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November 2007

Two talks and a visit

A busy few weeks, during which friends (for whose generosity I am so grateful) came to talk about what motivates and fires them on the web and in online life. Since we started these occasional talks, we've been fortunate to have winner after winner — and the two most recent ones were no exceptions.

Back on 8 November, Paul Farnell and David Smalley, co-founders along with Matt Brindley of Litmus (and see, too, Salted), came in to talk about starting a web-based business. Being a young entrepreneur is of interest to several students I teach or know at St Paul's; some have already launched their first ventures.

So: start with an idea that solves a problem (Litmus was born this way, in 2005); don't keep your ideas close but discuss them openly; have a revenue model; work with vision and passion, getting your first version out as soon as possible —  fail faster. Focus on the product, not on patents, NDAs, paperwork, limited company status … Earn money whilst your product cooks: freelance work (eg, web design) pulls money in for work on the product (until this starts paying its way) and also gives you the chance to learn new skills and to network (discovering potential clients). Strike whilst young: it's harder to make the jump to a start-up after earning a full salary working for someone else, and, if you start at university or school, you have a context within which you can take risks with greater safety and ease than later on.

Paul and David blogged briefly about their visit here and have posted a reading list 'of sites and articles which we’ve found to be invaluable over the years'. Adam blogged the talk here.

Riccardo Cambiassi came in the following Thursday to talk about Second Life. Briefly tracing the roots of virtual worlds from William Gibson's 1984 novel, Neuromancer (cyberpunk, cyberspace), through Neal Stephenson's third novel, Snow Crash (1992) and its use of metaverse, he brought us to 2003 and Linden Labs' launch of Second Life (Wikipedia): blending science, art and technology this offered the user the possibility to create and explore innovatory, 'what if' situations. A quick run down on key terms: avatar (Wikipedia: 'In video games, the term avatar refers to the character in the game's diegetic world controlled by the player. Although Neal Stephenson takes credit for creating the term in his book Snow Crash (p. 440), earlier usage can be found in the LucasArts virtual world Habitat); world — reprogrammable (open technology), allowing you to be the magician and write the spell; people — the major difference between web experience and virtual world experience — IM (etc) and voice; metaverse (not the only one: see developments in some web sites and in MMORPGs) — you can read the web, email, IM … see how the virtual world economy is faring vis-à-vis the real world's.

The case studies Riccardo went through were great for our students, illustrating something of the range of what can be done within Second Life: creating 3-D mind maps; creating a space (in this case, the work of an Italian journalist) to produce a low cost conference with high quality content; creating art pieces; an art gallery with a PDF, downloadable library; the celebration of a real life marriage in virtual reality; and Riccardo himself as R2D2. Finally,, an AJAX based SL client created by 15 year-old Katharine Berry (Google Code: 'it does not rely on browser plugins, making it suitable for use where you cannot install plugins, e.g. at work, school, or games console') — but sadly, since Riccardo's talk, taken down (see here). There are screenshots of AjaxLife here and an interview with Katharine in Reuters here.

Finally, on Friday, 16 November, Mark Selby, VP Media, Nokia, spent two and a half hours with us. The rise of mobile computing and the rapid development of powerful handheld devices (I've been using an N800 for a while now and we have an N810 on order) lent special purpose to Mark's visit, but above all I wanted him to to see what we're doing, what our students are using and playing with … and to talk directly with some of them. I hope we'll be able to build on this visit.

Conversation follows these talks and visits, breaking out around the speaker and carrying on over lunch and coffee. My thanks, again, to Paul, David, Riccardo and Mark for giving up so much of their time and for proving such good and stimulating company.

