Jun 06

Improv concerts & what social media can learn from them

Yesterday evening I attended the live premier of a BBC Concert Orchestra & Festival of Nature commissioned concert. (Disclosure: Science City Bristol are sponsoring the Science Cafes @ Festival of Nature, but I’ve not been involved in this concert, other than attending.)

The performance was in two halves; a short sequence of clips from the BBC Natural History Unit with the orchestra playing live, short chat with Q&A and then a repeat performance. Why two performances, and what’s it got to do with social media?

Well, the orchestra wasn’t the full BBC Concert Orchestra, 5 members of the orchestra and a composer were joined by 24 young people from schools across Bristol. They met for the first time on Tues, worked for 3.5 days and gave the performance on the Friday. They hadn’t seen the film clips beforehand, and they hadn’t played as an orchestra before. They also didn’t have any written musical score at the performance; it was all played from memory and partly improvised. And it sounded fantastic, both times!

December 28, 2009 by manning999

The key came during the Q&A. When they first watched the film and asked the young people about the music to go with it, there were lots of suggestions about a cymbal crash here, some flute there, and so on. Lots of focus on the individual instruments and notes, but no ‘bigger picture’. The first thing the composer and the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Learning Team did was to re-view the films and talk about that bigger picture, the emotions they evoked or wanted to bring out, the sense of majesty (Humpback Whales) or playfulness (Giant Otters).

Once they had those broad messages and the overall framework of the pieces, then they began to experiment with chord sequences and harmonies. By all accounts it was a very egalitarian approach with ideas being voted on, and continuous refinement selecting or disposing of small parts that worked or didn’t.

In the final performance, most of the music was played from memory, but there were still flashes of inspiration by individual orchestra members, and because they’d gone through that development process and the ground rules were clearly laid out, those individual flourishes could be included without grandstanding or throwing everyone else into confusion. They were all listening intently to each other throughout the performance, as well as having great fun.

You can see the whole thing (well a recording of the concert mixed with the films) on the BBC Big Screen in Millennium Square as part of the Festival of Nature (12-13 June 2010).

Business as music

The parallels with some types of business are quite striking. They had a CEO that was clearly in control, and he empowered this team to do what they do best. They worked on a shared vision and understanding of the broad task at hand, and willingly contributed ideas to other sections if it made the overall performance better. In the actual performance they were working to agreed boundaries but within those boundaries there was freedom to do what was best at that particular instant in time.

Social media as music

Too often people talk about social media in the same way as the young people first approached the films. We could use twitter to send out little updates, and that would link to our Facebook page, and we can pull in our blog rss, and mash up with a Google map, and…

Twitter is not a Strategy

There needs to be a bigger picture. Even if all you’re doing it trying out these tools to see how they work for you or your business, you need to have some thought as the purpose. You also have to have some thought as to the socially acceptable way of doing things. The musical rules that the BBC used were a based on a heptatonic scale, rather than the pentatonic scale. Neither is right or wrong, but you can’t do both at once (at not without calling it ‘experimental’). 🙂

There’s nothing wrong with breaking a few rules, that’s almost the definition of being a stand-out excellent entrepreneur / artist / individual. But you really need to know which rules you’re breaking and to what purpose.

Of course, with social media the rules aren’t quite the same as in other forms of social interaction, and as new tools come along they can mutate. Fortunately one of the rules that has completely reversed is lurking, allowing you to observe behaviour before you dive in.

Once you have that bigger purpose, knowing what the rules of participation are, then you can choose which tools / instruments will deliver the required performance.

Plans are worthless. Planning is essential. – Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, & many others

And of course things won’t go according to plan, but that’s where having the clear shared sense of purpose means that people can act without having to fight through layers of bureaucracy. And they can act honestly as human beings rather than PR spin-doctors or script-reading robots.

What’s your social media strategy? Listen, plan, listen, act, repeat; or deliver a stream of ‘messages’ across all channels in a blitzkrieg approach?

Mar 17

Blast from the Past

Unfortunately I can’t be at this months Brrism (sorry Micheal @kobb). However, one of the topics will be around ancient scrolls of wisdom (or anything over 5 years in Internet time).

Which got me thinking about what I was up to 10 years ago.

