I think I misunderstood the nature of this event. When I read the title “Flexible morality of user engagement and user behaviour”, I thought it was referring to Guardian commenters. This, I thought, was the panel for me. As it turns out ‘users’ refers to all of us though, at least all of us who have been put under the observation of Dan Ariely.
Ariely is a behavioural economist who has gained a degree of renown for his theory that humans are much less rational than they believe themselves to be. The purpose of this talk was to convince the assembled audience that not only are we less rational, we’re less moral too.
Ariely bases this conclusion on experiments he has conducted on more than 25,000 people to find out what it would take to make them cheat. In conjunction with colleague Sarah Szalavitz, Ariely has performed a variety of tests, some involving non-functioning paper shredders, others the performing of religious sacraments, and across a variety of groups (Ariely and Szalavitz seem to do a lot of work with insurance companies, go figure). The occasion of this seminar was to reveal the results of a survey commissioned especially for SXSWi, and unfortunately for the festival it appears that while delegates would refrain from ripping off Twitter they’d be quite happy to rip off SXSW.
The SXSW survey was fun, but didn’t appear all that illuminating as to more general trends. I did however glean some of Ariely’s bigger picture ideas:
Most people cheat a little, but very few cheat a lot.
If offered the incentive to cheat most people will not jump at the chance immediately. Keep offering them the opportunity, however, and eventually they will do so. Ariely and Szalavitz call this the ‘What the hell effect’
Across a range of areas - school, law, sex, game, tech, work - men are more likely to be dishonest than women. If, however, a woman is dishonest in one area, she is more likely to be dishonest in ALL areas than a man.
Ariely and Szalavitz have no evidence to suggest that people are less likely to cheat an individual than they are to cheat an institution or company. The idea of ‘sticking it to the man’, says Ariely, is probably just a cover for our own selfishness.
And so, another session ended with a sense of disappointment. This time though it wasn’t at the quality of the event, but at the state of humankind. I hope I can take Ariely’s observations and help them to make myself a better person. Or maybe I’ll just rip them off and try to make some money.
Errol Morris found the subject of his new documentary Tabloid in the pages of the Boston Globe. To British eyes the Globe is one of those American broadsheets that sticks obdurately to high-minded journalistic principles> Principles that are a world away from those of our much scorned British tabloids. Here’s a question though. Don’t get me wrong, principles are great and all, but where was the Globe when it came to breaking the tale of the Manacled Mormon?
Tabloid retells the story of Joyce McKinney, a woman who gained notoriety in 1977 when she flew into England from the US and apparently abducted a young man (the Mormon in question) before absconding with him to Devon and tying him to a bed. There was sex involved, and what followed next was a classic tale of British tabloids falling over each other to get McKinney’s story and stitch up their rivals. The full details of the story can be found here and here.
There’s a nice twist in the final half hour when (Spoiler of event that was international news at the time alert) McKinney re-emerges into the media spotlight as the owner of the world’s first cloned puppy. It’s a bonkers passage that suddenly introduces a Korean geneticist to the roster of interviewees which, up until that point, had largely consisted of jaded British hacks..
The pooch passage provides an amusing end to a movie which really needed it. Much of the criticism of Tabloid has centred around whether Mackinnon’s story is actually strong enough in itself, or revealing enough of human nature in a broader sense, to justify spending 90 minutes talking about it. A parade of flashy cuts, and visual tricks (not to mention the frequent use of unusual archive footage, the stock in trade of British doco-provocateur Adam Curtis), don’t help to dispel that feeling.
A broader problem with the film, particularly in these days of polemical documentaries, is that it’s hard to get at what, if anything, Morris wants to say in Tabloid. I’d expected a coruscating attack on a trade without morals, but generally the Brits are treated respectfully. There are gags spun from their unusual language (Morris seems particularly tickled by the word ‘spreadeagled’) but generally the hacks come across as smart, if devious professionals. As for McKinney, it’s hard to take her seriously, but even if you think she’s guilty of the things she claims to be innocent of, it’s difficult to get that worked up about it.
Perhaps, rather than an expose of an industry or any individual, this movie was actually more interested in relaying to its audience a culture; that of the British. The fascination with the language, the deference to the raffish Daily Express columnist Tory, the gleeful reprinting of quaint English postcards, Morris seemed to find it all quite fascinating. To me, however, it seemed trite and familiar. That said, I do live in the middle of it.
