What are you doing? 10 years of continuous partial attention

Today, for me, marks a decade of 140 character updates, 10 years of paying continuous partial attention to hundreds of wonderful people around the world. So I downloaded my Twitter archive and munged it in an Excel pivot table. Here’s what I learned…

2006-2008: what are you doing?

2006 to 2008.png

Following just a handful of people, I first experienced Twitter as a text messaging service. SMS, remember that? Every message was an answer to a single, simple question: “What are you doing?”

Within a week I think I understood the archival potential…

And before the year was out, I had an inkling of Twitter’s fragility…

“the places whose main or only selling point is unspoiltness – places we go to witness or take part in something special, but just by being there we destroy whatever that quality was. The perfect village? The perfect bar? Twitter?” – blog post: Polperro

Along the way, I picked up on the emerging conventions of the platform…

My first @ message…

2009: a tipping point

2006 to 2016.png

My first proper use of a hashtag…

… and some reckons about what made this platform so compelling…

“Maybe it’s this merging of monologue and dialogue in one service that makes microblogging (or whatever you call it) so powerful a communications tool? One for those of us who, most of the time, are not very good at listening?” – Twitter: where monologues collide

Up to that point, I’d used Twitter to keep up with a particular group of remote friends and colleagues. In 2009, as I recall, the number of users in Leeds hit some kind of critical mass – it became a useful place for conversation about my home city.

In November that year, after a chance Twitter exchange, I lured the author Steven Johnson to Leeds to talk about a personal hero of mine, Joseph Priestley. It rained, and not that many people made it to the talk, but even so…

In fact, almost every fun thing I’ve been involved in since around that time, from Leeds Walkshops to the Global GovJam has been enabled and enriched by this platform…

2011-12: Re-de-centralisation

It’s far from perfect. Nervous of Twitter’s long-term future, quite a few of us tried to find more open alternatives. I managed 246 identi.ca updates before getting sucked back into the Twitter ecosystem. This single point of control in our communications infrastructure still makes me uneasy.

2012: Unfollowing all the brands and bots

“A few days ago I ran a critical index finger down my Twitter “friends” list, unfollowing a few dozen accounts that did not belong to real people… I’m delighted with the results: my Twitter feed suddenly feels so much more human.” – All brands must die (after a long and happy life)

Since then I’ve kept this rule. Sorry, brands and bots, if you have something interesting to say, I’m sure one of my real friends will pass it on.

In 2012, I left a well-paid, permanent job to freelance in the world of digital service design. I’m pretty sure those people, the people I follow, and who follow me back, made that possible.

Being myself, most of the time

Part of the privilege that comes with playing life on the lowest difficulty setting is being able to be myself on social media, without the need to compartmentalise or anonymise for fear of context collapse.  I’ve never felt the need to separate personal and professional identities or to create a closed account for family and friends. I am painfully aware that many others do not enjoy this freedom.

At the same time, Twitter’s liberal approach to multiple accounts and usernames has allowed me to play with the medium. I once spent a few months impersonating the revolutionary journalist Camille Desmoulins, mainly to improve my French language skills…

And I created a mute account so I could share my wonder at living in the future with someone who I knew would appreciate it: @my7yearoldself …

2016: Meet my awesome filter bubble

Over the years the number of people I follow has grown. There are just so many interesting people in the world. But analysing my tweets I found a core of about 30 people whose words I retweet time and again.

I made them into a list, and for the past few days I’ve been consulting this instead of checking my timeline. So far I’m liking the result. By sticking just to this list, I can have a sense of completion, without getting drawn into the endless duration of the infinite scroll.

There’s been a lot of talk over the past weeks and months about whether filter bubbles are a Bad Thing, the cause of mutual mistrust across seemingly unbridgeable divides. My take: everyone needs a filter bubble. How awful would life be without like-minded people to share and reinforce beliefs and interests? Twitter’s asymmetrical follower model and untampered timeline have afforded the possibility of curating my filter bubble in a more controlled and transparent way than other social media platforms. I hope they keep those features. The risk arises when we mistake that bubble for the whole world, with everyone outside it as the Other.

This is my personal filter bubble. Sometimes I need to step outside it, but it’s an awesome bubble to be in. Thank you all…

Many others, not on this list, have also contributed to making Twitter great for me – thank you too.

In fact, in 10 years of following fairly liberally, only twice have I unfollowed someone because their ragey tweets were polluting my timeline. Again, I am aware that others have far worse online experiences. Some of the people whose tweets I have most enjoyed are no longer on Twitter. That’s a terrible shame. The platform’s owners and users must work harder to make it a safe place.

