Confessing a dirty little secret

In January’s Fast Company was an article by Clive Thompson, Is The Tipping Point Toast? I read it with interest and made a mental note to at least add it to our feed. But over the last two months it has just been gnawing away at the back of my head and I find myself compelled to think about it in a bit more detail.

In the article, Clive discusses the work of Yahoo!’s principal research scientist, Duncan Watts, who is challenging the idea that a small number of highly influential people are the ones who start new trends. The concept is central to books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and is repeated over and over again in all sorts of contexts. In fact, it is so embedded in the way that we view how ideas are transferred and propagated between people that it feels almost like heresy to question it.

But Duncan Watts has questioned it, and his research seems to show that new trends can start anywhere, and that not only do you not have to be influential to start a trend, being influential doesn’t guarantee that you are also a trendsetter.

In the past few years, Watts–a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo –has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

“It just doesn’t work,” Watts says, when I meet him at his gray cubicle at Yahoo Research in midtown Manhattan, which is unadorned except for a whiteboard crammed with equations. “A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.”

This is a conclusion that’s going to get up the nose of many a marketeer, but how does it affect social media consultants?

My work is focused mainly on how to persuade people in business to change their behaviour: how to replace bad working habits with good ones, and how to change unhealthy business cultures into positive, constructive ones. How do I help people wean themselves off their dependence on email, and learn how to collaborate and communicate in healthier, more effective ways?

The opportunities that social tools present to business are frequently missed because no one thought hard enough about how to introduce them to people. Most businesses fail to to understand why these tools are useful and why the old tools are so seductive. My job is to counter that, and is much more about psychology than technology (although the tech clearly does play a part).

Piloting social tools in business is relatively easy. You’re working with a small group who have probably been picked because someone within that group is already enthusiastic. I can sit down and work face-to-face with these people, finding out how they work and then explaining how the new tools will help them. We can figure out specific tasks to shift onto the new tools, I can advise on how that shift should happen and I can support them through the change.

But rolling social media out to the rest of a large company takes a different way of working. I can probably work directly with tens, or maybe even over a hundred people – if the project has the time and budget – but no one person can sit down with thousands or tens of thousands of people in one company to make sure that they understand how the new tools could improve their working life. It would be a Sisyphean task.

Instead, we have to treat tool adoption as a meme, and rely on people propagating it through the company, person to person. In this sense, we are doing what marketeers are doing: Trying to create a self-sustaining trend. We want the social tool to go viral.

As anyone with real world experience of viral marketing will tell you, that’s far easier said than done. The concept of an influential elite, a minority who have the majority of the power to influence, is a deeply attractive prospect. If it were true, it would mean that I could sit down with the 50 most influential people in any one company and bring them up to speed, and they would go on to do my work for me. I could change the culture of a business from closed to open, from distrustful to trusting, from competitive to collaborative, in merely a few weeks.

That is a seductive idea. And I must confess to you all now, I have been seduced by it. I have talked with clients about the concept of networks and nodes and bridges, and I have propagated the tipping point meme. I’ve never read Gladwell’s book. I haven’t had to – I’ve absorbed the concepts over time without really questioning them, without examining them in the cold light of day.

But deep down, I never really believed the idea of an elite group of influencers, and that disbelief has grown over the last couple of years as I’ve had more and more hands-on experience in business, introducing new tools to a suspicious workforce. I have asked businesses if they know who their influencers are, and they all claimed that they did, but I didn’t really see any evidence either that I was actually talking to influencers, or that the people they thought were influencers made any real difference to the widespread adoption of a tool.

That is my dirty little secret. I propagated a meme that I hadn’t critically examined and didn’t believe in. For that, I apologise.

Yet, for me at least, the idea that ‘influencers’ aren’t as influential as we’ve been lead to believe is good news. And for my clients too. I’ve always been worried that trying to tap into a network of influential staff was a pointless waste of time, because it’s very hard to know who actually has influence and who’s just got a big mouth. Identifying the influencers is a task inextricably bound up in status and position in the org chart, yet these three things do not correlate simply. A bad manager who’s high up in the food chain may believe himself to have status, but is actually widely ignored by his subordinates because they can recognise a bad manager when they see one.

If you’ve read my social software adoption strategy, you’ll see there’s nothing in it about ‘reaching the influencers’. I’m way too pragmatic, and the problem of influencer identification has always put me off recommending it as a tactic. Instead, I focus on how you identify ‘low hanging fruit’ – people who are already chomping at the bit to work differently, or people who are doing tasks that are just perfect for a transition onto a social platform. Those are doable tasks. They don’t require any special magic, they just require the ability to ask the right questions and listen to the answers.