Tabloid did at least teach me one thing however. All that the amusement at our obscure British words helps at least partially explain why half the people over here don’t understand a word I’m saying.
Never thought I’d see a kebab van in Texas.
A couple of notes to preface this entry: Firstly: I’m indebted to Jessica Hopper of Punk Planet, whose famous column “Emo: Where the girls aren’t” I’ve shamelessly plundered for this entry’s title Secondly: much greater minds than mine have written extensively on the subject of women in programming and I can only claim to be a mostly uninformed but interested observer. With that out of the way, let’s begin.
A great talk by Dave Haynes of Soundcloud and Matthew Ogle of Echonest got me thinking about the industry and its direction. The very first slide in this “Love, Music and APIs” talk proclaimed, rightly, that “Developers are crucial to the future of music”. I’d probably go for even stronger terms than ‘crucial’ and maybe say developers are the future of music, but it was their talk, not mine. Full marks for an interesting and inspirational talk which my colleague Robbie Clutton has already written about here.
What did get me thinking most of all though were a couple of slides which the guys projected. They featured some typical images from the music hackdays which produced some of the fantastic apps Robbie’s blog highlights: some geeky-looking guys lying on floors surrounded by pizza boxes, guys huddled over laptops coding into the night, guys packing out the Guardian’s very own Scott Room for tech demos, guys writing apps and designing interfaces.
Guys. I took a look around the room. The presenters? Two men. The people sitting around me? All men. Scanning around, I counted maybe half a dozen women in my immediate line of sight, in an audience probably in the three figure mark. While I’m sure there were more I missed, the ratio was certainly somewhere around the range of 10:1.
In the column I mentioned in my preface, music writer Jessica Hopper laments the proliferation of boy bands writing songs about unrequited love from faceless females and shedding tears over cruel she-devils neglecting their hearts. This was back in 2003 and hopefully the music scene has since made some progress towards an inclusive environment for artists. Certainly the pop music scene is currently dominated by strong, unusual female artists, apparently powerful within their spheres. Could it be that the developer scene is lagging behind?
Now, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t any female developers, and indeed, at least one slide in the presentation did feature a female hacker. But predominantly, the room and the slides were full of young white males with beards - and I say this as a young white male with a beard. Last I checked, women like music and computers too. Maybe the problems we’re trying to solve with the aging dinosaur that is the music industry should be put on hold until we can solve the problem of how half the population seems to be restricted from the boys’ club that is a hack day.
- Matt Andrews
Endnote: I’m fully prepared (and indeed, hoping) to be proven wrong by responses to this entry. I know plenty of female geeks and even a few who attend hack days. But the music scene in particular is still a strongly male-dominated arena, and I’m just now starting to wonder why we’re not as concerned about this as we should be.
For at least two years, my Twitter bio simply read “Shut up. You tweet too much”. While I may indeed be situated at the snarkier end of the web geek spectrum, it’s a motto I stand by. Twitter is a strong tool for communication and snappy messages, but with great power comes great responsibility. It was with this in mind that I made sure to sign up for the session on “overtweeting”.
The panel was a fairly random selection of people, including journalist Robin Raskin, marketers John Jantsch and Mark DiMassimo and host Rohit Bhargava of Ogilvy. Bhargava kicked off by thanking the fairly sparse crop of attendees for choosing to attend, quipping that they were “competing with sleep, not daylight saving time”.
It fell to Jantsch to define overtweeting: “it’s like swimming in jello - something that you do because everyone else is doing it, and if you lose your way, you keep doing it” - a silly but useful analogy. Raskin reiterated that it was an issue of the quality of tweets rather than the question of whether to tweet at all. Her top tip for raising what she called a future “digital citizen” was to avoid invading other people’s time. This is what I was getting at with my “You tweet too much” mantra. While I’ve probably fallen into the tweetspam trap over the course of SXSW, ordinarily I avoid attempting to ‘liveblog’ things and posting tweets every minute. This reminded me in turn of Dan Mall’s comments at Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design panel yesterday where he spoke of his need to see a curated Twitter to filter out the noise.
Raskin went on to talk about education. Teachers are known for blocking Facebook and Twitter from classes, but she claimed the best teachers are the ones who integrate them as tools rather than completely tar them as distractions. “Smart people of the future,” she said, “won’t be the ones memorising state capitals but the ones that can sift through tons of garbage to find the champ”.
