Monday, 13 July 2009

On Twitter, Agitation and Collaboration (via Radicalism, Regicide and St Benedict)

Last Friday afternoon I was somewhat surprised to find myself sitting in an English parish church musing on the year 1670 and the relationship between St Benedict’s Little Rule for Beginners and Twitter. To explain how it came about you’ll have to permit me to provide some context.

For the English 1660 is a far more recognisable date than 1670. 1660 was the year in which England shut the door on decades of political turmoil and the aftermath of a civil war that culminated in regicide with the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and the ensuing Lord Protectorship of Oliver Cromwell. It was the year the “long parliament” was finally dissolved and at the end of May Charles II, son of the beheaded king, returned to London and the monarchy was restored. (Fans of English letters will also recognise it as the year in which Samuel Pepys commenced his diary on 1st January.)

One individual caught up in the political turmoil of the English civil war was a Cambridge scholar, fellow of Clare Hall (now Clare College) and Vicar of the Cambridgeshire village of Great Gransden. As a staunch Royalist, Barnabas Oley was forced into hiding for his beliefs. Cambridgeshire was a difficult place to be loyal to the King, given that it was Cromwell’s home county and a hotbed of Parliamentarian Puritanism. For several years Oley lived in fear for his life, taking refuge in northern England. It was only the Restoration of 1660 that allowed Oley to come out of hiding, resume his post at Clare and take up residence in Gransden again. He reached the rank of Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, was involved with the University Press, and was responsible, amongst other things, for posthumous publication of the metaphysical poet George Herbert, whose work had failed to get past the press licensors in the pre-puritan era following the death of James I

Most significantly for me, amongst Oley’s philanthropic deeds in his parish was the foundation of a village school in 1670. Although Elizabeth I had granted charters for numerous town grammar schools in England during her reign, rural education was at best ad hoc and was largely non-existent, so in this Oley’s actions were characteristically charitable, radical and ahead of their time. So now, in the penultimate week of every summer term, Barnabas Oley is remembered in Gransden. On Wednesday the final year children visit Clare College. Then on Friday – Founder’s Day – a member of the academic staff of Clare pays a return visit to the school, makes a speech and presents prizes in the church where Oley served as vicar for so many years.

So there’s a thread from the Restoration of 1660, through Barnabas Oley founding a school in 1670 (the same school that my youngest child will attend for the last time this week), to me sitting in a church in 2009 listening to the current Dean of Clare College, the Rev Gregory Seach, explaining Benedict’s “Little Rule for Beginners” to a group of 4-11 year olds. Cambridge academics are not universally skilled in communicating with primary school children, so over my 12 years of attending I’ve heard some variable speeches. But although he now teaches Divinity at Cambridge, Seach is an energetic Australian who taught English and Drama in schools for ten years before training for the ministry. He knows how to attract and retain the attention of children and adults.

Greg told us that in the “Little Rule” Benedict exhorted people to recognise each day as a new beginning with new opportunities for learning. And he also instructed them to work and learn together because humans don’t learn in isolation – but rather with and from each other. Benedict saw learning as a collaborative activity, just as he saw work as one of the essential disciplines of life.

Co-incidentally, the previous evening, I had participated in a Twitter discussion about e-readers co-ordinated by @KatMeyer under the #followreader hashtag. I would never have thought a useful and meaningful conversation on a subject so complicated would be possible in 140-character tweets. I was wrong. I learned a huge amount in less than an hour thanks to the participation of many well-informed people, who were patient and courteous with the less well-informed. (The exchanges should all still be visible by searching #followreader and Kat will also post an online summary.)

Then Friday itself had begun with some vigorous online exchanges with @MackCollier. Mack had tweeted that he felt #followfriday – the convention by which on Friday users of Twitter suggest others worth “following” under the #followfriday hashtag – has had its day and should be let go. Mack is a social media expert with considerable influence online (and offline too no doubt). With 24,434 tweets and 9,063 followers under his belt it’s fair to assume his opinions come from experience. In his view #followfriday has become a routine to promote egos and the already well-known, rather than genuinely widen the real inclusiveness of Twitter.

All this was on my mind as I shifted gears from the digital world to the story of Benedict’s Little Rule. In making a school prize day speech, I found Greg Seach articulating one aspect of why Twitter is such an engaging forum. Within the group of publishers, authors, readers, writers, journalists, industry professionals, friends, family and other tangents I am following and meeting online, there is a sense of a group endeavour. Yes there are egos present, individual agendas followed and corporate profits sought – within a cocktail made all the more punchy by the participation of self-styled enfants terribles such as @ajkeen who don’t hesitate to disrupt – but even that disruption is productive because it is questioning and deliberately provocative. Even in our modern secular media we need agitators and catalysts to make things happen – as Barnabas Oley well knew. And by working and learning collaboratively we learn better and faster – as Benedict of Nursia pointed out in the 6th Century – and Twitter still proves in the 21st.

Friday, 19 June 2009

On Conches and Conversation

The change of time zone that comes with my current business travels in the US allowed me to take part in the Twitter Book Club discussion (#tbc) on Monday 15th June 9pm EST. Although there is nothing to stop me taking part from the UK, I’m not entirely sure in normal circumstances I’d want it to be visible to my friends, family & colleagues that I’d been wide awake tweeting between 2-3am GMT. Insomnia is public in Twitter.

Monday’s #tbc was a fascinating hour (anyone on Twitter can see the exchanges posted by searching on #tbc). The discussion was of Lloyd Jones’ novel Mr Pip, first published in 2006 – so a book that has been doing the rounds for some time. (I embarrassed myself by enthusing about it at home last week whereupon Ellie (15) rolled her eyes and replied “I read it last year and told you it’s great….”)

