A Better Academic Authoring Environment

I’m putting all this out there beause I’d love to hear from anyone with suggestions or experiences with something similar. If you’ve got some nifty plugins, themes or code I could use, feel free to recommend them! I’m happy to provide feedback on how it goes and share the work on this openly.

Content is still very much the infrastructure in education. in this sense Learning and teaching, the associated activities and assessments are built on and around the content. For this reason concepts like openness, OER, OEP, shareable, reusable and forkable resources are important. But too often the process of authoring and publishing these resources leaves a lot to be desired. Many people utilise the LMS as both their authoring and publishing platform but having attempted to do this recently – it’s a terrible experience.

Things you take for granted when using something like Word – styling, editing, versioning, embedding, linking – are all incredibly difficult, if not impossible to do. It’s a clunky experience equivalent to writing webpages with a typewriter. Or transcribing code from a dictation. It simply adds work to the process. And don’t get me started on reuse!

As I’ve said before:

What goes into the LMS stays there … and then gets deleted.

A number of projects I’m involved in are focussed on reuse and developing resources that make sense to be available to many students across different courses, but available in the context of their study. Something that they can access from the LMS (as the central contact point) but it doesn’t have to be in the LMS.

Blackboard’s lack of anything that resembles proper support for mobile is another issue. At the moment the best option is to not use Bb at all as a content tool if you want the content to be mobile friendly. Why responsive design isn’t a feature of Bb yet I do not understand but it’s a massive barrier to making the system truly accessible.

What I’ve started to look for is a way of creating a simple tool/system for developing resources – and not just text but rich media – as well as publishing them to students. A singular environment that is built for the web and is of the web. Some of the resources, due to content and copyright issues can’t be made available openly so we need to authenticate users who wish to view it. I don’t want to store information about the student – just for them to be authenticated for access.

So my thoughts so far:

  1. WordPress – does most of what we need in terms of authoring and publishing. I can spool an install in matter of minutes thanks to @reclaimhosting and it’s completely customisable. In this way we can have rich and mobile friendly content available quickly. It also has roles and permissions and is generally pretty extensible in terms of the types of content and configurations we might need.
  2. H5P – if you haven’t come across this go an check it out. It’s an open source library for creating HTML5 media for learning. Using it with WordPress you can author, host and share media assets via an embed code.
  3. Quiz Plugin – a number of the projects utilise quizzing as formative feedback for students. I’ve noted there are a number of quiz plugins available for WordPress, so I think that ones covered. While H5P does have quizzing a couple of resources would like to utilise randomisation and question banks to improve reuse by students.

The last piece I’m currently looking at is the authentication into the site. From a student/teachers perspective what I want to offer them is a way to generate a link from the WP site that can be added to the site in the LMS.

So how can I do this?

Well my thoughts so far are that I can setup a specific Role (or user Subscriber) in WordPress that allows Read access to the private pages in a site. I should be able to turn off the Admin menu for these users too so it doesn’t get in the way of the experience. It also means I can create a few public pages so there is something front facing incase anyone stumbles across the site.

My initial thinking was to utilise LTI – but after searching through the plugins available it looks like LTI integration does way more than I want or need. I don’t want to provision sites, just access to existing ones. I’m also not sure if I’d need to do something in our Blackboard backend to enable the WP site for LTI. Might just be overkill at this point in time.

Another (probably simpler) option could be to utilise an “Auto Login” feature. I haven’t found a maintained example yet – but there seems to be few out there. It would be nice if it was a “proper” plugin too – so that someone can set this up without modifying code, just change some settings to access the URL to cut and paste.

I want to start putting this together in the next week so I can test it out – so feel free to comment below!


I don’t think in words

One of my personal frustrations is my inability to get my thoughts into words. What seems so clear in my head usually comes out as a jumbled mess to begin with and needs to be carefully crafted into something that can be communicated. It slows the process down a lot and an idea often has to spend months dwelling around in various forms, being nibbled at and moulded into shaped before it’s ready to come out.

I was thinking tonight that it would be great if I could write more… But that’s not really the problem. I write plenty, what I struggle with is the fact that I don’t think in words. My thoughts take a very different form and something that is a struggle to describe.

They are visual and sensory objects to me. They are often pieces that join together – not like a puzzle but as a truth. Complexity is there and can be felt rather than explained. Their is a physicality to these thoughts, a real weight and mass. They are solid rather than ephemeral and gossamer. What I struggle with is translating these truths in to words. To encode and abstract them into language and structure then in text.

An example is probably my first memory and inclination of this problem. It was back at uni and I was trying to think of a project to develop for my major work. One of the ideas I had was to map a four dimensional space. In my mind it was (and is) as clear anything but any attempt to verbalise – even to visualise it is hopeless. I spent a long time with that one, eventually dropping out of uni and heading out into the workforce. There was a number of factors in that decision, but my inability to get out an idea scared me – how could I spend time one something that I can’t quite describe?

