Saturday, December 30

Sorry there weren't any updates yesterday - I was busy working away on a new subsidiary project of GenMars, called GenMarsWrite, based on my petition idea from before. Surprisingly, I received a fair bit of support for the idea on the Mars Society Youth list so I decided it was worth developing relatively quickly.

Putting something like GenMarsWrite into practice isn't a difficult thing if you don't get caught up in the ever-present trap of overdesigning the website. Instead of developing a whole new set of graphics and layout, I decided to keep the website clean and simple; this not only saves me time but also saves the reader time.

In the same way, the actual petition form was easy to design and I've tried to make it as simple as possible for potential signees - you only have to fill in the fields marked out in bold, for example. I'm very surprised at the time it took me to put the site together - longer yet also shorter than I expected. This is simply because I'm using a basic form for people to submit their information and emailing it to my address.

Clearly this will have to be changed in the future because it's needlessly time-consuming. What would be ideal is for the form to automatically publish the information in HTML format to another page (which would be changed manually to weed out any unsavoury entries). I've established a stop-gap solution where the email form has an HTML template that means that I can just cut and paste the raw HTML... but it's not nice. Couple that with the fact that sooner or later I'm going to want to analyse all the demographic data and that we'll need to publish the info in two ways, it'd be best to sort out all of that from the start.

FYI, the engine behind the site is in ASP in case anyone wants to help. However, it's probably not necessary since the guy who provides our webhosting, Ken Strayer of Strayernet, is a dab hand at ASP so he'll be able to help out in the New Year.

I have a horrible suspicion that GenMarsWrite might turn out to be more popular and newsworthy than the actual GenMars competition even though it'll take less than 1% of the time to set up, but in this case the aphorism could be true - the simplest ideas are the best.

5:19 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, December 28

What do you guys think of the new design? Anything I should change? That discuss link isn't just for decoration, you know.

10:56 PM | permalink | discuss

I was rudely woken up at 9:30 in the morning today by a phone call.

"Hey man, change of plan, we're going sledging at Royden Park today!"
"What're you talking about? Doesn't that kind of thing require snow, which we don't actually have?"
"Have you looked outside?"

And to my utmost joy, I saw the entire place covered with about 3 inches of snow, the sort of thing that only happens every few years where I live. Within a short time, I'd kitted myself up for a full snowball-war, and a good job too, considering the amount of hi-jinks that go on during the snowball fights I go to. They tend to get a little... physical.

However, it was all in good fun, and finally tired out we tramped off to the nearby pub for lunch. After spending roughly 20 minutes choosing what we wanted to eat, we ended up missing last lunch-orders by one minute. Not only did we miss lunch at the pub, but I also had to walk home. This didn't turn out to be such a bad thing as I discovered a shortcut and spent a few minutes watching the ducks at a farm along the way bemusedly slide along the frozen-over ponds.

I also managed to get a good appreciation of the incredible weather we were having. Such a good appreciation that as soon as I got back home, I picked up my camera and went out again (if I took my camera to the snowball fight, its chances of survival would've been laughable). Some of the photos I took are online.

10:32 PM | permalink | discuss

There's a new essay I've written that I've just put online called The Problem with Online Petitions, and the Martian Way

10:54 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, December 26

Music isn't quite what it used to be like.

That's what was running through my head as I mentally composed the lyrics of a song based on the famous Toy Story 'You've got a friend in me.'

(Digression: It's called 'You're coming to Mars with me'. I honestly, truthfully, intend to sing this in front of a large audience at the next Mars Society Convention - or whenever a suitable opportunity presents itself - to the accompaniment of old-style big-band, while wearing a dinner jacket and preferably top-hat and shiny cane.)

After all, there I was, watching MTV today when Shania Twain came on and I didn't have the energy to change the channel. There were huge pyrotechnics, awful amounts of synth sounds and shaded men prancing about with drums, and I thought,

"Doesn't much sound like country music to me."

That's not to say that I'm completely living in the past. A few minutes later was a snippet of Britney Spears on the MTV Music Awards, and her song was so heavily mixed and synthed that you could hardly hear the recorded music that her lips were moving along to! The more cynical of you will say that that's the entire point of it, but I hung my head in sorrow, pitying Ms. Spears, who has evidently descended into an even lower state of musical 'talent' than we'd ever hoped against.

8:34 PM | permalink | discuss

Santa Claus (or Sinter Klaas, for that matter) is a Macroscopic Quantum Object - so he must exist!

Happy Christmas, and I hope that all of you living in North America were able to see the partial solar eclipse.

12:18 AM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, December 24

My thoughts on my TED11 presentation are finally beginning to crystallise into a few different, but related, forms.

