The Connected Cohort

The landscape of tertiary study has changed rapidly over the past decade. Social networking sites are where students are going to connect, message, and share information with each other.

They’re not using Blackboard; they’re not using official, institution-sanctioned spaces. They’re using Facebook, DropBox, and IM programs. They’re supporting–or supplanting–the learning management systems pushed by the Universities with their own student-run, ad-hoc learning platforms.

The information practices of students in these informal channels are unregulated and un-policed (most of the time) by academic staff. Students participating in off-the-reservation online groups are relying on improvised and convenient approaches to their tertiary study rather than the certainty and validity of a more closely controlled setting.

This is all great in theory: empowered, autonomous students creating and consuming learning material in informal communities. But, the reality of this is too uncertain, too fraught with difficulty.

Students don’t understand how to behave ethically. Students don’t understand how to handle copyright or restricted information. Students don’t understand how to handle assessable content. This is why they’re students. They need to be encouraged, taught, and shown how to build proper information practices. Social media gives them practical, useful channels to share and disseminate information, but none of the guidance or support they need to do it correctly.

Move fast and break things

Hackers is not really a great movie. It has a particular 90’s aesthetic that’s too bright, garish, and blunt. It plays fast and loose with computing and beats us over the head with inexcusably juvenile technobabble.

But goddamn if it isn’t cool.

The kind of cyberpunk and cyberculture that’s teased at in Hackers is more relevant than ever today. We’re on the cusp of these crazy new exchanges between corporate capitalism, human social existence, and this kind of prefigurative cultural theory. Sure, the material reality of the twenty-first century is both like and unlike the future projected by cyberpunk literature, but the persistence of these ideas in our cultural imagination has not dimmed.

Hackers is cool because it asks us what kind of society we’re living in, what kind of society we are building and rejects it. Hackers offers us a vision of our society that is being reshaped by the non-conformists, by the counter-culture punks, by the outliers who are moving with bewildering speed and purpose.

Hackers shows us that the dark side of technology is a corporate bludgeon to pummel us into submission. But importantly it also offers us a vision of technology used for personal expression; a tool providing opportunities for the daring to chisel out new arenas for cultural representation.

If we have to inhabit a world of exteriorised science fiction, I’ll take Hackers any day of the week. Hackers wasn’t showing us the economically devastated, commodified dystopian society that’s prevalent in so much of the genre. Instead, we get a technicolour sky filled with vivid colours. We get a devil-may-care hacker ethic of moving fast and breaking things.

Future Perfect

Time to reboot this junk pile after an extended hiatus due to post-graduation doldrums (and general apathy to blogging).

I’ve played with the idea of archiving all the old material and starting with a clean slate, but what’s the point? Nothing is every really crossed out or lost anymore online; so, the blog as it has existed during my studies at QUT will remain as a testament to that time and place.

 

Rare Content; Well Done

Medium is a platform born from the minds behind Twitter for publishing and discussing longer-form works. Rather than targeting the rapid back-and-forth microblogging niche Twitter addresses, Medium allows for more detailed contributions, often resembling feature articles or editorials. Quality, user-generated content is rare on the internet; and Medium provides one of the cleanest, least intrusive ways of making it accessible.

Source: Medium

Medium is currently a relatively small service—at least compared to Twitter—but enjoys a strong, growing community of dedicated contributors posting, sharing, recommending, and curating the growing pool of content.

Pinning down an identity for Medium in this nascent stage is tricky. On the one hand it employs many of the extrinsic reward motivations—such as reputation and scoring—popularised by content aggregators and recommender services. I’ve touched on these concepts in previous posts, and Medium compels users to share and rate content in the same ways that Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot have in the past. These services leverage the desires of users by allowing ‘up voting’ of articles to surface—or bury—quality content. This currency of reputation and scoring is paired with a robust system of curation and tagging that tasks users of Medium to thematically organise content and build their own personally-curated collections.

By marrying these two systems together Medium is able to entirely self-organise around user behaviour. It is as meaningful for users to contribute high-quality content as it is for them to gather and collate that content in a collection. Whether they’re authors or curators, users of Medium can be a part of a rich ecosystem where their contributions be recommended, voted, scored, and—most importantly—commented on.

Medium is able to deliver and package this content so successfully because it relies on the same simplicity that propelled Twitter into the stratosphere. It does away with so much of the artifice and bloat associated with most WYSIWYG publishing platforms and offers an elegant, direct platform. Like Twitter, Medium puts the simplicity of content first-and-foremost. It is easy to publish, read, and recommend items because every piece of the workflow is built in service of the user.