DiMassimo’s contributions were somewhat erratic as he stood up to make his first contribution, namechecking his own company for just slightly too long. He also made a bizarre joke about his “late night interactions with technology” that drew a few laughs but felt a little out of place in what was turning into quite a warm, community-feeling talk. The talk itself had evolved into an open Q&A, with audience members coming to the mic to offer their own thoughts or ask questions.
I got up to rant towards the end, mentioning my belief that Twitter allows users (particularly westerners) to apathetically ‘involve’ themselves in distant conflicts (like the disputed Iranian elections) and give themselves a big, congratulatory pat on the back for their general goodwill. I’ve blogged on this at length on my personal site, which I’m shamelessly plugging here. This drew a few appreciative nods from the audience but the panel were pushed for time and moved on. Bah. I still felt pleased I’d “spoken” at SXSW, though.
There were no clear solutions from the panel, but host Bhargava asked the audience in the final 10 minutes to tweet using the hashtag #overtweeting to suggest a way of cutting down on the number of pointless tweets. The best was a response from an audience member ike6 who tweeted “Call your mother and read her all of your tweets from yesterday”. This drew quite a lot of laughs, but made quite a salient point too. Bhargava quoted Clay Shirkey to sum up: “We don’t have information overload problems, we have filter problems”.
- Matt Andrews
Web standards pioneer and general icon of the internet Jeffrey Zeldman was one of the first names on my must-see list when skimming through the conference listings. His session this year was titled ‘Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel’ and the big man began by explaining that the SXSW people demanded he add an adjective to the title, hence ‘Awesome’. With him on the panel was designer Dan Mall, Mandy Brown of Typekit and A List Apart, and Roger Black of, er, Roger Black Studio Inc.
We kicked off with a discussion on web platforms, perhaps the most widely-changing aspect of the web in the past 18 months. Zeldman began with a story about his efforts to check in to his upcoming flight to SXSW from a taxi cab in New York. He entered his details into his airline’s mobile app and clicked the ‘log in’ button, only to be taken to their desktop website which required Flash to log in, which inevitably, his iPhone didn’t support. How did this kind of user experience failure occur?
Dan Mall responded by making an interesting point: the choices we make dictate the context we see things in. Sounds obvious perhaps, but he suggested that we buy iPhones to see apps that look iPhone-like, or that we use Chrome (as opposed to Internet Explorer or Firefox) to see websites rendered in a particular fashion. Perhaps this only applies to more technical users who know the difference between Webkit and Gecko, but still noteworthy. Mall did add that when straddling the divide between user and developer, things became tricky to negotiate. Zeldman’s problem with his airline was aided by his understanding of why it failed - an average user would perhaps just feel frustrated that it didn’t work and may have continued to attempt to log in.
Moving on, the panel began to discuss publishing. The advent of plugins like Readability and a new product Roger Black is working on called TreeSaver allow readers to specify how they want to see content, and the advent of web standards means that content is generally separated from presentation, to the benefit of the reader. Zeldman made the point that the entire platform is for content, which makes it odd when some products are designed with the content being the last thing in mind.
The paywall quickly came up and the overwhelming ethos from the panel was “if you have exclusive great stuff, people will pay for it”. Dan Mall suggested that traditional publishers didn’t understand alternative modes of publishing and were attempting to price them at the same rate as their paper-and-ink versions. Mandy Brown joked that many publishers saw the iPad as their saviour, just like they did with the CD-ROM back in the 90s. She also made the point that despite its web-savvy audience, the A Book Apart project’s sales were 75% print.
Discussion turned to content curation - Dan Mall mentioned that he follows so many Twitter users that he almost requires a service to filter them for him; a human-powered content recommendation tool. This for me highlighted the need for journalism in the 21st century - while we could all get our news from Twitter or similar, the role that journalists and editors play in sifting through the noise is absolutely crucial and will always have a place in the way we consume information - no matter how clever Google’s algorithms get.
A question at the end returned to Zeldman’s airline issue and asked whether it was really the fault of the airline - was it Apple’s fault for not supporting Flash? Adobe’s fault for not producing a lightweight version of Flash? Zeldman’s fault for not just using their (working) mobile site? Zeldman responded that while all of those things can be cause for concern, the way to solve these issues is always to simply put the user first. Make the user happy and research their needs, expectations and frustrations and everything else will follow. A good conclusion to a great talk by an iconic figure.
