Category Archives: Citizen Agency

I’ve decided to leave Citizen Agency…

Sometime between now and March, I will be leaving Citizen Agency – the consultancy founded by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt in June 2006, which I joined in as a partner in September 2006.

It’s been a difficult decision to take, especially as I love Chris and Tara and have enjoyed working with them so much. Their genuine passion for putting the community first has been inspirational.

However as time has passed at Citizen Agency, it has become clear that my views as to where I would like to see the business headed differ to those of Chris and Tara. Obviously there can only be one long-term direction in a company, and so after much head scratching and deliberation around the table I’ve decided to make a move sooner rather than stick with something which is not going to work out for me.

Before Valleywag calls, I’m pleased to say that’s it’s all very amicable and we remain friends!

I will be leaving Citizen Agency sometime in the next 60 days – because I am working here on a Visa, this gives me the space to find something new rather than have to worry about being out of visa and having to pack up back to London. I very much appreciate Chris and Tara’s support and understanding on that front.

On that note, I should point out that Sofia and I love it here in San Francisco, and it’s very much our intention to stay. There also still seems to be plenty of opportunity here and so I will be looking for something else in San Francisco or the Bay Area.

So what will I be doing next?

To tell you the truth I very much open to ideas and suggestions! I’m pretty flexible, but I guess an ideal role would be involved around technical product management or similar, with an emphasis on technology, media or blogging. At the start of my career I was a software engineer at BBC News (and other projects) and as such have the ability to not only scope out product solutions but also architect and oversee the technical side of their implementation too (a role I performed for BBC New Media).

However with my vast range of other skills and experiences (resumé) I’m pretty happy to chip in with just about anything, including:

  • Public-facing blogger/developer/community out-reach and evangelism
  • Technical team mentoring (standards, best practice, etc)
  • Mash-ups, prototype hacking, etc
  • Accessibility and usability best practice
  • APIs, Web Services, developer networks
  • Press/Media relations, public speaking
  • Working my contact network to bring in high-quality employees/contractors across multiple disciplines

At this point in time I am ideally looking for a position with salary in addition to some kind of small equity element. However who knows what amazing opportunities are out there – so I’d be delighted to hear from anyone, from pre-funded start-ups all the way to corporate level work.

An abridged version of CV can be accessed here (more detailed on request) and there’s also my LinkedIn profile. However a quick overview of the key points are as follows:

  • Self motivated, self taught programmer from the age of 14
  • Launched my first start-up in 1998 at the age of 17 (free email service)
  • Software Engineer @ BBC News Website – dev work (Objective C, Java, PHP, Javascript/AJAX, xHTML/CSS) through to leading dev teams on large + significant projects
  • Product Development @ BBC News Website and BBC New Media – including websites, mobile/PDA, BBC Blog Network
  • Project Lead, backstage.bbc.co.uk (BBC Developer Network) – community liaison and evangelism, web services + APIs, etc
  • Partner/Consultant, Citizen Agency – community orientated approaches to product development and innovation – esp developer networks.
  • Public speaking – including Computer Human Interaction Conference 2006, New Media Days (Europe), Open Tech, d.Construct 05
  • Established blogger and industry commentator (67th most influential British blogger according to PRBloger)

I am currently located in San Francisco and looking for opportunities in San Francisco or the wider Bay Area. I currently have a visa to work in the US for Citizen Agency and can re-apply for one for a new company relatively easily.

If you would like to get in touch please send me a mail: ben [at] benmetcalfe.com

I wish Chris and Tara all the very best for the future with Citizen Agency.

This is Web2.0…?

I actually wrote part of this post back on Nov Oct 11th. It’s been sitting in my draft box in WordPress for sometime, but suddenly has become even more apt.

So the Web2.0 Conference Summit has drawn to a close. But it left me wondering whether O’Reilly is actually really out of touch with where Web2.0 is really going?

The event was well attended – but ‘officially’ only by those who had been invited AND THEN ponyed up the $3500 for a ticket. That’s quite a barrier to entry – and certainly dictates exactly who is and isn’t attending (that’s the point I guess).

Like many others (practically all of San Fran’s resident Web2.0 set, in fact) I spent a few hours hanging around the lobby of the Palace Hotel meeting people. But as I looked around at the crowd I was struck by the number of people who I associate with doing meaningful, useful and groundbreaking ‘Web2.0′ (for want of a better term) stuff who were not official attendees. In fact most of the most relevant people to the scene seemed to be people who didn’t have a conference badge around their necks.

