argnetpicnic2008.jpgEditor’s Note: Daniël van Gool, an administrator at the Unfiction forums, was on the scene at PICNIC ’08 on behalf of ARGNet. We were impressed with Daniël’s work covering PICNIC ’07 and, as media partners of the annual cross-media festival, were invited to a number of special events in addition to the speaker sessions. This is the fourth part of Daniël’s comprehensive look at this year’s event, a look at the beginning of day two of the event. All pictures are courtesy of Daniël as well.

Kicking off the second day of the conference was a hugely interesting keynote address by Clay Shirky, famed author of Here Comes Everybody, a highly recommended read documenting the way society is rapidly being changed by emerging social tools.

The theme of Here Comes Everybody is “Group Action Just Became Easier” and Shirky gives 4½ examples of this:

1. The social dynamics behind Flickr

Not too long ago, a Flickr pool on high-dynamic range photography (HDR) was created. What followed was a conversation in the photos’ comments about who uses what software to create HDR material. People found out that it was possible to insert pictures into the comments and kept exchanging ideas on how to improve techniques. The stream of comments slowly turned into a “lecture” on HDR photography, making it a “social object” that attracted a community. It is the process of a social gathering in reverse: instead of starting by getting people with the same interests together into a large group, the social object acts as a catalyst which slowly gathers interested people around itself.

In the past, this would have taken years: a photo shows up, people document it in magazines, it gets picked up by amateurs, people get together in meetings discussing the topic, etc. The HDR on Flickr phenomenon happened within three months and became a vital part of the rapid progression of HDR photography techniques — much faster than would have ever been possible in the past.

There’s was another example illustrated which shows the downside of the same mechanic and it’s also Flickr-based. A separate photo pool exists called the Black & White Maniacs. The name is pretty self-explanatory, and the pool has rules on posting and commenting on black and white photos. The most important rule is that in order to post a picture, you had to comment on the previous two pictures in the pool. It turned out that people either ignored the rule, or found ways around it by just leaving a simple, non-descriptive comment like “nice.” This lead to an expansion of the rule set that was meant to be really simple, which prompted some big fights between moderators and users who just wanted to show the world their pictures.

The bottomline: Flickr has introduced a service of sharing photos, but creates a whole new dilemma on the social dynamics behind the actual sharing. Shirky’s firm statement was that you cannot solve such a dilemma, you can only optimize it. The new design challenge seems to be in how the social organization takes place.

2. The Bronze Beta discussion board

When Time Warner sold Buffy to UPN, the television network didn’t want the existing discussion board to continue. At the time, they announced that they would be looking into a new means of discussion in the future, but for that moment, the forum would be closed down. What they failed to take into account was that the users of said forum didn’t hang out there for the board per se, and it wasn’t the necessarily the topic of Buffy that had initially brought them together. The users maintained their presence on the forums because of “eachother,” the community.

After hearing about the forum closure, the community took action and asked a number of programmers to make a custom bit of software which would allow them to keep on with their discussions. They went so far as to explicitly ask the coders not to add any features. This request spawned a one-page website, Bronze Beta. It’s a weird development when the simple social tools gain wider acceptance over the complicated tools in terms of mass use, but this is fairly easily explained though — if the tool is social, it matters a lot to its users how it gets used, and thus the demand gravitates towards the simplest possible tool.

A funny aspect of Bronze Beta is the Rules page: there are ten times as many rules as there are features. An example of a rule is that there is to be no changing of text color, which can be read as, “it is unfair to attract more attention to yourself than others.” Rules like this are caused by social dilemmas, and those do net get solved by features or structures.

3. The Wikipedia article on Pluto

The Wikipedia article on Pluto is special in several ways. This has much to do with the fact that Pluto got “kicked out of the planet club” recently. Following that event, there was an enormous amount of editing and revision of its Wikipedia entry, and because of that, it got a disproportionate amount of attention and was expanded on and corrected over and over and is now an example of one of the best articles on Wikipedia.

Shirky’s point on this is that Wikipedia doesn’t get better because everyone agrees with each other, it gets better because of unending disagreement and discussion. He proceeded to show some interesting data on the Pluto article. A graph of edits showed that the editors of the article were comprised of a small group of people who care a lot and a lot of passersby that contributed almost nothing.

