Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Spectacularly missing the point of the crowd

Interesting article on The Hill today about the comments of Drew Curtis founder of Basically he calls the 'crowd' idiots:

"The 'wisdom of the crowds' is the most ridiculous statement I've heard in my life. Crowds are dumb," Curtis said. "It takes people to move crowds in the right direction, crowds by themselves just stand around and mutter."

Curtis pointed to his own experience moderating comments on Fark, which allows users to give their often humorous take on the news of the day. He said only one percent of Web comments have any value and called the rest "garbage."
Now, reading this carefully, he's basically saying that the problem with crowds is that you're composed of individuals.

He's also complaining that a people dont take the internet seriously
As an example Curtis pointed to the America Speaking Out website recently launched by House Republicans to allow the public to weigh in on the issues and vote for policy positions they support. Curtis called the site an "absolute train wreck."

"It's an absolute disaster. It's impossible to tell who was kidding and who wasn't," Curtis said.

I'm not quite sure if Curtis is using the same internet as me, but in my experience if you give people the internet they don't create Picasso, they create lolcats, a lot of lolcats, seriously, take a look some time.

The reason we call it the wisdom of crowds is because individuals are idiots, we're all idiots about most things. We live and work in very narrow channels and as such if you want a good answer on a particular topic you have to throw it open to the mass.

Complaining that people are using tools on the internet for fun is a bit like turning back the tide. The majority of people wonky enough to find a website asking people to 'weigh in' on political decisions are going to want to enjoy the experience, stir up a bit of debate, and see what happens.

By exposing something to the crowd you don't get William Shakespeare instantly, you can sometimes get slowly iterative improvement.

He cites Youtube as a crowd which has got it right, but at the end of the day the second most watched video of all time is about one kid biting another kids finger, most of the rest are music videos, number seven is a baby laughing. Hardly the stuff of legends, although you should all go and watch the laughing baby, it'll cheer you up immensely.

Whining that when you expose yourself to the internet you don't get the Congressional Congress turning up is a little bit silly in my opinion.

What you can get, if you do it right, is iterative improvement. I'm reading We-Think at the moment, a book which was written with a significant amount of input from the people of the internet. The author doesnt complain that the majority of people submitting comments on his manuscript were crazy, although I'm sure they were, he focusses on the positive aspects, the minority of useful contributions.

All in all its a little bit strange, a guy who runs a website which bills itself as satirical is complaining that people on the interwebs are having too much fun and not being serious.

Is he serious?


Tuesday, 29 June 2010

You're not cool enough to win with failing

Great post on techPresident about Meg Whitman (R) and her attempt to use the tools on Failblog to create an internet meme against her opponent.

This basically involved sticking up a video and picture of her opponent and writing FAIL across it, and adding a little bit of information on why this was a 'fail'. Not exactly the most adult thing she could have done, but kudos on attempting to get in with the cool kids on the interwebs.

Unfortunately Fail Blog reacted badly, putting out a statement which said:

Some of you have emailed us concerning a political attack video by the Meg Whitman campaign for California governor which features a screenshot of FAIL Blog attacking the other candidate Jerry Brown. We want to make it VERY clear that FAIL Blog nor the Cheezburger Network had any involvement or knowledge of the Whitman campaign use of a screenshot of FAIL Blog. In fact, the screenshot portrayed in the video never existed because the Whitman campaign faked the content within the screenshot. FAIL Blog or the Cheezburger Network has never been involved in any endorsement of any candidate or political party and do not plan to do so.

This is a place for humor, a place to laugh, and to have light-hearted fun poking at each other and what we see in the world. The FAIL Blog community involves liberals, conservatives and everyone across the political spectrum. And we do not endorse the use of FAIL Blog’s image or any content on any of the Cheezburger sites for anyone’s political gain.

We demand a written apology from the Whitman campaign and the removal of the video.

Personally I'm not hugely surprised by this. I would never advise a candidate get involved in creating memes directly. Its far better to allow someone else, deep in the internet, to create it then you can promote it, directly or indirectly.

This is something I'll be writing more about soon, but for now, enjoy the FAILure.


Monday, 28 June 2010

Football and Maths, I don't get it

Since I have nothing of import to write about I thought I'd pop up a couple of observations about the World Cup, since I understand thats what the cool kids are all doing.

I should say, right up front, I view football (and pretty much all sport involving a ball) as the art of moving a ball around according to arbitary rules. It involves skill, but it doesnt interest or excite me particularly.

So first up, the score was 4-1 against England. But it seems there was a lot of annoyance that one goal got disallowed. Now, I'm no scientist but if 4-1 becomes 4-2, then you still lose. I dont think oneof the arbitary rules is that you get to double your score if you're scrappy.

Second, game for game, doesnt that put us on parity with North Korea? I worry that we're now equal to a country which (according to Google maps) doesnt have any roads, or indeed cities.

Anyway, that'll do me for the time being.

Ahhh, and see David Cameron, a man who is A) a Prime Minister B) Doesnt like football C) Is at the G20 sorting out the world economy, has the time to comment. Joy.

Right, time for me to go and confront the day and to let less of my mysanthropy spill across into the blog.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Blogging and peer review

As often happens this post is the result of a number of conversations with friends and colleagues, specifically on blogs and their utility. I like to think that despite my blogging ways I can at least nod to impartiality, although I'm probably not.

The big conflict building at the moment is the difference in value between journalism and blogging. They exist in a similar space, some blogs have broken impressive stories, love or loathe him Guido Fawkes has launched a number of stories which have led to the downfall of important political figures. Others have fascinating analysis of news, and fill the role of commentators extremely well.

Right now I have around 50 blogs on my roll, it would be more, but I've found the maximum number of open tabs my laptop can handle is around 50. I'm hoping for a new laptop soon however, so I imagine this will balloon in the near future.

In this list the only traditional media I have is the New York Times, the rest are bloggers, many of whom post links to traditional media which I can then follow up on. The reason the NYT makes the list is because I have an interest in American news, but not so much that I want a huge number of sources. The overview is good enough.

Fundamentally, I trust bloggers more than I trust the media, for one reason. Peer review.

