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August 15, 2008

What Web 2.0 teaches us...

Preface: I've had this post on the back-burner for a while, worried that it might cause offense to various colleagues/friends/readers.  It's intended to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek and humorous but like most such things, from my perspective at least, I think it contains at least a grain or two of truth.

The advent of desktop publishing software, way back when, showed us that although pretty much anyone could use clip-art and fonts, most people weren't (and indeed still aren't) graphic designers.  Over the years we've mostly got used to calling in the professionals whenever necessary, though there is always a place for do-it-yourselfness.

So, what does Web 2.0 tell us?

  • That anyone can blog but not everyone can write (or even spell-check!)?
  • That anyone can podcast but not everyone is a radio chat-show host?
  • That anyone can make a video but not everyone is a TV presenter?

In short...  Web 2.0 technology democratises production but creative talent and presentation skills remain rare commodities.  For the record, I include myself mostly in the "have-nots", as my limited attempts at YouTube and Veodia demonstrate admirably.  (I'm not even going to embarrass myself by including links!)

Seesmic is a good case in point.  Seesmic is a kind of video Twitter.  It's a brilliant idea and has been well executed technically.  The trouble is, like the video phone, one is left asking, "Do I actually need this?" (by which I mean, "Does video really add anything to what I'm trying to do here?").  Perhaps it is just me - clearly there are a lot of Seesmic users who like what it offers, though I couldn't find an actual number anywhere on the site?

Take 140 characters from Twitter, turn it into anywhere between 30 seconds and 5 minutes of variable quality audio and video, where the video carries no additional information over the audio and where the audio carries little additional information over the original 140 characters.  That's Seesmic in a nutshell.

Now... maybe I fall into the category of "people who haven't tried it and therefore don't get it"?  Maybe I'm just plain wrong and within a month I'll be Seesmic'ing with the best (and worst) of them!  Anything is possible - stay tuned to find out...

With apologies to everyone and no-one.

I appreciate that I'm sounding a bit like Andrew Keen.  But that's not my intention.  My point is not that amateurs don't have anything interesting to say - I think they do - and indeed, for the most part I include myself as one.  My point is that our desktop use of audio and video in particular tends to highlight an amateurish approach to production.  There are exceptions of course - Mike Ellis' video of the museum mashup day a while back and the podcasts produced by our PsychoPod project being good 'local' examples.  Maybe the dross is the price we have to pay for this kind of good stuff?

Reflecting on this for a while, I think the problem is two-fold.  Firstly the linear nature of audio and video tends to defy attempts at scanning the content. Fast-forwarding and reversing are difficult at best, as is getting a feel for whether the next 3-5 minutes of audio/video is worth sticking around for (though Slideshare slidecasts offer an interesting counter-example, since the slide transitions do give a nice way of quickly navigating the content).  These tasks are much easier with text and most of us have well-honed skills at scanning and appraising textual material pretty quickly (even where that material is just a 140-character tweet).  Secondly, the problem is not so much with the video quality (shaky camera work and the like - I'm quite happy with that within reason) - it's with the audio.  Some people's voices simply become wooden when faced with a microphone and the 'record' light, to the point that listening to them is painful.  (That's not to mention that those of us in shared office spaces can't really engage in this kind of dialog anyway).

Being able to talk to camera (or microphone) is a skill that I wish I could learn - the trouble is, I'm not sure that it is learnable?  A voice coach would probably help I guess.  Maybe I should ask for voice training in my next staff appraisal? :-)

BTW, there is no doubt in my mind that there will be some interesting applications of this kind of immediate micro-vodcasting in teaching and learning - learning foreign languages comes to mind very quickly - (kids are nearly always better at this kind of thing anyway) so I haven't written it off completely.  Just feeling somewhat cautious (err... snobbish?) about its use too liberally.


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Hmm, interesting post. But if we forget about technology would you say that as not everyone can right well we should leave writing to those with the skills. Which I guess in a pre-Caxton era did happen, with writing in the hands of the ruling classes and the churches.

And how do people gain skills in writing, public speaking and appearing on broadcasts media? For those in the media this might include media studies degrees, learning how media organisations work and gaining experiences within the industry. But does this have to be the only way? Can't (shouldn't) people be encouraged to develop their skills in writing, speaking and broadcasting within many industries, and also as individuals.

And those skills gained in blogging, broadcasting, podcasting, etc. should also help to improve the skills in writing and lecturing which the vast majority of people in the educational environment are engaged in.

Now whether there are advantages in video blogging over twittering is another issue, and I think you're conflating several issues in this post.

Yes, I agree that I'm conflating things... which is probably unhelpful for any serious discussion. As I said, it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post (but that's a poor excuse I admit).

The two major things (I guess) that I'm conflating are

- the relative strengths/weaknesses in using text vs. audio/video.

- finding a balance between up-skilling individuals in a user-generated-content view of the world vs. calling in professional help when necessary.

In terms of the latter...

By and large, I think we have found that balance in terms of graphic design. Speaking personally, my graphic design skills are better now than they were 20 years ago, and the availability of various Web 2.0 and desktop tools have contributed to that - but I also recognise (or get told to recognise! :-) ) that sometimes the experts need to be called in.

We are still a way from finding that balance in the audio/video domain.

But, yes, you are also right to say that we need to encourage that up-skilling to take place across the board and there are lots of cheap/free audio/visual tools that will help with that I guess.

