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.

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Dark Blogs Case Study

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Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Killing straw men

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Paul Carr has written a post for TechCrunch about citizen journalism and social media entitled After Fort Hood, another example of how ‘citizen journalists’ can’t handle the truth. Normally I ignore TechCrunch alone, but so many people I know were impressed with the post that I had to read it. Sadly, it’s riven with poor logic, straw men and factual inaccuracies.

Paul starts with a straw man:

…after two weeks of me suggesting that social media might not be an unequivocally Good Thing in terms of privacy and human decency, the news has delivered the perfect example to support my view.

The discussion about the impact of social media on people’s privacy, behaviour and ethics has been going on for years, and there have been many, many examples of people using social tools in ways that can only be described as foolish.

This is not, however, a reflection on social tools so much as it is a reflection of human nature: Some of what gets done with social media is good and some is bad. This is not news, nor new.

We do need some proper studies to see just what sort of effect these new social technologies are having, but going off on a moral panic about social tools is neither smart nor helpful.

Carr goes on to say:

And yet, the first news and analysis out of the base didn’t come from the experts. Nor did it come from the 24-hour news media, or even from dedicated military blogs – but rather from the Twitter account of one Tearah Moore, a soldier from Linden, Michigan who is based at Fort Hood, having recently returned from Iraq.

[...] In reality Ms Moore’s was tweeting minute-by-minute reports from inside the hospital where the wounded were being taken for treatment.

It’s no real surprise that people who use Twitter might use it during such an event. And most people who use Tweet have a relatively small community. Moore now has her Twitter stream set to private, but even now she has only 29 followers, so she most likely thought that she was speaking to a small number of people and it turns out that’s pretty much true: If you search for her Twitter ID, you can see that she was retweeted a little bit, but not massively. I know Twitter search isn’t the most reliable, but there are only 8 pages of search results for her ID, starting 8 days ago. That hardly speaks to a huge retweeting.

Furthermore, whilst Twitter lists were used by the media to collect Tweets related to Fort Hood, Moore is on six such lists, which between them have a grand total of 67 followers.

Carr goes on:

That last twitpic link was particularly amazing: it showed a cameraphone image – of a wounded soldier arriving at the hospital on a gurney – taken by Moore from inside the hospital. Unsurprisingly, Moore’s – [sic] coverage was quickly picked up by bloggers and mainstream media outlets alike, something that she actively encouraged by tweeting to friends that they should pass her phone number to the press so she could tell them the truth, rather than the speculative bullshit that was hitting the wires.

Carr claims that the bloggers and mainstream media outlets picked up on her tweets, but I just can’t substantiate that. I have searched Google News and the only mentions of “Tearah Moore” are people reposting or quoting Paul Carr’s article. Searching for “MissTearah” brings up two articles, neither from a mainstream news outlet. One is from a German blog, the other from The Business Insider, which runs her photo.

Further digging does reveal that the Houston Chronicle in Texas ran her photo (no. 52) with the caption “MissTearah submitted this photo to Twitter purporting to be from the emergency room in Killee.” Australia’s Herald Sun does the same but uses the caption “This Twitter image from user misstearah, claims to be from inside a hospital near the shooting.”

Technorati and Icerocket show the same pattern amongst bloggers: A few people are talking about Carr’s post, not Moore’s original Tweets.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, Carr responded:

@Suw I linked the Independent in the post http://bit.ly/37HwCy Here’s NYT and AP trying to ctct: http://bit.ly/3IeG94 http://bit.ly/4DdsEY

The Independent post that Carr links to is actually a post by Jack Riley, a tech writer, that he’s written on his own Independent Minds Livejournal. Independent Minds is the Indie’s user generated content platform, it’s not a part of the Indie’s journalistic output. The other two are links to Tweets by the New York Times and the Associated Press trying to get in touch with Moore, which is what you would expect from journalists who think they may have an eye witness to talk to.

Let’s just look at Tweets from the MSM to Moore (oldest to newest):

@robertwood: @MissTearah give me a call if you can. I’m a reporter and wanted to do an interview. 512.474.5264

@DavidSchechter: @MissTearah Please call WFAA TV in Dallas 214-907-5964

@vietqle: @MissTearah I’m with National Public Radio in DC. We’d like 2 talk w/ people at Ft. Hd. Can you contact me? vle@npr.org or 202.513.3999. Tx.

@waldon_m: @MissTearah please call me at 2022157069 or email mwaldon@ap.org

@waldon_m: @MissTearah i am a reporter with The Associated Press. Please contact ASAP

@waldon_m: @MissTearah please contact the AP 202 641 9807

@waldon_m: @MissTearah please contact The Associated Press if you can 202 641 9807- thank you.

@BBC_HaveYourSay: @MissTearah Hello, it’s James at BBC News in London. I saw your picture from Fort Hood. It would be great to talk to you today. Are u free?

@BBC_HaveYourSay: @MissTearah Thanks for letting us know. We thought the email was suspicious. I’m glad we did not publish your pic. I’m sorry to trouble you.

@xocasgv: @misstearah http://twitpic.com/ohye0 - Hi, this is Xaquin G.V., Graphics Editor at The New York Times, read you witnessed the event. Any cha [sic]

So, six journalists get in touch, with Michael Waldon not appearing to have much luck in getting hold of Moore at all. The brief exchange with @BBC_HaveYourSay is also interesting - make of it what you will. As Moore’s account is private now, there’s no way to see what her response was and thus tricky to interpret that tweet.

But other than the three posts mentioned above that use Moore’s photo, I couldn’t find any other mainstream media news outlet that quotes from or mentions Moore by name, nor do any bloggers that Technorati or Icerocket can find. Equally, the number of retweets are negligible.

Carr’s assertion that her tweets were “quickly picked up by bloggers and mainstream media outlets alike” just isn’t supported by the facts.

