Thursday, 11 December 2014

Is Twitter killing nuance? #Itsabitmorenuancedthanthat

Twitter Logo

‘It’s a bit more nuanced than that’

This is becoming my favourite phrases of late. Why is that?

Working as I do as a social media manager, I spend most hours of the day either on social networks of all shapes and sizes.

I think that social media taken as a whole, can be a fantastic tool for society. It’s quicker way of keeping in touch with the people and things we care about, and has revolutionised customer service in a way that is still sending shockwaves through many industries, five years after ‘United Breaks Guitars’.

It's excellent for spreading important news, whatever the industry, as far and wide as digitally possible.

But there is one question that is really starting to play on my mind, and I’ve never quite been able to get my head around it as a concept. I guess this is my attempt to try.

Is social media killing nuanced conversation?

In life, we all know that we are involved in thousands of interactions on a daily basis - from the mundane (buying a coffee, catching the bus), to the important (meetings, deadlines, personal chores and errands), to the truly important (spending time with friends, family and loved ones). These interactions, whether small, medium or large, all become part of the story of us. We carry these around with us, and they make us what we are today, and help to make us what we will be tomorrow.

Over millions of years, we have had wide-ranging conversations about nearly every topic known to man: whether God exists, whether capital punishment is right or wrong, why does asparagus make our pee smell funny, should the success of a society be defined by it’s strongest or weakest links. And refreshingly, we’re still having them today.

The sad thing is though, I’m not entirely sure that we’re having them properly.

Nothing is better for me than to sit down and have a debate about politics, religion, sport or relationships. But now, with the advent of Twitter, I sometimes wonder if we are losing the ability to have nuanced discussions about these topics.

Politicians love to make their points Tweet-friendly. To create memes that stick (’Skivers and Strivers’, ‘Hardworking families’). 

Policies are expected to be able to be summed up in a Tweet or less before another source gets to it first. In the age of information, we are still very much in thrall to the reductive power of the headline.

That is not to say that the headline is not important. It is. We need headlines. But they are what they are: markers, FAOs, have-a-look-at-thisses. But how many times have you been infuriated by something you read in a headline, only to read the article and realise that maybe the writer in question has a point?

And furthermore, how many articles do you share without actually reading?

This is not necessarily the person or brand sharing it's fault. We are all culpable in this, and articles are shared online with the implicit expectation that they should be read.

We have more information than ever at our disposal these days - and we are in thrall to the speed at which it is delivered to us.

But do we actually take anything in? And of we're having it fed to us at one million miles per hour does it represent true freedom, or does it represent force-feeding?

We make a lot of hoo-hah online about the freedom that mediums such at Twitter give us to express our views. Yet isn’t it ironic that we are expected to express these views within 140 characters?

How can an argument on Twitter be anything other than reductive when we are limited in that way? 

We are all expected, like politicians, to have a perfect soundbite to silence our critics that doesn’t run a letter over 140 characters. How can you be expected to come up with a nuanced argument in 140 characters?! I can’t sum up my views on politics, religion or even Morrissey’s career in 140 characters. I shouldn’t have to - we have a whole life of experiences, and a whole raft of sources to draw on, and conversation is really enough of a TL:DR way of summing it all up anyway.

Nuance is important. Nuance is vital when debating. The less we are trained to look at the nuances of a certain case (the Oscar Pistorius trial, Shrien Dewani’s acquittal, Plebgate), the more we are in danger of turning Twitter, a fun medium for conversation, into a reductive shit-hole ruled by people fluent in Newspeak.

How much nuance do you see in the average debate on Twitter? How many sources to you see cited, beyond the tweeter’s own truncated opinion?

Syme from 1984 makes this point fantastically well. Read this passage, and it almost describes Twitter to a tee (thanks to Nick Lewis for pulling out these quotes on his blog):

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten…’ 
‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.’
My point in this rambling post is not to decry Twitter, but to decry the assumption that having a platform with a limit of 140 characters somehow represents some kind of thriving, intellectual community, when in fact it is just a shorthand way of having a casual chat about the matters of the day.

People in powerful positions like to talk about the democratising power of social media because they realise the power that it gives them. If you can provide a 140-character sum-up of a report, who is really going to bother reading the full report? Twitter is based on headlines. People like me are paid to make them.