What tends to come out is not what I see, especially in it’s initial form. The best comparison is Terry Pratchets description of the colour of magic:

It was octarine [the eighth colour], the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself. But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.

That’s what happens to my ideas when I translate them to words – they become a greenish-purple – a poor representation of my minds eye. An inferior description that does little to capture the truth and true nature of the thought.

I want to work on that this year and I’m willing to trying and be more iterative in my ideas – to put them out in various forms, remould them, change them and adapt them over time. It’s slightly scary because it’s a vulnerability I don’t usually expose… but hey lets give it a go!

Featured Image: Canvas of Clouds by Tim Klapdor BY-NC

Explain Nothing: The Secret to Storytelling

Over a lovely summer break I’ve had the chance to watch and read a number of fantastic stories. Many of them have been kids movies and books that I’ve been watching or telling to my four year old as we’ve endured the heat and rain. Some are better than others but the good ones have something in common.

They explain nothing.

The best stories invite you into worlds, populate them with memorable characters and then take you on a journey, but they don’t explain anything. They don’t explain the geopolitical machinations, the cultural landscape, the local mythology or religious beliefs. They just tell the story.

And it works because a good story is not seeking to become part of your world – you want to become part of it.

This lack of explanation is the secret sauce for truly great movies. From those of Studio Ghibli through to Mad Max Fury Road. It’s what made the new Star Wars good and the last three suck (seriously midiclorians are the perfect explanation and why it’s wrong). It’s why you can jump from the visual polish of Pixar to the painterly style of Song of the Sea – they don’t explain their worlds – they just make them worth inhabiting.

An explanation needs to find commonality. In order to bridge realities it must relate to our actual reality – it’s culture, science and political ideologies – and in doing so it destroys the magic. It destroys our ability to suspend our beliefs and be absorbed by the fiction and become part of their world.

Don’t get me wrong, you still need to get everything else right – the world, visuals, characters and story – but it just doesn’t need to be explained. That’s what we do, that’s how we participate in a book and a movie. We explain it, we build the bridges and anchor it into our world and cultural experience. It’s how we make art our own. By creating our own explanation.

Contribution to 2016: Civitas

The start of the year sees a flurry of posts full of predictions and promises. Last year I thought that rather than do that I would post what I planned on contributing to, and I want to do that again this year.

Last years contributions went a bit like this:

  • Distributed systems – went well resulting in a lot of thinking and a number of posts and presentations and my big ideas – MYOS.
  • Customising WordPress – didn’t pan out at all. The projects I thought would relate to this didn’t really follow this path – instead I learnt Jekyll :-)
  • Design Patterns – while I haven’t dealt with this publicly I have been working on this quite a bit in the last month or so… stay tuned.
  • Netpro – unfortunately this didn’t get up either. It’s something I’d like to come back to and might do so this year.

So a mixture of successes and failures – and to be honest that’s good because I learnt a lot from last year, met some amazing people, had some great conversations and found my ideas resonated with people around the world. A pretty good year on that front.

I also did some unexpected things and one of those was helping lead a session at the Wagga Hack4Good event. This was an event that came out of the local council and government agencies with the idea of exploring some of the social problems we have in our community and the possibilities to resolve them with technology. I was part of some of the organising with a slap together crew of interested, rather than experienced, people who were all willing to get something up and running. What exactly that was may not have been apparent in the beginning- but what emerged out of the event for me was a need for the community, and the council, to start engaging with technology.

The session I led started as a quick presentation about design – in particular user interface and user experience design. It then evolved into an ideas session, discussion and then trying to refine that down into something singular to “hack” with about 30 people in the room. We had a couple of technical guys from the uni on hand to build something – so much of the session was about outlining something for them to go away and build, but the majority of people that were attending weren’t technical at all. They were interested in the opportunity and not short of ideas, but they did lack the digital literacy and skills to really engage beyond those initial ideas.

Throughout the year I also took part in the People’s Panel initiative from the local council. It was a way that planners and the council could get feedback on plans and initiatives being undertaken. I took part because it was online and I wanted to participate in some kind of civic duty. At the end of the year they invited people to come and meet face-to-face and discuss the councils strategic planning. It was a great session with lots of interesting discussion but again it became abundantly clear that technology could provide some real improvements to current practice and solutions to some of the problems but there was a lack of ability to think about this, let alone push for it.