Now there is a discussion that could be had about the content of Moore’s Tweets. She did not have access to completely accurate information but from reading through some of the reTweets and the few Tweets that Riley archived, Moore seemed to feel that the information she was getting was coming from relatively reliable sources. She was also Tweeting what she was witnessing, which is information there’s no reason to doubt.

In the middle of a shooting, in a lock-down situation, is it really any wonder that your average eye witness actually isn’t all that well informed about the bigger picture? People caught up in events can tell us what they see and what they hear, but they can’t necessarily fact check right there and then and I feel it’s rather unfair to expect them to.

Carr also talks about a picture Moore took - a blurry image of someone on a gurney further down the corridor:

Rather than offering to help the wounded, or getting the hell out of the way of those trying to do their jobs, Moore actually pointed a cell-phone at a wounded soldier, uploaded it to twitpic and added a caption saying that the victim “got shot in the balls”.

In the caption to her Twitpic, Moore says that she was at the hospital for an appointment. She doesn’t appear to be a member of medical staff, so would have no role to play in that situation. Whether it is reportage or poor taste to take and upload such a picture — given that there is no way to identify anyone in the picture and you can barely see the wounded soldier — is a matter for debate.

(Carr mentions HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects patient confidentiality in the US. I’m not clear how HIPAA privacy provisions would apply in this case and would need an expert to advise.)

But to insinuate that it’s pure selfishness and that Moore should have been ‘doing something’ is misrepresenting Moore’s situation.

Carr himself, though, did appear to have a problem with Moore’s conduct, if his tweets are anything to go by:

@paulcarr: By the way, doesn’t @misstearah have a fucking job to do while all these people are dying? Just wondering.

@paulcarr: Looks like @misstearah’s twitter account has been taken down. Only took the army an hour to respond to that particular threat.

@paulcarr: Also, Twitpics from inside the hospital? From a cellphone? Really? Precisely how many moral and legal rules does that break?

Carr then goes on to talk about the Iranian elections:

For all of our talk about “the world watching”, what good did social media actually do for the people of Iran? Did the footage out of the country actually change the outcome of the elections? No. Despite a slew of YouTube videos and a couple of thousand foreign Twitter users turning their avatar green and pretending to be in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still in power. It’s astonishing, really.

What is astonishing is Carr’s arrogance. Whilst the election wasn’t swayed, it is wrong to think that the social media action around the elections achieved nothing. I’d like to hear from Iranians on this, but I would imagine that just knowing the world was listening, that people out there cared, that normal Iranians could be heard outside of their own country would be an empowering experience. We might not know for some years what the full effect was, but to write it all off because the election wasn’t swayed is just shortsightedness.

Carr goes on:

And so it was at Fort Hood. For all the sound and fury, citizen journalism once again did nothing but spread misinformation at a time when thousands people with family at the base would have been freaking out already, and breach the privacy of those who had been killed or wounded. We learned not a single new fact, nor was a single life saved.

Another straw man. Eye witness reports have never been focused on saving lives, but on reporting what someone’s experiences. And as for misinformation and breaching privacy, the mainstream media is just as good at spreading that as anyone else, if not better.

A further straw man is Carr’s complaint that social media is making “our humanity [...] leak[...] away”. It’s a meaningless statement, on a par with the anti-electricity rhetoric from the late 19th Century. Ethics are not tool-specific, they don’t change from technology to technology. If that were so, all the positive, constrictive, humanity-affirming actions that are taken through social media would simply not be possible.

Finally, Carr mentions the video of Neda Agha Soltan’s final moments:

Even if you’ve seen the footage before, you should watch it again. But this time bear in mind the following: the cameraman was not a professional reporter, but rather an ordinary person, just like the victim. And what did he do when he saw a young girl bleeding to death? Did he run for help, or try to assist in stemming the bleeding? No he didn’t.

Instead he pointed his camera at her and recorded her suffering, moving in closer to her face for her agonising final seconds. For all of our talk of citizen journalism, and getting the truth out, the last thing that terrified girl saw before she closed her eyes for the final time was some guy pointing a cameraphone at her. “Look at me, looking at her, looking back at me.”

This is totally disingenuous. Neda was on her way to a protest in Tehran and was shot in the heart when she got out of the car to get some air (the car’s air conditioning wasn’t working well). Several people attended to Neda, including Dr Arash Hejazi, who said this about the incident:

A young woman who was standing aside with her father [sic, later identified as her music teacher] watching the protests was shot by a Basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim’s chest, and she died in less than two minutes.

Carr’s assertion that the people who videoed Neda’s death should have been doing something is absurd. Others were already doing what they could and it doesn’t sound like there was anything more that could be done.

However harrowing it is to watch a young woman die, there are times when such scenes have to be captured and relayed to the world, to illustrate the appalling conditions and repression that people are suffering. Had she died unrecorded, it’s likely that no one outside of Iran, possibly outside of her immediate community, would have heard of her murder. Instead, she became seen as a symbol of the Iranian protests, even as a martyr.

I was at a panel discussion about social media in repressive regimes a while back with Kevin, and an Egyptian blogger told of how even his friends and family did not want to believe that the police were abusing prisoners until a video of such abuse ended up on YouTube. We might not like it, but unfortunately it can be an important not just in rallying protestors but also as documentary evidence to persuade others.

There is even now a graduate scholarship at the University of Oxford named after Neda so there is hope that, both in Iran and outside, her death was not meaningless.

The key thing that Carr forgets is that what is unacceptable in our relatively safe societies may be necessary in oppressive regimes. Tools we use for play here can be used for survival elsewhere.

More fundamental questions, about whether or not it is right for journalists to stand back and record events instead of intervening to try to save people’s lives is a discussion that has been ongoing for decades. I don’t think that it’s one that’s going to be solved any time soon, either, as there are compelling arguments for and against.