Some of the people who were attending were the execs of the companies that I guess make some of this stuff happen – but most seemed to be people involved in derivative work not directly associated to Web2.0. If anything they seemed to be the industry freeloaders and hang’er-on’ers.

And check out the list of ‘official speakres':

Sure, some of them are young but most seem to be ‘old faces’. Now – and I want to be crystal clear on this – I don’t mean from an agest perspective but from the length of time they’ve been in the business. Ok, sure that’s not all of them but most.

In my personal opinion (not speaking of behalf of the company), this bank of faces aren’t what I think of as the bleeding edge of web 2.0 at all. The stuff we do at Citizen Agency, the companies we come across and work with, and the communities we participate in are far more innovative, forward thinking and ground breaking than most of the companies I gather were speaking (since when was GM is Web2.0??). And hey, that’s why so many of the big guys end up buying the little fish in the first place!

Whilst trivial, I also feel that the choice of ‘guest musician’ – Lou Reed – was perhaps indicative of the tastes and era of the typical Web2.0 Summit attendee (and a great example of how out of touch many of them are with what’s current). Reed is an acclaimed musician but he’s hardly the embodiment of the supposed fresh and edgy bleeding edge of the Web2.0 scene. In a somewhat melancholic fashion, Lou was even quoted as saying: “who would have thought it would come to this. I’d be playing at a cyberspace conference, brought here by AOL”.

O’Reilly needs to work out whether it wants to continue to serve up what the corporate and managerial attendee wants to hear for their $3500 – ego massaged having been invited of course. Or whether they want to get down to what’s really going on in the scene – the true disruptor’s of tomorrow who are only just emerging onto the scene. Maybe that’s what ETech is – but for many it’s geeky/techy nature is off-putting.

O’Reilly’s relevance to the corporate scene creates its irrelevance to those of us who are doing stuff now rather than talking about what just happened. Web2.0 Expo might change all that, but it needs to find a way of lowering the barrier to entry so that the real pioneers can participate – without being drowned out by the corporate and business attendees.

Did you go/not go to Web2.0? What do you think?

Why I have an ‘extreme’ alter-ego

Much of what Tara wrote in her recent post ‘Missing the point’ resonates with me too.

A couple of months back, someone asked me why I’m such an extremist. Surely, everything traditional marketing can’t be bad. Why not be a big more moderate.

I replied, I’m an extremist because someone has to swing the pendulum over. Here is a diagram to illustrate what I mean:

(click to see the full size image)

The reason I sometimes find myself taking (/being seen to take) an ‘extreme perspective’ is often to counter-act equally extreme conservatism on the other side.

Except that ‘extreme conservatism’ is generally considered to be an oxymoron.  It appears it’s only those of us wanting to be a catalyst for change can be considered ‘extreme’.

Sometimes an ‘extreme’ goal is an achievable one, and it’s worth going out on a limb to get it.  You start off with your out-there position and push and push and chip and chip until something happens.

But there are also times when I know what I am wanting is just not going to happen, but I know that if I ‘shoot for the stars, I might just reach the moon’.  I know that I’d be happy to compromise somewhere in the middle for the sake of realising some change albeit not what I originally wanted.  But push the extreme as hard as I can to get the middle-ground closer to where I want to ultimately arrive.

I had to do that a lot at the BBC, both in BBC News and also whilst working on backstage.bbc.co.uk of course.  The BBC is definitely a place where great clumps of conservatism litter an otherwise cutting-edge landscape. (or is it the other way around?)

The trick was to establish a credibility before going AWOL from the plan.  And even when I did go AWOL for some it wasn’t AWOL enough – but the story of black-ops projects is another story for another time… perhaps.

Back to this blog post… I know that this modus operandi combined with my dotBen ‘let’s kick the shit up’ gadfly approach rubs people like Tom Coates up the wrong way.  I have a lot of respect for Tom – I don’t get on with him (and hey, I’m sure the feeling’s mutual), but I’m the first to admit he knows what he’s talking about (my guess is that the feeling isn’t mutual on that one!).

