Sorry about all those messages I didn’t reply to, here’s why

There's this thing I'm calling 'platform dysphasia'.

I know, there's a real dysphasia – where damage to the left side of the brain, responsible for language and communication, impairs speech and writing – and maybe the name isn't right, but it's absolutely real.

For a while, it seemed like each new online platform was going to displace the previous one. IRC to ICQ to MSN, MySpace to Facebook to Twitter, email to something better. But more and more, I find myself having conversations that slip between platforms. Was it voice mail, Twitter DM, email? If only I could find the message.

So many conversations, and each one a subtly different way of presenting yourself. I guess it's a multi-tasking problem.

There's a lot of published literature out there about the “networked self“, for example the way travel writers and backpackers use blogging and Twitter to build and establish profile.

But we're all doing it. If you're part of a hashtag conversation on Twitter or a LinkedIn group – or leaving comments on blogs – the bits we leave behind in this trail of personality across the web are only meaningful in relation to the network of conversations on those platforms. And it's hard to keep track.

I like Meghan Casserley's take on this for Forbes with what she calls “the many faces of me.”

What this means is that while social media has afforded us many things—FarmVille, unflappable knowledge of everyone’s birthdays, countless memes—it’s also given the uncanny ability for a single person to become many different people. All at the same time.

As science writer Mark Changizi wrote in a 2010 post:

Whereas individuals were traditionally members of just one community, and risky ventures such as entrepreneurship, science and the arts could get only one roll of the dice, in the age of Social Web 2.0 people can split themselves into multiple selves inhabiting multiple communities.

I'm not into splitting myself across multiple Twitter accounts. But even though it's less overt, what we do on all these platforms is much the same thing.

It's always useful to think of the extreme case – so think of the difference between your Instagram pics and your LinkedIn profile. They might as well be different people, right?

Now think about your profiles on Flickr, Pinterest or Tumblr, your Twitter, Facebook, your blogs. I've found it really interesting with the growth of platforms like or that aim to link up your personal network of social platforms. And bringing them together can be jarring.

As we split ourselves into these subtly different personas, there's a fuzziness to thinking about conversations happening on each one.

Think about the rich way you might know someone on Twitter or Facebook and the way that doesn't seem to really inform your face to face relationship or your correspondence on email.

There's something surprisingly fragile about all this. We talk, talk, talk, but where does it all go? Someone's mining all that data, and if not they will be, but for us it's a surprisingly ineffective outboard memory/mind.

Dorie Clark on HBR thinks it's time to cut back on our social platform, but quotes Robert Scoble saying there's:

no alternative to constant, ubiquitous engagement and held up a spare battery he carried for his smartphone, so he'd never run out of juice. No time to respond to tweets? Do it while you're walking down the hallway.

I asked on Twitter if anyone could “help me find research on the costs/benefits/confusion working & having conversations across mult platforms (twitter/fb/text/email/etc)?” I got nothing, but I'd love to read more (especially evidence based research) on the topic.

Journalism has to get one thing right for a social world

The Week has folded. The Global Mail doesn’t seem far behind, though it’s still publishing good stories. New Matilda is hanging on with crowdsourced micro-dollars.

Everyone assumes there’s a next thing for journalism, me included. Because if there isn’t, what then? What kind of democracy would we have without the fourth estate?

But while the bastions of media in this country fight to stay afloat, their upstart competitors aren’t exactly blowing up.

So how do you make a media company for a world where content is increasingly distributed through sharing and social media instead of the old print and broadcast channels? That’s the question asked by BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti in an email republished on Chris Dixon’s blog.

It’s a great, optimistic email – and I’d be interested to know how much Peretti’s vision matches up with the reality at BuzzFeed.

It’s not like the challenge is finding readers. Across the board, there are more readers than ever, or maybe more reading than ever. The challenge is sustainable business models for journalism, since the coincidence that wound up with advertisers cross-subsidising journalism seems finished.

Last year, I read a terrific manifesto of a piece from Craig Mod

On ‘Subcompact Publishing,’ it see-sawed between a very designerly aesthetic and the kind of pared back simplicity of message that I think most writers would aspire to. It stuck with me.

Referring to Clayton Christensen’s idea of the innovator’s dilemna – that “the perception of the incoming disruptors is that they’re low quality, and therefore not really worth paying attention to” – Craig talks about Honda’s N360, a light or sub-compact car. He imagines the car’s engineers looking at the sum total of cars created to that date, and asking:

What’s the simplest thing we can build with this?

In the software industry, they call it the “minimum viable product” – or MVP.

As Craig explains, newspapers or magazines are simple, generally intuitive objects. They’re easy to read. Most media apps and sites aren’t.

His ‘subcompact publishing’ manifesto is:

Subcompact Publishing tools are first and foremost straightforward.

They require few to no instructions.

They are easily understood on first blush.

The editorial and design decisions around them react to digital as a distribution and consumption space.

They are the result of dumping our publishing related technology on a table and asking ourselves — what are the core tools we can build with all this stuff?

They are, as it were, little N360s.

I propose Subcompact Publishing tools and editorial ethos begin (but not end) with the following qualities:

  • Small issue sizes (3-7 articles / issue)
  • Small file sizes
  • Digital-aware subscription prices
  • Fluid publishing schedule
  • Scroll (don’t paginate)
  • Clear navigation
  • HTML(ish) based
  • Touching the open web

It’s prescriptive, and great creative projects are going to make their own rules. But dumping our publishing knowledge on a table and asking what can we build with it is a good place to start.

I had a very modern moment yesterday while searching for Craig Mod’s piece

I read Craig’s piece last year, but for the past couple of months, try as I might, I couldn’t find the right combination of search terms to find it again.

