Monday, 31 May 2010

Social media - Looking forward

I've had a bit of a hiatus recently, with a lot on my plate I've lost track of what I've been writing. Still, the new job has now started and is going very well, and my other projects are finally getting to the stage I can pass them along.

So, this week I'll hopefully be catching up with several pieces I've started writing, but in the meantime I wanted to point you in the direction of a great interview of Jay Baer on social media, which I think all of you should take the time to watch. Its only 11 minutes long and its a concise and well thought out discussion of the role of social and digital media plays in campaigns.

To see the video take a look here, but the key 14 points are:
  • What you’re doing on Twitter isn’t a social media strategy, it’s a tools strategy.
  • The only thing that’s really certain, is that eventually the online tools will change.
  • I don’t believe Twitter and Facebook will always dominate.
  • If you have a tools-focused strategy, you don’t really have a strategy.
  • First, figure out how you’re going to be social, and then worry about how you’re going to do social.
  • Create a social media steering group (cross-functional) for your company.
  • Social media is fueled by passion, and too many companies try to take elements of their company that aren’t passion-worthy, and attempt to build a social media program around it.
  • Content creation and content marketing will continue to allow companies to capitalize on the fact that every customer is now a reporter.
  • Place making social media (Foursquare, Gowalla, et al) will continue to gain traction over the next 18 months. These services are in many ways would Twitter was originally, with another layer of loyalty and rewards built in. The reviews business will be transformed by geo-location.
  • YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world, and yet video content continues to be under-leveraged.
  • The metrics available on Facebook are in many ways better than you can get from Google Analytics.
  • Companies are starting to think of Facebook as a natural piece of the conversion funnel, not just as a free-standing silo. Facebook fan pages are email newsletters 2.0
  • Make sure you’re tying together your email program and your social media program.
  • Create a content ladder to leverage and syndicate your content.
The first and fourth bullets are the most important. We must, as an industry, stop thinking that tools are the same as strategies. I've discussed it elsewhere on this blog, pointing out the lunacy of creating arbitary Facebook groups to support campaigns.

Anyway, I'll let the article speak for itself, and I promise to have some original insight avaliable soon.

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Monday, 24 May 2010

Is Government increasingly irrelevant in solving disasters?

This is something I've been musing on recently. Governments are getting smaller, companies are getting bigger. Companies are also able to access the cutting edge in virtually every field, whether that's technology, experience or information.

There has to be something to the idea that at a certain point Governments will grow to virtual irrelevance and corporations, or corporate style entities, will be the main provider of services, including disaster relief, simply because they are the ones operating in extreme environments.

The US governments total dependence on BP to solve the oil spill is a case in point, I'm sure there are others. As space exploration and exploitation is now almost wholly in the hands of the private sector any space based disasters would be dealt with by the parent companies involved, rather than the Government. (assuming there is any disaster to be 'dealt with' since space disasters will be by their very nature almost certainly unsurvivable)

In the same way that Blackwater has become a model for a corporatised military force (yes, I recognise Blackwater has major limitations in COIN and other specialised fields), will we see the emergance of a privatised disaster firm? This could be a network of people in different fields, who are 'activated' depending on the type and nature of the disaster.

Anyway, thats just a random thought which has been on my mind today.
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Sunday, 23 May 2010

Entering the big leagues and how it can trip you up

Rand Paul is emerging as the perfect example of what can happen to a popular and energetic candidate if he doesnt seriously consider this comments.

The Atlantic has a great article on this topic, focussing on RP's transition from the minor leagues to the big leagues and how the rhetoric of the campaign trail falls flat in the fact of the national media.

Enjoy
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The Dyson approach

I wrote the title of this post then realised that there were two Dysons who had inspired me in some small way. The first is Freeman Dyson, a revolutionary thinker and one of the most creative minds of this and any other century, the other is James Dyson, he of the infamous vacuum cleaner fame.

Although both deserve a mention it is James Dyson who I want to focus on today, since he was the subject of a conversation I had yesterday with a couple of compatiots.

We were discussing the recent Dyson fan, in light of the increasingly glorious weather, and how cunning an idea it was. It got me thinking about the fact that Dyson has made a career out of taking established mundane inventions, removing a critical feature, and making it significantly better than the original design. The three best known examples being - A vacuum cleaner without a bag, a hand dryer which doesnt use heat and now a fan without any parts which could be described as a fan.

Being able to think 'outside the box' is a mantra which gets repeated all too often with no real understanding of what it means. In my mind the ability to think outside the box is to take convention, destroy it, and recreate it into a new form which is more effective. John Boyd called this 'creative synthesis' and it was the basis of his infamous snowmobile metaphor.

A snowmobile was not, in its original incarnation, a whole thing. It was in fact a set of snow skis, a boat with an outboard motor, a bicycle, and a set of tread, combined to form a more effective vehicle for moving through snowy conditions. This form wouldnt be possible without the established and effective devices which already existed.

And so it is with ideas. No matter what you think, you've almost certainly never had a truly original thought, somewhere, someone will have thought of the thing you've got on your mind. Equally, none of your ideas is spun from whole cloth, it is a combination of every idea you've experienced up to that point in time. For the record, I believe the same of myself.

However, there are two things which should be kept firmly in mind -

First, there is always the chance you can be the first person to put your idea into practice. In my experience most creative ideas are shot down at the first hurdle because they're too hard or too risky to impliment.

Second, you can make a good idea better, by truly being able to think outside the box and create a snowmobile.

