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Idea IS the format

The occasional downtime of Daniel W. E. Light
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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

another Jumper widget. not one of ours either!

but cool anyway :) very interested to see this movie.

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Makin' pants

Another night of less than five hours sleep. Normally I can take one or two in my stride, but it feels like I've been doing them back to back for at least a couple of weeks, and it's definitely starting to take its toll.

The rididulous thing is, it's not even because of Ruby. She sleeps WAAAAAY better than I do; she's sleeping as well as you could hope for a newborn. The problem is fitting in all the other stuff. As well as working through a full roster of existing work we're pitching for multiple campaigns through Q1 and Q2 '08.

Now's the time to get the work in, if you want a nice busy summer. You can't just sit around until spring has sprung before you start asking after the tentpoles, not any more. Not when a stand-out online campaign needs to run for 2-3 months, rather than the traditional 2-3 weeks.

On top of the work, I've got a wife, two kids, a garden and a blog to look after. Or thereabouts. The reality is that Ems pretty much looks after me; she was back on her feet within about 15 minutes of Ruby's arrival, but that's just the way she's made. Lola is increasingly learning to look after herself (She just marched into the room wearing a pair of knickers back to front and proudly announced that "Lola makin' pants"). And my dad's brought some much needed backbone to the garden, as you'll see from the latest installment (below).

So, in amongst it all, I'm just about finding the time. It makes me realise that in this day and age, more than ever, time is of the essence. But that's for another time. For now it's just a case of don't worry, don't hurry, and don't forget to smell the flowers.

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Hackney Garden - Compost Bin

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Thursday, 24 January 2008

Oranjeboom is not the only fruit

PPC's impressively proactive PR firm, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry (AKA "The Lorries"), have been back in touch. Turns out they quite liked the last opinion piece I posted for them, so I'm doing another one.

This piece is about 'mobile social networking', whatever that is. It seems to pertain to social networks that are only accessible through mobile devices. That seems a little odd to me. Why would you do that? It would be like only drinking lager out of cans, standing on street corners.

Reading on through the notes they passed on I found a reference to some 'thriving mobile-exclusive social networks'. I'd never really come across such things, which I found odd and slightly alarming, given that my endeavours in international movie marketing have required me to acquaint myself with pretty much all of the world's most popular social networks. A quick trip to Wikipedia yielded the names of two such mobile-exclusive services; Jumbuck and airG.

Cue a trip to the Jumbuck homepage, and the immediate realisation that Jumbuck isn't so much a social network as 'the world's largest provider of mobile community services', offering white label products including Power Chat, TXT Chat and Fast Flirting. I'm thinking I've got their number (and, thanks to a drunken run-in with The Flirt Hotline, that they've got mine). The realisation that I may be one of their 15-million-strong global user base - and that until a few seconds ago I wasn't even aware of it - undermines the suggestion that they are a social network, in any useful sense of the term.

Further examination does yield Chat Del Mundo, a 'dedicated mobile chat and picture community for Spanish speakers in the South and Central America, the USA and Spain, with over 1 million active users', owned and operated by Jumbuck. Reading about Chat Del Mundo I was reminded of a presentation at last week's Media Summit, at which one of the speakers noted that, globally speaking, far more people have internet access through mobile devices than via PCs.

The speaker was Bob Greenberg, Chairman of interactive agency R/GA. Anticipating that 2008 would see the 'third screen' (by which he meant that of a mobile device) well on its way to becoming the first screen, surpassing PCs and television along the way, Greenberg called upon various statistics to illustrate the accelerating proliferation of mobile devices. One stat I do recall is that in the UK there are more mobile devices than people. Greenberg himself professed to carrying three mobiles about his person 'at all times'.

In defining the difference between the three screens Greenberg argued that television was a medium designed for the delivery of narrative, that PCs are best suited to interaction, and that mobiles are defined by context. This was a theme that was later picked up by Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy, who saw mobile media as defined by its location-specificity, 'much like Pernod. Outside a rustic French cafe; heavenly. Inside a small London flat; piss.' Indeed, beyond greater levels of global accessibility, this is where I could see mobile social networks offering something extra to the end user.

Suppose I'm in LA. I'm out and about in Venice Beach on a friday night and I want to settle in at a decent bar. I could try and find something searching listings through WAP, but that's not going to give me any real indication of quality, or whether it would be my kind of place. How about if instead of that I could pose the question to friends of mine - and friends of theirs - using Facebook mobile, even providing them with a map using GPRS to pinpoint my exact location at the time?