Trend watching

1) Bill Tanger, general manger of global research at Hitwise, writing in Time:

Perhaps a more interesting — and more accurate — way to figure out where college students are going online is to assess which of the 172 web categories tracked by Hitwise get the most hits from 18- to 24-year-olds. Here's a shocker: Porn is not No. 1. I've actually been puzzled by the decrease in visits to the Adult Entertainment category over the last two years. Visits to porn sites have dropped from 16.9% of all site visits in the U.S. in October 2005 to 11.9% as of last week, a 33% decline. Currently, for web users over the age of 25, Adult Entertainment still ranks high in popularity, coming in second, after search engines. Not so for 18- to 24-year-olds, for whom social networks rank first, followed by search engines, then web-based e-mail — with porn sites lagging behind in fourth. If you chart the rate of visits to social-networking sites against those to adult sites over the last two years, there appears to be a strong negative correlation (i.e., visits to social networks go up as visits to adult sites go down). It's a leap to say there's a real correlation there, but if there is one, then I'd bet it has everything to do with Gen Y's changing habits: they're too busy chatting with friends to look at online skin. Imagine.

This reshaped online landscape leaves me feeling old and out of the loop. It seems that social-networking sites have not only usurped porn in popularity, but they've also gobbled up time Gen Y-ers used to spend on traditional e-mail and IM. When you can reach all of your friends through Facebook or MySpace, there's little reason to spend time in your old-school inbox.

2) Via John Naughton, a report from Hitwise: 'For the first time last month, UK Internet visits to social networks overtook visits to web-based email services' —


3) From /personal:

It seems like all the camera usage graphs at Flickr are pointing down and look somewhat like this:

Canon camera usage on Flickr
Canon camera usage on Flickr (November 2007)

Are people using Flickr less than before? Or is camera usage more distributed by model than before? (I find this unlikely.) Is Facebook to blame?

(A number of explanations are possible, of course, of which The Facebook Factor is one — see the comments.)


The more I read on this, the less I think I'm understanding it.

At the Official Google Blog, OpenSocial makes the web better. Elsewhere, posts I've found useful include:

  • Jeremy Keith's posting, Open?

Lots of interesting points (and comments) there. Jeremy ends: 'I was initially excited that OpenSocial might be a magic bullet for portable social networks but after some research, it doesn’t look like that’s the case—it’s all about portable social widgets.'

Via Jeremy, I came across Tantek's OpenSocial and portability which I've also found very helpful:

OpenSocial is a key step forward for social application portability, while for other forms of portability, we already have well implemented solutions (Chris Messina reminded me of the importance of "OAuth for provisioning access to all your portable facets"). Here is a portability map of the technologies, what portability they enable, and who they primarily help today:

portability technology primary beneficiary
social application OAuth , OpenSocial developers(1)
social profile hCard  users
friends list XFN  users
login OpenID  users

All of these are components of social network portability.

Identity Portability could be argued to be a combination of the latter three, your portable social profile, your portable friends list, and your portable login / authentication.


  • (1) OpenSocial primarily benefits social application developers for now. The hope is that users will eventually benefit by having more choice of which social network sites they are able to use their favorite social network applications. Similarly OAuth saves the developer time by enabling to support a single API authorization protocol rather than one API authorization (Flickr auth, Google Auth, Yahoo BB Auth, etc.) per social network site.

OpenSocial as a component of social network portability?


I've always loathed Snap previews, but this has been going around — Anil Dash, commenting on Something this way comes:

so, I really don't know the details of any business relationship we have with Snap, and I have to confess the previews bug the crap out of me, too.

But here's the thing: Regular people on the web *love* Snap previews. I know you don't believe it -- I didn't want to believe it. But it's completely true. In the testing and feedback I've seen, it's some emotional pull about the fact that links "do something" now, instead of just being on the page. I know we all feel these people are idiots, but it's our own geek cultural imperialism that makes us think we know better than non-techy folks.

I can't claim to really understand why this is the case, but I know far better than to question people's emotions about such things. :) My first reaction was "ew, omg, opt-in only, please!", but you will be totally shocked how many people will delight in having them. And yep, you can block 'em completely for yourself. came to LiveJournal, then, in September, following Vox.