Of these, I think the second is more important. As someone who works in an industry which essentially sells ideas, it is the ability to pluck creative novel ideas out of the air which is most important.

Its not an easy skill to come by, and it requires the type of luck which led Arnold Palmer to say "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

This is where I lurch violently into being a preacher for my own way of doing things. As always, I apologise if my tine turns preachy.

In my view there are two ways to learn to come up with creative ideas, the first being to do a job which requires you doing it. There's few things better than an client or boss demanding your thoughts to get the creative juices flowing. If you're working in a team, so much the better, kick back from the computer and start throwing some ideas around.

The second is more important however, and in many way simpler, absorb everything. This is something which I've learned to embrace in the last couple of years as I've developed from a Parliamentary researcher into what I describe as a political consultant. So many of the best ideas have been recorded in books and films, the majority of which are easily and abundently accessable. Make use of them.

On my pile of books to read right now are texts on politics (obviously), history, physics, psychology and pure philosophy. Further to this I have a daily blog list of 44 different sources, along with the articles which come pouring in via twitter, and finally there is the mainstream press. If I was to try and ascribe a value to any of these, I probably couldnt. Only a minority are directly related to anything which I do on a day to day basis, however I dont know what I'll be doing tomorrow, so its impossible for me to know what will be of greatest utility.

It helps I find these things fun to read in the main, although there was a time when I didnt, that too I had to learn by doing. The trick is to exist at the recieving end of a torrent of information and trying to catch as much as you can along the way.

So there are my brief thoughts on creativity, which may or may not be of any use to anyone.

If anyone would like my full blog list they're welcome to it, I've not put it up here in its fullest form, but the reading list contains the best of the bunch.
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Friday, 21 May 2010

Letter writing, apparently its a good thing

It might be the heat getting to me, but I read this article in the Guardian today and was filled with a deep sense of grinding annoyance. I then checked in on Twitter to find that the world and their dog were whining about the fact that kids dont hand write letters any more.

The article claims it is based on a survey, but I'm willing to bet a small sum its actually based on a poll. Delightful though polling is it can be used to prove more or less anything and routinely gets deployed to do that.

It occurs to me that when I was 7-14 I rarely wrote letters. Occasionally I'd get bludgeoned into writing a thank you note at Christmas or for a birthday, but usually even on those occasions, I'd pick up the phone and speak to the kindly relative who felt that £10 would solve my ills in life.

The article cites Sue Palmer, a 'child education expert'. 10 seconds of Google reveals that one of her primary interests is the teaching of writing, so she's hardly an unbiased source. Also, she has books to sell. But I'm willing to set that aside, I'm sure she has children's best interests at heart. My real problem is that she says this:

"If children do not write or receive letters, they miss out on key developmental benefits. Handwritten letters are much more personal than electronic communication.

"By going to the trouble of physically committing words to paper, the writer shows their investment of time and effort in a relationship. That's why we tend to hang on to personal letters as keepsakes.

"The effort of writing is a very real one for a child. Painstakingly manoeuvring the pencil across the page, thinking of the best words to convey a message, struggling with spelling and punctuation. It is, however, an effort worth making, because it's only through practice that we become truly literate – and literacy is the hallmark of human civilisation.

"If we care about real relationships, we should invest in real communication, not just the quick fix of a greetings card, text or email. What's more, if we care about civilised human thought, we should encourage our children to invest time and energy in sitting down to write."

First of all, I imagine that the lack of letter writing holds true of virtually every person living in this country. I can't remember the last time that I sat down with a pen and wrote a letter by hand. What would be the point? Everyone I speak to has an understandable desire for me to be able to respond within 24 hours.

Second, what are these mysterious 'developmental benefits' of handwriting a letter? The only benefits I can see are that you'll have good handwriting. As we enter an age where all primary forms of communication (disregarding vocal) are typed, wouldnt the best benefit be to equip children with a skillset which would support that? Accurate and speedy typing skills will enable them to get better jobs and work more efficiently.

Thirdly, who the heck are you to tell me that electronic communications arent 'real'? All communication is real. This article reeks of a snobbish image of the poet, adjusting their glasses and setting quill pen to vellum, contrasted against a young person texting with one hand and picking their nose with the other.

I routinely communicate with people I've never met, other bloggers in particular whose ideas intrigue me, or who I want to question further. I consider those relationships real, but they wouldnt be possible if all I used was a pen.

This is compounded by the idea that children don't know how to lay out a letter, as if this is a bad thing. In truth, I'm sure if you quizzed me, I dont know how to layout a letter. I probably put the date in entirely the wrong place, should there be 2 lines after the "Dear..." line? I'm sure there is some rulebook which I break on a daily basis, yet no one has ever criticised me for my (typed) letters.

Finally, what is it that makes a letter 'good' apart from a romanticised image? I've signed a letter or two in my time with the intent to impress, and that option is still avaliable to me. I've even closed an envelope and sealed it with a S.W.A.L.K (I'll let you figure that one out). Aside from this romantic idea, letters are slower, less efficient forms of communication. They promote innaccuracy and waste.

I believe in the evolution of technology, and communications is a major part of this. Our ability to spread ideas with speed and accuracy is what has taken humanity from caves to the stars and will take us far further. Clinging to an outdated past, when that past is still an option for those who choose to partake of it, is foolishness in the extreme in my opinion.

Todays children, and indeed adults, may have lost letter writing, but we are more connected now than we have ever been in history. Right now, considering it quickly, I can call, email, text, tweet, Facebook message. I could fire up Word and write a sonnet, or sit and write the sort of profound insights this blog is awash with (seriously, go and read more of it).

