links for 2009-10-31

Playful 09

I’m at Playful ’09 today. I’m not going to be taking verbatim notes, as is my usual habit, but instead just jotting down a few random notes.

Roo Reynolds
Films based on games, often not very good. Minesweeper film trailer (from College Trailer). The only good film from a game is Tron.

Leila Johnston
Wrote Enemy of Chaos, adventure book written for the aging nerd market, not many books for that demographic. Character believes “Obsessive regulation might stave off decay” [sounds like our government].

Kareem Ettouney
How do large teams collaborate? Given bands, with four people in, struggle to get along. It’s actually quite hard to encourage collaboration. His company started with five people, everyone “had the moans”, critical of past employers. As soon as you start hiring talented people, how do you minimise the moans? People are using 2% of their talent and feel unfulfilled, want to do more. How do you increase their input, get a level of ownership that doesn’t create a mishmash. Traditional pyramid structure with specialists to produce work does function ok, old school model. But when you start working with exceptional people, you remember how you used to feel when no one was listening to your ideas.

So started to talk about ownership. Get people to own – means that there’s a responsibility and accountability, that’s the price. Share the problem, let people have ideas, but the hard part is to give your idea time, investigate it, present it. Email thread is not enough, if you want to own your area, earn it. People love the responsibility. Preconception was that the important bit was the ideas, but that leads to incoherence.

But when you share pragmatic aspects, e.g. deadlines, selling to clients, that allows people to rise to the job. No more old-school artistic direction any more, doesn’t work. Shift artistic director role from mastermind to matchmaker, trying to match skills. Share the journey. Harder than the pyramid style. Important too to have personal projects – makes you less precious. Downside of creativity is becoming precious and losing objectivity, because it hurts. Healthy to have your own avenue. If something doesn’t come out at work, it has to come out somewhere else and better it comes out in your own project, if it doesn’t it clouds your thinking. Companies who say, “Everything you do we own” are shooting themselves in their foot, because their staff are jaded.

Daniel Soltis
Tinker-it. Important to get people to feel that they can take something, like a radio, apart and do stuff with it, and change the way that they relate to it. Made a weekend-long immersive street-game. There are tech problems with games – keeping track of players, game state etc. Then iPhone came out, which changes everything. But walking around starting at an iPhone screen is not really all that great. No tactile pleasures as with game pieces. Cross-over between traditional tactile items and tech, e.g. GPS puzzle box that only opened when in the right place, was made as a wedding present.

Lucy Wurstlin
“Play is nature’s training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing deep and enduring harm to the minds and bodies of its citizens” – David Lloyd George.

Play or Die. 4iP. Education via games and technology.

Robin Burkinshaw with Matt Locke
Robin create two Simms characters, Alice and Kev. These are homeless characters: Kev is a drunken looser, Alice is his daughter. Set personality traits in Simms to negative traits, like quick to anger, says inappropriate things. Gave Kev the goal to try and date 10 other characters – impossible given character traits. Game turned into a moving storyline around homelessness.

James Bridle
Awesomeness more important than innovation. Awesome should be proper, God-fearing awe, in a “Space is big” way. Chap who did an illustration for every page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Another chap, Tom Phillips, who found a Victorian novel and is drawing on every page, pulling out a hidden possible narrative. Heath Robinson, “I really have a secret satisfaction in being considered rather mad”. Heath Robinson was also name of the precursor to the Colossus computer that helped break the Enigma code.

Babbage, first great weird machine builder. Although he never build his Difference Engine. Wasn’t capable to build it, wasn’t sure it would work, never got funding, but did build bits to demonstrate his theory of miracles: He believed that miracles were just very very unlikely events. Would get his guests to crank the handle of his device at dinner parties to try and demonstrate unlikely events. Calculated odds of the Resurrection – said it wasn’t a miracle just very unlikely. Wrote to Tennyson about The Vision of Sin to correct his poem about birth and death rates. Started designing a Naughts and Crosses engine, analysed the game, and thought he could do it – maybe he could finance the Different Engine if he built a Naughts and Crosses machine.

People have build a Naughts and Crosses engine – MENACE. Was done by one of the Bletchley Park code breakers. Built a computer out of match boxes. Machine could learn – it had beads inside that correspond to each possible move, and you take beads out of failed moves and put them into successful boxes. James built it… lots of matchboxes and beads (well, beans, as ran out of beads).