What we should do as individuals, though, when we are confronted by such events is a question worth examining, by each of us and in the frame of our own capabilities. I think most people would try to help and wouldn’t even think about taking photos or video; others would try to help and then think about recording events when the helping is done; and yet others simply won’t be able to help and will only be able to record. Should we criticise and demonise those who record the events around them in a way we don’t approve? Or is it a question for individuals to decide for themselves?

Paul Carr’s main point appears to be that citizen journalists can’t get stuff right, so they should shut up, and those that record events instead of helping to save lives should be ripped a new one. Yet his main assertions are unsupported by the facts, his interpretation riddled with holes and his straw men pathetically easy to demolish.

There are interesting debates to be had about technology, social media, citizen journalism and eye witness accounts, but sadly Carr’s post touches on none of them in any meaningful way. I am befuddled as to why people on Twitter are seizing on it as breaking new ground, as it simply doesn’t.

(To keep the discussion all in one place, please comment over here!)

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.

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.

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

Douglas Adams on the internet in 2009

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Twitter has become a polarising service. I’m one of the millions of people who find value in Twitter, mostly because I’ve built a network of new media and digital journalism professionals, many of whom I am lucky enough to call friends. As I’ve said before, my network is my filter, and my Twitter network provides me with an incredibly valuable filtered feed of content that I have to know as a social media journalist. It’s better than any single site. I generate an RSS feed just of the links that friends post in Twitter to keep on top it.

However, for all of the people who find Twitter useful for social or professional reasons, there is now an equal and opposite reaction from members of the media and members of the public.

Regarding this animosity, Kevin Marks, who recently joined BT but was with Google as a Developer Advocate on OpenSocial, said to Suw and me (via Twitter):

the rage and vitriol against @twitter is classic outgroup rejection see http://bit.ly/socialbigot

The link goes to a talk Kevin gave asking: “Why are we bigoted about social networks?” In terms of outgroup rejection, here’s a useful definition courtesy of Wikipedia:

In sociology, an outgroup is a social group towards which an individual feels contempt, opposition, or a desire to compete.

The latest example of this contempt and opposition is British BBC Radio 4 icon John Humphrys. I would be generally shocked if Humphrys said something positive about anything, and he strikes me as the kind of journalist who feels that paper is too new fangled and ephemeral and that really the importance of journalism deserves the permanance of stone.* It’s of little surprise then that he says of Twitter:

Why shd everyone try everything? Some (like underwater ironing) too daft to try. Stop counting letters. Get a life instead.

John, I’m disappointed in your. Demeaning yourself with text speak? However, he doesn’t stop there. In a comment on the Today programme website, he says:

I’ve never tried morris dancing, never tried incest – does that mean I should try them?

I would expect Morris Dancers to be lodging a formal complaint.

But in all of this non-sense, Gordan Rae flagged up this gem from the late and very much missed Douglas Adams. Apart from a few technical references of the day, it feels as if was written today, not 10 years ago.

It starts:

A couple of years or so ago I was a guest on Start The Week, and I was authoritatively informed by a very distinguished journalist that the whole Internet thing was just a silly fad like ham radio in the fifties, and that if I thought any different I was really a bit naïve.

Honestly, I heard the same opinion expressed often by newspaper journalists and editors at that time. It’s one of the reasons why newspapers are in decline. Apart from the odd visionary, this was a pervasive opinion amongst newspaper journalists. Reading the FT, they highlight this cogent bit of research:

Alarmingly, the (newspaper) industry has also so far “failed to make the digital transition”, according to a report last month from Outsell, a publishing research firm, which found that news organisations’ digital revenues were just 11 per cent of their total revenues, compared with 69 per cent for the broader information industry, which includes legal and financial data providers such as Reed Elsevier and Bloomberg.

I was working at the BBC at the time, and I was fortunate. My colleagues said to me on a daily basis that my job was the future. Working in radio and television, they didn’t have the same anti-technology bias because technology was so much a part of what they did.

In seeing how little has changed, Douglas Adams even refers to ” Humphrys Snr., I’m looking at you”. To Humphrys Snr and many others, he says:

Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’ What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.

The internet just celebrated its 40th birthday. The internet is not so new, but what Douglas Adams wrote 10 years ago now still seems as fresh and relevant as if it was written on 29 August 2009, not 1999. It also explains why Douglas Adams is so missed and his early death was such a loss. Read the full article. It really is worth your time.

We need to think about the internet critically, but too often I fear that an acidic and unsophisticated cynicism is confused for a healthy dose of scepticism. The media may not be able to have an intelligent, nuanced discussion about the internet (or much of anything else), but that’s all right, the discussion goes on and has been going on, as Douglas Adams shows, for quite a while.

* Footnote: In the interest of disclosure, despite the fact that John Humphrys is a national treasure here, I’ve never actually been able to listen to an entire one of his interviews, mostly because it takes me 30 seconds to get bored with his badgering. You can listen to full 5 minute interviews of his where the interview subject might get in three words if Humphrys is feeling generous. One comes away knowing what Humphrys thinks in great detail but absolutely no idea what the interviewee thinks. I’m probably going to get deported for dissing a cultural treasure of Middle Class Britain, but I’m too busy to listen to someone badger and bloviate ad nauseum. The verbal jousting may be engaging to some, but it’s of no use to me. I need to know what I need to know, and Humphrys and Co can’t touch the meme per minute density of my RSS feeds and social news filters.

I guess it’s fair in the end. Humphrys doesn’t have time for Twitter, and I don’t have time for him. I now await a swift deportation.

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Related ad fail of the day

Posted by Kevin Anderson

adfail.jpg

Suw is flying back from a week in San Francisco after going to O’Reilly’s Social Foo Camp. When she flies, I sometimes track the flight live on Google Earth or sites like FlighAware or FBOWeb. Now, do I really want to watch a video of a fatal Russian plane crash that left nine dead as I track my wife’s flight home? I think not.