So I asked my Twitter community – I had, after all, tweeted it at the time. The first time I asked, it went nowhere.

Yesterday, I asked again:

So frustrated! Super inspired by manifesto for a new mobile/online news site that popped up a few months ago. Now can’t find it! @bronwen?

This time I tagged Bronwen Clune, who tweets about media innovation and runs the excellent email list Newsgraf, and she came back asking for more clues – “Australian? US?” I replied:

@bronwen think US, seemed more conceptual than case study. Led by a tech/startup person, not a media person. Very lean. Seemed v practical.

Great links and suggestions started coming in from great people like Amy Denmeade, Gavin Heaton, Paul Wallbank and Bronwen.

I hadn’t yet found what I was looking for and Bronwen captured the frustration of the fruitless search:

@matt_levinson Gah, now I’m searching for one I loved and can’t find.

But Amy Denmeade’s mention of Marco Armente’s site had given me the clue I needed. See the first half of this post 😉

We don’t have the US’s huge media ecosystem, or the catalytic funding of organisations like the Knight Foundation and their terrific News Challenges, and our startup scene is much more focussed on data-driven projects (a rich vein to tap).

But there is a huge gene pool of creative media makers coming out of community radio, zine making, blogging and subcultural writing, as well as the mainstream of journalism schools, and there are stacks of senior, seriously experienced journalists out looking for work.

Our strongest digital media projects so far: Crikey, Mumbrella, the Spectator group (recently sold to News Limited), Mamamia, Andrew Jaspan’s The Conversation, sustainability website The Fifth Estate, News and the ABC’s opinion sites (The Punch, The Drum), CNET, ZDNet, maybe even The Monthly’s latest thing Politicoz – they’ve all started with a fine focus, and in some cases expanded.

In contrast, the sites and publications suffering… most are generalist, generally unfocussed – maybe that’s the point.

Can loved up evangelists learn to reflect?

What people usually do when they sign up to Twitter:

  1. This is so naff. I mean, hello tweeps!
  2. Where do I start? Where do I find good people to follow? Is it really just what people had for breakfast?
  3. Oh I get it. This is kind of cool.
  4. You need this.

Maybe someone will formalise it into some kind of social media law. Right now it’s more like a working hypothesis. People sign up and step through a relatively predictable series of states before ultimately becoming evangelists.

(Behind the scenes picture at last year’s Bonn climate change talks – a familiar scene)

I’ve been wondering about the evangelism/reflection balance in social media for a while.

A Bill Keller piece in the New York Times got me thinking:

The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. Unlike the virtual fireplace or that nesting pair of red-tailed hawks we have been live-streaming on, Twitter is not just an ambient presence. It demands attention and response. It is the enemy of contemplation. Every time my TweetDeck shoots a new tweet to my desktop, I experience a little dopamine spritz that takes me away from . . . from . . . wait, what was I saying?

Keller, who edits the NYT, attracted heavy blog and social media criticism. For example, Gizmodo: New York Times Editor is a Horrible Troll Who Doesn’t Understand The Modern World.

But I reckon there’s something to it, and seeing ABC’s Natasha Mitchell talking Twitter in Brisbane a few weeks ago, I could hear she was getting even closer.

I like that Natasha – who presents Radio National’s All In The Mind – uses it as a crucial part of her role as a science journalist. But I love that she is not an evangelist. In a crowd of social media geeks at the #media140 conference, she could talk clearly about who you’re interacting with on those social media. And while it’s an influential, interested group, it’s far from representative.

I’ve been on Twitter long enough that my followings have built up cumulatively, a few a week, to something that looks impressive on a cursory glance. Long enough that it’s really a big part of my life, and that I sometimes put hashtags into emails or refer to people by their Twitter handles instead of their names. Long enough to see it appearing in my job description from time to time.

But… talk about Twitter tends to be either reductive criticism by people who don’t get it, or loved up recommendations from social media evangelists, which is what we all become, eventually.

From that Gizmodo post:

The thing is not that we’re dumber, or that our cognitive advance has slowed or reversed. It’s that we need different mental abilities to process information and the modern world.

We don’t simply use new technologies, we become immersed in them. We live in an era of information assault. Data is everywhere. Ads come at us from all sides. Email pours into our boxes. The Web, and television, and radio and, yes, fucking newspapers spew information at us like, well, like newspapers once spewed from printing presses before they began drifting into irrelevance.

Memorization was once a tool for preserving information. But today the more important skill is the ability to process and filter it. To quickly decide what needs to be analyzed and responded to, and what ought to be ignored. That’s not a cognitive loss, it’s an evolutionary advancement.

Almost two years ago, I was on a panel about “slashies” – people who do more than one creative job, as in actor/model, or in my case, editor/broadcaster/communicator. I felt a bit weird about this slashie role. I already felt like it wasn’t working that well – to be a seriously great radio maker, or writer, or painter, or whatever it is you do, needs focus.

There’s an obvious value to firing your synapses with stacks of interesting, different experiences and ideas. But while preparing to chair the session at Creative Sydney, I read up on the research into multitasking. Every time you swap tasks, it costs. Concentration and focus are the main casualties, switching subjects means constantly dumping the contents of your working memory. The Pavlovian experience of social media amplifies this, massively. Switching, constantly. Forgetting what you’re working on. You’re firing with ideas, but are you following through on them?

