Interview – Mat Brown
Mat Brown is the founder of MoblogUK, one of the internet’s major picture blogging websites. A keen mind and sharp sense of humor come directly from Mat to envelop his site, giving it a sense of community and spirit. Thanmkfully, he was willing to sit and talk to us a while.
2HC: Name, Occupation and favorite screen resolution:
MB:Mat Brown, freelance web developer
2HC: How would you describe MoblogUK and mobile blogging in general to an outside who had never heard of either?
MB: A non-techie colleague of mine said – “it’s just a bunch of geeks messing about with camera phones”
Which I think is fairly accurate. There’s lots of crap to be said about immediacy, world-wide presence, dynamically re-imagining our relationship with our surroundings and our fellow man as we increasingly watch the world through a lens and, through the medium of the moblog, the world watches us back.. We make the world a smaller place through the internet, and simultaneously a bigger place by opening many and varied windows onto our individual worlds through our cameras – yet we all see what each moblogger sees, we all share and co-create a bigger and deeper picture than we can each create alone.
But really, it’s something to do with your camera phone, it’s blogging for people who are too lazy to type (I never update my text blog, so I needed something lower maintenance).
2HC: Do you really find moblogging lower maintenance, what with finding the right picutre? How do you decide what to upload and share with others, is there a process?
MB: Photos remind me of places and things and events much more effectively than writing about them, and I am increasingly averse to typing large reams of prose due both to RSI and plain old laziness – if I can save even 100 words by using a picture, I’ll do that almost every time. The fact that people are watching doesn’t often occur to me – it’s more than cool, it’s nice to hear what people think of my pictures, and it’s a great community that’s developed. But my moblog really came about because I’m lazy with writing, so there isn’t much in way of a process, things tend to just happen and either get moblogged or not, depending on whether I’ve managed to get a half-decent photo.
2HC: Outside of mobile blogging are you interested in photography?
MB: Yes, very much so, it’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember – I think I developed my first film aged eight or nine, I’ve still got the prints somewhere. It’s the only way I can remember anything for more than six months or so. Over the last few years I have, entirely by accident, acquired a medium sized collection of vintage Russian cameras, all from my love of my Lomo LC-A (see: lomography.com). A cupboard turned into a darkroom and falling film prices mean it’s the perfect time for me to get away from digital photography and back into using old Russian steel rangefinders and home-made pinhole cameras.
2HC: Why did you start moblogUK?
*MB: *I had a phone with a camera in, that was internet capable – it seemed like the obvious thing to do. The existing services at the time were either still in testing or not really to my tastes, so I wrote a fairly clunky system that successfully took my photos onto the web. It didn’t really work too well, and I didn’t use it much. MoblogUK nearly got shelved right there, until I got talking to Alfie on another messageboard about making something a bit bigger, and he encouraged me to get off my arse and sort it out. 15ish months later and here we are.
2HC: Did you expect, when you started the site, to have users from all over the world begin to use it?
*MB: *Hah! Yes. I thought this might come up. MoblogUK was, in many ways, a bad choice of name from the start – before we were out of beta testing we had more non-uk users than not. We wanted moblog.com, but Microsoft had bought it mere weeks before I tried, and there were rumours they had something coming up (presumably named ‘moblog’) so we took the UK option – partly for the hope of some free pr when they did a mikerowesoft.com on us, which they have yet to do. After asking our international users what they thought about dropping the ‘uk’, they preferred to keep things as they are.
2HC: How many users does MoblogUK have currently and roughly how fast is it growing?
*MB: *A shade over 2000. There’s usually a few signups every day, and web traffic goes up by around 10% a month, as it has done fairly consistently since launch. After getting mentioned on boingboing.net or somesuch, there’s usually a big spike in traffic and signups (hopefully after this is published as well!). We don’t have as many users as some of the other moblogging sites out there, but the people we do have are awesome. Quality rather than quantity, that’s what I say.
2HC: What is the system running off of – in terms of hardware and how much disk space does it use?
*MB: *It’s a dual P4 2.3Ghz, 512Mb RAM, running Fedora Linux Core 2. Http is handled via Apache, PHP does the scripting magic and MySQL holds up the database side of things. The site is roughly 2.5Gb on the filesystem right now, but growing daily.
2HC: As a user of the system I like the ‘UK’ myself, but do you think it brings something – some sort of inherent Britishness to the site that would be different if American run?
*MB: *I’m glad you think so. The idea of there being something indefinably British about the site is a nice one, and I think it holds – I’m not sure how it’s happened, but I’m glad it has. I’d never want anyone to think they weren’t welcome on the site because they were from outside the UK, but if nothing else, it’s a nice change to have a genuinely international site (we have users from all major continents) that runs on GMT.
As to whether it would be run differently in the US – hard to say. I think it would be more overtly business-y, but then the big US moblog sites are all fairly big business ventures, I’m just trying to pay my rent right now.
2HC: Where do you see the future of picture-sharing blogs such as MoblogUK going and what other forms of communication do you think it could spawn?