I think there's something of a Google generation issue here as well (not that I like that term much) - but I think kids will now be coming thru school with much more experience of this kind of media. My primary school for example is already planning widespread use of podcasting by the kids... and my own kids all left primary school have done at least one stand-up PPT-type presentation - something I didn't do until university as far as I recall.

Does Seesmic help? I dunno, partly cos I think it gets it wrong on various levels. Oddly, I have no problem looking at crap on YouTube - it doesn't bother me - but I find that looking at crap on Seesmic is annoying - I don't really understand the difference.

On balance, I'm not anti-podcasting in any sense (I include video in that) though I note that I actually listen to almost none of them (mainly for the linear reasons outlined in the original post). Which indicates that my problem lies with Seesmic and I've somehow extrapolated wrongly my dislike for that into other areas.

Dunno... time for the weekend I think!

Web 2.0 = dross + rare gems, so we filter on the way out (except that we're still not very good at doing that yet).
To me, the fact that everyone is now a media organization (TV/radio station, newspaper, magazine, occasional novel, etc) is amazing. But just look at the mainstream media. How many of the TV programs produced / novels published do you want to watch/read? By your criteria, there's no effective difference between Web 2.0 and old media.

Yes, there's plenty of crap in old-media - but mainly it is crap content, not crap production values?

There is a danger with some of the Web 2.0 stuff that good content (i.e good intellectual ideas) gets hidden because of poor production values (or poor choice of appropriate media) - my gut feeling is that Seesmic is problematic in that sense.

I can have a conversation with you in a blog, or in twitter or on a mailing list - but I can't have that conversation in Seesmic. Why? Because, firstly, I'm in a shared office which simply doesn't support me doing it and, secondly, because the use of video drastically increases the time/signal ratio to the point that I can't follow the conversation, full-stop.

As I said in the blog post, this is probably my problem rather than anyone else's - so it is probably me that has to learn to deal with it. But I'm still not 100% convinced by that tbh!

To sum up, and as I said in response to Brian, I think I've probably allowed my gut-feeling dislike of Seesmic and my own limitations in producing audio material to cloud my thinking more generally.

Oh well... 'twas only a bit of fun after all. :-)


An interesting post--and a point I tried to make in a 'disContent' column (in EContent Magazine) that you probably wouldn't have seen: "Rich Media is Hard" (May 2006).

Well, it was a slightly different slant, but the same basic notion: The economic/hardware barriers to various forms of creativity may have fallen, which is great--but that doesn't make me a video artiste or great singer any more than word processing software made everyone a great writer. My sense is that, the richer the media, the harder it is to do it right--for reasons that have nothing to do with technology.

It was an interesting post Andy and I'm not knocking ... but haven't you heard that content is no longer king? ;-)
Seriously, the distinction between content and production values is fading. I constantly run into people online producing challenging ideas is an almost street vernacular (whether in print or multimedia formats) that I find challenging at my advanced age, but I recognize that this is my problem, not theirs. (That may not hold true if the interaction transfers to another field, e.g. a job application.)
All these new media are immersive - we should be having this discussion on Seesmic!

Hi Andy - one could make similar criticisms of Twitter (and indeed many people do). There is, after all lots of dross on Twitter (remember Twitter Friday). But we also know that it has a valuable role that we hadn't appreciated we needed when we were mostly living in a communication environment based on email. Adn just as Twitter has a valuable role but in a very niche market place, so Seesmic may have a role to play in areas which you might not be involved in. I wonder, for example, if it might be particularly useful in a teaching context - it will be, after all, difficult to plagiarise a response if there's a video of the student responding to an assignment.

"it will be, after all, difficult to plagiarise a response if there's a video of the student responding to an assignment." I think that's called a viva, Brian.

Being able to talk into a mic requires (a) having the right kind of external sound equipment and (b) some practice! Do you have access to a quality (read: not Flip) video camera and external mic where you could tape yourself at different volume levels and at different distances from the mic?

If you don't have an external mic, you shouldn't be shooting synced video/audio. It won't come out right.

I work with Elastic Lab (http://www.elasticlab.com), a crowdsourced commercial film company that's helping amateur videographers improve. We hire enthusiast filmmakers (aka anyone with a quality camera and an interest) to shoot basic interviews and b-roll [filler background shots], and our experienced filmmakers provide mentoring and feedback so they can gain the skills they need to accept our more advanced assignments. I think this is a pretty cool approach (which is why I work with them!), as you get paid to learn and contribute to high-exposure television and web videos.

I think more opportunities for practice coupled with useful and informed feedback is the key to increasing the overall quality of web video ... that, and understanding what content video is best for and what content text is best for. (I see many blogs offering both formats for their news, which I love.)

I agree with you generally. I'm not confident in my skills as a multimedia creator, and I don't find video a good way of absorbing information, for the same reasons you state.

Perhaps to your list of bullets of what does web 2.0 tell us I'd add:

Bad production values won't stop content propogating if it is of sufficient interest.

I'd also link the issues raised here back to the discussion of 'literacy' from your previous post. Although Ofcom aren't really that clear about what they mean by 'media literacy', they link it to being able to 'read and write audiovisual information'. At the moment as a society we value traditional literacy (i.e. reading and writing) above (using the definition just given) media literacy - which is to be expected, but may well change. This is really difficult to get my head round, and I'm not sure I would be able to adjust to a society where reading and writing wasn't considered the cornerstone of learning - but perversley I slightly relish the idea that we could see a day when 'visual' grammar is taught in schools, and the equivalent of Jeremy Paxman sneers at students on University Challenge for not being able to answers questions on the camera techniques used in Citizen Kane, rather than their ignorance of the Shakespeare canon.

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