In conversation with... Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead

In conversation with... Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead

Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead are artists that work with video, sound, and digital networked space. Their most recent work, "The distance travelled through our solar system this year and all the barrels of oil remaining" is a finalist in Current, a competition which will result in an acquisition and permanent exhibition of one digital artwork into the Harris Gallery, Preston.

We caught up with Jon and Alison to talk about their work, how digital media can change our perception of the world, and how we make sense of the information around us.

 

Tell us about the story of the work that is in Current.

JT: When we actually proposed the work for Current, we were interested in making something new. A lot of the work that we make as artists, looks at live information - or the potential that live information has, as an artistic material. There's a lot of stuff that we have made over the past 10-15 years, that looks at how live information might be incorporated into an artwork and somehow be an entrenched part of it.

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Things in context

Things in context

"The Internet at large has made us feel closer and further away, depending on the lens we're using."

The feeling of physical and emotional closeness that we used to enjoy towards people close to us, has, to an extent, been disrupted by the Internet. Connections are made between people of shared interests, visions, opinions and thoughts. This transformation of how we perceive proximity has made one concept all the more important: context.

Context is what defines the world – or worlds – that we live in. What is useful and important in one scenario, would be irrelevant or even dangerous in another. It is something that is vital to disciplines concerning academia as well as those in more creative fields, as the recontextualisation of something can make it interesting in a way that would never have been the case before.

It is also a thread that runs through much of the work of product and interaction designer Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino. Her background in product design and technology led to the creation of Tinker, which started as a shop based on the popular Arduino platform. It grew to become a studio with a rich mix of people from HCI, academia, innovation studies, interaction design, and electronics engineering. Projects from the studio included work with the BBC on the future of remote controls, to a campaign with Dare and Sony Ericsson, where a Twitter hashtag was linked to a physical installation. As Deschamps-Sonsino observes, "That space got very interesting for agencies in particular, as everyone had a clear idea of what a strategy and digital campaign looked like, but suddently this opened up possibilities for that campaign to exist outside of the digital realm, Facebook and Twitter." The economic downturn resulted in Tinker closing late in 2010, with its founder now working in a freelance capacity, looking at how technologies such as RFID and QR codes are used, and could be used, in everyday life. Such technologies are now becoming more overt – witness the many poster ads now featuring QR codes – but also more covert. Chromaroma is given as an example of a simple recontextualisation of technology: changing TFL's Oyster device from a travel card, to a token in a play experience.

 

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Media complexity and choice

Media complexity and choice

 

As we all know, the transition of certain industries from physical to virtual products has been the subject of millions of words, worldwide. Reports, theories, analyses and commentary have all played their role into what has been a rapid transition, although being in the middle of the transition often feels slow – and painful. Music has clearly led the way, and it is now up to print (both in news and in books) to undergo a similar change, keeping an eye on the future while ensuring that the mistakes of the recent past are not repeated.

For both producers and consumers of content, it is important to make the right media choices. On the face of it, this seems easier than ever, with open standards and maturing consumer experiences (remember the Blink and Marquee tags?) making the possibility of dead-end media less likely. However, with device and media lock-down, DRM, and a new wave of tablet and 3D technology re-framing media discovery, then perhaps we are about to start the whole process again.Someone that has lived through the cycles and choices involved with digital media is Andy Finney. Starting in radio, Finney's career has taken him through production in both radio and television, into interactive media. He was an early exponent of interactivity in the BBC, helping to develop the Domesday Project in the 1980s, remaining in interactive platform development up to today.

The Domesday Project celebrated the 900th anniversary of the publication of the original work, through the development of a new version, produced by schools across the UK. Led by the BBC, the project was made available through specially-adapted Laserdiscs, capable of carrying a total of 600MB, including video.

Viewing these Laserdiscs required a specific hardware player, offered by Philips, a partner in the project. The rapid obsolescence of this hardware – and of the Laserdisc format in general - led to the problem that 600MB of rich, expensively-produced content, could no longer be played. Eventually, a joint project between Leeds and Michigan universities, set up to tackle the problem of obsolescence in digital content and media, developed a Windows-based application, DomesEm, which could read the data.