- Matt Andrews
A packed out Ballroom D was the scene for 4chan founder Christopher “moot” Poole, and despite a twenty minute delay, he was warmly received by a mix of delegates, most of whom looked like they’d never browsed 4chan before. Indeed, I had to give a BBC staffer sitting next to me a brief summary of the site, and warned him not too look too closely.
When moot finally took to the stage he launched right into things, giving a basic overview of the site and lightly touching on some of its controversies (although no mention was made of the more, er, illegal material the site is infamous for). He broke out numbers fairly early too - 12 million hits per month, with /b/ (which he pronounced “slash bee slash”) accounting for half of them. By this point my BBC friend had loaded the site onto his iPad and I had to nudge him quietly and whisper “careful”.
Poole kept repeating the word ‘ephemeral’ in connection to 4chan, pointing out that the site’s random nature meant most posts fell off the popular sections “in seconds”. One particularly interesting point came up when he talked about 4chan’s anonymous nature - “the cost of failure is high when you contribute as yourself” he said, highlighting the idea of moving schools as a way to reinvent yourself - a concept an authenticated user cannot experience. He then contrasted this with the expose-everything-to-everyone poster boy Mark Zuckerberg, who apparently believes that anonymity is equivalent to cowardice. Poole suggested that instead it opened new avenues for users.
Discussion then turned to the topic of community management, highlighting the point when 4chan began enforcing captchas on all posts. He talked of receiving 500-odd emails complaining that it would kill the site, but then showed a series of slides featuring witty user submissions build jokes out of amusing captchas. This, he argued, demonstrated the creative and intelligent nature of 4chan posters, railing against the image of them as teenage boys with too much World of Warcraft and not enough sunlight.
Finally we moved to Poole’s new project, Canvas - it’s a collaborative drawing experiment modelled on things like Poole’s favourite internet pasttime, a Flash-powered fridge magnet game. He showed slides of some of the funnier images and talked about the decision to use Facebook Connect which initially seemed like a contradiction after 4chan’s anonymous-only system. He explained that this helped filter out 20% of the trolls and spammers from the start, which made things much easier when getting the community off the ground.
With the bulk of his talk now over, Poole directed attendees to http://canv.as/sxsw where people can sign up for the currently invite-only service. It was then time to open for questions, which were somewhat disrupted by half the attendees noisily making their way out as Poole answered. He claimed to be unable to give a direct number, but estimated that somewhere around 25% of 4chan’s traffic consisted of active users - an awe-inspiring statistic given the scale of the userbase.
It’s still interesting to me that the man indirectly responsible for the introduction of memes like lolcats can now appear as the presentable face of the internet, but perhaps that speaks for its ultimate playfulness and creativity. As I chatted to my BBC friend I suggested that despite Facebook’s overwhelming subsistence on user-generated content, it was all just timesinking without any creativity or value to it. For all 4chan’s anarchy and illegality, it seems that its net effect on the internet is a reminder that when we remove enforced identity and allow people to just create, the raw resources we produce are amongst our most interesting and exciting. Also, the game.
- Matt Andrews
A half-empty ballroom at the Hilton hotel was the venue for a discussion about the estimated 30m working Americans who can’t make their paycheques last to the end of the month. ‘The future of consumer lending’ paired a panel of entrepreneurs with chair, Paul Leonard, an advocate for responsible lending. The result was an hour that revealed shocking statistics about levels of personal debt amongst working Americans, if not a sense that a solution is around the corner.
Most interesting of the panelists was Douglas Merrill, a former CIO at Google and Rand Corporation staffer who is now in the business of providing small, ‘friendly’ loans to individuals through his start up ZestCash. His rhetoric about the social injustice endured by many of his clients - “My borrowers aren’t trying to buy flat screen tvs, they’re trying to eat” - was matched by standard issue Cupertino zeal regarding the power of data and, also, the efficacy of ‘clear’ markets.
Also on the panel were Ryan Gilbert of Billfloat - a company that pays bills directly for clients who then pay Billfloat back - and Dana Mauriello, the co-founder of ProFounder which is in the slightly different space of crowdsourcing funding for local, small businesses. Each displayed a degree of evangelicism about the work they were doing but weren’t shy of declaring that they were in their business for profit.
