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William Gibson

William Gibson sat here

William Gibson was in town. He was relaxed, stooped, quietly spoken. Tired, by the look of it. He’s promoting his new book. I’d never seen him before. Never even heard his voice, so it was very exciting, surprisingly like encountering a hero of punk. He didn’t seem jaded, showed no sign of the irritation you might expect of an author whose work is so minutely policed online.

In fact he welcomed the attention of the unappointed exegetes and redacters who assail his texts – even before they’re officially published. He ‘honoured the cloud of hypertext’ surrounding his work. So there was nothing tough about this encounter. No hostility, no cynicism at all. And I suppose that’s as it should be. No critics here. Only fans (we’d paid to be there, after all).

Gibson has always soaked up this geek love. Something about his attitude to life – to celebrity, to notoriety – never allowed him to reject all this unorthodox, slightly autistic attention. As a result he’s brought his fans with him. They’re not a millstone or a distraction. He’s never even thought about leaving them behind, despite his restlessness as to genre and period.

Gibson fans like and respect his openness to interpretation, his relaxed attitude to the fans’ rewriting and annotation of his words. There’s an implicit deal: Gibson says: “I won’t get uptight about your preposterous over-engagement with my stories provided you don’t complain that I periodically stop being a Sci-Fi writer”.

His fans would never read a ‘stylish noir thriller’ but, let’s face it, that’s what they’re doing. I was talking with my friend Paul about this this morning and we concluded that Gibson’s important not because he’s a great writer (he’s pacy but he’s no Hammett) but because of this remarkable receptiveness. He soaks up the now, finds it sufficient: all he needs to construct enduring narratives. So he rejects nothing. He’s the opposite of a grumpy old man. Engaged, present to the world, listening, absorbing.

2.0 apps that really blow the cobwebs away

Here’s a couple of remarkable businesses I’m really enjoying at the moment, one you’ll have heard of and one you probably won’t.

Tumblr.com

Tumblr is the mother and father of web 2.0 blogging sites: it’s so stripped down there’s hardly anything there. Can you tag entries? No. Can you run a busy sidebar? No. Can you accept comments? No way. But they’re on to something. I’m always asked to recommend blogging tools and I’ve always avoided it before because none of them is actually very friendly is it? Movable Type, Blogger, WordPress – they’re all turning into the blogging equivalent of Microsoft Office – sprawling multi-megabyte downloads with a feature count in the hundreds or thousands.

I feel totally comfortable telling people to sign up for Tumblr, though. School teachers, artist friends, small businesses, anyone who didn’t get their software engineering badge in the Scouts, really. It’s a work of art and I find I really can’t resent the absence of features, even ones I used to love (I use it with Russell over at Speechification, by the way).

gleamd.com

Gleamd is… well… what is it? I don’t really know, It’s been called ‘Digg for people’. It’s a kind of personality marketplace. You add a person you like and then other users vote for them. Interesting or attractive or otherwise valuable people rise to the top. There are charts. The thing is, the concept isn’t really the thing with Gleamd. What’s interesting is how it’s all coming together.

The company’s founder, chief architect, designer and marketing director (you get the picture) is a design student from Savannah, Georgia called Matt McInerney. This guy is a phenomenon. If I could buy shares in him I would. I suspect he’s going to be a very important man. I can tell you all this not because Matt’s had great coverage in the business pages or because Gleamd is all over the investor grapevine but because I’ve been watching him put his business together from scratch on Twitter.

So I’ve got a really rather unusual and very detailed picture of the process – from his initial tentative queries about a business concept and then a name to his first excited posts about working code to his first beta invitations and his subsequent, breathless updates on user numbers (approaching a thousand, since you ask). Gleamd is going to be a big hit because its founder is building it fast using 2.0 tools in the full glare of the Twittersphere (Twitterverse?).

Gleamd is what you’d call a native
web 2.0 app (and Matt a native web 2.0 person, I guess): invented, designed, built, tested and (no doubt) funded using only the free tools available to a young man in his student accommodation, working in his spare time (when he’s not playing in his Open Source band). It’s a pure phenomenon of the post-crash, post-Microsoft, post-million-line-app, post-McKinsey, post-Worldcom, post-bullshit, post-marketing, post-bloated-monolithic, post-big-dumb-fuck era. It’s very exciting to watch. Follow Matt at twitter.com/mattmc.