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Eating Facebook

Eating Facebook

Facebook is synonymous with privacy. Faced with 800 million user accounts, the business has a huge responsibility – and a challenge – in overcoming the innate tension between making friends, sharing materials between them, and privacy.

Philipp Teister aims to blow that tension wide open.

With his project Facebook Life Sharing, Teister has made his online identity "open source". It is possible for anyone to log into Teister's profile, update his status, review his recent activities, and see his list of friends. It is perhaps the ultimate spoken objective of social media – to have a profile that is so wide and so open, that it effectively cedes control to a community. If Wikipedia has achieved a free, community-moderated balance in content, then Teister is perhaps achieving the same effect with identity. The paradigm is consistent, even though the end result is perhaps far different.

As an artist, Teister enjoys working with something which is ostensibly functional, but with far-reaching emotional effects. "Facebook is an ultimate sandbox, supporting all kinds of inappropriate privacy and anonymity experiments. Its privacy policy has grown significantly over time, and a huge list of concerns have come along. The most feared hijack for anyone must be identity theft."

While the fear of identity theft is certainly true in the wider consciousness, Teister's project effectively allows his identity to be stolen by anyone. It is, of course, easy to create accounts as anyone in Facebook, which is where Teister started in his development of the project. However, as he claims, his project is not about someone else, but as himself: "... for a desensitisation and clearance of inferiority and slavery" to the rules, behaviours and requirements that social networks ask of crowds.

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Microsoft windows

Microsoft windows

Human-Computer Interaction is a concept that has been with us for decades. Because of technological limitations, it has perhaps more been about the computer than the human, and people needing to learn new methods of interacting. However, this is starting to change. Gestural technologies allow for more widely and easily-understood methods of interacting with computer systems, with the increasing ownership of smartphones becoming a catalyst for a more relaxed relationship between computer and user. Swiping, pinch/pull and flicking to turn pages are now commonplace, although one assumes that millions of dollars have been invested to develop such levels of simplicity.

Last year's launch of the Kinect from Microsoft, allowed interaction to move even further away from the physical. As Kinect can "read" human interaction from a camera, low-cost development of gestural interfaces to be enacted anywhere, now becomes possible. Although Microsoft has positioned Kinect to be the start of a new phase of computer gaming, there are, of course, many more ways in which gestural technology can be offered.

Code Computerlove has developed a prototype, which positions the Kinect in a retail environment. The screen is positioned in the shop window, with the Kinect camera facing outwards towards an area around the shop. Visitors can then gesture to interact with the shop-mounted system, and enjoy an immersive experience without having to be in the shop.

 

 

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The legacy of Len Lye

The legacy of Len Lye

 

The relationship between art and advertising has forever been one of fascination. The manifestation of this relationship has been both plentiful and diverse. The Campbell's Soup can; television advertising from famous directors; and Beck's Futures are just three of a seemingly infinite number of ways that the relationship – and, sometimes, the tension – has been expressed to mass audiences.

Such a relationship clearly stretches across many decades, certainly as far as contemporary media is concerned. A pioneer of ways to bring art and advertising together is Len Lye, a New Zealand-born artist that lived for much of his life in the UK, where many of his more well-known works were commissioned and exhibited.

As a young man in the 1920s, Lye's fascination with the kinetic drove him to explore the possibilities of movement in sculpture and installation. This led to works in the 1950s, which he referred to as tangible motion sculptures, or "Tangibles". Using a simple motor and metal strips, Lye's Tangibles series included Blade, where a two-metre-high strip of steel, vibrated to suggest the swish of a knife; and Fountain III, a visually spectacular work of hundreds of two-metre rods, clasped at the centre by a heavy base.

Throughout Lye's life, the ethos of his art was based on three simple words: Individual Happiness Now. Less a manifesto, more a framework for society, it was based on the belief that democracy was the best outcome against Fascism, and was to be an articulation of what the Allies were fighting for, as opposed to a pre-existing and very clear knowledge of what they were fighting against.

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Friends and family

Friends and family

 

What is your definition of a friend?