I also talk about converting users into trainers by giving them the materials and confidence to introduce their own colleagues to new tools. Centralised training can only fail when you’re trying to introduce optional software to a huge workforce. The only way to reach large numbers of people is for a ripple effect to take over: users become trainers and train their colleagues who become users and then trainers who spread the virus throughout the company.

This doesn’t require influence, it requires utility. If the tool is useful, it can succeed, given the right support. It’s not, “Oh, look at this! It’s so cool!”; it’s, “Oh, look at this! It’s going to make my life so much easier!”

I’m far happier with the idea that anyone can start a trend, and that the concept of influencers is at least less important than previously stated, or possibly even a complete red herring. It leaves the door open for much more sensible, reliable and workable strategies. Admittedly, they may take more time and effort, but at least the outcome will be more predictable. Focusing on what people need, instead of their status, can only be a good thing.

A social network for wired journalists

Ryan Sholin, Howard Owens and Zac Echola in the US have started a Ning network for wired journalists and those looking to network and gain experience. The mission is: was created with self-motivated, eager-to-learn reporters, editors, executives, students and faculty in mind. Our goal is to help journalists who have few resources on hand other than their own desire to make a difference and help journalism grow into its new 21st Century role.

While it started in the US, there are already several international journalists who have joined. They are already talking about how to get started blogging, vlogging and shooting your own pictures. There is also a group on what to do when the layoffs come. There are a lot of Strange Attractor friends and readers who have joined the network already. I’m glad to have a virtual place to hang-out when we’re not blogging. See you there.

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Are social networks in business a white elephant or is Gartner’s report a red herring?

Gartner have recently released a report, Three Potential Pitfalls of Corporate Social Networking by Brian Prentice, with the tagline “Investing in social networking solutions from enterprise vendors is no guarantee that users will embrace the technology.” I’ll probably never get to read it, as it’s a bit on the steep side – $195 for a four page report. Nice work if you can get it. Instead, I’m going to have to rely on Tim Ferguson’s article, Businesses warned: Don’t rush into Web 2.0.

Now, I know that at least one of my social media consultant friends thinks you should ignore Gartner, but I think they’re right… although for the wrong reasons.

Ferguson says:

Businesses are advised to consider certain issues before investing in or developing internal social-networking tools. These include protecting personal intellectual property, and people’s preference for using existing non-professional external networks such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace.


But the Gartner report says the hype around social networking doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a mature enough technology to make it a critical business requirement.

There is also little evidence that social networking will be as beneficial for businesses as other web-based communications technology, such as instant messaging and VoIP.

Ultimately, Gartner suggests, the value of social-networking technology comes from content rather than the product itself.

So let’s just break this down a bit. It should be pretty self-evident that businesses should consider what they are doing and how before they install social software. We’ve seen with blogs and wikis that just flinging them up and hoping for the best doesn’t always work very well. Indeed, I get most of my business from companies who have tried social software in some way and have found that it doesn’t “just work”. It takes thought, consideration and the benefit of the experience of those who’ve actually done this sort of work (rather than just theorised about it).

I disagree, however, that personal intellectual property is an issue that companies need to focus on. Most intellectual property created by an employee is what’s called “work for hire” and is owned by the company, not the person. This is generally covered by the employee’s employment contract and has nothing to do at all with what software is installed or used.

The use of external non-professional social networks, such as Facebook, is also a red herring. Staff use Facebook for managing and maintaining professional networks – of both internal and external contacts – because it’s easy and it’s the social network du jour. A good internal social network would allow staff to move some activity off Facebook if they wanted, but it wouldn’t replace it, because if it’s internal then they can’t maintain their external contacts in it. This isn’t an either/or scenario, it’s all about “and”: you need internal and external social network tools.

The maturity of the technology is also irrelevant. If you have any more than 150 people in your company, then your employees are inevitably going to be missing out on some crucial internal professional relationships, because you just can’t maintain meaningful relationships with more than 150 people. That’s Dunbar’s number at work. If you want to be an effective business, you have to find a way for people to find those colleagues they need to work with – that is, in my opinion a critical business requirement.

