Downing Street Does Twitter

In my earlier post on Election 2008 and citizen expectations, I speculated that candidates, once they were elected, would continue to use web 2.0 tools to communicate with their supporters.

The Brits are one step ahead of us. Number 10 Downing Street, home to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has its own Twitter feed. Even better, it has its own page on Flickr, complete with photos of the lovely Madame Sarkozy.

10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment

Here are some more notes from SXSW Interactive.

I attended a session called, “10 Tips for Managing a Creative Environment.”  Bryan Mason and Sarah Nelson of Adaptive Path interviewed stage managers and conductors on how you keep a group creative and productive.  I think both roles are very similar to what web producers and site managers do.  We often have to work with prickly creative types, with specialized skills, who we need to be inspired and working in the same direction.  Web sites, like orchestras or stage plays, are, by their very nature, collaborative environments.

Several web people I know actually work in the theater or film (like me) or music, as if they’re drawn to creative group activities even when they’re outside of the office.  There’s a psychological lesson in there somewhere…

At the SXSW Interactive session, Bryan and Sarah (a former musician) introduced us to ten techniques used by creative management professionals to get great work from a wide range of employees.

1. Cross-train entire team – teaches empathy, possibility.  In the avante-garde theater they studied, everyone got to write and act.
2. Rotate creative leadership – provides ownership.
3. Actively turn the corner – there will come a time when you must put the bad ideas away and start on production.  The theater did this by taking a smoke break between the brainstormin session and the actual planning of the play.
4. Know your roles – stay in your lane.
5. Practice as a group.  This is why it’s vital that orchestras practice together.
6. Make your mission explicit to the whole team.
7. Kill your darlings (the ideas that are good but don’t fit).  Avenue Q, the Broadway musical, had lots of songs that didn’t serve the story.  They were ditched.
8. Leadership is service.
9. Do projects around group’s ideas.
10. Remember your audience.  Avenue Q was written in coffee shops, around the type of people who would be the audience for the musical.

Bonus Tip 11. Celebrate failure… with an afterparty!

Eurabia is ASA Screenplay Contest Quarterfinalist

I just learned that my screenplay Eurabia is a Quarterfinalist in the American Screenwriters Association (ASA) 11th Annual International Screenplay Competition. This script, which I wrote last year, also made it to the second round of the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition.

For the ASA competition, 130 Quarterfinalists were selected from the 1,400 screenplays submitted. Their entries will be judged again and the top scores will advance to the semi-final round. Semi-Finalists and Finalists will be announced in late May 2008.

Eurabia is a disturbing look at a possible future. The year is 2028. America has lost the war on terror. Europe is now “Eurabia”, a continent under the grip of radical Islam. But the CIA has a secret plan to use a biogenetic weapon to change the course of history.

From the abandoned streets of New York to a Paris ruled by imams, this political thriller follows an unwilling hero as he’s forced into a plot to change the world. Like most Americans, Roland wants peace after a devastating war with radical Islam. However, with an upcoming cultural exchange program with Eurabia, Roland is in a unique position, one that the CIA wants to take advantage of to introduce their new biogenetic weapon. This weapon changes the brains of radical Islamists, to make them tolerant and open-minded.

Roland is blackmailed into carrying this weapon to Eurabia. He doesn’t intend to use it – he expects to find common ground with a traditional Islamic society. Instead, he finds an oppressed people, ruled by a corrupt and violent elite cloaking themselves in the Koran. He develops a love interest, Gillian, and watches helplessly as she and her daughter are abused. Amal, a wise mentor, guides him toward a final confrontation with the rulers of Eurabia.

One has to just look at today’s headlines to see the timeliness of my story. I wrote this controversial script to explore the ideas and conflicts of our time – freedom, security, paranoia, individual rights, globalization and progress.

Read an excerpt from Eurabia.

Election 2008 and Citizen Expectations

One of the more interesting panels I attended at SXSW Interactive was “Friend Me! Vote for Me! Donate Now!”  It was about how the presidential candidates are using tools like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to mobilize and communicate with their supporters.  The panel (including my old friend Colin Delany from e.politics) talked about what worked and what didn’t work in this Internet age.  The underlying assumption, however, was that of course candidates are going to use these tools because it’s what the public expects.  For a candidate not to have a Facebook page in 2008 would be really weird and out of touch.

Listening to this panel, I got to wondering about what will happen after the election, when one of these candidates takes office.  The public has an expectation that they will be able to communicate with the candidate (and each other) using web 2.0 tools.  That’s not going to change just because a candidate is now an elected part of government.  The public will expect to use MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to learn about what the president and his or her government is doing, just like they did during the campaign.  For government not to use these tools in 2008 would seem really weird and out of touch.

And yet, most government agencies do not use these tools.  In fact, in some government agencies, employees are not even allowed to access sites like MySpace and Facebook.  The free flow of information from the government to the public is thwarted by legal and IT security concerns.

