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Social Media Portal interview with Phil Hall from Elzware

Tim Gibbon (Social Media Portal (SMP)) - 15 April 2013

SMP Q&A with Phil Hall, founder and MD from Elzware

Profiled interview with Phil Hall, managing director from Elzware

Elzware company logoSMP: What is your name and what do you do there at Elzware?

Phil Hall (PH): I’m Phil Hall, founder and MD.  My role is to blend anthropology, engineering, design and production methodologies into a cohesive business and academic approach to Chatbots, perspectives on metrics, 21st century project delivery and the emergence of socio-cultural software. Sometimes it’s like herding cats. 

SMP: Briefly tell us about Elzware (for those that don’t know), what is it and what does the company do?

PH: Elzware was originally focussed on the space between hardware and software. It is chasing the state of mind, expressed in human to computer interactions, that will drive forwards societies ability to engage and express itself in digital space. It started putting Chatbots in virtual worlds and is coming back to the same objective now that the differentiation between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ is pretty much destroyed.

SMP: What are some of the main products and services that the company provides?

PH: The products and services that are currently important are: open source Chatbot developments for education, infotainment and socio-cultural nodes. Event, message and futurology comes as a package which could be called consultancy though that term always seems to bring along too much baggage to my mind. Movements towards multi language blended ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ A.I. socio-cultural systems, which are being termed Ext.I. (which is to break new ground) are raising a lot of interest right now in the UK and across the EU.

Elzware website homepage image

SMP: How did the name Elzware come about?

PH: The name Elzware indicates a different sense of 'being.' Originally the company was going to be called ‘Elsewhere’ but the domain had gone. Its roots are in a take on the mapping of the somnambulant sleep state to the space between humans and the Internet.

SMP: Why are Avatars a good approach for brands to connect with audiences (how may this fit into what community and social media offers)?

PH: Let’s define terms.  An Avatar is "A manifestation of a deity in bodily form on earth." It was only since the movie that the concept became widely known about. In the first Chatbot I built back in 2000 I had a thread where someone could gather this information and looking back at the logs it did freak some people out. More to the point, are Avatar fronted systems a good way for brands to engage with the general public? That comes in two guises:

(1) saving money, a self-annihilating approach and

(2) extending intelligence for 360-degree gain, which is Elzware’s primary focus for this year.

We have a paper coming out soon from one of our academic team that reports back on the use of Avatars in the build of a system to help with skills, confidence and employability. The bottom line is that people don’t want to talk with a ‘human’ face unless it is one. Research on the ‘uncanny valley’ uncovered this some many moons ago, but with the emergence of some striking avatars and blended story lines in leading edge games I think that might change in the near future.

Work we did with Bath University back many years ago was looking at autonomous Avatars with feedback loops, really early days then and to be frank the market hasn’t really moved on. The NLP marketplace in its entirety is pretty small and convoluted, from behind all of the legally defended developmental ivory towers nothing really new seems to be spilling out into actual production. Hence Elzware’s position that open source and in-house support with assistance from objective professionals is the route forwards. 

SMP: What has developed in this space (avatars, virtual world etc.,) recently, an area that many consider specialised?

PH: That’s a fair question.  The ability to create viable socio-cultural systems for communication and analysis is in no way explicit right now. If you look between the lines of the big players in the social market place right now you’ll see that that is entirely what is going down though. Shame it needs to be hidden behind IP and legal-speak, but the big players will have their bun fight and the market will move closer to non-commercial drivers I would hope.

Back to the question … new stuff … Open Source standards for NLP are emerging, as are enterprise level engines. NLP as Siri is getting people’s tolerance up though it can be tiring to keep hearing about the ‘next big thing’ call from out-of-control marketers. Watson (the enormously expensive IBM system) has been let out on a leash to some academic organisations, which is the first step in ‘hard’ A.I.  The commercial market for Chatbots to save money seems, IMHO, to be approaching stagnation as saving money cannot be the only rationale, there seems to be a consultancy gap in there. 