Go. Simple rules, but very complex to play. Very hard to model on a computer. Tried to calculate how many matchboxes needed to model Go. 304 needed for OX, with 10 beads. Go would need 3.4 x 10^15 matchboxes, each with 3610 beads in each matchbox, each being 18m^2. If you built it, it would be slightly larger than the Crab Nebula.

Katy Lindemann
Would love to talk about robots, but is going to talk about behaviour change. (And robots.)

There was a game where little robots, which needed to cross New York but could not get there without help from humans. For months, none of them got lost because New Yorkers took care of the robots.

Japanese have a tradition of play and robots, very hopeful, love tech and excited about the future of technology.

But these weren’t designed to change behaviour. Play is fundamental to culture and society. Playing is how we learn and grow up. How can we use playful design and experience to actively encourage behaviour change. Games are a gateway drug to learning. But not necessarily best way to change behaviour. How can we game real life and make the every day, mundane things through play. High Scores. Integration about high scores, interesting way to get people to change behaviour.

E.g. housework. Japanese are building a house robot to do the cleaning, but meantime we’ll have to find something else to motivate. ChoreWars – get experience points the more housework you do.

Encourage more efficient driving. Turn it into a game. Fiat EcoDrive: USB stick in car monitors driving behaviour and then analyse on computer. Gives tips. Can set targets, can better own scores, can share scores with others. Collectively shows CO2 emissions.

Getting diabetics to regularly check blood sugar is tough. Digit, glucose monitor that attaches to Nintendo DS. Rewards good behaviour.

But it’s not all about scores. Sometimes it’s just making it fun. Fun makes it easier to rewire the brain. A lot of democracy stuff is not fun – petitions, writing to MP. How do you give kids a voice? Making it ‘cool’ doesn’t give you the sense that you’re being listened to. No pay off.

Writing robot, in Houses of Parliament, could let people write stuff, and Twitter it, and it’d be written out at HoP.

How to get people to exercise more? We know what we should be doing, but don’t do it. Make it fun. Dance Dance Revolution. Schools in US include DDR in their PE lessons. Wii Fit approved by Dept of Health.

But also make everyday stuff fun. About taking the stairs. [Reminds me of the “racing up the stairs to the 11th floor” wiki page we had at DrKW, as was]. This project turns a staircase into a piano. 66% more people chose to use the stairs than normal.

Recycling. Firstly, make it easier, change the infrastructure. But not enough. Pay for recycling? If you stop paying, will people stop recycling. Bottle Bank Arcade – was used 100 times, where nearby conventional bottle bank was used twice.

Tassos Stevens
The Ashes. It’s all about the question, “What happens next?” If you see someone throw a ball to someone else, can you turn away before you see if they’ve caught it?

Sport generally have simple dynamics. Cricket a bit more complex. Ashes decided over two months, no one can watch it all, gives you permission to miss stuff. Punctuated play, and gaps lets you talk about things. Cricket is unclear even who is winning until the end. Lets people tell each other stories, as the potential imagined outcome shifts. Result can be determined by Acts of God – the weather. Strong tribalism too.

Russell Davies
Two types of model railways: ones that try to replicate the world, and ones that put the railway in their garden where you can’t try to replicate anything, building a bubble of suspense. Bubble building vs. world building.

Barely games: collecting, negotiation, pretending, inattention. Most important is pretending. Never hear enough about pretending.

Mornington Crescent, is pretending to be a game, but because it seems like a game it’s almost better than a game.

Collecting: Pokemon. Game you’re supposed to be playing is way too complex, so make up your own, like Top Trumps. Noticing game. About negotiation.

Collecting things is great for pretending. Works when you’re a kid, but good for adults too. We do pretend, all the time.

Luxury items are pretending items, can’t get the case with the machine gun in parts… but you can get a barbeque set.

Pretending metaphor breaks down if it’s too obvious. Computer desk top is… like a desk. 3D Mailbox trying to make email fun, “Every message is a jumbo jet”. Why aren’t we using it? Because it’s tone deaf. Not subtle.

Need to bury the pretending detail, so it’s not in your face.

Lots of games are quite demanding, want us to pay attention and touch the screen. Want to pay attention to the world.

What would a barely game app involved:

– Walking around, i.e. not looking at the screen
– Uncertain or socially decided rules
– Things that either can be useful or stupid
– High pretending value

SAP – Situated audio platform, audio stuff that’s related to geolocation.

Molly Range
Two ways of telling a story: One tells and others listen and react; or everyone co-creates. Scandinavian story telling tends towards co-creation. Opens up to experimental productions. Scandinavians go “beyond fun” to use play for political protest or learning. Engage people, bring new perspectives, create change. But lack standardised way to prove the value of play to people outside of gaming.

