Hard News by Russell Brown


#NetHui: it's all about you

When I had a brief conversation with Professor Lawrence Lessig on Thursday, I was able to tell him that he had played a singular role in the history of Public Address System. He was indirectly responsible for The Great Copyright Thread of Doom, all 89 pages, 2202 comments and dozen or so separate flame wars of it.

That thread began with Matthew Poole's report on Professor Lessig's first address in New Zealand, 2008's Keeping Culture Free. Matthew declared that:

As a speaker, he was superb. He was witty, and made spectacular use of PowerPoint. Note to presenters: less is more. Few of his slides had more than five words, many only one or two. He spoke to the slides, he didn’t speak the slides.

I can in turn report that Lessig's keynote address at NetHui on Friday was roughly twice as good. We had heard most of the rhetoric from him before in 2008, but his NetHui presentation had clearly been designed for the audience in the room. It was, indeed, addressed directly to us.

"We need you to resist our corruption," he enjoined at one point of a speech that frequently dwelt on the lobbyist-ridden state of US politics and the comparatively "high-functioning democracy" we enjoy here. When he praised our government for identifying and addressing problems through the 2006 telecommunications reforms, their author, David Cunliffe MP, positively beamed.

You can see video of the speech, or download it as a 248MB MP4 file, here. (Unfortunately, there was a technical problem, they had to go to backups, and the version there at the moment has an unfortunate hum and hiss. I'm sure someone will be able to EQ that out. Consider it a derivative work.)

The politicians themselves were a fascinating presence. Steven Joyce opened Thursday with a horrible, listless, patronising speech. Bill English closed the day by delivering a pitch-perfect example of the message a centre-right minister should be offering to a NetHui crowd: all open data and crowdsourcing and we-need-your-help.

I thought it was telling that when I tasked English with a point earlier raised by Scoop's Alastair Thompson, English undertook to look into it. Earlier in the day, Joyce had responded to Alastair's question by rudely dismissing it.

(My question was roughly this: "The point has been made that there are important reports into the competition effects of Telecom's separation, especially with respect to where the Southern Cross asset ends up, that have not been made public. The Commerce Commission doesn't get to see them either, and the net effect seems to be that Minister Joyce makes that decision in a black box. You've talked about 'turning government inside out' and letting us all have a hack at the data -- wouldn't this be a good place to start?" It's relevant because it's looking like Southern Cross might go with Telecom Retail, which would seem to give Telecom a special advantage in the retail UFB market.)

Cunliffe, tasked with filling 10 minutes between Lessig and a documentary screening, was brisk and relevant in the time he had. Chris Finlayson, who shared a panel with Lessig and others, seemed distracted and unengaged (indeed, he told another panellist that he thought all this copyright stuff had gone away and he was surprised it was still an issue). Clare Curran worked the conference floor and the Greens' Gareth Hughes popped up everywhere as the only MP to attend all three days of the conference. Nikki Kaye, on a governance panel on the last day, had more of use to say than I had expected.

I also had a lash myself, in Luke Goode's forum on "civic engagement" on the Thursday. I rather wish I could have another crack at it. This was my slide:


- Is, on average, highly paid and highly educated. (43% >$100,000 annual household income)

- 89.5% bank online (8th highest in Nielsen tables)

- More likely to be "high internet users" (20+ hours/week) than any other site in NZ (39.2%)

- More likely to be active contributors to blog comments and online forums (56.4%)

- Spend longer on the page than readers of any other site.

- Is a terrible audience for performance- based advertising. They just don't click!

- Is highly responsive to targeted advertising. The highest click-through this year is for an ad that reads "We love Public Address" (for a design firm).

- They self-organise and form offline relationships.

- And all without a Facebook page!

All of which is true, but it sounds a bit like an advertising pitch; a brag about how clever and influential you all are. I did talk a bit about anonymity versus real names, and the crucial importance of having a "warm body" present and actively moderating and contributing, which can be emotionally taxing (by contrast, The Standard's Lyn Prentice declared moderation an "easy" job that took him a mere 30 minutes after work each day). I quoted, as always, Gordon Dryden's edict to his talkback listeners: "Don't give me your opinion -- give me your experience."

But I might have pointed out that the place works as much through people's frailty and generosity as their fancy degrees and comfortable incomes (and no, not everyone who contributes valuably here has either of those). I can't believe I didn't find time to make more of how active and comfortable women are in these forums, and what a useful influence that is. It struck me afterwards that our offering of non-HTML wiki-codes makes it easy for non-technical people to make hyperlinks, and thus summon evidence to their arguments.

And I really ought have noted the work that Graeme Edgeler is doing in engaging people with the forthcoming referendum on electoral systems. (More on that soon.)

But … oh well. NetHui itself was a remarkable achievement for Internet NZ, and the 500 or so people who attended found something quite strongly influenced by the "unconference" culture that has developed these past few years in the New Zealand internet sector. It was strongly participatory. I think that next year's needs to make the final day less of a rehash of the first two, and that a stronger presence from the creative arts community next year is a given.

One thing that struck me -- and Lessig was right on point here -- was the occasional clash between the internet community's libertarian bent and the deep belief in civil society held by many Internet NZ veterans. The latter view was more convincing, and it's worthwhile understanding that.


You can see the Media7 special recorded on the Wednesday evening here.


And I also got all excited and announced The Orcon Great Blend in Association with Mixandmash. It's at the Auckland Town Hall on Thursday, August 4, and will serve as the launch of Digital NZ's Mixandmash 2011. (I was asked to make Hard News text available for mashing, which I'm bloody delighted to do.) There will also be pieces by Emma Hart and David Haywood, a Shayne Carter DJ set later in the evening, and audio-visual works themed on the February earthquake in Christchurch by Stanier Black-Five and Blair Parkes. I'll officially announce it later this week, once we have the wording of everything settled and the RSVP forms set up.


And one more thing … I have one double pass each to The Adults' shows in  Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. They are as follows:

Auckland, this Saturday July 16th - The Bacco Room, Nelson St.

Wellington, Sunday July 24th  - The Garden Club

Christchurch, Saturday July 30th - Rangiora Town Hall

Just email with The Adults [desired city] in the subject line and I'll draw them later today. The Auckland shows are nearly sold out.

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