However his methods are different but we’re trying to arrive at the same goal.  Some might say he’s taking the traditional approach based on academic reasoning and I’m just being, well, a shit stirrer.

But actually this is no different to what Socrates did when he interacted with the Athenian politician scene.  And it was Plato who coined the phrase ‘gadfly’ when writing about this very relationship.

So, there is a method in my madness somewhere.  Ian Betteridge may not get the whole alter-ego thing and decide to mock it – but he is denying a very fundamental psychological proposition that the Internet has thrived on – that of the avatar.  Again, another post for another time on that one.

dotBen is/was a thinly veiled disguise to allow me to be extreme whilst protect my original professional standing.  But it hasn’t worked as well as I thought – for a start it got put into the limelight at a certain LesBlogs conference.  Since then slowly the two have merged into one.

I guess I’m not schizophrenic after all.

As I leave the corporate world behind me, I find myself working out what my single identity is.  Am I going to go out on a limb or am I going to play it safe be like (almost) everyone else?

C’mon – you know the answer to that already.  I’m going to continue to mother-fuck the status quo.

Not in a reckless way, and not just if it’s ‘for show’.  But in the many examples where taking the extremist view – like Tara – will actually create the desired outcome.

We’re not all loonies really.  Oh yeah, and Nelson Mandela eventually became South Africa’s president.  Go figure.

Neville on Astroturfing, Me on Project Astroturfing (Mk II)

Neville Hobson (of the excellent For Immediate Release podcast) has a nice piece on his blog about Astroturfing.

Neville quotes from Wikipedia’s definition:

…astroturfing describes formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behaviour. The goal is the appearance of independent public reaction to a politician, political group, product, service, event, or similar entities by centrally orchestrating the behaviour of many diverse and geographically distributed individuals.

I never realised this was called ‘astroturfing’ but I’m definitely aware of what it’s describing (although I don’t really get why it is has been called this. I thought an astroturf was a fancy all-weather football playing surface???).

In fact what I’m particularly interested in is ‘new forms’ of astroturfing… Unlike the original idea of covertly posting messages and creating spin, I can see a whole new era of astroturfing whereby corporations and other similar institutions and entities create false communities and campaigns that pretend to be 100% from the grassroots.

SanDisk’s iDon’t.com, which I blogged about last month, is an example of this. It’s an anti-iPod campaign that’s totally driven by SanDisk despite appearing to be ‘grassroots’.

Now, through projects like backstage.bbc.co.uk and Reboot:bbc.co.uk (and others) I’ve tried to foster a grassroots community on behalf an institution. I’ll also be doing this kind of work with the Citizen Agency.

But I’ve always wanted to ensure that everyone involved is clear this is a facilitated experience – ie it’s coordinated by the company but in such away that involvement in the project is mutually beneficial for the individual too.

Astroturfing is a marketing term that has been derived from politics, but don’t forget that more often than not, developer networks and other similar platforms are created just as much for their marketing benefits as they are for pure innovation and R&D.

As practioners and leaders of these concepts, I think it’s important that we maintain integrity and ensure that astroturfing doesn’t occur – for the sake of the most vital part of this equation, the users themselves.

It’s especially true in a consultative environment where corporate clients might be standing firm on their strategy and it’s a matter of taking the cheque or walking away.

Now, I want to come onto something that happened with the BBC’s Reboot:bbc.co.uk project to support a further iteration of this idea (BTW, I’m not saying, and will not be saying, that Reboot:bbc.co.uk is an example of astroturfing!)

Reboot logo

The idea of Reboot:bbc.co.uk, in a nutshell, was that the BBC asked it’s users (albeit ‘expert users’ who understood Web2.0 stuff and could build or design websites) to submit ideas for what they would like the bbc.co.uk homepage to look like. It was a project I helped set up, although I left the BBC before the competition finished.

Since the BBC’s announcement of the winner there have been a lot of mixed reaction. Some supporting the winner and others not (I really am not going to comment either way, it’s not appropriate).

However one of the reasons people have been interested, it appears, is that there has been a miss-assumption that the winner of the competition will become the next bbc.co.uk design.

This is not true, but clearly it’s another example of the potential for misrepresenting the true reason for running these kinds of projects.

Just as bad: Project Astroturfing

Like astroturfing (miss-representing who the community really is) there is also the risk of miss-representing the purpose of the project in the first place.