Duncan Gough
Kes – film about a boy called Billy Casper, filmed in ’69 by Ken Loach. Bit of a feral kid who finds a kestrel, finds the nest and steals a baby kestrel. Firm roots in theatre and radio plays.

Storytelling has developed, e.g. The Wire. Episode, seasons, story arcs and box sets with developments on all scales.

Language of games.

Stand-alone vs ongoing story
Serial and serial quests in MMOs
What would it be like to play Friends, or The Wire?

Fictive worlds – like virtual worlds or MMOs, but more story based. Sense of player vs environment, bringing a story like Kes to life. Adventure games, if you stand still nothing happens in the world, but you want the world to carry on without you. Want the world to be active, living.

Branching narratives aren’t scalable. But decisions must have consequences.

Prior art? 80s was a classic era for children’s TV drama. BBC was concerned that kids would leave TV for games and the web. Kids TV, e.g. Press Gang about a school newspaper, and Running Scared, about a girl on the run from gangsters. No archives of them though – no way to go and watch them again.

Sad, but a good opportunity for a golden age of gaming to happen. Looking for

– web-based fictive world
– simple, directed story
– interactive, allegorical

Alfie Dennen & Paula le Dieu
Bus Top – city-wide network of programmable LED panels on the top of bus stops, one at least in every London Borough, open API.

Want to let the public actually take part in public art as usually they don’t get the chance.

Routes and pebbles — routes might have 5 or 6 installations, and the pebbles are individual panels. Creates a giant canvas. What stories can be told? What sort of visual narrative?

Will be able to use things like Flickr, Twitter, their API and an online tool to interact with the panels. Very lo-fi, pixelate experience. Canvas will be live for 12 months leading up to and through Olympics.

Rex Crowle
Likes wonky drawing, doodling. People get hung up on drawing and expressing themselves and worry that what they are creating is somehow wrong.
Now works for Little Big Planet – game that’s not finished until people are playing it and making stuff. Customise the character, the world, the soundtrack. Internet makes it much more flexible, and you can fix flaws after launch.

Simon Oliver
Makes games for the iPhone.

How do you design fun? Top-down game design is hard. Prototyping works – find the fun.

Simplicity. Games controllers got more and more complex, and that scares people off if they aren’t familiar. iPhone interface is much simpler and instinctive. If it’s too complex or not fun, chuck it.

Tim Wright
Life’s ambition: To play golf on the Moon with David Bowie.

Read Kidnapped by Robert Louise Stephenson, which features a shipwreck and a walk from Mull to Edinburgh. Book says shipwreck happened on June 29th, and arrived in Edinburgh on August 24th.

Is it possible to walk the same walk as the book in that time?

Kidmapped – recreating the walk, podcasting and mapping the way. Put the whole book up on a wiki, chunked by day and could then comment on it. Read the book out in the locations it was setting. Other people came out to read too. Became not just about the book, but also about the landscape.

Also ended up being sent poetry, art, and ended up playing golf up the mountain.

Writers create maps and date travels through them all the time, so why not, as readers, recreate those journeys?

Chris O’Shea
Interaction design.

We work too much and lose our sense of play.

What if you could see through walls? Installation that uses infrared torch and a projector to mimic seeing through walls.

“Flap to Freedom” remote controlled chickens that people thought they were controlling by flapping their arms. Forget about looking silly and have fun.

Mirror installation where the mirrors will self-arrange to reflect your face back to you, and move as you move. Similar one with police car beacons that turn to face you as you walk amongst them.

Social experiences. Let people play together.

Researchers determine mainstream online journalism still mainstream

In a shocking (possibly only to the researchers) conclusion, a study of major media online journalism newsrooms in the UK has discovered that they follow a relatively narrow mainstream agenda. I think that is a fair summary of an interview on Radio 4 with Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith University Media Research Centre in London speaking about her book New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. From the synopsis on Radio 4, “Dr Natalie Fenton from Goldsmith’s University in London, … argues that instead of democratising information, the internet has narrowed our horizons.”

I haven’t read the book, seeing as the release date on Amazon is tomorrow. I am sure that book covers the themes in greater depth in what can be covered in a couple of minutes on radio, but I found the interview infuriating.

Dr Fenton and her researchers looked at three online newsrooms, two of which I’ve worked in: the BBC News Website, the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. I might have to pick up a copy and see if her researchers’ interviews with me are reflected in the book.