Bloggers exist in a fiercely competative space, far more so than journalists. They are linked to multiple outlets, Facebook, Twitter, Stumbleupon, the list is virtually endless. When I post the majority of comments come back to me direct from one of these sources, rather than the comment feed built into the blog. I also occasionally find (via the magic of google) people have been discussing my pieces elsewhere.

Journalists tend to have a single outlet. This might come in a variety of formats, hardcopy and online, but its still a limited pool. So the competative nature is slightly different. They also tend to get information direct, in the form of press releases, or interviews with primary sources. This legitimacy is a strength, but increasingly bloggers are able to access these same sources, so its declining.

The other thing is that bloggers fight. Because the niches are small, there is more chance of shoulders being bumped, intentionally or otherwise. Bloggers are also far more likely to get called on mistakes. A journalist having to print a correction is enormously different to a dozen other blogs in the same niche pointing out your follow.

The Huffington Post is an example of where blogging might end up. Its an aggregated blog, which looks like a traditional media outlet. And its massive. Dozens upon dozens of articles, contributed from a variety of sources, it is as responsive as the biggest newspaper and arguably better written.

Blogging is the long tail of journalism. Niche blogs, read by small audiences in the most part, offer an endless variety and of course endless quality. But because of the need to secure the small audiences poor quality blogs quickly die off or are ignored. There's a vested interest in bringing down your opponents and the only real way of doing that is by exposing their errors to the audience.

The level of depth for a blogger is infinite, a journalist has, at best, a single slot a day to write about one topic. I could spend the rest of my day writing piece after piece, going into greater in depth on a single topic, or dozens of topics.

Someone once came up with the joke "What's the difference between a cult and a religion?" The answer being "Membership". Is the real difference between bloggers and journalists simply readership? Or is it something else?

I'd be interested in whether people have strong opinions on the difference. I realise theres a strong debate over quality, but is there something deeper which seperates journalists and bloggers?

UPDATE: A former colleague of mine Fred Stephens pointed out that there's another difference, journalism is a commercial product, wheras bloggers are just doing it for the sake of it. I think that has a dual impact, it certainly opens up the long tail, but it also allows for the quality of blogging to be exceptionally low vs journalism.

Obviously some bloggers do make money, particularly through micro advertising, however in the main they are not writing solely to make money. They would keep writing even if they didnt make the money.

Blogs have also died by trying to commercialise. Once again hat tip to Fred for the reference, when the Mobile Industry Review Blog was bought up and the owners tried to use it to make money through a subscription. Despite a very good public profile no one wanted to pay for the blog and the experiment ultimately failed. Paying was simply a step too far, even though the product was recognised as being excellent.

So theres another difference, journalists are a commercial entity, and people will pay for their product, bloggers lose their credibility and audience if they ask people to pay.

Also, I'd like to point out, the comment didnt come from the comment feed, but instead I got sent a direct message. So I'm right about that at least.

Transmetropolitan: Trends taken to their illogical limit

I'm not usually one to read graphic novels, its not something I'm snobbish about though so once in a while I'll pick up a series someone has recommended and give it a shot. This tends to mean that I get to comics about a decade after everyone else has read them. So, Transmetropolitan, I finally found out about you.

Transmetropolitan is a story about an investigative journalist, the last investigative journalist, Spider Jerusalem. Set in what amounts to a post singularity world, news has essentially become a way of legitimising press releases, and reporting inane man on the street stories.

Its a sublime, if incredibly rude, piece of futurism, taking into account many of the trends which we are already seeing, and the possibly results of technologies which are currently on the drawing board.

The book explores the trends we currently see in journalism, albeit taken to wild extremes. Even now we're increasingly seeing news outlets religated to the role of reproducing press releases with little critical analysis. Scandal continues, and investigative journalism has its place, but it seems that the quick wins are here to stay.

I always try and think of it in terms of stories like Watergate, or 60 Minutes investigation of big tobacco. Both stories involved journalists taking months out of their regular routine, to investigate stories which were essentially speculative, albeit quite important. I wonder if any journalist could turn around to an editor now and ask for months off to go and chase something which could turn out to be nothing.

Anyway, its a fun read, so go and read it, futurism, steampunk, philosophy and other good things. What more could you want?

Friday, 18 June 2010

Liberman begins his assault on the internet

It seems that only the other day I was pointing out how scary the world must seem to politicians as they watch their power slip away in the face on an increasingly activist and complex internet. And, as if to prove the point, the world has delivered a perfect example of the sort of outrageous response this fear and lack of comprehension can cause.

It comes in the form of Joe Lieberman, a man with virtually no redeeming features, let alone the barest glimpse of integrity or intellect.

Mr Lieberman has decided to use the opportunity provided by recent the Wikileaks scandal to introduce a Bill, aimed at defeating 'cybercrime'.

At the core of this Bill is the ability of the President to declare a 'national cyberemergency', which will force companies to undertake action to combat the threat. If that wasnt worrying enough, the highest level could force companies to shut down sections of the internet.

Yes, thats right, there is a Bill, in the country which spawned the internet, which will allow the President to shut it down.

Never mind that the internet has been an unprecidented force for good. Never mind that the entire economy of the USA depends on its existence. And least of all, let us not forget, that in reality there has never been any cyber attack which would justify this sort of response.

In a world where British and US service people die every day from attacks using assault weapons, the most pressing concern on Lieberman's mind is how to protect the American people from cyber attacks which havent happened, which arent happening, and which show no signs of being on the horizon.

There are no words to easily convey the true horror of this piece of legislation. It represents the true lack of understanding that most policy makers suffer from. Rather than putting the problems in context, and working out how to solve them, a decision will be rushed into, which serves no ones interests, with no understanding of the consequences.

The media will be complicit in this, since they too have no real understanding of how the internet works, or what the implications will be of this Bill. I imagine some outlets will even support its passage. They are misguided fools.

I worry that this Bill may well become a framework on which future UK legislation will be founded. It wouldnt be the first time.

This generation of politicians are staggering in their ineptitude. They stand on the shore of an impossibly large ocean, filled with beauty, marvel and not a little horror, dipping a toe in occasionally before withdrawing it, believing that it is the shore that matters, which needs protecting. So they look to turn back the tide.