Too much business time is wasted re-inventing the wheel. Social networking (done well) directly addresses that problem by providing a way for people to find or stumble upon those they need to know. The other half of that problem is cultural, and is about whether people are willing to share and ask questions and take risks by approaching a stranger for help and advice, but the maturity of the technology has nothing to do with that.

Gartner’s right is that there’s a lot of hype around social networks, and particularly Facebook. I hear far too often the refrain “Oh! We must have our own Facebook!” as people make the wild assumption that Facebooks success will translate directly into success for their own social network (internal or external). It won’t. Companies have to be careful not to leap on the Facebook bandwagon without first thinking about what it is that they want their social network to do.

But Gartner’s wrong to think that the sparsity of evidence for how social networking works in business is a problem. Businesses who are experimenting with social networks (and social tools in general) are tending towards keeping their experiences to themselves, but we are right at the beginning of a trend here, and lack of evidence is not a good reason not to investigate the possibilities.

And finally, Gartner states that the value of a social network is the content, and again, they miss the point. The content is very important, but the connections are what distinguish a social network from a broadcast network. Without those connections, there isn’t a network, there’s just lots of people creating content.

So, if Gartner can get it this wrong, why am I agreeing with them? Well, I think that businesses really do need to think about what they are doing before they invest in social networks. They need to understand how social networks work in an internal business environment, because it’s rather different to how they work on the web.

On the web, we find old friends, we send them phatic messages like a “poke” in Facebook, we gather connections, we maintain light-touch relationships with people that we might otherwise not bother staying in contact with, and we find new people with whom we have something in common. Successful social networks have a social object at the heart of their network: in Flickr the social object is the photo; in it is music; in LinkedIn it is the curriculum vitae. What is it in business?

Anyone who’s been involved with centralised directories in business will tell you that people rarely keep their biographies up to date, they depend on someone else to update things like telephone numbers, and they provide little or no useful information on what skills someone has or what their area or interests are. Generally speaking, a profile page is not a compelling social object within business, and updating one is seen as a chore than can be indefinitely put off.

The sorts of activities in which people engage in business are also very different to those displayed in Facebook. I doubt many people would want to “poke” their boss, for example, or post photos of their big night out.

In my opinion, a business social network has to be very low-maintenance. It’d like to see something pulling in all my content and contributions, such as blog posts, wiki pages I’ve created, comments I’ve made, and websites and documents I’ve bookmarked. I’d like it to pull in any other feeds, authenticated or not, so I could add my external blog feed and anything else that I find interesting. I’d like the profile page to be the only one I need to maintain, so it would be automatically pulled into all other applications that have an “about me” page. And it’d like it to be taggable, not just by me but by my colleagues, so that they can decide how best to describe me. People never describe themselves as fully and accurately as a group of their friends and colleagues can. Clearly it would need search – keywords and tags – to let me find the people that I need to find. But the tags would also create ad hoc, fluid communities of interest, so I can serendipitously stumble upon others.

So my content becomes the social object and maintenance overhead is negligible. That’s the sort of network that might fly in a business setting where everyone is strapped for time and you don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of years for the network effect to kick in. Instead you get immediate value because you’re pulling in information that I’m generating in the course of my daily work and there’s a lot of usefulness in pulling that together and making it (and therefore me) taggable and searchable.

One thing I’m wary of in a business setting is the idea of friends lists. I’d need to do a lot more thinking and research before I settle that issue to my satisfaction. There are two types of business hierarchy – explicit and hidden. Explicit hierarchies are ORG charts, staff lists, departments, teams. These are based on position as granted by the company, and are for some people important indicators of their own status and success. The are artificial, often semi-arbitrary, and frequently misleading.

The hidden hierarchies are really not hierarchies at all, but networks. This is who you know, who you bump into at the water cooler, who you met at the Christmas party, who your friends introduce you to, and, of course, who you work with. The hidden network is the one that helps you get your job done despite the official hierarchy getting in the way. It’s how you do an end run around that annoying boss who prefers to be obstructive rather than help. It’s how you get your computer fixed by that nice chap in IT in time to get that important presentation done, rather than raise a ticket and wait for an hour for someone to get back to you.

My worry is that exposing these hidden networks to the harsh light of the explicit hierarchy could kill them, or vital parts of them. In old-style command-and-control companies, the very fact that you know someone rather senior in another department may rankle with your boss in such a way that they start to work against you, and that would undermine the very fabric of the company. After all, a company isn’t a single entity at all, it is a group of people who have social relationships and who need some of those relationships to remain hidden.

