140 CHARACTERS (IN 3,500 WORDS) A conference report by Tom Ewing (@tomewing

1. ON THE DISPARATE EDGE OF NOW The 140 Characters conference – tagline: “The State of NOW” - is an exhausting but rich experience. With 50+ speakers in a single day the scheduling is a deliberate jumble, refusing to coalesce into a marketing event, or a cool stuff event, or a tech or theory one. There are very few audience questions, the turnover is rapid, there are no real breaks apart from an hour for lunch. So the vibe is very much that of the firehose, the real-time brain-pummeling infostream: not interested in Twittering taco trucks? There’ll be Facebook-wielding policemen along in a minute. The EasyConference style of 140 fits this to some degree – no coffee, no lunch, not much legroom - you’re here for the INFO, dammit, not to schmooze. That’s how they want to play it and fair enough – the lack of WiFi was a no-frills touch too far though. A paper-by-paper summary of the 25 or so speakers and panels would be ridiculous, and you can see most of it on video around the web anyway: this is an attempt to pull together the day into some kind of narrative, or at least pick out important themes, dancing about from panel to panel. It’s a mix of what people actually said, the implications as I understood them at the time, and further thoughts of mine post-conference. 2. SOCIAL LANDFILL I’ll start with the marketing stuff, because I work in that field, though in some ways it seemed the most sluggish of the various criss-crossing streams of thought. There was an awful lot of familiar stuff being trotted out – people have unprecedented power to influence brands, you have to join in the conversation, the customer does the marketing for you, you need to give people something they can’t get elsewhere... nothing that wasn’t on some level true, you understand, but also no longer inspiring by itself. Especially when the first concrete example was Unilever speculating that maybe its Axe brand should start a Twitter account with a daily tip on how to pick up women. Later on a rep from Warner Music, after explaining that none of the majors were really experts in the digital space, talked enthusiastically about how they’d got Madonna onto trending topics with some hashtag or other when her Greatest Hits record was out. As my notes said: “Oh joy.” So here’s the problem – I’m coming at this conference as a researcher, as someone not unsympathetic to marketing, but also as a user of Twitter, someone who enjoys its ecosystem for the info it feeds me. And as a researcher I appreciate that one of the demands of social media on brands is a shift away from creating advertising and towards creating content and experience. But as a user I know some of that is junk content and junk experiences and I hope we’re

now at a stage where we can call that out. Something like the Axe Twitter idea is a bit uninspired but would only affect anyone following it – hashtag spamming, on the other hand, deliberately drives attention away from something potentially more important or interesting or just funny. 3. THE PROCESS IS THE STORY Some of the case studies on offer were more interesting. Kodak, who sponsored the whole event and have put together a free guide to social media practise, talked about how they’d taken a product idea straight from Twitter – implementing specific suggestions, like flexible USB ports and mic jacks, and then crowdsourcing a name. This kind of thing is becoming more common – taking design and useability improvements straight from the user’s mouth online. You might argue that they’d have got the insights and information anyway, but that’s not the point – the process here is the story. It’s like the three young filmmakers who got up to tell us about the crowd-funded film they’re making of a Jules Verne novel. You’re not buying a good film, or even the expectation of a good film. You’re buying the experience and warm feeling of participating in something crowd-y. That’s not to say the film – or the camera or the Axe pick-up tips Twitter – won’t end up being good. It might be magnificent! But we’re still in talking-dog territory here, where the fact of socialness matters more than the outcome. This won’t last forever, of course. It probably won’t last out 2010. 4. THE THING IS THE IDEA A glimpse at the more sustained changes realtime is ringing came from the panel of Venture Capitalists. Five years ago, they said, if someone had a great idea it might be funded. Now? No chance, unless there’s something already launched. In the realtime web, the important thing is presence – doing stuff, getting ideas launched as soon as possible and finessing them later. This is reflected elsewhere in the culture. On the music panel a DJ and promoter talked about how there’s been a shift from the idea of the finished album – dead in 5 to 10 years, he claimed – to “dripfeeding”, a stream of activity keeping the brand-cum-band alive in people’s minds. This is the realtime web being used as a key to agility. The best business advice of the day didn’t come from a business speaker at all, but from the “edemocracy” panel. Because tools are rapidly changing and potentially unrepresentative, it’s very unwise to get lured into a focus on one particular service (like Twitter). Instead the strategy should be lightweight but rapid – engage quickly but don’t commit a lot of budget. Don’t get hung up on process, don’t put too much stock in mistakes or successes. 5. MEANING IN THE STREAM