In Virtual Worlds we have some interesting developments.  A blending of what a ‘world’ should be and different drivers, music for example with people meeting just to dance in Second Life from wherever in the world. Games are the new worlds, handhelds, smart TVs, the route forwards is very much transmedia but again we are in baby steps mode.  3D is struggling and 4000 - 8000 approaches are going to blow the top, conceptually, off of the digital world as it moves forwards.

The notion that this is specialised is a moot point, expectations are, have always been, extremely high as to how ‘intelligent’ digital/artificial intelligence is. But the idea that one should spend as-little-time-as-possible building a communication system seems to stick in the throat and this works for Chatbots, social media and virtual spaces. Though Ananova was sold for £95m back in 2000 and it was pants. Autonomy crashed and burnt through some seemingly worrying practices. I could dig up other bad-science to give context to a potentially good-science.

Maybe along the Reeves and Nass route, book The Media Equation, the position we have taken is that we expect computers to have innate 'intelligence', which is one reason Elzware is going to try killing off the term Artificial and replacing it with Extending.  If a system isn’t useful, or art, or usefully art ;-) then why bother?

SMP: Who are your target audience and why?

PH: That’s an interesting question as the audience has changed significantly in the last couple of years.  Elzware is now focussed, as it was when it started in 2002, on socio-cultural audiences and is utilising open source as an effector of change, like Linux did on servers back many moons ago.  Elzware is as active in the academic community as business right now and there is a plan to train up local nodes as part of broader crowd development of, let’s be frank, the conversational layer that is in such early stages online right now.

While the NLP/search/advice market seems huge and controlled right now history teaches that everything changes so looking behind the personalities and functionalities you’ll find real-normal-people.  This is where Chatbots, social media and community meet up and where *the* audience that Elzware is targeting lives.

SMP: You recently attended VirComm 2013, what were your expectations and what were the most useful things you took away from the event?

PH: I’ve been involved in online community since I did an ethnography in a virtual world in 1997-98 as part of an anthropology degree at UCL. Vircomm is a special conference as it is built, run and maintained by community geeks and not commercial imperatives.  It all stems from e-mint, the community management organisation, that I was actively involved in formalising many years ago. That was what I was expecting and I was not disappointed ☺ I feel like the Internet is so real when I am sitting with a group of people that are trying to work out what work means in and on it.

My belief in the urgency of engaging with community independently of the big platforms was my big take-away, though it is always good to hook up with friends and colleagues old and new to test-the-water so to speak. Some of Elzware’s ideas have been held back for many years in anticipation of the right time, technology and desires so with that in mind I took away hope and anticipation.

SMP: You contributed to the Numbers Galore (Metrics & Analytics) Panel - what did you want the audience to take away? And were you able to do this?

PH: What I wanted to do was to take the brains of the *excellent* panel, thank you again gentlemen, and filter them through to the audience so that the messages were:

(i) the inherent beauty in analytics and

(ii) the opportunity to take control of one’s own data and use it to drive forwards their businesses

(iii) the amount of effort that it will take to realise that goal.

Right now I think there is a lot of fear in the amount of data being delivered from socio-cultural systems and a tendency to look at the lowest-common-denominator / cost solutions to gather an understanding. Data is a weapon and should be used as such.

For numbers / metrics / analytics to be an essential part of any business, that would attend Vircomm, there needs to be crystal clear objectives set and reviewed in-line with the Internet as it is currently evolving. There are only so many humans that can manage information, so the structure of it is a business imperative. Ownership and retention of business intellectual property (IP) is probably the most worrying position right now and I would hope that all of those points were effectively delivered.  Watching the electronic news since VirComm 2013 things do seem to be progressing albeit slowly.

SMP: What surprises or highlights have stayed with you from the event?

PH: Speaking as a social scientist that has been in business on the Internet for some 15 years, I was genuinely surprised how few there were in the audience. That is in some way to do with higher education in this country in my honest opinion (IMHO) which is an area Elzware is making waves in right now. Having a chance to catch two presentations from the ‘ends’ of the Internet was a highlight for me, on the one hand John Coate from The Well and on the other Robin Hamman from Edelman. The history, thanks John and how historical resonances impact, thanks Robin, on what happens next is a hugely interesting and important place for us all to be right now.

I was surprised there weren’t more senior business people in the house, it’s as if community wasn’t the most important way forwards with digital business right now.

