SMXQ: Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is one of the writers for Technology Voice. Prior to that he spent a great many years working as a cameraperson/producer specialising in geopolitics. Although, now ‘off the road’ to all intents and purposes he still retains his strong curiosity about how the world really works.

1. Could you tell us about your background (where you’re from, what you’ve done?)

Originally from London, but have travelled so much over the years that it has hard to say where home is. Open to offers.

One of the big similarities between covering international stories and writing and sometimes making videos about the technologies and innovations that are changing our lives is the need to derive sense and meaning out of what seems chaotic, random and sometimes obscure. The means are different but the objective is the same; helping people make sense of the world around them.

2. What was your route into social media?

Largely by seeing people I know getting involved, and after some initial bemusement, signing up with the various services and becoming active too. I was never a great participant until Flipboard came along. The way it breaks out and presents the links contained in people’s tweets and status updates as well as the initial posts themselves is a wonder. It has made the streams I have selected far more accessible for me. It also gets past the problem of poorly formed posts obscuring interesting links. But mainly its a joy to interact with.

3. Tell us a little bit (if you can) about what you’re interested in or working on right now.

As our tagline ‘Navigating New Horizons’ makes clear we look a little way down the line and see what’s coming up. The work going on with the Federated Space is going to be very important. Facebook is growing at an enormous rate but the internet itself is far bigger and growing even faster. If you were to do a thought experiment and stand at the internet and look back at Facebook it would appear to be receding. The idea that any walled-garden model for operating on the internet is workable over the long term is at best self-constraining and at worst suicidal.

Semantic Web technologies are another big change factor for the future. As people catch on to what it can do the greater its rate of implementation will be. But it won’t evolve at a uniform rate. Some Semantic Web technologies will be cherry-picked and others neglected in a relative sense.

4. What social media services do you use regularly and why?

I used to use Twitter for news but it is not as fully dimensional as I would like. If you relied on it for information about the world you would miss out on a lot.

Where Twitter really works is when people are on the ground witnessing events and sending out real-time texts. On Twitter it requires the physical presence of observers to make the news come alive and have meaning. The coverage of the #scienceisvital march in London recently was Twitter being used at its very best. Lots of accounts from real people at an ongoing event. It was fascinating to observe how so many people recounted so many different aspects of the same event even though at times they could have well been standing beside each other. There is nothing like that sort of coverage anywhere else in the media and it makes Twitter truly unique.

On the other hand when eye witness accounts are harder to come by like at the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. By the very nature the story was mostly inaccessible to ordinary people and in that particular case Twitter as a coverage tool was wholly inadequate.

I hang out on Tumblr You’re all invited to join me. My sort of vibe. I am very fond of Tracked.com. They handle information really well. Facebook is OK but I can’t say I love it.

5. If you could only keep one service or tool, what would it be, and why have you chosen it?

Flipboard, without a doubt. It makes viewing and handling the various streams easy and fun. There is always the design versus engineering argument going on in geekdom and engineering as a whole. But I think it is a ridiculous division. Of course things have to work but it is also important that things are beautiful to use. One idea doesn’t have to prevail at the cost of the other. The iphone is probably the classic example of the bringing of these two ideas together. Likewise with Flipboard. It makes a dull list containing text, a link and an avatar into something beautiful and much better to use.

6. Including your own area of expertise, what developments in social media do you think are particularly important?

I think the increasing adoption of Linked Data is going to bring significant changes. I think we have hit the limit of search capabilities – it is actually getting harder to find things on google now, IMHO. There is a desperate need for finding better information more quickly simply because there is so much more data out there. We now have to find things in a meaningful and more useful way – and a lot quicker. I also think data mapping technologies and infographics will become deeply important. Again, because there is so much data out there that needs to be made sense of.

7. What can you do now that you couldn’t do before the arrival of social media?

Talk, write to and chat regularly with people I could not have possibly met in any other way and in greater numbers. My previous work entailed that I got to meet a lot of different people but staying in touch was hard. Now I can keep track of even casual acquaintances whereas before they would have disappeared from view in a very short time. I still have my handful of close friends, but I certainly have a more widely-varied and diverse set of acquaintances now.

8. What issues, either technical or social, do you see with social media?

I think that very shortly we will have a whole generation of people coming into the job market who have always had the internet and have spent their formative teenage years almost entirely in the social media space. If employers think they can keep talent on the payroll and not allow them to have access to the their social media functions, they may find themselves either losing out or having to change. The age of the cubicle farm may be coming to an end and not a moment too soon.

I think the other issue which we have to constantly handle at Technology Voice is managing the nature of our outreach. With each passing day we acquire more evidence and more direct experience that shows us that every tweet and every status update actually matters. This is a counter-intuitive notion as looking at the content of Social Media services from a distiance it all appears to be indistinguishable noise. But as we have learned, quite brutally, there are only three kinds of updates:

  • Authentic tweets
  • Genuine notifications to make sure that someone gets a message you know for sure would be vital or of great interest to them
  • Spam

Despite the huge amount of updates that are flying around it is the personal communications that really count. Objects can be mass produced and commoditized but relationships cannnot. They need time and effort. We know this from our daily lives and the exact same thing applies online. There are no shortcuts.

9. What one piece of advice would you give to someone entering the social media world?

Don’t rush, it’s not going to disappear. Learn some netiquette and then join in as much as possible. Without engagement, social media is meaningless. It’s like turning up to a party full of wall-flowers. Odd, unproductive and missing the point.

10. How do you see social media helping and improving things for us in the future?

Largely by reducing the geographical barriers that prevent like-minded people from sharing new and old ideas and allow the cross-fertilisation needed to create new possibilities and wonders.

Social media is not a technology, but a result of what technology makes possible. As the technology changes and develops so will the opportunities for engagement and there is a lot of fun in finding out how that is going to turn out.

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