First, I would say the book was out of date a year ago based on changes here at the Guardian. We were just beginning our print-online integration. We are still going through the process, as are many newsrooms, but one thing we have done is combined web and print production as much as possible to not only reduce duplication of effort and work around re-purposing print content. This frees up journalists to do journalism and not just ‘copy and pasting’ as Dr Fenton puts it in her interview.

Secondly, I think her conclusions, as expressed in the interview, are undermined by a selection bias. As Charlie Beckett at Polis at LSE says in a blog post from a year ago when they unveiled their draft conclusions, there are problems with the methodology of the study and some of the assumptions underpinning the research. Dr Fenton comes to conclusions about online journalism based on research from three newsrooms connected to traditional news organisations. Is it really all that surprising that she finds their agendas in line with mainstream media organisations? The news environment is much more complex outside of most newsrooms these days than inside, which is one of the problems with the news industry. By condemning online journalism at traditional organisations as focusing on a narrow agenda as Dr Fenton does in the interview, isn’t this more accurately an indictment of the narrow agenda of the mainstream media seeing as the websites track closely the agenda of the legacy media be it broadcast or print?

Thirdly, online news operations connected to traditional news organisations have never had a major stand-alone newsgathering facility. The BBC News website once did have some original newsgathering capacity. I was their reporter in Washington. However, most of the newsgathering capacity rested with television and radio journalists whose work was re-purposed for the website. The situation is more complex at the Guardian now. We produce more web-only content during the week than we do print-only content.

Fourthly, Dr Fenton says that online staff are desk bound, and online newsrooms rely on “less journalists with less time to do proper investigative journalism”. Can we have some perspective on investigative journalism please? Really. Fighting to perserve investigative journalism and investigative journalism only is like trying to save the auto industry by fighting in the name of Porsche. Investigative journalism has always been the pinnacle of our craft, not its totality. It’s important, but investigative journalism was a fraction of pre-digital journalistic output. Again, if Dr Fenton has an issue with lack of investigations, then it’s an issue to take up with the organisation as a whole, not the online newsroom. Having said that, I’ll stand by the Guardian’s investigative output online and off: MPs expenses crowdsouring, Datablog, Trafigura, just to name a few Guardian investigations and innovations here in 2009.

Lastly, I think the narrow frame completely ignores the work of digital pioneers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of journalism. I think of the Guardian’s Matthew Weaver and his live digital coverage of the G20 protests this spring and his recent project to track post during the strike using GPS transmitters. I think of the Guardian’s Simon Jeffery with his recent People’s History of the Internet and the Faces of the Dead and Detained in Iran project as other examples of excellent digital journalism, journalism only possible online. I think of the work that my good friend Chris Vallance has done with BBC 5Live’s Pods and Blogs and iPM on Radio 4. I think of the many projects that I’ve been proud to work on at the BBC and the Guardian. Chris and I brought the voices of those fleeing Hurricane Katrina to the radio and also US soldiers fighting the war in Iraq radio audiences through creative use of the internet. I consider myself primarily an online journalist, but I’ve been working across multiple media for more than 10 years now. I covered the Microsoft anti-trust trial for the BBC News website, BBC radio and television. I’ve done webcasts from the 29th story of a building overlooking Ground Zero three months after the 11 September 2001 attacks. I tweeted from the celebrations of Barack Obama’s victory outside the White House after a 4000 social media-driven month of coverage of the historic 2008 US presidential election. Online journalism isn’t perfect, and it reflects imperfections in traditional journalism. However, in the hands of a good journalist, digital journalism offers up radical new opportunities to tell stories and bring them to new audiences.

My experiences and my career aren’t representative of the industry. I have been doing original journalism online for more than a decade. That is rare, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I lost a lot of colleagues in the crash when newspapers and broadcasters slashed online budgets. After an interview with the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings in 2002 on the one year anniversary of 11 September attacks, he took us on a tour of their much slimmed online newsroom. He spoke with pride about the work of the online staff, but he said, “The Mouse (Disney, ABC’s parent company)” didn’t see it that way and continued to make deep cuts.

In 2009, the picture is much different. Print and broadcast journalists are doing more original work online. We have more online-focused journalists than even when Dr Fenton was doing her research. Journalists cast off by ailing journalism institutions are re-launching their careers on the web.

I chose the internet to be my primarily journalistic platform in 1996. I chose it because I saw unique opportunities for journalism. When I did, it was a lonely choice. I faced a lot of prejudice from print journalists who based their views on lack of knowledge and fear. A passion for the medium kept me going despite some of that prejudice. Everyday I get up and help push a unique medium just a further journalistically. (To their credit, my colleagues at the BBC in radio and television told me almost on a daily basis with respect and admiration how I was the future of journalism.)