Try this as an analogy, if the Internet was a physical space would you ignore what people thought / felt / talked about?  Would you focus on what graffiti there was (Facebook), what pub talk (Twitter) and what CCTV (Google)?  Nope, you’d find your community and deal with them as human to human ... ironically this comes from the company that focusses on the next wave of Chatbots which is essentially to construct them as humans-by-proxy. Taking a by-proxy stance is hugely useful though …

SMP: Is there a presentation (e.g. via SlideShare that you’d like to point us to) – it doesn’t have to be about the VirComm event as long as it’s relevant to the subject?

PH: Elzware’s been busy putting together a state-of-the-art view of Chatbots and connected markets over the last few months from our experiences of 40 installations over more than a decade and our exceptional collaborators at this time.

We are now working with open source software, which allows for a more ‘intelligent’ interaction, super exciting. Best thing to do is track @elzware or @philldhall for the next few months … The @phildhall profile will be more ‘ranty’ and the @elzware more ‘reasonable’ I am expecting ;-)

Photograph of Phill Hall, managing director from Elzware - Doiran Avatar imageSMP: Why do you think measurement in the community and social media arena is so challenging and what do you think can be done to rectify it?

PH: Because a viewer is trying to see a thread of pasta in a tin of spaghetti and no-one is really focussing on being explicit about what the construction of the spaghetti is... or the tin… or the ‘how to cook it’ (you get the drift).

As mentioned earlier, businesses need to think about data structures when starting a build. Relying on hard A.I. as in drawing semantics from language is prone with errors, imho. For many years I have wanted to match sarcasm and irony with ‘soft’ A.I. but really, who cares ?  It’s about usefulness and that is the driver for measurement that needs to be underlined here.

Get a professional who can disengage the business from the community and see what the actual value is.  Or of course the focus can remain on dumping copious amounts of money into the search/community structures that are commercially driven, in essence buying in to another’s business whilst distracting from your own.

OK, that was a bit ranty … but it is an interview and I’m allowed :-D

SMP: What are the low moments of what you have been doing so far (in regards to Elzware)?

PH: Technology failures, blowing people’s heads up trying to get them to think of information in 3D, loss of a significant layer of educational ICT support as part of the austerity measures bought on by the financial system, people playing politics when they should have been structuring information … realising that personally I’d moved professionally far enough away from the *build*in*context* that Elzware had dropped its initial vision.

Elzware is long-in-the-tooth though with experience from mainframe days and interactive authors to bleeding edge now-ness, so we are resilient and cognisant that black squares and white squares are the floor of the natural order of things.

SMP: What are the high moments of what you have been doing so far (in regards to Elzware)?

PH: More high moments than low it is fair to say!!  I’ve seen people complaining about an interaction with a ‘human’ to find out it was a Chatbot and then to be super impressed. I’ve seen secondary school children enthralled and teachers released to work at a higher level. Seeing this market begin to evolve and come to this current - crisis is too strong a word - crossroads in line with the data-pictures I have been painting is a real high. The next 10 years are in many ways going to be the most interesting, IMHO, so more highs to come - particularly with Elzware in its re-configured state.

SMP: Are community management and social media professionals different (and if so / or not) how can they work together?

PH: I love this question as it is midway balanced between a PhD to be written (maybe there is one already, I’d love to know if that is so) and the organisational chart of any given company. This relates, of course, to office politics often driving business units and professional/personal reasons for one ‘thing’ winning over another ‘thing.’

Speaking as an anthropologist in the field I would have to say that for me Social Media professionals are technicians to Community *Management* ... If the business view is that social media is an end in and of itself, then technicians are enough. Personally I think that is a ludicrous position to take and lock businesses in to technology not society or culture or even reasonable profits. To be concise, the two professions are two sides of the same coin.

The juice is in socio-cultural facet of any give business, don’t forget that, IMHO, we are doing old things in new ways. Not new things as I saw on some companies website recently.

SMP: There seemed to be a little vibe of old school community management versus social media at VirComm (some of that sentiment found its way onto a blog, then within the e-mint forum) – why do think this is?