Some facts and figures

  • 9188 tweets
  • 6871 with an @
  • 3247 retweets
  • 2661 replies
  • 2570 accounts mentioned
  • 2313 with a #
  • 1210 uses of the pronoun “I”
  • 93 accounts mentioned more than 20 times each
  • 23 clients and connected apps used to tweet

My tweets

Here’s a word cloud of my tweets – 2006-2016…

Screenshot 2016-11-18 21.15.17.png

… and finally the 14 times I tweeted just a single word…

  • Annotating
  • Walking
  • Docked
  • roflysst
  • Haircut!
  • CDG3
  • LBIA
  • Snow!
  • Asleep
  • Awake
  • Wrapped
  • Wrapping
  • North
  • Baclava!

The experiment continues.

800px-an_experiment_on_a_bird_in_an_air_pump_by_joseph_wright_of_derby_1768
An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768
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Real work only begins when we break out of our bubble

David Vetter's space suit - Wikimedia Commons

“Boy in the bubble” David Vetter passed his life in a sterile enclosure breathing purified air and touched only with plastic gloves. While his parents and doctors attempted to make his life as normal as possible, they lived in fear of the tiniest exposure to common impurities and infections. He died aged 12 in 1984, after a bone marrow transplant given in the hope of building up his immune system.

Most of us can be thankful that we don’t live with a severe combined immunodeficiency like David’s, a condition so rare that his life inspired a John Travolta movie.

Peggy Noonan later brought the image into political parlance when she spoke about Ronald Reagan’s isolation in the White House…

“Do you ever feel like the boy in the bubble?” Ms. Noonan asked.

“Who was that?” Mr. Reagan replied.

“The boy who had no immune system,” said his speech writer, “so he had to live in a plastic bubble where he could see everyone and they could see him, but there was something between him and the people, the plastic. He couldn’t touch them.”

“Well, no,” Mr. Reagan said.

Then he thought it over: “No, but there are times when you stand upstairs and look out at Pennsylvania Avenue and see the people there walking by. And if I wanted to run out and get a newspaper or magazine, or just to walk down to the park and back . . . you miss that, of course.”

— William Safire, ‘ON LANGUAGE; The Man in the Big White Jail’

In medicine and politics, we pity people with this condition. Why then do we so often go to work as if in a bubble ourselves, cut off from human contact with users and the people who deliver everyday service?

  • Days and weeks of work are put into consultation documents, leaving only a narrow window for citizen feedback on a limited range of pre-defined questions.
  • Executives employ management consultancies to spend months putting together process models and business cases unchecked by exposure to the realities up on the shop floor.
  • Some organisations become so afraid of their customers that unmediated face-to-face engagement with the public requires a risk assessment, as if it were primarily a health and safety issue.

Let’s call this mode of operation “bubble work”. Like failure demand it’s a major source of waste and poor service in our society.

Bubble work is a waste of our own time. We think we’re being clever, applying our past experience, creating a good framework for activity. But until our guesses meet the real world, that’s all they are, guesses – when we can so easily go and find out for sure.

Bubble work is a waste of other people’s time. Every time we create a “straw man” or a “starter for 10” we shuffle the burden of understanding onto other people, who are then obliged to unpick our web of assumptions before they can share their own realities.

Bubble work depresses quality. The more we elaborate and decompose our untested reckons, the more they crowd out the new ideas and innovation that we would discover from interacting with users and frontline workers. As designer Mike Laurie says, untested ideas are excess inventory.

Bubble work comes back to bite us. It can only ever defer the moment at which our cherished ideas meet the messy complexity of the real world. But the encounter is all the more painful when it comes. Not only are we more invested in the bubble work, we have less time to deal with the consequences.

I know all these things because over the years, I have lost months of valuable project time to bubble work. I have made complex multi-year business cases built on the tottering edifices of “expert” assumptions. I once worked on a project so super-sensitive that we were forbidden by lawyers from researching it with potential customers. Neither of those things worked out well.

We see this damaging pattern equally in the private and public sectors, and while it’s often a big organisation malaise, so-called “stealth start-ups” can easily fall victim to the same fallacies. The world is awash with bubble work, and it has to stop.

Here’s how…

Every time we’re tasked with a new mission, let’s start the clock. Let’s see how fast we can get to users. At Leeds GovJam every team achieved this within 24 hours. They surprised themselves by drawing up questions and making prototypes to get meaningful insights from people on the street – and came back with their ideas re-shaped by potential users.

While working even briefly in the bubble, let’s be single-minded about bursting it. We should stamp all our assumptions as such, and always be thinking of ways to test them with actual users. Every statement we write at this point is a hypothesis to be accompanied by the questions we’ll ask to check whether it’s true.

When we spot others doing bubble work, we must call them out. Let’s ask how they know what they know, when they last spoke to users, and what took them by surprise. If their answers are unconvincing, we should not be enablers. We should spend not a moment more of our days engaged with their assumptions.