If you take my 150 'friends' and, allowing for overlap, reckon that each of them brings a further 50 uniques to the mix, I have the potential to hit 7,500 people, each of whom would know me, or someone who knows me. Filter that down to people living in LA, and you're probably still in triple figures. A few of them are probably going to know somewhere decent to drink in Venice, some of them might even be out in the area and up for meeting up, and, who knows, if I wasn't happily married I might even enjoy a night of consequence-free sexual intercourse with one of them. A long shot, perhaps, but I'd take my chances over The Flirt Hotline.

This is just one scenario in which mobile could add real value to social networking for the end user. And this is the problem I have with the idea of a mobile-exclusive social network. Restricting access to any service to mobile devices can only really benefit the service provider, by enabling them to drive more revenue through reverse billing and micro-payments. Where mobile social networking can succeed is by recognising and monetising the opportunities created by context for yours and my benefit, not at our needless expense.

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Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Something for the weekend?

PPC's latest widget, promoting Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd for our friends at Warner Bros:



This is the third of the widget's we've created for WB, following on from Beowulf and I Am Legend. One nice touch is that the people who grabbed the widgets for these previous titles can update them to feature content for new movies.

Looks like Depp can sing a bit, and I never tire of Burton's style. Looking forward to watching it.

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Monday, 21 January 2008

Seesmic shift

In amongst visiting family and parental duties I spent much of this weekend tinkering around with Seesmic - a new invite-only video blogging community I've been given access to. On Saturday I decided to combine this with my new found culinary ambition, and cooked up the following posts:



[ Time passes. Dan moves onto The Red. Pies cook. More time passes. ]



Given that the laptop is my recipe book, and sits on the ironing board in the kitchen when I cook, it was quite easy to create these. I've never video blogged before, but it makes it very easy, at a purely logistical level. You just hook up your webcam and microphone - turns out my laptop has both built in - and record.

It's more challenging in terms of what it requires of you as a communicator. You have to organise your thoughts and have a clear sense of what you're going to say in advance, in order to avoid ranting interminably and getting drawn off on innumerable tangents.

Where the real value lies is that it represents true communication, harnessing speech and body language. It's amazing how much extra information your face and hands deliver when you speak, orchestrating the emphasis and emotional tenor of what you have to say.

I've since posted my thoughts along one or two of the discussion threads happening within the Seesmic community, particularly in relation to the fall-out from the now notorious Facebook article the Guardian ran last week (referenced in one of my recent posts). I managed to run over the ten-minute time limit, so it comes in two parts, which can be found here and here. Somehow I manage to acquire a newborn baby at some point in between.

As with the best of the sites and services emerging in the space, the character of Seesmic is being defined by that of the community it supports. By operating an invitation-only policy the Seesmic's developers can have it alpha-tested by the early adoption crowd; extrovert geeks, sympathetic to the realities of software development, creating experimental content through Seesmic then driving conversation about it through other channels. This approach also has the happy benefit of making it far more intriguing and aspirational from the outside, as well as controlling bandwidth costs.

Overall I'm very excited by Seesmic. It's a very well engineered interface orientated around allowing me to do one thing easily and enjoyably, rather than being a broad set of imperfect tools reaching an equally broad and disparate audience. And, rather than merely incubating my established relationships, it offers the potential for me to connect and develop relationships with new, like-minded individuals. That's what I understand by 'social networking'.

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Thursday, 17 January 2008

Hello Seesmic. Nice to meet you.

I managed to get hold of an invitation code for Seesmic. This is my first post:

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Wednesday, 16 January 2008

The Media Summit 2008

I was at The Media Summit today at the British Film Institute on Southbank. With 12 unmissable speakers it was a bit of a marathon, but immensely valuable, and a great opportunity to put Twitter through its paces. Here's a transcript of all the day's tweets, starting on the train in:
* * *

This is the photo I got slapped on the wrist for taking. It was a slide that struck me as really capturing the opportunities social media present for marketers and distributors. It reads as follows:

Embrace end users as:
viewers, fans, critics, programmers and producers

Support media and brand exposure in their online homes
blogs; social networks; communities of interest; RSS readers

Allow end users to become programmers
Favourites; playplists; viral sharing; embedding; social bookmarking

End users as producers
Simple: allow end users to upload video to you
Powerful: allow end users to remix and refactor your brand

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Monday, 14 January 2008

Citizens of the web, FRAGMENT!

I've spent much of the last twenty-four hours chewing over two articles twittered by friends of mine, each of which has accelerated my growing disillusionment with Facebook. Indeed, as I will come to explain, I have decided to take action.

The bigger picture
The first of the articles, entitled With friends like these…, is written by Tim Hodgkinson, and ran in The Guardian’s Technology supplement. It’s a long piece, and well worth reading in its entirety, but for the purposes of this post I’ll offer the following précis.

Hodgkinson starts by making the point that, far from connecting people, Facebook is increasingly responsible for isolating us in front of our computer screens, on the pretext that conducting relations through their site can be construed as socialising.