These issues of immediacy and agility were in the background whenever the talks turned to using the realtime web as an information source. The Venture Capitalist panel pointed out that extracting meaning from realtime flows was still very hard – a real unresolved problem for real time search. Text and sentiment analysis, meme tracking, social graph searching – these all went some of the way to cracking the issue but not currently far enough. In the future, said conference organiser Jeff Pulver, hedge fund “black boxes” might use social media as a source of arbitrage – exploiting the gap between information being created and confirmed. Which wasn’t to say that people aren’t using realtime information already. Environment blogger Vikki Chowney turned the issue on its head by talking about how live blogging had become the only way she could deal with the sheer amount of information coming through to her at international conferences like the G20. By getting the information out there and leaving synthesis and analysis to the crowd, she’d been able to manage the overload without trying to filter it. On the media panel, meanwhile, website publishers talked about how social media and Twitter let them pre-empt and predict interest in a story, quickly reprioritising content to meet audience needs. The crucial role realtime media plays for TV or Radio is as a backchannel of ongoing, immediate response, and Endemol discussed plans to create apps to structure and legitimise those backchannels (phone companies seem to have similar plans). One thing the backchannels can do is restore some power to the TV networks and schedulers – for much-discussed shows they have brought back “appointment TV”, since the experience of watching and talking about a show within the impromptu realtime community is lost if you choose to watch it later. (Not to mention the fact that on Twitter, policing spoilers is impossible!) And still the information keeps coming. The most stimulating talk of the day, Kevin Slavin of area/code on “Things That Tweet”, talked about how “sensor aesthetics are streamy”. In other words, data from objects, be it Tower Bridge, your fridge or the Earth itself via seismic data, naturally works best as a realtime information flow. The problem is identifying who needs this information and making sure they know how to get it. 6. REALTIME’S GROWING PAINS According to one speaker on the communications panel, the future of realtime – represented by Google Wave – is the end of conversation, replaced by a kind of type-telepathy, a flux of perpetually interrupted and always provisional collaborative thoughts. But Google Wave, its complexity and its stumbling launch also illustrate a wider realtime issue – how do you make it scale? It was 3 and a half hours into the first 4-hour session before a speaker – from The Creative Store – became the first to hint that with a lot of the current realtime architecture we simply don’t know yet. Twitter, for instance, isn’t representative. It’s not a mass medium. Maybe 20% of people have tried it, in its core territories. According to a survey that came out the day after the conference, three-quarters

of Brits don’t even want to try it. In other words, it’s still very much a creature of the early adopters, and its culture reflects this. The point here isn’t to say that Twitter is a fad – it may be, it may not be, but the real time information streams it represents are something more lasting (as a lot of speakers stressed, it’s not about the tool). The point is that what happens to the use and culture of tools and technology after mass adoption is often very different to what happens to them before. A lot of the talk at 140 Characters seemed to imagine that the expansion of Twitter, or other social media tools, was largely a matter of people “getting it” or not. But it’s equally a matter of the tools “getting” what a wider audience wants from them. At some point “not getting it” becomes a problem for the tool, not the people. Mass adoption will change these services in ways we aren’t trying to imagine, except through rose tinted lenses where everyone who uses them is Just Like Us. As someone on the educationalists’ panel put it – to the day’s only boos! – the problem with Twitter is Twitter. It’s a proprietary service, not a universal protocol: “it needs to be more like email”. Meanwhile there was plenty of evidence of barriers to adoption: between a quarter and a third of higher and further education institutions in the UK still block Twitter access, and 70% of schools do. On the Police Who Tweet panel, one panellist admitted that 18 months ago they couldn’t look for evidence on Facebook – because it had been blocked. The problem of people internally who don’t “get it” arose throughout the day. Realtime social media is at an awkward stage in its development – no longer a novelty for its users, still a mysterious continent for doubters. 7. THEM AND US: THE BREAKFAST BARRIER There is still, in other words, a Breakfast Barrier for Twitter. As in, “It’s just people talking about what they had for breakfast.” This meme – mentioned a few times during the conference - has a double purpose. It’s a shorthand way for the media to dismiss Twitter users as trivial. But it’s also a shorthand way to dismiss the media’s criticisms of the service and site, lumping more nuanced views into a big silly mess of not-getting-it-ness. (The idea itself found its best answer in Stephen Fry’s speech, where he pointed out the similarity between the knowing triviality of “Twitter” as a name and the deceptive frivolity of the 18th century press – The Idler, The Spectator, The Tatler. You can quite imagine a bewigged Lord Carter-Ruck scoffing at them as purest trivia – until they bit him.) But this them and us mentality can lead to a certain utopianism on one side as easily as a dismissive technophobia on the other. Jeff Pulver, in his introduction, suggested that politicians who use Twitter then drop it wouldn’t get re-elected: this seems to me an overclaim. The Breakfast Barrier also acts as a mode of exclusion – perhaps because of companies’ best efforts in using it. One speaker on the small business panel praised BT’s BT Care program as an example of