The modern day Canutes are far less wise than the Viking, they would do well to remember his words upon failing to push back the waters: "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings"

Revisiting book piracy

My post the other day on music piracy vs book piracy generated a bit of interest so I wanted to quickly come back to it and add a few extra thoughts.

Clearly we're entering a new age when it comes to books, the Kindle and other ebook readers (I dont class the iPad in this group, its primary purpose isnt ebooks), have changed the game. However, books in an electronic form have been around for a lot longer than these products, and the emergence of ebooks is only the latest chapter.

I first became aware of ebooks over a decade ago when I was introduced to Project Gutenberg. They currently host 32,000 books out of copyright. Since the law changed in the 1970s in the USA copyright extends 70 years after the death of the creator. Previously it was much shorter, so it is from this pool which Gutenberg draws its materials.

Illegally copied books have been around for quite some time too, the majority of early examples being scans of comic books. Or at least that's my understanding. The fidelity was very high, and the file size wasnt excessive, so they've formed a cornerstone of piracy for quite some time. When I was at school I even had a couple of photocopied comics, but dont tell anyone.

Full books have also been around for quite some time. Although I'll admit in far smaller numbers, since it is harder to produce a high quality copy of a page written on paper.

My point in essence however is that illegally obtained electronic copies of written materials are not new, but we are clearly at the tipping point at which the tens of thousands of books which fall into this category will quickly grow to tens of millions and beyond.

We're also entering an age into which unconventional actors are going to be a big player in the distribution of ebooks. Google being one of the biggest players. They will be providing both copyrighted material (with royalties to authors and publishers) and out of copyright to anyone who can access Google Book Search, and I'm all for that. Robert Danton has an excellent essay on his personal viewpoint on this issue here, and I'd advise you give it a look. (Credit to my friend and scholar Simon Taylor for the reference)

So we're now at the moment when book publishers have to confront the same problem which the music industry had when people started making mix tapes. Its suddenly very easy to steal high fidelity copies and distribute them for next to zero cost.

Its clear however that the publishing industry is behaving differently to the music industry. Even as pirated ebooks explode on bittorrent and other outlets, there are no massive lawsuits pending, no frothing op-eds in the mainstream press, the spit and bile just doesnt seem to be there.

Here's why I think its different.

The music industry have spent decades fighting against a slowly rising tide. Music has been pirateable for quite some time, although copies suffered from diminishing quality. The battle lines were drawn a long time ago, and the industry has consistently lobbied for tighter regulation, and sought more effective legal means to combat the threat. Over time quality has grown, and sharing has grown more convenient.

Books on the other hand have snapped, from relatively difficult to obtain illegally, to suddenly being both incredibly easy to obtain and in perfect quality. No battle lines have been drawn because the change has been so sudden that no one realised there was going to be a war. Its already been lost.

There's also the difference in consumer attitudes. A CD costs me the equivalent of a couple of hours work (I have no idea if thats actually true, I've not done the maths, but you see the point I'm trying to make), wheras I can go online and buy a book for around a quarter of the price of a newly released CD.

As a consumer I always compare cost to cinema tickets. If it costs me £10 to go to the cinema and I get entertained for 2 hours, why would I complain about paying £8 for a book that'll last me 2-3 days? On the other hand, why wouldnt I complain about a CD costing me £12 lasting 45 minutes and containing only 3-4 good songs?

(For the discusson of costs, I'd recommend a look at the Wired article which spawed The Long Tail, don't read the book, its only a longer version of the essay)

Music has always been percieved as overpriced, books have always seemed reasonable, and that'll affect how people pirate.

It'll also affect how much is charged for an ebook.

I think the publishing industry is far more likely to pursue the long tail model when distributing ebooks. Put everything you have online, charge as little as you can, and sell as many copies as you can. For ebooks the distribution cost is next to zero, the cost of stocking is nearly zero, so why not charge a very small amount and sell an unbelievable amount of your product. With such a vast back catalogue why wouldnt you?

At the end of the day its a structural difference. The music industry has been awash with lawyers for decades, fighting a battle against illegal distribution. The publishing industry has entered a whole new world overnight which they mostly didnt see coming, a world in which they're set to make a lot more money. Why fight the future when its set to put you on top of a huge pile of money?

Its interesting to note that the Nook e-book reader has a built in 'sharing' option. Allowing you to wirelessly lend a book to someone else. You lose possession of it for a limited period, and someone else can read it on their Nook. If anything speaks to the psychological difference its this single fact. Can you imagine Apple producing an iPod that let you share your music with others? It simply couldnt happen.

I've not discussed DRM or how book companies might seek to stop sharing, or at least make it difficult. They will introduce it, and rightly so, the costs are low for the product and its fair they should want more of us to buy an individual copy, I'm cool with that. If I can get a book for a few pounds, thats fair enough.

Who knows, I could be utterly wrong, and we'll know a year or two from now if I am, but for the minute, it seems like we're going to get a lot more words for a lot less cost and with a lot less fuss than we'll get musical notes.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Two articles you should read today

Don't have much time today but two articles have cropped up which I think are required reading.

First up is Neiman Labs analysis of Iceland's new media laws. Being as I am wholly committed to greater online and, by extension, journalistic freedoms I think these new laws are the way the world should be heading. I'm going to try and blog more on this topic soon as more details emerge.

Second is an excellent article on The Atlantic, entitled Information Wants to Be Paid For. A very good article about the fact that a great deal of information is worth paying for, and this is increasingly true in an information based economy. one thing I think the article misses out is the simple fact that most people are happy to pay for information. They just dont thin the should have to pay over the odds for it.

Anyway, hope you all enjoy the sunshine wherever you are, more blogging to come soon I promise. Just a busy time.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Why is music piracy different than book piracy?

Simple answer: Because one isnt called piracy, its called lending

I've been dwelling a lot on content distribution recently. Its a passion of mine and something I spend a fair bit of my spare time working on in some fashion.

One thing which has occured to me today is that there is difference in expectations between publishers of books and publishers of music.

Both of these mediums are now in the same space, distributed via the internet and in hard copy, and easily pirated.