On the contrary, he asserts, we are being commodified, and the relationships we individually cherish are being intensively harvested so that the economic value can be extracted out of them and made available to the highest bidders, be they corporations or governments.

This in itself is nothing exclusive to Facebook. Their only distinction is that they’re currently the market-leading exponents of this dark art. However, having established this, Hodgkinson examines who’s behind Facebook’s operation, financially and ideologically, and challenges us to evaluate whether these are people fit to be in charge of what is effectively their own country, ‘a country of consumers’.

In terms of the key players, we’re talking Mark Zuckerberg, the geeky front man given to appearing provocatively self-assured about pretty much everything; Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist, libertarian, neocon activist, futurist philosopher and chess master who recently pledged £3.5m to a Cambridge-based gerontologist searching for the key to immortality; and a host of investors, including In-Q-Tel, the venture capital wing of the CIA. Yes, that CIA.

I don’t know about you, but I’m edging towards the door the minute I find out that the guys who put one in the brain of JFK have a stake in my social calendar. Already I’m think that, just because I’ve gone and said something not-so-friendly about them, I’m going to start landing really crappy Scrabulous hands. Bringing me neatly on to…

The killer app
The second of the articles is a piece on CNNMoney.com by Josh Quittner entitled Will somebody please start a Facebook group to save Scrabulous? At least a dozen people have, include one the logo of which combines that of game manufacturers Hasbro and that of the Nazi party.

This is a response to the news that Hasbro have finally decided to acknowledge the existence of Scrabulous, a Facebook application recreating scrabble tile for tile for a user base of approximately 2.5 million people, a quarter of whom use it every day. Indeed, they’ve announced legal action against its developers, two guys from Calcutta named Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla (aged 21 and 26 respectively).

I can’t summarise it better than Quittner:
If I were an evil genius running a board games company whose product line spanned everything from Monopoly to Clue, I might do this: Wait until someone comes up with an excellent implementation of my games and does the hard work of coding and debugging the thing and signing up the masses. Then, once it got to scale, I’d sweep in and take it over. Let the best pirate site win! If I were compassionate, I’d even cut in the guys who did all the work for a percentage point or two to keep the site running.

Scrabulous is my only remaining reason for signing into Facebook on a regular basis. Without it, I’d probably lose interest altogether. Not because it doesn’t offer me anything of value, but because, following on from my realisation that social networking is actually more akin to social publishing, I’m embracing tools like Blogger, Twitter, and Google Mail (whose spam filtering seems to have suddenly gone up a gear), all of which give me more freedom to express myself, and offer more back in return.

I use these tools and services, not the other way around. They are genuinely vibrant and community-oriented, igniting exciting new relationships, as opposed to incubating existing ones or rekindling old flames (flames that generally burnt out for a damn good reason). It occurs to me that there’s actually very little that’s creative about Facebook – it’s far more about logistics.

So, could I do the unthinkable? Could I leave Facebook?

Probably not. Two reasons. One, I have an intractable professional need to be familiar with Facebook as a marketing medium, and on that basis alone I will probably never be able to bow out completely. Two, it’s practically impossible to delete your account. Steven Mansour seems to have gone to hell and back in the process of trying to do so, and with only limited success.

I have to do something though. More than ever I see myself as a citizen of the web, not as the subject one particular service layered over the top of it. So I’ve decided to try something different. I’m going to start removing the people I really care about (or people I'm already connected to through other better channels) from my friends list. Not all at once, but every time I realise that our relationship doesn't need to be defined in such narrow terms. So, if you really like me, and you hope that I like you too, let’s de-friend.

* * *

Cartoon reproduced from GapingVoid.com without the kind permission of the author.

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Friday, 11 January 2008

A bar called 'Daytime'

I hurried through Lower Clapton, fleeing from the clutches of someone. Or something. The night was cold, dark, full of strange metallic objects, and I had none of the direction or purpose you would expect to assume as one in flight. The scene stole from Graham Green, and owed much to Fleming.

I ducked into a nightclub, tucked away in a basement decorated by nothing more than neon light and exposed brickwork. It was as much bar as nightclub, hell, I can't tell the difference any more. Unusually for whatever it was, everyone was up to their knees in water.

I waded up to the bar, and took a hard fast slap in the face from the price list. It's no wonder everybody's on the gak these days. It's not cheap, but at least you get to piss your money away in the privacy of a toilet cubicle.

I gradually became aware of one particular group of punters over in the corner. They were being increasingly vocal about one another's various moral shortcomings, and how these blended into one moribund morass of deceit and sexual deviance. Everybody could smell blood; it was going to spill over into violence at any moment. We were spellbound.