Discontinuous marketing

A still from one of the Where Are The Joneses YouTube videos

I went to visit David Bausola and Katie Streten from Imagination: they pulled faces and comprehensively failed to buy me lunch. I first visited Imagination nearly twenty years ago to interview the late, great Ron Herron, a lovely and fascinating man who left a lasting impression and sort of inspired me. I remember thinking: “He’s amazing. I wonder if I could do that – I mean make a living being generally creative and interesting?” No luck with that yet…

Anyway, Bausola and his people are up to something. They’ve decided that our historic resistance to media made by advertisers is dead. Boundaries are blurred, fences down, barriers breached. You know what I mean.

Of course, he’s probably right. The rules that prevent brands from creating their own programming are out-of-date. They belong to the time when you used to ask your Dad “what’s on the other side?” The other side. In those days, with the war not long over and rock n roll still a fairly recent arrival, the risk that the commercial half of the nation’s telly viewing could fall into the hands of a handful of corporations really animated legislators and regulators.

An instinctive, Reith-era distrust of nasty, cheap commercial media (anything that didn’t have Malcolm Muggeridge in it, really) didn’t help. Laws were framed limiting what advertisers could do in the broadcast media. Only lately have these laws been eased enough to allow manufacturers to wrap their brands around TV programming again. They still can’t make their own shows and pitch them alongside the other commercial production houses, though.

In Bausola’s world, of course, things are totally different. Media regulation simply doesn’t apply. Ofcom, Britain’s recently assembled media super-regulator (responsible for everything from radio masts to Tinky Winky’s sexuality and quiz show phone lines) has deliberately steered clear. The net is explicitly excluded from Ofcom’s remit. So, as a result, what we’re seeing online in Britain is a fascinating experiment in free market media governance. Media owners online are limited not by a menu of tailor-made rules like broadcasters but by two things: the market and the statute book.

So what Bausola and his client have done is something that would be quite impossible in the broadcast world: media that is visibly owned by a consumer brand – by Ford in fact. They’ve assembled a pot pourri (did I just say ‘pot pourri’?) of social media gadgets (a blog, a wiki, a video sharing web site, a photo sharing web site… none of which belongs to Ford) and animated the whole lot with some genuinely funny and offbeat content from Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow.

The result is something with the feel of a cheeky BBC 3 comedy delivered in the ironic, discontinuous manner we’re probably going to have to get used to online. The thing is, the final form of ‘online content’ is hardly fixed. Bausola’s version – a scrapbook of materials in various media, sharing narrative elements, characters and settings – may be it, of course. My guess, though, is that we’ll see a resurgence of the linear narrative. Stories are so important to human beings (in every culture, in every time) that we’re highly unlikely to set them aside all together.

We’re also likely to lose patience fairly quickly with choppy, stroboscopic forms that trash the ancient pleasures and rhythms of narrative. Where are the Joneses is a story, structured – like The Wind in The Willows or The Godfather or The Aenid – by the passage of time. In this it hardly varies a tradition as old as language. It remains to be seen whether its reliance on multiple parallel narrative axes, quite demanding jumps from medium to medium (and site to site) and an arbitrarily periodic structure, will win it millions of switched-on, hyper-linked viewers or just leave them wondering what’s going on.

Wrong wrong wrong

London 2012 Olympics logo you're wrong
I’ve been thinking about the 2012 logo. It’s pretty simple: you are all wrong (obviously I mean those of you who disagree with me). People have actually been phoning me up (well, Paul phoned me up and put his graphic designer wife on the phone) to tell me how wrong I was to defend it. Still, you are all wrong. To summarise: yes: it’s not an old-fashioned brand-as-unity. It’s not a condensed and perfected less-is-more logotype. It’s definitely not a jewel-like Paul Rand. It’s not a monolithic, multi-decade High Street fixture either.

What it is is a soft, rather provisional, half-finished identity. It’s an open and accepting form: designed to accept modification, addition, overlay, adjustment. It’s a kind of container (and, think about it, isn’t that what brands are turning into these days?). Your classical logo aims to refine and exclude – to perfect. The 2012 logo aims to accept and include. It’s a radical thing: a half-brand, an unfinished logo, an imperfect identity: something to play with. Get used to it you old-timers!

