Ada Lovelace Day

About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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All content © Kevin Anderson and/or Suw Charman

Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Playful 09

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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.

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Researchers determine mainstream online journalism still mainstream

Posted by Kevin Anderson

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 dot.com 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.

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Plain English fail

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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.

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

links for 2009-10-23

Posted by Suw and Kevin

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

links for 2009-10-22

Posted by Suw and Kevin

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

links for 2009-10-21

Posted by Suw and Kevin

  • Kevin: Alan Mutter has a pretty scatching post on the 98-page Columbia University report on Restoring American Journalism. "The annual sales and number of jobs associated with the media industry are not sufficiently large to make them a priority for a federal bailout during this period of unprecedented economic distress. The federal investment in improved rural broadband penetration contemplated in the stimulus package would give consumers a greater choice of information than a handout targeted to a limited number of defined news organizations. Assuming for the sake of discussion that a handout were in the offing, who would choose which news media to support?"

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

John Mair demonstrates how to really not get it

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

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 Journalism.co.uk 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|
noun
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.

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

links for 2009-10-20

Posted by Suw and Kevin

  • Kevin: The Postcode Paper looks quite a bit like Everyblock on paper. "It gathers information about your area, such as local services, environmental information and crime statistics." They see it as "a prototype of a service for people moving into a new area. In our exercise we imagined you might receive it after paying your council tax for the first time."
  • Kevin: Dave Winer shares some lessons from the hyperlocal project, InBerkeley.com. He says: "I thought we could apply the same approach that worked in bootstrapping weblogs, RSS and podcasting for a local site. One or two people start writing about their personal experiences. A small audience develops. Debates, discussions follow. More perspectives. At every step you invite people to participate. You always ask for the people who used to be called the audience to become full participants. That's how the idea scales. As I said, it worked for blogging and related technologies. Permalink to this paragraph

    Instead, what happened at InBerkeley.com is that the people thought we were running a news organization, and they did stories the way reporters do them. That can't possibly work, imho — for the same reason the news industry is in crisis."

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Social media guru

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I have obviously been using the wrong sales technique all this time.

(via Kev, via @jonlan)

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

links for 2009-10-17

Posted by Suw and Kevin

  • Kevin: A nice overview by Ken Sands of changes in site navigation and social network integration by US news sites. Ken makes some great points when he says: "Even the best designed newspaper Web site home pages suffer from what I call "linkorrhea." With so many newsroom constituencies to serve, designers typically end up linking to several stories from every section of the printed paper, as well as linking to Web-original content such as blogs, slideshows and videos. Add in multiple ad spots and the home page looks more like Times Square than, say, Google, the epitome of simplicity."
  • Kevin: Mathew Ingram with the Globe and Mail in Canada discusses 'walking the walk' of transparency after removing an article that he and his editors thought breached some of their editorial guidelines. Matt explains why they did and why they explained it: "My argument was twofold. By not responding, I argued that we were ignoring a conversation in which we should be taking part. And by removing something without explaining why, I argued that we were effectively breaching our trust with readers, in however small a way. While an editor slamming his own organization might be damaging to our brand, I argued that the trust of our readers was also a key part of our brand, and that we had to do everything we could to maintain it. That, I think, is the fundamental purpose of being open and honest in the first place." It's a great argument for transparency.
  • Kevin: I'm still getting my head around Google Wave. I think it can be a powerful collaboration tool, but I've still yet to have my aha moment with it. Like all tools, I need to figure out what it's good for and see if it fills any unmet needs that I currently have in the tools that I use.

    However, my current scepticism about it aside, here is a great list of tools and gadgets for Google Wave.

  • Kevin: "CIOs who don't make the transformational jump from that old model to the new one of aligning IT with their companies' customers are hurting their companies and stunting their own careers." I write a lot about technology in the course of my work and think a lot about technology and IT in the course of my work, and I think there is a lot of value in this. In terms of news organisations, I'd have to say that from the website to the IT, too much technical focus tends to be put on internal needs that do not deliver value to audiences.
  • Kevin: "Google Webmaster Tools has just launched a “labs” section, where you’ll find new features that may be early in the development cycle and not quite as robust as the rest of the tools. The features available so far are Fetch as Googlebot, which lets you see exactly what Googlebot is served when it requests a URL from your server and Malware Details, which shows you malicious code snippets from your site if it’s been flagged as containing malware."
  • Kevin: "From direct mail to web design, A/B testing is considered a gold standard of user research: Show one version to half your audience and another version to the other half; compare results, and adjust accordingly. Some very cool examples include Google’s obsessive testing of subtle design tweaks and Dustin Curtis’ experiment with direct commands and clickthrough rates. (”You should follow me on Twitter” produced dramatically better results than the less moralizing, “Follow me on Twitter.”)

    So here’s something devilishly brilliant: The Huffington Post applies A/B testing to some of its headlines. Readers are randomly shown one of two headlines for the same story. After five minutes, which is enough time for such a high-traffic site, the version with the most clicks becomes the one that everyone sees."