Or, I could get a pen, find some paper (I dont own any A4 paper), an envelope and finally a stamp. I should point out that as far as I can tell my local Tesco doesnt sell stamps. I could then write the letter once, get it wrong, retry, get a few spelling mistakes again, and rewrite it. I reckon if I wanted to write a perfect letter with no corrections I'd need a minimum of 2 attempts. I'd also need to find out where my friends live, I have barely any of their addresses, why would I?

I am constantly in awe at the flow on information between me and the world around me, both from friends and from the wider world. I am endlessly deluged with a torrent of information which would be utterly impossible without the willingness of people to sit down and share their insight with the world at large. Letters are a selfish medium, shared between only two people, easily destroyed or lost, and their insights lost forever. There we go, my controversial opinion for the day, I'm going to say it anyway.

We should teach our children and each other to value the word, not the tool used to write it. To reach out and discover new mysteries of literature, philosophy and the grand ideas which exist out there. We should teach them to form new ideas, to write them down in any form they please. If we can teach them to share these ideas with others, to collaborate and develop those ideas to perfection then we will have succeeded.

The written word is only of value because of the ideas it contains. If you want to contain those ideas between only two people, then do so, write a letter, or send an email if you prefer. The medium is utterly irrelevant, the quality of the contents is the important part.

We cannot be hidebound, trapped in a romantic past which in truth, never existed. Children will not be 'better' if they can write. They will be better if they can communicate well, and that is the goal we should all be seeking to promote.

The pen was once mightier than the sword, but only when the pen was the only weapon in the hands of the writer. When Iranian people wanted to rise up against their corrupt and unjust leaders they turned to Twitter and Facebook, not to hand written notes. Across the world people can reach out to each other and form communities which have never existed before, and which never could have existed under the tyranny of the pen.

Anyway, I think I'm going to stop there, before I descend into the same presumptuous arrogance as the writer of the Guardian article. I'm then going to see how long it takes me to handwrite this blog post.

That last sentance was a lie.
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Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Payment, made palatable

I just paid money for music, for the first time in quite some time. It cost me £4.99 per month and gave me access to a huge array of songs, playable at my discretion.

For those who arent familiar with this, I'm talking about Spotify. Spotify is a music service which provides on demand songs for a monthly subscription. Right now I'm enjoying a little Snow Patrol, later I plan on finding some songs by The Mountain Goats which I havent heard before.

Until this moment I honestly can't remember the last time I bought any music. I've been entirely dependent on the radio, mostly online radio stations. Music is simply too expensive to be appealing to me, and as such I refuse to buy it, even if its by a musician I like. Online stations in particular mean I have choice of music styles even if I dont have access to specific songs.

However, the cost has now reached a level at which I'm willing to pay, not just once, but probably monthly. Finally the music industry has won me back.

Over the last few years there has been an aggressive campaign, mostly conducted in Courts and through Governmental lobbying, to attack the community of "pirates". Most notably the Torrent community, which distributes files on a peer to peer network. Indeed Pirate Bay, one of the largest hosters of Torrents, has, today, moved over to a new hosting service which is run by The Pirate Party, placing themselves effectively beyond the reach of the law for the time being.

In my experience there are three main types of material being 'stolen':
Computer games
Music
Films
Until recently, I would not pay for any of these. The price is too high, the quality is too variable, and increasingly, particularly in the case of games, the distributors put barriers in my way. Ubisoft's recent forays into DRM being the worst. Actively denying me a service which I'm now willing to pay for, unless I meet their arbitary criteria.

So where are we now? I'll pay for two of the above products, music and games. Music through Spotify, and games through a service called Steam.

Both of these services offer me an alternative way of getting a product which I wasnt willing to pay for previously. Steam is particularly interesting, as they provide regular discounts on many of their games of as much as 75%, meaning I rarely pay full price for a game. Games are also mobile and can be downloaded anywhere I choose, adding substantial amounts of convenience.

So, why am I talking about what is essentially, a pet peeve?

Because I think it provides a set of useful case studies for how online behaviour can be altered by changing the barriers to entry. Both the services which have got me back into paying for things have low barriers to entry (quick sign up, register your card details, point and click), and they offer me substantially more convenience that I was offered before.

We live in a world where convenience is not just appreciated, it is expected. It is simply not acceptable to users to have any barrier. People have blanched at Facebook's recent privacy issues, but I'm willing to bet the majority are still clicking on the ubiquitous Facebook Connect logo.

I should say as well, that both these services were recommended to me by other people. I didnt seen them out, they created advocates of their users and so I joined what I percieve to be a community of users. I very much doubt Sony has quite so many advocates as does Spotify, which I will now be enthusiastically recommending to others.

As we seek out audiences and advocates for the issues we are trying to promote we have to keep firmly in mind that people will pay, in fact they'll pay quite a lot, to have something which is convenient. What they won't pay for, or indeed engage with, are services which are inconvenient, or which place barriers in their way.

Campaigners have to keep in mind that in order to have a successful online campaign they need two things, a real (I cant stress this enough) cause constructed around a strong central message, and an easily accessed method of engagement.

The music, film and gaming industries wouldnt do badly to keep it in mind too.
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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The three states of online communication

I've been pondering the various paradigms when it comes to communicating via social media, whether that's Twitter, Facebook or something else. There are a variety of popular mechanisms avaliable to broadcast what you are doing, or to conduct advertising. People use these tools in a huge number of ways.

