“Whatever presses men together…”

The words of radical orator and writer John Thelwall, 1796:

“The fact is that the hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands, like all diseases not absolutely mortal, carries, in its own enormity, the seeds of a cure. Man is, by his very nature, social and communicative – proud to display the little knowledge he possesses, and eager, as opportunity presents, to encrease his store. Whatever presses men together, therefore, though it may generate some vices, is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty. Hence every large workshop and manufactory is is a sort of political society, which no act of parliament can silence, and no magistrate disperse.”

“Now, though every workshop cannot have a Socrates within the pale of its own society, nor even every manufacturing town a man of such wisdom, virtue and opportunities to instruct them, yet a sort of Socratic spirit will necessarily grow up, wherever large bodies of men assemble. Each brings, as it were, into the common bank his mite of information, and putting it to a sort of circulating usance, each contributor has the advantage of a large interest, without any diminution of capital.”

Rights of Nature, Against the Usurpations of Establishments.  A Series of Letters to the People, in Reply to the False Principles of Burke. Part the Second. London, 1796.

More follows.

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.


Flickr - Gary Jones - Uploaded on November 14, 2005

On holiday in Cornwall this summer we visited Polperro, a Cornish fishing village so archetypal that it featured in Ptolemy Dean’s BBC programme The Perfect Village. As the programme synopsis says:

On the surface, Polperro looks as if it hasn’t changed for centuries, but in fact it exemplifies a delicate balance between the tourist village of today and the fishing village of yesteryear. It could, without careful management, slide into being a fishing village cum heritage theme park – a victim of its own success and adaptability.

As we wandered down streets where every fisherman’s home was now a holiday let, I felt there was a lesson for social web and mobile services at risk of being overwhelmed by their own success as destinations. So I stuck the name “Polperro” in the title of a blog post and left it there to see how it got on. Until now.

When I first arrived on Twitter it felt small enough to be that fishing village – a fairly homogenous group of the people so that even the river of recent public updates felt like an intimate conversation between friends. How a service like Twitter copes with the inevitable influx of visitors if successful is a matter of debate.

So here’s my thought on the matter prompted by the whole Polperro experience: the ability of the service to absorb newcomers varies massively depending on what the service is for, and what attracts visitors to it.

From Blackpool to Ibiza to Myspace, there are some destinations that positively revel in the crowds (and conversely feel somewhat forlorn without a critical mass of people).

On the other hand there are others – Venice? Alton Towers? Flickr? – where the mass of people is an inconvenience, but the content so compelling that we’re willing to put up with the crush.

And then, the most fragile of all, 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?

Update 05/02/2009: Cait says it’s Not like it was in the old days.

Telco Too Point Oh

I had the privilege to take part in last week’s Telco 2.0TM Industry Brainstorm in London – an excellent and thought-provoking two days, and the programme for the next event looks just as enticing. It’s all now being written up on the obligatory Telco 2.0TM Blog. I hope I wasn’t one of the participants who gave the impression that advertiser inertia would be an excuse for operator indifference to new models. That’s certainly not true.

It’s great that some of the basic ideas around communities and context are becoming buzz words throughout our industry, but I find it disappointing that we can only talk about these by creating a false opposition against supposedly closed operators, totally uninterested in customers and their communities – the so-called “Telco 1.0” (guess no one’s claiming trademark rights over that one!)

Having worked indirectly and directly for ISPs and MNOs for nearly 10 years, I can safely say these have been hot topics inside the operators since the days of dial-up modems and monochrome mobiles. We’ve been rolling out high-bandwidth, always on networks and subsidising costly multimedia devices with just this stuff in mind. It’s nice to see the rest of the content ecosystem finally catching on ;)

One other feature of the conference attracted attention: every table had a couple of wifi-enabled laptops through which we could submit comments and questions on the session.

I have to say I found the technology-mediated version less interactive than the old-fashioned convention of putting up your hand to ask a question (is this consigned to the deeply unfashionable world of Conference 1.0?). It meant that instead of responding to unpredictable questions, speakers could skim through the questions and pick the ones they wanted to answer.

As Edward Tufte points out in his treatise against Powerpoint, innovations in presentation technology generally favour the speaker, not the audience. Someone in the conference world tell me there is a better way, please.