At one point, just as they were starting to get somewhere, a barman leapt up onto the bar, kicking a couple of his customers' overpriced drinks into their laps. He lobbed out some provocative pronouncement, an observational hand grenade, and sent them back into a dizzying nose-dive of acrimony and mutual recrimination. He was a cocksure character - in fact he oozed cockcertainty - and had a mean streak a mile wide. The best you could say about him was that he seemed to have a decent sense of dramatic timing.

We all frowned and appeared to disapprove, but none of us wanted it to stop. The water level wasn't rising, and the place would have quickly grown tedious without them, this bar called Daytime. They were awful people, and no-one really understood why they had decided to parade this fact for our edification, but it certainly made us feel better about ourselves. By the end we were all patting one another on the backs. "We may be bad, but they're much, much worse," our faces said to each other. For once, our faces were right.

I woke up. I had fallen asleep on the sofa in the middle of the afternoon. On the other sofa sat Emma, buddha-like, breastfeeding and watching The Jeremy Kyle Show.

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Thursday, 10 January 2008

Eco-economics?

I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Chicken Run this week, and am giving my wholehearted support support to his CHICKEN OUT! campaign. For the last few years Emma and i have bought free-range chicken when we've been planning a roast, but I dread to think how much of the no-range variety has slipped through in some processed form or another. Not any more.

One of the things that really caught my attention was the meal he managed to put together using the remains of a roast. I opted to try and do the same with the leftovers from a bird we cooked a few days ago. I picked over the remains and mustered a good plate of scraps, and put the carcass to one side for the stock.

I googled for recipes, and found both the risotto and a stock on a cracking little blog called The Cottage Smallholder. I'd noticed that Whittingstall had included sweetcorn, stripping it straight off the cob, so I searched for tips on how to do this and got some indispensable advice from another blog - Something in Season - as to how to ensure that you don't lose any flavour. These are the type of blogs that I tend to get excited about. They show little pretence of being anything more than one person's perspective, but with information and insight of potential value to a broad audience.

The risotto was bloody delicious - as my own addition to the recipe, I found that a little fresh lemon juice added to just before serving sharpened it up to taste, and played well off all the ingredients - so I decided to prepare food again tonight. As a result I have a jumbo fish pie downstairs in the fridge, ready to be cooked and eaten tomorrow. Buying the fish for the fish pie, I was careful to select an alternative to cod and haddock, both of which are currently severely overfished. I ended up buying some fresh coley (part of the pollock family) as an excellent alternative.

It's not in my nature to do little more than sit around watching The Jeremy Kyle Show all day. Cooking is proving an excellent way to keep myself busy during paternity leave (above and beyond the rolling nappy changes, and the inexpressible nirvana of drifting off on the sofa in the middle of the day with your assorted progeny curled up next to you). Apart from anything else, the need to procure fresh ingredients has made for some nice local excursions with Lola, and has really got me thinking about consumer ethics. Emma and I already relish the fact that we live in a borough where recycling is mandatory, not least because this seems to me to be the exactly where local government can make a difference, and are making an earnest effort to start growing some of our own produce, but it is undoubtedly as paying customers where we can exert the greatest influence for good.

I know that the well-trodden response of the intensive farming apologists (of whom I'm certain that Kyle, below, is one) is to point to the fact that this approach makes chicken affordable to a large number of people on extremely tight budgets. For my part I can't help looking at the number of large people taking advantage of Tesco's two-for-a-fiver chicken offer and wondering whether actually they're simply eating two whole chickens where they might have done quite well to settle for just the one.

Part of the problem seems to be the perception that the only alternative to the two-for-a-fiver option is a twenty quid free-range bird that's spent its long and happy life attending gala luncheons in Kensington Gardens. Well, galvanised by Whittingstall's endeavours, I made a fist of Jamie's Fowl Dinners earlier tonight, and (amidst Oliver's trademark melange of inarticulate smugness and self-aggrandisement) was pleased to learn that there is a very viable halfway house - the 'higher welfare' chicken. These cost about a pound more than the cheap-as-chips bird, in exchange for which the chickens have a roomier environment with objects to clamber over and balls to play with; think The Great Escape rather than Schindler's List.

Ultimately the onus is on the consumer to show that he or she is prepared to fork out the extra cash. Change isn't something that can be led by the British farming industry - this would merely open the way for importers to satisfy any continuing demand for ultra-cheap meat. And, even though supermarkets have a responsibility not to endorse unethical farming methods, they're also answerable to consumer demand. It ought to be tremendously liberating for this power to so clearly reside in yours and my hands, but the reality is that we human beings seem to have a phenomenal faculty for cruelty, especially when we get to enjoy the benefits without having to witness its enactment first-hand.