With RSS readers, blogs, wiki ‘recent changes’ feeds and watchlists, many of the functions of a buddy list are covered – it would be easy enough to keep up with what everyone’s doing. And as people in business tend to steer well clear of obviously phatic communication, much of what Facebook enables becomes irrelevant. (This is not to say that there’s not a lot of phatic communication going on in business – there is, it’s just not as obvious.)

So yes, businesses do need to take a lot of care when considering how to implement social networks, and all other social tools. But they need to listen to people who’ve actually got experience working with social tools in business, whether those people are their own staff, from other companies, or consultants. Social media is so experiential that analysing it from an external perspective misses the point more often than it hits the nail on the head.

X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Martha Ladly, Mobile Experience Design

Again apologies to Martha about not getting this up sooner, but I’m glad that I’ve had some time to digest what she was saying and also do some casual surfing to explore the projects that she was talking about. Twenty minutes is difficult to get a sense of the breadth of work that she’s done.

I met Martha at the opening drinks of X|Media|Lab and really liked her ideas about digital storytelling and emerging mobile applications.

By way of introduction to her talk, she talked about how she got into design. She played in bands and designed album covers. OMG, Martha designed the Power, Lies and Corruption cover for New Order. She worked for Peter Gabriel for 10 years and designed 50 album covers for his Real World label including Sheila Chandra and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In 1992, Peter Gabriel wanted to create an interactive CD. She worked on the Eve CD-ROM project with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. I actually have Eve. It’s a fascinating interactive experience. You can’t really call it a game. It’s more of an experience. They also created an interactive CD called the Ceremony of Innocence based on the Griffin & Sabine books.

She now works with a group called Horizon Zero, a monthly web publication. They have created digital documentaries. They had a lovely project called Murmur in the Market. It was about a neighbourhood, Kensington Market, in transition, and they recorded stories about the neighbourhood that were overlaid on a hand drawn map of the neighbourhood. I like the flash-based map navigation, and the audio works well in the player that they developed.

I especially like the audio segments that have street sounds and give me an sense of the bustle and activity in the neighbourhood. One of the common mistakes with audio is to only do the interview in a nice sound-proofed studio, but if you’re trying to evoke a sense of place, it’s always good to have ‘nat-sound’ or ‘wild track’ to set the scene for listeners. In London, I often go and buy lunch at the market in Leather Lane around the corner for our offices. There is a great street vendor who has a wonderful sing-song quality as he hawks his wares. His voice falls up and down in pitch. “TOP QUALITY (then low) get it here. ONLY BEST BRANDS (then low) three for a pound.” I’d definitely add that as a transition between more set piece interviews, and a good directional microphone can keep the voice of the subject in focus while letting a little street sound bleed through.

Back to Martha’s talk…two years ago, a group got together about how to move mobile experience forward. She is working on the Park Walk project. They are telling stories about Toronto’s High Park using mobile phones with GPS units. They also play a game called “The Haunting” with Mont Royal Park in Montreal. They have also done some great stuff in Banff called Global Heart Beat. As people move through GPS zones, they find out about the animals that live in that habitat.

Mobile technology can bridge the gap between virtual and real, and she highlighted, Blast Theory, a group of artists in the UK that have produced video games based in real space.

She talked about some open-source technologies such as Arduino, an open-source prototyping platform. (She mentioned quite a few, and I’ll mention a few that I know of as well, including OpenMoko and their Neo open-source mobile phone. I am also thinking about trying the GP2X handheld game. It’s not a mobile phone-data device per se, but it’s very extensible, possibly a bit beyond my meagre tech skills but worth a play. I like the fact that you get a fully operational Linux device that can actually be used as a full-fledged pocket computer.)

I’m going to paraphrase Martha. Mobile has yet to hits its stride, but it has a lot of technologies that could be used to tell location-based stories. GPS, cameras and bluetooth all have application that is only being explored. From my point as a journalist, I think this is an area rich for exploration as far as newsgathering. Possibly in the future, information will delivered across cities based on not only subject relevance but also local relevance. As I said, lots of area for exploration.

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X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Martin Hoffman, Moko and Loop mobile

Martin Hoffman is with Moko, a mobile-only social network, not using mobile as an extension of the PC experience as Bebo and MySpace are doing. Social networks have their own metrics, looking beyond page views and looking at the length of user sessions. Moko boasts 72 minutes per user visit.

