Innovation Edge: Are online social networks the new cities?

Today I’m at NESTA’s Innovation Edge conference and did a little live blogging. These notes are largely unedited, so they’re likely to be a bit sketchy and may be missing bits and pieces as my attention shifted. For context, feel free to post a comment and I’ll catch up with them when I can.

The panel:

  • Michael Birch – CEO Bebo
  • Jon Gisby – Director, New Media and Technology, C4
  • Sir Richard Leese CBD – Leader, Manchester City Council
  • Charlie Leadbeater – Chair

Charlie asked about twitter as he usually does to see who’s using it. A lot of us were.

Asked “two forces: the web and the city. how will manchester innovate?”

Richard Leese – sooner I can get back to Manchester the better. the virtual world clearly not a replacement for the real world. tools can be used to facilitate real world stuff. bring other people in. does have an impact. Trite answer: innovative city requires innovative people. His job is making sure Manchester is where the creatives want to be. One of the things government has to do is know when to be in the way, and when to get out of the way. A lot of creative people aren’t the best people to take the bright ideas and put them into practice, we have to make sure the institutional arrangements are there to support that.

“What’s C4’s view of the future of content on the web? Is C4 going to be a public service broadcaster in 10 yrs making content the way it is now?”

Jon – coming from a broadcast perspective, the stuff online now is huge and revolutionary but if you look across the world at who’s online we’re still watching ~1 trillion hours of TV each year. TV will remain a mass medium engaging billions of people every day. But a couple of things are happening that we need to innovate around and look at how we fund things, and how that fits in with our public service remit. They are the rise of “on demand” requirement to be able to get content when we want, on device we want; and second peoples’ expectations of broadcasters, groups we meet online etc. that this is becoming more conversational. we need new ways of engaging audiences and making content meaningful to audiences. over time that may change how we find content and how we fund it.

“Presumably Manchester would like to be as creative as San Francisco. You used SF as a place to build a site. Why did you choose SF?”

Best way to save his marriage was to move to SF as that’s where his wife’s from. Nothing to do with Silicon Valley. Had built a social network before, but it went wrong and had non-compete so couldn’t do anything. Watched MySpace get huge. Then he and his wife were able to build something. Initially just the two of them, but eventually grew. Interesting drawing analogy of city as they always modelled bebo on a city. People have always tried to model cities (Milton Keynes, etc) but they always seemed contrived. When a social network is new there’s no-one there. No matter how good the code is, it’s still crap. Like going to a bar and being the first person there. Only reason you’d stay is that you’re an alcoholic. Challenge of creating environment which people found engaging.

Charlie – Richard, you talked about creative people and spaces they can get together. In Manchester are they physical places or social networks like Bebo?

Richard – we’re looking at that. question of survival as much as anything else. some of this will be organic, about spaces where people want to be in a way we have no knowledge or control of. Not enough on its own. Need to create culture of innovation. In conjunction with NESTA looking at how we create networks within the city that make it easier for people to come together either because of common interest or because of expertise or because there’s a whole range of interests that crossover. At the core of that is still bringing people together physically, as there are things you can do with that that you can’t do in a virtual space.

  • Audience q – picking up on initiative to create physical city from scratch can seem contrived. can a company build a community from scratch and have that not seem contrived?
  • Audience q – interested in local vs. global aspect of online social networks. might have more connection with people globally than with my neighbours. how can cities we live in use online techniques to build our affinity to local network?
  • Audience q – when you have social networks going from “Club Penguin” through “bebo”, “facebook”, “linkedin” that are quite generationally demarcated. how can you create something with enough structure but with openness to grow as a city would?
  • Audience q – a colleage described social networks as like the dissolution of the monasteries, another said it’s like breaking down cell walls. how would you respond to that?
  • Charlie – we don’t seem to have the same local online networks here as they do in the US?

Michael – building new networks is tricky. are hundreds of social networks that never hit the critical mass on the big ones. for two months bebo had very slow growth. hitting tipping point very hard. you can spot nuclei and analyse it to a degree. designed bebo around what they thought was cool for them, then found it primarily used by people who are younger than him (37). immaturity helps, not taking it too seriously. most people who use well known social networks use them to communicate with friends and how you use them depends on who you are and where your friends are. by nature for most people they’re intrinsivally local. designers of bebo not typical, but as it grows people are more typical and use it to communicate with people from school and work.

