Tools which help us to live in the information streams

We’re living in streams or flows of information: think status updates, tweets, texting, rss-feeds… It’s an era of niche markets, of networks rather than destinations and what we need are tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content. That is what Danah Boyd eloquently explains on Educause Review. Danah is a social scientist at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

I liked her Educause article Streams of Content, Limited Attention: The Flow of Information through Social Media because of the ‘streams’ and ‘flow’ metaphors which in my opinion are very appropriate to describe today’s social media experience.

She deals with the issues of democratization, stimulation, homophily and power in a lucid way, not only talking about how awesome social media are but explaining the awkward and even threatening issues as well.

I’m especially interested in how we can create tools to provide context and meaning. Danah says:

We need technological innovations. For example, we need tools that allow people to more easily contextualize relevant content regardless of where they are and what they are doing, and we need tools that allow people to slice and dice content so as to not reach information overload. This is not simply about aggregating or curating content to create personalized destination sites. Frankly, I don’t think this will work. Instead, the tools that consumers need are those that allow them to get in flow, that allow them to live inside information structures wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. They need tools that allow them to easily grab what they want and to stay peripherally aware without feeling overwhelmed.

This is rather abstract, which is good, because one needs a bit of higher level reasoning to see the structural issues at stake. However, I wonder what kind of tools Danah would suggest here. Google’s Living Stories are somehow a way to provide flexible context to breaking news, but I guess we should innovate more in order to help contextualizing things wherever people are or whatever they are doing.

The other major topic is that of the business models new media will use. Danah offers some high-level ideas, but leaves it to us  to propose concrete solutions:

Figuring out how to monetize sociality is a problem, and it’s not one that’s new to the Internet. Think about how we monetize sociality in physical spaces. The most common model involves second-order consumption of calories. Venues provide a space for social interaction to occur, and we are expected to consume to pay rent. Restaurants, bars, cafes—they all survive on this model. But we have yet to find the digital equivalent of alcohol.

I think virtual environments and augmented reality are interesting cases in this context. Virtual worlds are somehow islands in the information streams, inciting people to pay attention for a longer time, to immerse themselves. But at the same time those worlds are internally characterized by streams: for instance by the flows of group text chats and individual chats.

Augmented reality can put layers of context on the physical reality – layers which can consist out of more or less static information such as Wikipedia entries or out of streams like nearby tweets. Of course, augmented reality, virtual worlds and the physical reality can be combined in all sorts of interesting ways.

Or can they? As Danah remarks, the social media tools often are clunky. It takes learning curves to master them, and a geeky attitude. It’s not that very enjoyable to stare though your smartphone camera in order to see often clumsy little texts or virtual objects. Often the tools are the creations of computer scientists and engineers who’ve forgotten how ignorant, clumsy and resistant to change most people are, and it seems they’re not interested in providing tools which are fast, fun and easy to use. The Living Stories are a nice example: it’s a fascinating Google project, which was stopped and is now as an open source project available for others to develop – but it’s not beautiful, it does not seduce the common social media consumer (same story applies for Google Wave – made by software engineers for software engineers). Compare this to Apple (and let the engineers and true geeks howl): it’s slick, it’s beautiful, and all of a sudden the ubiquitous internet goes mainstream.

I’m convinced augmented reality and virtual environments will be important in helping us live in the streams – but we’ll need tools and objects which make us feel happy and which seduce us: fast, fun, easy and beautiful tools.

Those unstable populations of virtual environments and cities…

It is said that in a few decades time 80 percent of world population will live in cities. Those cities will depend on a superstructure of networked technology in order to provide food, water, energy and communication. The Impakt Festival 2010 Matrix City in Utrecht, the Netherlands, will discuss

(…) both the growing dependency of urban societies on their technological superstructures as well as the phenomena of massive online virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre. This connects to the physicality of real-urbanism that loses its own purpose and function without networked technology, and to virtual environments that are losing their purpose without the physicality of human presence.

Interesting thought, “virtual environments with their unstable population and continuous reformulation of their own raison d’etre.” The organizers continue:

Virtual flight depicts the slow movement from the autonomous exclusive realm of virtual worlds, toward something that is more connected to real world physicality. During the last 5 years, we witness a stagnation in the development of virtual worlds. World of Warcraft with its “hack and slash” concept still dominates online worlds, while Second Life remains lost in defining the purpose for its own existence. This stagnation shows how technological, virtual platforms are dependent on a meaningful raison d’etre for individual participation, and that the massive euphoria around virtual online worlds from the mid 2000s ended in ontological dead-end, mostly because it didn’t take into account the complexities of social laws. More and more examples point currently to fusions between virtual environments and “real” social events, where the virtual framework is mirroring offline realities.