Mobile social networking really is about communication, and he pointed to the development of SMS. Last year, SMS generated $70bn of revenue worldwide. He said that SMS really took off when the networks interconnected, but the carriers still haven’t learned this with data and web services. Bebo has done a deal with Orange. MySpace has struck a deal with Vodafone. Mobile data is not as open as the internet. The handset manufacturers add another layer of complication. Nokia and LG might want different user experiences on their handsets.

Nokia bought a small social network called Twango. Imagine that Dell had spent $100m to buy a social networking. If you use a Dell, a Mac or any other PC, you don’t think about buying a computer to access a social networking site. The challenge for mobile is that you can have great services but can’t get access to users. And he said he didn’t even want to talk about data charges.

The mobile phone is the most profound platform out there he said. But it’s clear that carriers and handset manufacturers have not learned the value of openness.

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X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Francisco Cordero, Bebo

Francisco Cordero of Bebo said that social media and networking serves our need to be distracted for a little while and allows people to share who they are with others. Ten percent of all of the data traffic in Australia comes from YouTube, and they believe that distraction media (viral) will give way to deep audience engagement.

The 16-24 age grooup watch less TV. Texting is like living and breathing for young people, and mobile phones will become even more embedded in their lives leading to exponential growth.

Bebo has a three-pronged approach self-expression, community and content. The current focus for Bebo is on content, with partnerships with iTunes and CurrentTV. They have created a battle of bands style hip hop talent search in partnership with Nike.

He showed off KateModern, a video blog ala LonelyGirl15. (Note from me: Ahhh, now, I know what the graffiti outside our offices in Farringdon is about. Nice try at a guerrilla marketing campaign guys.)

The clip he played felt a little contrived to me, and I think what made LonelyGirl15 compelling was that it had a certain authenticity that I felt was lacking in the KateModern clips. But I think it is clear that Bebo thinks it can differentiate itself from other social networking sites through content.

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How much ‘lived experience’ does your news site cover?

News, Community, and Lived ExperienceOne of the most common mistakes that news organisations make when it comes to community is trying to build participation strategies around an extremely narrow, overly-professionalised definition of news. If you want to miss the opportunity with blogs and other forms of participation, go ahead and focus solely on news. You’ll be missing out on the vast majority of ‘lived experience’ as the Center for Citizen Media called it in a must-read report called “Frontiers of Innovation in Community Engagement“. I’ve been quiet this week because I’ve spent a lot of quality blogging time digesting the 66-pages in this report and the annual State of the News Media 2007 report, which if printed out would come to 600 pages.

In the Frontiers of Innovation report, Lisa Williams, with Dan Gillmor and Jane Mackay, have examined in detail both what works and the commonest mistakes and misconceptions made in building communities online. This paragraph and the graphic above just leapt off the screen at me.

Broadly speaking, the most successful sites are most effective at translating the lived experience of their community onto the web. But only a tiny fraction of lived experience is news. One way of looking at the process of wrapping an online community around a news organizationis that it’s an effort to dramatically broaden the range of lived experience represented by the news organization’s output – output that now includes content supplied by nonjournalists.

Too many times, news organisations look to participation to simply bolster the mainstream news agenda, not to broaden it. What stories are we missing? What part of the audience are we ignoring? Whose viewpoint are we ignoring?

I still remember last December when Clyde Bentley spoke about his project at a event where I also spoke. Clyde said that his team had expected more discussion and stories about politics, especially during the US Midterms elections last year. As a matter of fact, he said:

You know what’s not popular? Politics. … Religion is far more popular than we predicted. And pictures of dogs, cats, even rats trump most copy.

Banal? Clyde even went on to say that journalists are rather poor judges of banality.

Sometime we get so close to the stories we cover that minutiae excite us a lot more than they should. I lived in and covered Washington for six years for the BBC, and I saw this happen in the Beltway bubble. Certainly, there are C-SPAN junkies that love to watch the minute-by-minute movements of the machinery of politics, but for every political news junkie, there are hundreds if not thousands of other people interested in a myriad of other things – minutiae by journalists’ standards but deeply important to them and their communities.

That’s where the bulk of the opportunity is for communities for news organisations wishing to launch community sites. It’s not all about hyper-local sites, although location is a good thing for people to coalesce around. But it will definitely require journalists to think outside of their own box if their community strategies are to succeed.

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Bad Flickr: No donut for you

The day before yesterday, I blogged about Flickr forcing users to switch over to using a Yahoo! ID to access their Flickr account, and the patronising email I got about it. I was not a happy camper.