These prejudices against online journalism are parroted by Dr Fenton in her interview, which I guess is one of the reasons that it made my blood boil. I hope the book paints the reality in a bit more complexity than was possible in a few minutes on air. I hope that she includes some broader examples of how online journalists do original journalism that can’t be done in any other media. However, if the interview on Radio 4 is representative of the book, it’s a reality I don’t recognise. Bad journalism begins with a thesis which never adapts to new information. It’s the same with bad research.

links for 2009-10-30

  • Kevin: German publishers have accused Google and other internet companies of exploiting their content to build lucrative businesses and have failed to share the rewards. The new ruling coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the business-friendly, liberal Free Democratic Party have "pledged to create a new kind of copyright to protect online journalism". "Details of how the proposal would work have not been spelled out, but publishing executives say one possibility would be to require a license for any commercial use of published material online." Private, noncommercial use of news articles would remain unrestricted. Good luck determining private, noncommercial use. I'm a professional journalist. Would posting content on my personal blog be considered noncommercial or as an extension of my work?
    There is something troubling about this article in that it starts to muddle a proposal for licencing for online journalism and 'piracy' of films and music.
  • Kevin: Very significant ruling in the UK. British regional press publisher Newsquest (a division of US-based Gannett) has obtained a potentially significant court ruling on the issue of how far they are protected from legal action over user-generated web content. "Newsquest says the High Court judgement clarifies for the first time that newspaper websites hosting user-generated content are, subject to certain conditions, protected from liability. The ruling suggests that publishers cannot be held responsible for potentially libellous material posted by website users so long as it is removed as soon as possible."
  • Kevin: Mary Turck works with training citizen journalists for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. She gives five tips and directs you to other resources they have developed in the training process. "We have created twenty very short lessons on topics ranging from focusing a story to transparency to best practices for quotations and paraphrases."

Plain English fail

I wrote a post about jargon the other day, and in the comments someone asked me what I thought the worst bit of social media jargon was. I realised then that individual terms, even quite jargon-y ones, can be used in such a way that they can easily be understood because of the context. Equally, terms that by themselves don’t seem too bad can be brought together in a such a concoction that they immediately lose all meaning.

I discovered such an example today, via John Moore (via someone who Tweeted it). John blogs about the Dachis Group’s attempt to explain what they mean when they use the phrase “Social Business Design”. John said:

I tried explaining/defining the term to a friend the other day but did it poorly. (I think I know what it means, but I don’t.) It’s about using online applications (like ‘social media’ tools) to help businesses improve communication across all departments inside the company and communication across all vendor partners and customers outside the company to create a more efficient and more coordinated way of doing business.

At least that’s what I thought. After reading Dachis Group Managing Partner Peter Kim’s short explanation of what Social Business Design is, I’m totally lost.

And, at risk of basically reproducing John’s whole post (you totally have to go over and read the comments though, some of them are just fabulous), here’s Peter Kim’s definition:

Social Business Design is the intentional creation of dynamic and socially calibrated systems, process, and culture.

Its goal: helping organizations improve value exchange among constituents.

Social Business Design uses a framework of four mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive archetypes: ecosystem, hivemind, dynamic signal, and metafilter. This model can be applied to improve customer participation, workforce collaboration, and business partner optimization. Doing so provides insight to help measure and manage business to produce improved and emergent outcomes.

Some of these words are perfectly fine all by themselves, but put together they are meaningless. “Collectively exhaustive archetypes”, anyone?

This is a perfect example of a company pulling together complex-sounding jargon and complex and hard to parse sentences to make themselves sound cleverer than they really are. It reminds me very much of one of my earliest consulting gigs. A company wanted me to help with their communications and one of the things I needed to do was get a good idea of what they did. We spent several hours in a meeting trying to come up with a way to describe their focus without using any jargon. It turned out that they just couldn’t find ways to talk about their work without resorting to neologisms that would have been utterly confusing to anyone outside of their industry.

