On Friday I went to ReadWriteWeb‘s Real-Time Web Summit, repping outside.in and generally looking to find out what all the unconference craze was about and meet some nice fellow NYC geeks. I had a pretty great time (much better than I expected after this rather patronizing promo post for the event), so I thought I’d write up my notes from the sessions in which I participated.
Seriously, two thumbs up on unconferences as a general idea and on RWW’s fantastic implementation of this format.
As a ruthless pragmatist, I’m always frustrated by the lack of practical take-aways from a conference, and the unconference is no exception. The strength of the unconference is that it accepts that you won’t decide anything or make anything today and instead forces group contribution and constant socialization. Instead of listening to pre-appointed speakers, some people propose some topics, everyone shows up to the sessions that interest them, and you all have a nice dinner-table conversation about your topic for an hour.
This helps you get the two most important things you came to get: A) connections with industry peers and B) renewed energy about your industry. Note that A would be impossible for someone as pathologically shy as yours truly without the crucial forced socializaiton component. I’ve been to a regular tech conference before and I could barely bring myself to say hi to the fellow sitting next to me.
Some silliness I could’ve lived with out: writing “as a result of today…” on a post-it note and sharing it with the group (mine: “…I know how it feels to have a job where you talk to people all day”), a poem/rap/limerick-writing competition about what we got out of the summit, and RWW trying to sell us their $300 (not a typo) report on The Real-Time Web and Its Future for half-price. These felt a little like two sleep-away camp activities and a visit to the Scientology world headquarters, respectively. The bit where we got to give wine to people we thought did something good during the day was a nice touch and not overly sentimental.
Session 1: Truth-Detection on the Real-Time Web
I joined this session a little late. When I got there we were talking about the phenomenon of people thinking articles from The Onion are “real” news—partly because Baratunde Thurston was there. Shava Nerad pointed out that “The Onion and Jon Stewart aren’t fake news” so much as a humorous commentary on what’s going on in the world that “points to the real news” with the intention of interesting people in getting more information about what’s going on in the world. I’ve been reading The Black Swan, so I’m not really sure what the “real news” is, but I agree that The Onion and The Daily Show are intended to be farcical commentary rather than misinformation. They throw a wrench in our problem because they sometimes unintentionally spread misinformation.
We discussed the problem of identifying bad information and tracking it back to the people who are spreading it. Any method of automating this would face the problem of distinguishing between those who are knowingly propagating the misinformation and those who are ignorantly repeating it.
At some point, we tried to start rumor that Justin Bieber got arrested. This was probably not a great topic because apparently this rumor had already been going on. A few people retweeted Baratunde’s tweet, but I don’t think anyone else in the room had followers who would retweet anything Justin Bieber-related. I know I don’t.
We came back a few times to the idea of eBay-esque ratings systems for individuals’ and organizations’ reliability, but were perplexed by the challenges of people gaming the ratings for personal and political reasons. I asked: “Even if the system was working perfectly and my rating was a legitimate measure of how often I’d shared correct information in the past, how much confidence can that give you that I won’t get bad information and innocently share it with you in the future?”
We decided that to get information out fast but maintain your integrity as an information provider, you have to be willing to correct yourself. We talked for awhile about the disproportionate sizing of articles and corrections in mainstream media. As Shava said, “Say you got it wrong louder [than your original bad info] and get appreciated for it.”
Writing this up later, I wonder if even large retractions and corrections would be effective, because the original misinformation will probably have been reposted many times before the retraction is online. People who reposted the story may not check back with the original source hours or days or weeks later. Maybe there needs to be some inverse of a pingback system whereby the orignal source of a story can update repostings with breaking info.
At the end we talked about the importance of educating young people to think critically about the information they find and share online.
Session 2: Collaborative Knowledge
My friend and former outside.intern Cody Brown convened this session and kicked it off by mentioning a Wall Street Journal article (perhaps this one?) that described Wikipedia as a “crowdsourced” encyclopedia in such a way that Cody thought the term “crowdsourced” was pejorative. He also mentioned a blog post by Chris Dixon (definitely this one) that had posited that the most important startups in the past decade had been based on collective knowledge, citing the goog, the wikipedia, delicious, Yahoo! answers, and Yelp.
We discussed the advantage that aardvark and quora have over Yahoo! Answers of letting people know where their crowdsourced information is coming from. I somehow hadn’t heard of quora but signed up immediately and am loving it. Whereas aardvark feels very invasive coming in through IM (which I hate with the fire of a thousand grandmothers) and never got my interests right enough to ask relevant questions, I have checked quora at least four times since I signed up on Friday and have found some extremely relevant questions that I really want to answer, such as: “How does outside.in get their traffic?” and “Why do some companies still force their employees to use IE6?“.