As for what was absent from the event, two things stood out: 1/ an idea of how much the application of data was really changing the nature of loans to high risk - ie broke - customers (Merrill has an algorithm that takes in 150 different criteria, but he wasn’t saying which); 2/ the sense that proper old school advocate Leonard, while happy to share a panel with the entrepreneurs, was willing to endorse any of them.
One of the coolest things about SXSW is bumping into random strangers and striking up interesting conversation. While grabbing a sandwich this morning I was joined by Jeremy Olson who shared my table. Jeremy introduced himself as an iPhone app developer and after a few minutes of back and forth about the relative merits of iPhone versus Android (I’m a Google man myself) Jeremy was showing me his newest version of his app, Grades.
The app itself was cool - enter your grades for your academic classes and tell it what your ideal final mark is and it’ll tell you the scores you need to get to reach that average. One of the counterpoints Jeremy made in response to my suggestion that Apple weren’t very developer friendly was that Apple emphasise a strong design consciousness in their third party apps, and Grades was no exception - it looked gorgeous. It’s aimed at students so it had a very visual look and feel, using a drawer metaphor with things flying around the screen to indicate where the user should look next - all very clever.
I was interested to know how Jeremy was monetising the app and he mentioned that although the app was paid ($1), he plans to introduce an ad-supported version where users can either pay $1 to buy the ad-free app, or ‘Like’ the app on Facebook for a month of ad-free usage. This latter idea was really cool and could be pretty huge with a college-age userbase. With the app featuring in some of Apple’s featured lists and magazine profiles, Jeremy has been pretty successful so far.
I mentioned my desire to build an app for the music webzine I run and asked Jeremy for tips. He gave me his formula for a quality app which was really interesting:
Great idea + exceptional design + make your own splash marketing
That last point was how Jeremy really built his audience. Apple’s interest in his app stemmed from some self-generated publicity solely originating from Twitter. This leveraging of social networks to build interest is really key and it looks like Jeremy’s incorporation of this in his freemium app is a really smart touch.
I almost felt a little sad that I’m not a student anymore and can’t try out the app myself, but it was cool to meet a random stranger who ended up teaching me some of the not-so-dark secrets of writing an awesome app. Viva la SXSW.
- Matt Andrews
Another particularly technical talk aimed at web developers and specification nerds curious to know when the much-publicised HTML 5 will ever be finalised, and what it means for the web. Chaired by Charles McCathieNeville of Opera, John Foliot of Stanford University and Paul Cotton from Microsoft Canada, this talk promised not to answer questions on how to use HTML5 on your own website, but instead the “thorny questions nobody wants to answer”.
An interesting point came up from Foliot relatively early on when he suggested that “if there’s no money to be made, people stop making stuff”. Elaborating, he claimed that one way to fix this issue in the context of HTML5 would be to implement DRM controls for rich media, a brave statement to make in a room full of (presumably) open source-friendly hackers. The point was well made though and Foliot’s suggestion that TV companies and others would shun the web if they had no way control their profits was valid.
Some debate came up on accessibility, and whether it should be part of the spec or a kind of afterthought - apparently there’s a schism in the HTML5 working group about this. A question from the floor raised issues with the title attribute and its misuse, and the panel said that the spec shouldn’t attempt to force conformance, but to educate developers instead. I quite like the idea of the working group being descriptive and not prescriptive, but realistically, they (along with any other group who attempt to police the web) lack the reach and authority to even begin to suggest how people should code. That could be a slightly depressing notion: the web evolves naturally and organically and attempts to regulate it tend to fail, but sometimes the way it evolves isn’t always the best way for it to work.
Paul Cotton of Microsoft provoked laughter when he quipped “We’d make more money if we could bury XP”, but a follow up question from an impassioned woman on the floor prompted spontaneous applause. She asked why Microsoft’s policy on removing IE6 was crippled by XP’s lack of support for anything newer, while other vendors like Opera still make their newest browsers available as far back as Windows 2000. Cotton wearily complained of “Microsoft bashing” but suggested the reasons were primarily business, not technical.
Finally Charles McCathieNeville joked by asking what the impact could be of “three old, white, fat bearded guys”, gesturing to himself and the panel. Perhaps the point that the web can’t really be regulated even by those responsible for its development sums up the challenges faced both by the spec writers and the developers implementing them.
- Matt Andrews