Yesterday I went along to the Wealth of Networks conference at Imperial College. I was only able to attend the morning sessions, but it was a valuable chance to hear the thoughts of various individuals with diverse backgrounds but a shared understanding of the power of networks (in the broader sense of the word).
The Twitter Experiment
One of the things that I was planning on doing at the conference was to have a go at using Twitter as a means of realtime communication with other attendees, so I used my phone’s browser to run a Twitter Search for the event’s hash tag. I saw a tweet from someone else who was wondering if he’d “still be awake by 10am” and felt a bit excited at the idea of sharing a ‘back-channel’ of conversation during the sessions.
As it turned out, however, there was some confusion around the hash tags. Most people turned out to have been using #wealthofnetworks rather than the #won tag listed in an email I’d received the day before. Also, I didn’t charge my phone adequately and it died within a couple of hours. Still, I think I’ve got a good understanding of how Twitter can make these sorts of events much more useful from a networking point of view, and I’m looking forward to my next chance to try it out in real time.
John Varney’s Keynote Address
John Varney was formerly Chief Technology Officer at the BBC and now runs Maximum Clarity, a consultancy. The earlier part of his talk set out to contextualise recent developments in social media & networks by looking at five key figures who have played a part in their development:
- David Sarnoff – Founder of NBC, saw television’s potential as a community medium
- Gordon Moore – Co-founder of Intel, laid foundations for the evolution of the devices we use today
- Bob Metcalfe – Inventor of Ethernet, founder of 3Com
- David Reed – Forecast the exponential scalability and utility of social and computer networks (Reed’s Law
- Ross Mayfield – cited as the ‘father of the social network’ in the modern sense of the term
Having given an overview of where we are, he then outlined where he felt we were going. Referencing Yoklai Benker‘s book, “The Wealth of Networks” (from which the conference took its name), Varney argued that the wealth-creating potential of networks was now being realised to a significant extent. Benkler had identified three manifestations of the wealth of networks:
- Social Wealth – for example, Facebook (I’m a bit of a Facebook cynic myself but was hardly going to argue with its prevalence)
- Monetary Wealth – for example, eBay
- Creative Wealth – for example, Metacafé (Varney said that he’d considered listing Youtube as the example, but doesn’t really like it)
Also, we’re currently moving towards a state of ‘information symmetry’, in which powerful, monolithic arbiters of information (he heavily implied that the BBC could be thought of as one of these) are seeing their influence subside as individuals start becoming sources in their own right.
The examples Varney cited to illustrate this principle were September 11th 2001 attacks in the US, the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and the 7th July 2005 tube bombings in London.
- September 11th – this event was covered by the broadcast networks, who were on the scene immediately and were the main source of information (although you could go into more detail here about how forums and mailing lists on the internet became a crucial news source as the BBC, Sky and CNN websites crashed under the strain…)
- The Asian Tsunami – the broadcast networks weren’t there and didn’t arrive until two days later. The event was covered by people who were at the scene, but these people handed their footage to the networks and relied on them to disseminate it
- 7th July – in this case, the people who took pictures and filmed video at the scene also published their material themselves via sites like Flickr and Youtube, demonstrating the obsolescence of the broadcast media.
So given the above observations about wealth-generation and information symmetry, Varney concluded his talk with a number of assertions, among which were:
- The death of the organisation and rise of the ‘collaboration’ – in a few years we won’t be talking about organisations but instead about more fluid and diffuse ‘collaborations’ (he intentionally used the word as a noun). This will require a “new breed” of management and leadership (I wanted to ask more about this but there wasn’t time)
- Open source innovation – not limited to software development. Through being open to ideas from people outside one’s organisation or discipline, utilising the power of one’s networks, genuine innovation becomes easier
- Computing-free enterprise – “if your company still has an IT department by 2015, you’re in trouble.” Cloud computing will cause companies to abandon their own technology infrastructure and move to remotely-served
Panel Discussion Moderated by Gareth Mitchell
After a 20-minute break a large panel assembled for the second session, a panel discussion moderated by Gareth Mitchell (lecturer at Imperial as well as presenter of the BBC’s Digital Planet). It’s worth noting here that I heard about this event via a Twitter post from Gareth, which may or may not be of interest to the event’s organisers!
File-sharing in the UK
The first subject under discussion was the morning’s story on file-sharing. In short, ISPs are going to send nasty letters to people who use P2P file-sharing applications. A straw poll of the panel & audience revealed that the vast majority of those present used these tools, and the whole initiative was treated with some levity.
The discussion focused on record labels and their flawed business models, the consensus being that these, rather than rampant criminality, were the real root of the problem. I furrowed my brow at the idea that Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan could be thought of as being in the “long tail”, and wrote in my notebook, “do these people know how long that tail really is???”. To be fair though I’m an embittered ex-owner of a tiny independent record label so have a bit of a skewed perspective on what music can be seen as obscure…
One attendee with a Canadian accent mentioned Live Nation’s deal with Madonna and their focus on music at the point of consumption – specifically, concerts – rather than on ownership. Would this model trickle along the “tail” to the point that lesser-known artists would make money this way?
The panel broadly thought so, but I didn’t – I feel that physical events will remain the domain of either very large or intensely localised acts, and the most interesting thing the internet has done for music has been to decouple fan-bases from geography. You need a critical mass of fans in a certain area to be able to make money through performance, and if your music appeals to people with more specialised tastes, this will always be elusive.
The second topic was one of “internet blackout” and how the UK would cope with it. One question was, is there a commercial motive for ISPs and telcos to continually upgrade their infrastructure to accomodate the constantly-rising demand? In short – there is, and previous predictions of internet meltdown have come to nothing. John Varney noted that newspapers in particular tend to pick up on these stories as they’re innately attracted to the idea of the internet going away. It’s going to happen though.
I wanted to ask about a more realistic “internet blackout” scenario than global meltdown, namely the suspected Russian attack on Estonia’s internet infrastructure in 2007. Events like that are likely to become more common in the future, and if botnets continue to grow in size it won’t just be states that are behind them – however, a lot of people raised their arms before I got a chance to pipe up.
The final topic was net neutrality and the question of whether or not multiple tiers of internet access were emerging. This issue is a very complex one and the panel didn’t have too much time to discuss it in real detail – one interesting question that came up, however, was Nick Leon’s assertion that ISPs should look for ways to provide additonal services to their customers and avoid being ‘dumb pipe carriers’, destined to suffer as US telcos had done in the 1990s.
John Varney seemed to disagree with this view, though, and so do I – surely that’s AOL’s model? There may be a market for that sort of ISP but I feel that consumers have largley become able to navigate the open internet without difficulty, and are therefore unlikely to be attracted back to the “walled garden” regardless of how much proprietary content is offered to them. You never know though.
I’d like to have been able to stay for the afternoon and join in one of the breakout panels, but as one of the few wage-slaves in attendance (in a show-of-hands most attendees identified themselves as scientists or entrepeneurs) I had to head back to the office. It was annoying that I’d forgotten to charge my phone too, as it would have been good to carry on the Twitter experiment a bit further and see if I could seek out the flesh-forms of people who’d been tweeting.