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Yo Vodafone! 15MB per day is not an ‘unlimited data’ plan

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I don’t usually write about commercial products or services here on Strange Attractor, unless they are really, really good or really, really bad. This would be a case of the latter, at least in terms of honesty regarding terms and conditions.

I’ve been a Vodafone pay-as-you-go customer since I moved to the UK four years ago, mostly because when I came here, Voda was the only company I could find with international roaming on PAYG. I also didn’t know how long I would be in the UK and so I didn’t want to get locked into an 18- to 24-month contract. Besides, I don’t really use my phone to make calls much. In the UK, unlike in the US, you only pay for calls you make so if people called me, I don’t have to pay for those minutes. Instead, I text people, and I could get 70 texts a month for about £5 plus all the calls I ever made for £10 a month all in. Up until recently (although their website says different things on the tarriffs), Vodafone also would sell PAYG customers 15MB of data a day for a £1, which was generally reasonable for the amount of data I was using. It made economic sense, and it fit with the way I used my phone.

However, since I’m relatively settled here in the UK and have an Nokia N82 with a lot of data services, I decided to look into their new SIM-only plans. I don’t need a new phone. I also noticed that my PAYG credit was disappearing surprisingly quickly, even though I wasn’t making more calls. I spent a goodly amount of time clicking around on my account on the Vodafone site trying to determine where my credit was going, but Voda doesn’t actually seem to let me in on the secret of how I’m spending my PAYG credit. It might be buried in the website somewhere, but there isn’t anything in My Account that says, ‘See your latest bill’ or latest usage. I was none the wiser. I can only guess that I must have been going over the 15MB limit so a £2 per megabyte charge kicks in. Ouch.

Still, I was paying about £15 a month for text, calls and data, and with a new £7.50 monthly data plan for pay pay monthly customers, it looked like I could get ‘unlimited data’. Of course with any of these things, there is the fine print. ‘Unlimited data’ actually doesn’t mean unlimited in any traditional definition of the term, which isn’t surprising. In the UK, most of the broadband plans are capped at 5 to 8 GB a month. Like many others, the Voda ‘unlimited’ data plan has a ‘fair use limit’. But what exactly is this ‘fair use’ limit?

For £1 a day you get unlimited data access in the UK only, subject to a fair use limit of 15MB per day (100s of emails and web pages). If you use over 15MB a day then we may ask you to moderate your usage. If after we have asked you to moderate your usage, you fail to do so, we reserve the right to charge you for the excessive element of your usage at your price plan’s standard rate or to suspend or terminate your service in accordance with your airtime and/or price plan terms and conditions.

‘Unlimited’, to Voda, equals 450MB in a 30-day month. The chap in the Vodafone shop up the road assured me that “no one ever goes over the limit” and besides, “all of the data is compressed [using their Novarra internet service] anyway”.

What a lovely bit of thinking from 2006. Memo to Voda: People use the data plans on their phones for so much more than surfing the mobile web though your portal. My phone has a Flickr uploader. If I want to upload 15 pics from the N82’s very capable 5-megapixel camera on the road using the phones built-in uploader, I’m getting pretty close to 15 MB right there. I use Google Maps all of the time, and the N82’s GPS uses network servers to speed location-locking. Using Vodafone’s own data calculator, they reckon I’d use 1GB of data a month if I only spent 1 hour browsing the internet a day, sent and received 10 emails each day, (what planet do they live on?), download or upload 5 documents a day, downloaded 10 music tracks a month, uploaded 55 pics a month and downloaded 1 software program or system update a month.

Also, chaps, why do you call it ‘unlimited’ subject to a ‘fair use limit’ when you tell 3G data dongle users exactly how much data they get with your laptop plans: £20 for 1GB and £25 for 3GB. Why not just do that with your so-called ‘unlimited’ plan for phones? It’s not unlimited even with the ‘fair-use’ fig leaf.

This is much more than taking liberties with the English language. For the annual award for Greatest Abuse Done to the English Language in Pursuit of Profits, Voda’s lawyers seem intent on challenging the marketing departments in the landline ‘fraud-band’ industry that routinely quote speeds you would never get unless the switch was in your bathroom. Deceptive marketing practices really piss me off, and this is deceptive, which is why right after this post, I’m headed to the Advertising Standards Authority website (or the Trading Standards folks). Let’s file this one under lies, damn lies and terms & conditions.

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Yahoo! behaving badly. Again.

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

In July 2007, Yahoo! gave users of it’s Yahoo! Photos service just three months to retrieve their pictures before closing the service and deleting all of the unclaimed images. As recently as December 2008, I was still getting comments on my post about it from unhappy people who had entrusted photos to Yahoo! and had only just discovered that their archive had vanished. I thought that Yahoo!’s behaviour in closing their photo service was pretty shoddy. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t stop accepting new uploads, and delete people’s photos piecemeal, as and when they had been transferred to Flickr or some other photo service. For such a large company to close a service with so little communication to users and such a short time frame for those affected to act was incomprehensible.

That was eighteen months ago, so obviously things have changed at Yahoo!, right? They’ve learnt that data portability and clear, timely communications are important, right? I mean, they wouldn’t repeat such mistake would they? Summarily shutting down a service with almost no notice?

Sadly, yes. They would.

Three days ago I got this email:

Yahoo! Briefcase Is Closing - Yahoo! get it wrong again

I very nearly deleted it as spam, because it had no content apart from the two attachments. But, curious to know if it really was an official email, I took a closer look at the headers, then clicked “View” for the first “noname” attachment. I got this:

Yahoo! Briefcase closing attachment

I checked out the links and yes, this is legit. This is the email that Yahoo! has sent its Yahoo! Briefcase users in order to tell them that all the files they had kept online are going to be toast at the end of the month. An empty email with two identical “noname” attachments. Well done Yahoo!, I think you’ve just earnt the first Strange Attractor Fuckwit of the Year 2009 Award. And it’s only February.