great customer service – an angry tweet dealt with in 30 seconds. But if Twitter is a way to turbocharge your customer service, what happens to the 80-90% who aren’t on it? Does their lack of social media savvy mean they don’t deserve that superior treatment? Of course reaching around the breakfast barrier can be very rewarding: for the police, a Facebook presence has made a difference in contacting hard-to-reach audiences – the kind of people, especially young people, who don’t usually come forward to them. But again, the problem of scale looms: if everyone was on Twitter, for instance, would the kind of service BT Care offers still be practical. According to another recent survey, over half of social media users now expect brands to intervene after an angry mention – the Candyman Effect (say their name and they appear) which poses a serious problem for overstretched customer service departments. 8. THE GRAPH IS THE WORLD At the root of the Breakfast Barrier is the great problem of Twitter (and by extension other social tools) – there is no such thing as a typical Twitter experience, because one’s experience of it is so determined by one’s social graph: the followers, the followed, and how many of each there are. But people talking about Twitter often talk about their benefits and their experiences as if they were universal benefits. One speaker, for instance, talked about the benefits of Twitter in terms of the three As – alerts, advice, and assistance. But to get useful advice you need a certain number of followers, and to get useful real-world assistance you need a certain number more: the example he gave was leaning on the Irish government to give him a Visa, hardly something open to Joe Fifty-Friends! This is an understandable effect – what makes the Twitter experience so seductive (and here I’m generalising from my activities) is that it gives you the impression of a multitude rushing past around you while actually limiting your experience to a small and self-selected part of it. The graph becomes the world. Even a piece of advice as sensible and generous-minded as Chris Brogan’s suggestion to promote other people’s content 12 times as much as your own carries the limitations of personal experience: Brogan’s followership is so large that he need never actually promote his own content at all! 9. A QUICK DIGRESSION ON HASHTAGS Twitter of course has evolved a mechanism for creating a breach in your social graph – the hashtag. Hashtags were in one sense a dominant presence at the conference, the #140conf tag creating a wall around the discussion and an impromptu community (who might or might not be physically present). But there was little explicit talk about them. Boyd Hilton, of HEAT magazine, described how the hashtag-powered backchannel for the edition of BBC’s Question Time featuring neo-fascist Nick Griffin felt “empowering” – 99.9% of the posts were against Griffin. It “made the

experience more real”, in part I’m guessing because of this sensation of instant, righteous consensus – which Griffin would probably spin as ‘mob mentality’. One young activist on the e-democracy panel, on the other hand, mentioned the #saysorrybrown hashtag, started by a conservative blogger and listing things the British PM should apparently apologise for. He held this up as a ‘bad’ use of Twitter, which seemed debatable to me even though I didn’t agree with the hashtag’s sentiment. Topical tags like #welovetheNHS have been popular before and will be again – if you don’t like the content the tag is up there for you to counter or mock. This idea of hashtags as a confrontational space within the Twitter network was explored by Kyra Gaunt in her talk on “racism as a resource” – frustratingly cut short by technical difficulties. One of the things she focused on was the controversy around hashtags created by and largely used by Twitter’s black users – her example was the #thatsAfrican one. But anyone can step into the hashtag stream, and these tags have been plagued by racist content. This illustrates the dual nature of the hashtag, probably the most fascinating part of Twitter culture: they are the mechanism for building impromptu communities, but they’re also rifts in the twitter stream continuum of anyone using them, portals that can lead to co-operation or confrontation. 10. DISINTERMEDIATION