Usability and user-centered design is always best when it is simple. Rather than being caught up in the zeitgeist of sacrificing simplicity for the latest interfaces, fads, or ‘feature-added’ hooks Medium is able to provide such a rich user experience by confidently relying on the strength of its contributors and providing as few distractions as possible to the quality of their work.

Simplicity isn’t just a feature for Medium; it is their chief strategic advantage.

 

Further Reading: I highly recommend Giles Colborne’s book Simple and Usable for any and all of questions you have about user experience and user-centered design.

Colborne, G. (2011). Simple and Usable: Web, Mobile, and Interaction Design. Berkeley: New Riders.

(Disruptive) Innovation in Assembly

The concept of disruptive innovation, pioneered by Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, describes the way in which industries might be overhauled by new products of services that—rather than treating on existing practices—diverge in new, disruptive directions offering more value or convenience to consumers (see Bower and Christensen, 1995, p.44). Disruptive innovations have dramatically changed the space in which technology platforms can operate, and the history of progess is a catalog of the ways in which the desire for convenience has trumped almost every other concern.  Disruptive innovations appeal to convenience, ignore accepted wisdom, and disturb prevailing habits. Well-managed companies have collapsed because they failed to capitalise on innovations that were inferior in quality to their own, yet won popular support by diverging in meaningful ways. Services that reshape online communities have proliferated exponentially in the last decade, and the most successful ones have embraced the transformative effects of change and disruption.

To survive and thrive in this constantly iterating and innovating environment, it is vital to facilitate and promote an openness and adaptability. The smartest companies are doing just this by stepping outside themselves and allowing third-parties to strip, re-purpose, and recompose their services through the use of open-data platforms and accessible API’s. Soliciting contributions from developers, leveraging people, and allowing innovation and creativity to emerge naturally feeds the value of an organisation and builds functionality.

In an age of the ‘mashup ecosystem’ empowering these third-parites to remix and reinterpret how to use a service is an undisputed best practice. Encouraging an engaged community of developers not only creates openness in a platform, but it allows for alternative interfaces, sophisticated tools, and encourages others to do meaningful work for you. The plugins and clients spawned from community contributions doesn’t just address gaps in incomplete solutions: they provide entirely new solutions.

True insight comes from examining how users are actually making use of a service, and building around these qualities. Offering stimulating, integrated services is the cornerstone of Web 2.0, and failing to embrace community development is a consequence of a lack of ambition.

Source: IFTTT

A magnificent example of a service pursuing a trajectory of consistent improvement is IFTTT (If this then that). IFTTT is an incredibly easy to use service that calls on the API’s of over 50 different popular web services in the one place. Services such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Dropbox—all proponents of open API’s to begin with—are brought together under the IFTTT umbrella to create a truly limitless set of possibilities. Based on a series of ‘recipies’ IFTTT allows users without any complicated programming knowledge to setup complicated triggers and sequences of events that connect and interact across services. By hooking together the powerful API’s of each platform, a user can create simple automated workflows such as: User A takes a photo in Instagram which is automatically added to a Dropbox folder, which in turn triggers Tweeting a link, and cross-posts it to Facebook. User B—an avid follower of User A—is immediately notified by SMS, since they’ve hooked IFTTT up to their Twitter feed and phone to provide seamless alerts to content that interests them.

IFTTT demonstrates not only the potential of API’s to provide unanticipated and rich user-experiences, but fully embraces what Web 2.0 represents: empowering users to be the final authority on how technology enriches their lives.

Additionally: If you have even the slightest interest in innovation and innovative practices I cannot stress enough how vital Clayton Christensen’s work is to explore.

Some further reading options include:

Bower, J. J., & Christensen, C. (1993). Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. Harvard Business Review, 73(1), p. 43-53.

Christensen, C. (2003). The Innovators Dilemma. New York: Harper Business Essentials.

Christensen, C. (2007). Bracing for disruption. Electronic Engineering Times, (1461), p.83-88.

Christensen,  C., Dyer, J. & Gregrsen, H. (2011). The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press

Christensen, C. & Wessel, M.(2012). Surviving Disruption. Harvard Business Review, 90(12), p.56-64.

Christensen, C. & Wessel, M. (2013). Innovating over the Horizon: How to Survive Disruption and Thrive, [Slideshow] Retrieved: http://blogs.hbr.org/events/2013/04/innovating-over-the-horizon-ho.html

 

What’s in a game? Free-riders and the participation problem

Major online communities such as Reddit, Digg, and Slashdot are at the cornerstone of the social web: crowd-sourced content hubs that tackle the difficult task of collecting, evaluating, and promoting quality user-generated content. Loosely related, these platforms all perform a similar task of meta-moderating—or curating—content by tasking users to submit, up vote, or bury content based on its perceived value.