The remarkable difference is that whilst representatives of the music industry wax lyrical about their desire to bring back the death penalty for pirates, publishers of books are remarkably silent, even as piracy around their product grows by leaps and bounds.

I think the difference is a subtle one, its that publishers of books know their product is handed from hand to hand, and they can only hope to make money from the first copy. In fact entering the digital realm has, for the first time, given book publishers a chance to sell one off copies of their product which can't be shared easily amongst friends.

Probably 3/4 of my books are second hand, possibly more. A lifetime of browsing in second hand book shops and later getting far too enamoured with Amazon have made me a book publishers nightmare. A consumer who never pays the artist or the publisher for their product.

But do I hear the sound of jackboots kicking in my front door? No, because the expectations are different, and the legal system surrounding the product is more advanced.

Laws around book publishing are ancient in comparison to those which regulate music. The industry has grown in such a fashion is accepts a healthy flow of its product between people, outside of its control. No one is arguing that book piracy through second hand book shops or people lending them to each other takes money off the artists, even though that is essentially what is happening.

I'd love to speak to some publishers direct on this topic, and some writers and see what they think. I hope they'd agree with me.

The music industry needs to accept that it too produces a product which is easily shared between friends, distributed for free and that they cannot regulate away piracy without abandoning the very freedoms which foster creative industry. They need to find new mechanisms which encourage people away from piracy, broaden their offer so that more products are avaliable at low cost, in more specialist markets, and embrace the huge community of people who love music, rather than treating them as criminals.

People arent stupid either. We know how much it costs to produce music, and how much it costs to distribute it. £10 for a CD is a crazy markup, 20p for a single song via digital distribution is also a hell of a lot. If I can buy a hard copy book for £2.76 (Amazon's 1p books plus postage and packing routinely gets me books at this price), I should be able to get music for a reasonable price.

Once again this post has descended into a flight of idealism, but I think there is something important to consider here. How is it that two identical industries, which make their money in nearly identical products, take such different approaches to their audience. Why can I take one product, and use it in almost any way I please, and using another in the same fashion could land me in prison.

Maybe this is a daft post, maybe there's something fundamental I'm missing, but its a question I think is worth asking.

Private security firms on the scene around The Spill

Wired's Danger Room is reporting that a company called Talon Security has begun to deploy private security contractors around areas affected by the oil spill.

In a fit of raw public relations genius the security operatives are blocking journalists getting near to the spill and workers involved in the cleanup.

I'm genuinely surprised that one of the big boys in the security consulting world wasnt already there and didnt get the contract. They've usually got a 6th sense about these things and will rush operatives to the scene before any money is on the table, assuming a contract can usually be secured afterwards. Certainly thats what happened in New Orleans.

In PR terms this is an incredibly bone headed move, and will only serve to create more buzz around the idea that BP is covering things up.

The lawyers are clearly in charge of crisis comms at the moment, so little information is making its way into the public domain. What does seem to be emerging is that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and perhaps some corners were cut to save money.

Whether being more open would help the perception of BP is probably a question for the ages, since its far too late now for them to change tack. The smart money seems to be on the company going under due to the litigation which drown them in the next few years. Alistair Heath has a good review of the likely shape this will take over at City AM.

Thats all for now.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Closing debate: Personal Democracy Forum 2010

If you're interested in digital comms and how it can be used to support an elected politician you have to watch this. Saul Anuzis, Nick Bilton, Cory Booker, Arianna Huffington, Tim O’Reilly, Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry having a discussion about what the the utility of social media is for an elected representative.

Its worth it just for Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, and one of the few politicians who really gets that the internet is about a discussion with real people, outside the safety of your messages and the Government machine you have around you. He's fearless and clearly dedicates a substantial part of every day to discussing things with his followers. Considering that he has over a million people following him, thats no mean feat.

Booker has placed himself at the centre of a discussion about Government in Newark. He's not leading it, he's not dictating where it goes, but he's an authority on the topic (which is probably for the best, what with being Mayor and all), and so the community has formed itself around him.

He posts a few times a day, about his life, the City, and things he's seen or read which inspire him. He also writes back to people asking him questions and is open to a discussion. Its really that simple.

Its worth bearing in mind this statistic. 21397 voted for Cory Booker, 1,063,021 people follow his words on Twitter.

Nuff said, watch the video.


Keanu Reeves, spontaneous buzz

So, I say Keanu Reeves, what do you instantly think? Probably you think about his films, what with him being an actor, but you'd probably also think of his reputation as an unemotional fellow.

But, the internet thinks differently, and most likely, you will too soon. All because of this picture.

This image, and another taken at the same time, have spawned an internet outpouring of love and affection for Keanu. His fans seem to have gone wild, and stories of his good nature abound.

The Guardian did a great roundup of the sorts of things going on, from a Cheer up Keanu Day, to a mailing drive by fans to send him presents.

All of this from one picture?

In my opinion its because this picture is something we rarely see, a celebrity being like us, without any staging, airbrushing or nonsense. He's just some guy, eating a sandwich, and looking a bit sad about the world. I sometimes eat a sandwich and look sad about the world!

Its the impact this picture has had which is fascinating, and proof positive of the dynamic nature of the internet community, which we are all so desperate to harness for our own PR purposes.

The internet isnt something you can control, its not even somethign you can guide, all you can do is provide it with stuff and see what happens. You have to make that stuff as interesting as possible, and you have to try and get it to spread as widely as possible, but beyond that your material is on its own.

Your idea is like a stone skipping over water. You can throw it hard, and throw it well, but after that its just a case of watching it bounce off into the distance and sink, sooner or later. After that you're just left with the ripples.

What we need to abandon is the idae that the internet is a channel. Its not, its a space. Its not like TV, you cant just broadcast stuff and hope for the best. Its like an impossibly large room, full of people, all speaking to each other constantly. You can shout all you like, but unless what you're shouting about is interesting you'll get shouted down.

A murmur however, in the right place, at the right time, can become a bellow.