Personally I've got a split, I use my Facebook status to let people know about the more inane side of my life, and my Twitter to broadcast the more studious side of my life. Since Facebook is broadly limited to my friends, I feel like they won't mind hearing about my new running shoes or where I'm going for dinner. Twitter is a more open tool and I figure that's a more sensible medium to broadcast new blog posts or to communicate with other people I find interesting.

This realisation about myself has led me to thinking about the various ways public facing figures, MPs, companies, celebrities, use these tools to communicate and I think they can be summaried into three broad categories (NB: Categories named for my amusement):

Personal mutterers: These are the people who are using the tool to talk about their personal lives, usually in a great deal of detail, without an interest in commentary. Its rare to see a public facing figure doing this, but it has been known to happen.

Transmitophiles: These are people who are putting out a higher level of information, which they believe will be of use to an audience. There isnt an invitation to discuss the information, however they will engage in conversation if someone else engages them actively. If the transmitter has unique information, it can be successful, if they are retransmitting existing information it'll be less valuable.

Dialoguers: This final type is using the medium to open up a conversation with people who are interested in similar topics. This is the hardest method to maintain, as it requires a great deal of ongoing effort and contiuous monitoring. Its also the most rewarding however, and the most likely to garner a significant following.

Some of the most succesful politicial figures during the election were able to create a dialogue with their constituents. They acted as a source of information, both about themselves and the local area, providing their followers with information they might not have otherwise. At the same time they used this audience as a potential source of voters, openly advocating their political position and its benefits.

The majority of the rest were transmitters. Providing information almost solely about themselves and the campaign they were involved in. There is no harm in this, but it doesnt incentivise people to reach out and engage with you.

Its a subtle transition between the two states but an important one. It requires that you are unselfish in providing information about things beyond yourself. Advertising local groups and activities for example, is always valued and creates a pool of goodwill which you can access later. It also makes you seem less self interested in your activities.

When developing a social media strategy (if that isnt too grand a way of describing it) it's important to consider which category you fall into and which is appropriate. Remember, if you want to create a dialogue, you have to do it from day one until such a time as you close down the activity, or else you'll alienate the very people you're trying to engage with.

I'm now going to go and transmit the fact I wrote this blog piece and figure out how I can create a dialogue about it.

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Monday, 17 May 2010

A novel way to buy shirts

Firstly for those who have an interest in cyber security and/or computer viruses, there's an excellent article on the Conflikter virus and its evolution on The Atlantic, avaliable here. I found it tough going but eminently readable. Considering this is now a botnet with 6-7 million computers in it, it's worth knowing about before it destroys civilisation.

However, on to the main portion of tonight's symposium, an excellent service I found out about the other day. Blank Label is a site dedicated to the art of co-creating shirts. What does that mean? In essence, that you design a shirt, and they make it for you.

The array of options is vast, and ever growing. They're even trying to engage people on the designs they have on offer. For example they currently have a poll up on a new collar style - the Nehru.

Speaking as someone who can't afford to have tailor made shirts (sad but true) this service is an amazing idea and one I have already taken advantage of. A charcoal gray shirt, with customised collar, cuffs and buttons, including delivery, set me back just shy of $75. To me, this isnt wildly expensive. I rarely buy work clothes and as such I'm willing to spend a little extra to get something special.

Also, when you put it in perspective, its not actually a huge amount. A TM Lewin shirt (my usual choice) would set me back in the region of £40. Thats for a generic, off the rack shirt, something I'll see coworkers wearing on a daily basis and which no one will look twice at. For a little over £50 I now have a shirt on the way which I wont see anywhere else. And I'm willing to pay for that little conceit.

Blank Label have hit upon a business model which I think will carry them a long way. They've brought a product which was previously exclusive to a worldwide community at an affordable cost. They are taking advantage of the fact that the internet creates a marketplace which can virtually guarantee they are profitable, even if they're only making a very small margin on each unit sold.

They arent the only company doing this, Chocri provides custom chocolate bars, and [me]&Goji allows you to create customised cereal. Strange concepts though these might be, I'm grateful for them, as I'll no longer have to think about good ideas for birthday presents.

Businesses like these are surfing a new wave of potential created not only by the internet, but the rapid dissemination of 'buzz' around the products they sell. Social media is spreading these things in a viral fashion, utterly bypassing old media and jumping from person to person.

Unique production is an increasingly viable concept across the board. Cost is being cut back further and further as the market accessability increases, the mass production technology grows more sophisticated (ironically more sophisticated mass production is unique production done on a massive scale) and the consumer demand grows. The range of products will continue to grow. Blank Label are clearly in the market to create a custom suit sooner or later, if someone doesnt beat them there.

Its an exciting new world, where anything is accessable. The next step, one I'll discuss in a later post, is to bring mass production into the home, allowing you to fabricate unique things.

I will of course, report back on the quality of the shirt when it arrives. For now, take a look at the site and see what you think.
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Sunday, 16 May 2010

Boyd according to Coram

It's been a little while since I got a chance to do a book review, as I've been focussing on other things. However I finally got a chance to read one which has been sitting at the top of my book pile for quite a while, Boyd by Robert Coram.

I've been fascinated by Boyd since I was first introduced to his ideas about a year ago, and reading Certain to Win by Chet Richards only reinforced this fascination.

Boyd's life is a reflection of his evolving ideas. Starting off as a fighter pilot he was renowned as '40 second Boyd', the man who could defeat any opponent in simulated combat in 40 seconds or less. He did this by using a manuver which most other pilots would have blanched at.

