QuoraQuora is an interesting looking service, providing a fairly straightforward question and answer platform. It’s been in closed beta for a while, but now has been unleashed onto the public at large.

It’s all about capturing the activity we all do on sites like Twitter: asking questions, giving answers, and researching topics online. Quora adds to this activity by turning it into a searchable and collaborative archive:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.

Part of the reason for some of the hype around Quora is the fact that it has been founded by a bunch of people involved in Facebook’s early days. They know how to build a decent web app.

TechCrunch have a decent write-up, with a warning of a potential problem now the site is public:

Their biggest challenge is about to begin. Quora has generated attention not just because of its slick interface, but because of the extremely high quality of its answers up until this point — it isn’t unusual for someone to ask a question and have it answered by a top expert in the field within a matter of hours (or less). Likewise, questions about various Internet companies often attract answers from longtime employees. The big question now is whether or not Quora will be able to maintain that quality as it deals with an influx of new users.

I’ve signed up, and you can find me here. Will be fascinating to see how this works out.

Update: writing this reminded me about Formspring, which hasn’t really taken off for me. Quora differs because it is based on subjects and issues rather than individuals. My Formspring page is here.

Disruptive communities

A few interesting sites I’ve come across in the last few weeks have got me thinking – always dangerous – and have also connected some stuff in my head. As always, I might have got this wrong, but thought it worth sharing.

Some of the most exciting uses of the web to emerge over the last couple of years have used the power of web 2.0 to foster conversation online amongst people with things in common, who might not otherwise have found each other.

This is effectively what I am banging on about in the talks I give on this subject, putting together the apparently opposing aspects of the web which I label – in line with the books of the same titles – The Long Tail and Here Comes Everybody. That is to say that the web allows us to be incredibly individual online, to find information that’s incredibly niche, to write our own blogs about very esoteric subjects (the Long Tail bit). But at the same time, the web connects us, so no matter how apparently individual our interests, we can always find others into the same stuff – whether they are geographically near or far (the Here Comes Everybody bit).

By combining these two things – individual interests and self organising, websites can create new communities for people who may have otherwise thought they were alone. We can belong to as many of these communities as we like too, no matter how apparently contradictory – just like our own personalities. For instance, I could be a member of an online conservation group, as well as a Range Rover owners’ community. Belonging to one need not preclude me from another as long as I feel comfortable with it myself. This would not necessarily be the case with other, mainly offline groups – political parties being one obvious example.

This is incredibly powerful – and potentially very disruptive. There are a few examples of mass scale communities which are often trotted out – NetMums is one, Money Saving Expert another – but these are generally technically pretty traditional. The new communities are increasingly targeted at niche areas and are increasingly sophisticated in terms of the tech.

Disruption is considered a bad thing in many circles – wrongly, as is failure (the best we can ever hope to do, after all, is fail better). In fact, disruption is just doing things in a different way – perhaps bypassing process or procedure, or creating a whole new process in place of the old one. It’s just change, really.

These new, disruptive communities bring people together, and it is at that point that real change can start to happen. Websites don’t really change anything – but people do. This has a considerable number of implications for many different organisations, but particularly government. This ranges from what kind of organisations and groups should be consulted on issues to actually who should deliver services.

Here are some examples, which are those interesting sites I mentioned at the top of this post. They aren’t necessarily new, but are great examples of what I’m talking about.


PatientsLikeMe is a US based site which creates communities out of people with similar health complaints. It allows members to share experiences, information and knowledge about their conditions, with obvious benefits. Those people living in small rural locations, for example, are unlikely ever to meet other folk with similar issues – but online it is easy to connect and discuss. Members of the site also share data relating to their illness, which in turn is shared with partner organisations to help develop cures.

Enabled By Design

Set up in the UK by Denise Stephens, with help from Dominic Campbell and others, Enabled by Design

…is a community of people passionate about well designed everyday products. By sharing their loves, hates and ideas, Enabled by Designers challenge the one size fits all approach to assistive equipment through the use of clever modern design.

The site brings together people who have great ideas for design in assistive and other equipment, as well as taking contributions from those who spot great – and terrible – examples of design out there now.

Help Me Investigate

Help Me Investigate is a site that encourages people to get together and, well, investigate stuff. It’s a mixture of local journalism and a social network. People list things they want to investigate, and others join them, adding what they find out to an investigation page online that everyone involved can see.

With a team boasting the best in networked journalism and technology that Birmingham has to offer (Paul, Nick and Stef) Help Me Investigate is a great site for bringing citizens together around the issues that matter to them – and issuing challenges to public and private organisations.