I mean, how many people actually read the terms and conditions before they signed up to a social media platform?

By buying into the myth that Twitter is somehow a democratic force for good (it isn’t, it’s just a platform), rather than a social network for people to share ideas on, or the internet equivalent of an echo chamber, magnifying the sound of a pin dropping a thousand fold, is misguided. We need to think beyond this. We need to be having the big conversations, and stop thinking that Twitter is the ideal or best place to have it.

Rolling news channels are always asking us to Tweet what we think of an issue of the day to them. Yet many issues are beyond the grasp of somebody to make sense of in such little time and space.

140 characters can make morons of us all sometimes.

I am convinced that we are all much more than that.

Courage Wolf Quote

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Twitter Newsfeed Changes: Good or Bad?

Twitter Newsfeed Changes: Good or Bad?

This week, Twitter annouced that it was looking into offering users a more 'curated', algorithmically-sourced newsfeed to it's users - whether they like it or not.

As a business, that's their prerogative, but I have to say that it's a mis-step from them in my opinion.

My reasons?

  1. It's not their newsfeed: people like to be in control of what they see, and everybody is different. Whilst I know that algorithms take this into account, I'd rather have the primary option of being able to control exactly what's in my newsfeed, and what isn't. Twitter is forgetting that we already have a way of curating our newsfeed: following and unfollowing.
  2. Social networks are top-down, but can be destroyed from the bottom-up: Social networks, as opposed to user-built (and even business-built) communities are traditionally ran in a top-down model: the guys at the top make the changes, and the guys at the bottom (the users) have to suck it. That may make people using the network think that they are powerless to stop this, but you only have to look through Silicon Valley's graveyard of failed social networking sites to see that the true power lies with the users. If you build it, they will come, but if you piss them off, they will leave.
  3. Media influencers and early-adopters are still crucial: Twitter has gained traction as a social platform with influencers and people working in the media like no other social network I have seen.
    As a platform, it is genuinely transforming the way many media outlets get their news, and produce their content. It has become an essential part of the content-creation and news-sourcing loop because it appears to be a source completely unfiltered by any internal or external forces. Being able to pickup and follow the trail of a story as it develops across Twitter is one of the few mainstays of the constantly-evolving digital content age. If you curate what a journalist sees, or what a person sees, how can we trust you as a platform? How can we trust the fact that Twitter isn't going to start hiding controversial updates regarding #Ferguson? Or about #ISIS?
    We already know that Twitter censors our newsfeeds in countries easily-offended by free speech - fine in principal if you dislike hate-speech, but what does removing that hate-speech, controversy and illegality really do? It certainly doesn't stop it from existing. It will just stop industrious people fighting it on the net, and acts as a sop to the 'down with this sort of thing' brigade, who would rather not have views expressed that they didn't agree with - on the left and the right of these debates. A journalist won't use a compromised news source - believe it or not (and I do), the vast majority go there for unvarnished facts, commentary and opinion. To remove that would remove one of the major benefits for using Twitter. 
So, with that in mind, can you tell which side of the fence I'm sat on, Twitter?

Friday, 23 May 2014

Britain Thirst (sic) - shaming Britain one typo at a time

This week, in the midst of the European and local elections, an article appeared on professional content-bucket Buzzfeed regarding a political party called Britain First, an offshoot of the British National Party.

In Buzzfeed/Upworthy terms, what I read shocked me.

According to the article, over 300k people are fans of the Britian First page on Facebook - far more than the three mainstream political parties, and over three times the number of fans than the Liberal Democrat party.

At first I was wary: how could a political party with so little representation nationally have so many fans on their Facebook page? I smelt a rat.

However, upon checking the Facebook page, and discovering to my dismay that two people I know like the page in question, I am having my doubts about this.

The page is consistently adding fans, and it’s majority user base is in the United Kingdom.

Britain First Facebook Stats

There are no sudden growth spurts to indicate the bulk-buying of fans, which is a subject I’ve covered in previous blogs.

The only reason that I can see for the page’s popularity is their constant, incessant sharing of patriotic imagery, coupled with strong calls to action - asking people to like and share their content if they agree, and goading people who do not share the images with the inference that they somehow condone mass immigration and child abuse if they don’t. 