I’m throwing this idea out there not as a rant, but as a potential argument that government web managers (like me) can use to speed the adoption of web 2.0 tools.  By using these tools, we’re responding to the expectations of tax-paying citizens who deserve to get government information in the manner they desire.  Whoever the President is next year, I hope they will encourage government agencies to use the tools the public uses.

Stuff We've Learned at 37signals

Without a doubt, the best session I attended at SXSW Interactive was, “Stuff We’ve Learned at 37signals.”

It was a talk presented by Jason Fried of 37signals.

I’m a fan of 37signals, as are a lot of web people – Jason’s session was held in the biggest ballroom available at the Austin Convention Center. 37 Signals creates web-based project management tools that are the opposite of Microsoft Project. Simplicity is their mantra. Here’s what 37signals has learned about project management – I think these ideas could be applied to life in general.

1. Don’t worry about unknown. Instead, concentrate your efforts on the most important day – today. Optimize for today…
2. Watch out for red flags words: need, can’t, easy, only, fast. (“Easy” always applies to someone else’s job, never yours.)
3. Make money by helping others make money. Users are happy to pay for Basecamp (their project management tool) because it helps them manage their work and make money.
4. Target nonconsumers. MS Project was too complex and people didn’t use it. Basecamp targets this group.
5. Question your work regularly. Why are we doing this?
6. Read your web site. Bad copy is biggest problem on Internet, read your site and rewrite.
7. Err on the side of simple. Doing the easy things means you get more things done. The longer a project takes, the less likely it will be done
8. Invest in your core strengths – not the latest and greatest. For example, Google invests in search.
9. Build by sharing, give away your cookbook. That’s what top chefs do.
10. Interruption is biggest enemy of productivity. He recommended one afternoon a week where no one could talk to anyone else.
11. Road maps send you in wrong direction, lock you into past decisions.
12. Be clear in crisis, builds goodwill
13. Make tiny decisions, knock little things off and launch/celebrate. Morale feeds off incremental progress; tiny steps means tiny errors
14. Do work that matters.

SXSW Interactive 2008

Trying to see the future of digital media.

I recently attended SXSW Interactive, a conference on new media in Austin, TX, from March 7-12. Attracting digital creatives as well as visionary technology entrepreneurs, the event celebrates the best minds and the brightest personalities of emerging technology.

Taking place on three floors of the Austin convention center, the event is overwhelming, with sessions beginning at 10 and running to 5 with bonus events and parties in the evening. There were usually about a dozen different things you could do at any time during the day. For example, at 11:30 on Saturday you could choose from panels on e-commerce, managing communities that work, Expression Engine 2.0 sneak peek, accessible rich media, the contextual web or “how to rawk SXSW and achieve geekgasm”. In addition to the panels, you could also go to book readings, take part in smaller “core conversations” on select topics, visit the trade show or pop into the ScreenBurn Gaming Fest.

The evenings featured parties and events where you could meet fellow techies. I went to the Dorkbot happy hour (geeks showing off their robots), a BikeHugger happy hour (with excellent barbecue), the SXSW Web Awards (sponsored by Adobe) and the “Rock Bands Rock Opera” party, sponsored by a company called Opera. These were excellent opportunities to drink free beer and meet other web folks from around the country.

It amazed me how tech-savvy the participants at the conference were. Nearly everyone had an iPhone, it seemed, and those who didn’t brought laptops to the conference to take advantage of the convention center’s speedy wifi service. The conference provided many handy online tools for participants. For example, I created my own calendar of events and downloaded it to my iPhone. SXSW also featured a mobile version of the conference program and a daily blog that I could read on my iPhone. I took notes on my iPhone so I didn’t need to carry paper around at all.

However, I was a Luddite compared to many people, who were updating what they were doing on Twitter and Facebook, uploading pictures to Flickr, making podcasts, and chatting about the sessions they were in in Meebo.

The overall theme of the conference was excitement over the future of the web. Participants in the conference shared an evangelical confidence in technology. This confidence was not placed in big companies but in small, organic teams, reflecting the DIY attitude of Austin and SXSW.

I’ll write more about the experience in the coming days.

The Artisan Economy

A new study by Intuit predicts that the past will become the future. We’re heading into the Age of the Artisan. The press release has a great lede:

Artisans, historically defined as skilled craftsmen who fashioned goods by hand, will re-emerge as an influential force in the coming decade.

Now, we’re not talking about people making crafts by hand in some log cabin. The New Artisan is likely to be a web developer, writer, photographer, designer, marketing consultant or other independent professional. Powered by social networking tools and an always-on net, they’ll be able to work anywhere, for anyone.