Mr Pip was a smart choice for #tbc. Short, compelling, well-paced, full of ambiguities and unanswered questions, redolent with literary references (which while they can enhance enjoyment of the book, don’t detract if the reader is unfamiliar with them). The hour-long session produced some intriguing posts (not least the revelation that @MissLiberty has her mother up for sale on Craig’s List). But I’m not sure I’d call it a “conversation” in any conventional sense. Was it a book group? Well – in one sense, yes – we were a group of people focussing on the same book at the same time. And yes I’ve taken away some new ideas and thoughts that have increased my enjoyment of a great book that were not derived from my own individual reading.

Yet discussing a book with others in Twitter in a compressed time frame presents a number of challenges, the first of which is simply remembering to include the hashtag in each post. Forget the hashtag and no-one in the group will see your comments unless they happen to be following your tweets anyway. Using Tweetdeck helps as it enables the participant to create a separate #tbc column. Furthermore it seems to me there are four simultaneous and sometimes counteractive pressures in play when participating in such an event in Twitter: listening (reading), posting, chronology and speed. As the tweet stream emerges, framing an intelligent response in a 140-character bite quickly enough for it to arrive in anything like a logical juxtaposition to the tweet that prompted it is extremely challenging. Indeed it could be seen as an interactive art form all of its own. Forget Haiku: 140 character posts under speed in response to others are more difficult than 3-5-3 or even 5-7-5 syllables. The result is almost like the transcript of an intriguing discussion that someone has taken a pair of scissors to and randomly reorganised.

For those who haven’t read Mr Pip, I don’t want to give the plot away. However I will say that it is set on an island torn by civil-war and includes a violent scene including butchery and pigs. At one point I tweeted that both islands and pigs are freighted in literary terms because of the reference to Lord of the Flies. Since then, re-reading the #tbc tweetstream, I have realised that the whole #tbc concept has another fundamental parallel with Golding’s novel. Whilst I enjoyed participating, and will certainly do so again, insomnia permitting, at no point was it clear who was “holding the conch”. In a face-to-face group there is a joint focus on each person as they speak that simply is not possible in Twitter. So as things stand I’m divided over whether I’m frustrated by the limitations of or excited by the possibilities for using Twitter to encourage engagement with books. Why not join in and let me know what you think…?

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

On Roadmapping the Future

Yesterday's Huffington Post included a blogpost by Don Tapscott on the impending demise of universities. It is a subject of some interest given that I work in academic publishing and my eldest child is almost 16, so the university years lie ahead for her and her siblings. As ever the comments following the post are as interesting as Tapscott's typically iconoclastic piece, divided as they are into some voices of support and a number wondering where Mr Tapscott has been for the past couple of decades. For me neither blogpost nor comments ask the crucial questions which focus around how we facilitate change management conducted in an economically viable manner within long established businesses and organisations. And I mean viable for the individual institutions that need to change - and viable for our society which requires an educated and enabled population.

The post was placed on the Huffington Post specifically to solicit feedback, as Edge, where it was originally placed, does not publish reader comments. True to form I read and I commented. Only to find (infuriatingly) that what I had written had exceeded Huffington's maximum comment word count (by 311 words). So I have decided to place it here instead...

Dear Don
I read your post with interest as it addresses what are currently two of my most pressing (and parallel) personal and professional concerns, viz
(i) what sort of university education should I be envisaging for my (currently young teen) children, and,
(ii) where will academic publishing be in five years time.
Regarding education I am torn between a sense of excitement about how much more interesting and purposeful learning is becoming, and, watching my children, a despair that although they know how to source, interact with and dissect information intellectually, they find it very difficult to write and structure a sustained analysis. As an employer I still value the skill of written analysis.

I find it useful to think about publishing and education together because both are businesses (often long-established, frequently old-fashioned businesses). Yes, educational establishments are often semi-public sector businesses but nonetheless they have budgets to meet - and it helps to remind ourselves of this when considering their future. Universities and academic publishers are faced with markets that are evolving by the hour in their demands for new delivery channels and methodologies. Both are being rapidly pulled into a world where they are increasingly driven by the requirement to respond to the ways in which changing and emerging technologies are modulating what students and employers want and how they want, it rather than being driven by traditional pedagogy and academic values.

So far, so good - and nothing wrong with this. I am all for dragging academe into the real world. The crux is how to effect such change at the same time as remaining a viable business. The problem is that educational establishments (like publishing companies) are restricted by their histories, their funding models, their obligations as employers, and multiple other pre-existing social and commercial contracts. It is all very well to comment that they have to change - but they have to be enabled to change - and at the moment the impedimenta of their histories (and their business models) is making that difficult.

Seeing where they need to go is not that hard. There are plenty of visionaries and change evangelists out there - yourself included - who are thinking, writing and speaking about what needs to happen. However what we are remarkably short of is people with the skills, the insight and commercial acumen needed to chart the roadmap from "here" to "there". How does an institution or business with a model built around a pedagogical approach remain a viable enterprise whilst rapidly adapting to deliver - or rather enable - learning in a completely different style, channel and model (subject to rapid change and therefore ongoing cost to adapt and develop)? Just because the future of education could be significantly Internet-based, that does not for one moment mean that it will necessarily be cheaper.

The interesting question for me is not - "do we have to change?" That we do seems axiomatic. Much more important is how we free up institutions and businesses to be able to adapt quickly in a way that does not destroy what is still inherently valuable in them. The education and publishing establishments urgently need advanced change management skills of the most pragmatic and enabling sort. In both publishing and education if we don't find ways of roadmapping and structuring the change that is required within viable business models, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Of Success and Salt (or dare to fail not fail to dare)

Twitter and its simultaneous capacity for both linear and lateral information flow remains very much in the (book industry) news (and on my mind) at the moment with the NY Book Expo Tweetup being the talk of the fair and over here in the UK Salt’s Just One Book campaign attracting attention.