They, like Dachis Group, suffered a total plain English fail. In my opinion, no business should use language which obscures meaning, but for a company like Dachis Group that is supposed to be encouraging communication and collaboration, it’s a double fail.

links for 2009-10-24

  • Kevin: An off the record meeting at the New York Times leaked to Nieman Journalism Lab provides a look at how the New York Times is struggling with losses, staff cuts and 'spreading the gospel of integration' in the newsroom. It's really worth reading, and one has to be admire the honesty that they are dealing with these difficult times. It's nice to hear people admit what they don't know.
  • Kevin: Jeff Nolan writes: "By creating a pricing plan that defends rather than attacks a market the company is conceding defeat in print and this strategy will have the effect of slowing audience growth online in the one segment that the paper requires, young people. I am willing to give Newsday and Cablevision some credit for being creative with a multichannel strategy that covers TV, print and online, but this pricing plan is a throwback to a subscription model that simply doesn’t work anymore."
  • Kevin: AOL News is adopting the Knigh Foundation funded hNews microformat. Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust in the Uk gives an overview of the microformat and a bit about its background. He adds: "hNews, for those unfamiliar with it, makes some basic, factual information about the provenance of an online news article machine-readable. In other words, it makes distinguishable a lot of information that is currently indistinguishable on the web (e.g. to search engines). hNews is not the same as "beacon," the controversial data tag that Associated Press is attaching to its content to help track its use around the web, and allow it, as I understand it, to create a "News Registry" of its users. AP is layering beacon on top of hNews."
    That is good to hear. AP really muddied the waters by not being clear about the differences between 'beacon' and hNews.
  • Kevin: Tom Grubisich writes a critical review of "The Reconstruction of American Journalism" report by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson. He says: "The Columbia Journalism School-sponsored report shovels out overviews, conclusions and recommendations by the pound, but with barely a few grams' worth of critical thinking." The post is worth reading, but Robert Niles (also of OJR) comment below is also worth reading. Robert is even more scatching. "A generation of news managers and scholars has had more than a decade to confront the what should have been an obvious impending erosion of newspaper revenue due to online competition. That generation instead chose to look for ways to reinforce newspapers' monopoly power over the access to and publication of the news, or to find new ways to fund existing news operations and procedures. (And, often, both.)"
  • Kevin: Anthony Moor writes: "Jeff Jarvis and others have already documented the fact that the 'story' is no longer the endpoint in the journalistic process, as it used to be. Stories are just points in a continuum that now includes instant feedback, commentary, mashing up of new information, updates, rebuttals and the like. It's outdated almost as fast as it's published. That's why traffic to it lives and dies on the Web in a matter of hours.

    Now we're seeing the rise of the topical page as the atomic unit of content. Journalists will no longer write stories, persay. They're going to write topics, which will have story-like elements, but won't look anything like the articles they focus on today."

  • Kevin: Margaret Simons gives this advice to journalists: "Do not allow your employer to prevent you from having access to Twitter, Facebook and the like. Be very cautious indeed about signing anything that restricts your ability to network online." Couldn't agree more.
  • Kevin: One to watch. Managing news "is a robust news + data aggregation engine with pluggable visualization + workflow tools".
  • Kevin: Bill Mitchell of Poynter provides lots of good details from the newspaper experiment in Detroit. One key paragraph: "By the end of 2010, the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News expect readers to provide 40 percent of their revenue, a dramatic increase from the traditional newspaper revenue split of 80 percent advertising and 20 percent circulation." The US newspaper industry's exposure to the fluctuations in advertising has been one of the factors in its struggle during this recession.
  • Kevin: Tweetminster tracks the Twitter updates of British politicians and political figures. Last night as Nick Griffin, leader of the far right British National Party, appeared on BBC panel programme Question Time, they analysed the tweets from a group of politicians, political figures, journalists and bloggers. " The aim of the experiement was mainly to test various tools and technologies (that we will be releasing in the near future) around a confined timeframe/event and population (those viewing and commenting on the event).

    The goal is to shake and open up the way analysis is done, to measure the pulse of stuff now, not tomorrow, and most importantly to eventually empower anyone to contribute to an analytical process." They talk about the initial results of the experiment.

  • Kevin: is to relaunch on Monday. The design is a big change from the text-heavy, link-heavy front page it replaces. The page is much more visual, with an emphasis on photography and video. It will also add more opinion and entertainment. In addition to highlighting more of its own video content, it has announced a partnership with tech and design conference TED. The site will continue with existing social media partnerships of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
  • Kevin: Charlie Becket, director of the Polis journalism and society think tank at the London School of Economics, looks forward to the general election in the UK next year. "Political bloggers like to think that they will swing the next election. Big platforms like ConservativeHome and individual muck-rakers such as Guido Fawkes are billed as the websites that might win it.

    But when I talk to MPs it is video that really scares them. Could this be the election when a punter with a Flip camera changes the course of a campaign?"