In many ways, the rise of social media has made us all slashies. But I hope that’s not the end, because at the end of the day we’re still the same people, effectively, as we were decades before the internet. Our brains aren’t evolving as fast as the chip’s evolution. This technology might enable a whole lot of new behaviours, but…

…our brains haven’t been rewired, maybe it’s happening, and there’s evidence they’re a lot more mobile than we thought. But the really complex issues we have to face – climate, population, development, etc – are complex, they’re hard to explain, but easy to reduce down to meaningless catchphrases. They’re easy to take sides on, but harder to find a real middle ground and develop shared understanding. Twitter forces people to take sides, condensing an argument down to 140 characters forces you to strip out the nuance. It has the potential to bring people together, but because you make your own filter on the global Twitter stream, you tend to zero into a bubble of self reinforcing arguments.

Twitter’s powerful. But who are you actually talking to/with? are you just endlessly restating and fixing your position, or do you find time/space for deeper thinking?

Remember #Pepsigate?

Quick backgrounder: the ambitious science magazine SEED started a blogging network, which attracted some of the biggest names in the science blogging world. Opinionated, informed and entertaining blogging. But the whole thing collapsed in a storm of controversy around a sponsored Pepsi blog.

Barely raised a blip in Australia, though online and on Twitter it was hard to miss. For a less concise, but more insightful history see @mjrobbins’s Storify – including a series of tweets from @mims about how ScienceBlogs started.

We were looking for ways to build traffic to, of all places, #SBhistory

It was impossible not to notice all the excellent science blogs that were then scattered across Blogger and self-hosted sites. #SBhistory

Intern made a spreadsheet including estimated traffic. We sorted by that field, invited the top 20. #SBhistory

It was a success, even outliving Seed magazine. But from @mims’ tweets, doesn’t sound like the publisher ever really got it, with most of the budget going to the in-house website and publishing team, while the bloggers were out in the cold.

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at #media140 Brisbane to dissect the story, with Wilson da Silva and Becky Crew from Cosmos, Darren Osborne from ABC Science Online, and Peter Griffin from the NZ Science Media Centre and Disappointing not to have Tim Lambert from Deltoid or anyone from The Conversation. Still, a great panel. Listen to it here.

That’s two panels on blogging in a month (I was on a panel about hyperlocal/place blogs at Reclaim The City, at the University of Sydney, in April). It’s weird, blogs as news all of a sudden. Bloggers like celebrities, and at the other end of the spectrum a growing awareness of the writing and thinking on blogs. Which is great, but I feel weird getting up on panels like it’s some new thing. Still great.

(Pepsigate panel at Media 140, Brisbane – photo by UQ journalism student Pakwayne)

So the panel on Pepsigate was interesting. I guess my main point was that like blogger outcry over the fake Coke Zero blog in 2006, the idea of a digital or social media crowd getting angry about dishonesty is nothing new. People get angry when they’re misled. It’s just now social media gives people an outlet.

What’s new to me is the potential for science blogs to be a serious alternative to the often superficial coverage of science in the mainstream media. The panel talked about the way Nature/Science dominate their respective coverage. One of the most attractive things about science blogging is how by sharing ideas, by articulating ideas and by being exposed to ideas, it creates a fertile space for innovation.

Anil Dash takes this up, saying by expanding on ideas you’re reading (instead of just tweeting or retweeting), you’re forcing yourself to articulate newly conceived ideas.

One of the most hilarious things to come out of my hyperlocal blogging panel – chaired by the lovely Jesse Adams Stein – was a comment by one of the panelists that what we do as place bloggers is “elite”. If you can write an email, you can write a science blog. Any blog, really. Though great writers *are* something special. As great writers (or thinkers) are anywhere. What’s elite isn’t the blogging platform, but the potential you create by taking part.

The other issue with #Pepsigate is the rise of branded or sponsored content. It’s nothing new in the papers, but the protocols online aren’t as well established. See Wired‘s response to The Independent doing it online. Readers, overloaded with advertising, are getting better at filtering out the direct material, which is why advertisers are increasingly using sponsored content, product placement (an audience member suggested Haruki Murakami had paid products in his books, though I doubt it). And though ScienceBlogs was a very niche corner of the web, it had a large, dedicated and well educated readership. Prime for Pepsi’s (probably very good) scientists to flex their credentials.

But if it was going to be good, relevant content to the blog network, then it should have made it there on its own merits. Blurring the line is no good in magazines or papers – eg those “special supplements” in the Herald. But it’s happening as an increasing desperate publishers look for the elusive business model.

Fast forward to the end of the story, and Seed boss Adam Bly cancelled the deal after a massive outcry, and the week of the talk in Brisbane, National Geographic announced it had taken over the blogging network.

I planned to write a bit more about Media 140 Brisbane, but it hasn’t happened. Fortunately there were plenty of fantastic bloggers and thinkers on hand. Click Kristin Alford, Craig Thomler, Kate Carruthers, Andrew Maynard and Peter Griffin for insights.

[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Maybe it’s time to accept failure

Okay, so let’s start by agreeing none of us like to fail. It’s in our cells. Our genes want to get as far down the evolutionary ladder as possible, and there are plenty of much more immediate ways we want to succeed. But could it be possible that our relationship with failure is stopping us dealing with some of the biggest problems of our time?

That’s @critter‘s fail whale tattoo. Fail whale would be very familiar if you were using Twitter early on – it flashed up every time the website timed out.

It was designed by Yiying Lu (originally “Lifting Up A Dreamer”), and I’m chatting with her tomorrow. So every time Twitter failed, Yiying’s artwork flashed up in front of a ballooning groups of ‘tweeps’. So failing is clearly something Yiying has a mixed relationship with. From what I gather, she doesn’t have a significant base of failure to draw on. But she has Twitter’s turbulent path from buzzed online curiosity to news-breaking social media platform to thank for a serendipitous rush of international exposure.

Anyway, Yiying’s also dabbled in lecturing. Teaching design students at the University of Technology, Sydney. And when I said I was super interested in failure and her mixed experiences with it, she sent several vollies of link-filled emails as required reading.