The conference about Superstructural Dependencies takes place on Friday October 15.

I won’t be able to attend but the ideas expressed in the announcement are fascinating. Augmented reality, location-based networks and games, alternate reality games (very interesting Wikipedia entry!) are ways to mix virtual and physical realities. All those genres can be ‘for entertainment only’, and/or have commercial, educational and transformative purposes.

(hat tip to Bruce Sterling who mentions this event on Beyond the Beyond and comments on it).

Stay hungry, stay foolish

I am thinking back to the students I met at a journalism seminar. What does one basically want to tell graduate students that goes beyond techniques and some insights in where journalism and media might be going? Something more about values and attitudes?

I found this famous Stanford University video on the EconoShock blog of the Belgian economist Geert Noels. The video features Steve Jobs, connecting the dots of his life. The video should be ‘required watching’ for all our graduates – and for all our dropouts. The final words, ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’, echo the final words of the Whole Earth Catalog:

Gaming in the cloud is great news for immersive journalism

I love playing Pocket Legends from Spacetime Studios on my iPad (my avatar is the courageous but clumsy Wilbear). The game has all the characteristics of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft: quests, group action, contests between players and player groups etc. It’s pretty good graphically speaking, but don’t expect the actual World of Warcraft graphical wizardry.


But then again, this game may get some competition very soon, maybe from World of Warcraft itself and from even more high-end games. Dusan Writer mentions the Gaikai cloud service which may do just that: enabling players to immerse themselves in pc- and console games right in their browsers. Which also means enabling the game companies to reach potential customers without awkward downloads or distributing physical stuff: one click on almost any device as long as there’s a decent broadband connection.  Yay for cloud computing!


Now, this is a real revolution for the gaming industry. Giving players and potential players direct and effortless access to the games also helps the game developers and designers to instantly analyze how people react to the games. Of course, it’s bad news for those living from the physical distribution of games – even though it may take some time before that distribution will be extinct (we’ve the same conversations about print news media of course).

Talking about news media: this development would eliminate yet another hurdle for using immersive journalism techniques. Now we had examples of immersive journalism in Second Life such as this project about the Guantanamo detention center:

Another immersive project by Nonny de la Peña, Cap&Trade:

Other possibilities for journalism include talk shows with a virtual audience, inviting people who would be difficult to get (or rather expensive) in the physical world (Metanomics is a nice example, they’ll have Noam Chomsky on October 12). Or you could simply convene a meeting with community members for an open-ended discussion, more immersive than when using a traditional text chat (have a look at the We Are the Network meetings in Second Life, but there are many other examples).

The problem: not many members of my newspaper community for instance are ready to download the Second Life client, and those willing to do so could run into problems because their computers are relatively low-end or because they are behind some corporate firewall. All those problems could be solved if projects such as Gaikai really succeed in bringing Second Life, OpenSim, Blue Mars (working with another company, Otoy) on any device, anytime and anywhere (always assuming there is decent broadband!). There is also OnLive – which is already up and running in the contiguous US – but which seems to need a limited download (which can be too much asked for office environments).

Once virtual environments are accessible in one click the mainstream audience could unlock easily the possibilities for immersive journalism and immersive storytelling. It will give journalists and storytellers new possibilities to interact with their communities and will make methodologies used in software development even more relevant so as to keep up with news stories and the requirements of the community. This in turn could inspire citizen-journalists or non-professional storytellers to go deeper and create content themselves, knowing that there is a big and relevant community out there to explore their work.

Message to journalism institutes: this makes ‘serious gaming’ and virtual environments even more relevant for your student-journalists. Help them to explore content, network and business opportunities of this development!

A practical guide by Howard Rheingold for curating information into knowledge

Just found this new screencast by Howard Rheingold about finding, refining, organizing and curating information. It’s really about the basics of the social media ecosystem, while augmented reality and immersive environments can be considered the high-end part of it.

New for me (I’ll have to add it in my Prezi-presentation) were DEVONthink (for organizing information beyond Diigo and Delicious) and Scrivener (for writing, combining and manipulating your documents into new texts, it’s a Mac-tool).