At the time I was a junior PhD researcher at the University of Plymouth. Bizarrely my old homepage is still live, though mercifully I’d updated it in 1999 with fewer flashing GIF’s and roll-over image maps, though the obligatory animated email gif is still there (the email isn’t live however).

A large part of my research (1997-2000) was looking at systems theory as it applied to ‘human activity systems’, so I’m going to cheat (slightly) and reference some work that wasn’t directly about Social Media (or even web-based technologies). Though I was based in the School of Computing, my background is in engineering and the research group was mostly engineers, economists and psychologists. We were interested in how systems theory could be applied to particular social groups (mostly engineering companies in this case) and in particular the processes that those social groups used to achieve certain aims (generally converting some specification into a manufactured product). However, I believe there is good reason to think that much of that research can be applied to social media application in other business endeavours.

Squared Circle Mosaic: Fibonacci Spiral with Hue Twist - Uploaded on January 27, 2005 by krazydad / jbum

Prof Peter Checkland (Lancaster University) is a Chemist that worked in industry on complex engineering problems and eventually moved to the most complex systems of all, those involving humans (unfortunately his seminal work is a book, 1981, not an online article).

Systems are generally recognised by some fundamental principles;

  • Boundaries – there’s a bunch of stuff that’s “inside” the system, and a bunch of stuff that’s “outside” the system (there will usually be an argument over where to draw the boundary but that almost defines the fact that you’ve got a system)
  • Inputs and outputs – stuff crosses the boundary, this can be physical or non-physical [you can have a ‘closed’ system but they’re generally rather boring and hypothetical]
  • There’s some transformation, i.e. difference, between the inputs and outputs
  • There are components within the system; a single component is not a system
  • Systems are nested; within large systems are smaller systems

and most importantly

  • Emergent Properties – you can’t describe the performance of the system just by analysing the component parts

Checkland is important because he was one of the first people to try and describe the messy company and organisational situations he was working within from a systems perspective (building on much of Bertalanffy‘s work between 1934 & 1969) . He identified boundaries and within those boundaries the sub-groups that actually made the company work. He identified information and flows of power within the organisation, and across those boundaries. He was able to sketch out the ‘actual’ human activity system, rather than the business or computer information system. It was the systems characteristic of emergent properties that led to them not performing as planned, and gave rise to the law of unintended consequences (previously identified in social sciences by Robert Merton (1936) but not explained).

But what does this mean for the social media strategist?

Well it means that, despite our shiny shiny toys, there is quite a bit of good research and clear thinking about how people work in groups and in particular how we can design such systems. No matter how carefully we design them, there will be emergent properties; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t design them in the first place.

There will always be boundaries, some stuff will be “inside”, some stuff will be “outside”. You don’t want everything to be “inside“; even planet earth isn’t a closed system.

Stuff needs to cross your system boundary, and it needs to be transformed en-route to becoming an output. I put my details into Facebook (as do 350m others) and a whole bunch of RSS feeds, and I get a ‘useful’ homepage about my ‘friends’. I can put photos, comments, stories, whatever in, and people can further transform them with additional comments, links to other people, etc. True, you can’t automagically get that data out of Facebook, but you can log in and read what’s there. And reading what’s there is one form of taking information out of the Facebook system, as are social networks, etc.

Of course there are lots of component software chunks and sub-systems within Facebook. Each casual game on Facebook is its own system, nested within Facebook. Each fan community is a nested system. Each discussion board is, potentially, a sub-system, nested within a fan page, nested within Facebook, nested within the Internet, etc. Depending on where you draw the boundary, everyone that’s on Facebook is also part of the system…

And of course there’s a ton of emergent behaviour that wasn’t predicted (or predicable).

So what can we do about/with it?

The first thing to note is that, from my experience, most people aren’t very good at meta-cognitive thinking about systems theory. That is, they are used to living within systems (social, organisational, leisure) but they don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about those systems, and even less thinking about how they are thinking about them.

This means that people will usually try to apply existing social behaviours and norms to on line systems, and if that doesn’t work they get frustrated/angry/disillusioned/etc. You either build your on-line social media system exactly like ‘real’ world (but then why would anyone be interested in your system?) or educate people  into the operating of the new system. That’s why all games have tutorial / training built in.