He became fascinated by quantifying fighter combat, establishing the mathematical explanation for why some planes were better than others, specifically the
Russian MiG-15 and US F86-Sabre. To do this he attended university, becoming qualified as an engineer, and over time created his grant theory of fighter combat. To me this is where Boyd really began, he read voraciously, consuming information on a wider and wider array of subjects.

Coram charts the rise of the 'fighter mafia', Boyd's group of acolytes who ran an insurgent campaign within the Pentagon to create a real fighter plan. This was at a time when the only interest the top brass had was in multi purpose aircraft, heavy planes, designed primarily to deliver nuclear weapons.

Boyd advised his acolytes repeatedly that they could either "be someone, or do something" and all of them dedicated themselves to this. Rarely rising to high office, but achieving more than those who rose above them.

The final section is the most poiniant and interesting. Boyd's mind, clearly having moved on from a level at which practical problems could satiate him moved into a more conceptual realm. It seems to me that what he was attempting was to find the essence of strategy, the fundamental mechanisms which allowed victory to occur. He found his answers in ancient history, philosophy, physics and myriad other sources. I've talked elsewhere about some of the results of this, including the OODA loop.

Boyd would go on to work with the US Marine Corp, developing their concepts of combat and how victory could be achieved. In the post Vientnam world the USMC were keen to form new ideas and Boyd's relentlessly inquiring mind was up to the task.

Coram perfectly captures the raw drive of a man whose impact on the world is largely unrecognised. A man whose mind could not be contained and was always looking for the next challenge. Who never backed down from a challange, even those he couldnt win, because he knew on a fundamental level that there was no unwinnable situation.

I recently wrote a book list for some colleagues who wanted to know what I thought were the best books avaliable on strategy and campaigning. I thought hard about where I felt Boyd fit within that structure and in the end I put this book towards the end, next to Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

Coram's claim that Boyd changed the art of war, I agree. But as more people are exposed to his ideas, and try to embrace them, he may also change the way we do business and for those who try and understand his ideas, the way we think about the world.

It's tough going, and I'll have to read it again, but Coram merges both analysis and biography seamlessly into an eminantly readable whole. An excellent book and one I highly recommend.

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Saturday, 15 May 2010

Personal Democracy Forum - GE2010 replay

So, as mentioned I went along to the PDF event on the General Election. For an overview of speakers and event take a look here.

I think its worth being fairly up front and saying that of the UK people who spoke at the event, I was almost universally unimpressed. There was a clear sense that not only did they not understand social media, but they also didnt understand why it hadnt had the impact that they had assumed it would do in the General Election.

The Conservatives in particular were on the defensive. I'm sure there are a lot of recriminations behind closed doors at the moment and its not hard to see why. With a huge budget and a massive lead in the polls, there was no victory, and I genuinely think that the failure to open a dialogue with real people is a substantial part of that. The attempts to communicate electronically were aimed at the Westminster bubble, not at the people they thought they were targetting, undecided voters.

I'd like to know how much opinion research was done into the online platforms being used by the Conservatives. I get the sense from all I've read and see, that there was far too much of an attempt to copy the "Obama model" rather than to form a real campaign based around social media.

The various bloggers on the panel were okay, but I didnt get the sense they were particularly abreast of the platforms or how they could be used. Certainly when the extremely suspect Tweetminster polling (essentially using the appearence of words on Twitter to measure the success of a particular party) was mentioned as a valid source of information by one of them I had to roll my eyes.

Bloggers could be useful in this sort of discussion, but to my knowledge the ones on the panel are largely what I would call "transmit" bloggers. Their blogs exist to transmit their views, rather than to disseminate ideas or provoke conversation.

The one person who really impressed me on the panel was Stella Creasy MP for Walthamstow. She was the only person on the panel who actually understood the purpose of social media is to offer a way to create a dialogue with people. Its not supposed to be used instead of other ways of communicating, but rather to suppliment the more traditional ideas and support them.

Stella royally scolded the Conservatives on the panel with a clearly superior knowledge of the platforms, albeit in a manner that suggested her understanding was instinctive, rather than based on a strong technological knowledge. An observation, not a criticism, since technical knowledge isnt necessarily vital to utilising these tools effectively.

Mindy Finn and Joe Trippi, both American strategists working for the Republicans and Democrats respectively, also stood out. They clearly understood the necessity of using social media to open a dialogue with real people.

They also had a clearer understanding of the fact that although the Obama election had used social media heavily, it was not an internet election. In fact they made a point I firmly believe, there will never be an internet election. There are only tools which can be used in an election to further your own goals and hamper those of an opponent.

Two observations that I want to make overall...

First, lets all agree to stop talking about The Obama Election, as if it is some sort of mantra by which all things can be explained. The Obama Election was precisely that, the election of Obama. You can't simply copy it and turn it into The Cameron Election. Lets learn the lessons and build something better. Just because there was a website called my.barackobama.com that was succesful, doesnt mean your myconservatives.com website will be succesful.

Second, lets demystify social media. Its not a magic wand, its simply a set of tools which exist to be used. The best thing any campaigner can do is go out, learn about every platform, from direct mailers to virtual phone banks to Facebook groups and treat them as a unified toolkit.

I think that'll do for now. Overall a fairly interesting event, but I was almost embarresed to watch the guys from the UK try and get their heads around concepts which Americans campaigners get almost instinctively.
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Friday, 14 May 2010

Diaspora begins - Facebook's death knell?

So, the other day I came across Diaspora, a concept which has emerged after the recent swing against Facebook and its lack of privacy.

The idea of Diaspora is simple, to create "a privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed, open source, social network". How hard could that be?