Rosedale about applying the principles of LoveMachine Inc in media companies

Philip Rosedale at the SLCC 2010, picture by Elisabeth Leysen

A few weeks ago I started exploring  liquidnews, an open project for collaborative media.  It reminded me of projects in Second Life, where developers at Linden Lab use the Scrum methodology for their viewer project (Snowstorm), publishing the documentation and getting comments from the community for the project.

The Second Life community also has a tradition of community conventions (SLCC), which are organized by residents of the virtual world, independently from Linden Lab (even though Linden Lab is a major sponsor and has key people deliver keynotes). Those gatherings are very inspiring and also give the residents the opportunity to question Linden Lab policies.

I asked the founder and CEO of Linden Lab, Philip Rosedale, for an interview. This was before Linden Lab made an announcement which shocked the education and non-profit community in Second Life: basically the end of the discount pricing for those organizations. So I’ll have to disappoint those involved: the interview was strictly about the application of Agile, Scrum and more radical versions of these philosophies in media projects. I discovered that ‘radical version’ of an open company while studying LoveMachine Inc, another company Philip started.

Even though MixedRealities is not a “Second Life blog”, I do have my virtual office there and up to this day Second Life is a major source of inspiration for my social media practice at my newspaper. So I attended today a gathering of non-profit and education people at Rockcliffe University, an online non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of education and science in 3d virtual environments. About 70 avatars discussed the new pricing policies. There will be a meeting with a representative of Linden Lab, organizations start looking for closer collaboration and/or study possibilities to move away from Second Life and establish themselves on for instance OpenSim grids.

There are lots of complaints about the communication by Linden Lab. Educators and non-profits are among the most interesting content creators in Second Life, but they don’t know what the strategy of Linden Lab is. Yes, the new thinking of “fast, easy and fun” has been discussed at the community convention, but educators were taken by surprise when it was announced there that the Teen Grid (Second Life for teens) would be stopped. They were also shocked when Linden Lab announced lay-offs and a reorganization, but then again, Linden Lab is a private company.

The whole situation is once again very interesting for all those who have a broader interest in social media. The content of Second Life is produced by the users/residents, using the platform and tools provided by Linden Lab. Does this mean that the residents should be treated as citizens rather than as customers of a private company? Is Linden Lab just a company, or also a kind of government? Should the residents have a right to be represented in the board of directors?

These are fascinating questions, and many others could be added (like about the relationship of Second Life with the open source universe of OpenSim). But, as I said, the interview was not about Linden Lab or Second Life as such, but about the organization of media start-ups.

Philip Rosedale told me that at Linden Lab he is not applying the same principles as at the LoveMachine. I also should mention that the LoveMachine is not a virtual world, it is a company building a crowdsourced review and bonus system (among other projects). It is a start-up and as such can experiment more than a more established company. Even though the interview is not about the transformation at Linden Lab, it was interesting to learn about Rosedale’s vision on a new model for start-ups, allowing them to survive and outsmart established companies.

Read the interview and the context on my blog at PBS MediaShift: Linden Lab’s Rosedale Considers ‘Scrum’ Method in Newsrooms.

In the face of adversity, collaborate even more (and even smarter)

It was quite an evening, during which I tried to do some multitasking and so doing got some weird connections between ideas I’m working on.

  • I was attending the Metanomics show in Second Life, where professor Robert Bloomfield provided an overview of how economies are not dissimilar to game mechanics, and gave his take on what this means to the future of research (more about this in a later post).
  • While attending the show, I noticed there was dismay among members of the educational community. Not because of what Bloomfield was saying, but because of an announcement on the official Second Life blog, which seems to indicate that prices for many non-profits and educational projects will go up (currently such projects get discounts). Also have a look at the comments on the official blog post.
  • The New York Times via ReadWriteWeb quotes research by KZero, saying that the number of virtual world users breaks 1 billion, roughly half under age 15. In fact, it’s about registrations, not necessarily about active users, but still it’s an impressive number. The second largest group is 15 to 25 year olds, which increased by 15 million to hit 288 million accounts.
  • I was also reading Gamasutra (the art & business of making games) where Matt Christian posted an introduction to Agile and Scrum development. Scrum is an iterative, incremental methodology for project management often seen in agile software development, as explains Wikipedia. Christian explains how “Scrum creates a bottleneck (in a good way!) between management and the development team in order to keep the development team focused on the current piece of work.”
  • Finally, Robert Hernandez at the Online Journalism Review has a post about how to use geolocation paired up with augmented reality in journalism. He is working on media projects using tools such as Whrrl and stickybits.