What I was left with was a feeling that there is a huge gulf between “social” or “public” and “technology” at the moment. That in many ways there really hasn’t been much innovation recently in “social technology” – stuff that makes connecting, collaborating and cooperating better, easier and more productive. Things may have improved for individuals – but getting groups together often means resorting to older technologies, and my personal bug bear – ones that aren’t mobile friendly. It seems that the only innovation that occurred in this space happened fairly early with wikis and blogs and then it all just got swallowed up social media. There’s a massive gap in the social and public spaces online that isn’t being addressed despite the proliferation of devices and access to the internet. I wrote and presented about the exploitation and enslavement that’s occurring under the guise of “social media” and even presented an alternative in MYOS because we need an better solution. But while MYOS may address an individuals needs, what about a community? What kind of solutions are out there for communities to engage with?

So that’s what I’m planning to contribute to 2016 – public and social spaces in technology. I’ve even found a word that summarises quite nicely a number of ideas I’ve had – Civitas.

Civitas is the body of united citizens and is the mixture of rights and responsibilities that create a public and social community. Civitas embodies the the qualities that generate a sense of identity, commonality and cultural relevance in the public real.

What I’d like to do this year is work on how we can embed technology into our civitas and civitas into our technology. I think there’s a real opportunity in this space – for ideas and solutions. I also want to branch out beyond education. I have a full workload planned for this year and to be honest EdTech and a singular form of technology is doing my head in. I think there’s technology that’s suitable across multiple context – so if this works at a community level it would work the same at a class, course or degree program to. Also I think there’s the possibility to be more radical and innovative without the constraints of the educational system.

My first step is to map out a couple of ideas I’ve already had:

  • To campaign for a community roll out of a domain-of-ones own program. This is kind of foundational for developing digital skills around the community and something that provides the infrastructure to move forward.
  • We came up with an interesting idea at the Hackathon for a community events app, but one that had some additional features. I’d like to push that further if possible and maybe flesh out some of the functionality we discussed on the day.
  • Developing up an app idea Civi. This is basically an App to enhance and provide democratic functions. It’s an idea I had a while ago and something I’d like to flesh out and share with you good people!

So that’s the big thing for this year. It’s singular but pretty board. It encompasses some serious ideas and thinking, some technology hacking, maybe some training, speaking and perhaps more important selling. I need to get out there an engage with people. I made a positive impact on a few people at the hackathon and so I’m keen to leverage those connections to get something up and running. I’m hoping there’s an audience open and willing to participate, as well as someone willing to put there money where there mouth is!

There’s also plenty of work to be done in this our second year of u!magine in online learning, a house to rebuild and my awesome family to hang out with and hopefully have some great adventures. 2016 is going to be good!

Thoughts on How Facebook and Twitter Won

Mike Caulfield kicked off an interesting discussion with his blog post How Facebook and Twitter Won. I think Mike makes a pretty convincing argument which I’ll go along with, as long as I can add a couple of but’s to encompass a couple of other factors.

But 1 – HTML

Yes RSS failed to capture the minds of people as a simple way to syndicate and share, but HTML never actually caught on. Despite a couple of decades word processing being done on computers the very concept of markup is still not understood. HTML was, and still is a clunky beast, especially for the uninitiated. It’s not even really code but it’s closer to it than many people would like to actually get. When publishing on the web required a working knowledge of HTML it created a barrier to adoption for many. Facebook and Twitter won because they didn’t rely on HTML.

But 2 – Servers

The reality for most publishing solutions on the web is that they still require access to a server. And to run that server you have to know, or be willing to learn by trial and error, how to configure and install software in a very different manner to the desktop. There was no one click install, so droplets or packages. It was command line and quite often typing stuff into the command line that you had no idea what was happening or if it would work. And once online your stuff was vulnerable. To server crashes, down time and data loss because mitigating those risks was hard. Yes things have radically improved since but Facebook and Twitter won because they didn’t rely on an individual setting up a server.

But 3 – Making a Network

Blogs and RSS made it easy to consume found sources of information or to publish to them. These however were individual silos which did little to create a way of connecting the dots, the people, the ideas into a cohesive experience. Facebook and Twitter did. They created the Like and the Follow button which allowed a user to simplify the creation of a personal network. It didn’t involve a workflow, in involved a click. There weren’t steps or apps or skill involved – it was all just a click away.

But 3 – Making Money

I think we need to differentiate two very different models of blogging. There’s blogging for personal expression which most often has no commercial concerns or implications. Out of this model comes blogging as profession which is possible once a blogger has reached a critical mass of readers that they can actually make a viable income out of this effort. All of a sudden eyeballs matter in a very real and very commercial sense. RSS essentially cut off a source of income from these professional bloggers by removing eyeballs on their site. When you’re income is all of a sudden under threat why would you ant to support RSS, the technology that threatens it? Sure the personal expression bloggers couldn’t care less and RSS might makessense to them, but when making money is at stake why would you support it, let a lone push it? Facebook and Twitter won because RSS never had the support from those who were making money out of it.