Now the furore has developed, and Flickr/Yahoo look even worse. Maybe it’s just bad timing, but it seems there are three main issues running concurrently here.

1. The forced switch to a Yahoo! ID.
2. Flickr forcing graceless limits to friends and tags.
3. Yahoo! using ‘all rights reserved’ and ‘non-commercial’ Creative Commons licensed photos on their Wii page, for commercial gain.

Oh dear. What a mess.

The forced switch to Yahoo!
Flickr announced in 2005 that they were going to be shifting to the Yahoo! log-in, and in a BBC article from September 05, they reassured people that all would really be ok with this move:

“We care deeply about our community, and their worries are ours,” [Caterina] Fake told the BBC News website.

“But I think the fears are unfounded. As always, the proof is in the pudding. We’re tending to our knitting, and making sure the Flickr experience is as good as it’s always been.”

But mistrust of Yahoo! goes back a long way, and disgruntled Flickr members started the Flick Off group to protest. There are now 1533 members, counting down to the day when Flickr IDs will be turned off and some of them will quit Flickr for good. The official Flickr forum thread is currently running at 1681 responses, and still going strong. The issues people are worried about include:

  • Finding an available Yahoo! ID that doesn’t suck.
  • Hating your existing Yahoo! ID; or losing the password and being unable to retrieve it.
  • Hating the unpleasant and long-winded Yahoo! sign-up process, which includes questions some people find intrusive and objectionable. For an insight into this process, take a look at Chris Messina’s screenshots.
  • Intermittency of Yahoo! sessions – people like being permanently logged into Flickr and don’t want to have to keep logging into Yahoo! (This is supposed to have been fixed now, but not everyone is happy with the cookie-based solution.)
  • Concern that, in the UK at least, Yahoo! is wedded to British Telecom’s broadband service and that by tying Flickr to Yahoo! they are also tying Flickr to BT. This is not good – if you want to change ISP you loose your BT Internet email address, which would then invalidate your Yahoo! ID and cut you off from Flickr.
  • Yahoo!’s habit of tracking usage using cookies and other methods.
  • Fear that Yahoo! will terminate your account for reasons unclear or unreasonable, thus locking you out of Flickr.
  • Fear that your Yahoo! account will expire without you realising it, thus locking you out of Flickr.
  • The item in the official help page that says if you terminate your Yahoo! account, you will also terminate your Flickr account and delete all your photos (see below).
  • A perception that Yahoo! marketing practises are unethical and exploitative.
  • Fear that Yahoo! will screw with Flickr the same way they screwed with other sites they bought in the past.
  • Technical issues with the Yahoo! sign-in screen, such as it timing out and not allowing browsers to save the password.
  • Issues with different Terms of Service for Yahoo!
  • Confusion for people with multiple accounts of either kind.
  • A feeling that if one has signed up with and paid money to Flickr, one should not have to now sign up to Yahoo!
  • Problems with people losing photos and contacts after merging their Flickr account with their Yahoo! account.
  • Concern that people who have paid for Pro accounts, but who choose not to switch to Yahoo!, will lose their money.

I could go on – this list is just culled from the first two pages of the thread and, whilst it’s admirable to see some participation from Flickr staff, they don’t seem to be really appreciating the depth of feeling about this nor do they appear to be systematically answering questions. Are these concerns and fears legitimate? Some are minor niggles that aren’t all that big of a deal, some have already been addressed by the Flickr team, but some are deeply disturbing. For example, if you delete your Yahoo! ID, you will also be deleting your Flickr account, as the official help page says:

I’m going to delete my Yahoo! account. What happens to my Flickr photos?
If you sign in to Flickr with a Yahoo! ID and you then delete your Yahoo! account, you will not be able to sign in to your Flickr account. In the future, this will delete your Flickr account as well, including all of your photos, but currently your Flickr account must be deleted separately.

This seems like a really rather harsh policy. Are users really clear on this point?

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Yahoo/Flickr get the bullyboy tactics out

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being told what to do. That’s why I’ve been a freelance for so long. I like making my own decisions and resent having them made for me, so it’s not surprising that I feel royally peeved with Yahoo and Flickr for sending me this email:

Dear Old Skool Account-Holding Flickr Member,

On March 15th we’ll be discontinuing the old email-based Flickr sign in system. From that point on, everyone will have to use a Yahoo! ID to sign in to Flickr.