Richard – interested in age demarcation. for politicians social networks give opportunity to “look into” whole range of communities they need to understand and “target.” Online can get much better sense of the world of young people. I have two blogs, a political one and a leader’s blog on city council website. Great advantage of blog is can deliver messages that aren’t filtered or spun in any way other than author chooses. We do use some of these tools. In local elections made video for manifesto, which got a lot more interest than a simple paper manifesto. In most hotly contested wards amount of paper delivered phenomenal. Let people request “no more leaflets” online and Manchester Labour stopped sending to them.

Jon – we are in very, very early days. we can’t predict yet where all this stuff will end up. seen neices and nephews migrate from myspace to facebook when leave home (not on bebo, sorry).

-discussion about whether interruption works online-

Michael – would like to say bebo is the best social network

Jon – haven’t yet seen who migrates to the products. is there a generational thing? we don’t know. on the local point, his big moment was when there was a big power cut in his town. couldn’t remember that previously. went on web next day and searched for info and found loads of local stuff. people orienting around social networks, etc. barriers to creating these things so low, people are innovating. spent a year in italy after university and remembers walking around towns at dusk when everyone’s out. can see different populations gathered around coffee shops. on the web these locations overlap, so you can be connected with multiple spaces.

Richard – there are networks at a local level in this country. east manchester deprived communities have mature social network which led one of most deprived communities to be described as one of “7 most intelligent communities”. while cities need to be competitive, relationships between cities has to be cooperative. you trade with other cities, other people in other places. establishing networks between cities important.

Charlie – if one thing that makes cities creative is their diversity, then connecting diasporas vital. I Netherlands there’s a network that lets you sign up to find people who live where your aging parents do who will check up on them for you.

Charlie – New school in Darlington. Parents set up website heavily organised by BNP. Made politics in Darlington poisonous.

  • audience q – in one session earlier, speaker made comment on how education system not necessarily structured to benefit of young people. do you feel online social networks can replace some of what’s going on in education system? don’t see the point of school run, when kids can meet in smaller groups and then be networked.
  • audience q – could be argued that social networks are the death of cities as people spend so much time on them. should social networks be encouraging people to physically meet, or cities become extremely lonely
  • audience q – interesting comment from MD of BT “talent has no age, talent has no sex, talent has no passport”. youngest people in orgs tend to be people who get this stuff best. how is this shaping global economy in terms of age demographics
  • audience q – looking at city analogy. by nature online networks have potential to gain momentum and change very quickly. how does this impinge on social exclusion? how can this be addressed in the non-virtual world?
  • audience q – media is fragmenting enormously. don’t just get news from bbc/c4 but people post own media. what effect will that have? does panel think there will be facebooks/myspaces in future or does user have so much choice we’ll have more niche networks? less cities, more villages.

jon – looking from perspective of C4 educational content. you’ll remember sitting around tv set and watching programme during school day. made a decision last year to take all that money and put it into online projects. first raft rolling out at the moment. experimenting in a variety of ways. some platform based, sharing tools and networks. others game-based. from personal experience there’s clearly a gap in infrastructure at school level and teachers’ understanding, willingness, appreciation of possibilities.

charlie – richard, how much do you know about what use people in manchester make of this stuff? have you explored how you might use that to make school more attractive to, say, young people on verge of exclusion from school.

richard – kids tend to get home, and chat with the same people on MSN as they do at school. in education system trying to connect what happens in schools with what happens in “real world” outside. to some extent school system still cocoons people. take new form of communications and new things happening in industry into schools, so there’s a natural continuation. what was in apprenticeship, now in a new form.

charlie – jon, are you at c4 thinking you might help people create local TV online?

richard – one problem with being our own tv station is “will anyone believe us?” BBC et al have credibility. that’s a real factor.

jon – journey many public institutions are going on, suddenly for the first time you have “audience in the middle”. institutions have had to deal with people as individuals. in early days of bbc website two people turned up at the BBC as they wanted to “visit the bbc website”. Now seeing audiences who coalesce around particular issues, very easily. suddenly everyone has an audience as if you have any online presence people want to interact with you. C4 in interesting position as publically owned media company. in process of doing two things: set up investment fund to see what people build in collaboration; also in a position to broker relationships between projects and public bodies.

charlie – michael, if you were to redesign education system from bebo point of view, what would it look like?

michael – (sarcastically noted he hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about that). challenges with trying to replace traditional education with net. not so much about internet, but internet as a platform. as six and eight year olds. forces them not to use bebo as they’re too young. use club penguin, toontown (disney) etc. more and more sites trying to use net as way of educating. power of that can be extended. potentially much more one-on-one as can intelligently use feedback to tailor content. lot of social interaction in traditional education can’t be replaced with internet. don’t use bebo instead, use it to supplement. not an “all out solution”

charlie – inventor of SIMs says playing games like his is constant journey of exploration. wouldn’t schools have to change much more dramatically to capture that?

richard – not that dramatically. we are already beginning on some things. core of learning will always be relationship of teacher and pupils.

straw poll – 60% believe that. ~30% believe internet could fundamentally change that. audience member points out those are two different questions.