But 4 – How to get Paid?

The final But is perhaps the most pervasive question in the online space – one that is yet to be really answered properly – How to get Paid? At the moment the predominant model online is advertising. You get paid by providing a vehicle to attract an audience and then selling that to advertisers. And the reality is that’s it…. the web seems lost for ideas on how to get people to pay for whats on the web. There’s the donation system that power Wikipedia and subscription services but the fact of the matter is that neither of these are truly viable systems – particularly from a users perspective. In an age of an of abundant information why pay? Why subscribe to just a single source of information? Is it cost effective to have a subscription service to news, magazines, music, TV and movies? And what about the independents? The artists, writers, designers, bloggers and musicians that don’t publish via a label, magazine, newspaper or studio? Surely the web can democratise this space? Surely it can provide a viable way for independents to make money? I thought this was the gig economy? Or is it just a gig when you signup and someone scrape 30% of your fee up front? If you want to people to let go of the idea of people reading your stuff on your site – you have to work out a way to make sure they can get paid and earn a living. I probably should turn this But into a post on it’s own.


I want to end on something positive and that is

… and despite all that we can create an alternative. We can build out of these existing technologies the kind of web we want. We can learn from Twitter and Facebook rather than capitulate to them. We can re-engineer and re-create the web we want. Yes they may have one this round, but lets go back to the corner spit out the blood and tweak our tactics.

And we can learn. And we can change. And we can create.


So long twenty fifteen!

Wow, what a year it’s been. Honestly what the fuck just happened?

It kicked off fine, new job, new team, new work. We headed to Mudgee for a wedding to wish friends well on their great new adventure. Our daughter graduated from Abstract Expressionism to Expressionism with her first figurative paintings.

There was a road trip to most CSU campuses (first time in Orange, Dubbo and Canberra) and lots of great conversation. There was the abomination of Vegemite mixed with chocolate.

There was a 35th birthday and an Echidna icecream cake.

A brief trip to the snow. A new niece. Out first family trip to South Australia. There was pizzas like faces.

And then there was the fire.


And gastro. A week of gastro.

Then I left everything in disarray to go to the US and meet some of the most amazing people – people I’ve been dying to meet face to face and beyond the digital for many years. There was also a Mustang, jellyfish and Skyline Boulevard.

Then there was rebirth. Light at the end of the tunnel. A cooperative insurance company. Support and stuff. Love and thoughts. New things. Shiny things. A new place (and a deep desire to just go home).

Then there was Christmas. Love and family and, and … just love. Of knowing what matters. Of connecting, caring and cuddles.

Then there was Dad. A 15 year anniversary of him passing. Of leaving us all too soon. Of not seeing us graduate, fall in love, be happy, marry and pump out some little miracles. Of not being there to cook the cake. To joke and smile and laugh. There was a visit to the cemetery. Of stark blue skies and a beating sun. Of us together and acknowledging he would have loved what we’d become, what we’d made of our lives and who we love. There were tears.

Then there was cousins! More presents! More screaming and yelling and laughter than I though possible. There was love. Of knowing what matters. Of connecting, caring and cuddles.

Thanks everyone who was part of my year and wish you all the best for the next.

Bring on 2016!

Listening to the Web

Ever since I started seriously studying and working with the web (way back in 2000), I’ve always struggled with the terminology used to describe the way we USE the web and what we DO with the web.

At that time it was all about “interactivity”, a term I have always struggled with and come to loathe. One of my earliest university essays was an attempt to define a taxonomy of different types of interaction in order to extract something meaningful from the word. It was messy and in the end I was never happy with the term nor the ideas I’d had to construct meaning out of it. Interactive did, and still does, grate on my nerves as it’s used so flippantly and with no consistency. Interactive is applied to a “Next” button just as easily as multi person video chat. It’s applied to the navigation of a page, the transactions carried out and the reading of text or watching a video. Interaction became a catch-all’, a terrible term to define or discuss your work.

But I’ve always struggled with an alternative. There needs to be more nuace and clarity – particularly in the area of “consumption” (another term I’d rather not use).

So what do we call the way we use the web?

Despite so much of the web being text, there’s always been an orality attached to it. In many ways text on the web has sort to replicate speech and dialogue rather than print. The immediacy and connected nature allowed text to become more transient and ephemeral within its own context. The shorthand and slang, even emojis, developed as ways of replicating the traditional context of speech – embedding place, culture and emotion.

For the “reader” too, the experience of text on the web never functioned like the printed word. Physically it required a “workstation” far removed from the portability of the book. The low fidelity screen and limited colour palette are really only now starting to disappear as a constraint and limitation on the reading experience. There is a also the fragmented, distracting and infinite possibility of the web. Rather than be a library of closed, sorted and stacked books the web is every page of those books open and on display. Hypermedia created a non-linear, non-sequential labyrinth of information that simply cannot be “read” in the traditional sense. And the text in chat, forums and comments – is that “read” in the same way as a book? Is reading text an interaction on the web?