If you would apply the classic 80-20 managerial rule set, you’d cut off the tail and keep only the committed people, but this is where emerging social networks show that this rule set is far from universal. In instances such as this one, an ecosystem is created where a lot of people can contribute a little, and some people can contribute a lot, and this in turn helps with the quality and the thriving. It’s not the rule set that was right all the time, it was the social environment that was wrong!

Shirky likes to balance out his examples, and used the Wikipedia article on Galileo Galilei as a contrast to the theory that an ecosystem based on collaboration will result in quality content. The Galileo article is one of the very rare locked articles on Wikipedia, as the administration is protecting it from edits or removal of references to the catholic church. It’s essentially a 500 year-old flamewar! 😉

In this case, almost all of the “threat” comes from the tail of the graph, and all of the “defensive action” comes from the small group of committed people. Defensive features (the lock) help the people on the left-hand side of the graph stay protected from unwanted actions from the people on the right-hand side. It’s yet another social dilemma.

3.5. 10,000 cents revisited

Shirky referenced Aaron Koblin’s 10,000 cents project briefly, in that it is very interesting to take a look at the table of contributors that Koblin published on his website.

There were a lot of casual contributors, quickly leaving the site again after (minimally) contributing, because they did not have any real motivation for contributing other than killing time or trying to find out what was going on. There are also some interesting numbers regarding countries like China or Egypt though — some people did have the reward of 1 cent in mind as a motivation of recreating the pieces. Division of labor is being done spontaneously, and so is the division of motivation. The ‘weather report’ on creative collaboration could be seen as “Cloudy, with a chance of collaboration”.

4. HSBC’s penalty free checking account

“Sharing is easy, collective action is harder: its where a group of people collectively succeed or fail.”

A few months after HSBC launched a ‘penalty-checking account’, mostly aimed at students, the banking firm changed their minds and said that they would charge £140 in the case of overdraft. They gave their clients — again, mostly students — thirty days to change their contract.

Shortly thereafter, someone started a Facebook page that described how to move from HSBC to another bank, and people started to write documentation “for the greater good.” Soon, a protest was scheduled, but it never happened because HSBC caved in and changed their plans.

So, how should people interpret HSBC’s reaction to what happened? One theory is that HSBC didn’t cave simply because people were angry, but instead, they reconsidered their policy change because people were angry and organized. Social networks provide resources which create many more opportunities for people to easily organize themselves.

This concluded Shirky’s talk, which easily was one of the most compelling and intriguing addresses I’ve witnessed so far. Shirky seems to really hit the nail on the head when it comes to community dynamics. Impressive.

Following Shirky was Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and executive at Intel, for which she started out apologizing. The title of her talk was Secrets & Lies, and she started by stating that lying is everywhere — movies, commercials, television shows, music, advertisements and even religions, which all have their specific rule sets about lying.

And, surprise surprise, we’ve taken all of this lying online. People lie online all the time, mostly about appearance and identity (100% of online daters lie, or so current research has apparently found out). The internet also provides for weird privacy/deception services, like an alibi-agency that creates an alibi with tangible evidence (such as a conference package from PICNIC even though you didn’t attend) for you.

Newer generations of technologies have the potential to tell the “truth” unbidden, yet
our intents and our “intents” of our devices aren’t always aligned. It’s interesting to ask yourself what this means for certain online services: what does it mean for “e-government” if people do not want to tell the truth, how does this impact notions of national security, social networking sites, and so on. These are questions that should be looked into before taking online services to the next level!

Following this mildly unsettling talk was an on-stage discussion called The Future of Television, between Mike T. Fries, CEO of Liberty Global, and a rather sharp Kara Swisher from AllThingsD. It was mostly a debate on whether or not TV is dying, and if there are ways to prevent its doom. Fries thinks it’s going to be all about trying to get relevant content to people. Linear television is dying, but random access is going to stay. Also, the Internet doesn’t have the bandwidth for high quality video distribution, a statement that I personally thought he came away with easily, because this is a problem that’s generally believed to be solved in the next few years.

More on Day Two of PICNIC ’08 later this week!