On wednesday my father and I were lamenting the fact that some of the poor choices we make as consumers may stem from the decline of home economics as a subject taught within schools. Being that the human ecosystem appears to be under greater threat than at any stage in recent history, and that many of the problems stem in one way or another from the methods of mass production we embrace as capitalists and endorse as consumers, is there perhaps an argument for reinventing home economics as 'eco-economics', and getting this back onto the curriculum?

I have no idea what they teach in schools these days, or whether something so subjective could be approached in an objective way, but I wouldn't begrudge someone the right to spend a couple of hours each week trying to encourage my children to explore the choices they can make in seeking to recognise their responsibilities as a consumer, and paid-up resident of planet Earth.

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Me and my girls



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Hackney Garden - Rubble Run



Note that I've added a little theme tune for this series, courtesy of none other than Mr Rolf Harris. Also, more experiments in subtitling. Not sure how soon I'll be back in the garden as of Ruby Tuesday, but dad's up on monday so I daresay we'll manage something.

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Monday, 7 January 2008

Meet Ruby



Update (08.01.08) - Several people have commented to me about the music on this. It's No Surprises, taken from the album Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions of Radiohead.

I googled for it in order to give you the link and discovered a whole page of different albums of a similar ilk, with lullaby covers of bands including Metallica, Nine Inch Nails and The Ramones.

Seems to me the least I can do is plug them thus, given that I shameless stripped out the DRM from the version I bought on iTunes, then infringed the associated copyright with gay abandon.

Update (10.01.08) - You can download this by right-clicking on this link and saving it to your desktop.

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Ruby Rose Light - First pics!


































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Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Scrabble Series Part 1: Playing the Board

This is the end result of one of the oddest games of Scrabble I've ever played. It's one of a few dozen games I've enjoyed on Facebook, pitting myself against Walter, an old friend of mine, and a masterful opponent.

Neither of us set out to use only half of the board - it just happened that way. It didn't limit our scoring either - 674 is a still a perfectly respectable combined total.

Scrabble has been Facebook's killer app for me. It accounts for about 95% of my dwell time, the rest of which is spent trawling for curiosities in my news feed and messing with my status. I only started playing the game at all regularly a year or two ago, at the behest of my visiting father-in-law, Big Mike. In a series of encounters over a series of single malts he took me to pieces. It didn't take long to work out why.

When I played, my first instinct for each new hand was to check my pieces in search of a seven-letter word. Nothing wrong with that, except that most of the time I wouldn't find one, so I'd see if I could find a six-letter word, and failing that a five-letter word, and so on and so forth. Only once I'd found my longest word would I consult the board, looking for somewhere to place it. If I couldn't find anywhere, I'd go back to the hand and resume the process. Taking this approach, I'd be happy to consistently score in double figures.

Big Mike saw things differently. He started by analysing the board, finding the opportunities; not just open letters leading to bonus squares, but what he could scrounge from high value pieces already played. Once he'd mapped the board's potential he started looking for the strength in his hand. He played through a process of ongoing reconciliation, punctuated by flashes of inspiration.

You'd be forgiven for wondering where I'm going with this, beyond drafting a possible introduction for Scrabble for Dummies. Well, I spent friday afternoon going through one of our clients' 2008 film release schedules. There were all sorts of different movies represented therein, from the tentpole summer blockbusters through to bread-and-butter spring and autumn thrillers, dramas and romcoms. Some promise high-value talent and expensive visual effects, others offer subtle and engaging narratives, and one or two even look as though they might manage to combine the two. I've seen what pretty much all the major distributors have to play with next year, and at first glance it looks like some have better hands than others, but in the end what's going to separate them in 2008, more than ever before, is how well they play the board.

* * *

This analogy extends much further than you might imagine, certainly beyond a single post. Hence, The Scrabble Series. I'll put together Part 2: What is the Board? in due course, if I receive the faintest indication that anybody would like to pursue this further.

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Thursday, 3 January 2008

All 'friends' are not equal

PPC has recently appointed a new PR agency. They contacted me recently to ask if I would contribute some ideas for a potential opinion piece on social media, so I agreed to post a few thoughts here, for general reference.

These are the questions they wanted me to address:

- Should companies develop their own social networking tools? Are they better off trying to exploit existing networks?

- How should companies go about using social networking to promote their film/game/brand? What are the issues they need to be aware of? Are certain kinds of brands or products better suited than others?

- What effect will the opening up of sites like Facebook and Bebo to third parties have on social networking? Will it be beneficial to brand owners or cause more problems?


Well, let me begin by taking you back, if I may, to life before Facebook, to life before MySpace, before Friend Reunited or Classmates, before Instant Messenger or Hotmail, before you even knew how email worked or what the internet really was. That's about a decade for me, I doubt it's much longer than that for many of you.