In order to develop a training programme you need to understand, and be able to communicate, the designed purpose and functioning of your system. One way to do this is draw a picture of it, not a UML diagram or a wireframe, but a human activity system diagram. You don’t need to use any ‘standardised’ modelling nomenclature, so long as you and your team understand it and it covers the basics above.

Michael, Rick Chapman, and I spent some time recently thinking about modelling social media systems. We tried to cover the basics, without employing a formal systems modelling methodology. Its not perfect but I think it’s a good start.

You should know where the boundaries are, what the expected information flows are going to be, the transformations and components that will do the transforming, and what the wider emergent property will be. That will all change once the system begins to operate but at least you’ll have a blueprint and can either take action to bring the system back into the original concept or decide to take things in a different direction.

We did quite a lot of this within my old research group, and its surprising how good a consensus you can arrive at for generic systems diagrams.

This early draft is far from ‘perfect’ but I think there is something of value if you’re building, or thinking about social media, to have a model similar to this in your toolbox to refer to.

Conclusion & Caveat

In conclusion, some thinking time about the network you’re trying to build is valuable. The tools you employ should come afterwards; twitter is not a social media strategy. There are lots of good, well established frameworks to think about social networks, systems of activity, etc. You don’t need to follow slavishly the minutia of their particular quirks and peculiarities but you should understand why they are there and why you are ignoring them.

The caveat: feedback loops are a feature of systems. The huge difference that digital technologies have brought is the near frictionless feedback loop. There is almost no transactional cost to publishing a comment and for that comment to then be republished to +350m people (it happens both automatically via services like posterous and twitter-bots, and through the retweet/comment feature in all social media services), and re-re-published endlessly. That is something that we haven’t modelled effectively yet. The good social media marketeers amongst us know how to achieve this, even if they don’t fully understand the why.

Jan 08

Brrism – Social Media in Bristol

Always a good evening, the next Brrism looks to be a real barnstormer (6.30pm on Wednesday 20 Jan in the Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol).

There promises to be some great presentations on social media tools (Colin Rainsforth, twitter) and the fine line between time management & time wasting (Lee Cottier, twitter) but I’m guessing the hot topic will be the Digital Economy Bill.

Paul Smith (Labour Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Bristol West) is leading the discussion. The bill is about to enter the Committee Stage in the House of Lords, so there’s no guarantee that it’ll be law before the election, but this is a critically important bill for the UK and Bristol’s digital economy so come along and can make a positive contribution.

Events
Feb 24

OpenCoffee Bristol demo sessions

<This is a cross post from OpenCoffee Bristol, Bristol companies demo to packed room>

Change of venue and format brought out the regulars and new faces for this morning’s OpenCoffee Club meeting. Mariama Njie welcomed us all with fresh coffee, tea and chocolate cookies to UWE Ventures’ new business incubation space in Bush House right on the harbourside in Bristol. There was plenty of time for folk to have a good look around and catch up with each other before squeezing into the main Board Room for the company demo’s.

Test and Verification Solutions

First up was Michael Bartley from Test & Verification Solutions. Michael introduced us to software testing and code validation. His expertise was in providing clients with access to reduced cost and flexible resources at this specific point in their software development cycle. Michael works closely between clients and partners (mainly in India) to build find the right out source partner (rather than a body-shop as Sam Machin described it). The right partner was one that understood the application domain as well as the technology and could provide a high quality of service with good knowledge management.

After software testing, Ed Ross introduced his solution to oversized email attachments and overwhelming spam. Tonsho provides both services in a single subscription. Attachments of up to 100MB are handled through normal SMTP from your email to the Tonsho servers, the recipient receives a friendly email with a link to the file that they download (again through SMTP). Whilst all this is going on, Tonsho also offers a “challenge – response” solution to spam. Email that fails a spam filter triggers a challenge to solve a capatcha, if successful the email is automatically moved to the inbox and the sender added to the users white list. Ed was using Adsense and limited additional marketing, some good write-ups on About.com and word of mouth from existing users to grow the service. Basic accounts are free, added storage and features are available from Pro, and Enterprise accounts. Ed also offers a “Photographers” version that includes a photo gallery with watermarking.