During one of the recent Future Tense podcasts Tanja Dreher notes the work of Kate Crawford and the role of listening online.

When we think about particularly the social media environment, the online environment, it’s obviously a sort of proliferation of voices, stories, speaking, exclamations. Lots and lots of expression can seem incredibly overwhelming.

But if we take a step back and think about what we actually do, most of us still spend most of our online time listening rather than speaking. We might post a couple of Facebook updates, we might send a couple of tweets, but there’s also an awful lot of paying attention, listening in the background that’s going on.

So there’s a wonderful academic Kate Crawford who has made the argument that listening actually provides a better concept for thinking about our online participation, even though normally we focus on speaking. And she says part of the problem is that we have really undervalued the importance of the listening that we do.

A lightbulb went off at that moment. Listening! Yes!

Reading through some of Kate’s work the issues she highlights are often when the concept of “interaction” falls down or fails to capture what exactly is happening. So instead of a distinct act on the web it’s labelled as something passive like “consume”. But we’re not simply consuming, shovelling it down or burning it up, we are thinking, pondering, questioning, absorbing, agreeing, disagreeing and everything in between. We are not consumers of the web, we are listening. We listen to people tell us about their day on Facebook, not simply read or consume their posts. We listen to the discussion on Twitter, the chatter and dialogue passing us by. We don’t lurk, we listen.

As the introduction for one of her papers suggests.

much online media research has focused on ‘having a voice’, be it in blogs, wikis, social media, or discussion lists. The metaphor of listening can offer a productive way to analyse the forms of online engagement that have previously been overlooked, while also allowing a deeper consideration of the emerging disciplines of online attention.

Listening is participating. It’s not necessarily interaction, but its a conscious act, not a passive one. You choose to read, you choose to listen, it can’t happen by mistake or by accident. It requires effort. Listening is an act that goes to the heart of the web and why it actually works. Not because it gives people a voice, but because it provides a way for more people to listen. That’s a powerful thing.

Social Media: A Story of Exploitation, Enclosure and Enslavement

This talk was given at the Wagga Nerd Nite event on Tuesday the 24th of November 2015. To give it some context – it was originally planned to be given on September 24th but unfortunately that was the day of The Fire.

Tonight I wanted to present some of my observations about the emergent behaviours of social media companies and peel back the veneer of PR and advertising and take a look at what’s happening behind the scenes.

A couple of quick questions: Who has a Facebook account?

Who’s tagged someone else in a photo or post?

Who’s changed their relationship status? What I’d like you to do is think about those answers and how they fit in the narrative we’re going to explore.

So I want to start this story 25 years ago when this, the pager, was the height of technology – something really big began to emerge.

This year the web is 25 years old, and while that might seem old, its important to understand how relatively young it is.

This is what the web looked like back in 1990. And we’ve come such a long way since, but it’s important to understand that the web is emergent – in the sense that no one really planned on it developing the way it has, nor was there ever a grand masterplan. This has meant that it’s incredibly adaptable to change and has allowed it to evolve along with the technology that powers it.

I want to preface this talk with a few things. I built my first web site 19 years ago while on work experience in Year 10, so I consider myself an early adopter. And since then I’ve myself a resident of the web, conducting my work, professional and social life through this medium. And as such I’m someone keenly interested in exploring it’s possibilities and pioneering its practices. So I believe in the web – this idea of a connected planet, through which we can all share freely and by doing so prosper. And I believe in this idea of a vast, open and distributed network that allows the world to share its knowledge and wealth of information beyond the concept of borders and nations.

But Social Media is not the web. The reality is that the emergence of commercial enterprises operating online as “social media” has perverted that dream. And a lot it comes down to how these systems are built.

The web was designed as a distributed system. Each node connects to each other which creates a resilient and robust system.

In contrast Social Media operates as seperate centralised systems. Connected but dependant on interfacing via this central component. While they sell themselves as enablers of connection you can see that you what you can connect with only occurs within one network. They’ve set themselves up as the middle-man. You also can’t branch out between Facebook into Twitter. This is not how the Web was designed to work.

So what am I talking about when it comes to Social Media?

The key identifier is this concept of “sharing”. This is technology for a group not the individual. It’s not like the apps on your computer or phone that are about personal productivity. They are about the socialised sharing of data, images and communications

So this broader definition includes – messaging applications (twitter, whats app, snapchat), image apps (flickr, instagram) but social media extends to things like LinkedIn and Foursquare and new players like Uber and Airbnb that depend on social and shared data.