You probably had just about the same number of substantial relationships in your life as you do now (and maybe more, given that life didn't seem to be lived at a pace that starved you of every spare waking moment). You would have expressed these relationships through interaction, over the phone, by writing letters, and by meeting up. And, generally, the more established and unconditional the relationship, the less often you'd actually need to see or speak to each other to remain connected. This was your social network; the people in your life that mattered, for whatever reason. It still is. All that's changed is the tools at your disposal to maintain and develop it.

The reality is that services like MySpace, Bebo and Facebook are just a souped-up rolodex. If you want to communicate one-to-one through any of these social networks you still have to use email-style messaging, phone-style VOIP or IM-style text chat. There seems to be this misconception that social networking sites have enabled us to somehow grow our circle of friends - that we now have the means to form and maintain hundreds, even thousands of relationships, because of these miracle tools that have enabled us all to become such good 'friends'.

I would argue that, beyond the fifty or so people you have meaningful relationships with (a high proportion of whom are probably the same people you had meaningful relationships with over a decade ago), what you have is an audience. An audience consisting of friends, family, acquaintances from school, college and university, work colleagues, clients and suppliers, maybe even some people you can't remember ever having met but who you've agreed to be friends with because they asked and it felt rude to decline.

Furthermore, when you scrutinise the tools and features that define the social networks, beyond email, chat and telephony services (all of which pre-date the social networks considerably), they are orientated towards communication with an audience. Take the Facebook wall - the essence of which is that you're choosing to make a supposedly one-to-one correspondence visible to everybody you both know. Facebook status, one of my favourite features, is also totally indiscriminate in its reach, within your established sphere of influence.

Hugh Macleod is a well-known cartoonist and blogger whom I was fortunate to meet off the back of some screenings we co-ordinated for David Mackenzie's movie HALLAM FOE. With over 1,200 friends he is what Facebook themselves now refer to as one of their 'whales', among whose ranks you will also apparently find Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand and Stephen Fry. By Hugh's own admission, "I don't go around looking for friends, but it seems kind of rude to say no to somebody."

Hugh was recently described in an article in The Guardian as 'Britain's most successful Facebooker'. This label does Hugh a substantial injustice, insofar as it puts the cart of his Facebook following before the horse of many years establishing his reputation as a prolific original thinker in the spaces of marketing, social media and, through his cartoons, life in general. This plaudit is also interesting in the choice of term used to define his popularity; success. If social networking is about success, and we're playing a numbers game in terms of how we choose to measure it, then we're surely back in the dark ages of web v1, and the mentality of the playground. If web 2.0 has been about anything for me it must be the growing acceptance that all hits - and, by extension, 'friends' - are not equal.

At another level, Hugh's popularity on Facebook is genuinely indicative of success, since he engages this following as an audience, as he does his readership on Twitter, and that of his blog. In this respect Hugh uses Facebook not so much a social networking tool as a social publishing tool, as, I would suggest, do many of the rest of us, albeit for the benefit of a smaller, more familiar crowd.

Re-reading this post I can see that I haven't answered any of the questions I was charged with addressing, but that I'm on my way to doing so quite definitively. I can see a couple I can take now before I go, and I'll come back for the rest.

"Should companies develop their own social networking tools?" Depends entirely on the type of company, but, for the most part, good god no. "Are they better off trying to exploit existing networks?" Maybe, but only if they quit trying to be my new best friend, and start getting to know my audience.
___

Interesting factoid: The first 3D movie from a major studio (Warner Brothers) was HOUSE OF WAX (1953) directed by Andre de Toth. Unfortunately de Toth was blind in one eye, and could only see in two dimensions. History records that he would consistently come to the rushes and want to know what everybody was so excited about.

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posted by Dan Light  # 12:14  2 Comments  Links to this post
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Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Make an exhibition of yourself

Regular readers of my blog - last time I checked Google Analytics there were about a dozen of you - may have noticed that I'm now displaying Ploggle updates as well as Twitter updates at the top of each page. Some of you may have wondered what Ploggle is. This post has been written to answer that very question, for you and anybody else who cares to wonder.

* * *

WHAT IS PLOGGLE?
Some time in 2002 my good friend Tom Percival and I started playing around with camera-phones, after I managed to get hold of a camera attachment for my Sony Ericsson T68i. It was a ridiculous little appendage, and took incredibly poor quality photographs, but that wasn’t really the point. We were spellbound by the idea of being able to post photos and video from your mobile phone direct to the web. So, Tommy being Tommy, he developed a web app enabling us to do exactly that.

Around the same time we got talking to a friend of a friend, Alec Hendry, who was working at MTV at the time, and had written some fairly unusual video codecs. He agreed to let us use them, and pretty soon we were posting mobile video clips as well as pictures, converted into dinky little flash movies. I’m not 100% certain, but I’m pretty sure we were using flash to serve user-generated video years before Youtube started doing it.