Cheer up Keanu, its not so bad, I bet that sandwich is delicious.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bringing data literacy to our decision makers

There's a wonderful article on about the importance of building a citizenry which is able to understand the flow of higher tech information which we are routinely deluged in. Entitled "Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data" the article states:
We need a data-literate citizenry, not just a small elite of hackers and policy wonks. And the best way to cultivate that broad-based literacy is not to release in small or measured quantities, but to flood us with data. To provide thousands of niches that will interest people in learning, playing and working with open data. But more than this we also need to think about cultivating communities where citizens can exchange ideas as well as involve educators to help provide support and increase people’s ability to move up the learning curve.

Interestingly, this is not new territory. We have a model for how to make this happen – one from which we can draw lessons or foresee problems. What model? Consider a process similar in scale and scope that happened just over a century ago: the library revolution.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, governments and philanthropists across the western world suddenly became obsessed with building libraries – lots of them. Everything from large ones like the New York Main Library to small ones like the thousands of tiny, one-room county libraries that dot the countryside. Big or small, these institutions quickly became treasured and important parts of any city or town. At the core of this project was that literate citizens would be both more productive and more effective citizens.

But like open data, this project was not without controversy. It is worth noting that at the time some people argued libraries were dangerous. Libraries could spread subversive ideas – especially about sexuality and politics – and that giving citizens access to knowledge out of context would render them dangerous to themselves and society at large. Remember, ideas are a dangerous thing. And libraries are full of them.

In this day and age, those who are unable to understand information in its many electronic forms and draw meaning from them are, in my opinion, missing out on something marvellous, in the same way that those who can't read lose out on the joys of literature and poetry.

For our elected officials it is all the more important that they educate themselves. Consider Dennis Skinner MP, the worthless pile of flesh that he is, bawling and swearing in the House of Commons whilst the world leaves him behind. How narrow and sad his world must be that he is able to say, in all honesty, "I've never sent an email and I don't intend to start now."How can this man, in good concience, vote on many of the issues facing the modern world when he doesnt understand this basic form of communication. The tragedy of it is, that as his world becomes smaller, he doesnt realise how far the horizon now spreads.

Consider also the Digital Economy Bill, a travesty of law making, which serves to codify in law the distribution model of 20th century companies, rather than demanding they these companies embrace change and move forward. The provision for a Great Firewall smack of the same measures being taken in China to block citizen access to internet material seen as 'objectionable'.

The world must have become a terrifying place for decision makers. Control is slipping away and their rarified position is being eroded further by the work of a tiny number of data literate people who have committed themselves to exposing their secrets. The expenses scandal was an example of this, someone who understood the data and its implications, simply took a database and walked out with it.

The recent drama surrounding Wiki Leaks is another example, and has turned its founder into a wanted man. They recieve vast quantities of information, all of which is provided by individuals who understand data, how it is spread, how it can be moved, and how it can be shared. Small wonder that they have brought the American intelligence community to its knees of late, just at the thought they might have thousands of diplomatic cables from US embassies.

I might sound like an idealist, but there is something beautiful to me in a world where data is growing increasingly free. We are less likely than ever to be held hostage by privilaged information. Governments will have to accept this, or fall to those that do. It will destroy tyrants and give expose those who perform quiet miracles.

Educating people in these concepts will also help change the idea of what original content is, and who it is owned by. Hopefully people will understand in time that content, produced by an artist, and distributed for free, doesnt harm people, but exposes it to an audience of billions. Financial rewards will have to be rethought, but they won't go away, there will always be things to sell and items of worth.

Data is like water. It will always flow outwards, and choose the path of easiest movement. The digital world is creating a virtually frictionless environment. Some resevoirs are harder to access than others, some near impossible. But an increasing number of people are seeing this not as an impossible mountain to climb, but a challenge, and so the walls will keep being brought down.

We must find ways to educate people, to change the ways they see the world. But equally important is to educate our policy makers, who rant and rave about bringing order to the internet, not realising that doing so would eliminate the very thing which makes this medium great.

It may be that in time we lose our right to have secrets, but along the way we will understand that those secrets were not so grand and terrible after all. We will also have Governments who cannot lie to us, where spin is a pointless exercise because the truth will always come out, and who have to stand before the public they serve and act in the genuine public interest, rather than the interest they can sell to us.

I might be the only one, but I see something glorious in that.


Saturday, 12 June 2010

Book review: Herd by Mark Earls

I'm going to break my usual habit of doing book reviews in pairs for this one as I think its necessary to do it justice.

When I first picked up Herd by Mark Earls I read the comment on the cover "Surprisingly fascinating: like Malcolm Gladwell on Speed", a comment from The Guardian. My instant assumption was that this would be a long essay of a book. 20 pages of good thought spread over 300 with relentless case studies.

I was very wrong, and I'm more than happy to admit it.

Herd is a book about how humans behave, not individual people, but rather the formless and rather mysterious morass which marketing and campaigning seek to influence.

It builds well, working through psychology, philosophy and other esoteric disciplines to construct a model of human behaviour. Earls posits that people are not truly individuals, but rather members of a community of 'super social apes', who are motivated in large part by the undercurrent of emotions and concepts currently sweeping their part of this community.

He is scathing of the idea that there are super individuals within this community who determine the way it will lean, and that the internet can be used purely as a channel for communicating with groups of people. Instead he claims that we should focus more on creating a genuine buzz around products and ideas, with broad, sweeping engagement.

Personally I find this idea deeply seductive as it appeals to my own beliefs about the ways in which particularly internet communities work. Consider the lolcat internet meme, which many of my readers will, I'm sure, be familiar with. Just in case, I've attached one of the original and most popular examples.

Lolcats have birthed a massive blogging empire, with significant revenues. Yet its origins are shrouded in mystery. It seems likely they were born on 4chan, which means no one will ever really know. There is no individual responsible for lolcats, no man who will go down in history as the first to edit a cat picture with a bizzare caption. Instead there is simply a community, from which they emerged, and a larger community which embraced the concept and took it to new heights.

Earls ideas focus on how we can access the community, without an obsessive focus on individuals, who we credit with too much influence.