Source: Reddit.com

The only way to stratify the wealth of content they gather and distinguish it within these communities is to use intangible tiers of reputation and visibility. The idea to convert currencies of attention and reputation directly into positive feedback (ie. ‘Karma’ points) provides some tangible marker of digital success. The more popular or approved a piece of content is, the more visibility it—and its creator/poster—gains. The reputation-based Web is all about communities, participation, and peering; it is not, however, about authorial control or objectively professional qualities. Regardless, they are popular to a staggering degree and produce and promote untold amounts of content every minute of the day.

Inside and behind this content overload is a fundamental question of motivation: why does anyone contribute at all?

It seems that the mechanics at play here are some of the most interesting  qualities disseminated in economics, maths, and psychology: specifically, the ideas behind game theory.

The essential kernel of game theory is easy to grasp. Game theory is founded on a very simple but powerful way of schematising conflict. The underlying mechanics of John Von Neumann’s theory of economic games models the behaviour of perfectly logical parties interested only in winning. The dilemma of online producers and consumers alike resembles a game where players can only win by having access to quality content. Communities like Reddit and Slashdot expose this content through necessary participation, but those who contribute nothing still benefit from the results even if they put in no work to achieve them—often known as the free-rider dilemma.

The free-rider game is originally based on public transport, but remains true for modelling online communities. It posits that those who are willing to pay for the use of the railway system subsidise those who do not, because a single non-paying commuter is unlikely to bankrupt the whole system or take up an unreasonable amount of room on the train. Reddit users can easily rationalise lurking or browsing to their heart’s content, because their non-participation has a minuscule effect on the health of the system and the entire systems keeps chugging along.

And here’s the thing: the free-riders are right. They can reap all the benefits of vibrant, online communities without contributing any energy themselves. It is perfectly rational and provides the best possible outcome for the end-user. There is nothing wrong with thinking this way, that is, until everybody starts thinking ‘rationally’. Individually rational action—letting others do the participatory work—leads to a collectively irrational outcome: no one has any access to content—the trains stop running. The bargain of leeching off the system is a fiction; and ultimately, the only bargain offered by non-participation is a Faustian one.

But, since these repositories of user-generated content represent a kind of online collectivism that mired in an anonymous tide of mass mediocrity it is almost impossible to rely on anything other than the altruism of enthusiastic amateurs to produce meaningful work. Web 2.0 has demonstrated a frightening degree of indifference to participation as beautifully outlined by Jakob Nielsen’s treatise on participation inequality, and the intermittent contributions of idle users cannot be relied upon. However, the reputation-based currencies (such as ‘karma’) that these content-aggregators employ might as well be labelled as the bribes they are, because without an overt reward system, these communities would languish.

Source: Nielsen Group

With that in mind, these communities are resoundingly successful at encouraging contributions. Even if their scoring systems can be criticised as self-aggrandising, self-indulgent, and insular, the economics of reputation do directly encourage users to actively work within the rules of the system: it is effectively bribing them to participate. And in doing so, the system becomes universally more valuable to everyone. So long as users participate actively in posting and rating content they are organising the platform and allowing content to move properly through the system. Sure their internet points may be relevant only to their digital peers, but they are a powerful motivator so long as they derive some meaning from their boosted reputation.

Remembering that most-users don’t participate—and that they’re perfectly rational to do so—I’d love to hear why some of you do choose to get involved!

 

Huxley’s Nightmare: Twitch plays Pokemon

Famed science-fiction author Aldous Huxley dreamed a of dystopia in his novel Brave New World whereby the onslaught of trivial media had transformed the character of society into a burlesque. Years earlier, his grandfather—and noted evolutionary biologist—T.H Huxley had first supposed that a million monkeys on a million typewriters might one day collectively compose Shakespeare.

Neither Huxley could reasonably have anticipated that their speculations might converge and manifest themselves through the lens of Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise.

Source: imgur user Rhycool

In February 2014, a user identified as ‘twitchplayspokemon’ launched a channel on Twitch.tv—an online platform for live-streaming video games—running an emulated version of Pokemon Red, an 18 year old Gameboy game. Twitch.tv boasts a lively community of gaming enthusiasts streaming, watching, and interacting around a shared interest in playing and experiencing games. The community dynamics hinge on chat features embedded in the Twitch platform, and the interactions between streamers and viewers transforms typically solitary gaming pursuits into social experiences.

