen if I transplanted what he was saying to a different context, IS and IT strategy. And , in trying to paraphrase while transplanting, this is what I came up with:

1. IS/IT strategy isn’t arbitrage: Don’t build applications that do nothing but “capture value” from other existing applications in your environment. Those applications are embedded within existing people and processes. Organisational immune systems will therefore kick in and push back against the value migration. Instead, build applications that create demonstrable new value; “old value” will migrate of its own accord as adoption takes place.

2. IS/IT strategy isn’t dealmaking: We’ve spent decades insisting on trying to build applications that seek to share costs between business units. Like bad deals, what tends to happen is that the “shared” piece grows bigger and bigger, until it overbalances and crashes down under its own weight and volition. As Umair says, we have to concentrate on how our resources and competencies will fit together tomorrow, not just how to share costs today. We have to move the debate from “business unit” views to those of competencies and capabilities.

3. IS/IT strategy isn’t an arms race: We have to make architectural choices that lead to sustainable differences, not just cost leadership in a me-too environment. One could argue that the reason why we keep having dominant players in the IS/IT vendor world is because we insist on this me-too-ness. Nobody got fired for buying IBM. Nobody got fired for buying Microsoft. Nobody got fired for buying Google. Whatever. Nobody got fired full stop.

Which leads me on to VRM.

Too often enterprises walk down the “arms race” aisle, consummating Stockholm-syndrome marriages. That’s not sustainable any more, at the very least because we keep creating systemic risks and monoculture weaknesses across entire market sectors as a result.

If we want to create sustainable differences within a market sector, we’re going to need to work with other market participants, work more closely with other market participants. Sometimes, when I look at what tends to happen, the only analogy that comes to mind is this: Market participants are like people living in the same neighbourhood. The lock-in vendors of old are like burglars in the neighbourhood. And what we’ve been doing is, rather than creating neighbourhood watch schemes, we’ve been trying to negotiate individually and bilaterally with the burglars. With predictable results.

I’m sad not to be able to go to the VRM workshops taking place right now. If you want to participate vicariously, like I am, check out vrm08 at twitter. Better still, start with this article by Doc and this one by Adriana.

The Shaping of Things to Come

It’s been a long day, coming at the end of a long week, tiring yet ultimately very fulfilling. I wanted something to read, something very special and very specific. Whatever I chose, it needed to meet the following criteria:

  • escapist and lighthearted yet not superficial and empty of meaning
  • easy on the brain, not a taxing read, yet stimulating and challenging
  • physically in the form of a book yet in essence a web creation

So I thought for a while and decided to go with another read (probably my fourth) of Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, designed by Lorraine Wild.

I love the book, particularly the repeated theme that people and objects are deeply connected in successive technocultures. And I sat down to read it.

After a while I took a break, made myself a green tea and checked the web for messages. And then I thought to myself, it’s been a few years since the book’s been out, let me see what the reviews have been like.

And one of the places I went to was Amazon. Stuck somewhere deep down the page, I saw this:

It made me think, now that’s the shape of things to come.

You see, I’ve never liked the traditional direct marketing model, the idea of direct mail irks me. I cannot believe that people even consider operating models with such appallingly low hit rates. [In fact, in today’s day and age, I’m surprised that people don’t rise up and rebel at all the waste of paper and postage and time and attention involved in creating and strowing around the junk mail].

My irkedness dropped down a notch or two when Google came along; now, despite the fact that we’d somehow managed to pave the cowpaths, we’d migrated a crappy model, lock, stock and barrel into the new world, at least we’d done away with the waste of paper and ink and postage and the energy costs of physical delivery.

But I was still irked. I felt cheated that we lived with such abysmal click-through levels. Conversations about this with the inestimable Doc then led to my being taught the emergent basics of VRM “at the master’s feet”, as it were.

What do customers ultimately buy after viewing this item? 83% buy the item featured on this page.

That is, at least in part, what VRM is about. Letting customers review and recommend things and then connecting those reviews and recommendations to other customers who trust the reviewers and their recommendations. Making it easy for customers to share their intentions with others, to share their actions with others, to share their likes and their dislikes. Their way.

If we get VRM right, then 83% will be a low figure. Imagine the reduction of wastage that is implied in that statement.

Capillaries can carry compressed context

I’ve been playing around with FoxyTunes, installing it in Firefox, getting the TwittyTunes extension. And it’s not just because I like music. I think what’s happening here is very powerful.