So on the one hand there is this challenge of new generations of people familiar with games and virtual environments, there is this whole revolution of ubiquitous mobile computing power which gives us stuff like geo-locational services combined with social networks and games and augmented reality, on the other hand there is an educational system struggling for decent financing at a time of financial crisis.

Gaming and especially massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) are very interesting for research but also for studying how virtual communities work. Those ‘virtual’ communities tend to become very real, as companies outsource and collaborate with each other over the whole planet, meaning that people have to communicate and get on speaking terms disregarding geographical and cultural distances. Either people entering the workforce will be familiar with these environments, or they will suffer the consequences as they have to face the consequences of globalization without being able to use new media and virtual communities in a way which benefits them personally.

There are many educators and non-profit people (and also for profit people by the way) trying to spread the word, to convince older people to take these things seriously, to guide the young in their experiences of gaming, virtual worlds and augmented reality. There are many obstacles, as the new forces are disruptive and people often react in shock and denial. There is also a lack of proven business models for the most innovative projects (yay for augmented reality, but then again, even in the West only a minority has sophisticated smartphones and decent mobile broadband connections).

So traditionally educators, non-profits and people wanting to experiment ask for discounts and free rides. Sometimes companies will accept this because the hope it will ultimately be beneficial to the company, sometimes they won’t accept it because finally they are private companies and have shareholders who want a decent return on investment and don’t want to wait too long for that to happen.

All of which means that even more clever project management and collaboration is needed. Maybe more things can be done in Second Life, if we collaborate even more. Or maybe the technological challenges of open source projects such as OpenSim can be dealt with because the challenges can be tackled easily in collaboration with others.

Social media such as wikis, forums, virtual meeting places, blogs etc combined with open source, open transparent development projects and clever methodologies such as Scrum empower small nimble groups to innovate faster than established companies. Most importantly, in trying to do so and in self-educating ourselves through the achievements and inevitable failures, we’ll be better prepared to live in a globalized economy.

Metanomics innovates once again, adds meet-ups, gets celebrity-guests

The Second Life show Metanomics is about to start a new season, and is innovating once again. In fact, Metanomics would be a great research topic for communication and media students, as it demonstrates key principles of new media.

Metanomics is owned and operated by Remedy Communications which also owns the blog Dusan Writer’s Metaverse.

Dusan Writer, in “real life” Doug Thompson and owner of Remedy, explains on his blog: “Metanomics provides insight into the changes in governance, economics, policy, enterprise, education and the nature of work facilitated by newer technologies. Guests have included authors, researchers, technologists, professionals, theorists and government policy makers and recently celebrated 100 episodes.”

In fact, Metanomics does many things. It is a gathering in Second Life, where people backchat while the host, professor Robert Bloomfield,  interviews the guests and takes up questions from the backchat. Treet.tv video streams the show on the Metanomics website, where the episodes are also archived. People who cannot join ‘in-world’ can participate in the backchat from the site.

This season another element will be added: a series of local meet-ups timed to show days. The first live meet-up will be held at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The audience will watch and participate in a Metanomics broadcast followed by discussion and networking.

Metanomics is a great example of how to immerse a global audience in an intellectual show, using web chat, virtual chat, video, blog texts providing context, transcripts, virtual community meetings and now also interaction in the physical world.

Join us at 12pm PST on October 4th at 12:00 p.m. PST/SLT in-world, when the usual host, professor Bloomfield, will this time be the guest and talk about Real World Lessons from Virtual Worlds, a subject which interests me, being a financial journalist, a lot: “Can virtual worlds provide insight into economic behavior? Does playing a game equate with how we interact in the physical world? What would a system look like that would let us test assumptions about how governments, companies and individuals act?”

I also have a background in philosophy, so I’m equally exited about the show on October 12th, featuring professor Noam Chomsky. Professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy.

MMORPGs show us the future of media

Tomorrow I have the opportunity to facilitate a seminar for journalism students. Preparing the seminar I was surprised how strongly virtual worlds and gaming influence me. No, I don’t believe people will routinely watch and read the news in a World of Warcraft setting, dressed up as Orcs or Trolls. But yes, there is a more subtle but very fundamental influence with implications for the whole media ecosystem.