Classy political discourse.

I have no problem with people choosing to support a political party if they genuinely believe in the ideals that party stand for.

But I think this is more of a case of mistaken identity than anything else.

From what I can see, the images that are being liked and shared the most are little more than clickbait. 

Lee Rigby, Princess Diana, Winston Churchill. Three people who are stitched into the fabric of our society for a variety of reasons. They resonate with people. Tragic, heroic, caring.

Britain First is exploiting this. By asking somebody to like and share a picture of Lady Diana, you are avoiding having an actual conversation about your policies. Yes, you are creating engagement, and getting new people to your page, but you are not really having conversation about your policies. Britain First - I doubt that the vast majority of your Facebook audience know what your policies actually are.

And the reason that most political parties don’t share pictures of Lady Di, Lee Rigby and Winston Churchill is that they don’t have the permission of the families of these people to do so. They don’t want their relatives exploited for political gain. 

You should know this, Britain First -  Lee Rigby’s mother asked you not to use his name or likeness in any of your promotional literature. 

Lyn Rigby

Are you genuinely proud to do that on Facebook?

Are you proud that you are using pictures of the dead (who aren’t around to grant permission for you to use their images or likeness) to get engagement for your page?

Are you happy to reduce the terrible murder of Lee Rigby to a Facebook post?

If so, you don’t sound like the type of party that I’d vote for. You sound a bit ignorant, and quite frankly thick.

You are a party that marches down Brick Lane, a place where thousands of people go for curry, culture and a bit of fun on a weeknight, claiming that you’re doing it for the memory of 'great Christian crusaders' like Lady Diana.

The same Diana who is represented in all her glory on the wall of my favourite Brick Lane curry house.

I bet you more British people have enjoyed a nice curry in Cafe Bangla than like your Facebook page, Britain First.

I bet you more British people like the country how it is, and where it is going, Britain First.

I bet you that the spelling and grammar on the curry menu in Cafe Bangla is a lot better than the spellings on your Facebook page, Britain First.

Ringo Starr

Thursday, 10 April 2014

'So Ben, tell my why you don't go to social media conferences?'


Lyrics below, for your information:

"Let's Get Social"
lyrics by Phil Mershon:
vocals by Mary McCoy:
music by Dave Curtis:
band: Dave Curtis; Danny Campbell, Tonga Ross-Ma'u)

Verse 1
I'm showing you things you'll like
Trying to get engagement
Here's some photos from my life
My cat, my kids, some bacon

Verse 2
I'm hoping you'll share my stuff
And tweet it to the world
If you help me grow my Klout,
I promise that I'll share yours

So connect with me, let's have some fun
Let's show the world how this gets done

Let's get social (social) with social media
Let's get social (social) with social media
Where we can spread the word and grow our reach
And find our fans in their newsfeed
Let's get social with social media

Verse 3
We're searching for the story
That'll bring us instant fame
So we shoot our "viral video"
And we post it to the Gram

Verse 4
We're looking for the secret
Of Facebook's Holy Grail
We try to keep from paying
That leads to hashtag #fail

(Repeat pre-chorus and chorus then to bridge)

Hey now y'all, can we just get real?
Do we care about our fans or is this just another deal?
Said another way, have we lost our way?
Social's about the people, remember they are people
Do we really need another fan, like or share?
Do we need another post to show up everywhere?
I hope as we scatter we never forget
That our posts live forever even when we go to bed


Friday, 21 March 2014

Lily Cole and the nonsense paradigm


 Yesterday I had the misfortune to read one of the most baffling pieces of sixth-form prose that I'd ever set eyes upon.

Lily Cole, supermodel/actress/clever-clogs has recently launched an app and website by the name of - in which she boldly proclaims will not only boost the UK's happiness (and in turn it's GDP, natch), but foster a gifting economy, in which favours are traded freely between people.

Or, in Lily's words:
The first manifestation of this idea, for me, has centered around the gift economy, a concept written about mostly by anthropologists but that the British government understands as having a bigger presence in the UK than GDP. The difference between the gift paradigm and more typical exchange paradigms sits largely in the rumour of reciprocity.