Yiying pulled this quote from a spectacular speech by author JK Rowling.

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

That seems intuitively true. In my experience, failing is a good sign you’re trying something new. But Rowling went far deeper, explaining how crucial failing was to her phenomenal success.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

It’s just the kind of mythologising that works in a graduation speech, and Rowling was speaking to a graduating group of Harvard students. But what makes it inspiring listening is that it’s borne out in Rowling’s story. She had to fail to get where she did.

Yiying also sent  a couple of interviews she had done – a good overview of the fail whale story in Failure magazine (of course), and another in the New York Times Magazine’s Consumed column.

One of the things I find interesting about failure is how it can be a doorway to some great inspiration that social taboos (“that’s wrong!”) or intellectual rigidity (“that’s ridiculous!”) would veto.

Most worrying, is the risk that a fear of failure will stop people solving ‘wicked problems’.

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

That definition’s from a great piece by New York University media researcher/commentator Jay Rosen.

It gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong,” meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try stuff that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)

That is key: “Failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try.”

Dealing with complex problems, we need to experiment, take risks, and not be afraid of stepping away from incremental development. And that’s going to take a very different relationship with failure.

Caught in an information rip?

There’s so much information out there that journalists are starting to code in languages like R or Python to weed out patterns and spikes in data sets. I’m not sure how many of these data journalists there are, yet. But there’s no question there are stories to be found (search ‘data journalist’ and you’ll find pages of guides to the emerging field).

And more and more we’re actually obsessed by information. Think about the flow of stories and observations and thoughts on Twitter. The number of blogs covering data visualisation and infographics (though that trend seems to have peaked). The way we use spatial apps in a crisis like the Queensland floods. And in the world of science, we’re building up massive troves of data.

It turns out searching is one of our primary drives.

In 1954, psychologist James Olds put electrodes in rats’ brains for an experiment. By accident, he discovered that if the probe was put in the lateral hypothalamus of the brain, and the rat was allowed to press a lever and stimulate its own electrodes, it would press the lever until it collapsed. Ever since, people have assumed that the lateral hypothalamus is the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’.

But that didn’t make sense to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.

The animals, he writes in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, were “excessively excited, even crazed.” The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging. Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn’t experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be caught in a loop, Panksepp writes, “where each stimulation evoked a reinvigorated search strategy”.

It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

That’s from an Emily Yoffe piece in Slate on why our brains are hard-wired to love Google, Twitter and all those other things.

So that’s why I wade through writers’ blogs and scan feeds and pore through books and magazines. It’s powerful, very useful, and probably not particularly healthy. But is it just the way things are?

Maybe. Kristin Alford blogged yesterday about her search for ‘flow’ amids the interruptions.

Attaining flow requires sustained thinking and the creative application of our skills and knowledge to solve new and difficult problems – mastering a difficult turn for an ice skater, finding the right phrase for a poet. But when we reach a state of flow, we barely notice the time pass and gain great satisfaction.

How do we create opportunities for sustained thinking and flow in our connected world with the rush of Twitter, status updates on Facebook, hitting receive on emails and the incessant ping ping of messages on our devices? How do break old unproductive habits associated with connection?

Kristin’s solution, via Jack Cheng at the excellent A List Apart, was to think about the habit fields surrounding your work environment:

On the one hand it should be a place of quiet contemplation and flow. On the other hand it is also where we check messages, talk on the phone, pay bills, research on the internet. If you check Twitter first thing in the morning and then regularly during the day, it becomes a habit associated with that space.

Cheng noted that he deleted a certain Twitter client because he would find himself absent-mindedly clicking the shortcut key without realising. I do this regularly when I switch between applications, finding myself on Tweetdeck with no previous intention of viewing it. It has become an instinctive habit, muscle memory.

Cheng now sits in a different chair for Twitter and email, saving his desk for actual work – in his case writing, designing and coding. Physically changing the space has reduced the social media habit field at his desk.

I’m not sure sitting at a different desk, using a different computer,  is really practical for me. But the issue of ‘habit fields’ forming around these heavily used locations really chimes. As I mentioned in the comments of Kristin’s post, I think this is something we’re all struggling to get right. Twitter and whatever’s next are so good at taking us to good things, but the by-product is a Pavlovian response in our reward centres, constant refreshing, scanning and instinctively interacting. I take time out to read books, long articles and papers, and write thoughts, observations and ideas ever day, but I’m going to have to think more about those habit fields.

It definitely puts a different slant on neuroscientist David Eagleman’s prediction in The Guardian that within the next 20 years we’ll be jacking information streams directly into our brains with William Gibson-esque machine interfaces.

I’d like to imagine we’ll have robots to do our bidding. But I predicted that 20 years ago, when I was a sanguine boy leaving Star Wars, and the smartest robot we have now is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. So I won’t be surprised if I’m wrong in another 25 years. Artificial intelligence has proved itself an unexpectedly difficult problem.

Will we have reached the singularity – the point at which computers surpass human intelligence and perhaps give us our comeuppance? We’ll probably be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex for those who want it badly enough to risk the surgery.

That idea of the rewiring our ideas of humanity with sentient computers and the singularity appears to be crystallising.  Tim Flannery’s fascinating interview with Robyn Williams on ABC’s Science Show laid out the Internet, the flow of information around the planet and the increased interdependence of all of us as steps towards the development of a superorganism – he calls it Gaia – and as he describes it, it definitely calls to mind the ant colonies described by entomologist EO Wilson.

It’s a debate that’s picked up a lot of steam. Flannery’s comments were editorialised by Tim Blair in the Daily Telegraph and anonymously in The Australian.

Come on down, Gaia!