Now in the case of Reboot:bbc.co.uk I know it’s been a case of genuine miss-communication and miss-understanding. But I also know of a number of (non-BBC) ‘developer competitions’ and other similar projects that have not just been “awareness + goodwill campaigns” but have actually been used to create the foundations of company product roadmaps, boost account signups to meet VC demands, and sometimes blatantly steal ideas and IP.

Hey, if you want to do that then that’s cool (er, I guess… although it’s not for me thanks). But at least be clear – both in your T’s&C’s and also in the plain English.

BTW: if any of my former colleagues are reading this, I urge you to check out this amusing quote from a post by George Nimeh:

You’ve got to hand it to the BBC (and Ashley Highfield, in particular) for having the insight/guts to do this.

Made me chuckle. Yes, you’ve got to hand it to Ashley for the insight! :)

More on my move to San Francisco

Thank you all for the emails of support and best wishes – it’s all very much appreciated. A lot of people have been asking why we’re moving and also what we’re planning on doing with the Citizen Agency.

Why move from London?

I’ve wanted to move to San Francisco/The Valley for sometime. Probably since I started working on backstage.bbc.co.uk, and really started to plan where my career was heading.

Despite what people may claim or assert, I still believe The Bay area is still the epicentre for technical development, innovation and all things cutting-edge in this industry (and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon either). If you want to be part of that, then for my mind that’s where you’ve got to be physically based (Don Dodge agrees too).

If you can’t be there then actually London is probably a very good second. I certainly think London is shaping up to be hub for mobile innovation – but mobile technology doesn’t interest me (yet. – it just frustrates me at the moment).

I do think there’s a small but lucrative consultation circuit in London – with the possibility of making more money than one can in San Francisco. But from my forages into this area so far, it feels more like companies want a regurgitation of existing knowledge and best practice (on blogs, wikis, etc etc) rather than to work on pioneering stuff and push the envelope.

Those of you who follow my blog or Flickr stream will know that I’ve made a number of trips to the West Coast in the past few months. I’ve been lucky enough to use the time to hang out with people I regard highly – helping me to work out what I want to do and where the opportunities lie.

I’ve also had a number of meetings/lunches/job interviews with big companies – which in many ways helped me realise that I wanted to work in a small company start-up-like environment rather than yet-another BBC-like corporate.

I have a wide range of skills, and like a growing number of people I meet, I’m difficult to fit into a corporate structure or pigeon-hole into an existing job title. I was lucky that my credibility in the BBC was such that I was given an unparalleled freedom with what I wanted to do + felt needed to be done. That’s hard to find when you are joining a new company – even if your reputation procedes you. I certainly can’t play to all my strengths just doing one aspect of my skills set.

Another reason for moving was to take a risk (and hopefully get a reward). At some point in my career I would like to be part of the next Technorati, MySpace or maybe even Google. I think this involves taking a risk (probably several) – and one certainly won’t find an opportunity to work on – and have some ownership of – the next big exciting thing by simply ascending the corporate ladder. I have found myself on several occasions asking the simple question “When will I take a risk?”. If not now – when?

I turn 25 this month (oh my God, I’m having a pre-mid-life-crisis!!! I was this young whipper snapper once that wanted to take on the world… Where did it all go? :) ).

Statistically speaking the Larry Pages, Sergey Brins and Bill Gates of this world establish themselves in their 20’s and so in some respects I’m already on the decline. I feel it’s now or never.

The final thing that continued to give me a kick up the arse was my Canadian citizenship. The fact that I am extraordinarily lucky to have essentially a fast-track route to obtaining a US work visa. The number of friends and former-BBC colleagues who I know are going through the dreaded and protracted H-1B process reinforces my view that I should seize the opportunity that I have gained from having a Canadian father (thanks Dad!).

I love London and I’ll miss London – it’s my home town after all. But I also feel it is important to spend sometime in a different country and gain some different perspective on life.

Citizen Agency

Citizen Agency logo

So what is Citizen Agency, and what are we going to do? I don’t think Tara, Chris myself or Sofia (who will also have some involvement with the direction of business even though she won’t be employed by it) quite know where it might all lead.