Unlike Yahoo! Photos, Yahoo! aren’t suggesting an alternative service, and they’re only giving users one month instead of three to get their stuff out. I only have one file in Yahoo! Briefcase, but that’s neither here nor there. It could have been something important and I could easily have deleted the email from Yahoo! as spam.

Why have Yahoo! not given people more notice? Why did their ill-conceived email have no content? Why put all the content in a couple of attachments? Why delete people’s data instead of archiving it until people can delete it themselves?

I’m not even going to get into asking why Yahoo! have ditched this service, instead of polishing it up and making it suitable for use in today’s cloud computing world. I’m just stunned that, once again, Yahoo! has shown such astonishing arrogance and disinterest in their users’ needs. Instead of learning from the closure of Yahoo! Photos and doing a better job this time, they’ve actually taken a step backwards.

Shame on you, Yahoo!.

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Unconscionable political convention coverage

Posted by Kevin Anderson

In May, as part of the Carnival of Journalism, Ryan Sholin asked:

What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?

I have another take on that question, and it is one that more news organisations are being forced to ask. What can news organisations no longer afford to do? What is your news organisation doing that is either too costly or provides so little value to your readers/viewers/listeners that it’s no longer justifiable? Or put another way, if it’s not unique and it’s not really uniquely relevant to your audience, is there something else that you should be covering that is? What is the opportunity cost of covering that event that everyone and their dog, cat, sister, brother and third cousin covering? What are you foregoing to cover that event?

Why do I ask this question? I give you 15,000 reasons, which is the number of journalists covering the US political conventions. That is 3.75 journalists per delegate. It might be defensible if those 15,000 journalists was actually doing something unique in terms of coverage. But they aren’t. Furthermore, that is 15,000 journalists covering an event that the New York Times aptly described as “effectively a four-night miniseries before an audience of 20 million people or more”.

During a planning meeting, I was asked what kind of news we could expect. I responded: None. The entire goal of the conventions is not to make news, not to have surprises. They are carefully choreographed, scripted and stage-managed. Yes, the candidates will make an acceptance speech that is newsworthy, but the rest of the evenings are designed to net as much free air-time and coverage as possible to launch the candidates’ campaigns.

Political conventions are like class reunions for American press corps. I’ve covered two, and they are great fun and great theatre, but they aren’t great news events. Ted Koppel left the 1996 Republican Convention early, complaining that it was little more than a picture show. This year, he’s there as an analyst for BBC America. His assessment of the coverage is pretty damning:


Amy Gahran, writing for Poynter, called the numbers of journalists covering the convention an unconscionable waste of news resources in light of the current state of the news business. Mark Potts said:

At a time when news budgets are being slashed because of declining revenue, how can a news organization possibly justify sending a raft of people to the conventions? (I suspect the numbers for the Olympics are about the same-and just as ridiculous.) …

What stories are they going to get that the AP can’t supply? Hijinks of the local delegates? Inside info about what the candidates hope to do for the economy back home? Local color on Denver and St. Paul? It’s really hard to understand the need for this kind of bulk coverage.

And I couldn’t agree more with Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center who says that news organisations must focus on what is unique to their franchise. As I often say, the danger of Google News for news organisations isn’t that it steals your traffic but that it shows how little is unique in most coverage, how much re-packaged wire copy we re-produce. That’s the real danger, and it’s why the average news website visitor views about 2 pages per month. And Michele echoes my concerns about opportunity costs:

I also am frustrated when I thinking about all the stories that thousands of reporters might be covering closer to home as the conventions unfold. With the troubled economy, mortgage foreclosures, health care, the federal budget deficit and rising energy costs, I don’t think it’s possible for journalists to be developing enough stories about the impact of these issues on their communities and the people who live in them. Not to mention creating and linking to resources for people in trouble and holding officials accountable for their share of the problem (or explaining why they have no share).

At the end of the day, the Columbia Journalism Review lays out the naked truth, of the 15,000 journalists:

7,500 aren’t doing much at all. This isn’t surprising. Only a small number of reporters actually have a reason to be here. The rest are conventioneering—seeing old friends, eating Democratic-themed menu items (“Barack Obama’s Turkey Chili”) in pandering local restaurants, brandishing their press passes at all comers, looking for free things, and spending about 14 percent of their time trying to rustle up enough stories to justify their presence to their editors. These reporters are the ones mostly writing about themselves, or their friends, or their experiences exploring Denver with their friends (“I was enjoying some turkey chili with David Broder yesterday…”). At least they’re open about the fact that they’re enjoying themselves.

And I blame journalists as much as their editors. Yes, trips have always been used by editors to reward good journalists, but there are journalists who have come to treat the profession like their own personal travel bureau. They come up with the flimsiest pretence for extravagant travel that is of little journalistic value and of little benefit to their audience, who in the end are footing the bill.

No journalism organisation has ever had unlimited resources, and now, newspapers are fighting for their very existence. It is not a time for profligate spending, as if it ever were. If we are true to our word that journalism is essential to a healthy democracy, then we have to use our limited resources judiciously and for the benefit of our audience. If we provide them relevant information, then, hopefully, they will support our efforts. If we continue these wasteful ways, then our lofty arguments about our essential democratic role will be seen as disingenuous and self-serving.

Disclosure: Yes, I am taking a trip in October to cover the US Elections. But I am keeping a close eye on the bottom line. The quality of coverage is not directly proportional to the cost. I use digital technology to undercut the traditional cost basis of journalism. It’s what we all need to do. We must use disruptive digital technology to reduce the cost basis of what we do. It will give us more resources to do journalism and to innovate.

I have one prediction that I am reasonably confident in making. In 2012, there will not be 15,000 journalists. Not because news organisations finally come to their senses but because so many have ceased to exist.

Friday, December 7th, 2007

CNET, Gamespot and Jeff Gerstmann: Controversy or conspiracy theory?