Doing these things may feel like a risk. It may feel like we’re slowing things down, but the payoff later will be consistency of pace. It may feel like we’re undervaluing our experience, but the reward comes when we keep on learning and deepening our expertise in an ever-changing world.

We are not David Vetter; we are not Ronald Reagan. Getting out of the building has never been easier. It’s time for zero tolerance of bubble work.

Get out of the building

All brands must die (after a long and happy life)

A few days ago I ran a critical index finger down my Twitter “friends” list, unfollowing a few dozen accounts that did not belong to real people. I still wanted to hear from these unnatural persons, so I moved them into a list instead.

I’m delighted with the results: my Twitter feed suddenly feels so much more human.

Twitter timeline of humans

And it has set me wondering what it is about brands and corporations that leaves them apart from normal human discourse.

In ‘Life Inc’ Douglas Rushkoff reflects on the rise of the “corporate life form” in 17th Century Europe:

“Thanks to the distance and limited liability offered by the new corporate entity, the people enacting policies and making decisions were effectively removed from any personal connection to the repercussions of their actions. The less liable for and connected to their choices, the less responsibility they felt and culpability they incurred. Besides, corporations outlived any human individual or monarch anyway.”

Even the most successful human beings are fragile and finite. Brands, however, can just go on and on.

As if to prove the point, a large swathe of Britain’s fast-moving consumer goods sector are currently engaged in a Diamond Jubilee nostalgia-fest. They seem determined to remind us that while Elizabeth Windsor may have outlasted almost all the world’s other unelected heads of state, Marmite and Colgate are the true survivors from the era of Joseph Stalin and pea soup smog.

I have nothing against a sense of history but I find it both depressing and terrifying that the makers of Fox’s Biscuits and Fairy Liquid can go on recycling the Robert Opie Collection pretty much indefinitely.

So I offer any brand that wants to make it into my social media graph a simple bargain: I’ll let you into my conversations on human terms so long as you promise, one day, to die.

That day could be a long way off, but the more typically human the better. How about we enforce a maximum at the average life expectancy of people in the country of the brand’s birth?

Under my modest proposal, the recently updated top 10 global brands would look like this:

Brand Country (life expectancy at birth) Lifespan
Verizon USA (76 years) 2000 – 2076
Google USA (76 years) 1998 – 2074
China Mobile China (72 years) 1997 – 2069
Apple USA (72 years) 1976 – 2048
Microsoft USA (72 years) 1975 – 2047
McDonald’s USA (62 years) 1940 – 2002
IBM USA (59 years) 1924 – 1983
Marlboro USA (45 years – 14 years lost from heavy smoking) 1924 – 1969
Coca-Cola USA (48 years) 1886 – 1934
AT&T USA (48 years) 1885 – 1933

Pleasingly, half the list are in rude health with many years ahead of them. The others in my parallel universe rose to great heights then passed on with dignity, leaving room in the public realm for others to take their places.

I think we can all remember where we were when we heard that McDonald’s had died. A few days later President George Bush II made a garbled speech giving thanks for the many burgers. Ronald hung up his clown shoes. We mourned a million happy meals, and then we moved on, stopping at Burger King (1955-2024) on the way home.

If you’re one of those brands, please don’t take it personally. You were never a person anyway.

If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

More than 150 years ago John Ruskin imagined the experience of flight. Now, thanks to Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, we can begin to imagine the possibilities without it.

Robert Paterson provocatively suggests in Volcano & Air Travel – A Black Swan? What might happen:

At the moment we are all treating this event as a temporary inconvenience. But what if this is not temporary? The last time this volcano erupted in 1821 the eruptions lasted for months… So imagine European airspace being closed until September – possible? What then?

Robert has a list of sensible ideas about the impact on airlines, on shipping and other industries. Disruption for some of them could be serious and long-lasting.

But beyond the purely economic effects what could a sustained bar on air travel mean for our working and cultural lives? It might not all be doom and gloom. To see why, let’s revisit a concept proposed by Clay Shirky, most notably in his 2008 essay “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus“.

Continue reading If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

One & Other in a roundabout way

This is a photo of the screen of a computer, displaying a webcam that’s trained on a plinth. Not just any plinth, The Plinth.

On the webcam is a whiteboard that carries a message, a message that’s saying hello to my sons. They were very impressed.

Lorinda (who I’ve never met) wrote the message. Lorinda wrote messages she got on her phone, via a service called Thumbprint. Thumbprint is a dead simple way to say stuff about places and topics by text.

I texted the Plinth after seeing a tweet from Andrew at Blink who made Thumbprint with my friends at Common.

It was all over in a few totally unexpected minutes of a Saturday afternoon, so let’s play that again, in slow motion…

  • Tweet…
  • Text…
  • Thumbprint…
  • Text…
  • Plinth…
  • Pen…
  • Whiteboard…
  • Webcam…
  • Amazement.

Well done to all involved.