Hey, if the big guy can take out Australian citizenship by this morning and hold a cricket bat, we’ve got a job for him at the SCG.

It’s obviously speculative, but there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye – and it really taps into what we’re increasingly understanding about how complex systems work, and how Earth’s system works. Here’s a response from three scientists on the role of what’s increasingly being called Earth Systems Science.

A critical feature of Earth System Science is to recognise that human activities now form a major interactive part of the functioning and evolution of the entire planet. This is a significant departure from the past where humans have been studied separately from the environment around us. We have been regarded as villains impacting the planet’s natural systems, and victims suffering from the way the planet reacts, for example through changing climate.

This new approach means that the natural science of global environmental change must be linked with social science, economics and the humanities, that is, “global environmental change” must become “global change”.

There are real risks when we become so interconnected and tapped into the global flow of data. Personal risks, that stop us from being creative and able to deliver on our promise. Global risks, where crises like the financial meltdown brought on by sub-prime lending can cascade around the world due to our interconnected financial systems. And fundamental challenges to Earth’s inhabitants, like mass extinction of Australia’s biodiversity.

But there’s also the very real chance of good – the ability to understand each other, to have richer, far more fulfilling experiences, to come up with new ideas, to solve some of these big problems. Finding the balance is crucial.

Proving ideas in a crisis

It seems careless to think about creativity when friends and family in Brisbane are being evacuated in the face of rising floodwaters. Creeks are turning into raging torrents. Mobile phone networks have been going down. It looks like topping the disastrous 1974 floods. The scenes have been awful, and at times kind of ridiculous.

(Cyclists at New Farm Park, thanks Taezer)

(Food panic setting in, thanks to photographer Sam Hegarty)

It’s a crisis. But it’s also a showcase for good ideas.

Like wearing dive boots.

Or the ABC’s development of digital radio, and special event stations, which means it can roll out a dedicated station to keep people updated. Or the fact that it’s been toying with Ushahidi‘s Crowdmap for a month of tracking feral animals, which means it can do crowdsourced mapping of the flooded areas.

Online community manager Greg Williams (aka @lexiphanic) posted Brisbane City Council’s full collection of flood maps when the council’s site collapsed under the strain – update: Greg wrote about the process for today’s Crikey.

To help others, I put up a web page on my server on late Tuesday night with the handful of files I was able to find. I then told people on Twitter and Facebook where to find the page and went to bed.

Early on Tuesday morning, others contributed some more of the maps and I was able to pry some more from the Brisbane City Council’s flailing servers. I posted them on my page and reminded people they could access them there.

It spread like wildfire. Thousands of people shared the website address with their friends, who shared it with their friends, and so on. Google’s search engine had picked it up, too. By midnight on Tuesday night my humble page had helped 199,833 people.

Our ability to use data, particularly spatial data, has really matured in the past couple of years. And events like this are when you see its value. Contributors to the many new curation/journalism sites, including Storify and Storyful, have also swung into gear.

These and a stack of other great and prosaic ideas circulated quickly on Twitter, using the hashtags #qldfloods and #thebigwet (though they have been largely swamped by retweeted rumours and other redundant comments, hinting at the limits of the hashtag filter). We’re far from the end of this, when the floods subside there will be a huge reconstruction project to come, and there’s talk of floods in five states by the end of the week. But it’s moving to see how people pull together and help each other in a crisis like this, and how the often flippant world of social media rallies when times are straitened.

Three great things I came across this year

It’s almost the end of December, best of lists are everywhere. And I love lists. But… I find them a bit arbitrary – it’s all so dependent on what you saw, where you were, how you felt. Still, there’s something to them: a look back, before leaping into a new year.

I’m a science writer and researcher, an arts broadcaster and music obsessive, and a compulsive reader, so there is a  lot to draw on. Too much. So I decided to focus on three great things I came across this year and haven’t been able to stop talking about.

Tipping Point, Performance Space

It’s seems right to start here, considering I started this blog a week later. The idea had been kicking around a while, of doing a radio show, online thing, whatever, about ideas and where they come from and how they’re made. But talking to people at Tipping Point convinced me to get this ball rolling.

I didn’t know what to expect of #tpoz10 (as it went on Twitter). Several events this year promised fascinating ideas, brilliant minds, but delivered typical programs of good and/or dull. Tipping Point stemmed from a UK event of the same name – it was even sponsored by the British Council and Royal Institution, alongside the Australia Council for the Arts – and ran over two days in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Producer Angharad Wynne-Jones and her team assembled a stellar group to talk about how artists and scientists could work together on climate change.

On the first night, I met a sound designer, a theatre director and an urban wastewater consultant. Over the course of the following couple of days, I chatted with IPCC lead authors, a design activist, a narrative specialist and a huge range of other creative people. There were artists, scientists and others – not sure which camp I fitted in, though with the low count of scientists, I found myself explaining that part of the game most often – but at any point in the weekend it felt as though the organisers could have arbitrarily picked speaking talent from the audience, it was really pretty special.

There was a lot of electricity. The British Council announced a round of Climate Commissions for new work. People talked about doing art/science job swaps, coming up with ‘Carbon Dating’ or ‘Me & We’ websites to connect artists and scientists who want to collaborate, a new online database of climate change knowledge, documentary ideas, and stacks of other stuff. It’s been pretty quiet since then, so I’m not sure how much real stuff came out of the weekend.

But for me, the most important thing was realising my eclectic mix of experiences make sense together. Science, technology, art, music, ideas – that intersection was the centre of a lot of discussions over the weekend, and that was a fascinating place to be.

Other Film, Sydney Opera House

Video art may have come of age, but its half sibling film art still languishes. The captivating scribbles, daubs of paint, images, bursts of colour, text and found footage aren’t quite film, they’re not a linear, or often even two-dimensional narrative, and they haven’t made complete sense to the art world either.