Twitch plays Pokemon takes this community interaction one step further, and by bootstrapping a chat-parsing bot onto the emulator viewers can input commands into the chat stream to dictate the inputs of the game. Typing in simple “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “A”, “B”, or “start” will feed the corresponding action into inputs for the game.  Predictably, thousands of people clamouring in chat and spitting out hundreds of commands simultaneously creates unmitigated chaos. The avatar gets stuck on terrain, he constantly flits between menu screens, spins around in circles, and ultimately behaves like a man possessed. Without pattern or purpose, the result is a bizarre mix of the trivial and captivating. For every hour spent in inaction and anarchy, brief flurries of cooperation incrementally nudge the game forward and demonstrate a complexity of collective action that verges on impossible.

This communal watch-and-play experience showcases some of the best and worst qualities of user-driven content; Web 2.0’s greatest strength also represents a terrible vulnerability, to aggregate the wisdom of the masses you have to invite their madness in too. The beating heart of Twitch.tv lies in its users coming together to share and interact, but their collective activity does little to build a community. Far from it, as TwitchplaysPokemon has demonstrated time and time again the contributions of the many are not necessarily helpful. In fact, the disruptive—often maliciously antagonistic—anarchy of the users creates something wholly unique and unanticipated from what should be relatively mundane, boring elements.

Source: imgur user Rhycool

Counterpoint to Tim O’Reilly’s position that harnessing collective intelligence has an effect liken to that of the sum being greater than the whole, the Twitch community thrives not on inclusiveness and cooperation like so many other Web 2.0 hubs, but rather on the toxic levels of animosity and trolling behaviour between users. The raw energy and interest that Twitch produces is not generating a collectively ‘intelligent’ behaviour across the sum of interactions. While there is something to be said for the collective joy of achieving the most basic goals when 100 000 voices are all arguing at once, the most compelling part of Twitch—the thing that binds the community together—is how devastatingly broken it all is.

After more than 2 weeks of continuous play, Pokemon was finally beaten. This is either an incredible feat of crowd-sourced collaboration, or a tacit endorsement that monkeys might well compose Shakespeare given time. If nothing else it opens the way for a new approach to how games and gaming are consumed and integrated on social platforms. The potential for participatory collaborations on Twitch need no longer be constrained to a simple viewer/streamer relationship. The possibilities for building a community—nay, a society—around even the most trivial of media, when experienced cooperatively, is limitless should Twitch—or other platforms—choose to leverage this position.

Looking forward, it certainly appears that Twitch plays Pokemon has ushered in a brave new world for Twitch.tv.

 

Retrospective: The Past and Future of Information Programs

Over the course of the last three months I’ve talked about a wide variety of things in my search for some kind of internal understanding about information programs and services. Other topics and subjects have found their way onto this blog in that time, and while they’re all still highly relevant, in the interest of good bookkeeping here’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of the INN333 highlights from the semester that was:

Cue a wavy distortion filter and tinkling music for a walk down memory lane.

Week 1 Primer on Personal Learning Networks

Week 2 Reflection on Information Overload 

Week 3 Reflection on Social Media & Micro Blogging 

Week 4 Reflection on Content Curation, Aggregation, and Web 2.0 

Play for Week 4 in which I tried my hand at some content curation of my own 

Week 5 Reflection on Library VoIP services 

Play for Week 5 in which Ben Harkin and I played silly buggers with Skype

Week 6 Reflection on The Failure of Google+ 

Week 7 Reflection on The Intersection of Creative Commons and 3D Fabrication

Play for Week 7 in which I finally joined the filter brigade on Instagram

Week 9 Reflection on Device Agnostic Applications 

Play for Week 9 in which I declare my love for the humble QR code 

And last but not least, some playful reflections for Week 10 in which I discuss games, gaming, and gamification in a two part after school special. (Part1) & (Part 2)

Now that we’re done wiping away the tears from all the good times we’ve shared I ask that you endure one last soapboxing for the semester as I reflect on what this all meant to me.

As a lifelong hobbyist of technology I have always had an insatiable desire to tinker with gadgets, play with the latest software and games, and test out the newest platforms and services.  Back in 2010—when the iPad first launched—I became increasingly interested in the potential effects of how technology was increasingly incorporated into day-to-day life and how profoundly transformative an effect this was having on how content was authored, published, and consumed.

As information consumers, we all live in an age of unimaginable abundance, uninhibited by traditional notions of material scarcity. The infinite shelf space of the internet paired with zero-cost reproduction of content had created a world inundated with increasingly complex and almost magical platforms for technologies and experiences that even a scant few decades ago would have been nothing more than science fiction. And here I was trying to make sense of it all.