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

On Wednesday, I spotted a post from Michael O’Connor Clarke about Jeff Gerstmann, a games reviewer and Editorial Director at CNET’s Gamespot, who appeared to have been fired for giving a bad review to Kane & Lynch. The game’s publishers, Eidos Interactive, had just bought hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising on the site and the rumour was that they used the weight of that contract to force CNET to fire Gerstmann. It seems the news was broken in this Penny Arcade strip.

Here’s Gerstmann’s review:

The implications of this rumour are clear: If CNET is bowing to pressure from advertisers to ensure that their own games are favourable reviewed, then CNET’s games coverage becomes not worth the electricity that lights its pixels. Indeed, the suspicion that CNET can be bought immediately devalues all its reviews, across all sectors. If the PR, advertising and editorial departments submit to bullying from one vendor, then there’s no reason why they aren’t doing the same for other vendors. This is potentially very damaging for CNET as it destroys readers’ confidence that what they are getting is honest, unbiased opinion.

As Kotaku says:

As our tipster points out, if the rumor is true, it could point to a distressing precedent at Gamespot and parent company CNet. “As writers of what is supposed to be objective content, this is our worst nightmare coming to life,” wrote the tipster.

Our efforts to confirm the story with Gamespot haven’t proved successful. Our current requests with PR, Gerstmann and other CNet contacts have either gone unanswered or yielded a “no comment.”

But rather than address the rumours head-on, CNET shilly-shallied about:

CNET allowed hours to pass by as people continued to spread word of the firings, creating incensed users everywhere. They issued no formal statement and made no attempt to defuse the situation. Eventually, they came out with what I refer to as a “non-denial denial,” in which they made no reference to the controversial situation, resorting to generalized statements about how CNET is a bastion of “unbiased reviews.”

And the first formal response on Gamespot is a masterpiece of not really saying anything:

Due to legal constraints and the company policy of GameSpot parent CNET Networks, details of Gerstmann’s departure cannot be disclosed publicly. However, contrary to widespread and unproven reports, his exit was not a result of pressure from an advertiser.

“Neither CNET Networks nor GameSpot has ever allowed its advertising business to affect its editorial content,” said Greg Brannan, CNET Networks Entertainment’s vice president of programming. “The accusations in the media that it has done so are unsubstantiated and untrue. Jeff’s departure stemmed from internal reasons unrelated to any buyer of advertising on GameSpot.”

“Though he will be missed by his colleagues, Jeff’s leaving does not affect GameSpot’s core mission of delivering the most timely news, video content, in-depth previews, and unbiased reviews in games journalism,” said Ryan MacDonald, executive producer of GameSpot Live. “GameSpot is an institution, and its code of ethics and duty to its users remains unchanged.”

Whilst neither CNET nor Gerstmann were willing to discuss exactly what happened, Gerstmann was keen to play down the implications of his firing by telling MTV’s Multiplayer blog that there’s no reason for gamers to doubt Gamespot’s reviews.

Despite that, public opinion in the gaming world swung against CNET, despite the hints that Gerstmann’s firing may be nothing to do with Kane & Lynch, and more to do disagreements with (new) senior manager Josh Larson. If I may quote liberally from Kotaku:

Speaking with a Gamespot employee yesterday who asked not to be named for this story, we’ve learned that, despite the neutral nature of the Gamespot news item on the matter, the editorial staff is said to be “devastated, gutted and demoralized” over the removal of former editorial director Jeff Gerstmann. While the termination of Gerstmann, a respected fixture at Gamespot, was pitched to his remaining colleagues by management as a “mutual decision”, it was anything but, we’re told.

The confusion over the reasons for Gerstmann’s termination, compounded with a lack of transparency from management has created a feeling of “irreconcilable despair” that may eventually lead to an exodus of Gamespot editorial staffers. “Our credibility,” said the source, “is in ruins.” Over the course of the previous days, a “large number of Gamespot editors” have expressed their intentions to leave. Tales of emotionally deflated peers, with no will to remain at the site, were numerous.

Unless cooler heads prevail or concerns are addressed, Gamespot could see “mass resignations”, our source revealed.

Rank and file employees of the Gamespot organization are unaware of the real reasons behind Gerstmann’s termination. Our source admitted that Eidos was less than pleased with the review scores for Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, but the team has “dealt with plenty of unhappy publishers before.” Our contact stressed that “Money has never played a role in reviews before” and that “[Gamespot] has never altered a score.” No pressure from management or sales has been exercised to remove or alter content, the source reiterated.

However, the source did speculate that disagreements between Gertsmann and VP of games Josh Larson may have been the root cause of the former being terminated. Larson, successor to former editor in chief Greg Kasavin, was described as out of touch with the employees who report to him. The VP is the one allegedly responsible for telling Gamespot editorial staff that it was Gerstmann’s “tone” that was at the heart of his dismissal.

Then, on a Valleywag post disputing the theory that Gerstmann was fired for a bad review, someone who appears to be a Gamespot insider left a number of rather damning comments (again, summed up well by Kotaku):

No one wants to be named because no one wants to get fucking fired! This management team has shown what they’re willing to do. Jeff had ten years in and was fucking locked out of his office and told to leave the building.

What you might not be aware of is that GS is well known for appealing mostly to hardcore gamers. The mucky-mucks have been doing a lot of “brand research” over the last year or so and indicating that they want to reach out to more casual gamers. Our last executive editor, Greg Kasavin, left to go to EA, and he was replaced by a suit, Josh Larson, who had no editorial experience and was only involved on the business side of things. Over the last year there has been an increasing amount of pressure to allow the advertising teams to have more of a say in the editorial process; we’ve started having to give our sales team heads-ups when a game is getting a low score, for instance, so that they can let the advertisers know that before a review goes up. Other publishers have started giving us notes involving when our reviews can go up; if a game’s getting a 9 or above, it can go up early; if not, it’ll have to wait until after the game is on the shelves.

