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Archive for January, 2007

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January 26th, 2007

Davos goes public, but is it really conversation?

Davos goes public, but is it really conversation?

The secret cabal that takes place every year at Davos in Switzerland is no longer quite so secret.

For the first time, this year’s World Economic Forum summit – which brings together the world’s most powerful CEOs, politicians, influencers and technocrats to thrash out the issues of the day – is being blogged on a plethora of websites.

Principal among them is The Davos Conversation, masterminded by social media expert Jeff Jarvis. It pulls together blog posts written by Davos attendees and commentators, as well as mainstream media coverage of the event, profiles of key speakers and videos of real life and (groan) Second Life conference sessions.

At previous Davos summits, anti-capitalists and other activists devised cunning ways to get the attention of attendees, including projecting their grievances on to the snowy slopes outside the resort’s hotels. Now, in this brave new Web 2.0 world, they can interact with Davos attendees from the comfort of their own bunkers, by commenting on participants’ blog posts.

The only trouble is, they don’t seem to be. A glance down the ‘previous posts’ page on The Davos Conversation reveals that most of the blog entries go completely unremarked upon. Posts on even the most contentious subjects – climate change, Iraq – are suffixed with a stark ‘No Comments’.

I find this strange. Surely political dissenters should see The Davos Conversation as a golden opportunity to engage in debate with the world’s most powerful people?

A clue lies in those posts that *are* commented upon. While people are allowed to leave comments, I couldn’t find a single instance of the original blog writer joining in the discussion. Until its bloggers actually start to engage with their commenters, The Davos Conversation should perhaps consider renaming itself The Davos Showcase.

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January 25th, 2007

A bleak future over the science horizon?

A bleak future over the science horizon?

The DTI is running what it describes as ‘a national series of conversations about new technologies, the future and society’. The Science Horizons project is basically a big focus group. The DTI has written some scenarios portraying life in the year 2025, and you (yes, you) are invited to chat about them with your friends and send in your comments.

There’s stuff in there about using computers for self-diagnosis when you’re ill, and about special jogging hats that can help people with Alzheimer’s Disease to find their way without getting lost. There’s worry about whether someone you meet in the real world can be trusted as much as someone who matches your dating wishlist online and whether a robot can care for you in your old age. There’s a man called Henry who apparently works from a cafe using something called a ‘web portal’, which sounds awfully futuristic.

But despite the nice pastel colours, there’s a bleak undercurrent to these scenarios. It’s taken as read that teachers are still poorly paid, and you have to queue for hours to see a doctor. There’s an environmental catastrophe every month and everyone’s freedom is curtailed by needing to trade carbon credits. There’s a lady in her seventies who’s running her own business (bravo!) because she lost her pension in the 2010 pensions collapse (blast!). There’s another lady who’s baffled by having to choose the source for her energy – wind, biomass, nuclear or solar. How could we let the energy market become so deregulated and fractured that this is a consumer decision?

Perhaps the goal of the exercise is to roadtest or secure buy-in for unpopular policies, including personal carbon credits and water rationing. Most solutions to the problems in the scenarios imply higher taxes, which most parties would rather test in focus groups than in elections. The website claims it will submit all responses to the government in autumn 2007 and publish all the comments online. It could prove to be an interesting snapshot of the country and our commitment to tackling the big issues including climate change, population growth, and energy. It would be a mistake to assume that scientists will solve all these problems for us: the only way to be sure of a solution is to start making changes in how we use limited resources now.

Footnote: I’d like to think that by 2025, governments will take website accessibility more seriously. At the time of writing, the meat of this website appears to be available in Flash and PDF only. The accessibility page is unfinished and under the ‘compatibility’ heading says ‘Compatible with different browsers… Use of valid XHTML and valid CSS… Compliant with WCAG and Section 508…’. For the ellipsis, we might as well read ‘blah blah blah’.

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January 23rd, 2007

David, Goliath and the Ninja Kittens

David, Goliath and the Ninja Kittens

For all the hype around the power and influence of participatory media, it’s still rare for a social media site to break a news story.

Most blogs simply replicate or amplify stories from traditional media organisations, which, after all, employ teams of professional reporters to make sure they get the news first.

So it was interesting to see the Guardian today bringing to a conclusion a story that broke on a couple of online community websites before Christmas. It’s the David-and-Goliath tale of an unsigned London ska band, a far-flung advertising agency, the world’s biggest consumer brand, and a cavalcade of dancing ninja kittens.

The band is 7 Seconds of Love, whose singer is Joel Veitch, a web animator with a cute animal fixation and a fanatical online following. Veitch’s fanbase extends as far as Argentina, which is how the singer came to hear of an Argentinian television advert for Coca-Cola that bore an uncanny resemblance to the video for his band’s song ‘Ninja’.