I think he is a little too scathing about opinion research, claiming that it is not necessary. Personally, I think polling and focus groups give an opportunity to see minds at work, and to find better ways to frame a discussion. If you want to create buzz around an idea, there is no harm in testing the messages and seeing how they work out. I'll admit that there are plenty of examples of highly successful brands who didnt rely on this approach, but I think there'll always be those who get lucky, or get to take advantage of an existing movement, purposefully or otherwise.

Earls also encourages companies to look inwards, to embrace real beliefs about what they want to achieve and what they hold sacred and I think this is a very sensible piece of advice. Too many companies are wrapped up with vision statements and missions, and forget that at the end of the day what people (customers and employees) actually want is a bit of honesty, some integrity and to be treated like grownups.

Co-collaboration, one of my favourite ideas, is also mentioned for special notice. Co-collaboration is a movement which I have a lot of time for, the idea of creating things which harness the wisdom of large groups is something I think the PR industry and large companies in general are lagging behind on.

Small companies are however embracing this movement, harnessing the collective wisdom of large groups of supporters to improve their products. In software its called open source, its produced Linux and Firefox. Blank Label make shirts using co-collaboration, you can buy custom chocolate and granola if you like too. Getting customers involved excites people, gets them to share ideas with their friends, and actively promote their brand.

I set up this blog with the sincere intention of co-collaborating with the wider blogging community on ideas which were of interest to me, and so far, I've been gratified by the interest I've recieved and the discussions it's spawned.

I'm going to make a prediction, Apple will be brought down by a company which embraces co-collaboration. It'll take a decade or more, but Apple has died on its feet as far as bringing customers on board, relying instead on internal talent.

As you can probably tell from this post, Herd has got my brain running wild, trying to digest the concepts and fit them into some of my own ideas.

I really recommend you give it a shot, see what you think, and consider whether there are assumptions you're too wedded to, and new ideas you can take advantage of to build stronger brands, run more effective campaigns and bring people with you when you do something new.

Friday, 11 June 2010

A war college for PR? My response

James over at Campaign War Room has put up an interesting post of the idea of a war college for the PR industry.

Here's an extract, although I'd advise you read the whole piece:
While the communications industry is professionalising, there is still a tendency to assume that competence comes from a mix of natural ability and general experience. There's something to this. But you could just as easily make the same claims about what makes someone competent in the military, and yet these are comprehensively rejected by the military who take higher learning very seriously. The military, certainly in the US, is obsessed about establishing so-called "learning cultures", organisations which encourage people to become comfortable adapting to change.

If such a communications course was created, what would be on the curriculum? If it was designed to help senior practitioners, it would need to focus on how to help them think,rather than simply teaching things. In practice, it would therefore presumably focus above all on four things. Firstly, an in-depth look at the theory of strategy and effective decision-making. Secondly, it would look at the art of persuasion and how you actually shift opinion, not least by teaching people about opinion research. Thirdly, it would get people looking at case studies of past communications campaigns and thinking about the likely nature of modern communications crises. Finally, it would teach practitioners to think about how they would approach difficult problems on their own through a set of Tactical Decision Games (TDGs) and war games.
The state the industry is currently in is similar to that which various European armies found themselves in during the 19th and early 20th centuries. An obsessive belief that the upper class were natural leaders led to a relative dearth in critical assessment of what was good and bad about the way those armies fought.

Armies which kept this up suffered terrible losses when there was a sudden jarring change in the way war was being fought. World War One being a good example. All the lessons were there, but no one put the pieces togeather and realised what the next major war might look like.

PR is in a similar state, with a relative lack of understanding amongst practitioners about why some things work and others dont. Best practice is embraced largely on the basis of what appears successful, often without an understanding of why success was achieved. Witness the attempts of the Conservatives in the last election taking on too much of the model Obama used to get elected. The tools worked in the US, but they failed here, for reasons which were relatively obvious. Its a different country, we're not a nation comfortable with public activism, and our anti political feeling wasnt something the Conservatives could tap into.

To me, the idea of establishing a real learning culture in PR is hugely attractive. Its part of the reason I started this blog, to put my ideas up in the public domain and try to get people to engage with me and tell me where I was wrong. Its led to some great discussions with various people and I want to keep that up.

So what would I add to the course? Psychology, and a real understanding of how people work.

We're all wonks, we exist in an industry which doesnt have much contact with the real world, and as such we're not best placed to get how people actually go about their lives.

I had to sit through a discussion the other day about how to promote a high street computer gaming company. As a gamer, and a purchaser of games, I grew increasingly frustrated as the conversation turned increasingly towards the sort of navel gazing strangeness which plagues the PR industry. Talk was of creating a viral campaign, of finding bloggers who would 'promote' the brand, about how to make stores 'interactive'. I sat quietly and tried not to shout.

I'm well placed to discuss what gamers might like, and what will turn them off. But that doesnt mean I'm going to be as good on an environmental campaign, for example. I'm not an environmentalist, and I'm not emotionally engaged in the debate in the same way I (sadly) am with the future of digital content distribution (also known as 'selling games/music/books).

The problem is that I can understand how one group of people works instinctively, because I'm one of them, I can't understand others because I'm not in their club.

I need to learn how to take my instinctive knowledge and understanding, and have it turned into a toolkit, which gives me some idea of how I might get my head around an unfamiliar set of concepts and figure out the best ways to direct my efforts.

We need to move away from the idea that 'people' are some sort of robot, where we can feed information in through a particular channel and they'll react accordingly. In reality a lot of what we do is vanishingly remote in importance to real people, which is why some campaigns, well funded and thought out, fall flat on their face.

At the same time, tiny companies with no PR support go global, their brands explode overnight, they go from obscure entities to household names. Word of mouth is their weapon, and often, they dont even know it until suddenly the orders are pouring in.

So what would I want from a PR War College? Psychology and an understanding of what makes people tick.

This couldnt be a wishy washy, or based on obscure texts, but rather an evidence based attack on the idea that people are strange and incomprehensible numbers, which shift on a whim. People change their opinions for good, comprehensible reasons and pretending otherwise is to fly in the face of everything experience has taught us.

There are some great books on this, and the quality continues to improve. A lot of these books arent written by PR professionals, in fact the vast majority arent. There's probably something too that.