The tools are getting easier and easier for new artisans, lowering the barriers to their work and eliminating many of the gatekeepers that once kept them from the market. In addition to the machine of democratization that is the internet, today’s artisan has a wealth of tools available to them:

  • Writers can easily self-publish their books on Lulu and sell them worldwide.
  • Photographers can use Flickr to market themselves and sell the stock photography through istock.
  • Designers can market their creations on CafePress, without having to keep any merchandise on hand.
  • Marketing professionals can find clients on LinkedIn
  • And teams of people can collaborate using Backpack and Google Docs.

While there’s a certain amount of hyperbole in this study, particularly in its prediction of the end of the Industrial Revolution, this is an idea that largely rings true. There’s no reason for large groups of people to travel by carbon-spewing vehicles to sprawling office parks where they’ll occupy beige cubes for giant corporations as they put in eight hours a day.

That’s the Cubicle Economy, where you’re judged not necessarily by the quality of your work but, often, by less concrete measures, like whether you’re a “team player” or your facility at office politics. Or, sometimes, by a very concrete measure – the “face time” you put in the office.

I’ve worked for large organizations most of my career. In all cases, creative people (like myself) have challenges in adapting to to the Cubicle Economy. If you’re creative, you want to create, whether it’s a brochure, a web site or a party. You want a tangible product. Yet, so much effort in the Cubicle Economy is spent around process – meetings, timesheets, required briefings, politics, showing up on time. Is it any wonder that creative people have problems in the Cubicle Economy?

At the beginning of my career, as I transitioned from school to the Cubicle Economy, I felt hopelessly restless and bored. Was the problem with me? Maybe I had ADD.

Working on web sites saved me from being driven crazy by the Cubicle Economy. Having a concrete thing to work on, to update, a creation that was constantly changing but was reaching real people – that was something I could point at, a creation that made the rigors of the Cubicle Economy worthwhile.

The Artisan Economy would not only be a more efficient way to run a business, it would be friendlier to human needs and more conducive to creative work. I, and millions of other members of the Cubicle Economy, would welcome it.

Fembot Sends Stats Soaring

A great feature that Flickr added recently was Flickr stats. With it, you can not only see how many views your pictures are getting but you can see how much traffic an individual picture is coming from – and where that traffic is coming from.

On Sunday, I went to the “Japan! Culture + Hyperculture” exhibit at the Kennedy Center. I had seen pictures of the art and robots on Flickr (of course) and wanted to see the exhibit for myself.

The first thing I encountered at the Kennedy Center was the Actroid DER2 robot. She looked like a geisha and was responding in a somewhat lifelike manner to questions posed to her by freaked-out looking kids in the audience. They didn’t know what to make of her, to the amusement of their parents. The robot didn’t always understand the questions and answered with scripted replies. While it was interesting how lifelike she looked (except for the hands), the performance seemed to occupy a space between creepy and lame, IMHO.

I thought these cubes were much cooler. And the robot dog was cute.

Female androids are just not my thing (not that there’s anything wrong with it). But, evidently, they are someone’s thing, as the screen capture below demonstrates:

flickr stats detail

Flickr stats detail

Traffic for my pic of the Actroid DER2 has gone through the roof thanks to a link from a message board. It’s increased from 121 views to 134 in the time it’s taken to write this post.

I thought this pic was a real throw-away kind of shot, like a picture of mannequin. Its bizarre popularity demonstrates two rules of the web.

First, you never know what strange thing is going to be popular.

Second, you can’t predict which odd corner of the internet will send traffic to your site.

Note: By saying “odd corner” or “strange thing”, I do not intend to demean our robotic cousins or the men that admire them.

After the Gold Rush is 2008 BlueCat Lab Semi Finalist

My screenplay, After the Gold Rush, has been selected as a Semi Finalist for the 2008 BlueCat Screenwriting Lab.

The BlueCat Screenwriting Lab is a really interesting project. Founded by Gordy Hoffman (brother of Phillip Seymour Hoffman), BlueCat has become one of the best screenwriting contests in the country. What distinguishes them from other contests is that Gordy is a writer and tries to further development of screenwriting as a craft. If I’m a finalist, I’ll receive an all-expenses paid trip to LA to attend one week of screenplay mentoring (including a staged reading of my script) at the BlueCat Screenwriting Lab.

What’s my screenplay about? After the Gold Rush is about a dotcom failure, washed up at the age of 24, who goes abroad to end it all. But he can’t escape the sensual pull of Italy…

I wrote it in the wake of the dotcom crash, inspired by my own work on web sites and a couple of “research” visits to Europe. I was interested in how people regain their creativity after crushing defeat.

Read the first five pages of After the Gold Rush. And, if you want to read more, let me know and I’ll send you a PDF of the complete script.

What's Government Doing with Wikis?

A wiki is an excellent tool for government to collect and process information.  With a good chunk of the fed workforce eligible for retirement in the next few years, it’s vital to capture some of their years of experience before they walk out the door.  The Office of Management and Budget, an agency that’s known more for mandates than innovation, has surprisingly taken the lead with a wiki on earmarks.