It’s worth making the point right now that we weren’t trying to create a bulk video-hosting site like Youtube, or a digital photo-hosting site like Flickr. Our focus right from the start was enabling people to post lightweight pics and clips straight to the web using email and picture messaging. This oriented it towards a rapidly growing audience of camera-phone users wanting to post on the move, and made it unsuitable for anybody wanting to post hundred of hi-res digital camera pics or huge 5-minute video clips.

We favoured this approach for several reasons:

1. The slightly pretentious reason
The arts graduate in me was fascinated by the day-in-the-life aspect of camera-phone photos, as opposed to the too-good-to-be-true pictures people tend to take with normal digital cameras. Camera-phones tend to be used more spontaneously, in situations where people wouldn’t think to have a normal camera handy. Even now when Sony Ericsson are offering 3.2 mega pixels of detail you can still see the difference, and for me that lack of ‘quality’ adds a precious measure of realism and narrative.

2. The eminently practical reason
We were very fortunate to have a friend in Barney Sowood, who was able to host the site for us, but we were conscious from the start that there would be restrictions on how much data we could host and serve. We didn’t want to position this as somewhere for anybody to store loads of high resolution photos, requiring terabytes of bandwidth and server space. We’ve both since questioned whether we were right to be so conservative, or if we should have gone for broke and solved these problems by monetising usage. Answers on a postcard pls.

3. The real reason
It was more fun.

* * *

DESIGN & BUILD
Once we’d agreed on what we were doing, we needed a name. We’d be touting names about from the start – ‘Snapbook’ was an early favourite, but the domain wasn’t available. In the end we settled on Ploggle. It seemed natural to us that a blog driven by pictures instead of words should be called a plog. The name also alludes to Google, which we considered to be the ultimate example of commercial success driven by good programming and usability.

In terms of how the logo evolved, the font currently doing the rounds in the studio we were both working in was VAG Rounded, which had a nice soft, playful simplicity to it, so we used that. We knew from the start that we wanted the logo and the site as a whole to use blues and greys off a white background, primarily coming off the back of having just designed a site for a friend of ours with an antiques business. The similarities between the two should be blindingly obvious; I like to think of both as being good examples of early graphics-light, information-rich web 2.0 design.

We divided labour along pretty simple lines; I focused on design, layout and usability, and Tommy made it work. Occasionally we’d plan the development of some major new component, but most of the time there was just a rolling list of features we wanted to add and experiment with. We spent two years stealing evenings and weekends for Ploggle, off the back of working together full-time. Our long-suffering other halves probably only put up with it because they thought that one day it would make us all rich.

* * *

MONETISING PLOGGLE. OR NOT.
The question of Ploggle’s business model was debated long and hard. The main streams we had to consider were:

Advertising
This forms part of the revenue portfolio of most commercial consumer-facing websites, but sites achieving profit through advertising alone are few and far between, especially good ones. We were very conscious that we didn’t want thumping great adverts sitting on our own personal plogs, and were pretty certain that our users would feel the same way, so we decided to ban advertising entirely.

White labelling
For the uninitiated, white labelling is when you re-brand and redeploy a web app as an integrated part of another site’s offering. The problem with white labelling is that you have to be able to show that you’re going to add genuine value, and its very hard to make it happen without being available in office hours. We took the view that this was something we’d get into to once we’d strengthened our proposition by proving another revenue stream and going full time.

Subscription
This is the basket we ended up putting all our eggs in. We decided to allow anyone to post up to 100 pics or clips in up to three different plogs, after which you were required to pay a one-off upgrade fee. We felt that this gave anybody ample opportunity to try Ploggle out, and to decide for themselves whether it was worth paying for. Unfortunately in the huge majority of cases the answer was apparently ‘no’.

* * *

THINGS WE MIGHT HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY
Ploggle currently has 2,800 registered users, based in over 100 different countries. About 650 of those users have seen the upgrade screen at one time or another, resulting in 13 making the decision to subscribe, generating a total revenue of £120 and €18. In strictly commercial terms, by anybody’s standards, Ploggle has failed. Quite spectacularly.

Remove the profit motive, and it’s a different story. The ancillary benefits of having developed Ploggle are manifest; for our friendship, which has grown through all the late nights and long weekends at the coalface; for our skillset, which has also grown, making Tommy a better developer and me a better marketer; for family members and friends, who have been able to watch my daughter Lola grow from a bump into a beautiful bubbly young girl. In strictly non-commercial terms, Ploggle has been all about growth and development.