Ultimately, I want to know why some ideas buzz, and some fall flat. I have my ideas, you have yours, what we need to do is sit down and have a real discussion about what it might be.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Helen Thomas and concepts of privacy

The 'retirement' of Helen Thomas after her comments about Jews is a vivid case study of the new world in which we all live. She made what was clearly an unguarded comment, albeit with a camera in her face, and is now paying the price. Personally, I think what she said was unforgivable and showed a dramatic lack of knowledge of the subject, but I understand she represents a constituency of support.

Anyway, that isnt the issue I want to focus on, as I'm more interested of this event in the context of a larger trend, where private (distasteful) views and actions can turn on individuals, and cause their downfall.

Several PPCs met their end during the election due to their comments on Twitter primarily. In all, if memory serves, it was 4 who decided to put out offensive or just plain stupid 'tweets', in this case assuming that these were private comments which would elicit amusment, rather than revulsion. Of course they were quickly spread around the internet and crushed the political dreams of these misguided individuals.

Consider the case of 4chan and the cat abuser. A youtube video emerged, showing some guys proudly abusing a cat. This caused outrage on 4chan, and they tore apart every clue avaliable on the video and every other source they could think of, before passing the details along to the local police department. The cat was rescued and the prepretrator arrested. It took 48 hours. I'm choosing not to post a link as all the articles I could find were pretty depressing, google it if you're interested.

On a related topic, check out Chris Poole's (founder of 4chan), and his speech at TED. Very interesting, comprehensive, and amusing discussion of privacy and how it can work for/against people.

Anyway, to return to what I was babbling about and bring it towards what is colloquially known as a 'point'.

What we are also seeing is the emergence of a group of politicans and public figures who are well aware of this and have cunningly decided to react by using the actual personality (shock horror) when speaking, dispensing with nuance and speaking from the heart to their audience. The best example I can think of is the inimitable Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, a state which holds a special place in my heart. For a particularly good example of his straight shooting ways, enjoy this little clip.

Our concepts of privacy have to change, and I think increasingly our public figures will have to recognise that everything they say, outside of the four walls of their own home, and perhaps in private meetings, are now open to discussion and criticism by a wider community.

Does this mean that no one can say anything ever? No, it means that if you're going to say something, you better be damn sure you can back it up, and rightly so.

It shouldnt be acceptable for Helen Thomas to spit bile in the way she did at Israel. Parliamentary candidates shouldnt be allowed to get away with comments about gays or how much they hate their constituents.

Long term I wonder what the implications of this will be for the way we speak to each other, and the views which are prevalent in society.

We all want to conform to social norms, and each of these people believed, when saying what they did, that their comments were acceptable within their audience.

As more people realise that their views are abhorrent to a significant section of society (if only by trial and error) will they stop talking about them? And what will the long term impact be as fewer people speak about topics seen as broadly unaccetable?

For people in the communications industry there is a genuine need to understand the total collapse of personal privacy around public figures. It sounds obvious I know, but repeatedly we're seeing well advised people saying stupid things, so clearly the obvious message isnt getting though.

There are two real rules I think are worth living by as a public figure

First, if you're outside your own home, you're in public. Whatever you say, whatever you do, will be recorded somewhere. EVERYTHING. Even if its only on a mobile phone camera. Consider what you have to say and how you say it. You don't have to be a coward, but you will have to defend your views.

Second, assume everything you say and do in public will last forever. The internet has become an incredible resource for achived material. Nothing gets deleted. And even if it does get lost, someone, somewhere will have kept a copy. It means you'll have to explain why you changed your position on an issue, and your answer better be good. If smoked pot at university, there will be a picture, it will be made public.

UPDATE: Michael Gove falling down today pretty much proves both of my above points.

I think that'll do for the time being, I'm sure I'll have reason to return to this topic, if only because its something I'm thinking about a lot at the moment.

Mostly I'm fascinated to see if anyone has any suggestions on how we fix it.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Bit of terrifying news...

Iran has now offered to help escort aid ships into Gaza.This is alongside Turkey's offer to do the same a few days ago. In that case America basically begged them not to, realising that could seriously destablise things in the region.

If Iran and Turkey were to deploy ships in support of aid convoys it would mean Israel would have two choices, start a war, or back down entirely. Neither of these are palitable choices.

In 4GW terms, Iran and Turkey have Israel exactly where they want the state. No choices remain which are good, all outcomes will lead to severe reprecussions on Israel's ability to function as a major power. All aspects of Israel's power, political, military and so forth, will be weakened unilaterally, further to the state they've already been reduced to.

And in truth, its not like Iran and Turkey have to risk anything massive, if they each send over a speedboat with three guys in it thats their 'navy' represented. If Israel board foreign naval vessels, or worse yet fire on them, who knows where it'll end up.

It now remains to be seen if this is posturing by Iran and Turkey. If they are willing to take a roll of the dice, their chances of losing out here are virtually nil.

The consequences for Israel are truly dire. Already faced with an international inquiry into their actions of late, they have been squarely outmanuvered by a combination of two states and a powerful anti Israel movement.

Long term, even if this doesnt play out, the playbook on how to weaken Israel is now firmly established, the narrative is in place and all the actors know their parts. This will happen again, sooner or later.

I wanted to end with something pithy, but words don't seem appropriate. I hope this can be resolved peacefully, but I'm worried it won't be. Too many hot heads, too little understanding.


Flowtown - My reaction: Whoa

The results of one of my regular trawls of whats new and interesting on the interwebs deserves a mention today. Flowtown.

Flowtown is, in essence, a tool designed to help campaigners gather information on people, when all you have is their email address, and to help find ways to better target their outgoing campaign messages.

The main component of Flowtown involves importing an email database. It is then scanned, and a report is generated listing what online services that email address is associated with. I checked my own and it found several platforms I'm a member of, Facebook and so forth. It also found my age, gender and a slightly out of date location. When testing a colleagues email it found a picture of her and more accurate data.

In essence Flowtown allows you to translate sterile email addresses into a "social media profiles". You can then transfer your efforts to where your targets are spending their time, rather than trying to bring them to you. If you're going to be spending a lot of time talking to a group of people, its a lot easier to be waiting for them where they're already having discussions, rather than hunting them down.