Well not so hard that four guys don't think they can put it togeather over a summer, and so, they've started their campaign.

Here's the full description from their (extremely professional) fundraising site:
Enter your Diaspora “seed,” a personal web server that stores all of your information and shares it with your friends. Diaspora knows how to securely share (using GPG) your pictures, videos, and more. When you have a Diaspora seed of your own, you own your social graph, you have access to your information however you want, whenever you want, and you have full control of your online identity. Once we have built a solid foundation, we will make Diaspora easy to extend to facilitate any type of communication, and the possibilities will be endless.
This is the first, serious looking, competator to Facebook. They've managed to raise over $160,000 to support their work so far, with more coming in all the time.

Thinking about it from a tech angle, there's nothing here which is impossible. Indeed in some ways Tweetdeck and a few other services are already part way there, they just dont offer you control of your data. This new service is offering that as a concept.

Take a look at their proposals and have a think about what it might mean. A distributed, uncontrolled, social network. No corporation mediating the gap, just you and your friends, speaking to each other. Finally open source, two words I will literally never tire of hearing, so the innovation comes from the community.

So far I've donated $10. When they can show me work has started and they have a viable product. I'm going to put more in.

You should consider doing the same.

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Thursday, 13 May 2010

A quick update

So, we've finally got a Government, one which I'm broadly supportive of, although it'll have vast problems to face up to over the next year.

I'll be writing my own evaluation of the various campaigns over the weekend and early next week time allowing, but in the interim Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home has written an excellent piece on the Conservative campaign. It appears in a couple of different places but the best I've seen is the one in the Guardian.

One thing worth considering for the future is that the new Government will have to work a lot harder to carry the public with it on tough decisions and the campaign can teach them a great deal.

What won't be possible, or acceptable, is for the Government to act unilaterally without at least opening a dialogue with people. I honestly believe that the brutual but necessary cuts can be explained to the majority of people. They'll still gripe, but I think most will understand that the choice is between a bankcrupt nation, or hard times.

I hope that in this spirit there is a greater move for Government openness, and a more American style campaigning approach to legislation, building a consensus amongst the public as well as Parliament.

E-democracy is still in its infancy, but our Government should seek to embrace it actively. Putting as much data as possible online, and allowing its use by members of the public if they so wish. I hope that a revised Freedom of Information act is considered, including some of these precepts. The data must be honest, because one fudged statistic will doom forever any chance perception that this is a new politics.

I hope that this Government, so different from what has come before, can effect a cultural change across our Civil Service and indeed our whole Government apperatus. I think its unlikely, the intertia of these institutions is immense beyond belief, but it can be done by a Prime Minister and Executive willing to stand up to career civil servants.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for the moment.

I'll be attending Personal Democracy Forum's General Election 2010 Action Replay event (quite a mouthful, the technical term is PDF GE2010 Action Replay, slightly easier). There will be live coverage of the event here. I'll be doing some sort of writeup afterwards.

I may also soon be setting up one of these new fangled 'twitter' things people keep talking about. I hear they're getting popular.
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Sunday, 9 May 2010

Instant action

I tell a lie, I need to put up a post while this idea is still fresh in my head, its a concept I'll be working on more in the future.

I've talked a lot about activity and action in this blog. A campaign is, after all, a series of actions, based on sound strategy. The OODA loop has been discussed at length, and it is on decisions and actions which I want to focus.

In previous times the gap between decision and action was significant. Think of the general on the battlefield, his orders must first be formulated in his head, with advice from staff and intelligence, his fingerspitzengefuhl (trans: intuitive feel) and so forth, then delivered via messenger, radio or other technology.

As technology has advanced however this gap has shrunk and we have now reached a point where the transition between decision and action, and indeed the phase of action itself can be as near to instantaneous as I believe it is possible to be.

This applies primarily to the case of campaigning which utilised modern technology and social media, where communication and calls to action are conducted via electronic means. Although our ability to undertake other pieces of activity is also accelerating. Labour's virtual phone bank for example, made it possible for anyone, anywhere in the country, to become a telephone operative for the party, within minutes. Staggering when you consider the implications.

If I decide I need all my supporters to march on a government building then the only activity left which takes time is writing an email and hitting the send button. Assuming a good campaign structure where my work only has to be signed off by one, or at most two, people, I can and have turned around this sort of thing in 15-20 minutes. Influencing the actions of hundreds of people in next to no time, certainly quicker than anything which could have been done a decade ago.

The Obama campaign, with its embracing of the internet, may have recognised some or all of this. Certainly they were putting out material too often and too quickly to be spending vast amounts of time considering it. Decisions were made, and within hours there was a youtube video, an email to every supporter with a link, and tens of thousands of mobile phones were bleeping away merrily.

Gordon Brown did it after Bigotgate. upon realising the damage it might do, an email went out to every Labour supporter (or most of them, I know a few people who didnt get it who probably should have), apologising and making a clear case for continued support. If the lack of damage in the polls is anything to go by, it worked. Rapid, direct communication, empowered by technology may have significantly mitigated the damage which could have been caused.

This may not seem like a big deal, but I believe it is fundamental to effective campaigning in the modern age. Understanding that the boundaries of our potential speed are no longer limited by anything other than our own ability to decide what to do.

It affects everything, your ability to undertake action, your ability to redirect a campaign's focus, your ability to react, everything.

Campaigns need to start embracing this fact, and modifying their structure accordingly. More streamlined working arrangements with greater power pushed towards staff at the appropriate level, so they are empowered to act faster, are vital. Building trust within your team so you know that people will make the right calls at the right time is equally vital.