To many, the definition is changing. Terms such as "friends" and "followers" are clearly being stretched to encompass a wider number of people with a given network. However, to many, a term which is also undergoing a change – a stretch – is "family".

Because connected media allows us to simply know more things about more people, then it is up to us to provide our own filters and context as to who those people actually are. Collecting friends and followers in Twitter and Facebook is easy, as is dropping them again. Although connectivity has, in part, driven this ephemeral nature, it has actually reinforced the definition of what "family" is, and means, to many. Because family trees have a degree of permanence, connected media allows us to find out more about who we are, and to rediscover the inter-relationships which have laid dormant, or even undiscovered.

Family trees are all about interconnectivity; they are a "hard social network". Particular situations within families can, of course, sever ties, but the biological connection will always be there.

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Talkin' 'bout my generation

Talkin' 'bout my generation

We live in a world of labels. It is a world that has given us the ability to segment in marketing, and use small terms to mean big ideas in public policy – among many other examples.

However, this world is clearly much more complex, and subtle, than simple labels. Simple terms can crystallise a vision, but this simplicity also brings the potential danger of the inability to communicate anything other than simplicity.

Throughout Ellen Helsper's career as a researcher and lecturer, latterly at the LSE, she has uncovered data and insights which have challenged the use of catch-all terms.

We start with talking about digital inclusion. Millions of pounds have been piled in, from the public and private sectors, to persuade people to get online. Helsper picks up the story. "In the beginning, a lot of the policies and research were aimed at getting people online - in the sense of giving people access - and trying to explain which factors made people get access to the technology. Soon after that, we started to realise that if we just make it cheaper, then people will buy it, because it's so clear what the advantages are, of being connected... Why would you not want to be connected? There was a little bit of optimism there, and an underestimation of the factors that play a role in the decisions that people make about technologies and media, that actually, historically, we do know are important."

After that, in Helsper's view, was a focus on access which made policymakers rather depressed. Because people that could afford to get access often chose not to, simply because they were not interested, and were not sure if getting online was "good" for them or not. These people were not necessarily in economic poverty, although as Helsper acknowledges, there was a relationship between those with a lack of access, and a lack of funds to facilitate access.

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Tantalum Memorial: telephony and the Congo

Tantalum Memorial: telephony and the Congo

 

The transformation of telephony in the past 30 years is nothing short of remarkable. Phones are now deeply entrenched in our lives, with their level of technological sophistication matched only by our increasingly complex desires. SMS, drop calls, and apps all signify the western world's use of telephony.

This is just one view. The Congolese see things in a very different way.

Pavement Telephony, or Telephone Trottoire, is based on the way in which the Congolese pass around news and racy gossip on street corners and public places, in order to avoid the state censorship of official media. When mobiles become the way of communicating such messages, this person-to-person way of communication is a very powerful example of what we know as social media.

The Congolese often own several mobile phones. This exaggerated level of ownership is not based on a desire to be more accessible, or because they want more information. The level of ownership comes from a different set of circumstances: to manage the combination of free and controlled messages; the lack of landlines; as well as the wider, socio-cultural situation of Congolese migration to the west. In the UK, there is a vibrant Congolese community in London.

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Twitter revolutions and the origins of war

Twitter revolutions and the origins of war

@avschlieffen: Is anyone srsly suggesting trains caused the biggest war of all time? WTF!?! Get over it, you trainspotters. Rail isn't everything.

@billthekaiser: LOL It wasn't me it was the 11.24 to Gdansk that made me do it. ;)

 

Train timetables caused the biggest conflict the world had ever seen. 16 million dead, 21 million wounded. Mechanised destruction and suffering, literally on an industrial scale.

That was the argument of AJP Taylor, one of the most influential British historians of the latter part of the 20th century (and the godfather of TV dons). What he said was that the plans for troop movements a large scale war against both France and Russia simultaneously by German military planners depended on a sequence of trains deploying troops quickly to both fronts. Once you pressed the button, as it were, there was no turning back. If you paused you would lose the advantage and then the war.

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A sense of place

A sense of place

It's going to be mobile's year.