And finally there’s Facebook. Aaron Sorkin identified them as The Social Network, and they are the biggest and perhaps most influential company operating in this space so we’ll take a very specific look at what they’ve been up to.

I want to introduce this term of Enclosure to describe what I believe has been happening on the web since the emergence of social media.

Enclosure is a term from the Agricultural revolution and is the term used to descibe the process that ended the ancient system of farming in open fields. It essentially ended the concept of the Commons – community land which was shared in order for everyone to benefit. Enclosure was when the fences were put up.

Property moved from the commons into private hands – and this process generated massive social and economic change. It started the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution but creating new classes of people, some who would become rich and powerful but most who would become exploited as slaves to the industrial machinations of the west.

So how does this apply to Social Media? To me it’s a case of history repeating itself. The original concept of the web was that we all would have our own websites. These would be our own place to create, store and publish. We would create a “commons” in which we share knowledge. And it happened because of the way the web was designed – to be distributed. These centralised platforms are the equivalent of throwing up fences.

So what we end up with is not this great network, but silos. Great big silos but none the less silos that are walled off, separated and controlled. The “network” isn’t open in the way it once was. What we’ve ended up with is a model where we put our stuff into other peoples containers.

We put our photos on flickr, our resume on LinkedIn, our personal lives on Facebook, our location on Foursquare. And from that point on the data doesn’t live in the commons. A part from our direct contribution there are other techniques that are used to enclose our data:

Acquisition of data. Venture capital and the buy-out culture of startups has meant that our data often becomes an asset, often the only asset, worth being acquired.

Controlling the flow and shaping experience. A good example of this is how Facebook deals with video where it slows and reduces exposure if video comes from an external source like YouTube when compared to uploading it directly into Facebook.

Binary choice. This is a reference to the binary choice we are given when faced with the 50 or so pages of legalese in the Terms and Conditions. There’s no oportunity to negotiate, no way to limit or argue. You simply accept and can use the system or decline and be locked out.

Licencing and ownership of digital objects. While none of these sites are quite as bold as to claim ownership of your data, what you’ll often find hidden away in those terms and conditions is the fact that you’re granting these companies a perpetual license to use your data however they want.

And so we have to ask ourselves some really important questions. So who owns your data? Who and how do they define your identity? When you’re no longer in control of your data what’s really going on?

Quite frankly it’s Exploitation. What’s happening is that once you’ve put your data in then these companies they use this to test and experiment on you. You become part of their universe and domain, a resource they can utilise in a purely cynical and exploitative manner.

This is the social graph and it’s Facebook’s attempt to map out all the data it has access to. To map out all the relationships between data and indiviuals, what we Like, who we like, who we are connected to. Every comment, picture, post and like is mined for relationships. And unknowingly or not we don’t just contributes the collection of data, we do their job for them by tagging our location which goes in along side the time stamp of when, who we were with and what we were doing. So what’s the value in that?

It means they can create a means of targeting individuals with a laser like focus… especially for advertising which is the main source of income currently. Mainstream media – newspapers, radio, television – these are scatter gun approaches to engage with individuals, finding your target and appealing to them. This means that into the future advertising on social media will become far more valuable to advertisers.

It’s what’s led to the explosive valuations (July 2015) attached to these companies: Facebook valuation $US250 billion, Uber valued at more than $US50 Billion and AirBnB valued at over $25 billion.

And this value is reflected in the notion of Metcalfe’s Law where the value is all proportional to the number of users connected to the system. Basically the bigger you are the more valuable your are, and Facebook is worth the most because it is the biggest.

It begs the question too – are we “sharing” or “giving”? Have they changed the notion of what sharing actually means? Or do we need to question this notion of what “sharing” actually means on

In 2004, before the rise of social media, McKenzie Wark published the Hacker Manifesto and suggested that what was occurring was the rise of a Vectoralist Class – the owners of the vectors – the various pathways and networks over which information flows.

Rather than capitalists versus proletarians, the central antagonism was between hackers and vectoralists.

Instead of owning the means of productions they own and exploit the means of transmission – the vectors through which data travels. They own the wires and the cables, the platforms through which we consume and share.

Vectoralists commidify information. They exploit information as a resource for capital. Our information, our data, becomes the commodity that they trade with. We are being exploited in order for them to make a profit.

Remember those market evaluations? Well that’s despite the following:

“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no contenthttp://exhal.es. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”
Tom Goodwin.

They own virtually nothing that is physical or a tangible good, simply the vectors through which data travels

This is the Vectoralist model in action. It’s not theory. It is our reality.

Uber owns no infrastructure, no equipment. It simply owns the app the connects the driver to the passenger. This is perhaps the clearest example of owning vector between these two points.

It’s the same with AirBnB – they own the vector that joins the room with traveller.