I admit that the scariest part of this is the speed. Can you and a small team make a snap decision and carry it through? If you can't, then why are you doing the job you're doing? You might not be right, you might jump left and realise that you should have jumped right, but the important thing is that you jumped. There is no shame in being wrong so long as you took decisive action based upon the best evidence you had avaliable to you. If nothing else, you'll know next time to jump left, and thats a worthwhile piece of knowledge.

It can no longer be acceptable to take days to make a decision. It needs to be an accepted fact that any delay increases the chance that the action, when undertaken, will be worthless.

In summary... We are no longer constrained by anything other than our own ability to make decisions at speed and under pressure. Our actions can now occur instantly.
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Limited blogging

I've been on silent running recently. Watching the drama (or lack of it) unfold, a few personal things going on, and a super secret project I'm working on are all taking up chunks of my time, leaving me with little time to write some of the things that have been on my mind recently.

I promise to catch up soon as there are some interesting things to discuss.

Tomorrow will be the big day.
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Friday, 7 May 2010

Whats next?

In case it went over anyone/everyone's heads, the title to this piece is in fact a reference to the West Wing.

So, the election is technically over, but we're a long way from having a Government. Further than most people think in my opinion.

Cameron will have to alienate significant sections of the Conservative Party to offer a platform the Liberal Democrats will sign up to. And the Liberal Democrats would have to give up on their once in a generation opportunity to force through voting reform.

It shouldnt be understated how much damage Cameron will do to himself and his brand of Conservatism if he compromises too much with the Lib Dems.

The problem is that to get an absolute assurance of voting reform the Lib Dems would have to join up with Brown, the clunking fist, and in this case the bitter pill which would need to be swallowed. Will they do it? In my opinion they'd be mad not to.

Consider this. Lib Dems support Brown, a man who is undeniably on his last legs. As his last act, before being given the 'old yellar' treatment by one of the Milibands or Balls, he pushes through a voting reform Bill. At that point, its off to the races. The main parties struggle to adapt, the Lib Dems potentially thrive and Parliament is totally revamped. Certainly the days of 50 seats would be a distant memory.

Its incredible that Brown has so alienated and horrified the country that Clegg is almost ruling out any deal with him, even though it will almost certainly destroy any prospect of voting reform.

Anyway, I have no idea what comes next. I think we're now in the realms of personal choice. A very small number of people in each Party will decide what happens now. Three men are fighting for political and personal survival.

I don't think its overstating the case to say this is a once in a generation political situation.
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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

So, it's time

In about 10 hours the polls open and it all begins. It's been a strange old campaign, Brown couldnt do anything right, Cameron didnt ever really get traction, and Clegg came out of nowhere and wasnt really ready for it.

If anyone tells you they know whats going to happen tomorrow, they're a liar. Its too close and too unpredictable. Universal swing has been proven to be an absolute nonsense although the media persist in using it. Why that is, goodness knows, but ours is not to reason why.

The smart money seems to be that the Conservatives will come out on top, with Labour coming second and the Liberal Democrats will gain a good number of seats at the expense of both parties. Personally I'm not sure the Conservatives will get an outright majority, but we'll see how it goes.

The model I've come to rely on most during this election is the one avaliable on FiveThirtyEight, the maths makes sense and it better fits most of the nonsense results universal swing throws up.

Thats all for tonight, after the election I'll be doing a piece on each of the campaigns, reviewing what I see as being the strengths and weaknesses of each.
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An event for those who are interested

I'll be attending Personal Democracy Forum's General Election 2010 - Action Replay, an evening event reviewing the use of digital and social media during the campaign. To give you an overview, here's some information on the people who'll be attending:

Speakers include two of the most sought after US political strategists Mindy Finn and Joe Trippi, along with PdF’s founder Andrew Rasiej. From the UK we welcome Stella Creasy, Labour's PC in Walthamstow, Joanne Cash Conservative's PC in Westminster North, the senior strategists behind the online campaigns from the 3 main parties: Labour's Mark Hanson (new media strategist, former associate editor of LabourHome.org), Conservative's Craig Elder (Online communities editor at the conservative party) and Lib Dem's Mark Pack (Head of Digital at Mandate Communications and co-editor Lib Dem Voice www.LibDemVoice.org). We also welcome Harry Cole editor of ToryBear.com, Anthony Painter Commentator and Journalist, Alberto Nardelli, creator of Tweetminster and Prospect Magazine's James Crabtree
In my view the campaigns have been weak on the use of digital media, with the main innovations coming from imaginative people on the ground, however it'll be interesting to get the inside view.


If anyone else is interested in attending you can register here.

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Monday, 3 May 2010

Microsoft, finally

Only two weeks or so late, but I've finally got the time to do a proper review of Microsoft Townhall.

Townhall is an interesting platform, aimed at creating a free flowing debate within an online environment around particular issues or campaigns.

The core of the package is the ability for the user to ask questions, vote on questions by other users, and comment on questions. For the user, this is a great opportunity to discuss issues that are of interest to them, for the operator, it gives insights into what users think about particular issues. Hot topics will rise in the rankings, boring ones will fall and so forth.

Users are rewarded for activity in much the same way they are on act.ivi.st, through a points based system. How motivating this will be, I dont know, but I have a feeling for a larger campaign it will help generate buzz. Potentially I wonder if there is the possibility that you could link points to 'unlocks', things which only certain high ranking users can do. E.g. you have to earn [X] points in order to pose your own questions.