PH: I think I nailed this question in the response above.  Just to add some additional context I think people are sensing a return of the Internet to the early days, without the anonymity of course, where it was an extension of the-real. Balanced by that, explicitly or implicitly, I think people are beginning to recognise that the filter bubble, Eli Pariser’s position, is scary, but can be taken control of.  This brings me back to the key point above:

Is it the tech of the Internet that is driving digital culture, or are we still in the early days of, say the industrial revolution, where power is still in the hearts and minds of people.  The main reason for that old vibe coming up from VirComm is because people *care* about what is going to happen, it is more than a job for the vast majority.

SMP: How and why do you the role of community management has changed and how may it evolve over the next five years?

PH: I think you’d be better served talking with folks like Dominic from Tempero or Tamara from eModeration on this point. I’d drive it down a thread of digital presence, the 21st Century hardware ramp (relevant to non-digital of course), potential for machine translation to blend EU borders and about the confusion of search/sense and advice.

Maybe I’ll pull this question out and take a run at on a different feed some time.

SMP: What would be your advice for someone entering the community management and / or social media industry as a career?

PH: My advice would be, after a hearty welcome to the most interesting and socio-culturally relevant area of our digitised world right now, to take the following mental stance.

Take Robert Heinlein’s fair witness mindset, with a view of statistics from Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy tempered by a micro-political reading of people in the fashion of Game of Thrones.  That will be your working career area as technologies and portals will come and go and you’ll need to have a strong baseline to see the useful from the useless or asset stripping solutions that will bubble up over the coming year. As someone said recently if you aren’t paying for a product – you are the product.

If that person’s blood was not rising up thinking about how these three facets impact on a job, then they should not get a job in this field!!  Harsh but fair I would hope, though I do tend to call a plank a plank whenever possible.

SMP: What sort of skills and background might you expect them to have?

PH: Easy, a renaissance person – social science, languages as linguistics, culture lover, geek/nerd, an entertainer, a three dimensional thinker (yep, that isn’t just for ChatBot builders you know), engineer, pragmatist or magician.

SMP: What do you see as your biggest challenges and opportunities for agencies and brands in the community arena (and dare we say social media arenas)?

PH: Delivering a community that is relevant to people across all demographics and not just focussing on the latest app or potential IPO to tie ones technical approach to. In the broader blue chip marketplace the C level roles are being reworked in a way that, imho, is media driven, not culturally driven. I would suggest that a more effective route forwards it to reach in to the young resources that we have in the UK and more broadly across the EU and generate real Internet culture, not piggyback more broadly in the world.

One specific technological advance is the voice interaction marketplace, which is beginning to open up in the mobile world but will likely really take a hold in the smart TV and sofa to create a new product/service arena. This is a micro to macro equation that will generate even more data, which will need to be sieved, fettled and presented from the chat-line to product or service delivery. A perfect caduceus for the 21st Century if you will.

One of my experiences over many years is that there is a disconnect between marketing and R&D and that glue must, imho, be the community and/or social media arenas that are existent at this time. It’s a bit like picking a method of divination … up to a point all roads lead to the same objective, what needs to happen is for the system to be accepted on a personal/human level for it to really work in business.

Take a parallel business, security, the weak spot is always the human, not the technology. Turn it upside down and that is the big challenge/opportunity for agencies and brands over the coming years.

SMP: What’s the next big step for social media / networks and what impact may this have in what agencies and brands do (and in turn the services that Elzware provides)?

PH: I just touched on this point above, the view from the sofa is the big one for me. For Elzware this is about taking the Ext.I. view of information exchange and ensuring that, with due respect to privacy and ethics, the right information *and options* are being presented to the user at any given point in time. For some time now Elzware’s punchline has been about structuring the information layer and keeping the human in the loop, this is going to be more explicit and evident in the messages that Elzware presents to the world this year and in the projects that it will get involved in.

SMP: What’s going to be the most interesting aspect regarding community management, social media / technology for the next 12 to 18-months?

PH: For me personally the IP war between the EU and the US and watching how the big players continue to try and milk information from information interactions for commercial gain. I am in anticipation of a regionalisation of these arenas, maybe mirroring the position of MTV many years ago. I would like to think that the position of culture and commerce then being proactive rather than passive will bring some enormous changes to global macro-economic structures IF, and it is a big if, the notion of a manufacturing base can be represented and knitted together with machine translation in line with the ‘creative industries’ sector..