Not only did the ad echo Veitch’s distinctive animation style, but it also used a backing track that was strangely similar to 7 Seconds of Love’s own song.

Fans rallied round the band, voicing their disapproval on Veitch’s own website, rathergood.com, and on b3ta.com, an online community site for amateur web animators. Before long, the story had radiated across a good number of blogs, too, such that a Google search for “joel veitch” and “coke” still returns six blog entries in the first 10 results.

Buoyed by its fans’ response, the band threatened Coke with legal action – at which point the story broke through to the mainstream media and was picked up by the BBC, The Times and Channel Four News among others.

The Guardian reports today that the soft drinks behemoth has now settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, which the band will mostly donate to charity, using the rest to promote a new EP.

It’s unclear where this leaves the agency responsible for the ad, Santo Buenos Aires, but I’ll bet that Coke isn’t *too* unhappy about one of its ads gaining worldwide notoriety, so Santo will probably live to see another Coke campaign. Everyone’s a winner!

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January 22nd, 2007

Web 2.0 not always good for Business 1.0

Web 2.0 not always good for Business 1.0

The Sunday papers covered a story about a media relations manager for Camelot (the company that currently runs the national lottery in the UK) who posed as an MBA student to gain information on new bids to operate the lottery. We recently worked with a social networking client that is very concerned with the issue of online identities. Their view is that the identities, real or fake, should be carefully managed and protected. As described in the previous post, web 2.0 is full of people enjoying being, trying, or hoping to be someone or something else online. So it was interesting to see one of the consequences of the two worlds ‘real’ and ‘made-up’ colliding: the PR ended up resigning. She was found out when an un-discriminating ‘out-of-office’ reply was sent from her work email, via the ‘fake’ G-mail account she had set-up – to the person she was trying to spoof.

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January 19th, 2007

Spirituality 2.0

Spirituality 2.0

Amidst all the hubbub about how Web 2.0 is changing the media – and by extension, the nature of media relations – it’s nice to see some journalists asking the bigger questions about what online social networking is doing to us as human beings.

BBC Newsnight’s business correspondent Paul Mason wrote a fascinating article last week, in which he wonders if social networking and online gaming are becoming a replacement for religious spirituality in our increasingly materialistic, heathen lives.

He argues that the heightened sense of togetherness experienced by people who play games like World of Warcraft, visit virtual worlds like Second Life, or socialise on communities like MySpace is akin to a form of religious ecstasy, in which the ‘soul’ feels and experiences things that are entirely unconnected with the physical self.

The blurring of boundaries between what is real and what is ‘not real’ is one of the most interesting facets of Web 2.0. People who participate in online games and virtual communities have become used to representing themselves online as ‘avatars’, which can be anything from a beautiful woman to a warrior dwarf.

Similarly, many bloggers find themselves inventing a separate ‘blog persona’, which differs from what they are like in real life. Navigating between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ identities is becoming part of what it means to be human in the age of the internet.

For his article, Mason asked 300 IBM employees who are active in Second Life if they preferred their online self to their physical self. While 90% of them said no, the very fact that the BBC is asking this kind of question suggests that Web 2.0 is doing something quite intriguing to the human psyche. And it’s only going to get weirder from here.

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January 15th, 2007

Sheer chart attack

Sheer chart attack

Rock band Koopa this week made history by being the first unsigned act to chart. Their download sales catapulted them into the chart at number 31.

While we’ve seen the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Nizlopi charting after building up a following online, what’s significant about Koopa is that the single was only available as a download. A rule has been abolished that previously meant singles had to have a physical format for the downloads to be counted. That means the barriers to entry have got much lower. While selling downloads is relatively easy (or at least setting up the mechanism to do so is), selling CDs requires access to sleeve designers, pressing plants, a physical distribution chain, salesmen and so on. To sell CDs in a volume that will chart you either need to sign to a record company, or you need to jack in your job and become one.

While Koopa’s chart placing will inspire many new bands, it’s unlikely to frighten the major labels much yet. They’re still sitting on all the money. Many of their acts are like micro-economies, with the livelihoods of hundreds of people dependent on thousands of people wanting to listen to a few songs. The labels won’t give in without a fight, and they’ve always been good at hype.

As long as TV and radio refuse to acknowledge new acts, major labels will have an advantage. While many people discover their music online today, the vast number of podcasts and MP3 blogs splinters the audience and can’t match the punch of a TV broadcast on a major channel. It’s telling that the top slot in this week’s chart was held by someone from X Factor and the highest new entry at number 3 was someone from a BBC talent competition.

