I’m proud to say that with us today, we have someone who has had a major impact on the direction of the new media Industry in SA over the years, and who I am sure we are gong to be hearing a lot more from in the coming months and years. You must know Vincent Maher, online media strategist to the Mail & Guardian Online and key player in the social-bookmarking website, Amatomu. He’s currently in the process of re-developing the Mail & Guardian online and it’s Thoughtleaders blogging platform as well.
Vincent’s own site www.vincentmaher.com serves as a doorway into his personal and professional journey in the online space which he calls, “My Digital Life”, and it gives us a good idea of the insightful yet witty personality behind the name.
So! lets get dig a little deeper. I’ve been in the web industry in some way or other for the past 7 years now Vincent, but admittedly not been exposed to many strategic developments in the online space over the past years.
I believe you have been involved in the online space for around 11 or 12 years now, what was your entry point to the industry, and what did you study to prepare you for the road ahead?
I studied journalism at Rhodes and from 1993 – 1997 and in my final year I was supposed to finish the Bachelor of Journalism course. The department didn’t accept my transition from the 3rd to the 4th year so I did a joint honours in Journalism and English, mixing 2 Journalism courses with 3 from English. In English I did literary theory, gay and lesbian fiction – basically another name for more literary theory – and revenge tragedy. The revenge tragedy has helped me countless times in my life because I know how to wait until the time is right. In Journalism I did print design – you can see that influence in my web design – and an experimental course called online publishing.
At the time I thought the Web was &^$@$^$, and that all networks were good for was fragging your mates in Doom. I still sort of believe that but don’t tell anyone.
Anyway, giving the online publishing course the credence it deserved I missed the first 4 classes. One day I bumped into one of the other suckers doing it who let out a long whistle and told me there was this stuff called HTML that was keeping him awake at night. So before the next class I decided to read up a bit about this HTML business, you know, in case the lecturer asked me a question. We had to create a web page and present it to the class.
So there I sit, basically &%^&*@ myself about how far advanced everyone else is and the first guy gets up to show his page with a light green background. In those days white wasn’t the default bgcolor in Netscape. The next person had the same thing and so when I got up to show off my page that had shockwave mouseovers on the nav and a frame with a tile background people almost fell off their chairs. From that day my ego was intrinsically tied to my ability to make good web sites.
When I graduated I was hired by my friend Jarred Cinman who was the technical director at VWV Interactive.
You call yourself an online media Strategist, could you give us a quick low down on what exactly that is for the not so web savvy.
That’s my official job title rather than a self-anointment. What I do is define the direction for the company in terms of what digital products to roll out when and how.
What’s a typical day in the life of Vincent Maher like?
I get up at about 6AM, look after my 7-month-old boy while my wife gets ready for her day. I leave the house at around 8, and get to the office half an hour later. Checking email, facebook, my blog and all the other stuff takes about an hour and then I meet with Matthew Buckland and chat about whatever I am working on.
After that, coffee and write code for a few hours. I often meet up with friends who work at Avusa for lunch, seeing as we’re so close and the afternoons are generally more code or meetings.
Being a founding partner of Amatomu, maybe you could give us a little sales pitch so to speak, of how Amatomu differs from the other social bookmarking services out there.
Amatomu combines aggregation with analytics, so there are generally two kinds of users – those who go there for blog content and those who go there for their statistics and overall rankings. It’s different to Afrigator in the sense that its strictly South African and has a heavy emphasis on public ranking and statistics and it’s different from Technorati in that it isn’t a dog.
In the end I think it’s the subtle things, like how content is displayed that make all the difference. Most of the site, after the initial two days of testing, has been based on user feedback so about half of what you see there is stuff that users requested or that Matthew and I discovered we needed, as bloggers.
I recently started visiting Amatomu, started tracking my own performance on the site & noticed that Amatomu has attracted a certain type of blogger, one with a little more know-how.
I feel there’s a need to open up the space to a more general type of blogger. Don’t you think that the requirements for entry into this space are a little high in terms of having web knowledge?
You might be right, there are definitely some usability issues we want to iron out before we go into beta. For instance you can’t reset your password and those types of things.