John Mair demonstrates how to really not get it

I’m sure everyone’s fed up of the Jan Moir debacle that’s been occupying the UK Twittersphere for the last week, but I was made rather cross by this ill-judged and misinformed article by John Mair on yesterday.

For those of you blessed enough not to have heard about the Jan Moir/Daily Mail controversy, suffice it to say that she wrote a hateful and homophobic article about Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, who died of a previously undiagnosed heart condition. Moir’s piece caused uproar amongst the online community, particularly on Twitter, causing some advertisers to remove their ads from the page and forcing Moir to apologise (in a manner of speaking). There have since been acres of print and pixel devoted to unpicking it all.

One such piece by John Mair, a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University, makes a number of mistake that I think are themselves worth unpicking.

Mair’s first mistake is to say that “blogosphere went mad seeking revenge”. Lots of people were very cross with Moir’s piece, but to dehumanise people’s reactions by lumping them all together as “the blogosphere” and then to trivialise the reaction as “going mad” and “seeking revenge” is to mischaracterise the entire episode. It implies that everyone who reacted to Moir’s piece somehow lost their sense of proportion and overreacted in a little moment of insanity. This is rather insulting – people were justifiably cross with Moir and the Mail and, whilst people were vociferous, to characterise them as seeking revenge is hyperbolic.

Mair’s second mistake is in his second paragraph where he implies that celeb-Twitterers Stephen Fry and Derren Brown organised the protests on Twitter and Facebook. That’s also not true – this wasn’t a crowd, baying for blood and lead onwards by the Twitter elite. Stephen and Derren were, like everyone else reacting to a rapidly spreading meme. There was no movement and they did not organise anything. They just helped the meme along. (It’s important to note that memes are like ocean waves – they don’t move the water itself, they move through the water.)

A little later on, Mair asks, “So how democratic are these manifestations of the virtual mob?”.

Ok, so what exactly is “democracy”? The dictionary on my Mac says:

democracy |di?mäkr?s?|
noun ( pl. -cies)
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives : capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world.
• a state governed in such a way : a multiparty democracy.
• control of an organization or group by the majority of its members : the intended extension of industrial democracy.
• the practice or principles of social equality : demands for greater democracy.

Looking at that list, none of those really apply to the phenomenon we observed. There was no organisation and no group ergo no members, unless – and I think this is where Mair gets confused – unless you label the people who complained, post hoc, as a de facto group that must therefore have organisers. That’s a rationalisation that doesn’t hold water – anger with Moir spread through Twitter organically: as one person Tweeted their disgust, others found out about the article and then expressed their own feelings. There was nothing orchestrated about it and the concept of ‘democracy’ cannot and should not be applied. A spontaneous expression of a shared opinion is not a democracy.

What about “mob”?

mob |mäb|
a large crowd of people, esp. one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence : a mob of protesters.
• (usu. the Mob) the Mafia or a similar criminal organization.
• ( the mob) the ordinary people : the age-old fear that the mob may organize to destroy the last vestiges of civilized life.

Was there a mob? There certainly were a large number of people involved, but were they a crowd? Were they grouped together in one spot and intent on causing trouble or violence? I think it would be stretching the definition of ‘mob’ too far to use it to describe the people upset by Moir’s homophobia.

Mair then tells us that the internet is a double-edged sword, something which is undoubtedly true, although it is more accurate to describe the internet as neutral – neither good nor bad, and therefore capable of being used for good or bad. But the tone of his assertion implies that actually, he thinks the internet is baaaaad.

Now we get to the meat of the wrongness of this piece. Mair compares the expression of disgust at Moir with the hounding of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand.

It can lead to interactivity and enrichment but it can also lead to bullying by keystroke. The zenith of that was the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand row in the autumn of 2008 but nowadays broadcasters, especially the BBC, are facing ‘crowd pressure’ from internet groups set up for or against a cause or a programme; they are an internet ‘flash mob. With the emphasis, maybe, on the ‘mob’.

When Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand rang up the veteran actor Andrew Sachs on October 18 2008 and were disgustingly obscene to him about his grand-daughter, that led to a huge public row on ‘taste,’ mainly stoked by the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.

Fuel was added to the fire through comments by the Prime Minister. The ‘prosecuting’ virtual group was the editorial staff of the Mail newspapers and its millions of readers in Middle England. In support of the ‘Naughty Two’, more than 85,000 people joined Facebook support groups. Many, perhaps most, had never heard the ‘offensive’ programme. Just two had complained after the first broadcast.