Maybe Koopa will fall out of the chart next week, or maybe the attention they’re getting will drive them even higher. Whatever happens, a placing at 31 is a great achievement: many of my favourite singles never broke the top 30. If they had the internet as a communications channel and the ability to sell without a label, perhaps they’d still be playing today and they’d still be in control of their back catalogues too.

Whether Koopa will sign to a major now or continue to be independent remains to be seen. Every band wants to reach number one, and that might be out of their reach without serious backing. But wouldn’t it be great if they didn’t sign and landed the first truly independent number one. That really would transform the music industry.

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January 12th, 2007

Bloggers turn on Sunday Times

Bloggers turn on Sunday Times

What better way to start the new year than with a good old sex and sleaze scandal?

On 1st January, the author of the infamous ‘Girl With A One-Track Mind’ sexblog – now a bestselling book – posted the text of an email she had received last summer from a senior editor at the Sunday Times.

The Girl blogs under the pseudonym of ‘Abby Lee’, but the newspaper had discovered her real identity. Acting news editor Nicholas Hellen sent her an email, threatening to post unflattering photos and to disclose her mother’s name, if Abby didn’t co-operate with the paper’s plan to ‘out’ her in a sensational article.

When the resulting article appeared, back in August, opinion in the blogosphere was divided. While many bloggers expressed sympathy for Abby, many others felt that she should have expected to forfeit her anonymity in return for having a bestselling book published. There was some antipathy towards the Sunday Times, but the consensus was that this was the nature of the news media, and the hubbub died down.

That would have been the end of it, if Abby hadn’t recently posted Hellen’s email on her blog for all to see. Its sleazy tone reveals the way national newspapers go about getting their stories, and has caused outrage among bloggers and fans of Abby’s blog and book. The story has been taken up by the Guardian – whose opinion on Hellen’s approach is interestingly ambivalent – as well as VNUnet, and several widely read UK blogs.

Nicholas Hellen may regret sending that email. Indignant posts from across the blogosphere have contrived to make Girl With A One Track Mind’s post the top Google search result for his name. In the world of Web 2.0, even the most private of emails can be published to the world at the touch of a button. News journalists just might have to start rethinking their tactics.

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January 5th, 2007

Citizen journalism: breaking the truth

Citizen journalism: breaking the truth

This week we’ve seen the video footage of Saddam Hussein’s hanging reportedly become a popular pick on YouTube (warning: distasteful screengrab). An official has been arrested, and Tony Blair has spoken out.

But what we seem to be missing here, is that the video appears to have captured what really happened in a way that the early official footage did not. Early accounts (including the Guardian) said nothing of the abuse from the crowd, or of Saddam answering them back.

The truth is grisly and we don’t approve of the voyeurism surrounding the video (I haven’t watched it myself). But without that unofficial video being created and shared online through sites like youtube, history would have been miswritten.

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January 5th, 2007

Writing is on the wall blog for lifestyle columnists

Writing is on the wall blog for lifestyle columnists

When Time Magazine picked ‘you’ as its Person of the Year for 2006, bloggers were quick to deride it as empty bandwagon-jumping.

This is a nice little idea, that we can “change the world” now that we have the internet to voice our opinions to anyone who may care to listen… [But] how many things have changed, how many governments have changed their policies because of irate bloggers?,” commented ‘hanna80’ on a post on the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog site.

These are fair questions. It probably will be some time before policymakers start viewing irate blog posts as a barometer of the nation’s will – and even longer before they start acting on it.

But that doesn’t mean nothing is changing. The very fact that ‘hanna80’ was able to comment on an article on the web site of a national newspaper – let alone the fact that the article itself was written by a blogger and not a Guardian journalist – surely shows that Web 2.0 has changed something.

That something is, of course, the nature and landscape of the media, and the changes have only just begun.

Amateur bloggers may never replace professional news reporters, for example, but blogging may well spell the end for the ‘lifestyle columnist’. Thousands of talented writers are documenting their daily lives in ways that are funny, fascinating, moving and self-deprecating – and are garnering appreciative audiences because of it.

Yet although they now face competition from hordes of amateurs, lifestyle columnists seem oblivious to their fate. In his end-of-year piece for the Observer Magazine, columnist Euan Ferguson bemoaned “the apparently universally unnoticed loathesomeness of the word ‘blog’, and the apparently universal belief that what it represents is the future, when what it represents is infantile wibble.

Setting aside the fact that this is an insult to the thousands of Observer readers who keep blogs, a casual read of his article will reveal that Mr Ferguson himself is by no means immune from wibbling. Which makes me wonder what sets him apart from talented bloggers in the age of democratic media. I can’t help but conclude that the answer to that is ‘nothing’.

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