SMP: What are your top five predictions for social media for the next 12 to 18-months?

PH replies with:

  • People will recognise that abuses of privacy are not mandatory to the utilisation of technology platforms on business and personal levels. The emergence of a viable non-commercial set of alternatives through crowd funding will continue to gain speed.

  • Semantic search will continue to evolve and the folding of this in to the filter bubble will start creating tribes of information users. I doubt this will last long, online culture will win out, but will influence further Internet development so needs to be carefully tracked.

  • I am expecting that the social media providers will continue to try and work out how to make money out of what in Internet terms is fresh air. How these ‘stick’ will inform how much control traditional media providers, and politicians, will lose in the short to medium term.

  • The notion of Extending Intelligence, rather than Artificial Intelligence, will gain some kudos allowing for the Singularity and General A.I. communities to disengage from society and culture to chase the blue sky.

  • Coming in from the ‘cold’ will be the elder generation … some of whom are digital enough to know what they want in this world.  The notion of a ‘digital native’ will be buried at last and effective/useful communities will continue to gain ground using methods and techniques that are still in their infancy.

SMP: What are your top five community and/or social media tips for agencies or brands?

PH replies with:

  • Don’t tip money down the drain playing in someone else’s garden. Think about the value in the ‘badge’ that you are talking people into acquiring and its relevance to your local, regional and global audience in appropriate measure.

  • Remember that while you, or your agencies account handler, are the best people knowing the most about your company you are the worst person to be objective. Get external information and social scientist to feedback, thus informing your data strategy more broadly and in context.

  • Build with a mind to IPv6. Anonymity is dead but responsibility is yet to be born.

  • Don’t get involved in the social media vs. community manager fight. Within any given organisation one or other of these will be ‘winning’ just focus on the outcomes. 

  • Be wary of ‘hard’ A.I. solutions to human problems, check in with your local academic institutions but get someone who can translate when you do and remember to stress test any systems that you do buy in to.

  • Maybe the most obvious tip of all … people buy / love / like / hate and become addicted to people when the hardware is ignored. Make sure you always have the right person for the job with the correct support right up to senior management.

SMP: Best way to contact you and Elzware?

PH: Let’s keep the conversation simple and drop it into Twitter and email.

Anything pithy and more personal, drop to @phildhall
Anything pithy and business like, drop to @elzware
Anything complex or requiring higher levels of thought you can go to phil.hall @ or pick up the phone on +44 (0)7932 05630

SMP: Is there a video (your best one) that you’d like to point us to (this way we can embed that in the interview)?

PH: You will have noticed that my Avatar/image is digitised … this speaks for the shy retiring Phil Hall and his desire to stay out of the limelight and build things that speak for him.  Might be good to drop my image in here to prove the point ;-)

Now some questions for fun

SMP: What did you have for breakfast / lunch?

PH: Sarnies, hand cooked chicken fragments, homemade sweet pickle and baby plum cherry toms.

SMP: What’s the last good thing that you did for someone?

PH: I made my wife’s porridge this morning.

SMP: If you weren’t running or working at Elzware what would you be doing?

PH: Making furniture out of English hardwood to arts and crafts style with a bit of art nouveau thrown in for good measure.

SMP: When and where did you go on your last holiday?

PH: Just west of Lisbon some time last year  (too long ago!!) in a cool little apartment off of

SMP: What’s one of the best communities that you’ve seen and why?

PH: I still hold Meridan 59 to my heart on the basis that it was so new (16 years ago) and it was filled with people that felt like pioneers. All over 28.8 modems … Hopefully Bethesda Game Studios will MMORPG Skyrim some time, I’d love to see how that picked up speed in today’s feed and hardware.

SMP: What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office of a morning?

PH: Find some trance music, might be dance or opera, classical or alternative, on Spotify and then dive in to the Internet.

SMP: If you had a superpower what would it be and why?

PH: I’d be able to concentrate on three different things in three different places at the same time; life is too short when it is full of such interesting things going on.

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