In exchange paradigms, return is quantified and direct. In giving paradigms, reciprocity exists but it is generalized and not quantified. When something is done for “the other” – for the act of giving – a subtle bond is understood to be created between the two people. And that action is understood to trigger reciprocity. Imagine what happens at scale: social cohesion.
So I deeply believe in the social value a gift paradigm might offer, and set out on this seemingly impossible journey to build tools to encourage one. Again, and again, I told people about the idea and they have gave to it – time and resources, from legal work to the development itself. I have been blown away by people’s generosity, and so it has become, on many levels, a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have built a social network that allows people to post “wishes” – things they may want, need or offer, which are then shown to other people on the platform based on location, on existing friendship groups, and through matching content (i.e. #cooking). The only currency is an abundant one: saying thank you, which is always public.
Still with me?


And to top it all off, it's being funded by the UK tax-payer to the tune of £200k - small-fry I know, but remember, technically this makes us her investors. Did we get a chance to do our own due diligence on this?

So far, people have mostly been requesting either world peace or new shoes.

I'm not going to spend a whole article criticising Cole for having the temerity to have an idea, or take the piss out if the fact that a supermodel can get a double-first from Cambridge. A lot of the criticism of her seems to revolve around her already-privileged lifestyle (an estimated £10 million fortune), her humble bragging ('after a fascinating day with the UN foundation, I visited the White House on the way home') and her highfalutin name-dropping ('A few weeks ago, I spoke with the world wide web’s inventor, MIT’s Tim Berners-Lee'). So far, so standard celebrity. It's nothing new.

But Lily - just to be clear, being very clever doesn't mean that you aren't capable of being misguided.

This gifting economy that you are speaking of - doesn't that already exist? 

People are sharing their time - with families, friends and loved ones. In addition to this, they are also volunteering at food banks and donating charities.

Take a look at this chart from CAF - you'll see that the UK is sitting pretty in sixth place.

World Giving Index

In addition to giving their time freely they are also expected to spend more time at work, to contribute towards the economy, and to pay income tax on what they earn - trying in vain to plug the gap where the government has failed to ensure corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share.

Hours worked in Europe

The problem with this is it provides nothing - literally nothing of any tangible use in the battle against inequality, and the mean-hearted concepts that prevent people from taking part in the sharing economy.

So Lily - on top of all the sharing we're already doing, you want people to get together and walk each others dogs?

It's a nice idea, sure. That's why people are already doing this up and down the country. People are setting up youth clubs and societies to protect and look after the vulnerable and the elderly - engaging with people currently banished to the outskirts of society.

And the shittiest part of the equation? Many of these organisations will never see anything close to the £200k that you received from the government to put out an app which enables people to wish for expensive shoes and foreign holidays.

We live in a sharing economy - it's just that some people put more than their fair share in already, Lily.

Stop asking them to walk your dog for you and give the money back.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

#PricelessSurprises? They'll end up costing you in the end

James Corden, The Brits and Mastercard
Pic hat tip:

Many of you by now will have seen that news story on the #PricelessSurprises/@MasterCardUK Brit Awards debacle, which in true social media fashion broke this morning and was splashed across the internet in what seems like a nanosecond.

Lots of pithy Tweets, and lots of fun had at Mastercard's expense. But how can something like this be allowed to happen in the first place?

The truth of the matter is that these arrangements occur all of the time. There have even been TV programmes dedicated to it. But businesses still engage in these shady tactics to get engagement and conversation started.

However - there is a distinction. You cannot tar every business which asks for promotion via social media with the same brush. If, for example, you are co-promoting an event with a brand/artist/etc., it is reasonable to ask for a mention or a share of some of the content you are collaborating on, possibly mentioning each others Twitter handles, maybe even cross-promoting one another's social media accounts. As long as the relationship is mutual, transparent (i.e your audience are aware of it) and reciprocal, then there shouldn't be a problem. This article on Social Media Explorer explains the benefits of partnerships of this kind really well.

The problems begin, however, when one half of the arrangement starts behaving in a dictatorial manner. And that's what The Brits and Mastercard are guilty of.

Mastercard have managed come out of this looking both greedy and stingy at the same time. To make press passes to an awards ceremony conditional on tweeting nice things about the sponsors is noxious in the extreme, and to try this trick on journalists is stupidity in excelsis.