Len Lye’s show at ACMI last year showed just how difficult this work is to place – much of his work was made as advertising. But Lye’s show was part of a growing reevaluation of film art – I interviewed Mark Titmarsh early this year about his experimental film in Sydney in the 1980s and his magazine at the time, On The Beach, as well as a retrospective on the Canadian film maker Norman McLaren.

It can be as simple as projecting an (albeit wildly inventive) film on a standard screen, or something closer to a ’60s ‘happening’ with sculptures in front of the projector scattering the film, shapes protruding from the screen, and even performances with the film or screen being scratched and painted as the film rolls.

It is a very 1960s vibe, actually. Heavily psychedelic, with a lot of music. That’s how a couple of Brisbane locals came to film art. Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela were more involved with the fiercely independent and experimental music scenes, and regulars at events like This Is Not Art, Newcastle, and Straight Out Of Brisbane, when they came across some of the experimental film being shown alongside the music. It quickly spiralled out, and Zuvela’s academic work on the topic is attracting increasing attention.

In Brisbane, Other Film runs regular expanded film happenings. But I saw a rare Sydney show that paired a spectacular Robin Fox with Melbourne’s difficult but hugely influential Cantrills, an intense Joel Stern performance with Sydney film maker Paul Winkler, and Holy Balm playing a stop start set of psychedelic clunk funk through a film from George Gittoes. Captivating.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

When I first mentioned to my former obstetrician father-in-law that I was reading a book about ‘HeLa’ cells, he asked: “Helen Lane?” That’s who the textbooks say she was, a white woman called Helen Lane or Helen Larson. She was actually a poor Southern farmer called Henrietta Lacks, and this book tells the whole, fascinating story.

Rebecca Skloot writes for the New York Times, New York, Oprah Magazine, Discover and she’s a contributor to WNYC’s Radiolab, so she has form. But the kernel that became The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks appeared when Skloot caught a stray remark about the HeLa cells in high school biology. She was 16. She kept that kernel of an idea in her head for a decade, until at 27 she finally started working on a book.

It took her another decade to write it, and that time and dedication is so crucial to the book’s rhythm and flow. It’s an adventure to dig out information, to find Henrietta Lacks’s family and to get them to talk, and that’s why Skloot is a key part of the story. She talked to everyone, and in a stellar piece of literary journalism, wove the story from Henrietta, whose cancer cells were taken to form the cell line, through to her descendents (human and cellular). Insightful and intensely readable.

#saveDelicious – where to now?

Amazingly, Yahoo has confirmed it is shutting down one of its most useful sites, Delicious.

(here’s the Carol Bartz presentation slide leaked on Twitter, which shows a series of apps due for ‘Sunset’ or ‘Merge’, no mention of Flickr)

One of my Twitter follows described it as a #firstworldproblem, which it is. But keeping track of the constantly tumbling waterfall of fascinating articles and ideas that is Twitter and the internet needs a tool like Delicious. Something to sort out the good stuff, and keep track of it.

As Mark Pesce tweeted this morning:

It’s not so much the links I care about – it’s the mountains of wonderful, wonderful tags attached to those links.

Delicious is a platform. I mean in a sense that’s obvious. But in a deeper sense, using it to sort through and keep track of articles or applications or datasets or other things that seem useful online, it acts as an extension of your memory. That memory extension is a platform that allows you to use the much larger resources of the internet to make connections you just wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

Which is why it’s so odd Yahoo has decided to scrap Delicious. People are petitioning Yahoo to reverse their decision. But the truth is Yahoo has been neglecting it a long time (as Tech Cocktail says, what’s worrying is that Yahoo might let go of other sites, like Flickr). For me it’s a prompt to move somewhere that works… but where?

  • Pinboard – minimal design, fast, private, aims to avoid linkspam by charging a moderate fee (at the moment, about $7) – created and run by one of the original founders of Delicious. I’m trying this out.
  • Publish2 – strong news focus, it’s pitched at “filling the news hole” and is very much linked in to alternative news wires, particularly in technology.
  • Diigo – all in one package for bookmarking, offline reading.
  • Scuttle – an open source alternative to Delicious.
  • There’s also BrowzmiEvernoteXmarksClipmarksSocialMarkerMister Wong, and perennials like Google ReaderDigg and Reddit.

Reading #6

  1. Reading Steven Johnson’s book, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that people around us affect our creative potential. The, uhh, Art of Manliness doesn’t examine the why, what or when, but it does look at the who of what it calls Master Minds – CSS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin’s inner circles – and a seriously elite gang called The Vagabonds:

    Out in the country and driving through the rain in an old Model T, a farmer noticed five men standing by a Lincoln touring car which was stuck in the mud. He stopped and assisted in pulling the car out of the muck, at which point one of the men stepped forward to shake his hand, telling the farmer, “I made the car you’re driving.” “And I’m the man who made those tires,” added another in the group. He then pointed to two of the others, saying, “Meet the man who invented the electric light — and the President of the United States.” When the fifth man asked the farmer, “I guess you don’t know me either?” the farmer replied, “No, but if you’re the same kind of liar as these other darn fools, I wouldn’t be surprised if you said you was Santa Claus.”