The beta plans are currently on hold while we decide on an international strategy. If we go international we’ll rewrite the whole thing because it won’t make much sense with a few million blogs in there. Once we know how we’re going to move forward we’ll put all the bits in there for the less savvy bloggers.
What are the ingredients for a top rank on Amatomu in terms of amount of posts, shmaaks etc.
Shmaaks have just been downgraded and we’re phasing them out because people don’t use them enough. Sites like Muti do a better job of that anyway. To be honest, the way to get to the top is to either blog about rugby or do a deal with a big web site that can send you lots of traffic. Or you could become a big celeb in the Afrikaans entertainment world. A lot of it has to do with personality and regular posting though.
Enough about Amatomu now. I recently checked out a wireframe you’ve been working on for the M&G online. Are you a web designer as well or more of an information Architect?
I am lucky in that I picked up a lot of different skills, so I can do all the database design and deployment, i can design the interface, I can program the application and I can add whatever multimedia bits with Flash. It has been a conscious decision of mine always to be able to do everything in the production workflow so I can take over when necessary. It’s also a fall-back when the market for strategists collapses LOL
Something which has bothered me greatly over the last year or 2 is the rise of tabloid Media in South Africa and the effect it seems to be having on the minds of the average South African. I haven’t seen much of this trickle into the online space. What does that mean exactly in terms of web users in South Africa and how do you think the web can play a role in countering the negativity spread by these tabloids.
Tabloids are a complex medium and the discourses they contain are not as easily generalised as most people think. In many ways they offer the most compelling reading about any given topic because they are necessarily emotive and induce a kind of cognitive limit experience that helps people make up their minds about an issue.
The sad reality is that most serious media have become pathologically boring to read.
I see Keo.co.za is currently ranked at the top of the SA blogosphere in terms of reads, this gives anything little insight into the SA blog reader profile. Are there any stats on who’s reading blogs in SA?
Not that I know about – Keo is a respected rugby journalist and has built a loyal audience which should be commended. I don’t think it says much about the online readership but it says a lot about his blog.
Is the SA online space reflective of the population, it’s thoughts and ideals and if not what an we do to reach a more representative online space.
I seriously doubt that there is any correlation between the political or social belief structures of the 4 million online readers and the rest of the population. They live in a different world, almost literally.
The problem is not access to technology or bandwidth, its the economic divide caused by apartheid and the government’s failure to create jobs fast enough.
Do you think the blogger community or wider web community in South Africa can play a major role in shifting the tide of negativity sweeping across SA, and instigate some meaningful and positive changes in Society?
Honestly I think the blogger community has limited power but it can do both – it can enhance the negativity and it can dispel some of it. SaRocks is a good example of a blog trying to make a difference, though the evidence of any real difference is hard to see.
When we look back and do content analysis – that’s the archaeology of the future – we’ll probably see that there was too much noise for a big impact. I suspect though, that Thought Leader is doing some interesting things in the political space and I am very glad to have been part of that project because it has people who are normally apathetic talking about politics in a fresh way.
Talking about change in society, I’ve started a site called www.one-project.org with the aim of working towards something positive and starting a conversation. What advice would you give in terms of getting a project of this nature off the ground and getting some great minds on board.
It is a chicken and an egg – you need to have something to offer in terms of either kudos or traffic, but you need the contributors to get to that stage. The best way to get there is to start now and keep going. Ignore the days when it seems like it’s not worth it.
I read a post on your site a short while ago discussing the phases of the web from 1.0 through to 3.0. Threw in my own 2 cents as well. What I’m interested in is how you think the next wave of â€œquantum shiftsâ€ will affect society. Are we seeing a new type of segregation in society, that of the web enabled & those who are not with the knowledge and benefit of web usage being shared by only an elite few.
The web has already shifted from static publishing through the phase of dynamic content and now its a web of applications. A lot can still happen in that phase but the big thing, from a user perspective, is going to be applications combined with mobile and on the server side it will be the semantic web or a web of structured and indexed data and APIs.
The explosion of mobile internet will make the web more or less ubiquitous and everywhere, which is good for democracy and society as a whole. One can argue, as Mark Poster has, that the economy has already shifted from the mode of production to the mode of information. If this is true then there are masses of people already disenfranchised from the fundamental workings of the global economy. Maybe this is obvious already, i don’t know. It certainly isn’t consciously like that for most.