That's ultimately the problem with those pesky journalists - most of them know what a good story is. Writing about #PricelessSurprises at an awards ceremony is not a story. Being bribed by a PR flack in exchange for a ticket to an awards ceremony? That's a much better story - even I can see that, and I'm no journalist.

The Brits and Mastercard could have had some great coverage of their event if they had just laid on these so-called #PricelessSurprises to people for nothing - not mentioning it, just doing it. After all, when you're sponsoring the event, and you have your branding everywhere, what's wrong with giving a little something away in exchange for, well, nothing? As it is, the supposed opulence and bare-faced hubris of the event is somewhat tarnished by the miserly approach of it's main sponsor.

Couldn't have put it better myself, Jon - grammar and punctuation aside, of course.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


Twitter - Be Brief

I've been thinking a lot about what we'd really like to see from brands on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. And I think I've boiled it down to one solid piece of advice.

Here it is: don't waste time - yours or anybody else's. Get in and get out.

Think about how long a trailer is in comparison to a movie: one knows you have the time to watch it - the other wants to grab your attention to get you to GO to the movie.

Keep it simple. Tell somebody what you want them to hear, and what you'd like them to do, and why. Then go.

Don't overstay your welcome. You're barely a footnote in your customers life compared to friends, family and loved ones. Respect that position. Respect the opportunity to become a footnote. It's actually quite a privilege.

Get in, say something, get out.

Quote: The Dragonfly Effect

And read The Dragonfly Effect. Seriously, it's brilliant.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

2014: year of the skeptic?

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the Silicon Valley set having a problem with the homeless. It was a bit angry. It was probably a bit too angry in hindsight. It certainly riled a lot of you up. I also think that I was a bit too pejorative too - of course not all inhabitants of San Francisco that work in technology hate homeless people. 

One point I will refute however is that by not living in San Francisco, that means that I am not best placed to comment. I disagree - you hardly hear people saying the same thing about the situation in Syria, do you? We read things about places that we have never been, compare sources, and then base our opinions and assumptions on the evidence available to us. That’s what living in a big world is all about. We’re all doing our best to understand.

But I’m not going to spend the whole of this post apologizing. I want to make a brief point.

It’s important to be skeptical in technology. With all of the apps, sites and TED Talks we seem to hear about on a daily basis, breathlessly reported by the likes of Techcrunch, Mashable and PandoDaily, as a bright-eyed neophyte it’s very easy to start drinking the cool-aid. I know, because I was one of them.

When I first started getting into social media and technology, I decided to leave behind the music industry, and more importantly, music journalism. By that point, I was sick of all of the negativity - from music critics complaining about the state of the charts (as if it would change), from record labels not taking creative chances.

In short - I was sick of negativity. And when you are sick of negativity, the sunny disposition of the nascent tech bubble inflating in San Francisco and in East London is a great place to escape to. Where solutions exist for every problem. Where death can be cheated, or at the very least indefinitely postponed.

As I said, I was sick of negativity, but one thing I forgot to do when I was picking up my rose-tinted spectacles at the door was to make sure that I wasn’t leaving my questioning mind there.

We need to be skeptical. We need to scrutinise every idea, every concept, every app that launches. And we need to be prepared to say that something is questionable ethically, morally dubious or just plain bad.

At the moment, bar a few bloggers and Valleywag, we don’t seem to have that. And it’s a shame. Because it makes the whole industry look like a whole bunch of loons.

2014 needs to be the year of the skeptic. I want us to question why we feel the need to disrupt things so much. Does death need to be ‘disrupted’? Do we really need another messaging app? What does it bring to the party? Is it worth $4bn?

I’m not asking the world or the economy to stop spinning - we can’t stop it. And I’m not asking people to stop innovating - especially with regards to inventions such as 3D printing, and new platforms that allow people to express themselves in ways they currently feel they cannot in everyday life (blogging’s DNA, so to speak).

I just want people to think a bit more about what they develop. Not just thinking about how they can get in, make a quick buck, then get the fuck out. 

I'm not going full-on Morozov here - I'm just saying that in this day and age, we need people like him more than ever.