We’re making this change now to simplify the sign in process in advance of several large projects launching this year, but some Flickr features and tools already require Yahoo! IDs for sign in — like the mobile site at or the new Yahoo! Go program for mobiles, available at:

95% of your fellow Flickrites already use this system and their experience is just the same as yours is now, except they sign in on a different page. It’s easy to switch: it takes about a minute if you already have a Yahoo! ID and about five minutes if you don’t.

You can make the switch at any time in the next few months, from today till the 15th. (After that day, you’ll be required to merge before you continue using your account.) To switch, start at this page:

Nothing else on your account or experience of Flickr changes: you can continue to have your FlickrMail and notifications sent to any email address at any domain and your screenname will remain the same.

Complete details and answers to most common questions are available here:

Thanks for your patience and understanding – and even bigger thanks for your continued support of Flickr: if you’re reading this, you’ve been around for a while and that means a lot to us!

Warmest regards,

– The Flickreenos

This email does not fill me with the warm fuzzy glow I usually associate with Flickr. Instead, my brain reinterprets if for me thus:

Hey! Unhip square kid with no friends!

You may not have noticed, but we’ve been making it increasingly difficult for you to sign in to Flickr using your original Flickr ID by burying the sign-in page deep in the bowels of our site, where we hoped you’d never find it. It seems, however, that you haven’t taken the hint, and are still using your old ID. For shame. From March 15th you’re not going to be able to use your old ID anymore, and we’re going to force you to either sign up to Yahoo or use your Yahoo ID instead. We don’t really care if this is an inconvenience for you – you’re just going to have to lump it.

We’re making this change now because it makes life much easier for us. We also want to introduce you to a plethora of Yahoo services that you’ve never shown the least bit of interest in, and probably neither want nor need. We’ve already introduced some new features to Flickr and we made them Yahoo-only, so that we can pretend that we’re doing you a favour by forcing you to use your Yahoo login. Just to prove it, here are two things that you can’t currently do. Fool.

Anyway, you’re so old-fashioned and behind the times that you’re one of only 5% of cretins who still use the old Flickr ID, so give it up already. You’re like one of those little grannies who refuse to move out of a hideous towerblock that’s scheduled for redevelopment by nice coffee shop owners, just because it’s ‘home’ or some such nonsense. This is progress, dammit.

OK, OK, we’ll give you a couple of months to come to terms with the fact that we own your ass. But after that, you will be assimilated, like it or not. Resistance is futile.

Of course, we do appreciate that you were one of the people who coughed up cold, hard cash for a proper Flickr account back when we really needed the money, but hell, Yahoo gave us big bucks a while back, so meh. Whatever.

Warmest fuzzy wuzzies. No really, we do care. Honest. No, don’t look at us like that. Look, we’re about to turn into squirrels even cuddlier and cuter than the Trotts. Just you wait and see… Look! Look!!

– The cutesy wutesy Flickreenosywosy

You know, I like Flickr. There are some astonishingly good people working there. There are also some astonishingly good people working at Yahoo, but yet I don’t like the Yahoo brand at all. It’s unpleasant. It says ‘ignorant false-hearted redneck who always hangs on other people’s coat-tails’ to me. They are a brand that started off ‘pretty cool’ in the mid-90s, sank to ‘horrible’ in 2001 and have now rebounded to ‘icky’ (in no small part to some absolutely awful TV adverts), with a hint of ‘cool’ because of the services they’ve bought. That’s a shame, because I think that the people I know who work for Yahoo and Flickr are some of the smartest cookies out there, and all lovely to boot.

But I feel like I’m being both patronised and bullied at the same time by this email. Not once do they apologise for any inconvenience they may cause me, not a single ‘sorry’. Come on Flickr, you can do better than this. You are the Web 2.0 posterboys, your site is the one everyone talks about when they want a good example of community and social networking. Surely you are the people who understand that someone’s attachment to a site, even to a log-in, isn’t logical but emotional, and that you have to factor that in to how you deal with your community?

I didn’t join up to Yahoo Photos, I joined Flickr, and I rather resent the way I’m being told to move my log-in. You can be sure that I will be one of the bloodyminded few who will hold on to their Flickr log-in until the very last moment, just out of principle. Is there truly no behind-the-scenes solution to this? Would it not be better to use an OpenID solution, so that people have the option of using one log-in for whichever services they like? Or is this the beginning of a new mega-login trend? Are they going to start forcing people to use their Yahoo ID to log into, or Upcoming? Oh god… you’re not trying to be Google are you?