There's not a lot here which particularly stands out for me as an original concept, but this is a very polished version of things which have come before. The Microsoft brand is, of course, a help in his case as clearly they've dedicated a significant amount of resource to the idea.

At the end of the day its all about insight for the operator. And it sounds like there are a whole host of back end tools you can use to get information about your users. You can also pull data off the site for ease of presentation, and it all promises to integrate seamlessly with existing Microsoft software.

Facebook connect is fully integrated, which reassured me that the barrier for entry would be extremely low, and the site could be folded into popular groups, or indeed serve as the stimulus for a group if needs be. It also means you can do a huge amount of data mining on your users. As a Facebook user this bothers me slightly, as I'm getting a bit bothered by Facebook's willingness to share my personal data. As a person who might find having this data useful, I'm okay with it. Doublethink at its best.

Applications are in development for all the usual suspects, iPhone, Android, etc etc, although whether people would want to get involved in Townhall site whilst on the move is open to debate. Personally I'm not convinced.

Shockingly Microsoft has released the source code for this platform however, and thats what personally interests me the most. With the source code there is a virtually unlimited amount of possibility for the platform once users get ahold of it.

The platform is tied into Microsoft Azure, so although the code might be free, using it will cost you money. Not a lot, but a reasonable monthly cost. Certainly it shouldnt be seen as something that'll break budgets.

There's a useful list of potential groups which might find this method of interaction useful on the site, it includes:
  • Customers of a brand
  • Attendees of an event
  • Customers looking for support
  • Fans of a sports team, TV show, or film
  • Fans in advertiser sponsored Q&As with celebrities
  • Voters in a political or issue campaign
  • Constituents looking to interact with government agencies
  • Disaster victims looking to connect with resources
  • Virtual teams that include internal and external resources (OEMs, partners, etc.)
It'll be interesting to see how all this works out. I'll certainly keep my eye out for opportunities to use this technology as I think its quite impressive. Take a look at the test site (linked above) and see what you think.
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Sunday, 2 May 2010

A bit of future gazing

There's an excellent article by Renard Sexton over on FiveThirtyEight giving an overview of the implications of first past the post voting and what the future might hold for the Liberal Democracts. Well worth a read if you're interested in that sort of thing.

I've got to the stage now where I'm largely checked out on the election, barring something dramatic happening its largely played out. Although there is always the possibility of another 'bigotgate' incident, I personally doubt there's a great deal left to happen bar voting, which I will most likely be doing at a deeply unsociable hour, since I can't face standing in line after work.

What interests me now is what will happen directly after the election. Here are a random group of thoughts which have occured to me about each of the Parties:

Labour - They will lose, lets just get that clear, nothing can bring them back to the number 1 slot. Personally I think this will mean Brown will have to go and then the leadership contest begins. Whether he goes willingly or not will only affect the timing. Then the party will have to make a choice, Old Labour, under someone like Ed Balls, or New Labour under a Miliband.

Conservatives - The likely outcome at this stage is a minority Tory government, or a tiny majority. Either way, I have a feeling that Cameron and his circle will be blamed for taking the party from a 14 point poll lead, to neck and neck with the Liberal Democrats. Depending on the mood of the Party Cameron might walk away unscathed, or he might come in badly wounded.

Lib Dems - Last but not least, the Lib Dems will have to consolodate their relative success for the next election. This will involve a major shakeup of the party. They won't get lucky twice, and will need a professional and aggressive campaign if they want to bootstrap themselves to further electoral success.

There's a lot of other things to consider, particularly voting reform. But for the minute that will have to do.
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Saturday, 1 May 2010

Science fiction strategy

Ender's Game isnt much like the other books I've reviewed up to this point, its a science fiction book written by Orson Scott Card.

The premise of the book is simple, Earth has been attacked by an alien race called 'Buggers'. The Buggers have been fought off and Earth has decided to go on the offensive. Enter the book's protagonist, Ender.

Ender i
s recruited into a military programme which takes children at around 5 years old and trains them to be the soldiers who will fight the Buggers on their own terms. All this training takes place through games, and there is a sinister undertone to the book as the young Ender is manipulated through childish devices into becoming what the people who run the programme want him to become.

One of the features of the book which I like the most is the way in which real military thinking is woven into the book. All of the characters have a believable element to them and it is clear the author has done his research.

The most valued part of Ender's ability to his superiors is his flexible mind, able to take established problems and turn them on their head, coming up with a new solution which is both unexpected and agile. In one part of the book Ender is introduced to "The Battleroom", an area where the young children are trained in zero gravity combat.

The purpose of the game is for one side to eliminate enough of their opponents to get from their point of entry, to the enemies and shut it down.
Ender quickly realises that in this environment, perpection of up, down, left and right is entirely optional (due to the zero gravity), and he can enforce his own perspective on it. And thus comes up with realisation that
The enemy gate is down
Personally, that is one of the most powerful parts of the book. Using a flexible mind and thinking beyond established wisdom can redefine any activity. In this case, Ender has changed from having to fly across a room into falling. Simple, but effective.

We should all try to think in these terms, what is the route of least resistance to our goals. Is it the obvious route? Or are we missing some subtle new way of looking at the world which would make it easier. Can we fall towards victory. Another way of interpreting this is to ask, what is the route of lowest friction, that will abrade the least of our strength for the minimum effort?

I really recommend Ender's Game to anyone, its a fantastic book, and is probably one of the only books of fiction I've read so far which firmly deserves a place in the reading list on this site.

Take a look, its short, sweet and you won't regret it.
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