I was in the meeting where Josh Larson was trying to explain this firing and the guy had absolutely no response to any of the criticisms we were sending his way. He kept dodging the question, saying that there were “multiple instances of tone” in the reviews that he hadn’t been happy about, but that wasn’t Jeff’s problem since we all vet every review. He also implied that “AAA” titles deserved more attention when they were being reviewed, which sounded to all of us that he was implying that they should get higher scores, especially since those titles are usually more highly advertised on our site.

Gamespot insiders were clearly unhappy with what has happened.

Eventually, Gamespot management did address the issue, although they maintain they are legally unable to discuss why Gerstmann was fired, the categorically deny that it was because of pressure from Eidos.

Q: Was Jeff fired?
A: Jeff was terminated on November 28, 2007, following an internal review process by the managerial team to which he reported.

Q: Why was Jeff fired?
A: Legally, the exact reasons behind his dismissal cannot be revealed. However, they stemmed from issues unrelated to any publisher or advertiser; his departure was due purely for internal reasons.

[...]

Q: Was Eidos Interactive upset by the game’s review?
A: It has been confirmed that Eidos representatives expressed their displeasure to their appropriate contacts at GameSpot, but not to editorial directly. It was not the first time a publisher has voiced disappointment with a game review, and it won’t be the last. However, it is strict GameSpot policy never to let any such feelings result in a review score to be altered or a video review to be pulled.

Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment cause Jeff to be terminated?
A: Absolutely not.

Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment cause the alteration of the review text?
A: Absolutely not.

Q: Did Eidos’ disappointment lead to the video review being pulled down?
A: Absolutely not.

[...]

Q: Why didn’t GameSpot write about Jeff’s departure sooner?
A: Due to HR procedures and legal considerations, unauthorized CNET Networks and GameSpot employees are forbidden from commenting on the employment status of current and former employees. This practice has been in effect for years, and the CNET public-relations department stuck to that in the days following Jeff’s termination. However, the company is now making an exception due to the widespread misinformation that has spread since Jeff’s departure.

[...]

Q: GameSpot’s credibility has been called into question as a result of this incident. What is being done to repair and rebuild it?
A: This article is one of the first steps toward restoring users’ faith in GameSpot, and an internal review of the incident and controversy is under way. However, at no point in its history has GameSpot ever deviated from its review guidelines, which are publicly listed on the site. Great pains are taken to keep sales and editorial separated to prevent any impression of impropriety.

For years, GameSpot has been known for maintaining the highest ethical standards and having the most reliable and informative game reviews, previews, and news on the Web. The colleagues and friends that Jeff leaves behind here at GameSpot intend to keep it that way.

The problem is, the damage has been done. Whatever the reason for Gerstmann’s dismissal, the appalling way that CNET handled the crisis means that a lot of people now believe that the Chinese wall that separates advertising and editorial has been permanently damaged. That in and of itself means that both Gamespot’s and CNET’s credibility has been severely dented and if there’s one thing that a publisher cannot afford to do, it’s to appear even for a moment to be in the pockets of its advertisers. Readers want impartiality, honesty, transparency, and if they sniff a rat they’ll leave in droves.

CNET should never have fired Gerstmann without thoroughly thinking through the implications of such a precipitate dismissal. Doing so without a strategy in place for addressing the inevitable rumour that would follow was stupid and short-sighted. In any company, that sort of “marching off the premises” style of dismissal is bound to cause a rumpus, especially when the person being fired, as Gerstmann appears to have been, is much loved by their colleagues and readers, and has been there for so long. It shouldn’t have taken a genius to realise that there’d be a pretty strong reaction against it, and that some sort of thought should be given to how to address the rumours early on.

Whether Gerstmann was fired because of Larson, or Eidos, or something else, is almost irrelevant now. The conclusions one can draw are that either CNET’s in bed with its advertisers, or it’s being managed incompetently by someone prone to throwing hissy fits and firing people on the spot. If one were being generous, one might just put this down to an HR/PR fuck-up, but there is a valuable lesson to be learnt by every publisher and every company with externally-facing bloggers: Look before you fire.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

Yahoo! Photos to close and delete photos

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

The news comes, via Thomas Vander Wal, that Yahoo! Photos is to close. I’m not a Yahoo! Photos user myself, but I think that this decision is wrong-headed and ill-conceived, in so many ways.

Thomas’ post is dated 7 July, and the email he had from Yahoo! Photos informs him that the service will close on 20 September 2007, at 9pm PDT. Assuming that Thomas didn’t miss an earlier email, that’s a little over two months’ notice - is that really enough time to notify all your users that you’re closing a service? Thomas says:

many of the people I know and run across that use Yahoo Photos rely on Yahoo Photos to always be there. They are often infrequent users. They like and love the service because it is relatively easy to use and “will always be there”. Many real people I know (you know the 95 percent of the people who do not live their life on the web) visit Yahoo Photos once or twice a year as it is where holiday, travel, or family reunion photos are stored. It would seem that this user base would need more than a year’s notice to get valuable notification that their digital heirlooms are going to be gone, toast, destroyed, etc. in a few short months.

I think it’s rather optimistic to think that everyone who’s going to be affected by this will find out in time to take action.

But let’s dig a little deeper, and go beyond the looming deadline to take a look at Yahoo! Photo’s help pages concerning the closure.

Yahoo! is giving people three “options if [they] want to keep [their] photos”. (I find the language here more than a little alarming as to me it implies that the default view is that people won’t want to keep their photos, and I’d bet money on that not being true.)

1. You can move your photos to Flickr, Kodak Gallery, Shutterfly, Snapfish or Photobucket. You can only move your photos to one service, and once they’ve been moved, options 2 and 3 become unavailable to you.

2. You can download your photos, but you can only download them one at a time. There’s no bulk download, so if you have a lot of photos you’re in for a tedious ride. Again, Yahoo!’s underlying assumption seems to be that people aren’t interested in keeping all their photos: “for many of you it won’t take much time to download your favorites”, as if your favourites are the only photos that matter.