  2. It’s hard to imagine anything bigger in global media and network circles at the moment than WikiLeaks’ latest dump. It’s acutely embarrassing for the diplomats and politicians caught up in it – (you can track documents released so far through CableSearch). In Mark Pesce’s piece for ABC’s The Drum, he asks: “Has Earth become a sort of amplified Facebook, where an in-crowd of Heathers, horrified, suddenly finds its bitchy secrets posted on a public forum?” He reckons it’s exactly that triviality that has those in power up in arms. Pesce says: “The mythology of power – that leaders are somehow more substantial, their concerns more elevated and lofty than us mere mortals, who must not question their motives – that mythology has been definitively busted.” Powerful stuff, and governments are hitting back. WikiLeaks has been hit on a number of fronts including Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks and a triple-pronged political attack on Amazon (temporary host for WikiLeaks after the DDoS attack), (their DNS hosting service) and PayPal (intermediary for the crucial donations). But Pesce’s piece shifts tone from the bleak catalogue of attacks to a far more optimistic, if radical view. Comparing this to the last days of Napster, and sounding for all the world like the early pages of a William Gibson novel, he says:

    We’ve been here before. This is 1999, the company is Napster, and the angry party is the recording industry. It took them a while to strangle the beast, but they did finally manage to choke all the life out of it – for all the good it did them. Within days after the death of Napster, Gnutella came around, and righted all the wrongs of Napster: decentralised where Napster was centralised; pervasive and increasingly invisible. Gnutella created the ‘darknet’ for file-sharing which has permanently crippled the recording and film industries. The failure of Napster was the blueprint for Gnutella.

    In exactly the same way – note for note -the failures of WikiLeaks provide the blueprint for the systems which will follow it, and which will permanently leave the state and its actors neutered. Assange must know this – a teenage hacker would understand the lesson of Napster. Assange knows that someone had to get out in front and fail, before others could come along and succeed. We’re learning now, and to learn means to try and fail and try again.

  3. With the media in such weird contortions – WikiLeaks is radically reinventing the idea of a publisher, and at the same time The Australian newspaper seems to be focussing a huge amount of effort on a handful of Twitter users – it’s easy to swing back to thinking of Marshall McLuhan. Here’s a series of quotes from a 1974 piece in the Journal of Communication (dug out by McLuhan Galaxy):

    As new media continue to proliferate, the nature of “news” will naturally change too, along with the perpetually renewed revolution in information speeds and patterns.

    Among the unexpected features of the information revolution are the extraordinary diminution of private identity and egotistic conviction, as a result of major involvement in the lives of other people, and the extraordinary enlargements of the public sector. We have moved into an age in which everybody’s activities affect everybody else, and therefore the whole matter of privacy is suspect, even as it is impractical.

    A spectacular paradigm of the information revolution has been developed for the world at large by the Watergate affair. While it seems to specialize in matters of political espionage and image- building, it also draws attention to the fact that the entire educational and commercial establishments, as much as the political and military establishments, depend on data banks of total information concerning both producers and consumers, both the governors and the governed. The Watergate affair makes it quite plain that the entire planet has become a whispering gallery, with a large portion of mankind engaged in making its living by keeping the rest of mankind under surveillance. The FBI includes among its responsibilities keeping under surveillance individual members of the CIA. We thus have a complete scheme of baby-sitters for the baby-sitters — chaperons for chaperons — and it is the business of every commercial establishment to keep all other commercial establishments under surveillance as a minimal condition of survival

REVIEW: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

In 1943, the famed MIT radiation laboratory – the Rad Lab – needed a quick fix. So they threw up a building to house researchers until the end of the second world war, expecting to tear it down within a few years.

But 50 years later the wooden, asbestos-ridden Building 20 was still producing spectacular ideas. It was the starting point for companies like Akamai Technologies and the Digital Equipment Corporation, it’s where Noam Chomsky’s linguistics department began, and it’s where Amar Bose (Bose Corporation) is rumoured to have tested his speaker designs.

So why was that run-down temporary building so good at producing ideas?

That’s a question Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson‘s seventh book, aims to answer.

We think ideas start with a bang. Eureka moments, light bulbs flashing, breakthroughs. But ideas don’t come out of nothing, Johnson argues. To find out where they do come from, he rewinds some of our biggest supposed epiphanies – evolution, discovering the structure of benzene, Gutenberg’s printing press, triodes, the World Wide Web, Twitter – and plays them back slowly, to work out what actually happened.

Mostly it’s a mix of serendipity, mistakes, fortuitous collaborations, slow burning hunches, people who can take a pre-existing idea and put it to use somewhere completely different, and, you know, good timing.

Ever dreamt the answer to a big science problem? That’s how German chemist Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz came up with the ring structure of the benzene molecule. Of course, that was after Kekule spent a decade exploring the connections of carbon-based molecules – it was on his mind.

Constantly comparing our creativity and ingenuity with the rush of mutation and survival that drives evolution, Johnson makes a strong case for things we make being no more than an extension of the processes that made us and the world around us.

MIT’s Building 20 had just the right balance between order and chaos, Johnson says. You get nowhere with too much chaos, too much order is stultifying. But in that space where you’ve got a bit of both, you have the potential for creativity. Building 20 always had space for a new experiment and for interdisciplinary projects that couldn’t find space anywhere else. If the structure of the building wasn’t right, then – because it was a ‘temporary’ structure – you could move offices around, take out walls, drill holes.

Imagine a chess board. At any point in the game, you have a limited number of possible moves. Every time you make a move, you open up a new range of possible moves. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman came up with an idea he called ‘the adjacent possible.’ That’s the moves you have at any one point on the chess board – a finite number of adjacent possibles.

Johnson says Building 20’s flexibility expanded each researcher’s range of adjacent possibles.

To put it another way, think about the classic breakthrough moment: the light bulb. Thomas Edison’s best known for inventing it. But amazingly, he was the very last of some 23 people to invent the light bulb – and this is actually very common. In the nascent light bulb’s case, it’s because 100 other inventions were needed before the light bulb was possible. But in place, inventing the light bulb joined the range of adjacent possibles. And, Johnson says, its invention was virtually inevitable.