Signpostr is a very new site, only just out in Alpha testing mode. The brainchild of School of Everything‘s Douglad Hind and Colin Tate, Signpostr is a community for job seekers, particularly those leaving education into the current job market. It offers three things:

  • a space to talk honestly about the realities of looking for work at a difficult time;
  • a user-generated resource directory, where people can share information about resources useful for finding work or living cheaply;
  • and a tool for organising and developing your own projects.

There are an awful lot of government sponsored initiatives out there to help people get (back) into work during the recession – and it will be fascinating to see whether a self organised community can add something that ‘official’ projects cannot provide.


FreeLegalWeb describes itself as

…a project designed to deliver a web service that joins up and makes sense of the law and legal commentary and analysis on the web, providing a substantially more reliable, useful and efficient service than is currently available.

So, the current arrangements are perceived to be failing people, so here is a self-organised attempt to put that right. A great team is behind the project, including Nick Holmes, Robert Casalis de Pury and Harry Metcalfe; and support is being provided by the Cabinet Office, OPSI, BAILII, the Open Knowledge Foundation and mySociety. Well worth keeping an eye on.

All of these community projects have identified a need where government or the market is failing people, and have stepped up to fill that gap, using digital technology as a cost effective way of bringing large numbers of people together in one (online) place.

These communities are also, I think, great examples for local authorities to follow when making applications to the (deep breath) Communities and Local Government Customer-Led Service Transformation Capital Fund which Ingrid at the IDeA has been doing so much to promote recently.

This fund is looking for projects that fill a genuine need for citizens which isn’t currently being met, to provide information to key identified groups of people and focusing on specific issues that have been made priorities by local government. It isn’t really about getting those little projects kick started that you’ve never found the money to do – it strikes me that these sites funded by this money will be new ideas – and big, scalable ideas too.

Those interested in going for the funding should be looking at the sites I have mentioned above, and thinking what are the issues where citizens currently aren’t getting the access to information, or the conversations, that they need.

Beyond the CLG dosh, though, is a bigger question for government, which is whether it should be involved in building these sites at all. There is a convincing argument that says they shouldn’t, and that self organised action is entirely preferable.

I agree with that view to an extent, and in an ideal world, that’s how it would work. But where government – local or otherwise – can help kickstart that community building process, whether by acting in a convening capacity, or investing in the necessary technology, promotion and community management work, it should. It need not matter whether an online space is set up by a community activist or a local council – just as long as it does the job required and is run in the interests of its members.

Tom Watson’s Christmas Message

Our Minister for Digital Engagement’s blog has a stark message:

Globalisation in a connected world did for Woolies. When my son is a teenager, his friends will arrange to meet online and share their music tastes before pressing the ‘buy’ button. They’ll discover the world from their shared trust in favourite web sites.

We are entering an era of profound and irreversible change to the way people choose to live their lives and organise the world around them.

And there isn’t a politician on the planet who is going to stop this.

What do people want to know?

I am planning a series of posts on this blog that will go right back to basics on a number of social web topics, partially just to be helpful but also to help develop the documentation for some workshops I am planning.

What I would like to know is what sort of topics people would like covered in terms of social media tools and services. Which services could be of most use in your organisation, but are really hard to explain?

Some ideas I had were for simple stuff like RSS, tagging and social bookmarking.

What would you like to see me write about here?

I’ve Gotta Knol

Knol is a reasonably new service from Google, which has been described as their attempt to kill, or at elast steal some traffic from, Wikipedia. It’s basically a way for people to publish information about what they know in the form of ‘knols’ – Google’s term for a single unit of knowledge. These are tied to your Google account, so you are pretty much responsible for your own content on there and which kind of answers the problem of Wikipedia, where you might have no idea who has produced the content. I’m thinking that it is kind of a mixture of Wikipedia and Squidoo.

I’ve been having a bit of a go myself, adding knols on collaborating with wikis and getting started blogging – effectively just copy and paste jobs from some of the bigger posts on this blog. A few thoughts on my experiences doing this:

  • The URLs for the knols themselves aren’t very friendly, which is a shame
  • The editor is reasonably friendly to use but the Knol site seems to have a problem remembering whether or not I am signed in, which can be a pain
  • I don’t think you can embed flash stuff like video or presentations, which is a pain
  • Some kind soul has given the wiki knol a five star rating! But who? It would be nice to know
  • There has been quite a bit of discussion about where knol entries will appear in Google searches – so far neither of my entries are appearing anywhere near the first page of results, but I am going to monitor this
  • It would be nice for groups of authors to be able to form, and to group entries together as well, making it easy to find entries by authors that know each other, and for knol-writing projects to be kept together

I have set both my knols – and any future ones I write – to be editable by anyone with a Google account, so if you fancy having a go at improving them, or just having a play with Knol, go ahead. I think I am going to continue to cross-post relevant things to there. Whether I will ever go searching on Knol to find something out for myself, I’m not so sure.