That I am a Salt groupie and therefore hopelessly prejudiced in their favour is a well-established fact. But you don’t have to be a fan to discern that Salt make beautiful, intellectually rigorous books in collaboration with authors who like being published by them. However Salt have yet to create a robust business model even though they have been pushing boundaries to achieve this – most particularly in their innovative use of social media to promote the company and its authors.

The power of Twitter and #hashtags is that suddenly, off the back of Just One Book there now exists a fast, simple mechanism to search and follow others who are also rooting for Salt. (And the same applies for thousands of other special interest subjects that people are using hashtags to flag up for others.) Through this mechanism Twitter has led me to a variety of postings about Salt including ghostwriter Jane Smith’s blog (not one I would normally visit, aimed as it is at authors). What drew my attention was not the fairly brief post (23 May) – but rather the fierce debate that ensued in the comments column. One anonymous reader (who subsequently identified him or herself as "Rae") had been dismissive of Salt’s campaign as a “gimmick” and was rounded on by a number of Jane’s more regular followers some of whom are Salt authors. However I was struck by the remarks "Perhaps Salt Publishing should try publishing books people want to read rather than resorting to emotional blackmail…” and – on the Salt website - “There are just too many steps for the uninitiated, other book websites are not quite so cumbersome - I guess that's why they aren't having problems with sales”.

I found myself pausing to reflect whether there is something of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome going on here. Are those of us deeply engaged with books and publishing so blinded by our beliefs and our self-belief that we can’t risk seeing ourselves through the eyes of others? The comment thread reveals both an unwillingness to tolerate criticism and some of the unwritten expectations we have of the way in which people comment on blogposts and in discussion fora. This is not the first time I have observed a dissenting voice raising the ire of a committed and converted community of followers and in doing so often terminating a discussion.

It seems to me, however, that Rae raised three most apposite points -

1. "Perhaps Salt should publish books people want to read...”
This is a statement freighted with assumptions – first and foremost that people are aware of Salt’s books in the first place. According to the Salt Confidential blog, Chris Hamilton-Emery has been humbled by discovering just how little awareness there is of Salt outside those with a real commitment to poetry. It is evident that for all of their Facebooking and assorted innovations, Salt have remained outside of the mainstream and consequently many active book buyers remain unaware of their lists. The reasons for this are too diverse and numerous to enumerate here. Now the real crux of the matter is that the exposure the Just One Book Campaign grants them will get books and authors into new hands, or rather in front of new eyeballs. Ergo we will soon see whether Salt are publishing books people want to read if – after Just One Book – sales can be sustained at significantly higher levels than before the campaign. If not, maybe it tells us something that we don’t really want to know.

2. (re website) “there are just too many steps for the uninitiated…”
Here was genuine feedback from someone who had made the effort to visit the site. And it was slightly shocking to read given that many of us in the industry envy Salt’s content-rich web site. But because we are engaged we don’t need to evaluate the site objectively for its new-user-friendliness (and how many of us are guilty of that in relation to our own sites). If writers and publishers resent and reject such useful feedback from first time visitors – then we deserve to fall victim to our own hubris.

3. “…other book websites… not having problems with sales”
Of course many other book websites are run by large retailers and not by independent publishers. The fact that Amazon, B&N and The Book Depository set the standard for the online book purchasing experience is a real problem for under-resourced independent publishers (not to mention everyone else in the supply chain). The rest are playing catch-up. (As an aside, the assertion that others are not having problems with sales is debatable and unanswerable. Are we talking about publishers or retailers here? Other poetry publishers may well be having problems with sales – but if they are part of a larger group there may be other resources deployed to support poetry, and then of course some others have long-term public funding arrangements in place.)

As a result of watching the Just One Book campaign, I am renewed in my belief that just because a company publishes wonderful books, it does not follow that they are a successful publisher. Production and editorial values alone do not make for publishing success. Publishing, as practised by commercial publishing ventures, is about creating lists that successfully reach a paying market (which may or may not be the end consumer) and are therefore profitable. The required scale of that profit is for the publisher to determine according to their own objectives and shareholder or stakeholder pressures. But whilst there are many measures of creative and artistic success in the form of literary gongs and industry awards, Mr Micawber’s advice about what represents financial success still holds true today.

In 1999 (co-incidentally the year Salt was founded) I attended my first Independent Publisher's Guild conference as the newly appointed Secretary of the organisation. From the Platform, Michael Schmidt, publisher of Carcanet, said something that lodged in my mind and has remained with me ever since: "I take a forestry ecology approach to publishing poetry". So saying, Michael recognised that successful publishing needs first and foremost an enthusiastic, informed audience that values what is published highly enough to be prepared to pay for it (a market). Whether Schmidt and Carcanet have been successful in husbanding or enlarging poetry’s habitat is a separate question, and not for now.

If you are paying attention you may recall that in my opening sentence I asserted that Twitter is lateral as well as linear. Even better, the lateral can link back into the linear in serendipitous ways. A couple of days ago a random retweet threw up a perfect example of this by leading me to a blogpost by Mack Collier (@MackCollier) entitled “You will fail at social media.” Intrigued, I read on – and I thoroughly recommend that you do too. Embedded in the post is a video of a TED lecture from Sir Ken Robinson whose 15-minute presentation on why education matters posits that creativity demands we have to dare to fail in order to succeed. This short video has radically altered my thinking about my childrens’ education and training and education in the company I help to run. I can't recommend it highly enough. Sir Ken’s thesis observes that children dare to fail until adults educate that courage out of them – and that this traditional approach to education is disastrous in the context of the global creative economy we live and work in.

Then it dawned on me that what Chris and Jen at Salt have been doing for the last ten years is daring to fail. And when it looked like that failure was complete (in commercial if not artistic terms) they dared to be brutally honest about it – and apply their own brand of wit and creativity to facing up to that reality. How ironic it will be – and how salutary – if that failure is the birth of a level of success they could never previously dream of achieving.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

On (the value of Tweet)streams and silence

Aside from a return to the blogosphere last weekend also provided some badly needed R&R in the form of a day in the Kent countryside. We were meant to be walking but as rain threatened we took detours to the homes of two remarkable men. First Down House, home and laboratory to the naturalist Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species radically altered our understanding of mankind, provoking a debate between creationists and evolutionists that continually resurfaces (and has been much in the news this bicentennial year). Then to Chartwell, creation of Winston Churchill, a man who lived multiple lives as a journalist, soldier, politician, trade-union-card-carrying bricklayer, artist, Prime Minister and Nobel-prize-winning author in just one legendary incarnation. Both visits have caused me to dwell on the nature of thought, ideas, information and work.

Since returning to my desk on Monday I’ve been amused to realise that my comments about Twitter being a river of information seem to be somewhat on point (a refreshing change). In past three days I’ve read numerous references to “stream” and “flow” in the way people talk about what Twitter and for that matter Web 2.0 is about. Of course thinking about information as a flow is not new: thread, flow, train, trail, stream are all words historically applied to the way in which information is shared between people. There is a commonality in the imagery deployed – a visualisation of information as being something linear and continuous or connected. What’s different about Twitter is it is not a thread but rather a medium for parcels of discontinuous information of almost infinitely variable usefulness, relevance and quality, to move along at various speeds and in multiple directions or even dimensions. Since loading Tweetdeck I’ve discovered that it is perfectly possible to sit and watch a stream of information parcels flowing in front of my eyes.

On a good day I feel like a heron perched on a rock watching the tweetstream flow by and choosing which is the plumpest, most promising fish to dive for. Conversely on a not-so-good day I feel like I’m in the Matrix, watching ribbons of code wash down the screen, and wonder whether I’m being reprogrammed or reconditioned as it flows in front of my eyes. Then of course there’s the suggestion that Twitter is “crack for the easily distractible” (apologies to whoever tweeted that remark, I didn’t have the wit to favourite it and I'm yet to discover a time-efficient way of swimming upstream to fish it out again.) Whatever one’s view, it is clear that Twitter and other media/ social media/ electronic networks are capable of transforming the way in which humans engage with information, ideas and possibly even with each other – or at least those humans with access to the web who are willing to spend considerable portions of time to splashing about in this virtual paddling pool.

Interestingly the two houses we visited on Sunday are only a few miles apart and both set deep in the Kent countryside in locations that command wonderful rural views and feel quintessentially English. Both have a sense of timelessness. Of course the “mothballing” effect of being frozen in an English Heritage or National Trust package is partly responsible for this: a house preserved as an exhibit is markedly different to a house full of the hurly-burly of family life (in Darwin’s case) or the extraordinary pageant of society figures that passed through Churchill’s country residence. Yet both houses were clearly refuges and places where creativity and ideas were given time and space to be nurtured.

Churchill employed numerous research assistants for his extraordinary published opus, whereas Darwin harnessed his children’s energy to aid his experiments by monitoring the work of earthworms and charting the flight of bees. Neither man laboured in isolation – but conversely each of them created around himself time and space in which to think, work and play. Time and space into which selected colleagues and collaborators were invited rather than manifesting as a constantly available flow of information. Both houses are characterised by sense of completeness and detachment from unwanted intrusion, which I suspect is intrinsic and not the result of the heritage package deal.

So I find myself wondering what role Twitter and Web 2.0 might have played in the life and works of these two extraordinary men. Would the homes they lived and worked in still have provided them with the space they needed to develop themselves and their projects? Darwin in particular spent years working on his theories. He knew that they would shake the establishment to its core and provoke controversy throughout the Western world, and therefore he refined and re-defined them scrupulously for years. Ultimately he was forced into publication by receipt of an unsolicited paper from Alfred Russel Wallace, another young naturalist who had independently reached similar conclusions. One can’t help wondering how much longer he would have worked before publication without this external impetus – or whether in a world of 24/7 external information exchange he would have developed the powers of observation that gave rise to his discoveries in the first place? Would Churchill have had an army of research assistants Tweeting constant updates on the life of the Duke of Marlborough manuscript in progress and if so would the Tweets have obviated the need for anyone to buy the book when complete?

Intrigued as I am by Twitter and the connectivity it opens up to us – I can’t help wondering if the information flow it creates and the speed at which the packages of wisdom we tweet and retweet flash past will aid the development and discoveries of new Darwins and Churchills – or hinder them. Both Darwin and Churchill fully understood the necessity to self-brand and to stay ahead – and each deployed the media of their age to this end. Both endured their own intellectual and emotional hardships, despite each being born to extraordinary privilege and opportunity. And each of them created around them a private haven, free of external intrusions, in which to work, play, think, create, write and, ultimately, to publish. I can’t help worrying that the exponential acceleration of the information exchange we’re creating online means we will never see their like again.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Of Tweets (and Clucks)

Back to blogging my opinions after a few weeks muted by the demands of the physical world (as opposed to the intangible world that exists somewhere in the interface between my mind, fingertips, laptop and the internet). And I realise that what I have at the moment is not so much opinions – but a whole swathe of unanswered questions.

Top on the list is Why is Twitter talked about as part of the “social" media revolution? So far it looks to me that whilst it can be used to communicate the minutiae of one’s social life – that is just about its least interesting and in many cases its least frequent use. In the case of Twitter surely "Semi-Professional Media", "Self Branding Media", "Maven Media", "Free Advertising Media", "Fan Club Media", or even "Get a Life Media" could all be more descriptively accurate labels. To date by far the most interesting Twitterers I have followed are those actively engaged in working out what social and digital media are and how people engage with them now and in the future

Watching the different ways in which people tweet, I am coming to view the 140 character microblog as a mini blank canvas that’s moving at top speed while you are trying to paint the right characters onto it, and that accelerates away once the send button is hit. Tweets are something like a blank postcards on which one can both sketch a picture and write a message. But the card isn’t addressed or posted to one person – it’s cast out to sea like a message in a bottle. Except it isn’t a sea – it’s a torrent, a flowing river, chock full of other bottles and messages all shooting down the rapids.

I suspect that for some the challenge of being clever / witty/ interesting in the prescribed space adds an addictive frisson to Twitter (something like the challenge inherent in the NYRB personal ads). It’s clearly a wonderful medium for maven personality types, a global platform from which to broadcast their hints, tips, leads & ideas. I’m less certain of its worth or contribution to celebrity culture – although humans have an obvious and ancient urge to connect in some way with their idols, heroes and heroines no matter how remote. Perhaps following on Twitter provides an illusion of direct contact that speaks to this need.

I’m mystified by the ongoing discussion about whether Twitter will be a flash in the pan and the angst over Nielsen’s figures showing that more people drop out of Twitter than Facebook. Firstly, we know that fashions come and go in this space. So what if not everyone sticks with Twitter or it is not the flavour of 2010 or beyond. The point is that it is here now, and even in the small way I’ve been using it, its an incredibly powerful tool for connecting with people outside of one’s physical ambit and – crucially – for accessing and sharing ideas. If you want a highly reasoned and fascinating specialist disquisition on this try John Borthwick’s fascinating post The Rise of Social Distribution Networks on the Silicon Valley Insider. I particularly like his quote of Dave Winer’s metaphor of a “rope of information”. Except that in a rope the fibres are homogeneous and systematically intertwined. Twitter’s inherent structure is much more random – a sort of chaos theory applied to disembodied fragments of conversation. But that chaos is part of its attraction and its value. I certainly don’t care whether more people use Facebook or Linked In than Twitter – so why does it matter to others? I wonder if the answer to that question lies with those responsible for monetizing Silicon Valley.

I’m also bemused by the debate about the potential for passing around misinformation. Since when did any of us expect information put about by others – even if we know them (or in this virtual space “know” them) – to be consistently and entirely accurate? Has free information ever been considered to be inherently more reliable than paid-for information? Any of us who are specialists in a particular field know that the in traditional mainstream media what passes as information is often based on biased press releases that time-poor journalists working to deadlines have not had time to interrogate or even re-hash. It is axiomatic that much of what is tweeted and retweeted is second-hand information, gleaned quickly from others and re-broadcast to a follow group for a variety of purposes ranging from altruism to naked self-interest and every shade on the spectrum of motives in between and therefore is potentially inaccurate. If any of us wants to take what we find there seriously and act on its contents it remains our own responsibility to make reliable judgements about the original source and the potential for accuracy

This all links – tangentially – to the other big question that’s been bugging me. Why does it matter how many people I follow or am followed by? The culture of maximising followers strikes me as being an old-media ambition. What’s wrong with a small and self-selecting audience? Since when was biggest best? And we all know that democracies can get it spectacularly wrong. I’m not unhappy that so far I have just over 50 followers and am following about 80. Yes I plan to follow more, but slowly because I’d rather follow the most interesting few than the uninteresting many. So far Twitter is by far the most powerful Internet application I have encountered for access to diverse, relevant information which is pre-filtered for potential relevance to me by those I have chosen to follow. It's a bonus than in the process I'm also able to identify others with common interests and concerns and reach out to them.

All I have to do now is learn to fish the best bottles out of the river whilst avoiding drowning in it in the process.

Meanwhile back here in real, physical Caxland, the chickens arrived long before the ebook reader, as predicted. (I’m still hanging out for Kindle on iphone so it’s a case of waiting until the UK becomes part of Amazon’s e-universe). The girls: Elsie Hepzibah, Alchy and Gaia Artemis (names that divulge much about the individual characters of the resident teens and proto-teen who named them) are finding their voices and becoming daily funnier, bigger, bolder, cheekier and more beguiling. At the same time they are invading and threatening ever more of the garden. (Much as ebooks and digital information are growing up, becoming more sophisticated and penetrating ever more areas of the traditional publishing world). I’m going to have to reconfigure my tiny estate and build some discreet fences so the girls and my flowers and food crops can co-exist in harmony. It remains to be seen whether any legal, free market compliant, effective fences can be constructed that will allow books and ebooks to co-exist in a way that works for publishers, authors and readers.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Of eggs & ebooks II

Easter Sunday seems an appropriate moment for an eggs & ebooks update.

The two most interesting purchases made here in Caxland since my last post have been a book and a purple eglu. Note I said a book, not an ebook. Ian Bremmer and Preston Keats' The Fat Tail, purchased at Bremmer's excellent RSA Thursday talk, to be precise. I observed that Blackwells who run booksales at the RSA gave no information about ebook purchasing options, and as Bremmer was signing my copy it crossed my mind that an ebook reader is going to fall down badly when it comes to feeding my signed hardback first edition habit.

(As an aside, anyone interested in an insight into the interplay of global recession with political pressures and the implications for business risk and investment, follow the link to the RSA's video. Once you get past the Woody Allen body language, Bremmer's presentation is a fascinating and accessible precis of the political and economic forces shaping the world we live and work in.)

So, no ebook reader as yet. The key problem here is that despite reservations about the dominance of amazon, I find myself veering inexorably towards Kindle 2, heavily influenced by the American commentators I'm following via blogs, Twitter and elsewhere. Everyone seems passionate about their Kindles. It is maddening that my colleagues over on the other side of the Altantic have access to Kindle while over here I don't. With no UK launch date yet announced, I've thought seriously about buying one in America. But I can't find any reassurance that I'd receive much support for it as UK-based user. Wireless certainly wouldn't work, and I'd only be able to purchase US editions from my laptop and then load onto my device via USB. But from what I understand this only works if I have a US billing address for my credit card, which I don't. What with all those barriers in place it somehow it seems like I'd be carrying around a stateless refugee with no rights in the world of global e-content. Similarly I can't find information available about Kindle for iphone anywhere outside the US.

In fact a bit of me is beginning to wonder whether amazon deserves the level of interest I am displaying in their product and the energy I am putting into finding out about it. The website is scoring numerous marketing own goals in this regard. When I search Kindle 2 on the site, I find myself able to purchase accessories for my as-yet-hypothetical-Kindle (USB cables, leather covers and books about using and finding content). I'm also guided to other ebook devices, such as the Sony ebook Reader. Worse still if I go to the books section and search just Kindle, I find a list of books with Kindle in the title. Not a whisper (let alone a whispersync) of when UK customers are going to be able to buy into amazon's ebook reading device. I would have thought that if ever there was a company that understood the international market for goods and services and the fact that different availability in different territories just leads to frustration, it would be amazon. Yet when here in England decide I want to buy a Kindle 2 and look for information, I find myself directed to:

1. To Kindle the Starling (Aquila new poetry) by Michael Edwards (Paperback - 7 Feb 1973)
2 Used & new from £47.13

The Complete User's Guide to the Amazing Amazon Kindle by Stephen Windwalker (Paperback - 29 Aug 2008)
8 Used & new from £19.35

Puttin' on My Big Girl Panties by Michelle Kindle-Clyburn (Paperback - 16 Jul 2007)
Buy new: £13.49
13 Used & new from £9.18

(I kid you not.)

It seems very old world to have no indication of when Kindle will be available in the UK, when in America there's so much talk of how great Kindle is. In fact I'm beginning to understand how very frustrated blind and visually impaired people feel when they have to wait months for large-print, audio and braille editions of books the rest of us have had access to and been chattering about for months.

In the meantime, no chickens in the garden yet, but the purple eglu has arrived safely, in a piece of exemplary customer services from the people at Omlet. It was ordered online, arrived first thing on the selected delivery date with a note reminding me that whoever recommended the eglu to me is eligible for a £20 voucher. Jenny, in whose garden I first saw a red eglu some years ago, was mightily surprised to receive an over-excited phone call while she was sitting at Gatwick waiting to fly off to a week’s retreat in a remote French monastery, telling her to apply for her voucher when she returns. (I don't think that keeping chickens and the wish to go on a retreat are linked, but I'll check when she's back.)

No hens yet, though. It’s torture, but I’m waiting until London Book Fair is over. I don’t want to move the girls in and then abandon them for four days while I check in with the international publishing community in the aisles at Earls Court.

I'm amused by how much interest my future flock is raising though. It seems that the British publishing world is full of wannabe smallholders (co-incidentally Jenny of the red eglu is founder of Advance Materials, independent publisher of language teaching materials). And whilst I've had no recommendations at all from british publishers about which ebook reader to buy, there have been several suggestions on the right breeds to populate the eglu (it's comforting for example to know that someone at Britannica knows his Sussexes from his Orpingtons). I wonder - when and if I finally obtain my Kindle - whether I'll receive half so many suggestions for what to read on it.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Of eggs & ebooks

Payday tomorrow and I'm contemplating the next two major purchases to be made here in Caxland: a henhouse and an ebook reader. The irony is that I've spent a lifetime reading and never looked after a hen in my life, yet choosing the right accommodation for the soon-to-arrive chickens is proving significantly easier than selecting an ebook device. And I'm talking orders of magnitude here. When it comes to housing poultry I know I need maximum ease, minimum maintenance, easy to clean and as foxproof as possible. That the eglu from Omlet looks funky and maintains its value with virtually zero depreciation are a fantastic bonus (the rare occasions on which one appears second hand on eBay it fetches only a few pounds less than a brand new model). Yes it's going to be expensive, but do I care? Only a bit. I've wanted hens for years, and despite a peripatetic lifestyle the eglu and kind neighbours willing to trade shutting-up duty for fresh eggs are finally going to make it happen.

Compare the ease of this purchase then with my dilemma over what hardware or device I select to read ebooks with. I know more about books than I'll ever know about chickens. And yet I really have no idea what to go with: Sony E-book Reader; iLiad; Cybooks Gen 3 ebook; Kindle 2; Kindle on iphone... You may be wondering why if I like printed books so much I even want to do this (cf. yesterday's post). The answer is multi-textured and certainly not because I've wanted an ebook reader for years. Sure I've owned various PDAs and electronic notebooks, but none of them has ever become an indispensible tool or the only repository of my contacts list. And each time I bought a new electronic organiser I thought this was the device that would finally house diary, contacts, to do list and latterly Internet access - making everything finally cohere into one easy package. But here I am years later, with a mobile phone, laptop, access to a massive database at work and a dongle for online access on the move. Oh yes - and a decaying filofax. A niggling voice tells me that whatever ebook option I choose it might end up just as much of a let down as the last generation of devices.

Why an ebook reader and why now, then? Well because Web 2.0 and beyond, that's why. I live and work in a world of information, ideas, books and speed. Much as I love print books - and let's face it my daily working life revolves around enabling publishers to get them out of a warehouse and into customers' hands - I don't always want to wait. If one of my colleagues or friends emails or blogs about a writer, or if I read a review or hear a speaker talking about a book, particularly a non-fiction book, I'd like to read and discuss it now - not next week. So although I can't imagine ever not buying any print books, there are some texts for which I'd happily trade bound paper for speed. For an English Literature & Drama graduate I purchase a terrifying number of business books - and guess what - they're not the ones in pride of place on my sitting room shelves.

I search online for clues about which bit of kit to select and my heart sinks. OK, I admit, I held and had a play with a Kindle 2 at the IPG Conference and was temporarily seduced. But why would I want to carry one with me everywhere when it can't do anything other than host books. Why can't I blog from it, tweet from it, make calls from it, order my groceries from it, check in with the children on it, and maybe if I rig up a webcam, look out for Mr Fox to boot? If I do go for Kindle, it'll be on iphone, no matter how sexy the Kinde 2 looks and feels. But then there's not even a Kindle 2 page on the website yet, and luddite that I am I can't work out if I can download Kindle for iphone from the .com website to a UK phone. Moreover if I can, do I really want to only be able to buy US editions from the .com site?

There are alternatives of course. I know that as at 21 August last year Gail Rebuck thought her Sony ebook Reader the bees knees. But she's not in my Filofax on my Linked In network, so how do I know if she still thinks so? For all I know it might already be discarded in the back of a storage box along with a jumble of chargers, dead mobile phones, ethernet cables and other detritus of modern life. And above all the Sony seems to me to have many of the same downsides as Kindle 2.

So, dear Reader, if you're using an ebook reader - your opinions and advice will be most welcome.

In the meantime one thing's certain. There'll be chickens in the garden and omlette for breakfast long before I've made my reader choice. Here in Caxland eggs seem a whole lot easier to crack than ebooks. And I'll bet that whatever device I do choose I won't be able to sell it a year later on eBay for as much as it cost me.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

On Twitterverse

I hope to return to some of the issues raised by Tapscott, Keen et al, but as it’s the weekend I thought I’d permit myself a little detour into reading for pleasure. And most specifically reading poetry. I accept it's not a widespread habit. Moreover most booksellers I know reckon more people write poetry than buy it. The relative health of the US and UK poetry book markets can be gauged by comparing the two stacks of poetry on offer at the Union Station Washington branch of R Dalton with W H Smith at Kings Cross London, where it is virtually impossible to find a single poetry book except the occasional Poems on the Underground or Forward Book of Poetry (even when the shop isn't halved in size due to the ongoing station refurbishment). But bear with me. Poetry reading lurks deep in my DNA, and I like to think there are wider lessons about publishing to be found via an occasional detour into verse. And in this instance, Twitterverse.

Last week marked two debuts for me: blogging and tweeting. And by a happy co-incidence it was also the week in which Ben Okri began publishing a poem a line a day on Twitter. Today is Day 5 and when I checked this afternoon, Okri had attracted 268 followers. Compare this to 11,776 for Cheryl Cole and draw your own conclusions.

I'm finding it hard to know what to make of Okri's experiment, other than its obvious role as a hook for sales of his forthcoming Tales of Freedom, in which Okri is said to be experimenting with the boundaries between short story and verse forms. (I'm presuming that as it is in the public domain on Twitter, I'm not breaching copyright by reproducing it here.) So far the poem reads:

I sing a new freedom -
Freedom with discipline.
We need freedom to rise higher.
Be true to yourself.
In the follies of our times.
Except of course that isn't how I've experienced it. The "follower" receives a line a day. If like me, you twitter on your laptop not your phone or PDA (uncool I know, but I'm over 40 and on a steep learning curve) it's likely that by the time you look, Okri's tweet of the day is already buried way down out of sight under a pile of pressing/ diverting/ informative/ amusing/ crass/ inane comments. And then there's the question: is a line a poem? It's certainly a reading experience of sorts. But not satisfying one. So far it has only been the fact that I know Okri's credentials as a poet and thinker that on reading a line like We need to rise higher I haven't rolled my eyes in pretty much the same way my 13-year-old does every time I open my mouth, dismissed Okri as a spent new age guru and hit the remove button. I might be more lenient if I felt Okri were writing the poem on a day-by-day basis. But based on the Guardian's report I think not. And I note that since Day 3 tweets have been sent at precisely 10.00am from Hootsuite, which presumably frees the poet from the responsibility of being online at the time.

Still, I'm in too deep to stop. On Okri's profile page the poem so far reads upside down, as follows:

Line 5: In the follies of our time. #benokri
10.00am MAR 28 from Hootsuite
Line 4: Be true to yourself. - #benokri
10.00am MAR 27 from Hootsuite
Line 3: We need freedom to rise higher. - #benokri
10.00am MAR 26 from Hootsuite
Line 2: Freedom with discipline. #benokri
5.30pm MAR 25 from web
Line 1: I sing a new freedom - #benokri
5.29pm MAR 24 from web

Looking at it like this prompts some insight into the nature of reading for pleasure. I find myself irritated that I have no idea how long this poem is. I can't flick through the pages and know at the outset whether I am in for a haiku or an epic. I'm annoyed too that I can't see the poem the right way up and without the interruptions of twitter rubric. Are they a refrain that the poet wants to be part of the poem? If so it's a dissonant harmony. I want this poem now. I want to see its shape; to make some judgements about it based on its form, its visual impact on a printed page (not scrawled on my notepad day-by-day). I want to know now whether it's worth spending my time and energy on - not at some indeterminate future date when the final line is delivered. Yet I'm also fascinated by questions like is this a poem yet? When does a poem become a poem? At present it's the poetical social networking equivalent of Bishop Berkley's table or possibly Schrödinger's cat. Does it exist, and is it alive or dead? Or has it even been completely born yet?

I'm exercised too by wondering when it is finished which way round will it be? I've never intentionally read a poem from the bottom up before (excepting perhaps Zukofsky's final 80 Flowers which he wrote hoping all of the relative juxtapostions of the words would resonate). So far this poem could work read from the top, but which is actually the bottom:

In the follies of our time.
Be true to yourself.
We need freedom to rise higher.
Freedom with discipline.
I sing a new freedom.
I find myself waiting to know whether tomorrow's tweet will add a new dimension to the poem and maybe tell me once and for all which way up it goes. Or sound like another throwaway from a second rate life coach. Either way I'll be looking for it at 10am.

So, I ask myself, do I like poetry delivered this way? No, not much. Will I be buying Tales of Freedom? You bet.

Twitter brought me back to Okri's work (and back to poetry after a few weeks off). But I'll be buying it in print, on paper.

Authors and publishers preach social & economic change at RSA/Britannica debate

I’m encouraged to notice that although the world of the word published on paper in volumes known as books is undergoing something of an identity crisis, it is still authors and publishers who are driving forward vital social discussion. Thursday evening's energetic RSA/Britannica debate The Economic Crisis and the Age of Uncertainty featured three prominent authors alongside an eminent academic economist who, between them, set a fair few cats amongst the pigeons.

After a tentative start with a temporary Powerpoint failure neatly counterpointing his evangelism of the transformational power of new technologies Don Tapscott soon hit his stride (with the support of an off-stage tecchy). Those familiar with Tapscott’s Wikinomics will not have been surprised at his proselytising web 2.0 as a force for collaboration, self-organisation, economic renewal and, ultimately, for good (and that’s leaving aside the way in which web-based social interaction is believed to be rewiring the human brain).

Two of Tapscott’s three respondents, economist Professor Lord Eatwell and Dan Hind (author of The Threat to Reason: how the enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it - and publisher at the Bodley Head for his day job), approached the economic theme of the evening more directly than Tapscott in his upbeat but tangential presentation. For a while it looked as though the evening would fail to cohere or to fulfil its potential. Hind mused that having been failed by the self-regulation of financial institutions and the inability of the advertising-funded media to explore the truth, the public must step up to the plate to both demand and promulgate transparency by, amongst other methods, creating a new structure for funding investigative journalism. Professor Lord Eatwell, meantime, began by expressing the view that the interactive web is nowhere near so significant a force for change as the steam engine, electricity or the combustion engine. Notwithstanding the fact that Web 2.0 could not exist without electricity there was almost an audible intake of breath from the disbelieving audience. As his speech progressed although we were moving deeper into the causes of abject failure in our global financial systems, we were straying further from the heart of the matter – which is (it seems to me) the question: how can we transform the global economy into a viable, sustainable and maybe even fair framework for humanity to support itself within?

And then respondent number three, Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur - how the Internet is killing our culture – whose body language confirmed his contrarian mindset as he resolutely remained seated, eschewing the lectern – spoke out in resolute tones articulating both his disagreement with Lord Eatwell over the relative significance of old and new technologies and his dubiousness about the over-simplicity of Tapscott’s view that it is the young who have become enabled experts and who will moderate the social and economic transitions that we so desperately need. Keen pointed out that although the young are empowered by new technologies, they are still children and we are still their parents. Sparks began to fly as he spoke of the unnoticed social revolution that has handed children supremacy over adults and he posed the questions “have we let our children down?” and “have we failed as parents?”.

By this time all four panelists had begun to bristle with energy as the debate jumped several gears into overdrive. The woefully inadequate time remaining for Q&As brought four viewpoints from the floor, including the question – “if pedagogy is dead, will universities be reinvented?” and a fascinating insight into what is wrong with the structure of the economy from the founder of a peer-based banking organisation (his view seemed to be that the fundamental flaw of our historical economic structures lies the homogeneity of education, thinking and expectations of the highly intelligent people who devised and operated them). Each of the four points raised could form the basis of a whole new debate in their own right (and it is to be hoped that the RSA and Britannica take note of that).

Almost out of time, the four speakers were engaging at a level that was simultaneously contentious and collaborative – all four in their summations managed to agree and disagree with the others. The final few minutes ranged from Tapscott’s suggestion that a far better comparison for the changes that are being wrought by Web 2.0 is not the steam engine, but the printed book, which was the first vehicle for mass dissemination of information, to Keen’s disturbing and unanswered question, “what would have happened to global democracy in the 1930s if the social web had existed then?”

Chairman Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA) in closing the evening described it as the most contentious he had witnessed in RSA lecture theatre. The pity is that it was far too short - the room was bursting with informed professionals many of whom had much to contribute to the discussion. I can only hope that all of us present left asking ourselves how we as individuals can ensure that the debate is not left within the four walls of the RSA – but taken out into our lives, workplaces and homes – to find a way forward for the economy, and thereby for society, that does not go down the paths that Andrew Keen so darkly hinted at in his references to 1930s fascism.

And in the meantime - three cheers for authors and publishers.