We talked about what motivates people to contribute to collective knowledge and came up with two main buckets of motivation:
- the super-user model, exemplified by (ma)gnlolia‘s “gardener” status, wherein people get privileges, influence, and recognition for contributing
- the selfish motivation model, exemplified by bit.ly and delicious, wherein most users shorten links or save links for their own use, while unwittingly adding to a pool of knowledge about what URLs people are sharing and clicking on
Session 3: Semantic Analysis of Activity Stream Data
In this session we talked about the difficulties of doing semantic analysis on short status updates with a modicum of data to analyze and no standard taxonomy for presenting data. The only taxonomy that’s been presented so far—hashtags—has been overrun with spam.
We didn’t decide much in this session—the topic was a bit too specific and practical, and the number of attendees was a bit too small.
We discussed the tribulations of getting users to proactively add metadata to short status updates and the relatively small adoption rate of twitter location. A representative from TwitJobSearch mentioned that they crawl the links from Twitter profiles to get extra metadata about the tweets they analyze.
Session 4: Real-Time Where
This session started out with four people in camera-less Section G (where, coincidentally, every session I participated in took place), but about 15 minutes in some folks from justin.tv came in and asked if we’d mind being moved to Section D, where sessions were being streamed live and, of course, recorded. The group quickly grew to six, then 10, then 15 people, with a few strays rotating in and out to see what all the streaming fuss was about, I suppose.
You can watch the video here if you want to see the whole thing, or check out my summary below the embed. I don’t say too much—the other participants were pretty talkative—but if you’re inclined to watch, there’s a continuous shot of me alternating my best serious gaze between my co-participants and my computer whilst doing the following:
- typing up the notes I’ve synthesized below
- tweeting about being on the air
- correcting the typo in my previous tweet
- tweeting something sassy about the people who showed up once the session was on the air
- reading my friend Libby’s tweet @ me (Libby is also a former outside.intern!)
- tweeting back at her
If you skipped out on the video, here are my notes from the session:
We started talking about foursquare and its privacy concern pretty quickly. Someone said that “foursquare is better at showing where you were than where you are,” and we wondered if location becomes less important the less real-time it is. I pointed out (uh, rhetorically) that even if I had tweeted the latitude and longitude I had just shared privately with echo echo cofounder Nick Bicanic, I don’t personally believe that my precise whereabouts at a single given moment make me particularly vulnerable. I didn’t get to my rationale, but it’s this: The cost of acting on real-time geographic information is extremely high. I don’t think anyone wishes me ill that decisively.
We discussed the possibility of an “eBay for cabs” mobile app would allow you to share your location with cab drivers and find out how far away they are. Apparently such a one exists in San Francsico—it’s called cabulous.
Bob Wyman—who had a lot to say on the subject—told us that his daughter carries an Android phone and uses Latitude to share her whereabouts with him so he doesn’t necessarily have to call her and yell at her if she’s stayed out too late. He also speculated that Abby Sunderland (the 16-year-old girl who went missing whilst sailing around the world alone) would’ve been a lot happier if she could’ve shared her precise location with people who were looking for her during her rescue mission. I wondered if she could’ve known that before her mast broke—making a solo trip around the world in a sailboat being of course one of the most brazenly independence-seeking things a 16-year-old girl might do—and congratulated Bob on having such a great relationship with his daughter that she surrenders her exact location to him at all times. I know my brother would’ve had part of no such thing as a teenager. Nic Luciano of GetGlue quipped “I’d be more likely to give a cab driver my lng and lat than my father.” Ha!
Abby Sunderland photo from her press kit
Nick mentioned his feeling that the tendency to document our lives at every step—say, by checking in on foursquare as soon as we sit down at the table and tweeting a picture of our meal before we eat it—is a bit absurd in its interference with actually leading our lives. Bob countered by referencing a 1945 article from The Atlantic called “As We May Think” that suggests such documentation long before the age of “lifecasting” and “oversharing.” I haven’t read it yet, so don’t spoil it for me in the comments, ya hear?
Personally, I found continuously tweeting pictures and observations from my trip to Ireland last year extremely helpful in reviewing and labeling with correct dates and locations the photos from my real camera after I got home. At the very least, we’re making it easier to sort our photo albums and write our own histories by tracking our lives in real-time.
I hope my notes help some people remember their sessions or participate vicariously. I’m looking forward to reading some other folks’ writups. You can also check out the official ReadWriteWeb Photo Roundup from the event if you fancy.