Last up, but certainly not least, was Nigel Legg with a live demo of his latest enterprise Katugas Social Media Monitoring. Building on his experience coding and analysing free text responses on market surveys, Nigel is now delivering detailed analysis of a companies social media profile. Using software from Radian6 in Canada, Nigel pulled up a series of queries for Open Coffee and topics that might be talked about. Turns out the iPhone is very popular with nearly 500k mentions in the last 30 days. The interesting part was when Nigel pulled up individual mentions, and began grading them for sentiment (positive to negative on 5 point scale). He then pulled up the key influencers based on number of articles, comments, links, etc. A really powerful analysis of a business’s online presence and valuable tool for monitoring brand perception. With the ability to report daily, weekly and monthly this is a fantastic addition to Bristol’s business environment.

After the semi-formal presentations folks carried on discussions until gone 10am. Mariama did an excellent job supplying coffee throughout and lots of new connections were started.

Thanks again to the presenters, attendees and UWE Ventures.

The next OpenCoffee Bristol will be on 10 March at Starbucks on Park St. The next demo session will be in a month or two (drop me an email or comment if you’d like to present).

Nov 27

A real Live Guy

Dan Such bags a netbook

Dan Such bags a netbook

A variation of igFest‘s Moosehunt came to Bristol yesterday in the form of Vodafone’s LiveGuy, his mission (which it looks like he accepted with eagerness):

I’m travelling from the north to the south of Britain, laying down clues to my whereabouts. Your mission is to find me – and maybe even bag yourself a netbook. You’ve got two ways to win. Either Find LiveGuy in person or Find LiveGuy online.

<plug>All with the help of a very cool looking Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook connected to the Vodafone network and with a GPS chip giving location updates (delayed slightly for the purposes of giving LiveGuy a fighting chance).</plug>

Sam Machin catches up with LiveGuy

Sam Machin catches up with LiveGuy

Through the wonders of social media, Mike Coulter met with with LiveGuy at the start of his journey in Edinburgh. It was his blog & twitter stream that alerted me to the project. Mike then dm’d me to see if I wanted help drum up some interest around Bristol.

A few txt messsages, phone calls and emails led to an early morning rendevouz at a top secret location before the day’s excitment around Bristol. As well as bringing Liveguy and his support team (Alastair) up to speed with some of what’s going on around Bristol in the creative use of mobile & locative technology we also had a really good discussion over the future of such technologies and what you can achieve with them.

Obviously the creative and pervasive media projects going on around the Pervasive Media Studio were of interest along with the robotics research between the Universities, but what struck me was the genuine interest around communities, engagement and ways in which technology, and the service providers, can help facilitate that engagement.

Bristol has as checkered a history at public engagement as any other city but in recent years a number of really good initiatives have shown what can be achieved. The flagship is probably the Knowle West Media Centre with a huge and expanding range of community programmes covering pretty much all aspects of digital media. These are so good they’re now running a social enterprise with clients including blue chips and local community companies. They’ve also engaged in a number of innovative mobile and locative technology projects exploring the ways in which civic engagement can be facilitated by technology.

Tom Dowding also spotted LiveGuy

Tom Dowding also spotted LiveGuy

We also talked about the Connecting Bristol project which came out of the Digital Challenge. This is another area where creative use of technology is being applied to wide civic challenges. Under the wing of the City Council, but operating independently out of the eOffice on Wine St, Stephen Hilton and Kevin O’Malley are part of 10 city collaboration. As well as news about the DC10 grouping of cities, Kevin regularly posts about other initiatives and news that is of interest for those at the intersection between technology and civic change (environment, education, planning, transport, are just some recent topics).

With that it was nearly time for LiveGuy to fire up twitter and hit the streets of Bristol, and for me to head off also. I’m staying in touch with Alastair so watch this space for more announcements.

Congratulations to Dan Such, Sam Machin, Tom Dowing and the online winner, Ruth Bailey.

Disclosure: Although I knew where Liveguy was starting his day in Bristol, I didn’t know the itinerary and chose not to take part in the Find Live Guy challenge. There is no business relationship between jbsh LLP, Vodafone or the agency behind LiveGuy.

Update 1: the picture links to Picassa didn’t seem to work – so I’ve copied the images to jbsh.co.uk and linked to them here.