These are the new vectors through which money and power now travels.

And it brings us to Enslavement. If this can get darker, it does. What powers these sites and provide these companies with their power are the algorithms. They are ways of interrogating data in order to make a prediction. And what’s scary is that these algorithms are hidden from view.

And these algorithms then go onto to make predictions – if X knows Y then they should know Z and so heres a suggested friend. That’s nice huh? Or if X is 24, likes Y has more than 100 friends then target him with this ad. And thats great, another happy customer.

At the moment these algorithms are designed for advertising because it’s paying the bills at Facebook. They’re pretty benign and can be quite useful.

But what if those same algorithms got into the hands of the secret police or the military in an oppresive government? What if they got hacked?

So back at the beginning who changed their relationship status? Well that’s not all Facebook knows.

Thanks to the Social Graph Facebook can cross reference that data with the huge array of information they’ve gathered on you. And those algorithms can mine that to determine your sexual orientation, political tendencies and probably a variety of indiscretions you don’t want anyone to know about. Because it knows when, where, and who you were with. And we told them.

Does your best fried know that information about you? When Facebook knows more about you than your best friend – you should be scared. The centralised and enclosed nature of these systems actually facilitate this surveillance to occur, by making it easy for this “big data” to accumulate. They have placed themselves in the middle of every single connection on their network – the ultimate and perfect panopticon.

Algorithms are the dark side of social media because we can’t see how they manipulate what we see. It’s a known unknown – we know that the timeline changes and shifts around what we see and what we don’t – but we don’t know how, nor the motivations behind them. Is it because someone paid them to advertise or becasue a government made a request? These algorithms are the power behind Social Media and they are hidden from us. Jesus this is all pretty doom and gloom…

But Wark mentions another class – the Hackers. His definition is a little more expansive than just notion computer hackers – they are sources of innovation, knowledge, and abstraction — the creators and makers. The people that don’t care about the commodity, they care about the act. They do this out of passion, out of a drive to do it differently, to conceive the new, the future. The Hacker Class generates alternatives to the current state.

The Vectoralists are the new fat cats. They may look young and hip and cool, but they are following the same model of exploitation and enslavement of the industrialists. They make money by exploiting our of data and our effort.

So originally I was going to end here with a stirring call to action. Where we need to throw off the shackles of our oppressors and rebel.

With the banners unfurled and united we stand against the onslaught of social media facists who seek to enslave us. That united and together we can be free!) But…. I don’t feel quite so militant anymore. I think we need change, but for quite different reasons. You see the day of the last Nerd Nite, I was heading home early to practice this presentation when I got a phone call from the police.

I turned into my street to see 3 fire trucks and a cacophony of flashing lights. Someone had broken into our place and then set it on fire. They’d taken the stuff that was worth something to sell and then set fire to the rest of it. We lost photos and memorabilia, toys and our clothes. All of it gone.

But what happened next was amazing. Through social media there was an outpouring of support that neither my wife, nor I, could have ever imagined. Those networks connected us to people more than willing to offer help and support. People gave without question, including those well beyond our own personal networks. And at that point I realised that the reason to rebel, the reason to rethink and reenginneer the ways these systems are structured, is because they’re too important.

Too important to have profit come between our connecrtions and relationships. Too important to sacrifice our identity and privacy in order for a company to sell us fucking ads.

So instead tonight I want to end by saying that the aim of social networks should be on the connections and relationships, not profit. That they should empower the individual to connect with people and ideas and share and give to one another, not for profit. That we need to rethink our relationship, not with each other, but with corporate entities that seek to exploit and enslave us.


PS: Would like to get some feedback on whether this format works better for presentations or if videos, like this,  are a better way to go. Feel free to comment below – welcome your feedback.

The UX of Telecommunications

UPDATE: So magically the internet popped into action 6 hours after posting this. Doesn’t change the experience, but I’m glad to be back online :)

I’m putting this post together for a couple of reasons:

  1. Because I am so frustrated at the moment that I need to get it off my chest.
  2. Large organisations seem to have no idea what customers actually experience with the systems they’ve developed.
  3. I’m 100% sure I am not alone (just replace company names with pretty much any telco, cable company or mobile provider).
  4. Maybe someone might want to do something about it.

So on the 1st of November I ordered a new ADSL connection for the house we are now living in due to the fire. A simple enough process it would seem. Things started off well despite the odd experience of many of my first interactions with the company being via an Automated Menu System. A technician was sent out and he did his thing. When asked, he let me know that once he’s logged the job as being complete (that afternoon) that within about 2 days the connection will be activated and I’d get a text and email letting me know.