The risk of confrontation posed by hashtags sits at odds with another great theme of the conference – disintermediation. Stephen Fry, in his keynote, was the first to raise this – his comments became the lead story for most reports on the event. Fry’s point is that Twitter allows celebrities to break away from the journalist/interview cycle. They can communicate directly to their millions of followers, and the journalists’ difficult or intrusive or mocking line of questions can go hang. Fry presented this as a democratising force. Andrew Keen, presenting directly after, was far less sure. The “flattening of power” that Fry had presented is an illusion according to Keen. Power is never flattened, it simply shifts, and now it’s shifted from the organisation to the individual. Fry is simply giving a new performance of power. This shift is best illustrated, I think, by considering the difference between corporate brands and ‘personal brands’. The corporate brand entering social media is urged to give up control, to surrender some of its autonomy. But Twitter’s most popular users – its A-Listers, the celebrities – are using it to regain a level of control over their presentation and perception, through disintermediation. The celebrities themselves are happy with this – so are their core fans, who get to feel closer than ever to their stars. Its the uncommitted, the casually interested, the non-fans who lose out – they might have preferred interviews in which journalists got some chances to be prickly.

There’s not much harm in it, even so, if the disintermediation is happening at the level of the celebrity PR puff-piece. But it goes further than that. At the Police Who Tweet panel, one member pointed out that the collapse of local news has hit police reporting – it used to be they could take a local journalist with them on, for instance, a drug raid, but there are far fewer reporters to spare. No matter, thanks to social media the police can put up their own video of the raid on YouTube or Facebook. This was particularly beneficial, said the policeman, because the journalists might have reported the police action in a “negative manner”. Disintermediation at work again! If power shifts to the individual, says Keen, and authenticity becomes something power is arranged around, then the risk is that will lead to more charlatanry not less, as the key is simply to perform authenticity well. Individual digital power is also highly unequal – on the telecoms panel, talking about how these large, highly regulated companies could become more agile, one member talked about profiling subscribers based on their online influence: the unspoken implication being that the more influential you are, the quicker and better your service will be. 11. BEING THERE

Certainly if there was one background note of the conference, it was authenticity: rarely defined, often present. For instance, the most useful service the X-Factor twitter staff provide, one mentioned, was sorting out the multitude of fake Twitter accounts that pop up for even the most transient of nine-day wonders. Chris Brogan put a lot of stress on trust, and one telling quote came from the music panel: “Where you used to have quotes from the NME on adverts, now you’ll have actual people’s opinions on a product” (emphasis mine!). Digital presence enriches digital information: one speaker talked about how users of Twitter quickly scan the page when it loads, looking first for avatars they know. Andrew Keen’s point about the performance of authenticity doesn’t just mean faking authenticity – social media communities are reasonably adept at spotting that. It’s also about the presentation of some aspects of yourself as more authentic than others. Chris Brogan’s advice on how to present yourself on Twitter chimed nicely with this – put up a photo of yourself, make sure your background looks like this not like that, and so on. It might make sense on an individual basis but in my opinion it reduces diversity – the rows of wellscrubbed, smiling, best-face-forward pictures on a Twitterstream reinforcing a sort of picket fences mentality. But for now the pendulum seems to be swinging against creative fakery – though Betty Draper cropped up a couple of times as an example, the media panel generally dismissed fictional twitter presences as pointless: Twitter is currently more about exposing the machinery (via performers and backstage crew tweeting) than enhancing a mystique. Kevin Slavin went further, predicting that the day of marketers personifying their brands through stories and characters is coming to an end – instead the ‘face’ of brands in the realtime media world will

be inhuman: local active systems that build non-narrative presence, like a Taco Bell Truck tweeting its journeys around an area. Meanwhile the idea of digital presence is something we’re increasingly born to. One of the day’s most interesting comments came from an audience question in the education panel – mentioning that he knew of 5 and 6 year olds who were tweeting. The reaction to this from the media might be concern – where are the safeguards? – but the questioner was more positive: Tweeting for these kids is learning to write for a purpose and an audience, not as an exercise. It was one of the moments in a rambling, exasperating, fascinating conference that cut through the rhetoric to provide a bit of real optimism.

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