One of my favourite books is 1984 by Geo rge Orwell. Lately I’ve been thinking with all the online profiling taking place on the facebooks & other social networks it seems like it’s only a matter of time before the Big Brother effect becomes really prevalent in the Global Society. What’s your take on this?
The more information I can share the better. I am not paranoid about big governments using that information against me later – if that happens then I bet on the wrong outcome and I deserve to be tortured.
But seriously, privacy is obviously a concern but not necessarily from the data repositories themselves but from people piecing a composite together from multiple sources. Take Bolton Deventer as an example – he may as well have been real because all the signs were there, the kind of signs one looks for when validating an identity. Other than physical presence obviously, but one of the things the Web has done is taken away the need for physical presence. Bolton, if he was set up to be a credible person, i.e. not a parody, could have done business deals, had cybersex and forged some strong relationships. In fact, I think he probably did all of that. I can see the “I cyber-shagged Bolton Deventer” t-shirts now, ew.
It seems like the skills needed to keep up with developments in online technology are simultaneously running away from your average web user and becoming more accessible on different levels. The web is being pushed in the strategic direction chosen by the few who have the skills & investment to make major decisions, and the technology does not allow for the lay web user to really play a major role in the future developments.
Examples would be online social networks, publishing platforms and other fundamental web application technologies are shaped by the googles, facebooks and other big players, or by those who have the high end skills to develop. They include the ingredients voted upon by a certain group of people, even when it comes to web applications, one has to abide by certain criteria before being allowed to make use of these applications and one has to use them in the way they have been fashioned.
Do you think we’ll ever reach a point where powerful web application development will be in the hands of the average web user allowing a more democratic system to follow.
I doubt everyone will have the power, in all things not just the Web. In defense of Google and Facebook, both depend heavily on how easily accessible their services are and I don’t really agree that organisations like them hold all the power. For one thing, Blogger.com has made blogging really easy for non-geeks and this was the catalyst to blogging exploding as a medium. So everyone who builds these kind of things knows, or finds out, that usability is very important.
It’s true that the decision-making in terms of what gets built and how it gets marketed rests with those who have the technical know-how to make it happen. Web technologies have become more powerful though, making it easier for programmers with some skills to build applications that they wouldn’t have the time and resources to create if they built them from scratch. Here I am referring to the Facebook application framework and development frameworks in general. As a practical example, we’re rebuilding the M&G web site and have chosen a framework called Symfony that will probably save us a few hundred hours of hard programming.
What do you think will be the next big wave in web development?
If Google’s Android platform takes off on mobile platforms then the next big wave will be mobile apps. On the server side, semantic applications will start to become mainstream and there are changes underway with HTML 5 that will make it more semantic too, so all of this combined will probably result in a very rich web of applications in the next five years or so. In the longer term we’re looking at a breakthrough in either quantum or biological computing that will change things much more fundamentally.
What are your plans for your career going forward and where would you like to see yourself in the next 2 â€“ 5 years?
It’s hard to say but I think I want to stay in media or, at the very least, continue to build applications for the media. My main priority right now is getting more control of my own intellectual property, so that may mean doing my own thing, some time down the line. Something I didn’t mention is that I ran a web dev company for five years right in the middle of the dotcom crash and that took its toll mentally and financially.
The past four years have been about regrouping and figuring out what my real areas of specialisation are. My time running the Rhodes New Media Lab helped a lot with that because it gave me a lot of time to reflect and think. It is so important to understand, from a theoretical perspective, the impact of what we do on society as a whole and where we fit it.
I tend to fluctuate between a modern and postmodern take on the world and both provide a type of ethical or moral imperative that comes in handy when planning web applications aimed at the general public.
Thanks for that Vincent, now that you’ve given me a taste of what to expect I’ve got a bucket load of new questions, and maybe a few more specific ones in relation to those you’ve already answered. Great getting to know you a little better and learning from your web experience. You’ve certainly got me interested in further exploring the strategic potential of the web and maybe even working with you on some project in the future.
I look forward to taking this dialogue a little further and to explore a few more topics regarding the edges of the web with you some time soon.