*MB: *Ooh, goodness. There’s a question. I’ve got lots of plans to expand the site’s functionality, but they’re mostly just cosmetic goodies that will enhance people’s day-to-day experience. I think for now, we’re looking at more of everything, more people doing it and ever improving technology behind the handsets. I don’t think moblogging is going to be some massive cultural revolution – after all, people have always taken pictures and found ways to show them to each other, it’s just got a lot easier in the last two years. I think we’ll see more people wondering what exactly they’re supposed to do with this camera in their phone and perhaps trying moblogging. Once you start, it’s quite hard to stop..
2HC: Are there plans to make MoblogUK browsable by phone, so it becomes a truly mobile mobile blogging tool?
*MB: *The new wap pages are in development/beta testing right now, check them out at http://moblog.co.uk/wap/
2HC: Is Moblogging a possible journalistic and/or literary tool for the future?
MB: Quite possibly – I think blueherenow.com are doing things in the journalism direction, which I think is very interesting – if something happens, and someone is there with a camera or video phone, that news can be out in seconds, which can only be a good thing for freedom and transparency of news reporting. An example might be a politician making a rather bad mess of handling a question on a walkabout, or police beating up protesters – anything that might ordinarily be suppressed can be immediately published worldwide, with a couple of keypresses. It’s happened a few times on the site: several mobloggers reported this jet pilot performing ‘maneuvers’ over the city hours before any other news outlet had reported anything (http://moblog.co.uk/view.php?id=2122).
Photos from sporting events and gigs often show up while the event is still happening, which is pretty on-the-ball reporting if you ask me.
As for literary tools, I see no reason why not – it’s just the kind of thing that I’d expect to see turn up on the site, people are still surprising me with the cool things they’re doing with the system, things I never imagined when I was writing it. I have a spare time (what spare time?) interest in Alternate Reality Gaming (see argn.com, ref: ilovebees.com), and it has occurred to me that a moblog could be an excellent mechanism to run part of a game through.
2HC: Given a look at Live Journal and Brad Fitz, is that a model you are interested in following, and if so do you have plans to?
*MB: *I like LJ, in theory. In practice, it’s a text blog (that I’d never remember to update) and I’m more likely to write my own if I did want one. It works very nicely for what it does, and if I knew more about the model behind it, I’d probably be able to answer this question better. I certainly plan to adopt a payment structure a bit more like LiveJournal (although it’s hard to be as cheap – image and video blogging takes up a lot more server resources than plain text!).
2HC: Which leaves me no choice but to go for the easy shot, do you have any plans to sell MoblogUK to another company for oodles of money? If the opportunity did arise, would you?
*MB: *No plans, no. If someone wants to offer me a truckload of cash for the site, I’d be more than happy to discuss it! However, I would never sell the site without making sure the current users were protected from any undesirable changes to the way the site works or looks (i.e.: lots of adverts, posting quotas, unreasonable terms and conditions, etc..) because without the users, there would be no site to sell in the first place.
2HC: What would you say, at a guess, the most common object to be moblogged is?
MB: Possibly cats. Maybe shots of the moblogger in question. Photos of drinks and people drinking turn up quite a lot too.
2HC: Which phone manufacturers do you feel are going in the right direction as far as mobile blogging technology is concerned?
*MB: *None of them. SonyEricsson have their Quickshare thing, which is not very effective; Nokia have LifeBlog, which I’ve heard nothing but bad things about, none of the other manufacturers have anything I’ve heard of. They’re big multinationals, they move slowly – innovation in application always happens with the users, not the manufacturers. That said, they’ve all been turning out some cracking handsets recently, and the future of mobile imaging looks great fun – bring on the 6 megapixel, liquid lensed, 4G capable handsets! Sony Ericsson are, in my opinion, leading the field, but then I’m highly biased because they gave me my current S700i for free. It’s a glorious device though, and one I’m sure they’ll build on in the future.
*2HC: Where do you see the trend towards all-in-one devices (a phone/camera/PDA/internet ready device) stopping, if anywhere? *
MB: Hopefully with a slim device that fits in my hand, plays music and high-res video, takes pictures, shoots video, plays Doom3, connects to the internet at LAN speed and has a spout to dispense hot tea on demand.
In the further future, I’d like a slim leather-bound book with proper e-paper and TFT “pages”. This can be my personal reading/reference library, video playback and organiser device. Another small device could be my camera/mp3 player/phone handset, and yet another book-sized object could combine charging platform and hard-disk enclosure.
Wireless connectivity between the three devices would mean the book/pda/tv screen can pull data off the internet via the phone, or off the hard disk – fresh reading matter, email, appointments etc. After all, a PDA is either too small to use easily or too big for your pocket, so I’m happy with something bigger that can have a movie-worthy screen and a decent sized text input device. When I don’t need it, I’ll leave it at home, whereas my phone/mp3 player/camera needs to go everywhere, so should be as small as possible.
I do think having an e-book (which could contain thousands of real books in a relatively small amount of storage) would be very cool, and I’ll be one of the first in line when they finally crack e-paper..