In fact, it has been "mobile's year" for many years. Analysts have predicted that the following year will be the golden year of mobile, ever since WAP started to become generally available on small, monochrome screens.

This year, it might just be mobile's year. Widespread adoption of geolocation, tablet computing and apps are transforming mobile from simply a mobile telephony handset, to truly mobile, experiential, computing.

The handset vendor that has been part of "mobile's year" ever since the early days of such predictions, is Nokia. The journey from small, blue phones with Snake to technologically complex, Ovi-enabled devices has been fast and, at times, tough. Leading this continued evolution from the point of view of location, is Gary Gale.

Gale, as Director of Ovi Places, is continuing a life-long fascination with maps. From a deep fascination with Harry Beck's Tube map as a child, he now runs a business which aims to meet – and exceed – the consumer expectations of what mapping can offer to mobility. These expectations are both, from the consumer's perspective, urgent and complex.

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Communities, consultation, and cards

Communities, consultation, and cards

Our perception of concepts that have existed since the beginning of time, are changing. These concepts: community, friendship, belonging – are flexing out. In the past, their definition has changed owing to a greater enablement of travel possibilities, but clearly it's the Internet which has become a key proponent of definition change in recent years. Facebook is one obvious example of how our view (and vista) of friends has changed, and for many, expanded.

Caf Fean and Nina Honiball are two creative practitioners at community engagement agency Soundings. They aim to challenge the way in which communities – of all types – function. Their theories of community development maybe relatively new, but the way in which their theories are executed, is through an ancient technique: storytelling.

As our perception of community is changing, it is also fragmenting. Digital connectivity has, according to Fean, "has both enabled some communities to come into being, and separated some others into distinctly different categories - those who do not adopt, those who watch TV, those who catch up with their leisure time online."

Fean makes the point that it's really about a changing literacy, rather than a fundamental change of what community is: "I think that fundamentally we all instinctively know what a community is for us, and seek them out. The interesting thing in my work, is understanding other people's communities, and then suggesting new ones, often based upon people's interests rather than by location."

Introducing complex mechanics into community development, allows for new techniques to be tried out and implemented. Honiball suggests that while crowdsourcing, for example, is an interesting way to develop a certain type of community, it does not necessarily give a community the structure that it needs, or allows for a framework to facilitate consultation with existing communities. "At some stage, you need the expert to step in. As far as consultation is concerned, then no, it doesn't make sense to use crowdsourcing. We could dip into it, but we need to be very clear about what it is that we get from people. I am for it, but it needs to be used in a very sensitive way."

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Kill your social network

Kill your social network

Facebook is ceaseless in its effort to get me to add more friends. Every time I load a profile page, I am exhorted to let Facebook plumb my email to add more people to my network. In this respect, the world's biggest social network has come to resemble a grandmother who constantly pesters you to call your cousins more often or write out thank-you cards.

Here's the problem with that: your online social networks are too big.

Facebook and marketers (like me) want you to have bigger and bigger networks. It makes better ad targeting possible when you have a bigger network, and makes it easier for us to exploit the network effect to our advantage.

But for you, that big social network is just weighing you down. The last time Facebook updated the stats in their press room, the average Facebook user had 130 friends. I'll wager that that number is skewed down by older folks and people who have abandoned their accounts. For the active user, that number must be higher. I've got over 400, myself, but I regularly see people that dwarf that number. It's become de rigeur to accept most friend requests; on Facebook I can hardly bring myself to turn anybody down. Even if I started now, what would the point be? My Facebook friends already include people that:

I went to junior high school with and never saw again;I had one class with in college;Were in my unit in the military, but assigned to a different company;Colleagues and former colleagues, including bosses and subordinates;A guy who sold me some computer components once;A couple of friends-of-a-friend, that I don't think I've ever actually met in real life.

As a result, I routinely see people in my Facebook newsfeed that I honestly wouldn't know to say "Hi" to if I saw them on the street.

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Buying MySpace

Buying MySpace

While Rupert Murdoch is concerned with his company's bid for BSkyB - among (ahem) other matters in the UK media - he might have something else on his plate: a potential bid for MySpace.