It’s not always like that though. Johnson argues many of our best ideas appear on the edge of consciousness, unformed, like the first proteins and sugar molecules coalescing in a primordial soup. Doomed to fail, forgotten, never realised, poorly timed. But some work.

Ideas, he argues, are a process, not a one off event. And most often, a great idea starts as one of these unformed ideas, a hunch, and stays that way for a long time.

Johnson calls it a “slow hunch.” It’s when this slow hunch collides with someone else’s hunch, or the tools to make it possible, that you get the classic ‘Eureka’ moment.

In July and August, 2001, two FBI agents – one in Arizona and another in Minnesota – filed reports on radical Islamic terrorists targetting aviation schools, but the FBI’s internal systems were designed to keep these hunches apart. If those hunches collided, Johnson argues, the FBI might have uncovered the plot to fly planes into the World Trade Center.

Reading #1

  1. Museums everywhere are experimenting with ways to manage their huge collections of physical things, information, visitors – basically data – and in Canberra, the National Museum of Australia has just started an experimental data and visualisation lab
  2. So climate change is played out as a debate. But because the answers to denialist arguments are complicated, it often feels like taking part in the debate is just answering the same questions over and over. Which a robot could do. Cue Nigel Leck’s brilliant idea, a Twitter  chatbot called @ai_agw that scans Twitter for climate change denial and posts responses
  3. Clever ways of using Dropbox
  4. And with Tipping Point just finished, you may need another chance to flex your creatively intellectual muscles: Knowledge Cities Melbourne or TEDxMelbourne
  5. Dealing with data is one of the big challenges of science. We just have so much. Fortunately there’s an exploding range of options goodbye Excel graphs
  6. Steven Johnson in Wired about New Yorkers phoning in to complain about a smell of maple syrup – a tricky problem solved by data visualisation
  7. Community mapping as a basis for urban planning in Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya), where young locals are creating the town’s first free, public and digital map.

20 questions

The editor at New Matilda emailed asking for max 140 character answers for a piece. Not sure it’s really crowdsourcing when you get contributors for contribs, but NM’s one of the original online magazines in a rapidly expanding field. Here’s what I sent in.

Where are the best fish and chips near you?

Fishface serves up fish+chips for a pricey $15 on Darlinghurst Road, but it’s totally worth it.

Will this be your first tweeted festive season?

I’m tweeting my way through the ham, pudding and prawns season for the third time on Friday. But it’s friends/fam/eating/drinking, not tweeting.

What’s the best Christmas present Twitter could give you?

An easy way of managing multiple accounts?

Followers: quantity or quality?

Talking followers at xmas seems oddly appropriate – I’m happy both ways, if someone decides to follow my tweets, they’re quality in my book.

What is your favourite season-appropriate song?

I love doing xmas specials on my radio shows and have songs well and truly stockpiled. @wayneandwax’s heavy remix-mas is a fave.

It’s Christmas Night. You turn on the TV. What movie should be broadcast?

Flying High, Spinal Tap, Weekend at Bernie’s? Short attention span, a little stupid and definitely no xmas theme.

What is your attitude to office Christmas parties?

Office party a la Mad Men, with loads of booze, good looking colleagues and maybe a small fork lift? Yes, keen on those.

In 140 characters or less, what is the future of journalism?

“The future’s already here, it’s just unevenly distributed” (from @williamgibson)

If the Walkleys had a best tweeter category, who would you nominate?

The best tweeters are disarmingly frank, insightful, entertaining; @vasilikaliman is all that and deliciously bitchy about the art world.

Who is your favourite tweep?

It’s not so much the specific tweeters, but the back and forth collective flow of ideas. It’s all about scenes/community, you know?

Read the final cut, Twitter For World Governor 2010: 20 Questions, and now The Twitterati Speaks: 20 Questions at New Matilda. BTW I’m @fortunegrey.

12 word stories

Canvas had a writing special yesterday. I interviewed Reif Larsen, author of the fantastical debut novel The Selected Works of TS Spivet, plus artist Emily Floyd, and Liz Keen from

We put the call out on Twitter for 12 word stories, and got some good ones.

Sleepless night. Tired. But the day is too beautiful to waste. (@russki_fro)

The last thing she wanted was a scandal bigger than her own. (@brevity24)

Reading braille by the beach, granules beneath fingertips, her story ever changing. (@macleanbrendan)

Off to play scrabble in the park. Canvas is worth 11 points. (Blake Thompson)

Go on, jump, you’ll not bang your head. (@lynniferm)

Pigs love mud. Pigs have fun when they play in mud. (@judeekerick from Jett 7yrs old)

when i left at 6, it was snowing. on arrival it was sunshine (@urthboy)

she moved quietly through the dark rooms she could feel their presence. (@kutira)

Dear person who drained my bank account: I will find you. (@sophiemallam)

I dropped one of work’s portable phones down the toilet last night. (@cupcakeaimee)

“Look again!” he said. “Oh, I see it now,” I said. Ouch. (@anthonyjucha)

cornelius eyed off the TV remote. he sought change. flick. flick. change…. (@drbad)

Pretty great, right?

If you want to see Reif, he’s in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival and appearing at various bookshops and events (including tonight at Shearer’s Bookshop, Leichardt).

Talking about Twitter

Suddenly it seems everything’s about Twitter. The mainstream press has caught on, running features on it, catching up with a phenomenon that’s been building for a while.

But there’s more to it than Aston Kucher and Hugh Jackman, and it’s not all about the Fake Stephen Conroy either.

So I went and asked a couple of media addicts – Stilgherrian and Stu Buchanan – why they tweet and wrote it all up for New Matilda.