But here’s what we do know:

There is a common strand that unites all three of us in a unique way. We’ve all made a name for ourselves and pioneered our respective niches by helping companies harness the power of their userbase communities. That’s Tara with her Pinko Marketing at Riya (and elsewhere), Chris with his pioneering stuff with the SpreadFirefox campaign and at Flock, and myself with backstage.bbc.co.uk for the BBC.

We also each have complimentary skills that nicely overlap at the edges. Tara: marketing, Chris: product development and design, myself: product development and technical development. Together we form quite a nice agency – with a fairly comprehensive range of skills that work nicely as an end-to-end solution.

Essentially we want to help empower companies to better utilize their userbase communities for product design, development and marketing. We believe that knowledge exists in communities, not individuals.

We see our client-base as being both startups and also established players. We also don’t necessarily see that being just Internet companies either. Traditional software vendors, hardware vendors and maybe even non-technical companies could all be potential clients.

I think we’ll start with Internet based companies because that’s what we know best. But it was heartening to have an interesting and positive discussion with a VP of a medium sized traditional desktop-based software company about some of their on-going frustrations and how a company like Citizen Agency could work with them to resolve many of their current issues.

So we’re still working through the business model with a fine toothcomb, but the bullet points of services we want to offer include:

  • Marketing your products and services pinko-style
  • The creation and execution of developer networks and expert-user groups for the purpose of marketing, product development and innovation/R&D.
  • Steering product/service design and development processes towards user-centric models that foster on-going win/win relationships between consumer and provider
  • Better implementation of blogs, wikis and other tools to create dialogues with consumers
  • + more…

There are also a number of very interesting ideas in the melting pot that I don’t want to reveal our hand over just yet. And potentially this is where the risk/reward comes into play.

With such an emphasis on the community, Citizen Agency also aspires to put back into the ecosystem by sponsoring grassroots movements like BarCamp and providing its services Pro Bono to socially beneficial projects and open source projects. We want to be social entrepreneurs.

Well, that’s a little more about what I am looking forward to working on for the foreseeable future. We’ll have to see whether the risk of the job security of the BBC was worth the benefit.

Joining forces with Tara and Chris at the Citizen Agency

I know that many of you have been waiting with much anticipation about my next job after the BBC.

Well, I am pleased to announce that I have decided to join San Francisco based Citizen Agency – which was founded two weeks ago by Chris Messina (previously of Flock) and Tara Hunt (previously of Riya).

Citizen Agency logo

The agency is primarily a consultancy business that currently specialises in advising clients in strategies and approaches that harness the power of their grassroots userbase for the purposes of design, product development, marketing and innovation.

I am absolutely delighted to be working with Chris and Tara – two of the most talented and dynamic individuals I know in the industry.

My official title (which I got to pick, yay!) is Grassroots Architect & CTO. I will also be an equal partner in the business, which is self funded.

My new business card

Tara is renowned for her pioneering “Pinko Marketing” strategies, and Chris for his product development and design skills, and of course his interest in Open Source. I bring to the table a new dimension for the Citizen Agency with my technical and software engineering background, and my experience creating innovation platforms.

The Agency will now also be able to advise its clients on the execution of developer networks and similar strategies as grassroots channels for innovation, technical development and specialist marketing. I also will also be bolstering the Agency’s product development foundation and also advising on the technical implementation of our work.

Each of us have a proven track record at previous employers of harnessing the power of the community to mutual benefit of both the company and it’s userbase. I’m really excited at the opportunity to be combining our skills to offer a complete consultancy solution to innovative start-ups and existing leading players.

I believe the our new approach and ideas on an already established philosophy offers something unique and distinctive that will create successful outcomes for our clients.

There is also already a strong demand for our services – in the two weeks I was out in the Bay Area we signed 4 deals with three companies. Three are paying consultancy gigs and one is a co-collaboration on a startup idea with a pioneering development house. And that’s in addition to the existing work Tara and Chris already have.

And finally, the announcement that many of you who know me personally have been waiting for… Yes, I will be relocating to San Francisco – hopefully by the end of the summer. Sofia will also be coming too! In the mean time I’ll be sorting out a London-based division of the Citizen Agency.

It’s going to be sad to say goodbye to London but I’m pretty sure I’ll be back regularly to stay in touch with everyone on the London alpha geek scene!

I’ve just got back from my West Coast tour of San Francisco and Seattle (and home via LA) so I’m pretty jet lagged – but I’ll write more about the background behind my decision later today.