Random stuff…

The Skoda Fabia cake adJohn Sweeney loses it with the Scientologists

…because the football’s so boring. Isn’t the Skoda ad lovely? The ‘making-of’ video is a reminder of how good and appropriate old-fashioned, above-the-line investment can be. Don’t cancel your TV campaigns yet you big brands!

Don’t forget to check how your MP voted on the utterly shameful amendment to the Freedom of Information Act. You’ll have to wait until Monday for the voting record to be updated, I think. You might want to drop them a note if they voted in favour. Ask them this question: “if a bill were brought forward amending the new law to guarantee continued access to detailed MPs’ expenses, would you support it?”

The thing about the Scientologists is that we – those of us who don’t like them – really don’t have a leg to stand on. Ultimately, a religion is a religion. If you had sat down to design a religion during the second half of the Twentieth Century it would probably have looked a lot like Scientology.

It would have no deity (very difficult to sell a supreme being in the post-nuclear era). It would probably emphasise ‘personal growth’, worldly success and learning. There would be some secret knowledge and probably a very up-to-date emphasis on using the law the defend it. Rubbishing the Scientologists while tolerating – for instance – the Catholics, with their child abuse and their transubstantiation and the bloody Pope, is not a defensible strategy. I think we might just have to get used to them.

Is there something annoying, something really po-faced and sanctimonious about the so-called free speech spats animating the social networks lately? Was there really any need for the tens of thousands of words wasted on this week’s inconsequential flickr take-down? And was the flickr founder’s equally self-important response much of a remedy? Not really. I think we need to get over ourselves a bit (having said that, I did like Kevin Rose’s dry response to the HD-DVD decryption code thing, especially the version he gave on Diggnation).

Looking for freelancers

I’m looking for some freelance help with a couple of tasks. A reasonable day rate is available and the project is likely to be fun and to lead to lots more work if things go well:

Site map/visualisation/wireframe jockey. I need a visually cool and useful site map of shave.com. Useful infoporn. Something that’ll look good on the wall and also help in planning for the revised site. I’d like it in a useful, preferably editable format too. Basically, I want knobs on it.

Google SketchUp wizard and Second Life architect/builder (not necessarily the same person). I want prototype models for use in planning, online and in print, possibly, in SL too.

An IA with ecommerce experience: someone who can help me to craft a replacement for that shave.com web site, working with current and new tech suppliers. Write to me directly\ if you feel like it!

Random anthropology

All the graduated Bobs in the world

My wife is researching a new haircut. So she finds herself typing the phrase ‘graduated bob‘ (that’s a kind of haircut) into Google Images. The first half a page of results are as you’d expect: photographs of haircuts. After that it gets really funny and strangely poignant. Look at all those Bobs! And every one of them graduated.

There’s something touching about this catalogue of (mostly) American success stories. Men of all ages, all of whom managed to get through some kind of course of study (and many of whom have beards).

I suppose there’s something melancholy about a collection of similar but entirely unconnected people: It’s like random anthropology: wouldn’t it be fun to get in touch with them all and survey them? How are things going? What are you up to? Did you get married? Are you happy? Are your kids happy?

Fair enough…

No old men with guitars and no yodelling
Sometimes I burn a CD for Olly, my eight year-old, to listen to in bed if he can’t sleep. Couple of nights ago he asked me to choose some tracks for him but specified, firmly, “no old men with guitars and no yodelling“. How’s that for an eight-word summary of my musical taste?

Disconnected thoughts on Blair’s mugging

It’s been too late for Gordon Brown for at least a full parliamentary term. Using his party muscle to secure the leadership now is petulant political vandalism. He is shedding votes by the day.

Brown’s studied absence from the national debate on health, education, transport, immigration, the war in Iraq, Lebanon… (you name it, in fact) once seemed wise, above the fray. Now it seems creepy and Machiavelian. Not a good basis for a very public leadership campaign. Worse, if he deigns to rejoin the fray now and become a visible, engaged politician again, the public won’t buy it (“Ooh! Look at that funny, haggis-shaped man eating ice cream…”).

Snotty, frustrated backbenchers, party activists, MSPs et al need to remember that Tony Blair is the party’s most electable leader since… ooh… forever and that kicking him around the block just because they can will not serve them well in their next public contest.

Parties in general – and the Labour party in particular – are less relevant than they’ve ever been. Closing the committee room doors and sorting out the nation’s leadership over tea and big plates of biscuits is no longer an option. The relevant electorate this time round is not the party but the country.