Bought as part of Intermix for $580m in 2005, MySpace was designed to provide News Corp with a vehicle to propel itself into a golden, digital age. Although one might argue that other innovations are helping the business on that journey, the acquisition of MySpace did not turn out as expected. Seen to be something which will be sold at a loss, theories abound as to why the global resources and muscle of News Corp could not make a go of it.

As the site is well in the flow of a long, slow decline, one option is to close it. Such an option was allegedly planned by Yahoo of Delicious as part of a group of sites to be closed. This group was, in a ubiquitous strategy slide, labelled "Sunset". The combination of Delicious' small-but-loyal userbase and the later confirmation that Yahoo was indeed proposing to sell the property, resulted in a number of public approaches. This gives rise to the theory that sites which are – or were – appreciated by a loyal and sizeable audience, can theoretically pass from a major media owner to a smaller, focussed organisation.

Such an option might be considered for MySpace. Adam Noakes has started a campaign called Let's Buy MySpace, which does what it suggests: aggregate pledges to take MySpace out of the hands of News Corp. These pledges are turned into shares, using a similar model to MyFootballClub. If you pledge, you have a share in MySpace – assuming that Rupert is prepared to pick up the phone.

The idea was put into action because Noakes ".. was fed up of seeing all the negative news coming out from MySpace. All the changes have been for the worse, and there is no obvious sign of a strategy, all from a site with massive registered user numbers and monthly visits... and a great history". While MySpace still has substantial user numbers and visits (albeit in decline) – and that great history – one wonders whether we have simply moved on. After all, there are thousands of websites that have gone through a swifter killing.

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Transmedia stories

Transmedia stories

"Transmedia" has become a powerful force in campaign planning and creative development. Essentially comprising of a narrative spread across a wide range of physical and digital media, it is in itself a term which has gained massive attention in the last year. How can agencies, brands and consumers gain maximum advantage from transmedia campaigns? Are we seeing an eventuality where transmedia becomes the dominant force in campaign planning? Will there be a backlash, based on a desire for simplicity?

Imperica has brought three leading figures together to talk transmedia.

 

Anjali Ramachandran

What do you consider transmedia storytelling to be?

To me, almost every form of communication that is in the form of a narrative today is transmedia – across different media platforms. A movie no longer plays out just on screen; you are more than likely to see a video game, a Facebook page, and so on. A nonprofit that spreads a story across the web and offline is transmedia storytelling too, such as James Nachtwey's xdrtb.org, which aimed to spread awareness of tuberculosis in London through a web-and-real life treasure hunt.

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In conversation with... Nicole Yershon and Ian Finch

In conversation with... Nicole Yershon and Ian Finch

Agencies across a range of disciplines are becoming increasingly concerned with research and experimentation – both for internal use, and to find new ways to develop offerings, and therefore, differentiation. This work is often wrapped up in the Labs concept, which we are starting to see at larger agencies.

This "In conversation with..." is with Nicole Yershon and Ian Finch, leaders of labs at Ogilvy and Mando Group respectively.

How is a lab born?

NY: Our Lab didn't start with technology. There are all of these things happening, that people are not familiar with. When you are familiar with it, and there's a brief to which you say that there could be an interactive floor projection, people look at you as if you're mad. But, you then start to explain what an interactive floor projection is, and you get more detailed – but what you want is for people to touch and feel it, and they will get it.

It came from me not really being able to explain myself, and I wanted that human interaction: to touch an iPhone, or explain what a widget is, without talking or reading about it - because it didn't humanise it.

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Newstweek: changing news

Newstweek: changing news

The prevalence of open wireless networks has transformed both computing and media consumption. Where reading news sites was the domain of the desk, it is now very easy to browse and engage with online content from your sofa, cafe or on the train.

Such networks are perceived to be inherently trustworthy. They are, it is assumed, provided by the "host", and therefore both secure, and secured. But, like many other facets in online media, this trust of both the network and the content available across it, can be manipulated.

Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev are Berlin-based artists with a project to address the potential of this manipulation. Extremely well versed in technology and coding, the possibilities of how to manipulate data resulted in their most recent project, Newstweek.

Oliver and Vasiliev explain the history. "Danja and I have been playing around a lot over the last couple of years with what we refer to as 'Network Insecurity', taking the network as a medium for rigorous, creative investigation. This particular device was conceptualised during the Chaos Computer Club's 27th congress, last year in Berlin. We installed an 'invisible' wall plug in the building, emitting a vast amount of wireless beacons, and found that it went physically unnoticed for days. We realised we were onto something, that an innocuous plug like this, with a tiny enough computer, could appear as part of the infrastructure, part of the building, commanding to be treated as such."

Newstweek is the final version of this "invisible" wall plug. Essentially a small computer, it maps network traffic through itself. This mapping is where the intevention occurs, and when Julian and Danja connect to it with root-level access, they run what is essentially a live "search and replace". Data is intercepted and replaced. The result is that web pages which look factually accurate and from a trusted source, have actually been changed.

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Quora: what is it good for?

Quora: what is it good for?

Now that the hyperbole has calmed down and most of us have finally turned off our new follower email updates, I'd like to take stock of what happened during those days of madness.

First, let's look at some of the gushing praise that came out of the UK press for this new social darling. There was Quora will be bigger than Twitter from The Telegraph which, quite frankly, bordered on idol worship; and Quora: the hottest question-and-answer website you've probably never heard of from The Guardian, which at least seemed a little more balanced.

I can't blame the papers. With the ever increasing number of citizen journalists who can provide the news faster and with less bias, any story has to be jumped on quick to ensure that they are seen to be relevant. Both, however, were keen to point out that it was the strong preponderance of Silicon Valley's finest among its users that has led to Quora's sudden success.

It was this fact that, I felt, led to the backlash.

Twitter was alight with people complaining about the number of emails and alerts that were being pumped out from Quora, questioning its usefulness and posting comedy questions to the Quora platform itself (myself included).

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Neil Thackray: technology and curation

Neil Thackray: technology and curation

John Battelle - founder of Federated Media, writer of the definitive book on how Google evolved, founder of The Industry Standard, and on the launch edit team of Wired - is one of the key thought leaders in understanding how the the digital world is evolving. Without wishing to "blow smoke", it is fair to say that when Battelle writes something, he has been thinking about it for while and has probably got an insight that's worth thinking about.

A recent piece on his own blog postulates that the future for information discovery is in curation. It won't surprise you to learn that we at Briefing Media have some sympathy with that view. Battelle rehearses how the early web was organised by simple directory search engines.

As the scale of the Web grew, these became decreasingly useful and were superceded by the Google PageRank approach (he notes that this was named after Page the Google co-founder and does not refer to a web page). With the advent of social media and the continued growth in the size of the web, the problem has now recurred: How can you find what you are really looking for? Interestingly he thinks that some of the answer lies in curation - the same thought that occurred to us when we were devising Briefing Media.

The web is so large that there is no one algorithm that can capture it all, and capture every nuance of every search. Take a simple example. A user who is interested in "Android" will want to discover different documents and different related topics, depending on the true search intent. A telecoms exec may want to know about the technical aspects of the mobile operating system; a media owner may be more interested in the content applications that use Android, whilst a sci-fi enthusiast is looking for something else entirely. The implications of this are profound. Not only is the content set for each of these three users unique, but so is the taxonomy.

We can see this working amongst sophisticated social media users' behaviours. As Battelle points out, a Twitter feed can quickly get overrun with unfocussed tweets and too many of them. The more people we follow the less useful the Twitter experience becomes. Smart tweeters have disciplined accounts and self curate. I only follow people who tweet about the media industry and I only tweet about media industry issues. You won't find out what I had for breakfast by folllowing me on Twitter. Our own Patrick Smith, who is something of an übertweeter, has multiple accounts with different topics for each and different communities following him in each.

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Directions

Here's how to find our shop.

By car

Drive along Main Street to the intersection with First Avenue.  Look for our sign.

By foot

From the center of town, walk north on Main Street until you see our sign.

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