Don’t let us down here Flickr. You created something wonderful, and now you have an opportunity to do something cool about your login problem, instead of just forcing users to dance to your tune.

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Exploding the blog myth

I really shouldn’t take the piss out of a British media icon, but in this case, it’s just too inviting.

Jeff Jarvis pointed out something in the Indy, in which they asked a bunch of British media heavyweights about the future of newspapers. Jeff pointed to Piers Morgan as someone who gets it and to the BBC’s John Humphrys, presenter of the Today programme, as someone who doesn’t. Jeff pulls out this quote from Mr Humphrys’ statement on why he thought it was preposterous to conceive of a society that functioned without newspapers:

And sooner or later we will explode the blog myth. The idea that you can click on to a few dozen blogs and find out what’s going on in the world is nonsense. It’s fun but that’s all it is. …

OK, let me explode the blog myth, not the myth that Mr Humphrys thinks will be uncovered but the myth that he and several others propagate about blogs:

  1. Myth number one: Most bloggers write about news.
    As my friend Say Na in Nepal points out: 37% of American bloggers want to write about their lives and experiences, compared to 11% who write about politics. She’s writing about a Pew Internet and American Life study. The report says:

    Most bloggers say they cover a lot of different topics, but when asked to choose one main topic, 37% of bloggers cite “my life and experiences” as a primary topic of their blog. Politics and government ran a very distant second with 11% of bloggers citing those issues of public life as the main subject of their blog.

    …most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression – documenting individual experiences, sharing practical knowledge, or just keeping in touch with friends and family.

    The news media provides disproportionate coverage of political and news blogs because that’s what they are interested in. They cover news, not the intimate details of people’s lives.

  2. Myth number two: Bloggers just want to become journalists or pundits
    Again, as the study found out, most bloggers write for a small audience of their friends and family: “Most bloggers do not think of what they do as journalism.” They write for the pure love of self-expression, not for recognition or money. Mass media doesn’t really understand the motivation of most bloggers because they can’t understand publishing for a small audience for no money. (And in some ways, it’s one of the reasons why most mass media blogs suck. Most bloggers write about and are interested in their personal passions and interests, which is slightly anti-thetical to general interest publications like newspapers.)
  3. Myth number three: Blogging is all opinion
    This is such a common yarn, but unfortunately, this view itself turns out to be only uninformed opinion. First off, see myth one. Most people are just writing about their personal experiences. Of course it’s their opinions. That is totally the wrong yardstick with which to assess blogs.

    But more than that, it’s just flat out wrong. One of the blogs that I read when I want to know about what’s happening in the US Supreme Court is ScotusBlog, which is actually done by the Supreme Court practice of a law firm. It’s great niche coverage.

    Dr Jeffrey Lewis writes, along with a number of other experts, the very interesting Arms Control Wonk blog. NKZone is a great blog that provides some excellent coverage of North Korea including translations of North Korean defectors’ stories, which are common in the South Korean press but rarely translated into English. I’m sorry, but that’s coverage that’s hard to find in the mainstream media.

But really the biggest myth is that these shifts in media consumtion are all about blogs. Blogs are just one of the little pieces of social software that knit my life together. Flickr, instant messaging and Skype help too. I often say that my network is my filter, and whether it’s on friends’ blogs, via e-mail or via IM, I’m constantly getting a feed of information that is more relevant to my life than the crap that passes for ‘authoratative comment’ – as Simon Kelner Editor of The Independent called it. What a load of self-important tosh.

Mr Humphrys admits to ‘being an old fart’ and still loving his news in print. I’m sorry, news on paper, non-time shifted radio/TV and, to be perfectly honest, radio presenters like Mr Humphrys don’t really have much of a place in my information diet. By the time Mr Humphrys has let his first guest get a word in edge-wise, I’ve already skimmed a dozen feeds – some news, some blogs – in my RSS reader. On the Tube, I read through the headlines and some stories in the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post and The Guardian on AvantGo before I’ve gone three stops. Try struggling with all the print versions of those papers on the Tube, or better yet, try buying them at your local news stand in London.

Mr Humphrys might be suprised to find that for someone who reads and writes blogs, I value information over opinion. I agree with Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, that media opinion really has a shrinking market. I can think for myself, and I don’t need some celebrity commentator telling me what opinion I should have. Comment will be free; but information to help me make personal, professional or political decisions might be a going concern.