3. You can buy an archive CD, but only if you’re a New Yahoo! Photos user. Yahoo! have partnered with Englaze to offer a price of $6.95 for 700mb of photos. Why not use DVDs, I wonder? They’ll take a lot more data than a CD and surely the aim here is to help users, not screw them? Although old Yahoo! Photos users have to either download one by one, or move services, so maybe screwing users isn’t that big of a deal for them.

You can choose all three options, if you qualify for the CD of course, and if you have few enough photos that downloading them one by one doesn’t cause you to tear your hair out.

Digging deeper into Yahoo!’s help pages causes further concern. Maybe this is just me being a bit sensitive to language, but if I were a Yahoo! Photos user, I’d want to know exactly what this means:

How long do I have to make a decision about what to do with my photos?

You will have until September 20, 2007 at 9 p.m. PDT to make a decision about your photos.

Of course, we encourage you to decide sooner rather than later, to avoid the last-minute rush. All users who choose to move to another service will be added to the queue for that service. So the sooner you make the decision, the sooner you’ll be have access to your photos at their new home.

“Added to the queue”? How long is it going to take people to have their photos moved over? And what happens if you do get stuck in the “last-minute rush”? Oh, wait, we get that answer over on another help page:

Be patient…the move can take several days or even weeks depending upon how many other users are in front of you in the queue.

I’m getting the feeling that this is going to be a sub-par experience for anyone moving their photos.

But hey, it’s ok, because Yahoo! get to blame the other services for any delays:

How long will it take you to transfer my photos to another service?

The move itself should not take long at all, it depends more upon the number of users ahead of you in the queue to be moved.

After you’ve opted to move to another service, you’ll be added to a move queue managed by that service. The queue will be managed on a first come, first served basis. When they get to your Yahoo! Photos account, they will copy your original resolution photos into the account you identified on their service and send you an email when the move is complete.

Although if it all goes wrong - and goshdarn, data transfer never goes wrong, right? - Yahoo! will be there to sort it all out. Or not.

What can I do if I have issues with transferring my photos or my transfer fails?

Each of these services should be able to successfully transfer all your photos and will be responsible for all issues once that transfer occurs. So if you encounter issues with your new account you should contact them directly.

But if you’ve received emails that some of your photos failed to make the move or that the service was unable to move your photo collection, then it’s likely due to more complicated data issues with your account. Any failures that are specific to a user’s account will be reported to Yahoo!

In these cases, the best alternative may be to download your favorites or purchase an archive CD (for users of the New Yahoo! Photos only).

I am presuming the lock that Yahoo! will put on your account once transfer has been initiated will be lifted if transfer fails, because if not, how will users be able to download their “favourites” or buy an archive CD? Of course, I’ve presumed before and been wrong.

Finally, if you’ve been using any of your Yahoo! Photos in any other Yahoo! products, then you need to know that:

Yahoo! Photos features in these services will all be going away soon, which means your photos will no longer be accessible from these services. And your photos will definitely not be available from these other services (or anywhere else on the Web for that matter) after Yahoo! Photos closes and all remaining photos are deleted and no longer accessible.

Oh dear god. They’ve really buried the lead here. Let’s just read that again, with some emphasis added:

Yahoo! Photos features in these services will all be going away soon, which means your photos will no longer be accessible from these services. And your photos will definitely not be available from these other services (or anywhere else on the Web for that matter) after Yahoo! Photos closes and all remaining photos are deleted and no longer accessible.

This was my big unanswered question. What will happen to the photos that haven’t been transferred before 20 Sept 2007? Answer: They will be deleted. Yes, that’s right, you’ve got two months to get your stuff, and then it’s toast.

This is absolutely astonishing. User’s stuff should be sacred - giving people just over two months to find out that their photos are going to be deleted is absurd. As Thomas said, people put their trust in companies like Yahoo!, who’ve been around for years, to still be around for years to come and this is a massive betrayal of that trust.

If a service has to be closed - and I recognise that from time to time, that’s inevitable - then it has to be done in a thoughtful, careful way. A staged process would be the best way to deal with such an eventuality, where uploading is closed first, followed by a period during which people can download, transfer or archive their images before the site is ‘fossilised’. But there should be a lot more time in between the emails warning people and the cessation of uploading. Deleting people’s photos should be verboten. (And that’s not just about the importance of users’ data, but also about the wider issue of causing linkrot, which is something that responsible service providers try to avoid.)

Is there even a good reason for Yahoo! to be closing Yahoo! Photos? Yes, it’s true that they bought Flickr, but Thomas points out that these two services have different userbases:

Having similar service running allows for one to be innovative and test the waters, while keeping one a safe resource that is familiar to the many who want stability over fresh and innovative. Companies must understand these two groups of people exist and are not fully interchangeable (er, make that they are rarely interchangeable). Innovation takes experimentation and time. Once things are found to work within the groups accepting innovation the work becomes really tough with the integration and use testing with the people who are not change friendly (normally a much larger part of an organization’s base).

It would have seemed the smart move to be mindful that Flickr is the innovation platform and Photos is the stable use platform. The two groups of use are needed. Those in the perpetual beta and innovation platform are likely to jump to something new and different if the innovation gets stale. The stable platform users often are surprised and start looking to move when there is too much change.

I agree with Thomas that Yahoo! Photos and Flickr users are not interchangable - to treat the former group as expendable is pure foolishness. It’s not like there aren’t business models to experiment with for Yahoo! Photos, so is it really necessary to close it?

Whilst this closure is at first not going to affect Yahoo!’s international users, they should get out whilst the going’s good. I see no way that Yahoo! Photos won’t be closing their international sites, so I find it absurd that they are still allowing people to sign up and upload photos to the UK site. But then, I find the whole thing absurd.