At the time I was finishing a master’s degree in writing, editing, and publishing at the University of Queensland, and I began obsessing over how the commoditisation of information and digital publishing was converging and—by extension—devaluing digital works. I became convinced that the devices and services that were simultaneously enabling these transformative, futuristic experiences in our lives also represented the greatest danger to the quality of those experiences. Tapping into social media, RSS feeds, and inviting ‘push’ notifications into my life seemed to be nothing more than inviting a never-ending supply of indiscriminate garbage information to bother me.

My fleeting dalliance as a neo-Luddite evaporated fairly quickly, but left me with a healthy scepticism for the efficacy and capabilities of the digital products that had so quickly come to dominate our lives.

Fast-forward to July 2013, and I find myself facing down a semester entirely concerned with examining the practical application of these technologies. I was actually keen to welcome the chance to explore many of the themes I was fascinated by, and eagerly got stuck right in.

As I have a fairly high level of comfort with complicated IT systems, I had doubts that I would get anything worthwhile out of the practical side of the subject that—at face value—appeared to be an odd assortment of activities designed to familiarise students with crucial information services in the wild rather than do anything particularly complicated or revelatory with them.

I could not have been more wrong!

Being pushed to engage in—and more importantly—reflect on these experiences made me actually take the time to examine the many-faceted uses of these services, and better appreciate how they might be utilised by others. Enough time has passed that I can’t call to mind any anecdotes about the specific challenges I faced this semester, but I have a nebulous idea that I found the process of discovery and investigation to be meaningful and cool, and genuinely enjoyed playing with how I approached and interacted with the activities.

Paradoxically, although this subject has concerned itself primarily with social technologies, I couldn’t shake the divided and diminishing effect of lacking more direct social collaboration with my peers. Despite the ongoing conversations on Twitter and Facebook and regularly touring my colleague’s blogs, I felt displaced and distanced from my peers—despite our shared engagement. The handful of face-to-face workshops were undeniably highlights of the semester, but just drove home how much I regretted that more face time with the cohort was not available.

Ultimately, this subject helped me appreciate and articulate a deeper understanding not only of how and why certain services function the way they do, but also how crucially important it is to take the time to interrogate and examine these functions fully.

Although the heady season of INN333 has come to a close I’m not going anywhere. My journey of professional development is far from over and there are scores of blogs unwritten just waiting in the wings.

So stick around, the best is yet to come.

 

Gamification Part 2 A Plan for Play

So, I’ve soap boxed about what’s wrong with gamification but how would I actually do something good? What would *I* do to design library-games for a school that worked?

Anyone who’s listened to me talk about this for any length of time will know I’m a big fan of Amazon’s ecosystem. And their Kindle FreeTime initiative—pictured here—is an amazing leap forward in integrating gamification in a meaningful way with kid’s reading practices.PAperwhiteFreetime

There’s no universal panacea for getting gamification to work across different contexts. But, the FreeTime idea of allowing parents or teachers to set individually customised goals, and reward them appropriately really resonates with me.

Rewarding students for borrowing and returning books simply invites cheating, or gaming, the system—a delicious irony I realise. Integrating meaningful tracking metrics into a digital-reading experience is a far more robust approach to fusing play and engagement with ordinary reading activities. There’s an element of mastery to the experience too! Tracking and improving reading speed in a session or over time gives readers goals to meet and surpass. Tackling longer, harder books allows them to see their growth over time, and the achievement is a real, measurable thing.

This of course is entirely dependent on using eReading devices. But devices are becoming so ubiquitous in children these days that there’s no reason to hold back on this idea. Moreover, issues of attention and engagement are critical in young students, and reaching out to them on the platforms and devices they already use is key to getting them on board with literacy. If they see reading–and the rewards for reading–as just another thing they do on the devices they already use then traditional reluctance to pickup a book may diminish.

I’m not in favour of ‘tricking’ students into reading or getting involved in the library. But, coming to them on their own terms and saying “Hey, I get that you like your devices; I get that you like games; did you know we offer a way for you to access library content on your device in a way that acknowledges and tests your reading skills?” seems like a reasonable approach that is low-key enough to at least be worth a shot.

To launch a pilot program like this, I’d be in favour of custom developing unique apps that reflect the character of a given school environment. Every school–and every student–is different, and there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to designing activities that work for every library.

Failing all that, I’m keeping an eye on what Amazon do next with the rollout of FreeTime. When the new Paperwhite Kindle’s launch in October I’m certainly expecting a gamechanger!