A friend I've been talking to over the Internet about virtual communities remarked to me that it's time, not money, that's desperately important for the development of any online-based project. I'd tend to agree, not just because of the pithy aphorism 'time is money,' but because I've seen it happen time and time again from my own experience. Generation Mars, although it's getting slightly more money than it had before (i.e. more than nothing) requires time first, then money. We've saved the equivalent of thousands if not more simply by spending our own time. Of course, clearly there comes a point when you require some money.

There's another project out there, called Nation1. I've talked about it before here. Nation1 is a truly ambitious project which would create a metanation of youth across the world, and it has a lot of support both from volunteers and from the corporate world, and with this monumental support, it has achieved... nothing in the last two years. The principal organisers have spent their time flying from international conference to international conference trying to drum up support, sponsorship and funding, and so haven't had time to do anything else.

This is wrong.

For something like Nation1, you need even less money than Generation Mars requires (I mean, we need money for prizes, at least). But Nation1 is done completely online. With a little work, they could get free web hosting, free servers. The only thing that remains is the programming, content, design and admin side of it. None of that requires any money, but it requires time, and a lot of it from a lot of people. There are highly talented programmers, designers and authors out there on the Internet, and thousands of them are teenagers. Nation1 would be better served by mobilising this resource rather than chasing funding for ever and on. If kids want to be taken seriously, they should prove their worth rather than getting their money from adults, paying adults to develop their community and then simply living on top of that.

I spoke to someone who'd made an extensive design document and technical manual for Nation1 which was clearly structured for volunteer teenagers to do the work, not hired adults. As it turned out, he'd left the project six months ago since he felt that they weren't getting anything done.

If anything, it's horribly difficult to organise and mobilise a diverse range of teenagers across the world to do anything productive. But that is what is required for something like this, and for what Generation Mars will ultimately become. So what do you need to have?

o Common purpose
o Common drive
o An flexible structure that allows for latitude in individual volunteers and projects
o An understanding of exactly who is doing what

Easier said than done, but from my research into online communities, it's been widely noticed that teenagers (and especially younger teenagers) have less difficulty working out these four points than adults - that is, there are no flame wars and people departing in a huff. Does that tell us something about how online communities work?

Okay. So why do we need communities for the youth, and why aren't there any yet?

Everyone knows the common saying, 'On the Internet, no-one knows you are a dog.' Well, on the Internet, no-one knows your age. A huge proportion of the talented teenagers on the Internet are understandably wary of revealing their ages to communities on the Internet because they know of the conscious or unconscious prejudice that will result from their adult peers. This is to be expected, respectively from human nature and from the anonymity of the Internet, but it doesn't have to stay true. These hidden youngsters are perfectly happy in the adult communities, but they're cut off from people their own age.

The problem is, even if they wanted to contact people their own age, they wouldn't be able to. It's just too damn difficult to find them, and I speak from experience. Aside from the informal 'yoof' messageboards that are really no more than lamp-posts for strutting online teenagers to urinate against, proper youth-centred communities are few and far between.

But what about my first question? What's the point of a youth community?

My answer is - why do we need a point? Why do we need a specific answer? A good youth community will have different goals depending on its nature. Some could be support networks for stressed teenagers. Some could be proactive, for a real-world cause (like GenMars). Others could be educational. Yet none of these exist yet. And why not?

Time. The Internet only grew up properly over the last six or seven years, and I've been growing up alongside it, exploring it, learning it, as have my peers. It's only now that the youth has learned the skills and the knowledge to self-assemble into a community that can go on to do great things. But again, the first barrier is time. Every community requires a huge investment in time from all its constituents. Nothing comes for free.

There is no such thing as a 'youth demographicí whose only use is for marketing data. The youth on the Internet - and in a way, everyone on the Internet - represents an unimaginably vast yet disorganised sea of talent, ideas, time and work. Despite claims that the Internet brings people together, it still doesn't do it well enough, and if they are together, they don't do enough.

The next stage for the maturation of the Internet will be for volunteer groups - not companies - to self-organise and pro-actively achieve real, tangible things in the world, and this next stage will fittingly come from the youth. I should also stress that there need be no supervision or guidance from teachers or adults for the first true pro-active youth community groups to organise; the more perceptive of you will know that this is completely counterproductive. If we want advice, we will ask for it.

When, years ago, I first volunteered to online organisations on the Internet and asked what I could do to help, they were at a complete loss. Not only was I a volunteer, but I was also young. For all the time Iíve been in school, if Iíve wanted to do something productive, Iíve had to have someone tell me what to do, or even worse, Iíve been made to waste my time in the Combined Cadet Force, in Young Enterprise and those people in Community Service. All because we're not old enough, or bright enough, to know what's best for ourselves.

People talk about virtual communities all the time on the Internet, but they don't talk about the youth. The development of youth-run online communities is about control, and about choice. The youth has the drive, the enthusiasm and most importantly, the naivety to believe that this can be achieved.

5:19 PM | permalink | discuss