  • audience q – digital divide. can c4 etc. help with that?
  • audience q – history of cities has been mercantile. will social networks become mercantile?
  • audience q – look quite a lot at relationship between citizen and public realm. will social networks change that and/or shift the balance of power
  • audience q – how do we approach the management of order when traditional powers don’t stretch online?
  • audience q – notice that children disengaging with family, spending lots of time on the internet. is there any chance of parenting interaction happening on the internet? teaching parenting skills? not so much connecting with others, but finding experts
  • audience q – don’t have to be together around tv any more. what do you do about family life when we don’t have to be together?
  • audience q – what’s happening with the net is it’s dropped the cost of voice and collaboration. when started Patient Opinion (“trip advisor for the NHS”), half postings are people saying thanks. even critical ones are yearning for things to be better. have we dropped cost of altruism and of hate. what is it about structure of sites that leads to these things?

michael – key is to only have one computer in the house. might fight a lot, but everyone has to sit around it. if don’t control kids they will be online all the time. make their kids get dressed before they can go on the computer. big win. now they do it. trying to limit how much time kids spend online. either saturday _or_ sunday, etc.

charlie – didn’t bebo launch a way to form social networks around causes in community

michael – yes, and social networks do bring people together, and help people connect. when growing up parents didn’t see sitting around tv together as a positive thing. kids are watching less tv. do what they can within their communication platform. cyber-bullying key area. try and address it. but remember positive aspects of collaboration. watching causes bubble up, or tributes to friends who die, etc.

charlie – richard, you’ve had your own issues with safety in public realm lately. did digital media help?

richard – no. would have helped if they’d stayed at home. but people wanted to interact together. some feares are false fears. on average friday spend day in office, then go to the pub with people from the office and talk about what doing in office. no pure division between world of work, social networks, markets, and we shouldn’t try to create them.

charlie – jon, i think it was lewisham who found some of their poorest communities were most adept at internet cafes and mobile phones. should we worry about it? should tackling the digital divide be one of your key goals?

jon – two issues: access, to kit, bandwidth, etc. and they can be part of the policy debate on that; the area where they can do more is in media literacy. help people understand pros and cons, how to avoid things going wrong. distinguish between editorial and advertorial. organisations like c4 can and do help with that. not in a position to judge stuff based on oldest child (aged 10), but wasn’t it always thus. young people we’re worried about are teenagers. this is just a different way of being a teenager. things will even out as people and technology mature.

richard – last thing he wanted to do at 15 was spend time with his parents. computers no longer a luxury item.

jon – point made this morning about whether needed to decide between doing good and taking corporate dollar. one panellist noted most people tend to do both over the span of their career. tecnhnology enables anyone with a bit of free tim to be altruistic in a way that hasn’t been possible before, from mentoring online to pledgebank. was at yahoo when they launched yahoo answers. some people think it’s insane that anyone would sit down and answer strangers’ questions, but millions of people do. this is enormously exciting.

charlie – michael, what would it take to get you to manchester to start your next venture?

michael – been there once to interview at a university. met an attractive girl at a bus stop. don’t know if they’re still of the same quality.

UPDATE: I posted some follow up notes

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  1. Wow! Fast typing! I think there were some god things to digest there. It was a shame a good debate didn’t get going, since there was some serious brain power on the panel.

    I think it was a nice to hear the consensus that on-line media are generally helping to build face to face communities… Although we have a long way to go. We need our places to huddle – on-line and off-line.

  2. It definitely would have been good to have more debate. It felt like it wasn’t very tightly chaired — taking the questions in groups meant that they weren’t all fully addressed and it felt to me like the discussion of education (and the fears about family disintegration) were rather a distraction from the real topic.

    I suppose I’m a little spoiled, being used to events where people really have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in the social networking space, so it was a bit of a surprise to hear a few of the questions!