The reports provided by Flowtown are hugely detailed, giving you a massive amount of information which you can then use to tailor your approach to the people you're targetting. They're a cut above what I've used elsewhere, and I can even see how you might start tying the data into structuring polls, or analysing reponses.

There are a number of other features, the most useful for me being integration into Campaign Monitor. I use Campaign Monitor regularly, to distribute large scale emails to campaign supporters. Its particularly good although its a little bit techy.

I can see that Flowtown could be of enormous utility to what I do on a day to day basis, trying to do outreach to people electronically is extremely time consuming and anything which can save even a few minutes is of use to me. This service should do significantly more than that, allowing me to get ahead of the curve in terms of analysing the people who're involving themselves in the campaigns I'm working on.

For marketers and digital comms people, I dont know of a better tool for doing digital outreach.

Here are a couple of the video clips which explain how Flowtown works and the various services, they do a better job than I could in describing the service.


Thursday, 3 June 2010

Blackwater and Tiger Force - Book reviews

I didnt read these books in order with a particular aim in mind, but found myself drawing comparisons between the two. They both address armed forces and how men cope in high stress/low accountability situations, and I thought it was interesting how the authors dealt with their subject matter.

Its also worth noting that both books draw heavily on the work on war journalists, people putting themselves literally in the firing line to find a story. In an age where embedded journalists hide so far from the enemy they are often in another country, then patronise us by donning military fatigues and bullet proof vests, its worth remembering that there are true journalists risking their lives just to find nuggets of information. On a personal note, I live in absolute awe of journalists who take these risks.

But, to return to the subject matter...

Tiger Force, by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, is a fascinating piece of investigative work, looking at a group of soldiers, known as, unsurprisingly, Tiger Force.

In essence this was a relatively small group of elite soldiers, who were routinely deployed into unwinnable and unrelentingly violent situations, and asked to achieve almost impossible objectives.

One of the themes of the book is the sheer lack of oversight which went on during the campaign. Even when casual violence against civilians was epidemic amongst the unit, senior commanders turned a blind eye, convinced the value of the soldiers outweighed their descent into madness.

There is something of the story Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, to this tale. Except in this case these men were put into a hell not of their own making, and were forced to survive. They did this in the most brutal of ways, executing civilians, and committing war crimes on a routine basis.

I dont want to dwell too much on the subject matter as I think its frankly, deeply disturbing. Suffice it to say that the worst excesses of wartime are represented amongst this group.

What I personally found good about this book is that it is not unfair to the soldiers themselves. At no time are they portrayed as gibbering monsters, or comic book villians. They are normal men, who are placed into a situation so insane the only response is to go insane. The book also deals in depth with what happened to them all after the war. All the surviving members struggled to cope with life, and several killed themselves, or turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the mental illnesses they had earned from their service.

A tragic tale of what war can do to men, and the horror that can be inflicted by one human on another, Tiger Force is horrific in a most visceral way, but deeply readable. I personally think there's a case to be made that books like this should be required reading for all officers in all armed forces.

Blackwater, by Jeremy Scahill, on the other hand, is a very different animal.

For those who arent aware, Blackwater is, in essence, a highly organised and semi official (certainly state supported) mercenary company, operating under the aegis of providing 'security'.

The book charts the rise and further rise of this organisation throughout the late 90's almost to the present day, and I dont deny it appears to be a very comprehensive history of a largely mysterious company.

Blackwater is in the business of providing trained soldiers, on private contracts, to serve in roles traditionally held by the regular armed forces. The purpose of this is, in principle, to free up soldiers from the need to guard buildings, or move supplies, in favour of more front line duties.

The book is entirely too agenda focussed however. There is a curious obsesson with attacking the Bush Government, despite Blackwater cutting its teeth under a Democratic president. There is a clear desire to directly link the Bush, and his senior staff, to the rise of this organisation. Although there are clear links between the two, I think Blackwater's power has come more from the law of unintended consequences than a sincere desire to unleash unregulated soldiers on the world.

Blackwater has been at the center of a multitude of scandals in its history, precipitating amongst other things, the dramatic events in Falluja throughout the Iraq occupation. And it is clear the the companies owners intend to make as much money as humanly possible with little regard to their employees or the impact their employees can have on the lives of others.

Ironically, in its emotional attempts to portray the human victims of Blackwater operatives, the author forgets that Blackwater operatives are humans too. It is clear from some of the quotes that many of the employees are deeply scarred by their experiences, and some clearly want to atone for their actions. Yet this is swiftly glossed over in an attempt to point score.

There is also a slight derth of information for some of the claims made in the book. Several points are repeated time and again, a couple of times in every chapter, which I personally found frustrating. If you don't have the sources, write a shorter book.

Because it doesnt embrace the human element of the story, I didnt find the book as interesting as it could have been. I wanted to know more about the people on the ground working for Blackwater, rather than re-reading information about the evils of the companies owner.

Blackwater is a fascinating history, but a lazy one. With the lack of an emotional component beyond the author's own feelings, it's a weaker book.

I'd recommend both books, since they address a range of issues which we are not exposed to on a day to day basis and do so well. Tiger Force is by far and away the better text, less wrapped up in its own self importance, more confident in its style, it is simply a superior read. But Blackwater is, as far as I can tell, the best history on the topic of the modern mercenary.

Of course I'm happy to have other people make some recommendations.

Next on my reading list The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai and I'm finally going to finish Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajif Chandrasekaran. I imagine I'll have a review of each up in time.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Morning reading - US Navy and social media

A good piece on Social Media Examiner today on the way ways in which the USN is using social media to disseminate information and communicate internally. Good for a bit of counter intutitive inspiration.

Video borrowed (stolen) from the nice people at SME.

U.S. Navy from Michael A. Stelzner on Vimeo.

I'm also a big fan of the US Marine Corps use of social media and follow their Twitter feed. They put out some interesting pieces and provoke a discussion.

The US Military are pretty advanced when it comes to social media, and I think its a good thing generally, so long as it serves to promote a learning culture within the organisation as well as outside.

Anyway, take a look and make up your own minds.