First I’ll talk about social media. I think it’s still useful to explain the social media ecosystem, mentioning immersive environments/virtual worlds as a way to organize small groups of very interested people, in order to get inspiration and feedback. Blogs, forums and chats are no marginal activities in a newsroom – they’re rapidly becoming core business.

This understanding of social media is just a first step towards gaining insights regarding the major changes taking place in the media. The second part of my presentation will be about the future of media, which sounds rather cliché, but then again, the participants in the seminar are that future.

In a MindMeister map I focus on two compelling aspects which hopefully point out the major change vectors: the social dimension and the real-time interaction. Both aspects lead to engagement of the people formerly known as the audience and thus to the relevance of the media operation.

It really does help to have even a minimal gaming experience. I used to play World of Warcraft for a while and these days I’m getting addicted to a very nice MMO on the iPad: Pocket Legends. The social interaction on forums, blogs and Facebook pages is fun, but what is really exhilirating is participating in a raid, fighting monsters in small groups.

What one experiences is the mental state of flow. Applications of this principle, even for serious news media, are obvious: just compare the action during a chat session with asynchronous commenting, or observe what happens when a comment has to be approved by moderators before it can appear (however, I am strongly in favor of real-time curation and moderation).

In the concept map I try to point out many other similarities between massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGS) and developments in the news media. This has important consequences for the business model and the management style of news media companies. Agile and Scrum suddenly become relevant for newsrooms. Openness of the development and of news production and curating process become crucial. Fast iteration of tools and design elements will become the norm. Theories about ‘the end of management (as we know it)’ become applicable (media more becoming like movie production, with teams which may get together and disband in function of projects and personal interests).

An example of this: the Liquid News project.
Other examples: have a look at crowdSPRING for design services or eLancer which also includes news-writing (thank you Dusan Writer for mentioning those services in an email-conversation). I don’t think my message for the students will be a pessimistic one. Maybe it will get harder to find a job at big mainstream media companies, but the media ecosystem is expanding. What is needed is an understanding of the many different components of that landscape and entrepreneurial talent.

The MindMeister map is a wiki-map, so feel free to add stuff.

Installation, performances, group about identities in SL about to be launched

Identity is a fascinating subject, in some complicated ways it also determines the attraction and/or rejection people feel for virtual environments. The idea of being mediated by an avatar, who shares many characteristics of your real life persona, but who also is different, confronts people with the fact that their identity is not some homogeneous, simple and unchanging substance which can be easily described.

On Saturday 2 October and continuing through October there will be performances about this subject in Second Life.

The Caerleon Museum of Identity is the latest in the series of collaborative installations by the Caerleon Artists Coalition, a project of the Virtual Art Initiative. The show opens Saturday, 2 October at 12:00 PM (noon) PDT/SLT on the Caerleon Isle sim, with entertainment beginning at 1:00.

The Caerleon group was established by Georg Janick (Dr. Gary Zabel of the University of Massachusetts, Boston) and consists of artists, writers, musicians, and scholars who are using the immersive and interactive digital media to develop new forms of artistic content.

The Creative Identity group in Second Life will continue the discussions beyond the show and invites others to join.

“Georg Janick’s six Theses on the Art of Virtual Worlds are the framework for the series of collaborations on the Caerleon sims. In addition to major builds on each of the six theses, there have been numerous theme collaborations on various topics, including consumerism, imprisonment, surrealism, and masks, as well as limited resource challenges like the one-prim and limited texture shows.

The Caerleon Museum of Identity is an interpretation by the collaborative team of Georg’s fourth thesis: the Ambiguity of Identity. It states in part, “…digital bodies, and the names that uniquely identify them, can be altered, multiplied, discarded, or exchanged at the will of the user. Since bodily presence is open to such radical discontinuity, the identity of the virtual person is protean and ambiguous, including indicators of age, gender, race, and even biological species.”

The project has been in development for over a year. Weekly discussions about the project inevitably centered around the subject of identity and how people in virtual worlds both express themselves and interact with others. This is a subject of tremendous interest to many in SL, and some of the team members have formed the open Creative Identity group to continue talking about issues, especially as they relate to creative work.

In this context have a look at this machinima by BotGirl Questi:

Or this machinima by Ian Pahute: