I spent the first couple of days this week at the British Library in London, attending the Unlocking Audio 2 conference. I was there primarily to give an invited talk on the second day.
You might notice that I didn't have a great deal to say about audio, other than to note that what strikes me as interesting about the newer ways in which I listen to music online (specifically Blip.fm and Spotify) is that they are both highly social (almost playful) in their approach and that they are very much of the Web (as opposed to just being 'on' the Web).
What do I mean by that last phrase? Essentially, it's about an attitude. It's about seeing being mashed as a virtue. It's about an expectation that your content, URLs and APIs will be picked up by other people and re-used in ways you could never have foreseen. Or, as Charles Leadbeater put it on the first day of the conference, it's about "being an ingredient".
I went on to talk about the JISC Information Environment (which is surprisingly(?) not that far off its 10th birthday if you count from the initiation of the DNER), using it as an example of digital library thinking more generally and suggesting where I think we have parted company with the mainstream Web (in a generally "not good" way). I noted that while digital library folks can discuss identifiers forever (if you let them!) we generally don't think a great deal about identity. And even where we do think about it, the approach is primarily one of, "who are you and what are you allowed to access?", whereas on the social Web identity is at least as much about, "this is me, this is who I know, and this is what I have contributed".
I think that is a very significant difference - it's a fundamentally different world-view - and it underpins one critical aspect of the difference between, say, Shibboleth and OpenID. In digital libraries we haven't tended to focus on the social activity that needs to grow around our content and (as I've said in the past) our institutional approach to repositories is a classic example of how this causes 'social networking' issues with our solutions.
I stole a lot of the ideas for this talk, not least Lorcan Dempsey's use of concentration and diffusion. As an aside... on the first day of the conference, Charles Leadbeater introduced a beach analogy for the 'media' industries, suggesting that in the past the beach was full of a small number of large boulders and that everything had to happen through those. What the social Web has done is to make the beach into a place where we can all throw our pebbles. I quite like this analogy. My one concern is that many of us do our pebble throwing in the context of large, highly concentrated services like Flickr, YouTube, Google and so on. There are still boulders - just different ones? Anyway... I ended with Dave White's notions of visitors vs. residents, suggesting that in the cultural heritage sector we have traditionally focused on building services for visitors but that we need to focus more on residents from now on. I admit that I don't quite know what this means in practice... but it certainly feels to me like the right direction of travel.
I concluded by offering my thoughts on how I would approach something like the JISC IE if I was asked to do so again now. My gut feeling is that I would try to stay much more mainstream and focus firmly on the basics, by which I mean adopting the principles of linked data (about which there is now a TED talk by Tim Berners-Lee), cool URIs and REST and focusing much more firmly on the social aspects of the environment (OpenID, OAuth, and so on).
Prior to giving my talk I attended a session about iTunesU and how it is being implemented at the University of Oxford. I confess a strong dislike of iTunes (and iTunesU by implication) and it worries me that so many UK universities are seeing it as an appropriate way forward. Yes, it has a lot of concentration (and the benefits that come from that) but its diffusion capabilities are very limited (i.e. it's a very closed system), resulting in the need to build parallel Web interfaces to the same content. That feels very messy to me. That said, it was an interesting session with more potential for debate than time allowed. If nothing else, the adoption of systems about which people can get religious serves to get people talking/arguing.
Overall then, I thought it was an interesting conference. I suspect that my contribution wasn't liked by everyone there - but I hope it added usefully to the debate. My live-blogging notes from the two days are here and here.