889QMSXPFVZ6

Ten years on, can we stop worrying now?

Ten years ago this month the Sunday Times published an article by Douglas Adams called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet”. You can read it here.

Some starting observations:

  1. It’s a tragedy that Adams died, aged 49, in 2001, depriving us of more great literature in the vein of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, of genuinely innovative new media projects such as H2G2, and of the witty, insightful commentary we find in the Sunday Times column.
  2. Adams’ insights have stood the test of time.  Everything he wrote at the end of the Nineties stands true as we near the start of the Tens.
  3. We still haven’t stopped worrying.

Adams from 1999:

… there’s the peculiar way in which certain BBC presenters and journalists (yes, Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you) pronounce internet addresses. It goes ‘wwwDOT … bbc DOT… co DOT… uk SLASH… today SLASH…’ etc., and carries the implication that they have no idea what any of this new-fangled stuff is about, but that you lot out there will probably know what it means.

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on…

2009: John Humphrys is still huffing and puffing [Update 3/9/09 – further proof provided!], and…

you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

The moral panic continues, now transferred to social networking and camera phones.

And Douglas Adams hit the nail of the head in his taking to task of the term “interactive”:

the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

The same fallacy persists, now transferred from the term “interactive” to “social“.

Ten years ago, Douglas Adams identifed a few problems.

  • “Only a minute proportion of the world’s population is so far connected” – this one’s well on the way to being fixed, as much by the spread of internet-capable mobile devices as by desktop or laptop PCs.
  • It was still “technology,” defined as “‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs.” – has the internet in 2009 reached the same level of  everyday acceptance as chairs? Almost, I think, though the legs still fall off with disappointing regularity.

The biggest problem, wrote Adams, is that “we are still the first generation of users, and for all that we may have invented the net, we still don’t really get it”. Invoking Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct (read this too, if you haven’t already), he argued that it would take the next generation of children born into the world of the web to become really fluent. And for me that’s been the most amazing part. Reflecting the other day on Tom Armitage’s augmented reality post to the Schulze and Webb blog, I realised that I see that development in my own children’s engagement with technology.

  • At birth a child may assume that anything is possible: a handheld projector holds no special amazement for my three-year-old.
  • Through childhood we are trained, with toys among other things, to limit our expectations about how objects should behave. My six-year-old, who has been trained by the Wii, waves other remote controls about in a vain attempt to use gestures.
  • My nine-year-old, more worldliwise, mocks him for it.

We arrive in the world Internet-enabled and AR-ready, it’s just that present-day technology beats it out of us. I work for the day when this is no longer the case.

Last words to Douglas Adams, as true today as in 1999:

Interactivity. Many-to-many communications. Pervasive networking. These are cumbersome new terms for elements in our lives so fundamental that, before we lost them, we didn’t even know to have names for them.

Update 3/9/09: Debate about Twitter on the Today programme, and Kevin Anderson takes up the theme.

Note to future historians: We know it doesn’t look good, but we weren’t really shallow time-wasters in the Noughties

Greetings from 2008! I’m really pleased you’ve picked the Early 21st Century Social History module this term. You’re going to love it.

But before you dive into the wealth of primary evidence we’ve left on the net, there’s something we need you to understand. We know it doesn’t look good, but we weren’t really shallow time-wasters. You see, the billions of pages of social networking archives through which you’re crawling don’t really tell the whole story. Before you condemn us as the idle generation who played Scrabulous while the icecaps melted, we’d like to put those texts into context.

Context #1. We were young. Your course notes may include some stats showing that lots of people in their 30s, 40s and beyond were signed up to the social networks. This is true, but the most active users remained in the under 25 bracket. They were finding their way in the world, and trying on new personalities. They lived for the moment and some learned the dangers the hard way.

Context #2. Even when we weren’t young, we were inexperienced. We’d only just taken the controls, like learning to drive a car. (OK, bad example. I guess you’ve seen one in a museum.) Looking back, our efforts will seem clumsy, lacking the nuances and vocabulary of other more-established communications media. With time we’ll get these things right, but you future historians probably look at our online efforts like we look at 1950s TV.

Context #3. Even when we were experienced, we weren’t serious. Surely this was the first (though by no means the last) medium to start with the trivial and scale up to the serious. It took decades for electronic communication to move as Andrew Odlyzko notes “from Samuel Morse’s solemn ‘What hath God wrought?’ to Alexander Graham Bell’s utilitarian ‘Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,’ to the banal ‘How was your lunch?’ that is so common today.” Now we’ve moved from pull to push: we upload photos of our lunch without even being asked. For many of us posting stuff online is more a time-killer than a communications tool.

So while you’re flicking through our old Myspace pages and Facebook groups, please believe us when we say: The rest of the time, we were really busy doing mature, skilled, serious things. It’s just that we didn’t document that stuff. You’ll have to take it on trust.