Whichever way you choose to see it, there are some things we might have done differently. Lots of things, in fact, but these are some of the more important or interesting ones:

Develop the community
For a site with so many great features, it’s criminal that so little of it is orientated towards letting people share their photos with each other. We have a Friends list allowing users to associate themselves with each other, but no easy overview of what all your friends have been posting recently. Everything was oriented around the plogs, not the people. It’s easy to say it retrospectively, but if Ploggle had been more of a mobile multimedia Twitter-style app, it might have flown off the shelves.

Carry advertising
It was naïve and unrealistic to rule out advertising outright in the way that we did. What we should have done is to run some banner advertising in the plog and account management screens. By targeting users of Ploggle on pages generating a large number of impressions we could have identified a clear opportunity for mobile phone manufacturers and networks. Instead, when we did finally dip out toes into advertising, we ran Google Adwords across the top of each plog. The plogs were tarnished, most of the ads ended up being irrelevant, and the click-through rates were insignificant. It was the worst of all worlds, and lasted about six weeks.

Speak with our own voice
As two guys in two bedrooms, we focused on trying to create a site that looked like an established – table – online brand. It was like a Porcupinefish, inflated to ten times its actual size. Unfortunately the analogy goes further than I’d like, insofar as I think we ended up scaring people away as much as gaining their trust. If we’d spoken to our early adopters with natural tone of voice, telling the story behind Ploggle as it was unfolding, we could have given them a greater sense of belonging, and found some valuable advocates and ambassadors in the process.

* * *

TAKING A BREAK
After about two years of development it had become clear that we wouldn’t be able to get Ploggle off the ground commercially simply by developing it as an application. It needed marketing and business development, and we didn’t have the money or the raw will-power to make that happen. I think it’s fair to say that we were pretty burnt out at this point, and that we both retreated into making more of a success of our day jobs.

All around us Web 2.0 brands were bursting onto the scene, and we learnt something from each of them. Youtube, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook et al; each of them has shown us where the value was in Ploggle, and where else it might have been.

Meanwhile the site itself has just ticked over, attracting new users from here and there, and quietly passing the milestone of 100,000 pics and clips posted. We’ve noticed that it’s proving particularly popular with parents, leading to talk of some sort of Sproggle spin-off. And, as with my own little one and her plog, we’ve gone on using Ploggle, even if we aren’t still developing it. With that in mind, here are a few of my own favourite plogs:

LightJunior

This is the plog that makes it all worthwhile. We set up LightJunior the day before Lola arrived, and there were pics of her posted within about an hour of her arrival into this world. Since then its been one long rollercoaster ride, brought to courtesy of the girl with a thousand (well, three hundred at least) faces.
http://lightjunior.ploggle.com


TravelLight

Subtitled ‘the continuing global adventures of the family Light’, TravelLight currently documents trips to Morocco, Croatia and Thailand. Travel Light is a true plog as well, the vast majority of the pictures having been posted minutes after being taken. In the case of the Morocco trip I piggy-backed on a local network offering GPRS and ended up receiving a colossal mobile phone bill. Worth every penny.
http://travellight.ploggle.com


JoePlogs

My plogging alter ego since day one, Joe plogs anything that piques his interest. Joe even managed to plog his Sony Ericsson T610 – the camera-phone of camera-phones in its day – moments before he lost it in the underbelly of some dubious Parisian nightspot.
http://joeplogs.ploggle.com


Underground

I started Underground as a way to test that Ploggle was working every morning, and have ended up with hundreds of posts telling the story of life as a subterranean commuter in London town. Full of buskers, advertising and stolen moments, posted as soon as I get back above ground.
http://underground.ploggle.com


Sticky

Another plog I set up just to experiment with the form, this came into its own when I started walking into work. You see a fair amount of everything decorating walls and lamp-posts between Hackney and Soho, especially around the old street area, the pick of which are plogged here.
http://sticky.ploggle.com


Soho

This was a pet ‘phoetry’ project lasting a week or so. I went out at lunchtime and walked around Soho, making it up as I went along. Judging by the comment on the last picture, at least one person liked it.
http://soho.ploggle.com


These are the plogs you’ll most often see me posting to in the photo feed I’ve added to my blog, along with a few others I’ve set up recently. Adding the feed has already sparked a mini-renaissance in my thinking as regards Ploggle’s future, typified by my decision to draw this line under the story so far, and exacerbated by some of the conclusions I’ve reached in the course of writing it.

One such conclusion is that it’s high time we published the second edition of Unplogged, our (exceptionally) occasional newsletter (we published Unplogged 01 in November 2004). Another is that we’ll need a good reason to do so. Fortunately we’ll have one, in that Tommy and I yesterday agreed to ditch the subscription model, and to give all our users, new or existing, unlimited use of Ploggle.

Maybe this is a last significant act, maybe it’s the start of a second wind. Whatever the case, I’ll keep you posted.

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posted by Dan Light  # 13:25  0 Comments  Links to this post
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