The BBC was forced after a public caning to back down, the director-general yanked back from a family holiday to publicly apologise, Brand and his controller resigned and Ross was suspended from radio and television for three months. The virtual mob smelt blood: it got it.

The Ross/Brand incident bears no resemblance to the Moir incident. Ross & Brand’s stupidity would have gone unnoticed by the vast majority of people had the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday (and a variety of other newspapers) not brought it to their attention and demanded that ‘something be done’ – that something, of course, being complaints to the BBC.

There was no “‘crowd pressure’ from internet groups” nor was there any sort of “internet ‘flash mob'”. There was only pressure brought to bear by the tabloids via the medium of the internet. The protest was not grass roots, it was orchestrated (oh the irony!) by the Mail and Mail on Sunday. Mair knows this, as he explicitly states it, yet still he uses this example as illustrative of the awfulness of the internet and the propensity of internet users to mobbish behaviour. Sorry, Mair, I call bullshit.

Mair then goes on to cite another irrelevant example, the protests over Jerry Springer; the Opera:

Fifty five thousand Christians petitioned the BBC to pull it from the schedules because of its profanity and alleged blasphemy. They engaged in modern guerilla warfare tactics to try to achieve their aim. Senior BBC executives had to change their home phone numbers to avoid that pressure. That campaign did not get a ‘result’. If Facebook had been in full flow then, the 55,000 may well have been 555,000 and the result very different.

The offended Christians were, again, organised. And again, it was not a spontaneous outpouring of dissatisfaction. They did not use “modern guerilla warfare tactics”, they used the communications tools open to them at the time, just like everyone else does. They didn’t succeed in getting the opera pulled, perhaps because the BBC felt that, in this case, the claims of offence were out of proportion. Would they have been successful had they been able to use Facebook? I would hope not, but the BBC’s spine does go through soft phases.

Mair concludes with:

This is activism by the click. It needs no commitment apart from signing up on a computer. It gives the illusion of democracy and belonging to a movement whereas in reality is it membership of a mob, albeit a virtual one? Is this healthy for democracy and media accountability or not?

Here Mair lays his biases bare. He may as well have said, “I just don’t like the whole idea of the audience having opinions and having a way to express those opinions. The fact that lots of people seemed to agree – quite independently – about how awful Jan Moir’s article was puts the fear of god up me, because suddenly I am accountable not just to my paymasters, but to my audience. Directly. And who’s going to protect me when these scary people with opinions come knocking at my door? Wasn’t it so much nicer in the old days, when the audience couldn’t answer back?”

Groups of people on the internet who all express a similar opinion are not de facto mobs. Expressing an opinion can be a part of democracy, but democracy is not simply the expression of opinion.

Mair’s piece is risible. He fails to understand Twitter, sees this as an opportunity to demonise the internet and draws false comparisons between unrelated incidents. Frankly, the media’s buggered if this is the prevalent attitude in our universities.

Requirements for success

I have been reading over some of the material that I’ve written for clients past and gathering some of the more widely applicable pieces together for a new client. A lot of my advice hasn’t changed from when I first wrote it, other than sometimes the names of tools. Anyway, I’m going to chuck a few bits and pieces up here for your perusal in an act that feels a bit like the blogging equivalent of finding a tenner down the back of the sofa.

There are a number factors that are required for success. These include:

Data safety: Users must feel secure that their data is safe, and that regardless of what happens, their data will be both saved and made accessible. This isn’t just about data recovery in case of fatal server loss, but about knowing that the data won’t be randomly deleted at some point in the future. There must be a guarantee that, even if the tool changes, the data will be preserved.

Service stability: Tools must be reliable and have very little downtime. Scheduled maintenance that requires a tool to be taken offline must be publicised in advance.

Senior management endorsement: Social tools need both grassroots and senior management adoption. Many people take their cues from senior management. Having senior figures both use and approve social tools will provide a sense of security for the rest of the company and will improve uptake.

Peer acceptance: Endorsement from senior managers by itself is not enough to ensure that people feel comfortable spending time learning and using new tools. They must also feel that their peers accept the tools and their use of them, even if those peers are not using the tools themselves to begin with.

Support on demand: Whilst most social tools are very simple to use, there is still a learning curve and users will require some support. Lightweight, on-demand support that can be provided on an ad hoc basis is the best way to ensure users feel able to experiment.

WYSIWYG editing: The closer social software applications are to providing the same editing environment as common word processing applications, the easier it is for people to learn to use them. Software that requires any specialist knowledge, such as wikis that require people to learn wiki mark-up language, will be harder to introduce to a non-IT community.