Posterous is the easiest blogging platform in the world to use. No, really.

All you have to do to get started is to send an email to post@posterous.com – no signup needed to begin with. I have given it a go here, and am pretty impressed with the way it handled Gmail’s rich text emails. Attachments like photos are added to your posts, and audio can be played with a flash player that’s automatically embedded when you send an mp3 to Posterous.

Also, if you include a link to, say, a YouTube video, Posterous automatically embeds the video in your blog, rather than just linking to it. Find out more about what Posterous can do.

If you take the time to register with the site, you can add a profile and an avatar, which is quite nice. Posterous is a good alternative to quick blogging tools like Tumblr, for example, and given the ease of use, maybe even Twitter.

The only concern will be around security. The site reckons it can spot spoof email addresses, but there have ben examples already of people posting to other people’s blogs. Hopefully this can be ironed out in the future, because Posterous has real potential, I feel, not least because of it’s reliance on email, which for most people is work, while the web is playing.

Healthy scepticism

One of the problems of being a new media fanboy like me is that we sometimes get a bit too excited about this stuff, and fail to see some of the downsides of web 2.0. That’s why I have a copy of Andrew Keen‘s Cult of the Amateur on my bookshelf – I like to pick it up now and again to remind myself of the other way of thinking about using the web to increase participation and engagement. I might not agree with Keen, but it’s important to take a regular dose of what he has to say, I think.

In all of the pro-web 2.0 literature (Here Comes Everybody, We-Think etc etc) Wikipedia is often cited as an example of mass-collaboration in action, which of course it is. But I often wonder about how relevant Wikipedia is as the poster-child of genuine distributed organisation. This comment from Andy Roberts puts it pretty succinctly:

It was set up and continues to be run by a multi-millionaire advocate of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism philosophy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Wikipedia is a great thing, and it’s usually one of the first resources I turn to when I need to get the skinny on something. But I do have concerns about it being held up as being a model to follow for other online communities.

Part of this is because of the complicated relationship between Wikipedia and Wikia, the for-profit site which provides wiki spaces for groups to produce content together. Wikia is developing a search engine, using Wiki technology with various ties into Wikipedia. There has been much comment on the fact that Wikia seems to be using the freely provided work of volunteers to power a project intended to make money for Wikia.

A great source of information, opinion and gossip about Wikipedia, Wikia and the search project is Seth Finkelstein’s Infothought blog. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but his dissident viewpoint is often refreshing. I recommend you subscribe.

Skills 2.0

There are some interesting points in this PDF about the skills required in the age of web 2.0 from Harold Jarche, including:

Attitude: Accepting that we will never know everything, but that others may be able to help, is the first step in becoming a learning professional. This is an acceptance of a world in flux and that knowledge is neither constant nor fixed…

Learning: Learning professionals can no longer rest on their past accomplishments while the field changes and grows. They should be testing Web 2.0 tools so that they can develop optimal processes to support their organizations. If learning professionals are not setting the example of learning online, who is?…

Collaboration: Through sharing and exposing their work on the Web, learning professionals can connect to communities of practice and get informal peer review. There is no way to stay current with the technology, the neuroscience or the pedagogy all by ourselves.

A pandemonium of fragments

Gordon Burn, in Born Yesterday, writing about the erstwhile Eastenders actress Susan Tully:

A colleague had logged her onto YouTube for the first time that very afternoon, and the fact that just tapping the words ‘Michelle Fowler’ into the thing could back so many moment of the past crowding back – a pandemonium of fragments (an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now)…

Isn’t this exactly what services like Friendfeed leave us with – just an aggregation of fragments? And how well does this represent us – are we more than the sum of our parts?

Why I love web 2.0

Part of the joys of the social web and the community that has built up around it is the sheer informality of the whole thing. Take this, for example: a tweet from Loic Le Meur, CEO of Seesmic this morning:

Loic’s dogshit tweet

Now, how many chief exec’s have you heard of that broadcast messages to the world about how they have just trampled some dog poo barefoot?

Not enough in my view. Thanks for sharing, Loic!