Wednesday comes around and I’ve heard nothing. I log on to my mobile to chat and end up having a rep call me. After back and forth about my order I am told that everything should be live on Friday. Friday comes around, nothing. I call again and spend waaaayyy too long on hold. Registering my dissatisfaction that this is now late I am told that tomorrow it will be fixed. Saturday comes and nothing. I’m call again. I get a more thorough explanation – ie more than “computer says no” – and told that it is a “back of house” issue which has now been forwarded on to another team. When I prompted for an ETA I was given the answer of Monday, as the team it was forwarded to don’t work on Sundays. I asked that I be notified when the job is completed. Monday comes, nothing. I try an use the handy link the service person gave me to get in touch – which was supposed to guarantee I don’t have to negotiate the chat service or call centre again. I get an error on the website. Frustration. Is pretty much at peak now.

Again I go into the chat room. 40 minutes later I have a person on the other end. A person who can’t deal with my request so must forward me to another team. I get a call, am told I’m being transferred to that team, “shouldn’t be a minute” and am then placed on hold. 40 minutes later someone picks up at the other end. I’m told that the due date for my activation is midnight tonight, and that it will automatically happen. I express my frustration – this was the same response I got last Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. I am sceptical that this will be fixed. I asked to have this information emailed to me. I ask to be contact tomorrow with an update. I get another direct line contact email and a phone number. Monday morning rolls around. Nothing. I try the direct link – it does’t work. I try the phone number – wrong number. I am done. This is the most pointless system that I have ever encountered.

I tried calling the helpline and was offered a callback option. I took that and gave them my number to save my ears from another onslaught of “hold music”. About 10 minutes later I got an automated call back and was placed on hold. Then was told there was a problem and was hung up on. This happened 3 more times and then promptly ended without actually having spoken to anyone.

My experience has become completely cyclical

  1. Place order
  2. Technician Installs line
  3. Nothing happens
  4. I call Telstra
  5. I sit on hold for 30 minutes
  6. Responder informs me that it will be fixed in 24-48 hours.
  7. Repeat from 3.

I’ve even made a diagram.

Mapped Process of dealing with telstra listed above

As a side process to all this I’ve been tweeting my frustrations to @Telstra. But these seem to little to no bearing on the outcome. In fact this is how that process works:

  1. I winge on Twitter.
  2. Someone from @Telstra provides sympathy but no solution.
  3. Nothing happens.
  4. Repeat at each stage of above process.

What I’ve done here is give Telstra a pretty good “User Journey”, and if you map that user Journey you find that there isn’t a point in it where the goal is achieved – particularly if this is “make customer happy”. Like some layer of Dante’s inferno i just keep going round.

Later on I got a call from an unknown number. It was the voice prompt lady again. But this time she wanted me to press “1” to connect the call – an entirely different user action – and one that I was unable to perform because I was driving. Because I didn’t press “1” in the allotted time I was then bombarded with a phone number to call and 10 digit reference number to cite…. lot’s of use when you’re a). driving b). not you’re warned and c). you don’t have a pen or paper because YOU WERE THE ONE “RECEIVING” A CALL! You can’t force your expectations on someone nor should you flip the expected modes of interaction. Using a phone is oral interaction, using a chat is text, if you want to change those you have to ask permission first or at least offer options or alternatives. When I got out of the car I called back the mystery number. I spoke to voice prompt lady who then connected me to a human – only had to be on hold for 5 minutes this time.

The responder informs me that it will be fixed in 24-48 hours.

The circle continues.

PS – If anyone from Telstra actually wants to talk to me – feel free to contact me – I’m on Twitter and am using my real name on this blog. I’d be happy to update this post with any news, changes or outcomes.

PPS – I’d estimate that I’ve wasted about 4-5 hours of my own time trying to sort this thing out. There is also the inconvenience that this has caused – not being able to work form home a big one – which has resulted at at least another 5 hours of lost productivity. It’s not how I want to spend my time, nor should I have to. If I measure this at my current hourly rate we’re looking at the process equating to about 6 months of broadband. I’ve also had to purchase multiple data packs for my phone and a 4G modem that was supposed to just be a stop gap. There’s another month there.

Empowering the Node & Avoiding Enclosure

This is my presentation from the dLRN15 conference – Empowering the Node & Avoiding Enclosure. Below you can watch a audio of the talk + slides or just the slides below.

In this presentation I’ve really tried to highlight the perceived problem with current online technologies and practices, distilling it down to the concept of Enclosure. I introduce a bit of Marxist theory updated for the 21st century and discuss Wark’s concept of the Vectoralist class.

The second half is a vision – or outline of a vision – of how we can actually overcome these problems. Not by recreating or developing new systems, but by redesigning the underlying models. By moving to a more distributed model, one that harks back to the original conceptualisation of the web.

This is a passion project for me and I’m definitely keen to collaborate and discuss the concepts behind MYOS. If you’re interested feel free to comment or tweet to start a conversation.