Let’s start with Twitter, it looks harmless and gormless, what possible use could it have? After all, what can you do in 140 characters? Let’s see.

First off, I can send messages that look like the one below. I typed it in myself, it described what I was doing at the time.


What don’t I like about it? Well, it’s not good enough for the 21st century. For starters, I shouldn’t have to type it in. Something should be scraping what I am doing, capturing it in a way I can choose to share with others. Choose, we must remember that word. And what else? Oh yes, wouldn’t it be nice if I could enrich the information I was sending? Provide more information about the artist or group, maybe YouTube video links, maybe Wikipedia links, maybe Flickr links, maybe even the homepage of the band or group. How about a link to the song itself, so that someone else can sample it, try it out, decide for themselves if they like it? Maybe even a way to search for more information, and the tools to buy the CD or DVD in physical or digital format?

Chance would be a fine thing, but ….. how can I SMS all that? But wait a minute, the 140 character limit isn’t a real limit, not if I send a short url linking to all that. Or even better, having someone do that for me, a web service like tinyurl.

So now all I need is for someone to build an app that scrapes what I am listening to, figures out what it is, goes and collects the enrichments and conveniences I want to send with the information (band links, YouTube, Flickr, Google, Amazon, the Facebook fan page, maybe a Netvibes collection of related feeds, the Wikipedia entry and so on) and then packages all that into a small space using something like tinyurl.

Which brings me to TwittyTunes and FoxyTunes. Now my Twitter message looks like this:


It does the scraping, directly out of my iTunes. It lets me choose whether to share what I am listening to with others, song by song. It sends the message on to Twitter. But that’s not where the value is. For that, you, the “follower” of my tweet, need to click on the link, and hey presto, you get something that looks like this:


You see, this is why I play with things like Twitter. Not because I want to appear cool. But because I am so old and grey and slow that the best way I learn is by playing. Now I can really see how something like Twitter can add value in the enterprise. And I’m secure enough in myself to want to share what I find out, openly and freely. Which is what I’m doing here. [Without a business model or a monetisation plan in sight :-)]

It’s worth bearing a few things in mind. First there was the web. Then there was SMS. Without SMS there is no Twitter. Without the web there is no Twitter. Now we’ve had tinyurl for a long time, but it starts coming into its own when we start using something like Twitter. As a result of all this, someone else could build something like FoxyTunes (which looks like Netvibes meeting, and then building TwittyTunes to connect up with the Twitter world. And then suddenly everything else waltzes in to enrich what we can see and do, ranging from text to audio to video, from search and syndication and conversation to fulfilment.

What strikes me is the power manifest here, the power of connecting simple things like SMS and tinyurl and Twitter. Small pieces loosely joined, as David Weinberger said.

We are moving into a world where open multisided platforms will dominate, with simple standards and simple tools connecting up wide open spaces. We are seeing it happen now. This post is not about FoxyTunes. Or TwittyTunes. Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Google. Or Amazon. Or iTunes. Or Flickr. Or YouTube.

It’s about all of them. It’s about all of them, and the apps we don’t know about yet, the ones that will emerge tomorrow. How we can find ways of bringing all of them together and moving information around them, linking information between them, enriching and sharing that information beyond them.

By the way, we do stuff like this in the enterprise already. This is what we use e-mail and attachments for, this is why we use mailing lists and address books and spreadsheets and documents and presentations. All the things we’ve grown to love.

Or, in my case, hate. If you’re like me, you’ve had it with those tools. Absolutely had it. H.A.D. I.T. They are so not fit for purpose. Or. looking at it another way, there is a generation of tools out there that are so much more fit for purpose.

We’re not dealing with firehoses any more. We’re dealing with capillaries, as I discussed in my post yesterday. And these capillaries carry and distribute information nutrients, and process and eject information waste and toxins. The real power of all this lies in the increasing transportability of context.

Oh, incidentally, in the past, I’ve found the tools for grabbing screenshots frustratingly complex and time-consuming, so I’ve tended not to use them. It is fitting that this time around, I could do all this easily. Because of a project called Jing, and because I then had simple and seamless ways of going from Jing to Flickr to iPhoto to ecto to WordPress. And guess how I found out about Jing? Through someone’s tweet.

Also incidentally, it would be worth looking at the role played by the opensource movement in making sure we can move around so freely between all these applications. Which brings me to a strange conclusion. More a hypothesis. Am I right in considering the possibility that VRM is necessary only because everything is not opensource? That good opensource obviates the need for VRM? Doc? Don? Steve? Chris? Chris? Anyone out there?